Monday, June 02, 2008

Moonrat's Celebrate Reading Pick

I have a slight advantage over most people when it comes to looking back over the course of my life to pick one important book and being sure I haven't forgotten to think about any. This is because I'm a huge dork and, after being inspired by an All Things Considered soundbyte in 1999, have been logging every single thing I read--title, author, date, brief comments--into a blue spiral-bound notebook. To make my decision about which book was most important to me, all I would have had to do was flip through.

But in the end, I chose a book that isn't in my notebook because I finished reading it on March 26th, 1999, less than a month before I started keeping the notebook (yes, I remember the date I finished reading it--that should be an argument for its lasting resonance if anything is).

What have I chosen, already?! you're asking. Well, I've committed a sin. I've chosen a very book that every single snobby tall-nosed self-conscious masturbatory pseudo-intellectual tells older men at cocktail parties--particularly their aging bosses who need to be "impressed"--that they loved. I've chosen a book that no one in their right mind actually enjoys reading, but is so effin' pleased with themselves for getting through that they tell everyone they loved it and that it changed their life. And after awhile they begin to think they actually liked it. I might as well have chosen something by James Joyce.

Alas. I have picked THE SOUND AND THE FURY, by William Faulkner. Tragedy of tragedies. I cringe whenever people tell me at a bar, a party, or a job interview that they "love" Faulkner. Pompous cerebral assholes. I know when they say that that they are EXACTLY LIKE ME!--intellectual poseurs. But I can solidly say after a couple hours of flipping through the Book Book that it honestly takes the prize. Here's why--and hopefully not for the reasons you're expecting.

I didn't ever intend to read the book, originally, but it was foisted upon me by the English teacher who changed my life. For the purposes of this blog, let's call her Mrs. Miller. I was in tenth grade at a large rural public school as socially far away from New York City as you can imagine and I was very, very tightly wound about getting into college. Mrs. Miller was in her late seventies at the time, a recovering book editor who had ended up in her second career trapped in a leaking suburban hell and convincing neurotic tenth-graders that they had something to live for besides the SATs. She was--and is--a living legend.

Rumors and horror stories had been passed along down from graduated tenth grader to tenth grader for as many years as anyone could remember. There were often two tests a week, but there was always at least one, on vocabulary and grammar every Friday. And it was hell. Seriously, you can't imagine these tests. The first day of class was a test, in fact, which everyone always failed. My year, it was on Herman Melville's BILLY BUDD, and when the girl next to me got a 76 Mrs. Miller looked positively thwarted. On parent-teacher open house day, she would arrive, every year without hiccup, with a scarlet A pinned to her dress. This was a little cerebral for some of the parents, but most at that point knew we'd suffered through three grueling tests on THE SCARLET LETTER by early October and basically had the book memorized in hopes that we'd avoid the fourth. During our class when we were discussing Hawthorne's use of pathetic fallacy (that is, the literary device that employs weather and other natural indicators to reflect the timbre of the story) a junior named Diego, who had suffered the whole Miller regime and somehow left in one piece, weaseled into our classroom and wrote on the blackboard behind her:

PATHETIC: your grade
FALLACY: thinking you'll ever understand this stuff

We laughed, in our pain.

Another famous Millerism was the spring "Thesis." Everyone spent the entire spring semester working on one piece of American literature and came up with one original thesis on that book, on which they wrote one 20-age paper. No more than 25% of the parenthetical documentation could be taken from the primary source, and no more than 10% from any single secondary source--and yes, she counted. She also spent three weeks following up all of our citations to make sure we hadn't cut any corners. Part of our grade was determined by the index cards on which we were supposed to take our notes--we each turned in at least the required minimum 400 close citations, all color-coded and alphabet catagorized. This was how I learned to index, incidentally.

Even after four pretty darn diligent years at a notoriously intense college, I can still Girl Scout Promise you that this was the single most rigorous piece of academic work I ever did.

In late February, we were to choose our title. We were given a list of acceptable American novels. Deviation from the list was acceptable (with strong argument) but not encouraged. We were to write up 200-word proposals about why we should be allowed to read a particular book on the list. The list was a thinly veiled waterfall from least snooty and erudite to most, and we all saw through that one quickly. We were about to be striated. The last three titles on the list were, in order, AS I LAY DYING, LIGHT IN AUGUST, and THE SOUND & THE FURY.

