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Thread: A year of reading in 2016

  1. #1
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    Mar 2015
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    A year of reading in 2016

    Having read about 50 or more books in 2016, Iíd like to give a few highlights of what I believed to be for me a great year of reading, where I discovered and cherished some truly classic works of literature that have entered my imagination for possibly forever.

    2016 was for me the year of Hawthorne and Melville, the year of the epic, and the year of MiltonÖ

    Where I truly discovered Hawthorne and Melville:

    Near the beginning of 2016, I was moved by Nathaniel Hawthorneís great masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. Iíd been meaning to read this novel for some time, having read and loved some of Hawthorneís stories. I read it all - even the ďCustom-HouseĒ preface (which is good, btw; donít skip it) - and, needless to say, I was moved. I was moved by Hester Prynneís endurance and her complex personality textures - how she had a fierce, Oriental sexual energy; how she became a stronger person by persecutions; how she began to stifle her energy; how the scarlet letterís purpose changed; how she became a matron of courage and consolation to others in the end; how she made the central symbol - the scarlet A - her own. Itís as D. H. Lawrence said; itís one of the most perfect American novels.

    Chillingworth for me forms a semi-Miltonic, semi-Shakespearean villain, a betrayed man, a man whose only ease is found in destruction. Even at the end, he tries to hold onto Dimmesdale, and in the end, when Dimmesdale dies, he dies too. He wants to destroy, and heís done it for so long that he has become destruction, and when he has nothing to destroy, he dies.

    I was also moved by the levels of ambiguity and allegory, as well as the hidden subtext about reading and misreading. Hawthorneís attitude about reading signs seems to be one of skepticism that also mixes with reverence. He acknowledges the symbolical, yet departs from the excessive allegorizing of the Puritan moral order that he criticizes and satirizes.

    I also loved the prose style. Itís thorny, complex, yet, like the novelís subtext, is full of ambiguity, resonance, depth, and its own subtlety.

    My big book for last year was Brothers Karamazov. 2016ís big book was Herman Melvilleís Moby Dick. I read it all - even the whaling sections. It picked up in the end, and I loved the dark, comic subtext that clashed and counterpointed with the poignant ďAmerican ShakespeareĒ tragedy aspect. Itís written in a rich, epic, high, poetic style that carries many registers - Shakespearean/Miltonic, colloquial, biblical, expository, extravagant, melancholy. The climax of the three-day chase is elegantly constructed, and the last moments are some of the fiercest that Iíve read in literature. It took me several months to read it - interspersing it with my periods of boredom, my time at college, and other events - but I was glad I stuck with it. It really deserves its reputation. I need to reread it, even as I seek for other big and great books to edify and delight myself.

    The year of the epic poem

    My first epic poem was John Miltonís masterpiece Paradise Lost. Itís truly brilliant stuff. I was moved by the vistas, by the lush landscape of Paradise, by the epic scale, by Satan, by the depiction of heaven and hell, and the final conclusion that mixed tragedy with a profound redemptive hope. I also happened to take kindly to Miltonís very refreshing freedom in depicting sexuality. Book IV has some of the finest poetry on the issue of sex, and Miltonís erotic imagination encapsulates both the horrific side of sex - the Sin-Death allegory and Adam and Eveís infernal lovemaking after the Fall - and the innocent side of sex. I loved the gorgeous blank verse, the sentences, the elevated diction, the words themselves. It fits, and itís so perfectly constructed.

    The Iliad and The Odyssey, in the Fagles translations, were a treat. I ended up preferring The Iliad, but both are truly fantastic. And Iíd say, The Odyssey is more than just those adventures that we all know, though those adventures are important. Odysseusí scar, Priamís and Achillesí reconciliation, Achillesí shield, Achilles vs. Hector, Achillesí speech in Book 9, Odysseusí slaughtering of the suitors, Odysseus and the Cyclops, Odysseus and the underworld - all these are part of the fabric from which the Westís literature is built. If anything, beyond the delight I got from the poems themselves, I invested some quality time with the foundations of Western literature.

