James Joyce: #31 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, #2 Ulysses, #73 Finnegans Wake

Buckle up, friends. Put on your helmet and your kneepads. Duct tape yourself in a cocoon of bubble wrap, strap on some pillows, and pray to Jesus, because this won’t be just a bumpy ride or a Fourth Dimension roller coaster.

This is the literary apocalypse.

Before we heave ourselves into the word-pit of fire, let me introduce you to Mr. James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. Born in Dublin in 1882, Joyce was the eldest of ten children and evidently had something to prove. His first book, Dubliners (1914), is a collection of short stories; he followed it up in 1916 with the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His next novel was Ulysses, whose 1922 publication marked a pivotal moment in the modernist literary movement. Finnegans Wake (1939) would be his final work—his magnum opus and his death sentence—and would take him 17 years to write (and re-write, and re-re-write).

Joyce’s career was groundbreaking, and rule-breaking, and then some. In Portrait, he splashed around in the literary techniques he would eventually plunge into: stream-of-consciousness digressions, interior monologues, and unapologetic realism. Portrait tells the coming-of-age story of Stephen Dedalus, a heavily flawed student-turned-artist whose behavior alternates between hedonism and strict religious devotion. Stephen serves as an alter ego to Joyce, an allusion to the mythological Daedalus, and, eventually, the tormented Telemachus of UlyssesOdyssey-inspired cast.

Are you still with me? Great! Now, hold on tight.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a tough read. It takes itself very seriously, drifting in tone between poetry and sermon. It’s stuffy at the best of times, and inscrutable at the worst.

And it’s fucking child’s play—quite literally—next to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Joyce’s final projects took decades of his life, and probably decades off his life. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are gorgons among books: many-headed, dreadful to behold, legendary, immortal—but not quite invincible. But when I say “not quite invincible,” I mean it would take—has taken—is taking—an army to defeat them.

We’ll tackle Ulysses first.

In a 1956 interview, William Faulkner had this to say about Joyce’s most famous novel:

You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.

A “day in the life” portrait of one Leopold Bloom, Ulysses is a mashup of fragmented thoughts, actions, feelings, memories, and dialogue, collectively intended to mimic the disorganization of the mind. Each episode corresponds to an event in The Odyssey, and each character to one of Homer’s.

Stylistic experimentation further complicates the narrative: In a chapter about music, for example, Joyce opens with a kind of “overture” composed of phrases from the text to come. Sounds such as a tapping cane and jingling car keys lend rhythm to the passage. In another chapter, Joyce’s voice follows the evolution of the English language from Latinate prose to Elizabethan, Gothic, and even American slang styles, among many others.

If I had to make one and only one complaint about Ulysses, it would be that Joyce determinedly prioritizes innovation and novelty over reader appreciation. In other words, it often feels as if Joyce would rather be misunderstood than understood—that he’d rather perplex than entertain—out of a sense of intellectual superiority. But why choose between respect and popularity when you’re talented enough to earn both?

As a form of protest, I have decided not to fear or love him. Instead, I vow to maintain a stubborn indifference.

Last up, we have Finnegans Wake—the most impenetrable book on The List by far. Regularly cited as the most difficult/challenging/inaccessible novel ever written, Finnegans Wake would be exactly as (in)coherent read backward as forward. (And, knowing Joyce, reading it backward may actually be reading it as intended.)

So what is Finnegans Wake about? According to Samuel Beckett, it is “not about something, it is that something itself,” an assessment that manages to be as pretentious as it is unhelpful. Michael Chabon offers nine different interpretations of its subject matter, ranging from “nothing,” “everything,” and “Hell if I know” to:

Recurrence, figured through the heavy use of recurrent initials (HCE, ALP), recurrent digits (1132, 566), recurrent imagery (giants, towers, heaps, and mounds), recurrent characters from jokes and literature (a Russian general who gets shot in the ass, Swift’s Vanessa), recurrent historical figures (Parnell, Napoleon, Saint Patrick), recurrent dyads (Adam and Eve, Mutt and Jeff), trinities (the Trinity), quartets (the Evangelists) and duodectets (jurors, apostles), recurrent snatches and snippets of balladry, recurrent garbled quotations from Swift, the Duke of Wellington, Mark Twain, etc.

and/or:

Joyce’s helplessness in the face of language, his glossolalia, the untrammeled riverine flow of words and wordplay in which James Joyce plunged, and swam, and drowned; the compulsive neologism that echoes, typifies, and indeed in a clinical sense accounts, genetically, for the schizophrenia—at times characterized by uncontrollable bursts of surprising and beautiful utterances—that afflicted his daughter, Lucia, and led to her eventual institutionalization.

He is possibly right on all counts, or equally wrong.

Recurrence and wordplay, at least, are well-established fixtures of Finnegans Wake, though the latter is more immediately apparent than the former. Nearly every word on every page is corrupted, complicated, or translated into something new or else. The puns come fast and furious; literary allusions abound; onomatopoeia gets a nod; and obscurity of meaning is less a product than a method. In fact, many layers of meaning can be dug out of every word and sentence. William York Tindall, author of A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, dissected the protagonist’s surname, Earwicker, thus:

In it Ear (or time) is combined with wick (village or place, from Latin vicus). Place is space. A union of [Earwicker’s sons] the twins (Shem, time; Shaun, space), Earwicker is time-space. Ear suggests Eire and wicker suggests Ford of the Hurdles (made of wickerwork) or Dublin; hence Earwicker could mean a dweller (wicker) in Dublin, Ireland. In a pub time-place becomes “Time, please!”

Um, OK. Moving on.

Once drafted, each passage was deliberately convoluted, then mutilated further with every revision. “Universal history” became “manyvoiced moodmoulded cyclewheeling history.” “River” became “riverrun.” Historical figures and events were layered over Joyce’s own characters and their actions, and the whole narrative rendered in stream-of-consciousness.

I know, I know, you’re dying to read an excerpt. But didn’t anyone ever tell you to be careful what you wish for?

The following paragraph appears on page 100:

Achdung! Pozor! Attenshune! Vikeroy Besights Smucky Yung Pigeschoolies. Tri Paisdinernes Eventyr Med Lochlanner Fathach I Fiounnisgehaven. Bannalanna Bangs Ballyhooly Out Of Her Buddaree Of A Bullavogue.

