6 Books to read before you die: part II

A Moveable Feast by: Ernest Hemingway

“Paris in the twenties was a moveable feast.” Indeed, and a lot of American party boys and lesbians made bank and their artistic reputations at the twentieth century’s most indulgent trough. What this book told me is that our current obsession with social media and reality television is not a completely modern invention. It’s a proven fact that humans are naturally inclined toward gossip, and voyeurism and Paris in the twenties was an orgy of namedropping, scene politics and social philandering. Between Hem’s book and Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, we meet Picasso, Matisse, Fitzgerald, Pound, Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Aleister Crowley.

The funniest scene here is Hemingway’s road trip with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hem can’t understand why F. Scott always flakes out after a few drinks. He’s never heard of an alcoholic before – pretty ironic shit from a man who would go on to set the standard.

There’s a lot here on Ernie’s writing process. Quite interesting. For more in this line, read his Death in the Afternoon. I prefer this stuff to Ernie’s hardboiled war novels. For Whom the Bell Tolls reads like the script to a Steven Segal movie.

War and Peace by: Leo Tolstoy

Fuck Charles M. Schulz for giving this book a bad name. Like generations of kids, I had my image of Tolstoy’s masterpiece tainted by the arduous struggle Schulz’s blockheaded protagonist made out of reading it. What a pity he had to miss such a kick ass New Year’s Eve party. I assumed War and Peace was some unapproachable tome. Well . . . it is long. It’s also vastly entertaining. The count was actually a pretty fun guy before he turned into a pious, reclusive weirdo.

The most profound theme in the novel is Tolstoy’s rejection of the common human fetish for “great men” as the movers of historical events. Instead, he paints history as like a vast sea of coincidences, misunderstandings and inevitabilities, the tides of which move people around like fish. Some fish get big and fat because they’re in a good spot – fish in a bad spot get eaten.

I still have a hard-on for Dostoevsky, but Tolstoy’s genius is undeniable. It’s like Beatles vs. Stones for book nerds. Read ‘em all – buy the ticket, take the ride.

Ulysses by: James Joyce

As long as we’ve started down this line, we might as well go all the way. Ulysses is another book that’s become a victim of its own eminence. Its reputation scares people off. I read it three times – first when I was 18; I got nothing out of it; I’m not even sure I finished it. The second time – I was a couple years older – I took the scholarly approach. I read The Odyssey beforehand, kept a dictionary on hand – still nothing. The third time, I tried something different; I read it as I would any book that wasn’t considered the greatest novel of the 20th century. Well ho-lee-she-it, what a revelation; if you’re able to just chase out all the biased preconceptions other people have put in your head, you’re able to enjoy a work of art on your own terms. With Ulysses, you have to concede that you’re going to miss things. Just keep reading and don’t worry about it. Joyce’s idea was to recreate the “inner-life” on paper. Just like in real life, there are a million things going on in people’s minds and not all of them make sense or seem to mean anything important. Certain parts of the book will suddenly ring perfectly clear and these moments make all the slogging worthwhile.

What’s so beautiful about this work is that everyone who reads it will get different things out of it. Joyce created a labyrinth of images and ideas that presents the reader with endless possibilities. He created something on paper that is as vague and confusing, yet colorful and poignant as life itself. He once said that his only demand of his reader was that he spend his whole life reading him. That’s ballsy. Who doesn’t appreciate a big set of balls and a tiny, bespectacled man?

Also, for what it’s worth and in contrast to most revered artists, Joyce seemed to be an actual decent man. Richard Ellmann closed his biography of the artist this way: “In whatever he did, his two profound interests – his family and his writings – kept their place. These passions never dwindled. The intensity of the first gave his work its sympathy and humanity; the intensity of the second raised his life to dignity and high dedication.” As a family man and writer myself, I must say that’s a pretty bad-ass epitaph.


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