Category Archives: Essays on Reading

Rereading and Memory

As many of you know by now, I’ve recently launched an email newsletter. “Carrie’s Notebook” is a weekly letter to fellow book lovers. Each issue has a bookish theme and offers a personal essay and some sneak peeks at my bookshelf. Back on October 3rd, issue #5  focused on the guilty pleasure of rereading. I had a ball putting that one together. Mostly because it was a good excuse to search out first-person accounts by other writers about revisiting their favorite books.

Two essay collections in particular helped me understand how reading and memory become intertwined and how rereading can revise how we see ourselves and interpret our past. Of course, they also added plenty more books to my must-read list! Below are reviews of Wendy Lesser’s Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering and Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman.

Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering

Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering

“Nothing demonstrates how personal reading is more clearly than rereading does.”
–Wendy Lesser, Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering

Lesser, editor of a long-running literary journal, revisits books that have been important to her over the years.

I was so happy to find this book. I’d heard about it back when it was first published but never actually grabbed a copy. It has come to mind on several occasions since. For some reason, I never followed through on the urge to read it. Thank goodness for Amazon’s 1-click feature (so good, it’s bad!) and the human weakness for instant gratification.

Lesser offers great insight into how, through the books we reread, we rediscover ourselves. Or, rather, get a glimpse at our multiple selves. She points out how aspects of a book that we skimmed over at twenty might hit us right between the eyes at forty. And how memory and life experience can exert opposing pressures, so stories that comforted us at ten might unnerve our adult selves, dark connotations and troubling symbolism emerging out of the friendly scenes of our old favorites.

But wait… The opposite is also true. Rereading can also act as a time machine that grants access to younger selves, to the very moment (along with a full “sense” track of sounds, smells, emotions) we first read Little Women or The Secret Garden.

I think what I love most about this book is the license it gives readers to step back from our towering to-be-read piles and revisit books we’ve already known and loved. It underscores that, whatever the marketing world would like us to believe, a book is not just another product, to be consumed and forgotten.

Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love

Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love

This collection draws from the “Rereadings” section of The American Scholar.  Writers consider books that have been pivotal in their personal or intellectual development.

Editor Anne Fadiman has gathered pieces from a wide variety of authors, film makers, and journals writing about everything from Pride & Prejudice to the album lyrics to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The essayists also vary sharply in their approach to their material. Some are nostalgic. Others tongue-in-cheek. A few are measured and academic. All of them speak to the intimate nature of our relationship with what we read.

My personal favorite is probably Barbara Sjoholm’s “The Ice Palace.” She explores the fairy tale “The Snow Queen” framed by her own travelogue of a visit to an ice hotel near the very top of the world. Nadine Gordimer’s discussion of the works of Colette was also a standout and shows a fictional world’s uneasy dependence on its historical era.

As a whole, the collection rekindled my interest in some old favorites and also introduced me to others that I’m now eager to delve into for the first time.

Why a Book Blog? Celebrating 100 Posts.

Well, friends, when I started the blog in late December of 2013, I was cautiously optimistic. I’d tried blogging a few years before. This Literary Life was meant to be a journal of the life and times of a working writer. Problem was the life of a writer, at least this writer, isn’t much different from everyone else’s. My posts on the struggle to finish a project or find an agent seemed so beside the point. “Who cares?” I asked myself. “Who needs to know that I wasted an afternoon playing sixty rounds of Free Cell rather than edit my new story? Is there anything insightful or even entertaining about it?”

No. Not really. And that’s probably why I abandoned my blog after a dozen or so posts.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t really “get” blogging. The advice from writer’s magazines and writer’s conference panels was that having a blog is critical if you want to land an agent and publisher, or, if you’re already published, to expand your audience. Yet, at the time, most of the successful writers I knew of didn’t blog. Some didn’t even have websites.

After This Literary Life faded away, any time someone mentioned blogging my brain automatically checked out of the conversation. Blah. Blah. Blah. Tell me another one.

