Friday, 17 July 2015

A Contest That Doesn't Exist

A Contest That Doesn't Exist
In Which Our Hero Loses

By Our Hero I really mean me. And I do lose. I was, in fact, expecting to win and, indeed, have a rationalisation which means that it is not I who really loses. But, I suppose, even contests that don't exist need introductions.

One of the things I did in my first week of uni last year was pick up an issue of Craccum after deciding that they were free to take. This wasn't a necessarily easy decision to make because few people read Craccum and I am not sure if I'd seen anyone take one from the Symonds Street Underpass box beforehand (this is where I get most issues of Craccum). This is a sad state of affairs for a student magazine and I am not sure the current editors have taken the right approach to increasing its readership (I am convinced that Craccum no longer knows if it is a student magazine or it is a wannabe Metro or something like that). Hell, sticking a free on the box and just creating time-relevant issues would be a good first step (week one is where you get new readers, don't write something called "Last Call for Culture" and run it as a lead... it sounds stuffy and new students haven't yet got any basis on which to nod their head along as they reach each new point raised, which was the point of the article unless I am very much mistaken). Argh, jeez, I'm A.A. Milne.

Anyway, a few weeks ago (4 June apparently) the arts editor (who I am fairly certain was once in the same history tutorial as me, but, hey, I don't know for sure) wrote her editorial and called it "Guilty Pleasures". It's fairly interesting. I agree with many of the sentiments. I would interpret it in the context of "Who cares about the symbolism?" or that meme about English teachers and curtains. What I am trying to do is just give a brief idea of what was in that post because her point is not our point. What we are interested in is the reference to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which is a book. As it turns out, the arts editor, Caitlin Abley, has read ten of those books, eight of which for academic purposes. Being an actually competitive person, I read that and my first thought was "I wonder how many I've read? Is it more?" unless you call that two thoughts. I pretty immediately resolved to find out. However, it turns out that that book is pretty popular so it has taken over a month for me to gain access to it (through Auckland Libraries*). So that's the contest: which of us has read more "must reads" than the other? It's probably a pretty fair contest: we're pretty much the same age even if I'm wrong about the tutorials.

But I already said that I lost.

As it happens, I've read 9. Abley has read 10 (remember?). If I had not been in advanced English in Year Eleven I probably would have read 10 too (most classes read Animal Farm, we got a short story and Macbeth instead. I don't mind Macbeth but reading Animal Farm is almost a rite of passage which I felt I was denied and reading it in my own time won't reclaim that). This probably means that if I had stuck with English I may have won, but I'm glad I didn't. As it happens, though, literally none of these books were read by me for the purposes of English. As I mentioned earlier, eight of the books that Abley's read were "because someone had forced [her] to." That's probably not as bad as it sounds because, in my experience, many of her peers wouldn't have read those books, whatever they are (she neglects to mention it). I won't to you dear, probably non-existent, readers.

That Noble Nine

The following will neglect to mention their authors.

One: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

In all honesty, I was kind of surprised that this was here. On the other hand, the criteria/point of the exercise by the compilers doesn't seem to have been to put out the "best" books that you should have read. Instead, they seem, as far as I can tell, to have been more interested in describing the (fictional) canon, as it were, rather than prescribing one as the "best" books implies. In that case, one would wonder how one of the most significant characters of the 19th Century could possibly excluded? I guess the authors thought the same way. Hell, Holmes is practically Late Victorian Britain... the middle era being captured by Dickens. Although, we may mean London.

Truth be told, the book gets it slightly wrong. Irene Adler, as established in A Scandal In Bohemia, is not the only person to have ever bested Holmes. While having two copies in my room and an internet at my finger tips means there's no real reason not to check (I'm pretty sure it's the first page as well), the book as far as I remember actually has four men manage the feat as well (unless it's four people, three of which are men). In any case, Adler and Moriarity are the two additional characters to have had the largest impact on what has followed in the enduring legacy of Holmes, regardless of the numbers (Moriarty actually appears in the Memoirs though). However, my personal favourite story from the collection at hand is The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, which starts with a hat and ends with a jewel.

