Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Merry Christmas!

December 25th, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Choose Your Own Advent | Meta - (2 Comments)

Hey. I’ll be back with my typical year-end post, but for now: Merry Christmas, if you celebrate that. If you don’t, happy December 25. Thank you for reading, and for tolerating my wallowing in literacy this holiday season.

I deeply enjoyed writing these. It was…good for me, I think. It was a chance to just write. Not to worry. Not to be anxious. Not even to think very hard. These are books (or sometimes authors) that already mean a lot to me. I knew what I wanted to say. I sat down and said it. And that helped me a lot to get back into the habit of writing…something that, to be honest, has been difficult for me lately. Having a daily commitment was good as well. Without that…I can’t imagine I’d have done much of anything.

So thank you. I needed this. I hope you got something from it as well.

If you’re interested in the full list, or just want to revisit any previous entries from my advent feature, have at it:

Day 1: Catch-22
Day 2: Blindness
Day 3: Lord Jim
Day 4: The Catcher in the Rye
Day 5: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Day 6: Point Omega
Day 7: The Boy Detective Fails
Day 8: Ulysses
Day 9: Pale Fire
Day 10: Mother Night
Day 11: The Good Soldier
Day 12: Middlesex
Day 13: Flatland
Day 14: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Day 15: The Big Sleep
Day 16: Against the Day
Day 17: Mostly Harmless
Day 18: The Great Gatsby
Day 19: The Road
Day 20: Of Mice and Men
Day 21: The Devil in the White City
Day 22: The Sound and the Fury
Day 23: Nineteen Eighty-Four
Day 24: The Hotel New Hampshire

I appreciate all of you. Be good to yourselves, and be good to each other.

Let’s do our best this coming year. It’s bound to be a bumpy ride.

The Hotel New Hampshire, John IrvingChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Hotel New Hampshire
Author: John Irving
Year: 1981

I’m closing this series the way I opened it: with a book I read on a whim, and which affected me deeply. In both cases I had no expectations going in. In both cases, I just felt compelled to pick up the novel. In both cases, I came away a different person.

This is why I read. This is why everybody should read.

The difference between those experiences, though, is that Catch-22 turned me into a writer. I was younger then. I wasn’t…me. I was somebody, for sure, but Catch-22 hit me at the right time. It gave me direction I didn’t know I needed. It said, “Look. Look at all of the amazing things literature can do.”

And I never looked back. I’ve been reading and writing ever since. The number of days on which I’ve done neither is very low indeed.

That’s a great trick, but as Daffy Duck so eloquently put it, you can only do it once.

Because I’ve been a reader and writer ever since, books can’t affect me that way anymore. One of them had to do it, and one did. Now, sure, I may read a book that I end up loving, but it can’t be transformational. Can it? How many times can a human being be reinvented?

The Hotel New Hampshire didn’t reinvent me, but it could have. Maybe if I had found it earlier. Certainly reading it for the first time was like hearing echos from a past I never lived through. It felt familiar. It felt like an unburied memory. It felt like I was revisiting a book I loved long ago and finding that it was every bit as important as I thought it was then.

With one difference, of course: I’d never read it before.

It was too late to change me. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t improve me.

I worry, probably too often, that there are a finite number of books I’ll be able to read before I die. I worry because…well, I love books. I want to surround myself with them. I want to get lost in them. They mean something to me in a way that so much else…doesn’t. They’re important. They’re enriching. I keep reading, experiencing, falling in love dozens of times over…

And one day I will die.

And when I do, literal mountains of books will be left unread.

That’s sad enough.

It’s worse to realize that some of those books could have become favorites as well…and I’d just never gotten around to them. Life was too short. Some alternate version of who I could have been is locked away forever in a book on some shelf that I never had time to pick up.

I think you can guess which episode of The Twilight Zone hits me hardest.

That’s the whole reason I’ve done these writeups at all. Somewhere out there, there’s a book that can affect you. A book that can change you. A book that can teach you things about yourself and about the world and about people you never meet, and that’s a more valuable gift than most of us realize.

Read. Grab a book and read. Ask for recommendations, or don’t. Follow your gut, follow the reviews, follow something that leads you to a book, because literature is important. Literacy is important. Opening your mind to the numberless volumes of great works that have already been written is important.