Then came the Independent Publishing Revolution. Thanks to print-on-demand technology and the emergence of e-books, a writer no longer has to toil for years over a novel only to stack in her closet with all the others she couldn’t get the traditional publishing industry to take notice of. Now a writer’s career is in her own hands–from composition, to production, to promotion.  Author websites are no longer a cool way for the as-yet-unpublished to feel like a “real” writer. They are home base for a genuine professional business and a way for a writer to connect with readers.

Readers.

That’s a group I know something about. Not only because I want them, an audience of my own, but because I am one myself. A reader. Passionate. Obsessive. Voracious.

Writer. Reader. This book blog became a way for me to merge my twin identities. A place to compile my reactions to the books I read. E-books. Print books. Much loved classics by long-dead masters. Popular bestsellers.  The debut offerings of indie adventurers. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the source, each book I feature gets a close reading and in-depth, careful critique.

Even better, this time around it’s no struggle finding material for my blog. I’m always reading. There is always a fascinating new author to interview. Sometimes I’m very very lucky and a writer I’ve reviewed or otherwise featured will grow into a friend. Someone to trade book recommendations with and moan to about how grueling and tedious it’s been editing my latest project.

Somehow, without really noticing, I’ve racked up 100 posts. I’ve enjoyed it, too. This book blog isn’t a chore. It’s FUN! Partially because I’m reading even more that I did before I started it. My television is getting dusty. And my Free Cell stats are in the toilet. I don’t have the time to play computer card games.

Too much to read.

How to Carry on a Lifelong Affair…with Books

There are piles and piles of books about being a writer. It’s refreshing to find one about being a reader. Thomas C. Foster, a literature professor, employs a fun, breezy style to teach people how to get the most out of their reading. Chapter by chapter he takes readers through the major aspects that comprise “the novel”–quite a trick considering what a slippery creature it has shown itself since its debut back in the 1700s.

How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World's Favorite Literary Form

How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form

Here’s a quick sample of some chapter headings. They give a good sense of the Foster’s friendly, approachable style.

–Pick Up Lines and Open(ing) Seductions or Why Novels Have First Pages.
–Never Trust a Narrator with a Speaking Part.
–When Very Bad People Happen to Good Novels
–Everywhere is Just One Place
–Who Broke My Novel?
–Untidy Endings

Within each chapter, Forster uses pointed examples from both classic and contemporary fiction. I’m glad I have a habit of reading with a pen in hand, because I ended up with quite a reading list by the time I finished this book. The basic “lesson” of each chapter is summed up by a general (and pretty tongue-in-cheek) rule. Below is a sample of Foster’s useful little nuggets.

–The Law of Getting Started: The opening is the first lesson in how to read a book.
–The Law of Narrative Unreliability: Stop believing the narrator when you see the word “I.”
–The Law of People and Things: Characters are revealed not only by their actions and their words, but also by the items that surround them.
–The Law of Crowded Desks: When a novelist sits down to begin a novel, there are a thousand other writers in the room. Minimum.

If you are a writer, this book is doubly useful. It’s chapters provide a neat checklist of thing to look for in your own work. Foster manages to provide lots of good direction without hampering individual style. His whole philosophy is based on the flexibility of the novel as a literary form. One that can accommodate sensibilities as wide ranging as stalwart Victorian Charles Dickens, noir writer Raymond Chandler, and contemporary novelists like Barbara Kingsolver.

Foster emphasizes that, in all literature, there is only ONE story. And yet it’s also true that we can’t read the same book twice. We’ve changed and therefore so has the book. It’s his treatment of books as living, evolving entities that makes it likely his own HOW TO READ NOVELS LIKE A PROFESSOR will stand up to multiple readings.The discussions and theories he presents seemed designed to support a literary taste that grows and changes.

Carrie’s Classics: LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott

I must have been eight or nine when I fell in love with Little Women. This cozy read follows the four March sisters as they grow up in Concord, Massachusetts during and after the American Civil War. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are as different as sisters can be. Jo is the fierce and argumentative tomboy who wants to be an author. Meg, the responsible oldest sister, is embarrassed enough by her family’s reduced circumstances without having to worry about what “society” will make of wild girl Jo. Beth, lovable but dogged by ill health, is the musical third sister. Finally, there’s spoiled, artistic Amy, who knows exactly what she wants out of life even as a little girl…and it’s not to live in penury, even if her parents are so much in love.

