Door Stopper Classics, or Moby Dick, Take II

Lately I’ve been mulling over some long iconic classics of the size of Don Quixote, Moby Dick, One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Tale of Two Cities (or almost any Dickens), Les Miserables, Midnight’s Children, War and Peace (many Russian titles), Fortunata and Jacinta… What makes us want to read them, keep reading them, love or hate them, or leave us indifferent?

If you are anything like me, most of this type of classics are everywhere. Even though many are fans, I am convinced I won’t enjoy them, and I don’t want to give them my time. I forget that they are not like that, they are amazing and captivating, but not all of them are that for all us.

There’s going to be a Netflix series based on the book

What determines our success reading them?, -if by success we mean finishing them-. My theory is that we all have something built in and some conditions that will increase our chances of connecting on more levels, and that could help us enjoy them. What are those conditions? To me, the most significant is our culture and language background. It’s not a coincidence that readers from Spanish speaking and Latin American countries have a higher chance of succeeding with Márquez or Cervantes, and those with deeper roots in the Anglosaxon world show partiality towards Dickens. But it’s not just nature, it’s, as always, both nature and nurture.

As readers, with age, we get more and more prepared to tackle other classics on the heavy weight category. We may have also gained insight in another culture. For example, for me to succeed reading Don Quixote, I first had to try several times by force, (school reading), and I only read it in part, (however, those chapters I read started to resonate with me.) At a later age, going back to it was like vacationing at a familiar place. Every time I read it, the familiarity with its structure helps me not to be bogged down by the interminable stories that get all tangled up. I know they are all having a neat conclusion. I can lift myself a bit from the immediacy of the text, and enjoy the landscape with some perspective.

As for One Hundred Years of Solitude. This and Love in the Time of Cholera, I read them in my twenties. In this case, nature and lack of nurture were the perfect combination. Why? By nature, I mean that the language was deceivingly easy. To me, reading names like José Arcadio Buendía, Ursula Iguarán, or Santa Sofía De La Piedad, conjures familiarity. On the other hand, names such as Tracy Tupman, Augustus Snodgrass, Emily Wardle and Nathaniel Winkle, (all characters from Dickens’s Pickwick Papers), make my tongue trip and my mind skid. They don’t stick fast as the others do.

This is one of the biggest hurdles for me when reading Russian classics. I know it’ll take me time to become familiar with the long and foreign names plus the nickname for each and all. I pinch my nose, close my eyes, and stay like that for 70+ pages, which I try to read relatively fast. By the middle of the book, I usually start to know who is who. If I don’t, I google and read the Spark Notes, and finally I nod and make sense of what I have read so far. I sometimes read the notes on the chapters ahead. That’s what I did with The Ambassadors. This is a personal strategy to gain familiarity. Some like not knowing what’s coming. I didn’t mind spoiling Strether’s secret in The Ambassadors in exchange for a bit more understanding of what was going on. I still didn’t get what happened very well, but I’m afraid that’s part of the book. Most of these titles also share that in common. Their ambiguity. And also the assurance that every re-read will reward us with deeper understanding.

As for nurture, it was to my favor that I was young and had no expectations. I never read Márquez thinking I’d find any overarching themes. Young and ignorant, I also had no notion about what authors do when they challenge form or content. Everybody read it, I read it, I liked the immediate thrill of the stories, I felt accomplished when I read the last page, and that was all. We didn’t talk about what we got from the book, it was just a trophy. Much like the youngsters in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. All of them claiming to have read The History of Tom Jones and other doorstoppers. Doing the math, the protagonist doubts it would be possible, all that reading, -unless they spent every single hour of the day reading, which they weren’t-. But that was youth to me. Have you read this one? Yes, or an embarrassed no. Did you like it? Yes or no. Thank you, next.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a title that I have not revisited yet. My Honduran friend has. She, in her early forties, told me how much more meaningful her second read was. She said exactly what Indian readers express concerning Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. The book was Hispanoamerica, the book was India. The repetition shows a country condemned to the circle of violence. Generation after generation, the same vices show up. Curiously, for both cultures, the limits between natural and supernatural are so blurred that the supernatural way of story telling feels the real, while the more rational way seems foreign. If we think about it, Dickens himself is hyperbolic, but his Anglo background, his language, sets a completely different frame.

