10 January 2011


Life As a Reading Challenge, Chapter 2

A few weeks ago, I left a comment on a friend's post about a Thomas Hardy novel he has been reading. In his reply, he expressed surprise that someone who spent so much time reading YA (and MG) would have such insight into one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian Era.

He was just teasing, of course. (Most people, even friends, are typically reluctant to acknowledge my genius.) But he got me thinking about a certain "turning point" in my past, which I remember whenever someone makes some remark about my "low-brow" reading preferences.

This face-off pairing will totally make sense soon.

It was the summer after I graduated from uni, and I was ready to read. Really ready--and in ways most readers never are. Had I not graduated with straight As in all my English Literature papers? Had I not won the Wai-te-ata Shakespeare Award in 2004 for getting the highest marks in that year's Shakespeare paper? (Just adding that tidbit so I pop up in Google searches!) Had I not been such a promising undergraduate that I received not one, but two letters from my professors inviting me to enter the university's post-graduate programme? Had I not managed to do all of that and still finish one year early so that I didn't have to worry about room and board for an extra year? It was more than an education; it was training. And at the end of it all, I felt that there was nothing in the world I couldn't read and get the best of.

It was with that modest mindset that I stood in my then-favourite bookstore, ready to pick out the first read of the rest of my life.

I had walked in knowing exactly what I wanted: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. He was one author I hadn't managed to encounter in any of the papers I had taken; and although I felt sorry that I wouldn't be reading him with an experienced guide, I still believed that I could manage handsomely on my own.

So I pulled a copy of Crime and Punishment off a shelf in the Classics section, and out of habit, started reading the first chapter in the store . . . And that was the most I ever got from it.

Whenever I tell this story, it is to respond to someone else's tale of "burnout." Uni gave me some of the best years of my life, and you have no idea how much I wish I could be a graduate student so that I could go back and do it over times ten to the power of infinity . . . but I guess two straight years of serious, intense reading took a toll I hadn't counted on. I found Dostoevsky completely unreadable. I'd read one paragraph, fail to understand it, have to go back and read it again, finally grasp it, and then lose it again after having to reread the paragraph after it. My mind was just mush.

It took a while, but I soon gave up, put Crime and Punishment back where I found it . . . and wandered over to the YA section . . . where I remained browsing for a much longer time . . . and which I left with my final choice for the day . . . The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares.

And I tell you this story now because I've just realised that it isn't over.

For years, I have unconsciously cast that summer day in the bookstore as a kind of irrevocable moment--one of those points of life-long significance that always comes before a fork in the road. On one side, there was "high-brow" reading, represented by a Russian novelist who has always come with the highest recommendations (Hi, Dauvit!); on the other, there was "low-brow" reading, represented by teen ChickLit that had recently spawned a movie starring four of Hollywood's hottest young starlets. (And where are those girls now, hmmmm?) But the more important consideration was that I simply could not read the first book--and frankly, didn't even want to--while the second book seemed like the most delightful summer read in the world.

And so powerful was that idea of an irrevocable choice that I don't think I knowingly read a single university-approved classic novel for years afterwards.

Which really should not have happened. For that fork in the road existed nowhere but in my own imagination, which must have also been really burned out. Reading is not about "either-or;" it is all about "both-and." "Grown up" classics and contemporary YA/MG can co-exist in one library--and on one book blog. And for 2011, I would like nothing better than for my two biggest Reading Challenges to reflect that.

They make an odd couple, but who's complaining?

My original plan was to finish at least twelve retro YA novels (one for each month of the year) and eight Victorian novels/short stories (one for each literary character in the movie adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but now I'd like to even things out a little. This is one of my more challenging resolutions--and I bet I'll go nuts by the time we hit June--but I now commit myself to reading an equal number of books for each challenge.

Tomorrow, I'll have a post on my first Victorian novel up. We'll see what I can do about January's "old school" YA book.

Image Sources: a) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, b) The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares


Lesa said...

Yes! 'both-and' not 'either-or'-- I was just having a debate with an imaginary booksnob (don't worry, not schizo-- don't hear voices-- usually. haha) and that phrase sums it up perfectly. Not just for classic lit and YA but any genre fiction.

I visited a blog yesterday that I don't even follow anymore cause it irked me too often-- and of course, there was a post poopooing sci-fi that irked me.

I think it is the smugness that is the most annoying--- as I see it, book snobbery makes them seem less intelligent or like they have an inferiority complex-- especially when they bring it up so often.

I entertained myself yesterday by imagining this particular person as a character in an Austen novel. ;o)

Hope you don't mind my mini-rant. Your challenge resolution is terrific and I look forward to reading your posts.

Risa said...

I read all about the 'burn out' and I couldn't help chuckling. While you were busy reading 'high brow' stuff in university, I was getting an over dose of fluff! (In uni, that is) Of course, I read my prescribed books, but when you've friends all around reading the latest romances it just makes you incredibly curious - that and it makes for light easy reading.

