Archive for the ‘fiction’ tag
For the first post on this read-off, see here. In short, Blake, a co-worker of mine and I are having a friendly office read-off to challenge each other on reading this year … or to torture ourselves. We’re not sure which one is more accurate.
In any case, 2011 is winding down, and at this point, I’m about 600 pages behind him. I’m not sure how that happened, except for the fact that Blake and I seem to deal with workweek loathing in different ways. I tend to drink more, read less and kill people in Counter Strike: Source more. He apparently just reads, and I respect that. Heck, tonight I worked almost 12 hours with only about a 30 minute break, wrote three stories for the newspaper after 7 p.m. and still found time to get through about 15 pages of “Freethinkers” (See my last post). Reading does provide a release. Oh, and if anyone is curious, no, we are not just speed reading or plowing through pulp fiction like Dean Koontz, although in order to catch up, I have seriously considered it.
For the most part, with a few exceptions, it’s all been non-fiction and fairly meaty material at that. I’m attempting to retain as much of the information as possible, and I’m sure Blake is as well, since, if you don’t read non-fiction to learn, you might as well not read.
I’m trying to shoot for at least 8,000 pages by the end of the year. Here’s the list:
- “Positivist Republic: Auguste Comte and the Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1920″ – Gillis Harp – 264
- “Letter to a Christian Nation” – Sam Harris (reread) – 114
- “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights” – David S. Reynolds – 592
- “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho – 165
- “Middlemarch: A study of Provincial Life” by George Eliot – 794
- “1491″ – 403
- “Thomas Jefferson Vs. Religious Oppression” – 150
- “Night” by Elie Weisel – 120
- “1421: The Year China Discovered America” by Gaven Menzies – 491, finished in spring
- “From Sea to Shining Sea: From the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, the Saga of America’s Expansion” by Robert Leckie – 623, finished in late spring
- “The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson by Charles B. Sanford – 179, finished in summer
- “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” by James McPherson – 384, finished in summer
- “Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South” by Albert Raboteau – 321, finished in summer
- “Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society” by John Andrew III – 199, finished in august
- “Union 1812: The Americans who Fought the Second War of Independence” by A.J. Langguth – 409, finished 9/7/11 = 5208
- “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788″ by Pauline Maier – 489, finished 10/2/11 = 5697
- “The Federalist Papers” by Madison, Hamilton and Jay – 527, finished 10/30/11 = 6224
- “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” by Susan Jacoby – (Currently reading. On page 205 as of Nov. 7, 2011) = 6429
Of course, I will provide another update at the end of the year and list my favorite book, the most rewarding and the most difficult.
So, a co-worker, Blake, and I are competing in a very casual read-off this year where we keep track of every book we read, the page numbers of each, etc. This is what book lovers do to entertain themselves, I guess. Anyway, I’m currently in the lead with 13 books under my belt so far, while he has read 10 thus far. I believe all of his have been non-fiction works, while all but three of mine were in that genre.
Only the expressions of the will of the Diety, not depending on time, can relate to a whole series of events that have to take place during several years or centuries; and only the Diety, acting by His will alone, not affected by any cause, can determine the direction of the movement of humanity.” — Epilogue, Part Two, Chapter VI
I’ve heard that when one completes a long, dense or engrossing piece of fiction, one feels a bit as if a best friend, or perhaps, a limb has just been lost. So it is with “War and Peace” (This links to the actual edition I own).
After completing the 1,386-page work last night, I experienced something like this. Although by the time Leo Tolstoy had gotten around to the 100-page epilogue, I admit I was quite ready for it to be over. The rather dry, theology-heavy ending only enhanced this feeling. But the next day, I felt compelled to choose which unread book in my library I was going to begin next. Not able to decide at once, today I grabbed the December 2010 edition of Forbes magazine lent to me by a co-worker, which featured a story on the now-ubiquitous WikiLeaks.org head Julian Assange.
That said, here are some thought the longest piece of fiction I’ve read to date. I’m not sure what was the longest prior to this. Perhaps “East of Eden,” “Crime and Punishment” or “The Brothers Karamazov.” All three are probably denser in language than “War and Peace,” so their 500-600 words kind of felt like 700-800 words.
