The Beginning of Literary Wisdom

How does the habit of reading “grown-up” novels start? One might have parents with a love of literature that gets passed on to the next generation. Or one might have teachers who spark an interest in fiction. Or one might latch onto literature on one’s own. In most cases, the progression is children’s books to YA novels to more adult stuff.

I’m going to tell you how I became an avid reader of novels, and then ask how a bent for fiction came about for you.

My parents seldom read books — there were only a handful in the house, and they almost never visited the local library. So it was my own intrinsic love of reading, and some teacher influence, that led me to a love of literature. When very young, I not only enjoyed kid-oriented novels but short biographies of historical figures and baseball players. Many of those books were quite nice, albeit not totally riveting. It wasn’t until 10th and 11th grade that “grown-up” fiction became a revelation for me, and I owe it all to three novels.

During those two high school years, English teachers assigned Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, and Native Son. I first read those novels because they were required, and then reread them on my own during holiday breaks and the summer — reveling in unforgettable characters, plots, and prose.

(Jane Eyre is pictured above in one of the many screen adaptations.)

Those terrific books were also painful — dealing with depressing subjects such as the effects on people of misogyny, racism, class differences, mental illness, fraught family relations, and more. The three novels helped me truly realize for the first time just how powerful stories and the written word could be, and that combining sad and inspirational subject matter could pack an emotional wallop.

Among the uplifting aspects of those often-downbeat novels were Jane Eyre’s independent streak during a highly patriarchal time, the Joad family’s stick-to-itiveness in the face of personal tragedy and social injustice in The Grapes of Wrath, and the possibility of interracial cooperation in a deeply bigoted United States that could be envisioned in the long conversations between criminal defendant Bigger Thomas and his lawyer Boris Max in Native Son.

I’m very appreciative of Charlotte Bronte’s, John Steinbeck’s, and Richard Wright’s work — and of the way that work helped create a hunger to read hundreds of other novelists during ensuing years and decades.

How did “grown-up” fiction become a major thing for you? Did any particular novels seal the deal?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about a judge’s shocking rent-control-reversal ruling — is here.

The Pleasures of Reading Novels from Long Ago

I don’t read as many old novels — pre-1900 ones — as I used to. Not that I still don’t love lots of long-ago books. A number of my very favorite novels are 19th-century ones: Jane Eyre, Crime and Punishment, Daniel Deronda, Moby-Dick, Germinal, Persuasion, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Woman in White, The Portrait of a Lady, The Last Man, etc., etc. But I’ve already read many old novels (though far from all) I’ve wanted to read, and no more old novels can be produced because it’s…um…no longer pre-1900. Whereas, from what I hear, new books are continually being published.

That said, I still like to read pre-1900 novels once in a while. It can be such a pleasure, partly because those books chronicle a significantly different time in terms of culture, societal norms, and so on — though human emotions were of course pretty similar. Plus the writing itself back then tended to be different than modern fiction writing: novels were often longer, often took their time letting the plot unfold, often had richer prose, and often were more descriptive. Heck, they had to be — it made sense to minutely describe places and vistas most readers of that time never visited and obviously couldn’t google in pre-airplane, pre-digital days. On the negative side, sometimes the prose got TOO wordy and convoluted, and pre-1900 was sadly a more patriarchal, more racist time — though things today are hardly hunky-dory.

Anyway, this is a long way of arriving at the fact that I’m currently reading and enjoying a 1869 novel: Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore. The sprawling tale by an author with a sprawling name is by no means my favorite 19th-century work of fiction, but it’s pretty darn good as it tells the story of young John Ridd’s love for Lorna — an exemplary person living amid the Doone clan of mostly criminal types who had killed John’s father. Plenty of political machinations and other stuff also go on in the book, which is set in the latter 1600s but is recounted many years later by an elderly Ridd. (He and Lorna are pictured atop this blog post in one of the screen adaptations of Blackmore’s novel, which of course also inspired the name of a cookie introduced in 1912.)

John is a bit unusual as a narrator. Not especially smart, which he often humbly admits as he recounts his life in the novel, but possessing plenty of common sense and courage and decency. Plus his descriptions of nature — John works on and oversees his family’s farm in England — are exquisite and partly explain the book’s typical-of-the-19th-century length: 646 pages of small type. I have a couple-hundred pages to go.

Blackmore died exactly in 1900 — my arbitrary dividing line between older and newer novels.

Are you someone who likes to occasionally read pre-1900 novels? Why or why not?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which includes more on my school district’s unfortunate lawsuit against the local teachers union — is here.

The Solace of Crime Fiction

As I followed the Trump impeachment trial this past week, I felt fury. Fury at the way Trump incited a far-right white mob (shown above) to storm the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, fury at Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen from him, and fury that the U.S. Senate did not convict him despite his undeniable guilt — caught on video and in tweets — because most Republican members of that “august” body are gutlessly terrified of, or want to cater to, Trump’s base.