    The Aeneid was also moving. Not as exciting as Homer or Milton, but with a power of its own. I loved its melancholy tone, the Aeneas-Dido love story, the first-person storytelling of Aeneas in Books II and III, the fierce rage of the epicís central figure other than Aeneas (Juno), the darkness that in some ways exceeds Homer and Milton and looks forward to Dante (no wonder Dante picked Virgil rather than Homer to be his guide through Hell), the sense of futility, the moral emphasis that exceeds Homerís pragmatism, and more. Books 7-12, long thought to be half-hearted compared to the first half of The Aeneid, has its virtues, especially for fans of The Iliad. Even in its depiction of war, Virgilís unique style fits the sadness behind it. Robert Fitzgerald was right to note in his Paris Review interview how The Aeneidís second half really has a compelling Aeneas, that the story itself is far more readable than we give it credit for. Reading it in Sarah Rudenís translation for Yale University Press, I loved Rudenís translation of Virgilís subtle, chaste, yet richly poetic verse (which I have yet to read in its original Latin), which brought out the melancholy, two-edged sword aspect of the poem. Even as the Trojans defeat the Latins and form Italy, they lose their Trojan identity - and Juno, hater of the Trojans and avatar of wrath, has the last word on that. Itís sad when you think about it. And even as it glorifies empire, it also looks with deep sadness at whatís lost in the formation of empire. It looks forward to the Christian epic and bridged the gap between pagan and Christian for so many, including Dante. Yet it has its own sad power. Even as I prefer Homer and Milton in the end, I would say that Virgil excels over both of them in his sadness.

    So Virgil or Homer? Iíd say Homer, but Virgil deserves a shining silver prize, no less splendid than Homerís gold.

    In addition, I'm proud to have discovered and started on Dante and Spenser. The Divine Comedy, so far, is truly great. I, in the year of 2017, am currently on Purgatory; but Inferno gave me a taste of Dante's great art, which involves literary reference, complex Christian theology, and that overriding theme of love which strangely shows even in Inferno. And Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene is no easy work, but it's fantastic stuff. The verse, while complex, has a poetic richness and beauty capable to its luxuriant subject matter and stately pace; the allegory works well, and it's quite skilled and capable of being sustained for the length of the poem; and the epic similes are pretty well-handled.
    Speaking of which, the epic simile has become one of my favorite literary devices, in addition to the Shakespearean metaphors and similes that I love so much.

    Year of Milton

    Like with many of my favorite authors, I started Milton by reading his shorter work - ďComus,Ē his shorter poems, and ďLycidasĒ - before I dived into Paradise Lost. I will not jump into much about that, as I already spoke about it. But I was so moved by it that it replaced Blood Meridian as my favorite book of all time. Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes are also masterworks, but of different kinds - Paradise Regained as a chaste brief epic and Samson Agonistes as a Greek tragedy with Hebrew subject matter written in thoroughly experimental English verse.

    I like the mash-up aspect of Milton - how he takes the classical world and the Bible and sets them together to create a special music. One of my favorite things about Paradise Lost is how it uses its classical allusion freely while not departing and corrupting the Hebraic and Christian spirit of the poetic matter. Imagining the biblical Paradise in terms of classical myth is a bold thing to do, and Milton pulls it off. As Barbara Lewalski shows in her book Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms, everything about Miltonís great poem is an educative, exciting, delightful, and artful manipulation of classical and biblical and Christian literary forms and models to make a poem that fulfills the two-handed engine of Horaceís poetic goal - teaching and delight. Even the ďChristianĒ parts - Michaelís prophecy, Miltonís God, Miltonís Messiah - all owe to this effective mashup of biblical and classical reference, to not only Genesis and Exodus and the New Testament but even to Homer and Hesiod and Ovid and Virgil. Thatís years of experience and learning jam-packed into Paradise Lost, perhaps the greatest epic after Homer and after Danteís Commedia.
    Much has been written about the thematics of the poetry, so I wonít say much except that I was thoroughly moved by it. As a Christian, I like how the thematic complexity of Adam and Eveís story both relates to my own beliefs and yet has a resonance of its own beyond Christian orthodoxy. Strangely, the angel Michaelís prophecy in Books 11 and 12, far from diminishing the poemís power, contributes to it in that distinctive way.

    Miltonís Satan is a truly heroic (false heroic) character, and while he is muted in Paradise Regained, he still has some of the rhetorical interest he once had in the greater poem. The intellectual aspect of Paradise Regained, as well as the striking perfection of its construction, provides moments of interest. I happen to find it underrated compared to Paradise Lost, and I find myself with Wordsworth and De Quincey among the admirers, as well as Miltonic scholar Gordon Teskey.
    One of the things I learned about Milton in this year was his experimentalist nature as an author. Heís really the classic experimental author. He experiments with literary forms and almost transforms them with his Christian vision. He writes epic, tragedy, masque, lyric, ode, and so much. The mashup of his matter is relevant to how Milton experiments with the form. I like that about Milton.

