Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

"Pride and Prejudice" wasn't the first romance novel written, but it was at the beginning of the genre. Why is P&P still being avidly read, while most of its contemporaries have fallen into the dustbin of history? Having read none of the others, I can only offer my uninformed opinion. My guess is that Austen just had the knack of connecting with human emotion. Things that don't go out of style. Her characters are throughly human and frail, but also charming. That makes for longevity!

I truly enjoyed the book, and was very impressed by Austen's gifts. I don't think I need go into many details, since I'm probably one of the few people in the English speaking world who hadn't read it before now. If you've not read it, give it a whirl. It's light, funny, clever and satisfying.

I wonder how the book would be received if it were written today--in a contemporary style, of course. I fear it would be lumped into genre fiction and be just another light romance novel. Our need to categorize all forms of entertainment haven't done us any good, IMO. P&P is considered literary fiction, but I'm fairly confident that wouldn't be so if it were written now. I'm not sure how I'd categorize fiction if I were in charge of the world, but I think I'd like to have quality matter more than genre.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

This summer I embarked on a plan to make up for the massive deficiencies of my literary education. I was a double major in political science and finance in college and somehow got a degree without reading one significant literary work.

In retrospect, it was a mistake to major in finance, but my employer paid for business courses and I love to save a buck or ten thousand. I should have majored in liberal arts and gotten an overview of all of the disciplines.

In high school I know I read Dickens and Dostoyevsky, and Salinger, but that was about it. Given my high school, I'm surprised we had to read anything.

After college I got into history, biography and science. I rarely read a piece of fiction, and when I did it was something popular, like Kurt Vonnegut. Nothing wrong with that, but I've spent the last X number of years nodding when someone speaks of "War and Peace" or "Pride and Prejudice."

I started reading fiction again around 20 years ago. I've pretty much stuck with current fiction, wedging in a book when I wasn't writing one. But summer is a great time for me to read, so I decided to make a dent in the pile of unread great books. I started with "Anna Karenina," mostly because I so enjoyed "War and Peace" last summer.

I'm officially a Tolstoy fan, since I liked Anna just a bit less than "War and Peace." Strangely, the war story in the latter really held me spellbound. I found that strange since I'm not normally a fan of action and adventure. But Tolstoy's war was more about how war changes people and their notions. Much better than outlandish tales of bravery and least for me.

Even though it wasn't of the scale of "War and Peace," "Anna Karenina" was a lovely book. Anyone who thinks it would be charming to live in those days should read this book to see how stultifying it could be to live in such tight social strictures. If I were in that society I wouldn't be able to see most of my friends!

Tolstoy really had the gift, as I'm sure one or two others have noted. He could take a long period of fairly ordinary life and give it real drama. Not sure how he did it, but I've like to have a little of his skill.

"Anna Karenina" is about a woman who has her head turned by a charming young man. The thing I liked about the book is that you never really get into Anna's head. At the end I didn't know if she was open to overtures or was even looking for one. I could also never tell how much she loved her husband or his replacement. She was an enigma, and having that mystery is, I think, one of the things has kept this book at the top of the "great books" list for so long. Most readers, whether they know it or not, like to have to work a bit to figure things out for themselves. You clearly have to do that with Anna. Every other character is presented more transparently, but Tolstoy held back on Anna, with great effect.

It's clearly a tragedy, but there are hundreds of pages of insight into the quotidian lives of the upper class of late 19th Century Russia.

One thing I've been surprised by is how accessible these great books are. Because they're so big I assumed they'd be really dense and difficult. Not in the least. Anyone who likes a good story and deep character development would enjoy this as well as "War and Peace." Since you can get either of them from Kindle on your PC for free or 99 cents, it's the best bargain in town. That's a lot of pages for the dough!