17 October, 2011

Autumn Reads: A List

Inspired by the NPR autumn reads School Daze list of autumnal books, I present to you my very own list of books for the harvest season. This season of cozy. The season of pumpkins and gourd-related soup, root vegetables, the best-holiday-of-them-all (Halloween), of cardamon and cardigans...of my kick ass red coat...

Read on.

1. The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

I should start by saying this: "The Magician's Nephew is the first in the 7-volume collection of C.S Lewis' beloved Chronicles of Narnia." But I am not going to say that. [*Insert: inflammatory hand gestures and angry face*] Oh and WHY do you ask?! Because I am stubborn and opinionated and get allll kinds of crazy when it comes to the "'order' of The Chronicles of Narnia debate."

Hi my name is Al and I am that crazy woman in Barnes and Nobel who goes to the children's section and rearranges all of the Chronicles so that they are in the "correct" and ORIGINAL order.

Hi Al...

Yes. I am absolutely that woman.

Have you never heard of this debate? Googlerightnow. Go on! It is huge. It is heated. It is beyond the realms of what anyone would consider 'okay.'  I can talk to people about social politics more level-headedly than I can about The Stupid Stupid Waste of Time Narnia Order Debate. And, like most bigots, I prefer to surround myself with people that agree with me thankyouverymuch.


Anyway, although what is called the "chronological" (aka IN-CORR-ECT post 1994) arrangement has become the "official" order for numbering the Chronicles, it may (read, IS) not be the best order for reading them!

The long and short of it is this: Lewis wrote most of the books in order, telling a linear story about the events in Narnia in  
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Prince Caspian
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and  
The Silver Chair.
However, the fifth book published, The Horse and His Boy, actually takes place during The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,
and the sixth book, The Magician’s Nephew, is a prequel.
The seventh book, The Last Battle, tells about the end of Narnia and should be read last.

My argument is this:
Often, a story is not entirely about it's chronological holdings-- what makes a story juicy, what indeed makes good storytelling great, it is the way in which the story is told. The order in which we receive our information. Red herrings. Flashbacks. Plot twists. Big reveals. Cliffhangers--These are all story telling devices that make the experience of reading (or watching or listening) so much more fruitful and enticing.

When the Pevensie children discover Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they are discovering it alongside us, the readers. They know nothing of this magical place and have as many questions as we do. As we continue to read the books we learn more and more, become more intrinsically involved in the inner workings of the land, we fight for it, believe in it as a place, and, just as we are about to defend it for what feels to be the final and most important time, we as readers go back in time to learn all about how Narnia began, before we re-engage with how it is all about to end. That is the main bulk of my argument. It is better storytelling that gives the reader herself a more profound experience and relationship with the story arc and most crucially, the place of Narnia itself. My argument is simple: better storytelling is not always chronological storytelling. The original order is a far preferable literary and emotional reading experience.

There is a contemporary school of thought that favors The Magician's Nephew (technically a prequel if you will --and I will NOT) should not indeed be read as a flashback/prequel, but should launch the reading experience altogether, and is thus now commonly placed before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 

Wrong. Answer.

I believe, (as do a several of scholars who have written about the Chronicles), that thematic effects in the stories depend on beginning the Narnia experience with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and are lost when The Magician's Nephew is read first.

Additionally, the classical pattern of The Magician's Nephew also fits better as sixth than as first in the series. The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle are sister volumes practically begging to be read back to back, rather than to bookend the series. They intertwine the accounts of the ends of two worlds: of the old world of Charn (ruled by the evil Queen Jadis who would eventually leave Charn and come to rule Narnia as The White Witch for 100 years) and of Narnia itself. They also chronicle two beginnings: of Narnia and the New Narnia. The two books use a depiction of seasonal cycle imagery meant to mirror the full cycle of life, and of course the history of Narnia. The symbolism reinforces plot detail in unifying the beginning of Narnia with the end. This archetypal pattern is most effective if The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle are read together: the immediate juxtaposition of the two books brings out well the completeness and unity of Narnian history, and it is this completeness that plagues me so.

Listen, I am not an overtly religious, nor am I an irreligious person, but I know Symbology when I see it, and I know how to write and tell a good story, and the central point Lewis is trying to convey is that our experience with Narnia as readers, as well as the Narnian world itself, has a beginning and an ending. It is one of the essential themes of the stories, and it is easily missed if five other books separate The Magician's Nephew from The Last Battle in the reader's experience. Moreover, The Magician's Nephew compliments The Last Battle-- and the books, when read together move as the season's do-- from lighter tone, to darker then light again.

Which is why (coming back around to the point!) The Magician's Nephew is on the autumn list-- The Magician's Nephew took Lewis over 6 years to write, the longest of any Narnia book, and references several autobiographical experiences throughout. It is written in a lighter tone than other Narnia books, (in particular The Last Battle which is incredibly dark and adult in tone), and frequently reflects the sense of "looking back"-- a very nostalgic quality many associate with autumn. It looks upon childhood with great affection (just as Lewis as a middle-age man recalled his childhood during the early part of the 20th century), the "old days," and in particular, school life. It is an autumnal book. It prepares you for (okaaaaay either) wintery book that follows it, and is so chock full of colorful characters, fantastic twists, connections and parallels, as well as intricately drawn characters that somehow speak in the most authentic voices of all the books. 

Wherever you begin your journey with Narnia, it is crucial that you begin, and at this time of year The Magician's Nephew does indeed beg to be read, or perhaps re-read... though you can't say I didn't try to make my case... just sayin' they are so readable and addictive you could toooootally make it through the first five before the end of November I am just. saying..