The Hotel New Hampshire called to me from a shelf just a few short years ago, the same way Catch-22 did a lifetime ago. I didn’t recognize its voice, but it still sounded familiar. And I ended up loving a book so immediately, so deeply, so urgently, in ways I hadn’t felt since Catch-22. Old feelings came back. Something was rekindled. Something that I thought I was privileged to feel once I was downright blessed to feel twice.

The Hotel New Hampshire is the story of the Berry family, and the relentless unfolding of their continuous tragedy. Except…get this…it’s actually pretty comforting. And inspiring. And funny.

Their lives seem to be cursed. No sooner does one misfortune pass than another–usually larger and more devastating–takes its place. We follow the Berrys over the course of many years…watching them grow up, grow older, push along through sorrow after sorrow…

…but not mournfully. Because they have each other.

And that’s something I’ve never actually witnessed in a great work of literature before.

I’ve seen happy families. I’ve seen sad families. I’ve seen families pull together and families fall apart.

But I’ve never seen a family stay so consistently loyal, so open and dedicated to each other, through so much unimaginable darkness…and I never thought it could be so convincing.

A lot happens in The Hotel New Hampshire, and different scenes and sequences will stay with different readers to different degrees. But I think it’s impossible to come away from the book without a deep admiration for just how real the Berry family is. John Irving tapped into what makes a modern American family so sad, so stifled, so stuck…and reminded us that we can all find hope in our own way. Together, and yet as individuals. Doomed to face a darker tomorrow, and yet able if not to stare it down than at least to keep going. Or, as Irving himself puts it in this context, to keep passing the open windows.

The Berrys don’t ignore tragedy; they process it. They reshape it into something they can cope with. After all…don’t they sort of have to? Even when the tragedy is so large that it takes one of them (or two…) they understand that they need to keep going. What else is there?

And so The Hotel New Hampshire becomes, gradually, a chronicle of sadness that never quite feels sad. Because the sun does rise again. Maybe on a new and different tragedy, but there’s also a kind of richness to that. So much so that our narrator, John Berry, ends the book, yes, with a lot of sadness in his past, but with a personal history of exploration and understanding that he could not have had otherwise.

The Berrys keeps finding ways to move forward. And as upsetting as some of their experiences can be (there is one sequence that takes place during Halloween that I find tremendously difficult to read, though I deeply respect how affecting it is), they don’t get to choose what does and does not befall them. All they can choose is what they do next.

And, in that sense, the Berrys are heroes. They keep going not because they ever succeed…but because they don’t. In other hands, the Berrys would have starred in a cautionary tale. In other hands, so would all of us. But here, in The Hotel New Hampshire, they remind us that we’re all flawed, that we’re all groping along our own seemingly unending chain of miseries…

…and that that’s okay.

We can still choose what we do next.

The Hotel New Hampshire didn’t get to change who I was, the way Catch-22 did.

It just taught me something important about sadness, and how to process it.

It taught me that, no, you can’t reach into your life and pull out all of the things you wish you never experienced.

But you can keep going.

And you should.

Because there’s still something ahead that you’ll be glad you’ve seen. Even if it is, right now, just some book on a shelf.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George OrwellChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Nineteen Eighty-Four
Author: George Orwell
Year: 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the few books my father ever recommended to me. He’s never been much of a reader. He likes true crime, and he’s read a few biographies and autobiographies of musicians. But there haven’t been many novels he’s read, let alone recommended.

It’s always been difficult for my father and I to bond. We don’t share many of the same interests, or desires. He lives a life very different from the one I’d like to lead. I think he was expecting to have a different kind of son in his life, and it’s hard for me to believe that he wasn’t (and isn’t) disappointed by the one he actually got.

And so we’ve lived our own separate lives. We both got older, and found our own ways forward…whatever “forward” might have meant for either of us. Not as father and son, but as two adults who know each other, and probably don’t approve of many things the other has chosen to do with himself.

But he recommended Nineteen Eighty-Four. He may even have given me his old copy. (I can’t remember for sure, but I do recall that the copy I had was quite old, with a cover on the verge of falling off. Knowing that handling it too roughly would likely break the spine, I developed my lifelong habit of always treating books with delicacy.)

Back then I may have liked it then more than I appreciated it. In my early teens, it was easy to overlook (to some extent) the novel’s message, and to focus more on what did–or did not–happen. Big Brother is a dick, authoritarian regimes suck, and nobody will find escape or happiness. I got all that, but I wasn’t yet a reader who latched on to themes. I was raised on film and television. I wanted events.

