Monday, February 28, 2011

On books and hats...

I quoted in my last post from The Joys of Reading: Life's Greatest Pleasure by Burton Rascoe. That is because I am reading this slim little book (185 pages, cloth-bound, falling apart) right now, and enjoying it very much. I think I'm going to blog my way through the book so you can enjoy it, too. It's the sort of book that readers enjoy reading--a book about books and reading, and why reading is worthwhile, and different kinds of reading, and so forth. At the same time, I am most emphatically NOT recommending that anyone search out a copy to buy and read. Some of it is too specific to its time and era to be universally interesting (it's never been reprinted, so far as I can tell).

The book is recent enough that the expressions and sentiments ring very true and sound modern, while it also old enough that the author writes enthusiastically of then-living authors such as Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It makes for fun reading, and gives rise to all sorts of interesting reflections.
Books may fall into neglect. Fashions may shift in that demand for the "continuous slight novelty" we all require to escape monotony or satiety. And good books, even the best books, may be obscured for a while, unread for months, for years, even for centuries.
Literature does not die. It is the self-perpetuating product of an ever-flowering process like life itself; and it is the articulate spirit of life, voicing the hopes, aspirations, the conflicts, the experience, of people, of time and of place--and the best of literature, the literature that endures, is the literature which arouses in the breasts of all literate peoples at all times the emotion of recognition that this book, this poem or this play is something they know, they feel, they have observed, they acknowledge to be true, they have felt or observed, expressed in a language that is clearer, more exact, more comprehensive, or more subtle than is within the average man's power of articulation.

I appreciate the fact that he encourages readers not only to read those books which are classic and worthy, but not to be ashamed to read current literature that is worthy. He also encourages readers to actually read those worthy books, and not just skim them to be able to say "I've read that," as we might buy the latest fashion (or not) in order to make "groupthink" a veritable reality.
It is quite true that a great many people make no further use of books than as a means of keeping up with the fashion. That is to say that, when a book becomes a best seller, they want to get hold of it and perhaps only to skip through it, not out of a love of literature, not out of curiosity even, but merely to be in the swim.

When nearly everybody else seems to have read the book, and to be talking about it, they feel as uncomfortable as if they had on clothes that are last year's and, there out of date. When the Empress Eugenie hats were so much the rage in 1931 that Queen Mary was probably the only living woman who didn't wear one, it was also so much the fashion to read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck that it took more courage than most can muster to resist a desire to buy or borrow it.
Now, with the plethora of book bloggers out there, there is this tendency to want to read what everyone else is reading and talking about. There are challenges that tempt us to read the same kinds of books everyone else is reading. When half-a-dozen of my favorite book bloggers have waxed enthusiastic about a new book, I want to read it too. Sometimes I don't like the books that are enjoying the wave of popularity. I have read a few books that I could have easily dispensed with. But. I have read some wonderful, wonderful books that I would not have known about if I hadn't picked up the chatter about them and hopped on the bandwagon, to mix a few metaphors. I would not willingly have missed The Book Thief, The Thirteenth Tale, or Jayber Crow. If I have to read something like The DaVinci Code once in a while, that's not too high a price to pay for the sake of reading truly great books written by the better authors still living among us.

Burton Rascoe agrees.
The sneer [at those who read currently popular books] is both stupid and vulgar. For the undeniable fact is that the Empress Eugenie hat was so beautifully designed that no woman could but add to her appearance by wearing one, and The Good Earth was so good a novel that no one could help deriving some pleasure, some good, out of even a very superficial skimming of it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Some things never change...

People who say they cannot find time to read anything, except a detective story or some other work of current light fiction now and then, are deceiving themselves; and self-deception is an evil to be modified or corrected at all hazards, for it is infinitely worse than the habit of deceiving others.


It were far better for a man or a woman to give the real reason why he or she rarely reads than to give the false one that he or she cannot find the time. It would be better to say, "I am such a confirmed movie addict that I have to go to a movie two or three times a week, and, then, of course, I play bridge," or "My mind is so jaded by the fast life I lead that I cannot concentrate on a book long enough to make any sense out of the words, unless the book is spicy with sex or full of murder and sudden death," or "I am so indolent and my mind is so slothful I can't make the effort to find out anything about the world of the mind, the spirit and the imagination; I am content with the little effortless, half-awake world of platitudes which circumscribe my life."

Any such confession of the real facts of the matter would be better for the soul than the self-deceiving untruth of saying, "I can't find any time to read."

I didn't write that--It's a quote from a book called The Joys of Reading: Life's Greatest Pleasure, by Burton Rascoe and it was written in 1937. Perhaps the references to movies instead of television and bridge instead of video games gave it away?

But the sentiment rings so true and sounds so very contemporary, doesn't it? It's sort of hard to believe that 80 years ago, people were more interested in seeing a (black-and-white!) movie or playing an insipid card game than reading the really exciting new books by authors like Pearl Buck and Ernest Hemingway, or the worthwhile books that were classics even then, by Mark Twain or Charles Dickens.