Having lived in Spain and Texas for 27 and 21 years respectively, with 9 months of a stay in London, and another 9 months in Guadalajara, México in between, I can say that Spanish is a much more enveloping language than English. Ortega y Gasset explains this well in his Meditations on Quixote. (Parenthesis. The title bothers me a bit, since it’s not really that much about Don Quixote, but about the German thought versus the Latin thought, and a bit about what Don Quixote represents in the history of literature. How different it is, and what’s new). This throws me back to the idea that sometimes we have an intuitive understanding of the classic, an undercurrent of meaning that irrigates the soil and makes our reading very satisfying. Before I forget, Ortega tells us how Cervantes is the first author that writes about a common person. Before, knights and poems were epic, the narration wasn’t of ordinary life, but of happenings that are interesting in their very nature. The modern novel, -like modern art-, looks at the ordinary, the art shifts from the content to the form or technique, it’s presenting the common in a beautiful and different way.

If I tell you the plot of Don Quixote, or of One Hundred Years, or Midnight’s Children, there’s nothing spectacular, -I mean the people in the book are common, and the supernatural or magical is everywhere, is in the way things are told-. If I tell you the story of Oedipus Rex, Odysseus, Medea, that’s different. Even a poor retelling will convey a very one of a kind story. Actually, those first stories weren’t conceived as books to be printed and read in privacy, but were poems passed through the oral tradition, plays, tragedies, archetypes. Don Quixote’s never ending stories, One Hundred Years’s endless repetitions and ambiguity, and all the somehow boring parts of all these long classics, challenge our desire to be in control and find meaning. The highlights in them depend on the fillers. The fillers keep us reading for weeks, sometimes months. They force us to move inside them. And if we aren’t very aware of what we are entering, or we are young and naive, we may not want to go there, or stay there long.

With Moby Dick, I attempted it four years ago or so along with a friend. She had no problem with it, loved it from beginning to end. I started well. By this time, I had been reading the King James Bible, I knew a little bit of North American history, my nurturing was optimal. Still I lost interest half way into it. Brona is having a read along, and I considered attempting it again, thought about it, was undecided. But reading her notes on some chapters, and some others’s notes, fueled my desire to try it again. It’s possible that my time has come to enjoy it.

As for Dickens, I read Great Expectations in Spanish and enjoyed it. It’s not the same. I could attempt it in English. But if I choose one of his books, I can’t say I will read the original. And forgive me if I am drawn to Spanish and Russian door-stoppers more than English ones, 🙂

I won’t close without saying how thrilled I am to see some of you reading my favorite long books such as Don Quixote, or Fortunata and Jacinta. Even if you only read them partially, just giving them a try is such a beautiful gesture to us, fans of these old friends. It’s okay, in my eyes, grin, to like reviews of these books more than the books themselves. You probably know that it was like this for me in regards to Jane Austen, and cats. Not cats reviews, but love for cats. I just didn’t get it, until I raised our little girl, Missy cat, by hand, -as Dickens jokes about in that scene in Great Expectations-, since the time she was a week old.

A word about translations. It’s not, I believe, the fact that we read in translation what makes us not experience the books in their plenitude. Depends on our relationship with the translation or our motives for one. If our nature and nurture don’t help us, translation can put us in a place even more removed from the core of the book. When our language and culture are the same as the original, certain apprehending faculties get activated. It’s that feel, that familiarity, that intuitive recognition. When I choose to read in translation, say, Dickens, I do it to conjure that familiarity, and free myself to appreciate the text in aspects that my nurture may make possible for me to enjoy. Listening to good audios for these books, -whether translations or original-, will also give us some welcome proximity. I admit I have not properly read Midnight’s Children. I couldn’t at the time. I listened to it. The narrator did different voices and accents, which lifted the text, and gave me clues as to what was said tongue in cheek, what was monotonous, or spoken loud, or whispered.

