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Resisting Books

I have been reading John Richardson's third volume of his magnificent biography of that demonic genius, Pablo Picasso. In the late 1920s Picasso was part of the Parisian intellectual elite and not infrequently was in the company of Marcel Proust. It struck me that I have never been tempted to pick up Proust's novel and probably never will. Perhaps I have been put off by a graffito I once saw ("Proust is a yenta") but perhaps not. In any event, fellow Commonwealians, is there is any famous "classic" that you never itend to read? I am sorry to be so bookish with my posts but I have always been partial to a mot ascribed to Logan Pearsall Smith: "People say that life is the thing but I prefer reading."

About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.



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Not at all, Larry, I've been thinking about starting a regular post called "What Are You Reading"--maybe this could be the first one! I'll start: just finished Shelby Steele's A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win. I'm still digesting his argument, but the book is short, and well worth reading.

I feel as though I've read enough Shakespeare. I don't know any of the British histories, almost none of the comedies. In fact I don't care much for the comedies I have read (MSND, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew) or seen. Lear and Macbeth and the sonnets deserve hundreds more rereadings, but that's intensive. Extensively, I guess I'm done.

Ulysses by James Joyce. Made it through Chapter 4 and skimmed the rest and decided that James Joyce wouldn't disapprove so have been guilt free ever since. It set the whole course of twentieth century writing on a downward spiral as authors without Joyce's genius emulated his undisciplined navel gazing style. At least mediocre works of the 19th century provide you with a decent story. Now, you have to read mysteries and spy novels for that (FWIW, I think Le Carre's best works are seriously underrated because they are "genre" fiction.)

And I just want to add: I think "The Dead" is the greatest English language work of short fiction of the 20th century. I have nothing against James Joyce personally! I guess I'm like those folkies at the Newport Folk Festival who thought Bob Dylan went off the rails when he went electric, or something like that. Maybe it's just that James Joyce only had one really good story and the only way to retell it was to turn it inside out on itself a few times.

I know it shows a lack of classBut I just can't read Leaves of Grass.The critics give it wildest praiseBut who on earth needs "hair of graves"?

Funny someone mentioned Joyce. I intend never to read Finnegan's Wake - I suspect that it's humanly impossible anyway. And, Ann, did Ogden Nash write that little ditty? It sure sounds like him. Or maybe a Burma-Shave ad.

I am afraid I am never going to get through Don Quixote, although fairly recently I bought the Edith Grossman translation, which is supposed to be very good. I have various translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey that I wish I could get myself to read, but I don't think it's going to happen.I just finished Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks and found it fascinating. I am currently reading A Jesuit Off-Broadway by James Martin, S.J., which is very enjoyable. (Has anybody heard of this Martin guy?) If we are going to confess the great classics we are not going to read, I suppose it is only fitting to admit what we are reading at the other end of the literary spectrum. So I admit to being about 50 pages into Harm None by M. R. Sellars, It's the first in a series of mysteries with an amateur Wiccan detective, which I am giving a chance because I loved Rosemary Edghill's Bast novels, available in one book called Bell, Book, and Murder. Bast is a young Wiccan woman who keeps having to solve crimes. Kind of a young, Wiccan Miss Marple.

I intend to die without having read "Humphrey Clinker" or "Tristram Shandy" or anything by Ann Radcliffe. I had to read "Pamela" and that was enough of 18th Century English novel rading for me.I also want back the time I spent reading "A Catcher in the Rye," "Sister Carrie," and "Bonfire of the Vanities," all essays by that big swollen headed Norman Mailer (except for a very thoughtful piece he did about capital punishment after "Executioner's Song," and any poems by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.Also I have not felt the same about Raber, who encouaged me to spend a day tring to "get interested in" "Wuthering Heights." I wish Cathy and Heathcliffe had fallen into a sinkhole as children and never been found.Oh, and of course, "LORD OF THE RINGS," lest William Collier thinks that my lack of mentioning it means I've softened up on it.Ann Olivier, you are too funny!

Here's another possible theme: Books you didn't think you liked at the time, but they stuck with you and improved on retrospection. My vote would be for "Heir to the Glimmering World" and "The Emperor's Children."

