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Curricula, Personal and Public

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A couple of nights ago, in the middle of an e-mail about something else entirely, I made the offhand comment that I should suggest, on this blog, that anybody reading this who wants to should post the list of his or her ten favorite novels.  I said it, was asked to make that twenty-five, and found myself stumped.  I don’t think  I can name twenty-five of my favorite novels.   I don’t think I can name ten.  When  I look around this house, when I look around my life,  I come to the realization that I don’t read many novels any more. 

I remember being fifteen or so and having my father tell me that he never read them himself.  He explained it by saying that he had been incapacitated for many months after the war at  Walter  Reed–when Walter Reed was a first class medical facility, back when we did that for the armed services–and that in that time he had read his way through hundreds of novels, everything from Dostoyevski to the complete (up to that point) works of Erle  Stanley Gardner, so that by the end of it he was just sick of the whole thing.   In the time I knew him he read only history, and  I knew there was something physically wrong with him when he began to give that up for magazines.

But the fact remains that I don’t read novels very often any more, and most of the ones I do read  I read either for professional reasons or on a second or third pass.  I reread more than I read, in other words, and what I reread tends to lean heavily towards the Victorian or early twentieth century.   Most fiction makes me impatient these days.  Most contemporary crime novels drive me straight up the wall.

In the past ten years,  I’ve discovered exactly two writers I hadn’t known before whose novels I truly loved.  One was  Jose Saramago, whose books I won’t read anymore, after he published a sequel to Blindness, called Seeing, that was such a descent into the cynical pessimism of old age that I barely finished it, and that spoiled Blindess for me forever.  Still, if I was going to list my ten favorite books, his The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis would be right up there. 

The other novelist is Umberto Eco.  I’d actually read The Name of the Rose some years ago, before Bill died, and noted that its take on the Middle Ages was actually accurate.  About five years ago I picked up Baudolino, and for some reason that’s what set me off.   I still think Foucault’s  Pendulum is The Da  Vinci Code for smart people, and I like Eco’s nonfiction, too.  He writes well about writing.

But when I think of the books that have truly stuck me over the last decade, the ones I want to read again, most of them are not fiction.  V.S. Naipaul is a noveltist, but I don’t like his fiction.  It’s airless and claustrophobic, and far too obsessed with petty squabbles over status.

But Naipaul as a journalist of the third world is something else again–maybe because he’s not a journalist the way we think of journalists these days.   If I was going to recommend one book to everybody on the planet, it would definitely be the long collection of Naipaul’s “travel” pieces called The Writer and the World.

Don’t like the designation “travel” put you off.  These are not fluffy little essays about the best hotels.  They’re long pieces on just what is wrong just about everywhere, about the barbarism and savagery Naipaul sees in both those countries that designate themselves as “revolutionary” and those that designate themselves “Islamic,” and you want tourists at the revolution?  Naipaul has met a mountain of them, and he has no respect at all for their “commitment.”

I remember reading through this book the first time and wondering how the hell, given the political skew of the committee in Stockholm, Naipual ever managed to get a Nobel Prize.  Because this is not a man who thinks the West is the Big Bad Evil Meanie and everyplace else is authentic and loving and just trying to secure its human rights. 

But I would recommend all Naipaul’s “travel” books, all of which are biting dissections of just what is wrong with the world.  Among the Believers is good, and he followed it a decade later by going back and seeing where these four countries had gone.  The news is not hopeful.

And I forgive him for his short little work on the United States, in which he managed to do what non-Americans seem to, which was to go to the South as if that was the only “real” part of America and write about it in isolation.  On the other hand, next to most of the books I’ve read by Europeans on the United States, this wasn’t actually bad, and it wasn’t at all stupid.