Already we see two interesting things. One, while the 1001 is really about novels, it is flexible over that. Two, I actually did use this book or, rather, the Blue Carbuncle in English. In year eleven, the response standard that we did required independently read texts so I decided that I'd use something I'd read further ago in the past. So, even though it appears in my school work (not that, in my stubbornness, I have a copy of the final version of said work), it wasn't read for school. In fact, I've read these stories all at least twice (although, honestly, my memory is hazy).

Two: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I don't remember when I read this. I know that it would have been a while ago and probably before Year Eight when I read the first book in The Looking Glass Wars. Which is important because I haven't actually got round to reading, well, finishing, the sequel: Through the Looking Glass (that title may not be 100% accurate). That's another reason why I am not at ten books. I am fairly certain that I resolved to read both somewhat more recently but whether I finished even the first again escapes me.

In many respects, Alice is the sort of book that I read (hey, we're wandering towards Abely's discussion again). I am very unwilling to let go of the past books that I've read. Most of the Harry Potters have been read by me at least three times (just the twice for the second and third). In fact, I even completed a very large HP fanfic known by HPMOR (the earlier part is more my speed though). I've read the first few Artemis Fowls quite a lot (as has a different Craccum writer) and I've read the last few as well. The Supernaturalist, by the same author, is not only on my shelf but it's been read multiple times as well despite that. Oddly enough, the books I used to read the most (i.e. the Redwall series) haven't been touched recently. But that doesn't mean that I haven't gone through Witch Week, the Karazan Quartet or Septimus Heap in the last few years. In fact, I think I read all of those again in the span of two weeks (that's quite a lot of reading) in 2012. I should read the Inkheart trilogy again as well... I've lost some of His Dark Materials but that's another trilogy that I can and have read some of the books of multiple times. A lot of these are fantasy or sci-fi/fantasy (in the case of Karazan), as is Alice. But the thing I am getting at is that they have a younger readership in general. But, the things is, Alice is more like Wind in the Willows or Watership Down... it might be what we'd call a children's story but it isn't really in terms of how everything is put together. The same is really true of His Dark Materials, in all honesty. That is something one notices about older books in particular (although two of those are pretty recent) and it is noted by the 1001 people when they describe Children's Classics (although I believe that's with respect to Huckleberry Finn).

In case you're wondering, yes I read Discworld (and also Good Omens, with some Long Earth books too for good measure). And yes, I read them in the same way. In fact, most of the books I read aren't traditional books (we'll come to that) or they've been read by me previously. I rarely read books I haven't previously read, actually.

Three: Brave New World

I don't remember exactly when I read Brave New World. I believe it was probably in Year Ten though because I have a vague recollection of my English teacher mentioning it to us (not the class as a whole though) and I found the idea intriguing. Having read the book, I find the idea disturbing. What concerns me the most about it, though, is that unlike Nineteen-Eighty-Four to which it is often compared it's quite a bit harder to explain why things are definitely wrong. For some that world would never work but everyone seems pretty happy. It gets a bit weird reading something, knowing that it's wrong with every fibre or your being and not really being able to express that in a manner as convincing as you would like. The end is good but also really terrible.

This is another of those books that ended up being used for English. This time in Year Twelve for an assessment that made a lot more sense than the responses we did in Year Eleven. It is possible that some of the ideas in it contributed to an exercise we spent a little time on at the end of year ten but I do not recall (the book we actually read in Year Ten was Tomorrow, When the War Began... I subsequently finished the series and read, iirc, the first in the follow-up). As far as I remember, we read a bunch of texts linked by an overall theme "social interactions". One of these was visual (Two Cars, One Night -- an NZ short-film about kids in two cars whilst their parents drink and/or gamble) and I think we also had another short-story in addition to the one I chose to use. In any case, three texts were from class and one more we had to choose ourselves from outside of it. In my case? Brave New World. Having done that we had to make connections between the texts. Hopefully my introduction will give you an idea:

The theme of social interaction is present across The Doll’s House, by Katherine Mansfield, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, Two Cars One Night, directed by Taika Waititi, and Brave New World, by Alduous Huxley. In each of these four texts the interaction of individuals within the societies of the texts is reflective of that society. I think that this is idea is quite accurate as all the individuals make up society and society also influences those individuals. As such I expected that all four texts would be similar in their explanation of social interaction. The Doll’s House presents society as it is, Two Cars One Night provides a realistic window into childhood, Lord of the Flies is as honest as the others but looks at human nature and how that affects society, and Brave New World is also resoundingly blunt in its examination of what we think we want.
We also had to be more specific in our link than just "social interactions". I think my decision was to use: "the interaction of individuals within the societies of the texts is reflective of that society". Pretty obvious, no? Regardless, I was very pleased that this managed an excellence in the end, AS 91104.