The trial also made me think that crime fiction is comforting in a way. I know that sounds strange given all the mayhem and pathologies in such novels, but at least the reader can count on seeing wrongdoers punished — either through the court system or vigilante justice. Not always, of course, but usually. A contrast to real life, where wealthy, powerful, Caucasian bad guys like Trump almost never get the punishment they deserve. So, the conclusions of most crime novels are wish-fulfillment that soothes our psyches a bit.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but we all know examples of novels that leave readers with a “crime didn’t ultimately pay” message — even if the punishment is sometimes rather delayed, as in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. (Both of which are not crime, thriller, mystery, or detective fiction per se, but other kinds of fiction can of course have some of those elements.) Heck, it would be hard to sustain a successful series of crime novels if there were little or no consequences for the wrongdoing characters. It would just be too depressing for readers who get enough of that when following real-life news.

Yes, the offenders almost always eventually get their comeuppance in novels by the likes of Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, Agatha Christie, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, John Grisham, Dashiell Hammett, P.D. James, Stieg Larsson, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lisa Scottoline, etc. — though often not before some good people get killed or badly hurt.

If you read crime fiction, do you find it somewhat comforting for the reason I mentioned?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which supports my town’s teachers in their reluctance to return to in-person instruction before being vaccinated — is here.

‘Boring’ Protagonists Don’t Have to Mean Boring Books

The past week was a rare seven days of being way too busy with various things to write my usual Sunday literature post. So, I’m re-publishing a piece I wrote nearly eight years ago, with some revisions. Here it is:

When a key character in a novel is passive and/or modest, that spells trouble for the book — right? Not necessarily.

A seemingly boring protagonist might have emotional and intellectual depth beyond what first meets a reader’s eye. And we frequently feel empathy for a shy character, who often has a good reason for being bashful. Even if a low-key protagonist doesn’t have much dimension, more charismatic characters can pick up the slack in a Seinfeld sort of way: Jerry wasn’t always interesting on that sitcom, but his eccentric buddies Elaine, George, and Kramer certainly were.

Among the novels starring an uncharismatic character is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. We understand why Fanny Price is timid — she’s a “poor cousin” treated in a subservient way after moving into the affluent home of her uncle and aunt. Fanny also has to bear the constant gibes of another aunt — the ultra-annoying Mrs. Norris, who later inspired the name of a cat in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. And Fanny (pictured above in 1999’s Mansfield Park film) is mostly devoid of the wit Austen gave many of her characters. But she is kind and ethical, and, as the novel goes on, we realize Fanny is also wiser and smarter than we might have initially thought. Indeed, at least one edition of Mansfield Park has back-cover copy saying Fanny “was Austen’s own favorite among her heroines.” Hard to believe, but…

Lena Grove of William Faulkner’s Light in August is a different story. She shows some gumption by traveling alone to find the man who got her pregnant, but she’s mostly clueless — thinking Lucas Burch will welcome her arrival when in fact the jerk fled because he wanted no part of fatherhood. Lena dully and placidly lets events unfold, and the guy (Byron Bunch) who falls in love with her is semi-comatose as well. Much of the novel’s excitement is provided by livelier characters such as Joe Christmas, a mill worker/bootlegger haunted by his probable African-American ancestry in a racist South and by his surreptitious affair with an eccentric older woman (Joanna Burden).

Another thing that makes Light in August, Mansfield Park, and other novels with uncharismatic major characters potentially compelling is when the authors (such as Faulkner and Austen) are stellar writers. As the cliche goes, they could make a grocery list sound interesting.

Then there’s Being There, which may be better known as a movie than novel. Chance the gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s book is a simple man who somehow gains the ill-deserved reputation as a sage of great wisdom. Chance may be boring, but the premise of the novel is not.

Another short novel, Billy Budd, features a title character who’s almost spookily passive — except for the one fateful instant when the goaded sailor lashes out. But the almost-biblical drama of the book, and Herman Melville’s superb writing, carry the reader along.

The much more recent Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver includes the indecisive Cub, who’s way too accommodating to his bossy parents despite being an adult. He’s married to the livelier, brainy Dellarobia, who wishes Cub would think for himself. Dellarobia’s frustration with her husband’s passivity is a key component of the book and its conclusion.

Then there are characters who, because of social norms, are passive in some situations but not in others. In The God of Small Things, the otherwise capable Mammachi docilely accepts physical abuse from her nasty husband Pappachi, but is later far from meek when going ballistic over her daughter Ammu’s involvement with the kind and admirable “Untouchable” Velutha. Meanwhile, Velutha has to act meekly among the people “above” him in India’s class structure, but is friendly and engaging with Ammu’s twin children Rahel and Estha, who love him in Arundhati Roy’s powerful novel.

Can you name some fictional works with protagonists or co-protagonists who are docile, shy, and/or boring?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about a whether-to-return-to-school-during-COVID debate that sparked an unfortunate lawsuit against my town’s teacher union — is here.