I was recently asked by a new acquaintance what I like to read. I find this an exciting and slightly ominous question, because the truth, unhelpful as it is, is that I like to read mostly everything with words, a plot and interesting characters are a bonus. Yay for story! Part of my answer to this question is inevitably classics, those tried and true books that are bastions of the castle that is the written word. She expressed some surprise that I do this of my own volition and not because I have to for some course I’m taking. She is not the only one with this reaction over the years.
I love reading classics. Not because they’re all good, because some of them suck, but to explore the world of the classic. Why is something a classic, who decides? Mostly I like to witness the trickledown effect in reverse. When you read a classic, a lot of other random pieces snap into place. You understand references and asides in a whole new way, you see previously mysterious influences in books and movies, see how one writer’s words can launch an entire genre, world, or punchline. Some of my favorite books are classics. In what will no doubt be many highly unpopular opinions, I will randomly post reviews of them here. I’ll start with the last classic I read:
When I purchased this book, the dude checking me out let me know that the first part is narrated by a mentally handicapped man. GOOD TO KNOW. And thank you, book store guy, for telling me this, because William Faulkner doesn’t bother to until long after the book has landed in a frustrated heap on the floor. Thanks, bro!
The Sound and the Fury is about the Compson family, a southern aristocratic family in serious decline and spiralling into all kinds of tragedy. It’s told in a few different parts by a few different members of the family, all of whom are not really good or likeable people.
My biggest beef with this book is that you have no real idea what’s going on until you’re so far into the book that you’ve ceased to care. Stream of consciousness with no context. I get this book is all about ‘form’ and ‘style’ but to me, if I can’t figure out what’s going on, that’s a big fat writing fail. And before you’re like, “dude, it’s stream of consciousness, you’re just too stupid to know how to read that,” I would say, “but I’m not too stupid to know how to read that. Take Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, also stream of consciousness, also multiple perspectives, also all over the damn place, but you can figure out what’s going on.”
Once I googled it and read a detailed summary of what the book is about, I had a much easier time reading it. The part I did like was the last section from Dilsey’s perspective, who is the Compson’s aging servant. I found Dilsey the most well-rounded character in the whole book, unfortunately she’s last, and not first. Putting Dilsey first to set the scene would have made a huge difference, in my opinion, but hey, it’s a classic, right? What the hell do I know? I give The Sound and the Fury a resounding “meh.” If you do want to read it, do yourself a big favour and go through the Cliff’s Notes first.
I recently read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I read a lot of books and I don’t comment on very many of them on this blog, or even bother to update my Goodreads half the time unless I think I will have something to say about the book. I have something to say about this book.
I had heard of this book, knew of it for a very long time, but just never came across it in my travels and it was on my ‘books to acquire’ list for a while before I finally stumbled across it on a trip to Durham, North Carolina and an awesome little bookshop called Letters. It came all the way home to Canada with me and then sat on my ‘to read’ shelf. I finally cracked it open.
The Bell Jar isn’t a very long book, and it is the only novel Sylvia Plath, a poet, ever wrote. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t find it all that extraordinary, though I did find it very interesting. It is impossible to read this book without the looming shadow of Sylvia Plath’s suicide hovering over it. She committed suicide the month after the book was published, she was only thirty years old.
I found all of this incredibly sad. Her successes, failures, the fact that she had two small children and had just published her first novel. The dichotomy between that success and her death is intriguing and very sorrowful. It is incredible, and terrible, to me that someone could accomplish something so great and still end their own life. That for me really gave meaning to the word tragic.
The other thing that makes this book interesting is her ability to capture emotion in words: “I couldn’t get myself to react. (I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.) (pg.3)
This one I found very relatable: “After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should anymore. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.” (pg. 30)
And this one I identify with so much it makes me think I should seek professional help:
“The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.
I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.” (pg. 128)
For the record, I do wash my clothes and hair, but I identify with how it seems pointless sometimes and she captures that beautifully.
The Bell Jar is a very sad book, but it is also entertaining, witty and brave. As someone who is prone to questioning the path society has laid out for them, I had no trouble at all boarding the main character Esther’s train of thought as the stifling bell jar slowly settled around her. For most people that distorted, encompassing feeling comes and goes at different times, but doesn’t take up permanent residence. For Sylvia Plath, it did, and when you read this book, you wonder if she always knew that it would.
* The edition cited in this blog is Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.
I have always tried to like poetry. Since I enjoy the company of words so much, it makes sense that I would like poetry too, but I don’t. I never hated poetry exactly, I just never ‘got’ it, no matter how hard I tried. No matter what poem I read, I just couldn’t make that elusive connection with it that I can make with fiction, that sweet beautiful zone where the words flow effortlessly through your eyes and into your brain, taking you away to another world, filling your mind with a different reality. My shallow, narrative brain just read through the words, trying to understand what they were getting at, trying to see the story, the scene, the emotion and just saw the words. I read poems, nodded at them and put them aside. That has pretty much been my relationship with poetry – smile, and nod.
Turns out, I was doing it wrong.
I have always wanted to read The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. This is a classic I have been gunning to get through for a very long time. I finally went for it, bought that book and dove right in. Now as you may or may not know, The Divine Comedy is really a bloody long poem. Still, I pride myself on stubborn resourcefulness, so I did a little research to get my bearings and then jumped right in, and failed miserably. I did not put The Divine Comedy aside with a smile and nod, I put it aside with a huh? Abject and total failure.
I was complaining about this sometime last year and someone who is a lot smarter than me informed me that poems are often at their best when read aloud and since I was having trouble getting a handle on the material, that might be something for me to try. I’m sure I have mentioned before that I live in some kind of weird bubble where I can’t access known facts, and this was one that had been kept from me, kept from as in never heard of before. Poems should be read aloud? What’s the difference, are you some kind of weird nut? How could reading it out loud, or listening to it read out loud, make that big of a difference?
I am almost done The Divine Comedy, Paradiso – Canto XI to be exact. I am not going to say it was easy or that I understood it all flawlessly, but I got the gist and it has been an amazing read, out loud. Here is an elegant warning from Paradiso – Canto II
O Ye, who in some pretty little boat,
Eager to listen, have been following
Behind my ship, that singing sails along,
Turn back to look again upon your shores;
Do not put out to sea, lest peradventure,
In losing me, you might yourselves be lost.
This revelation has even inspired me to revisit poems I failed to get in university. This is from The Pride by John Newlove.
But what image, bewildered
son of all men
under the hot sun,
do you worship,
do you hope to have
from these tales,
a half-understood massiveness, mirage,
in men’s minds – what
is your purpose;
with what force
will you proceed
along a line
neither straight nor short,
you cannot know
or result foretell,
whose meaning is still obscured as the incidents
occur and accumulate?
And this short, yet poignant selection from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
I obviously have a long way to go exploring poetry, but if none of these selections move you even a little bit, I humbly suggest reading them out loud, or better yet, get somebody to read them to you. Turns out, poetry makes a lot more sense that way.