Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Wuthering Expectations Year in Review

The most important statistic first, Number of Books Read: 107, assuming I finish Vanity Fair soon. 107! Awesome! What's that? Is one of these books basically two pages long? Yes, what's your point? No, no, no, it totally counts.

So one thing that happened this year was that I read shorter books than usual. Really short, hundred pagers, or poetry collections that, if stripped of white space, might be fifty pages. One reason was the trip to Senegal. For a variety of reasons, including some constraints of West African publishing, many of the most famous Senegalese books are very short.

Another reason was the sudden, surprise trip to Tokyo. In that case, I deliberately selected short books.

A final reason was that it's simply a myth that the 19th century is particularly characterized by long books.

I hope that was the final reason. Another possibility is that I read short books in order to have something to write about. I hope not. I just started The Count of Monte Cristo for balance.

What does length mean, anyway? The Hardest Book of the Year was a very short one, Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, recommended by some well-meaning, I assume, commenters. My poor head, my poor head, it trembles yet.

Best Book of the Year: Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, the Greatest Novel of the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. I state that opinion with great confidence - not confidence that anyone will agree with me, but that I am unlikely to change my mind. Vanity Fair, which I love, probably won't quite make it that far. This is a bet a fellow wants to lose, so I hope that Dombey and Son or Mary Barton or The Count of Monte Cristo really knock me out. But I have my doubts.

De-Humiliations: Meaning, famous books that I read for the first time. Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Theodor Storm's Immensee. I should point out that although I enjoy this game, I do not actually find it humiliating that I have not read whatever books I haven't read, even if those books are Middlemarch, Walden, or Les Miserables. I mean, I want to read them, but the Amateur Reader does not, and should not, actually feel bad that he hasn't. Maybe I should also count Adam Bede as a de-Humiliation, since I had never read George Eliot before.

More Favorites: Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights; Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet; Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider; Prosper Mérimée, Colomba; Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas; Aminata Sow Fall, The Beggars' Strike; Ousmane Sèmbene, God's Bits of Wood; Nikolai Gogol, "The Overcoat"; Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Artist of the Beautiful". Theodor Storm's stories were generally very impressive.

Robert Browning, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics; One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth; a 17th century obscurity called Hamlet (thanks, Nigel!)

Christpher Benfey, The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan ; Jonathan Spence, The Death of Woman Wang; Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol.

The mention of Machado de Assis reminds me of a special category, Worst Editing I Saw All Year: Oxford University Press, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. I read the 1996 first edition, the flagship title in their Library of Latin American Literature.

There was a major editing error every three pages or so. Some were like "now\know", some were like "hedl\held". They were spread through the entire novel. My favorite howler was in the introduction, where the novel is compared to Erasmus's In Praise of Polly, twice on the same page. Now, I would love to read that book, presumably an ode to Erasmus's favorite parrot, but it unfortunately does not exist. Late in the novel, the narrator mentions In Prasie of Folly, suggesting that the editor of the introduction did not read the actual novel too carefully.

Well, it was only a major English edition of the greatest Brazilian novel. Why knock yourself out.

Anyway, what a lot of good books.

Next: next.


  1. I will totally agree with you on Dead Souls, at least as far as I have read. Although my boyfriend's mom told me the other day she had just read Dombey and Son after being told it was better than Bleak House. I said, "That's not possible!" She said, "That's what I said, but it was." So. Who knows. It's on my list for early next year now though.

    1. Dombey and Son better than Bleak House? I guess this is one for my de-Humiliation list. I would be very exciting if she's right!

    2. I do not believe Dombey and Son to be better than Bleak House, but you can certainly see Dickens moving in a Bleak House-ish direction.

  2. My pleasure. I really enjoyed sharing our reading experience together. And I should tell you that our thoughts are being read. The Hamlet posts, as I've come to discover via a new Wordpress stats widget I'm experimenting with, are among the most popular on my site!

    Hope your holidays are very happy! Look forward to visiting your part of the world, possibly sometime next year -- and taking a ton of photos of bookstores.


  3. Dombey and Son better than Bleak House! That's not possible!

    Good luck to those youngsters, or whoever they are, reading our, or at least my, Hamlet notes.

  4. Humiliation remains relative. I finished Crime and Punishment this year, having seldom previously bothered to qualify my reading of such. I so enjoyed the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation that I am ready to depart for rereads of Anna Karenina and War and Peace.

    I was tempted to reread Dead Souls just before the recent election: it remains in my truck.

  5. I've got Vanity Fair and Adam Bede lined up for 2009, as well as stopped by the Balzac section last night in the book big store in Lausanne - came home with Père Goriot and Le Colonel Chabert (plus I've already got Eugéine Grandet) I think that will do nicely.

  6. What a great year! You mention all kinds of books I've never read and may have to get to, including Dead Souls. That would be my de-humiliation, I suppose. What a wonderful term.

  7. Why is it so entertaining to read other people's lists of books, read or unread? It fires the imagination, somehow.

    So, verbivore, I saw your Plan, Year 3, list, and was for some reason delighted that I had already read everything on it - everything that was not, you might be able to guess, philosophy, of which I have read, of course, none.

    Maybe I should re-emphazise that the David Lodge Humiliation game is just for fun, and, yes, Jon Faith, very much relative. I suppose it may be sort of humiliating for an American Lit prof to have never read, say, Walden, but even Professional Readers can't read eveything, much less we poor Amateurs. Life is long, yet life is short.

    On the other hand, yeah, Dead Souls, everyone read Dead Souls! And Vanity Fair, and Eugénie Grandet, and...

  8. Have you read "The Namesake"? Just watching the movie version made me long to have read more Gogol. My humiliation comes from having not read On the Origin of Species. Alas, someday.

  9. Dead Souls goes to the top of my TBR pile right away. I'll add to my humiliation the fact that I've only just read any Gogol at all and that I'd no idea he wrote a novel.

    But "better than Bleak House"!!!

    Not possible.

  10. Right, "The Namesake" has a character named after Gogol. I haven't read it, and I don't know the relevance. Maybe he loses his overcoat, or his nose. It's a good, vigorous name, anyway.

    I'll read Dombey and Son for myself soon and get to the bottom of this "better than Bleak House" business.

  11. Even in the movie version of "The Namesake", the connections between Gogol the character and Gogol the writer are emphasized-- rather startling for a mainstream American production to assume the audience would know something of Gogol. I can only guess that the book relies largely on Gogol allusions.

  12. I suppose many people guess that Gogol-the-writer is just a fiction.

  13. I find very little Common about your reading.

    I hope to finally make it through Wuthering Heights this year. I'm embarrassed that I've never made it through it before. I suppose it was just not the right time.

  14. Good luck getting to weird, lovely Wuthering Heights. I'm currently slowly rading Emily Brontë's weird, lovely poetry.

  15. Now, 6 years later, do you still think Dead Souls the Greatest Novel of the First Half of the Nineteenth Century or have you changed your mind?
    Just curious.

  16. Di, yes I do. Almost all of my reading in the past several years has been post-1850, though, so there has not been much scope for new discovery.

    Of course there are a number of strong competitors for the title. But I do not think anyone matches Gogol's inventiveness and imaginative power, not even Dickens, not in a single novel. Not in a single novel pre-Bleak House. Lots of qualifiers there.