Grassroots Commentary

Ready to Read in 2014?

Bill Franklin · Jan. 6, 2014

“Read, read, read,” counseled William Faulkner; “Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see [how authors write]. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”

Faulkner was exhorting young writers in this admonition but his advice applies equally to those who don’t aspire to be writers. The reason Faulkner’s urging is sage advice is that most of the world’s knowledge exists in written form … and therefore is not accessible to most of the world.

Why?

Because so few people read. (Last week’s blog noted that 28% in a survey conducted last year hadn’t read a book in the prior 12 months and half who had read at least one book had not read more than six.) If this survey is an indication, most Americans deprive themselves of access to the world’s storehouse of knowledge.

And that choice is not without consequences. There’s ample scientific evidence that people who read literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction) “read” the body language of others more effectively, are more empathic, interpret situations better, lower their stress levels faster by reading, suffer less memory decline with age, are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and have more vivid imaginations. (Emily Dickinson observed, “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”) Reading is also entertaining. Many arguments can be made for reading.

But the most important argument is this. After we leave the formal environs of education in our early 20s, our remaining education in life – arguably the most valuable part – will be self-taught. That will come from two sources: personal experience and reading. It’s hard to make a more compelling argument for reading than that. Yet many people essentially stop learning – at least beyond their own experience.

What are you planning to read this year?

I’m afflicted with an overly-curious mind and have found that unless I plan what I’m going to read with some sense of priority, I’ll end the year with parts of many books read and few of them finished. I try to plan a balance of non-fiction and fiction reading during the year, and while I start with a couple a dozen books (my 2014 selections are bought, stacked in order, and waiting for me) I’ll add a few others during the year. I might occasionally substitute books purchased during the year to replace one in my original reading plan, but if I do that too often I find that some books don’t get read. I’m linked to several book review sites so unfortunately I can find more books that I want to read faster than I can read them. Some of the books in this year’s reading plan were purchased a year or more ago.

At one time I “read” several books concurrently. But I gave up that practice after discovering some weren’t finished because I had too many going at the same time. I’ve also found that if I’ve not turned on to a book in about 50 pages or so, chances are it isn’t going to happen by reading 50 more pages. The purpose of reading is to learn something, not to complete books as if I get to add a notch to the edge of my bookcase. Reading time is too valuable to waste on books I have to slog through.

Well … those are my reading habits for what they’re worth. Here’s what is in my 2014 reading plan with hyperlinks to Amazon if you have an interest.

In the non-fictional category, I’m already well into The Heart of Everything That Is, the story of the greatest chief the Sioux produced, Red Cloud. He assembled an army of 10,000 warriors from many tribes and waged a two-year war that defeated the US Army and forced it to sue for peace on Indian terms. No other chief in the American Indian wars accomplished that.

The book was released in November and immediately caught my interest. The authors sourced material from an autobiography of Red Cloud discovered in the 1990s at the Nebraska Historical Society as well as contemporary newspaper reports and interviews with descendants of sub-chiefs, notably Crazy Horse. The title is a translation of the Sioux name for the Black Hills – Paha Sapa, the sacred territory that contains the Wind Cave through which the Sioux believe their deities delivered them from a subterranean netherworld to a land teeming with game.

Regardless of where one’s sympathies lie, the post-Civil War conflict between America and its native Indians is one of the saddest stories in our country’s history. There was no “right” answer on the coexistence question and indescribable suffering was meted out by both sides – probably made worse by US treachery in keeping its treaties. Almost a year ago to this day I recalled the 122nd anniversary of the final episode in this tragic struggle in the blog, Broken Hearts at Wounded Knee.

The second book in my non-fictional stack for the coming year is The Cave and the Light. The author contrasts the conflicting views of Plato, a student of Socrates, to those of Aristotle, a student of Plato, who became the teacher of Alexander the Great and later, the philosophical rival of Plato.

In Raphael’s famous painting, The School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle are seen in the center walking toward the viewer. Their positions are the embodiment of their philosophies. Plato, the idealist, is walking toward us as the right figure of the pair, whereas, Aristotle, the empiricist, is the left figure – thus appearing to be the equivalent of the “right brain” and “left brain” of their worldviews long before the function of the brain lobes were understood. But in a sense the left-right arrangement seems to be the way their views manifest in matters of faith (Plato) versus matters of science (Aristotle.)

The title comes from Plato’s cave and shadows thought experiment contrasting reality and the perception of it. Plato’s theoretical prisoners were chained in a manner in which they were only able to see the shadows on a wall in front of them. They were caused by figures moving behind them and the light source. Seeing only shadows throughout their imprisonment, however, the prisoners thought the shadows rather than their cause were “reality.” It will be interesting to see how the author expands that idea into the “struggle for the soul of Western civilization” – the subtitle of the book.

