Sunday, 17 June 2012

A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read - Mark Twain

So who exactly decides what makes a classic?  It's a question I raise simply because the word blocks me.  It affects my whole approach to a book. 

Labels are nearly always divisive.  The "classic" label is no different.  And carries with it such pressure. An obligation to enjoy the book at hand.  Or at least recognise its superiority.  I mean, what if you don't?  What if you don't like it at all?  What does that mean?  Are you an inferior reader?  Are you lacking something?  Will you be marked forever?  Condemned?  Cast out?

A (very) quick cyber check tells me this is a question that has been raised through the ages and has not been definitively defined.  Or finished with. Certain criteria are proffered as the generally accepted basis of a classic:  standing the test of time; universal, popular, pertinent.  A mould-breaker.  Expounding words of wisdom.

And pure enjoyment in all that?  I can't help but think that just saying something is such cannot make it so.  The reader reads to be satisfied.  If not satisfied, that book was not the right one for that reader at that moment. Maybe another time.  Maybe never. No worries.  Surely?

But my reasoning is flawed.  In all things, would it not be foolish to think that absolutely no guidance is needed? In school, there were only classics on our reading lists: Shakespeare, Hardy, Dickens, Austen.   Not for the faint-hearted, I grant you.  But I really appreciated the introduction to Shakespeare and Austen, Keats and Wordsworth. 

On the other hand, I never did get to grips with Dickens or Hardy.  Even after multiple efforts.  It was the hard slog through (what seemed to me) a quagmire of needless description that put me off.  Does that make me a bad reader?

That said, I recently helped a friend's daughter in France with preparation for her English bac.  The chosen book was a rather dark and dreary account of some youngsters in a contemporary London school: drugs, teenage pregnancies, violence, aggressive slang.  The lot.  Definitely not my idea of a classic.  Not even close.  And strangely not what I'd want my children to be taught.  If I had children. 

It felt like a betrayal.  Of all the most beautiful English literature to introduce to young hearts and minds, this was all they could come up with?  Shouldn't someone police these things?? I wanted to rage about the classics on offer, that should be offered. I did rage to the poor girl.  Hypocritical, n'est-ce pas?

So classics? For me, they can only be the books that fill my little universe with everything that satisfies me.  The good books that I love. And that I love to share.  The rights and wrongs of this choice I'll leave to the intelligentsia.  Whoever and wherever they may be.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere - Hazel Rochman

At this time of the year, for personal reasons, I usually spend a weekend in Paris.  I love Paris.  It is the most refreshing city I have ever visited.  I love the tourist attractions, the grands boulevards, the cafés, the markets.  The nooks, the crannies.  The usual.  The unusual.  It is my favourite city in the world.  When I am sad, Paris makes me happy.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to spend my weekend there this year.  So, I made Paris come to me.  A very dear friend gave me a book called Paris Tales.  A modest collection of short writings based in different parts of the city at different times by very different people.  Writers include Georges Perec, Emile Zola and Honoré de Balzac.  And many others I've never heard of.

They each take you briefly, often only fleetingly, through areas such as Notre Dame, the 20th Arrondissement, Montmartre cemetery - and particularly the flora and fauna, would you believe; Gare Saint-Lazare, the Bois de Boulogne, et al.

A map of the city shows where the tales take place.  The metro map is thrown in for good measure.  And each tale is separated by black and white photographs of the city.  Mediocre photographs in my humble opinion, only hinting at the magnificence of the city.  Still, the whole serves its purpose. 

Thus with black coffee to hand, rain pouring down outside, and Roland Garros on screen if on hold from the weather, I felt as near to the city as I could get without leaving home.

It was light, atmospheric reading for the most part.  Nothing particularly spectacular.  But enough to transport me there.  I was walking those cobbled streets, feeling the rush of people around me, hearing the noise.  Smelling the metro.  And sharing the love the authors were sharing of this city of such great renown.

