Questioning the Tomes

I just finished War and Peace. Yeah, you read that sentence right. Get the streamers; uncork the champagne. I read War and Peace, and it only took me a year. War and Peace is one of those books that is perhaps more famous for not being read than read. It looms, taking up an obscene amount of bookshelf space, and seems to say, “don’t even pretend like you’re going to read me.” Well, screw you book, I read the hell out of you.

What really struck me as I was reading was that I didn’t already have an idea what the book was about before I read it. Yes, I knew it was about Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, but that’s like saying that All Quiet on the Western Front is about World War I, that Slaughterhouse-Five is about the bombing of Dresden, or that Oliver Twist is about the economic stratification of nineteenth century England. However, I’ve rarely picked up a book that would be considered part of the “Western Canon” without already knowing the main conflict. Long before I read either novel, I knew that Moby-Dick was about Captain Ahab’s obsession with killing the albino whale that ate his leg and that The Brothers Karamazov was in part a murder mystery about which brother killed their father (perhaps this knowledge was why I was so frustrated that the despicable father remained alive so long). I haven’t read Great Expectations, but I know it’s a bildungsroman about a boy who aids a convict, plays with crazy Miss Havisham’s ward, and comes into unexpected wealth. The list goes on. If a book is widely read, its plot leaks into the collective consciousness. After a while, everyone knows what these books are about, yet I was wholly unfamiliar with the plot of War and Peace.

I suspect that some will say this ignorance is due to the fact that War and Peace is more famous for not being read. It’s one of those intimidating tomes that people demur from reading. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think of Tolstoy’s novel as being like Mt. Everest—it’s big and intimidating and that challenge attracts people. Around 4,000 people have climbed Everest. I bet a lot more have read War and Peace—it’s much less expensive than mountain climbing. I daresay that, like me, others will shamelessly brag about their accomplishment, which should be enough to get some of the major plot points into the larger culture.

What I think actually keeps the plot of this book out of the cultural consciousness is that we view it with such respect. It is one of the great literary classics, and to read it shows that you have refined tastes and that you’re an intellectual who ponders what others cannot hope to understand. Talking about the plot would rob the book of some of that mystique. True, it’s hard to summarize a book that follows about a dozen characters and that takes place over the years 1807 to 1819, but let’s take one character, Pierre. Pierre is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. His father has made him his heir, but Prince Vasili tries to convince the father, who is on his death-bed, to write Pierre out of the will. The father does not, and, when Pierre inherits the fortune, Prince Vasili manipulates Pierre into marrying his daughter, Hélène. Hélène probably had an affair with Dolokhov, so Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel. We’re not even through the first quarter of the book, yet this bare bones summary is starting to sound a bit melodramatic. And as we all know, there is nothing more counter to literary refinement than melodrama.

The brief summary that I gave above isn’t fair to Tolstoy’s work; as with all summaries, it cuts away the nuances of character and language. Still the novel is filled with moments that would be equally at home in a soap opera. When describing what was happening in the book to my friends, I would sometimes refer to it as The Days of Our Lives: The Napoleonic Wars Edition. Often when we talk about literature, especially books with a reputation for being “Important,” we fail to talk about the parts that share similarities with writing done for pure entertainment. I’m often surprised by how fun some old books are to read.

There is nothing more absurd than going into battle wearing white pants.

One of the most surprising aspects of War and Peace was how funny it was. Tolstoy is trying to make the point that great men aren’t the ones who change the world, but rather they just get caught on top of the cresting wave of change. To do this he often shows the chaos of the battlefield—how orders from generals are based on old, often wrong, information and how the soldiers on the field are reacting to a different set of circumstances so cannot possibly follow said orders. He also shows how the bureaucracy of war keeps anything from getting done, officers vying for advancement and trying to sabotage each other. As far as Tolstoy is concerned, wars are won or lost regardless of the generals and their tactics. During these sections, I started to refer to the novel as Cluster F***: A Victory. Another thing that Tolstoy taught me about war is that it causes traffic jams: people fleeing the coming army, soldiers marching to battle or retreating from a loss. Another title I used to refer to the novel was Traffic Jams and Bureaucracy.

Less surprisingly, Tolstoy interweaves the moments of humor with moments of horror. Officers vying for advancement, no matter how pathetic and funny they may seem, still make their power-plays with men’s lives. The chaos of the battlefield can seem funny one second, and in the next second a cannon ball has obliterated a person. In one scene, Pierre, a civilian, goes to a battlefield just to look. Tolstoy paints a humorous picture of this bumbling tourist wandering about, yet, when Pierre barely escapes with his life and the soldiers he stayed with are all killed, we are terrified. After the capture of Moscow, Pierre is taken prisoner by the French. Tolstoy superbly shows Pierre entering a dissociative state in order to survive: he focuses on counting trees rather than realizing that his friend was just executed.