So, I’m committing to Moby Dick. I don’t know how it’ll be, but at least, I’ll meet Ishmael and Queequeg in those first chapters, which are hilarious, full of wisdom, myths, legends, character, and larger than life.

I don’t know about you, but I’m very glad we have lots of varied door-stopper classics. Which is yours?

16 thoughts on “Door Stopper Classics, or Moby Dick, Take II

  1. Good luck with Moby Dick Sylvia! I’ve not tackled it yet. I’m still making my way through the first part of Don Quixote.

    I think the longest book I have read so far is Infinite Jest at 1088 pages. Not quite a classic yet, it was only first published in 1996. It was an odd book but strangely compelling once I got into it. I love Dickens and Trollope and generally they write doorstoppers. Interestingly, my least favorite Dickens’ titles are his shorter ones. I love the immersion we get as readers when in one narrative for a long time/many pages.

    I have read The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding! 😀 But I only remember liking it and more or less how it ends. It’s been too many years to remember the rest of it.

    What you say about Midnight’s Children and One Hundred Years of Solitude is actually very much in keeping with what I’ve been thinking about them as well! I just finished One Hundred Years of Solitude and while I can see that it was purposefully written in a cyclical, repetitive manner to illustrate “a country condemned to the circle of violence” it didn’t touch me emotionally. I wonder if this is because I am so removed from that history and culture. I was just commenting on Jankay’s blog how other books with magic realistic elements have affected me more but maybe because I am in those cases aware of the background of the books historical basis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ruthiella, for the luck with Moby Dick.

      Talking with my friend Kim who just finished Don Quixote, she reminded me about the serialization of most of this long classics. DQ itself was published in two books separated by many years, people were forced to take a break, etc.

      I too like Galdós long books more than the short. They have space to develop more. I am aware of (and intimidated by) Infinite Jest. I love about you that you have ventured exactly there where I am intrigued to go. I am sure that our background or lack thereof, for some books is responsible for how much they touch us, or how smooth they go, etc.

      I am still at the plot ridden chapters of MB, and this time in Spanish, I am loving it. But I am also prepared to face the non plot chapters, specially now reading in Spanish.

      I keep coming back to the same, the more familiar with the history and culture, the better. However, becoming familiar with an author starts to build up. The more Jane Austen I read, the more I enjoy and get her books, -themes, language, humor…


  2. (YAY!! I figured out how to comment on your blog. For whatever reason, I was having trouble getting past WordPress, but I guess I just have to use a different server. Hopefully now it is solved.

    Anyway, here is what I tried to say yesterday…

    I’m so glad to see you’ve decided to give Moby Dick a try again. Take it one chapter at a time…and they are little slivers of reading each chapter, making it digest-able. You won’t choke. Promise.

    I like to think of classics as a whole separate language of ideas and style in itself. (I’m more apprehensive about reading contemporary b/c I think it won’t speak to my soul…it won’t reach deep enough inside and change me. I’ve not read a lot of contemporary fiction, though, so I may be totally wrong.) However, I have not read across the spectrum of all classics either. I’ve only read the Western canon. I’ve struggled w/ some of the circumstances you mention, but since reading straight classics since 2012, I think it has challenged me and prepared me well. Except the Ancients…there I struggle!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am very similar to you. Modern titles are usually difficult. I am picking and choosing a few more readable, as Ruthiella says, late XX century, and only go for a few, since I have way less reference and reading experience for them to be appreciated. And as a Christian, it’s always a challenge to understand or be encouraged by all those great works that nonetheless stand in the opposing worldview.
      Thanks for the advice on MD. I am back and strong so far, enjoying it and ready to this time, go at sea with them!
      I too have difficulties with the Ancients. Maybe after 100 we should try Plato, or Virgil.
      The easiest for me and book that I love, was The Odyssey.


      1. Since I’ve been reading The Well-Educated Mind, I’ve had to read some Ancients, and I did fine w/ Augustine, but I struggled w/ this list of Ancient histories:

        Herodotus’ Histories,
        Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War,
        and I did not finish Plato: The Republic (I read 100 pages and quit).
        I read only some of Plutarch: Lives. <– I did like these, but it was difficult to trudge through.