Either way, for those unfamiliar with the plot details, here’s a brief summary (I offered early thoughts here).
“War and Peace” follows the lives of five Russian aristocratic families from July 1805-1820, and the most central characters are Pierre (the protagonist), Prince Andrey, Natasha, Nikolay, Marya, Count Bolkonsky, Kutuzov (the real commander-in-chief of the Russian army during that period) and Napoleon himself. The plot flips back and forth between various conversations of love, war and politics at home (in Moscow and Petersburg) between members of these families and other luminaries and back to the theater of war, in which Tolstoy, quite omnisciently, relates Napoleon’s exploits in moving toward and eventually invading Moscow to Napoleon’s retreat and the Russians reclaiming their town and their eventual normalcy. In addition to Napoleon and Kutuzov, the novel includes many characters who existed in real life.
Pierre, an orphan and the person we can most closely relate to Tolstoy himself, is the hero of the novel, and the narrative rarely strays far from his steps. Prior to being captured by the French, which had overrun Moscow, Pierre had dreamed up an idea to assassinate Napoleon. This plot was thwarted, however, when Pierre was thrown off his plan by attempting to return a lost girl to her parents. He was eventually rounded up by the French and stayed in captivity for some time. While a prisoner of war, Pierre witnessed the execution of about eight others by the French, but for some reason — Pierre and Tolstoy himself would probably say because of Providence, or simply, God — he was spared. Pierre, ever the thinker but not a very reasonable person, moves from nonbelief, to freemasonry to a more traditional belief in God near the end of the novel. Again, Pierre’s thoughts on theology seem to run parallel to that of Tolstoy himself. Pierre is later rescued by the Russian army and eventually marries and settles down with children after years of free-living, revelry and shiftlessness.
The end of the novel was my least favorite part of the book because as the narrative reaches its end, Tolstoy then begins a rather long exposition of his views on history and “the force” that moves men, armies, societies, nations and individuals. Throughout this section, and unlike some other philosophers, Tolstoy recognizes, but seems unable to accept, the very unreasonableness of life by which some men can kill each other or be led to massacre while others live lives of prosperity and peace.
The challenge readers will face with “War and Peace” is not with the language or the density of the content. I have read much more tightly packed and difficult narratives. Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky again come to mind. The challenge for readers will be mentally holding together a large cast of characters, many of which appear in one chapter and may not appear again for hundreds of pages. Sons often carry similar names as their fathers and often unrelated characters have similar names as major characters. As I said previously, and it held true throughout the rest of the book, I tended to enjoy the descriptions and movements on the battlefield more than I did the dialogue and happenings at soirées and other gatherings at the estates. That said, I suppose we could add another point to Tolstoy’s greatness: to provide themes of love and war in the same epic, thus appealing to a wider audience. Here’s more: Tolstoy’s ability to describe human emotion and the intricacies and complexities of human relationships is unmatched, and his ability to swoop the reader from the battlefield to a children’s bedroom to a P.O.W. shelter to the emperor’s chambers is stunning.
And in all the scenes of love and war, the reader, indeed, is met with the very unreasonableness that, in one town, lovers exchange enchanted glances and hold hands, and in another, soldiers burn and pillage and rend sons from fathers. All the while, the reader is asked to either accept the unreasonableness of it all as a matter of life — as I do — or defer to Tolstoy’s omnipotent “force” that governs and determines everything. And that force is God.
Within the last year or so, I decided that I wanted to try to read at least one book on each of the major wars this country has been involved in since the American Revolution. In recent months, I have undertaken David McCullough’s elegantly written “1776″ and James McPherson’s expansive “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”. After just finishing John Keegan’s 1999 book, “The First World War,” I will probably continue and read his other one, “The Second World War.”
On the back cover of Keegan’s account of WWI, a review by The Boston Globe reads,
Keegan has the rare ability to view his subject from a necessarily Olympian height, and then swoop down to engage the reader with just the right detail or just the right soldier’s voice…. In the field of military history, this is as good as it gets.