But I’m left, again, thinking about the fact that, if I had to recommend ten books to anybody, almost none of them would be fiction.  I’m not sure why this is so.  Maybe some of it is genetic, or familial, in some way–like my father, I now read lots and lots and lots of history.  Unlike him, I read other kinds of nonfiction as well, not only things like Naipaul’s but more analytical books.  The Higher Superstitition comes to mind as something that struck me, and also The Blank Slate, by  Steven Pinker.  That last one would go on any list I made of my ten favorite books.  Like the Naipaul, I’d make everybody in the world read it if I had control of the curriculum.  The Blank Slate is about how human beings aren’t that, and how most human nature is hard wired, and how we should stop thinking we can change people into anything we want them to be and start dealing with what people are.

Pinker has the science to back that up, and if an article John sent me is any indication, the rest of the world seems to be slowly catching up to what he said a decade ago.  But one of the reasons why I love that book has nothing to do with what it says.  It’s not just the way its written, but the enormous range of cultural reference inker seems to just have, as if in this one human being, education just “took” the way  I want it to take.   We get everything from Jane Austen to Calvin and Hobbes, Tolstoy to the Bee Gees, and the science as well.

Some of the writers I’ve discovered over the last ten years simply don’t write anything very long.  I still think Theodore Dalrymple’s best book is Life at the Bottom, a collection of essays, published mostly in City Journal, about his experiences as a doctor in a public health practice in a slum in an English industrial city, and as a prison doctor at the nearby borstal.  

It’s interesting to contrast Dalrymple’s work–not just in that book but in others–with the work of Jonathon Kozol, who is famous for swooping down on inner city schools for a few months and writing about them.  Kozol has an agenda and Dalrymple doesn’t seem to have, but their different presentations of life in the inner city are, well, remarkable.

But I’m still here, you know, and I still have the same problem, and it isn’t going to go away.  And it isn’t everybody’s problem.  I know lots of people who read fiction in their middle age, and even in their old age.   And I still write fiction, and want to write fiction. 

I don’t really know what’s wrong here.  I have trouble reading almost any contemporary fiction.  I enjoy P.D. James, but Ruth Rendell I have a hard time getting through.  I enjoyed one book by Sue Miller, called For Love, and one by Alice Hoffmann, called Seventh Heaven, and then I just sort of wandered off.  Oh, there’s also a book called That Night, by Alice MacDermott.  Of these three, I’ve read the first two much more than once, and then I got tired of them, and they’re lost in the office somewhere.

Older books seem to stay with me longer.  I can still read Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, and most Sherlock Holmes (from the first half of Doyle’s career), and a lot of Dickens.  I’m reading my way through the Palliser novels by Anthony Trollope, which are new to me, but definitely Victoiian, and I can get absorbed in those.

Lately I wonder if I haven’t written my entire generation off as a waste.  Having been given the best start in life of any generation in the history of the world, we seem to have done nothing with it except convince ourselves that we’re too important to actually make anything like a contribution to the world.  We’ve torn down a lot of things, but not built up much that I can see.  My older son’s generation seems to be more–I don’t know.  Focussed may be the word I want, focussed on something besides themselves.

The really bad side effect from that Romantic view of the world whose definition I posted yesterday is the tendency of people to think that how they feel and what they want are the only real issues in the universe, and that everything else can go hang if it means they can’t be true to themselves.

Or something.

I think maybe I’ve been as big a downer as I want to be today.

Written by janeh

December 30th, 2008 at 10:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Curricula, Personal and Public'

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  1. I don’t like recommending books (so much depends on the other person’s taste), and I couldn’t make a list of 10 or 25 of my top favourites becasue I don’t think of them like that. I do sort of vaguely sort the stuff I read into ‘to pass the time’, ‘not bad, might read something else by the author’, ‘good’, ‘not in the mood’ and ‘I buy everything this author writes’ – and there’s almost nothing in that final category these days because I buy less than I used to.

    Otherwise my reading hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s almost all novels, some non-fiction.