Four: The Call of the Wild

I first read this ages and ages ago (possibly around year six but I have no certainty about that at all). I read it again a bit more recently and the book is still where I left it after I finished as well (five of these books we have at home... and quite a few more of the other ones in the 1001 list too, Kim, for instance, is on my shelf, The Grapes of Wrath and Frankenstein were, last time I checked, elsewhere in my room). It's a good book to read. 

I'm not really sure what to say about The Call of the Wild, though. It's not unique, in my experience, of taking an animal's perspective and imagining things from that of the animal. Watership Down is pretty much the same but rabbits being properly wild to start with have way fewer ideas about man than Buck does. Also, because this is about dogs and wolves the themes are very different. In some respects, one could draw easy parallels between this and Lord of the Flies, very easy indeed. I guess it's included for dealing with that theme of the "call". What is the size of the step between pet and wolf? 

I guess, the only way that any flesh could be added to this bone is to complain about the exclusion of Watership Down. Yet, in a very real sense, that's not the point. I read a book a long time ago and apart from 1001 books and this blog haven't really ever had any cause to treat in even the most vague of reflective lights. Take what you will from that.

If you haven't read it, though? Read it. Read it for the feeling. It's an evocative book.

Five: The Hound of the Baskervilles

Holmes at his best. I think that was 1001's rationale. Having read the book, this is also Holmes at his absolute worse, chronologically at least. The whole thing is a magic trick: Watson is the hand you shouldn't be watching.

If you're interested in Sherlock Holmes this is probably the novel to read. The earlier ones that really introduced the character aren't as good.

I don't think there's anything else to say. I could talk about the many adaptations (e.g. the Hounds of Baskerville) but to me Holmes isn't in any of the novels I've read. Holmes, for me, is at his true best in things like the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. Fast, furious and decidedly a step ahead of the game... once he realises there's a chase to be had. That is, for me, Holmes where the realisation that without the rush of the chase or the trap of intrigue Holmes is in a funk being made explicit.

Six: Lord of the Flies

Yeah, well, I've already actually probably covered my thoughts on this haven't I? The dedicated reader knows that I've read it and knows that I subsequently had to do it English (whereupon, I read it again). The reader who's stuck this far has already read a little bit about Lord of the Flies (LOTF) in this blog. So, what on earth could I have to add?

I must've read this in 2011. I'm not sure, though. All I know for sure is that when I read it for the first time it was because I was reading something about Animal Farm (as in the Fables collected graphic novel). In that, a pig's head gets cut off and stuck on a stake. The thing I was reading said this was a reference, I discovered that was for LOTF and then I found the premise interesting enough to read it. So I did. It is ironic, then, given how this pig's head turns up, that I find Simon and the Beast so spectacularly uninteresting. The Lord of the Flies is a hallucinated version of this head on the stick. It's basically the hallucination that helps kill Simon (1001 suggests he is murdered, I, though, know the truth: it was an accidental ritual sacrifice). My opinion on Simon, and the Beast, is to a large extent an expression of my inner hipster. Boith of these characters/figures/whatevers get a lot of attention in English lessons about LOTF. That eventually got a bit boring and this process is an important reason in why my friend and I started thinking negatively about Ralph the Leader as well. Yet, Simon does matter in some contexts. Again, we turn to AS 91104.
Simon is an outcast among the boys on the island – he fits in well enough and has a semblance of being part of the society but mentally he is in another place. He is the one that realised that the boys had allowed their society to create and perpetuate the Beast. The others were so caught up that they were unable to see clearly (quite literally at the top of the mountain when they think they see the Beast) and missed the Beast’s true nature.
Simon and the Beast are inextricable. But I mentioned that last time. I don't like either, as I said. Perhaps my most damning assessment of them is in what they get connected to.
In Brave New World only a select few possess the experiences (in the case of Bernard Marx or John) or the mental capacity (Helmholtz Watson or Mustapha Mond) to see the flaws present in their Brave New World. Where the boys are caught-up in their society the denizens of Brave New World believe in their society (Mond is the best example of this as he knows everything there is to know about it, especially the flaws). The reader can be allowed to think that they would be like Simon or Helmholtz but the reality is the odds are very low
That's right, Helmholtz who is really a pretty minor character. However, the point of that sentence is actually really important. When one thinks about things like the Nazi Germany one generally imagines that one would be like Sophie Scholl, that one wouldn't buy in. I disagree. The reason why the Nazis got anywhere is because most people aren't Simon. Maybe I am creating this perception. Maybe most people agree with me. I don't know. Forgive my attempt to make me Simon?