  2. #2
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    Sep 2009
    I'm about to finish Moby Dick, too! Once I finish it, I will read this post in more depth, but this seems like an amazing post.

    I've only read bits of Paradise Lost, but even from those, Milton is, to me, one of the most talented writers of all time. Plus I love the idea of epics. I've read both the Iliad and the Odyssey, although in the Lattimore translations (I really want to try out the Fagles ones next), and also personally preferred the Iliad.

    I'm hoping to read the Aeneid this year. I have the Mandelbaum translation (I also have his Divine Comedy). I want to read, actually, the Aeneid, Paradise Lost, AND the Divine Comedy in 2017, but something tells me I won't be able to finish all three in addition to the KJ New Testament (I read the Old Testament a few years back). Seems like that is just too much challenging reading for one year, but hey, it's worth a shot!

  3. #3
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    So I did finish Moby-Dick finally. Like you, it took me a few months. It's interesting that you call your year the Year of the Epic (I'd love to make 2017 that for me, as I need to read Dante, Milton, Virgil, and maybe a few other epics this year, as I've read none of them [I have read some of Paradise, which was almost overpoweringly grand and beautiful, and Ahab is basically an American Satan from PL]. Also hoping to read some Shakespeare, but that doesn't exactly qualify as epic), since I just read an essay in Harold Bloom's book The Epic about Moby-Dick. I guess he feels it, along with War and Peace, the Tale of Genji, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses, and The Magic Mountain fit under the epic genre more than they do the novel genre.

    I can somewhat see that, as MD's constant digressions into whaling lore (I called them non-narrative or NN chapters) and other NN topics was like almost nothing else I've read in a novel. The only thing that comes to mind are the chapters in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman talks exclusively about pop music (comedy gold, as some of Melville's chapters are).

    I love what you said about Melville's writing carrying "many registers." He can write passages of pure poetry, but also, say, Stubb's great and profane speeches to his oarsmen during whale hunts are equally masterful. I haven't read any Shakespeare, so I mostly saw Milton as a huge influence on Ahab (and I guess the mythological Prometheus as well), but the notes in my edition talked about every Shakespeare and biblical references, which were many.

    This is the most recent classic book I've read since the King James Old Testament (need to read the Apocrypha and NT this year!), so it was definitely a challenge at first, but other than forcing me to read very slowly, it wasn't THAT difficult of a book as it's made out to be. Almost every single line from Ahab is a classic, and Ishmael has tons of great lines, too, but he starts fading into the background in the second half of the book, which, to me, was somewhat of a weakness. The book seemed like a mishmash of different ideas and stories (Queequeg, for instance, basically disappeared after the beginning other than the coffin sub-plot), but I also kinda loved it for that, and it has a grandness of theme and in the questions it asks about the universe and the universal human condition that place it as more profound than any novel I've yet read.

    I actually liked almost all of the NN chapters. I lived in Nantucket, have been to whaling museums, and loved In the Heart of the Sea (about the real-life incident which inspired MD), so I found the whaling lore fascinating. A random thing about the book that I loved was its obsession with physicality, with corporeality. I loved how gross and gritty some of the whale stuff was. Maybe that's the horror fan/animal-obsessive side of me, haha).

    Other than Paradise Lost, Ahab reminded me of Achilles from the Iliad. Both spent large parts of their respective works bemoaning their own bodily limitations and mortality. Both basically curse the universe, which they feel essentially estranged from, and both have a sense of defiance against God/the gods/Fate. (By the way, MD's constant depiction of the "Fates"/Fate as a weaver at a loom seems very Grecian and Homeric.).

    Well, I could go on about this forever clearly! I'm actually going to read Why Read Moby-Dick? next. A weird choice to read AFTER, I know, but I was scared it'd ruin the book, even though I already kinda knew the general ending from HS, and was forced to go to an "acrobatic play"-version of MD by my family in December. It's written by the In the Heart of the Sea author (a prominent citizen of Nantucket, by the way).

    Hoping to read a lot of what you did last year this year. What was your favorite work? What about your favorite work ever? Favorite writer?

  4. #4
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    Sep 2009
    I love epic similes, too. They were the best parts of Homer. Noticed quite a few in Moby-Dick as well.

    I would love to read Faerie Queen one day, but the pieces of it I read a few years back defeated me. DEFINITELY not an easy read, but I'm sure rewarding.

    I've only read Homer in the Lattimore translations. I really want to try Fagles next.

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