How to Tell If You Are in a Jane Austen Novel (The Toast)

You probably can’t call yourself a book nerd if this article from The Toast doesn’t make you laugh. Here are a few signs you are living out a Jane Austen plot:

  • Someone disagreeable is trying to persuade you to take a trip to Bath.
  • Someone disagreeable is trying to persuade you to join a game of cards.
  • A picnic has gone horribly wrong.
  • Someone you know has fallen ill. Not melodramatically ill, just interestingly so.
  • A charming man attempts to flirt with you. This is terrible.
  • Your mother is dead or ridiculous.
  • You are in a garden, and you are astonished.

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Miscellaneous Bookish Topics

I’ve rounded up my random and momentary musings on bookish topics from the last couple of weeks into a single post. Here we go, in no particular order:

  • I am halfway through A Farewell to Arms and have (slightly) revised my opinion of Hemingway. This time around, his style is (slightly) less repetitive and his themes (war, love) more interesting. *Thanks for at least trying, Hem.*
  • My dad and I bonded over The Outsiders last fall, so for my birthday I asked him to buy me this set of rings. For those of you who don’t remember (or never read The Outsiders, because you didn’t attend an American middle school), Ponyboy recites Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” while hiding in an abandoned church with Johnny. As he lies dying in the hospital in a later scene, Johnny says his famous line: “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”

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  • Also for my birthday, a certain thoughtful husband took me to the Morgan Library, which houses J. P. Morgan’s personal collection of rare manuscripts, historically significant objects, and artistic masterpieces. It is ridiculously beautiful and ridiculously interesting. Morgan had, for example, a Gutenberg Bible, an original Mozart manuscript, and a plaster cast of George Washington’s face (he really did look just like his portraits). Here are some photos of his three-story library:

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  • One of my all-time favorite websites, TV Tropes, inspired my recent article on memorable moments from The Simpsons. TV Tropes looks at tropes and rhetorical devices in TV (obviously), but also film, literature, and many other creative forms. If you’re a reader or a writer, you’ll want to check it out—though I should warn you in advance that you’ll probably get caught up in a trope version of wikidreaming . . .

That’s all, folks. Have a great weekend, and happy reading!

#23 The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

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Isabel Archer’s biggest problem is that every man she meets wants to marry her. She is so charming, so popular, and so very beloved that her aunt can’t resist taking her on an all-expenses-paid Eurotrip; her uncle is compelled to leave her half his fortune (70,000 pounds in the 1860s); and her cousin nominates her as his sole reason to live. (And yes, he wants to marry her. More on that later.)

Isabel spends the first half of Henry James’s most popular novel breaking hearts right and left. Her suitors, hundreds of pages later, have yet to move on. Feeling crestfallen after you’ve been rejected by a woman you knew for a week? Weird, but fine. Hoping she’ll change her mind? Sad, but fine. Following her across entire continents to tell her how heartbroken you are—for years at a time—and laying on guilt trips as if she owes you fuck all?

Not OK, gents. Not OK.

Needless to say, when she does get married, and her husband grows to hate her with a passion, Isabel is utterly perplexed. But I’m so charming! she thinks. And so popular! And so beloved, and attractive, and rich!

To the reader, however, the mystery of his malice is skimpy at best. For one, his name is Gilbert Osmond—obviously a villain’s name. Second, and more importantly, no human can live up to the kind of expectations harnessed to Ms. Archer. When Madame Merle (a friend suspiciously interested third party) encourages Osmond to meet Isabel, he asks:

Is she beautiful, clever, rich, splendid, universally intelligent and unprecedentedly virtuous? It is only on those conditions that I care to make her acquaintance.

Madame Merle assures him that this description neatly “corresponds” to Isabel, the human equivalent of a profiterole. A few sad years into the future, however, Isabel is already failing on every count (except, perhaps, “rich”), to the detriment of Osmond’s matrimonial ROI.

