02 December 2010

Books that hook you: an example and an invitation

I've got quite a few of these, books I revisit every few years. The Age of Innocence is probably my favorite one, now and for the past decade or so. Every time I read it I find new ways of looking at it, new layers to the language. What follows is my doubtless hacky attempt to excavate another small facet.

He stopped and turned away angrily to light his
cigar. "Women ought to be free--as free as we are," he
declared, making a discovery of which he was too
irritated to measure the terrific consequences.

"He" is Newland Archer, whose life the book follows from the year immediately preceding his marriage, in the Gilded Age of New York, through the 1920s. Newland charms me, amuses me, angers me by turns. In reflecting on his own comment later, he realizes some of the absurdities folded into his earlier assertion:

"Nice" women, however wronged, would
never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-
minded men like himself were therefore--in the heat of
argument--the more chivalrously ready to concede it
to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a
humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that
tied things together and bound people down to the old

This tiny moment of reflection, as it turns out, encapsulates Archer's entire character arc. He considers himself daring and forward-thinking, in rebellion against the customs of his tribe, but he is essentially too weak even to conceive of a life beyond its strictures. Even when he briefly seeks to reject it, the only way he can find is yet another path well-trodden and explored by his cohort. He is asleep, and doesn't have the ability or desire to waken completely and build a new way of life.

These are the thoughts that pull at me--in those brief moments where we awaken to our own privilege and to the absurdity of the supposed truths our own tribes take as given, can we manage to stay awake? Can we change society? Is it possible to change these absurd assumptions from within, or is utter rejection necessary? The questions themselves may be naive, but what the hell, it's just a blog.

Books that stir thoughts that pull at me are the ones that hook me.

What's hooking you right now?


  1. I think I have a different definition for books that pull at me. I think books that pull at me are the ones about people just a little cooler than I am, that let me be just a little cooler than I am. In my mind; I don't think I'm as influenced by book characters as I like to think.

    I haven't read Age of Innocence but the quotations you bring up remind me a little of Emma. I wish I could say I really like books like that; I think it's kind of a character flaw that I don't like the way they make me feel uncomfortable. I like to be complacent. I like books that make me feel good.

    I'm tempted to say something like such-and-so pulls at me, because it's literary junk food and I can't stop reading it. But that's not the kind of book you mean.

    King Lear pulls at me in the way you mean, I think. I haven't picked it up recently but I probably will, because whenever my family is dysfunctional Lear offers a kind of truth. Insight, maybe. Not a solution. Not sympathy. Just the truth of utter frustration, and the lack of solution.

    But a better example is Gaudy Night. It poses a lot of feminist questions; then, instead of answering them, it shows that the way they are posed makes answers impossible. True feminism is learning to rephrase the questions so there are answers.

    Don't ask me what I mean by that. I've had a really, really long day. It sounds deep, though, doesn't it?

  2. I think I know what you mean. Brain not firing on all circuits at the moment, though. Will say more in the AM.

  3. OK, here goes.

    Yes, Lear is a good example of what I mean, because it brings up A. BIG questions that B. recur over and over in my own life. What are the limits of loyalty?

    There's a set of short stories I'm reading right now by Ted Chiang. One of them, "Story of Your Life" uses a meeting with an alien, specifically the learning of its language, as a way of reframing the necessity of loss and the nature of regret. HOOKED.

    That said, books that hook me are the ones that inspire these pulling (ravelling?) thoughts. But I don't for a moment imagine that everyone gets hooked into a book for the same reasons I do. I want to know what does hook you, so your coolness factor counts! Please say more about that.

  4. I often have a hard time owning my tastes. I feel the need to defend myself, and say that I am educated and whatever, and not listing The Great Classics at the top of my favorites list doesn't make me dumb and blah blah blah.

    So consider that dispensed with.

    I like -- doesn't everybody like? -- books that affirm who I am, who I want to be, how I see myself. For me, so often, that means books where people make a connection (romantic or otherwise) based on smarts and self-reliance. I'm sure that reveals all sorts of embarrassing psychological truths about me and how I see myself, but whatever. Look at the main characters I love: Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey are grown-up people in love with one another's objectivity and keen minds. Mr Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth because she's clever and athletic. Miles and Ekaterin. Ella and Char. Holmes and Russell. Laurence and Temeraire (ew, not like that). Cimorene. Alanna. They're the books that comfort me, but before they became comfort books they were hook-me books, or they wouldn't have gotten that far.

    There's a moment in "The Silver Chair" when (spoilers) the evil witch turns into a giant snake and Our Heroes have to fight it off. Eustace and Rilian (and even Puddleglum with his burned feet) whip out their swords and go to town. Jill sits and tries not to throw up. Even money, if confronted by a giant snake, and surrounded by three strapping gentlemen with swords, I'd sit back and let them handle it, and try not to throw up while they did. Or I'd cut my own finger off, or one of theirs. But I expect BETTER from book people. C.S. Lewis was a bit fail in that regard.

    Does that make sense? I don't know if it answers your question, but it's what I was thinking of when I wrote my earlier comment.