Thursday, February 29, 2024

Books, End of February

Three months have passed since my publishing this post, during which time I've continued my reading plan.  I've completed just 10 books in that time, far short of November's tally, especially in that two of the books were quite short.  I'm continuing through a longer novel at present, the title of which I won't mention until writing the next of these posts come the end of May.

It's not my intent to strut or puff myself up.  Anyone can listen to the audio version of a book; it's just a question of time spent.  I produce this list just to show what may have been on my mind of late, what things have been influencing my thinking and what I've learned about myself.

For example there are three books I have on this list that were, as regards the writing, bad.  For two of these, I expected that ... in fact, I intentionally read one book specifically because I knew the writing would be bad.  I've been investigating a theory; but first, let's have the list out.  Title, author, last time I read it.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens — 2010

Flying Colours, C.S. Forester — 2022 (I like this book)

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald — never

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkein — 2002

The House on the Cliff, Franklin W. Dixon — 1973

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne — never

Split Infinity, Piers Anthony — 1995

Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein — 2008

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson — 2010

War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells — 2005

Some of these dates are guesses, based sometimes on having read the book when at a particular residence, or place of work, and sometimes because I read it aloud to someone else, as in the case of the Hobbit.  The Dixon book was in the drawer of my school desk when I was nine and was lost in the fire of my elementary school that I discussed on this blog some months ago.  Yes, it is a Hardy Boys book.

Which books were bad?  Well, Dixon's book, obviously.  I read a great many Hardy Boys' books when my age had single digits, not unlike many children of that time.  From the perspective that I have now, the book wasn't only juvenile and contrived, as one might expect, but painfully constructed in its sentence structure, the repetitive pattern it had of delivering exposition, it's going to the same well over and over again when building a dialogue between Frank and Joe — whom I'd always thought were equal characters, but no.  Joe's role is to set up Frank's exposition, and as a result the character is the worst kind of cardboard.

None of which should surprise anyone.  The books were made for children and Dixon may have been restrained by gawd knows what group of busy-bodies telling him how to write.  The larger point here is that for someone who eventually became a writer, it's clear these books were the worst guide I could ask for.  Worse, I could see dozens of bad habits that I used to have, and some I still have, grossly evident in the book.  Much of the pain I experienced dragging myself through the four-and-a-half hour audio came from identifying certain moments of myself in the writing.  A self-stabbing with a real knife could not have hurt more.

The impetus for taking up Dixon came from an earlier book on the above list, but I'll put that aside for the moment.  For the record, it wasn't The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter.  Before getting into that, however, I want to talk about Split Infinity, which I read specifically to see what sort of repeat of experience I'd get after the Hardy Boys.

I adored Anthony in my teens, tearing through the books like A Spell for Chameleon and On a Pale Horse, but the bloom had begun to rub away by the mid-90s, by which time I was writing professionally.  Too often I found myself wondering at Anthony's choice of phrasing or the clumsy direction of his plot work ... but all in all, back then, I hadn't felt it was so awful.  Rather, I merely considered that I'd grown up, moved on, was harder to please and so on.

But I remembered that reaction those many years ago and wondered what I'd feel about Anthony now.

Oh my gawd.

I can't say for sure if it applies to other works, but for the book I read, Anthony has this execrable habit of stepping out of the story every few pages and giving the fucking definition for some word he's just used, or being sure to explain that yes, humans do/are this thing he's just claimed.  Fuck.  It is really head-pounding stuff.  More than once I found myself saying aloud, "Oh, for the love of Christ, shuuuuut up!"  It was all I could do to muscle my way through the book, which is exactly what it felt like.  I wouldn't say it was as bad as Robin Hood, but if I was given the choice of which one I had to read again ... I'd probably have to pick Robin just because, at least, there's an excuse for it's 1880s content being bad.  Editors existed at the time that Anthony wrote this!

I have to assume that it also had deleterious effects on me in my early efforts to be a writer, as I did like the book quite a lot when I was 16, as I bought it the year it was published.  It distresses me when I remember having read the book half a dozen times in my late teens and early twenties.  I have no idea what was wrong with me.  I'm glad it's not wrong with me now.

All right.  The Hobbit.


I know, I know, this is a D&D blog, and we're talking about a holy book and all.  This could lose me some patreon support.  All I can say is that I have other ... good qualities.

No, I didn't like the book.  Not, I'm thankful to say, because of the sentence or paragraph structure.  And I think that as a children's book, it more or less holds up.  I read it aloud to my daughter when she was 8, and to Tamara who had never read the book in 2002; and while the later reading didn't exactly impress me, it was all right.  I had no real complaints.

But reading it in December, right after A Christmas Carol, it really suffered.  The characters are pretty stale, and not just because the book's been part of my memory since around 1978.  I read it the first time after seeing the Rankin/Bass cartoon; my father had bought a copy in the early 70s when Tolkien's star was rising, so it had always been around.  But reading it now, there's not much to the characters.  The multiple dwarves don't have a presence except in the fact of their number, while on paper Gandalf is kind of a dick.  Things just "happen" to Bilbo that get him into trouble, and then they just "happen" again that gets him out of it.  I can see how various film-makers have tried to give Bilbo a sense of genius (the riddling part is the best in the whole book), but honestly this genius is made of the same cloth they use to make plot armour and magic character survival dust.  Smaug, on the face of it, is there, and then not.  Maybe it was an audiobook effect (its just a 6-hour book in voice), but I found many bits and pieces of the book that I'd once thought were "cool" coming out as very definitely meh.

For those who worship the book, I imagine that comes from having not read much else ... except along the same lines.  It's easy to see how Dicken's work maintains it's 181-year tradition, though as a book it's only 2 hours and 43 minutes.  Nonetheless, it's a rich, powerful read, with every line evoking life and visual cues.  The Hobbit, in comparison, feels like a book trying to squeeze juice out of a lemon that's been drying on the counter three days.  There's juice there, to be sure ... but not a whole lot of it.

I plan to write a short take on The Scarlet Letter, but not about the writing quality.  My thoughts on The Great Gatsby can be stated briefly enough.  It's a book that I knew virtually everything about going in, though I've never actually read it.  I've discussed the book with some as though I had, but heck, I can be honest with you folks.  At, least, today.  None of you like me now anyway because of the hobbit thing.

We should not be giving Gatsby to grade school students, certainly no one younger than 17.  It wasn't part of the curriculum when I was in junior high, but it was for my daughter — and that is way, way too young an age.  The themes are best understood by those who have had a little of Nick Caraway's experience — which takes until a person has reached their mid-20s.  It does well to teach it in university, because there's a good chance the student will read it again in their 30s; but giving it to kids in grade school, it pretty much assures that the book, and anything else like it, will be hated for the rest of their lives.

I think it does an excellent job of exposing the "self-taught" model, which is alive and well everywhere on youtube.  This notion that by absorbing great books, or travelling, or doing anything that would supposedly give insight through only the effort of experience is what makes Gatsby the utter worm that he is.  Not a monster; not a bad man; not a cad or a bounder, as he's often represented, especially in film ... but a pathetic fool woefully out of his depth, pretending to be witty and able.  All through the book, he's neither.  Which I think, for most people, and especially young readers, a difficult truth to accept, even when Fitzgerald states it as plainly as English allows.  People want to believe in Gatsby; they want to see tragedy in Gatsby, because they want to see that same tragedy in themselves.  I think Fitzgerald expected this; I think the book plans much of its ending around that.  But Gatsby is only a fool.  A fool that stumbled into money and didn't know what to do with it.  Oh, how often is that play played out by those who play online.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.