Pulp Fiction

Long ago, before Quentin Tarantino’s great film, before I was born in 1951, before television, there was pulp fiction.  It was called pulp fiction because of the grade of paper the stories were printed on was called pulp, and a whole entertainment industry was built around selling magazines with short stories and serialized novels wrapped in crude color reproductions of what is now called pulp art.

15-1 1-1

When I was young I often met older science fiction fans that collected these magazines, but surely, most of the kids of the generation before me, who grew up loving to read pulp fiction, must be very old, if still living, and the pulp fiction generation surely must be dying out.  Yet, over at Fantasy & Science Fiction they are running an article, “The New Nostalgia: The Classic Pulp Story Revival” by Dave Truesdale that chronicles how several small press publishers are keeping the pulp fiction tradition alive with quality hardbound reprints.  This article is well worth reading on many levels because it renews memories of a few old authors and their best stories and informs about the sub-culture of the small press publishing.

Pulp fiction has also been kept alive by the legacy of comic books and their impact on the movies with all the classic super heroes being reinvented every year, and reoccurring pulp action films like the Indiana Jones series or the remake of King Kong.  Comics are the direct descendants of pulp magazines that featured cruder art and stories for the younger readers on the same pulp paper.  Pulp fiction was never literary but a few fine writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler came out of the tradition.  Most of the prose was purple and all action, and aimed at the poorly educated, often featuring very politically incorrect attitudes about race, gender, ethnic groups, and foreigners.  Society and the well bred looked down on the lowly pulp fiction fan.

Evidently, old pulp fiction is finding new younger readers through the popularity of action movies, reprints and inherited nostalgia.  When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s much of the best pulp fiction, including mysteries, westerns, science fiction, adventure, spy, thrillers and other genres were reprinted as cheap paperbacks for 25 and 35 cents, but now the buy-in price are $40 deluxe volumes.

There was always a tremendous vitality to pulp fiction, which explained why titles included words like astounding, thrilling, amazing, wonder, adventure, fantastic, and that wink-wink keyword, spicy.  Science fiction really is a child of pulp fiction, and I think many readers hated the change that the New Wave brought to the genre during the 1960s, where emerging writers tried to force science fiction out of the gutter and into the classroom where the revolutionaries wanted it to wear literary robes.  Today science fiction is often represented in the minds of the public at large by Star Trek and Star Wars, but those stories owe a lot to two pulp fiction superstars:  E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edward Hamilton.

If you want to sample classic science fiction pulp stories, and not spend too much money, I recommend tracking down copies of two anthologies:  Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov and Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas.   These books collect some of the best SF short stories from 1931-1945.  You can find both at ABEBooks.com, but watch out, both fat original hardback anthologies were often reprinted as multi-volume paperback books, and it would be worth your while to use the advance search and specify hardback editions, thus saving you on total costs and postage.  These two books will give you a great education about the foundation of science fiction.

The URLs linked to these titles also give you table of contents for the stories which if you are really hoarding your gasoline dollars might find on the web for free.   Now, as you read the stories, consider these issues:

One, are they still fun to read?  Are they as fun as reading Harry Potter or any of your other current favorite writers?  Second, do the ideas seem stupid, in the light of modern knowledge?  Third, do you notice why I call them politically incorrect?  Fourth, can you tell the difference between pulp fiction writing and modern MFA writing (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), or even modern genre writing (Charlie Stross and John Scalzi)?  Fifth, are these stories worth preserving?  Sixth, are they worth your reading time over reading newer stories?

All fiction from 1900-1950 is thinning out fast in our collective memories, and few stories from that era get reprinted.  I’m not just talking about pulp fiction.  If you can, find a copy of Best American Short Stories from before 1950 and some original pulp magazines.  Most of the contents from either will never have seen print since the original publications.  The small presses that are reprinting classic pulp fiction stories, are really just rescuing one story in a thousand, maybe one in ten thousand.

Looking at the periods 1800-1850 and 1850-1900, only the rarest of stories are still read by modern readers.  Baby boomers can remember the famous books they read from 1950-2000, but how many of the following generations know about those best selling titles?  My guess is the pulp fiction nostalgia is for the boomers who can remember reading pulp fiction from its first generation of reprints.  I would imagine, out of all the genres only a handful of novels will become classics, like The Maltese Falcon, Tarzan of the Apes, Conan the Barbarian, and Riders of the Purple Sage.  But how many kids under 16 discover these tales?

I occasionally enjoy reading an old pulp story and appreciate these small press publishers bringing back old favorites by Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Robert E. Howard and Jack Williamson that I first discovered in used editions of Ace Doubles.  I think my identity is partly based on pulp fiction, and I feel I help keep these old friends alive by continuing to read them.  I know all of my generation and the stories we loved will soon pass on and be forgotten, but it’s pleasant to think a few of the stories will survive and future generations will enjoy them and wonder about their fans.

