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The Right Novel At The Right Age

Posted by HeroOfCanton, May 25 2007, 03:29 AM

Sometimes great literature is not always great literature. Depending on when you read a novel, the greatness can appear to differ significantly. My mother once told me that I should read all of the F. Scott Fitzgerald I wanted to before turning 30 because after that age the troubles of the characters would appear trivial. Having read The Great Gatsby in my teens, twenties, and thirties, I agree. Conversely, a college professor told me that Moby Dick could be best appreciated after 50. Then there is the famous example, if common wisdom can be trusted, that Catcher in the Rye must be read when you are a teenager. I did not read it in my teens, and I am taking the advice and not bothering with it now.

This theory of the right book at the right age has been on my mind as I reread two books I enjoyed in college. The first is Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, which I distinctly remember consuming one summer. The novel tells the story of a young orphan, Philip, with a clubfoot who suffers. Children taunt him at school, so when he is old enough he leaves school and travels to Germany. Later he tries several professions including painting, which he studies in Paris, but he fails at them all. Eventually he goes to medical school, but financial difficulties caused by a woman and bad stock speculation, leaves him starving in the street briefly. Finally, he finishes medical school, falls in love, and finds happiness. Through all of these events, when Philip had a good day, I felt happier; when his life was in turmoil, I had a gnawing feeling. For instance, while sitting in the British Museum one day, Philip discovers the meaning of life, and I smiled through the rest of my day. After all of his suffering, he realizes that every life belongs to a greater pattern, like the Persian rug given to him by a drunken poet in Paris. He summarizes the pattern lived by every man as "he was born, he suffered, and he died." On my initial reading I felt elation that Philip found some peace in this theory. But at 32 it all seemed a rather silly. Philip's idea that God does not exist and no personal philosophy can actually aid a man on his journey through life because all that matters are interweaving patterns, came across as naive on this reading. In defense of the book and this reading, much of the humor registered with me this time that before seemed terribly serious.

Nothing could be more different than my current rereading of Emma by Jane Austen. The foibles and wit of the heroine still charm as much today as they did in college. This story of a meddlesome but well-meaning young lady in Regency England is a deceptively rich tale of country life where people think about manners, money, marriage, and more. Austen's incomparable prose could not fail to delight at any age. The brilliant opening line provides an excellent example: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." Certainly excellent prose cannot wholly explain why Emma delights me at any age—I acknowledge the skill in Fitzgerald's prose—but it must surely be requisite. The characters are fully created, funny or frustrating as the story demands, and recognizable even to a 21st Century audience. If the distinguishing trait of good literature is good characters, then Emma should still be enchanting me at 80.

So does this explain why certain books only move us at a certain age? If my professor is right about Moby Dick, perhaps it is also a matter of maturity. Do characters and maturity fully account for why Catcher in the Rye, Of Human Bondage, and Fitzgerald fall short later in life? It cannot simply be the age of the characters, otherwise Emma with its 21 year-old heroine would not hold up so well. Is it a lack of maturity in the ideas? As I said, Philip's revelation struck me as naive and Fitzgerald's characters now seem more whiny than tragic. Perhaps all of these factors explain the problem, but I think I should give no definitive answer until after 50 when Moby Dick has been properly enjoyed


Intro, Part Two

Posted by HeroOfCanton, May 15 2007, 01:38 AM

I have often been told that the best way to learn good writing is to read good writing, so this weekend I reread George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Not only is Orwell an exceptional writer, but this essay explains proper writing better than anything else I've read. The main points are these:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

With these rules in mind, Mr. Hero helped me rewrite my introductory blog. And by "help," I mean he said "This is wrong and we are going to go over this sentence until you say it clearly." I'm very grateful for the help.

Here is the rewrite.


Some things are not like riding a bicycle. Certain skills require constant practice or you lose the ability to do them well. In graduate school when I began taking voice lessons again after two years without them, I discovered I was back to doing scales instead of arias. But that made sense, because any physical activity, even singing, requires conditioning. So, while I was disappointed, I understood that negligence had led to my voice problems.

Less obvious is the need to practice mental skills. Until last week I would have never thought that the ability to write well would diminish over time if not practiced. I needed to write a simple paragraph for a proposal at work explaining why the library should spend a good deal of money joining an online training community. Quite simple, don't you think? I started writing, panicked, and then decided I needed to email a friend for help. I was embarrassed to discover I couldn't write on my own a simple persuasive paragraph addressing how this service would be a cost effective way to train library employees. The sentences were grammatically correct, but the ideas had no flow and might as well have been a bulleted list instead of prose.

This startling discovery led to this blog. At least once a week, I will be here to write about something, perhaps professional concerns, or politics, maybe books and movies, but something that requires making a coherent argument. The tone after this introductory entry will be more formal, because I need to practice writing in a more professional/academic manner. Anyone reading this should feel free to comment on the substance of what I write—after all, if the entry is well-written, I should be able to defend the ideas in it—but I would rather have comments on my prose. Be merciless on grammatical errors, poor structure, unsupported arguments, and the rest. If I hope to stave off panics at work in the future, I need to get better now.


Intro

Posted by HeroOfCanton, May 11 2007, 07:37 PM

Some things are not like riding a bicycle. There are certain skills in life that require constant practice or they quickly become less than they once were. In graduate school when I began taking voice lessons again after two years without them, I discovered that I needed to start over practically from scratch. A physical activity which necessitates keeping a part of the body in working order certainly needs constant work, so while disappointed, I wasn't shocked when I realized how out of shape my voice had become.
Less obvious is the need to keep mental skills sharp. Until last week I would have never thought that the ability to write well would diminish over time if not practiced. I needed to write a simple paragraph for a proposal at work explaining why the library should spend a good deal of money joining an online training community. Quite simple, don't you think? I started writing and flew into a blind panic. I couldn't write. All that was required was a simple persuasive paragraph addressing how this online service would be a cost effective way to train library employees, and I couldn't do it. The sentences were complete and grammatically correct, but the ideas had no flow and might as well have been a bulleted list instead of prose.
This startling discovery has led to this blog. At least once a week, I will be here to write about something, perhaps professional concerns, or politics, maybe books and movies, but something that requires making a coherent argument. The tone after this introductory entry will be more formal, because I need to practice writing in a more professional/academic manner. Anyone reading this should feel free to send me comments via PM or email on the substance of what I write—after all, if it is well-written, I should be able to defend it—but I would rather have comments on my prose. Be merciless on grammatical errors, poor structure, unsupported arguments, and the rest. If I hope to stave off blind panics in the future at work, I need to get better now.


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