Strangely, one modern genre that War and Peace reminds me of is that of the internet comment. Tolstoy is angry at historians and how they paint history. There is chapter after chapter, with many great insults, where he picks apart the Great Man theory. He mentions that many historians believe that Napoleon lost a certain battle because he didn’t personally oversee it, as he was suffering from a cold, which means, according to Tolstoy, that the servant who failed to dress the French Emperor in warm clothes was actually responsible for the outcome of the battle. Basically, Tolstoy read some history, became enraged at it, and wrote a really long comment. I imagine that if Tolstoy lived today, he would be a terror, albeit an eloquent one, of the Amazon reviews and the YouTube comments section.

It may seem like I’m being disrespectful to a great piece of literature, and you’re right, I am.

While I read the novel, I was moved, I laughed, I gained new insight, and I yelled at it. I’ll praise what I thought was good, and I’ll criticize what I thought was not. I disliked how he presents peasants as an ideal of Russian identity and Christian suffering rather than as people, and how he presented two of the women as representations of true womanhood whose identities are consumed completely by their husbands and children. Still, I loved how he showed war as absurd. I like to interact with the books that I read. One of the ways that we can kill a book is to treat it like an untouchable relic behind glass in a museum.

This post, no doubt, has revealed my suspicion of dividing literature into the categories of high culture and low culture. I find the elements that low culture is derided for (sex, violence, bathroom humor, melodrama) are often in the works of so-called high culture, while I’ve discovered moments of transcendence and have seen the human condition laid bare in low culture. Admittedly genre or pulp fiction often provide nothing more than an escape from the everyday, but sometimes Literature, with a capital “L,” is nothing more than empty intellectual posing that only reassures its readers that they’re better than that ugly rabble. The latter has always struck me as more dangerous. It disturbs me that I feel a sense of accomplishment in reading War and Peace, which is, as we discussed, primarily known for being long, whereas I was reading fantasy series where individual novels were just as long in my teens. I too am guilty of being awed by the dubious reputation of “Great Literature” and “Important” books, when all that makes a book great is that it helps you understand the world in a way that you haven’t before. It doesn’t matter if this understanding comes from horror novels, fairy tales, or chick lit, as long as it makes you re-examine who you are and how you interact with the world.

As I was finishing War and Peace, I was also giving up on another famously long, much more recent and read novel, The Goldfinch. I was listening to The Goldfinch audio book on my commute, and, for whatever reason, that medium wasn’t working out for me. I’ve had this happen with a few other audio books—sometimes I just need to experience a book through the printed page—so The Goldfinch is now on my to read pile.

Recently a Vanity Fair article came out discussing the growing divide over the novel. Is it awesome that a literary novel has become so popular, or is it an example of the decline of letters that such a book could even be considered Literature? As I haven’t finished the book, I don’t feel comfortable in saying whether I think it’s good or not. However, reading the criticisms of Tart’s novel, I was struck by how much of it was about keeping all that adventure stuff, that escapism, that ability to be enjoyed by teenagers away from important literature. I’m guessing that some of these critics aren’t big fans of Treasure Island. Ultimately, I’m suspicious of this criticism, because it reeks of the old high culture versus low culture view. What seems to decide the boundary between the two is the critics’ aesthetic tastes. However, if they weren’t moved to reflection or didn’t gain some kind of insight, I can’t blame them for dismissing the novel. Still, as an outsider and member of the rabble, I can’t help but wonder if there is some literary guarding of the gates going on here.

The only really good negative review of the novel that I read was one from Salon. The reviewer points out problems with The Goldfinch’s portrayal of its characters of color. What makes this review good is it does what good literature does: it made me reflect. The reflection was on myself and my assumptions. I had already encountered four of the characters she mentioned, and I only felt bothered by the doorman. In fact, I assumed that what we initially saw of the doorman was part of a professional persona and that there would be more to his character. However, when I heard the part about the maid who offered to work for free because she loves her employer so much, I didn’t even register what a B.S. statement that was. It’s like when, in War and Peace, Pierre asks one of his serfs if he wants to be free, and the serf says no. While I believe that Tolstoy wanted his readers to see that statement as sincere, I read the character as being guarded with his master and saying that which most insured his safety. Why I didn’t have a similar realization with The Goldfinch, when the maid basically tells the narrator’s mother that she’s such a good boss that cleaning the mother’s house is reward in and of itself, reveals my own ignorance. Notice that the maid didn’t say she wanted to be friends—which would create a more equal power dynamic between the two woman—but that she wanted to continue to serve even without compensation. I’m not  happy realizing that I too didn’t think anything of that scene when first heard it, but I’m glad that this critic pointed out the problematic assumptions inherent in such a view.

