Posts Tagged ‘Novels’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

On December 19th, I began to read the most famous novel of all time.  I hefted Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterwork War and Peace off my shelf for the first time in years. When I say years, I mean years. I had actually read War and Peace one time51qFi0rYw7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ before when I was 21 years old. Back then, during the Spring Semester of my Junior undergrad year, I signed up for a course titled ‘Great Books’, or something like that.  We had to read Homer’s Iliad, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and Tolstoy’s aforementioned monster.  That is A LOT of reading for a 15 week course.

It was a pretty interesting course. However, I really didn’t need it to graduate.  I signed up because I thought it would be fun. I enjoyed the class and I enjoyed the readings, but I did not want to produce any of the work.  I just wanted to learn about the books. So, I did something that I probably shouldn’t discuss: I dropped the course, but kept doing the readings and showing up to the class.

What can I say? I’m a bit of a nerd.

At 21, I enjoyed War and Peace.  I don’t think it was the first Tolstoy I had read, but it was undoubtedly the first of his great novels I tackled.  I must have read it when it was cold outside because, for some reason, whenever I would think about the book in the years following it would make me think of winter.  And so over the last few winters when it would get cold outside, I would think fondly of the big ol’ tome.

Which brings us back to December 19th. I finally cracked that monster open again. It had been 18 years since I had read it so I really didn’t remember a great deal. Would I still enjoy it?  It was questionable. Over the last 3 or 4 years, I have re-read some ‘great works’ that I loved in my early 20’s.  Maybe it was to be expected, but I found that my late 30’s self felt differently about said books.  Some books really spoke to me at an older age more then they did at a younger age.  One of these was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  I remember slowly slogging through that book when I was 20. When I read it at 35, I absolutely loved it! On the other hand, one of my favorite books when I was 21, Albert Camus’ The Plague really didn’t hit as hard the 30-something me.

So, what about Tolstoy’s epic? 39 years of age, or 21 years of age made no difference. It was, is and always will be amazing.  I realize many people get intimidated by the size of the book, the number of characters and the historical references therein, but I think that is war_and_peace_is_heavy_readingbased upon reputation and heresy more than reality.  Many will sit down and read all the Game of Thrones books, and each of those are only a bit shorter than Tolstoy’s work. Plus, there really aren’t that many main characters; ten or so protagonists make up roughly 80% of the book. Granted, the historical aspects of the book can confuse, but all you need are some end-notes to clear things up.

Tolstoy’s writing in War and Peace is simply awe-inspiring.  The psychological portraits of even the most secondary characters make you feel as though you have truly entered a complete world; a world that is not easy to extricate yourself from. After finishing the chartemainaltarbook, I felt spiritually charged. Only the greatest pieces of art have this ability. I believe a good analogy would be walking into Chartres Cathedral for the first time.  The size, the colors, the sounds, the epic nature of the environment must take one aback. Even if you don’t believe in what the church represents, the grandeur of the product still moves you. This is much like Tolstoy’s creation. At times, Tolstoy’s esoteric mystical Christianity shines through in certain characters’ beliefs, words and actions. While I in no way buy into Tolstoy’s religion, it is difficult not to be moved by his descriptions of the sacred.  War and Peace is Chartres, Rouen, Notre Dame in written form.  The nice thing is, you don’t need to travel thousands of miles across an ocean to experience Tolstoy.

So, what book is next?  I need some time to think about that one.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other night, my wife and many of her Facebook ‘friends’ had a back and forth about a link she shared.  The bone of contention was one of those ubiquitous internet ‘lists’. You know the kind.  ‘The 50 best cat memes’, or the ’36 best Presidents’, or, in this case, the ’32 Books that will change your life’.

What is it about the internet’s insatiable love of lists?  In the realm of book lists alone, anonymous internet patrons proclaim what ‘books to read before you die’; or which ‘books you need to read before 30’; or simply, ‘The Greatest Books of All Time”.  At the very least, these lists spark discussion, as proven by the good-natured argument had by my wife and her social media buds about this particular ‘Buzzfeed’ biblio-litany.  Most of their discussion centered upon what books should be on the list, and what books didn’t deserve such praiseworthy recognition.  Each participant added his or her own ‘how could this book be missing from such a list’ selection.

I, myself, had another query after glancing at the list in question.  Why, oh why, do such lists focus so exclusively upon that most recent literary invention, appropriately termed the novel?  Where are the books that will change your life not in the novelistic form?  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good novel as much as the next bibliophile, but why do these lists ignore any mention of other types of books? If we are talking about books that ‘change your life’, or you ‘should read before you die’, shouldn’t there be at least the hint of philosophy?  Of Religion?  Perhaps, even the-republichistory?

Well, have no fear.  I will solve this list shortage with yet another list.   Here is just a sampling of works,  none novels, that should be read before you die; or that should be read before you 61Kvp0zgD6Lare 40; or that can change your life. Feel free to ignore my suggestions, and/or tell me what I missed.

  • The Republic by Plato – This may seem daunting, but most every argument crucial to Western philosophy gets it start right here.  Politics, morality, religion, social structure?  It’s all in there.
  • The Bible –  To understand our world, and the viewpoints of so many, read it from cover to cover.  Sure, there are moments in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that can get a bit long, but you can make it.federalist
  • The Works of Mencius – You may be saying to yourself ‘who’, not recognizing the name of one of the great Ancient Chinese philosophers. But, if you pick up his works, you will find an incredibly warm, and positive investigation of human nature.
  • 9781844678761_Communist-manifesto (1)Japanese Love Poems of the 10th Century – Again, this sounds arcane, but the poetry written during Japan’s Heien era is some of the most straightforwardly beautiful poetry around.  It is easy to fall in love with, pun notwithstanding.
  • The Federalist by Madison, Hamilton and Jay – Want to understand American politics? Here is where you need to start.
  • The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels – See what all the fuss is about.
  • download (2)Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin – Specifically, book lovers should check out his “Unpacking My Library”. With_the_Old_Breed_(Eugene_B._Sledge_book_-_cover_art)Cultural critics should delve into his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” for something a little less light.
  • With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge –   Sledge’s classic understated chronicle of his experiences during the World War 2 in the Pacific will make you question if there can be such a thing as a “Good War”.
  • foot2The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich – Still the standard introduction to art history.  Perfect for a college classroom, or for a relaxing read.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman – A groundbreaking work that combines the art of graphic novels with an Mausautobiographical memoir of the Holocaust.
  • 2943781Descartes’ Baby by Paul Bloom – Bloom is a Yale psychologist who studies infant behavior and development.  I think every page of this book had me shaking my head in amazement.  It opened my eyes to the incredible world of children’s minds.

So, there you have it.  A quickly constructed list of highly recommended non-novels.

Now, go argue about it on Facebook.  Or, Tumblr.  Or, wherever.