The Books of My Numberless Dreams

More babble

Posted on: August 8, 2007

Then I’ll get to a James Schuyler post waiting in drafts — I promise.

It’s become very cliché to write about how litblogging has changed one’s life but I’m going to indulge myself. The most remarkable change for me is how often I’ve re-read novels that aren’t genre. Ever since I was 11 or so I developed the habit of re-reading my favourite comfort fiction, typically romances: Mills & Boons set in the Australian outback or Greek islands with the shift to single titles. I loved them for the romance, the relationship dynamics, the deliciously painful lows and the important character progress which had to involve overcoming assorted internal and external obstacles.

I read Lord of the Rings for the first time when I was 12. I found it on a charity ship that sold books at inexpensive prices; it offered the opportunity to try a fantasy novel as such books were not stocked in Jamaican book stores until the New Line films. Since then I’ve read LOTR twice (I think), The Silmarillion, my favourite, and stories from Unfinished Tales. I own Letters of Tolkien and read his biography — notable because since then I’ve never read another biography of my own accord (but have had to read a few for classes). All that happened during my teenage years.

As you can see, during that time rereading in my spare time was done for basic pleasure. For thick books like LOTR I kept an eye out for plot related things I may have missed but active analysis, or nurturing intentional sensitivity to the workings of any novel was not even considered. I had to reread for school, of course, and as I’ve often said I enjoyed 99% of the assigned texts, but in that milieu rereading had purely utilitarian purposes. I never intentionally employed any of my thematic sleuthing or historical research abilities to Annie John (Jamaica Kincaid) or A Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt) (which we ended up reading in class). It never occurred to me that such skills would be of much use for casual reading because the skills were tailored to exam questions. Even now I experience initial difficulty when I attempt to think of a novel’s themes because my brain instinctively leaps back to CXC (‘O’ level) questions about “race and the family”; the pat categorizations make me uneasy and I think, Hmmm, no, the book must offer something more nebulous, less easily defined.

Four years of undergrad had no impact on my position. It took a current break from the classroom, literary magazines/journals, and sites like The Valve, The Reading Experience and Conversational Reading cultivated my interest in literary criticism in a manner that connected it to an everyday reading life. The litblogs I read in general recommended the sort of books that openly demanded deeper readings in comparison to the genteel 19th century classics to which I was accustomed, novels that certainly had heft but also a narrative style that could lead one merrily along, enjoying plot turns here and there, none the wiser to lurking meanings behind paintings of Even stars. Before then, in Jamaica with limited resources and no like-minded friends, contemporary literature for me meant Stephen King and Nora Roberts; when I desired anything weightier I stretched for a dependable Penguin Classic. (The publisher’s advantage in the Commonwealth, except Canada and maybe Australia, is that its popular classics dominate the shelves, with an occasional Oxford peeping through.)

Having my own blog, sharing my own thoughts has organically lead to me rereading novels without official prompting. Black Lightning by Roger Mais was the first to get repeated attention, and since then I’ve reread Jane Eyre (for no particular reason), Sleepless Nights by Hardwick and now Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner. (Other novels get re-read in parts.) I reread Kokoro for an upcoming Quarterly Conversation review, which went without saying, but I was more than happy to do so.

The Warner is so privileged because I’ve decided which “proper essay” I shall do next to submit to literary entities — the fantasy article that isn’t about the books of any magical South Americans. I don’t really know which one I’m going to submit it to, in no small part due to the fact that I’m not sure what it’s going to look like yet. I have the “literary” stories collection, Kingdoms of Elfin; the respected-fantasy-collection-by-writer-most-genre-fans-would-recommend-to-sceptical-literati, Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link (and yes, I know most give more regard to Magic for Beginners); and So Long Been Dreaming by various authors, the what-would-have-been-regular ol’ genre-but-gains-cachet-from-“postcolonial”-label. The label bugs me because of the inherent baggage it brings, but at least within the SF/F genre the angle gains some creative legitimacy because “most familiar memes of science fiction is that of going to foreign countries and colonizing the natives”, so wrote Nalo Hopkinson who co-edited. (Rest assured I came up with those disposable categorisations on the fly and am not using them seriously; and woohoo finally reading SF.)

Anyway, I’m looking forward to what I’ll come up with, if anything. I’ve caught Danielle‘s Reading Planitis and have idly considered other quests. I read two and a half D.H. Lawrence novels as a teen and left that period retaining vague details of their contents but a firm impression that he was a favourite novelist. Very odd. I can never read of him in print without seeing mentioned the typical qualification that he’s unfashionable. (For his portrayal of women apparently, but when has that ever mattered when it came to canon?) So I’m curious to learn a) if he earned the fuzzy favourites spot and b) reasons for the hate/love attitude from academia. George Bernard Shaw suffers from the same “unfashionable” stamp though I’ve yet to learn why that’s so. Recent spate of articles popping up in print and on-line about his plays, including one from the new Penguin Classics blog, and vague (always vague) youthful memories of reading lines from Saint Joan in grade 9 have stirred interest. Maybe I should form an Outmoded Authors reading challenge? Which authors do you know of that are not vogue?

Dickens is another author I used to say was a favourite, but his novels were among the first “serious lit” I read as a little girl, starting at around 12 and dropping off at around 16 or so. I’d like to reassess at least one or two of the ones I read before and a couple I did not. It’s nice to mull about one’s good intentions.


5 Responses to "More babble"

Outmoded authors is a brilliant idea! I was having a think and came up with John Galsworthy, H.E. Bates, Anthony Powell, J. B. Priestley and Elizabeth Bowen as classic authors who have fallen out of fashion somewhat. Do let us know if you decide to go ahead!

Hmm. Good question. Who are the outmoded authors that ought to be read more? I nominate Maugham.

And what about Graham Greene? Is he outmoded?

Herodotus? Okay, he’s just really dead.

Freya Stark? Wilfred Thesiger? Sybille Bedford? Cyril Connolly? G.K. Chesterton? Julian Maclaren-Ross? Malcolm Lowry? Dawn Powell?

I’m quite sure I can add more to this list.

I didn’t enjoy Lawrence when I read him (and i read 3 novels, I think), but he also kind of intrigued me — I didn’t get him, basically, and it bugged me. I’m open to the idea of re-reading him and finally getting it and becoming a fan. We’ll see. As for outmoded authors — I love the idea! I’d add Walter Scott (I took a lot of classes from his period, but nobody ever taught him).

The issue of re-reading is what caught my attention most from stellar post of yours, Imani. I keep books with good intentions if re-reading, but up until recently I rarely actually had the urge to do so. However, as I’m writing more, I do feel the urge to re-read favorite books, hefty books, classics that first capture my attention for the express purpose of figuring out why they captivated me and how to do it in my own writing.

Wow, I could make a challenge list just from the authors suggested so far! Maybe…maybe I should attempt to start one of these things for this and the Prohibi-Prohobi…the Vatican’s defunct list of forbidden books.

litlove your list sounds great though I just (barely) recognise the name of two. Dark O I don’t know if Graham Greene is outmoded….hmmm…at least not anymore than Hammett maybe? That’s a fence straddler for me but the others sound great (and unfamiliar), esp. Malcolm Lowry!

Dorothy Scott is a perfect addition! Definitely out of fashion.

Andi thank you. 🙂 Yes, it’s funny how all kinds of writing leads one to re-read. All readers should be encouraged to engage in some form of reflective writing, perhaps?

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