I suppose what I’m looking for when I read is an interrogation of the world and myself. While I enjoy escaping from time to time, I’ve never seen escapism as being opposed to that interrogation. Vampires, spaceships, and afternoon tea can help shatter illusions about the world. However, because books are by people, they will be inherently flawed like people with dangerous blind spots that allow us to remain secure in a false sense of superiority. When I was talking about my problems with the portrayal of women in War and Peace, a friend said, “Yeah, but it was written over a hundred years ago.” “So it was of its time,” I said, “that doesn’t mean that I should excuse either it or its time.” Let us praise the books that make us feel, but let us never excuse or ignore when they fail to question dangerous assumptions—these two activities are not exclusive.

It’s Probably a Metaphor but…

The great evil rears it ugly head once more.

One of the few memories from high school that stands out to me is a substitute teacher struggling to teach twenty bored teenagers about William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow.” He asked the class, “What does the color white represent?” Students would answer goodness, purity, innocence. By the end of the class, “The Red Wheel Barrow” had become an epic poem about the struggle between the good and innocent white chickens and the satanic red wheelbarrow. I may have actually sprained my eye muscles from rolling them so often.

Over a decade later, I now stand in front of a room full of college Freshman and am tasked with teaching them about poetry—well, about analyzing texts, I’m just lucky to have a little freedom with my curriculum and get to select those texts. Most of the students groan with dread when I tell them that for a portion of the class we’re going to read poems. The idea of not loving poetry, for me, is like not loving music, but I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t like music if all they know of it is “My Achy Breaky Heart” and “Hey Macarena” and had been forced to write 1000 words on their deeper philosophical meaning. Ideally, the best way to introduce students to poetry is to show them its breadth of styles and subjects and let them find what works for them. You don’t like the stilted forms and elitist attitudes of Victorian poetry, lets listen to spoken word instead. Eventually, I believe I could find a poem for everyone. Still I must teach analysis, which has the potential to reinforce the idea of a poem as a purely symbolic puzzle.

When I read “The Red Wheelbarrow” to my classes and ask, “What is happening in this poem?” students sigh, admit that they don’t get poetry, or roll their eyes. Once a student trying to shock and show his disdain said, “Someone is going to have to shovel chicken shit.”

“Yes!” I yelled, “You understand the poem!”

I’ve always found the literal meanings of poems just as important as any symbolic ones. A reader of Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose” does not need to interpret the titular flower as the representation of the chivalric view of love to enjoy the poem. Not that I want to discourage students from those deeper readings, I just want them to be aware that they don’t always have to try to find the “Truth” (note the capital “T”) in the poem to enjoy or understand it.

Sometimes trying to find a symbolic meaning for an image can hurt one’s reading of a poem. In one class, we read Adrienne Rich’s, “Living in Sin.” Many of the students discussed the lines, “That on the kitchen shelf among the saucers/ a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own—/ envoy from some village in the moldings.” Most of the students assumed that this line was an ambiguous metaphor for the mental state of the woman. When I inquired what the metaphor was, once again many confessed their own ignorance to poetry, some saying that they could never ever understand it. “What if we read that image as literal, as something that’s actually there? What’s in her cabinet?” I inquired. The class agreed—it was a bug of some sort and gross. Once they started looking at the poem for the literal, much of what seemed unsolvable riddles became interesting descriptions of everyday life. As one student wrote while reflecting on her work in the class, she now understood that “sometimes a ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ is just a red wheelbarrow.”

This approach to reading poetry has made my first reading of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil interesting to say the least. I was even tempted to ignore my own lessons. First of all I neither speak French, and therefore must rely on translations, nor am I particularly familiar with the French tradition, so there is probably a lot of things that I’m missing. The particular poems that stood out to me were “The Dance of Death” and “The Martyr.”

