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Classics Referencing Other Works (And The Problem With Dated Books)

A painting of Maria Edgeworth

This month has brought with it the constant urge to read the book(s) that inspired the book(s). Last year I read Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote first and foremost because the author was a Charlotte but in the time between deciding I would read it and the moment I started it, I discovered the connection to Jane Austen. If it wasn’t for the fact that the favourite novel of Lennox’s bookish heroine was 13,000 pages long, I would likely have moved on to it. But as it was, and as the other referenced books weren’t so memorable, I began and ended with Lennox’s work.

“I am no novel-reader – I seldom look into novels – Do not imagine that I often read novels – It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.
“And what are you reading, Miss-?”
“Oh! It is only a novel” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 5)

Presently I’m reading Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, mostly due to the above reference to it in Austen’s work; I am effectively now on my second read of a book that Austen was inspired by when writing Northanger Abbey. And through Belinda, as well as, if I recall correctly, the Oxford’s World Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë’s letters, I’ve been introduced to Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar Of Wakefield, which was apparently very famous in its day (less so now). I’d like to read that, too.

I have the exact problem I spied when I originally thought of reading books referenced in other books – I don’t know where I should stop. ‘Should’ is not quite right – I can read what I want, of course; it’s getting the right balance between choosing what you reading with a thought to time limits and increasing your literary knowledge in the way you’d like to. I’m personally yet to work out what is right for me; I wonder whether my interest in reading secondary sources will help or hinder. One thing I do know: considering the Goldsmith is a new addition to my list I may well not get to it, but if I do (it is apparently a riot) I’m very much hoping Goldsmith does not reference anyone himself.

Of course all this contextual reading – if at this point it can be called so – has taught me something I wasn’t aware of: the sheer number of past authors who haven’t worried about the longevity of their books. We talk nowadays of authors dating their books, putting in references to current culture that will mean they’ll likely be difficult to understand within a few years, but authors have been doing this since the early days of novels. I wonder if perhaps, with the fewer number of publications and the way it’s likely that authors were far closer to each other for the same reason, the idea of referencing wasn’t something to analyse prior to use. Definitely, if we look at works referenced, there was a strong element of trying to please those they admired (when the references were contemporary) and helping to form in-jokes that readers would understand (when references were a little older). This is where footnotes are of value; I’ve changed my mind on footnotes in books. I saw the value particularly when I checked a second, noted, edition of a book I was reading to find out who a referenced person was and found there was no entry for them.

There is a difference between then and now, however. References to popular books of yore are easy to look up, at least in the age of the Internet, and there were fewer books to start with. Nowadays there are many and the references to culture are more often digital, things that will likely have a short shelf life. The author most referenced in the classics I’m reading is Frances Burney, who was popular for a great many years, so much so that even if her books weren’t read today it’d be easy enough to find out about her. And that she wrote books is an easy concept to understand. I wonder if Twitter, which requires understanding of the Internet, will be as easy to understand in centuries to come.

Social media in books is the likely-to-be-dated-soon element I always note because of Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, which I’ve heard a lot about and would like to read at some point. I know that it deals with familiarity and obsession with famous people, and whilst these themes are longterm, I wonder how understanding and empathy in a reader will change when social media is long gone.

The above said, for all our worries about dating today’s books, it has been going on for centuries. And what we think usual today may not be usual tomorrow; but we think about what is going into a book and how the future may consider it. I think it’s fair to say that authors today know well how future-proof their work will be. Reading older books, one gets the sense that that wasn’t often considered.

What is your opinion on books that include today’s technology?

 
On Books About Books, Characters Who Read, And The Pros And Cons

Book cover of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, every major character, and some minor characters, read, and a number actively write. But so often in books characters don’t read or aren’t readers, which is interesting: authors are readers, and whilst many books include bookish characters, it’s perhaps surprising that there aren’t even more of them. Lawrence’s use of reading, particularly his extending it to characters of different backgrounds and classes, is compelling.

A point before I continue: I don’t mean to infer that it’s bad when books aren’t about books in any way – all topics make for good reading. Everyone has different hobbies and the variety of characters in the world of literature reflect that. Characters in films don’t often watch films – in fact if they did, given the relative shortness of films, viewers might have something to say about it, particularly as watching a film means quiet whereas people can group together to read books out loud. (TV characters can easily watch TV, though the ‘quiet’ is likely the reason why sports is often used in this respect – it’s acceptable to talk over it, if just to shout at the players on the field. A group of people watching sport is also a very easy way to show friendship in an instant.) A related point: some stories are just not the place for books to be included. Katniss did not have time to read flash fiction, never mind War And Peace, and incidentally her world likely would not have had any copies to offer her.