Jim

Old Books Versus New Books

I’ve been working on my website, ClassicBooklists.com, that attempts to identify the best all-time books through comparing recommendation lists and looking for consensus.  As a byproduct of this endeavor, I’m reading a lot about classic books.  The obvious question comes up:  Should I read the old highly-praised books or should I read what everyone else loves to read at the moment?  For example, the last two books I bought from Audible.com were The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the new Pulitzer Prize winner by Junot Díaz.  If I followed Harold Bloom’s advice, the sage of western lit, the choice is always between known quality writing and untested new stories, but then I’d miss out on one of the most exciting novels I’ve discovered in years.  There could be dozens of canon-worthy writers getting published today but we won’t know that for decades, until the academics give us the signal to start reading.

Bestsellers

Most books are sold hot off the presses and people love to read the latest books on the bestseller lists.  Personally, I consider it great fun to read a book that I can discuss with other bookworms and this usually means keeping up with the new.  And I take gleeful pride in my rare discovery of a book before Entertainment Weekly puts it on their The Must List.  There is certain pleasure in keeping up with pop culture, and I think people naturally prefer the new in things.  And that’s okay.  Besides, sometimes a movie or Oprah will make an old book a bestseller again, and throw the past a bone.

If you track such things, most books disappear as they age.  Their best shot at finding readers are when they are new.  Classic books are like bestsellers of time, but few actually make the hit parade compared to all the titles that slip off into oblivion.  Classic titles come and go out of fashion and damn few stay permanently in print.  By reading an old book you help keep it on the All Time Bestseller List.

Academics

Without the demands of an English teacher, would anybody read the classics?  Would anyone be reading James Joyce, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, and other literary oldies if it wasn’t because they were forced-fed them in high school and college?  Jane Austen and William Shakespeare have major fan clubs that keep their stories popular with the public, but how many people discover Milton or Dante on their own?

And why do books get so much academic support over music, dance, paintings and other art forms from history?  We’re made to read old books in school but old music and paintings don’t get equal blackboard time.  Sure, we force years of English classes on our kids so they will master language, writing and communication for practical reasons, and maybe the English teachers just sneak in as many of their old favorite inspirations as possible, like promoting Catcher in the Rye.  How active would university English departments be if they didn’t have technical writing, creative writing, ESL majors, and the basic freshman courses?

Can you imagine what our culture would be like if our schools only taught job skills?  Okay, film majors and aspiring writers taking creative writing courses would study old books a bit because it’s practical to recycle the classics occasionally.  Brad Pitt was a great action hero in Troy, and Reese Witherspoon showed off a range of acting talent in Vanity Fair, but they did much better job-wise with Oceans Eleven and Legally Blonde.  And when Will Smith got people to watch I, Robot, they didn’t bother to film the actual classic SF stories.

The Movies

And speaking of the movies, how many people read old books because they saw the film first?   I know films have gotten me to read several library shelves of books.  I have no proof, but I would bet that Hollywood has gotten more kids to read classic books than English teachers.  How many people would go out and read James Joyce if HBO converted A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses into several seasons of television with the production quality of The Sopranos?

Movies may be the best salesmen for books, both new and old than any other form of literary promotion, except television.  Little Women and Pride and Prejudice get remade almost once a decade.  Movies brings the classic words to the screen along with visuals that help us see the classics, and that’s a big sell.

The question is:  Do seeing the classics on the big screen equal reading the classics on the little page?  You know how I vote, but am I right?      

Superstar Writers

Many people buy new books by their favorite writers, and some writers become superstars of the reading world.  Again, I’m not against this because I want my favorite writers to get rich and keep typing out books I love to read.  How many millions of us are now anxiously awaiting J. K. Rowing’s first non-Harry Potter novel?  And if you haunt bookstores you know there’s always hordes of new writers to discover.  But here’s the problem, why waste time taking a chance on a possibly bad book when there are so many Perfect-10 tomes waiting to be read? 

Time and waiting helps.  If you wait until the end of the year then reviewers will make their best-of lists and if you compare enough lists, the year’s best books will be revealed.  If you wait longer, you can catch The Best Books of the Last 25 Years lists, or The Best Books of the Century.  But who wants to wait.  Most people buy books by following their favorite authors or trying books written by superstar writers that catches the public’s attention..

Harold Bloom came down almighty hard on J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, where he claimed thirty-five million book buyers can be wrong about Harry Potter, and that giving Stephen King a National Book Award tarnishes all the rightful past winners.  I’ve read the Harry Potter books twice, and will probably reread them again in the future.  I’d hate to have missed out on them.  From the long list of Bloom’s Western Canon I hope I can pass on a few classics to have time to enjoy Harry Potter.  Of course, the fact is I don’t always know what I’m missing.  What if there are old and forgotten books far more exciting than the Harry Potter novels?

The Great Books

I keep throwing out the name Harold Bloom, but that’s only because he’s the point man for the philosophy that believes knowledge of the great books equals quality education.  He calls his best-of-list, The Western Canon. That idea has been around a long time, and was especially promoted by Mortimer J. Adler, one of the editors of The Great Books of the Western World put out by the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Their theory is simple – knowledge of the great books equals an Ivy league education, and one publisher even produced The Harvard Classics to promote the idea.