But having had my share of romances, I sort of burned out on them once I graduated. I stopped reading (save for some fantasy fiction here and there, and PG prescribed novels) for about 5/6 years! Am back now, and am trying to catch up on all that time I could have been stuffing my head with the classics. I'd forgotten how much I used to enjoy them! And I'm back to reading mysteries and sagas again. Yay!

Risa said...

P.S. - it's great to be reading your blog again!:)

Enbrethiliel said...


Lesa: It's really the smugness of it that's so off-putting, isn't it? Unfortunately, I have my own book snob tendencies, so I can't really point the finger at anyone, but I hope that I manage not to be smug and complacent about having read only "worthwhile" books. One thing I like to do on this blog is to feature "cheesy" books and movies that critics have tended to overlook, but which I think are brilliant for other reasons. (I end up featuring more cheesy movies than books, though!)

Hmmmm. I think that with all the Rowling reading I've been doing lately, I'd be more likely to imagine an annoying character as someone from the wizarding world! Rowling has some excellent and very pointed caricatures of annoying types we all know and hate! ;-)

Risa: Will it surprise you to know that I've been there, too? Two and a half years of Historical Romance and Paranormal Romance immersion, and now I can barely walk down the Romance aisle of my favourite bookstore! There are still a couple of writers I will happily read, but I find I've lost my appetite for this genre.

(Coincidentally, Lesa has her own story of Historical Romance burn out--so there are three of us in this discussion!)

As for mysteries and sagas, I've been wanting to do a series of "Young Detectives" in YA and reread some Tolkien in March or April. So I'll definitely have more variety in my reading this year than I've had in a long time!

mrsdarwin said...

When I was 18, I took a year off before I went to college to work and to read up on some of the classics I'd need to before I went off to school. I was trying to immerse myself in culture, and to that end a friend and I got a subscription to the Cincinnati Opera's season (sitting in the cheap seats, like students from time immemorial). We dutifully sat through La Boheme and Don Giovanni, but as Faust approached we were tired from a long week at work and just burned out on opera (which neither of us understood all that well). The evening of Faust, we looked at our tickets, looked at the newspaper, and ended up blowing off the opera to go see Muppets From Space on its opening weekend. I don't regret it -- we were just too tired to imbibe high culture.

I wouldn't do that now, because a) I don't get the opportunity to go out to opera much, so it would be a treat now; b) I understand some of the conventions of opera better at this point; and c) the Muppets haven't done anything funny in a long time (and I include Muppets from Space in that statement).

Risa said...

Enbreth - I'm not really surprised.:) Too much of something really begins to tell on you. Georgette Heyer is the only romance author I read (re-read)now!

I haven't come across any YA detective since my days with the Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators. What are the latest YA detective?

I'll be reading Tokien's Children of Hurin sometime in the next few months. I bought it a long time ago, when it was first released, and never got down to reading it! I guess I just kept putting it off because the story is so sad...

mrsdarwin - I've never watched an opera before. It's a dream of mine!

Lesa said...

E: I love your blend of classics and cheese-- your book snobbery is well hidden. ;o)

Risa: yes, E is right, I did burn out on regencies and historicals-- but it took me twenty years to go up in flames!

I've never met anyone else who read The Three Investigators-- That was my favorite mystery series-- I still remember the creepiness of the Secret of Terror Castle.

Risa said...

Lesa: Lol! There comes a breaking point for all of us, it seems!:D

I never read Terror Castle. The creepiest one for me was The Mystery of the Moaning Cave. I had nightmares after reading that one!

Enbrethiliel said...


Mrs. Darwin: I had a Music major friend who took me to the symphony once. I gave it a good try but was seriously bored until I noticed the guy in charge of all the percussion. He looked as if he was having the time of his life and was a joy to watch. All I remember from that night is that he made me want my own timpani. =P

Wait a minute. The Muppets are still doing stuff these days? You don't mean the travesty that Sesame Street has become, do you?

Risa: Well, Sammy Keyes has been around for a while. =) Gilda Joyce, a psychic investigator (!!!) is new, though. And if you like edgy, Camryn Mahoney helps out in her father's forensics laboratory!

There are also the Diamond Brothers, who are supposedly the most inept detectives in the world but always manage to solve the case . . . and Fletcher Moon, who makes up for being the shortest kid in the neighbourhood by solving mysteries.

Lesa: I think my snobbery is really just my love of the idea of a canon. And books have to be really good to make the canon, you know? At the same time, I wasn't really raised on any classics; I was a "free range" reader for most of my childhood and didn't get to any books that "everyone has read" or "everyone should read" until I was old enough to feel bad that I hadn't read them yet. And while I think that this was a pretty good way to grow up, I also kind of wish I had to come to certain books earlier in life.