The Literary Meme
The Literary Meme
One book that changed your life:
Herzog by Saul Bellow. Right after college I rediscovered reading for pleasure. One of the first books I cracked on this binge was Martin Amis’s collection of essays The Moronic Inferno, which made several references to the greatness of Bellow’s work. As a result, I bought a copy of Herzog to read on a cross-country train trip.
The book is amazing. Its plot is almost non-existent: a literature professor, Moses Herzog, putters around the country seeing friends and family and writes letters he never intends to mail. And it’s beautiful. It portrayed everyday, unremarkable life as high art. Overpraised, boring New Yorker-style slice-of-life novels that clog the “literature” section of bookstores are attempts to reach the heights that Bellow did. Herzog showed me how good modern literature can be. Other novels impressed me just as much. But Herzog was the first.
One book you've read more than once:
The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer. A lazy professor of classics at Oxford flees to France after being caught embezzling money from the university. Within hours of arrival, his ill-gotten cash is lost in a car fire. Not long after that, he meets with a stick-up man who lacks a few body parts and is dying of “a fashionable blood disease.” They pair up to become philosophical bank robbers, and prove to be brilliant at it. The Neoplatonic Bank Robbery is a sweet moment. Great stuff. Robberies, jokes, bar fights, histories of philosophy, odes to laziness, and more uses of the letter “z” than you’ll ever believe. An all-time favorite of mine.
One book you would want on a desert island:
Aside from the obvious “how to survive/how to build a boat” books (we’ll assume I have enough supplies to survive and somebody will pick me up in a year), I’d go with In Search of Lost Time. I’ve always wanted to read it. Sticking me on a desert island with nothing else around would make that happen.
One book that made you laugh:
Life With Jeeves, a collection of three novels by P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is always funny, and is at his best in the Jeeves stories. He described his books as “musical comedies without the music,” and the description is perfect. They’re light, airy, charming, brilliantly written, and damn funny. Wodehouse is the literary equivalent of Fred Astaire; he’s so good he makes it look easy. It isn’t. Read just about anyone else’s “humorous” novels for proof. The man was incredible.
One book that made you cry:
Eichmann in Jerusalem. Cold despair and sad truth on paper.
One book you wish you had written:
My next one. Must get off lazy ass…must get off lazy ass…
One book you wish had never been written:
I’ll skip the easy choices (Mein Kampf, etc.) and go strictly by the book(s) that annoy me beyond belief. At the risk of offending many of the internet folks out there who quite like her, I’ll go with the Ayn Rand collection. My apologies to her fans.
Her “philosophy” is essentially Nietzsche minus the self-awareness, insight, or depth. Her work is not taught in universities for a reason. Not because the academy is “afraid” of her; academics frequently teach works that disparage academics. It’s because there’s so little substance to her books, and what bits can be found are shallow and inferior interpretations of much better work.
Plus, not to be overlooked, the books are written like ass. When one rejects the richness and complexity of the human experience in favor of binary thinking, one cannot understand humanity and loses the ability to write characters at all. Forget three-dimensional characters; she couldn’t manage two-D.
She tells her readers that it’s all very simple, that moral complexity is a sham, and that those with Reason and Purpose and Self-Esteem (implicitly defined as “those who read my books”) should rule the world. But they’re held back! Back by the forces of Unreason! Who would stand against Reason? Why, the Evil and Petty who would strip away what is Rightfully Yours and give it to the Parasites!
--cough-- Yeah, that's why. Sure.
She provides paper-thin rationales for the frustrated little men of the world to cast themselves as misunderstood geniuses and rage at the world around them for failing to acknowledge that fact.
A cheap irony is that Rand’s work is the product of anti-communism, yet her books have the exact same faults as a hack Marxist tract cranked out by a crackpot “revolutionary.” That’s comedy.
In short, her work tells resentful people what they want to hear and bolsters their sense of aggrieved entitlement. It feigns depth and spews nonsense, taking very basic truths (“use your head, maintain your self-respect”) and rockets them way past the point of real-world relevance, straight to Crackpot Junction and Tinfoil Hat Town.
We could use less of that in the world.
For those of you who love her works, enjoy. I can’t stand 'em.
One book you are currently reading:
Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan. I am a complete sucker for the “popular history/science/weird crap” hybrid, such as Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, The Secret Life of Lobsters, and Longitude. Not only are they entertaining reads, they give me all sorts of weird bits of knowledge to fling out at inopportune times.
Me: “Did you know that lobsters pee out of their foreheads?”
Normal person: “No, but thanks for sharing.”
One book you have been meaning to read:
Aside from the previously mentioned Proust, there’s Thucydides. I have a super-snazzy edition of his History of the Peloponnesian War with maps, timelines, and all sorts of spiffy stuff in it to provide context. The translation is solid. It’s freakin’ sweet. It teases me from the bookshelf.
Why don’t I read it? Because dammit, man, there’s television to watch!
Tag five people:
Meh. I’ll pass on that.