Winter Reading List

01/22/2013

ImageAs many of you know, I’ve gone back to school to study English because my last choice of a life pursuit was too impractical (if you’re wondering if I’m aware, I am). However, to anyone concerned with such matters, my life goal has ultimately not changed. I want to be a writer. And I still love screenwriting first and foremost. But frankly, I get tired of people asking me what I’m doing with my life and the sad look they give me when I tell them I’m working overnight security while writing spec screenplays.

I still do those things. I just now have something else to tell them so they won’t be so sad.

In anticipation of this major life change I packed up the old Facebook and thought about considering maybe taking at least one DVD off my Netflix plan and then made a list of the books that interested me. And then I just went for it. It’s been about two and a half months since I started. The amount of works below aren’t necessarily all that impressive for that period of time, but I also haven’t shirked my duties to film (how bout that Django Unchained, huh?), television (seriously, how rare is Louie, amiright?), and writing and reading screenplays and every now and again watching something by Joss Whedon to remind myself why I’m doing this. Oh, and I do know some people who I occasionally see now and again. Not for a while, but that’s my own fault. And beside the point. Anyway…

I believe it is the duty of anyone with even the most meager internet presence to account for their recent reading and try to get a discussion going. I plan on updating this list fairly regularly (coming soon: Nausea, The Illiad, The Sun Also Rises, Heart of Darkness, As I Lay Dying, Morphology of the Folktale, and maybe none of those and maybe a bunch of other stuff on top). For now here are some short writeups. Yes, I tried to keep it short. The first one is the exception, and it describes three books so don’t let it scare you off. I avoided spoilers and stuck to generalities as best I could, so you should be safe reading any of it. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on any and all of these and getting any recommendations for where to go further. Some of my favorite books among this set were things I’d never have read without a good recommendation.

The Smiley Trilogy 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Honourable Schoolboy

Smiley’s People

– John Le Carre

I am a card-carrying introvert. We tend to get a very bad rap in fiction. It’s okay, even preferable, for a character to be isolated, thoughtful, tightlipped — so long as there’s some kind of charm or wit behind it all. It’s as if all intelligence must be confident and manifest itself some way in conversation or it does not exist at all. If anyone is too silent or too isolated, it is because they are really quite stupid or there is some seething resentment or evil that is bound to make a villain of them before the story is over. For this reason, among others, I immediately fell in love with George Smiley. George is not witty. He is not attractive. He displays not a single one of the qualities we would associate with charm. His wife cheats on him and they’re constantly separated. His associates openly mock him, and he has not the confidence to beat them back.

And yet, George Smiley is brilliant. More importantly, through his silent and considered thoughts he is the humanity of the spy trade. In LeCarre’s world of espionage men who act based on their passions tend to do a lot more evil than good. Smiley, on the other hand, displays a balance other novels pretend does not exist. He is a genius, a man of almost pure intellect, and yet through those tools he finds humanity. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first novel in the series (which was adapted two years ago into an excellent film by Tomas Alfredson) celebrates the introverted type as a kind of savior of western culture, warding off both the cold authoritarians of the East and the hotheaded cowboys of the west.

The next two novels each challenge the claim that such a balance is achievable in a world plunged into cold war. As Smiley’s associate Peter Guillam (in the movie played by Benedict Cumberpatch, who plays another awesome, only slightly less introverted detective on Sherlock) says, “One day, one of two things will happen to George. He’ll cease to care or the paradox will kill him. If he ceases to care, he’ll be half the operator he is. If he doesn’t, that little chest will blow up from the struggle of trying to find the explanation for what we do.” LeCarre even admitted that when he wrote Tinker, Smiley served as a kind of Madonna for him: the last hope of humanity in a world he had once inhabited a bit guiltily. Later on he lost interest in, if not reverence for, that figure. Schoolboy is a sprawling, sometimes flawed but always compelling, work that is almost two novels packed into one. The conclusion, Smiley’s People, is easily the most minor of the three. It trades in the doubts of Schoolboy without all its revelations. Still, no matter the circumstances, I never tired of seeing George Smiley win and struggle and continue to give a damn.