Little Women (Little Women, #1)

Little Women

As a child, it was the girls’ adventures which captured my attention. Jo outwitting her grumpy Aunt March, who forces her to read dry religious tracts rather than the novels the young writer craves. The wild theatricals that she writes and produces with her sisters. Her ongoing battles with bratty Amy, who tries to horn in on Jo’s friendship with the Lawrence boy, who lives next door. Throughout the entire first part of the book, Jo and Laurie seemed destined for each other, even if she steadfastly denies any interest in romance and canoodling. I don’t know about other readers, but I never believed her. My mistake. Josephine March meant what she said–at least as far as poor Laurie was concerned.

Little Women was the first book I read where a main character–a young girl like me–actually DIED. I can remember my utter shock the first time I read of Beth’s final illness. I cried until I could barely breathe. Death. It didn’t seem real. And then again, it seemed all too real. I recall sprawling on my bed, eyes closed, as I imagined what dead felt like. But how can you “feel” nothing?

As I grew older, I re-read the novel once every couple of years. Strange, the sense of spending time with old friends, yet at the same time, enjoying a completely new experience. Scenes that didn’t register before suddenly stood out. The questions I asked myself changed. They had less to do with Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy and more to do with life under difficult circumstances. Or being female at a time when girls–even grown up ones–had limited options and very narrow influence. I asked myself how the March girls’ lives might have been different had they been born only a generation or two later. Then Jo might have, in some small way, been able to fulfill her wish to do something that mattered.

The Ways of Mud and Bone

The Ways of Mud and Bone

Eventually my questions grew so large that they had to be explored in some meaningful way. I decided to write a book about people a lot like the March sisters, only my girls would have wider choices. In The Ways of Mud and Bone, the Great War descends on a small town not unlike Concord. Meryl Goodson, 19, has the chance to serve in an overseas relief unit. Her sister Claire and cousin Nora stay home. What difference would these decisions make to their experience of tragic times? Would my girls be crushed? Or would they rise to meet challenges head on? The answers surprised me and demonstrated once again how character and circumstance mold one another, which is kind of what Louisa May Alcott
expressed so beautifully in her timeless classic.

Even now, in early middle-age, I love re-reading Little Women. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are still some of my best friends. I can’t wait to see where they take me next.

Philosophy of Book Reviewing Part II: Old vs. New

Some readers might wonder why a book blogger would bother reviewing anything but the latest, hottest reads.  ARCs (advanced reading copies)  of  the soon-to-be released novel of a popular author, or the next book in a series that has taken off on the various social networking sites, excite reviewers as much as readers. And what reader doesn’t get a secret thrill out of being the first person to post a review of their most recent literary discovery on Amazon or Goodreads? I know this delight is directly inverse to the disappointment I feel when I log on all pumped and ready to debut my carefully crafted opinion and discover 300 (or 3000!) readers have gotten there first.

Believe it or not, at times I’ve been the 300th/3000th reviewer and still received feedback. Usually it is because I’ve been critical of a book that most people rated four or five stars. Not terribly critical. I don’t review/rate fiction or memoir if I can’t give it at least three stars. I’ve set out my reasons for this tempered approach in a previous post about how much I detest the star system. Let’s just say that I’m sensitive to the subjective nature of creative work, and my intention when I review is to inform and entertain, not to damage writers or their books.

So why bother reviewing a book that is two or three years published? Or twenty years? Or two hundred years?

Publishing books…and reading them…is not a linear process. Authors come in and out of vogue. Likewise, it’s possible for a book to be a huge hit at publication, forgotten for decades or centuries, and then rediscovered by an entirely new audience. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that every book ever written is one film adaptation away from a New York Times bestseller.

Hollywood jackpots aside, a book is brand new to every reader who comes to it. This can be extended to re-reading. The (insert your favorite title) we read at eighteen or twenty is not the one we read again at forty or sixty. We have changed, the world has changed, so all our references as we read our old friend are brand new.