Ultimately, though, Lord of the Flies is proof that a book where a curtain really isn't just a curtain (and nor is it a cigar) can still be a good read. I guess that's a very good argument to read it.

Seven: Nineteen Eighty Four

In some respects, given my remarks on Alice, one would have expected entry seven, as six was LOTF, to be LOTR. I've looked at LOTR. I've even tried reading it. Verdict? It's world-building, not a book to read. Lewis was the better writer of the two best known members of the Inklings, and I will forgive him The Last Battle. But, anyway, there is a book that is Number Seven and it is very much in the vein of Brave New World. Which means we've reached our third dystopia in a list that we know is only nine books long. I'm a fun upbeat kinda guy, honest. Hang on, didn't you think reading Animal Farm would be a rite of passage... er...

I don't necessarily remember too much of this one. It's over-rated I reckon. To my mind it is better known than Brave New World but isn't actually as good. However, it's probably closer to the reality that we experience. The Surveillance State just got worse after Orwell died and now it, in the guise of privacy and terrorism/national security, is a big thing now (I don't really care, I don't see this as a slippery slope that leads to Big Brother is Watching You). Whereas drugs are still really controversial, strict castes are anathema and really all you can argue is that infotainment has much the same effect. But, of course, keeping people uninformed is one of the big things in this book as well. Comrade Ogilvy or whatever his name was is my favourite part, in all honesty.

With AS 91104, I think my friend intended on using this. He may have read it for his responses the previous year, though. Honestly, I don't remember. I probably contemplated it myself. But, I do know sure that I read this at pretty much the same time as Brave New World. If you read one, you have to read the other. If we want to talk about a canon or anything like that, these books are, to my mind, paired within that. 1001 didn't really draw this connection.

Honestly, I preferred what I've read of Shooting An Elephant. Thanks History 106.

Eight: Vanity Fair

I read Vanity Fair in 2011. This was one big reason why I decided to use it as a response. I didn't read it particularly quickly (it is pretty long) and I didn't read it because I had to, although the responses may have contributed to my finishing it. There are some big things about this that I remember but I am fairly hazy on the end and the very start. I should, probably, read it again but I didn't like it that much. In fact, the only reason why I read Vanity Fair was because of the way it was described in The Great Writers which was a magazine series that my mother collected and obtained a number of classic books via (including, Brave New World, Vanity Fair, Kim, Frankenstein, The Grapes of Wrath, Shakespeare's Comedies and Tragedies and A Tale of Two Cities, among others). In this sense, I read it for much the same reasons as I read Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures are also part of the collection), However, I decided that book was oversold. I expected something funnier, honestly.

So, what do I have to say about Vanity Fair? Well, there's some good stuff in the relationship between the Osbornes and the other family that Rebecca is entwined with (see? I've forgotten the name). The Waterloo stuff is good too. I guess I'd argue that the late-start and middle are the strengths of Vanity Fair. I probably need to read it again: what was with Rawdon? I can't quite recall. It's almost the sort of book that you read to have said you've read it. There's just enough to stick with it (unlike, say, Moby Dick, which I forced myself through until deciding that I read for pleasure, not punishment and for the first time consciously chose to not finish a book), but probably not enough for a modern audience just looking for a normal read to choose. You either have an interest in the setting, the author or the themes (what I was "sold" on) to start with. That's good enough.