And here’s what Tindall made of it:

“Achdung! . . . ,” a confusion of tongues as at Babel, not meant perhaps to be understood. Such confusions are also a comment on the difficulty of communicating. The present instance, a mixture of pig-Danish, pig-Gaelic, and pig-English, seems to mean this: Attention! The Viking king visits beautiful young girls. Three somebodies adventure with the giant foreigner in Phoenix Park. But banana Anna bangs the ballyhoo out of her buddy. (Bally is Gaelic for city.)

So glad to have that cleared up, aren’t we?

I can guess what you’re thinking. The whole book can’t be that bad, right? I obviously selected the toughest excerpt I could find to strike terror into your stout heart, didn’t I? Well, let’s try a little experiment. I’m going to flip to a random page and type what I find there:

Ah now, it was tootwoly torrific, the mummurrlubejubes! And then after that they used to be so forgetful, counting motherpeributts (up one up four) to membore her beaufu mouldern maiden name, for overflauwing, by the dream of woman the owneirist, in forty lands. From Greg and Doug on pour Greg and Mat and Mar and Lu and Jo, now happily buried, our four! And there she was right enough, that lovely sight enough, the girleen bawn asthore, as for days galore, of planxty Gregory. Egory. O bunket not Orwin! Ay, ay.

SO THERE.

The book, notably, features words and expressions from sixty languages, many of these tortured into puns alongside their English comrades. The title itself is a pun:Finnegan’s Wake” is a 19th-century Irish ballad about the wake of Tim Finnegan, who died falling off a ladder—or so his mourners believe. Joyce performed some grammatical sleight of hand (well, OK, he removed an apostrophe) and left us with Finnegans (plural noun) Wake (verb).

This is, of course, fitting, as Finnegans Wake is most often summarized as a dream narrative—a single night inside the mind of Earwicker (who may also, or alternatively, take the form of a Mr. Porter). The abandonment of plot, character development, and other traditional narrative structures is more easily justified within this context… but no easier on the reader.

My take? Finnegans Wake is a long game of Mad Gab, but a lot less fun. It’s Dr. Seuss, but a lot less cute. It is, in the words of one illustrator, “like trying to read while drunk.” No doubt, it changes your perspective on literature—not in some lofty, intellectual way (at least, in my experience), but insofar as it makes every other book seem elementary by comparison.

But most of all, finding myself on the other side of Finnegans Wake, I’m convinced that it’s not meant to be read—it’s meant to be studied. Joyce reportedly said that his goal was “to keep the critics busy for 300 years,” and we’re well on our way. For his Reader’s Guide, Tindall consulted numerous reference books and sat down with grad students at Columbia “in the belief that a committee, reading the text, talking it over, and bringing to it a variety of languages and learning, might do more with the book than I alone.” Decades of research and hundreds of researchers are bound to have both under- and over-analyzed this infamous mad-sterpiece.

Cyclical in nature, the book ends with the first half of a sentence and begins with the end of it. Joyce says on page 120 that the “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia” would make his way through “the Wake

a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim.

To that I say:

Re-Joyce? You’re dreaming.

Are They Three of the Greatest Books of All Time?

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Yawn.

Ulysses: Stretch.

Finnegans Wake: Faint.

Favorite Quotes:

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night, though he knew it was in God’s power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy.

One single instant was enough for the trial of a man’s soul. One single instant after the body’s death, the soul had been weighed in the balance.

I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.

Ulysses:

I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives.

With thee it was not as with many that will and would and wait and never do.

He heard in a profound ancient male unfamiliar melody the accumulation of the past.

Once by inadvertence, twice by design he challenges his destiny.

Finnegans Wake:

Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! 

There is comfortism in the knowledge that often hate on first hearing comes of love by second sight.

And into the river that had been a stream (for a thousand of tears had gone eon her and come on her and she was stout and struck on dancing and her muddied name was Missisliffi) there fell a tear, a singult tear, the loveliest of all tears (I mean for those crylove fables fans who are ‘keen’ on the pretty-pretty commonface sort of thing you meet by hopeharrods) for it was a leaptear. But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh! I’se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay! 

Where in the waste is the wisdom?

Read: 2014; 2016; 2017

Quick Reviews, Part V

#60 U.S.A., John Dos Passos

John Dos Passos’s historical novels The 42nd Parallel1919, and The Big Money were published together as the U.S.A. trilogy throughout the 1930s. Soaring in ambition, lengthy in execution, and experimental in styleU.S.A. chronicles the early decades of the 20th century—before, during, and after the First World War.

Each novel is constructed in four narrative modes. The first, and most familiar, is a series of fictional narratives following twelve characters as they make their way up the ladder of American society. The second, called the “Newsreel,” is a collection of headlines, article excerpts, advertisements, and song lyrics curated from major newspapers of the era. The third, known as the “Camera Eye,” is a stream-of-consciousness autobiography describing Dos Passos’s own life story. The fourth is an assortment of biographies recounting the lives of public figures from the period.

In other words, U.S.A. reads like a history book gone mad. It’s not exactly fiction, and it’s not exactly non-fiction, and it definitely stretches the definition of “novel.” It is equally concerned with real events and unreal characters. I may not be the target audience for this Frankenstein patchwork of a text, but I can think of a few people who are—and I don’t just mean the author’s contemporaries, who showered it with improbable acclaim.

Highlights of Dos Passos’s masterwork include:

  • Charlie’s bar fight with an opponent who whips out a machete,
  • learning that Thomas Edison first grew to fame at age 15 as the only person ever to print a newspaper from a moving train, and
  • the hopelessly obsolete slang terms, from “hunky dory” (good, fine) to “lettuce” and “kale” (both synonyms for money).

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

U.S.A. is original, but not especially well-crafted… so let’s call it one of the goodest books of all time and leave it at that.

Favorite Quotes:

Ned never said anything unless the talk came around to drinking or sailingships; whenever politics or the war or anything like that came up he had a way of closing his eyes and throwing back his head and saying Blahblahblahblah.

If they thought the war was lousy wait till they see the peace.

Read: 2016


#90 Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

First things first: I loved this book. Loved it. This is the kind of book that makes the worst of The List worth fumbling through, and puts better-known authors to shame. This is the kind of book that sticks with you years later—that carries a great first impression into a long-term admiration. This is the kind of book you give enthusiastically as a gift, but only to readers you respect.

This is the kind of book that makes you jealous of the author.

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) follows three generations of an African American family from the Reconstruction era in the South to the streets of 1930s Harlem. Relying heavily on Biblical themes, allusions, terminology, and rhythm of the King James variety, many critics have noted that the novel reads like a sermon.

