Recent Readings, Or: A Criminal Woman, An Orphan Boy And A Frenchman Walk Into A Bar.

I haven’t written here in two weeks. I guess I just didn’t have any inspiration – and in the case of a blog about literature that means I hadn’t read anything inspiring. Then again, I do believe in the ‘writing muscle’, one which needs to be exercised often in order for it to improve. Writing is also good for your health – mentally, anyway – so see, the metaphor is turning out to be OK after all.

So, in the spirit of exercising my writing even though I don’t feel like saying anything in particular, here are some thoughts on the not-too-inspiring books I’ve read recently.

Moll Flanders is a pretty difficult read. Not because of the PG-13 life story of its heroin but because of Daniel Defoe’s writing. The plot, which jumps from husband to husband and from city to city, is told in one piece. Some years of her life

Moll Flanders' cover in the Vintage version. Isn't it nifty?

are told within the page and other specific conversation take up pages and pages. The text is not divided into chapters, making it one, 250-pages-long story. I found the language itself difficult too. It’s the worst kind of difficult: not unusual words you can look up or phrases that had since lost their popularity, but strange sentence structures which tend to go on and on and on until I can’t help but lose focus. With books that were written in different time periods to mine (Moll published 1722) I always wonder whether my difficulty stems from the author’s intentional complications or whether, perhaps, this is just how they wrote at the time. Then I remind myself that Jonathan Swift, Defoe’s contemporary (Gulliver’s Travels was published 1726), uses very ‘flowy’ prose which is very easy to read. So personal style it is. It is so easy to get caught in this historical thinking and forget that people are people every century. To balance my harsh words, I should add that Flanders has some pretty interesting moments and overall a good story; just wasn’t really my cup of tea, that’s all.

I picked up Roland Barthes’ Mythologies almost by mistake; I was walking all very purposefully to the grocery store when I ran across a book stand selling ridiculously cheap books for ‘having defects’. After browsing the stacks for a while (I had no recollection of ever needing the grocery store by that time) I ran across the Barthes. I had heard of him but never read him before; he wasn’t exactly the top spot in my to-read list but I was there, and it was cheap, so why not. Mythologies turned out to be a bit of

Just like regular mortals, Barthes does not like to be interrupted while reading

a task too. It consists of short pieces he wrote sometime in the 1950’s, sort of columns I suppose, describing and commenting on aspects of the world around him, mostly the ills of the bourgeoisie. I’ve read it bit by bit over a month or so. The reason is not the writing – which I found pretty interesting, actually – nor the ideas – which were even really interesting (this whole notion of cultural criticism brings up some great insights). The only problem with Barthes was that he was literally criticizing his own culture, which, apparently, is very different to that of mine and of 2011. Many bits there were about commercials, magazines, politics of his time. Some held timeless truths, making it a good read after all, but some were very much confined to their moment in history and meant nothing to me. Which is a shame, because they were interesting, in their way – just somewhat difficult to connect to.

This week I feel like I’ve embarked on a new and exciting reading journey, with books that I’ve only just begun and are already showing promise. Dickens’ Oliver Twist is surprisingly funny. I’ve only ever read his Nicholas Nickleby before, which was dreadfully boring, which is why I started this one with hardly ‘great’ expectations (I sincerely apologize for that pun). Turns out I was traumatized for nothing. It’s also a pretty long book, which is why I said I feel like I’m on a journey. Still, I’m having fun with it so far so I expect it will be a good read. I’m also reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. It’s a sort of biography which is told in light of his fascination with chemistry, each part in relation to another element. This might sound like a gimmick but the chemistry is woven in very cleverly and either way it’s just beautifully written. So, excited about this one too.

Next on my nightstand is the long-awaited Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. It has been staring at me for several weeks now, waiting for me to finish the books on top of it. Not to worry, friend, your turn is very soon now! Here’s to hoping it’s as good as Decline and Fall, as funny as Scoop and not at all as confusing as Vile Bodies (can you tell I’m a Waugh fan by now?)