Friday, March 29, 2013

1001 Books: The Red Queen, Disgrace, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Gulliver's Travels

Before I continue to discuss my 1001 Books experience, I think it pertinent to consider a key element of my journey: namely, what distinguishes a good book from a great one? When one thinks about essential versus non-essential reading, what does that mean? For me, a good story told well makes for a decent start, but this criterion alone doesn't ensure greatness. Well-drawn characters are terrific, but can be quickly undermined by a weak ending. So, plot and participants aside, what makes a book awesome? Naturally, a list was in order. In my opinion, to judge a book as truly great, I must be able to answer the following questions with a resounding YES!
  1. Did I feel a sense of loss or sadness when I finished the last page (not because it had a sad ending, but because I didn't want it to end)?
  2. Did the book challenge my perceptions about identity, reality, morality, or <insert abstract philosophical concept here>?
  3. Did the book become a sort of standard by which all future reads would be judged?
  4. Can I see myself talking about it to anyone who would listen--for months, years, or for perhaps the rest of my life?
    and, to some extent
  5. Did the author's overwhelming genius (brilliant ideas, flawless use of language, perfect pacing) leave me adrift in a sea of awe mixed with jealous rage?
With these criteria in mind, let us consider the next four books on the List. I find it difficult to understand how Margaret Drabble's The Red Queen got onto a "Read Before You Die" list. I recognize that Drabble is an acclaimed and prolific writer, so perhaps The Red Queen wasn't the best example of her talents. It wasn't badly written, but it was dull--one of those narratives where there's one story line that interested me, but the rest was just tedious. I probably need to read a few more of her titles.

Next on the List was J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, a book whose excellent prose could not surmount its unrelenting bleakness. Having read a few of Coetzee's titles since, I can honestly say that although he's a gifted storyteller, the stories he chooses to tell don't really appeal to me as a reader.

Fortunately, the third book on the List was pretty much a guaranteed winner. Lest I make this blog a continuous valentine to H.G. Wells, I will simply say that The Island of Dr. Moreau was very timely in its consideration of the potential (and potential creepiness) of genetically modified creatures. Also, I love H. G. Wells.

Lastly, I read Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which is a book I'd read abridged as a child and always meant to get around to as adult. It was not the least bit disappointing, whether you read it as an adventure story or as the political satire it was intended to be. Fascinating stuff.

The List had yet to provide me with a complete round of highly recommendable books, but I was certainly learning a lot about myself as a reader, which was an intriguing discovery in itself.

- Steph

1 comment:

  1. I’m with you on Wells and Swift and don’t know much about Drabble, but I’ve got to part company with you on Coetzee. His prose is like the cold sharp shock you get down your throat when you first breathe in after stepping out on a really frigid winter day. I agree that you might not want to live in that climate year-round, but I find his books bracing, and while you’re reading him you’re certainly fully awake with eyes wide open. And after a reader has finished a book of his, he or she can always retreat to the literary equivalent of a Cancun resort to recover.