The Constant Gardener – John LeCarre

I’ve probably exhausted the topic of LeCarre with the above writeup. But while I waited for the next two books to arrive after Tinker, I realized there was something in LeCarre’s dense prose and profusion of insight that I desperately needed more of. For the longest time the only books I’d read had either been canon or very academic. I hadn’t really let myself go with something so indulgent as spy novels for a long time. So on a whim I grabbed The Constant Gardener (which I vaguely remembered being a big film back in 2005). To one extent I was disappointed. The book was eminently readable, but one of the joys of the Smiley books is their density. In those, LeCarre likes to drop the reader into an alien world with little or no explanation and let them figure it all out over the course of ten or fifteen frustrating pages. It’s exhausting and very rewarding. I imagine they are the kind of books George Smiley would actually read. Gardener is more standard fiction. It has some great ideas and characters and some stunning use of symbolism in its final chapter (spoiler: the title has multiple meanings, and one of them is awesome). Still, it never reached the heights of immediacy or intellect of the other LeCarres I’ve read. It’s a good read, nothing more. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Alright, I swear, almost done with LeCarre. Though this book does sit on the All TIME top 100 novels of the 20th century list, so I suppose it warrants some comment. It’s a very slim work (Tinker and Gardener are around 400-500 pages and Schoolboy tops 600, while this one doesn’t even reach 200), more focused on big ideas than small details. I know it was incredibly influential in leading spy fiction away from the absolute moral certainty and sugary excitement of James Bond. But not having read much else of the fiction at the time, it’s hard for me to weigh its accomplishments except in comparison to LeCarre’s other work. From what I’ve read, it might be his most emotionally intense story. It certainly has some moments of legitimate menace and tragedy. Within its few pages it packs a lot of memorable characters and conversations; all the good stuff, no fat. But I think its greatest strength — what will keep me coming back to it in years to come — is how well it underlines the question that gives LeCarre a leg up on all his peers: identity. Characters are so devoted to their roles that they become them, so devoted to their objectives they forget why. Through all the plotting and questioning and every twist and turn LeCarre creates a truly ambiguous and fluid sense of what is true and what is not, which he never bothers to simplify or organize with more than the most emotional commentary.

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

I can’t say that my first Hemmingway in nearly a decade (I read and, strangely enough, enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea my junior year of high school) was love at first sight, but it was close. Hemmingway’s pictorial anti-eloquence, more uncompromising and beautiful in Arms than in anything I’ve read of his since, definitely took some getting used to. And his equally unadorned plotting at first confounded my action-movie addled brain. But after forging through the breathtaking opening vignette two or three times and adjusting to the exact required focus, I did not put the book down until it was finished. The hard-forged immediacy and honesty of his vision grant an uncommon beauty to his victories and a startling menace and terror to his defeats. Through this I discovered levels of engagement I never before realized novels could facilitate.

Candide – Voltaire

I’m absolutely shocked that Voltaire died of natural causes. This book (more short story really) would be regarded as controversial and subversive even if it was released tomorrow, much less in an era when they were still burning people for saying things. It deals with topics like war, genocide, murder, rape, and natural disasters with a lighthearted, satirical nihilism that is at times terrifying and at times hilarious because there’s just no other way to respond. And amid this far-too-comprehensive depiction of all the world’s evils, Voltaire explores the archetypal images of innocence (Candide) and intellectual optimism (Pangloss). Far from cynical, his conclusion is sincere and even a touch romantic. It’s also a scathing criticism of the intellectualism of his age, and the innate human desire to make all things light and happy that has definitely survived into the modern day.

