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Glutted with Greatness

January 27, 2020

IMG_3609During the same week that I read The Leopard, a novel that many consider to be one of the most important in modern Italian literature, I also read these novels:

J.D. Robb, Vendetta in Death
Janet Evanovich, Twisted Twenty-Six
Charlotte MacLeod, The Convivial Codfish
Karen White, The House on Tradd Street
Susan Wiggs, The Oysterville Sewing Circle
Orson Scott Card, Lost and Found

But none of these others seem to me to be particularly memorable. As I’ve said before, I don’t write about most of the books I read in a week; a book has to have something memorable about it for me to want to engage with it by writing about it, and then afterwards I have a record of the memory in case it fades after a few years.

I’m not saying that every book I write about is great, but that there’s something about it that I find worth remembering. And it’s probably worth mentioning that I don’t think about poems in the same way. I read 12 new-to-me poems during the same week I read The Leopard, and I’m still mulling a few of them over to see if I will ever want to write about them.

I’ve been thinking about this after a conversation I had over at Wuthering Expectations, about reading great books—whatever your definition of great is–and whether it’s a good idea to space them out.

I was taken by Tom’s declaration that “I read a lot of really great books. Perhaps I read too many great books. What do I think I am doing with it all? What is the point? I am mocked with art. Maybe I should space the best stuff out more.” My response was to say: “What is the point? I think sometimes it is just to be glutted with fiction.” To which Tom’s reply was: “I would think that “really great” books would be an obstacle to the pleasures of the glut. The gluttist might be better off with worse books, easier books.”

And that is true, but not exactly the way I was thinking about it. I was thinking of the point of reading great works in terms of a lifetime. What is the point? To inflate oneself with greatness before expiring. Perhaps at a certain point it’s best to cram in all the great stuff as fast as possible, in case you die before you can get to all of it.

The idea of inflation, of course, makes a literary-focused person think of Winnie-the-Pooh eating so much honey he gets stuck in Rabbit’s front door, and Aesop’s fable “The Mouse and the Weasel,” in which a mouse squeezes himself into a basket of corn and eats so much he can’t get out again, and Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which Seymour tells a little girl that the fish “swim into a hole where there are a lot of bananas and then eat as many as they can; however, they then get so fat that they cannot swim back out of the hole, so they die there of “banana fever.”

I think that, as we usually do with our food diets, we have to find ways to moderate our literary diets from week to week.

Too many great tragedies this time of year will either make me sad or quarrelsome. I’ll feel silly about feeling sad, because I already know, as the as the narrator of Hadestown reminds us all about the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, “it’s a sad song; it’s a tragedy.” And I’ll be unable to read about, for example, what’s happening in the U.S. Senate today because my inner dialogue is influenced by the voice of Othello, trying to justify his wrath by declaring “It is the cause, it is the cause, Oh my soul.”

Too much great comedy will make me irritable. How can anyone laugh when the weather is so horrible and there’s no end to being cold in sight?

My literary diet for late January usually consists of a mixture of novels about warmer climates (The Leopard, The House on Tradd Street) and mysteries (Vendetta in Death, Twisted Twenty-Six, The Oysterville Sewing Circle, The Convivial Codfish). The warmer climates give me hope that one day I’ll be warm again, while the mysteries give me the sense that things change, that life doesn’t just continue on in a stream of gloomy and unrelenting days.

So in terms of cramming in all the great stuff as fast as possible, I find that my literary diet in late winter requires at least one novel each week that is in some way memorable (and a few people to discuss it with). How about you? How much does it take for you to get glutted with greatness at this time of year?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. lemming permalink
    January 27, 2020 1:00 pm

    I’m realizing that my energy for reading has a lot to do with how tired I am. Right now, between the news and the season and so many other factors, I have a lot of titles partially read, as I find that I have the energy for each.

    “Really great books” is a term that makes me uncomfortable. For example, I would argue that Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” is a great book. It is a classic in its field, it has influenced other writers and other creators in other genres, and I personally like it very much. However, since it is a murder mystery, plenty of folks dismiss it as mere popular fiction.

    “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies is another example – I’d argue that it is a great book and a Great Book. Davies was white, male, and Canadian; does the canon need another book by such a person? I’d argue yes, but I’m very aleatoric in such cases.

    • January 27, 2020 2:40 pm

      As a person who has taught a college course on “Great Books” (the actual title of the junior-level course was “The Dilemma of Existence”), I am explicitly defining “great” in terms of what is memorable because I didn’t want to get caught up in arguing about what defines “greatness.” Agatha Christie qualifies for you whereas Octavia Butler qualifies for me.
      I remember enjoying a number of Robertson Davies books, but I can’t remember the one you mention in particular.

