timeless truths

In high school English class, we learnt about the idea of a “classic” novel, and discussed what made something a “classic”. One characteristic that might not have stood out for me back then, but certainly stands out for me now, is the notion of “timelessness” — that a novel becomes a classic because it is timeless in its themes, ideas and moral messages.

Part of me thinks that it was probably a bit pointless for the teachers to discuss timelessness with teenagers. I mean, we weren’t daft, but we were young, and as much as we probably believed we knew everything about the world, there was undoubtedly a lot that we didn’t know the half of. Besides, even back then, there was a quick succession of crazes and fads and fashions — there’s not much appreciation of “timelessness” when one day everyone’s watching this show, and playing this game, and then next month these things are barely a memory.

Even so, I’d like to think that I had some grasp of this idea of “timelessness”. In high school, I began reading a lot of “classics”, particularly Charles Dickens. It was also during high school that I discovered I really like Jane Austen’s writing. To my younger self, these books were classics because they were beautifully written, the stories and characters were exquisitely constructed, and they were simply captivating. Then there is all the usual stuff about love and friendship and family — the things that people throughout history have always valued.

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war and peace and everything

I finished reading War and Peace on Tuesday (that’s more or less an entire year spent reading it). I then spent Tuesday night and the greater part of Wednesday alternately wondering how I was going to blog about it, and procrastinating from thinking about how to blog about it.

I typed out some notes and ideas on Tuesday that I could use as a starting point, or perhaps form into some sort of outline. But the more I thought about it on Wednesday, the more I felt like there was no real point in writing anything about something for which so much has already been written.

Yet, at the same time, I felt like there was so much that I wanted to write about.

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to replay or not to replay

Usually when I finish reading a book, and I’m considering how much I liked it, I ask myself if I’d read it again. If a book has a profound impact on me, I’ll say with certainty that I want to reread it one day. (Whether or not I actually get around to rereading it is another matter altogether.)

There are a lot of books that I want to reread, but I never reread a book immediately after finishing it. At most, I might flick back through the book to revisit certain parts, but I know I must move on to another book before restarting the journey. The idea is to leave enough time between readings to allow some forgetting of events so that it can be experienced anew.

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the outsider

Last week I finished reading The Outsider by Albert Camus. It’s quite a short novel (technically a novella?) but it took me a while to finish because I was reading it only occasionally when taking a break from War and Peace, or when I needed to take a book with me somewhere, and obviously W&P is too big to lug around (and I never got around to getting an e-book version of it).

I don’t often go for short books like this one — possibly because when I was a kid and progressed to longer chapter books, I formed in my mind the notion of the “ideal” size of a book, and constantly wanted to flex my reading muscles by tackling longer and longer novels. Possibly also I’ve had some bad experiences with novellas that left me feeling like it was a bit pointless. Contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t enjoy Catcher in the Rye at all, and I only have a vague memory of reading other novellas because I guess they just weren’t all that memorable.

But I’ve had The Outsider recommended to me a few times before, so I had to give it a go. Having finished it, I completely understand why people think this is the kind of story that I would like — it’s very thought-provoking, and is written in a very unique way, unlike anything else I’d read before.

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cease and desist

I reckon most people who read novels, watch films, or watch television shows will eventually come to a moment in a novel/film/show, in which a character is doing something that is, to us, very obviously wrong and might ruin their life. At these moments there is a strong impulse to yell “NO!!” at the character, even though it will do nothing to stop or deter them from their course of action.

The easiest example (and maybe the simplest) is when Wile E. Coyote sets a trap for Road Runner, and when it fails, he investigates the trap in the least safe way possible, and invariably ends up the victim of his own contraptions.

Anyway, despite watching cartoons like this a lot when I was a kid (or maybe because of it?) I’ve never really experienced this extremely strong feeling of wanting to stop a character from doing something. I mean, I’ll probably watch things that other people react to, and think “oh, they probably should not do that”, but it’s generally nothing to get worked up about.

Probably a better explanation is that I tend to read or watch things without thinking too far ahead. I’m not someone who tries to calculate what the ending will be as I read/watch the story unfold. I think it’s better to stay in the moment, and experience the full force of emotions as they happen — be it joy, despair, fear or relief.

However, reading War and Peace last week, I found myself screaming “NO” at one of the characters (not out loud, of course — just in my head), and also getting rather worked up about what was happening. At this point, I must include a warning that there will be spoilers, so please do not read on if you don’t want to know what happens.

Also, I haven’t read much further on after this part, so if something happens that reverses what I just read, please do not tell me.

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W&P progress report

I’ve been reading War and Peace for about two months now, so I thought it would be a good time to do a progress post.

About a month ago, I estimated how long it would take me to finish reading this epic tome, and based on my previous reading rate, it was somewhere close to two years. I’ve never taken more than a year to finish reading a book, let alone two years, so the prospect was quite terrifying to me. As such, I made an effort to read more, and have trimmed back the timeline to less than one and a half years. I’m hoping with all the public holidays coming up, I might get a bit of a boost to my reading, and cut this back further.

I’m currently somewhere in the middle of Part Two, which is all about military stuff — something about the campaign against Napoleon. However, knowing nothing about Napoleon (except that he is a significant historical figure, who was allegedly quite short), I’m not sure I’m following everything that’s happening. I kind of feel like I need a quick history lesson before I proceed, but, the weather being humid and lethargy-inducing, I don’t really feel like learning.

Hopefully the weather will mellow out soon, and I’ll consider it. Until then, I will just half-guess based on the notes at the back of the book. 

For some reason I expected this to be similar to Anna Karenina in the sense that I didn’t need to know historical facts to really grasp what’s going on. I suppose I really should have known better based on the title and the blurb.

I’m still enjoying it, though. Tolstoy’s writing is as excellent as I remember (although I do think Anna Karenina was much easier to read, but that’s probably because the concepts themselves were easier to understand than in War and Peace).

I think I’m also finally getting a grasp of who’s who, which is no easy task considering how many characters there are, multiplied by all the different names with which each character is referred to. It probably helps that I’m reading more than I was before. I suppose it’s all about keeping it in working memory (and keeping my memory working).

Well, on that note, I think I’ll go laze around somewhere cool, and do some more reading!