Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Gone with the Whine

I have a friend named Rose who needs to be posted about here. Rose has asked me specifically not to use her middle name as her secret code blog name--"Rose! So Victorian prostitute!" she exclaimed--but I think she quickly surmised the futility of her argument (cf The Crimson Petal and the White).

Anyway, Rose should really have been posted about earlier. She is a book lover's worst nightmare--that is, a book lover who can read at the speed of light. Seriously. And not speedread, either--properly read. I remember in our 10th grade English class the teacher handed out 15-page tiny-type packets of Faulkner's "A Rose for Miss Emily" and told us to read it and that we'd be having a test on it in half an hour. Now Mrs. Miller, our English teacher, was and is famed for her EVIL tests which require verbatim quotations from the text.

Rose flipped through her pamphlet most casually and after about four minutes set it on her desk and began to file her nails or the equivalent. Miller was livid. She yelled at Rose and stomped her foot but Rose just shrugged. "I'm really done," she said. "It's Faulkner!!" hollered Miller. "That's nice," said Rose. So Miller spitefully took the packet away so Rose couldn't cheat and sneakily read it again in a minute. Rose looked utterly unperturbed and proceeded to get a perfect score on the test (I think the class average was 67%).

Anyway, now you've heard about Rose, who is a lovely person and not really wont to file her nails all that frequently. But her story is really relevant today because I was thinking about something she said to me a long time ago and how it makes me question the validity of my own career (funny how all things eventually become instructive metaphors). (Is that how metaphor is spelled?)

Rose's favorite book was Gone with the Wind. She gushed about it and read it over and over--it was her idea of a perfect weekend activity (and being only 1500 pages it was perfect for filling up an idle tea hour on a Saturday or whatever. Grr.). I remember one summer day, though, when she called me on the phone, distressed. Something terrible had happened.

"I was re-reading Gone with the Wind," she said. "And I realized I hate it! What's wrong with Scarlett? She's just a big spoiled whiny baby. All she does is whine--she's such an annoying character!"

Rose was really upset. Was it just that she had read it too many times? Had the book always been bad? Had her taste matured? Or was it that she'd never been sensitized to the poorer aspects of the book before because she'd read it for the first time when she was so young that she had an emotional connection with the book that extended far beyond any appreciation of plot or literary quality?

After this I read with Gone with the Wind--which, by the way, I love (I find Scarlett's selfishness kind of delightful...and I can only imagine that's what makes other people keep reading, too; although Rose is of course right about the whinyness). But that's really more of a digression.

The point here is-----I want to be an editor. In theory, an editor is someone who not only knows what SHE likes but is also able to ascertain what's actually GOOD and (more importantly) what EVERYONE ELSE likes. Ok. Some some kind of literary taste is really a prerequisite.

Now I read (well, dip into, really) everything. I go to bookstores and farm opening paragraphs and marketing copy to find the perfect books that speak to me. I wade through piles of unpublished manuscripts for each of my jobs and I also have a minorly problematic one-click Amazon habit that ends up in piles of half-read used books stacked on my bed and coffee table (don't worry, the floor's not that uncomfortable to sleep on now that we've gotten rid of the bigger spiders). But there are times I think I don't enjoy any of those books. I read compulsively, the way an alcoholic drinks to survive--not because the booze tastes good or makes him happy anymore.

When I want to enjoy reading, I go back to the Classics (that is, basically, 1-15 on my hot list, and also a few other embarrassments that I didn't put on the list and only read in dark dusty corners where I think I will never be observed). And I LOVE these books. I love them beyond all taste.

The question is, are they good? Can I even tell what's good? Is it evidence of perhaps a poorly-chosen career path that I don't actually *enjoy* the books everyone else says are good, I merely read them compulsively in order to (try to) not look like a fool? Is it possible that some of the books I really love actually suck? I am shaken very seriously in my intellectual security here. I've been thinking about this all week. Is what I like any good at all? I'm worried about the implications.

Rose, I'm just wondering--did you ever come back to Scarlett? I think in your case, at least, you were doubting your own taste but everyone else still seems to think it's a classic.


jalexissmith said...

I hate code-names. Probably mostly because I don't have one, having already outted myself with a first initial-middle-last name blogger ID. But who the heck is Rose? I can't figure it out- grrrrrrr!!!

I am glad u agree on Bel Canto. It really does read as a lovely book but it is so slow. I feel like it would be the perfect book to read with a glass of lemonade, on a hammock outside in the middle of spring. But I am never doing that so it just seems slow to me.

I think next I am going to try for The Other Boleyn (how do u spell that?) Girl- Margaret swears by it. I really am TRYING to like fiction again. What do u think of that book?

moonrat said...

Hmm, acutally...I didn't like it. I thought it was a little bit dull. Safe to say since Margaret doesn't read this blog. In fact, this is one of the rare books that I read about halfway through and then didn't bother to finish (I almost never cut losses like that, since I don't get to write it down in my Book Book unless I finish every last word, and you know how competitive I am with myself).

But this should be further evidence to my unsuitability for my own choice of career--the American and British reading publics LOVED that book. So. Humm.

Rose said...

Sadly, I haven't come back to it yet. I keep picking it up, opening the cover, and then putting it down because I'm afraid I'll hate it again. I think I'll give it another few months - I know I'll be reading it at some point in the future, but...well. It's like a brazilian wax. You dread going, and hate the process, but the result is worth it. So eventually I'll get around to ripping out those hairs. (God, I hate metaphors. I'm terrible at them.)

I want you to know that I don't remember ANYTHING about this supposed test in Miller's class. I clearly remember spelling and reading comprehension tests where she would throw things at me, but not this particular occasion...hmmm.

Alexis - The Other Boleyn Girl is fine. It's a great plane/airport book (which, for me, is something that I don't feel the need to really concentrate on, but will keep me engaged enough that I don't accendtially make eye contact with the 400 pound smelly man who is inevitably sitting next to me). However, if you're trying to like fiction again, I might recommend something a little less fluffy.

jalexissmith said...

Ok ladies, suggest a good one for me! I am not big on fantasy and clearly not big of slow books. Any suggestions?