Book cover of Jo Walton's Among Others

The idea of reading being a solitary pursuit has been widely debunked in recent years, which perhaps explains why more books about books are being published. Shaffers and Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society showed that the solitary is easy to get around; Jo Walton’s Among Others showed that the solitary could be an active part of it. Other books such as Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P which use literary culture rather than specific books, offer a different means as well. It’s perhaps easy to look on the surface and think that reading about someone else reading – which is exactly what Among Others is all about – would be dull, however such books continue to be successful.

I cite Walton’s book in particular because it showed how interesting reading about reading can be1. It showed that discussion – even if in the form of one person’s reflections on what they are reading – is what makes it work. The author explains the reading in her book thus:

“This isn’t a book about reading one book, it’s a book about the reading [sic] the way teenagers do, indiscriminately, developing taste as they go along. She reads a lot, and some of it is tosh.” (Walton, n.d.)

This process of development requires a lot of thought – Walton’s character, Mori, reflects on what she reads constantly (the book is written in the form of a diary) – and whilst a lot of the book is autobiographical, particularly in regards to reading (the books are those Walton read in the years in which the book is set), in situations that are not so related to an author’s life, discussion might take a while to complete.

Walton also says the following:

“However, reading reviews and especially what I call ‘naive reviews’ – people on Goodreads and so on who are just burbling adorably about what they like – it seems clear that people who’ve read very little of what Mori has read can still enjoy it because they identify with a love of reading. I do think, though, that the more overlap you have the more you’ll get out of it: in so far as it’s a coming of age story, it’s about coming of age through reading science fiction.” (Walton, 2012)

Book cover of Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P

People may – do? – expect to have some discussion of the books referred to in the book they’re actively reading. If there are a lot of books referred to that they haven’t read, it might put them off – knowing about a book referred to most often leads to a deeper understanding of the book you’re actively reading, and knowing that you might be missing something, even if it’s more nuance than big point, could have an impact. (And of course encountering a referred book you’ve not read can also lead you wanting to read it.) The love of reading itself is of general understanding, but that’s not always enough.

When I made a list of the most bookish books I’d read, I noted how many ‘types’ were involved; most often multiple categories applied. There are books that discuss in detail, books that simply note titles, books that are somewhere between the two. There are books that use literary culture, or that use book groups or similar. There are academic professions and professors and students, and bookshops. And there are characters who write, and characters who write about other writers. (In the spirit of this post, I’ve added my list to the end.)

One more category deserves question: bookish books that are classics. On my list this category is served by Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote. Whilst Lennox discusses the books her heroine reads, both her book and Austen’s (which in itself was partly inspired by Lennox’s novel) largely look at the books included as a place for comedy. Notably, they use books not of their own era, which we could consider down to the idea that poking fun at contemporary novels might not have been acceptable. Certainly it’s interesting that the books made fun of are also in the main by women or naturally of semi-comedic value, and that the heroes of both work to tamp down their lover’s thoughts on their fiction. Austen’s Henry Tilney calms Catherine Morley’s scares (that have been created by her avid reading of Gothic fiction), and Lennox’s Glanville works to teach Arabella that everything she has learned (through epic romances that were, by Lennox’s day, considered ridiculous) is wrong. (Lennox also includes an extra male teacher, the person who actually teaches Arabella about reality when Glanville and company fail2.)

Book cover of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote

Modern books might laugh at other books sometimes – certainly Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word parodies another writer, and a contemporary at that – but we don’t dismiss them so readily.

Looking at my list, and considering Walton’s book and her words, one thing stands out – the majority of these books about books/book culture are excellent, often lauded by their readers. The books include a lot of detail and thought. They help broaden your knowledge whether by adding new knowledge or adding to what you already knew. They bring that literary thrill. They leave you with a whole new list of books to read, that might lead to another list when you pick up the first one referenced, and so forth.

As such, they’re not likely to be good candidates for readers who are looking to escape to another world and to relax. They depend upon references to books that have been around for centuries or are very likely to be in future, or else risk accessibility. And knowledge requires your time.

To end, going back to Lawrence, the writer seeps his book in literature yet never goes beyond the surface of the culture. But the class-no-barrier-to-entry is something in itself. Even now reading is seen as somewhat of an activity for those with time and money; books are expensive and can be viewed as unproductive to spend time with, and right now libraries are closing. Looking at the sorts of books that include bookish characters, a great number involve people with time and money, often status. On my list, only a few do not conform. It is an unfortunate reflection of reality.