I don't think I happen to have read a pre twentieth century classic I didn't like. My impression is that starting in the 20th c. the idea of classic has been corrupted. At this point, brand new books are touted as classics in the pre pub date promos. The "test of time" isn't what it used to be.Paul -

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude"Though its famous opening sentence has pulled me in several times ("Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice"), I've never been able to get past more than the first 25% or so of the book. It's still gathering dust on a shelf, so I'm willing to be convinced that this Nobel Laureate's magnum opus deserves more respect from me.And I was hoping for an early Christmas present from Jean, i.e., a decision on her part NOT to mention LOTR in this thread. Alas, it was not to be. ;)

To William "Frodo" Collier: "One Hundred Years" is one of the best books ever written, with apologies to Paul Maurice Martin. I had never read anything like it, nor, now that I have cottoned on to the style used also by Allenda and, more recently, Zafon, do I expect ever to have an experience like it again. Truly an original. I truly do not know how anybody could extol LOTR with its precious pixies and magic weaponry, and then turn around and reject Marquez's magical realism. In my view, this shows a seriously disordered and inconsistent literary tasteBut merry Christmas anyway. I guess.

That's Isabel Allende. This damn Mac has such teensy type that even with my reading glasses I don't even know what I'm typing.Though some might say that's my normal mode.

Agree completely with Jean re "Cien anos de soledad." It drags in the middle but the end wraps it up and makes the whole thing sublime and worthwhile. Although Marquez is second only to Joyce in raining down on us a bunch of worthless imitators who seek glory in his mantle. Thomas Pynchon is the most talented American of this bunch. The Crying of Lot 49 is short enough to see what he's about without cursing yourself for the loss of valuable time.

"[S]eriously disordered and inconsistent"The story of my life, I'm afraid, Jean.Feliz Navidad.

David,When I couldn't get through Don Quixote, someone suggested that I take a look at the last chapter and go try again.It helped and I wound up loving the book. Not the character (at least not during his rampages), whom I think is a petty hoodlum.

Kathy,I have seen Balanchine's ballet, and I can sing bits from The Impossible Dream. I has hoping that was sufficient. But maybe I will take your suggestion.I have a suspicion that we are each secretly appalled at what the others plan not to read, though only a few people are saying so.

I always SAY I will not read anymore Russians, 20th or any other Century, but I just got done with Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We," which I liked a lot, though I admit my attempts to read "Lolita" have been fruitless, even "Lolita for Dummies," i.e., the annotated version, which I tried to read this summer. I also cannot understand what people see in "A Confederation of Dunces." I thought that ranked right down there with John Waters' "Pink Flamingo"--unfunny and gross. I want my time back on that one, too. I think the author died young. Of shame, possibly.I'm not appalled if people don't want to read Joyce. Mrs. Joyce once said, "Jim, why don't you write books people understand?"OK, time for Jean to put a sock in it.

Book That I'm Reading: "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic."Book That I Knew I Should Read, Put Off Reading, and Finally Read, and Liked a Lot: "The Moviegoer"Book That I Know I Should Read, But Still Haven't After Twenty Years of People Telling Me to Read It: "The Cloud of Unknowing"Book That I Know I Should Read, Tried to Read, and Got Bored in the Middle, But Finished It Anyway: "The Imitation of Christ."Book That I Know I Should Read, Tried to Read, and Got Bored Because It Took Too Long for Anything To Happen, and Put Down Even Though Everyone Told Me Not To Since It Is Their Favorite Book: "Kristen Lavransdatter."Book That I Know I Should Read, Tried to Read, Got Bored, Put It Down, But Then Tried Again and It Became One of My Favorite Books: "Death Comes for the Archbishop."Book That I Wrote That You Should Buy for Christmas: "A Jesuit Off-Broadway"

I thought i was the only one with this deficiency. my bete nior is MOBY DICk, having spent at leastr $100 on various copies all donated to the local library. i read somewhere the there were orion abridgement that were excellent , i tracked them down and they are available in uk for lots of euros. i hope they will be available in kilkenny this syummer for something cheaper.

Jean,I haven't been able to get very far with Lolita, but I found Pale Fire to be brilliant and hilarious. And Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, made me feel I was missing about 90 percent of what was in the novels I was reading. He can tell you the dates things are happening (even though they are not mentioned) and draw floor plans of the houses where the action takes place.

Sorry to put in one more appearance, but the trick to "Moby Dick" is to skip the boring parts. You don't have to read it in a linear manner, which is one of the beauties of the book. If you do this over many years, you will eventually have read the entire thing and probably will have liked it.

Kristin Lavransdatter is one of my favorite books, and I loved Death Comes for the Archbishop the first but not the second time I read it. I try to read between the lines of all book reviews to see if I will hate a book and this is why I never read Confederacy of Dunces.Heed the advice of Doris Lessing (in "A Small Personal Voice"): If a book doesn't speak to you put it down by all means and pick up another one that does. Life is too short for any other practice.