Danse Macabre by Ernest Christophe

Even the title “The Dance of Death” suggests a symbolic reading, as it is a reference to the Medieval idea that no matter our position in life we all will succumb to death. A myriad of Medieval and Renaissance pictures show images of kings, popes, knights, and peasants dancing with a fearful skeleton. Since the poem is also dedicated to an artist, Ernest Christophe, who made a sculpture of death as a beautiful woman dressed for a ball, we can see that Baudelaire is placing himself firmly in that allegorical tradition. However, as a reader I can’t just jump straight to the meaning of the allegory—which is usually the most boring part—I need to imagine the scene as the poet presents it. I like the image of death as “Proud, as a living person, of her height,/ Her scarf and gloves and huge bouquet of roses,/ She shows such nonchalance and ease as might / A thin coquette excessive in poses.” Baudelaire does a good job rendering the appeal that death can have. However, the poem takes an uncomfortable turn in the lines, “Yet who’s not squeezed a skeleton with passion?/ Nor ravened with his kisses on the meat/ Of charnels.” This image is not one that anyone would want to dwell on—I suspect that the immediate reaction is to jump to the symbolic. With the symbolic, we can talk about the romanticism of death and the association between poets and suicide, all more pleasant than imaging the speaker with necrophilic intent. Yet, it’s that image that surprises and is remembered by the reader.

I was suspicious of my reading of the poem. At first, I assumed that it was simply being colored by the translation.  I had read Roy Campbell’s 1952 translation. William Aggler’s 1954 translation, “Yet who has not clasped a skeleton in his arms/ Who has not fed upon what belongs to the grave?” makes the speaker not as overtly necrophilic (though he’s still snuggling up to a corpse), but a bit more cannibalistic. Still this image is equally asdisturbing as the other. Lewis Piaget Shank’s 1931 translation, “Yet, who has not embraced a skeleton?/ Who on the thought of the tombs has never fed?” is by far the least interesting, but I suspect the translation most likely to make it into a high school textbook. By making the speaker snack on “thoughts of the tomb” instead of its actual contents, Shanks tells the reader that they should be focused on some deep emotional truth and not dwelling on those unsavory images. It reassures the reader that the images are just allegory, just symbolism. It takes away all the images’ shock and impact. Which of these three translation is the closest to the meaning of Baudelaire’s original lines is unclear to me, ignorant monolingual person that I am, though I suspect Campbell and Aggler are the ones closest to the mark. When I put “Pourtant, qui n’a serré dans ses bras un squelette,/ Et qui ne s’est nourri des choses du tombeau?” in Google translate I got “But who has hugged a skeleton,/ And who has fed things the tomb?” Obviously, Google translate missed something, but I do like this new befuddled speaker who seems to be saying “Why do you always have to be so dark, Baudelaire?”

I still distrusted my own reading of the text. A speaker alone in a tomb making out with a dead body: surely I was being obtuse, morbid and missing the point made by this well-respected and lauded poet. Yes, he was considered scandalous and had his work banned in his day, but he lived and wrote in the 19th century where everything was considered scandalous and lewd. Here he was saying something important about humans’ relationship to death, and I was imagining his speaker as a degenerate ghoul. Then I read “The Martyr.” In the first two stanzas, Baudelaire describes a sumptuous room, but in the third stanza, “A headless corpse, cascading in a flood/ Hot, living blood, that soaks, with crimson stain.” Later in the poem he writes “The vengeful man, whose lust you could not sate,/ (In spite of much love) nor quench his fire—/ Did he on your dead flesh then consummate/ His monstrous, last desire?” Let’s just say that after reading this poem, I felt more secure in my earlier reading of “The Dance of Death.”

Reading Baudelaire for the first time reminded me of how culturally (in the U.S. at least) we expect poetry to be about lofty ideals—since my first reaction to those grotesque images was to think that surely I was misreading the poems. Certainly, there may be cultural reference that I’m not getting, and there are deeper symbolic ways to read these poems. But their symbolic meaning doesn’t make these two poems any less about men (hopefully fictional) whose tastes lean towards the funerary and violent. In the race to find the “deeper” meaning of a poem, it is easy to ignore the story or the image that is presented on the surface. The surface of a lake may obscure what is underneath, but we lose something if we ignore what we see on the surface. Even if it’s only a reflection. Ultimately, I did not enjoy most of Baudelaire’s poems, but I appreciate how he used images to shock the reader. Yes, these images can be read as symbolic, emotional, abstract, but the reason they work so well is that they are grounded in the concrete. Sometimes it is necessary to let a cigar be a cigar, a red wheel barrow be a red wheel barrow, and a man with romantic inclination toward the dead be—well, you get idea.

“Hey Macarena!”