2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I have a family friend who recently told me he re-reads To Kill a Mockingbird every couple of years.

I happen to find the symbolism in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel to be very simple-- beautifully so, a quality best experienced in autumn before winter makes us long for decadence. While the symbolism might be simple, the themes are immense-- growing up, small town life, the co-existence of good and evil, morality, and of course, prejudice. The book is as true and vivid today as ever.

A perfect mix of actual "I read this in school" memories and a classic tale set in autumn, you can almost smell the burning leaves as Scout walks down the streets. The gunpowder, the closing in of the evenings...

3. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

Cosmicomics is a book of short stories first published in Italian in 1965 and in English in 1968. Each story takes a scientific "fact" (though sometimes a falsehood by today's understanding), and builds an imaginative story around it. An always extant being called Qfwfq narrates all of the stories save two, each of which is a memory of an event in the history of the universe. Qfwfq also narrates some stories in Calvino's t zero. All of the stories feature non-human characters with very human qualities.

My favorite story is the first, "The Distance of the Moon" of which I was inspired to write "Elegy" for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize in 2003, and is one of the most exquisitely heart-wrenching stories of unrequited love I have ever come across.

Writer Salman Rushdie writes: 
According to Calvino's story "The Distance of the Moon," the moon was once so close to the earth that lovers could jump across to it and — literally moonstruck — tryst and dally on the shining satellite, which was, by the way, dripping with moon milk, a kind of cream cheese. Then the moon started moving away, and lovers had to choose whether to return to Earth or remain trapped in the land of love.
Read the rest of Salman Rushdie's beautiful love letter to Cosmicomics on NPR's You Must Read This blog here.

4. Our Town by Thornton Wilder

I cannot even think about Our Town without bursting into tears. It is my favorite thing on earth. It is so dear to me in fact, that I do not think I can go on about it.
Just read it.
It is perfect.
There is a moon. A quiet cemetery. A love story. A small New England town. An omniscient narrator. And the most important message in the world.

5. The Ballad of The Sad Café by Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café opens on the set of a small, isolated Southern town. The story introduces Miss Amelia, a strong character of both body and mind, who is approached by a hunchbacked man with only a suitcase in hand who claims to be of kin. . .

                ...um.... how can you not want to keep reading that?!

Generally considered one of McCullers's best works of fiction (and her most successful exploration of her signature themes: loneliness and the effects of unrequited love). Citing her remark that "everything significant that has happened in my fiction has also happened to me" I add this little Post Script: McCullers was 24. I repeat: twenty-four-years-old when she began writing the novella during the winter of 1941. I know I am 28 and have had a colo(u)rful life and all but come on! Her writing style is one I find to be astonishingly original, complex and above all, honest.

6. The Crucible by Arthur Miller

It's brilliant and plays *are,* without question, meant to be seen (else 'what on earth are you doing with your life' her inner voice inquired),  but this is a gem, and Arthur Miller's stage directions are as lively and poetic as Ionesco's (without a doubt the very best stage direction writer of them all), and as intelligently observed as any journalist.

Based on historical people and real events, Miller's play about the Salem witch trials uses the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence unleashed by the rumors of witchcraft as a powerful parable about American McCarthyism. This is a truly magnificent play about what happens when hysteria takes over a society. When the wrong people gain access to the levers of power (sound familiar?)
It is Halloween in bonnets.
It is part Mean Girls, part Fatal Attraction, part Good Night and Good Luck.
It is horror story meets psychological literature meets history meets "based on a true story."
....um...so why aren't you buying it right now

7. Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

My literary agent (and pal!) Louise first introduced me to the great Anne Fadiman, essayist upon such great subjects as ice cream, early rising, married libraries, re-readings, and many others. This slim (and pleasingly red) volume is not only perfect for all things commuting, but a delightful collection of essays regarding the nature of, character of, reading of, acquisition of, and visceral love of books. Start with Anne Fadiman, and her incredibly smart but still utterly readable prose will win you over, make you laugh and swoon all in one, (again) pleasingly slim, red companion.

[*NOTE: In attempting to find an image for this book I did a search only to discover, TO MY HORROR that the American edition of Ex Libris is.... not red. It is a beautiful pastel green. Um, it is a very nice green, but if you want the red version you must purchase it from England. I suggest you do so...*] 

8. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkein

In my opinion, there is no better time to begin reading The Lord of The Rings Trilogy. You can feel autumn closing in around The Shire as the tale begins for Frodo and his companions on arguably one of the greatest adventure stories ever written. What feels so right this time of year to begin is that if you continue (a what I call a "savory" pace) you will be going through the most action packed, as well as emotionally desperate sequences at the height of winter which matches perfectly with the tone of the piece, and feeling the resolve of the story just as spring is beginning to break. These books are not to be skimmed, so really enjoy them, and take three-quarters of the year to do it. You can always pace yourself with other works if you need to space it out.

But just as nothing can compare to "destination reading" (reading The Alexandria Quartet in Egypt, A Room With A View in Florence, The Fountainhead in New York City, or toting Tolstoy on your trip to Russia), nothing beats matching your reading to the change of the light outside your window, the feel of curling up with a good book that deserves a hot cider to accompany it, just as a beach read deserves its beach.

... Happy Reading.

1 comment:

  1. I shared your reaction to the green cover when I saw the red. The marriage of libraries is not a red affair!



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