Yes, it’s been a while. Let’s get over it and into how I spent 2015.
My goal was to read 12 classics, one per month. I did indeed achieve that goal, with a week or so to spare. There were some wonderful highs, an abysmal low, and a whole lot in between.
So, let’s start with the low and work up to the high.
Numbers 12 and 11 I just don’t get. For Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (#12), I suppose I need to attend a lecture or read some authoritative commentary on this book to understand its worth. I know I am an extremely character-driven reader, but often when I don’t like the main character I can see some other value to the book—perhaps not enough to like it, but at least enough to appreciate its merit. This was the case with To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (#11). I didn’t like any of the characters in Miss Woolf’s book or the stream of consciousness style, but I can acknowledge her skill and talent in the way she crafted the novel and see it as a work of literary worth, just not my taste. There is nothing about Mr. Garcia Marquez’s tome that does not sicken me. I was so glad that I found someone who wanted a copy for a friend (thanks NH) so I could purge its existence from my home. Enough said.
The character problem was an issue for me with books #10 (Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote) and #9 (Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray). I’ve seen the Tiffany’s movie and thought the romance was sweet, even if I didn’t get the appeal of Holly Golightly. My appreciation of the film is due largely to Miss Hepburn’s performance, presenting Holly as kooky and selfish but ultimately with a heart of gold. In the novel, however, Holly has no allure at all. In fact, she just might be a sociopath—outwardly charming (at least, apparently, to men), but someone who uses people for her own means with absolutely no conscience about the consequences of her actions. But at least here there were some supporting characters for me to like. As for Dorian, I can’t say I liked any of the characters, but the morality of the story gives it merit. While I often felt as though I needed a shower after reading about Dorian’s descent into degradation, his loss of decency and ultimate end is the price he paid for his vanity. Dorian and his friends disgusted me, and Mr. Wilde was extreme in his point, but there was a point to it all. That’s good writing. I’m still looking for the point in Cholera. (I’m moving on, I promise.)
On to #s 8, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and 7, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I can’t really say I liked or disliked either one of these. They were OK. I think it’s interesting that they both ended up in the middle of my list because they sit at completely opposite ends of my comprehension and understanding spectrum. I totally missed the point when I read Revisited. I found it a little off-putting, good Catholic girl that I am, because it seemed to me to be a bit anti-Catholic. Only after doing a little research about the book did I get what Mr. Waugh was trying to do and did I realize that it was actually a vehicle to promote the classically Catholic themes of faith and divine grace. So while I admired the book’s (and author’s) mission, I didn’t particularly admire the story. When reading Uncle Tom, however, I got the message without additional help—how could I not? It was so heavy-handed I needed to check for black-and-blue marks after reading the book. This one also had an admirable message, but there was some plowing involved in getting through the book. I did like the story and some of the characters, but it was so pedantic that I can’t say I truly enjoyed this one, either.
I can honestly say I enjoyed the next two, but not wholeheartedly. Book #6 was Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I think this was supposed to be the quirky adventures of a perky female meddler and while I ultimately liked Flora, her surroundings were a little too repulsive for me to unequivocally embrace. Fortunately, the sordidness was confined to minor characters, leaving me able to relish Flora and her intrigues. Relish is not the word for anything about #5, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. This one was an act of redemption for me—to actually read a book I had always, and fallaciously, claimed I read. I was slightly ambivalent about the story and characters, but what interested me was trying to analyze the author’s craft. Coming up with theories as to why Mr. Hemingway made the literary choices he did was quite fun for me. I came up with no definitive answers (as indeed, I think we as readers can never be sure of an author’s intent unless we have it in writing from the author himself) but the questioning process itself was quite satisfactory to me.
Now we approach the good stuff. I truly liked the main character of book #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved seeing Janie triumph after so many years of such heartbreaking struggles. But I wonder if I’m alone in thinking which hardship was her greatest. I think most people would claim that it would be the death of her beloved Tea Cake and the incredible circumstances that surrounded it. I, however, would argue that the worst thing she endured was the one time Tea Cake betrayed Janie’s, and my, trust. I was devastated not only by what he did to her, but by the reason for it. Yes, I was so disappointed in him, but that fact just shows what a wonderful writer Miss Hurston is. She created a universe so engaging that I ceased to be an observer and became a participant. That’s talent.
Reading Book #3 was a bit of an odd experience. As a librarian, it seems natural that at some point I would read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It is, after all about censorship through book burning, something every self-respecting librarian should oppose. Except that this book really isn’t about censorship. As I was reading it, there were a couple of things I didn’t understand (the walls in Montag’s house, for example), and I kind of felt like there was a bigger issue involved. In doing a little research, sure enough, there was. Mr. Bradbury himself said that the theme he most concentrated on was an “illiterate society infatuated with mass media.” With that one sentence, I suddenly “got” the book. It is sci-fi, a genre I don’t really care for, but the theme and message were so powerful and so prescient (Apple people, in particular, I’m talking about your) that I had to greatly admire Mr. Bradbury’s work.
I think I first came to Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (book #2) in A Reader’s Book of Days, which I read in 2014. However I came across it, I am ever so glad I did. The intensity with which I identified with Mildred was downright scary at times. The style, plot, and humor were typically British, so I was predisposed to enjoy it. I would have liked a little more definitive closure, but I think that is my inherent American-ness at work. I did have one quibble with the edition I read. On the cover it called Miss Pym a twentieth-century Jane Austen. That does credit to neither of the ladies in question. No one is like Miss Austen (Janeite erupting, here). And Miss Pym is funny, fresh, and entertaining in her own way. I will grant that the types of novels they write are superficially similar, but that’s about it. This was my December book and it was a great way to end the year.
And then, finally, my #1 book, Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve already enthused over the book, so I won’t get into that again. My only concern about the book was that I read it in January. I wondered if I’d set the bar too high for the rest of the year, and that might have been the case. Certainly nothing came close until Excellent Women. And while I identified so with Mildred, she cannot possibly compare with my beloved Atticus. I’m so enamored of Atticus and the book that I have no desire to read Go Set a Watchman (admittedly, in part because there is doubt to the authenticity of Miss Lee’s authorship). I am content to leave near perfection as it is.
So that was my year. I chose to read classics because I don’t seem to like much of the contemporary grown-up fiction that I read. As someone who loves history in general and whose favorite books and authors (Will and Jane, I am talking about you) are from the past I sort of figured that I would like classics more than contemporary novels. In evaluating my reaction from these classics, I don’t know if that’s true. Two I hated, two I didn’t like, two I were indifferent to, two I appreciated, two I liked, one I loved, and one I adored. Authors are authors and books are books, and I just need to keep searching for good books that appeal to me. In one of my favorite books, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a character says something to the effect that reading good books spoils you for reading bad ones. I just need to remember that and read on.