My List Of Books

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote (1752)
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey (1818)
D H Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
Dodie Smith: I Capture The Castle (1949)
Bernhard Schlink: The Reader (1995)
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2006)
Mikhail Elizarov: The Librarian (2007)
Mary Ann Shaffers and Annie Barrows: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)
Jo Walton: Among Others (2011)
Valeria Luiselli: Faces In The Crowd (2011)
Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P (2013)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah (2013)
Hanif Kureishi: The Last Word (2013)
Max Porter: Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (2015)
Sarah Ladipo Manyika: Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun (2016)
Claire Fuller: Swimming Lessons (2017)
Phillip Lewis: The Barrowfields (2017)
Laura Pearson: Missing Pieces (2018)

Footnotes

1 I have somewhat changed my views on Walton’s book recently. At the time of reading I found it veered towards name-dropping but having read about it further I see how different interpretations and prior knowledge alter that. I intend to update my thoughts in depth soon.
2 It has been noted that Samuel Johnson most likely wrote the penultimate chapters of Lennox’s book wherein a doctor – a thinly-veiled Johnson himself – goes through Arabella’s bookish problems with her. I wrote about this in my post about the book in regards to the value of reading.

References

Walton, Jo (n.d.) Among Others, Jo Walton.com, accessed 12th March 2019
Walton, Jo (2012) Jo Walton’s Among Others: ‘It’s a mythologisation of part of my life’, The Guardian, accessed 12th March 2019

 
Musings On The Importance Of Contexts When Forming An Opinion Of Characters

A photograph of three books: Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, and David Copperfield

In trying to write about a particular character, I reached a point where I couldn’t continue without considering the author’s reason for including that character. This of course led me to consider the oft-debated topic of whether we should view a text in the context of its writer. And due to the fact that what I’d been working on had been inspired by a discussion about a character from not only a different book but different type of book, I’d also recognised the difficulties in applying any sort of template to a character study.

Of backgrounds, if we use my inspiration (Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) and the character I wanted to write about (Diana Gabaldon’s Claire Fraser/Randall), it’s immediately obvious; you can’t apply or, generally, so much as consider, the characters from a similar perspective without soon finding yourself in a bit of a quandary. Anna Karenina is – spoilers incoming – a way for Tolstoy to discuss the different ways society treated infidelity depending on gender – and Claire Fraser is the way in which Gabaldon explores the idea of romance in the context of time travel. It would be difficult to compare the two characters – there’s little reason to – and likewise, it’s difficult to apply the same modes of thinking to a character study for each, beyond insignificant (to their stories) details. How they takes their tea? Perhaps.

Context of all kinds allows us to give reason for motivations and thinking, and the author context is a part of that. Both need establishing for the rest to work.

In terms of my plans, they’ll require a bit more research.

Who is one of your favourite characters in terms of their role in the book?

 
If Long-Awaited: Possibilities

It was the melding of ideas that made Ana and Iris’ long-awaited reads month compelling, the combination of books that had been languishing, together with starting the new year with books you’d not yet read. It’s been a good few years since the Month ran officially but nevertheless, whether I opt to ‘use’ it or not, come each January I’ve got the concept in mind.

Looking at my books I found myself creating three categories – books that, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m probably not going to read for ages if at all; books I expect I’ll read but have no idea when; and books I’d like to read in the near future. This made creating a basic idea of which books I might like to add to this year’s reading a lot easier – I’m listing only books in the third category. I also stuck to physical copies; I’ve too many free books downloaded on a whim.

I wanted to post something on the subject of Long-Awaited without harping on, so this will be it – suffice to say if I happen to review any of the books below within a few months, I probably read them in January, not forgetting the basic timeline my round-ups provide. Brick Lane, carried over from last year, is also technically Long-Awaited – a book I’ve had for 18 months or so that I had been wanting for a few years more than that.

Book cover Book cover Book cover Book cover

Anna Hope: The Ballroom (early 2016)Loved the debut, bought the second novel. This was one of those occasions where I was raring to read my brand new book but decided to finish the one I was currently reading, and we all know what can happen when you don’t immediately start a book you’re wanting to immediately start.

Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behaviour (mid 2013) – I went looking for The Lacuna – that door stopper I’d heard was slow but nevertheless wanted to read – and when I couldn’t find it I shrugged my shoulders and decided a different book by the same person was good enough. Of course it never is – while I do want to read Flight Behaviour, the reason I haven’t is simple – it’s not the book I’d been wanting.

