The Memory of Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 17, 2018

great-american-read-blog-pic-crop

PBS has been having The Great American Read this summer. I’ve read 44 of the 100 books on their current ballot. You can go vote for your favorite, or even vote for one book a day during the voting process. It’s an odd mixture of classics, bestsellers, and genre favorites. PBS is also airing 8 episodes about these books on Tuesday nights. You can stream past episodes here.

I will be interested in seeing which books get the most votes and the final winner, but I don’t really believe classic books can be identified this way. The process is fun, and their list reminded me of thirteen books I want to read, but I also believe such popularity polls reveal more fun books than soul resonating titles.

However, I’ve started my own list of important books – Favorite Novels. A permanent link is on my site menu to the right. I eventually plan to add Favorite Movies, Favorite Short Stories, Favorite Albums, Favorite Songs, and Favorite Television Series. This effort is aimed to exercise my brain, but it’s also psychologically rewarding making these lists.

I’m creating my favorite novel list – it’s an ongoing process – because I struggle to remember everything I’ve read over the last 60 years. I want to get a working list of novels that shaped and defined my reading life. From there I plan to narrow it down by rereading those books and deciding if they are as good as my memory remembers.

Many of the books on this list I’ve already read two or more times. I’ve discovered that I remember certain books with intense fondness but remember few details about what they were about. In the last third of life, I’ve been rereading many of the books I read in the first third of life. This list includes many books I vaguely remember that needs to be reread to confirm their worthiness. The current list stands at 171 books, with probably another twenty titles to recall. I have a couple dozen more classics I’ve always meant to read that I want to get to real soon. So, the list is still growing.

My process is very different from PBS. Instead of identifying 100 books and picking 1, I’m identifying 200 books and plan to narrow it down to 100. And I assume, even 100 is too many to master in my memory, but 1 is definitely too few. I want to find the exact number of books I can embrace, get to know deeply and feel they’re the fingerprint of my soul.

I’m learning a lot about myself with this process. My list mainly covers 200 years, although one book, Robinson Crusoe, jumps me back 300 years. That means I’m currently averaging about one good book per year for those 200 years. However, most of the novels I’ve read are American or British. I need to read more books from around the world. I need to read more diverse types of authors.

Working on this list is also convincing me not to bother reading forgettable books. Going over my “Books Read” list reveals I wasted a lot of time reading books that only killed time. I need to stop that. I wished I had stopped such wasteful reading decades ago.

My father used to yell at me, “Get your head out of that goddamn book and go outside and play.” I should have done more of that. But I now know reading is my reality.

Bookworms who love the PBS Great American Read should make up their own list of 100 favorite books. Don’t think about having one favorite. Think of books as your psychic genes.

JWH

How the Top Ten Classic Science Fiction Books Have Changed Over the Years

I’m fascinated by how books get remembered.  Most writers hope their books will be good enough to pass through a series of milestones:

  • Good enough to sell to a publisher
  • Good enough to get printed and widely distributed
  • Good enough to get positive reviews
  • Good enough to become best sellers
  • Good enough to be remembered on best of the year lists
  • Good enough to win awards
  • Good enough to stay in print
  • Good enough to get on fan polls of all time favorite books
  • Good enough to be recognized as a classic

dune

Most novels that are written are never published.  Of those published, only a tiny percent, sell enough to earn royalties over the author’s advance, or get reprinted.  And then even a smaller number to go on to become even moderately successful.  The odds of writing a best seller is like those of winning a million dollar lottery.  Writing a classic is like the odds of winning one of those hundred million dollar lotto games.  Millions of books get published ever year, but few are remembered.

Eventually, most all books will be forgotten.  How many 19th century novels can you list from memory in ten minutes?  Every book has a lifetime, and I find it fascinating to think about why a book is remembered, and then why it is forgotten.  And it’s particularly interesting to think about the history of science fiction stories and novels, because they present ideas about the future that all too often become dated.

