Thursday, January 06, 2011

An Epiphany--I Need a Novel (or Two) to Read

Writing and/or updating my course syllabi usually take up me days longer than I expect them to, and this semester hasn't been any exception. I had a few projects I wanted to start/finish/blog about/work on this week, but instead the whole week has been dates, assignments, tests, etc. There are worse ways to spend your working days, of course, but it did put me behind. Just the way to start the new year, right?

Well, I did manage to check out the blogs occasionally, and one thing I read today really did grab my attention. In fact, it gave me an epiphany--pretty appropriate for the day, I guess. It's a blog series being written by Michael Austin, an old friend of mine and a fellow academic here in Wichita (he is, in fact, the provost of Newman University, a Catholic school less than a mile away from my office here at Friends). He's reflecting on his recent completion of Tolstoy's War and Peace one of the very few "big classics" he'd never read before. He read the book on his Kindle--and now (partly, I flatter myself, because of the praise I heaped upon Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, a book which strongly questions the consequences of during literature and all communication into a wholly virtual phenomenon) he's wondering about the implications of that decision. How did reading War and Peace on a Kindle affect his reading experience...and what does the fact that so much of our reading these days is done on the interest mean, in anything, for our ability to read (or write?) such novels in the future? He is saying some great, thoughtful things; let me quote from his first entry:

War and Peace conveyed more moments of insight, not to mention genuine pleasure, than I could possibly discuss in a brief essay. But when I finished reading it, neither the insights nor the pleasure were enough. I also wanted the book. I had no intention of rereading it, or even of referring to it again. But I wanted to own it, to look at it, to feel it, and to mount it on my shelf as I would the head of a large and dangerous animal that I had stalked and killed. Dangerous and difficult tasks should result in substantial and impressive trophies. As much as I have tried, intellectually, to embrace the digital-age idea that a book is its content and not its physical form, I know, viscerally, that this is nonsense. Books have both an ideal and a material existence, and trying to consume the former without the latter just won’t work—at least not for me. I couldn’t stand the thought that I had invested so much of my life in, and derived such substantial benefit, from a book that I did not own. Somehow, everything that I took from the book seemed like stolen property. Even though I had paid almost as much to download the book as I would have to pay to purchase it, I still felt like a cheater. So, knowing that I would never open it again, but unable to imagine my shelf without a trophy, I bought the book.

I like what he's saying here--and not just because I'm a bibliophile who longs for a grand library with a sliding ladder to scoot along the shelves as well. No, what I like is his view of reading a long, serious, impressive book as an accomplishment worthy of a trophy. And it made me think about my own reading resolutions for the year, and I realized something: none of those books I committed myself to read and discuss--and I know this, because I've already read most or all of about half of them--were difficult in any profound sense. Some of them are better written than others, some of them I disagree with mostly and some I agree with mostly...but that's all a question of their arguments. Which is reasonable: they're all non-fiction; in fact, with one exception (PrairyErth), they're all works of scholarship. Shouldn't I try something which gives my imagination a work-out? Shouldn't I try, in other words, a novel?

I've never been a huge fiction reader, though I've gone through phases for a particular author (John Irving, John Steinbeck) or a particular genre (horror, fantasy) here and there over the years, and I've never abandoned fiction entirely. But I've never made it a priority. And, to be fair, I'm not going to make it one this year either. But it's been a very long time since I set for myself a serious novel or two to read, and if this is a year in which I continue to turn myself back into the serious reader which I long aspired to be, then I ought to do that again. So I will. But...what novel?

This is where I turn to you, friendly masses of the internet. Give me your recommendations. Old favorites, intimidating classics, both, neither: just give me something to work with. I put the question to Melissa, and she came up with Bram Stoker's Dracula. (She loved the book when she read it; Frankenstein, by contrast, she wasn't impressed by.) Cool idea! I'm going to ask Mike for his suggestions when I see him later today. (Maybe War and Peace? He has a copy, anyway...) But I want to throw this completely open. The fact is, I haven't done enough fiction reading in years to really know what I like, so I'm going to have to do some searching. Surely the internet doesn't lack opinionated people willing to suggest where I should start looking? I didn't think so.


Ricketson said...

I've been raiding my mother-in-law's collection, and have had several good finds recently. That's one of the benefits of having the physical book.

Here are several that I've liked (both from her collection and elsewhere):

1) Wicked
2) A thousand splendid suns
3) Douglas Adams' (Hitchiker's Guide and Long Dark Teatime of the Soul)
4) Fight Club
5) The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
6) A Song of Stone

They are all fairly short (Fight Club is the shortest, I think). Numbers 5 and 6 take a little time to get into the plot, but the writing is good enough to hold one's attention (#5 may have benefited from being set in a neighborhood where I once lived).

If you want to "ease" your way back into reading fiction, maybe short stories would be good. I've been going through a couple of anthologies. Each of them had several excellent stories, along with a number of decent stories and a few poor ones.

1) HG Wells: A Dream of Armageddon
2) Lovecraft's "Tale's of the Supernatural". These are not Lovecraft's writings; instead, they are stories that he selected as examples in an essay he wrote.

