It’s a masterpiece!

2008 September 2

I am reading the most fabulous book right now, “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson. This is a huge book, I believe it said some 1,000 print pages if I’m recalling it right from the Amazon description (Kindle doesn’t use traditional page numbers, since it’s digital and you can set your own text size). I’m loving every moment of it. I want to declare it a masterpiece right now, but since I haven’t finished it yet, I guess that’s a bit premature.

Still, I haven’t been this excited about a book in a very long time. When I’m done with it, I’ll write a long review.

It’s this sort of discovery that makes me love reading so very much. I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid; I was mostly into television. I did read for pleasure once in a while, though. As a teenager, my favorite book was “How Green Was My Valley.” I remember crying and crying, and feeling the injustice of it all so exquisitely intensely. I think it planted the seeds of environmentalism and labor rights in me, seeds that bloomed in my 20′s but have faded as I’ve aged, life withering me down to the disgusted and disillusioned old hag you see before you today.

I recently re-read “How Green Was My Valley,” something I had never done in all these years, out of fear of spoiling the memory of it with my very adult-ness. To my great pleasure, it truly is a beautiful book. I even got teary-eyed at the end.

Another favorite of mine as a teen was Ernest Hemingway. I read most all of his books in high school, loving his spare prose and even more spare, emotionally speaking, characters. (Side note: later in college, I turned on Hemingway, pretty much relegating him to the misogynist bin).

I went to college to study engineering (which is where I met Hedon, incidentally). Turned out that engineering wasn’t for me. In my sophomore year, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful English professor. When I think back on it, I feel sure I had a bit of a crush on her, though I was clueless to the idea that I might be a lesbian at the time (Hedon and I were friends only). Well, clueless or in denial … whichever hardly matters.

I can’t remember that instructor’s name for sure, but I think it was Beverly something. She had this remarkable wild mane of naturally curly brown hair, that she could barely keep under control with pins and headbands and ponytail holders. She wore long, flowing skirts in colorful fabrics, and loose, billowy shirts with large floral patterns that only someone as petite as she was could get away with.

Beverly would breeze into our classroom, usually seeming somewhat flustered and hurried. And then she’d settle in and read to us, engineering students mind you, her favorite literature. I’ll never forget her face when she read from Proust, her favorite, and Theodore Roethke. I still remember the Roethke poem, “Elegy for Jane,” and the way Beverly sighed after she read the line, “The sides of wet stones cannot console me.”

While I feel fairly certain that most of her students were utterly unmoved by this, and instead of listening were actually planning their strategy for their next “Dungeons and Dragons” game, she won a convert in me.

I transferred to another university that fall, a school more appropriate for a liberal arts student, and majored in English. Very quickly, I learned I had made a fine choice of schools, and I buried myself under loads of literature. It became apparent that I actually didn’t much care for poetry, and old fellows like Milton and Chaucer left me underwhelmed. But I discovered Jane Austen, who is my favorite author to this day. And there were so many other wonderful authors introduced to me. I read and read and read. I loved thinking about these books. I loved how they made me feel. I loved what they taught me.

In general, I focused on 20th century literature, mainly because the language was so much more accessible. I stuck to this trend when I later entered grad school. It was here that my love of reading took an alarming turn. In my second year of grad school, I realized I didn’t love reading anymore.

I had already pretty much figured out that a life in academia wasn’t for me. Inter-departmental politics were as absurd as a hillbilly brawl on “The Jerry Springer Show,” the only true difference being the number of syllables used in the insults. And these English department people participated in remarkably fascinating, and horrifically dull behavior like standing around in hallways debating the proper usage of the word “whereas,” and actually managing to work themselves into emotions I can only describe as indignation when their opinion was not accepted in an appropriately humble and thankful manner. Then there were the publishing wars, where everyone struggled to get more articles published in literary journals than other department members.

So yeah, I had figured out that academic life wasn’t for me. It wasn’t all that surprising, really, But what was surprising was that I had lost my love of reading somewhere along the way. I no longer read novels the way I once did, letting them unfold as I went along, taking the ride as it was meant to be taken. Instead, I was reading as a critic, looking for the connections, the themes, the foreshadowing, the various points which would work their way into my next paper. Books had become puzzles to be solved and theses to be proven. All the gut emotion had vanished. I realized what I loved about literature was lost to me.

