February Reading List

02/26/2013

February is a great month for reading because it is a horrible month for everything else. The following novels are by no means the summation of reading I’ve done over the last month. I’ve been in class, and have had to find time for personal reading between textbooks, research, and class readings. While some of my class readings have been amazing, especially the Romantic poets and some of the ancient literature I’ve been revisiting, I’ve decided to limit the current list only to my unassigned reading.

Nausea – Jean-Paul Sartre

As much as it’s a philosophical parable, Nausea is also most simply a very intimate book about  falling out of love with life–which puts it on the shortlist of worst possible things for me to read in February. It purports to be the recovered journal of Antoine Roquentin, a jaded intellectual trying to write a historical book in the coastal French city of Bouville. He begins experiencing a strange sensation that affects him both physically and mentally, a nausea caused by the weight and actuality of things without their imbued meaning. There are some stunningly beautiful passages, like one describing a piece of music in a bar and another depicting a street in the city as if it were a painting. The narrative is uncommonly intimate, and despite its introverted nature, builds to a fairly substantial climax. But it’s a difficult book, both emotionally and intellectually.

“When you want to understand something, you stand in front of it, alone, without help: all the past in the world is of no use. Then it disappears and what you wanted to understand disappears with it.”

The  Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

There isn’t a moment in Dorian Gray that doesn’t sparkle with some kind of genius. Every symbol, every dramatic twist, every discussion of ideas brings with it a a unique and wholly compelling type of insight. But for all the broad and obvious brilliance, its power comes primarily from what is not so pronounced–like the painting in the attic, the fact that the godly painter is a homosexual, that the most pitiful character is the one everyone wants to be around. With concrete ideas Wilde paints a truly nebulous universe, and that is by far his greatest accomplishment.

“The harmony of soul and body–how much that is! We in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, an ideality that is void.”

Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler

I’m a puritanical reader. I doubt pleasure. It’s a terrible habit I’m trying to break, but every now and again I need to retreat to an author who makes doubt simply impossible. For me Raymond Chandler is just such an author. His books read about as effortlessly as sleeping, yet I would never call them simple or insubstantial. At worst they read like The Hardy Boys as written by William Faulkner. At best they’re the absolute pinnacle of their craft, mysteries that plumb the substance of human nature, that begin seducing and pulling you further in from the first sentence and never relinquish their hold. Of the three Chandlers I’ve read, Lovely stands squarely in the middle. It never reaches the dark genius of The Long Goodbye, but its moments of surprising vulnerability give it more substance than The Big Sleep.

“You can crab over the morning paper and kick the shins of the guy in the next seat at the movies and feel mean and discouraged and sneer at the politicians but there are a lot of nice people in the world just the same.”

At the Mountains of Madness – H.P. Lovecraft

At the Mountains of Madness is the kind of story that would have seemed like scripture to my adolescent self. With every page I felt pangs of the sheer wonder and excitement I would have felt at the size of the antarctic city, the history of the Others, the rules of Lovecraft’s sprawling mythology. It would have fundamentally changed the way I played with legos. I can offer no higher praise than that.

Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!

Dubliners – James Joyce

After being stunned by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was eager to read something else by Joyce as quickly as possible. This collection of short stories didn’t disappoint me. In a way it’s as distinct from Portrait as a book can be, documenting the experience of dozens of characters from all over Dublin from all ages and walks of life. However, it also struck me as no less personal. While Portrait tells the story of one young man falling out of love with his Irish heritage, Dubliners (its immediate predecessor) tells multiple stories about people resisting that change. A young girl refuses to leave her abusive father to be with the man she loves. A disenchanted worker wallows in drunken self-loathing. A mother won’t let her daughter go on stage without receiving a guarantee of payment in advance. Each short drama absolutely glistens with insight and tension, showcasing Joyce as a master of the beauty and sadness of everyday life.

“One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion, than fade and whither dismally with age.”

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

It took me far too long to read Faulkner. Something about his reputation, probably his genre, always kept me at arm’s length. But this is one of the most brilliant novels I’ve ever read. It’s narrated entirely in first person, often through stream of consciousness, with numerous characters explaining the events from their own point of view. It is a lyrical, profound, and at times chilling look at the cyclical destructive power of poverty. Of course, that doesn’t stop its characters, especially the masterfully crafted Darl, from considering the very nature of life itself along their journey as well.

“That’s the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent, shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.”

The  Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway and I have a complicated relationship. His books make life so beautiful, so immediate, that I never last more than a chapter before I want to toss the book aside and go out and live it. Of course, the most recent two I’ve read (I talked about A Farewell to Arms in my last blog) spiral down toward disillusionment eventually. But that heat signature he leaves on the everyday still remains. The Sun Also Rises is worse because it never breaks into a more traditional narrative the way Arms does. It’s simply life being lived and people attempting to make the most of it, for better or worse.

“I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”

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