Great Books that Aren't

Here's a fun Slate piece, collecting anecdotes from well-known writers about the classics they can't take. 

New York Times book critic Dwight Garner on one of mine, Don Quixote:

In the margins I'll write, "He's the world's first great food writer," underlining a passage on Page One in which he goes on about pigeon, tripe, and salted beef and mutton. Genius! Here's the man who popularized the phrase "the proof's in the pudding"! The momentum slowly fades; the blood drains from my face; was that a news alert on my iPhone? I'm asleep on the couch, deeply ashamed but contentedly drooling, by Page 37.

The Great Gatsby: I am a Terrible Blogger

I admit it. I mean, it's obvious, but I admit it.

As always, I have a thousand excuses -- moving, babies, heath issues, a preponderance of other writing to be done -- but that doesn't mean I don't feel guilty.

At long last, I finished The Great Gatsby in the last week. At least twice in the reading I turned to the person next to me (usually an accquaintance) and said, "Fuck, he could put a sentence together." And it's true. The beauty of the novel, for me, was in the the choice of words, the turn of phrase, the paragraph construction, the in-character observations.

The story itself was pretty clearly not the point. Not particularly original, and not necessarily surprising -- although it may just seem that way in retrospect. I didn't really "like" any of the characters, and I assume that's the point. Perhaps they were more human than other characters.

But the language. The language was almost uniformly exquisite.

One of the best:

Her gray, sun-strained eyes stared straight ahead, but she had deliberately shifted our relations, and for a moment I thought I loved her. But I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires, and I knew that first I had to get myself definitely out of that tangle back home. I'd been writing letters once a week and signing them: "Love, Nick," and all I could think of was how, when that certain girl played tennis, a faint mustache of perspiration appeared on her upper lip. Nevertheless there was a vague understanding that had to be tactfully broken off before I was free.

That image of the perspiration is just the right combination of specific, sensual, and vaguely dirty, especially when contrasted with the (now false) sanitized salutations.


I'd seen it. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns.

That's just a car! "Bright with nickel." "Swollen here and there in its monstrous length." Amazing.

Then this, when, halfway through the book, Gatsby's purpose becomes clear to Nick:

Then it had not been merely the stars to which he had aspired on that June night. He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.

And the object of Gatsby's desires/affections/designs/plans/obsessions:

Daisy began to sing with the music in a husky, rhythmic whisper, bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again. When the melody rose, her voice broke up sweetly, following it, in a way contralto voices have, and each change tipped out a little of her warm human magic upon the air.

Gorgeous. And that bit about "bringing out a meaning in each word..."? That could be said of Fitzgerald and the whole of the book.

And finally:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was the kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . .

Roger Ebert has a fantastic blog post on a "dumbed down" version apparently used as an Intermediate Level book in some American classrooms. He makes several excellent points about the power of the language, noting that when you strip that out, you eliminate the nuance, the ambivalence, and the power of the book:

There is no purpose in "reading" The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald's novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told.Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald's style--in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

I've now started Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which comes highly recommended. I'm hoping I can balance my life a bit more in the coming weeks and move at a better clip. We shall see!

Thank you, again, for your patience!


No Internet at Home

We've moved and are having a real struggle getting our Internet hooked up. (Now, obviously, that's not entirely fair to use as an excuse. It's not like I was posting non-stop prior to the forced freeze. But I'm gonna use it anyway!)

In the meantime, here's a fun thread that's working its way across the film blogs and through Twitter:

Who should play Liz Taylor and Richard Burton for Martin Scorsese? Check out the first salvo here.

I, Claudius wrap-up coming soon

In honor of finishing I, Claudius -- and trying to get back in the blogging saddle -- I'm posting another, more recent example of historical re-examination and revision.

At first this may seem quite different from Robert Graves' 1934 novel about the famously stutter-struck (future) emperor of Rome, but upon closer examination, I think you'll find that both use an unusual format, a strong dose of satire, and varying degrees of irreverance to get at something perhaps a little closer to the actual events of the past than the more "official" histories.

With that, I give you Drunk History, Volume 3:

Hat tip: Quietmind