More on the long-predicted demise of reading

* Steve Jobs thinks reading is dead; Timothy Egan disagrees. If it’s dying, would it just hurry up?

* In the same vein: a paean to the departed past where civilization dwells. The Wonderful Past, redux.

* Philippa Gregory watches a novel with no literary merit anyway and still gets the Hollywood treatment. Compare to Philip Pullman, whose books have literary merit.

* Terry Teachout quoting T.S. Eliot. Compare and contrast to Richard Russo in Straight Man: “Virtually everybody in the English department has a half-written novel squirreled away in a desk drawer. I know this to be a fact because before they all started filing grievances against me, I was asked to read them. Sad little vessels all. Scuffy the Tugboat, lost and scared on the open sea. All elegantly written, all with the same artistic goal—to evidence a superior disposition.”

The Name of the Rose — Umberto Eco

Since beginning The Name of the Rose a month ago, it has become the answer to requests for recommendations. It is a vast, engaging novel that makes me feel its greatness: the subject matter is complex but presented well, the plot moves swiftly, no word feels wasted, and the prose is original—I’ve never before seen through the eyes of a fourteenth-century monk. Even if modern ideas about how to interpret ideas and test hypotheses are discussed, I believe the perspective of a monk, especially because Adso of Melk’s interpretation of the world goes through the Biblical lens. It comes from other places too: the references to how great distance really felt then, in the value of books that took individuals working alone years to copy (which makes one appreciate how relatively little they cost today), and how important food was. Contrast this with The Other Boleyn Girl, a world as foreign as a TV show about attractive Californians in swimsuits.

But The Name of the Rose deals too with eternal human longings: lust for power, lust for control, lust for knowledge, and plain, unadorned lust, all of which appear in many guises. If there is a taxonomy of evil implicit in the narrative, then it finds true evil is that of excess, and the forms of “lust” as I use them in the preceding sentence stretches into a synonym for excess. The reasons for the murders tie back into those base desires, although Eco implies that the desire to control knowledge is the penultimate sin. The library, librarian, and abbot conspire together to control knowledge, though their nominal task is to spread it; instead, William of Baskerville trise to unlock the secrets created by man, and his journey toward knowledge—of murder, most directly, and of philosophy at another level, and many others as well, as David Lodge makes clear in his introduction. I never thought I would write that about a novel with long sections devoted to theological debate as it relates to murders, and yet underlying the theological debate is the pursuit of naked power. To discern what characters mean in The Name of the Rose is a great and powerful challenge.

I can’t stop linking to Carrie Frye (see here and here), and I’ll do so again now: Frye quoted A.S. Byatt talking to The New York Times on Possession, and Byatt said: “It’s like the books people used to enjoy reading when they enjoyed reading … It has a universal plot, a classic romantic plot and a classic detective plot. And the plot was more important than anything else in it. People can get the sort of pleasure out of it they got out of the old romantic novel.” It’s just as true of The Name of the Rose, which, like Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, reminds me of why I like to read. All three can be read them for plot, or for symbol, or for ideas more suited to potential future graduate students like me. A few things implied at that abstract level:

* What is the nature of the detective story?

* How do we know what we know?

* What is the nature of faith?

* How do we search for the truth (and Truth)?

You might also ask why I don’t attempt to give a deep answer to these questions, and the chief reason is that to say anything of substance demands another reading at the very least and probably much more. The Name of the Rose is already so interconnected and works at so many levels of abstraction and symbol that it is impossible to imbibe more than a tiny amount of it on a first reading. And it relates to so much else: I’ve already found two passages that led to posts for my work-related blog, Grant Writing Confidential, one on the tendency to idealize the past and the other on how movements grow and fall apart, as well as the nature of rule versus principle adherence to ideals. The latter is related to William of Baskerville’s vision, which is to pursue truth wherever it leads and try to advance knowledge as well as the principles of good, which come from learning, understanding, and empathizing.

This is in opposition to Bernard Gui, the inquisitor who wields rules as implements of terror. In the most marvelous trial scene I have ever read, Adso describes Gui: “His gaze was really fixed on the accused, and it was a gaze in which hypocritical indulgence (as if to say: Never fear, you are in the hands of a fraternal assembly that can only want your good) mixed with icy irony (as if to say: You do not yet know what your good is, and I will shortly tell you) and merciless severity (as if to say: But in any case I am your judge here, and you are in my power).” He twists rules and principles that are supposed to lead toward goodness into their opposite. The characters representing relative good in the world of Adso are those from the Church, but over time it becomes apparent that their rigid compliance and enforcement with rules can cause them to become evil in the same way as whoever is killing monks.

The resonances among the various strands of idea and plot within the novel create an enormous and phenomenal harmony with enough dissonant notes in it for contrast. Thank Alex Ross for these musical metaphors, but they’re worthwhile: the deepest pieces of music seem to have depth that we cannot fully plumb or understand, and the same is true of the deepest novels. I can explain aspects of them, isolate individual parts so as to better admire them, but never encapsulate the whole by taking it apart. One definition of a great novel might be that no dissection of it can ever leave pieces that add up to the sum of the parts. Lesser novels yield their secrets, and novels even lesser still are not even worth the mental energy of the inquiry. At times I point such novels out—though I don’t enjoy slamming books into which writers have poured their energies—and with the greater novels I try to begin the process of understanding them, and with the greatest novels I begin to formulate ideas that might play out over far longer works than just blog posts.

