On Reading-Part VIII: Looking the other way
There are some books in our literary canon where I am in agreement on the author but would choose a different book than the one that makes the Great Book lists or is typically assigned reading in schools. Huckleberry Finn is usually the pick for Mark Twain. The Big Issue in Huckleberry Finn is slavery, which is a 19th Century issue. True, it is also about racism, but there are other books that address racism more directly and Huckleberry Finn is primarily looking at the hypocrisy of slavery, not racism. I think Following the Equator would be a better choice. It is one of his last books where he is on top of his craft, pulls together everything he has learned from a lifetime of writing and his satire is more direct and biting. Also, the Big Issue of Following the Equator is Imperialism an issue that is still with us. That and racism. Not the overt and easily dismissed racism of slavery, but the all to real and current racism of imperialism.
Edgar Allan Poe is best-known for his potboilers of horror and suspense. I admit these are classics of their genre but I personally much prefer the wry, witty and subtle cleverness of his lesser known tales and essays. Not as dramatic and sensational but far more thought-provoking and challenging. Same thing with Anton Chekhov who is usually canonized for his plays. However his enigmatic short stories perfected the genre and will bear almost endless rereading.
Goethe is one the most important writers in the literary canon, perhaps second only to Shakespeare. Yet, if he is read at all, we typically choose one of his early works, either Faust Part I, or The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther is often viewed as the epitome of romantic love, so devoted to his beloved that he takes his own life. But Goethe, a man of the enlightenment, wrote it as a warning of what goes wrong when we fail to keep our emotions in line and stop thinking with our head. Better choices would be the entire poem Faust, Parts I and II, or one of his most original works, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years. Both of these are strange composite works written at the very end of his life where he, like Twain pulls together everything he has learned from a lifetime of literary experimentation. They both defy genre or classification. There is nothing quite like them and they deserve to be read carefully and often.
If Kerouac makes the list it is always for his American classic On The Road, a book often misread as a glorification of self-indulgent irresponsibility. Stylistically this is one of Kerouac’s best novels. But Kerouac wasn’t writing novels he was writing The Book. It was a multi-volume story of a life and an era. He was writing the American version of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine or Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. He called it the Legend of Duluoz and it included, in chronological order almost all the books that he wrote. Viewed from this perspective, reading On the Road is a bit like reading a random chapter from the middle of Don Quixote or War and Peace. You don’t really have any idea where you are, where you are going, or where you will end up. To get a full understanding of this amazing encyclopedic work you should, as always, read the whole thing. It is still possible to follow the trajectory of this project if you supplement On the Road with one of the early novels (e.g., Vanity of Dulouz, Maggie Cassidy, Orpheus Emerged) that show the promise of life in America, and the final novel, Big Sur, which brings his saga to it’s tragic conclusion. In fact if one wanted to only read one book and understand Kerouac, Big Sur is the one to read. It is his one book that best captures the tragedy of American nihilism and the fatal flaw of boundless creative energy in a culture of shallow corporate hucksterism and aimless libertarianism.
Mark Twain-Following the Equator
Anton Chekhov-The Stories
Edgar Allen Poe-The Other Stories
Goethe-Faust Part I & II, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years
Jack Kerouac–Big Sur
- Anguishing guilt and hopeless remorse: Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (severalfourmany.wordpress.com)
- Was Jack Kerouac really a hack? (salon.com)