Friday, June 22, 2018

Pleasure reading for a Russian summer

Two members of my team of medical providers were born and raised in Russia, and with one of them this week I got into a discussion about literature, obviously a more interesting subject to both of us than my reasons for coming to her office.

In Russia, she said, summer break for all students begins on June 1 and ends on Sept. 1. The dates don't vary from one school district to the next as they do in the United States. These three months aren't exactly free time, however, as students are given lists of 50 books to read over the summer. Most of the books were by Russian or European authors, she said, but there were a few American works among them. The book she most raved about surprised me: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. She commented that compared with War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, both required reading during the school year, Cooper's novel was pleasure reading, perhaps what Americans call a beach book.

The Last of the Mohicans has not been viewed as pleasure reading in the U.S. for a good long time, although once it was. Published in 1826, it was a runaway bestseller, not just in the U.S. but in Europe, as well. Perhaps few people read it today, at least outside Russia, but for much of the 19th century, it was considered all but mandatory reading, bigger than anything by Dan Brown or James Patterson today. It put American literature on the map, for up until that time the United States had few writers of note, nobody whose work was read on the other side of the Atlantic. Cooper changed that.

That's why Thomas C. Foster includes The Last of the Mohicans in his book Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America. Cooper was America's first professional writer, his books were that popular. "Someone had to go first, show that there was a life to be recorded here, that this place, this new set of possibilities, could inspire a new literature" Foster writes. "Cooper set the signpost on the road, and hearty travelers have been following it ever since."

That being said, Foster points out that Mohicans is actually a very poorly written book. Mark Twain said as much in his famous 1895 essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," and Foster agrees with him.  "If you love language, love narrative grace, love prose style, Cooper offends every part of your literary sensibility," he writes.

Still it's quite a story, as even a Russian school girl would attest.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Half trade, half art

William Ralph Inge
"Literature flourishes best when it is half a trade and half an art," wrote William Ralph Inge, a British writer and priest who lived from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. It's an interesting point and, I believe, a valid one.

The best literature does seem to spring from those writers struggling both to make a living and to make art. A James Patterson, whose thriller machine produces a new best-seller several times each year, makes lots of money but no books with literary value. Meanwhile, those writers who would rather starve than entertain readers may produce literature, but if hardly anyone reads it, so what?

There are exceptions. Charles Dickens had an expensive lifestyle and many mouths to feed, so writing books that drew many readers was his top priority, yet many of those books continue to be taught in literature classes. Meanwhile Emily Dickinson had no interest in either fame or fortune, yet her poetry continues to be read and discussed today.

Still I believe Inge was right that a compromise of trade and art works best for literature as a whole. Art should be accessible to the common people, not just the intellectual elite. Why have art museums if hardly anyone ever pays for admission? And why have bookshops full of books hardly anyone wants to read? And of what value is a museum full of velvet Elvis paintings or a bookshop full of James Patterson novels?

Many literary scholars regard William Faulkner as a better writer than Ernest Hemingway, but the public bought and read more Hemingway novels than Faulkner novels. Faulkner had to write screenplays to make a living, while Hemingway, ever the tradesman, supported himself with his writing. Which of them was better for American literature? I'd say Hemingway, and I think Inge would agree.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Cult fiction

(The Scarlet Letter) has never attracted cult followings in the way of On the Road or Tropic of Capricorn; that doesn't mean it's not influential.
Thomas C. Foster, Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America

We have some idea what is meant when we hear the phrase "cult movies." I picture midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the fans in costumes from the film saying favorite lines as they come on the screen. Or fans of The Big Lebowski, also in costume, devoting an entire weekend to watching the movie, bowling and drinking white Russians.

But what about cult novels? Is there such a thing? Thomas C. Foster mentions On the Road and Tropic of Capricorn, but have devoted fans of these books ever behaved in a like manner to fans of those movies?

