Tag Archives: Classics

The Great Gatsby: I’m sorry, high school English teachers. I was so wrong.

I was Such. A. Shit. in high school. Not really. Like not throwing chairs through windows  or skipping class or smoking. I was still me, aka: super keen and over-achieving. I just mean that is it’s own kind of shit. Because I must have been *so irritating with my relentless opinions and ideas and dispositional contrarian-ness.

To whit: Grade 11 or 12 English, we read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t like it.  Rather than keep this view to myself, I wrote a missive to my teacher explaining that subjective truth meant that because I didn’t like it, the book couldn’t be a good book. And she was like ‘you’re ridiculous. this is an objectively a great book’ and I got more and more combative and more invested in proving my brilliance and proving that I was right and the book was terrible. And on I went until she was like “fine!”

And then, blush. Twenty odd years later, book club picks it as part of our ‘classics’ series and *spoiler* 16-year-old Erin was an idiot. This book is objectively great.

[Aside. A. just came in and he’s teaching the book to high school students right now, and I shared how irritating I was in high school, and then a random stranger burst in to tell us How Great the movie version is, and I was instinctively like ‘The movie is terrible because movie adaptations are always terrible. So… I’ve learned nothing.]

There’s nothing worth summarizing here about the novel that hasn’t been written about a hundred different ways, so I’ll just say that this time when reading it I couldn’t better/differently appreciate the nostalgia and longing in Gatsby for the past he can’t have again, the striving he feels to prove to himself and others his worthiness (and oh man, if we could just get high schoolers to see what a futile process this is it could spare them twenty years of therapy and sadness), the impossibility of self-determination when Plot (car accidents) and Character (Tom) will always intervene in our best laid plans. And the narration through Nick that lets us keep  one remove so we can say ‘that isn’t me’ while all the while realizing that yearning and sadness is in all  of us… just… ‘great’, indeed.

So, old sport, heart-felt apologies to the past. If Gatsby’s taught me anything, I can’t go back there anyway, so best not to feel too much guilt and regret. Forward. Ever onward.

 

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The Picture of Dorian Gray: I lost count of the ‘terrible,’ ‘horrible,’ and ‘frightful.’ And loved it.

Your probably know something of the premise of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray from pop culture (I’m pretty sure there’s a Simpsons Halloween episode that recounts it): handsome young man sells his soul to remain ever-young while having the portrait painted of him grow old in his stead. Liberated from the physical evidence of sin (the theory being that sin shows up in the eyes and face), Dorian descends the vice ladder into gambling, ruining female reputations by being seen with unmarried women, whoring, opium and eventually murder. Along the way he is urged on by the devilish, morally questionable, and aphorism spouting Henry Wotton (honestly, I can’t think of a single thing Wotton says that hasn’t been transcribed onto a ‘literary tote bag’ or ‘literary magnet’ at some point or another. Even while he’s viciously sexist and excessively proud).

It is a delicious and delightful novel that plays at once at the thought experiment would-you-rather questions of youth or goodness, beauty or morality, while also asking the reader to question the assumptions we make about other based on what we see in their visage (oh how 19th century writing meddles with the diction of my thought). All the while written with a sort of playful Horror and Terror and Fright at the ‘scandals’ Dorian embroils himself in. (No surprise the book was banned and caused Outrage – to think that the assumptions of a 19th century morality might be something you intentionally and explicitly question…).

Mostly it is a book about art, and the possibility of art creating the eternal for the artist. And in the case of this book, it’s hard not to be persuaded that Wilde the man – for all his complexity – is most certainly dead, while the artist lives on in the work. In that way it’s a hair on the side of self-indulgence, but done so with knowledge and humour. That is to say, the writing is all too conscious of the hubris of wishing art into eternity.

The only part I found tedious was in a long section just after Dorian discovers the painting holds the evidence of his sins. It’s a near endless accounting for the way he burns through his wealth on gems and art and music and how he spreads the influence of his epicurean philosophy among his peers. It was… exhausting. Probably the point.

I listened to this one as an audio book and highly recommend it in this form. Free from my library and brilliantly narrated. Though I wonder what Wilde might think about the mutilation of the form from immersive reading to listening-whilst-driving/cooking/cleaning/being-a-fucking-do-everything-for-everyone-all-the-time-woman. Probably he wouldn’t care, because for the most part women are decorative. Ha. But seriously. Good.