Oh, and yeah, probably would've been a good alternative to Brave New World for 91104.

Nine: Watchmen

Remember what I wrote about the 1001 list (*Word Count*) 2,864 words ago? Well, here it is: is a graphic novel, a novel, a comic or something in between? Well, to be honest, most graphic novels are still comics. Watchmen is different. This is what a proper graphic novel looks like. As you may remember from my views on Alice some 2000 plus words ago, I read a lot of non-traditional books and that means comics. Really, it means superhero graphic novels. Some of those a pretty good, some of those are meh, some are hilarious and others are, "Yeah, that was disappointing". I sometimes branch out a bit (e.g. I've almost completed Fables and read most of Y: The Last Man, and also A Contract With God) but that's not really my thing (Tintin and Asterix are something altogether different in my view). Also, I'm pretty strictly Marvel, Watchmen is one of the exceptions (when it comes to superheroes).

Watchmen is yet another dystopia (so that's 4/9, plus 2 Detectives, 1 historical satire, a story about a dog and Alice). It's got superheroes though, most of which are like Batman. However, Doctor Manhattan is God, and He's American. It's well done and it's got tolerable art from the perspective of someone who is entirely familiar with 21st Century Graphic Novel illustrations which are, sometimes, things of beauty (but are markedly different in quality, sometimes within the same story). Some of the lines are great and the characters feel right. The idea of what does having God be on one side do to the Cold War is central and rightly so. Oh, and there's Rorschach. I'm an unashamed supporter of Rorschach, but, honestly, I can't remember why he's sometimes branded hypocritical.

I read Watchmen because of something like 1001 or the Great Writers. It is, really, the only Graphic Novel you're likely to see in one of these lists and that's largely where I met it. I haven't seen the film but I have read people remark on the parallels within the Incredibles and I agree, in hindsight, that you can summarise that film as children's + Fantastic Four + Watchmen. I don't disagree that it belongs in these sorts of lists. The story, its ideas and its execution are every bit as good as Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty Four. It might be way more sci-fi than those are but that doesn't actually detract from it.

There are also some prequels that have been made, written and illustrated by different people, though. Those, based on the ones I have read, add to Watchmen. They remind you what was so good about it in the first place. I would, however, not read them before you read Watchmen and having read Watchmen it is not necessarily the sort of adding that is a must. The original, though? Everyone who reads superheroes or watches superheroes should read Watchmen (and the people who watch them need to read quite a few other ones as well because you can do so much more than the films do). There's a debt that comics owe to Watchmen and there's a context that one lacks without it.

So, woah, nearly 4000 words of reviews and reflections. Nearly 4500 words with the start added in as well. This is, possibly, my biggest blog yet. I know, I'm verbose. I am also, as a result of this blog, not bored. Bonus.

Yet, I am not sure, entirely, that I have been able to write something that sustains the reader through it. Would I be better of building suspense? Who knows? No-one ever comments. I am also, in hindsight, not sure what I wanted to write in those review sections. Was I reviewing the books or reflecting on the context in which I read them? Both? Something else? All I know is, were this something that was written for an academic purpose, it would have had a purpose decided beforehand: some point that need conveying. Here? There's nothing explicit. And a lot of the time, I feel that's why we have curtains.

Oh, and that rationalisation for why I didn't lose? None of these were read, initially, because I was forced to. That's my 9 to Abley's 2.

*I am actually in favour of the Super City having seen how it has turned out. The problem is the govt's relationship with Auckland. It's become evident that the Super City was created so that National could have a scapegoat and/or shirk its responsibilities as the party in govt. 


  1. Two things. Firstly, I believe I underestimated the age gap. This is not important. Secondly, I have finished Through The Looking Glass so I am now, conveniently, on ten myself. Perhaps I'll start reading another but I probably shouldn't, as I do have other things I need to read.

    1. Also, Abley and (I guess) a friend of hers by the name of Mark (who has written a few things for Craccum this year) have recently won the election for the role of 2016 editors. So, that's possibly important to mention?