There was a serious backlash to this idea because these canonical books were mostly written by old white men.  And many people didn’t cotton to this reading list because the books were old and musty – and just not much fun to read.  But is reading old books like eating spinach and broccoli, and reading J. K. Rowling like eating Ben and Jerry’s?  If you want your mind to grow up strong and fit, should you put so many old titles into your reading diet?

Are the seven plays by Sophocles really that much more deserving of my reading time than the seven Harry Potter books?  Bloom thinks our culture is going down the drain, and if you’ve ever seen the Jay Leno skit, Jaywalking, you’ll probably agree.  If people actually tried to study Bloom’s Western Canon they’d have little time for any other kind of reading, and publishers should just as well stop cranking out new books.  But what if Bloom is right?  Would America be better educated if CBS, NBC and ABC only showed Shakespearean plays and other dramas from the Western Canon?

Hell, I don’t know, but it’s an interesting idea, but that’s all it will ever be, just an idea, because our culture will never exchange pop culture for classic culture.  Maybe it shouldn’t even be an either or thing.  If all you ever read is fantasy and science fiction, you’ll never know much about contemporary culture, or history.  But if all you read is the Greek and Roman classics, then you’ll still be ignorant of contemporary culture and speculation about the future and the creative universe of fantasy ideas.  Also, there might even be value in reading bad writing.  How can you understand the American West without knowing about the dime novel?

The obvious answer is to be well-rounded in your reading, and read from all time periods.  But do the hard core classics of The Great Books get equal time with the latest Charlie Stross novel or the latest YA fad like the Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series?  And what if you flat out hate the classics?  Should you be forced to read them like taking bad tasting medicine, telling yourself that it’s good for you cultural health?  Recently I tried reading The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, a title on Bloom’s list, but I found it unbearable.  And how many people really want to read Socrates, Plato and Aristotle for fun?

My reply requires an analogy, and one many people might not even be familiar with, but I will try anyway because I think it’s very apt.  Throughout the twentieth century we have found places in the world where tribes of primitive people still live.  It happened just recently in the Amazon.  Anthropologists do not like it when we pollute their pristine lost cultures with modern ideas because it usually shatters these lost tribe’s psyches.  The green jungle folk who have hidden out from civilization know so little of history and science compared to us modern folk who live in concrete jungles.  But do we really know that much more? 

But this is a perfect analogy to cultural literacy because the half-ass educated of our population have primitive minds compared to those who are well educated.  And it is no less mind-shattering to the tiny world view souls living in the big modern society to be hammered by mind-blowing ideas of a bigger universe.  Why do you think fundamentalists of any religion act the way they do? 

No one living in America believes they are ignorant and backward, because how can that be when we’ve got five hundred TV channels and the Internet stuffing our minds?  As long as you just read pop genres like science fiction and mysteries, your knowledge of the larger world of literature is no bigger than believers in cargo cults.  Most science fiction readers and computer geeks like to think they are Slans, but what if that’s the blue pill path, and the Western Canon is the red pill?  A twisty bit of weirdness for sure.

Remember those aborigines?  Just because we read books doesn’t mean our brothers and sisters living in nature have empty minds – yes, they would have a hard time surviving in our cities, but we’d have a hard time surviving in their habitats.  Reading in the Western Canon doesn’t make you a superior person.  Classics do not provide superior forms of fun and entertainment.  They aren’t even the best way to study history.  All they provide is a multiplex view so whether you’re a cool cat from Manhattan who hangs at the trendiest drinking holes, or a nature man living in the Amazon knowing all the best watering holes to hunt dinner, you’ll have a sense of perspective.

Artistic Knowledge 

Knowledge comes in all flavors.  There’s scientific knowledge, which tests reality systematically, and historical knowledge that evolves over time, and engineering knowledge that comes from necessity.  Artistic knowledge is one person’s inner view of how things work in reality.  All the old books are really is a series of people over time giving their opinions.  It becomes a collective view of reality.  Artistic knowledge isn’t like scientific knowledge – and one of the many weaknesses of the Western Canon is it doesn’t include paintings, dance, sculpture, fashion, music, and other crafts and cultural artifacts of the times.  And more than that, it doesn’t collect the knowledge from cultures outside of the Western world.

Reading Skill

Reading the old books isn’t easy.  Many are boring to the modern mind, and some are almost impossible to read.  You can’t just jump into Paradise Lost and get hooked on the story like you can with the TV show Lost.  It can be hard to identify with what’s going on in an old book.  I’m sure, to some kids reading To Kill A Mockingbird it’s too far a jump into the past to grok.  I love the book King Dork because the protagonist makes fun of all his teachers who believe the secrets of adolescence are in The Catcher in the Rye and try to force it on their students.  It’s like Dorothy Parker’s classic definition of horticulture, “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.” 