To everyone else, though, Isabel has lost none of her appeal. There are still several mopey losers stalking her—notably her cousin Ralph, a full-time invalid for whom stalking is a challenging hobby. Manly professions of love have, by this point, become comedic for the reader, and tedious for Isabel. Here’s her reaction to Ralph’s romantic entreaties:

Was he too on that tiresome list?

Contrary to Osmond’s line of thinking, perfection may actually be Isabel’s greatest flaw. You know that old platitude moms hand out like lunchboxes to their fourteen-year-old daughters, looking with the eyes of unconditional love past braces and puppy fat: “Honey, flaws are what make you interesting”?

Well, it turns out that’s absolutely true. I’m not saying those fourteen-year-old girls will get Prom invitations from the Jonas Brothers, or anything. But my biggest point of dispute with The Portrait of a Lady is its supremely boring heroine in Isabel Archer. Her commitment to her own “independence” lasts about as long as this sentence. Her ambitions fall prey to the usual predators of marriage and motherhood. Duty to her husband and social convention wins out, in most cases, over her own feelings.

None of this would be as grating if we weren’t repeatedly reminded of Isabel’s (supposed) independence, ambition, and defiance of tradition—and if Isabel weren’t constantly patting herself on the back for these very qualities. She’s not even as autonomous or accomplished as her friend Henrietta Stackpole. If Isabel were ever to meet Countess Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence while walking the streets of New York or London, she would look like a wilting wallflower in comparison.

All that said, I enjoyed my trip across Europe through the eyes of Henry James and Ms. Archer—particularly the plot twist I inexplicably did not foresee. I just wish there had been a scene where all of Isabel’s lame suitors lined up, one in front of the other, only to be knocked down like dominoes. Literally or figuratively—I’m not picky.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

James is not as funny as Jane Austen, or as gifted as William Makepeace Thackeray. His ambition is weak next to George Eliot’s, and his themes look timid up against the Brontës’. But as a fan of 19th-century Brit lit, I’m going to let this one sneak its way onto the Greatest Bookshelf anyway.

Favorite Quotes:

“You are too fond of your liberty.”
“Yes, I think I am very fond of it. But I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.”
“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.
“So as to choose,” said Isabel.

She wondered whether his sense of humour were by chance defective.

She had too many ideas for herself; but that was just what one married for, to share them with some one else.

I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.

Read: 2015

Confessions from a Tired Reader

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It’s time for some not-so-juicy confessions here at The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. I am cracking open the door to my soul today for no less than four reasons:

1. It’s important to tell the truth (though it’s equally important to tell it nicely).
2. Confessions are great for bonding, and I think we could stand to get to know each other better.
3. I have a debilitating condition wherein no lid can contain my emotions except in dire professional situations.
4. I couldn’t keep these confessions to myself any longer (see #3), and I’m desperate for some help.

I am hopeful that good will come of this, and very confident that it sort of maybe might. Here we go.

Confession #1: Sometimes I worry that reading (and writing about) classic literature is unforgivably pretentious. 

I am devotedly anti-snobbery, especially when it comes to books. I actively address the classics with irreverence in an attempt to shrink their overlarge heads. I read and discuss all kinds of books on my blog. I take time out to fight against book-shaming.

But the very idea of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge is, perhaps, irredeemably snooty to some. And, as an anxiety-inclined person, I find this occasionally distracting. Then I think, “Who cares? Nobody is even paying attention to me, probably,” and move on with my life.

And then I worry about it all over again a few days later.

Confession #2: Sometimes I think I’m reading the same thing over and over again. 

The Awakening is basically Anna Karenina, which is basically Madame Bovary. And while—honest to God—I enjoyed all three, I would also enjoy reading about a woman who doesn’t have an extramarital affair and then kill herself.

Similarly, there’s lots of overlap among the 19th-century Brit lit I’ve encountered. And if you asked me 30 years from now, I’m not sure I could tell you the difference between The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid.

Criticism of the classics is, I’ve discovered, unpopular in many (often snobby) circles. People are very attached to books they’ve enjoyed, books that have moved them, or books they pretend to like for status. But I’m committed to My Truth, or some shit—and often, My Truth is “Didn’t I already read this book?”