Nineteen Eighty-Four has those as well, and I had a few friends who also had read the book. So we talked about those scenes. The torture. The Two Minutes Hate. The infamous (within my circle) sex scene. In fact, if you want to ensure that sex scenes in novels will fail to turn you on as long as you live, start with the one in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There were two kinds of horrors in the book that legitimately got to me, though. The first was Newspeak, which the novel describes as being the only language that gets smaller and smaller. It’s a simplified variant of English, largely devoid of metaphor, very precise, and (by design) without room for artistry or even grace. I remember having dinner at a friend’s house, and discussing Nineteen Eighty-Four with him. When we talked about Newspeak, his mother laughed, as though the concept was a very good joke.

I’ll always remember that laugh. I guess it is a very good joke. But it’s far too frightening for me to laugh at.

The other horror was the simple truth behind O’Brien, poor Winston Smith’s false confidant. As Winston rebels (in small ways, yearning for larger freedoms), he finds what he believes to be a powerful friend in O’Brien. In reality, O’Brien is the enemy. It was painful and unexpected enough for me as a reader back then, but the sheer cruelty Orwell allows him…having him, specifically him, torture Winston until our protagonist is “cured” of his independent thinking…

…I’ll just say that it’s still one of literature’s great betrayals, as far as I’m concerned. It managed to hit me hard–and hit me in the correct way–before I was even able to appreciate much of the novel’s warnings. “I’ll bet you’re paying attention now,” that moment seemed to say.

I’ve read the book several times since, and I still think it’s great. I’ve heard some pushback from others, claiming, for instance, that Orwell was a better moralist than he was a novelist. And, well, maybe he was. But Nineteen Eighty-Four stands on its own merits as a piece of solid and important writing, I feel. I don’t make concessions for it; I don’t excuse its weaker moments or sloppy constructions on the grounds that it represents something larger.

No…I just don’t see weak moments and sloppiness. I see a powerful, brutal fist of a novel that exists in precisely the correct form. I see a story that genuinely could not be told any better, and the large number of works inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four that fail to live up to it seem to be evidence of that.

What’s mainly interesting to me now–and where I think a lot of Nineteen Eighty-Four-inspired works fall down–is that Orwell doesn’t actually give any advice. He doesn’t tell you how to avoid the situation. He doesn’t tell you how to cope with it. He doesn’t tell you how to improve it. (In fact, he tells you you can’t improve it.)

What he tells you is that by the time you’re there, it’s already too late.

You don’t live under Big Brother and think, “Okay, now what?”

You rage against Big Brother ruthlessly, constantly, without pause, because the moment he takes power, there is no more hope.

You fight now. Now. As you read the book, as you’re allowed to read the book, you fight. You don’t wait until you recognize Big Brother…you fight to keep Big Brother from ever appearing.

Yes, of course, there’s a temptation to liken it to certain things happening in the world today. But there always is. That’s why a book written in the mid-40s about a “distant future” that itself is already far behind us still resonates. It still matters. Because things are always bad, always terrifying, and we can’t get complacent. We need to fight to keep them from getting worse.

My father and I never bonded much. I’m fairly sure I can use my fingers to count the number of times.

But one time we definitively did bond was with Nineteen Eighty-Four. We bonded over the eventual, inevitable, hopeless end of civilization.

The Sound and the Fury, William FaulknerChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner
Year: 1929

It’s a fairly universal feeling to want to escape who you are. Of course, we can put a more positive spin on that: we want to do better, we want to improve ourselves, we want to achieve some level of comfort and satisfaction.

But make no mistake; we all, to varying degrees, feel the desire to escape who we are.

The Sound and the Fury is William Faulkner’s masterpiece. It’s also a masterpiece of American fiction, and one of the funniest, saddest, most astute studies anyone’s written about mankind’s driving need–and ultimate inability–to move on.

It centers on the Compson family, which, through the generations, has fallen on hard times. Mainly it centers on one group of siblings–Benjy, Caddie, Jason, and Quentin–that we watch grow up and struggle in their own ways through their own problems. But they are always stuck being themselves, always stuck being Compsons, always stuck in a world that (understandably) doesn’t quite have a place for them.