        When I'm done with the histories, I have to read plays, such as
        Aeschylus: Agamemnon,
        Sophocles: Oedipus the King,
        Euripides: Medea,
        Aristophanes: The Birds,
        Aristotle: Poetics,
        and Everyman.

        And when I'm done w/ plays, I have to read poems:
        The Epic of Gilgamesh
        Homer: Iliad and the Odyssey
        Greek Lyricists
        Horace: Odes
        Alighieri, Dante: Inferno

        So my point is, I've got some Ancients coming up that I have to prepare for, some of which I am looking forward to, and some not. I am definitely looking forward to The Odyssey, though. And I may like to read The Aeneid one of these days, too.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Herodotus and Thucydides, that would be not something I could do.
    Another similarity, I also quit The Republic after 100 or less pages.
    One more similarity, I also have read some Plutarch lives. I read them with the girls using a study guide by Anne White. Challenging, I agreed.

    I have read many of the plays. Easy in comparison to the previous works discussed. Not so much Aristotle, but his Ética Nicomaquea, I read parts in Spanish when young and it was doable. The plays I have started to read them again, a bit from each of the four you mentioned.
    I am also reading Marco Aurelio’s Meditations. They are beautiful, easy to read, so warm and wise, and interesting how much they dovetail with the Scriptures moraliyand wisdom.

    I always like to have some Ancient or classical read in my stack. I remember a very inspiring article by Bauer that exhorted us to not do the dishes and read the classics instead.


  4. Such interesting thoughts on what we bring to the literature we read. I struggle consistently with Spanish literature, and yet I love Japanese and Russian. (?!) Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books ever;I have read it at least five times.

    Being very familiar with the King James Bible is helping me read Moby Dick, too. For some reason, I am hooked! (So to speak.😉)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m hooked too, ha ha ha! I enjoyed that sermon on Job. Melville is such a generous story teller. I know I’m going to make it this time. And keep blogging about it, I absolutely love your quotes. Yesterday I was reading the “I’ll have both”, at the second inn, the fish stew, “caldereta”.

      We all develop a distinctive literary thumbprint, right? And yours has that Russian and Japanese bent. I too love Russian lit. Japanese, I’m not familiar with many works, but one of my all time favorite novels is The Makioka Sisters.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have been meaning to read The Makioka Sisters for the longest time. Just to let you know, not to “pressure” you, I run the Japanese Literature Challenge every January in which we read at least one work of Japanese literature. Everyone is welcome to join; you will see me post about it after Christmas.

        Fun that you read that quote about fish, and you told me about it here! 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am very interested. I am looking forward to joining. I always want to read more Japanese literature. I know you will be able to recommend a good fit for me.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Kristin Lavransdatter would be “my” doorstopper. I finally got to re-read it this past winter, after loving it (and reading it repeatedly) in high school. Now I am reading the huge Rebecca West history and travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Well past the halfway point but it’s taken a month and a half to get there and so much has happened in my own life — including reading a handful of shorter books — in the time frame. Plots within plots and journeys within journeys.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh! Another Kristin Lavransdatter fan. I love the trilogy. I have never heard of the Rebecca West history and travelogue. It sounds interesting. Our lives take on paths we sometimes can’t imagine. I love that sentence, plots within plots, and journeys within journeys. I also like to read big books but I need to read shorter ones interspersed. I guess I want it all, ha ha ha.


  6. I’m wondering which doorstopper to take with me on a long plane ride…I don’t want anything too mentally taxing. Any suggestions? I have Portrait of a Lady, Martin Chuzzlewit, Wives & Daughters, for example…I haven’t read Les Mis but I need some encouragement with that one. I just haven’t ever really felt like reading it. I’ve seen the musical live & the movie. I have some others I’d like to read but they’re my really nice HB books & I don’t want to cart them across to the other side of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have read Wives and Daughters and it’s a book I could not put down, it wasn’t taxing at all. Even though I have not read Martin Ch. I bet it would work as well.
      Have a safe trip.


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