Tackling heavyweight themes doesn’t always make for a Great book, but it doesn’t do this one any harm. The chief protagonist, 14-year-old John Grimes, struggles with family conflicts, a religious crisis, and his own coming-of-age, along with more peripheral issues like racism and sexuality. Go Tell It on the Mountain is, in fact, semi-autobiographical: After a religious awakening at the age of 14, Baldwin himself became a minister, preaching for three years at a Pentecostal church in Washington Heights.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. In a world of native advertising, Twitter, and emojis-as-wit, it might be time to remind ourselves what quality writing looks like.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Lawd, yes.

Favorite Quotes:

As the years passed, she replied only: “I’m going away from here.” And it hung, this determination, like a heavy jewel between her breasts; it was written in fire on the dark sky of her mind.

Men spoke of how the heart broke up, but never spoke of how the soul hung speechless in the pause, the void, the terror between the living and the dead; how, all garments rent and cast aside, the naked soul passed over the very mouth of Hell.

With the birth of Gabriel, which occurred when she was five, her future was swallowed up. There was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel’s—to which, since Gabriel was a manchild, all else must be sacrificed. Her mother did not, indeed, think of it as sacrifice, but as logic: Florence was a girl, and would by and by be married, and have children of her own, and all the duties of a woman; and this being so, her life in the cabin was the best possible preparation for her future life. But Gabriel was a man; he would go out one day into the world to do a man’s work, and he needed, therefore, meat, when there was any in the house, and clothes, whenever clothes could be bought, and the strong indulgence of his womenfolk, so that he would know how to be with women when he had a wife. And he needed the education that Florence desired far more than he, and that she might have got if he had not been born.

Slow tears rose to her eyes; of joy, for what she had come to; of anguish, for the road that had brought her here.

Read: 2015


#97 Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Like James Baldwin, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s first book would become his most celebrated—and, like Go Tell It on the Mountain, Journey to the End of the Night (1932) is semi-autobiographical.

But this time we accompany antihero Ferdinand Bardamu from the trenches of World War I to the streets of colonial Africa. From there, he leads us to the Ford factory in Detroit and then homeward to France. Bardamu, disillusioned to the point of cynicism by his experiences as a soldier, is highly critical of the “slaughterhouse” of war, declaring cowardice to be the only safeguard against its lunacy.

My own flashbacks to Catch-22 proved relevant: Céline was, apparently, a substantial influence on Joseph Heller. But Céline’s influence was broader than that by far. French literature had never seen anything quite like Journey—full of slang, obscenities, and vernacular, with an emphasis on the rhythm of spoken language. The book’s release was met with controversy, and Céline narrowly missed out on the Prix Goncourt in a contentious vote.

The end of this anti-nationalist, anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist novel sees Bardamu working as a medical doctor in a poor suburb of Paris, calling war and illness “two infinities of nightmare.” It is precisely this beautiful, blunt language that makes Journey to the End of the Night so compelling—and precisely the kind of melancholy that makes it a tough read.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m going to reserve my judgment until next time. This is going back on my TBR.

Favorite Quotes:

That was the only time France ever saved my life, otherwise the opposite has been closer to the truth.

After all, why wouldn’t there be an art of ugliness as well as beauty?

Certain words are hidden in with the rest, like stones. They’re not very noticeable, but before long they make all the life that’s in us tremble, every bit of it in its weakness and its strength.

You can lose your way groping among the shadows of the past.

Read: 2015


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#79 Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White

One of only a handful of classics focused entirely on animals, Charlotte’s Web is a masterpiece of children’s literature that resonates long into adulthood. Simple in style but warm in tone, E. B. White’s barnyard tale is a testament to the power of friendship, with no trace of sentimentality.

Wilbur the pig is the runt of the litter, but his life is saved by a farmer’s daughter named Fern. When Wilbur is sold to Fern’s uncle, he receives a chilly welcome from the other barnyard animals—except Charlotte the spider. Wilbur soon discovers that his days are numbered, and Charlotte devises a plan to save his life: Using magazine scraps as a guide, Charlotte weaves words of praise for Wilbur into her web, attracting attention from neighboring farmers and then regional publicity. As his fame grows, so do his chances of survival.

At the county fair, Charlotte spins an egg sac and warns Wilbur that her own life is nearly at an end. Wilbur heroically retrieves her unborn children and carries them back to the barn. Charlotte dies, and Wilbur is devastated when her babies abandon him, too—until he sees that the three smallest spiders stayed behind.

In case you haven’t read it, and in case this isn’t clear above, THIS BOOK WILL KARATE CHOP YOUR HEART INTO PIECES. It was one of the first children’s books to address death and grieving, and we’re clearly not prepared even now for its wistful poignancy.

Or maybe that’s just me.

My final word on this understated treasure of a book: Charlotte the spider is a feminist icon, and I don’t care who says otherwise. All the pathetic whiners who struggle to write female characters with agency can find a quick lesson right here. Charlotte is a brilliant, loyal, and tenderhearted badass who saves her friend’s life and never even asks for gratitude—all while pregnant. She’s an American hero. And if all spiders were a little more like her, I would not hide from them in a disgusted panic.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

If Wilbur is SOME PIG, this is undoubtedly SOME BOOK.

Favorite Quotes:

Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will. 

Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.

Read: 2016


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#92 A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange (1962) has the rare honor of being a source of shame and regret for its author, overtly and publicly. Nine years after its publication, a film adaptation led by Stanley Kubrick distorted, in Burgess’s view, the book’s most fundamental message—glorifying violence rather than condemning it. This, combined with his American publisher’s exclusion of the novel’s final chapter—in which the protagonist comes to view violence as “juvenile and boring”—left far too much room for misinterpretation, and Burgess spent much of his later career distancing himself from his most celebrated work.

We can destroy what we have written, but we cannot unwrite it,

he said in his introduction to the 1986 edition. Still, however much I sympathize with Burgess’s disappointment over the book’s misguided public perception, I’m very glad A Clockwork Orange exists.

Don’t get me wrong: The violence in A Clockwork Orange is brutal. It’s sickening and horrifying and repulsive. And, were it handled any differently, by a less talented author, I would have hated this book loudly and often for the rest of my life.

But Burgess paints his violence through a portrait, carefully and thoughtfully. The book’s protagonist, Alex, is a sociopath and gang leader in a dystopian future. Clever but cruel, Alex accompanies his friends on a series of random attacks before his arrest and conviction for murder. In prison, he is subjected to an experimental treatment called the Ludovico Technique that functions much like aversion therapy. Alex is temporarily “cured,” raising questions about free will and the evils of government. After a suicide attempt, he returns to his old ways… but in the final, long-omitted chapter, Alex matures enough to consider how his contributions to society might be constructive instead of destructive.

