John writes in with this question:Anyway, I have a question about a book: As an Umberto Eco fan, and having read Foucault’s Pendulum and loved it, I am skittish about becoming physically ill if I read The Da Vinci Code. Should I be worried? Did Eco already write the book and Brown stupidize it? That’s the impression I get.I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, but I suspect that you would find it entertaining but not, shall we say, satisfying. Read it, or don’t. But how about some other books that you might enjoy which are more substantial and pleasurably complex (and much of this is just speculation because I haven’t read all of these books): First, I’d like to recommend two childrens’ series that – though they are written for kids – are loaded with allegory that make them rich reading, or rereading, for adults. They are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and CS Lewis’ classic the The Chronicles of Narnia. I know, Narnia, it sounds ridiculous, but I reread the series as an adult and found the books to be full of intricacies to be mined. From the grown-up side of things, I’m told that Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon might fit the bill, as will his more recent, and enormous, Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, & The System of the World). If you don’t mind a bit of a tropical lilt to your complex, fantastical fiction, I highly recommend trying out some magical realism. The The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is a terrific, meandering tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is similarly enjoyable, and you can’t go wrong with the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. I may be getting a bit far afield here… anyone else want to chime in?
Joan writes in with this question:I loved the regular Oprah Book Club and her Classics selections have made wonderful new or re-reading. The last Oprah Classic I know of is Anna Karenina, last summer. Can you tell me if there have been more recent Oprah Classics? Thanks so much.Much as I am tempted, I’ll spare my readership another discussion on the pros and cons of Oprah’s Book Club. (The short answer is that I think it’s good. You can read why here.) Oprah relaunched her famed book club in the summer of 2003 with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and since then has recommended six books to her viewers. Oprah selected Alan Paton’s somewhat forgotten novel about South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country in September 2003. She opened 2004 by recommending Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude followed by The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers in April 2004. In June of 2004 Oprah recommended Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I remember being struck by Oprah’s bookselling power when I saw dozens of copies of Anna Karenina for sale at New Jersey Turnpike rest stops that summer next to John Grisham and Sue Grafton novels. Oprah has made only one pick since then: Pearl S. Buck’s epic about China, The Good Earth. She hasn’t made a selection in a while so you may want to look out for a new Oprah pick soon. You can bookmark this page to keep track of all her selections. Thanks for the question!
Tiffany writes in with this intriguing question:What qualifications does a book have to meet in order to be considered as a classic?This is probably an argument almost as old as the written word. Nearly everyone who reads has an opinion on what should or shouldn’t be a “classic,” and the criteria for this classification shifts with changing times and tastes. Only the very few, special books will be considered classics by generation after generation of readers. It’s safe to say that the halls of academia are where these arguments begin. Academics typically publish their findings in obscure journals, but some go straight to the masses like Harold Bloom, whose book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages seeks “to define the essential masterworks of world literature.” Bloom’s book, when it came out was, as most of these books tend to be, quite controversial. The press, too, plays a role in these discussions. Book critics with long and distinguished careers encounter enough books to make their own judgments about the classics. Lists like Jonathan Yardley’s “State of the Art” add to the public discourse about what makes a book a classic. Publishers come up with lists of classics to get people talking about books; the Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the Century is a recent example. The discussion has even arrived on our televisions. Last summer the BBC put together the Big Read which searched for Britain’s best loved books. Even Oprah reinvented her book club by shifting the focus to classics last year. Oprah fans have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden in recent months, and they’ll be reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck next. In the end there aren’t any official rules that determine what is a classic and what isn’t, but if we had to adopt some, I would recommend that we borrow the set of rules put forth by Italo Calvino in his book Why Read the Classics?The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: “I’m rereading…” and never “I’m reading…”The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves as unforgettable on our imaginations, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much a sense of discovery as the first reading.A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left on the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.The classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on par with ancient talismans.”Your” classic is a book to which you cannot feel indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation even in opposition to it.A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.A classic is a work which relegates the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.
The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.
I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah’s Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah’s name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah’s new focus on classic literature was having on America’s reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah’s club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight “book of the year” titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
Last summer Oprah’s book club returned from its hiatus touting Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s East of Eden as “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.” By doing this she turned her powerful book club on its head. Up until this point, book industry types had been treating the Oprah book club as a lottery of sorts by which a previously unknown (but hardworking and extremely talented writer) could be lifted from obscurity and delivered into the homes of readers everywhere. Apparently, after much behind-the-scenes horsetrading and Jonathan Franzen’s high profile disdain for receiving the award for The Corrections, Oprah became disgusted with the politics and controversy surrounding her club and suspended it. Then, months later she brought it back, and now she is sticking, more or less, to the classics. Recently, in fact, she announced her next selection, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by another Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Between the two Nobel Laureates, by the way, was Cry, the Beloved Country a largely forgotten book from the 1940s by Alan Paton.) Many serious readers, and perhaps I might suggest that they are being a bit snooty, are inconsolably annoyed that the covers of books that they have adored for decades are suddenly besmirched by book club logos. If anything is to be blamed, though, it is not Oprah for placing her mark on these “sacred” books; it is, perhaps, our greater culture of reading. In a better world, Steinbeck and Marquez, to give two examples, would be so widely read, that naming them for this book club would seem utterly ridiculous. Instead, and we should be happy about this, East of Eden, thanks to Oprah, was one of the most widely read books of 2003, and the same will likely be true of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 2004. So, perhaps the earlier incarnation of the Oprah Club was getting ahead of itself as it steered readers to somewhat more obscure books though they had never read, or perhaps even heard of, many of the classics. In the end, one can hardly fault Oprah for making readers out of millions of Americans, though the marketing effort behind the whole thing can make one a bit queasy. In an excellent guest post to The Millions a few months back, the author Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) wrote about her experience of being plucked from relative obscurity and brought to national prominence after being selected for the Oprah Book Club. If you haven’t yet read it, here it is.