Tuesday, March 15, 2011

as a matter of fact, i do read. sometimes.

As a child I almost never read novels and other threateningly large books.
It wasn't that I couldn't or anything. I'd always read several grade levels ahead of the crowd in school (at one point school officials wanted to push me ahead from fourth to sixth grade just on the strength of my reading skills, but my mother put her foot down and said no; better to let her daughter hang with her own age-group. Not sure today if that was a wise decision, but there it is). But I had the worst case of shpilkes (in the days before ADD we just called it shpilkes, restlessness) in the world, and I could not sit still long enough to finish a chapter in a book.

So I read magazines and newspapers, and later on I got into short stories. When I discovered Joseph Conrad in junior high school, I thought The Secret Sharer was the best short-story ever written. Then I read Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart and suddenly it became a toss-up (though I still thought Conrad was the real genius; he'd written his stories in English, a language which he didn't learn until he was an adult. Top that, Edgar!).
Today, I am married to a professional wordsmith who is also the world's biggest book fiend (she used to be the second-biggest book fiend until my father passed away). And she has occasionally gotten me to read full-length books.
Here's a short list of actual, real, full-length novels I've read --Link
1. The River Why by David James Duncan. Tough to get into but SO worth the effort.
2. The Brothers K by David James Duncan. One of the best stories ever told, by anyone, anywhere. If you love the Pacific Northwest and/or baseball, this book will rip your heart up in the very best possible way.
3. As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. One of the most powerful historical novels ever, even if you're not Jewish. A story about belief, betrayal and love set in 70 CE.
4. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino. Okay, this one's not super-long, more like a novella than a full-length novel. Painfully sweet, absurdist love story.
5. Those Who Love by Irving Stone. In seventh grade, I was deeply unpopular, lonely, and miserable at my suburban, mostly evangelical Christian middle school. To escape, I became engrossed in history, especially anything concerning Colonial America. That led to a fascination with the Adams dynasty, and I read everything I could get my hands on. A sympathetic and kind English teacher bought me this book for ten cents at the used paperback store in downtown Gresham, and gave it to me to read over Christmas vacation. I devoured it, then read it again to go back and see what I'd missed the first time. Not generally a huge fan of Irving Stone but this was one of his better historical novels, probably because he had so much source material to work with (and John and Abigail both knew how to write a damned good letter back in the day).

And here's an even shorter list of novels I tried to read, and simply could not get through --
1. Watership Down by Richard Adams. Everybody was reading this one in junior high school. Except me. I had a serious rodent thing and rabbits were still too close to rodents (you know, like rats) for me to want to read about them, even supremely sentient ones. When I finally tried to read it in tenth grade I just couldn't stay with it. Too damned descriptive; a meadow is often just a freaking meadow. I need plot, tons of plot, to hang with a story. Otherwise I just stop caring. I stopped caring about this one far too late into the book, about two-thirds of the way through, and other things came along that were just way more important. Someone told me the ending later. I didn't feel sorry for having put it down. I'm pretty sure it's the short attention span thing.
2. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I tried reading this several years ago, on a sort of dare from a friend for whom this book was deeply life-changing. It did not change my life, all it did was waste a little of it. I managed about sixty pages and just could not keep my head in the fantasy; something about what might have been if the Allies had lost World War II. Wacky stuff, but too thickly written for me.
3. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I tried to take this book seriously, but I just couldn't. It read too much like Young Neo-Cons In Love, and I couldn't stop laughing at Rand's outsized ego. Another hundred and fifty pages of my life I'll never get back.

Not exactly a challenge to my readers, since I assume more of you regularly read big books than I do; but feel free to offer your favorite novel up for consideration.

5 comments:

rickrise said...

I waited till I was in my fifties to read it, but "War and Peace" was truly spectacular--Tolstoy was an incredible observer of personality and how people adjust themselves to varying social contexts. turned out to be well worth the wait, and I hope to read it again in a few years.

Lee said...

I like anything by Jhumpa Lahiri. Also loved Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Russel Banks is another favorite author.

bikelovejones said...

Rickrise: "War and Peace" has always scared the crap out of me. Even in paperback form it's a monstrously huge book, thick like the Yellow Pages used to be. I think I'd have to work my way up to it.

scottg said...

The Tolstoy of the 20th century was Vasily Grossman,try "Everything Flows". Joseph Roth, "The Radetzky March", Issac Babel, The Odessa Stories, from his collected works.
None are very long, but will stay
with you. Babel first.

rickrise said...

"War and Peace" is indeed long, but...you read it one chapter at a time like any other book.

Honestly, for anyone interested in the meaning of family and the emotional foundations of politics, it's a must. And a well-written tale as well. Multiple plots, but not hard to follow. Once you get used to the Russian custom of giving everyone a nickname.

And, Tolstoy was an early bicycle enthusiast, who learned how to ride at age 67.

Here's a photo.