100 Books! a.k.a. Challenge Completed! a.k.a. A Cautionary Tale

This is it, folks. The last chapter. Five and a half years, triple-digit classics, and—in self-congratulations—the pie party to end all pie parties.

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On the first day of Creation, God said, “Let there be pie.” And it was good.

On my long and harrowing journey across the wilderness of my own bookshelf, I visited 30+ countries—some real, some imaginary. I met heroes, villains, God, and the devil. I went to war and fell in love and traveled through time and witnessed magic. I worried and grieved and LOLed and maybe, slightly, occasionally lost my mind.

And I wrote and wrote and wrote, trying to find it again.

I never doubted that I’d finish—mostly because I try not to make a habit of self-doubt. I’m still convinced that if I really wanted to, and worked really hard at it, I could be an Olympic triathlete, or a Mars-bound astronaut, or a turtle whisperer with my own TV show. And while that kind of certainty is probably diagnosable, it may also be the very reason I was able to finish The Challenge. Predicting how this story ended was—spoiler alert!—the easiest part.

The hardest part was, of course, everything else. The 100 Greatest Books of All Time don’t read themselves—and it was up to me, day after day, to sit down and turn pages. My best estimates suggest that I read 49,823 pages to close out The List, one determined word at a time. The shortest book on The List was 66 pages.

The longest was 4,217.

But it’s all over now, and I can devote my remaining lifespan to full-time snobbery. I can casually name-drop Proust, and sneer at the very idea of e-readers. I can even call myself a literary badass, if there is such a thing.

I won’t, obviously, do any of that. But I will take a moment out to shake my own hand, feather my own cap, and pat myself on the back for a mundane victory. What is life, after all, without a little revelry? Why even bother existing, without the slightest swagger?

I hope I never find out. But if I do, it will probably be in a book.

When I celebrate, I celebrate in lists. (Well, and pie.) Every milestone up until this point—50 books, 75 books, 80 books, 90 books—has been commemorated with at least one list, but usually several. And even though I don’t believe in tradition for tradition’s sake, I do believe in the power of lists to spread peace, love, joy, and the satisfaction of a job well-organized.

So here we go, one last time: The List, in lists. 

Strategies for Every Readventurer

(Or, How I Read 100 Classics)

 

  1. Engage in wanton book polygamy. The idea of reading several books at once used to give me an insta-headache, but The Challenge changed all that. Anyone reading books so bloated they require two epilogues, or come with an author’s apology, is bound to burn out hard and fast. I’ve learned to love “revolving door reading,” and never looked back since.
  2. Play it by ear. Audiobooks are the easiest way to read loads and remain lazy. You don’t even need to change your existing routine, except to press a button once in a while. And to all those who insist that “audiobooking isn’t reading,” I’d like to say this: You do you. But audiobooks, in my mind, enhance the reading experience—and they’ve been one hell of a sidekick throughout The Challenge.
  3. Proceed not with caution, but with confidence. Even if a notoriously rabid, 800-page beast of a book with a barely pronounceable Russian name sounds mildly intimidating, ignore that initial instinct to dip a couple of dainty toes in the water. Cannonball into that book. Commit right up front. I read somewhere once that if you can dog-paddle your way through 25 pages of Ulysses per day, you’ll be done in a month. (Math agrees, and so do I.)
  4. Just keep reading, reading, reading. Can’t keep up with your own ambitions? There’s still hope. Success can be a sprint, but more often, it’s a marathon. Yours depends on turning just a few pages—five will do—every night before bed. I got through some of the most head-scratching, mind-boggling, brain-bruising novels this way: a little at a time.
  5. Use your resources. Don’t give up on that impossible read just because it’s impossible. Dial 911—a.k.a. SparkNotes, Cliff Notes, Shmoop, and the blogosphere—and ask for help. There’s always some brave hero(ine) out there waiting to save the day. Let them come to your rescue—then turn around and pay it forward.

