Books on books

by Jess

I’ve been reading some nonfiction lately. I know, crazy, right? While I aspire to read more nonfiction (in fact, the next book I’m planning to pick up from the library is Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt), my recent selections have mostly been nonfiction books about fiction books, so there’s that. And I have filled the interstices with the end of Middlemarch and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. More on those later.

First, Jack Murnighan’s Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits . I can’t seem to decide how to feel about this book. It’s got a catchy title and an Internet-age layout, ie, each chapter is divided into little sound bytes like “Best Line,” “What’s Sexy,” “Quirky Fact,” and the controversial “What to Skip.” What I like about the book is Murnighan’s passion for literature. He is a trained medievalist, but for several years he also wrote a weekly column called Jack’s Naughty bits, wherein he detailed sex and sexuality in the history of literature (these columns were later developed into two books, The Naughty Bits and Classic Nasty). So he’s smart, and he’s funny. And I can’t say that I really oppose anything that might get people reading and excited about classic literature, but then I recoil a little at some of his jabs at my beloved literature. And, of course, the whole bit about skipping sections. Maybe it’s the Prodigal Son’s older brother syndrome: I’m just mad that I had to slog through all that stuff, while other people get a pass and still reap the benefits. Or maybe I just think there’s value in hard work.

Mostly, I think any work of literature is designed to function as a whole work of art. Yes, authors make mistakes and hit sour notes (George Saunder’s essay about Huck Finn in The Braindead Megaphone  is an excellent analysis of this sort), but I don’t think that means we have carte blanche to remove them from the piece. If you’ve got one eye going blind, do you pluck it out? I’m gonna guess no. Also, why should I trust Murnighan to tell me what’s skippable? We clearly have a few different tastes. What he finds boring I may love. All in all, I guess the conceit of the whole thing rubs me the wrong way, while I understand what he’s trying to do.

Some of Murnighan’s selections were interesting to me. He begins with Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and then moves into the Old Testament and the New Testament (he addresses them in two separate chapters) of the Bible. I admire the inclusion, but he’s a little glib about a religion’s holy text for my taste:

What a difference a revision can make! It’s not often that a religion gets to take a mulligan on its founding scripture, but that’s exactly what happened with Christianity. Wanting to amend the old eye-for-an-eye, scourges-visited-on-the-Israelites, they-will-know-my-name-is-the-LORD vibe of the Old Testament, the writers of the New added God’s mercy, took some vague hints from previous scripture as portents of a new prophet, called him Jesus, and wham! They had themselves a new religion.

Then, among others, he darts through Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser, Cervantes, and Milton–ah, Milton! I loved this chapter. It may have been my favorite of the book. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Paradise Lost, but this chapter made me excited to revisit it. Murnighan was a little excited himself. He begins the chapter: “I can barely contain myself. I love Milton to the point of giddiness. I want to write in all-caps and with five exclamation points after every word or just fill the page with puffy balloon hearts… . But none of that would help you that much, would it?” Then he lets the ball drop:

Paradise Lost…is the greatest single prodigy of a human pen. One work, one mind, the best. Nor is the competition close; Dante in his Commedia rivals it in scope but not in consistency; the Shakespearean oeuvre as a whole eclipses Paradise Lost, but the Bard conceived no single work on anywhere near the same scale; the Bible, Koran, and Upanishads are all the work of multiple hands; even Homer and Virgil, majestic though their works are, grand though their themes may be, simply didn’t try to bite off as big of a chunk as Milton did.

He then goes on to call PL “a literary orgasmatron.” Okay, so he’s trying to appeal to a certain set of readers. I’ll just let that one go. Especially because he then launches into a lovely overview of Milton’s verse, how he purposefully slowed down his verse with enjambment, the exclusion of rhyme and with new techniques of syllabilization “that further tar-pitted the language, pulling it at times to near a dead halt for one purpose and one alone: he was setting up his thunder.” He breaks down the first few lines of the poem to show how Milton surprises and delights with his wordplay, clever enjambment, and cadence. “Paradise Lost works the reader like a heavy bag, in sound, rhythm, and effect.” It’s gorgeous. I can’t wait to pick up a copy.

The next chapter is on Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. I’ve never even heard of this book (even though, apparently, there’s a film version). Maybe I’m just lacking here, but I can’t completely buy that this one should be included in a list of literature’s 50 greatest hits. I’ll suspend judgement until I’ve read the thing, I’m just sayin.

