Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ogni parte ad ogni parte splende

Over the last few days, I've been reading two books by authors who (supposedly) love books. Both authors come from non-English parts of the U.K. and talk mostly about English literature. Both are recent enough that their lives overlap mine. But despite all they have in common, they leave me with very different impressions.

I finished the first of the two a couple of days ago: Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book. This second number in the Thursday Next series definitely entertains. Channeling The X-Files, Back to the Future, Alice in Wonderland, and Hitchhiker's Guide simultaneously, this series adds to the mix a setting where books each have a (sort of) Platonic existence in their own world of substances. Some readers can jump to that world, see and enjoy details not mentioned explicitly in the work, and even interact with the characters (when they're not "being read" and thus have to stick with their given lines and actions). Any changes made -- say, kidnapping a major character -- will alter all earthly copies of the book. Meanwhile, in Thursday's "real world," Special Ops agents fight vampires and travel through time trying to save all life from changing into whipped topping three days from now. All good stuff.

The problem is that this book has an ongoing joke about boring classics. I'm glad to see that Fforde has Thursday traveling to Great Expectations, The Trial, and Sense and Sensibility. Since Thursday is, as the title tells us, lost in a good book, I take it we can assume Fforde's approval of these classics. But at other times, the book's characters consign many beloved books to the Most Boring list. Tristram Shandy, Pilgrim's Progress, Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and The Divine Comedy all get proscribed. (I can't help but noticing that four of these are classics of Christian literature.) Now I like satire as much as the next guy (if the next guy is a guy who likes satire). Thursday pokes fun at Dickens's coincidences, and I laugh for a moment. Mark Twain draws up a list of rules that James Fennimore Cooper breaks, and I laugh for decades. But just saying that Tristram Shandy is boring doesn't make me laugh. Fforde and his characters offer no evidence, no argument; they simply make their pronouncements and move on. That kind of groundless judgment says more about the judge than about the judged. Tristram Shandy made me laugh way more than Lost in a Good Book; if Fforde thinks it's boring, that's not Tristram's fault. So I'm wondering: If Fforde is bored by five books that others (me included) find among history's most irresistible, what is it he loves when he says he loves books?

On the other hand, the book I recently started, Surprised by Joy, totally convinces me that C. S. Lewis truly loved books. Besides quoting Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy, he peppers almost every page with passages from and allusions to a long and varied list of novels, essays, poems, and plays including children's books by E. Nesbit, Gulliver's Travels, Longfellow, Shakespeare, Trollope, Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, Cicero, "Sohrab and Rustum" by Arnold, the Iliad, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, P. G. Wodehouse, The Vicar of Wakefield, Aristotle's Politics, and Boswell's Life of Johnson. I know that I've read Surprised by Joy before, that I like Lewis, and that I'm likely to go to a lot of classics precisely because he recommends them, but I'm really a little amazed at how much of this list I've read and loved in the last twenty years without remembering that they show up in this autobiography.

The one thing I haven't read on that list is Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum," but I recognize the names as those of heroes from the Shahnameh, half of which I read earlier this year. Mortimer Adler said that the great books of western literature form a "Great Conversation" because they refer to the same recurring topics and even to each other. A friend recommended the Shahnameh to me because of my love of the Iliad. The Iliad was one of the first classics I read in my mid-life program to educate myself, mostly because G. K. Chesterton spoke so highly of it in one of his essays. Chesterton's Everlasting Man played a large part in C. S. Lewis's return to Christianity. And now Lewis prompts me to read Matthew Arnold, who clearly loved the Shahnameh enough to write a poetic version of one of its stories. A great conversation, indeed.

I came to these classics in a haphazard sequence, but my knowledge and love for them has grown steadily because of all these connections. Lewis had his own quirky path: "parrot critics," he says, will tell you that Arnold's poem is only for those who understand Homer. But Lewis read "Sohrab and Rustum" as a child and came to the Iliad only much later in life, so it always seemed to him that Homer was for readers who like "Sohrab." "It does not matter at what point you first break into the system of European poetry," Lewis says. "Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else." Then he quotes one of history's greatest books, a book that Jasper Fforde finds boring: "Ogni parte ad ogni parte splende." Every part shines on all the others.

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