Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Oh hey, it's a book I read

I find it orders of magnitude more difficult to pick a book to read when I'm not currently reading something. Or maybe I should turn that around and say, when I'm in the middle of something I have no trouble at all queueing up three more books with a sense of enthusiasm. My favorite theory (of the five minutes I've spent thinking about it) is that it has to do with a perceived level of difficulty. When I'm currently reading something I'm aware that it doesn't actually take me that long to read a book, and I don't feel like I'm condemning myself to a potentially boring week every time I set a book on the stack. Whereas when my hands are empty, I'm picking something for right now, and right now I want something good. At such moments I am particularly susceptible to recommendations; the possibility of blaming someone else if the book turns out to be a stinker is always attractive...

As you may have guessed, I have recent experience with this dilemma. I got back from Paris (lovely if damp and intimidating) having finished the scholarly Women, Business and Finance in Nineteenth-Century Europe (predictably uneven and ultimately disappointing, although containing invaluable insights into national histories usually overlooked in the English literature). What to read, what to read. Nothing on my Amazon wish list looked any good of course. Finally a blog I read mentioned Evelyn Waugh's Scoop in a recommending kind of way, and off I went.

Sadly there is very little Waugh available on Kindle. As long as I'm complaining about this, I'll note also that Amazon has volumes 2-4 of Sigrid Undset's Master of Hestviken for Kindle... yes, 2-4. This is the kind of moment that makes me feel impatient with "OMG e-readers are killing books" articles. Don't worry, people; the sellers of e-readers are not in danger of making the experience too attractive. But: Waugh's complete stories are available, and for the sake of getting on with something, I bought it.

Now, short stories are not my favorite thing. The format lends itself to more insinuation and ambiguity than I usually like. Furthermore, I tend to think that collections of a novelist's short stories are a bit more for the completist or literary scholar than for Jane Reader. But although that latter assumption was more or less borne out, I did enjoy this quite a lot.

There are some really wicked little stories here, in which people are the victims of monumental irony. There are a couple are are simply howls of rage against contemporary social trends. There are also two chapters of an unfinished novel that are so good I was sad to remember it was unfinished. The sad thing about the Kindle is that it's difficult for me to go back and tell you anything more specific about the stories; but I enjoyed the collection.

After the unfinished/fragmentary works comes the juvenilia -- if there is a better argument against becoming a famous author than the possibility of having your juvenilia published, I don't know it. For the most part this stuff is not particularly good reading, although there is a pretty awesome introductory letter in which the (teenage?) Waugh congratulates himself on overcoming the handicap of a literary family to write a novel. There are no notes or anything on these pieces to indicate when they were written or how old he was when he wrote them, which I thought was disappointing. Sure, maybe there aren't dates attached to the manuscripts but surely some scholar out there has a theory and it would be better for the average reader to offer something rather than nothing.

So there we are; back on the book-horse. Although all this rain is really putting a cramp in my reading-on-train-platforms style.


  1. What was his big dilly-o? Brideshead Revisited? I could google it, but that's less fun than me just pondering. Ok, so I haven't read BH, so I haven't read anything of his. But I'm glad he didn't suck. Are you officially recommending his stories?

    1. Brideshead Revisited; but he was a pretty prolific guy. I read BR in high school but it didn't register with me at all; I've also read Put Out More Flags and The Loved One.

      "Officially recommend"! I guess I would feel more comfortable "demi-officially recommending" it - those who have not read any other Waugh are encouraged not to read the fragments or the juvenilia. But it does give (I think, from what little I know) a taste of the kinds of subjects he wrote about, his wicked sense of humor, and so on.

  2. I did not read Brideshead Revisited in high school due to a vague impression that I should read Brideshead first. Protip: there is no Brideshead.

    But I am reading it now and at the rate of a snail because I cannot bear for it to be over. I switched to the audio book because I want Waugh's words to ring in my ears. He makes me tingle the way Wharton does (which is probably why I'm doomed to spinsterhood myself - Evelyn Waugh and Edith Wharton do it for me).