I thought it would be enlightening to see if I can find a series of fan polls that asked readers to vote for their favorite SF books, and see how those popular books change over time.  To save myself a lot of typing, I’m just going to use the Top Ten books from each list.

For the first five lists I’m grateful to The SF Book of Lists by Maxim Jakubowski and Malcolm Edwards.  I wish someone would update this wonderful 1983 book.  I will use bullets when there are ties – but I will type them in the order listed.  Votes, if available with be in parenthesis.  Ties might bring the list to more than 10.

1949 – August Derleth polled twelve writers, editors and critics

  • Seven Famous Novels – H. G. Wells (9)
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (7)
  • Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon (7)
  • Adventures in Time and Space – Healy and McComas (6)
  • Slan – A. E. Van Vogt (6)
  • Short Stories of H. G. Wells – H. G. Wells (6)
  • Strange Ports of Call – August Derleth (5)
  • The World Below – S. Fowler Wright (5)
  • The Lost World – A. Conan Doyle (4)
  • To Walk the Night – William F. Sloane (4)
  • Sirius – Olaf Stapledon (4)
  • Gladiator – Philip Wylie (4)

1952 – Reader Survey Astounding Science Fiction

  1. Adventures in Space and Time – Healy and McComas editors
  2. Slan – A. E. Van Vogt
  3. Seven Famous Novels – H. G. Wells
  4. The Man Who Sold the Moon – Robert A. Heinlein
  5. Who Goes There? – John W. Campbell
  6. The Best of Science Fiction – Groff Conklin editor
  7. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
  8. The Green Hills of Earth – Robert A. Heinlein
  9. The Science Fiction Omnibus – Bleiler and Dikty editors
  10. The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury

Already we see a number of books and authors drop from the list.  Science fiction was seldom published in book form before the 1950s, and in the early 1950s, most science fiction, much of what we considered classics of the era were published by small specialty publishers.  It’s also interesting that by 1952 Heinlein and Bradbury have emerged as favorite writers.

1956 – Reader Survey Astounding Science Fiction

  • Adventures in Space and Time – Healy and McComas editors (51)
  • City – Clifford Simak (50)
  • The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury (48)
  • More than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (48)
  • Slan – A. E. Van Vogt (44)
  • The Man Who Sold the Moon – Robert A. Heinlein (40)
  • The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester (39)
  • Astounding Science Fiction Anthology – John W. Campbell editor (37)
  • Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (35)
  • 1984 – George Orwell (35)
  • The World of Null A – A. E. Van Vogt (35)

Some of the books from the 1952 list stayed on the 1956 list, but fell lower, like Who Goes There? and The Green Hills of Earth.  It’s interesting that Slan and Adventures in Time and Space are on all three lists.  So did Seven Famous Novels, but it fell out of the top ten.

1966 – Reader Survey Analog Science Fiction & Fact

  1. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (67.4%)
  2. Seven Famous Novels – H. G. Wells (59.4%)
  3. Slan – A. E. Van Vogt (50.5%)
  4. The Rest of the Robots – Isaac Asimov (45.7%)
  5. The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester (44.2%)
  6. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (42.2%)
  7. The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke (40.6%)
  8. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury (38.9%)
  9. City – Clifford Simak (38.6%)
  10. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. (38.1%)

Slan is hanging in there.  It’s hard to compare overlap because new books are coming out after each list.  So where’s Heinlein?  If he was the most popular writer of the times why isn’t he on the list.  He had five books lower down on this list.  Heinlein always competed with himself in these polls, so often his books didn’t make it to the top of the list.  This 1966 list was the first that covers times I remember, and I probably read it in the magazine when it came out.  These are the great books of my childhood.

1975 – Locus Poll – full list here

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert (104)
  2. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (97)
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin (90)
  4. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein (63)
  5. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. (57)
  6. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (53)
  7. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester (50)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein (41)
  9. More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (40)
  10. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny (35)

Already it’s possible to see how time affects the memory of books.  Newer books push out older books.  By 1975 Slan falls from memory after being so well remembered.  1976 also marks the first time a woman writer shows up, at all, not just for the top of the list.  1975 also represents an interesting switch.  Fans did pick The Demolished Man by Bester, but from now on they pick The Stars My Destination.

