Tag Archives: Classics

The scent of the past

Yesterday I stumbled upon one of my very old books… and by that I mean one of those my mom used to read to me when I was only a couple of years old, long before I could read them myself. The thing was falling apart, and there was some evidence that it had been patched up more than once. In other words, it showed all the signs of a children’s book that has been ‘well-loved’ (read ‘thoroughly chewed’). When I saw it, I was overjoyed. It was such a seemingly insignificant  thing, but it brought back so many memories. I spent a couple of hours getting reacquainted with some I hadn’t really forgotten (though I admit I was surprised to realize that that little book included The Three Astronauts, a very short story by Umberto Eco) and getting a little teary eyed.

It was, in other words, a wonderful experience… and then I started thinking about kids today, who are learning to read on a tablet, that will get replaced and discarded in a couple of years, kids  who will never have a chance to stumble upon an old friend as I did yesterday, and I couldn’t help but to think that they will be missing something… and the worst part is that they’ll never even notice.

Oh, I’m not denying that there are plenty of advantages to technology, but it is a trade-off, and the kids that are growing up glued to their tablets will never know what they are missing. They will never know the joy of stumbling upon an unexpected treasure in a pile of old books, they will never wonder about the hands that held the book they are currently reading a hundred years ago. In short, we are heading into a world in which there are no first editions, and in which getting your favorite book autographed by its author is no longer an option. Granted, moving half a world away with a library comprising thousands of volumes is bound to be easier with a tablet or an ereader than with thousands upon thousands of pounds of dead trees (I’ve done it, and I’ll be the first  to admit that it is not much fun), but there is a certain kind of magic to the printed page. Cracking open an old book brings back a scent of the past… and that is a scent that is on the brink of being lost for good.

The List

About three years ago I made a list of books I really wanted to read. It was a long list, featuring literally hundreds of titles. At the time the task ahead of me seemed daunting… there were so many books! Some were books I had never read, others were books I felt had crossed off my list a little too early (think of all those books you were forced to read in high school because they figured that, if they didn’t cram them down your throat then, chances were that you’d never pick them up on your own)… a few were books I remembered fondly. As you can imagine, I wound up loving some books and being sorely disappointed by others (rereading old favorites can be wonderful, but at the same time there’s no denying that revisiting childhood friends may wind up shattering some of your fondest memories).

I am done with that list now, at least with that initial version. The good news is that there are still plenty of books out there that I’m itching to read, that the list kept expanding itself (I added other  books by an author I fell in love here, a friend recommended a new title there), but at the same time as I made my way through it I became increasingly aware that my list was, almost by definition, one that was limited by my own knowledge, by the connections I have been able to make up to this point… and I wondered about those books that should have been in there, but weren’t, about the books I’ll never read and that I might have loved if only I’d known about them.

Of course, in addition to those books I long for but am unaware of, I also wound up taking a few chances, adding books that I knew of, but wasn’t sure I was going to like. Some of these chances paid off, others didn’t. In a couple of instances I was tempted to break my self-imposed ‘no desertions past the first chapter’ rule. I also tackled a few best-sellers that were not really up my alley in an attempt to see what all the fuss was about. That didn’t turn out too good.

The one thing I wound up getting out of the whole experience was a better understanding of who I am and what I like as a reader. Oh, in a way I have always known, but it was an instinctive knowledge, now it seems to be more narrow, more defined.

As for where my reading will take me in the future, I’m back out in the wilderness now. I don’t have a grand plan any more, I only know what my next four or five books are likely to be… plus there are a few books I’m still trying to hunt down and a few classics that should probably have made the list but didn’t. There is one in particular that I haven’t quite dared to tackle, one I still find a little too daunting but that keeps calling me. The problem is that, as was the case back in high school, I don’t think I’m ready for it… in fact I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready. That book? It’s The Mahabharata.

Oz grows up

And almost a month later I am still going over Baum’s Oz books, though I am nearing the end of the line (I am currently reading The Magic of Oz, meaning that I have only Glinda of Oz left to go). One of the things I’ve noticed in these last few books however, is that while there is no getting around the fact that the books remain children’s books, the tone seems to have grown a little more serious, and the plots a little more complex. This was particularly apparent in The Tin Woodman of Oz… and that is particularly interesting because it is the first one in which in the preface the author acknowledges the existence of adult readers. In a way I guess it was only natural, after all the guy had been releasing Oz books for eighteen years by then, and that meant that a whole generation of adults that had grown up reading these stories, plus some grandparents who may have come across these books while reading them to a child only to find something in them that resonated within them.

Anyway, even though reading this book can leave you feeling a little lost at first if you haven’t read all of the previous entries in the series, a quick trip to Wikipedia will probably enable you to work around that one, and if you like children’s classics this book is a nice way to spend one afternoon.


After thinking it over for a while I decided to tackle the Oz books. Like a lot of people I grew up being familiar with The Wizard of Oz, only when I read it a few days ago I realized that the version I had read as a child was an adaptation (apparently someone had decided that the book had to be dumbed down even further, and as a child I was unaware of that fact). In addition to that my memories of the book had somehow managed to get tangled with those of the movie, and the end result was that all of a sudden I found myself being confronted with a book that was not like I had been expecting it to be. No, it’s not great, but it is still an interesting read, and I realize that complaining that a children’s book comes across as being a little childish for my liking is more than a little silly.