It’s a difficult novel. I need to make that clear, and it can’t be overstated. Before I left my job at the college, the senior provost and I would sometimes talk about books. He saw that I was re-reading The Sound and the Fury, and he told me he found a really nice edition and picked it up…but couldn’t finish the book. He tried multiple times but kept getting lost, putting it down, and moving on to something else.

That’s the senior provost of a major state university. An intelligent, educated, deeply patient man. He couldn’t make it through more than a few pages of The Sound and the Fury before he realized he wasn’t absorbing any of it.

I can’t blame him for setting it aside, if that’s how he felt. Nor can I blame the thousands of other readers who no doubt did–and will do–the same thing. But I can give some advice:

You won’t understand it.

Keep reading anyway.

See, The Sound and the Fury begins as a massively difficult narrative…yet slowly, gradually, gracefully resolves into a straight-forward one. It’s a modernist nightmare of clashing timelines and disconnected symbols that, perhaps without you even realizing it, literally becomes a much easier, much more familiar, much more simple book the further you go.

The novel is split into four sections, the first three of which are narrated by Compson siblings. The three narrators are successively more focused (or less unfocused) on the story they are telling, which means the most difficult passages come early, and the orientation comes much later. The fourth section is relayed in the third person, which makes it the easiest to read, as the action is no longer filtered through the very specific viewpoint of a very flawed character.

It’s actually the only novel I’ve read that becomes less complicated as you progress through it. (I’d love to hear of other examples, though, so please do share them.) Often books hover at some degree of difficulty throughout, or they become more difficult as you progress. Sometimes the difficulty fluctuates section to section, training the reader to keep going through the confusing parts with the tacit promise that clarity will return soon.

The Sound and the Fury, though, fights coherence on the first page, and embraces it on the last. It’s an odd experience, as though Faulkner was indeed weeding out readers who wouldn’t be willing to engage, to work, to struggle to understand what the characters themselves struggle to understand. Even in the easiest, final section of the book, Faulkner spells out very little. He simply presents. What you do with the information presented is up to you.

To be fair, Faulkner himself considered using some uncommon formatting that would make the text easier to parse, if not exactly understand: he toyed with the idea of using differently colored inks to identify which parts of the book were occurring in which time period.

The problem–in addition to the fact that this would be a pretty superficial gimmick that would artistically cheapen the near-perfect novel Faulkner produced–was that this would really only be helpful to the novel’s very first section, which is narrated by Benjy, a developmentally disabled adult who has difficulty keeping himself oriented.

Once the reader progressed past that section, there’d be very little use for the differently colored text. Section two, narrated by the depressed and hopeless Quentin, also drifts through time, but is far easier to keep track of, as Quentin himself is both well-read and well-spoken. What’s more, even if one does get lost a bit in Quentin’s jumbled chronology, the emotional arc of his section–his doomed pining for his sister Caddie–comes through clearly. There’s more than enough to Quentin’s section for it to register, even if certain passages slip by.

And then…that’s it. The third section is narrated by the cruel, self-important, manipulative Jason, but he’s also the most straight-forward of the Compson clan and his narrative requires almost no unraveling. After that we detach from first-person narration altogether, and we’re squarely in traditional Southern novel territory. The Sound and the Fury isn’t easy, but it definitely gets easier.

This is a I’ve wanted to cover for Fiction into Film as long as I’ve been doing the series, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get around to it. It’s a novel worth gushing about, and there’s at least one interesting adaptation floating around to cover. (I can only vouch for one, in other words; I haven’t seen the others.)

But really it’s because I want an excuse to talk about it. I want to talk about how the Compsons–major and minor–each rebel against what their family is, what their family has been, or what their family is becoming. They yearn to be both rooted and rootless. They push and pull and struggle and fight without really quite knowing what they want.

There are great conversations to be had about those things.

Unfortunately, almost everyone I know stops reading in section one.

I don’t blame them.

But I’d sure enjoy having someone else to talk to. The topic of escaping who you are could lead to some truly important conversations.

The Devil in the White City, Erik LarsonChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Devil in the White City
Author: Erik Larson
Year: 2003

It’s rare that I read a recent novel, unless it’s been written by an author I already love. I understand that this is both massively unfair and foolish, but…

I don’t know. I know that I’ll only be able to read some finite number of books before I die. Every choice of book I made, I’m choosing not to read literally millions of others. And this worries me. There’s not time enough to read everything, and when you add in the fact that there are bound to be (and have certainly been) books I’d like to re-read, the number of books I’ll ever possibly get to dwindles further.