It’s in this spirit of discovery and re-discovery that I offer books here that are fresh out of the author’s imagination, others that have been around a decade or two, and still others straight out of Great Literature 101. A book, especially a good book, is never too old to be worthy of critical attention. People pass away. Our books–especially in this digital age–live forever.

My Love Affair with LOLITA

Being a fan of 18th and 19th century fiction, developing my “Modern Masterpieces” feature for this blog posed a challenge. I could think of plenty of good books I’d enjoyed over the years, but Good is not the same as GREAT, and I wanted to spotlight those novels with the best chance of becoming “classics”. You know, the ones destined to be foisted on the high school and college students of two centuries from now, who will probably be more interested in tooling around on their flying scooters than reading dusty narratives from long-dead authors like Charles Dickens and Toni Morrison. Luckily, I have Facebook friends with a much better grasp on modern and contemporary fiction than I do. They provided me with enough ideas to carry this monthly feature through 2025 at least.

Lolita

Lolita

But there was one book, I knew I’d discuss–Vladimir Nabokov’s delightful, delicious, disturbing Lolita. To explain the importance of this novel to me, I need to go back two decades to early 1993, when I realized how little reading I’d done in the seven years I’d spent earning my B.A. and M.A. degrees. Granted, I’d majored in Anthropology and not in English Literature. But, still…there I was, a highly educated person, a book lover, and I’d never read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, Henry James or Willa Cather. Add this to the wonderful poetry and fiction being published year after year after year…How could I catch up, much less keep up?

So I set a cut off for myself. 1950.  It seemed reasonable enough at the time. I could start with Beowulf and The Iliad and work my way forward. This way I’d cover all the important stuff, right? It was a fabulous plan. Until Lolita. I’d heard of the book. Of course. My century’s Madame Bovary. The book which dared speak the unspeakable–a debauched Old World serpent slithering through the cool green lawns of all-American suburbia. Published in 1955, it was out of bounds for me.

Thank goodness for tax season and rude library patrons. I went into the photocopy room to xerox my freshly prepared 1040A and there she was abandoned next to a pile of home and garden magazines. The cover: a pair of bare, knock-kneed legs in bobby socks and black-and-white Oxfords. The person using the copy machine warned me she’d be a while and suggested I come back later.

I picked up the book.

A brief forward by a fictional editor describes what follows as the memoir of one “Humbert Humbert,” who died in prison a few days before the start of his trial. The nature of his crime is withheld until the end of the book. And it’s not what the reader assumes. Then, chapter one:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Friends, he had me.

I still find it hard to believe that English was Nobokov’s third language, and he (as he states in his short essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita“) didn’t feel he wrote his best work in it:

“My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years

I don’t know about you, but I’d take his brand of English, second-rate or even third!

And yet it isn’t just Nabokov’s style that elevates his novel from good to Great.  The settings–from young Delores Haze’s cluttered, mock-genteel New England living room to the unending series of roadside hotels and motor inns Humbert and his young hostage inhabit during their time on the run–are beautifully realized accretions of detail. The latter were based on the author’s travels across the United States on annual butterfly-hunting trips with his wife.

For me, though, character is where Nabokov shines brightest. In Humbert Humbert, he presents us with a monster and proceeds to reveal its human heart. Don’t misunderstand me, the pathology depicted here is real and incurable. Humbert is a pedophile. He recognizes his perversion and is powerless to control it, though near the end of the book, during his years-long search to recover his lost Lolita, he manages to sublimate his behavior (if not his urges) through a semi-permanent relationship with an adult woman. It isn’t a perfect solution, and one wonders if, had his mental and physical health not been so broken down, it would have worked as well as it did. Yet in spite of his terminal, tragic flaw, Humbert changes over the course of the novel. Somehow, Nabokov redeems him to a degree that would seem impossible except that, by the end, we thoroughly believe in that redemption, that by some twist of fate and the human psyche, the predator’s lust turned to love and, more than that, to empathy for his prey. Ultimately, Lolita’s life (as a grown woman in a normal relationship with an ordinary man)  is more important to Humbert than his mania, and certainly more important than his own life.