The novel’s most fascinating element, at least for me, was Burgess’s use of fictional slang terms he called, collectively, “Nadsat.” A mixture of Russian loan words, Cockney rhyming slang, Biblical language, German influences, and more, Nadsat is integrated into the text exceptionally well. I listened to A Clockwork Orange on audiobook and would recommend the same to anyone particularly interested in the inventive linguistic features of the novel.

And if you can’t/won’t do that, I’d still recommend reading it the traditional way.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’ve never seen these exact themes managed quite this well before. But a better reflection of this book’s distinct merit is, perhaps, that I fully expected to hate it, and ended up loving it. It’s tough to stomach, definitely, but well worth the effort.

Favorite Quotes:

What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

Read: 2016

We’re officially winding down on the Quick Reviews series—only one more to go before I close out The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. If you missed any previous installments, check them out here:

Happy reading!

(Repost) The Book I’m Saving for Last—and Why

Reposting this soul-baring, teeth-gritting tell-all from April 2016 to mark my arrival on the doorstep of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. Closing out Ulysses last Sunday means I’m just two books away from the end of my book-venture. It’s about to get all War and Peace up in here—my penultimate classic encounter—and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Happy Wednesday, and happy reading!

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For a long time now—years, actually—I’ve known exactly which classic I’ll be reading dead last for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. And I swore to myself that, one day, I’d reveal the book I’m saving for banishing to #100—and why.

But first, I’m going to tell you about #99.

For my penultimate triumph in The Challenge, I’ve chosen War and Peace. My reasons range from the logical and practical to the emotional and whimsical:

  • I’ve been spreading out the longest reads from The List as I work my way through them, and War and Peace fell to the final rankings in my sloppy algorithm. But I refuse to end The Challenge on a notoriously long and inevitably gratuitous epilogue, so I tucked another book behind it.
  • War and Peace is known to be formidable, an Everest or a Moriarty of a book—but it’s also the most quintessential and iconic of classics. You don’t get any more classic than War and Peace. And as a classic among classics, War and Peace feels like a satisfactory climax to what has been a very long List indeed. (#100—I’ll get to it in a minute—will, I think, serve as a suitable denouement.)
  • Much to my surprise, I enjoyed Tolstoy the first time around and would like to honor him in parting with an (almost-)victory lap.
  • I’ve spent much of the Russian portion of The List with award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (a married couple—how cool is that?) and am finding it hard to say do svidaniya.
  • Given its reputation, I’m preeetty sure War and Peace is entitled to its shelf space among The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, and I want to end on (or near) a good note.

And, most essentially:

  • I have yet to buy a copy.

And so it is that War and Peace will bow humbly before me at #99. (Or maybe the other way around. The book does have six hundred characters, after all.)

And now, the Big Reveal. The Moment of Truth. The Unmasking of #100. Ladies and gentlemen: My very last book for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, the crowning jewel on my classic library, just 11 books from now, will be…

Faust.

“Why Faust?” is a perfectly reasonable question with a slightly manic answer. If you’re already bored by this post, and/or disillusioned by what seems like an anticlimactic climax, I can sum up my rationale in one word:

GRUDGE.

For seven long years, I have sustained a heartfelt grudge against Faust. And now I’m here to tell you its origin story.

Many moons ago, a sparky young college student put on a new pair of Toms and walked to the first meeting of what would be her final Literature class ever.

At Purdue University, the class was known as Comparative Literature 267, or “World Literature from 1700 to Now.” It followed the previous semester’s CMPL 266 (“World Literature Until 1700”), taught by a wonderful and engaging grad student who said “Woof” every time his wit went over our heads. In CMPL 266, we read a total of five novels, all of them short, and wrote exactly three papers to finish out the semester. One of our favorite reads, naturally, was Inferno, because who doesn’t love rivers of boiling blood and cannibalistic torture?

Anyway, the class kicked ass.

CMPL 267 would be taught by another grad student—but a decidedly less engaging one. Marta (or so we’ll call her), on the first day of the new semester, greeted us all by passing out a syllabus. And as the syllabus arrived on my desktop, my jaw (I think it’s safe to say) literally dropped. It was the longest syllabus I had ever seen. It was ridiculously long, unfathomably long, unjustifiably long. Marta wanted us to read 500 pages of material every week, write up reflective essays for each class period, turn in analyses twice a month, take regular quizzes, give two oral presentations, and submit three 20-page research papers. In four months.

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At least, that’s how I remember it. But even if my memory has distorted the exact size of the workload expected by Marta in CMPL 267, the story’s preface boils down to this: It was my last semester of college, I had seen plenty of syllabi, and this one was a monster.

I had a mild heart attack in my new Toms, went home, reread the syllabus, and had another mild heart attack. It was impossible. It was absurd. It was inhumane, practically—at least, by the privileged standards of a middle class American college student. So the next time the class met, two days later, I raised my hand and asked Marta if the syllabus was negotiable. And when she asked what I had in mind, I told her. “Less… everything” was the gist of it.

And she said yes.

But my moment of #winning did not last long. Marta did lighten the workload by a tree or two, but that still left a hefty to-do list behind. I ground my way through it, reading what I could and writing what I had time for, but the effort was moot from a big-picture perspective. Between the overblown homework and Marta’s lack of teaching experience, the class and the reading material added very little substance to my long-term knowledge stockpile. The only reading assignments I recall from that fateful semester—out of dozens—are “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “A Madman’s Diary.”

Well, and Faust.

Marta assigned Faust on a Wednesday, to be read (and reflected upon, in 600-800 words, double-spaced, with one-inch margins) by Friday. But when I opened up The Norton Anthology of World Literature and saw Faust staring back at me, exhausting from just a cursory glance, I simply said No.

Now, Faust is not long. It’s actually quite short—under 200 pages. But it is long enough to be a preposterous overnight reading assignment. It invalidated my conscious efforts to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and it felt like a slap in the face to the hardworking student I was and always had been. Haven’t I done enough? I thought. Haven’t I devoted much more time and energy to this silly, introductory-level Literature class than reason warrants?

I had. I had. So I refused, on principle alone, to read Faust that night. I didn’t read it the next night, either, and come Friday, I left The Norton Anthology of World Literature at home. I marched to class in my Toms, and I took the 0 for the reflective essay I didn’t write for the play I didn’t read. And I thought that would be the end of it.

