Recently, I took a chance and became involved in what can only be described as one of those viral ‘pass it on’ statuses on Facebook. Usually, I ignore such posts. However this one took my interest: it was about reading.
The post involves liking the status, recieving instructions, and sending your favourite book to the address provided. Once you have done that, you then post it as your own status and pass the information on. When your status is passed on, you’ll recieve someone’s favourite book in the mail.
I didnt take the decsion lightly, either. I spent about a week choosing a book. And in order to explain why I chose the book I did, I decided to write a letter to the unknown reader.
And because it has been a really long time since I wrote anything, let alone posted on my wordpress, I thought I would share it with everyone here as well.
Plus, I’ve always wanted to be a writer of letters. Maybe this is where it all begins?
If you’re a part of this project, it is quite obvious that you enjoy the many pleasures and challenges that reading brings us. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be joining us on this adventure.
If you’re anything like myself, choosing one book to pass on to someone else is quite a challenge. Usually you know a person’s taste and preferences, and can recommend something aligned with their taste – or even something slightly outside their interests, hopefully getting them to just dip their toe into the fruitful spring water. You don’t want to recommend a book that was a source of great enjoyment for yourself and pass it on to someone who doesn’t share your enthusiasms.
My decision to pass on this particular book derives from many questions: Do you enjoy the Ancient Classics? Or even the Modern Classics? Do you enjoy books that analyse literature, or collections of essays on a wide range of topics? Do you enjoy Young Adult novels, science fiction, or even science books? Would you devour a book on philosophy, or have the patience to read and decipher poetry? Or, to the irritation of most Australians, could you read a book on Australian History?
So, essentially, the decision comes down to fiction versus non-fiction.
I want to pass on a great book, not just a book. There are just too many books in the world and not enough time to read them all – a point I’m slowly coming to terms with and becoming more selective with what I read.
Frank Furedi is correct when he says, “Reading has transformed human consciousness and the world.” Reading isn’t just a form of communication, or pleasure: “it opened the gate to knowledge about virtually everything that is important.” There is so much power contained with in the covers of a book and often the power is downplayed (especially in society today): “Is it any surprise that the anxiety between literary belief and the religious belief was most acute at the high moment of the European novel?” asks James Wood,
I think not. For it was not just the assent of science but perhaps the ascent of the novel that helped to kill off Jesus’s divinity, when the novel gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative – and in turn a new skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative.
The novel, as an art form, is the nearest thing to life we have – and it can teach us, as a society, and as individuals, a wide range of valuable things.
Nonetheless, the true purpose of this letter, rather than give you a lecture on reading and literature in general, is to explain how I arrived at my decision to give you the book I have.
I first contemplated passing on The Iliad as my favourite book. Written around 750BC, the Greek poem still answers modern and existential questions almost everyone asks himself or herself: How do we fill our short lives with meaning? What makes us human? And how can we seek and obtain forgiveness – even from those who have wronged us the most?
The book begins with the word μῆνιν, or Mēnin, meaning rage, and continues:
Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls…
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
Homer’s poem does get the Goddess to sing and it’s a marvelous song: it sings to you in different tones and melodies, pitching to illusive heights and collapsing to horrific lows. The song is layered with chaos – however that is part of its attraction: the poems ability to mirror the madness and disaster of war.
The Iliad traces Achilles’ intense trajectory of his rage – towards King Agamemnon, Hector, and the Trojans – while simultaneously revealing the rage that the Gods have for each other, the Trojans or Achaeans, and the lovers Paris and Helen. Homer is also able to spiral outwards, giving the reader a complete picture of the Trojan War. The Iliad contrasts itself between the grisly violence of battle scenes (some of Homer’s greatest descriptions are injuries and wounds inflicted on the fragile human body) and the evocations of ordinary life that give the poem its great tenderness; including the immense grief that overcomes Achilles when Patroclus dies, and the moving scene when King Priam goes to Achilles to get the body of his son, Hector, back.
Through the carnage, Homer leaves little reminders of peaceful times, of a peaceful world, that are looming just out of reach. There are scenes of extraordinary domestic intimacy, filled with tender emotions that stand in complete contrast to the immense fury of Achilles. One of the most powerful and famous scenes comes in Book 6, where Hector, the protector of Troy, comes home from the battlefield to spend time with his wife, Andromache. She fears for his safety and begs for him to stay out of the fight – a plea of desperation because they both know he can’t, there is too much at stake: honour, life, the defense of Troy, and, foremost in Hector’s mind, the safety of his wife.