Hell, I know plenty of kids from the youngest two generations that can’t watch a black and white movie, and it’s no wonder they can’t answer Jay Leno’s basic cultural history questions.  More than once I’ve heard a young person say they love old movies, and I’ll ask them to name a few, and they will throw out titles like Caddyshack (1980) and Back to the Future (1985) with great nostalgia.  Is it any wonder they can’t fathom Grand Hotel (1932) much less The General (1927).  Reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen is probably like trying to read a book in a foreign language to these kids.

The Cultural Time Barrier 

Could it be, for some readers, maybe even most readers, just enjoying books from their own time is a good enough form of literacy?  To many parents, just getting their kids to read anything is a triumph.  Our own times are rich and diverse.  We know so much more about the universe now than people did fifty years ago, much less five hundred or five thousand years ago.  It is rather interesting that so many people can enjoy The Bible, a collection of stories that span centuries of pre-history but they won’t try to make up the gap between the first century and the twenty-first.

History is a boring subject for most people, and if you can’t enjoy a Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn screwball comedy from the 1930s, it’s doubtful you’ll see the humor in The Pickwick Papers from the 1830s.  Maybe there’s a cultural time barrier like the old sound barrier and it takes a certain speed to break on through.  Why do so many young women today love Jane Austen when so many others don’t?

There’s always the theory that trying to force feed the classics on children when they are in school destroys any chance of those kids ever enjoying reading a book.  But has the Harry Potter fad ever proven to create a new generation of bookworms?  There are those who believe that books are a dead art form, and movies are the new art crown of creation for the masses.  Or maybe the bookworm gene only shows up in a small percentage of the population anyway.

None of this answers the question:  Should we read old books.  And should we believe Harold Bloom when he says certain books are far superior to modern reading fare and we shouldn’t waste our time on crappy writing?  Except for the first Harry Potter book, I couldn’t find any comments from Bloom on the later entries.  I thought J. K. Rowling’s writing improved with each new book.  I also have to ask if Bloom’s dislike of Harry Potter reflects a failure on his part to come forward in time and enjoy the current pop culture.

I could believe that Harold Bloom is right and that J. K. Rowling is a bad writer, except that there are books on the Western Canon list that I consider bad writing for one reason or another.  I thought The Crying of Lot 49 was particularly weak on characterization, plot and emotional conflict.  Bloom’s main nail to hammer regarding Rowling was her use of cliché phrases, but there are plenty of books on his list that would be guilty of that fault too.  Bloom likes to focus on word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph writing quality, but I think he forgets that storytelling always trumps writing ability.  I’d even say characterization trumps writing ability.  Shakespeare turned some catchy phrases but that wasn’t his skill that kept people coming to see his plays all these years.

Really great stories are timeless, just look how often ancient tales are recycled for modern movies.  The classic science fiction novel Dune is set in the far future, but the characters feel like people Homer knew, and I don’t mean that cartoon Homer.  The reason why so many young women love Jane Austen is because she tapped into the psychology of women at a level unaffected by time.  The reason why Charles Dickens can even make atheists feel teary-eyed over Christmas is because he could play his readers’ emotions like a Geek playing Halo.  Ditto for J. K. Rowling and Stephen King.  I think that’s a skill that Bloom doesn’t credit enough in his tally of writing talents.

And this may hint at why most people can’t read outside of their time.  The writing reflected in the works of the Western Canon represent great feats of intellect, but they communicate little emotionally to the modern reader.  To enjoy reading older books requires emotionally resonating with people from the past, and that’s not easy.

Escapism

If your goal in picking up a book is to escape the worries of daily life, then it doesn’t matter when the book you select comes from.  If you have a lineup of favorite mystery writers that consistently keeps your mind off things then why try anything new?  For pure entertainment, contemporary writers can’t be beat.  I feel the best new writers have distilled the writing techniques from the past and have truly honed the art of storytelling to baroque levels of diversion.  Many of these writers are using all of history for their storytelling canvas.  Some even have the writing chops that would impress Harold Bloom.  Both in creative writing and creative non-fiction, some of the best writers are surfing the breaking waves of literature.  There is always more great contemporary writing, both literary and genre, than any bookworm yet born can handle.

I bet you didn’t think I’d say that?  I’m trying to be real and honest here while promoting the reading of old books.  I’d go so far as to say if you’re only going to read a few books, try and read the best contemporary books first, even if they’re just escapist nonsense as long as they get you to read for fun.  It’s my theory that learning to read for fun is more important than reading for an education.  If you get hooked on books it will be like other drugs, eventually you’ll crave the harder stuff.

Scholarship

Most people do not want to be English professors and turn their fun hobby into ghoulish book autopsies.  However, many readers often enjoy becoming amateur scholars on pet subjects.  If you’re a fan of mysteries you might eventually want to learn how they evolved starting with Edgar Allan Poe.  I have had a lot of fun learning about the Classics of Science Fiction.  If you enjoy Masterpiece Theater on PBS, it’s easy to take up the study of the English novel.  If you like to argue then studying the Greeks and rhetoric will help you win more verbal battles with your friends.  You have to have zero curiosity about life not to wonder how various ideas and practices got started.