But Faust came back to haunt me. Questions about Goethe’s famous drama cropped up on quizzes for the rest of the semester. The subject of each literary analysis was, inevitably, a comparison between Faust and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” or Faust and “A Madman’s Diary,” or Faust and… whatever else we read for Marta. I really can’t remember. We were expected to include references to Faust in two of our three major research papers. Our oral presentations were—you guessed it, you clever thing—Faust-focused.

Still, I refused. Marta couldn’t make me read Faust, not if I didn’t want to, and I DID NOT WANT TO. My stubborn and childish streaks expanded to military stripes, and I wore them proudly. I read just enough of Faust—excerpts here and there—to write my papers and give my presentations. But a grudge was born that bygone semester, never to give up its ghost if I had anything to say about it.

It was only a year or so later that I decided to take on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge and saw, hovering at #94 just inside the bottom rankings, Goethe’s fierce and unforgiving Faust. The grudge is obviously mutual. And while committing myself to The Challenge leaves no room for compromise, I can still relegate it to last place. So even if that means Faust triumphs in the end, at least—at the very same moment—I will, too.

Also, it is pretty short. On the heels of War and Peace, reading Faust will be as easy as selling my soul to the devil.

Oh, wait…

#100 Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

My love for Midnight’s Children was slow-burning. But if a wildfire can begin with a match—and I’m pretty sure they can—then that’s what happened to me.

As it turned out, all my initial struggles to follow the large cast of characters introduced in its early chapters were moot, since Rushdie dumps them all to make way for a new troupe of players right around the time Saleem Sinai is born.

Oh, yeah, that. Saleem Sinai’s birth coincides to the second with the birth of an independent India in 1947. This becomes sort of important later on, when his entire life mirrors, maps, and modifies the course of Indian history. He also has superpowers, as does every child born between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on the night India gains its independence.

Don’t expect a kind of mid-century X-Men set in Bombay, though. The Midnight’s Children in general play a relatively (and unexpectedly) minor role in the book, and we hear more about their superpowers than we actually observe. If I had to lodge one complaint about the first half of Midnight’s Children, it would be that Rushdie, politician-style, promises much more than he delivers.

That all changes in the second half.

We accompany Saleem through his childhood misadventures, his move to Pakistan, his time at war, his stay in a magician’s slum, the birth of his son, and the writing of his memoir. We meet his friends and enemies, his entire extended family, doctors and soldiers, state leaders and prophets, an actress, a witch, a nanny, and a snake charmer. And even that doesn’t begin to tell this story.

I wish I knew more about Indian history before picking up Midnight’s Children, but I learned plenty along the way. Indira Gandhi actually sued Rushdie for defamation in 1984—a suit that came down, in the end, to a single sentence. Rushdie and his publishers agreed to remove the sentence from future editions of the book, and the case was dropped. He reflects on the incident in his 2005 introduction to the novel:

It was after all an amazing admission she was making, considering what the Emergency chapters of Midnight’s Children were about. Her willingness to make such an admission felt to me like an extraordinary validation of the novel’s portrait of those Emergency years.

Within a few weeks, adds Rushdie, Indira Gandhi was dead—assassinated by her own bodyguards.

This wouldn’t be the only time Rushdie was threatened by the powers that be: In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwā calling for Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers over controversies surrounding The Satanic Verses (a novel inspired, in part, by the life of Muhammad). All assassination attempts on Rushdie have been unsuccessful, but his Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in 1991.

But that’s another story for another blog post. If you can manage to read Rushdie’s work without rioting, issuing a fatwā, or assassinating anyone, you’re in for a treat. Midnight’s Children is one of those remarkable books planned so thoroughly and executed so tightly that a thousand and one threads come together not just once, but countless times. The novel’s timeline is vast, and its scope—inevitably—monumental. Thematically, Rushdie bounces back and forth between time, truth, family, politics, religion, sex, and fatalism—and his feat of acrobatics is so stunning that every other writer gymnast today is left feeling a little jealous.

Midnight’s Children is sad but not depressing, beautiful but not pretentious. It’s an iconic work of magical realism, but its merits transcend genre. In other, simpler, better words:

I highly recommend.

And I think I’ll leave it at that.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Yup.

Favorite Quotes:

The children of the hour of darkness were born, I’m afraid, in the midst of the age of darkness; so that although we found it easy to be brilliant, we were always confused about being good.

Padma — did you have, when you were little, a world of your own? A tin orb, on which were imprinted the continents and oceans and polar ice? Two cheap metal hemispheres, clamped together by a plastic stand? No, of course not; but I did. It was a world full of labels: Atlantic Ocean and Amazon and Tropic of Capricorn. And, at the North Pole, it bore the legend: MADE AS ENGLAND. By the August of the nodding signboards and the rapaciousness of the Narlikar women, this tin world had lost its stand; I found Scotch Tape and stuck the earth together at the Equator, and then, my urge for play overcoming my respect, began to use it as a football. In the aftermath of the Sabarmati affair, when the air was filled with the repentance of my mother and the private tragedies of Methwold’s heirs, I clanked my tin sphere around the Estate, secure in the knowledge that the world was still in one piece (although held together by adhesive tape) and also at my feet.

Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each ‘I’, every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.

Read: 2016

#66 Clarissa, Samuel Richardson

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To my very great surprise, I felt an immediate and intense bond with the fierce but kindhearted Clarissa this book is named for. Granted, no one has ever tried to force me into marriage with a middle-aged prick, or conned me into living in a house above a brothel, or ordered my arrest on false charges just to watch my spirit break. But this book isn’t so much about what happens to Clarissa as how it makes her feel.

And how it makes her feel is pissed.

Published in 1748 on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s enormously popular Pamela, Clarissa is tremendously long, tediously slow, and stiflingly intimate. But it’s also meticulously crafted, remarkably thoughtful, and endlessly moving. By far the most extensive character study of The List, Clarissa is an epistolary novel of epic proportions: 1,499 pages, to be exact. Letters between Clarissa and her BFF Anna, as well as Lovelace and his BFF Belford, make up the bulk of the narrative.

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Yep: Clarissa‘s the one on the bottom.

When the story kicks off, Clarissa is already knee-deep in a sea of drama. Her family wants her to marry the un-marriable likes of Roger Solmes and, when she refuses, locks her up in her own bedroom. Clarissa’s crush, Robert Lovelace—a well-known rake hated by her entire family—tricks her into running away with him. In an apartment above a brothel, lost in the unholy streets of London, Lovelace schemes, manipulates, and harasses Clarissa into marrying him or sleeping with him—whichever comes first.

