Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On classic literature

In my English 110 class during my freshman year at college, we were instructed to read and write a paper on Henry V. Being the ever-responsible young man that I was, I postponed the reading of the work in favor of more important academic pursuits, such as drinking too much and sitting around in front of the television. I wrote the paper the night before it was due, chugging down caffeinated soda and frequently referring to notes found on the internet. I am simultaneously proud and not proud to say that I got an A on the paper. I am not sure how.

This was just one in a long line of classic works of literature I haven't read. There reasons for this are numerous and varied, but it usually boiled down to my deep-seated bias of classic literature being boring and uninteresting to me. Conversations with older, wiser individuals usually went something like this...

Wise and intelligent person: Hey Greg, you should read this work of classical literature!

Foolish, insolent Greg: Yeah, I've been meaning to. I'll put it at the top of my list!

Exit, pursued by bear.

Foolish, insolent Greg proceeds to read some contemporary sci-fi.

To illustrate the severity of this phenomenon, I'll just throw this out there - I've never read Huckleberry Finn. Yes, I know most school curriculums require it. No, I didn't pull a "Henry V." I just never had to read it.

It was with this knowledge kicking around in my brain that I found myself sitting on the couch with nothing to read. I had just come off a long string of fantastic science fiction books that aren't due out for months, and I wanted to read something that was out already. Thankfully, my parents are avid readers, and after a couple minutes of perusing the shelves I located an old mass market copy of 1984, circa before I was born. I figured, what the heck - I could keep on my sci-fi run and read a classic work. And if I hated it, well, then it would just reaffirm my belief that classic literature was boring.

Suffice to say, I was floored. Probably one of the best books I've read in my entire life. I had no idea there was a love story involved. It is probably the first time I felt the hype behind a book truly lived up to the text itself. Fantastic. I could go on forever about it.

My first reaction was, oddly enough, to lash out. Why didn't anyone tell me how good this book was?! I thought to myself.

And then I smacked myself upside the head and recalled that quite a few people for quite a few decades had, in fact, told me exactly how good the book was.

And then it dawned on me. An epiphany of epic proportions.

If 1984 was as good as they say... what other classic works are as good as they say? Surely they can't ALL live up to the hype, but some likely would. My to-read list quadrupled in length overnight.

Since my dramatic paradigm shift, I have still been reading contemporary works. But in the back of my head, I've been debating what my next big classic undertaking will be. I've always wanted to read The Count of Monte Cristo, but I'm not sure I'm mentally prepared for that yet. The length is daunting, to say the least. Perhaps I'll finally buck up and pick up Huckleberry Finn.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ubik; or is this the real life

There is a part in Ubik where Joe Chip awakens after falling asleep in a hotel in Switzerland and attempts to place a call to room service. On the other end of the line is Runciter's voice, his dead boss.  The boss that Joe and his fellow employees just took to the moratorium after being assassinated by a rival. They were hoping to be able to talk to him, that maybe they could bring him back to get new orders and how handle the mishap on the moon.

It did not work, they could not get through to Runciter, he very well could be beyond them forever.  However, here he was talking on the phone in Joe's hotel room. How did he know that Joe stayed here, how could he even talk on the phone? It is the beginning of a long line of contradictions. Pretty soon, Runciter's image starts to appear everywhere, on money, in ads.  Messages start becoming apparent to the survivors that Runciter needs to talk to them, at one point they find an ancient tape recorded message.  As this goes on, the world starts to decay and to weaken. The survivors start to wonder if they actually survived or if reality was unhinged.

Right there is enough to know why we decided to read this book for our monthly sci-fi book club at Boswell's.  It is classic Philip K. Dick at his best and definitely my favorite. The discussion centered around the fact that it is really hard to critique a book that you really loved. I know I have a problem finding fault in the book, and if I really love a book, then I have a really hard time being critical of it.  Thankfully, the group enjoyed the book and we did not have to find holes or lack of continuity. Though the lack of continuity was one of the main driving factors in the book; in fact time seems to collapse in this book as the fabric of reality slips away.  I would say my favorite part to discuss was the ending and how everybody interprets it (not going to ruin the end for you, so I will not delve into it too deeply).

I was thrilled that the first section in the forthcoming book, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick begins with his musings on Ubik.  For all of those rabid fans out there, this is the holy grail for Philip K. Dick followers. These are the thousands of pages of writing that he left behind, they were his thoughts on an event in his life that was simply stated as "2-3-74." The date that he discovers a cosmic mystery, it also led to the famously hard to read Valis trilogy; well if not hard-to-read then hard-to-follow (still loved it). There have been conspiracy theories aplenty surrounding this book and the reasons it was never to be published.  The simple fact is this: it is huge and cumbersome.  It took Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem to really put the book into a format that reach all his fans.  Coming this November it is high on my top priorities as a must read.

Up for this June 13th: CJ Cherryh's, A Wave Without a Shore. Check out the the Boswell Science Fiction Book Club's Wikispace here.  Also, I might have some cool postcards to give away.