“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” — Oscar Wilde
Today’s books include a trip around the world, a few jumps back in time, and one giant leap forward in time.
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
I won a cheap paperback copy of this book in math class in the seventh grade (yes, I was so nerdy that after winning a small math contest in class, I topped it off by selecting a book as my prize). But then, who doesn’t love a good adventure story? And this one involves travel, which I’ve always enjoyed and wanted to do more of (so far, my passport is looking sad and the Bermuda stamps are lonely but hopefully, some friends are on their way). Which reminds me: when reading, don’t bother getting hung up on pronunciation, specifically characters’ names. It’s something I’ve come across when I recommend Russian literature to friends. “How can you stand the names?” Try to get them right if you’re reading for class or book club or any discussion really, but if it’s just you reading for fun, substitute a tough name for a moniker that won’t slow you down. In Around the World in Eighty Days, I initially had difficulties trying to accommodate Passepartout. When I started thinking of him as “Passport,” it made things move more comfortably. It also comes in handy when there are multiple characters with the same or similar names (I think this habit/technique is why I was able to keep characters straight in One Hundred Years of Solitude when my classmates struggled and why I was able to enjoy the novel more).
Atonement by Ian McEwan
I absolutely love this book and it is definitely on my To Read Again (at Some Point) List (once I figure out who it was I loaned it to last and get it back). I picked it up just before the press for the film’s impending release was getting started. Though I’ve since read a few of Ian McEwan’s other novels (and plan to read many more), nothing’s matched the enjoyment I got from Atonement. The ways that he played with perspective and characters’ interpretations of a single scene or event are fascinating. Plus, it’s part war novel (and I am a sucker for war novels). Did I mention that it’s also beautifully written? (On a side note, my favorite part of the film adaptation is the minutes long, continuous shot on the beach at Dunkirk; with the fantastic score, it’s so hauntingly beautiful and amazingly heartbreaking).
Beloved by Toni Morrison
This novel appeared on four syllabi in three semesters while I was completing my undergraduate degree. It’s not my favorite Toni Morrison novel, but it’s not my least favorite either (sorry Song of Solomon). While it’s true that each time I read the novel, I became a little more frustrated, it is also true that I continued to find new things to say about it. There are so many levels and so many nuances within this novel. It is possible to passionately discuss this book for hours, regardless of how enjoyable you find it. Also, if you read Toni Morrison’s novels in the order they were chronologically published, her earliest works seem to culminate in Beloved. Certain elements, techniques, and approaches are pulled from each of the others and are woven together. It’s an interesting progression to examine. But don’t watch the film adaptation of Beloved. Just, don’t do it.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
When is the best time to take a Dickens seminar? Why when there’s going to be a newborn in the house while you’re trying to do homework, of course. No? Well, somehow I managed (I have a list of ways to get through about 200 pages of Dickens a day for anyone who’s interested). It’s always a good sign when the professor assigns two of the longest Dickens novels along with several other shorter novels and stories. But within the first few hundred pages of Bleak House I was successfully hooked and now voluntarily subject myself to Dickens. There’s a reason his popularity doesn’t seem to fade with time (and he’s not on high school reading lists just because of tradition). The humor and compassion of his characters resonate nearly 200 years later. (Nerdy aside, the Dickens episode of the revamped Doctor Who is one of my favorites).
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I made Brave New World necessary to a paper I was writing for my undergraduate history seminar so that I would have to read it. It had been on my To Read list for ages but unless it was assigned reading, I wouldn’t be getting to it for a while, so I made it assigned reading. I really enjoyed the novel and what it contributed to my paper (geeking out again: I looked at the legacy of totalitarian and fascist regimes through the dystopic fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, focusing particularly on texts that are taught in public schools, Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, and the first two books in The Hunger Games Trilogy).