I didn’t complete my graduate degree. And I stopped reading literature; it was too depressing. I thought I’d try my hand at writing romance novels, which meant I had better start reading them. They fit my requirement that there be nothing real about them. I read hundreds of these romance novels, and found certain among them enjoyable. My favorites are the ones with a sense of humor and quirky characters.

Over the years, I’ve tried out all sorts of genre fiction. I enjoy historical novels, particularly those set in pre-history, in ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, and really any period that I find particularly exotic and foreign. I enjoy hard science fiction, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I like some fantasy, especially when penned by a fine writer like C.J. Cherryh. And Anne Rice. I love, love, love Anne Rice. Pretty much everything she’s ever written. And J.K. Rowling (who doesn’t love J.K. Rowling?), though all my Harry Potter “reading” has been through audio cassette, read by the incomparable Jim Dale.

It would be ridiculous to list everyone I love, or enjoy, or like. The point is that, in all the years since my disastrous stint in grad school, I avoided classic literature (with a few exceptions like Jane Austen). It wasn’t until I started truck driving that I, at last, decided to return to the classics. And I did it through audiobooks.

Oh glorious day. Somehow, after all those years, I had been cured. I could feel these books again. And I felt them even more so than I did in college. It’s because I’m older now, and life has kicked my ass more than a time or two, so I understand these books in ways that are different than I ever could have in my 20′s.

Also, thanks to audiobooks making the language much more accessible, I’ve discovered writers like Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and George Elliott, among others. So there, grad school — take that!

I have recently decided that I need to branch out further and make some stabs at non-fiction, ever a bane of mine since having to read those boring social studies and history textbooks in grade school (I mean, come on, it’s so much more interesting if you make a story out of this stuff). My success has been limited, but I’m staying firm in my decision to broaden my horizons. I actually managed to finish Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” which is something of a triumph for me. I followed it up with a retrospective feast of the best romance novels of Kathleen Woodiwiss. It can be fun being me.

If you’ve made it all the way through this long and rambling post, you may be wondering what the point was, and while I’m pretty sure I had one in the beginning, I’m sorry to admit I lost it along the way. I’ll just think of this as “Stace’s History with Books.” I can’t wait to see where it will lead me next.

8 Responses
  1. 2008 September 2

    Stace,

    REALLY loved this post. I have always been a reader, but sadly, I never read any of the classics and really wonder where the hell I was in high school because I don’t recall any of them. I vaguely remember Animal Farm and Catcher in the Rye, but I’m pretty sure I used CliffNotes for Shakespeare and others. High school was also a time of romance novels for me. That’s probably why all the boys then and since have never measured up to where I thought they should be. I did all the cheesy Harlequin books, which were quick and easy reads and a lot of Danielle Steel too and now when I think back, I couldn’t ever read that again. But Kathleen Woodiwiss was one of my very favorites. I loved her. In fact, I might have to read her again.

    I recently purchased “Persuasion” but put it down to finish another book. Plus, the book has editor’s notes in it which I don’t like – I might have to buy another copy as it’s distracting.

    I’d also love to get more into audiobooks – my boyfriend Ed likes to listen to them in the truck, but I find if the author’s voice is distracting or has an accent, it’s sometimes hard to follow. I was listening to one who had an British accent and although I liked the sound of her voice, listening to her reading the book was annoying. Do you have any suggestions? Anyone with a great voice that makes the story that much more interesting?

    And which Jane Austen would you suggest I start with if I can ever get through the one I’m reading?

  2. 2008 September 2

    Inter-departmental politics were as absurd as a hillbilly brawl on “The Jerry Springer Show,” the only true difference being the number of syllables used in the insults. – Stace

    Now that sentence right there is a beautiful thing. You totally rock. And thanks for that great post on my blog. I want to see that fool take you up on your offer.

  3. 2008 September 2

    I just finished “The Worst Hard Time”, non-fiction about the 30′s and the dust bowl. My Mom’s family used to say that, “the worst hard time”, and it is truly a wonderful piece of history. It is on Kindle, too.

