Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Let's Face It: Yunshui Is a Pain in the Ass

Yunshui created a meme and challenged me to take part. I’m not crazy about memes, but he’s a pal, and I love having the excuse to write about books. Unlike he did, though, I’m not including any links, because I’m not a goddamned bookmobile; you can go look them up for yourselves if you’re curious. I’m also not tagging anyone, because, holy shit, this took me a long time to write.

Basically, Yunshui asked meme-too-ers to write down the book they "most appreciate" in each of the following categories, and to "give a brief reason as to why you do so (and maybe what you think your choice says about you)." Here are my answers, but without any Popular Psychology crap. Sorry, but I don't think of my personal library as a Rorschach test. So, as you read this, please don't get any blots on the books.

The Classic — The Complete Works of Shakespeare by ???

OK, that’s a little bit of a cheat, since it’s really a collection, not a single work. Also, it’s not a Classic in the Greco-Roman sense. However, where would English be today without those plays and poems? Whether they were, in fact, written by someone actually named Shakespeare or not, the author expanded and enlivened the language as no one else has ever done. In addition, Shakespeare (or whoever) was the first English writer to delve into character in a way that made his creations transcend the page (and/or stage) and take on lives of their own. And, wow. Just think of the great quotes — far better and richer than anything in the silly bible — filled with wit and wisdom and the deliciousness of speech.

The Biography — Tie: Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King and A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin

I hate biographies, and rarely read them. However, Florence King’s is hilarious and nasty, so how could I resist? Kazin’s short book is more of a memoir than a biography, but it’s so vivid in its sensory details that it deserves mention.

The Science BookThe Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

I’ve never read a better introduction to evolutionary biology than this. And the information is all wrapped up in the fascinating story of a married couple of Princeton University scientists who spent years on the island of Daphne Major (one of the Galápagos) studying real-time evolutionary changes in finches.

The Short Story CollectionCosmicomics by Italo Calvino

Ooooh, brilliant. You can read more about it here.

The Foreign Novel — Tie: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I assume that Yunshui means by “foreign” anything not originally written in English. As far as the Calvino goes: Ooooh, brilliant. Again. You, the reader, are the main character in this novel, which is written, largely, in the second person. In the course of this witty metaphysical tale, which is really a long philosophical ramble on the act of reading itself, you somehow manage to begin ten other works, each of which is interrupted, for one reason or another, after the last page of the first chapter. I don’t remember much about The Karamazov Boys, since my Dostoyevsky period was way before most of my readers were born. Basically, I threw this one in for snob appeal. But I do recall drinking a lot of vodka while reading his novels, and dining at least three or four times at the Russian Tea Room. So I think of those books as quite tasty.

The Play — Tie: Harvey by Mary Chase and The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckborn

I didn’t think it was fair to single out Hamlet or Macbeth or As You Like It or Much Ado About Nothing or ... any other Shakespeare play. I enjoy reading Shaw, but I think his works are enormously dull in the theater. It took the songs of Lerner and Loewe to make Pygmalion entertaining. Harvey on the other hand, features a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. How can you beat that? The Norman Conquests is actually a trilogy of full-length plays: Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden. All three plays are set in a different area of the very same house at the very same times. Characters enter and exit from the kitchen, living-room, and garden, only to appear in a different play — which you’ve either seen earlier or will see later. In the theater, it’s best to attend these on three consecutive nights. Although each work stands perfectly well on its own, the humorous effect is cumulative. Reading the trilogy in your armchair, you can flip back and forth to be astounded by the playwright’s cleverness.

The Children’s BookAlice in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

I was tempted to write “The Bible by God,” but that would have just been a cheap joke. I don’t think the desert anthology is written up to the standards of a bright child. Aside from the bible, though, the Lewis Carroll books are probably the best examples of logic in the service of nonsense that we have. They’re charming and extremely funny, and contain some of the greatest wordplay in literature. If you really want a treat, pick up “The Definitive Version” of Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice.

The Philosophy BookThe Federalist Papers by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay

I think philosophy is mostly a waste of time, as anyone who visits this blog regularly knows. Plato’s works are great fun to read; Hume’s skepticism is immensely appealing; and Descartes’ Meditations are noteworthy for pointing out that if you’re thinking, you’re alive. But so what? Political philosophy, on the other hand, fascinates me, and can actually have practical consequences. I always get choked up when I turn to The Federalist. It demonstrates clearly how the Founding Fathers (not just the three writers) thought long and hard about what it means to be free, and how to create a government to best embody liberty. The Anti-Federalist Papers, by a variety of authors, are also required reading. Although they don’t agree with the solution, those writers had similar ideals. How fortunate for us in America that such an admirable group of guys battled it out intellectually just when the country was being born.

