Reading Round-Up: August 2018

Happy almost-September! I usually wait until after the end of the month to do these round-up posts, but since I just started my latest book last night, I know I’m not going to finish it before we’re into September. And while I guess September technically isn’t the fall, and it certainly shows no signs of cooling down where we live, it still always feels like a new beginning to me — that’s what all those years of school will do to you, I guess. And so I bid a cheerful adieu to summer with a look at my last summer books:

  1. Present Shock (Douglas Rushkoff)
  2. The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football (John J. Miller)
  3. The Quiet American (Graham Greene)
  4. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self (Manoush Zomorodi)
  5. Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh)
  6. Every Bitter Thing is Sweet (Sara Hagerty)
  7. Golden Age and Other Stories (Naomi Novik)
  8. Open Mic Night in Moscow: And Other Stories from My Search for Black Markets, Soviet Architecture, and Emotionally Unavailable Russian Men (Audrey Murray)
  9. Uprooted (Naomi Novik)
  10. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See)
  11. Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Laura Hillenbrand)
  12. The Wife (Meg Wolitzer)

This was probably my most balanced month in a while in terms of fiction and non-fiction reads: if not in number of books, then probably in terms of rough page count. I think I would like to fall into a pattern of where I’m reading at something like a 1:2 ratio of non-fiction to fiction. I get itchy when I read too much of the one or the other in a row — alternating a little more deliberately gives me a constant, rotating mental palate-cleanse which I find refreshing.

Bored and Brilliant and Uprooted have already been touched-on in their own posts.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock — I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but at this point its contents seem to have slipped completely out of my head. Except one thing, which is when he points out how weird it is to have Facebook flatten all of the relationships we have gathered over the years into an eternal present where we’re interacting with current coworkers and friends from grade school and everything in between. Yes; that is weird. But that’s all I remember. Sorry, Mr. Rushkoff. Maybe I can’t remember this book because I am suffering from a case of present shock.

The Big Scrum was a fun read. I care very little for sports in terms of sitting down and watching them, but I love sports writing and I love a good sports story. This is a fascinating account of how football came to occupy the place it does in American culture, and taught me basically everything I know about Teddy Roosevelt (not hard to do when you’re starting from zero!).

And speaking of sports writing, man oh man: Seabiscuit. It’s no surprise to me that Seabiscuit was a best-seller; it was easily the most engrossing thing I read this month. Laura Hillenbrand is an impeccable historian and a fantastic storyteller — at one point I found myself actually getting breathless as I read the account of one of Seabiscuit’s races. And sure, that race happened eighty years ago, but Hillenbrand made it come alive. The best part is that because the story takes place in the 1930s, you can find newsreel footage of at least some of the events covered in the book. Here is Seabiscuit’s 1938 match race against his half-uncle, War Admiral, which is widely hailed as one of the best horse races of all time:

Last month I read Sara Hagerty’s Unseen, which is her second book; this month I read her first book second, Every Bitter Thing is Sweet. The title is an allusion to Proverbs 27:7, “One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” This book is more of a memoir than Unseen, going into a lot of detail about things that were only referenced in the second book: the deep struggles in the early years of her marriage, the pain of a decade-plus of infertility, the trauma lurking behind her children’s adoptions. These are all bitter things — but, she writes, can be sweet to us when we let them feed our hunger for God.

The last non-fiction I tackled this month was Audrey Murray’s Open Mic Night in Moscow, which slots nicely into one of my favourite genres: amusing travelogues. The book follows Murray as she travels through the former Soviet states over the course of about a year. It’s surprisingly vulnerable at times, and sneakily educational — but most of all it’s very, very funny.

As far as fiction goes, this month was a pretty good mix of serious and silly. I very much enjoyed The Quiet American, and it will go back into my pile one day; I have a feeling it’s one of those books that gets better with subsequent readings. Decline and Fall will doubtless be another one to revisit in a year or two; it’s satirical and preposterous and thoroughly enjoyable. And if I read it enough I may finally be able to keep Evelyn Waugh and Edith Wharton straight in my mind. Those E.W.s are confusing.

I’m a huge fan of Naomi Novik’s nine-volume Temeraire series, which is probably easiest to explain thus: the Napoleonic wars, but with dragon-based aerial support. Golden Age and Other Stories is a collection of short stories set in the same world, each one inspired by a piece of fan art (pictures included, of course!). That’s a neat way for an author to interact with her fandom — I’d love to see more of that kind of collaboration.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane was the first selection of a new book club I’ve been invited to join. Except then it was un-selected in favour of something else, but since I already had a copy from the library I read it anyway. This novel is set (mostly) in China from the late 1980s through the present day and touches on a lot of themes: education, international adoption, the interaction between Chinese and Western culture, the relationship between majority and minority ethnicities in China, and woven throughout, a whole lot of the history and production of pu’er tea. It’s tremendously sad — I cried a bit — but the ending is perfect. And I now have another Lisa See book waiting for me on my to-read pile.

