A rambling post

I have all kinds of posts I’d like to write at some point, several on A Sentimental Murder, one on Don Quixote, one on Rilke’s Duino Elegies, but I don’t feel like writing them now. Instead, I feel like rambling. So this will be a rambling post.

This morning, Hobgoblin, Muttboy, and I went on a walk in a local park (something like 1,000 acres in size with lots of forest) and found that our usual trail had been completely devastated by a storm that passed through here last Wednesday. I heard rumors of tornados, although I don’t know if any actually developed, but at the very least it was brief but incredibly powerful; I don’t usually get nervous when storms come through, but this time I was, and I was ready to head down to the basement at any moment. Our neighborhood was fine — we didn’t even lose power — but other neighborhoods near us weren’t so lucky; roads were closed everywhere, trees were down all over the place, and people lost power for days. A trip that usually takes Hobgoblin 30 minutes took him 1 hour 40 minutes because he couldn’t find roads that were open.

So, at the beginning of our walk, we noticed a few trees down, but it didn’t seem that bad until we got to a higher elevation, and there we saw that trees were down everywhere. Everywhere we looked, we saw fallen branches, tree trunks ripped apart, roots pulled up from the ground. We had to pick our way around fallen tree after fallen tree that blocked our path. The path gets used by mountainbikers a lot, but it won’t be rideable for a long time, until somebody spends hours with a chainsaw clearing things out, if it even gets cleared at all. I couldn’t help but wish I’d seen the storm come through — if I could somehow have known I would be safe, I would love to have been there, seeing and hearing what it was like. Walking through the forest was sad, with all those damaged trees, but it was dramatic and exhilarating too.

I attended graduation at my school on Thursday, so now my semester is officially over (although it’s never really over — I’m attending a work-related retreat next week …); I’ve been slipping into summer mode, which means there still is work to be done, but at a slower pace and with lots more time to read. I’ve been devouring Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, and today I devoured the second section of my friend’s novel, the one I’m commenting on as she works on revising it. It’s such a pleasure to read without work hanging over my head! As much as I love teaching, I do get tired of always having work to do on the weekends, which means guilt is never far away — the feeling that I should be grading or reading for school or prepping for class. I tempted to make some goals for summer reading, but I’m trying not to, in favor of keeping things more spontaneous. I already have plans to continue with Proust and Cervantes, and probably that’s plan enough.

I’ll end with a question: do you ever have the experience where you decide to read an author and you turn to his or her best work, and you read it and love it, and want to read more, but all that’s left is the work that everybody says is not quite as good, and you’re a bit afraid to try it because it may disappoint you? I was reminded of that problem when I read Ted’s post on Nabokov’s Pnin, which didn’t quite live up to his expectations. I’ve experienced this with Nabokov myself — I adore Pale Fire and Lolita and Speak, Memory, and would happily read more, but, at least as far as what people generally say, I’ve read the best already. This is true for Virginia Woolf as well; after Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, will I find The Voyage Out disappointing? Do I really want to spend time with a book that will disappoint me? With an author’s works of lesser reputation? I know reputation isn’t always a reliable way to decide if I will enjoy something or not, but I still feel a lingering hesitation about picking up the lesser-known things.

14 Comments

Filed under Books, Life, Reading

14 responses to “A rambling post

  1. Ted

    Boy, I hear that. Funny that you mention Virgina Woolf, as I’ve read both of those novels as well and worry that I’m in for a let-down when it comes time to read The Waves, which is what I’ll try next. Lolita, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse are among my favorite novels, so I don’t think it’s fair to expect that from every text. But the great thing is that Nabokov and Woolf are both particularly great because their prose is surpassingly beautiful — this will be the case with all of their work, even though certain novels and passages will stand apart. You might not have the top of your head blown off, but you’ll always enjoy what you’re reading — no slogging.

    Reputation is important, and books have the status they do for a reason. Often a book’s reputation is greater than its quality, but the fun part is deciding whether that’s the case.

    I find that the “disappointing” lack of true greatness in a lesser work by a great author is counterbalanced by the better understanding you have of the writer. The truly great books separate themselves from their time and their author, while the merely good ones tell us more about the person who composed them.

  2. Wow, sounds like the storm was really big. I’d love to be out in something like that too, watching, but , like you, I’d have to know I was safe.

    I know what you mean about the “lesser” works. I’m slowly reading through Woolf’s short stories. Some of them are brilliant, others not so much. There is a bit of disappointment but it is also interesting to see her trying out different ideas and to compare the not as good to the good and figure out what didn’t quite work. I also try to remember that while a certain story or book may not have reached the caliber of an author’s best, with geniuses like Woolf and Nabokov, their not so good is often better than the average writer, it’s only in comparison to their best work that it doesn’t stand up. Does it keep me from being disappointed? No. But it does help keep things in perspective.