In their 1998 book Cult Fiction: A Reader's Guide, Andrew Calcutt and Richard Shephard discuss Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, the authors of the two "cult" books Foster mentions, as well as dozens of others. They define cult fiction as "literature from the margins and extremes." It is outside the mainstream, they say, and in one way or another is viewed as deviant. Most of the writers they mention fit this definition: Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Hubert Selby Jr., Ken Kesey and Jim Harrison, to name just a few. But other writers they include seem to me about as mainstream as can be: Nick Hornby, Joyce Carol Oates, Elmore Leonard, Dorothy Parker, Raymond Chandler, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ring Lardner, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Louis Stevenson and J.D. Salinger, for example.

I think Calcutt and Shephard are right to talk about cult fiction in terms of authors rather than individual books, but I am not so sure the fact that writers used drugs (like Thomas de Quincey) or were homosexual (like Truman Capote) necessarily makes them cult writers. Even the subject matter dealt with in their books doesn't define a cult writer unless there actually is, or has been, a cult. Elmore Leonard and Ring Lardner have had many fans over the years, myself included, but have they ever inspired anything that might be termed a cult?

Yet a few writers, none of them mentioned by Calcutt and Shephard, do strike me as being the focus of cult-like activity.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle
This cult surrounds not Doyle himself but his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. Since 1934 when Christopher Morley started the group, the Baker Street Irregulars have met to discuss the "Sacred Writings," not of Doyle but of Dr. John Watson. These Holmes fans and scholars, having formed chapters around the world, talk about the stories with all the seriousness of a Bible study. Some may even dress as Holmes or in other costumes appropriate to the period.

In addition, Holmes is the subject of countless books, both nonfiction and pastiches, as well a nonstop series of movies and television programs based on the character. There is a room in the Toronto Public Library, which I have visited, that is devoted to Holmes, and rooms at 221B Baker Street in London, an address that is itself fictional, are visited each day by fans from around the world. I have been there as well.

Jane Austen

Like Sherlock Holmes, Austen's characters have inspired endless attention from her fans, mostly but not entirely women. Each year several new novels are written featuring these characters or characters patterned after them, including works in the mystery and horror genres. Many films have been made either based on Austen's books or inspired by them or by her life. Among these include The Jane Austen Book Club, Becoming Jane, Austenland, The Lizzie Bennett Diaries and even Clueless.

C.S. Lewis

In his case, it is not just his fiction, such as the Narnia Chronicles and his science fiction novels, but also his theological and academic works that continue to generate interest and a flow of books and articles. Annual festivals, such as the one held each fall in Petosky, Mich., give fans an opportunity to hear scholars talk about his work.

You might also be able to make a case for certain other writers, such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. The Harry Potter stories and The Lord of the Rings stories have generated cult-like behavior, but this may have more to do with the movies than the books themselves.

Movies generate cults more easily than books simply because they can be experienced as a group and because they are visual, better lending themselves to costumes and other imitative behavior. Cult fiction takes a different form, but as Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen and C.S. Lewis have shown, it is possible.

Friday, June 15, 2018

In praise of the bookmobile

... the real reason for which the wheel was invented, the bookmobile. Literary salvation that rolled.
Thomas C. Foster, Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America

Last week, for the first time in 60 years, I stepped onto a bookmobile. I spotted it in the parking lot of the supermarket where I shop. During the summer, instead of making the rounds of area schools, our local bookmobile stops on a regular schedule at various businesses, parks, etc., in the county. Seeing it there in the parking lot, I knew I had to peek inside to rekindle fond bookmobile memories.

My first surprise was how spacious it was. Like Doctor Who's Tardis, it seemed bigger inside than outside. I'm sure bookmobiles are much larger than they were in my elementary school days, but it helped that other than two staffers and a mother and daughter, I had the vehicle to myself. I didn't have several classmates at may elbows also looking for choice books in the same cramped space. That may be my only unpleasant bookmobile memory.

The second surprise was that the modern bookmobile, at least during the summer, has materials for adults as well as children. None of the books interested me, but I did borrow a DVD (The Book of Henry).