Deborah Levy: Swimming Home (early 2016) – I remember reading a review and putting this on my list, then hearing Levy speak at a Peirene Salon, and deciding that yes, I should indeed buy it. It’s a very short book, it’s still on my list simply because I know it’s quite literary and I’m looking for that impossible perfect moment. For the past couple of years I’ve been working on the idea of ‘done is better than perfect’ – I haven’t yet added books to that and need to.

Eowyn Ivey: To The Bright Edge Of The World (Christmas 2016) – Although I loved The Snow Child, I hadn’t been following Ivey’s writing career, and it was only when this book appeared on blogs that I found out about it. Like Ivey’s debut, it is about Alaska, and already knowing I wanted to revisit the area in fiction, I added it to my list. I made a brief start on it last year but it’s very different to her previous, and because I’d thoughtlessly expected a fair similarity, I decided to move on to another book and revisit it when looking for the sort of book it actually is.

Book cover Book cover Book cover Book cover

Lauren Owen: The Quick (Christmas 2016) – A book widely lauded by bloggers, I stayed away from spoilers and put it on my list, eventually listing it as a Christmas gift idea. There’s no real reason as to why I haven’t read it – it’s fairly long but hardly a tome compared to others.

Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood (early 2016) – This was always the Murakami I knew I wanted to start with, for no reason other than the previous cover intrigued me more than the rest and I reckoned starting with a shorter book was best. Picking the short book hasn’t helped the daunting feeling, however.

N M Kelby: White Truffles In Winter (mid 2013) – The idea that this might be about Christmas and chocolates, warm and cosy, and that combined with the foodish alliteration, drew me in. It’s a different story to what I had in mind, and indeed may well be about the more savory truffles, but when the nights draw in I often find myself thinking about this book, all its possibilities. I need to get around the difference between my early expectations and the reality.

Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo’s Calling (mid 2013) – I bought this for the same reason as everyone else, and purchased the hardback because I’d enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy in that way and the cover was, is, gorgeous. Expectation is the only reason I’ve not read it – I’ve the second and third in hardback, too.

Right now, the Kelby and Ivey are calling to me most; it’s likely I’ll finish my current read, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and head on over to my bookcase.

Which unread book have you had on your shelves the longest?

 
2019 Goals And The Previous Year

A photograph of the lake at Hever Castle, with row boats on the water

At the beginning of what is now the previous year, I set out one ‘main’ goal as well as a few other ideas that were more wishy-washy. The main goal was ‘read as much as I comfortably can’.

‘As much as’ is technically an easy goal, because there are a lot of notions that can be applied to it, but with what was a busy several months in 2018, I almost feel I achieved this goal far better by reading less but perhaps more widely and for enjoyment, than in other years when the same goal was reached but with a bigger number of books.

It’s incredibly true, somewhat unfortunately I feel, that I didn’t get to as many new books last year, particularly as I do now have a small stack of review copies that I didn’t cover in any way at all, but there was a benefit in terms of getting through books I already owned, getting to books or authors I’d wanted to read for a while, and reading more books than usual in my preferred genres.

This year, I’m setting the ‘comfortably’ goal again, just with a few more caveats:

  1. Keep reading favourite genres but also put a priority on review copies I let linger. At first I thought to name specific books here, but I think that’d be more hindrance than help.
  2. Keep reading classics, with an emphasis on re-starting and completing Vanity Fair. Having now read Mitchell, Gabaldon, and Dickens, I really shouldn’t be having so much trouble with the idea of just getting it done.
  3. Read a novel or two by Charlotte Mary Yonge.

The last goal is two-fold – for one, it will aid my classics statistic, but more importantly, it will complete the goal I set in 2017 to read the five literary Charlottes I had identified. In 2018 I read two Charlottes: Smith (Emmeline, 1788), and Lennox (The Female Quixote, 1752 – June, according to a contemporary literary journal I found during my research).

In terms of 2018’s statistics, I didn’t do as well as I hoped but did do better than usual. I would like to up my diversity, classics, and (hopefully) translation numbers. I’m still reading far more women than men, which I’d like to do something about. The big difference to my statistics compared to other years was my use of the library. Eight out of the 39 listed books were from the library and I came to really appreciate how borrowing enabled me to read new, and slightly older, popular, books.

As it currently stands, I’ve carried over Monica Ali’s Brick Lane from where I left it on page 81 at the start of November, together with the eternal Thackeray. I’ve made a firm decision not to return to Ali until I’ve completed one new entry to the list so that everything feels fresh; my current read is Susanna Kearsley’s Season Of Storms.

Do you have reading goals for this year?

 

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