Anyway, once I was done with The Wizard of Oz I moved on to the rest of the series. So far I have only read a few titles (most of them can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg), and while at times I find myself itching for something that is at least a little more challenging, coming in the aftermath of my rereading the whole Discworld series, these books make for an interesting precedent. Sure, there are a number of significant differences, and I can already hear the howls from the Discworld fans at the mere thought of this comparison, but in a way it is not that much of a stretch to see the Oz books as the grandparents of both the Discworld and even the Middle-earth (and yes, like all grandparents, this one too can come across as a little embarrassing at times). The imagination is there, and I can see a lot of potential, but in a way that is what makes these books so frustrating: yes, the pieces are there, now if only the author would do something with them.

Well, like I said, grandparents can and do come across as rather old-fashioned at times, so I guess that is to be expected… and the bottom line is that, as embarrassing as the can be, there is no denying that knowing our grandparents can help us understand who we are and where we come from. No, I’m not sure these books would be appealing to children who are old enough to read them nowadays, and for adults they are mostly a curiosity, but if you are into the history of fantasy and children’s lit, these books are definitely worth it (and from what I have seen so far I suspect that The Wizard of Oz is not the best one of the lot).

Have children really changed that much?

Remember how I few days ago I mentioned I was going to be tackling some children’s ‘classics’? Well, I’ve already begun and the truth is that at times I find myself wondering if somehow we switched species sometime in the last hundred years or so without realizing it. Oh, the book I am currently reading is not one of the best known stories ever, but rather one that one of my uncles, who is considerably older than my mom to begin with, recommended. He said it was a book he had enjoyed as an adult, so I was really looking forward to it, but so far I have to say that it’s been a major disappointment. Still it is an interesting look at the past so in that regard I guess it’s still worth the trouble, but honestly did kids ever behave that way?

Verne, revisited

Okay, this is just a little update. A few months ago I posted that while trying to reread 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea I had realized just how bad the standard English version happens to be, and I also posted a link to the revised version, which is thankfully freely available from Project Gutenberg, but still I wanted to read it in the original. Today I decided instead to do something different so I headed to www.litteratureaudio.com (a pretty solid repository of free French audiobooks) and I downloaded it. I think listening to it is going to be an interesting exercise and I’m really looking forward to it.

Out of the Past, Into the Future

A fair warning, this is going to be a really bizarre post that probably won’t seem to make much sense, at least not at first glance. How bizarre? Well, it deals with two series of books written by American women that depict the lives of girls around the age of sixteen. One of the series begins when the leading character is that age, the other basically ends at that point; one of these series looks forward, the other looks back; one is autobiographical (or something like it), the other one is not… and time-wise the distance between the publication date for the last book in the first of these series and the release of the first book of the second one is less than seventy years. These similarities and differences make for an interesting chance to analyze how we see ourselves, how we see the world around us, where we come from and where we are going. So what are these two series? Well, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, of course. Continue reading Out of the Past, Into the Future

Looking forward, looking back

So I’m done with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. As I said in a previous post, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. One of the first things I realized, however, was that this book was not really written with a young adult audience in mind. It is too heavy on the science aspect of things for that, and in a really twisted kind of way that is probably what led to the popularity of Mr. Mecier’s dreadful translation: it was not just a dreadful translation, it was also a deliberate dumbing down of the book in an attempt to suit someone’s idea of who the book’s target audience was supposed to be. I guess in a way this is similar to the way in which animated features usually get –or rather used to get– an almost automatic G  or PG rating. Continue reading Looking forward, looking back

Diving into the sea of the past

For the past few days I have been busy reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (first published in 1870), and I am not done with it yet. Over all I have to say that I am enjoying it more than I thought I would, but one thing that has become clear is that, even though the S part of SF comes across as being more than a little dated, the approach itself is as hard as can be. In fact at times it is a little too hard, as thousands of words are devoted to a careful analysis of the classification of marine life. Seeing how I am no marine biologist, I can’t really vouch for the book’s accuracy (or lack thereof). As is the case with a lot of nineteenth century literature, however, there are times in which I find it hard to leave my twenty-first century sensibilities behind. The book is not politically correct, nowhere near it, and there is no reason it should be… but in this particular instance it isn’t so much the characters’ attitudes towards their fellow man as their attitudes towards the natural world that I am having a hard time trying to come to terms with. Continue reading Diving into the sea of the past

A round of ‘Spot the Moron’ (and a special thanks)

Yesterday I decided that I wanted to reread Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I had read it eons ago, and I figured it would be interesting to read it from an adult perspective. I got as far as the Table of Contents before realizing that either Jules Verne had been a perfect moron, or the book had been translated by one.

That may seem like a shocking assertion, but what I found while going over that TOC was that Chapter XX in Part II had the following title: From Latitude 47° 24′ to Longitude 17° 28’… say what? Latitude and longitude define a single point, so there’s no going from latitude to longitude, end of story. Having read that I headed for Project Gutenberg and looked up the original. In French that chapter is called Par 47°24′ de latitude et de 17°28′ de longitude (In Latitude 47° 24′ and Longitude 17° 28’). That was a relief, I had spotted my moron and it certainly wasn’t Verne.

A bit of additional digging (i.e. a quick trip to Wikipedia) confirmed that the book had been essentially gutted by a man by the name of Lewis Page Mercier in what is in fact the standard English translation, but in addition to that I also found that there was a far more accurate version which was produced in 1966 by Walter James Miller… and that he had also been kind enough to release it into the public domain. It is available via Project Gutenberg here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2488.

I haven’t tackled it yet, but I am looking forward to it. The thing is that if you read this one as a kid you may want to go back to it and have another look. I also want to thank Mr. Miller, and whoever else happens to be responsible for this decision, for making this work available for free.