The Academics, part one

My last two posts have been rather melancholy; I am glad I wrote them, but I will be making a turn here to focus more on what I am reading (the goal of this blog) than what I am feeling. If anything can remind you not to take yourself so seriously, it’s a 16-year-old giving you a daffodil and a hand-stamped card that says, “You seem upset lately; cheer up, I hope you feel better soon!”

As of 4.5 hours ago, I am officially on spring break. I took a Latin reading proficiency exam this morning. The passages I translated were about birds, tortoises, and the goddess Juno, and I will find out whether or not I passed in a week or so.

Below is a list of what I have read for one of my classes (Post-1945 American Novel) over the past month. I do not recommend any of them for pleasure-reading. Perhaps, after reading the list, it will not be difficult to imagine that a raincloud mood has been over my mind over the past few weeks.

I now have a heightened appreciation for an attempt to study the “Classics,” that is, books held up as the pinnacle of goodness, truth, and beauty in Western Civilization. The 20th Century marks a shift in Literary Studies from asking, “What is good literature?” to asking “What is literature?” Scholars’ theories about this second question sound so brilliant, it is easy to miss the fact that the question itself is far less meaningful than the first one.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955 (France) and 1958 (U.S.)
Upon finishing this novel, I felt like I had awakened from a nightmare. Our discussion in class was quite redemptive, and I can now appreciate Nabokov’s experiment with aesthetics and ethics (Can there be a beautiful book about an ugly thing? How can we write about horrific events?); in a way, it is a book about the Holocaust and about the dehumanizing effects of materialism. In another–more overt–way, it is about pedophilia.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith, 1955
This book was entertaining, even hilarious at times. Highsmith writes a complex and endearing character, Tom Ripley. But he is a psychopath and a murderer; the author’s ability to make readers cheer for him paves the way for shows like Dexter and novels/films like American Psycho, not to mention the works of Quentin Tarantino. Highsmith certainly had her own demons, and she manipulates readers into liking a violent and narcissistic man. In a way, this demonstrates her skill; in a way, I better understand why so many people used to go to the Colosseum.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
This book about men dropping off the economic grid to take several road trips across America is an icon of 60s American culture. It also demonstrates misogyny, not to mention irresponsibility. However, I admire the attempt to escape the mindset of materialism. One way to read this novel is as a metaphor for the Buddhist spiritual journey: the characters seek an absence of desire, embodied in their time on the road, which is like a meditative state during which who they are and what they need does not matter–there is only the road; when they stop, the desires and needs come crashing back in the forms of jail, starvation, sex, drugs, and a desperate search for “It” (i.e. meaning). This books shows characters dreaming of a life free from the cares of money, a house, and possessions; in the 50+ years since it was published, we seem to have lost all characters who want such a thing. Of course, the parent inside all of us cautions, such a dream is unreasonable–they should grow up. Yes, they should. But growing up entails more than earning a lot of money.

Rabbit, Run, John Updike, 1960
Apparently, Updike wrote this book to demonstrate what actually happens when a man follows Kerouac’s dream and drops out. This man, Rabbit, happens to be married. But he leaves his pregnant wife, has an affair, and spends two months attempting to find a life with more meaning. He is perhaps the most frustrating character I have encountered in literature–completely un-self-conscious and delusional about religion, society, and women. Also, after reading this book, I had a nightmare in which John Updike attacked me. Yes.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, 1963 (UK), 1971 (U.S.)
The story of a high-achieving, intelligent young woman’s descent into depression and suicide attempts, this book is a memoir of Plath’s own experiences, only slightly fictionalized (Plath committed suicide a month after the book’s UK publication). There’s an attempted rape, electroshock therapy, blood, and babies in jars. Circa The Feminine Mystique, Plath gives voice to feelings of desperation among women who longed for something more than an identity as wife/mother. Plath decided her only option was suicide. I am trying to say something about this that sums up the dislike, awe, and pity I feel about Plath’s book without sounding condescending…I am glad women authors today can write about something besides depression and bleeding.

Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion, 1970
Joan Didion is famous for her nonfiction. A collection of her essays from the 1960s, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is one of my favorite books, and I also enjoyed her memoir about the year after her husband’s death, A Year of Magical Thinking. However, this novel was one of the most depressing pieces I have ever encountered. Didion skillfully shows the complexity of her characters’ situations as well as the decadence of 1960s Hollywood. However, the vivid descriptions of physical and verbal abuse, a traumatic illegal abortion, substance abuse, marital troubles, loss of family members, and superficiality caused me to ask the question I have asked after finishing every novel for this class: “Why?”
Why was this written?
Why are we studying it?
Why did I just spend x amount of hours reading it?

To be fair, these novels portray the problems and struggles of the times in which they were written. However, this reflects the shift from prescriptive to descriptive thought in the field of English Literature. Is all that matters the fact that it is someone’s story? If this were the case, nonfiction would be far more valuable than fiction. No, fact and description cannot be the primary purpose of literature. More on this tomorrow.


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