To me, this has been a pivotal year for me as regards literature. It’s probably the first year that I’ve read more than 100 significant works of prose, and it’s a great feeling that I finished reading 140 at the end of the year.
I’m writing this note as a reminder to myself of what I deemed the best books I have read over the course of this year, as well as a sort of instructive write-up of sorts to those who may be interested in reading books that I (among others) highly esteem. Here goes.
10. Persuasion – Jane Austen
I don’t like to read romances for the most part. It’s not that I’m a cynic regarding love; it’s just that I don’t like escaping from my failures in love into fantasies. That’s probably the reason why I read classics for the most part. Rather than being entertained, I like reading for the sake of edification. I like to combine observation with reflection, and I like learning, and that’s why I read.
Persuasion is Jane Austen at her most mature, though. Anne Elliot is no longer youthful: she toes the line of spinsterhood, and yet she still waited for the only person she loved. It was, of course, her fault that she was persuaded against her heart, but I totally understand: in the final analysis, love is not the only thing that keeps us alive. There are so many factors and intricacies involved in living that romance is merely an aspect. Anne, being a pragmatic person, simply silences herself while paying the dues for her repudiation of Wentworth.
She is intelligent, forbearing, and patient. She watches her tongue. I like her, because I’m reminded of myself by her.
Aside from that, though, it’s really Wentworth’s letter that sealed the deal. It’s probably among the sweetest, most loving words I’ve read from the entirety of literature: ‘I am half-agony, half-hope. I have loved none but you.’
9. The Art of Clear Thinking – Rudolf Flesch
This was a zeitgeist, a history book, and a tome that taught one how to be more organized with thought. It had some fun tests in it, and was a joy to read.
8. How You Can Be a Better Student – Rudolf Flesch
This was a book that gauged one’s intelligence in most mental aspects. Not only that, it also helped one boost his vocabulary, and write better. I made friends with this book, but it was also very helpful to me in the aspect of more efficient studying.
7. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
I read this novel over the course of two days.
I’d say this wasn’t even a romance novel, because Scarlett wasn’t really effusive with love. Despite her demeanor, though, to see her struggle through the Civil War from destruction to rebuilding and then to failure once more was really breathtaking. I lost sleep over this novel because it was just that exciting to read.
The ending was also very apt. Scarlett deserved every bit of what Rhett did to her. I can’t remember most of the details, but the panoramic breadth and the color of the novel is more than enough for its price of admission.
6. Some Do Not and No More Parades – Ford Madox Ford
I’m glad I first watched the mini-series. It made understanding the first two novels of Parade’s End a lot easier.
I really like this novel because its protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, is essentially ‘the last gentleman.’ Even though he was cuckolded by his wife, cheated by her lover, and left hanging by his friend, he persisted to being upright and proper even as his world fell around him. Although he finally capitulated with his love for Miss Wannop after his wife took everything that could be taken from him, he still remained a true gentleman, and the Last Tory.
The two novels are both complex and beautiful, and beautifully represent the decline and fall of conservative values as modernism loomed. Great work.
5. The Bridge over the River Kwai – Pierre Boulle
In a certain battle, the Japanese defeated the British and brutally treated them as prisoners-of-war. However, as the Japanese require a bridge across Burma to transport supplies, they needed the help of the POWs to build the bridge. Despite abuses, Col. Nicholson staunchly opposes being made to work as if they were privates, and refers to the Hague Convention for their rights in war. Eventually, the Japanese leader capitulates, and a bridge of wood was made with speed and efficiency.
The bridge, however, has to be destroyed, and eventually allegiances are questioned. Should pride be placed above duty? Should honor be placed above work? These are questions that the book posits and offers no answers to. All there remains is a pithy, well-written tragedy.
4. The Mansion – William Faulkner
‘But you can me’
When Faulkner writes a love story, it becomes a classic.
Liberal Arts and The Mansion have a similar age-difference in their love stories. But unlike Liberal Arts, however, The Mansion features vicarious love. Because Gavin Stevens, the protagonist, could not love the mother as she wouldn’t allow it, he takes care of the beautiful, energetic child instead and tries to lead her toward the right way. Her name is Linda Snopes: her father is one of the most devious representatives of the Snopes family, the American representation of Faulkner for uncompromising avarice. Stevens tries to give her books, direct her to become a more educated, more knowledgeable lady, and she slowly gets to appreciate all that he had done and was doing for her. But he could not love her the way she needed to be loved, and he could not give what she wished for.
This is a love story and a thriller at the same time, and is the final novel of the Snopes trilogy. It’s proof that a ‘lesser’ Faulkner work is probably most other writers’ masterpieces.
3. The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoevsky
‘If Jesus Christ were placed in the 19th century, would he have the same fate?’, Dostoevsky asks.
He answers with a resounding yes. The Idiot features a sweet, angelic prince in Myshkin who comes into fortune after some coincidences. Two women fall in love with him: the first is someone totally virtuous, and the second is ‘a fallen woman.’ The fallen woman cannot accept love from him, so she ruins herself; the virtuous lady could not understand that his love for the fallen woman is different from his interest in her, so she runs away.
Ultimately, he retreats into his own shell, still full of goodness, but never returning to the world.
The novel is a great reflection of the evil that man possesses, and the goodness that man can no longer have. Revelatory and prophetic, The Idiot is one of Dostoevsky’s greatest novels, and arguably one of the greatest novels ever.
2. The Violent Bear it Away – Flannery O’Connor
Before I graduated from my clerkship, I strongly reacted when one of the consultants told me that she did not know who Flannery O’Connor was. In our graduation party, the novel was used to identify me. I unhesitatingly grouped this novel into one of my all-time favorites – and it remains to be so.
Nearly a year removed from reading the novel the very first time, I’m still thoroughly impressed. O’Connor tackled the question of faith through her grotesques, and although I may have misunderstood some of its parts (it’s a highly complex novel), just reading about the reality that one never really can run away from God was a great catharsis of sorts for me. No matter how much Francis Tarwater tries to run from God, he is nevertheless still drawn toward him. Indeed, only those violent with the love of God can carry the Church away from its demons. It’s a dark, difficult work, but it’s made me reassess my faith and actions towards God.
1. The Glass Bead Game – Hermann Hesse
I thought nothing could beat The Violent Bear It Away. I was so sure.
Then I read The Glass Bead Game. I don’t think both works could be compared to one another, but I saw myself in the struggles of Joseph Knecht. To become the Master of the Game, he had to sacrifice everything else except knowledge: he was intelligent, diligent, and responsible, and that was the reason why he had reached the highest possible post in Castalia. Even then, however, it wasn’t enough. Or rather, it wasn’t right.
Eventually Joseph realized that hiding in the high tower of one’s intelligence was no better than those people who hid in caves just to escape the light. Both were equally wrong, and equally contemptible. Knowledge and wisdom in a human being remains to be nevertheless steeped in the real world. One cannot live without being in society, and one cannot escape society. In the end, he still wanted out of their cabal of intelligence because he argued that life isn’t lived inside a glass bead.
I realized that he was right. I pursued intelligence and knowledge so much that I had ignored and was insensitive to the needs of other people. Before, people were mere stepping stones to the build-up of my intelligence. Feelings were insignificant. While I had changed for the better even before the book, The Glass Bead Game elucidated what should be done: wisdom is useless in solitude.
I agree, and that’s why The Glass Bead Game is my best book of 2013.
Happy New Year, everyone!