1987 – Locus Poll Best All-Time Novelfull list here

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
  3. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
  4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  5. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  6. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  7. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  8. Gateway – Frederik Pohl
  9. Ringworld – Larry Niven
  10. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester

It seems Dune is becoming the Citizen Kane of the science fiction book world.

1998 – Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time (before 1990)full list here

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
  4. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  5. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  6. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
  7. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  8. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
  9. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  10. Hyperion – Dan Simmons

Each list is now switching out a couple of new titles but is pretty much keeping the usual suspects.

2011 – NPR Top 100 Science Fiction/Fantasy Booksfull list here

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  • Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  • The Dune Chronicles – Frank Herbert
  • 1984 – George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  • The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  • Neuromancer – William Gibson
  • I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
  • Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

I filtered out the fantasy novels.  For example, The Lord of the Rings came in number one.  More than 5,000 books were nominated, and over 60,000 people voted.  This is a huge poll.  Many of the novels from the earlier lists are on it.  It’s a poll from outside of the genre, yet it remains consistent.

2012 – Locus All-Time Novel Resultssee full list

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert (256)
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (154)
  3. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (143)
  4. Hyperion – Dan Simmons (131)
  5. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin (120)
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (113)
  7. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (105)
  8. Neuromancer – William Gibson (100)
  9. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester (91)
  10. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (91)

2014 – Worlds Without End – Most Readsee full list

  1. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  2. Dune – Frank Herbert
  3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  4. Neuromancer – William Gibson
  5. The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
  6. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  7. Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  9. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  10. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Again, I filtered out the fantasy.  This was not a poll, but the books that were most read in the WWEnd database.  It’s interesting to see how commonly read books are consistent with books showing up on the fan polls.

2014 – Sci-Fi Lists Top 100 Sci-Fi Bookssee full list

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  3. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  5. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  6. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  7. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  8. Neuromancer – William Gibson
  9. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke
  10. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Sci-Fi Lists is an online poll that is constantly updated.  These two lists overlap almost perfectly, with 8 books on both lists, and they share 6 books with the 2012 poll, and 7 with the 2011 poll.  Also, all of these books are fairly old, at least 30 years.  It finally seems certain long term favorites are emerging.

What’s sad is only one woman writer appears on all these lists, and for the same book, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Read the wonderful blog Mistressworks, or Ian Sales compilation list to see what these fans are missing.  Now, some of these books by women are making the polls and lists, but lower down from the top ten.

If you look at cross tabulated lists like Worlds Without End and The Classics of Science Fiction, you’ll see more women on the complete lists, but it’s so disappointing not to see more.  I think if SF fans would read more books like those reviewed on the Mistressworks site this would change.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of all-time great science fiction book lists, but they are often compiled by one person, or a group of editors.  I’ve picked popular polls that had the goal of finding the best all-time favorite SF books, and not just current ones.  I’ve also ignored some British lists because they only confuse the issue at hand.

Even though we’re seeing a good deal of consistent favorites in recent years, I believe if we could jump ahead 25 years, many of those books will be forgotten.  Dune really is entrenched, and I think we’ll see it in 25 years.  But I don’t know about Stranger in a Strange Land, that’s from the same era as Dune.  I doubt Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? would be remembered at all if it wasn’t for Blade Runner.  One good movie adaptation and a book’s memory is boosted for decades.  I’ve recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four and it is a true masterpiece.

There are lots of sentimental favorites from my childhood that I wish would make a comeback, like City by Clifford Simak, and my all-time favorite science fiction novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein never makes these lists at all.  I guess some books die when all their fans die.