Last but not least was Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, which I (and everybody else, judging by the library holds list) read because it’s been recently made into a movie. I guessed half of the surprise ending when I was about halfway through, but didn’t see the other part coming at all. It’s a quick, engaging read with lots of stuff to chew on.

The timing of “greatness”

Our family has had some fairly long drives recently, and my husband and I have been enjoying listening to National Review‘s The Great Books Podcast in the car, hosted out of Hillsdale College in Michigan by John J. Miller. Every week Miller hosts a guest — generally a professor of English from somewhere or other — and they talk about one of the great books of the Western Canon. We’ve listened to podcasts on Beowulf, Pride and Prejudice, Augustine’s City of God, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, The Aeneid, and many others. As far as tech/sound goes, there are occasional volume-balance issues, particularly when Miller is being joined via telephone, but overall it’s been a pretty enjoyable listen. I’ve made mental notes of books that I’ve never gotten around to but would now like to pick up, as well as some, like Farenheit 451, that I read long ago and didn’t enjoy — but which would probably read very differently to me fifteen years on. It’s definitely spurred some great conversations, and we will often pause the podcast to discuss a guest’s interpretation of a work versus our own. I dig it.

The whole thing, though, has made me think about the idea of a “great book” or a canon of literature, both of which seem to have fallen rather out of fashion. I had an English teacher in high school who railed against the very existence of a Western Canon — “It’s nothing but dead white men!” — as well as the idea that we should be studying it with any seriousness. It is true that The Western Canon as we have inherited it is overwhelmingly the words of said dead white men. Do we regret the lost voices and perspectives from the years when they were either going unplublished, or not receiving enough reader traction to have survived the intervening years? Of course. But to my mind, that makes the canon a candidate for supplementation rather than destruction; if it is a shame to have lost those other, unknown voices then surely it would be a shame to lose the ones we still have. We don’t need to stop reading The Odyssey just because we also want to read Their Eyes Were Watching God.

But what most interests me is the charge of being dead. Well, the poor dears can’t help that, can they? Death may have snuck up on them decades or centuries or eons ago, but they were all living and writing on the razor-thin edge between their present and the future, just as we are now. Refusing to read authors simply because they lived before we did strikes me as particularly foolish, and smacking of what C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield called chronological snobbery. In effect, it is the assumption that the past is inferior to the present simply because it is the past. It is easy to look at the ideas and assumptions of the past and think ourselves well past all that — and in many cases, we may be right. But if we assume that the present isĀ always superior to the past, we end up in the intellectual weeds. Lewis writes,

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. (Surprised by Joy, ch. 13)

Miller opens every podcast with the same question: “So, Professor So-and-So, what makes XYZ a ‘great book’?” Naturally, the answers vary, although there are some common themes: the books highlighted on the podcast have something profound to say about the universal human condition, or give us a clear window into a particular time and place, or were influential on another author or a country or a movement, or what have you.

(Aside: Giving us a window into a particular time and place is not always seen as a positive quality; many books are challenged and pulled from library shelves because they are seen as too different from our more enlightened age, too rooted in their contemporary mores. The American Library Assosciation recently struck Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s book award because her books contain “dated cultural attitudes” — nevermind that Wilder’s portrayal of the conflict between American Indians and white settlers is a nuanced once, overwhelmingly steered by Pa’s good-hearted acceptance. Chronological snobbery has won that particular battle. End of aside.)

But a great book isn’t a Great Book just because it shows us something about humans or influenced a movement — there’s a larger link between them, which is that these books have all stood the test of time. Something about them means that they have stayed in print, that readers are still buying and reading and enjoying them, and not just because they can be found on university syllabi (although I’m sure that helps!). Despite their temporal and cultural remove from us, there is something compelling about them, some quality that has ensured their survival even while other books from the same periods have been lost. They have survived the literary sorting contest that, over decades and centuries, removes the dross from the gold.

Above all, greatness takes time. I read a lot of books that have been published within the last decade or two, many of which have been bestsellers. Will they become Great Books, in time? Some will; many won’t; popularity today does not mean popularity tomorrow, never mind in 50 or 100 or 250 years. I love John Grisham’s novels. Will people be reading John Grisham in 2218? I don’t know, but I bet they’ll still be reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Dante and Homer. I certainly hope they’ll still be reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the ALA’s recent smackdown. We certainly shouldn’t abandon all contemporary reading in favour of exclusively browsing the past (that’s the other side of chronological snobbery, the fetishization of what’s gone before), but neither should we abandon these older books. Instead of challenging them, let us allow them to challenge us — to illuminate the unquestioned mores of our own age even as they expose their own. To do otherwise is to lose a great deal of our ability to understand the world in which we live today (as well as to understand the past), and that would be to lose something very precious indeed.