Biggest Takeaways

(Among Countless Lessons Learned)

 

  1. Just because someone did it first does not mean they did it best. Often, it means just the opposite. So can we stop worshiping the ground trodden by Tolkien, and Lawrence, and Hemingway? Or at least acknowledge that their imagination far outstripped their implementation? No? OK, whatever.
  2. No book is made “classic” by accident, and we’re leaving a lot of our fellow humans out of the club. If the Literary Canon were a person, he’d be a straight, white, rich, able-bodied colonialist, probably with a beard and a monocle. He’d definitely be a he. And while his voice deserves to be heard, just like anyone else’s, the anyone elses have been patient enough. It’s the Canon’s turn to listen, and to make a little room.
  3. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Not even by its back cover. Plot summaries can be woefully misleading at the best of times, and tragically deterrent at the worst. There were moments during The Challenge that I fully anticipated an epic struggle with an epic hate-read (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange)—or prepared a place on my bookshelf for a brand new favorite (Wuthering HeightsTristram Shandy)—only to be taken by surprise. But you know what? There’s a reason they call it the thrill of discovery. And it’s probably the reason we should read outside our comfort zone.
  4. Don’t waste time reading books you hate. This might seem counterintuitive, since I spent five and a half years doing just that. But I couldn’t agree less with that snooty Atlantic writer who thinks there’s shame in DNF’ing. I admit that I’m unable to abandon books en route, but I consider this a weakness instead of an asset. Quitting books is a habit I’d give anything to cultivate—if only to continue reading like crazy while (hopefully) remaining sane.
  5. There’s only one thing that makes any book Great: You. You decide. Don’t listen to any publishers, reviewers, hipsters, or lists telling you there’s anything objective about Greatness. You may not know yourself what makes you connect with one book, and shudder at another. But the good news is that nobody can tell you you’re wrong.

My Favoritest Classics of All Time

(In No Particular Order)

 

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  2. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
  3. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  4. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  6. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  7. Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  8. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  9. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  10. Beloved, Toni Morrison

Works of Indisputable Genius

(Whether I Liked Them or Not)

 

  1. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
  2. 1984, George Orwell
  3. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  5. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  6. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  7. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
  8. King Lear, William Shakespeare
  9. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  10. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

My Literary Grudges

(May Their Ink Fade Away and Their Pages Crumble to Dust)

 

  1. Rabbit, Run, John Updike (to be referred to hereafter as “The-Book-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named”)
  2. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  3. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  4. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  6. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  7. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  8. Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
  9. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
  10. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Most Challenging of the Challenge

(Especially Difficult and/or Tedious Classics)

 

  1. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

We should probably stop here and camp out for a while. That’s how formidable Finnegans Wake turned out to be.

For the sake of time, though, we’ll move on. Just know that there’s a boundless, hopeless chasm between the Wake and the rest of this list.

  1. Finnegans Wake (it bears repeating)
  2. Ulysses, James Joyce
  3. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
  4. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  5. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
  6. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  7. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
  8. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  9. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  10. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Buried Literary Treasures

(Books I May Never Have Read, and Loved, Without Taking on The Challenge)

 

  1. The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  2. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  3. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
  4. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  5. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu

Frequently Asked Questions

(Or, More Accurately, Questions Literally No One Has Asked Me)

 

1. Will you read any more classics after this?

Of course. I’m even more excited to read the classics now that I know which authors to seek out (Baldwin, Morrison, Vonnegut)—and which ones to avoid like puddles on a subway platform (Updike, SteinbeckJoyce).

2. Will you continue blogging?

That’d be a heartfelt maybe. Someday I hope to get a pet and blog about it.

3. Was The Challenge worth the time and effort?

God, no.

4. Really? Not even for the bragging rights? 

I avoid discussing The Challenge as much as possible—mostly because reading The 100 Greatest Books of All Time makes me sound like an asshole. In the end, The Challenge has mostly served to fuel my reckless TBR on Goodreads (see #1) and my Christmas gift ideas for friends and family.

I mean, yeah, I read some incredible books (Lolita, Midnight’s Children, The Canterbury Tales). But whether or not those Kings Among Books outrivaled all the monsters (Tristram Shandy, Finnegans Wake, The-Book-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named) isn’t something I’m equipped to measure.

5. What is the greatest book of all time? 

That’s up to you to decide for yourself. The book that stood out to me the most among all the masterworks on The List—the book that, for me, transcended every other reading encounter I’ve ever had or expect to have—was Beloved.

6. So, what now? Book-wise?

I don’t know! And I’m trying to be OK with that.

