“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” – Dorothy Parker
This sounds like such a stupid thing to say, but it’s true: I’ve rediscovered reading. Well, that’s not exactly it, let’s say rather, I’ve recommitted to it.
When I was a kid I would wolf down novels by the bucketful, and my reading list was pretty impressive. The highlight of the month was getting the book catalogs that I would lovingly peruse and circle the tomes I wanted. And don’t get me started on the annual book fairs – those were heaven. Many were the days that I would scarf down my food between classes and spend the lunch period devouring one series after another.
As an early teenager and inspired by Emma (though perhaps she was not the best example) and Little Women, I took seriously the idea that I needed to read some books, whether or not I liked them, because they were important and were part of a well rounded individual’s cultural knowledge. At thirteen I trudged through Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War and a few of the other classical books that pack my parents’ shelves – because I was going to a educated lady, damn it!
At fifteen when the powers that be chucked us off to the Pacific, where the size of my school’s library – to say nothing of the school itself – was unsettlingly small, I trudged on. More of my parents’ books, and eventually trying to augment my conversationally-good-but-writing-challenged French with the literature (with my teacher’s blessing, while the rest of my class watched movies dubbed into French instead). It took weeks but I managed Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse – with the help of a French grammar book and dictionary.
University was a dream because I got my degree in European Studies with a minor in History, which meant I spent four years reading on subjects that fascinated me. Read this book on piracy in early America, do research on the last reining empress of China for a practice thesis paper, analyze The Beggar’s Opera for class, and get through the chapters on the Belgian Counter Reformation? Sir, yes sir!
But since graduating, the truth is I’ve gotten intellectually lazy. The media consuming culture around me requires people to take in information in short, truncated batches (which I truly think has started to rewire my brain to expect data in 140 characters or less). Much of public discourse requires participants to know the talking points and soundbites that back up their opinions, but seldom the deeper underlying issues and philosophies. I can instantly click to any topic I want from the comfort of my chair, instead of going to a library, talking to someone who knows about the subject, or otherwise physically engaging in any way with other people or the world.
None of this is an excuse, I know, but I honestly believe that being an educated and well-rounded person is paradoxically more challenging now than a decade ago. We are surrounded by more information than ever before, but people (or maybe just the university students I’m inundated with) seem increasingly incapable of carrying that information in their own head – since a smartphone is much easier. Or making connections and drawing conclusions. Or engaging in critical thinking. And if I’m honest, my own ability to do so is waning. And I think it’s because I’m reading less. There is no doubt in my mind but that I could not now manage an 18th century novel in another language – and I’d probably give up after a few days of trying.
But the other night, I got a book from the library that I’d been waiting for for weeks. I took it home, told J. that I was going to be busy for the rest of the night, shut myself in our bedroom, and took in all four hundred some odd pages in one sitting. And when I was done, I felt refreshed. Invigorated, even. And then I grabbed another book.
So, like I said, I’ve recommitted. One of my resolutions is going to be to regain some teenager enthusiasm and take charge of my own education again. Starting with more reading. And I’m back on track, I think.
“When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
J. and I have been married for three years now and according to an increasing number of people, we’re supposed to start having kids. Preferably we’re supposed to already have one and be ready to pop out another.
This casual attitude towards our personal choices, from a few close friends and relations but mostly perfect strangers, gives me more angst and headaches than I can successfully convey, but that’s another post entirely. Needless to say, it gets me riled up. These talks, whether instigated by friends, family, or total strangers, leave me feeling very misunderstood, very talked-down-to, and very angry. J.’s aware of this and luckily he and I are on the same page when it come to the timing of such things.
So you can imagine the heights reached by my left eyebrow when glancing through all the treasure to be found in Cecil Court, J. suddenly froze, pointed to a shop’s (Marchpane) displayed wares and declared, “We need that for Stormageddon’s room.”
Stormaggedon being the nickname we use when discussing our future child.*
“Did I miss a very critical conversation?” I demanded.
“Look,” he insisted excitedly.
I looked, and beheld some original, hand colored prints from the 1926 first edition of Winnie-the-Pooh.
This tale only makes sense if you understand that J. loves Winnie-the-Pooh. It was his favorite character as a child, his favorite movies, you name it. My six foot, broad shouldered, grown man, all-American husband loves Pooh. And here were original prints from £15 a piece.
We bought three.
Stormageddon may be years off yet, but he is going to have a fabulous nursery when he shows up. Courtesy of his father.
