Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Books You’ve Read and the Books You’ve Said You’ve Read

I feel the need for candour. As a man unable to conceal his own general uselessness at things that don’t involve reading, writing or alphabetising books, the truth must be set free. Here are some literary prejudices and unfounded fears I have been saddling for yonks now.

1) Austen & Brontë – I have a degree in English Lit and still cannot appreciate the artistry of these authors. I’m tempted to write this off as a male/female difference, though legendary prose usually speaks for itself. It seems whenever I am confronted with these authors, my insides congeal into pâté and I run behind the sofa. I think it’s the bonnets. I hate bonnets.

2) Shakespeare – There was a time when I looked upon his works as the pinnacle of invention in the English language. Then it occurred to me: I was among the multitude of people who acknowledged his genius, but could not connect with his works. Shakey for me belongs on the stage, in heavily edited form. When I sit down to sift through a play, the whole experience bemuses me. I also feel his comedies are antiquated and are no longer relevant to folks now.

3) Dickens – I began reading Bleak House and aborted ship two or so years ago. I’ve never returned to Charlie since then. I’d like to reconnect with the master of the six-page sentence at some point, though I would really need a definitive Dickens experience. 19th century London doesn’t hold as much historical interest for me as, say, Dostoevsky’s Russia.

4) James Joyce – An unnamed critic informed me recently all Joyce was useless. The nerve! A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a brilliant work – the perfect balance between Joyce’s formless innovation and his talents as a chronicler of the quotidian (wow – how pretentious!)

Ulysses & Finnegans Wake belong to the ‘admiration’ camp – they are impossible to sit down, read and devour, but startling to dip into. It would be thoughtful for the academics to collect the highlights from these books and compile them into one volume. That way, more people could appreciate his finest moments without sifting through 1000 pages.

5) Novels Inviting Me to Emote – I confess, I am a wholly unemotional reader. Studying literature might have deadened my natural emotional responses towards prose. Instead, I acknowledge moments that are profound or significant, without reacting to them in the way I would a moving song or film.

As an emotionally volatile individual, the world itself reduces me to tears on a daily basis – the last thing I seek in books is greater dollops of sadness. I loathe moments I am supposed to react somehow – moments when characters come together in a straight-faced manner that seek to tug the heart strings, regardless with how much panache the author achieves this feat. Yes – I’m heartless. I suppose I appreciate books more on an aesthetic or technical level.

6) Commercial Books – OK, I’m a complete lit-snob. I admit it! If I hear about a book from a friend, then go onto Amazon and see over 100 reviews, a bulb pings in my head: MAINSTREAM! I deliberately go out of my way to read obscure books, and refuse to even contemplate a popular potboiler. Not every commercial book is a Dan Brown, I know, but I’m drawn more to lesser-known works, works from those no can be bothered to read.

I have found myself reading a popular book, getting into the story, then taking against the book for any formulaic imperfection. I loathe the formula in books. Sometimes at night, I have nightmares about computer-written books – detective stories cranked out by an algorithm, or herds of faceless ciphers writing the same
books over and over again in giant skyscrapers. Never. NEVER.

Goodnight. Remember to feed the fish.


  1. Austin and Bronte make for really good movies.
    I read King Lear on LSD - 'nuff said.
    The Dickens, you say?
    James Joyce did blow dead bears, but Portrait is still one of my favorites.
    I fully intend to write a novel that will make people cry. You will admire its architecture and see through each manipulation, then weep when I die.
    And speaking of bonnets, I tried to write a "bonnet romance" this summer. They are a strong market here in The States, Amish romances without a single kiss or four letter word. I got lost in describing the barn. I could talk about barns all day.

  2. Aside from your personal observations on the authors you reference, just reading your posts are fun. You have a unique and entertaining way of expressing your thoughts.

  3. Derek: YOU wrote a bonnet romance? Are you mad? When it comes out and bankrolls a billion, I'll certainly cry. Buckets, my wizened friend, buckets.

    CCP: Thank you muchly. I try to keep it spiky, concise and informative.

  4. Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite novels, Mark! But I think this story rises above all other Victorian lit, except Middlemarch (fantastic and funny).

    I didn't read Shakespeare seriously until graduate school. And then I was shocked by how much I liked the plays, especially the comedies. Hamlet will always be relevant.

    Not a Dickens fan. I did have to read quite a lot of Dickens way back when. I hope that didn't have an influence on my prose.

    What did have an influence on my prose? Henry James. I know: horrors. Trying to get the James sentence pattern out of my head is an ongoing challenge.

    Joyce. I'm on page 983! Have been for the last 20 years. I don't know what happened. I think I arrived on this fated page and just ran out of gas. Or someone might have said, "Chris, you know when you finish Ulysses, your hair falls out."

    I have lots of books on my shelves these days that I haven't had time to read yet, but I'll always read Jincy Willett. She writes about life with just the right amount of deadpan sarcasm that I need.

  5. I haven't given Brontë much of a chance, so I'll have a crack at Wuthering Heights again. My Horst is obsessed with it.

    Shakey I like watching -- esp. Hamlet, which is the pinnacle of Will -- but I have no patience for reading the plays. Does that make me evil?

    You beat me on Joyce. I got up to page 400 and bolted. Probably because I read it during the hottest heatwave ever, when I was very depressed. Not good.

    Who is this Jincy? Should I be reading her this instant? I will.

  6. Jincy Willett is the writer of an excellent short story collection Jenny and the Jaws of Life and the novel Winner of the National Book Award. Her latest novel The Writing Class is a curious metafiction attempt to teach writing through a whodunnit that takes place in a writing class (one of the students in the class is killing his/her classmates).

    Her characters look at life through squinted eyes. Lots of deadpan humour. I don't know if you'll like Jincy, but I feel obliged to share.

    Shakespeare. I was forced to have patience with him in my graduate seminar, so I'm not sure what's evil and what's not anymore.