JWH – 5/1/14 – Table of Contents

How To Build The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0 List?

the classics of science fiction

About a quarter of a century ago I developed a concept to identify the classic books of science fiction.  The current version, the one I call 3.0, is here.  For a long time now I’ve wanted to update my site to a 4.0 version, but I’ve been put off by the amount of work involved, and intimidated by newer and fancier sites that attempted to do what I have done.  Worlds Without End is beautiful, also covers fantasy and horror, and allows users to track their reading.  SFFMeta took a completely different approach to the problem of finding great SF books to read, and I love different approaches, but their site appears not to have been updated for a year.  Top Science Fiction takes a poll approach, so it reflects change over time.  GoodReads has several lists that help identify popular science fiction by themes.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the gross old saying goes.  There’s two issues here.  Finding great books to read, and identify books as potential classics of the genre.

If I’m going to take the trouble to create The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0, then I want to produce a much better product.  I need to update my old system and offer new features.  This will be tricky, because essentially I’m just making another list of books.  I have no desire to get into building a fancy web site.  I want to update my list and make it better indicator of classic science fiction, that’s all.  But, better how?

Back in the 1980s I wrote what I now call, The Classics of Science Fiction 1.0, as an article for the fanzine, Lan’s Lantern, and it’s interesting how it came about.  My friend Mike asked me what were the best science fiction books to read knowing I had been a life-long science fiction bookworm.  I told him I could tell him the ones I loved, but I doubted that one person’s opinion counted for much because tastes vary so greatly.  We then began an ongoing discussion about how books are judged to be classics, and how to systematically identify them.  Over the years, this has remained a fascinating subject for me.

I have lived long enough to see books that were once very popular, and ones I loved, disappear from the pop culture consciousness.  My favorite writer growing up in the 1960s was Robert A. Heinlein.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the big three of science fiction writers were Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  I doubt many young science fiction readers today would pick any of them as their favorite writer, and older readers like me are dying off, so the fan base for Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov is shrinking.  Will any of their books survive the test of time and be deemed classics?  I’ve already written about Heinlein’s declining status.

Of course, young people today are discovering books that came out in the 1990s and 2000s that they think will be the classics of the future.  Just because we love a book doesn’t mean it’s destined to be remembered.  The qualities of a contemporary page turner are obviously different from a timeless classic, although some of the qualities are shared by both.

Thus the term “classic novel” is quite slippery.  Many people feel when they read a book they absolutely adore that it must become a classic.  When I was young.  Books by E. E. “Doc” Smith were considered classic science fiction, but his work is almost unreadable today.  In the literary world at large, a classic novel is one that endures, is often taught in school, quite often is filmed or serialized on TV, like Masterpiece Theater, and has achieved a reputation of being great.  Think Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina.

Another quality of a classic is they tend to define an era – for example, The Great Gatsby defines America in the 1920s.  Because science fiction is usually about the future, it misses out on this specific quality, but classic science fiction novels do evoke a sense of time of when they were written.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune are science fiction novels that represents the 1960s science fiction.

No one person has thoroughly read everything making it hard to accept any individual as an authority on classic novels.  Popular culture changes over time, so no novel ever becomes a permanent classic.  The classic novel is a moving target, which is why I want to create The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0.   My system is based on The Wisdom of Crowds.  I collect fan polls, recommendation lists by book critics and academics, and other means for identifying popular books.  I call each a citation list.  I ignore, and the system inherently ignores, any recent book.  I compile all the citation lists into a database and create a cutoff of a minimum number of citations.  From this I create a resultant final list that I call The Classics of Science Fiction that contains all the books that got the minimum number  of citations or more.

For the Lan’s Lantern article, which I consider The Classics of Science Fiction version 1.0, I used 8 lists, with a cutoff of 3, producing 69 titles on the final list.  I no longer have a copy of that list.

When the web came out I created The Classics of Science Fiction 2.0, and it was based on 13 citation lists, with a cutoff of 3. and it produced 169 titles.  An old copy is here.

Version 3.0, which is live on the web now, and has been around for many years, has 193 titles, using 28 citation lists, and a cutoff of 7 citations.  The newest books it recognizes is from 1992.