Difficult Books, Insecure Reader

Once a former friend of mine, who liked to collect interesting quotes from the internet, made a point of repeating a quote to me about how the only good reason to read was for enjoyment (unfortunately, I neither remember the quote or who said it). In retrospect, I realized that she was using this quote as a veiled criticism of my reading habits. At the time I was reading some French post-modernist novels. Those books often were a hard slog, where I didn’t necessarily understand all of what I was reading. I suspect my friend was trying to point out that I should not read books because they are “important.” What she failed to realize was that I enjoyed reading those books.

Yes, sometimes I read books to lose myself in adventure, but other times I wanted the struggle. Like how some will hike a difficult trail or solve a difficult puzzle, I enjoy getting through difficult books. Just as one can feel miserable and hot during the middle of a hike but elated at the end, I too often feel miserable during the middle of a book but elated at the end. And sometimes, I give up.

All this build up leads to a single point: I’ve read Finnegans Wake! In the past few weeks since I’ve finished it, I’ve resisted the urge to carry the book around and tell strangers “See this book, I’ve read the whole damn thing!” I’ve always been worried about finding myself in a conversation with snooty elitists—the kind that only exists in movies and New Yorker cartoons—who’ll look down their nose at me and say in their mid-Atlantic accents “Have you ever read [insert obscure author’s name]’s [insert obscure title probably in French or German]?” But now,  I feel secure in the fact that I can reply “No! But I’ve read Finnegans Wake, M***** F*****!” Let’s not dwell on the unlikelihood of this scenario or its revelation of my insecurities, but instead focus on my feelings of accomplishment.

I should admit that I would have never picked up this book on my own. I was too intimidated by it. Hell, I was too intimidated by Ulysses to read it, and Finnegans Wake is supposed to make the former look like “See Spot Run.” A podcast that I listen to, Literary Disco, created Finnegans Wake Up, where everyone participating read five pages a day and discussed the book on Goodreads. Reading the book as a member of a community helped me, I would not have finished it otherwise. Reading other participants’ comments allowed me to better understand passages and not lose hope during the really rough parts. That said, I still finished the book a month after the group. I imagined myself as the last person who crosses a marathon’s finish line; everyone else has already gone home to take nap. But damn it, I still crossed that finish line.

If it was simply hard, I would not have been able to keep reading. Like a treacherous hike where there is often the joy of being in nature, there were these moments where I suddenly felt like I understood something. Whether it was a line that seemed to be questioning the  nature of literature and narrative, a reference to history, mythology, or Popeye, or really really dirty jokes (and Joyce likes his puns filthy), I still  found honest enjoyment. Of course there was the page after page of what seemed to be pure gibberish, where I just hated it all. At those moments, I could not blame anyone who threw the book against the wall.

The more I think about, I realize that I’ve always been drawn to difficulty. Not necessarily the same syntactical, grammatical and purposely obscure difficulty of Joyce. Yet when I think of my favorite books—the ones that I turn to when I just want to get lost in a story—there are still types of difficulty: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels contain satire which forces me to turn a critical eye on the real world, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and We’ve Always Lived in a Castle forces me to face the dangers of my own inclination towards isolation, Sándor Márai’s Embers  make me consider my own failed friendships, and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility helped me better understand what it is like to have limited options and have to rely on the good will of others to survive. Even if the prose is easy to follow, these books cause me to turn a more critical eye on the world and on myself. Rarely is such observation an easy or enjoyable task, yet it is one that I not only find necessary but that I crave.  Thus I turn to a wide array of books and films that I’ll struggle with and, yes, sometimes fail to finish. What my former friend failed to understand was that I didn’t read to lose myself but that I read to challenge myself.

Of course, she may have simply been responding to what she perceived as elitism on my part. Considering that I was in my early twenties, I was not necessarily above snobbery. I was proud of my achievements, and I thought literature was important. Even now when I brag, “I’ve read Finnegans Wake” many will hear “and you haven’t!”  Hell, I still hear “and you haven’t!” whenever I get in the conversation with people about books, films, travel, food, and whole mess of other experiences. My joy in reading that big intimidating book is the difficulty that I experienced and worked through, not that others haven’t read it. Anyone can answer my “I’ve read Finnegans Wake” with “Well,  I’ve read Proust” or “Charles Dickens” or “Agatha Christie” or “Toni Morrison” or “Isaac Asimov” or “Dean Koontz” or a long list authors that I have yet to read. The truth is I still fear those cartoonishly pretentious intellectuals who will have always read that obscure author that I’ve never heard of. As with all personifications of my insecurities, they will never be impressed. It’s still fun to image smacking them with a volume of Joyce’s work or any book for that matter.