So I read older books, almost exclusively. I do this because time is an excellent curator. Something still in print after a hundred years is likely worth reading, and more likely at least of some merit. The older a book is the more likely a critical consensus will have been reached. The more likely it’s entered the cultural lexicon and I can have some indication of whether or not I’ll enjoy it before I pick it up. The more likely somebody I know has read it and might give me some indication of whether or not it’ll mean anything to me.

The Devil in the White City, though, is just a book that interested me. I rolled the dice. It was an investment of time I’ve already convinced myself I do not have.

And it was one of the most riveting, fascinating novels I’d read in a long time.

I’ll circumvent any concerns about this not being fiction up front. It is fiction. Period. It’s based on true events, it features (as far as I can tell) exclusively characters who actually existed, it’s the product of incredible amounts of meticulous research. Fine.

Yes.

But it’s a novel. It’s the product of an author’s imagination, however near to reality that imagination preferred to hew.

Erik Larson necessarily must fill in the gaps. Must structure this dual history as a narrative. Must choose when to break chapters, which details to focus on, which events to gloss over. He must decide which tragedies will be described most horrifically, and which triumphs are most worthy of celebration. He must choose where to begin, where to end, how much to share and when to share it.

With The Devil in the White City he’s providing a necessary, overdue, and incredibly helpful historical narrative…but he’s also providing a novel.

And he’s providing one hell of a good novel.

It’s a page-turner. It’s deeply interesting. It’s enriching. And it’s terrifying.

See, America has the odd tendency to ignore its atrocities. To pretend that things are not as bad as they actually are. To shrug off some of the most heinous acts imaginable, to which our name should be rightfully attached. For instance, you’ll see in Germany a largely respectful, solemn acknowledgement of its immensely wrongful behavior during World War II. You won’t see in America a comparable regret for dropping atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Japan.

A similar correlation can be seen in The Devil in the White City. We all know about Jack the Ripper, because England wasn’t silent about it. They weren’t proud that a madman was on the loose, gorily murdering prostitutes, but they were never secretive about the tragedies that unfolded. Which is why this novel is so chilling: we had our own Jack the Ripper here in America. Only he was even worse. And we hushed it up. Refused to speak of it. Never educated anybody as to the dangers. Kept it just quiet enough that it could, easily, happen again. We deliberately forgot our own warnings, and pretended it never happened.

For roughly half of its pages, The Devil in the White City is the largely factual account of H. H. Holmes, a charming psychopath who builds a hotel full of secret passages, gas jets, torture chambers, and other terrifying things you’ve only ever seen in horror films. The difference is that this actually happened. In real life. To real victims. Holmes was an actual serial killer, one of the worst in American history. And yet, before this book, he was almost entirely unknown to anyone other than crime aficionados.

He was a true and mortifying American horror story, but, for whatever reason, he was never more than a footnote, overshadowed, as he was, by something parallel that we preferred to discuss instead: the 1893 World’s Fair.

That’s the other half of the book: architect Daniel Burnham and his team of engineers, artists, planners, marketers, cultural experts, and many more working together to bring the greatest event in history to life. Not just in America, but in Chicago.

I have a good friend who grew up in Chicago, and she told me that she skimmed through most of Burnham’s chapters in the book. It didn’t hold her interest as much as Holmes’ did. I enjoyed these sections, however. They were important to the story, of course, and they framed the historical context for what we were reading, but I also loved the real-life irony of a grand celebration that provided a murderer with a bottomless well of anonymous victims. Burnham worked tirelessly to build a fair so impressive that people would journey to it from around the world.

They did.

And Holmes may have murdered as many as 200 of them, who never journeyed home again.

In many ways, the World’s Fair was a triumph. It was a social triumph, for sure. It was debatably a triumph of culture as well. It was a triumph of planning and of constant action.

But it also invited a tragedy.

One we’d prefer not to speak about.

We focus in our history on those who left the World’s Fair with a smile on their face. We ignore those who never left at all. We ask everyone to focus on the fireworks and the music and the food. We ignore the adjacent, gruesome crime scene.

America isn’t responsible for the crimes of H. H. Holmes. It’s only responsible for keeping them quiet. For refusing to condemn them. For making it known that, for a while at least, this country might allow you to get away with murder.

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