“Ironically we were studing the scarlet letter. Isn’t it always the way? The book you read in class always seem to have strong connection with whatever angsty adolescence trauma is going on. Exept for Huckleberry Finn, ’cause I don’t know any teenage boy who ran away with big hulking black guy.” (later) “Did you hear than Brandon ran away from home? Yeah, totally. He left his parents a note that said, ‘I’m gay, *******!’ and then he skipped town with some big hulking black guy.” “…My apologies to Mark Twain.” – Easy A
Mum called last night because she’s going to throw Beowulf into the mix for her class on Western Civilization this term and needed to know the pronunciations for some of the names, as she’s more at home with Greek and Latin.
And I knew the answers. ‘Cause I’m a nerd.
My knowledge of Beowulf was what initially won over the seemingly alarming and crusty high school teacher who went on to become my mentor and good friend to this day. I’d read it for the first time in 8th grade and fell in love with Early English literature, so I knew whereof I spoke when I confronted him (trembling) about a test question that I was sure I’d got right. He turned a baleful eye on me before apparently deciding not to disembowel me, and decided that if I could show him the reason for my answer in the text, he’d give me the points. I could and he did.
And as it turned out, for a special few students who showed a genuine love to literature and history, he had heart of butter. And once he loved you, he loved you. I was one of the few who could misbehave at all in his class, and my mates didn’t even mind me being a teacher’s pet because I alone could persuade him to postpone tests when more study time was needed. We debated vigorously across four classes for two years. He wrote me glowing recommendations when I was applying to universities. I still send him Christmas presents, he sent me the most lovely card and note for my wedding, and we exchange lengthy emails every couple of months.
All because of Beowulf.
See, kids, those required readings pay off eventually.
A treat for you today, minions, a break from me! Wait… Anyway, a longtime friend from freshman year of university is posting today about required reading for her spawn. Hillary is the proud mama of two boys and just announced she has another baby on the way, so she’s clearly much further along the spawning process than I! If my kids turn out half as cute and fun as hers I’ll consider them a success. You can find her writing here.
Calvin and Hobbes is by far my favorite comic strip. I put it on my “required” reading list for my kids, but I highly doubt I’ll have to twist arms to get them to read these books.
Calvin captures so much of the imagination of childhood. He spends much of his time romping through the woods (or wishing he was) opening up whole different worlds with his mind as only a child can. His stuffed tiger, Hobbes, we all know is a real tiger and it’s only his parents and others that don’t understand that reality. Who didn’t want a pet tiger like Hobbes when they were growing up?
Calvin philosophizes about life all the time and uses language far too advanced for his 6 year-old brain, especially since he tries his best not to learn in school. It wasn’t until high school that I learned that Calvin and Hobbes were named after the philosophers John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, respectively.
Calvin plays pranks on everyone-his parents, his neighbor Suzie, Hobbes, and occasionally his classmates. Things we probably all thought of doing as children but never dared to actually attempt.
He creates monstrous and clever artwork out of snow. This is my favorite part (maybe because I never lived in snow as a kid).
Calvinball-a game where the only rule is you can’t play the same way twice. Brilliant.
One of my favorite reoccurring stories throughout the series is Calvin’s transmorgrifier/duplicator/ethicator/time machine box. It’s simply a cardboard box that he scribbles on and then it does whatever the words on the box say. In this box he is transformed into a tiger, visits the age of the dinosaurs, duplicates himself so he doesn’t have to go to school, and even creates his “good” side.
Despite Calvin’s prevalent mischievousness, he has a softer side that sometimes comes out when he finds an injured or dead animal or when he realizes Christmas morning that he has nothing to give Hobbes.
The comic also grows with you. I understood it much differently as a kid than I now do as an adult. I must add, now that I’m a parent of two little boys, I have much more sympathy for his parents.
I love that he lives a normal childhood, went to school, shirked homework, got into mischief, and just enjoyed being a kid. I think that’s what makes it such a great comic because so many people can relate to something in the strip. It makes me reminisce on all the things I did as a kid (or wish I had tried).
Calvin and Hobbes opens up childhood imagination, introduces a wide vocabulary, mixes in philosophy and art, and it’s just good writing in a form that kids (and adults) love reading. That is why it is required reading for my children, though perhaps I will not let my boys read them until they have a little more sense than does Calvin.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
~J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Another of these posts is long overdue and what better time to salute J.K. Rowling’s fantastic series than today when many are heralding as the end of an era? Although I would point out that the book series actually came to a close a while back and much as I like the movies, the books really are where it’s at. As usual.
So, why was – is – Harry Potter important?
First of all, structure. It’s a series that ages as the reader does and subtly introduces what I think are important shifts in thinking along the way. I read the first book at 11, the same age as HP at the time, and even though I devoured it in a day (and the following books much in the same time frame), the idea of being misunderstood and different and special resonated with me. Like every other pre-teen on the planet. The series’ themes deepened, and yes, darkened as it went on, at a matched pace (I think) for the children (and some adults) reading it. In other words, it’s plain good reading that advances as you read it instead of staying at one level. Good for the brain!