Language, style, setting, character, humanity, chutzpah–there are so many reasons to call Lolita a Modern Masterpiece. Most important to me is that it was my first. Afterward, there was no going back to that neat, efficient, rational course of study I’d created for myself. My reading life since has been chaotic and messy and infinitely satisfying.

What is a Modern Masterpiece?

Attempting to define a masterpiece is like taking the proverbial long walk off a short pier–you’re going to get wet. Refining the discussion to modern works, for my purposes this means books published after 1950, ramps up the debate. These are the stories that have their genesis in the world we (and our parents) have known and experienced. In defining the modern masterpiece, we’re seeking to divine which of our stories are the classics of the future, destined to take their place alongside works by Dickens, Austen, James, Faulkner and all the other greats, and which will evaporate into time.

When I think of what makes modern fiction, I think of books that explore the complexity of human emotion in a world of constantly shifting social, cultural and personal boundaries. Unlike earlier works, which tend to deal in opposing values or symbols (good versus bad; beautiful versus ugly; right versus wrong), modern fiction wallows in shades of gray.  For the modern protagonist, conflict is most often internal, rather than a battle against the greater society. Drama lives in that place where even honest attempts fail–and the only way to reach the authentic self is through a hard road of rejection and re-invention. Think Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert as dangerous as he is pathetic. The anti-heroes of John Updike and Saul Bellow. Toni Morrison’s lost souls forever searching for a true identity and a place in this world.

The marked global emphasis of modern fiction shifts away from other cultures simply as colorful background or a convenient means of setting a narrative in history. Instead the view is from within. Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Junot Diaz. They sing of the displacement of the newcomer, of what is shed with transition and at what price, of what is lost in translation and never recovered.

Lacking the gift of prophesy, I don’t know for certain which modern masterpieces will cross into literary immortality. It’s also quite possible that the same book to which I apply the word “masterpiece” is someone else’s doorstop, roach smasher, or sleeping pill. My intention over the next year is to present suggestions–just one per month-works of modern fiction which just might survive long enough to become something more. I’m hoping at least a few intrepid readers out there will join me on the adventure.

The House of the Seven Gables: Why Can’t Nathaniel Hawthorne Keep His Mouth Shut?

It wasn’t easy settling on the first Carrie’s Classic. Many a masterpiece have I read and loved in my forty-year reading career. A Jane Austen might have been nice. She has a voracious audience full of enthusiasm and opinions. Or maybe George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the book that was introduced to me–via that mellow-voiced older man who used to present Masterpiece Theater on PBS–as the (technically) “perfect” novel. Only perfection isn’t the point here. Nor is popularity. My intention is to present Carrie’s classics–the books that have impacted my vision of my world and, yes, in many ways molded my writing style. The hope is that those of you following this blog will create your own list of classics and begin to think about how your reading has shaped you.

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables (1850) is an imperfect work. The plot revolves around the four surviving members of a great family that–cursed by the misdeeds of its founding ancestor, the severe and terrifying Colonel Pyncheon–has fallen into ruin.  Their condition is reflected in the dilapidated, ghost-filled mansion where elderly spinster Hepzibah and her brother Clifford, mentally broken by many the many years he spent in jail for murder, live out their narrow, angst-ridden last days. Their cousin, the slimy and conniving Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, is the actual heir to the estate. He’s obsessed with old tales about a deed hidden in the house that would restore the family to its former glory. Worse, he believes Clifford knows where the deed is and plans to get that information by any means possible. Rounding out the cast is young Phoebe, a country cousin who unexpectedly shows up and brings a little light into the House of the Seven Gables, and Holgrave, an artist lodging with them.