Take the current oil crisis.  Our society is shifting from cheap energy to expensive energy, and hopefully renewable energy, but it’s a stressful time, and we may have to experience a terrible economic downturn.  Surely, there must be other times in history where people had to endure quick economic and social change – so how did their society handle it?   Try reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Or read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser for a story about someone trying to shift from simple rural life to living a new life in the big city.

The thing about studying the past, even for fun, is that it teaches a lot about living in the present.  Read the Old Testament, it was never about religion, that’s a later interpretation, but about nation building and the psychology of creating an organized society.  The history of books is about mankind striving to get somewhere, and that somewhere is now.

Jim  

History versus Historical Fiction

I just finished listening to a new novel by Emma Bull called Territory.  It’s a historical fantasy novel that takes place in Tombstone, Arizona during the legendary year of 1881.  Now I have read many non-fiction books about Wyatt Earp, read many fictional accounts, and I have seen most of the major film stories about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. corral.   Territory was entertaining enough that I wanted to stay plugged into my iPod every free moment last week.  Part of this is due to my love of the Tombstone myth, and part due to a good story with good characters.  The narrators were excellent.

Emma Bull seems to know most of the essential facts and speculation about the famous event, and she invents new theories about the how and why of the known facts, especially about the stagecoach holdup on March 15, 1881.  What she does different is add fantasy elements to the story, and I don’t mean she makes up false accusations, but adds fantasy, as in magic, to the storyline.  I love fictional accounts of real people, and I love a good fantasy story that uses famous people for characters, like Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld stories, which featured Mark Twain (Sam Clemens) and Sir Richard Burton.  In Riverworld there was no attempt to recreate an actual historical event, whereas Territory does build a plot around “true” events, so in that regards it attempts to be realistic.

Emma Bull stays on the periphery of the most famous characters, dealing more with the Earp wives and Big Nose Kate, than with the Wyatt Earp & brothers, except for Doc Holliday, who is one of three point-of-view characters.  The other two are fictional POV characters, Jesse Fox and Mrs. Mildred Benjamin.  I think this was a good choice – too many of the Tombstone stories follow the Earps, and seeing history from the sidelines is a good vantage point.

Now I don’t know about the magic element.  I suppose if you’re a fantasy writer you always feel compelled to throw fantasy elements into your writing recipe, but this story could stand strong and tall without magic.  In fact, I think with more history and less fantasy it would have been a better novel of any type.  Obviously, Ms. Bull mined Tombstone’s history for rich historical ore and found plenty to refine.  Her addition of magic creates a non-historical plot thread but that hole in history is also later plugged by the same magic.

There are two types of historical novels – the authentic and the romantic.  Now the romantic historical novel can be very realistic to its time, but it’s ultimate goal is to tell a fun story, often with made-up characters.  Of course, the authentic historical novel seeks to recreate everything as realistic as possible, matching all known facts, and often focuses on real people from the past.  Both are fantasies in essence, because non-fiction history is a kind of fantasy too.  Even our own personal memories are fantasies.  I think when science fiction readers got tired of space opera, many genre writers turned to fantasy, and in recent times, turned to blending historical fiction with science fiction and fantasy.  Readers and movie fans often love a good costume drama, so I think this type of story is growing in popularity.

Territory is a lightweight romantic historical fantasy that entertains with quite a few good facts.  Readers unfamiliar with the Tombstone myths of 1881 can still follow the story, but I’m not sure if they can really enjoy it like it should be read.   Tombstone of 1881 was about law and order, Republicans versus Democrats, American West mythology, guns versus gun control, survival of the fittest, greed, revenge, murder, love, redemption, and every element of a great story.  Shakespeare would have loved the material, and could have written a play more complex than Hamlet with the famous ambiguous characters of Tombstone.  That’s why the story gets filmed so much and used for background for novels.

The most interesting speculation Emma Bull conjures regards the stage holdup and its motivation on Wyatt Earp for later events.  Most of the glamorous stories about Wyatt Earp make him into a frontier hero, but if you dig deep you know that he was involved on both sides of the law.  I wished that Emma Bull had jettisoned the fantasy elements to make more room for the story to be an authentic historical novel because she showed a lot of talent for that, and I also wish she had even added fifty-percent more to her word count.  I think having Mildred Benjamin be a typesetter and cub reporter was enough of a fantasy element for this story.  Her current approach to this classic western is what I would call Deadwood PG.

Overall, I enjoyed this story, but ended up wanting more.  Of course, the additional words I want might bore the average reader, because I’d like to see a lot more history and facts painted into the story.  Really great authentic historical fiction makes the reader feel like they are walking through the past.  Every significant detail adds to the beauty of the work, and you feel like you are learning from first-hand experience.  What really sets off the feeling of reality is the voice of the characters and narrator.  Ms. Bull throws in quite a few archaic words and phrases from the time, but her characters have the tainted feel of the modern mind.  It’s never obvious, but I kept asking myself would a person from 1881 think or say that.