And talking of which! The Harry Potter series draws from many mythologies that I think are important to understanding history and culture. Many of my friends were introduced to Greek mythology, alchemy, folklore, and the very of idea of the “mythic” for the first time in their lives by reading HP! And I think that the mythic is important for expanding imagination from the mundane to the previously impossible.
Hermione Granger single-handedly turned clever girls into heroines instead of minor antagonists in a book series. She was hardly the first to do so, but I think her impact will be lasting. I know I felt better for spending my free period in the school library knowing that someday my knowledge of history trivia would save the world! Perhaps this is reaching a bit, but my generation seems to be much less inclined to view things like courage for convictions, intelligence, and even geeky-ness as a negative or tease worthy thing. This may not be HP’s fault, but I like to think it is.
Key for me, as the series progressed more was required of the triumvirate of main characters than just going to school and brushing their teeth. They grew up, with all the messy, hilarious, and sad teenage-into-adult shifts that entails, with the added stress of having to save a world. Being special or different comes with a cost and you must be willing to sacrifice, make decisions, be loyal to both friends and ideals, and fight for good. High minded, yes. Preachy, no.
I grew up reading, my parents limited television and filled our house with books from well before I was born. But I know I am lucky for that and not everyone did grow up with mums who would fork out for every single book fair and monthly book order magazine! Not everyone had a dad that would read to them practically every day (Sesame Street and Dr. Suess Books at first, all the way up to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, theology, and history later). I know many, many people whose first real reading experience was the Harry Potter series, and who have never looked back since that first dive into a library.
And for these reasons, Harry Potter is required reading. Any book that can literally open new worlds, while expanding the readers own, needs to be on the shelf.
As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me. It’s one of the advantages I get from being a bachelor – and, according to my nearest and dearest, practically a half-witted bachelor at that. – P.G. Wodehouse
Believe it or not, I had never watched Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s laugh-out-loud worthy adaptation of Jeeves & Wooster until recently. Shocking I know, and deeply upsetting since I love the P.G. Wodehouse short stories of the hapless Wooster and the loyal butler who routinely drags him out of the soup. Luckily, I found the the whole series and have been joyfully devouring it (and struggling not to address friends with “What ho!” and say goodbye with “Toodle pip!”)
These stories are required reading for anyone who loves how really good humorous writing sounds. “Fellows who know all about that sort of thing— detectives, and so on — will tell you that the most difficult thing in the world is to get rid of the body.”
The characters are fantastic! Bertie Wooster, who may not be brilliant but is always good intentioned. Jeeves, a gentleman’s personal gentleman, who protects his master from ill-suited marriage minded maidens, sticky legal situations, or unpleasant social obligations. And an assortment of pals who all have those unlikely nicknames of 1920-30’s Britain (Bingo, Gussie, and Biffy among others).
And the fearful Aunt Agatha! Who is inevitably introduced as, “My Aunt Agatha who eats broken bottles and is strongly suspected of turning into a werewolf at the time of the full moon,” or “Aunt Agatha, the one who kills rats with her teeth and devours her young…” If I wasn’t so set on becoming a favorite aunt I’d love to end up the sort of dictatorial wealthy dowager who orders profligate nephews about without compunction.
I recommend staring with Carry on, Jeeves as it tells of how Jeeves came to be in Bertie’s service, but there are dozens of Jeeves and Wooster stories, as well as that hilarious adaptation for television. I mean, come on. Two words:
“Fastidious taste makes enjoyment a struggle.”
– Mason Cooley
The science of Recommendations seems, to me, to be very imprecise.
Pandora, set to my station of summery, party, of-no-artistic-value-whatsoever music, was feeding me a lively stream of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and other culturally reprehensible choices. And then suddenly, out of no where, an unmistakable disco beat. And then, “Ah, ah ah, ah, stayin’ alive! Stayin’ alive!” Who ordered the Bee Gees?
Then later on Amazon.com, Small Dog’s personal crack, I was casually leafing through their recommendations for me. They defy logic. Wondering what had possessed it to recommend Conan the Barbarian I clicked on it to see why. Answer: because I once ordered Planet Earth.
“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”
– Jane Austen
J. and I were talking about Jane Austen a while back (he hates her) and he voiced a common male complaint about Pride and Prejudice, “Women like it just because they want to end up with Mr. Darcy.”
“I don’t think so,” was my response. “I think smart women like it because they want to be like Elizabeth.”
