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Finishing a Good Book – Like Losing a Friend

IMG_1815Reading is a very companionable occupation. One can never feel alone while reading. It’s like making friends (hopefully good friends). As a result of this friendship, I am always conscious of regret whenever I finish a really good or engaging book. It’s like saying goodbye to a friend who is about to take a tour around the world.

Sometimes, the regret is because the book is very long and it took my several months to read it. This happened to me earlier in the year when I finished Don Quixote for the first time. I had all the memories of reading it in hospital waiting rooms and by my bedside and even though I was conscious of the desire to finish it – which always increases the closer you get to the end – when I actually achieved my goal it was bittersweet. I didn’t want to lay it aside, it felt so natural in my hands.

Another book that took me several months to read was The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. It didn’t take so long because it was boring, but because it was 800 pages and I have a habit of reading at least three books at the same time, usually a blend of fiction and non-fiction, two of which I cycle through as I read the longer book. I like to have different books for different occasions. Some books fit in purses better than others, non-fiction is usually better to read before going to bed because fiction can be harder to put down, some books I want to relish in absolute silence and solitude while others I am more willing to read in noisy places like a bus or waiting room or car.

I think it must be the sheer intimacy of reading – a complete immersion into somebody else’s ideas and story – but also the intimacy of holding the physical copy. I mean, most people even take their books to bed with them. You know what it feels like, you know how it looks. Holding the physical volume is comforting, especially when there is familiarity with the copy of the book.

Last week, I was trying to read Valerie Lawson’s biography of P.L. Travers and making dismal progress. My head kept telling me I ought to push on, while my heart wanted to chuck it. My heart won and I picked up two books which turned out to be both totally absorbing and highly informative. Sadly and happily, I read both so fast that it was a quick, but glorious, friendship.

The two books were A Life on Films, by Mary Astor, and Jane Austen: Game Theorist, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe.

I have very much come to appreciate Mary Astor as an actress. She is probably one of the most under-utilized actress I’ve ever seen, which is ironic since she made over a hundred films, but in many she had very little to do. One is always conscious that she could have done so much more. She chose never to be a leading lady (she said she didn’t want the stress) and never fought the studio for better parts as actresses like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck did. In her career she played the other woman, mothers (she must have a record for that), femme fatales, princesses (during the silent era), the understanding wife and practically every other kind of role that comes to mind. But she made many wonderful movies, many of which I love: The Maltese Falcon, Meet Me In St. Louis, Dodsworth, Midnight, The Palm Beach Story, Red Dust, Beau Brummel, The Prisoner of Zenda, Little Women.

When her movie career came to a close, she turned to writing. She wrote two biographies – one about her life and one about the movies she made – and several novels. Her autobiography in 1959 was about her life, her struggle with alcoholism and her conversion to Catholicism. A Life On Films is about her movies and it’s a highly absorbing book. She talks about making silent pictures, the awkward transition to sound and her memories about the movies, as well as many technical aspects of filming. There’s a lot about her method of acting and I must say that when I was finished reading I had tremendous respect for the artistry and technical prowess involved in acting. There’s also bits about the actors and directors she worked with, from Clark Gable to Judy Garland, John Barrymore, John Ford, William Wyler. If you like classic films, I highly recommend this book. It’s very entertaining and even more fun when you’ve seen many of the movies she refers to.

The other book I zipped through during the same week was Jane Austen: Game Theorist. I ordered it from the library because it looked intriguing, but I had never heard of game theory before. It evidently was developed during the Cold War and is the study of strategic thinking – the study of the decisions people make in calculation of what decisions other people will also make. It is a theory that assumes that people are choosing, making their own decisions – as opposed to being forced to do something by circumstances or preconditions.

Chwe argues that game theory, even though it was not called that, was intimately understood by authors like Austen and he proceeds to analyze all of Austen’s books in this light. It was absolutely fascinating. I’ve read some reviewers complain that his digressions at the beginning of the book about strategic thinking in African-American folk literature or during the Civil Rights movement is besides the point about Jane Austen, but I thought it was part of his overall point about how strategic thinking is important in literature – especially literature involving minorities, who have more to lose if they do not think strategically – and how it can be applied to life. His point is not just that you can use game theory to understand Austen’s books, but that Austen’s books can be used to teach – not clumsily, but subtly – about the kind of thinking we use in our own lives.

I enjoyed both books so much, I was extremely sorry when I finished them in the same day – the same afternoon, actually. I almost felt deflated, though also exhilarated at the experience. More friends gone. Reading is a constant cycle: meeting, getting to know, parting. At least, no book ever truly goes away. Every book becomes a part of you, in a way. It is a part of how you think, what things you think, part of your life experiences that we draw on.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2014 in Books, Literary Thoughts

 

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Don Quixote – Miguel De Cervantes

Translated by Edith Grossman

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza by Gustave Dore

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza by Gustave Dore

Whenever I read a particularly long book and it takes me several months to finish it, it becomes part of me, like an old friend. It’s always at my side, in my hands, by my bed, traveling with me, and I am sorry to say farewell.

It took me two months to read Don Quixote and the spine, especially the bottom of it, is now creased, crinkled and starting to tear a little. It is officially a book now, my book, and not just an object that I keep on my shelf, looking literate.