I just heard the author of this book interviewed on the radio: Why the Democrats Are Blue: How Secular Liberals Hijacked the Peoples Party by Mark Sticherz.He is not an articulate speaker, so one hopes that his book is a bit more coherent. His basic premise is that Democrats have kissed off their former strong constituencies in favor of cultural secular liberals. He claims that the Democratic Party has lost seven of the last ten presidential elections. In the last 30 years, no Democratic presidential nominee has received even half of the popular vote. And the partys base of support is limited to the blue states on the coasts and in the Great Lakes region. Timely reading.

Hello All,'Tis the season --- for final exams, that is. I just got done with a two and a half hour revue session for one of my classes and I need a breather!My best friend Amie (philosophy professor at the University of Miami) is constantly appalled at my ignorance of classic literature. Well, she was a double major in philosophy and literature whereas I was a math major. And philosophy has largely ruined me for novels, because I find so frequently when I begin a novel I get stuck when I find a passage that is particularly interesting or confusing and I can't proceed because I want to think about it. But there are a number of classics in philosophy I don't plan on reading. I found Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit" so incomprehensible that I don't want to go near his "Philosophy of Right". And I also don't want to go near Heidegger's "Being and Time", because I know that this work is even more opaque than anything Hegel ever produced and especially irrelevant to my twig on the philosophy tree.My poor students in my other class are now wishing I had not made them study Rawls' "A Theory of Justice". Even the graduate students assisting in the class are bitter about it because they did not want to have to study this work, one of his most challenging works but also the most influential book in philosophy of the 20th century. So I guess most people would avoid "A Theory of Justice" given the choice. I tried to convince my students that studying "A Theory of Justice" would build their character, but I don't think they believed me.

I have just finished the Oxford Histopry of the Biblical World. I would recommend it to anyone.

"History", of course. There is nothing operatic about it.

Peter:As a former philosophy student, there are a number of philosophy classics that I die without having fully read (but attempted all), including Thus Spoke Zarathustra (more because of Nietzsche's ego than his philosophy), the Critique of Pure Reason (because one of my favorite professors who studied it for 30 years was still afraid of it), and Aristotle's Metaphysics (who is just seems like a whiny brainchild after you read the profundity of Plato).As a future theology student, I'm sure there's a long list there, as well.

Jean: There are NO pixies in the Lord of the Rings. My nickname in high school was indeed Frodo, so Collier can't have it. I so admire your postings that I will find a way to look past your opposition to Middle Earth.I loved Death Comes for the Archbishop. Read it in high school for kicks. Also read Donkey Ho Tee. Liked it too. Even got through David Copperfield. Thomas Hardy remains my favorite among the oldies but goodies, though (gotta love those coincidences). I think it was Hardy that prepared me for the soap operas that I watched in grad school and when my wife was pregnant. I havene't watched one in years though. Maybe that's why I am depressed.I actually have never been able to get through Crime and Punishment. Although I loved Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (much shorter).

David,Surely you've got Plato and Aristotle backwards. Plato is the smart aleck sophomore who turns in a CD of a symphony of his own device, with an accompanying mixed media artwork, instead of the assigned term paper in standard English expository prose. Whereas Aristotle is that rare teacher who usually says, "Well, let's take a closer look," and sometimes even goes so far as to say, "I'm really not sure."Sorry to be preachy on this (wonderful) type of thread, but it seems to me it's important to get the distinction clear before theology school.

Speakin' of Middle Earth, I know this is sheer heresy and will get me kicked out of the exalted literary circles in which I travel, but I still prefer Howell Chickering's workmanlike translation of "Beowulf" to Seamus Heaney's, which I gave away after 10 pages. It was too smooth, too un-Anglo-Saxon, a work still best read in Old English (though I still need glossary aids to do it), though Heaney has written some fine things, e.g., his poem about St. Kevin and the blackbird. Yeah, I know there are no pixies, Joe, but "pixie" sounds so much more disparaging than "elves" or even "hobbits," doesn't it?

Well, Kathy, I can't really say I disagree with you that Plato has an "accompanying mixed media artwork" and creates a "CD of a symphony in his own device" (presuming you are writing of method). But that's really what I always liked about Plato - he always seemed to have the bigger, grander, truthier picture in mind, and Aristotle was more concerned with dividing things up into categories to get them all straight in his head. Anyway, I actually prefer Aristotle's moderate realism as a more plausible metaphysical approach, but don't you ever get lost in the "closer lookin[ing]" of Aristotle's method?

To Jean Raber:You wrote, I want back the time I spent reading A Catcher in the Rye. Why?

Gene, I think my expectations for "Catcher" were too high. I knew a lot of guys who read the book in high school and college, and talked it up. So I read it, expecting it to expertly capture the alienation of youth and explain guys forever and ever, amen. It turned out not to be the epiphany I expected. I did try to be nicer when guys told me they read that book and loved it. I was sure that if they identified with Holden Caufield, they must be at some precariously tender stage in their development."Catcher" was really one of the first books to talk about American adolescence in a real way, but I wonder if it's still the best effort. Legions still think so.Maybe a good topic for another thread.