On the Road – Jack Kerouac

I can’t agree with people who place Kerouac among the great authors of the twentieth century; at least not based on this, his most beloved work. Road’s particular slaphappy grandiloquence, which I know many have equated with an unrivaled frank sincerity, to me often felt sentimental and left me cold and distant. But were that the final word I never would have been patient enough to finish. The novel is best at its strangest. Dean’s late night philosophizing, Sal’s adopted Mexican family, fevered hunger dreams, phantom hobos, and thudding attempts to depict music and rhythm and energy with a wild kind of beat verse, all succeeded in creating a new strangeness and fascination for life in my all-too-familiar American home. I can’t say I loved the whole thing. What I did love, however, has definitely stuck with me.

This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald once said of his first novel, “Some say it is a fraud, and that might be true. Some say it is a lie. It is not.” I think the beauty in this story comes from its unflinching pretension. Fitzgerald, who was my age when the book was published, puts words to so many of the feelings I’m afraid to describe because I don’t necessarily believe them. He tries far too hard to create a myth of youth with death and sex and mother goddesses and nightmares that signal the loss of innocence. While reading it I often thought of Nick’s snobbish assertion in Gatsby, “The intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” Nick’s attitude, I think, reflects a cynical, maybe even embarrassed response to the necessary sorting of what is real and what is false that occurs during youth. Amory’s adventure in Paradise is not exactly tied to what happens but to how he sees the world. Sometimes it is a little pretentious. Sometimes it has a ghostly innocent beauty. I really want a Wes Anderson adaptation of this one.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

I have no idea how anyone else will read this novel. While devouring it I felt a kind of guilt creep over me. It was honestly unlike any novel I’d ever read. Joyce boldly tracks the emotions of his protagonist (a thin veil for himself), not with heady insights but with vivid and beautiful and sensual depictions of feeling and thought. These tracked almost too closely to what I know to be my own experienced. I distrust that instinct that relates every aspect of literature to some highly specific personal experience. But as my heart rose and sank with every ambitious exploration of all too familiar feelings and events that flooded my mind more vividly than they had since I lived them, I felt — especially at the swelling climax of each of the five intense movements — an undeniably religious sense of self-discovery. And though clearly working with painful intimacy, Joyce somehow manages to transcend the experiences and comment on them with symbols and counter-arguments that feel so natural they at least match the intensity of the self-disclosure. I’ve never really sat down and thought about what my favorite novel would be, but this would definitely be up there. Guess that means I have to try Ulysses now.

Red Harvest – Dashielle Hammett

For a native cinema lover, Red Harvest has an unrivaled legacy among all books. It reportedly served as the inspiration for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which was also remade into Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars) and the Coen brother’s Miller’s Crossing. And the working title for Star Wars, Blue Harvest, was a direct tribute to George Lucas’s love of this particular work. Furthermore it was Hammet’s stylized crime novels that spawned the genre of film noir, his Sam Spade who Bogie turned into the definitive cinematic detective. So I already thought I knew everything about this book before I even picked it up. And it’s true that some of the more unique and specific touches have been bludgeoned into cliche by repetition. It was hard for me to separate its thick-skinned, hard-boiled cynicism from the plagiarisms of lesser (and in the case of Chandler and a few of the noir directors, greater) artists who borrowed it merely as a styling device. But even if I didn’t get even a drop of its initial seriousness (which was certainly not the case), it would still be a sublime and lurid romp. And there’s a blinding, just sickening twist near the end that has lost none of its menace over the years and not even its greatest admirers has had the heart to steal.

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Just like some people mistake 1984 for being exclusively about political ideas, when really it has more to do with the everyday occurrence of isolation and forced societal conformity; I think it misguided to reduce Slaughterhouse Five to the lofty philosophical slants that are typical of its genre. Ultimately I don’t think Vonnegut cares whether free will exists or not. I think where he’s concerned with free will, it’s a more practical exploration of how that idea has been used by human beings to excuse the abuse of other human beings. The final line, a simple bird chirp, ties together perfectly his willful indifference to such conjecture. Whether men are free or held to some invisible fate, this is how they treat each other. Whether human evil can be changed, this work is meant to tear apart the lies that justify it. The structure jumps forward and back through time –each moment actually occurring simultaneously with all the others, which does seem to imply some kind of strict determinism — but I was more affected by the protagonist’s cold feet: symbols that a part of him always lived in the horrors of his past. Whether or not a person can change their destiny, they cannot escape their past. It’s undeniable that in some way we are all a collection of what we have experienced and who we have been told to be. Vonnegut’s main point seems to be humbly this: if your myth denies these things, you’d better find a new myth.

