Dubliners, by James Joyce
What is this book? A series of short stories about people living in Dublin at roughly the time in which the book was written. Although there seem to be other factors linking the subjects of the pieces (they long, they fail, they are frequently not entirely sympathetic characters, although that somehow might make us all the more sympathetic).
Why did you read this book? Well, 2014 seems to be the year in which James Joyce became my favorite author (or at least hovering near the top). Before 2014, I’m not sure I’d ever read anything by James Joyce. Now, in September, I’ve read all of his major works… and yearn for more. Fortunately there is more, but I’m through the major arcana. I suppose I’m in for plays and poems now.
Do you have any comments to make on the quality of the writing? Some of the finest storytelling I’ve ever read. Although, I would say that a comparison to a visual abstract artist whose early work reveal they could just as well have been masters of representational art, I would not share the opinion I’ve heard from others that people would do well to start here with Joyce. Rather I think I did it right and people should pick this one up at least after they’ve quaffed deep the strange, nourishing nectar from the abyss of Ulysses. I think people should read Ulysses with all urgency in case they get hit by a bus tomorrow.
Did you gain anything from reading this book? Are you a better person for it?
I think one of the great gifts of Joyce’s work is his humanity. In spite of the fact that characters included here are drunks, abusive fathers, fallen women, the timid, and the lost, the presentation is achingly humane and sympathetic. And modern! Joyce has preserved snapshots of the human experience, but specifically the everyday life of those in post-heroic times. The rewards of this book include the therapy of knowing we aren’t alone, as well as means by which to cultivate compassion.
What is your chief complaint about this book? Oh jeez, what a question! That I’m done with it, maybe. That I’ll never get to read it for the first time again.
Would you recommend this book?
If you’ve never read James Joyce, I would recommend that you do so immediately. Although, as I said, this would not be the first of his works that I would recommend, nonetheless I would advise everyone ot be sure they do not shuffle off the mortal without having read this treasure.
It’s actually not a tough read at all and it’s quite beautiful. Joyce can be difficult, but this is the easiest piece I’ve read by him so far. And I’m head over heels in love with it. One of those books where you know within the first few lines that you’re swept up in one of the better reading experiences of your life.
I’ve decided to start reviewing the books that I’ve just read, using a (hopefully) short and sweet questionnaire of my own devising.
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
What is this book? Essentially a Robin Hood reboot. Written in the early 1820s, a novel for popular consumption, once consumed widely by the public, now relegated to the very specific niche reader who goes for “boy’s adventure stories with grad school level vocabulary words.”
Why did you read this book? I have this strange kink that flares up every once in a while to read “authors that everyone used to read but now no one reads.” Booth Tarkington, Somerset Maugham, and, of course, as longtime readers of mine know, Alexander Woollcott is my patron saint. Some I hate (Norman Mailer springs to mind). Some I don’t understand why they were so popular at all (Updike). Some I end up championing (I think Maugham is highly underrated). As an aside, I think Stephen King will one day be in this category if he isn’t already headed there. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was everywhere, but since the accident he seems to have dialed it back for whatever reason, willful or unconscious (his business and not mine, I suppose).
And that’s what I mean by “everyone.” In their time, their works were in the penthouse apartments of the Upper East Side and in the farmhouses of rural Kansas, right next to the Farmer’s Almanac.
So, speaking to that, it seemed strange to me why a person in the mid-1800s would likely have read and loved this book while someone in my own time is unlikely to have. This is what made me want to read it and I think doing so illuminated the answer for me. It seems strange to me that there are books that speak so well to a specific place and time which do not survive long after those conditions have shifted. But sometimes, upon reading them, it all makes sense.
Do you have any comments to make on the quality of the writing? Well, the plot structure is, and this is going to sound like damning with faint praise from me, a very well formed action movie. This is not necessarily a bad thing for a novel. The plot moves, there are not dead points, there is always something exciting happening. Also, it is not dumb, but rather sprinkled with interesting information. Scott seems to have been a Dark Ages geek and is able to, for example, tells us what an “oubliette” is or the difference between a monk and a friar without it seeming labored.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m too much of a cynical modern to be able to fully appreciate such things. At times I feel like my own age had made us all aesthetic eunuchs. I have a great love for the sort of magnificent delusions of the Romantic era, however this is an imperfect example of what I mean when I say things like that.
I’ve heard the accusation that Scott’s characters are two-dimensional and I have to say I found some merit in this accusation. His idea of a multi-layered character is a jester who is also fiercely loyal or a friar who also drinks ale. And Lady Rowena is nothing more than a pretty noble face and, if it were an actual action movie, any talented actress would be wasted in the role. There is a Jewish money-lender (and just when you’re thinking Scott is being forward thinking in coming out against antisemitism, he has one of the most shockingly racist descriptions of Africans I’ve ever read). Not everyone can write great characterization, but, again, pretty much an action movie.
Did you gain anything from reading this book? Are you a better person for it?
I think it’s always helpful for a writer to read a well structured story to learn how to better formulate them. It’s in three acts, each with a climax. There was information within the story about the time and place which I am glad to heave learned in a diverting manner.
What is your chief complaint about this book? The “unenlightened” race and gender issues. The precisely straightforward, “less than meets the eye” form of storytelling. The “tell rather than show” ending which almost seemed as if he ran out of space (“and as for the rest of the works of King Richard, are they not written in the chronicles of the kings of England?”).
Would you recommend this book? Yes, but I would stipulate that there are an awful lot of books in existence that I think people should read first. I suspect there are a good deal of books I might have done well to have been reading in line ahead of this in case I get hit by a bus tomorrow. But it’s good for what it is and certainly fits the bill of what captured my curiosity about it. And, having said all of that, if I had a son of about Junior High age, I would certainly hand him a copy of this and a dictionary.
TO THE ONE WHO IS READING ME
By Jorge Luis Borges
You are invulnerable. Didn’t they deliver
(those forces that control your destiny)
the certainty of dust? Couldn’t it be
your irreversible time is that river
in whose bright mirror Heraclitus read
his brevity? A marble slab is saved
for you, one you won’t read, already graved
with city, epitaph, dates of the dead.
And other men are also dreams of time,
not hardened bronze, purified gold. They’re dust
like you; the universe is Proteus.
Shadow, you’ll travel to what waits ahead,
the fatal shadow waiting at the rim.
Know this: in some way you’re already dead.
— Translated by Tony Barnstone