The Poem — The Complete Poems of e e cummings

I cheated again. Tough shit. You try to single out any one of these little jewels as being better than the others. If I had to pick a single favorite poem, it would probably be either “Ozymandias” by Shelley, “The Second Coming” by Yeats, or “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. As a side note, apropos of nothing: I love Ogden Nash but hate Emily Dickinson.

The Travelogue — Tie: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Yeah, they’re fiction. So what? Find me better travel writing.

The Sci-Fi/Fantasy NovelThe Once and Future King by T.H. White

I hate these categories of books and never read them. When I was a child, I devoured Isaac Asimov’s works, but they suck as literature. In general, sci-fi is far too impressed with itself and the writing is overblown. Fantasy as a genre is, for the most part, stupid. On the other hand, I love the legends of King Arthur, and White’s retelling is the best in modern English.

Mystery Novel — Tie: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

Even though Yunshui included the ridiculous genres of sci-fi and fantasy, he omitted this important one. Hammett wrote as if he were a great journalist with a limited number of column inches. True to his real-life Pinkerton background, he saw and heard everything around him. But his “reports” had to be concise and to the point. I far prefer him to Hemingway, who did the same thing, but not as well. Chandler was a poet working through the medium of hard-boiled detective fiction. He invented a style that has been imitated and parodied ever since, but no one can work it anywhere near as well as he did. The Long Goodbye is his longest and, arguably, most cynical work, filled with social commentary. By the way, for you cheaters: The movie version, although interesting in its way, is not really a faithful adaptation of Chandler’s plot or his worldview.

The All-Time FavoriteBleak House by Charles Dickens

What can I say? For me, Dickens is the greatest writer of all time, and this is his greatest book. Although David Copperfield and Great Expectations are close. But you’ve got to be willing to read these works as if you're living in the 19th century. Go slowly. Savor the words; maybe even read aloud. See the scenes Dickens paints so lovingly, and hear his characters speak. Smell, touch, feel. If you’re interested only in finding out what happens, you’ll miss most of what makes his novels great. My recommendation to those whose idea of fiction is a good clippety-clip plot: Perhaps you should limit yourselves to watching Law and Order.

So that’s it. I didn’t even get to include Mark Twain or Jane Austen or Philip Roth or Dorothy Parker or Gore Vidal or Tom Wolfe or Richard Dawkins or ... dozens of other writers with whom I’ve spent many pleasurable hours.

I guess Yunshui’s point — and mine — is: Pick up a fucking book once in a while.


Anonymous said...

This is a pretty cool meme. I can understand why it took a long time to write the post. My problem is that mt favorite things change as my circumstances change. Consequently, I'd have to redo the meme every few years.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Yes, I love to read, but I never read much of the classics. Maybe it was the arcane writing, but I always gravitated towards the more contemporary stuff. I did love The Once and Future King as a teenager, and you've mentioned The Beak of the Finch so many times I'll have to read it it, but the rest I have only cursory experiences with - an occasional Shakespeare play, The Maltese Falcon a few years ago, Alice, a little Dickens, a smattering of the Federalist. No where near the depth you've plumbed.

I did love Cosmicomics, as you know, though.

yunshui said...

It may have taken you a while to write, but that was worth the read. If on a winter's night... so very nearly made it into my list as well - such an amazing concept.

The addition of a mystery novel is a good idea - I may have to go and add one of those to my original post.

I'm buying a new copy of Bleak House today... this had better be worth it!

John Evo said...

So you are like the 170th person to try to convince me that Shakespeare was some sort of a writing god. I'm sure it must be good, and the English language and writing in general is probably better off for him living (whoever the fuck he really was). But even back when I actually enjoyed fiction a lot more than I presently do, he held little interest for me. Whatever intellect I have - it just isn't driven towards Shakespeare. I'd rather read The Sparrow. I'd much rather read Julian.

Lynet said...

It's always a little sad to know that Shakespeare is going to get harder and harder to understand, the more time that passes. Don't get me wrong, I like Shakespeare (hey, don't even get me started on the way he uses metre!), but I prefer one of those copies that helpfully points out all the words whose meanings have changed.

Looks like a fun meme, but my Nonbelieving Literati post is already running away with me, and it does look long.

The Exterminator said...

My problem is that my favorite things change as my circumstances change. Consequently, I'd have to redo the meme every few years.
Well, so what? I hope you don't think this post is going into my "permanent record card."

If I were you, I'd rent the film version of Harvey immediately. It's pretty close to the play, and you can pretend that you've read it. I think the movie will make you laugh a lot.

Here's what I would do about Bleak House if I were you. Pick up a copy in your bookshop, and slowly read the first five paragraphs, allowing yourself to get swept into Dickens's world. Chew the words and imagine the scene with as many senses as you can. If you're not hooked by the time you're done, don't bother reading the rest of the book. It won't be to your taste.