Clarissa, more than a little resentful at all these affronts to her reputation and integrity, plots her escape(s) with occasional success but too little haste. Lovelace, a practiced sociopath, calls most of the shots—and although Clarissa manages one final getaway worthy of Lovelace himself, his London minions call for her arrest on false charges and see her thrown in jail. This last indignity is too much for Clarissa, who, after her release, fades out in a slow death. In easily the most satisfying moment of the novel, Lovelace is killed in a duel by Clarissa’s cousin, Colonel Morden.

One of the quickest ways to make me hate a protagonist is for the writer to tell me how much I should love them (see: Isabel Archer, Rory Gilmore). I Just Can’t with the whole “look-how-special-and-superior-this-protagonist-is” Festival of Praise that, by the way, only ever seems to follow female characters. I’m convinced it’s a symptom of the Madonna/Whore Complex that terrorizes classic fiction, and let’s just say I’ve never had much patience for Madonnas.

But somehow my opinion of Clarissa survived even this. Yes, it was annoying to hear every character gush uninterruptedly about Clarissa’s consummate perfection. Yes, I lost count of the references to Clarissa’s flawless beauty, unsurpassed intellect, and “angelic” purity. Yes, I resented the implication that there is one right way to be a woman, and that way is Clarissa.

But somehow Clarissa remains, for the most part, utterly relatable. It’s hard not to identify with a character who puts her every thought on paper with such careful precision. She lays out her emotions, her motives, and her logic with charismatic warmth, showing down even Lovelace’s seductive (if warped) arguments. Indeed, you root for her all the more for being surrounded by villains and lunatics.

Because, of course, while Clarissa is an interesting read, it’s also an infuriating one. Lovelace pressures Clarissa into corresponding with him, tricks her into running away with him, coerces her into living with him, guilts her into spending time with him, violates her privacy, gropes her without her consent, and then, ultimately, drugs and rapes her—and still sees HIMSELF as a victim. He curses her virtue as the barrier that keeps him from what he wants most, even though her virtue is the very thing that attracted him to her in the first place. He is regularly occupied by efforts to “punish” (his word) the people women around him for their every minor betrayal doing anything he doesn’t specifically condone/authorize.

Clarissa, for her part, berates and blames herself for her errors in judgment, views her disobedience as a cautionary tale, and wishes for death. She never gives up hope of making amends with her garbage family, and pities Lovelace almost as much as she loathes him. And then there’s the whole part where she just has to emerge from her final hiding place multiple times a day to go to church, knowing she risks recapture by Lovelace. Just pray at home, Clarissa! Or, better yet, face the fact that God might not be listening anymore.

So, yeah, infuriating. I spent many of Clarissa‘s 1,499 pages with my head in my hands, screaming, What is wrong with you people??? But I know what’s wrong with them. The 18th century is what’s wrong with them. Anna and her mother go from urging Clarissa to prosecute Lovelace in one letter to encouraging her to marry him in the next. Belford excoriates Lovelace for his treatment of Clarissa but doesn’t bother to, like, CALL THE POLICE. All in all, this book is a feminist nightmare: a parade of male entitlement, a showcase of rape culture, and a testament to just how little control women have had, historically, over their own destinies.

Highlights of the novel are the bullshit-intolerant Anna, often referred to as “flighty” or “saucy” (and, on one memorable occasion, “saucebox”), and the darkly hilarious scene in which Clarissa buys her own coffin. Lowlights are everything Lovelace says, does, and thinks, and when Clarissa’s family finally forgives her in a letter that arrives one day too late.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Yes, but I would never recommend it to a friend. This is a book for masochists, written by a sadist.

You’ve been warned.

Favorite Quotes:

I imagined for a long while that we were born to make each other happy: but, quite the contrary; we really seem to be sent to plague one another.

I may venture to say, that many of those who have escaped censure, have not merited applause.

For what are words but the body and dress of thought?

Poor man! He has had a loss in losing me! I have the pride to think so, because I think I know my own heart. I have had none in losing him! 

But love, me thinks, as short a word as it is, has a broad sound with it.

Read: 2016-2017

#11 The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

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There’s no time like the holidays to remind us that it’s rough, having siblings. Family, in general, is just one huge tree of problems. The branches multiply every year, and the leaves come and go with the seasons, and when the apples fall—near or far—they rot.

Just ask the Karamazovs.

Start with Alexei (better known as Alyosha). He’ll find a way to tell you about his family and withhold the bitter cynicism. A fresh-faced and humble young novice, Alyosha would tell you that families aren’t perfect—but they stick together in the tough times, and they cherish each other even when they don’t show it. Then he would listen politely while you talked for 10 pages hours about your family.

Cool and clever Ivan, his older brother, will give a sarcastic laugh at the very notion of family. Then he will launch into a rambling monologue about the nature of good and evil, and the ways families bring out both. During your tea break, he may hallucinate conversations with the devil. Don’t be alarmed.

Or do, because that’s reasonable.

Dmitri (Mitya), the stormy and passionate eldest brother, will alternately beg, weep, and shout that family is as essential as air—or the very grounds of deceit and betrayal. It depends entirely on his mood.

And while there’s really no telling what their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, will say, you can bet your last ruble that it will be loud, it will be rude, and it will cause a scene.

“Dysfunctional” doesn’t even begin to cover it with this family. “Self-destructive” would be more accurate. The consequences of an inheritance dispute (and a romantic dispute) between Mitya and Fyodor Pavlovich are as numerous as they are dramatic: Fyodor Pavlovich, notably, winds up dead, and Mitya’s unbridled spirit lands him in a steaming heap of trouble. Also jail.

We spend much of the novel following the Karamazovs around town meeting all of the characters tied to the fate(s) of this unruly brood. But the Karamazovs themselves are only half the story—the other half being wrapped up in philosophical questions about God, free will, human nature, morality, and happiness.

All of this takes place in the 1860s in a town called Skotoprigonyevsk. (…Yeah.) Russia was, at the time, a nation distracted by social and political upheaval: Serfdom had just been abolished, Western European culture was quickly invading, and radicalism reared its ugly head in more ways than one. Is the tempestuous Karamazov family a metaphor for Russia’s volatility, as witnessed by Dostoevsky himself?

I dunno. But that sounds insightful, so let’s go with YES.

Some fun grim facts about Fyodor Dostoevsky:

  • Dostoevsky’s father was thought to have been murdered by his own serfs.
  • Dostoevsky himself was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death by firing squad for illegally distributing socialist propaganda. The execution was all a ruse, however—intended by the authorities as a psychological punishment. His physical punishment followed: four years at a Siberian labor camp and four years of military service.
  • While in prison, Dostoevsky began suffering from epileptic seizures. The seizures affected him for the rest of his life; he had four in March of 1877 alone.