And I stand by that. Literary-ily speaking, she was one of the first admirable heroines in the relatively new form known as the novel. Previously, women generally were getting carried off by brigands/lecherous squires, fainting at every available opportunity, and dealing with ghosts, vampires, and monks who sell themselves to the Devil. Alternatively, she is intelligent, lively, has a sense of humor, has a strained relationship with her mother but is fiercely loyal to her family, has personality quirks, won’t marry a repulsive man just because he’ll inherit her house someday, and makes mistakes. In other words, a fairly normal woman.
Suddenly, shoveling through the supernatural and sentimentality, along came Jane Austen who decided to write about the sphere she moved in, the concerns she and her peers dealt with from day to day, and to make the everyday interesting. Austen is one of my favorite writers, not because of the romance, but because she is historically important. And because of this skill in skewering the foibles of society and people with wit and sarcasm.
Now, not all Austen adaptations are created equal, and I should know. Mum, Snickers, and I have spent many a Sunday afternoon enjoying them:
Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (A&E, 1996) is the definitive P&P version. It’s basically the book in film form, which can hardly be said of most novel adaptations. It’s certainly the top Austen film, in my opinion. Lovely score, good costuming, and excellent acting. J., when his protests against me watching it have been overcome, will grudgingly hunker down with his laptop on the sofa ignoring it, but will invariably make some kind of commentary, “Darcy’s awkward,” or more likely, “Wow. Her mother needs a sock stuffed in her mouth.” My only real complaint with this version is that Jane is not attractive in the slightest. Rosamund Pike of the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice is a better beauty, although the only really good thing about that version is the music. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I already know I’m going to catch it from Marie for this but Emma (A&E, 1997) with Kate Beckinsale is my favorite version. She loves the Emma with Gwyenth Paltrwo, which I don’t at all. And the latest Emma with Ramola Garai, though it got mixed reviews from the crazed Austenites (with whom I do not see eye to eye), I quite liked too. In fact, this novel seems to be the most debated because main character is a bit spoiled, a busybody, and stupidly manipulative in only the way young girls who think they are more clever than they actually are can be. But I like the character of Emma quite a lot. All of Austen’s characters grow, but this is an instance of one of them growing up. “Silly things do not cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.”
Sense and Sensibility
Up until recently, I liked the 1995 Sense & Sensibility with the divine Emma Thompson, but the BBC recently did a version (which aired on my beloved PBS stateside) which I think a lot better. The ages of the actresses were more appropriate and much of the novel which had been left out of the first adaptation was put back in, making the story a bit more as rich as it should have been. And as much as I love Alan Rickman’s broodiness (in everything he’s ever done), I thought Col. Brandon seemed much more noble and likable, which he ought to be, instead of lurking in corners and sighing dramatically. I don’t go much for the Byronic types. They’re aggravating. “She was stronger alone; and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.”
Masterpiece Theatre’s version of Northanger Abbey is really fun. It’s Austen’s lone almost purely satirical novel, mercilessly lampooning those Gothic monks and ghosts previously mentioned. Both this and this version of Persuasion are really very good so it’s a coin toss there. And if I had to choose between this verision and this version of Mansfield park, I lean toward the latter, even though neither are very good. Mostly because Fanny Price is the dullest of dull heroines and does next to nothing throughout the course of the book and the second film tried to make her likable.
And because, as with Shakespeare, the most annoying sorts of people are those who take things too seriously, I’m flat out ordering all of you to hop on over to the bookstore and buy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! Partly because it is uproariously funny, partly because even J. liked it. Spoiler alert. Darcy, on the occasion of his first, pompous proposal is rewarded for his pains with a roundhouse kick to the face. Alas, Mrs. Bennett is little changed: her husband is trying to keep his daughters from the clutches of the undead…but she’s still trying to get them married.
In case you forgot, I love history. I find it fascinating. I joyfully memorized dates in school and wrote fantastic papers. Not that I had a hope or prayer of doing otherwise – my family’s library is a massive thing divided into Theology, my father’s collection of Modern Library first editions, classics, children/young adult literature, and history with an emphasis in the development of Western Culture. Our family vacations are not to theme parks as much as hiking Hadrian’s Wall, Normandy, Colonial Williamsburg, museums, castles, palaces, and ruins (true story about how all four kids, aged 20, 14, 12, and 10 climbed all over a Roman fort that was partially submerged in a stream looking for the carved symbols hidden at the base meant to protect it – which may or may not have been relief carvings of genitalia – because it was something we had never seen before in our many adventures in various Roman piles of rocks) . We are DORKS.
And everyone knows the best way to grow a dork is to start young! Ergo I bring you, Horrible Histories: a humorous, outrageous, and engrossing (emphasis on the “gross”) medium for bringing history to the masses. “It’s history, with all the horrible bits left in.” Timelines, explanations, and facts interspersed with tidbits of the unusual, gory, or just plain bizarre. And Britishly funny!