  4. 2008 September 2

    “Persuasion” was the very first Jane Austen book I read. I’ve re-read it multiple times since then, and it always touches me. Forget about the editor’s comments. You don’t need them. I think you should ignore them, or just get a different copy, like you said.

    As much as I like “Persuasion,” my favorite Austen novel is “Pride and Prejudice.” Have you read “Bridget Jones’ Diary” by Helen Fielding or seen the movie? This book is basically an homage to “Pride and Prejudice.” Although Bridget bears little resemblance to Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of “P&P,” the plot itself is a modernization of the plot of “P&P,” and the heroes have the same names, Mr. Darcy.

    I know way more about this than I probably should, which makes it all smack of obsession, and I’m really not obsessed with this book or anything, no matter how it looks, and … uh … where the hell was I? Oh yeah, in an additional nod to “P&P,” Colin Firth was cast in the role of Darcy in the Bridget Jones’ movie, because he played the role of Mr. Darcy in the definitive film version of “P&P,” the mini-series produced by BBC and PBS, co-starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. The most recent regular film length version of “P&P” was a waste of time and money, IMO. They took out all the humor and made it all dark and brooding, as if “P&P” were “Wuthering Heights” or something. This might be a good time to repeat that I’m not obsessed with this book or anything wierd and creepy like that.

    In a nutshell, what I love best about “P&P” is that it’s damned funny and insightful. So yeah, I recommend “Pride and Prejudice.” :-)

    You also mentioned audiobooks. Here’s the thing. I’ve seriously been into 19th century British literature for the last 3-4 years, so the vast majority of what I’ve listened to has been just that. And that means British accents, since most companies tend to hire natives to read their countries’ books.

    I’ve found the best source for unabridged recordings of classics (no point in reading abridged versions, IMO), is Blackstone Audiobooks — http://www.blackstoneaudiobooks.com. They hire only the very finest readers. Two favorites are Frederick Davidson and Nadia May. One bad thing is that Blackstone is very expensive. They started a big sale a couple years back, selling used library versions of their books at 1/4 the regular price. I stocked up big time while that sale lasted, but it’s over now, and they tell me they won’t be doing it again. What this means is that I’ll either have to go back to scouring E-bay for used copies, or I’m going to have to switch from audiocassettes to MP3 format and buy a high capacity I-Pod or something, since the prices for MP3 format at Blackstone are pretty reasonable, as long as you get the retail version and not the fancy-cased library versions.

    Another good source is Recorded Books, http://www.recordedbooks.com. Prices aren’t too bad there, and they tend to contract good readers in general.

    You asked about suggestions regarding annoying British accents and a great voice that makes the story better. Well. How do you feel about Harry Potter? I know some adults would rather slit a wrist than read what is categorized as a children’s book. However, I think this is a big mistake. I can’t speak to the Harry Potter series in print, but I can categorically state that the audiobook version is in some ways, without comparison. It is truly charming and captivating.

    A British actor named Jim Dale reads all the Harry Potter books. He brings it all to life and I imagine adds greatly to the books with his vocal characterizations. I wish he would read every book I listen to.

    So this is my suggestion. The Harry Potter series might be a great place to start if you want to see if you can adjust to the British accents (I found it took me a while years ago to adjust to the different pronunciations, but once it clicked home, everything was fine). And if you are one of the million of adults who have already read the Harry Potter books in print, you’ll still get a kick out of hearing them read. In addition, the books are so popular, you can usually check them out at your local library for free. Or if not that, you can find cheap used copies on E-bay for a fraction of retail new (not that they are all that expensive when they are new, it’s just that on some things, I can be a real cheapskate).

    Let me know what you think.

    Like I said above, I have mostly been listening to British lit for a while now. I have, though, listened to some American classics. Of those, I recommend Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth” and “The Age of Innocence,” John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie,” and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Conspiracy of Dunces.” The last book in particular I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it (my copy is currently working its way through my family right now, so who knows when I’ll get it back, or I’d offer you a loan). “Confederacy of Dunces” is just about the funniest book I have ever read. Note: it requires a somewhat sick sense of humor to appreciate. If you can’t find it as an audiobook, it’s just as funny in print.