So if you suspect that Dostoevsky had a preoccupation with criminal justice (he also authored a little-known beach read by the name of Crime and Punishment), just know that the rest of the jury reached that verdict a long time ago.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

The Brothers Karamazov is as ambitious as they come. But if anyone could pull it off, it’s Dostoevsky.

Favorite Quotes:

The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen. 

I recently read a comment by a foreigner, a German, who used to live in Russia, about our young students these days. “Show a Russian schoolboy a chart of the heavens,” he writes, “of which hitherto he had no idea at all, and the next day he will return the chart to you with corrections.” No knowledge and boundless conceit—that’s what the German meant to say about the Russian schoolboy.

A woman—devil knows what a woman is.

He felt, as I picture it to myself, something similar to what a criminal feels on his way to execution, to the gallows: he still has to go down a long, long street, and at a slow pace, past thousands of people, then turn down another street, and only at the end of that other street—the terrible square! I precisely think that at the start of the procession the condemned man, sitting in the cart of shame, must feel precisely that there is still an endless life ahead of him.

I am writing a curse, yet I adore you! I hear it in my heart. One string is left, and it sings.

Truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.

We will fight. But love—oh, I will love her infinitely.

Read: 2015

Sexism in Classic Literature

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Sexism is everywhere in life, so it should come as no shock that it’s everywhere in literature.

But it does, a little. It does, every time.

It does, because I grew up believing I had inherent value as a person—that I’m smart and strong and capable, that I can express my opinions freely. And then I come across all these scenes in literature that tell me I don’t. I’m not. I can’t.

So yeah, it’s still a mild shock when I encounter sexism in books, like seeing a coin-sized black spider on a white wall or, like, shoving a finger in an electrical outlet. Books were always supposed to be my refuge—my escape. And when they dismiss me, when they belittle me, when they reject me and all women, it feels like the ultimate betrayal.

There are many ways, of course, that sexism manifests in book publishing. It is, frankly, hard to find a book without it. There’s the representation of women in fiction—or, all too often, lack thereof. (A special shout-out goes to the utterly rampant Madonna/whore complex, and the too many books both young and old that cannot pass even the bottom-barrel standards of the Bechdel test.) There’s the pervasive and insidious use of sexist language (“man up”; “cry like a girl”) that promotes toxic masculinity as the ideal, the goal, the standard—as if other gender identities were a handicap the rest of us must overcome. There’s the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, the simultaneous sexualization and slut shaming of female characters, their objectification and routine disposal, and the boiling cauldron of rape culture. There is the frilly, flowery book marketing of so-called “chick lit.” There’s the industry-wide assumption that books written by and about men represent the human experience, while books written by and about women represent only the female experience.

There’s also a seemingly willful neglect of female authors in contests, on panels, and in review publications—and, especially, in classrooms. Because in classrooms, more often than not, we teach the classics.

And many of the classics stand among the best-known examples of sexism in literature.

Like YA author Maureen Johnson, I struggle to recall high school reading assignments by or about women. There was The Scarlet Letter, boring as Puritan Heaven and written by a man. There was To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m not totally convinced a child narrator counts. There was Frankenstein, penned by Mary Shelley but highly male-centric.

And that’s it. That’s all I remember.

In my high school, in four years of English taught exclusively by female teachers, we did not read Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights, or anything by Virginia Woolf—not even in Brit Lit. We didn’t read Edith Wharton, or Toni Morrison, or Margaret Mitchell. Instead, we read Shakespeare, and Dickens, and Orwell, and Steinbeck—all of whom are easily identifiable by their surnames alone because they’re just that ubiquitous.

The gender balance was equally bleak when I sought out The List in 2011. Of the supposed 100 Greatest Books of All Time, only 17 were written by women. Of course, some of those authors appear more than once, putting the grand total of female authors at a mere 14 (11 of which were white). George Eliot, the first to appear on The List with Middlemarch at #12, had to publish under a man’s name for her work to be taken seriously. And if that seems ludicrous today, when half of all authors are women, remember that J. K. Rowling’s publishers insisted she hide her gender behind her initials.

In making my way through The List, I’ve had the wind knocked out of me by sexism ranging from the benevolent to the hostile. And because screaming into my pillow is slightly less satisfying than screaming into my keyboard, I decided to take you all on a little tour of Sexism in Classic Literature.

We’ll start with Catherine Barkley in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms—a character so insubstantial that we barely notice her inclination toward self-effacement:

There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.

 …

Then there’s Dido, in Virgil’s Aeneid, who famously stabs herself on a makeshift funeral pyre after Aeneas unceremoniously dumps her—concluding her downward spiral from savvy Queen of Carthage to hysterical ex-girlfriend, all at the whim of the gods:

[…] “Must I die,” she said,
“And unreveng’d? ‘Tis doubly to be dead!
Yet ev’n this death with pleasure I receive:
On any terms, ’tis better than to live.
These flames, from far, may the false Trojan view;
These boding omens his base flight pursue!”
She said, and struck; deep enter’d in her side
The piercing steel, with reeking purple dyed:
Clogg’d in the wound the cruel weapon stands;
The spouting blood came streaming on her hands.
Her sad attendants saw the deadly stroke,
And with loud cries the sounding palace shook.

Next up is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, in which women are literally given as gifts to the men of Crusoe’s newly colonized island:

From thence I touched at the Brazils, from whence I sent a bark, which I bought there, with more people to the island; and in it, besides other supplies, I sent seven women, being such as I found proper for service, or for wives to such as would take them. As to the Englishmen, I promised to send them some women from England, with a good cargo of necessaries, if they would apply themselves to planting.

In Homer’s Iliad, women are “won” and traded as prizes and property, but we only hear Achilles complaining about it:

Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon, has dishonoured me, since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.

We can’t possibly omit Saul Bellow’s Herzog from any discussion of literary sexism; his runs the gamut from mundane to downright vile:

It was true, he couldn’t offer much. He really was useless to her. With Gersbach she could still be a wife. He came home. She cooked, ironed, shopped, signed checks. Without him, she could not exist, cook, make beds. The trance would break. Then what?

Please, Ramona, Herzog wanted to say—you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch—everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.

“Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age. And a good lay, too. What’s wrong with that? Or we’ll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper. No more Japs for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life.”

