“Perhaps I will just go underground and live a quiet life of desperation. I’ve heard mumblings about a place called ‘Social Media Manager.’ It seems like a nice place where all people my age go for a while. Just until things start to make sense again.” Nobody knows the throes of existential angst quite like a twenty-something. Here’s a plea for help from one such twenty-something over at McSweeney’s.
Elizabeth wrote in with this question: This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the "one novel of a person's life" seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don't know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be? Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth's question literally, wondering what "one novel" we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth's shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person's reading experience. Here are our answers: Garth: The hypothetical here - if you could read just one novel - strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there's only going to be one. I'm tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I've got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you'd want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone. Edan: My suggestion - Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut - may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's highly readable. It's important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn't read much won't tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn't a movie buff (read: me) won't sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there's a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase "So it goes" repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I'd love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others - book worms or not - would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life. Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I'd pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others - a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites - modern and classic - but strategically I'll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing - playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become "unstuck in time" and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers - kids, really - are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut's playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other. Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone: "You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years--generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco--and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad--Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice--Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many--Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady's last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain." And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written. Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a "desert island book," the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill. Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student's unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it's "Make love not war, save the planet"). Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It's true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah's and Garth's idea (reading the question as looking for a "desert island book") that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis' The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the "first" and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not - bear with me here - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn't expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it. Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth's question on your own site or in the comments below.
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1. My son was in a good mood, ready to walk to school with his father, and then suddenly, he was crying. He’s four. The ostensible cause of his tears had to do with some last-minute renovations on a Lego house. He made an adjustment to the chimney, I said “Good enough!” and he got mad. “But I’m not finished!” He threw himself on the floor. He’s not given to tantrums and I knew immediately that he was upset because I had slept in, was still in my pajamas, and would not be walking him to school. He had already accused me of not being nice, an hour earlier, when I pulled the covers over my head and told him I was a hibernating bear who would prefer not to be disturbed. And you know, he’s right. That wasn’t nice -- especially when I said I was the type of bear who ate little boys. But I was sleeping so well! I felt like a hibernating bear. I was cocooned in sleep, layered in sleep. I couldn’t bear to be unraveled. On the whole, motherhood has reshaped my life and habits in ways that have made me a lot happier, but the one thing I really miss from my childless life is waking up slowly. I have never been someone who jumps out of bed, eager to get started with my day. Instead, I like to lie in bed for a while to soak in the dream residue and listen to the radio and to the sounds coming from outside of my window. Maybe this is too obvious to say, but there is something uniquely relaxing about sleeping in after the sun has risen. Marcel Proust’s narrator, Marcel, a connoisseur of sleep, claims that morning sleep “is -- on an average -- four times as refreshing, it seems to the awakened sleeper to have lasted four times as long when it has really been four times as short. A splendid, sixteenfold error in multiplication which gives so much beauty to our awakening and gives life a veritable new dimension...” That observation is from The Captive, the volume I’m currently making my way through. As you might well expect from an invalid, Proust brings a wealth of personal experience to the subject of sleep. On the experience of awakening slowly, he writes: “Often we have at our disposal, in those first minutes in which we allow ourselves to glide into the waking state, a variety of different realities among which we imagine that we can choose as from a pack of cards.” On dream residue: “I was still enjoying the last shreds of sleep, that is to say of the only source of invention, the only novelty that exists in story-telling, since none of our narrations in the waking state, even when embellished with literary graces, admit those mysterious differences from which beauty derives.” On the elusiveness of sleep: “Sleep is divine but by no means stable; the slightest shock makes it volatile. A friend to habit, it is kept night after night in its appointed place by habit, more steadfast than itself, protected from any possible disturbance; but if it is displaced, if it is no longer subjugated, it melts away like a vapor.” The slightest shock makes it volatile. I’ve been trying to remind myself of this, lately, as I decide what television show to watch before bedtime, or when I pick up my phone to check the news one last time. The election, especially, has wreaked havoc on my ability to relax at the end of the day. It’s not only that it’s been so dramatic, unpredictable, and vile, it’s also that it calls for so much analysis. I can’t stop listening to podcasts and reading think pieces even though I know they rarely satisfy, and can’t provide a definitive answer to the question of how we got to this ugly place. Certain disgusting phrases and epithets stick in my mind; the week that Donald Trump’s lewd Access Hollywood tapes were released, I kept remembering incidents of sexual harassment and aggression that I’d put up with over the years. From conversations with other women, I wasn’t the only one having these late-night reckonings. Sleep is the perfect balm for these kinds of obsessive thoughts; the catch-22 is that you have to achieve calmness before you can pass into the even calmer regions of sleep. 