School is out, we’re on vacation, and Mad Men is over, so I’ve been reading a lot lately and have run into some unexpected themes in some of my mindless summer reading.
First, for those following along, I made it out of the Slough of Despond and finished The Goldfinch. While it never did quite return to the magic that captured my imagination in the first third of the book, the last third redeemed it somewhat. The ending reminded me a lot of Crime & Punishment but with terrible theology/ramblings.
Ready Player One by Ernie Cline // I picked up this read per the Modern Mrs. Darcy Summer Reading Guide page turners. I really was sucked in to the virtual world of the OASIS that Cline created despite the overwhelming videogame geek nostalgia and the Reddit bro beta male protagonist that would generally turn me off. Within the first twenty pages, we’re subjected to a rant by the main character, Wade, about the lies he had been told, like “God the sky fairy” and a whole lot of adolescent opinions at which the reader is supposed to nod knowingly in solidarity. But I’m glad I kept reading. The puzzle plot was intriguing and made me binge read the whole thing. I stole minutes of reading in between packing boxes in order to get to the end.
Incidentally, I can tell I needed a deeper book to read because I kept thinking about how the book revealed culture’s confused mind/body dualism. Wade, the main character, meets one of his online friends IRL and discovers his friend isn’t who he thought this person would be. “As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other,” he explains, “I realized we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We’d known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We connected on a purely mental level. […] None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.” [Emphasis mine.] You’ve heard this before. Nothing physical about a person is essential to who they are. But the book’s anti-material Gnosticism coexists with the main character’s realization that virtual reality isn’t as great as living in the real world outside the OASIS. It’s indicative of a general confusion about bodies, souls, and intimacy if these contradictions creep into even this simple pleasure read about eighties nostalgia and D&D adventures.
Possession by A.S. Byatt // I’m almost finished with A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which I picked up because it features in the next Fountains of Carrots podcast book swap alongside Till We Have Faces, one of my absolute favorites. A sort of academic mystery, it follows Roland Mitchell, a scholar of the fictitious Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, as he uncovers records of an affair with a fellow poet, Christabel LaMotte. The story is interspersed with “primary sources” – poems, letters, and journals written by Ash and LaMotte. I may have skimmed the long narrative poems, but I appreciate Byatt’s ability to use different voices like his own character, Ash, who is referred to as the “great ventriloquist.”
Possession is also a book about what it means to be truly known, but if Ready Player One suffers from facile gnosticism, Possession is the pro-embodiment alternative. The Victorian LaMotte bares her soul to Ash in her letters, but initially refuses to meet him over cucumber sandwiches lest she lose “the freedom of the white page” to the intimacy and vulnerability of a meeting. After they do finally first meet, LaMotte writes to Ash that “embodied […] conversation unsettles the Letters. […] I am overawed by your voice – in truth – by Presence – however taken.” And from Ash’s perspective, from a narrative of a train trip they took together:
All the way from London, he had been violently confused by her real presence in the opposite inaccessible corner. For months he had been possessed by the imagination of her. […] Her presence had been unimaginable, or more strictly, onlyto be imagined. Yet here she was, and he was engaged in observing the ways in which she resembled, or differed from, the woman he dreamed, or reached for in sleep, or would fight for.
Byatt also explores this theme through Roland and his companion and LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey’s experience of their subjects over a century later. How well can they know the poets they have devoted much of their lives to if they only know them through their writing? Their work is devoted to bringing these figures to life in their work, breathing meaning into their poetry and gathering clues from their biographies to understand the texts. Roland and Maud go on a type of pilgrimage, following Ash and LaMotte’s footsteps through their affair. Despite Roland’s insistence that he has “never been much interested in places- or things- with associations” to Ash and Maud’s similar feeling due to her vocation as a “textual scholar,” they get clues more from places and relics on their pilgrimage than only simple study of the letters. (It’s sort of a Catholic book, I’m just saying.)
I also enjoyed Byatt’s implicit criticism or mocking of feminist literary theory. It acts as a corrective to reducing all feeling to mere bodily instinct and desire. Roland reads a feminist explication of one of LaMotte’s poems and comments to Maud about how, if “everything is human sexuality,” then “Everything relates to us and so we’re imprisoned in ourselves – we can’t see things.” Like LaMotte says to a young cousin in the book, we have to see ourselves as both Martha and Mary, body and soul.
I could write many more words about this book and I’m not even finished yet. Read it. It’s good.On the other end of the spectrum, I’m simultaneously reading Outlander and someone needs to explain the hype to me. I am over halfway through and I am not finding it compelling. Is it the mystery of how Claire is sent back in time that’s intriguing? The 50 Shades of Plaid factor? Why would I spend another gazillion pages with these characters? I want to finish the first one just to find out what the hook is.
Aaaaand, I’m also sloooowly reading From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone, a new release from Oxford University Press. The author, Paul Thompson, is a philosophy professor, so it’s interesting to read his perspective on food since most of my exposure to food ethics has been through aesthetic arguments like Wendell Berry’s writing or shock journalism (Food Inc.). I’ve been pretty underwhelmed and I’m reminded how extraordinarily unimpressive rights theory is to me since the book is almost all casuistry. Team Virtue Ethics, yo.
I also read Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead on our road trip back from DC per the Modern Mrs Darcy Summer Reading Guide page turner recommendations. It was…fine. A page turner about ballerinas with a silly twist to boot. Absolutely mindless. I picked another one from the same list next, The Accident, but thought the premise ridiculous – a manuscript So Dangerous, even the CIA is involved!!! – and I found myself 50% through and nothing had really happened yet in the plot, so I abandoned that sucker.
What are you reading? Did you like Outlander and what is wrong with me? I love new Goodreads friends!
Linking up with Quick Lit over at Modern Mrs. Darcy!