Other reviews have described the book as “magisterial,” “quietly heart-rending” and “a masterpiece.” The New York Times got it right when it called the book, “omniscient.”
As history books go, I sometimes find myself being frustrated by being supplied with vastly more detail than I often require. I stopped midway through The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade for this reason. And for another reason: it was pretty dryly written. I’m vastly interested in that particular subject, but on page after page, the reader is inundated with, for example, the number of pints of rum on board such-and-such ship or the record of how many bushels of corn, etc. The number of slaves on certain ships is important, for instance, but not how much liquor the crew had on board. At least I can’t imagine how that would be important information. I hope to try the book again in the future. Perhaps I’ll do some “smart” reading and sort of skim over the minutiae.
Regardless, Keegan’s book, as well as McPherson’s 800-page volume, while offering us some of those types of “omniscient” details that we may or may not want, suffer not from such tediousness. Keegan, in a masterfully written style, takes us through Austrian archduke and heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Serbia’s “complicity,” the Austrian empire’s declaration of war, Germany’s entrance and straight to the trenches and no man’s land through four years of fighting that would eventually lead to revolution in the Soviet Union and Germany, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, the formation of modern Europe and, of course, the end of 10 million lives.
WWI was called The Great War, in my view, because it not only was waged by all of the vast empires of the world at the time (the United States played a limited, but important part in 1918 by overwhelming the German military conscious with millions of fresh troops that would prove too much for the often underfed and tramped down Triple Alliance forces), but because it was a decisive moment in history that carved up what we know of Europe today and razed the very idea of vast and sprawling empires that had so gripped most of the world for thousands of years prior. Hitler, of course, would attempt to resurrect this idea two decades later.
In recounting all this in a masterful literary style, Keegan gives us maps of the major battlefields, photos of sinking ships and lumbering soldiers and head shots of some of the key players on both sides of the conflict that in the first sentence of the book, he dubs “tragic and unnecessary.” Ending with a chapter titled, “America and Armageddon,” he sums up that much of the commanders’ actions, particularly on the alliance’s side, was a mystery. For instance, the Kaiser’s attempt to contend with Britain, a clear naval superpower at the time, for seas between Norway and the United Kingdom. On the Kaiser, Keegan notes,
Had he not embarked on a strategically unnecessary attempt to match Britain’s maritime strength, fatal hostility between the two countries would have been avoided; so, too, in all possibility, might be been the neurotic climate of suspicion and insecurity from which the First World War was born.
He goes on to describe the mystery of Ludendorff and other German officials insisting on continued military operations despite troop conditions and being outnumbered as “selfish and ultimately pointless military ambition.”
The legacy of the war’s political outcome scarcely bears contemplation: Europe ruined as a centre of world civilisation, Christian kingdoms transformed through defeat into godless tyrannies, Bolshevik or Nazi, the superficial difference between their ideologies counting not at all in their cruelty to common and decent folk.
At 427 pages and with often challenging vocabulary, this is not an easy or quick read, but one well worth the effort. Of course, Keegan ends by looking forward to what would become another episode of egregious loss of life during World War II and backward to the trenches, in which he notes, with untold irony, soldiers existing where love and compassion were all-but vacant, the friendships that inevitably developed as soldiers fought with, and for, each other:
Comradership flourished in the earthwork cities of the Western and Eastern Fronts, bound strangers into the closest brotherhood, elevated the loyalties created with the ethos of temporary regimentality to the status of life-and-death blood ties.
Indeed, for many soldiers, their fellow men in arms would be the last family, and sometimes, only family they would know.
Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times. That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War.
When thinking of military history, or history at all, one often thinks of tedious and an uninspired presentation. And indeed, while readers may feel the need to re-read more than one sentence in this book because of sometimes complex structures, this is the anti-thesis to dry historical studies. If not for its obvious factual nature, I would be inclined call this historical-literature, the difference between literature and mere fiction being that literature is art. And that’s how I would describe this work.