Saturday, February 20, 2016

Literary Losses

Damn! What a horrible day for readers... we lost Harper Lee and Umberto Eco in quick succession.

Like almost every American who can be considered educated, I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird many years ago. On the virtue of this one book, Harper Lee's spot in the literary firmament was guaranteed. One measure of the book's power is the frequency with which it has been challenged or banned in school districts. Wherever there is anxiety about large black men busting up chifforobes, the book will be considered a dangerous one. It's a paean to liberalism in the teeth of a racist culture, and a call for justice in a society in which courts shouldn't intervene to stop the execution of an innocent individual. I haven't read the recently released Go Set a Watchman, but from what I've read about it, it's a mere coda to the tour de force which is To Kill a Mockingbird.

In contrast, Umberto Eco was a prolific novelist, essayist, semiotician, and gadfly. The Name of the Rose was a marvel... simultaneously sprawling and claustrophobic. Any novel in which a Sherlock Holmes pastiche matches wits with an evil Jorge Luis Borges doppelgänger is alright with me, and the long digressions about monastic life in the Middle Ages and the tension between the Classical and Medieval worlds only sweetened the pot.

Foucault's Pendulum was catnip to me... a wonderful farrago of Kabbalah, crank pseudosciences, and outlandish conspiracy theories compiled into a grand game by a trio of smartass editors working at a vanity press using the outré writings of a gaggle of kooky 'Diabolicals'. Foucault's Pendulum was Illuminatus! written by a tweedy academic instead of a couple of countercultural tricksters, The Da Vinci Code written for brainiacs, Masters of Atlantis with jokes that necessitate an encyclopedia to get... did I say that this book was catnip to me? I love/hate bizarro conspiracy theories and 'weird science' (yo, Shaver, I'm looking at you!), so I readily identified with Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon, whiling away the hours at their job by concocting a unified theory of secret plots and recondite knowledge.

In contrast, The Island of the Day Before grabbed me to a much lesser extent- it's more limited in scope than the wide-ranging Foucault's Pendulum, but it did have some very interesting digressions about the race to discover a means to measure longitude, and the implications that such a discovery would have for the discoverers. It was an entertaining read, but it didn't hit the perfect sweet spot that Foucault's Pendulum, with its secret histories and sinister plotters, had.

I have yet to read The Prague Cemetery, but it looks like it covers some of the same ground that Foucault's Pendulum does. I think a fitting tribute to Signore Eco would be picking this one up.

It's been a bad stretch for bibliophiles... all I know is that Gene Wolfe had better be watching his health, or I'll be despondent.

8 comments:

mikey said...




I dunno. I've got a confession - if it's hard, I didn't read it. Reading is my life, my breath, and it's not something that should be difficult or painful. It should present me with worlds, adventures and characters that I want to know, and times and events and histories I want to participate in.

From Fitzgerald to Pynchon to, yes, Eco, to Uris to Michener and on and on - no, I never even tried. I LOVE to read, but I want to read books that tell me things, not books that make me feel stupid, or unqualified, or books that simply don't make sense. Give me Catch 22. Give me North Dallas Forty. Give me Ball Four. Give me The Eiger Sanction, give me The Evil that men do, give me The Five Fingers, give me Close Quarters, give me Matterhorn, give me The Road, give me Fields of Fire.

Give me something I can learn from, not something I need to try to decode, or even worse, something I can lay claim to some kind of literary hipster cool simply for working through the unbearably twisted prose...

Smut Clyde said...

The Prague Cemetery
"He hatches a plan to forge what will one day become the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion"

I was just thinking, the confluence of literary sources comprising the backstory of the Protocols forgery is weird enough -- and already the subject of a great book, Norman Cohn's "Warrant for Genocide" -- without needing fictional embellishments.

Nasreen Iqbal said...

I haven't read a book by either of these recently-deceased writers, but it does feel like an awful lot of heroes are dying lately.

That makes me feel old.

And actually, it's not just the heroes. It's the arch-enemies.

When Justice Scalia died the other day, I felt a sort of loss. I've spent a lot of time (more than you'd think) reading his opinions to figure out how and why I disagree with him.

I'd go further, but I'm still sort of in shock about your Robert Anton Wilson reference in here...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I dunno. I've got a confession - if it's hard, I didn't read it. Reading is my life, my breath, and it's not something that should be difficult or painful. It should present me with worlds, adventures and characters that I want to know, and times and events and histories I want to participate in.

I love literary puzzles, stuff like Gene Wolfe's Fifth Head of Cerberus or Book of the New Sun, in which one suddenly realizes the answer to the trick, or that the narrator is pulling a swift one.

I also love straightforward stuff- I read The Eiger Sanction on the plane to Switzerland, and a few days later was looking at the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau. Have you ever read anything by Charles Portis? He has a very lean style, probably a throwback to his days as a journalist. True Grit is one hell of a book, a fantastic Western and a great critique of the genre simultaneously.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I was just thinking, the confluence of literary sources comprising the backstory of the Protocols forgery is weird enough -- and already the subject of a great book, Norman Cohn's "Warrant for Genocide" -- without needing fictional embellishments.

I'm going to have to look that up, sounds like a great read.

When Justice Scalia died the other day, I felt a sort of loss. I've spent a lot of time (more than you'd think) reading his opinions to figure out how and why I disagree with him.

When someone does so much harm to so many people, you have to familiarize yourself with their positions as a matter of self preservation.

I'd go further, but I'm still sort of in shock about your Robert Anton Wilson reference in here...

He was one of my favorite cranks. I've never re-read Illuminatus! in its entirety, but there are passages which I have re-read numerous times, and my copy of the omnibus edition is chock full of tiny bookmarks. It's a wonderful book to just dip into. I love those sorts of crazy conspiracy narratives.

I also regularly read his website before he decided to ascend to some other, hopefully weirder plane of existence.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Also, to tie together the 'Protocols' and Robert Anton Wilson, here is RAW's and Robert Shea's take on Henry Ford:

HENRY FORD: By importing The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and beginning the mass production of automobiles, he managed to pollute both the mind and the air of the United States, but he meant well, or at least he meant something.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I haven't read "Foucault's Pendulum."

But now I want to!
~

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