The first work I finished reading upon my return home was The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare. I simply picked up my volume of Shakespeare and went down the table of contents until I found a play that I hadn’t read yet. And what a happy choice it was! I remember once (was it actually 12 years ago?) picking up this same play on a lazy Saturday afternoon, but quickly becoming overwhelmed by the abbreviated roles (Aege., Duke., etc.), the characters with identical names, and the lack of footnotes. I put it down after one scene. Over a decade later with the experience of reading 20 other Shakespeare plays, I was able to enjoy this as the comedy it is.
Location. Oftentimes I find it difficult to set a stage in my head when all I have is the dialogue between the characters. Although I have never been to Syracuse or Ephesus (the key spots in the play), I have been to the modern-day Sicily and Turkey which contain these ancient cities. Even if a bit anachronistically, this helped to populate my imagination with fashions and manners, so that I was not merely reviewing a dialogue, but reading a play. Continue reading
Since coming back to school, I have spent more time reading for my thesis than reading for leisure, but thankfully found time for these two short works.
Aristophanes: The Frogs. I was at a bookstore purchasing a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad on someone’s recommendation and, noticing this little volume of Aristophanes for only a few dollars, I threw it on the checkout counter for good measure. And I’m glad I did! Shortly after I started Atwood’s take on an ancient classic, I found myself desiring to read something actually ancient and Aristophanes was ready for that purpose. And how excellent it was! I remember having to read The Clouds and The Birds in college and, though funny in parts, I was mostly put off by the vulgarity and how irreverent it was toward Socrates (someone I held in great veneration). Picking up this one, I was struck by how easy it was to imagine on stage. The early scenes of Dionysus (dressed as Hercules) bantering with his servant sounded like something that would appear on SNL in our own time. As the play goes on, Dionysus goes down to the underworld and for all of its silliness, there is actually worthy reflection on the relative merits of serious, grave literature (represented by Aeschylus) and popular literature (represented by Euripides). Aristophanes does an excellent job in presenting caricatures of these poets while also composing the poems by which they duel against each other to claim top spot in the underworld. I wonder if Dante had the works of Aristophanes and was in some way influenced when he depicted his own favorite poets in the underworld. This work did what good writing should do: It made me want to keep reading. I started looking for the plays of Euripides after this and also wanted to discover how difficult Aristophanes is to read in Greek, since I’m sure the poetry jokes have much more nuance in the original. I can easily recommend this to anyone who ever has or will read Greek drama. If you didn’t like other plays by Aristophanes, give this one a shot.
Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet. I bought this at a used bookstore in Jerusalem. I think I was buying a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson and the worker couldn’t make change, and so he said I could take another book at half price, and it was Rilke’s that caught my eye. It is a series of letters which Rilke wrote to another aspiring poet, containing advice and helpful criticism. Although I did not care for all the advice, I appreciated his recommendation to spend time with things. His view was that a poet communicates something of reality, and so a poet must place himself in front of things in order to have an object to communicate. His observations on sexuality also indicate a bit of wisdom, even in the midst of folly. One example is his understanding that sex is ordered to procreation, to the begetting of the next generation, and that this is not unique to man but is common among all animals. Seeing through the sentimental and individual aspects of sexuality to the natural and universal is not something one sees so often, so I appreciate this. Another observation in this area is that even if one seeks to escape institutions (for example, that of marriage), one ends up inventing institutions all the same and being caught up in them. He sounds a bit fatalistic when he says this, but it is true observation that should encourage one to make the most of existing institutions. One last piece of advice that is worth repeating was his recommendation to avoid writing satire while feeling uninspired. He says that one should only write satire at one’s best because it is far too easy to write bad satire and does not contribute to becoming a poet. I would recommend these letters of Rilke, probably not to everyone, but to anyone who has some aspiration to be a poet.
[These works are #24 and #25 on my classics reading challenge.]
The Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh splits nearly into two parts: the first is spent in an all-boys school, the second in a prison. The two parts side-by-side give the impression that the settings are not as entirely different as one suspects. The first half of the book spends a long time introducing each of the characters and the second half of the book takes its time killing each of them off. Characters have silly names, such as Lady Circumference.
A problem with funny writing is that the joke might not make sense after a couple years, or in the case of Decline and Fall, after 90 years. Continue reading
Someone asked me at dinner the other day for a book recommendation—a funny book recommendation. It was difficult to think of any right away! Although I laugh while reading many books, I haven’t read many books that I would characterize as comedies. So I turned to Facebook with the question, “What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?” I received quite a variety in the results! I have gathered them all here for convenience. (Note: I have not read most of these.)
- Cervantes, Don Quixote (1615).
- Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (essay, 1729).
- Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749).
- Voltaire, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759).
- Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836).
- Edgar Allen Poe, «Never Bet the Devil Your Head» (1841).
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
- Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889).
- Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband (play, 1895).
- P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), generally recommended.
- Psmith, Journalist (1915).
- Leave it to Psmith (1923).
- Summer Moonshine (1937).
- World of Mr. Mulliner (1972).
- O. Henry, «Ransom of the Red Chief» (1910).
- Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928).
- Evelyn Waugh, Scoop (1938).
- Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954).
- W.E. Bowman, The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956).
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961).
- Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961).
- Michael Green, The Art of Course Acting (1964).
- David Lodge, The British Museum is Falling Down (1965).
- Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979).
- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980).
- Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes (comic strip, 1985-1995).
- Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens (1990).
- Terry Pratchett, Small Gods (1992).
- Dave Barry, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys (1995).
- David Foster Wallace, «Shipping Out» (1996). Reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), or available here: https://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf
- Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997).
- David Sedaris, general recommendation. Best known for his essay collection Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000).
- Augusten Burroughs (1965-present), general recommendation. Best known for his memoir Running with Scissors (2002).
- Chuck Klosterman, essays. Best known for his essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (2003).
- Terry Pratchett, Going Postal (2004).
- Michael Perry, Off Main Street (2005), especially «Rock Slide!», a story about kidney stones.
- Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka (2005).
- Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006).
- David Wong, John Dies at the End (2007).
- Christopher Moore, Fool (2009).
- Justin Halpern, S███ My Dad Says (2010).
- Tina Fey, Bossypants (2011).
I also want to add Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and «Revelation» by Flannery O’Connor. Happy reading!