Ronald May

On Reading Some Of The Classic Books

This time I thought I might comment on something a little less intense in subject matter but important nonetheless. Important, or perhaps frustrating is a better adjective. You see, I reached my critical mass today on how many books on my list I have quit.
A brief history. Four years ago I retrieved a 100 Best Books Of All Time list by Barnes & Noble. I set out to read every book on the list and accomplish it in the first five years. Well, add to that another 100 Best Books of the last 100 years and then also a list of The New York Times Book Review best in the last 120 years and you got yourself a to-do list that is huge in scope and size. There are of course duplicates and some, specifically listed by The N.Y. Times that are just downright obscure.
And so this is the system I create to operate from. One list is heavy with Shakespeare and the other has all eight Harry Potter Books. So, how to best proceed? One at a time of course and I have made very good progress on two of the lists but it seems that combined among all three hundred or so I still have about 100 to go and it is starting to bum me out to some degree.
I have begun to quit a few of the books on my lists more rapidly lately and I am becoming concerned that either this is a greater sense of apathy towards reading or if I am feeling; and this is the really weird part. As if my time is getting too short to waste on something I do not like when there is so much other stuff to read. Now, try reading that last part again and then add that to the fact that I still have eight long years to go folks. Crazy right?
My standards on the choices I make are fairly high. I read lot’s of Fiction but, I counter balance that with about one third non fiction, meaning Biographies, Memoirs, Social Observation and or Studies. As well as Religious studies on Buddhisim and other cultures and History. Oh! and travel plus arts of all types-yes even architecture.
I feel I am even critical in my Fiction. I have three groups that I proritize. The first is Important Fiction. This would be your Shakespeare, Ian Franzen, David Foster Wallace, John Updike, Toni Morrison get it? Then, middle of the road, Cormac McCarthy, Harper Lee, Graham Greene and David Mitchell. Lastly there is what I call Candy. This would be your Stephen King, Dean Koontz, J.A. Jance and other popular authors. I am rigorous regarding my consumption of Candy Novels. It is seductive to read this entertaining fast paced style often but I work very hard not to, even though it would be fun. No, it all get’s balanced out as I work through one book to another. I find the satisfaction of Important Fiction worked in with a History Book creates greater emphasis on the understanding of the human experience and all it’s interconnectivity. So that is why I feel a bit down over quitting. I rarely, if ever quit a book I start.
This is why I felt I needed to purge the associated guilt I create when I stop reading one of these Classics as they are so called. So what did I give up on and why? I will start with a big one, Moby Dick. Yes, it burns like sacriledge does’nt it? How could you quit the White Whale? Easy, I got through two thirds of the book and Melville started getting technical on knot making, harpooning, rendering blubber and sails. I knew what the end would be so, done! Next, I chucked Don Quixote after a hundred pages or so. I get it okay? The guy is basically nuts in 1500’s Spanish countryside and he decides to go wander around with some poor nitwit who is willing to facilitate this guy’s madness. I know, I know, now your mad at me right? How could I say such things about these endearing characters.
Fuel to the fire, James Joyce in A Potrait Of The Artist As A Young Man is so full of himself I am surprised he found the ability to even be subjective enough to write. Machiavelli wrote The Prince but it was simply wretched and lacked any sense of kindness which seems sociopathic. So why do we recommend this as reading for young people? The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. While this is a great idea and one of the oldest if not the oldest popular books written in English it takes forever in prose to get to the bloody damn point! Lastly poor old Joseph Conrad. I have read Heart Of Darkness twice and I still do not understand how this is such an amazing story. Lord Jim was nothing more than a treatise on sailing big ships wrapped with a thin shell of a story and god help me I still have to pick up Nostromo.
I also disliked Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I felt like the author was just trying to be cheeky over and over and over.
Now, these are some heavy hitters on a book shelf and while I could mention a couple that I finished but wanted to quit, let me start to wrap up to my point. Plenty of people who are way smarter than me, maybe it’s even you, could explain why any or all of these are important to the pantheon of literature. I am certain it could be pointed out how this author used this subject as a mere metaphor to explain the greater social ill of the time or some such thing. I am merely explaining that I thought some of these books sucked.
I am in awe even now in the power of books and the transformation they can perform on a life. I very much respect the effort it takes to put forth a novel or study a subject so intensely that you gather enough information to fill 400 pages. This makes it difficult to formulate a supposition such as the one I stated earlier that I felt some books just sucked.
However, I am the guy who got through War And Peace and had a solid understanding of it all. I loved the Odyssey but hated the Illiad weird right? Crime And Punishment, awesome, Les Miserables, greatest story possibly ever told, even with all it’s digressions but Plato’s, Republic? Zzzzzzzzzzz!
I think there are a ton of examples I can compare and it would not get me the answers I seek. I make myself feel guilty for not finishing these books because I feel left out that I do not understand or that ennui occurs and yet I am trying. I ask myself and I ask you what makes a book like Moby Dick so great to many and yet I find it tedious?
I can ony answer my own question this way. To me, some things are just not relevant the way they were when written. This could even include my guy Shakespeare. Some peope can just not get into any of the 37 Plays he wrote. For me though, it is the discovery of the subtleties within the overall arc of the story. It is reading The Tempest for the third time and finding something new or gaining a new understanding. Also, the funny thing about his work is that I never give up on gleaning insight no matter how much I like one story over another.
I have a way to go in having an informed opinion on an Author’s work. I made a commitment long ago to be a spectator in music because I like so much of what has been made over the last fifty years across multiple genres. Perhaps I will only be an enthusiastic book reader and a poor critic. My hope is that the accumulation of books I read will provide a unique paradigm that I share with those in the know.
Then again, I might just become some schlep who has read a wealth of books, time will tell that tale. Get it? Tale? Hahahaha!

Ronald May
DOC #359444

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