The Years Needed to Read a Book

I’ve just finished To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and, as a surprise to no one, I loved it. I loved it so much that I didn’t just break the spine, but, to my horror, ripped the book in half. Thankfully I had some Scotch tape on hand.

What is really momentous is that this is the first book that I’ve returned to after giving up on reading it, because it was “too hard.”

I’ve always been a reader, but somewhere around my Sophomore or Junior high school year my reading habits changed. Before then, I tore through escapist literature—I was particularly fond of the Star Wars extended universe. On whim, I picked up All Quiet of the Western Front. Instead of escaping on a grand adventure, I faced a horrifying reality. Yet, at the end of the book, I felt that I understood the world—the beauty and the tragedy—a little bit better.

At the time I was ignorant of what the Canon was and the problems inherit in it, all I knew was that All Quiet on the Western Front was considered a classic, and that I wanted to experience that sense of clarity and catharsis again. I thought I could only experience it through “the classics.” As you can tell, I had only vague idea what any of this meant or what authors to seek out.

I started to wander the library stacks picking up books that I’ve heard mentioned in class or whose covers made them look like a classic (the only reason I knew Madame Bovary was a classic was because of its leather cover). Sometimes I discovered books I loved (Calvino’s, Camus’, Austen’s, Gaskell’s, and so many others), sometimes I discovered books I hated, and sometimes I discovered books that overwhelmed me.

When I selected a book that overwhelmed, I would often read a few pages, but find that I couldn’t follow what was happening or, in some cases, the syntax. To the Lighthouse was one those books. I started reading it, but I didn’t know what was going on. I was left wondering who the main character was, what were all these people doing, what conflict was pushing the plot forward. I would reread whole pages, but the words became no clearer.  Eventually I gave up—I felt that I wasn’t smart enough to read it.

I encountered Woolf again in a college literature class, where we read Mrs. Dalloway. Once again, I couldn’t follow what was happening.  Woolf’s narrative switched from character to character without warning.  I kept wondering why we were spending so much time with boring Mrs. Dalloway and not more time with Septimus Warren Smith, who I found more interesting. I figured that I just didn’t like Woolf’s writing that she was just to hard for me to read.

This all changed when I saw the film, The Hours. I quickly tracked down the book by Michael Cunningham. His book made me question my initial reading of Mrs. Dalloway, allowing me to read it once more. It is strange how point of view can affect our reading of a book. When I first read Mrs. Dalloway, I’d firmly believed that literature should be about grand ideas and grand passions. When I read The Hours, or maybe because I read The Hours, I was starting to wonder if literature could be about the little things that made up our days. I started to wonder if the trifles that I had been so quick to dismiss were just as important to our lives. In Mrs. Dalloway, and really in much of Woolf’s writing, she shows how the grand and small connect, how our lives are made up of both wars and the errands we run on a busy afternoon. She shows how what we would dismiss as insignificant can make life worth living.

Since then, I’ve read The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Orlando, The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is one of my favorite writers. Yet when I picked up a copy of To the Lighthouse, I was intimidated. Here was one of the great books that I had failed to read.  Here was a book that I was not smart enough to read. This feeling of doubt is, of course, familiar: I feel it every time I sit down to write.  It asks me who I think am. I’m not that important; I’m not that smart; I’m not one of those people who will finish To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, or Swann’s Way. Perhaps that is why I sat down with the book; I needed to prove something to myself.

When I finished To the Lighthouse, what surprised me most was just how easily I could read it. I could follow the narrator as she switched focus from one character to an other. The action was clear. I wondered if this was the same book that had so overwhelmed me before. But it was, I had simply grown as reader. I was now more familiar with Woolf’s syntax. I had read more complex, sometimes frustrating, experimental writing. Stream of consciousness following multiple characters was familiar; I was an old hat at it.

In some ways my journey to finally reading Too the Lighthouse oddly suites one of the book’s main themes—the relentless march of time. People die, houses fall to ruin, books and paintings are forgotten, nothing lasts. Yet there is comfort in that change. A painting will be finished, and books will be read.

In Too the Lighthouse, Woolf questions  the traditional view of art—an avenue to immortality for the Great. In one scene, we see Lily Briscoe remember Mrs.Ramsey taking her and Charles Tansley to the beach.  Lily thinks:

But what a power was in the human soul!…That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite…something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.

Mrs. Ramsey had gone to the beach with two of her friends and created a day that causes Lily to question her views and had truly moved her. We tend to think of the duties of hostess as inconsequential, but that day, because of Mrs. Ramsey, transcends and works like a piece of art. Woolf has shown us that those “inconsequential” moments can carry consequence.