So there. I said it. I hope you can handle My Truth.

Confession #3: Sometimes the classics bore me to the point of revulsion.

The appeal of reading the classics as an adult—at least, for me—is the minimum guarantee of quality. I like to read excellent writing, and I don’t like to waste my time on not-excellent writing.

There almost never is one, though—a minimum guarantee of quality, I mean. Not even with the classics. We’re all far too picky to like everything we read, no matter how much we want to. So, inevitably, there are classics that read to me as offensively dull. Belligerently, in-my-face, asking-for-it dull. And, inevitably, my motivation starts to wilt on the stem as my eyes casually melt out of my face.

This is how I’m feeling now, (not-so-)incidentally. I’m currently midway through three classics, and I’m currently finding each of them insufferable. One of them started out well enough, but has since repeated itself over and over on a long, tedious loop. The second was described by many Amazon reviewers as “hilarious,” despite putting me to sleep on the subway more than once. The third might be interesting if I weren’t listening to the audiobook—but I refuse to give it up and switch to paperback. Audiobooks aren’t cheap.

I am finally admitting to my current readerly resentment because:

a) I wouldn’t want anyone to think The Challenge is easy/smooth/overflowing with previously unimagined delights,

and, more importantly,

b) I’d rather do something than just complain about it.

With this in mind, I’ve carried out some careful basic research. It turns out that much of the advice around goal-chasing is predictable: Define your reasons for pursuing your goal, and remind yourself of them often. Find a way to make it fun. Reward yourself along the way. Visualize the result.

Some of these are (sort of) applicable to a reading challenge (I guess). One useful strategy I’ve invoked is outlined in this Forbes article: Break down a long-term goal into smaller, easier pieces. Obviously, my goal of reading 100 classics has already been broken down into smaller pieces called “books.” But even within that framework, I can divide my approach into simpler steps like “read 25 pages a day.”

The Forbes piece also suggests that when a period of demotivation hits, I should think of “hard-core endurance models” like cancer patients and Holocaust survivors. So, um, there’s that.

This wikiHow article on reading boring books offers mostly pointless advice until the end, when it says (and I quote): “remove distractions” and “just get it done.” Which begs the question, Why did I think wikiHow would be helpful?

For now, then, for lack of a better option, I’m going to keep searching for answers—and I’m going to take a much-needed break from laborious reading. I’ll let you know if and when I manage to make stale, timeworn literature read like The Da Vinci Code. I remain, as always, kind of hopeful-ish.

Final thoughts: Did we bond over these confessions? Please say yes, because the only alternative is that I embarrassed myself. In either case, good luck with your Wednesday—and happy reading!

50 Quotes from 50 Classics

I’m sharing this again for anyone who missed it the first time around. You do, occasionally, come across some phenomenal writing in the classics … which, I guess, is the whole point.

Happy reading!

The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

50 Quotes from 50 Classics

I spent a lot of time in December amassing, and then culling, unforgettable quotes from 50 classics that appear on the List of 100 Greatest Books of All Time. Here is the result:

50 Quotes from 50 Classics” (Headstuff)

Some of these quotes were easy to select. For example, the Wuthering Heights quote I chose is practically a cliché at this point, but it is literally the only line I liked out of the entire book. Others were much more difficult to judge the “best” out of all the pretty things that particular author wrote at us in his or her most famous work. Dante comes to mind, as do Gabriel García Márquez and Jane Austen. They’re just too Great to make life any easier for the rest of us.

Enjoy the quotes at your leisure. Be warned, though: some of them are not representative samples. In other words…

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Quote of the Week

Suddenly I found myself on Times Square. I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City.

-Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Let’s Make Fun of The Pilgrim’s Progress (Again)

Making fun of the classics is a Thing that I do. Mostly I do it here, at The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. But sometimes my reviews get exported to other publications—in this case, Punchnel’s, who generously recycles my classic reviews in a monthly series.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is up and better than ever. From John Bunyan’s “Author’s Apology” to the allegorical Christian’s long-predicted demise, there’s just so, so much to make fun of.

Happy reading!