Authentic voice is very hard to pull off.  One way to test modern historical fiction for voice is to compare it to works of fiction written from the time period, but to go even deeper, you have to compare the modern sound to letters and diaries of the time.  It’s not just the period vocabulary, but the popular phrases, topics of interests, the pop culture of the time, common philosophical opinions and so on.  Territory doesn’t go very deep in this regard.

Unfortunately, there is no Pride and Prejudice or Sister Carrie quality novel written by someone who lived during the time in the old west.  About the closest thing we have is Roughing It by Mark Twain, written about ten years earlier about his 1861-1867 trip out west seeking his fortune in a Nevada silver mining camp.  Of course, this might be like learning about contemporary France from the essays of David Sedaris.  Another source is Isabella Bird, who traveled through the Rocky Mountains in 1873 and wrote about her adventures in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.  

The true western novel didn’t evolved until well after the west was tamed, and in many ways western fiction is often more fantasy fiction than historical fiction.  If you really want to know about Tombstone you need to read non-fiction books like Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends by Allen Barra.  The trouble is, reading one book is like eating one chocolate chip cookie.  That’s the thing about history and historical fiction – you run the chance of getting bit by the what-really-happened bug.   Emma Bull takes a particularly strange photo of Wyatt Earp that shows a sinister evil side.  If you read wide enough you’ll find Wyatt Earp detractors who will back this view, but is it the correct take?  You’ll have to read about six history books to get a decent idea.

Jim

Reading Beyond Science Fiction

Years ago I wrote an essay about what where the classic books of science fiction.  I later made it into an web site called The Classics of Science Fiction.  I always meant to use the same techniques to build a web site that reveals the all-time classic books of general literature, and not just limit the search to one genre.  I finally got that site started at Classic Booklists.  It’s just a baby step, because my friends and I hope to do a lot more with the idea.

Until I was fifty, I mostly read science fiction books.  Sure, I sampled far and wide, but I stuck to the tried and true genre I grew up with, always looking for my new sense-of-wonder fix.  Then I discovered audio books at Audible.com and my reading habits completely changed.  Back then, there just wasn’t that much science fiction offered on audio, and so I had to be open to new kinds of books.  I started listening to classic English novels, best sellers, modern American literary works, works of history, biography, science and philosophy, anything that was promoted as a great book.  I quickly discovered sense-of-wonder doesn’t have to be about rocketships. 

Listening to The Bible, and The Bible is the bedrock of all classic books, is hearing the voices of primitive people, the voices of men and women at the dawn of history.  The Bible is a gateway to the mind of man before there were concepts like science, history, mathematics, astronomy and so on.  Sure, there’s the whole religious angle, but that’s the least interesting take.  Just listen to the stories and always remember to ask:  Who is telling this story and why?  You will experience The Bible as a series of evolutionary stories that do far more to explain our physical world than the metaphysical.  It was all about national politics. The Old Testament is very much like the Koran, in that it explains the psychology of radical fundamentalism, which isn’t about heaven or hell, but here and now.

When you read classic books always follow the motivation.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, there’s always a mind at work.  No matter how engrossing a story is, step back and look for the narrator’s slight-of-hand.  There are two narrators to watch for tricks, the one within the words telling story, and the unseen other, the actual writer of the words – and trust neither.  For example, within The Bible, who is telling the story about Moses and Aaron?  The Bible is often referred to as the word of God, but God doesn’t narrate this story.  Did Moses have a PR man cranking out press releases?  Did a BC Billy Graham tell stories about Moses in sermons?  Did the early chamber of commerce for Israel hammer out their tale for national unity?  

Reading Jane Austen will only take you back two hundred years, but she will teach you about the mind of women from any time.  Again, what is Miss Austen’s motivation?  Is Pride and Prejudice a timeless handbook for romance or for gold digging?  Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald tells us about the origins of the 20th century American mind at the ground level.  Every French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese novel opens up a mental beachhead into new culture.  This is all mind bending, and as mind bending as science fiction feels when you discover it at thirteen.  

Each classic is like time traveling to a place and time – for instance Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie takes you to Chicago of the eighteen nineties and shows you a world as far out as any science fictional world.  Compare it to Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany and you will see what I mean.  They are both about rubes from the country, or in the SF case, a backward planet, struggling to survive in the big city.  

American history is really an extension of English history, and reading classic English novels is like working with an Freudian psychologist to explore our hive mind childhood.  When you read far and wide in literature and philosophy, you’ll realize that the history of humanity is like the evolution of one great being. 

We have to accept Isaac Newton when he said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” as not just true for scientists, but true for everyone.  How far you see across time and space depends on the pile of books from which you view reality.  Harry Potter novels might be the best of fun, but they won’t help you see very far.  On the other hand, they are great books because they aren’t about magic, but contemporary adolescence.