Third in my non-fiction stack is The Great Debate in which the author makes the argument for the origins of the modern political Right and Left. The “debaters” are Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Paine is known to most students of history as the author of Common Sense, which historian Gordon Wood called “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era.” Burke is known to students of history as the critic of England’s mismanagement of the colonial uprising – the Revolutionary War – and his well-known speech in 1775 appealing for reconciliation. On most issues of the American Revolution, they are on the same side politically. The great debate at issue in this book, however, is the Paine-Burke dispute over the merits and lack of them in the bloody French Revolution. In that conflict the debaters were on opposite sides.

The author parlays Burke’s conservatism and Paine’s liberalism into the philosophical schism that divides the country politically today. That would seem to be quite a stretch and I’m looking forward to learn if he pulls it off credibly.

Now to my fiction stack.

As I’ve noted in another blog, fiction encompasses two brands. There is the “popular” fiction brand (think Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and Stephen King) and the “literary” fiction brand (think the classical authors, Austen, Dickens, Bronte and their modern descendants.) Literary fiction can be further divided into plot-driven novels (Lord of the Rings, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and character-driven novels (The Remains of the Day, The Caine Mutiny, Frankenstein.) Personally, I read fiction for the purpose of studying and understanding different types of characters, their flaws, the situations they get themselves into, how they change over the course of the novel, and the lessons I can learn from their experiences without suffering the consequences they suffered. Thus, my preference is character-driven literary fiction rather than the plot-driven genre.

That said, the top book on my fiction stack this year is The Goldfinch, a novel released this past fall that has been near the top of most best-seller lists. The story is about Theo Decker, a teenager, who visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother to see the Carel Fabritius 350-year old painting, The Goldfinch, where it’s on loan (in the novel.) A bomb explodes during their visit, Theo’s mother is killed, and he takes the painting and leaves the museum. The rest of the story is about the hold the painting has on Theo as he grows into adulthood realizing the longer he keeps a stolen painting the harder it is to return it. His life is drawn into the contrasting art underworld and the lives and homes of the rich.

What’s interesting here is that Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, was himself killed by a gunpowder explosion in 1654 cutting short a life that would have likely produced many masterpieces. The explosion that killed him at age 32 destroyed most of his paintings, and The Goldfinch survives but still bears the evidence of the explosion.

Even at a hefty 784 pages, I’m looking forward to reading this novel.

Next in my fiction stack is another weighty tome, The Luminaries, which tips the scale at 2.5 pounds and runs 848 pages in length. It’s a tale centered in New Zealand (the home of the author) at about the time of the American Civil War. A gold rush has attracted the central character, an English lawyer, who arrives after a harrowing sea crossing to make his fortune. After settling in at a hotel, he makes his way to the bar for a drink to settle his jangled nerves, and it becomes apparent to him that he has stumbled into the midst of a secret conclave of town citizens and prospectors. What they have in common are relationships with three events that happened two weeks prior – the death of a tramp in his shack at the edge of town which contained a large fortune, the disappearance of a young man who had just “struck it rich” in the gold fields, and the near-suicide of a town prostitute.

The book won the Man Booker Prize for 2013, an award given for the best British novel. It is a remarkable achievement for its 28-year old author, Eleanor Catton, the youngest ever to win the prize and she did so with only her second novel. From the reviews I’ve read it has a cast of finely-developed characters so numerous that a scorecard is almost needed to keep track of them. A third of the book is devoted to the opening scene.

The Adventures of Augie March is third in my stack of fiction. This book was published in 1953 and won the National Book Award for fiction. Augie March, the principal character, is a sort of Depression-era Huckleberry Finn living in Chicago – a street smart kid adept at working the angles to survive. In fact, he is probably the personification of the book’s author, Saul Bellow, who himself was a rough-neck slum kid before immigrating to America from Quebec. The late Christopher Hitchens regarded Bellow’s characters and fiction as reflections of Bellow’s own struggle “to overcome not just ghetto conditions but also ghetto psychoses.”

I was determined to read one of Saul Bellow’s books this year. Augie March would be found on most lists of the best American fiction, but so would his other books – Humbolt’s Gift, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and Ravelstein, his last book written when he was 85 and based loosely on the life of his good friend and university colleague, philosopher Allan Bloom.

Bellow led a remarkably productive life for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, the National Medal of Arts, and the National Book Award for Fiction, which the NBA Foundation awarded to him three times – the only writer to achieve such recognition. The Foundation also awarded him its lifetime Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1990.

I don’t have the space in this blog to mention every book in my 2014 plan or my reason for selecting it, so I’ll have to stop with the top three in the non-fiction and fiction stacks.

I hope you have a 2014 reading plan and that it includes several character-driven novels. I’m convinced you’ll meet some interesting people in their pages.

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