My arch nemesis, whom for the sake of this blog we shall call Rick O'Malley, the staight A mathlete who printed his vocab homework on cloud-patterned stationary (keep in mind, this was back in the age when most of us didn't even have computers in our houses, never mind printers), went straight for the nuggets with LIGHT IN AUGUST. I saw the knock-down he took about "what would be more appropriate" before he was reassigned A FAREWELL TO ARMS. Oh, SNAP!! My momma didn't raise no fool. I meekly pitched my proposal for THE HOUSE OF MIRTH.

No, nope. That wasn't gonna fly. "Too easy," said Miller. "No laziness from you."

"No laziness," I choked out.

"I think what you WANT to do is THE SOUND AND THE FURY. Isn't that what you want?"

That's right, Rick O'Malley. Straight to the bottom of the list.

The actual reading of the book itself isn't really important. In fact--we're being honest here, and also, I'm anonymous, so you can't even run off and report me to Rick--I didn't get most of the book at all. After reading it twice, cover to cover, and reading more than 30 literary theses on the book, I know all the issues back and forth and inside out. And I LOVE them. But it wouldn't be 100% honest to say that I really enjoyed reading them at the time.

So why was this the book that changed my life? Well, most immediately, because I won Mrs. Miller's respect by doing it. She set me a task, and I rose to it. She annointed me as one of her chosen, wrote my recommendations, grilled me in grammar (she's the reason, for example, that the production manager at my company stopped the production meeting a couple of weeks ago to ask me if I had any idea what the difference between "toward" and "towards" was, and then, after I gave her a 30-second historical usage synopsis, said, "Somehow I just had a feeling you'd know the answer"). She clucked her tongue in disappointment when I confessed I wasn't majoring in English (although she had been a history major herself--"don't repeat my mistakes!" she cried), but then hugged me with relief when it all turned out ok and I veered back toward editorial, the track, I see now, she wanted me on from the beginning.

But is it fair or happy to confess that the book you love most dearly you love because of what it says to someone else about you?

I have yet another confession (but you know how I am with confessions)--I really DO love Faulkner. But it took me years and years to understand how and why. When I finally prised myself away from my "break down every single goshdarn word and understand it!!" approach and let myself sink into impressionistic absorbtion--and yes, that does include plowing through stretched of pages at a time without really taking in what's going on on occasion--I find that I get enough of it to fall in love with the book despite what I've missed.

But I love his language, and I love what he has to say. I'm certifiably obsessed with his ideas about fictional retelling, although this didn't sink in until I read ABSALOM, ABSALOM! in college, and I have to say that book was even more opaque to me the first time through than TS&TF was. I planned my entire ambitious (and now wisely burned and buried) first novel around what Faulkner taught me about relative truths. But there we go with the overly cerebral again.

So I guess the short story is I love Faulkner mostly because I love what being able to say I've read him means to people at the other end of the conversation, and I hate myself because that's the guiltiest and stupidest reason to love an author. But more deeply and more darkly, I secretly actually do love Faulkner, despite what saying I love him makes people think about me.

I've run my stint as a pseudo-intellectual (funny, I originally typed that as "untellectual") and I got tired and fed up with myself. I don't think I'm a stupid girl, and I'm confident enough in that belief that I'm now comfortable admitting that no, I didn't get the whole novel the first time through. In fact, I still don't get all of it. Yes, the specter of incest throughout haunts me and I still can't decide if I think it actually happened or not, and yes, my solution for reconciling this basic plot misunderstanding is pushing it out of my mind and thinking about some other book. This after ten years.

But you know what? I'm ok with that now. I don't need to fight to be the expert anymore. The impressionism is just fine with me.

So I raise my glass (he was an alcoholic, after all) to Faulkner, who changed my mind and my relationships. Trite as it may be, for Celebrate Reading Month I've got to celebrate you.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

OMG I thought I was alone. I loved TS&TF. I don't know that I love Faulkner so much, but that particular book was a transformative experience for me. For many of the same reasons you list. That out of what seems like muddle sometimes comes a powerful revelation. That getting "it" precisely can happen and then float away. LOVED IT.