And so, on my very last page, I wish you—forever and ever—happy reading. Consider yourself invited to my pie party, happening now at a bakery near you.

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COME AT ME, PIE. IT’S EAT OR BE EATEN. I hope you’re up to the challenge.

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The Top 10 Highlights of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

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Assuming the #1 highlight of The Challenge will be finishing, topped off with my celebratory pie party, I give you the other 9 in all their glory:

#10. Finishing Tristram Shandy. No, Clarissa. No, Proust. There were many challenges within The Challenge, but some were more challenging than others.

#9. Working with Punchnel’s to publish a series of classic reviews adapted from this blog—not to mention my first-ever byline, 10 Reasons You Should Be Reading the Classics. (Yes, I cringe whenever I see this article and would rewrite every word if I could.) (Not to sound ungrateful, or anything.) (At least all the cringing means my writing has improved?) (Hopefully?)

#8. Learning to embrace book polygamy. Pre-Challenge, I was unable to avoid reading books simultaneously, but loudly and openly begrudged it. Now it’s unusual for me to read fewer than four books at once. I’ll probably scale back a little now that I’m reading mostly for “fun,” but I doubt I could ever be faithful to just one book again. It’s a two-book minimum for me from here on out, and my bookshelf doesn’t have any choice but to forgive.

#7. The many milestones along the way that served as motivation boosters: 50 books, 75 books, 80 books, and, especially, 90 books. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them beckoning me forward and cheering me on, except simmer in a stew of self-pity and resentment.

#6. Finally having my say, after years of silent frustration, on sexism in classic literature. Calling bullshit on this bullshit was more than satisfying. Just a few months later, I recorded a mini-podcast with SpareMin on bookish sexism and bookish feminism, because I hadn’t quite wrapped up my assault on the patriarchy.

Needless to say, I still have plenty of ammo left.

#5. Connecting with my fellow book bloggers, and trading views on everything from literary villains to logolepsy. Keep it up, blogosphere! I’m rooting for you.

#4. 2014. In 2014, I read Anna Karenina, Invisible Man, The Call of the WildDangerous Liaisons, and One Hundred Years of Solitudeall of which ranked immediately among my most favoritest classics. Every time I came across a Lawrence, or a Faulkner, or a Steinbeck on The List, I just had to remind myself that a Tolstoy, or a London, or a Márquez waited right around the corner. Discovering authors like these served as compensation for the suffering I endured at the low points of The Challenge.

Almost.

#3. Finding excuses to support indie bookstores like The Strand, McNally Jackson, Astoria Bookshop, Indy Reads, Trident Booksellers & CafeSherman’s, and Le port de tête. Bookstores are, by now, more of an addiction than a hobby. But I have no regrets.

#2. Starting the Quick Reviews series in an attempt to spread myself a little thicker. This may have literally saved my life, assuming a blog can kill you. (At one point, I was convinced it could, and very well might.)

#1. See above. 

The Challenge has had its ups and downs, most of which I’ve documented painstakingly over four years of blogging. YOU’RE WELCOME, INTERNET. And while I wouldn’t wish my bookshelf on anyone, we’ve been through so much together that friendship and affection were inevitable.

Just don’t tell it I said so.

My Wish List for Future Classics (and All Other Books)

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98 books and nearly 400 blog posts later, I think it’s safe to say I’ve cultivated some measure of expertise when it comes to the classics. The 100 Greatest Books Challenge has, at least, given me that.

There are, of course, many ways to define the classics. Karen of BookerTalk put together a great post on this topic, detailing Italian author Italio Calvino’s 14-point interpretation in “Why Read the Classics.” His points range from the indisputably relevant to the bewilderingly ambiguous. Here’s a random sample:

  • The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory.
  • A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
  • The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through.
  • A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.

(Yeah, I don’t know about that last one either.)

But my Challenge has less to do with “classic” status than its even-more-subjective cousin, Greatness. Most of us would agree that The List is full of classics. But I’m certain we’ll disagree on which ones are Great.

Long ago, I identified my own criteria for what qualifies a book for Greatness: Originality + Masterful Craftsmanship = Great, in my less-than-humble opinion. I like this definition because it’s broad yet demanding, and because it gives me license to denounce Lawrence, Hemingway, and Updike as a bunch of sorry hacks.