A classic book, a great book, a masterpiece of literature, will educate its readers about the past, and at the same time they reveal a timeless way of seeing the present.  A classic book begs to be read again and again, because each reading will reveal more secrets.  A classic novel will draw you into history and you will feel like your life is growing in two ways, one forward from your individual birth, and the second, a life that grows backwards, roaming further and further towards our cultural birth.  Reading books from the 1950s lets you grok the 1940s, that make sense of the 1930s – and after awhile it’s the 1790s, or the Italian Renaissance, or 400 BC.  Suddenly, all of history becomes your stomping grounds.

Reading classic books is like assembling a map of reality one jigsaw piece at a time.  In the early part of the 20th century people like Mortimer Adler came up with the educational philosophy of the Great Books, and colleges built liberal arts curriculums around The Great Books of the Western World.  This later evolved into Harold Bloom‘s idea of The Western Canon.  Of course, these lists of great books require a lifetime of study, more than most people ever want to pursue.

That’s when I got the idea of collecting many such booklists of recommended reading of classic books, hoping to find the essential volumes revealed through consensus.  I’m just starting with ClassicBooklists.com.  With the help of my friends Mike and Heather I hope to expand it in many revealing ways.  I’ve started reading books about books, such as, Leave Me Along, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan, 1000 Books To Change Your Life by TimeOut.com, The Book That Changed My Life edited by Roxanne J. Coady & Joy Johannessen, and the epic, 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall.

The more you read about books the more it’s obvious that no one person, or editors or scholars or poll of fans have an idea of what the perfect classic booklist should be.  The Classics of Science Fiction is built from 28 lists, and the resultant list is from any book that shares recommendations from 7 or more lists.  Those 193 books represent quite a consensus.  So far I have 12 lists for the Classic Booklist site.  It will take time to build it up.  I plan to add The Classics of Science Fiction list to it next, so we can compare SF books to recommendations for general literature.

So stay tuned.

Jim

Rethinking the Kindle

Tonight I was reading on my Kindle and I decided I’m not completely happy with it.  I love reading on the Kindle, that is, seeing the large print, reading screen by screen with a press of a button, and having a narrow line width to scan with my eyes.  What I don’t like about the Kindle is the Home directory.  I also discovered I no longer like reading Time magazine on the Kindle, although this might not be completely the fault of the Kindle.

For my personal use and taste, I’ve decided I like the Kindle best for reading a single book at a time.  The Kindle is great for reading on a book you’re hooked on and you’re ready to sit and do some serious reading.  I can read screen after screen with little eyestrain.  The Kindle is a comfortable magnifying glass.  Whenever I used to try to reading normal books and hold a magnifier it was never comfortable.  For me the Kindle has become a tool to make reading easier on the eyes.

I don’t like managing books on the Kindle.  The computer makes for a much better librarian.  I wished the Home page only had unread books on it, and I could hide all my read books in another directory.  Really all I want is to turn on my Kindle and start reading where I left off, so I’m not even sure I wouldn’t be happy leaving my library of books on my computer or on Amazon.

The whole thing about carrying 2,000 books around in one little device isn’t as interesting in practice as it was in theory.  In other words, I like the Kindle as a book replacement, but not as a library replacement.  The Kindle’s software and hardware interfaces are clunky when it involves more than reading.  PREV PAGE and NEXT PAGE are perfect concepts for reading – all those other buttons, not so much.

I could handle a much simpler Kindle, but I don’t know if my tastes would make other Kindle users happy.  Amazon should sell two kinds of Kindles – a streamline reader with few buttons, no broadband connection, and have it managed from a computer, for about $100, and then the more expensive Kindle with all the bells and whistles for $399.  I would be happy with three buttons: an On/Off switch, and a Next and Previous page buttons, along with a USB port.  Yeah, and it would need some kind of home button with a trackpad or other cursor selector device – but ultimately I’d prefer a touch screen.  I wondering if something like the iPod player control would work with ebook navigation. 

I’d like this simple Kindle to be super hardened so I wouldn’t be afraid of taking it places, include the bathtub or beach.

My 4gb iPod Nano can hold many unabridged audio books but if I put more than a few on it then it becomes a pain to find things.  My iPod and Kindle just need room for 1-3 books – at least that’s how I feel.  I’m trying to simplify my life.  My iPod Nano is the perfect tool for listening to audio books.  The Kindle is still too swiss-army knifey to make me happy.

I love that the Kindle is Green and I can go paperless, but I’ve decided that general magazines aren’t suited for it.  My fiction magazines are okay, but modern magazines have too much content, with lots of little sidebars and snippets of facts mixed in with the articles.  That busy layout doesn’t translate well to a pure reading layout of the Kindle.

Jim

Ethan Frome

For my May monthly selection for the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge I decided to read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  This is my first reading experience with Wharton, and I was very impressed.  Ethan Frome was first published in 1911, but is set earlier, in a time before cars, when people lived very differently from how they do now.  I listened to an unabridged edition of this book from Recorded Books read by George Guidall, and as soon as I started listening I knew I was hearing very fine writing.