EDIT: I previously missed a small section at the end of the book called “A Note on the Selections” in which he mentions Tom Jones specifically and says, “I just want people to connect with books–and with life.” I’m not trying to be a hater. I got mad respect for that.

On and on with no more surprises, really, just some more encouragement to pick up a few novels I’ve never been able to finish: Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (alas, I gave up!), and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I didn’t love his take on The Sound and the Fury; I found it to be a bit off the mark. He suggests the reader skip the Benjy section altogether (he spells the boy’s name Benji, for some reason) because it’s too confusing.

Murnighan’s vote on the greatest novel of our era goes to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. He calls it “the singular masterpiece of the second half of the 20th century–or perhaps of any half of any century,” citing its “ability to strum you like a zither and make your heart sing out beautiful.” This is the only chapter where he bothers to pause and ask what it is that makes a book great (prior to this, he’s not interested in anyone else’s opinion, because he’s just going to tell us his), but then he follows the question up with, “You make your list, I’ll make mine, and it doesn’t matter what you’ve got on there, you will find it in One Hundred Years of Solitude. … I’m convinced there’s no book that can teach us more.” There are several other selections that he suggests the reader will enjoy in their entirety because they’re funny or very short, but this is the first “What to Skip” section where he gives an emphatic assessment that nothing is to be skipped. He says, “Skip the rest of printed matter, skip church, skip a date, skip eating, but please don’t skip a moment of One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I’ve read it and I don’t remember being blown away like this, so I am planning to revisit the novel. I thought perhaps I own it, but a search of my bookshelves only turned up Marquez’s Del amor y otros demonios, which I’ve started a handful of times, but I get so bogged down looking up every fourth word in my English-Spanish dictionary, that I give up. Then again, I DO think there’s value in hard work! Time to start again.

Murnighan’s one brief nod to theory segues nicely into my next book, Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature, a meditation on the usefulness and uselessness of literature. Like literature itself, her main purpose is to raise questions, not necessarily to answer them. She asks what literature is and isn’t, who its gatekeepers are and whether its canonicity is fixed, if it has any social or personal use or if its pleasure lies in its very uselessness. That last question, at least, she answers. She says in the introduction:

We do literature a real disservice if we reduce it to knowledge or to use, to a problem to be solved. If literature solves problems, it does so by its own inexhaustibility, and by its ultimate refusal to be applied or used, even for moral good. This refusal, indeed, is literature’s most moral act. At a time when meanings are manifold, disparate, and always changing, the rich possibility of interpretation–the happy resistance of the text to ever be fully known and mastered–is one of the most exhilarating products of human culture.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter titled “The Pleasure of the Canon,” wherein she quotes in full (as does Murnighan) the first 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales and the first 26 of Paradise Lost.  While Murnighan is dismissive of the intro to Canterbury Tales (he suggests students instead memorize a saucy section from the Wife of Bath’s prologue), Garber launches into a brief exploration of both passages, which, she says, “could be said to author the English literary canon.” Garber feels there is much to learn from Chaucer’s prologue, and after outlining some of the interesting questions raised by the text she notes, “Eighteen lines. And we have just begun to talk about them.” Her observations on Milton’s introductory lines echo some of Murnighan’s, but Garber talks about how memorizing sections of literature gives the reader ownership of the poetry. She espouses memorization but distinguishes it from rote learning, in which nothing is really learned but only repeated–the text is not discussed, engaged with, or analyzed in conjunction with its memorization. I agree with her, and I often go back to the lines I memorized from Macbeth with great pleasure.

Her last chapter is called “The Impossibility of Closure,” and she concludes with a nod to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas by subtitling the last few paragraphs “In Which Nothing is Concluded.” She invokes the ouroboros, the snake or dragon with its tail in its mouth, the ancient symbol of “psychic continuity, or of eternal process, or of redemption, or of self-sufficiency, or of infinity,” when she talks about the “tendency on the part of the text to outwit or confound the activity of closing or ending.” This feature is probably the only real reason anyone can stand to finish a beautiful novel; the way it lives on inside our heads and our hearts makes the reading worthwhile, prolongs the joy, makes it live forever if Shakespeare is to be believed. I love the last line of the book: “The use of literature begins here.”

I promised I’d get to Eliot and Smith. Well, since I got long-winded above, here’s the short version: Middlemarch has far too happy an ending than it deserves or sets up the reader to expect, and On Beauty is gorgeous and moving and very distinctly Zadie Smith’s style, although frustrating because its ending is far too realistic and less happy than I was hoping. There you go.