Teri Hall
The Line
Fall 2009
Houghten Mifflin Harcourt

jalexissmith said...

nice names

Charles Gramlich said...

Now that's an argument and a half for loving Faulkner. Excellent thesis development and fine denoument. I'm afraid I can't go there for myself, though. I read "The Sound and the Fury" when I was in grad school, because I felt I should. My God it was awful. I can appreciate at the intellectual level what Faulkner was trying to achieve, but at an emotional level it left me totally flat. I would say it was somewhat of a transformational event for me, though. It convinced me to stop listening to the "ones in the know" about what I should read.

moonrat said...

Which, Charles, is in a way almost precisely my point, and an argument in itself!! Congratulations.

cindy said...

i think i tried to read it in high school and couldn't get through it. it was way too difficult for me. i'm not sure if i tried again in college. wow, faulkner, huh?

alas, i am not one of the chosen.

Lisa said...

Some years ago I decided that I wanted to/had to read Faulkner. I tried TS&TF and ABSALOM, ABSALOM and put both back down within the first 20 pages. Finally, I struck gold with AS I LAY DYING. I still have a copy of TS&TF and may just give it another try...

Bernita said...

I think I read Sound/Fury - am not sure, having managed to skim through my American Lit course by reading only about 20 % of the syllabus.

Ello said...

For my guest post, I shall talk about the most important book ever written in the face of the earth and which makes your silly Faulkner look like an amateur!


I shall post on Green Eggs and Ham.

Just tell me when.

By the way, I think you are very smart and not snobby for a girl who loves Faulkner! ;o)

JES said...

Wow, MR -- set the bar kinda high, didn't you?

*crossing Goodnight Moon off own list*

This is priceless: "...second career trapped in a leaking suburban hell." (And it illustrates one danger in the Summer Celebrate Reading extravaganza: that I might end up satisfied just enjoying the reviews!)

Faulkner: never went there, or rather started out but never GOT there. It's not the "difficulty" per se, and it's not some kind of reverse snobbery. (I loved Gravity's Rainbow, for heaven's sake.) But something just failed to click with me lo these many years ago. I forget which one I tried -- might have been Light in August.

Probably high time I tried again no?

Conduit said...

Faulkner never came up in the English Lit syllabus on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, I think F. Scott Fitzgerald was the only American writer we studied. Somehow, I don't think he'd be my bag.

This was a fascinating read as it illustrates how the academic approach to literature can sometimes allow passion through the fusty layers of analysis and interpretation. Far too many books were forever ruined for me by hours in the classroom, picking them apart, stripping them of all joy. I'm glad it isn't always that way.

Froog said...

I'm with Conduit there. It was almost incomprehensible to me that anyone would choose English as their degree: it seemed far too much like carrying out vivisection on beloved pets. (And, in the UK, there's far too much para-reading rather than real reading, far too much abstruse literary theory.)

I think I ended up reading far more at University than most of my friends who were studying English, and not having the love of literature crushed out of me.

400 citations on file cards for a single extended essay?! That's outrageous. I honestly don't think I used that many references in my entire undergraduate career!!

Rose said...

Can I just jump to the most irrelevant part of the story? (Because that's what I do.)

Here it is: The Diego day might have been the most depressing day of my high school career.

Colorado Writer said...

I'm glad I'm not following that magnificent POST!

How did I get an English degree without actually reading TS&TF?

Or did I, but can't remember because my English grammar class sucked the marrow from my bones?

writtenwyrdd said...

I wasn't forced to read this in my English courses, but I did read As I Lay Dying, and I absolutely loved it.

I know it is dreadfully pleibean of me, but I generally don't care to read "the classics" since I hit twenty or so. Being forced to read some stuff like George Elliott and similar horrid writers really put the damper on what little enthusiasm I had left for "classics". But I did love Faulkner and some of Hemingway's stuff. In small doses, lol.

JES said...

