Little Black Classics

Penguins Little Black Classics is a brilliant idea. Short, bitesize books of literary classics at a very low price. The problem with the execution of this idea is, on the other hand, that some of these books are utterly worthless.

In a time when book publishers have to compete with the internet, and all its content and ease of access, the publishers have to be better than the internet.

For example, the Edgar Allen Poe compilation The Tell-Tale Heart presents three of Poe’s most important short stories – previously mentioned The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Cask of Amontillado. A brilliant introduction to the works of Poe, for anyone interested in reading the essential classics.

The book could’ve been made even better, by adding a short analysis as to why these works are important, since it has some pages to spare.

Now, on the other side of the spectrum, we have the Oscar Wilde book Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast. I haven’t read much by Wilde, and thought this would be something similar to the Poe book – i.e. an introductory compilation of essential short stories, or similar, to the author’s work. But it isn’t. Only Dull People is a collection of Wilde’s famous one-liners. While most of them are shewed and brilliant, I don’t really see the point of collecting them, out of context, on their own, stacked upon each other, in a book.

oscarwilde

Why? Because this is something the internet is much better for. Unrefined, raw information, presented out of context. Something anyone can do and put out there.

The publisher really needs to make their products worth while. Provide analysis. Provide context and refinement. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The Tell-Tale Heart I will probably read many times over in my lifetime. Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast I will not. Not through any fault of Wilde, but this collection is pointless in the presence of the internet. The novelty of it wore off about half way through.

John Williams’ Stoner

Some describe William Stoner, the protagonist of Stoner, as a failure. That he is a failure as an academic, as a teacher, as husband – as a man. I could not disagree more.

Born on a farm into a non-intellectual home, he is sent to university to study agriculture, but switches to English literature – even though he at first is completely at loss on the subject. He is thus saved from the mind numbing farm life, to which he feels his parents have become victims. Made eloquently clear by Willimas, as Stoner makes a visit to the farm, after the death of his parents:

“Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligence numbed. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them.”

One could argue that, from an intellectual standpoint, the earth had consumed his parents many years prior to their deaths.

In this, Stoner is a success. It is remarkable to see his intellectual awakening; to be part of this process, to witness his progress.

Awkward socially, Stoner does not make many friends or lovers in his lifetime – but being an introverted personality, he does not need much company for his happiness. His marriage, of course, is a failure, but little because of Stoner. His wife, Edith, is a clearly troubled woman, with a never ending self pity, and vicious, vengeful attitude. Their relationship is never warm, and their sexlife is, in the small sense they have one, beyond awkward. Periodically Edith makes Stoner’s life a living hell, while in other periods they simply live parallel lives, accepting but avoiding each other.

I would say that Stoner meets and marries Edith before he is emotionally awakened. That what he at first interprets as love for Edith, is in fact mere infatuation and intrigue. By their failed cold marriage he feels cheated out of a proper, passionate family life, and she feels cheated out of the social status and popularity she imagines she deserves and could’ve had, had she not been impeded by Stoner.

john_williams_stonerStoner does however find love, outside of wedlock, if only for a brief time in his life. Though he naturally would’ve wanted his love to be everlasting, it has to end, because of various circumstances. Despite this, he feels content with the fact that he had the chance to experience true love and passion – something not granted everyone, and something he had lost hope in ever finding.

A man of integrity, Stoner’s work suffers because of a feud with a colleague, who rises in ranks and makes it his mission to sabotage Stoner. Assigning Stoner classes and assignments he is clearly overqualified for, making sure to rid him of the academic satisfaction his work has previously granted him.

Stoner, in a way, reverts to the mindset of the farm boy he once was, shutting down emotionally and intellectually to endure this hardship. Accepting it as his fate, rather than to fight it. At least until he has had enough, at a point when he no longer feels he has anything to lose by challenging his organisational superiors.

In this, again, Stoner is a success. He is the only character in the book not in the slightest driven by status, prestige or titles. He is driven by the sole pleasure he finds in his work, in teaching, and in literature.

The only one I feel Stoner fails is his daughter. She becomes very emotionally scarred because of Edith’s whims, delusions and self interests. Stoner understands that the child will be hurt and inhibited by his wife’s controlling, demanding, and demeaning behaviour. Something his daughter will pay dearly for in adulthood. For this, Stoner should feel more guilt than he does.

While perhaps not a happy man, Stoner is content with how his life panned out. That he got to experience and fulfil more dreams than he could’ve hoped for, being born into a poor farmer’s family. He made his class journey. He made himself. The way he carried his intellect and competence in quiet dignity is admirable.

In William Stoner I see more success than failure.

This was written as a user review for GoodReads.com

Britain, Britain, Britain

I have for as long as I can remember had a keen interest in all things British. Be it pop culture and music, television, humour, history, football, clothing, the people, and last but not least, the beautiful English language. The UK, after Denmark, is my most frequently visited foreign country.

I have plunged myself into your debates and politics, not always with admiration, but always with fascination – despite the fact that it has nothing to do with my everyday life. I have made good friends, and had some of my best times on your shores. I’ve always felt welcome, and well met.

Now, I am not so sure.

Let’s leave all “facts” aside. The numbers are hard to make any sense of anyway, and The Economy feels like a beast of its own, held on a fragile leash by a small clique of very wealthy people. So I don’t want to talk figures. I want to talk about the message you send. The feelings you purvey.

You have made it clear that you are not interested in us anymore. That you are better off alone. You have made it clear, that instead of working out our differences, you’d rather, for worse or even more worse, leave.

Yes, Norway and Switzerland are doing fine outside the EU, and have some nice deals that give them special status. But you see, they were never in. They are, in a way, the lovers of Europe. Getting some of the EU love, without ever making that full commitment.

You, however, were a legal partner. We were married. You forced a very painful divorce upon us, and our relationship can never be the same again.

I am not saying that the English football hooligans are a fair representation of your country. But they were chanting “F**k off Europe, we’re all voting out!” while ransacking Lille and Marseille. You have to realize that this is the image the rest of Europe now have stuck on our cornea, as you make your lazy break up speech.

“It’s not me, it’s you.”

More than once have I heard the words: “If it wasn’t for us, you’d all be speaking German!” Mostly from US patriots admittedly, but that’s beside the point. Because suddenly, speaking German doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

Britain. I am disappointed in you. You’ve let nostalgia and stubbornness get the better of you, and as a result we’ll all be worse off. You more than anyone.

Ich hoffe, dass ich falsch liege. Aber ich fürchte, ich bin es nicht.