The poignancy of Hector’s submissive vision of the inevitable future is somehow is exceeded by what happens next: Hector leans over, still in full armor, including his helmet, to pick-up his young son, who recoils screaming back into the nurses breast until his father takes off his helmet. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a greater metaphor, or symbol, for how war makes us unrecognisable to us and to others.
Homer, throughout book 6, is also able to juxtapose Hector’s dedication to his wife, child, and city to his distaste towards his brother, Paris, and Helen – the main catalysts for the Trojan War. Hector’s anger towards Paris is palpable: he, unlike Paris, could control his lust even when tempted by Helen. Furthermore, Hector, along with other brave men from Troy, are continually fighting on the battlefield, risking everything to save Troy, while Paris spends his time with Helen far away from the war that rages on outside Troy’s grand walls.
The Iliad remains as the first and most influential work of the Western Canon. I’ll finish with Daniel Mendelsohn, classicist, critic, and essayist, reflects on why The Iliad remains so influential today:
You could say that Western Civilisation has likewise armed itself, over the bloodstained centuries and millennia, with The Iliad – another richly detailed work of art that provides an image of every possible extreme of human experience, a reminder of who we are and who we sometimes strive to be…Whoever Homer was and however he made his poems, the song he sings still goes on today.
The second book I contemplated passing on was Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. Consider the Lobster is a collection of essays varying from subject to subject and taken from a wide variety of publications: Rolling Stone, Gourmet, and several literary magazines. Wallace was a rare writer, who, in his short literary career, stands amongst some great essayists such as Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf, Christopher Hitchens, David Hume, Zadie Smith, George Orwell, and Meghan Daum, as an illustrious essayist. Wallace, in some cases, out shines them all with his fierce intellect, humorous observations, and deep philosophical thought. These attributes are not only evident in his non-fiction, but also his fiction. Novels such as Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and Oblivion, won awards, international acclaim, and his name added to the list as one of the most influential novelists over the past 50 years.
The book came back to my attention earlier this year after reading two drastically different introductions to two different volumes of essays – matching the distance of ocean that separates these countries, and the two different cultures they live. Ariel Levy, in what can only be described as a foolish and snobby statement in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2015, said:
The quintessential essayist parades an enormous ego and it does so in a modest setting, that is, within a genre widely acknowledged to be unequal to fiction, poetry, and drama.
To myself, and others, the essay can be equal and even paramount to fiction, poetry, and drama.
For example, compare Levy’s ‘quintessential’ comment to the critic Geordie Williamson’s in his introduction to The Best Australian Essays 2015, where he describes the perfect essay:
The essays I like best are those which swerve across the mid point of the author’s argument like a drunk driver over broken white lines, climb their ideas like a fakir up a magic rope, roll delirious inside their own thought’s pitch and yaw.
Because the essay, in all its guises, all its weathers, has turned out to be the most durable of literary forms to make its way from paper page to iPad screen; and it is also, I would argue, the most exciting field of writerly endeavor being practiced in Australia (and indeed the Anglosphere) today.
Williamson is not only exact in describing what makes the perfect essay, but also how it is one of the most important literary forms. Essays are indeed “wonky, idiosyncratic, fragmentary, paradoxical, drunk on words.” Essays encompass so many emotions; they can be the best storytellers, yarners, and ‘bullshitters’ – in Williamson’s words – full of lyricism, wit, arguments, jokes, profanities, profiles, and a surgeon’s scalpel to a wide range of issues – social, cultural, economic, historical. They are by no means basic or egotistical, and they are definitely not unequal to other forms of writing.
Williamson ends his essay with a subtle and very Australian line: “If you think the essay is something lesser, mate – have a read of these.” (Sebastian Smee’s essay on Goya, Confronting the Unthinkable in Goya’s Art, is a must read.) I encourage you to follow Williamson’s words (just make sure you pass this along to Levy, too).
And one such collection that encompasses all these qualities is Wallace’s Consdier the Lobster. For beginners, I can’t think of any writers that can begin an essay, let alone a collection of essays with the following paragraph:
The American Academy of Emergency Medicine confirms it: Each year, between one and two dozen adult US males are admitted to ERs after having castrated themselves. With kitchen tools, usually, sometimes wire cutters. In answer to the obvious question, surviving patients most often report that their sexual urges had become a source of intolerable conflict and anxiety. The desire for perfect release and the real-world impossibility of perfect, whenever-you-want-it release had together produced a tension they could no longer stand.
From here, Wallace follows Williamson’s formula of the perfect essay: always swerving, pitching, rolling, and climbing his ideas.