I also like it because it’s open, at all times, to new members. But as long as I’m throwing open my doors to the latest, Greatest books, I’d like to make a few special requests.

This is my Wish List for Future Classics (and, of course, books in general):

1. More diversity.

Like, a lot more. Almost 90% of the books I read for The Challenge are classifiable as American or Western European, leaving more than three-quarters of the world dramatically underrepresented. I can recall only a few non-white protagonists, and even less who would identify as disabled or LGBTQ. And while many classic defenders invoke “era” to cover all manner of sins, this problem persists today.

Fortunately, the call for diversity is growing so loud that publishers can no longer ignore it. Unfortunately, their response has been slow.

2. Less misogyny.

Along those same lines, we need better—more complicated, more realistic, more equal—representation of women. This applies to both authors and characters. Only 14 female authors made it onto The List, and none of them broke the Top 10. (George Eliot is the first to appear with Middlemarch at #12, and she had to publish under a man’s name to be taken seriously.) Only two of the Top 10 protagonists are women, and they are both adulteresses who eventually kill themselves.

…Which brings me to my next point: Can we cool it with the Madonna/whore complex? Classic literature is full of exactly two women: the angelic flower petal/Disney princess, and the morally degenerate hag/hellion. I’m looking at you, Isabel Archer. And Laura Fairlie. And Becky Sharp. And the Marquise de Merteuil.

Oh, and speaking of whores, could we engage a little less often in the casual solicitation of prostitutes? I’m so over fictional brothels, and the human colostomy bags who frequent them.

Once we manage to write and publish and respect female authors/characters on par with their male counterparts, I’m convinced I’ll stop coming across so many literary passages like this one:

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. (Gargantua & Pantagruel)

And this one:

“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.”
(Herzog)

And this one:

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.” (U.S.A.)

It will be a great day for literature, and for my mental health.

3. Less bigotry, in general. 

Yep, I’m on a roll here. I promise I’ll quit whining when the classics quit offending. Just keep in mind that that may NEVER HAPPEN, because the classics are putrid, decaying outhouses infested with bigotry and other bullshit.

I’m excluding, of course, the classics that actively, deliberately deconstruct prejudice in its many forms—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Native Son, and Faulkner’s novels, to name a few. I’m taking aim, rather, at the many perpetrators of nonchalant intolerance: Robinson Crusoe, Gone With the Wind, U.S.A., and everything Hemingway are all guilty of thoughtless, mindless attacks on Jews, homosexuals, and/or people of African or Asian descent. Stereotyping is rampant up and down The List. Rarely is discrimination called into question.

I’m not saying all of these novels should be stripped of their “classic” status. I’m not saying we should stop reading them, or discussing them, or learning from them. I’m not saying I’m some kind of progressive genius who can fix the world one book at a time, or that my opinion on this subject is even especially valid. I agree with Book Riot’s Amanda Nelson that

we wouldn’t have a canon to speak of if we only read books that lacked racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

I’m just saying that on my Wish List for future classics, up-and-coming authors would be a little more thoughtful about race, and religion, and sexuality—and a little less inclined toward the careless dehumanization of marginalized people.

4. Improved readability.

If the classics really want to step up their game—and be read, occasionally, outside of class—this may be their best and only strategy. We all want to engage with Great minds and big ideas, but not when they leave us unconscious with boredom. I’d love to see classic authors tidy up their plots a little (yes, you, Thomas Mann), and give their dialogue a fresh coat of paint (please, Dreiser? Please?). And if they can make their point in 300 pages, it’d be polite of them not to use 800. Or 1500.

In other words, it’d be great if—someday—The Challenge were less of a challenge.

This is all my long-winded way of saying not all classics are necessarily Great books, and that Greatness itself is a matter of opinion. I am under no obligation to enjoy every classic, and enjoyment is (for me) separate from Greatness.

But if I had my way, or the canon gave me a vote, I’d tell the classics that they still have work to do. I’d tell them that, as is, they’re not enough—that they could do more to illuminate the limitless facets of the human experience, in all its breadth and detail. Because that, I think, is the role of a classic.

Or, at least, I wish it were.

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