Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Emperor Has No Clothes

I’ve always loved reading. I don’t know why; I’m just boring that way, I guess. Even as a kid I read a lot, sometimes even preferring to read (if it was a really good book) rather than play outside with my friends.

I have no idea how many books I’ve read over the course of my life. 2,000 maybe? I’m guessing, obviously, but that’s probably somewhere in the neighborhood.

While that doesn’t make me an authority on literature by any means, I do think it allows me to make the claim that - when it comes to books - I have accumulated a fairly decent body of comparison by which to judge good from bad.

And when it comes to bad, there are two novels that have made the Top 10 of my all time “hackers” that I wanted to warn you about. Why these two? Because they have somehow gained the status as being “classics”, and are both also considered to be part of a group known as the “Best 100 Novels of All Time”, which I think is a travesty and an insult.

I was recently reading William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The key word here being “was”.

What an unbelievable piece of junk. If you’ve never had to read The Sound and the Fury, consider yourself lucky. I’ll share a brief insight into what reading it is like with the below example, which, while not taken from the book (I made it up), certainly could have been:

I walked to the edge of the cliff Sweet corn and looked faraway at the don’t go there don’t go there I must you can’t and mama turned to look at me “Got to get yo feet out’d mud boy” before she faded into a door that was black and then it wasn’t black and then I made the noise again
are you going to the dance
well you should ‘cause you dance nice
says you
says me
but the lights came back and I went away the watch the watch why isn’t it ticking she smells like grass because you broke the hands off of it and cut your finger smells like grass and bled like grass on the new white tablecloth.

Now let me ask you: Was that enjoyable to read? Does it make any sense? Would you read 350 pages of that clap-trap without someone holding a gun to your head? Would you believe that I actually read 140 pages of it before coming to my senses?

Now, I don’t profess to be the sharpest tack on the bulletin board, but I had to go to Wikipedia and read the synopsis just so I could discover what the story I had been reading was actually about. It blew my mind. It also didn’t resemble anything that I read in the book.

Faulkner was credited with writing this novel using the “stream of consciousness technique”. Ooooooo, that’s so Avant-garde! I’m sorry, but I’m not impressed. I’ll give William credit for trying something new, but at best it was a bad idea and at worst it was just plain annoying and stupid.

The “stream of consciousness technique” reminds me of that period of years back in the 90’s when every commercial and TV show suddenly was filmed with “shaky-cam”. Do you remember that? The camera is bouncing up and down, zooming in and out - even going in and out of focus – as if the cameraman was either drunk or a 12 year old child.

Have you realized that the Avant-garde “shaky-cam” era has passed? Do you know why? Because it was a BAD IDEA. Just like The Sound and the Fury. Don’t waste your time.

The second book of jaw-dropping dumbness that I want to point out is The Catcher in the Rye. This book starts nowhere, ends nowhere, and doesn’t do anything of any importance in between.

If you enjoy reading about a teenage boy with nothing to be upset about that is dead set and determined to be upset about everything anyway, then you might enjoy this waste of paper and the innocent trees who gave their lives to see it in print.

My guess is that The Catcher in the Rye probably got its undeserved attention & acclaim because it deals with teen angst punctuated with a continuous barrage of foul language, both of which would have been considered “shocking”, “ground-breaking”, and – dare I say (yes! dare! dare!) – “Avant-garde” at the time of its publication.

It's notable to me that J.D. Salinger only published this one book. My guess is that his daddy used up the only favor his friend at the publishing company owed him.

I know that some of you may cry foul that I would pan both of these books, but reading should be a pleasure, not a chore. It should not require in-depth “study” to figure out what is going on or what it means. I didn’t have to ponder the concepts & themes that Dickens relayed in David Copperfield; they were transferred inherently. I didn’t even notice.

And before someone says that I just don’t understand or appreciate “classic” literature, let me set the record straight: I do. Very much so. Just not these two. I’m sorry, but with The Sound and the Fury and The Catcher in the Rye, the emperor has no clothes, and I’m not going to say otherwise, no matter how many other people insist that he’s dressed in grand fashion.

As an antidote to the above, here’s a few “classics” I’ve read this past year that are worth reading:

Silas Marner by George Elliot – I can understand why high schoolers would not like this book - the sentences are much more complex than what we see today and the vocabulary that Elliot uses shows how much our language has degraded over the years – but she penned a great story.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – A nice little mystery delivered in a clever manner. The passages of the story told by the self-righteous church lady are, by themselves, worth the price of the book.

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper – Requires a little bit of concentration, but a wonderful story that leaves you feeling as if you lost a good friend.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your review of The Catcher in the Rye. Haven't read it since high school 25 or so years ago. I'll be sure not to make it a requirement for my homeschooled kiddos!

Blaine Staat said...

You're very welcome. Depending on the ages of your children, I would recommend: "Treasure Island", "Lord of the Flies", "Robinson Crusoe", "White Fang" and/or "The Call of the Wild", Lois Lowry's books "The Giver" and "Gathering Blue", and (of course) "Animal Farm" to name a few. All of these are good books that provide plenty to talk about with your kids. I would also suggest that you read them first (for approval and determination of age appropriateness) prior to giving to your children.

Catherine said...

I agree with you about Salinger. Very overrated author and now a cranky geezer living in seclusion in NH (and not a nice man, to boot--he can afford to live that way on the royalties from his few published works--I far prefer his NINE STORIES to CATCHER and have yet to read FRANNY and ZOOEY or RAISE HIGH THE ROOFBEAMS, CARPENTERS).

However, I wouldn't entirely write off "stream of consciousness" writing until you've read some of Virginia Woolf. Perhaps the greatest master in that genre, combining the observant qualities of a Dutch still life with a suspension of time. MRS. DALLOWAY is all about a day in the life of a woman preparing to give a party but it weaves in and out of time and is quite luminous at times.

If you liked THE MOONSTONE by Collins you might also like THE WOMAN IN WHITE. I should revisit those myself as well as novels by my favorite 19th century author, Thomas Hardy.

pilgrimhen said...

And recall that brother Will ended up on the wrong end of a shotgun - on purpose. Maybe he was just crazy.

I had to read lots of Faulkner in high school, as well as Salinger. All depressing stuff. How 'bout The Lottery? Sick, sick, sick. What were our teachers thinking?

Just Me said...

My teenage daughter was reading The Catcher in the Rye and liked it so I thought it's a classic so I'll give it a go but oh how hard to read, just not interesting at all, foul mouthed confused youth? Could I call it that? I've just no idea how to classify it as I stopped reading it after chapter 16. He doesn't like people with inferior luggage? I have to pause to sigh here because I hate not finishing a book and know one day I'm probably going to pick it up and finish it. It's starring at me now on the end table next to me. Big sigh.

After reading that section of The Sound and the Fury I won't be picking that up ever though it is on many peoples lists of required reading. You had good recommendations, I especially enjoyed George Elliot's Silas Marner though I'm currently struggling through Adam Bede, hoping it gets better though I'm pretty sure it will. And the recommendation by commenter Catherine of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway has me curious. Something to add to my list.