    I chuckled when I read your bit about being in high school. I was the same way. The truth is, literature is mostly wasted on teenagers. What do the majority of teenagers really know about the great themes of literature: love, loss, hate, injustice, euphoria, despair, betrayal, dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled, utter failure and desperation? I think it’s safe to say most of us didn’t know jack, no matter how much we thought otherwise. Even when I was in my 20′s and truly thought that I “got” these books, I didn’t really have a clue.

    And it makes me wonder, when I’m in my 60′s and I re-read these books, will I think this same thing, and figure I was pretty clueless when I was 40? I suspect the answer will be a resounding yes. :-)

  5. 2008 September 2

    Hey there, Decorina.

    I was just looking back over the response I posted up above here, and boy am I windy today! Didn’t realize I was going on so long, and what’s with all the emoticons? Thought I’d only used one. Ah well. Here I go again.

    Thanks for the compliment. And I, too, hope Mr. Fundy takes me up my offer. I’ve got some new stuff I’ve been itching to try out on someone just like him. Too bad my enjoyment isn’t likely to last long, though; they never have any new material.

    I’ll put “The Worst Hard Time” on my reading list. Thanks. I listened to “Grapes of Wrath” about a year or so ago, and it made me curious to know more about the era. I often think about that novel when I’m on I-40 heading to California.

    Folks in my area who lived through the Depression are a gritty, thrifty lot. I’m know this is why my mother to this day washes and reuses so-called disposable plastic baggies until they are these sad wrinkly beat up old things. No matter what I say, she will not just use them once and throw them away.

    (If you’re reading this, Mom, sorry about that, but you know it’s true ;-) ).

  6. 2008 September 2

    Stace,

    Thanks for all the information. I copied it so I can refer back to the links, etc.

    I haven’t read P&P but I did see BJD. And I haven’t read Harry Potter either, but I’m not opposed to reading a “children’s” book. In fact, my ten year old nephew has recommended some to me that he wants me to read so I can “discuss” them with him.

    So because of his request, I’ve put Christopher Paolini’s books (Eragon, Eldest, etc.) on my list and also one of his favorites, “Dragon Rider” by Cornelia Funke. I don’t know how much I’m going to like these since I’m not very interested in this genre, but I am very adamant about encouraging and supporting his reading and exploration of pretty much everything, so I want to be able to talk to him about the characters and what he likes about them. I just hope I can get through these stories.

    I am so impressed by your eloquent writing and expansive knowledge on this subject and it’s really inspiring me to read what I’ve never considered before. I also feel, at 40, that my perspective on everything has pretty much changed. Which of course means my mother was right, dammit.

    And for the record, MY mother washed out plastic bags too. I keep trying to explain the concept of “disposable” to her but all I get is a “feh!”

  7. 2008 September 3

    That is adorable about your nephew. It’s so great that you are encouraging him. I haven’t read “Dragon Rider,” but I have listened to “Eragon” and “Eldest” on audiotape. They’re pretty cute books, the relationship between the kid and his dragon being the cutest part. I saw at Amazon last weekend that the third book in the series is out now. Made a mental note to myself to check at the library for it (which is how I got the other two).

    This series is a pretty standard fantasy quest sort, but the remarkable thing about the first book at any rate is that Paolini was only about 15 years old when he started writing it. That’s what prompted me to check out the first book.

    Your mom saying, “Feh!” LOL. Too funny.

  8. 2008 September 3

    I drove back to Denver today with another driver. He is 83 years old and was born in 1925. He lived through the dust bowl here in Colorado and vividly remembers the big storm toward the end. It was a fascinating trip to drive with him in a rental car back to Denver.

    The thing that really warmed my heart, though, was that just as we got back and were driving to the dealership he told me that he has been a registered Republican since 1946 and that he now regrets ever voting for Bush. He is voting for Obama (I get the impression that he doesn’t love Obama but that he hates, hates, hates Bush. He said he thinks that the last 8 years have been worse than the depression of the 1930′s and early 40′s! Whoa.

    I’ve read at least 6 books on the Dust Bowl and have a post back earlier this summer about “Driving through the Dust Bowl”.

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