Ricketson said...

Correction: the Lovecraft collection is called "book of the supernatural".

As long as we're talking about Lovecraft, I do not recommend his own stories (several are interesting or amusing, but all of them are a bit hokey). If you want a story that achieves what he desired, try Solaris...but not the movie.

BHodges said...

Can't go wrong with Crime and Punishment.

Stuart said...

Dennis LaHane's The Given Day is a great read. It's a historical novel with the 1919 Boston police strike and the prelude to the Tulsa race riot as centerpieces, along with interludes featuring Babe Ruth. (B&N on Kellog has hardback at a reduced price).

James Farrell, Studs Lonigan trilogy.

Gaylord Dold's Mitch Roberts novels. Wichita author with Wichita p.i.

Scott Phillips, The Ice Harvest. Under-rated movie, novel is said to be much better.

Wm Morris said...

1. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translations of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

2. Dune by Frank Herbert

3. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (esp. considering that you're currently living in a plains state)

4. One of Pratchett's Discworld books. For you, I'd suggest starting with Small Gods or Mort. And if you like Pratchett, make sure to check out the Discworld Reading Order Guide (I personally suggest reading the Ancient Civilizations and Death Novels and then the Watch and Industrial Revolution novels that all lead up and in to Night Watch).

AndyS said...

Better than War and Peace...

Read Dos Passos' USA trilogy -- brilliant writing and a wonderful portrait of a world just passing from living memory.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the great comments and recommendations, everyone!

Ricketson, I'd never heard of a couple of the books you recommend, but I've been curious about Fight Club for a long time. I'll think about that one. Thanks also for the short stories recommendations; I shouldn't forget about those either.

Blair, my oldest daughter just read Crime and Punishment for a high school class; plus, Mike Austin himself has been urging me to read Dostoevsky. So you put all that together, that's three recommendations right there...

Stuart, thanks for reminding me of Dennis LeHane. I should really give him a look.

William, I read the original Dune quartet (or tried to; I think I bailed before I got more than a few pages into God Emperor) way back in high school; should I really give them another shot? As for Terry Pratchett's Discworld, I've been meaning to get serious about that ever since I got hooked on Tiffany Aching, but so far all I've read is Small Gods (which was a lot of fun). And Gilead! I started that, but never finished it. I should really go back and give it the reading it deserves.

Andy, John Dos Passos, huh? That's a series I know nothing about, except that in memoirs and essays written by people like Hemingway or Ozick, it always seemed to be mentioned. I'll give it some thought.

Dallas Robbins said...

For pleasure, insight, and a sense of trophy (if needed), most of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens could easily change your life in ways you literally cannot fathom as yet. And you will enjoy yourself on a entertainment level that is not easily matched by most contemporary fiction.

But my standby for transcendent amazingness is The Brothers Karamazov (preferably the trans. by Pevear and V.). When people say they become lost in a book, this one does can do it in spades.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Yet another vote for Dostoevsky. But you also hit me where I live, Dallas: Melissa is, like so many others, a huge fan of Austen, yet I've never read a word of her.

Ricketson said...

More on short stories:

If you're looking for "classics", you can probably find good collections in your local bookstore. The Norton collection(s) are pretty good. I really liked Hemmingway's stories when I was younger. Wells and Lovecraft are interesting because of their role in establishing the horror and sci-fi genre, but that may not be what you're looking for.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is by the guy who wrote "The Kite Runner". It's the story of an Afghan woman living from ~1960-today. Both it an Wicked are illustrations of life in a totalitarian regime.

A Song of Stone is by Ian Banks, who is mainly known as a SciFi author. Conservatives may appreciate the themes of elitism, perversion, and the breakdown of social order.

I wouldn't say that any of these are Serious books, but they are well written and interesting. If you want the type of book that literature professors like, then there are plenty of lists....

Latter-day Guy said...

I'm currently in the middle of American Rust which seems to be gearing up to be completely devastating by the end. So far, I'd recommend it.

Also, if you haven't yet read it, The Backslider is pretty much essential Mormon reading. The theophany at the end may be my favorite in all fiction.

For something a little lighter, The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society is the most delightful novel imaginable. Sweet, funny, touching--it's great.

Lee said...


BHodges said...

I just read Moby a few months ago. I liked it, but it wasn't the most enjoyable book.

Aaron and Carissa said...

Oh, man, I love Alexandre Dumas. Read The Three Musketeers, then delve into the Count of Monte Cristo. Also, I can't recommend Les Miserables by Victor Hugo enough, but you might want to do the abridged version first.

Russell Arben Fox said...

More excellent comments!

Ricketson, Interesting the recommendation an Iain Banks; another friend of mine just recommended him to me as well, only they were more interested in his science fiction, like his Culture novels. So many writers, so little time...

Guy, it's embarrassing to admit, but it's true: I've never read Backslider, and I really should.

Lee, I could have predicted that.

Aaron and Carissa, my wife is a big Alexander Dumas fan; she thinks The Count of Monte Cristo, in particular, is just fabulous. So why don't we own a copy?