The Trial – Franz Kafka

Also competing for the title of “Best Novel I’ve Ever Read” is Franz Kafka’s fascinating (though by no means as obscure as some have made it out to be) masterpiece. Far from being absurd, this work actually in some ways holds itself to a higher standard of realism than more traditional fictions. The awkward, unconscious, and often animalistic way people deal with and manipulate each other are brought out as the focus of K.’s interactions, as opposed to more traditional literary priorities. Kafka replaces clear objectives with a dense atmosphere of shame, submission, pity, pride, frustration, confusion, the asphyxiation of lust, and the dehumanizing weight of bureaucracy. Rather than surge and insist, it tickles and jabs like an airy dream; its menace developed as a kind of organic nausea more than symmetrical revelation. Nearly every passage shines a strange and unique light on human interaction and experience. You should also check out Orson Welles’ film adaptation which, in pure Wellesian form, capitalizes as much on the misperceptions of Kafka’s work as its actual merits to create something at once sensationalist and eerily brilliant.

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

In anticipation of Peter Jackson’s fourth Tolkien adaptation, I decided to revisit the Hobbit — myself for the fourth time — and had my 8-year old brother Joshua join me. Josh was a little young (and not quite as nerdy a 2nd grader as I was when I started digging into this stuff) and as such he wasn’t quite as enchanted with Tolkien’s overabundance of detail as I’ve come to be over the years. But like all burgeoning Tolkien nerds (something he’s not allowed not to be) he took almost instantly to the maps and histories and cultures and languages and species and songs that inhabit Tolkien’s world. And of course he began pestering me with questions that I pretended didn’t make my heart leap for joy, like, “Why did Gollum call the ring his birthday present?” and “Where did Gandalf go?” and, “Who would win if Gandalf fought Smaug?” If the antiquated prose is an acquired taste, Tolkien’s love of food and cheer and song above hoarded gold is still contagious for all.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis

And yet, when we finished The Hobbit (and saw the film) and I talked Joshua into yet another one of my favorite childhood book series, he took only two chapters to say, “This is awesome. Why didn’t we read this one first?” It’s true that Narnia is a far simpler, more symbolic world than Tolkien’s vast Middle Earth. These qualities, alongside a strictly orthodox approach to allegory, have brought the books under a lot of scrutiny in recent years. Authors like Philip Pullman have tried to create secular equivalents, which I have not read and therefore cannot comment on. However, I have read Pullman’s thoughts on fiction which I strongly disagree with. He seems to think — again based on what little I’ve read, so please correct me if I’m wrong — that literature exists to prepare children for the end of innocence; like it can only indoctrinate them one way or the other. That seems to me a very shortsighted, narrow-minded view of fiction, which he didn’t improve by criticizing Tolkien as “essentially trivial”.

Reading Lewis for the first time since childhood, I definitely did not encounter the turgid religious propaganda that some have described. Some of the passages, especially the children’s response to the name Aslan and the Professor’s description of “logic” were a bit hokey, but by the by Lewis is just an astounding storyteller. The spell the books cast on me as a child almost immediately returned, and I could tell through his rapt attention (and pleas to keep reading) that Joshua was right there too. The pleasure in Tolkien comes, in some respect, from his love for so many things that he simply doesn’t know where to focus. With Lewis there is always an immediate and perfect focus. I don’t think The Hobbit and its followup would have won me over if Lewis hadn’t first made me keenly aware of the joy and self-discovery fantasy can bring.