Sometimes when things don't turn out as you would have wished, all is not lost.  Someone somewhere has been there and written it down to save your day.  Or in my case, the weekend...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it - James Bryce

I did it.  I finished the tome that is The Golden Notebook.  I feel the need to mark the occasion. 

And what, you may ask, did I think of it?  What indeed.  Well, I am certainly no authority on anything but my own feelings and reactions. And sometimes not even on them.  So I will give you my response with these reservations.

I loved the beginning, the flow, the strength and interaction of the characters.  Moving from the storyline to the notebooks was interesting.  The notebooks add a disjointed element. But that is not negative, it’s just different.  Innovative.  Challenging.  Something to which I relate, for I have tons of notebooks for different moods, purposes and events.

The descent into madness troubled me. Exasperated me.  Repulsed me somewhat. I hated that she knew that her behaviour was out of control and yet would not respond.  I felt she indulged it.  Revelled in it even.  Put off what she would ultimately do.  For she would ultimately take full control again for the sake of her daughter and thus toyed with madness rather than was afflicted by it.  But I needed her to take control sooner.  And when she finally did, and everything sorted itself out, it felt false and rushed and manicured to manufacture a kind of happy ever after.

But then not really happy at all.  Indeed, no-one ever seemed happy in the book.  All the main characters seemed a tad spoiled and overindulged.  The women who often claimed such strength felt weak and dependent. Responsive only to the men and their whims. The men were all portrayed as arrogant and selfish.  Men and women full of their opinions.  Full of their need to fulfil their needs.  Holding back from nothing.  And yet not one of them offered a glimpse of hope or understanding.  Fellow-feeling.  Or simply offered an answer.

It seems like a tale of people living a life they thought they should live, that should make them happy, yet constantly aware that it didn't. With no answers offered.  No direction, no encouragement.  No energy.  Indeed I felt more than a tad sucked free of any energy I might have had at the end.

I was glad to finish. And not just because it was a tome.  I do wonder what others think about it.  And I will find out.  I’m off to Google.

And that, my friends, is the joy that is reading.  Good, bad. Up and down.  And ultimately, an experience every time.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting - Edmund Burke

Following my delight with Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing, I decided to prolong my discovery and launch forth into The Golden Notebook.  And I do mean launch forth.  I love the idea of thick books, but never the actual reading of them.  I mean, TGN is 500+ pages.  Seriously. How did DL get anything else done in her life? Certainly any other writing? And she wrote loads.

Tomes feel like such a commitment.  Illogical for a bookworm, yes.  Silly, undoubtedly.  But here's a fundamental truth I live with: I'm not good at living in the moment.  So much so that I try to make my moments short enough for me to get to the end of them quickly, in order to know how good or bad a time I've just had.  I think it's a mental disease. 

I thus feel trapped when I've delved into a huge volume.  And my whole time in there is usually about getting out again as soon as possible.  The tunnels under the River Mersey had much the same effect on me throughout my formative years.  The result is that the experience itself can be lost on me.  Along with the ideas, the tale.  The purpose.

Still, if I've learned nothing else during my convalescence, I've recognised and lived the importance of patience.  Of doing only what you can, when you can.  Bite-sized, if necessary.  And appreciating that much. 

I'm now approaching the home straight of TGN having (more or less) enjoyed the whole experience.  Just a twinge or two of my usual panic. 

I actually started out intending to highlight passages, so that I could come back to them another time.  To be able to really savour them in the knowledge I'd already conquered the whole.  To promote a relaxed read.  But I never managed it.  The very idea stressed me out.

Making marks on books is beyond me.  It always feels more than a tad presumptuous, somehow.  My first French employer - I was an au pair for the summer, looking after his daughter - bestowed on me a number of French novels to help me improve my French.  Well, it was more of a directive, actually: improve your French.  A la française.  But I was so impressed that he dared to write in the margins.  That his ideas, reactions, feelings were so important that they should be scrawled there for all to see. Scrawled so small though that I couldn't understand any of it.  So it could well have been drivel.  But the audacity impressed me, all the same.  Beyond me, as it is.  For now at least.  Small steps, n'est-ce pas...