     The House of the Seven Gables, Salem MA (right) 

The House of the Seven Gables. Salem, MA. Actually one of four houses believed to be the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorn's novel.006

 

008I first read this book back in 1994, after visiting Salem, Massachusetts where there is a real House of the Seven Gables, though it is actually one of four properties in the region that Nathaniel Hawthorne mashed together to get his ancient pile of cobwebs and rotting timbers. The romance of the historical site, a complex of 17th and 18th century buildings, including Hawthorne’s birthplace, led me to crack my signet classic edition with high hopes. Reality…well, there was plenty of creepy, old Salem atmosphere…along with a tangle of overblown exposition, author intrusion, digression, and moralization. I’d go on, but I truly don’t want to put readers off the book. Because, despite its extravagances and weaknesses, there is a lot to admire.

Written only seventy-five years after the Declaration of Independence, The House of The Seven Gables takes on the subject of the triumph of the common man over the aristocrat. The ruin of the Pyncheon dynasty lies at its very beginning, Colonel Pyncheon, a British-born favorite of the crown, builds the his luxurious gabled palace on land snatched from a working man named Matthew Maule, whom he helped get convicted of witchcraft during the great witch hysteria of the 1692. It is Maule’s son who engineers the disappearance of the property deed that will become so vital a century and a half later. And it is a Maule descendant who recovers the document and saves the tattered remains of the aristocratic line. The families actually fuse through marriage. By doing so, they wash away the ancestral sin that has dogged the Pyncheons and step into a bright (egalitarian) future.

In the course of the story, Hawthorne also explores the motivation behind what was in his day a raw, embarrassing wound–the arrest of over one hundred and fifty citizens and the execution of nineteen of them (with almost as many dying in prison) for the alleged crime of witchcraft. Hawthorne is a religious man and believes the strength of Puritanism directly led to the success of the uprising against the British. Yet, he recognizes how the puritanical world view also led to the horror of neighbor destroying neighbor on the most flimsy and fantastical of pretexts. We join him in his struggle to to make sense of this paradox. Ultimately, Hawthorne blames arrogance and greed, an aristocratic poison brought to the shores of the new world along with its first settlers.

So when it comes to The House of the Seven Gables, the very thing that makes for a convoluted and imbalanced novel–Hawthorne constantly poking his nose into our reading experience–is also its enduring value. How often does an author centuries dead make himself and his creative process so available? Hawthorne overtly seeks to open a discussion, talks to us about his rambling character sketches and historical digressions, points them out to us and laughs at them.  There is a dual purpose to this Gothic clowning and stumbling, a thinking man’s attempt to reflect the idealist values of a new nation and also make sense of a very real horror story that, in its way, will always be alive in our country’s collective memory.

 

What Is a Classic?

Ask readers to define what makes a book a classic and you’ll probably get something like: it’s an old book with boring plots and characters written in antique English. Me? Well, I like old books and archaic language. So, I wouldn’t argue against those points.

But boring plots and characters?

We must not be reading the same classics.

Like contemporary books, classics come in all flavors. Some are more to my taste than others. I have a weakness for novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Before 1800, I find the lack of a clear narrative makes the reading tedious. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) is an exception. The first part, anyway. The second part–Zzzzzzz-fest. To be fair, epistolary novels, those told in the form of letters, start the writer off at a disadvantage in terms of show versus tell. In a letter, it is ALL telling.

As for novels after 1930, you may as well be reading the newspaper. All the romance has been ground under the heels of dreary realism. I might, when pressed, stretch my cut off to 1955. Not because of Hemingway–in my opinion his best work was pre-1930–but in recognition of three other authors. First and second, those odd and compelling French Existentialists–Sartre and Camus–who added so much angst to the 1940s. Third, an unassuming iconoclast named Vladimir Nabokov, whose 1955 masterpiece Lolita ignited the biggest literary firestorm since Gustave Flaubert faced charges of obscenity for his 1856 tale of that lusty and unrepentant adulteress Madame Bovary. This trio demands a little stretching of boundaries.

But my flavors are MY flavors. We could argue chocolate versus strawberry all year and never get anywhere, much less address the question I’ve set here: What IS a classic? What makes one book survive centuries, while another, which may have outsold it a million times over at the time of publication, sinks into obscurity? What makes fiction transcend the page, lodge itself firmly in the imagination, and remain there for generations?

