Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Can people be right, when they're so wrong?

I'm amazed when someone doesn't like a book (or film) that I think is a masterpiece. Mainly because I think my standards are pretty high, and I don't overhype that many things I've read. Yet, its admirable to admit when you don't get something. Scott Pack's blog lists his books of the year, but also the ones he didn't like - and I guess its amazing that someone whose read 132 books in a year hasn't read Philip Roth before, given the classic run of novels since "American Pastoral". Having said that, I've not read his latest "Everyman", it sounded a little unappetising, a meditation on death more than anything else. I thought "Pastoral" was an unassailable masterpiece, the style of writing impeccable and uncopiable, and the breadth unheard of elsewhere in British and American fiction. "I married a communist" was sloppy in comparison though still captivating; "The Human Stain" both brave and foolhardy in its premise (and probably the one people should choose for their book club) and "The Plot Against America" ambitious, but overlong. These faults, of course, are all virtues! I've a lot of earlier Roth I'd like to read, but have only got round to a couple. "The Ghost Writer" - one of the Zuckerman books - is a stunning novella that, like all his novels, keeps you thinking long after you've finished reading it. As for Pack not liking "Catcher in the Rye", reading it in your thirties for the first time, must be similar to trying to understand what the Sex Pistols are about if you'd somehow never heard them until now. I've re-read "Catcher..." later in life and it still packs a punch, though I think you need that coming-of-age empathy that you get from reading it early. That said, I don't think Salinger's other work, the short stories - predominantly about the Glass family - should be read UNTIL you're in your thirties. All the stories are worth reading, but I particularly like the story-novella paring of "Franny and Zooey." (The Wikipedia writer seems to think its a I've not linked to it!) It still reads very modern, although the crises of faith in both stories is a little rarified for contemporary readers, and I still think the Glass stories as a whole are one of the touchstones of 20th century literature. That Salinger himself ran out of road as the last stories came out, is hardly surprising - since in trying to determine a truth about human existence, they inevitably become more and more inward, so that by the last Glass story (published in the New Yorker, but never republished or collected), "Hapworth 16, 1924", there's nowhere left to go except into silence. So, going back to Pack, can people be right when they're so wrong? Yes, indeed, "Everyman" may well not be for everyone, and "Catcher in the Rye" is certainly not for us thirtysomethings, at least not the firs time. I've worked it out with film - I do like a particular type of stylised movie that some people simply hate, and I'm not adverse to a little sentimentality. With books, its somehow different. I do still believe that some writers are better than others, that some books are better than others, and some books/writers are so stunning that if you don't appreciate them (even if you don't like them), then you need a good reason why. And it works the other way, of course, elsewhere on the blog is a list of books Pack does love. Admittedly I found Jasper fForde, both unreadable and charityshopdonationable; but I'm tempted to try and find time for a few on his list, Brad Listi, for instance. That's the good thing about people who read 132 books a year, they can sort out wheat from chaff for the rest of us! One Christmas TV moment of literary note - in the otherwise mindnumbingly predictable "The Vicar of Dibley" - at Geraldine's book group they all sit down to read Zadie Smith's "On Beauty", and none of them have read it. Zadie shouldn't worry too much about this - I think being seen as the obvious book group choice on something as safe and uncontroversial as the Christmas special of Vicar of Dibley, means she's really up there with the greats!

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