Saturday, August 6, 2011

Two Books I Shan't be Finishing

My summer reading list is very long, consisting mostly of my as usual very backed up 'to read' list and a few extra things I liked the look of thrown in, plus some detailed background reading on some of the things I'm interested in now that I've got more time to concentrate. I'll be lucky to get through half of them by mid-September, but that's normal. It never does get much shorter.

In fact, my reading list is not so much long as high. It exists, physically, as a pile almost as tall as I am, in the corner of the bedroom on my side of the bed (which Mrs Hickory now pretends not to notice). She has been known to ask, casually as it were, why they can't be on the shelves, you know, the bookshelves, which are called that for a reason. The answer, of course, is that I like to have the things I might need at short notice to hand. There are an awful lot of things I might need at short notice, and not all of them are books, but Mrs Hickory has decided to pretend not to notice that, either.

I now have most of my reading, current, future, potential, and 'you-never-know', in the Kindle, which saves a great deal of space. So here on the farm the pile of books on my desk and beside the bed is much smaller than it used to be, and consists mainly of reference books and books that you can't get in e-form, or that I already had in print but haven't read yet.

You get the picture. A lot of books are planned for the holidays. There is a sort of idea of which are more important, but it often depends on how I feel. The Kindle is great for that as well, you just flick from one to another without leaving your chair.

If you've got this far, you'll be wondering when I'm going to get to the subject of the title; what, you are thinking, are these two books that I have decided are not worth finishing?

The first (in no particular order) is Conan Doyle's 'The White Company'. A student of mine, a highly intelligent university lecturer with a very good command of English, mentioned that he was reading it and was finding it very hard to understand. That's odd, I thought. Conan Doyle shouldn't be especially difficult. I use him with high school students, although only scenes, and they are slightly abridged, but this chap, I thought, should have no trouble with a few Sherlock Holmes stories.

The title wasn't familiar so I dug it up on the ether and took a quick look. Nothing Holmsian at all, but a mediaeval lad brought up in a monastery who goes out into the world to seek his fortune and ends up buckling his swash with the best of them all over France and Spain. Hugely exaggerated tales of bravado, gallantry and derring-do, from a time when people conversed in entire paragraphs and waited until the other chap had finished speaking before deciding whether he had expressed himself like a gentleman or like a blackguard, and therefore whether you would embrace him and treat him to mead and porter, or slice his head off.

Fun, in other words. It should have been a film with Burt Lancaster or Errol Flynn(perhaps it was). It is also incomprehensible. It is full, not just on every page but almost on every line, with words that normal people simply do not use, and probably didn't even in the 13thC. Characters do not drink, they 'tope' or 'quaff' from 'flaggons of hardy stout', they are not employed, but 'fiefed in soccage to the laird', they do not live anywhere, they 'dwelleth o'er yonder', they don't wear yellow and blue coats, they are 'swathed/clad in azure vert bar sinister crossed with jules puissant'. This is, I repeat, on every line, and those are the easy ones, the ones I understand, even if my student doesn't. If you tried to take it seriously, you would need a very thick dictionary beside you.

Not that you can take it seriously. It is great fun, as I said, but absurdly over the top. I don't know if the writer knew what all the words meant and used them properly or just picked them by the dozen from the right semantic field and sprinkled them, broadcast, to flower where they may. In any case, I got about halfway through before realizing that there was no point continuing. You have known for a long time who will win, who will live, who will die, who will show courage and who will marry whom, and how they will pass the time until those things happen (see 'quaffing', 'carousing', tourneying', 'wenching', and competitive verbosity). The rest is inconsequential. I'll wait for the film.

The other book I shall not finish is Nietzsche's 'Also Sprach Zarathustra.' I shouldn't have started it, I know. It's exactly what I thought it would be, an endless series of cynical and rather obvious aphorisms, held together by a story that is not a story, and in the mouth of a character who could have been some bloke down the pub, except that Nietzsche took himself far too seriously to put his words into the mouth of someone who wasn't a prophet of God. It wouldn't have sold so well, either. You could analyse and criticise every verse in some detail, but is it worth it? There is no depth, no coherence, no thread except the person of Zarathustra- the disciples are just dummies, foils if you like. Is it possible that the whole thing is a joke?

That, anyhow, is my impression. I am about a quarter of the way through and, unless someone can give me a good reason to continue, I shall consign it to the 'waste of time' file on the Kindle.*

*I don't suppose I'm the only one who keeps books he doesn't intend to read on the Kindle. It's no different from keeping them on the shelves, I suppose. You don't like to throw them away.


Vincent said...

The White Company was in my prep school library, along with many others of its vintage, by G A Henty, Percy Westerman, Baroness Orczy, Arthur Ransome ...

I have a memory that it was recommended by somebody or other but they were all leisure reading and if you didn't get on with a book you could check it back in way before finishing. I think the last book I borrowed or certainly the last one I wrestled with was "The Last of the Mohicans". But the one I enjoyed most was newly published: "The Kon-Tiki Expedition" by Thor Heyerdahl.

So on to "Thus Spoke Zarathustra". I have it on my shelves and have recently been reading a lot of Nietzsche, but didn't get far with re-reading that one. I don't think it is the right place to start with Nietzsche. "Ecce Homo" is a good one. It's his farewell to writing really. He's already gone a bit strange, as if the syphilis germs were already gnawing important parts of his brain. At least that's how I imagine it.

So I turn to my Kindle and see what Nietzsche I have. I would recommend "Diverse Notes on Nietzsche by Dr Ess of Drury University. It has lots of quotes and recommendations to the reader as well. You need to copy it off the Net and send it to your Kindle as an html doc attached to an email.

So what else do I have. I got on very well with "Beyond Good and Evil". I think I got it free or cheap from Kindle shop, or (as I now prefer) from Gutenberg, where almost all texts can be downloaded ready converted to Kindle format. Its Preface starts "Supposing that Truth is a woman--what then?"

Then there is "The Gay Science". I recommend that; "The Antichrist" - I was not so keen on that - overkill, too emphatic & unbridled.

But enough! You may simply not like Nietzsche at all.

Happy reading anyhow. I'd be interested to hear what you do get on with.

CIngram said...

My long comment has just vanished into the ether. To sum it up:

Many thanks for taking the trouble to answer my question about Nietzsche and encourage me to keep trying. I shall follow your reading plan to the letter and will, of course, blog on the results.

I had an idea, as he was a right wing Professor of Greek with a rather singular mental landscape, that I might find him interesting. Perhaps I thought he would be easier than he is. Perhaps, as you say, he just isn't my thing. We shall see.

CIngram said...

Oh, and I shall finish 'The White Company' one of these days. It's too much fun to leave half read.