What I’d like to do is rebuild the database with more citation lists, and hopefully identify books that came out through 2004.  I still want to use a 10 year DMZ so as not to let a wildly popular new book get on the list.  Often avid readers, especially young ones, think the book they are reading at the moment is the best book they’ve ever read.  I think we need time to identify classics.  Even 2008’s The Hunger Games is an obvious choice to many, but will it be in the future?  A few years ago His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman was being touted as second only to The Harry Potter books as a great contemporary fantasy series, but is it today?  All too often we are thrilled by new and novel stories only to quickly forget them.

What I need now is to assemble a large group of citation lists.  I used, with the help of Anthony Bernardo, 28 lists for the 3.0 list.  I think for 4.0, I need at least 40 citations, and the cutoff needs to be raised to 10.  Just think, any book that is on 10 or more fan polls, academic and critic lists, awards list, and other forms of recognition is at least well remembered and well regarded.  It doesn’t mean the book is an actual classic, but my system produces a list that’s not based on my opinion.

I use fan polls to get the idea what readers remember.  I use recommended reading lists from writers, critics and academics to balance the judgment of the readers.  I use a combine list of award winners to acknowledge another kind of recognition.  If a book was made into a movie or television series, I considered it another form of validation.  I’ve considered making citation lists based on being in print, having an audio edition, or having many print editions.  I wished I had the tools to see how many languages a book has been translated into as another indicator.  I could make a citation for any book that’s in the database that has a print, ebook and audio book currently for sale.

First, I need to find as many critic/academic lists as I can, and as many large fan polls as I can.  For example, last time I used Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels 1949-1984 by David Pringle as one citation.  You can see a list of his picks here.  Luckily, Damien Broderick & Paul Di Filippo wrote a book updating Pringle’s book called, Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010.  You can see their list here.  That will give me one extra citation.  In the subsequent years, many large fan polls have been created, so that will add the citation number.

I’ve been revving up my noggin all day trying to think of new ways to identify a science fiction book as a potential classic.  I’ve thought of two so far.  One is to make a list of all science fiction books that were on polls/lists of all time great books that didn’t focus on science fiction.  The world outside the genre seldom thinks of science fiction, but when it does, it’s notable.  The second idea is to search the web for syllabi for books taught in high schools and colleges and see which science fiction books stand out, if any.  I have an English teacher friend who likes to teach Ender’s Game.

Another idea is to use sets like American Science Fiction:  Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s as endorsed and published by The Library of America.  I compared their list to my list and it was quite different.

I am open to ideas about how to create new kinds of citation lists, so let me know if you have a good idea.

When I look at my current list, I see many books with 7, 8 or 9 citations, and they might not make it to the new list if it requires 10 citations if they aren’t on newer citation lists.  This happened when compiling earlier lists.  I’ve always considered 193 books to be too many to actually identify the real classics.  Many on my list were historical classics that only critics loved and were never on any fan poll.  I should also point out that 116 books made it to the 3.0 list with 10 citations, so they would automatically be guaranteed a spot on the new list if 10 was the cutoff.  I might need to make the cutoff 12 if the list gets to long.

Harry Harrison had two books on the 3.0 list, each with 7 citations each, the minimum required.  Will Deathworld or Make Room! Make Room! carry forward?  What about Nova by Samuel R. Delany?  We just read Nova at the Classic Science Fiction Book Club, with mixed results.  It only had 7 citations.  I loved that book when I read it in the 1960s, but I’m not sure if it’s a classic in the 2010s.  Will 3-5 more citations show up to support it?  But if I was to make a list of the best SF of the 1960s, Nova seems like one of the defining books of the era.  But here are the 1960s SF books I considered essential on my review of 1960s SF – is Nova up to their level?

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

That short list already leaves off A Clockwork Orange, A Wrinkle in Time, Way Station, Babel-17, This ImmortalLord of Light, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Right of Passage, Bug Jack Barron and Ubik, among many other well remembered books.