A couple days after my bookmobile visit I came upon Thomas C. Foster's tribute to bookmobiles in Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America. Like me, Foster grew up in rural Ohio, just a few years behind. His reflections come in his chapter about The Cat in the Hat, a book that revolutionized elementary education in America. "Those earlier years," he writes, "were taken up with slight variations on 'See Spot. See Spot run.' I know not what course others may take, but those words still make me want to run." Then comes the sentence quoted above, where he praises the bookmobile for giving us kids growing up in the Fifties something interesting to read even before Dr. Seuss worked his magic. "From the bookmobile you could get stories," he says. "From the bookmobile you could eventually get Robert Louis Stevenson. From the bookmobile you could even occasionally get in trouble with your mother. From the primers you got Spot."

That's pretty much how I remember it. We had a small library in our rural school, and while I have fond memories of that, too, the advent of the bookmobile brought so many more reading options. And those bookmobile books were practically new, not like those school library books that had been on the same shelves for years. And each time the bookmobile came to our school it had a different selection of books. What excitement bookmobile day brought, once every two weeks if I remember correctly.

Eventually the bookmobile that came to our school began to offer less appealing choices. My reading tastes were maturing, while the books in the bookmobile stayed at the same level. When the weather was good enough, I started riding my bicycle or driving my dad's tractor into town to visit the public library, which was also the high school library, although I wouldn't be in high school for another year or two. There I walked past the juvenile books and went straight to the adult section. But the bookmobile had filled a need, fed a hunger, quenched a thirst during my elementary days. It was wonderful to relive those memories.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Shaping America one book at a time

One novel talks to another, which talks to another, which talks back to the first two and forward to the next, and so on, one generation of narrative succeeding another till the end of time.
Thomas C. Foster, Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America

Despite what the title suggests, Thomas C. Foster's book Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America has more to do with shaping American literature than with shaping America itself, although one can certainly make the case (and Foster does) that a nation is shaped by its literature.

To be sure, some of the books selected by Foster have had a direct impact on American culture. The Grapes of Wrath showed the haves what life was really like for the have-nots during the Great Depression. To Kill a Mockingbird changed, and continues to change, attitudes toward race in America, as well as attitudes toward those with mental or emotional disabilities. The Cat in the Hat changed American education, replacing Dick and Jane readers with books children actually enjoy reading and leading to Sesame Street in the bargain. Not all influences have been positive. Foster blames Walden for those misguided utopian cults that attempted to withdraw from society and be self-sufficient, as well as those individuals who have misread Thoreau and gone off into the wilderness without the skills or knowledge to survive.

Yet in most cases, Foster concentrates on how certain works of literature have profoundly influenced literature that came later. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin gave justification to all those subsequent creative, somewhat fictional memoirs. American mystery novels, especially those of the hard-boiled variety, continue to show the influence of The Maltese Falcon. The Sun Also Rises "taught America how to write." On the Road "reshaped the sound of modern prose." Virtually all American poetry, Foster writes, owes a debt to Leaves of Grass. A whole generation of black writers was influenced by Their Eyes Were Watching God. William Faulkner, in books like Go Down, Moses, inspired the work of Louise Erdich (Love Medicine), whose own work has in turn inspired other American Indian writers.

Sometimes, as with The Crying of Lot 49, it isn't clear why the book made his list. One could surely make a better case for The Carpetbaggers or anything by Stephen King, for doesn't a widely read book have greater impact than one few people have read? But Foster likes it, and this is his book.

Notice that Foster calls his book Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America, not The Twenty-Five Books That Most Shaped America. He says repeatedly that these are just the 25 books (actually more, since he includes two books by Robert Frost) he chose to write about. He could have mentioned others, and in fact he does at the end of the book. These others include the likes of The Red Badge of Courage, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Winesburg, Ohio, Babbitt, Native Son, The Catcher in the Rye and The House on Mango Street.

He invites readers to form their own list of influential books. "Set your own standard for excellence and greatness," he writes. "Don't take someone else's word for it. Not even mine."