    I think I must read far more for entertainment, or merely to pass the time at bus stops etc than you do. That means I go through a lot of pretty forgettable novels. I read mostly mystery and some science fiction and fantasy, although less than I used to. I still don’t miss much by Cherryh or Bujold, though. I read some non-fiction, depending on what has caught my fancy at the moment. I generally avoid reading anything that has won a literary prize or whose author has won such a prize, although once in a while I’ve picked up something like that and enjoyed it.

    Of the ones you’ve mentioned – I’ve read ‘The Name of the Rose’. I don’t think I liked it much. I’ve read almost nothing by any South America writer – I think I tried something by one of the magical realism writers years ago and couldn’t make head or tail of it. Naipaul – I haven’t read much by him, but I liked what I read, which included ‘Among the Believers’ and I think a novel. No Pinker, some Dalrymple, no Miller, Hoffman or McDermott (I don’t even know who those last three are!). I’ve read some Victorian stuff, and adore Sherlock Holmes. I don’t particularly care for P.D. James, although I seem to have read a lot of her books anyway. Some Ruth Rendell I liked, some I didn’t. She’s sort of in the category ‘don’t go looking for her work, but if I see something by her I might read it’. So is James, I guess.

    I don’t think I’m really much of a list-maker.


    30 Dec 08 at 8:00 pm

  2. Interesting. I also “reread more than I read” though my balance point would be later, and I go through a lot of fiction. But the favorite novels take the place of much television or film, and my professional reading isn’t fiction which probably makes a difference.

    Great novels or great books, would be a very different list, and I’d also have to agree that several favorite fiction authors wouldn’t make a list of favorite novels largely because their best work was in a shorter form.

    For me, favorite fiction can be undemanding. Great literature has an unsettling quality of being different on re-reading. It’s good for rearranging the mental furniture from time to time, but not always what one wants after a rough day at the office.

    I would agree that not much is currently being added to the stack of worthwhile fiction. Of the novels which are old friends, the median publication date is somewhere in the 1960’s.) I was a little startled to realize that not only were most of my favorite fiction writers dead, by a fairly wide margin, but that only three were Boomers, and only one was still turning out the good stuff.

    As for non-fiction, there is the book which sets out the facts foursquare, and tends to be read once and kep (if it is kept) for reference. Then there is the book of analysis, which explains how the world or some subset–economics, politics, a class or a culture–works. Most of these are a waste of wood pulp, but the exceptions explain and change lives–or wreck them, if the analysis is both plausible and wrong. Many of those are already to be found in the Canon According to Jane, but may I recommend also three with a lighter touch: P.J. O’Rourke, C. Northcote Parkinson and that immortal guide to American politics, MR DOOLEY IN PEACE AND IN WAR?
    Of travel books, Kaplan’s BALKAN GHOSTS, Kremmer’s CARPET WARS and Peters’ LOOKING FOR TROUBLE will help explain some of 2009’s unpleasantnesses.

    But the piece of non-fiction EVERYONE should read is Darrell Huff’s HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS.

    As for the worth of my generation, my opinion may be lower than Jane’s, but it’s also true that the great challenges have not come our way. The Greatest Generation was thrust into a life and death struggle by the errors of their parents. That sort of challenge comes only at rare intervals, for which we should all be grateful. The price of greatness, even if one passes the test, can be very high indeed.

    However, if the next generation turns out better, I’ll be happy to take credit for raising one.


    30 Dec 08 at 9:42 pm

  3. I guess I make 3! I also do a lot of re-reading. I’m finding it difficult to locate new authors that I enjoy.

    Robert is right that How to Lie with Statistics is good. No math but a good explanation of some of the dirty tricks.

    I like historical novels and alternate history science fiction. Also military novels about WW1 and WW2.

    For historical novels, I’d recommend Mary Renault’s books set in ancient Greece. Start with The King Must Die and thne check the library!

    Alternate History Sci fi – Eric Flint has a series starting with a novel called 1632. The premise is that a small town in West Virginia is transported back to Germany in 1632 – the middle of the 30 Year War.


    30 Dec 08 at 11:26 pm

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