The reason I joined the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge was to seek out books I’d normally never read, and to discover views of life that would be surprising and novel, and I think Wharton succeeded well with those goals.  Ethan Frome is a very short novel that is often assigned to school kids to read, and I can understand why.  The writing is vivid, sharp and full of details that should stimulate a lot of discussion with young modern minds.  At one point Ethan talks about stars and constellations and regrets he wasn’t able to escape from small town life to become educated and pursue scientific ambitions.  We seldom hear 19th century characters talk about science.

Ambition versus reality is a common thread throughout the story, and I can’t help but think any reader of this novel not comparing their own life with Ethan and Mattie.  We all want more than we’re given, and Wharton creates a rather horrific analogy of being trapped by circumstances beyond our control.  The heavy ironic ending would fit naturally into a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.

Classic novels of the past are a vehicle of time travel for me, especially ones like Ethan Frome that are written with a significant accumulation of details.  I started listening to Ethan Frome just after listening to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein, a science fiction novel.  I was surprised by the stark contrast of details and lack of details.  Heinlein provided damn few details about his vision of the future, instead telling his story mostly in dialog.  Wharton told her story in a chronicle of observations, descriptions of moods and voice, and sparse dialog.  It would be fantastic if science fiction writers could make-up such realistic details about the future for their stories.

The Heinlein book was overtly about sexual relationships, but it was unrealistic.  The Wharton book dealt with sexual undercurrents at a time when writers couldn’t write directly about sex.  It was far more realistic.

Jim

* I was disturb by the number of out of print editions of Ethan Frome on the web that seemed to be no more than traps to get people to look at ads.  In the old Internet days there were a few sites for free books that would nicely format the texts for reading online.  These ad honeypots did not do that.  A lot of these sites were geared to school kids, knowing they had to research the book.  Some of these sites offered study guides, which is admirable, although the content on many were thin.  I’m hoping over time some of these study guide sites will emerge as true centers of study, and not just for school kids.  I think all of these book sites should try to format the text to make online reading easy, and offer links to common ebook formats for people who want to read on ebooks, PDAs, phones and laptops.  It would also be nice if they could integrate their ads into a layout that is more appealing to the eyes.  Fewer ads should get more attention, and if placed properly they shouldn’t detract from the content.  Most of the time the layout was so bad I immediately closed my browser tab.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

1percent

Over at 1% Well-Read Challenge they have set up a reading dare that I found very enticing.  It is built around the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which I ran out and bought and highly recommend to anyone who loves to read widely.  It’s richly illustrated and gives fascinating tidbits and short plot synopsis for 1001 books.  Oh sure, if you read the reviews on Amazon and other places on the net you’ll see a lot of grumbling that they didn’t include this book or that, but ignore such whining because overall, editor Peter Boxall included an amazing line-up of stories to get to know.  I’m now reading through this rather massive volume trying to select the perfect 10 books I’d like to read for the challenge.  The challenge is rather simple – read 1% – that is 10 books in 10 months.  You can see the list of titles here.

When I get the time, and I’m afraid I say this much too often and never find the time, I’m going to set up a web site for general books like I set up for science fiction.  My Classics of Science Fiction created a recommended reading list by finding 28 sources of recommendation, building a cross-tabulation database of all the titles and then deciding that any book that had been on 6 or more of the 28 sources would make my Classics of Science Fiction list.  I would use 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as one of the sources for a Classic Books to Read web site.

Since I started blogging I’ve discovered the concept of the reading challenge, which is a fun blogging activity.  Over at A Striped Armchair, Eva seems to be the queen of reading challenges, and you can find a lot of good information there.  I don’t have Eva’s ability to read so many books quickly, so I think I’ll start out slow and just stick to this one challenge for awhile, but if you’re a bookworm, I bet they’re addictive.  Although scanning down Eva’s right hand column makes me want to bite off a lot more than my eyes can chew reading-wise.

One reason this reading challenge is so enticing is because of the reading rut I’m in.  I read all the time, but I seem to be going through a period of less than stellar books.  I’m finding plenty to read, even very good books, but few books this year have really jazzed my mind.  The last was The Road by Cormac McCarthy back in January.  That’s the thing about being a jaded bookworm – reading is only as exciting as your last great book.  I want every novel to go nova in my brain.  And when I finish that explosion I hunger for a book that will go supernova.

Then I’m willing to back off and read some gentle books for awhile, maybe some nice informative non-fiction, or even a crappy guilty-pleasure novel, but eventually, the gnawing returns and I need another nova level fix.  That’s where I’m at right now.  I want something that will make every white blood cell tango in my veins and give me a reading fever.  As every bookworm knows, unless a book makes you willing to give up food, sleep and sex and contort you body for hours clutching a tome until it hurts, then it’s not much of a page turner.

Scan the list and let me know of any that have blown your mind.  I’m looking for 10 Supernova Books!

[The New York Times just reviewed 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as “Volumes to Go Before You Die” and it is an excellent supplement to the book.]

Jim