Foster, author of those books with titles like How to Read Literature Like a Professor, has such a spritely writing style that most readers will enjoy even those chapters about books one has little interest in, like The Crying of Lot 49, for example.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Reading heartbeats

Had I come here to find my father, to understand him, or to try him?
Jan-Philipp Sendker, The Art of Hearing Heartbreaks

Any parent searching for a runaway child might face these three choices. Is simply finding the child enough, or is there an overwhelming need to punish or, in better parents, a wish to understand the reasons for running away in the first place? Jan-Philipp Sendker's novel The Art of Hearing Heartbeats finds the same questions facing an adult child searching for a runaway parent.

Julia's mother has no interest in tracking down her missing husband, a successful New York City businessman. But the discovery of an old letter from someone named Mi Mi in Burma (now known as Myanmar) suggests the old man may have returned to his native country. Traveling alone, Julia sets off for Burma to find him.

In the village where her father was born, she meets a strange man named U Ba who seems to know all about her father and about her as well. He promises to take her to her father, but first there is a story to tell.

This story, which takes up most of the novel, tells of a boy named Tin Win who is abandoned by his superstitious mother because he is born on an unlucky day, a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one. He is raised by a neighbor. Having gone blind, the boy compensates by developing his sense of hearing so that he his capable of reading heartbeats the way other people read faces. What's more, he can pick out one particular heartbeat in a crowd of people. (The novelist makes frequent references to heartbeats in all sorts of contexts.)

The heartbeat Tin Win loves best belongs to Mi Mi, a girl with a handicap of her own. She was born with misshapen feet and has never been able to walk. They fall in love and move about the village together, she on his strong back while using her own eyes to guide him. They are separated by a wealthy uncle who, thinking he is doing Tin Win a favor, has the cataracts removed from his eyes, sends him to school and then overseas for his business. Eventually Tin Win winds up in New York, changes his named, marries another woman, all the while longing for the girl of his youth.

Have I told the whole story? Not hardly, for Sendker, a German journalist who spent time in Asia, has some surprises I haven't touched on. Even in translation, the beauty of his writing comes through, and even if the pace of the narrative is a bit slow, most readers won't mind.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Story vs. plot

What is the difference between plot and story? Is there a difference? To many of us, they mean the same thing, or virtually the same thing. I don't think I had ever considered the distinction until I read Ursula K. LeGuin's essay "The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum" in her book No Time to Spare.

LeGuin sees the difference between story and plot as follows:

"Plot, to me, is variation or complication of the movement of story." This reminds me of the oft-repeated phrase "the plot thickens." This is what we might say, or think, when watching Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and those birds start attacking humans or when watching Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot when Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon witness a mob massacre and start running for their lives. To LeGuin, this isn't a matter of the plot thickening but rather of the plot starting. The story began several minutes earlier in each film. Now the plot kicks in.

"Story goes. Plot elaborates the going." The story obviously doesn't stop when the plot begins. It just gets more interesting. That's why most readers can be easily bored by novels (or movies) with no noticeable plot. "When is something going to happen?" we wonder. That something happening is the plot.

"Plot ... turns the story into a cobweb, a waltz, a vast symphonic structure in time." More than just a complication or an elaboration of the story, the plot, says LeGuin, is a thing of beauty, a work of art. I don't think she is suggesting that every plot is a work of art, but even a routine plot makes even a routine story better.

Does every story need a plot? Some novels, including some that are highly regarded in literary circles, don't have them, or at least not that you would notice. Thomas C. Foster writes in his book Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America that Jack Kerouac's On the Road has "no plot worth mentioning." LeGuin herself cites Virginia Woolf's The Mark on the Wall as an example of a story without a plot.

One kind of story that doesn't require a plot to be interesting is a life story, someone's biography or memoir. LeGuin is critical of those writers who try to insert a plot into a person's life "unless the subject obligingly provided one by living it," she says. One person who did have a life with a plot, it seems to me, was Beatrix Potter, who after a long struggle was able to use the wealth she earned from her illustrated children's books to escape a domineering mother and find happiness at her own place in the country.

Most of us live lives without plots, but we prefer that novels and movies have them.