  3. Oh, yeah. When I read a book I love, I have real hesitation to pick up more. But I can’t really rely on critics and their reviews of books– and not because I don’t think critics know what they are talking about; I respect them very much. I’ve just found over the years that my own taste in books is SO idiosyncratic and such a product of my mood, what I’m going through at the moment, etc. that it’s hard to figure out what I’ll just love/find great meaning in and what will leave me flat.

    All that said, I got hooked on Nabokov with King, Queen, Knave…

  4. I did the same thing during that storm, wondering whether or not I should head down to the basement. It came and went so fast, though, didn’t it? And I was amazed as I drove around the next day afterwards. I’ve had that same problem with reading the best of an author and then being reluctant to read more. However, I can say that I loved The Voyage Out, and if you haven’t read Orlando or Flush, those were both terrific, too.

  5. I also have the same fear that you do when reading the best of an author and fearing disappointment with lesser works. Frequently though I have found the lesser works of a good author to still be much better than a lot of other things I could be reading. Sometimes when I know I am going to read multiple works of an author, I will attempt to read them in the order written, or some other logical order.

    Storms are fun to watch when everyone is safe, but power outages are a pain. Reading by candlelight isn’t as easy as one would think. :)

  6. I agree with what others have said. If the author is really wonderful, even their works that are not as great are still going to be pretty good compared with other books. I did read Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and then have gone back and read The Voyage Out and Night and Day–her lesser read works and thought they were both very good. Of course I read her later more experimental works ages ago and I am sure my reading of them didn’t do them justice. So when I read them now I think it will be in an entirely different light. Glad to hear things will be more laid back for you now that summer vacation is truly here!

  7. We were camped at a high elevation (9,000 ft I think) in Utah last fall when we had a terrible storm. We’d already seen plenty of trees that had been struck by lightning during earlier storms on our ride in to camp, so it was scary lying wondering if the wind was going to blow the tent down before the lightning had a chance to strike the metal poles.

  8. That’s a good reason to read an author’s lesser-known works, Ted, and I find myself reading for that reason now and then — sometimes it’s gratifying to see an author’s development over time. Stefanie, it makes sense that a great author’s lesser work will still compare well to what others are doing — it’s comparing a work to the right thing that’s the trick! Chase, well, perhaps I’ll have to try King, Queen, Knave, then; thanks for the heads up! Emily, yeah, I couldn’t believe how quick it was either. It doesn’t seem possible that a storm that lasted only a few minutes could do so much damage. Some of the roads around us are still blocked, believe it or not. I’ve never tried to read an author in chronological order, Brad, but I bet that would be an interesting exercise. Danielle, I’ve been glad to hear how you have enjoyed those Woolf novels because I’m planning on picking them up soon (relatively) myself, and I now have higher hopes for them.

  9. Susan, now that would be terrifying. I’ve been out in storms in a tent before, although not hugely dramatic ones, and I was very frightened — it’s fun after the fact, but not during!

  10. Dorothy, thank you for directing me to Ted’s post. Whilst I’ve read some Nabokov titles that weren’t spectacular (Laughter in the Dark, Ada, Mary etc) Pnin is a personal favourite. I adore it. It doesn’t approach the greatness of Lolita but Pnin is just such an adorable character. I definitely wouldn’t take it off your TBR list. Zadie Smith also loves Pnin .

    But I have had the same experience when exploring an author’s works. Margaret Atwood dissappointed me. I loved Handmaid’s Tale but couldn’t get into other novels of hers which I tried.

  11. I find it even more scary to pick one title to start of an esteemed author’s work that I’ve never read. If I don’t like it, then I probably will never read anything else by that writer. At least with someone like Woolf, if you’ve liked others by her you can’t really lose. I didn’t love A VOYAGE OUT, but found it really interesting to see how she had changed/developed as a writer (so it was worth reading for that alone), and reading NIGHT AND DAY straight afterwards meant I really saw progression in her writing skills.

  12. I think those storms would freak me out. I like dramatic weather, but not tree-destroying dramatic. I know just what you mean about that ‘best’ work thing. However, many years ago I read Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘The Edible Woman’ without knowing that it was the first she’d written and to this day I like it better than, say, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ which is supposed to be one of her very best. So there’s always room for individual taste to save the day!

  13. Literary Acquisitionist, I’m glad you liked Pnin — I suppose I should just take a risk with certain things, because I never know what will hit the spot, right? Equiano, I’d love to see Woolf’s development over the course of several novels — she’d be a good candidate to read chronologically, perhaps. Litlove, there’s no need to over-rely on the critics, is there? As others have said, something could surprise me.

  14. hepzibah

    I always ask myself that question too — when i am searching for books, with the book sale people that I work with, I always pick up books and ask, “Have you heard of this author?” And they will shrug or nod or smile in acknowlegdement…So I guess its a quesiton we all ask…but sometimes I think there’s has to be more out there than just the authors who made it…so I don’t know. I also think rambling posts are the best :) Have fun on your retreat.

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