Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Big Books I've Read. Sources of Inspiration

While De eeuw van mijn vader is the first book I've blogged about, it isn't the first big improbable thing I've read. There have been too many others. The list follows, in the order in which I started reading. It includes books I'm currently reading.

War and Peace: Growing up, I always heard the cliche that this book equalled anything ridiculously long. I had to read it. My parents had a two volume copy, and I borrowed it while in college. I carried it around for the first couple of years, reading it on and off until I finished it. After about 500 pages, my good friend James E. C. started reading it. He sarcastically remarked that he would finish first, and he did. We read the Rosemary Edmonds translation. The book is fantastic and keeps moving all the way to the end. Edmonds was the first to translate both the Russian and French passages, which were printed in italics.

Os LusĂ­adas: This book was a gift from a cousin in Portugal. I didn't know enough Portuguese to get very far when I got it. As I started learning Portuguese for a recent trip in which I saw my relatives for the first time in over 20 years and the second time ever, I started reading it again and finally finished. The book is the earliest European work I have seen to describe many faraway places as diverse as Africa and Vietnam. On the downside, it's extremely pompous. It's required reading in Portugal, but the explorer component of Portuguese identity seems to have left with the diaspora. Portugal itself is stuck with Jose Saramago forever noodling about Lisbon.

The Bible: Once again, James E. C. started reading this after me and finished first. I read the New American version. I finished reading it as I finished grad school. There is an overall theme of God's message going from a few people to the world over time. If you try to read it from cover to cover, be strong through Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. Before and after that, it's easy reading. Those three books are mainly long family trees and ritual prescriptions for burning food.

100 Years of Solitude: I started it when I was learning Spanish, because it was something I had heard of. I only finished it recently, going all the way through because language snobs love it. There is always another test for an interpreter. That being said, I hated it. It's an overrated, hopeless mess. It sold to a generation that consistently confused deep thought with being stoned. What helped me get through it was that I had learned a lot about Colombian politics between attempts. Knowing some of the facts behind the magical realism was a big help. The author is undoubtedly great, but read his journalistic writing instead. News of a Kidnapping is fantastic. I also liked Love in the Time of Cholera, which I read in English and Spanish after attempting 100 Years the first time.

Don Quijote de la Mancha: The experience and reasons were similar to my reading of 100 Years, but I liked it a lot more. Considered to be the first modern novel, this is a long, freewheeling book with several detours, including a full-length parody of a pastoral novel. Although it is uneven, it is worth reading both books all the way through. This is a book I wish more people would read. I remember reading that Ronald Reagan said he was influenced by King Arthur stories. I wish he had read Don Quijote to temper that. Don Quijote ended a nostalgia craze and a whole genre of stories about heroic knights. In between the Cervantes volumes, there is a book by Avellaneda, which might qualify as the first piece of fan fiction had it not been such a profitable fake. It's of interest to scholars for many reasons, but if you're looking for entertainment or quality, skip it. I glanced through it, and that was enough.

Diccionario panhispánico de dudas: Being self taught mainly, I need a grounding in grammar. I finally decided to read this grammar dictionary from cover to cover. It's very difficult to read very much at a time, but I have been at it for over a year now. I am on p. 470 of 687. I had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school. He describes how he read the dictionary in prison and copied the words he didn't know. Later, when subbing in a special ed class, which was more of a dumping ground for malcontents, I met a girl who obviously didn't belong there. Thanks to her efforts, she would be leaving special ed, but not until the year ended, so that her current teachers could most likely take credit for, "Bringing her out." She had hand copied two dictionaries to increase her vocabulary. I was impressed, but it took a couple of years before I could follow her example. I started with a LaRousse monolingual dictionary, but the print was too small to read the whole thing. The one I'm reading now looks like a continuation of Maria Molliner's work. Having thrown out any religious orthodoxy, many language snobs worship her, though their linguistic standards are usually inconsistent when applied.

De eeuw van mijn vader: In earlier posts, I mentioned why I got started. What inspires me to finish is an article in The New Yorker about Burma. I believe it was by one of the Theroux brothers. He describes a man who learned English by reading Charles Dickens. He reports that his speech had, "Victorian cadences." I figured that if someone could learn English by reading Dickens, then I could learn Dutch by reading Geert Mak. After I finish the book and close the blog, I will continue with Dutch language reading. Most likely, the next book will be a volume I have by Renate Dorrestein. Then I'll move on to Max Havelaar.

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