David, Every major treatise of Aristotle's starts in wonder and ends in (G)god. There's a greater architecture at work, and the Metaphysics draws all the threads of the treatises together in book lambda.That's the story I've told myself about him so far, anyway, and I guess I do have that in mind when he goes into microscopic mode, but also I'm just enamored of what I take to be his simplicity of heart towards things. "This is. It exists. Therefore it is worthy of serious study." It's his four year old's attitude towards the world of bugs and temperature and time and society--and his ability to put into words things that usually go unstated--that I find so charming.

Please tell me that there is no requirement for me to read any other 19th Century English Literature than what I forced to read in high school (Wuthering Heights and The Return of the Native). If the characters were real people, they would be helped tremendously with therapy and medication. Also, please tell me I need not read "Gone With the Wind". I deal enough with passive-aggressive Southerners; I need not read about their ancestors in my spare time. 19th Century Southerners were more neurotic than the 19th Century English for no other reason than the Southerners felt compelled to beat their English kin at their own games.

Hello David (and All),I'm with your former professor regarding Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason". I'm still intimidated by this work and probably still will be at the 30 year mark of being a professional philosopher. When I was first at my former university I was assigned to teach the Modern Philosophy course that included sections from Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" and "Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals". I had to teach this class even though at the time I was not competent to do so because the philosophy majors needed it and none of the rest of the faculty would do it. So I spent a huge amount of time studying parts of the "Critique of Pure Reason" and the "Groundwork" and ended up writing about 120 pages worth of lecture notes for just four weeks worth of classes on Kant's epistemology and moral theory. It was a sound investment because I was able to teach Modern Philosophy every year, refine my notes on Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Leibniz, Locke and Kant and eventually reach the point where I think I teach Modern competently. But after all these years while I think I now understand the problem Kant sets himself to solve in the "Critique", I'm still unsure just what his solution is supposed to be. His moral philosophy, summarized in the "Groundwork", has had much more enduring impact, I think.As a theology student you might find Kant's discussion of the arguments for the existence of God in "Critique" interesting. Kant gives the first presentation of what is now the most common contemporary refutation of Anselm's version of the Ontological argument.On a much less serious note, while my research area is in the Humean tradition of conventionalist justice, my two closest philosophical colleagues think that morally I am a Kantian, and Kant was reacting violently against Hume. I think my colleagues are right. But it worries me because when I teach my students their Hume I feel like I am teaching Julia Child, and when I teach Kant I feel like am teaching Martha Stewart.

I am determined never to read "War and Peace." And having suffered the torture of reading "Vanity Fair" in high school (I think), I have vowed never to read another work by Thackery.

The new translation is supposed to be superb. P.S. to Joe K.: your e-mail provider is still blocking Commonweal's e-mails, which include notifications about comments on your posts. We're looking into it, but you may want to call your service provider.

Prof. Vandershraaf:Thanks for the note on Kant. I'll have to confront my inner barbarian and give the Groundwork a try one of these days.Kathy: I think we actually have a pretty similar idea of Aristotle, although I might take issue with the idea that every major treatise of his "ends in (G)god" (but the post is about books, so I'll stay on topic).You said that I had Plato and Aristotle reversed. Do you really think Plato sounds like the whiny brainchild?

David,I think that Plato really believes in "the noble lie," especially regarding education. I think he believes that it is legitimate to pretend to one's students (and political subjects)--not just to flatter them but really to pretend that things are what they are not. I don't trust Plato and in the end I find him nihilistic. He leaves me feeling the way I'd feel if a trusted teacher turned out to be speaking things he didn't really believe in.The Physics ends in the unmoved mover, the N. Ethics ends in contemplation, and de Anima ends in active intellect. The "animal" works posit a trajectory of species in which a continuous line of actuality leads through the parts of the soul. It's all goal-oriented, straight up to a mysterious active actuality that we can't see, but can posit by extension.

Hello David and Kathy (and All),As a matter of fact, on occasion Plato is quite explicit about the alleged need to deceive members of the ideal polis. One example my students and I came across this semester occurs in the Republic, where Socrates claims that the guardians should award periodic sexual privileges to those in the polis regarded as sufficiently physically and mentally fit, but tell everyone the rights to have sex are awarded by lot. This mechanism is supposed to ensure that a high proportion of the children born into the polis are sufficiently fit without alienating the less fit adults who will not be granted permission to have sex.While Socrates does not say so, presumably those who consistently "lose" in the lottery are not smart enough to eventually recognize that they are being tricked.

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