2. Sometimes, when I can’t fall asleep, I look in on my son, sleeping peacefully. Often I lie next to him for a few minutes, listening to his breathing, and stroking his soft cheek or holding his hand. I miss the days when he was a baby and he would sleep in his carrier with his head on my chest. When he was around two, my husband and I went through a phase of waking him early from his weekend afternoon naps, when he was still very groggy and tired, because he would snuggle in our laps and fall back asleep. It was the only way we could enjoy the particular peace of mind that comes with holding a sleeping child. I found myself thinking of my son’s peaceful sleep when I read one of the most famous passages in The Captive, that of Marcel observing Albertine while she is napping. Albertine is Marcel’s frustratingly unknowable mistress, a woman Marcel has fallen out of love with by the end of Volume 4 (Sodom and Gomorrah), but who we find living with Marcel at the beginning of Volume 5 (The Captive). Marcel is too jealous to give her up, and so neurotic that he confesses to installing her “in a bedroom within twenty paces of my own, at the end of the corridor, in my father’s tapestried study.” What’s more, he tries to control her social life, sending her out with his chauffeur, who is instructed to keep tabs on her comings and goings. His biggest fear is that she is in love with another woman, or perhaps, several women. He suspects her of lying, and interrogates her acquaintances about her activities outside of his apartment. When that fails, he finagles invitations and manipulates her plans so that she cannot go anywhere alone. And yet for all of Marcel's controlling behavior, Albertine remains elusive, both to the narrator and the reader. You never feel you know her, which is odd, because one of the hallmarks of In Search of Lost Time is how well you feel you know Marcel’s friends and acquaintances. When Swann died, I felt personally bereft. When Robert de Saint-Loup appears, I brighten up at the thought of his charm and good looks. Even Bloch, who appears very little after the first volume, feels like an old friend when he makes an occasional cameo. But Albertine frustrates me. All I really know of her is what she looks like, and what she seems like. Marcel is always comparing her to other people and things, always trying to reconcile his present, complicated, neurotic understanding of her personality with his memories of the athletic, fresh-air girl he fell in love with in Balbec. But her portrait never comes into focus, in part because he knows her better than he used to -- that is, she’s more than just an idealized image -- but also because he’s too suspicious of her, too busy analyzing her words and behavior for signs of betrayal. It’s only when Albertine is asleep that Marcel can enjoy her company, a discovery he makes one day when he happens upon her, napping: “stretched out at full length on my bed, in an attitude so natural that no art could have devised it, she reminds me of a long blossoming stem that had been laid there.” A few sentences later, he continues with the botanical analogies: She was animated now only by the unconscious life of plants, of trees, a life more different from my own, more alien, and yet one that belonged more to me. Her personality was not constantly escaping, as when we talked, by the outlets of her unacknowledged thoughts and of her eyes. She had called back into herself everything of her that lay outside, had withdrawn, enclosed, reabsorbed herself into her body. In keeping her in front of my eyes, in my hands, I had an impression of possessing her entirely which I never had when she was awake. Her life was submitted to me, exhaled toward me its gentle breath. This passage is unsettling, and becomes more troubling as it continues, and as Marcel fondles and kisses Albertine while she is asleep, without her knowledge or consent. And yet I could relate to it, as a mother. The first sentences, especially, reminded me of the feeling of wonder I get when I watch my sleeping son -- that sense of him germinating in a secret, slow, plant-like way that is impossible to witness moment to moment, but which I know will hit me later on, when, scrolling through photos on my phone, I wonder what happened to the chubby-cheeked baby boy who used to fall asleep in my arms. Is it correct to read this passage in a maternal light? This is what I asked myself as I read and re-read the long and incredibly beautiful descriptions of Albertine’s resting body, the long musical sentences in which Albertine’s breath is compared to sea breezes, her hair to moonlit trees, her movements to that of the tides. One sentence, in particular, struck me as exactly what I feel, late at night, when I check in on my son as a way of curing my own insomnia: “I savored her sleep with a disinterested, soothing love, just as I would remain for hours listening to the unfurling of the waves.” 3. Of course, it’s easy to love a sleeping child, easy to idealize him as innocent and adorable, easy to forget the whining and the interrupting and the sudden, frustrated tears; easy to believe that he will always be safe, healthy, and above all, close -- that he will never do what he is supposed to grow up and do, which is to thrive independently, with thoughts and desires unknown to you and unsatisfied by you. It’s as easy to idealize a sleeping child as it is a sleeping woman, to simplify her personality, to forget that she has multiple and often conflicting desires, social roles, friendships, and responsibilities. It’s easy to believe, when looking upon the closed eyes of a beautiful mistress, that you possess her, and that everything about her is known, or at least possible to know. Later in The Captive, in a separate passage about Albertine’s sleep, Marcel acknowledges that there is something maternal in his obsessive, neurotic love: Her sleep was no more than a sort of blotting out of the rest of her life...This calm slumber delighted me, as a mother, reckoning it a virtue, is delighted by her child’s sound sleep. And her sleep was indeed that of a child. Her awakening also, so natural and so loving, before she even knew where she was, that I sometimes asked myself with dread whether she had been in the habit, before coming to live with me, of not sleeping alone but of finding, when she opened her eyes, someone lying by her side. But her childlike grace was more striking. Like a mother again, I marveled that she should always awaken in such good humor. Reading this passage, 50 pages or so after the first description of Albertine’s sleep, I not only felt assured in the parallels to motherhood that I had previously drawn, but also that Marcel was, like a mother, aware of the futility of his efforts to control another person. The scene that follows is actually quite tender and easygoing, as Albertine, in a reversal, sits with Marcel when he is just waking up. Together, they listen to the sounds of the street vendors passing by Marcel’s open window, and they plan their meal based on the foods advertised. It’s in this scene that Marcel rhapsodizes about the particular, heavy sleep of morning, the sleep that is “four times as refreshing.” He’s also quite honest, for the first time in many pages, about the troubled nature of his love for Albertine, and how he suspects they will both be happier when they have parted. But in the moment, there is only the sensual pleasure of waking slowly, a zone of ambiguity that somehow keeps you from acknowledging the more destabilizing uncertainties of life.
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