This is so unusual a novel that it has turned this into an unusual post: one where, rather than asserting something about the structure or scope of a novel, or assaying its merit, I can only point to how amazing it is, try to interrogate what I mean by “amazing,” and scratch a hole into the vast mountain of meaning between two covers. This is a post I have anticipated but also dreaded writing—dreaded because there is so much that can be said about The Name of the Rose and so much that has been. I keep mentioning (here too) The Name of the Rose because it is so big that I reach for commentary on it immediately after finishing—I don’t want to give it up, which is a rare thing. I’m going to start The Key to The Name of the Rose shortly. I don’t think there is a genuine key, but I will search for the pleasure and enlightenment I can find in what I anticipate will be many future readings.

The Other Boleyn Girl and Starship Troopers

How odd it was, standing in a bookstore 7,500 miles from home and pondering the choices in a small but reasonably good English section of an airport bookshop. The most appealing books I’d already read: On Chesil Beach, The Golden Compass, The Name of the Rose (oddly enough, given that I’d read it on the first leg of the plane ride). The choices left dwindle to John le Carré’s* latest or Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. I take the latter, figuring that once I’ve read four or five of le Carré’s novels I’ve read them all. Earlier I described them as “trust no one and everyone, including you, is guilty of something, or would be in the right situation,” novels, and I eventually tire of their torrid, in-the-know sentences.

And so I chose The Other Boleyn Girl and came to a novel I dread writing about because it is awfully, unabashedly bad, filled with adverbs as egregious as the two I just used, and I was stuck with it for too many hours on a plane. Normally I would’ve stopped after a few chapters. Trapped as though in the Tower of London, I had nowhere to go but on with the story, reading endlessly of the narrator, Mary Boleyn, reminding herself of how she is a Howard, and having other characters constantly tell her that as well. Most of the characters speak in platitudes, as though aware of history’s spotlight on them, and yet the characters are simultaneously self-absorbed to a degree tiresome in anyone, including monarchs and their playthings.

Then there is the writing: on page six a “moment of pure envy swept through me,” and on 90 a horse is coiled like a spring. Adverbs proliferate like the plague and, worse for me, I just finished The Name of the Rose, a novel with a powerful, inflammatory inquisition scene that lights up like an inferno, while Gregory offers a brief, sputtering description on page 716 of my mass-market paperback. The theological discussions are similarly opposite, with The Name of the Rose like a gorgeous Ph.D. thesis and The Other Boleyn Girl like the musings of a pupil. There is much discussion of wit and little evidence of it, just as there is much discussion of what it means to be part of the family and little evidence of it meaning anything more than being part of a band of nitwit navel gazers.

There are bizarre anachronisms in the novel, as when characters use the term slut, which, as Geoffrey Pullum’s quote from the Oxford English Dictionary in this post on contemporary usage shows, slut has meant that “bad housekeeping, loose sexuality, general uppitiness and terms of endearment have been all mixed together since the middle of the 17th century.” The Other Boleyn Girl is set towards the beginning of the sixteenth century. Likewise, despite repeated references to skill in French and Latin, no characters display any knowledge of either language or its literatures; Anne’s linguistic ability extends to saying “Bien sur!” once. Indeed, the characters seem caught purely in their own times, as if history was absent and the future as well. No culture exists outside of mentions about Thomas More and jousting. If not for the device of the king and the mention of horses, this novel could be set in a frat house, or any number of contemporary settings.

All this is frustrating because The Other Boleyn Girl shows rare moments of genuine feeling, as when Mary acknowledges to her brother that she cannot wed the man she wants. These few evoking moments come amid the tedious descriptions of royal maneuverings that read like the post-season situation in basketball. By the end of the flight I wanted to take back all those snide thoughts about le Carré, who is by comparison a writer of tremendous greatness.


The other novel I bought during a layover back in the United States: Starship Troopers, which I think a family member has lying around somewhere but I also knew would make for good and quick reading. As a teenager I missed its political context, which startled me now because that is the entire novel. Sure, the politics are simplistic and lack even the depth of Stranger in a Strange Land, but I can see why arguments for independence and power appeals to boys. There are even flashes of Wilde-like aphorisms, as when a comment from the protagonist’s History and Moral Philosophy instructor is repeated: “He says that you are not stupid, merely ignorant and prejudiced by your environment.” Glimmers of tolerance in an otherwise militaristic novel appear, when the narrator says “But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Bugs are just stupid insects because they look the way they do and don’t know how to surrender.” Grudging, yes, but you get it.As I come back to Heinlein I see his many flaws and the reasons literati snub him, and were I to read him for the first time now I don’t think I would have much use for him. But for all his weaknesses he serves a need, much like the often-hated Ayn Rand. On a plane, when you’re inclined to skip over the more foolish discussions, Heinlein is pretty good—just as he is when you’re 12.

The title of this post may startle you, but there is a slim connection between a novel about sex and power in the sixteenth century and one about militarism and politics in the distant future.

I haven’t yet commented on The Name of the Rose, mentioned here, but that’s only because it’s so good that I both want to save the best for last and struggle to formulate something to say, as the novel is so vast that it’s hard merely to decide which aspects of it to discuss.

* For a fascinating essay on le Carré, see—as usual—B.R. Myers’ essay in The Atlantic.

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