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because it speaks directly to my artistic endeavors. I have known several Charles Tansleys who have told me that I couldn’t write just as Charles told Lily that “women can’t paint, can’t write.”  I too have looked at my writing, much as Lily looks at her paintings, and thought it will be forgotten.  Yet Woolf’s final paragraph in To the Lighthouse reminds me that it does not matter:

she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture.  Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred.  With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

As I read those final lines, I feel I can go on writing.  Once again I feel that I know something more about this world. I again feel that catharsis I felt at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front and so many times since with many other books.  It was worth all the years it took me to finally read those lines.

The Experience of a Book

For the last six months, three days a week, I make the hour-long drive to Santa Fe and the hour-long drive back. The biggest problem I’ve faced, other than gas prices and the ability of landscape to distract me, is a lack of listening material. I have a habit of driving to music, which increases the likelihood of speeding tickets. I’ve been listening to podcasts so far, but I’ve only found three I really like (Read it and Weep, The Bookrageous Podcast, and Literary Disco). Unfortunately, I’ve exhausted their past episodes and now must wait for each new episode. I’ve tried finding some other podcasts, but nothing has really caught my attention (feel free to make suggestions), so in an attempt to remain sane and within the speed limit, I’m entering the strange new world of audio books.

Now the thing is I love listening to books. Growing up both my parents read to me, and I was still asking them to read to me after I could read chapter books on my own. I only stopped asking my mother when I discovered that she was censoring the more risqué parts (which really weren’t all that risqué). At my father’s house, I had younger siblings, so I was, under the guise of bonding with them, able to be read to well into middle school.

It was during that time that I first encountered an audio book. My family has a tradition of reading Night in the Lonesome October every October. Someone eventually gave us the audio book version. We put the cassette tape in the stereo, gathered around, and listened. We didn’t even make it through the fist chapter. The voice actor had got it all wrong. And by all wrong I mean, he sounded nothing like my father.

In recent years, my husband has read many of Terry Pratchett’s books to me. He is a wonderful reader—he does the voices—so wonderful in fact that hearing him read the Discworld novels out loud is preferable to actually sitting down and reading the books silently. In large part it is because my head doesn’t do the voice, everything I read is in my own voice, even if a picture of Morgan Freeman is right next to the text.

In fact listening is so integral to my reading that I cannot read poetry silently. When I open a book of poetry, I know that I will speak every word. If I read it silently, I won’t retain anything. This habit can get interesting if I’m reading some LANGUAGE poetry.

So considering that reading has so often been linked to listening to me, you would think that I would take quicker to audio books. Yet still I hesitate. Maybe it’s because I don’t know the voice actors—I would hate a bad voice actor to ruin a good book.

Or maybe it is because I feel listening doesn’t count. I can’t claim that I’ve read a book if I only listened to it. I’ve haven’t listed any of the Discworld books that my husband has read to me on my Goodreads page (well until now). Of course, I don’t mind that it doesn’t count when my husband reads to me. I’m able to enjoy a book with him. However, I don’t have that additional bonding moment with an audio book. Alone on my way to work, only I will laugh and only I will cry.

The important question is why do I care if it counts or not. At first I want to say it is because reading is active, you have to work at it, and listening is passive. But as someone who speaks at students on a daily basis, I can tell you that listening is not a passive activity. I still experience each and every word of the book whether I’m reading or listening to it. True I can’t analyze the sentences and the plot of an audio book in the same way, but then I never analyzed everything I’ve read.

Yet I’ve seen people judged by their reading habits all the time. The worst is when people are dismissed as readers because they read science fiction, mystery or romance. I’ve heard people point out that audio books don’t count. But audio books are not like movie adaptations, all the words that the author wrote are still there. I wonder if it’s because we associate being read to with being a child. Is part of being an adult that we don’t get to be read too anymore? I’ve already given up trick-or-treating; I don’t to give this up as well.

In the end, I have six hours a week where I’m alone on the road. These are six hours where I cannot read, yet I can still make my way through a book. I can still empathize with the characters, enjoy a well turned phrase, lose myself in wonder, and ponder new ideas. How could that not count?

The Joy of Bad Movies and Classic Literature

Among the many books on my bedside table, I try to always keep one book that I consider intimidating. This book could be a scholarly work, philosophy, science, contemporary fiction (with a reputation for difficulty), experimental poetry, or one of the “classics.”  The intimidating  book is one that  I feel I’m not smart enough or educated enough to read, but how else will I educate myself if I don’t read it. Also, I don’t like the idea of being bullied around by some printed pages.