And, speaking of vile, François Rabelais shares some interesting theories on womanhood in Gargantua and Pantagruel:

When I say woman I mean a sex so weak, so fickle, so variable, so changeable, so imperfect, that Nature — speaking with all due reverence and respect — seems to me, when she made woman, to have strayed from that good sense with which she had created and fashioned all things. I have pondered over it five hundred times yet I can reach no solution except that Nature had more regard for the social delight of man and the perpetuating of the human species than for the perfection of individual womanhood. Certainly Plato does not know into which category to put women: rational animal or irrational beast.

Not to be left out, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain regales us with the story of how the narrator’s uncle fell in love with a pair of unforgettable breasts:

Most assuredly, in matters of civilized behavior she could not have held a candle to Madame Tienappel down in the flatlands. But one Sunday evening in the salon after supper, the consul made a discovery, thanks to a black, very low-cut sequined gown: Frau Redisch had very feminine, soft, white, close-set breasts and a cleavage visible from a considerable distance. And this discovery had stirred the mature, refined man to the depths of his soul, thrilling him as if this were a totally new, unexpected, unheard-of phenomenon. He sought out and made Frau Redisch’s acquaintance, carried on a long conversation with her, first standing, then seated—and went to bed humming. The next day Frau Redisch was no longer wearing a black sequined gown, but a dress that covered almost all of her; the consul, however, knew what he knew and remained faithful to that first impression. He made a point of catching up with the lady on their walks, so that he could stroll beside her and chat with her, turning and bending toward her in a special, insistent, but charming way; he toasted his glass to her at dinner, and she responded with a smile, revealing several sparkling gold-capped teeth; and in a conversation with his nephew he declared her to be an absolutely “divine creature”—and at once began to hum again.

In USA, John Dos Passos leaves out the hostile misogyny and the overt objectification in favor of some good, old-fashioned benevolent sexism:

Women have been a great inspiration to me all my life, lovely charming delicate women. Many of my best ideas have come from women, not directly, you understand, but through the mental stimulation.

But in the infamous Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov takes us back to basics with 200 pages of male entitlement and pedophilia:

At one of these [desks], my Lolita was reading … and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk.

(For anyone unfamiliar with the book, Dolly is the middle-aged narrator’s nickname for Lolita, the twelve-year-old girl he kidnaps, coerces, and rapes repeatedly. In this scene, he pays her for sexual favors before stealing the money back so she can’t run away.)

Are we done with the tour yet? Do you want to be done?

I want to be done.

But some of the sexism in classic literature can’t be summed up in a quotation. For example, I can’t quote the women who aren’t there, or the men who don’t seem to notice their absence. Because women are conspicuously missing, or nearly so, from Don Quixote, Lord of the Flies, The Call of the Wild, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and many, many more. Sometimes this makes contextual sense (Moby-DickCatch-22). Sometimes there’s literally zero excuse (The Lord of the RingsThe Wind in the Willows).

And rape—rape written, most often, from the man’s point of view, and rape that, most often, dismisses its victims—is a fixture of the classics, appearing (and, often, reappearing) in Dangerous Liaisons, A Clockwork Orange, The Tale of Genji, Clarissa, The Canterbury Tales, Beloved, and others. Here’s a typical rape scene, from USA:

“Let’s go skating, Frank, it’s so awful to be in the house all day.”

“Everything’s horrible,” he said. Suddenly he pulled her to him and kissed her lips. She felt dizzy with the smell of bayrum and cigarettes and whiskey and cloves and armpits that came from him. She pulled away from him. “Frank, don’t, don’t.” He had tight hold of her. She could feel his hands trembling, his heart thumping under his vest. He had grabbed her to him with one arm and was pulling at her clothes with the other. His voice wasn’t like Frank’s voice at all. “I won’t hurt you. I won’t hurt you, child. Just forget. It’s nothing. I can’t stand it any more.” The voice went on and on whining in her ears. “Please. Please.”

She didn’t dare yell for fear the people in the house might come. She clenched her teeth and punched and scratched at the big wet-lipped face pressing down hers. She felt weak like in a dream. His knee was pushing her legs apart.

When it was over, she wasn’t crying. She didn’t care. He was walking up and down the room sobbing. She got up and straightened her dress.

He came over to her and shook her by the shoulders. “If you ever tell anybody I’ll kill you, you damn little brat.”

We like to think we’ve come such a long way in a single century—that we can pat ourselves on the back for women’s suffrage, for women’s independence, for women’s participation in academics and the workforce. We like to think that these books—the sexist books, along with the racist and homophobic and classist and otherwise discriminatory books—are merely “products of their time.”

But doesn’t that assumption discredit the progressive thinkers of previous eras? We know they existed. Tolerance isn’t a 21st-century invention. 

And shouldn’t it bother those of us who do believe in equality for all, who are actively writing and speaking and working for change, that if humans, 200 years from now, were to look back at 2016—at our governments, our salaries, our legal rights, our media—they would assume progressives were just as few and far between?

Because they would. They would. At the rate we’re still churning out misogynistic garbage, those future humans would have a hard time believing we existed at all. They’d look at the world population, now, the same way we look at the humans of the 19th century, or the 16th, or the 3rd—like we must not have known better, if this is what we have to show for ourselves.

Every one of the sexist frameworks we deplore in centuries-old fiction is still prevalent today. The 20th and 21st centuries have applauded and immortalized the works of openly chauvinistic male authors, including Bret Easton EllisV.S. Naipaul, T. S. Eliot, Jonathan Franzen, and Norman Mailer—the same Norman Mailer who stabbed his wife at a party and then said, to a shocked audience,

Don’t touch her. Let the bitch die.

We have made bestselling phenomena out of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey—both of which feature controlling, abusive male leads and frame their behavior as romantic. We have awarded two Pulitzer Prizes to John Updike instead of apologizing to the trees that bear his words. We have upheld an exclusionary and binary definition of gender, and an oppressive social system that hurts even those it benefits. We have raised our children on books that reinforce female invisibility and traditional gender roles, and we have raised boys in particular to ignore or ridicule books by and about girls.

And, worst of all, we have made excuses for all of the above. We have justified every point as valid, or normal, or acceptable. And in doing so, we have sent the message over and over again that marginalized groups really are inferior, for a whole world of reasons.

So how about this: How about we just stop? How about, the next time we give a book a prize, or elevate it to “classic” status, we make sure it does us a favor? How about we pick a book that makes us look good to those future generations, or at least better, like we’re actually trying? How about we pick a book that confronts, deconstructs, or subverts some of the poisonous prejudices we’re drinking every day?

I know we can do it. I know we’re starting to do it already. But until I stop feeling the wind knocked out of me every time I pick up a book, I’m going to keep asking for more.