Friday, April 05, 2013

On Reading Great Books

Thankfully great books are still being written. I thought about this the other day when I heard someone on a public radio show talking about The Great Gatsby (which I have never read. Yet.) Basically they said it is an easy read that will still fill you with the greatness of books. It's as easy to read as whipped cream, but when you are done you are truly filled, with whipped cream. (I know that can be taken two ways. The context seemed to lead to the more positive one.)

For many, great works of literature are experiments in fancy language, convoluted sentences, etc. Those may be great- and I have read some- but the truly great books grab you when you are least expecting it and take you somewhere you didn't even know you wanted to go. Ah, but when you get there, you never want to leave. The end of the book comes and you want to weep for joy that you have been there and sadness that it is over.

A look at my books sidebar on the right side there will see a number of those in the past year. They will not leave me. I may not always remember the specifics of some of them, but the story, the telling of the story, the personalities and the prose are lodged deeply in my psyche. In the past few months, my life would have been much poorer without Louise Erdrich's The Round House or Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Half-time Walk. Robin Sloan's use of magical realism made Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore into quite a romp. Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl kept me moving forward in anticipation and uncertainty. Even reading a remarkable memoir from 40 years ago, Ivan Doig's This House of Sky, read like a remarkable novel.

But there have been few books that have done what Adam Johnson has accomplished in The Orphan Master's Son. I don't know how or where to begin to talk about it. Through the voices of various individuals inside enigmatic North Korea, Johnson has created a masterpiece of the English language and a stellar example of story-telling that is both literary and engaging. The prose is nothing short of flowing words, as easy as a gentle river and as devastating as crashing waves in a hurricane. You wait for what he is going to say next and are grateful when he says it. As I close the book after reading a few chapters I shake my head in wonder.

I find myself so entranced and engrossed I don't even spend any time trying to figure out what the book means. Maybe after I have finished and settled back in blissful satiation of words and wonder will I do some thinking about the great themes and insights that I have been privy to. But not yet. Not yet. I am still in awe..

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