Wallace loves language – that is well known. But is he a novelist? Literary critic? A philosopher? An essayist? Or is he a storyteller? The only other topic everyone can agree on – including himself – was Wallace’s love of tennis. Robert McCrum describes Wallace as a “master working at the extreme edge of the radar, asking question after question about the mad, mad world in which he finds himself.” And what does Wallace write about in this mad, mad world? Well, anything and everything. Everything is left on the page – even if it is in the form of a page-and-a-half footnote.
Wallace provides the reader with an insightful and hilarious look at America’s porn industry awards nights, Big Red Son (that is where the above quote comes from), reviews and criticism, one on John Updike – of which, the closing sentences are directed at the character and John Updike, describing both as, “Rampant or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the first page. It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he is so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.”
Wallace also spends time questioning and looking at Kafka’s work and trying to persuade others that Kafka did indeed have a funny bone; reflects with an emotional essay on the September 11 attacks; and spending seven days on John McCain’s campaign bus. Also in this collection is an essay on Dostoevsky, and possibly one of the best critical reviews of a book I’ve ever read: How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.
However, the title essay, Consider the Lobster, is possibly one of the best essays ever written. Based on the central premise of ‘Do lobsters feel pain?’ Wallace embarks on a piece of travel writing layered with several other subjects: philosophy, taste and presentation, science, and morality. Can someone send a copy to Levy as well?
There were so many more works I thought about and could talk to you about, however, I’ve already taken so much of your time with this long-winded letter. Other works that I considered were Morality by Christopher Hitchens; The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood; Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh; anything by James Joyce; H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald; some Australian history told by David Hunt with his book Girt, or Looking for Blackfella’s Point by Mark McKenna; or, finally, possibly one of the best collections of poetry I’ve read: Chorale at the Crossing by Peter Porter.
But, ultimately, I chose Stoner by John Williams.
It is a novel that has enjoyed resurgence in popularity over the previous several years. Much of this resurgence in popularity is due to the New York Review of Books Classics reprint of all of William’s books: Stoner, Augustus – which shared the U.S. National Book Awards in 1973 – and Butcher’s Crossing. The reprint of these books not only saved William’s work from being added to the long list of forgotten authors, but it also highlighted the rare achievement of Stoner: flawlessness. It is a beautifully written novel and is deeply moving. The characters are memorable, full of tenderness, honesty, and, at times, are extremely callous to each other.
Another aspect of the novel’s achievement is its challenge to the concept of the existing American Hero, “standing, like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.” It is true that Stoner stands along side Hopper’s paintings. They both convey a poetic consistency of patience, development, and richness of meaning through a complex narrative, offering a deep sense of moral grandeur that becomes moving to the viewer – and reader – of the fragmented nature of our own lives.
Stoner’s humble university life and bleak legacy begin on William’s first page with a straight forward description and somewhat melancholy reality of Stoner’s life:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses…
Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves of their careers.
It is an opening to a novel that immediately draws you in – you want to know Stoner and his story right from the beginning.
Characters don’t have to die. It is the author’s choice to end their life – a choice not taken lightly, either. However, characters can live for eternity in novels, poems, or stories: they don’t quite die. They come back to us through second, third, or fourth readings. “The laugh of fictional life last longer than the bloody cough of death.”
Stoner isn’t just a melancholy novel about a professor who left no lasting legacy amongst his colleagues and students: it is a novel about work, the hard unyielding work of farms, the work of living within a poisonous and destructive marriage while also raising a young girl, and the work of teaching literature to mostly unresponsive and banal students – something that I personally experience almost everyday teaching at high school.
Reading is definitely a pleasure that always promises so much and always delivers. As Junot Diaz says,
For it is in the simple act of reading where the living and the dead, the real and the imagined, meet. It is in the simple act of reading where we exercise those two most sacred of human vocations: compassion and creativity. For as we know, without either of these primes there is no possibility for a humanity present or a past worth talking about.
Literature is the human mind at the very pinnacle of its ability to imagine, express, and interpret the mad world we inhabit. It enriches life in ways that television and movies only wish they could. Literature in all its forms has power and the ability to makes us better humans – better observers, better learners, and the inhibitors of numerous worlds. Or, as Christopher Hitchens said, “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – also the soul.”
I hope you enjoy my choice. And I hope this letter wasn’t too laborious to you, or any inconvenience; and, hopefully, it can give you some other reading suggestions for the future – especially if my choice is not to your liking.
Your Fellow Reader.