Btw, coincidentally Faulkner is one of the authors featured in today's Today in Literature newsletter:

"William Faulkner's The Reivers was published on this day in 1962. Though his last novel, published just a month before his death at age sixty-four, it is a coming-of-age tale, and one which Faulkner had on his mind for over two decades. Below, his outline of the story in 1940, a description which remained essentially accurate, though the stealing — 'reiver' means robber — involves a car as well as the horse:

[quote begins]

It is a sort of Huck Finn — a normal boy of about 12 or 13, a big, warmhearted, courageous, honest, utterly unreliable white man with the mentality of a child, an old negro family servant, opinionated, querulous, selfish, fairly unscrupulous, and in his second childhood, and a prostitute not very young anymore and with a great deal of character and generosity and common sense, and a stolen race horse which none of them actually intended to steal. The story is how they travel for a thousand miles from hand to mouth trying to get away from the police long enough to return the horse.

[quote ends]

"Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley believes that 'In all of American literature there is nothing — absolutely nothing — to compare with the life's work of William Faulkner,' and that The Reivers is a good place to start for any reader who wishes to approach his other novels, which otherwise might seem 'an Everest too steep and craggy to climb.'"

Sounds like The Reivers is coming up on my reading list...

ChrisEldin said...

What an awesome review!!!
But you have me so curious now, I want to read that book. But now I know I'll need to be drunk to understand it because he was probably drunk when he wrote it. That's part of what you wrote, isn't it? ;-)
(p.s. anyone who keeps a paper and electronic book log *is* erudite!)
:-)

Anonymous said...

This was a brilliant post. Thank you.

Linda said...

Great review. I love Faulkner, although I admit I don't understand all of his writing... heck, most of it. But TS&TF is really so beautiful, the siblings' characters so unique and compelling. I reread this about a year ago, my writing instructor sent me to study Quentin's journey and voice (he's the brother who jumps in the Charles), as I was tackling the issue of suicide in my own story. Faulkner so got me in Q's head that it left me breathless.

He's a lush writer (prose and otherwise), and this is one of his best. Thanks for reviewing - and glad this story's broadened your social network! Peace, Linda

pacatrue said...

Faulkner is an author I remember enjoying quite well, but I've never really returned to. We read TS&TF and the collection Go Down, Moses in some English class. Probably southern lit. I remember being terribly moved by The Bear, the longest story in Go Down Moses. But when I go back, I never get into it again. I think you have to let yourself sort of enter his world which takes many pages, and only then can it take over. The Bear for instance enters this rather hypnotic section on the Southern experience, and I can't imagine it's as important to non-Southerners.

Incidentally, I used to live in Oxford, MS, Faulkner's home. One of the family homes (homes because we moved a lot, not because we had several homes at once) was just a few blocks down the street from Faulkner's Rowan Oak. We used to meet a bunch of other dogs on the back lawn of Rowan Oak for play time and then go on a walk through the Faulkner Woods. I also worked at Square Books in Oxford, which is a nationally known indie book store, and so I spent a lot of time stocking the Faulkner section. Not reading so much as stocking.

thedailyelephant said...

well, i'm new around here, so hello. you're right, you know. the mention of being a Faulkner fan does bring about a desirable impression. much in the same way that having stacks upon stacks of used books compiled in my house implies a certain learnedness - although i've yet to read any one of them. my bad.

Sprizouse said...

Part of what made Faulkner great was his choice to make the reader go through an intense verbal obstacle course. Occasionally putting oneself through some rigorous mental gymnastics helps keep the mind sharp. No Faulkner novel lends itself to escapist reading or the lable of a "popcorn" literature.

Faulkner wants his readers to be sufficiently challenged to understand the deeper meanings of his novels.

However, that being said, one of the criticisms of Faulkner is that his subject matter (rubes in the sticks of Mississippi) isn't the best canvas to use when painting a masterpiece.

Anyway, loved the CR pick... have trolled this blog for a while now and never posted. Keep up the good work Moonrat.

Claire Ashgrove said...

I just had to comment, I think it's the first time I have. At the risk of being one of those snooty intellectuals, I must say, Faulkner is hands-down my favorite author. I read TS&TF fifteen years ago and have never forgotten it. As a writer, I strive to be able to write a single sentence and have it carry as much impact as, "My mother is a fish."

What's crazy is, I think I was the only one in my class that actually enjoyed sifting through his long sentences, and fortunately, or unfortunately - however one chooses to look at it - I tend to prefer writing long sentences over short.

I've noticed those that enjoy Faulkner, oddly, do the same when they write.

Hats off to you, Moonrat, for really appreciating one of the greats.