Friday, November 22, 2013

Reading Got OLD

One of my new year's resolutions was to read more books that were more than 100 years old.  I make this resolution almost every year, but for some reason, this turned out to be quite the year for that sort of thing.  My Inner Book Snob has been stunned into silence; I rocked the 19th century so hard.

1. Les Miserables (1862).  Thanks to the movie, this is what got the ball rolling.  To the barricades!

2. L'Assommoir (1877).  One French writer (Hugo!) called for another (Zola!).  After this book, I was unstoppable.

3. Therese Raquin (1867).  This early Zola novel is like a cool mash-up of Edgar Allen Poe and James M. Cain.

4. Little Women (1868).  This was my nth re-reading of Alcott's novel, and it was the first time I noticed that Marmee was scared shitless that Meg was going to marry wealthy Ned Moffatt.  Mrs. March is the exact opposite of Mrs. Bennett.

5. The Fortune of the Rougons (1871).  This novel kicks off Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle.

6. The Kill (1872).  I had plans to read the R-M cycle in order.

7. The Belly of Paris (1873).  Love food?  Love literature?  Love literature about food?  This one's for you.  Also part of the R-M cycle.

8. The Conquest of Plassans (1874).  R-M cycle.  Ambitious priest rises from obscurity to take over a little country town.

9. Abbe Mouret's Transgression (1875).  R-M cycle.  Zola makes his feelings about religion known.  Meanwhile, the reader gets a crash course in botany.  I had to take a short break from Zola after this one.

10. The Game (1905).  A short novel by Jack London about a boxer and his girl and the boxer's last fight.

11. Germinal (1885).  The R-M cycle is pretty uneven.  This novel about a miner's strike is one of the high points.  Brilliant and unsparing.

12. What Maisie Knew (1897).  I get it, Henry James.  I'm supposed to admire your technique.  Your shading and your nuance.  I can be that kind of reader, but I don't always feel like it.

13. Nana (1880).  Zola's novels usually have a theme.  This is his sex novel, but he referred to it in a letter to a friend by a much cruder term.  Whatever it is, this book is another high point in the R-M cycle, and thanks to the up-to-date translation I read, it's startlingly modern.  I read this last summer.  When Miley Cyrus did her twerking thing a couple of months later, Nana flashed through my mind.

14. Bobbie, General Manager (1913). I'm counting this "women's novel" by Olive Higgins Prouty because she was probably writing it in 1912, thus making it more than 100 years old.

15. The Ladies' Paradise (1883).  R-M cycle, and Zola's theme this time is retail, and a department store's owner/manager's exhaustive attempts to lure women shoppers.  Some of his practices are still very much in use today.

16. The Beast Within (1890).  R-M cycle.  The theme is trains, and how they changed people's lives -- how they were suddenly able to travel farther and faster in a shorter amount of time.  They also influenced baser activities such as adultery and murder.  This novel was so monstrous and compelling that I knew any other Zola novel I read next couldn't compete, so I've taken another break from the R-M cycle.

17. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).  I didn't need the rousing and ringing endorsements from abolitionist contemporaries of Douglass's, which were at the front of the edition I read, to compel me to weep  and rage and cheer him on.  A remarkable account.

18. Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1892).  Stephen Crane does dialect and not much else.  It's probably best just to think of this as his warm-up for The Red Badge of Courage.

19. Twelve Years A Slave (1853).  Solomon Northup's account of being a free black man kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into the deep South sheds even more harsh light on the horrible institution of slavery.  Like Frederick Douglass's Narrative, Northup's story is told in a clear and straightforward manner.  He minces no words about how those cotton plantations in Louisiana were run.

So there you have it.  19 older books.  More than I usually read in a year, but that odd number pains me.  Too bad I didn't make it to 20, or 25, which was my goal.

I hate to admit it, but even though I've got a B.A. in English and an advanced degree, and a few dozen pre-1900 books behind me, I still feel some trepidation when I approach an older book.  There's always this panicked moment in which I believe that I won't be able to understand what's going on -- that I won't be able to decipher ornate language, and if I do decipher, I won't understand the context and I'll be hopelessly at sea.   I also have a fear that I'll have to give up, and that would have to be chalked up as a failure.  Ridiculous.  When I quit a more modern book, I do it with impunity.  Why should a few decades make any difference?

 Once I'm in, it's fun, though.  My brain is working hard at all of the above and loving the challenge.  I'm like a puppy tearing into a large, reinforced slipper.  Most of the terrain is unfamiliar, but then a character will do or say something that reminds me of someone I know.  Discovering humor is always a surprise and a relief.  I can't go fast -- older novels were built for a less distracted time -- but I definitely can go, and most of the time, I see the work all the way through.  As Chumbawumba famously said, I get knocked down, but I get up again.  You hear that, Theodore Dreiser?

I don't know if I'll get another oldie read before 2013 is over, but I do have plans:  In no particular order, I want to read North and South and Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft; Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac; The Innocents Abroad and Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain; I rejected Nathaniel Hawthone's The Blithedale Romance so soundly that I want to say sorry by giving it another chance; I want to complete my Bronte sisters reading with Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; Zola's The Downfall, The Earth, and Dr. Pascal are also on my list; and finally, I want to find more examples of vivid and searing memoirs like I found in Douglass and Northup.  This list is far from complete.  As always, I'm taking suggestions.


Isabella K said...

I'm heartened to hear that the Rougon-Macquart books are for the most part so good, as I've just vowed to read them all. I'm going to try in French, but we'll see if that lasts -- glad to know so many of them are available in English. Did you know there's a BBC series of The Paradise? It's gorgeous!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

You did amazing! Les Miserables is such an intense book. I re-read Little Women this year as well and noticed Marmee's part more. I love that each time I re-read a favorite book different things stand out to me.

jenclair said...

Wow! Major accomplishment!

Unknown said...

I used to read lots of older works, but no so much lately. I should go back to them more regularly

I can recommend North and South, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Vilette is something of a challenge but mostly worth it. I did not make it through Innocents Abroad. Maybe it gets better in the second half.

Meytal Radzinski said...

Besides how impressively you managed to delve into the R-M cycle (I am embarrassed and jealous at the same time), this is a wonderful list and achievement, and your coming goals look equally interesting and worthy.

As for suggestions, I can second your choice of Villette - a very nice book overall. Also, if you haven't already had the absolutely pleasure of getting to know George Eliot, I definitely recommend her books. Because George Eliot is actually incredible.

o said...

Yay for all the Zolas! :D Love your summing up of Abbé Mouret! Which translation did you read?