Fear and Trembling – Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard wrote this short discussion of faith more in movements than chapters. Each section seems to work in its own specific genre — some realm between philosophy, poetry, and diary — and both advances and occasionally confounds the thoughts of its predecessors. It builds a comprehensive philosophy, but does so more with the preoccupations of music and poetry and literary criticism than ivory tower discussions of the meaning of life. When addressing Descartes, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio cites not the quality of his ideas but their sincerity. And in a sense one could be absolutely transfigured by Fear and Trembling without agreeing with a word Kierkegaard says. It’s adequate simply to feel the way he says feels it. And in another sense, what he says is equally brilliant. He distinguishes layers and types of belief through hypotheticals and genres and various viewpoints and states of emotion. His endgame is not some mathematical defense of faith but a full comprehension of that initial explosion of the senses when faith first came into the world. Whether that is an exact, specific, scriptural event or merely a distant ideal doesn’t seem to matter. He feels it on the tip of his mind and feels compelled to strive for it. No work of philosophy has ever touched me more deeply or left me so satisfied and baffled.

Existentialism and Human Emotion – Jean-Paul Sartre

This short hundred page dissertation, which I picked up at Half Price for $4.99, humbly exists to address a few ethical objections to existentialism. It begins, however, with a nifty 50 page summary of the entire belief system which serves as a great introduction for the uninitiated. I was familiar with existentialism to an extent but hadn’t read any major works on the topic (with the exception of Fear and Trembling, which doesn’t really count). These fifty pages helped me better understand Sartre’s beliefs, as well as note a few objections I had. Then, in the second half of the book he addressed a good many of those objections (particularly with his criticism of Freudian thought). I’ve been reading Sartre alongside Jung, seeing how they each represent my greatest apprehension with the other. I’m not quite ready to embrace existentialism’s insistence on absolute autonomy, but I’m also comforted by its assertion that we can work to create a new myth where the old myth becomes too unbearable.

The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche – C.G. Jung

I’ve been fascinated by Jungian theory for ages. How did the stories I made up with my legos at the age of four draw so close to myths I only discovered years later? How does my writing naturally work itself to forms I could never anticipate? At a distance it seems like mysticism, and as opposed to our beloved naturalism as anything can get. And yet to this day the Meyers Briggs test is used extensively in businesses and the archetypes are almost universally accepted in writing and mythological studies. So I kept an eye out at Half Price for a good Jung collection, and a few weeks ago I found The Portable Jung, edited and introduced by the man’s most prominent disciple Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces). This first set of essays, covering the base of his ideas about the development of human thought and the collective unconscious, are short but absolutely essential. There’s not a boring sentence among them. Yes, his ideas are in themselves difficult and seem quite vague, but he brings medical precision and absolute conviction to them. Structure was just an introduction, but he anticipated my doubts and either answered them or made them irrelevant. Copies of Psychological Types, Symbols of Transformation, and The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, are all sitting on my bookshelf as I type this.

Poetic Diction – Owen Barfield

Almost a year ago I bought a copy of Harold Bloom’s The Best Poetry of the English Language. Poetry terrified me and so this seemed like a natural way to try to cure that (hint: if something terrifies you, do not read what Harold Bloom thinks about it). In his intro Bloom mentioned this book as the absolute one stop shop on the strange and ill-defined nature of meaning. I made a note somewhere and moved on to not understanding the Romantics. About a month later I started reading Shakespeare and bought a handful of Arden copies of my favorite plays. I was shocked to discover that many of the respectable editors of those volumes similarly cited this former inkling’s slim and headily titled wonderbook as some sort of magic key. And boy oh boy were they right. There hasn’t been a book I’ve read since, not a work of philosophy nor an epic poem, where the experience hasn’t been greatly enhanced by this book. The quotes on the cover are underselling it. Barfield recognizes that meaning isn’t going to be easy or even possible to define entirely. It is tied to ideas of beauty and sound and aesthetics that people have been arguing about since before people could argue. But every the determined Oxford man, Barfield powers through confidently, making connections between early humanity, the history of language, observations of experience, the learning curve of infants, and numerous partially flawed schools of thought to piece together a composite image of the spark of life in the human mind that allows words to work as they do. It’s not just helpful in an academic pursuit of English. It’s essential for understanding how human beings think and feel and see the world.

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