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Infinite Jest: Why Reading this Book Makes You a Hero

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I started reading David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest  at the cottage. I set myself an (overly) ambitious target of 100 pages a day. Ambitious because it took me an hour to read 15 pages. And I could only reasonably avoid my family and read on the dock for seven hours of the day. Because reading Infinite Jest is an exercise in focus, absorption and dedication. Like the ‘entertainment’ that so bewitches characters that they cannot look away (choosing death by starvation or dehydration rather than stopping the consumption of the entertainment) the novel asks for (demands?) complete attention if the reader is to make sense of the overlapping plot lines, constantly shifting points of view, temporal and geographic locations, narrative styles and relationships among characters. Continue reading

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Dracula: Everything you thought you knew about vampires is wrong (views on Twilight remain unchanged)

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It’s my parents’ fault that I don’t know anything about Dracula. I thought I knew little bits about the story from pop culture, but then I remembered I don’t know anything about pop culture because my parents didn’t let me watch movies or TV. And that I didn’t, truthfully, know anything about the story. Okay, my argument falls apart because my parents certainly encouraged me to read. And widely. And I could have read Dracula before my 32nd year. But I didn’t. Like the undergrad student I was chatting with yesterday, I assumed I’d have my whole life to read the pile of ‘classics’ I always meant to read but had never bothered. You know, the kind of book you pick up at the used bookstore for $2 only to let it languish on your shelf for years because you think it probably won’t be that good because it was written so long ago and besides there’s the hip new Twilight thing to read.

No, it wasn’t a brush with mortality that made me decide it was finally time to read a classic work. It was S. and D. independently and within the same week citing it as a terrific read. And me feeling hugely embarrassed when reading the children’s version  (not a paid advert btw) that I had no idea who the two women or five heroes referenced. I laboured under the view that Dracula was about a vampire and a castle and that was that.

I. was. wrong. This book is about so much! And it’s so enjoyable to read! Enjoyable but also scary. I had a couple of nights of bat-related nightmares (for real), so if you scare easily (or at all) I might suggest avoiding reading this one right before bed, or perhaps preparing yourself to jolt awake convinced you hear flapping (probably compounded in my case in that I *did* once wake up to a bat flapping about my head after it got in through a cracked window. I DIGRESS).

It’s about science: As our heroes attempt to work out just what in the fuck is going on with all the blood loss and mysterious nighttime shenanigans they challenge positivist assumptions and make space for other kinds of knowledge: “It is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” Well, sort of. Maybe. They still seem to use all the methods and approaches of Good Science in their quest, but Dr. Van Helsing makes it clear that there are limits to accepted truth.

It’s about gender: Oh what oh what to do with women. And their pesky desire to contribute, be independent, make meaningful lives. They must. be. eaten.

It’s about sexuality: Man-bat comes in the night and slips up under the covers to eat ladies. Ladies love. Men love. But usually only by engaging in passionate discussion and hand kisses.

It’s about form: letters! journals! phonograph records! meeting minutes! Look at all the ways plot and character can be developed in the pieced together epistolary form. There were a few moments where it felt analogous to the 2016 plot wherein characters have to explain why no one has a cellphone or cellphone reception in order to make the plot believable: characters kept explaining why they were bothering to write down what had just happened in such detail so as to convince the reader that this was not, after all, literary convention but instead the raw goods of vampire attack.

So whether it’s genuine interest or deep social shame for not having done so already (or, better still, fear that you’ll die before you read it) that motivates you to read Stoker’s classic work, seize on the interest and get it! (I’d add that I ‘lost’ my library copy (aka it was in the car and I assumed it was lost forever because it was under the seat) and found a free version online in under two minutes – so degree of difficulty in obtaining a copy can’t be an excuse here). That way the next time some punky punk of a reader gets excited about Twilight or True Blood or Insert-One-of-Bazillions-of-Vampire-Cultural-Objects-Here you can roll your eyes and explain “well, X work may be great, but it’s derivative of Stoker’s original work in Y way.” I look forward to your comments explaining the intertextuality of Stoker and how he’s really referencing Y work. Or how Twilight is in its own right a classic work. Ha.

 

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