I was meaning to read this book for several years, now; partially because I found a nice copy at a garage sale and it was sitting on my shelf needing to be read and partially because I’ve recently read some other books about knights and chivalry (Le Morte d’Arthur) and I was curious to read this book, which I understood made fun of knights and chivalry and all those stories that tell of them.

The first half definitely does make fun of books about chivalry. In fact, it is reading these books that has made Don Quixote go mad and believe implicitly in all that these books have to say. He is constantly referring to the books for guidance on how he ought to behave.

Accompanying Don Quixote is Sancho Panza, as his squire, who has been promised a governorship. Sancho believes mostly what Don Quixote says, despite frequent misgivings; but Don Quixote usually dismisses anything that doesn’t make sense to Sancho as the work of malicious enchantment. Sancho has a gift for proverbs and a knack for stating the truth, as well as malapropisms.

The first half of the book was published in 1605 and is a delightful, totally random collection of misadventures, miscellaneous characters telling of their woes, the later fulfillment of those characters woes into happiness as they fortuitously stumble into company with Don Quixote, and even the completely random break in the story so the characters can read a short book out loud. It’s all great fun and not apparently meant to be taken  seriously. Don Quixote’s madness seems more like an excuse for whimsy and fun.

The second part – published in 1615 to refute the unauthorized part two that purported to be the further adventures of Don Quixote – reads almost as a different story. The pace slows down considerably, there are far less random and whimsical occurrences, and Cervantes now has a point he is making.

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

For one, instead of the constant references to how deluded Don Quixote is, there are far more references to how intelligent and erudite he is, despite his madness in this one area regarding chivalry. Sancho Panza is portrayed in a much kinder light, too; as possessing simple, common sense. And in the place of random occurrences is a practical joke being played by a Duke and Duchess to show and derive amusement at how mad these two are. In the light of the cruelty of all those who seek to derive amusement from them, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza emerge with far more humanity and dignity, despite their humiliations.

It’s like Cervantes considered books possibly, perhaps humorously, dangerous in the first part, but in the second that point is gone and now the chivalric ideals seem far more ideal – if inherently impractical and never having truly existed, anyway; though there is something noble in how Don Quixote strives to live by them.

It makes for much slower reading, however. It’s poignant, completely tragic and a bit startling after the sheer exuberant fun of the first part. Perhaps the point is made all the more effective for the lighthearted first half.

One endearing aspect of the book is the friendship between Don Quixote and Sancho, particularly in the second part. Harold Bloom remarks, in his introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza really listen to each other and change through this receptivity.” When, as part of a joke, Sancho is given a governorship temporarily, both men miss each other’s company and bear each other’s words in mind and are most happy to be reunited.

In the back of my copy is a collection of quotes regarding the significance of Don Quixote. The literary critic Lionel Trilling said that “It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote” and the writer, Carlos Fuentes, is quoted as saying that “Don Quixote is the first modern novel, perhaps the most eternal novel ever written and certainly the fountainhead of European and American fiction; here we have Gogol and Dostoevsky, Dickens and Nabokov, Borges and Bellow, Sterne and Diderot in their genetic nakedness, once more taking the road with the gentleman and the squire, believing the world is what we read and discovering that the world reads us.”

This is rather cosmic literary praise; the kind of praise I’ve only heard lavished on the Bible and Shakespeare. William Shakespeare and Miguel De Cervantes were contemporaries, though there is no evidence either knew of the others existence. It must have been a remarkable time for literature. After reading the book, I can understand the praise, though. The book has it all: tragedy and comedy, life and death. Although I do not believe that just because something is ambiguous, therefore it must be profound, I do agree with Harold Bloom in his introduction when he says that, like Shakespeare, Don Quixote can bear many interpretations, or angles and focuses of interpretations. Life is like that, not particularly clear cut, and when a work of art can capture life, it does bear the myriad interpretations of the world. This is why some books can also bear multiple reads.

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

One interpretation that I found interesting is by Ivan Jaksic, in his article “Don Quijote’s Encounter with Technology.” He makes the case that Don Quixote’s embracing of chivalry, the perceived values of an older age, is part of a “confrontation with” technology and a changing world. However, ironically, it is technology that has allowed him to embrace chivalry, since it was the printing press that has made books, which is where he derived his ideas, easily available. It is also ironic, since Don Quixote believes, that since these stories of knights are written down and printed, then they must be true. Jaksic points out that many of Don Quixote’s adventures involve technology: “the windmills, water-powered grain mills, fulling hammers, and firearms, among others.”

There is also, of course, the interpretation offered in the quote by Fuentes, about “believing the world is what we read.” Some argue that Cervantes is saying that it is better, more ennobling, to live with a fantasy than with the cold facts of life.

I find that there is, at least in the second part – I still feel the first part was written chiefly for entertainment and not for any didactic purpose – but there is a celebration of humanity and decency; a valuing of humans. There is something inhuman in how people, even in the first part, encourage Don Quixote in his belief simply so that they might be amused. When he is not being beaten, he is being mocked. Whereas, for all his madness and faults, Don Quixote assumes that everyone is nobler than they really are.

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Books

 

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