Why do we always seem to imagine that things are worse today, concerning books and reading, than they were a couple of generations ago? We imagine our grandparents and great-grandparents were much wiser, and devoted their spare time to worthwhile literature instead of fleeting entertainment. Why? If Burton Rascoe's opinion is valid, it appears they were much the same as we are.

The irony of all this is that the only way to apprehend that thoughtful reading, both widely and deeply, has always been the province of the few and not the many is to read, and read a lot. And that reading has to extend into the past. Reading only current literature will not give you the insight that people in Victorian England, Renaissance Italy, ancient Greece and Rome, and the Garden of Eden were exactly the same sort of people as you and your neighbors.

When a moment of free time opens up, be it 15 minutes, an hour, or a day, a person is faced with a choice of how to occupy it. Idle entertainment or serious reading? Nine times out of ten, desultory entertainment wins out over any serious pursuit, which is why you are reading this blog post instead of, for example Paradise Lost or The Good Earth, or even a more recent worthwhile book, such as Island of the World or Jayber Crow.

But I have faith in us readers--we will never read all the excellent books we'd like to get to, but we will read some. We will blog about them, talk about them, keep them on our shelves, and remember them. And in 2090 or so, our great-grandchildren will imagine, perhaps, that this generation was a generation of readers and did not waste countless hours watching DVD's and playing video games. Because why should we expect them to be any different than we are?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I will start off by saying that I enjoyed this book very much, and I made myself read it a little more slowly than is my wont. I'm beginning to see a pattern in my efforts to read more slowly (and I am most thoroughly convinced that slow reading is better than fast reading, but old habits and all that, etc, etc.)

1. I determine that a book is worth reading slowly and I resolve to read it that way.

2. I read the first 1/3 or 1/2 of the book at a leisurely pace, taking my time to enjoy the language and think about the development of the story.

3. I finish the book at the break-neck reading pace to which I am accustomed, and come up for air.

That's how I read Olive Kitteridge.

This book has been on my "to be read" list for long enough that I had forgotten the reasons and reviews that led me to put it there in the first place. I would almost hesitate to call it a novel in the usual sense, because if there is a plot, it is fractured beyond recognition.

How can I explain this book?

Olive Kitteridge is a wife, a mother, a teacher, and a lifetime-resident of a small community in New England. Because she lives her whole life in this one place, she interacts over many years with her students (who grow up, and remember her in different ways), her neighbors, and her family (husband and son).

Each chapter is a stand-alone event. If they were photographs (but they are not static, and I don't really want to compare them to photographs), some of them would be close-ups of Olive alone, and others would be photos of, for example, a couple sitting on a bench, in which Olive happened to be walking past at the moment, and so she appears in the far edge of the frame. Other photographs might be close-ups of people busy with their own lives, who happen to be thinking about Olive, so you can't really see her in the picture at all, and only the subject of the photograph knows she is there. Other chapters unfold more like home-movies, and we get a brief close-up glimpse of Olive's life.

You see, it's complicated. This book is about a woman, Olive Kitteridge, and she is not really a pleasant person. She physically unattractive, and she appears brusque and unfeeling. There is a another side of her, but for most people the lovable parts of Olive are buried way too deep to find--they aren't going to get past the genuinely unpleasant aspects of her nature.

As I read through the book, chapter by chapter, I grew gradually to understand her a little better. She wasn't really a happy woman, and much of her unhappiness was the result of her own behavior. You meet people like that in real life. At the same time, I grew gradually to understand that Olive didn't waste her time feeling sorry for herself--at least, not for long. She found ways to deal with her unhappiness (you can't always make it go away), some of them productive and healthy, others not so much.

Nevertheless, the impression I was left with at the end of the book is that even a person who seems on the surface to be utterly unpleasant is still very human--with needs and feelings that are worthy of consideration. Olive is a very, very complex person, but in that way, she is representative of people everywhere--especially the ones who make a bad impression from the start.

I enjoyed Olive Kitteridge very much, because I enjoy character-driven books and don't care much about plot. Olive isn't the only person whose character is drawn in sharp relief in this book--there are many others--but hers is the one that is sounded in depth. This is the first book that I've read by Elizabeth Strout, but the rest of her books are now on my "to be read" list.

I don't feel as if I've said much about the book, so I'll add one more thing. Olive lives in a small community, as I mentioned, and the story draws that community into focus in several ways. We see the continuity of Olive's students growing to adulthood and either living in town or moving away or coming back. The changes of time and modernization are felt, as the corner drugstore is bought out by a big chain. The shocking effect on a community of violence or tragedy plays a role. Olive is part of a bigger picture, and the book includes that bigger picture as well as its focus on Olive, and is part of what makes this a good book.

Afterthoughts: I read this book on my Kindle. Only when I needed an image for this post was I reminded that this book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2009. It is considered a series of 13 individual stories (which explains my sense of fractured plot), not a novel. I probably added this to my "want to read" list in the first place because it won the Pulitzer, but I did not realize or remember that while I was reading the book, so my review as it stands above was written in ignorance of the fact that the book was so acclaimed. I'm not sure why that makes a difference, but I feel that it does--I liked the book for its own merits, and much better than the last prize-winner I read.