  2. January 27, 2020 1:02 pm

    There’s a lot to unpack here! What a great post. I moderate my books like I “moderate” my food – that is to say, I read and eat intuitively as much as possible. I read a literary fiction novel and then I read a police procedural. I read something heavy and then I read a fluffy romance. Something like that. I’ve called this being a “mood reader.” I don’t know about “great” books. I think that I don’t really read that many “great books” in a year – my five-stars are usually 10-15 of the 80+ books I read a year. And what someone else considers “great” – a classic, perhaps, I might just rate it 4 stars, or 3. There are so many reasons for reading, so much that’s individual. What is great?

    I do really get your need to counteract the January grayness/sameness. Ugh. I read an Instagram post recently that said “The great thing about January is that it lasts 75 years.” I really identify with that. So much gray, cold, damp.

    • January 27, 2020 2:43 pm

      75 years, yeah that sounds about right.
      My argument about “greatness” in terms of what you call “mood reading” is that I think a reader gets to a point where she needs to read something more intellectually nutritious, whatever that is for her. Those are the ones she thinks about and remembers and writes about in the way Jo Walton did in her collection entitled What Makes This Book so Great.

      • January 27, 2020 3:51 pm

        Intellectually nutritious! I like that. Colson Whitehead comes to mind for me when I think about your definition.

  3. January 27, 2020 2:15 pm

    Say we are having a conversation, and you mention a book, and I say “Oh yeah, that is a really great book” – that is what I meant by “really great book.” If we ever talk about books, the phrase or one much like it will come up. I have read a lot of just superb, wonderful, awesome, amazing books. I assume we all have.

    Winnie-the-Pooh and his honey pot, that is precisely it. The food analogies seem natural. I can become glutted with bad books, and that can feel like I’ve eaten too much candy. But too many good books can do something similar. I don’t feel sick, but I need a break, a nap.

    And of course we can’t just stop reading. That’s preposterous.

    Certain amazing rooms in certain amazing museums have the same effect. What a joy to spend time there, but at some point – enough! Enough sublimity, enough beauty! Time for coffee and cake. It always comes back to food.

    • January 27, 2020 3:06 pm

      Yes! The feeling that you’ve read too many “candy” books and need something more intellectually nutritious is the opposite end of the spectrum (and one I think readers reach less often) from that feeling of needing a break, and your museum analogy is just right. My word for being overwhelmed that way in an art museum is “overstimulated.” It gets to where I’m walking by wonders of the world and internally shrugging. A similar thing can happen with reading “really great books.” I’m overstimulated, and can’t take it all in. No matter how much I want to cram more in, it just won’t go.
      I think I developed that end of my sense of literary diet after learning how much of an art museum I could take in in one day when we lived in Washington DC, where the museums are free. I can do two sections (for example: Medieval and Impressionist). After two sections, I’m overstimulated. I can read two “really great” books in one week. This is one reason I like the Tuesday/Thursday class model–two a week.

  4. January 27, 2020 4:04 pm

    Even W.H. Auden says we don’t want to read “great” poetry all the time and think it is fair to extend it to books in general as well. It’s exhausting! I strive for a balance, but at this time of year I tend to like books with lots of fast moving plot to distract me from the long, weary winter. However, it’s been warmer than usual so I’ve been enjoying some quiet, thoughtful books. I can feel a little bit of twitchiness coming on though so I suspect this will be changing soon 🙂

    • January 28, 2020 8:22 pm

      Twitchiness! There’s a different metaphor–great literature as mental exercise!

  5. magpiemusing permalink
    January 27, 2020 4:39 pm

    You do read A LOT!

    I almost never give stars to the books I list on Goodreads, unless they are execrable or really great. More often it’s, well I liked it but does that mean it deserves five stars?

    I also vary – veering from nonfiction, to literary fiction, to the catnip of serial murder mysteries.

    • January 28, 2020 8:25 pm

      I read a lot at certain times of year. Right now is one of those times.
      The problem with rating systems is that they imply that the reviewer is trying to be somewhat objective about her view of the book. I make no pretense, but revel in the subjective point of view.

  6. January 27, 2020 11:24 pm

    The Seasonal affective disorder tends to hit me hard, so sometimes I don’t feel inclined to even nibble on intellectually nutritious or emotionally taxing books this time of year.

    Instead, I’ve been happily glutting myself with podcast episodes that review nostalgic favorites. I’ve been making it a point to listen while taking long walks with the dog so I cram in some exercise and nature time along with the bookish goodness.

    • January 28, 2020 8:27 pm

      Very sympathetic about SAD. It makes me read more, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

  7. January 28, 2020 3:16 am

    A lot to think about here! My gut response is “how can one read too many great books?” But I suppose one must give time to digest them, which means interspersing with some other not quite so rich and fulfilling reads, or, you know, real life.

    I shall attend more to the greatness or otherwise of my reading diet and see what I find.

    • January 28, 2020 8:28 pm

      It’s a good idea to attend to the proportions of one’s reading diet periodically!


  1. Do I Read Enough Great Books? | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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