Thanks to this woman and her challenge, I spent a good deal of 2014 reading crap.
Karen, who is probably a perfectly nice person and who I really don’t blame for my Year of Semi-Crappy Reading, writes a blog my wife reads to get book suggestions. Karen threw down a challenge to her followers to read a series of classic books of their choice in 10 separate categories. What’s a classic? She made the completely arbitrary, but perfectly acceptable, ruling that a classic is anything that’s at least 50 years old. (And that makes me a classic, thank you very much.)
My wife asked if I would join her in this challenge. I thought, sure, it sounded like fun. And 10 books isn’t that many, I’d easily be able to read other, non-classics through the year and I might learn a thing or two. We picked our 10 books in January with the agreement that we could change our minds when the time came to read each category. We did not choose any of the same books, but we read the same category at the same time. I made the challenge a little harder for myself because I limited my choices to books I already owned and were, some of them, molding in boxes in my basement.
I must cop to the fact that I may not have read a book in all 10 categories. I changed so many of them from my original list that when I look back, I think something (other than me) may have gone unfulfilled. (Does that say something about what I read that I don’t remember it?)
This post will go on for a while, so I have broken it into pieces (as you might have guessed from the title), and will include, at some point, thoughts on why I think it’s so important to read the classics. I am pairing these reviews in no particular order, as I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m a curmudgeon. Though I probably am.
(P.S.: Because I read most of these books before I started this blog project, I’ll necessarily have to be light on details for most of them. My wife and I have adapted the challenge for 2015, and I’ll post as I read the books, so the reviews will be more complete.)
Category 1: A war novel
This one was easy for me: Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” has been on my shelf for years, acquired at a used book sale somewhere along the way. Now was the time. This novel, always on the list of books you MUST read before you die, is the classic war novel, so I’ve read, and contributed the phrase “Catch-22” to the American lexicon. How funny, I thought, as I dived in. How clever! I reveled in the witty wordplay. I loved the characters. I laughed and laughed. At least for about 100 pages. Then, I thought: “Is anything going to happen here? Anything at all?” I kept reading in the hopes that something would. This is a classic, for the love of God! It must be good. Another 50 pages of nothing happening and, facing another 400 pages probably exactly like the previous 150 pages, I gave up.
My wife chose “The Return of the Soldier” by Rebecca West and when I gave up on my choice, I chose this mostly because it was short. Its premise is intriguing: A soldier returns home from World War I to a wife he doesn’t remember. In fact, he thinks he’s 20 years old and can’t figure out what happened in the 15 years he can’t remember. In his mind, he’s still in the thrall of his first love, an innkeeper’s daughter. Though this daughter, now a dumpy middle-aged woman, tries to stay away, the soldier’s wife and cousin (who, inexplicably, narrates the tale) call on her to help heal the soldier’s shell-shocked mind. This isn’t a horrible book, and the resolution suffers from a lack of understanding of psychotherapy at the time it was written. And the structure is odd, too: Why have it narrated by a cousin who isn’t affected by the events? And why did it end so suddenly, was West bored? Did she run out of paper? It’s a mystery.
And that leads us to the next category.
Category 2: Mystery or suspense
I chose “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett and was glad of it. I had started this book once before only to abandon it for reasons I can’t remember. Hammett’s style and wit and plotting reveal themselves in subtle ways, always surprising with a quip (“You always…have a smooth explanation ready.” “What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?) an insight (“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”) or a description (“He looked, rather pleasantly, like a blond Satan.”). This is good writing in any genre.
My wife picked Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” a slim little volume of creepiness which was the basis for the 1963 classic film “The Haunting.” A group of people spend a couple nights in a house that may be possessed. She enjoyed it for the creep factor and my son (12) did too, though he was really angry at the ending.
That’s what happens when children get to the age that their books aren’t guaranteed to have happy endings.
Coming soon: The categories of 19th Century, 20th Century, Written by a Woman, Translation, Author new to us, American classic, Historical fiction and classic adapted into a film, play or television show.