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Stumbling Upon Great Books

Having been gone half a month, I have to catch up with answering comments and posting book reviews. I have been behind with Musing Mondays since I was in Texas and Oklahoma last week.
Musing Mondays2

This week’s musing (March 26) asks:

Have you ever found a book out of the blue, read it, and then had it be surprisingly good — one that stuck with you for years? If so, what book was it?

I sure have. Every once in a while I would pick up a book cold turkey and surprise myself. From time to time a book would come along that reminds me what great fiction should be: either with en engrossing story or a quiet, contemplative writing style, or both. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley is such a novel. It’s a beautifully written novel that explores naiveté and knowledge, and the mysteries of the human heart. Leo Colston, the 13-year-old narrator, arrives at Brandham Hall in the scorching summer of 1900 to stay with his school friend Marcus. The novel intimately follows events that ominously unveil the next three weeks after the daughter of the house, Marian Maudsley, who has a secret love affair with the farmer Ted Burgess, entrusts him to be bearer of messages between the lovers. Aside from the affair which attracts initial attention, aside from Leo’s jealousy of men’s power over Marian, Leo is caught in his own struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and rebellion. That he is being part of the secret intensifies his longing for liberation and transfiguration. The book’s power arises from his keen way of noticing, and his alertness to the prospect of humiliation, on the lookout for mockery. Until The Go-Between, I have never heard of L.P. Hartley, let alone reading him. This book has changed that and also stayed with me over the year.

That was five years ago. Recently I have discovered out of the blue a book that will likely register in my memory five years from now—and it also happens to be a NYRB title: Stoner by John Williams. The book is both depressing and inspiring at the same time. Stoner, the titular character, has an origin as humble as the earth his parents worked on in Missouri. From the earliest time he can remember, he was obliged to duties on the farm. Stoner was raised in an austere and lonely household bound together by the necessity of its toil. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, which renders estrangement from his parents. The prose that elaborates on Stoner’s reflecting moments of self-realization and profound insecurity is most beautiful. John Williams, in depicting Stoner, whose indifference becomes a way of living among the dark forces and sadness that have swept over the society, seems to be saying that most of us will live quiet, unremarkable lives that can probably be summarized in a few sentences and that contribute nothing to humanity’s accomplishments

5 Responses

  1. The Go-Betwen sounds interesting. I’m going to have to look into it (already wrote it down). One thing I like to do to stumble upon a great book is to play book roulette. I go to the library, choose a random aisle, and close my eyes. Then I run my fingers along a row, touch the “book of choice” and read it no matter what. I found a really good book when I was a teenager because of that game. It was called Of Rice without Rain. Nifty post!

  2. […] more here: Stumbling Upon Great Books « A Guy's Moleskine Notebook « Reconsider to read the Best Selling Dog Books | Cesar Millan: Dog … #1: Fifty […]

  3. I purchased “Stoner” after reading about it on your website. Haven’t read it yet, but it’s lying on my bedside table :o) Will let you know how I get on.
    The book I stumbled upon was “The Fortress of Sollitude” by Jonathan Lethem. Not a book I would pick up normally, but I REALLY liked it.
    The same with “The Canal” by Lee Rourke. Again not a book I would choose, but I heard about it in a podcast and simply had to buy it. It didn’t disappoint…

  4. The Go-between is certainly on my own short list of favorites. Always glad to see your comments. I’ll keep an eye out for Stoner.

  5. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” by Richard P. Feynman.

    The first time I read the book was about a year or so from purchasing it!! Since then, I keep re-reading from it. I don’t even want to imagine my life without it! It got me through some really tough times, so it’ll always be my all-time favourite.

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