Ultimately, the goal is the same as I had back in the 1980s, to help people find a list of essential science fiction books to read.  Any list of true classics should be short, and dependable.  Novice readers should be able to buy a book from the list, read it, and have a strong statistical chance of being suitably impressed.  The whole idea of a classic is to be impressive, even heavy.  Coming up with any kind of quantitative method to identify those books is hard, but I think my system is the best I can imagine at the moment.

If you look at the top 19 books on the 3.0 list, all of which were on 20 or more citation lists, these books I think have the best chance of any science fiction book at consistently evoking the sense of wonder that defines great science fiction.

20-citations

Yet, I’m worried that several of them are already fading classics.

I have a feeling that many people will consider this a pointless endeavor.  They will feel that chance will introduce them to the great SF books of the past, and time will kill off the unworthy books.  That’s true.  That’s how it’s always worked.  I just consider my project a way of guessing what might happen ahead of time.

JWH 4/30/14

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence, is a story about how people never communicate their real feelings.  Wharton suggests at the end of her book, set twenty-five years after the start, that the next generation is more open, but I’m not sure even a hundred years later, in our own times, if this is true.  The love triangle of Newland Archer, his fiancée May Welland, and her older cousin, Ellen Olenska is shown through the viewpoint of Newland’s mind.  Edith Wharton does an excellent job of taking on a male point-of-view, considering the cultural restrictions of her time, and her consideration for the minds of people from the 1870s.

AgeOfInnocence

The Age of Innocence is a story of culture and manners and their impact on people.  Newland Archer knows what he’s suppose to do, and how other people are suppose to act, but within his own mind he wants to be different, and imagines that maybe other people do too, but his life is frustrated by the few clues he gets to verify his theories.  He thinks he has the perfect young woman lined up to be his wife and then he meets a woman who has run away from her husband, a Count no less, abandoning wealth and position, to flaunt traditional behavior.

Countess Ellen Olenska is described as looking old at thirty, and no where near as beautiful as her younger cousin May, at twenty-two.  Yet, Newland Archer finds himself more attracted to Ellen.  Plenty of other men do too, and readers are never sure how many men are chasing Ellen, or how many are catching her.  Many men want to make her their mistress, but we’re never told the details of the relationships because we only get to know what Archer knows.  He gets conflicting information from Ellen and the people who know her.  Archer is never sure what May is thinking, or Ellen.  He often plays games, telling himself if this happens, he’ll do this, and it means that, but they never work out like he plans.

Archer wants to tell May, sorry old sport, but you’re as dull as your society, and then run away with Ellen.  We know that even in Wharton’s time, 1920, men were doing that, and readers today probably have a very hard time understanding why Newland didn’t just chuck it all for love, but then I guess that’s why Edith called her novel the age of innocence about the 1870s.  In our times, we act on our impulses but do we communicate why?

People today still don’t say what they’re thinking but instead communicate with a strategy like the old Battleship game, where players try to guess the location of hidden ships on a grid.  Readers following along behind Newland Archer and watch his strategic plans and waits with him to see if his remarks hit anything in the minds of May and Ellen, and then ponders along with Archer about May and Ellen’s commands back and if they offer any clues to what they are thinking.  Even to the end, what May knows about Archer’s feelings for Ellen is ambiguous to the reader, but Wharton lets us know that May is no dummy and is playing her own game with as much passion as Newland’s.

We know even less about what Countess Olenska is thinking.  Is Archer someone special to her, or is he just one of many men that she plays along.  And does Archer really want to know?  Edith Wharton has written a beautiful masterpiece about the battle between the sexes.  The ending is perfect.  Reading this novel makes me, and I assume other readers, wonder why people don’t just say what they are thinking.  My guess is we’re afraid of shattering our fantasies.  Our expectations of other people are all built on fantasy, speculation and desires.  If men knew what women were thinking it would be crushing blows to our egos and sexual fantasies.  If women knew what men were thinking it would be the end of romance.

I think Wharton knew this.  I’m guessing Countess Olenska knew this, and from the last scene I think Newland Archer knew this, and we’re given hints that even May eventually learned this truth.  But we never know anything for sure, because Wharton knew that, too.

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