Critics and literature professors talk about universality…that the best books explore what is true of all people, throughout all time. Yet that’s not quite right is it? Love is a human universal. Few “romances” achieve the esteem and longevity of the works of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Conflict is a human universal. How many novels of war have attained the reach of Homer’s Iliad?

Psychiatrist Carl Jung took the theory of universality to its deepest level, explaining much of the human psyche in terms of a “collective unconscious” or deep shared knowledge organized around specific archetypes. These are patterns of thinking and being that we instantly recognize and respond to: the self, the shadow, the anima (female in male), the animus (male in female), the persona, the father, the mother, the child, the maiden, the hero, the wise old man, the trickster.

Looking at fiction through a Jungian lens, we see these archetypes (aspects of our own selves) in a story and it becomes OUR story and–in a way–no longer fiction. Rather, it is transformed into a virtual or alternate reality that we can, for the time we are reading, exist within. Then, once that last page is turned, so are the tables–the book then exists within US. I think that’s what people mean when they say, “____________  (novel) changed me.”  BOOM! They’ve discovered a classic. More than that, they’ve created a classic.

Given this strong personal reaction to specific stories, it strikes me that the future definition of “a classic” is going to change radically as we go on. Consider, literary canons came into being at a time when relatively few people were literate and even fewer were literate people who wrote books. The pool of candidates for inclusion was tiny. These days literacy, to one degree or another, is the rule and there are LOTS of people writing in many formats. Lots of flavors to choose from.

So it seems we can look forward to more and more conversations (arguments!) about what makes a book good or worthy and few, if any, definitive conclusions. For the creators of literary canons this future is likely to seem a frustrating and hostile landscape. But for the curious reader happy to write her own list and then tear it up and start another then tear that one up? Happy days ahead!

Philosophy of Book Reviewing Part I

When I was a kid, my favorite school assignments–after that delightful standard “What Did You Do This Summer?”–were book reports. Whereas many kids yanked a random book off of a home or library shelf and copied down some halfhearted version of the inside flap copy, I took delight in recounting the plot of my current read, complete with dossiers on the main characters, and a detailed account of what I would or would not have done in the protagonist’s place.

And that was the word I used, too.

Protagonist.

It’s a wonderful word. The actor. The hero. The person who DOES…and usually the right thing. In contrast to that other person. The Antagonist. Who nine times out of ten was a perfect Foil for the champion in temperament and intention. If I was truly lucky, the author provided plenty of Foreshadowing of the most exciting plot twists. Ahhh…mastery of the jargon of literature as understood by a ten-year-old Bibliophile. Another great word. Lover of books. Yum.

Sometimes, when a book had particularly roused my passions, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking comes to mind, I might even bring out my super-duper box of 64 crayons and illustrate a scene or recreate the cover.

What it came down to was a violent urge to share something which had moved me.

As I got older, I learned something else. Good readers tend to be good writers. Language good or bad, skillful or sloppy is contagious. The natural corollary: Good writers read. Widely. Critically. With passion.

It’s a myth that reading is a passive endeavor.  Reading is active. Reactive. Done well, it’s a multi-directional conversation. Writer speaks to reader. Reader talks back. Writer speaks to character. Character agrees or not. And when reader and character start gabbing…that’s how love affairs begin.

My first literary hissy fit: Thomas Hardy and myself locked in bloody battle as poor Jude Fawley looks on, his life in wreckage at our feet. Hardy won–he wrote the book, after all–but it was his head I aimed at as I hurled my Penguin Classics Jude the Obscure across my bedroom. It slammed into the wall just above a framed print of Cinderella running out on her glass slipper. Cinders and the paperback both hit the floor, and I didn’t read another Hardy for years.

Books can do that to you.

I haven’t even started on good books versus bad ones. Or books we  love versus those we hate versus…now this is sad…books that don’t move us at all.

For now, though, just this…

Good writers read.

Scrawl it on the message board attached to your refrigerator. Set it to music and make it your ring tone. Write it in the dust on your television screen.

Good writers read.