The intimidating book currently on my bedside table is The Aeneid; I’m about a hundred pages (three books) from the end. What surprised me the most is how much I enjoy reading it, and that my enjoyment was similar to that of watching a campy horror or action film. In other words, I MST3Ked it. Now I’m probably far from the ideal reader for Virgil—my understanding of Roman history and culture is spotty to say the least. I bring, probably unfairly, my modern perspective upon the work. While this may mean that some allusion will go over my head, I can’t believe that works of literature should be read as though they exist out of time. Of course The Aeneid will read differently for Virgil’s contemporaries, scholars in the 19th century, and me in the 21st Century.

First let me mention the things that frustrated me. Right now I’m in middle of reading about the war in Italy, which started because Aeneas wants to marry Lavinia and so does Turnus. We hear what Aeneas wants (to make the Trojans a great country once again), what Turnus wants (Lavinia and the throne that comes with her), what Lavinia’s father, King Latinus, wants (for Aeneas to marry Lavinia), what Lavinia’s mother wants (for Turnus to marry Lavinia), and what the Goddess Juno wants (to muck things up for Aeneas). We never learn what Lavinia wants. While I know that given the cultural background of this work, this over site is to be expected, it still annoys me. Here is a character that they are starting a war over, but her main characteristic is that “she was ripe now, ready for a husband.” Yuck! I’ve always found the woman who is a fruit ready to be plucked metaphor gross.

I was similarly annoyed when Mercury warns Aeneas to get out of Carthage and says, with regards to Dido, “An ever/ uncertain and inconstant thing is a woman.” Or, when the Trojans are leaving and see Dido’s suicide-funeral pyre and Virgil writes, “They cannot know/ what caused so vast a blaze, and yet the Trojans/ know well the pain when passion is profaned/ and how a woman driven wild can act.” Yep, Dido is crazy for expecting Aeneas to hang around—she only destroyed her political reputation at home and caused a war with a neighboring king by shacking up with Aeneas. If Dido hadn’t committed suicide, her fate was still a pretty bleak one. So yeah, I feel she deserved a little slack. At least she got to snub Aeneas in the underworld.

I’m enjoying  reading about the war in Italy; it makes me laugh. Take Euryalus and Nisus who sneak off to warn Aeneas that the Trojans are under attack but stop to kill some Rutulians and pick up some loot, meanwhile I’m yelling “You have a job to do.  Warn Aeneas!” I’ve seen lots of action movies. From them I have learned that the moment you start killing people, it is only a matter of time before the enemies start noticing you, especially if you steal and wear some of their shiny armor. While Virgil presents their death as heroic and tragic, they don’t seem to understand what being a messenger sneaking through the enemy camp entails. Considering their message was something along the lines of “Help we’re under attack! Need Reinforcements!” they kind of screwed over their comrades.

Yet no one is really good at their job as soldiers here. Oh, they are heroic, glorious, and brave in battle, but they are crappy soldiers. At one point the Trojans, who were ordered to defend the fortification until Aeneas returns, get so caught up in battle they open the gates to better attack their enemy. Opening the gates to attack is not really a good move when you’re defending against a force with greater numbers.  Their enemy of course use this moment, and the enemy’s leader, Turnus, finds himself inside the Trojan fortifications where he goes on a killing spree. In fairness, Turnus isn’t good at his job either.  As Virgil points out:

The Trojans turn and run in fear and trembling;

and if the victor the had taken care

to smash the bolts, to let his comrades pour

inside the gates, the day had been the last

day of war and of the Trojan nation;

but rage and an insane desire for slaughter

drove Turnus on against his enemies.

Oh Turnus, if only you had called for back up, you could have won.

I realize it may seem like I’m nitpicking this great work of literature. I can’t deny the beauty and the power of Virgil’s work, and I’m grateful to Allen Mandelbaum for giving us a translation that is so readable and poetic. However, often works of literature seem to be put on a pedestal just out of reach for the rest of us, who have decidedly plebeian tastes. But as I read this great work, I saw the same tropes I see in Bond and Schwarzenegger films.  I enjoy watching these cheesy movies—I enjoy sitting at home and yelling at the heroine to run instead of investigating the basement. I love yelling at the megalomaniac madman to stop monologuing about his plans to take over the world. And if I can find that same joy reading the “classics,” I don’t think there is any good reason in denying it because it’s high art.

“Please, no soliloquy!” he seems to say.