Well, I guess you just don't have the "Shakespeare" gene.

I agree that some meanings in Shakespeare need to be glossed, but most decent editions contain those little notes at the bottom of the pages. Here's a book you may not have heard of that you must get: Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge. It begins with a 46-page essay and then has nearly 200 pages of annotated glossary, containing every off-color term in the entire canon, with specific references to where they occur. You can open the Partridge to almost any page and find something fascinating -- and funny.

yunshui said...

Turns out the damn classics buyer at work hasn't been paying attention to his section - we have pretty much every Dickens novel going except Bleak House in stock (including six copies of A Christmas Carol. Who the fuck are we going to sell that to in August?). I shall be popping to the charity bookshop up the road on my way home...

Evo: It really helps to see Shakespeare performed - on the page it's hard going, but a good performance can really light the text up. Avoid your local am-dram company and splash out on a pro production, or check out one of the film adaptations - whilst it's one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays, I think the Kenneth Branaugh version of Much Ado About Nothing does the business.

PhillyChief said...

I don't usually care for naming things as the best, I guess partly for Chaplain's reason and also because I see pros and cons in almost everything. Oh yeah, it also reminds me of juvenile nonsense of arguing who was the best band, best guitarist, etc.

Anyway, THIS is the best children's book ever. Everybody knows that. LOL

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with Yunshui. Branaugh's Much Ado About Nothing is phenomenal. As far as movies go, it's my favorite comedy ever made. It actually made me fall in love with Emma Thompson. Ah... loves it.

John Evo said...

Here's a book you may not have heard of that you must get: Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge. It begins with a 46-page essay and then has nearly 200 pages of annotated glossary, containing every off-color term in the entire canon, with specific references to where they occur.

Oh, that goes right to the TOP of my "to read" list!

@ Yunshui - I've seen more Shakespeare movies than read plays. Haven't seen MAAN with Branaugh. I remember when it came out - "hmmm... another Shakespeare movie. PASS."

Venjanz said...

I was about to make a smart-ass comment until I saw 'The Federalist Papers'.

Hey. *throws up hands* I guess I'm done here.

The Exterminator said...

I shall be popping to the charity bookshop up the road on my way home...
Make sure to buy two copies of Bleak House: one for you and one for the classics buyer.

Instead of watching Much Ado, Evo should rent the old, gauzy and gaudy, Max Reinhardt version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) with Mickey Rooney as Puck, James Cagney as Bottom, and Joe E. Brown as Flute. Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland (in her movie debut) are two of the lovers. The music is mostly reorchestrated from Felix Mendelssohn, and it's conducted by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The film was banned in Germany because Reinhardt and Mendelssohn were Jews. It's not the greatest flick, but it's cinematically historical -- and it's fun.

I'm afraid to read that book you recommended because I understand there's Something Cuddly at the end of it. I have a morbid fear of cuteness.

Whenever I see Much Ado, I fall in love with the woman playing Beatrice. I think -- just maybe -- it's the character, not the actress, that I'm really attracted to.

It's sounds like your anti-Shakespeare attitude is a faith statement.

I can't figure out if you threw up your hands because you approve or disapprove of The Federalist Papers. I hope it's the latter. Because if you approve of them, I'm gonna have to go back and locate the right-wing wacko parts you like.

The Exterminator said...

Some other Shakespeare movies that might turn you around:
* Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice (2004)
* Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud in Julius Caesar (1953)
* Richard III (1995) with Ian McKellan, Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr., and an all-around great cast
* The Olivier Richard III (1955)
* The sappy but beautiful Romeo and Juliet directed by Zeffirelli (1968)
* The Orson Welles Macbeth (1948) in the original uncut version
* Titus (1999), a gory & violent, but appealingly weird, version of Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange

Davo said...

If that's what you like, go for it. I mean, her character was witty and spirited. I definitely appreciated her confident, assertive, natural personality.
But it was mainly her voice, accent and diction that made me flip. I could listen to her talk all day. It's beautiful.

Brendan said...

Glad to hear I'm not the only one who thinks The Long Goodbye was Chandler's best. Most Chandler fans seem to diss that one, for some reason.

The Exterminator said...

I think The Long Goodbye may be a little angst-y for some pulp readers, but maybe it's just too long for their taste. I love all of Chandler's novels, but another one I'd recommend especially highly is The Little Sister, which is really dark -- and cynical as hell.

Brendan said...

Yeah, that's a good one, too. Should have said that I've read them all, but thanks for the recommendation, anyway.

Brendan said...

Should have said before, you're probably right about the angst-iness putting off some fans. Those who want more of a straight-up, hard-boiled detective, I suppose, might not like the self-examination by the aging Marlowe.