Culture & Conversation

On the Beach

The best books are sometimes in tatters. They’ve been to the beach and back; slid under the bed and wintered there; fallen in the tub; been lent out only to come running back years later, pages missing but happy to see you. These books were written ages ago, sometimes by strange men with strange whiskers. Or they come to your language via so many translations that the only sense you make of them is in your head. These are the books that blew open your mind when you were 16 or 26 or 50. These are the books that cast everything in such a strong colour that no matter how many blue skies the summer has, there is always a hint of grey.

What old books do you haul with you to the beach or the corner of the room sometimes? What are the titles that not only helped you grow, but grew up inside you? We asked some Rover writers.

Romantic Poets
(
by Brian Campbell)

For summer sustenance, I’ve found myself returning over the last few years to those great “nature” poets—Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley—whom we now group under the name, the English Romantics. All these are generously represented in one convenient volume which has graced my bookshelves since University days: the Oxford Anthology of Romantic Poetry and Prose, edited by Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling.

There is a way to read these guys (and yes, lamentably, they’re all guys, although Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals, also included in this volume, make for a great read). Context helps: if you can’t afford to fly to England’s Lakes District, where a number of the romantics lived and wrote—it’s probably overrun by tourists anyway—create, if you’re able, your own Lakes District here in Quebec. If you aren’t so lucky as to own one, rent a summer cottage, preferably sans Internet, cellphone or television access, on a tranquil body of water for a week or two. There, amid the forest hush, lapping waters and the songs of birds, one can more easily enter into the enormous sweep and quietude of, say, Wordsworth’s Prelude:

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in,
pushed from shore.

Here are poems of truly splendid lyricism, among the best any language has to offer: Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, Shelley’s Mont Blanc and Ozymandias, Keat’s When I Have Fears and Ode on a Grecian Urn—well, the list goes on. (If you can’t afford to get away, Blake and Byron, also considered Romantics, provide more urban entertainment.)

It was Wordsworth who wrote, with presciently modern anxiety, “The world is too much with us.” But these writers, in their flight from the predations of the early industrial revolution, at least had the mental space to luxuriate in a relatively untrammelled nature. What if they lived today? They would surely be overwhelmed.

Literature always has its precedents, but the Romantics can be credited with the first fully realized lyrical expression of modern individualism, with a full-blown cult of personality that goes with. Two centuries later we are still very much under its spell, even as it has morphed into the narcissistic grotesqueries of star culture. One need only think of Luka Rocco Magnotta spending hours looking at his own Internet images before being apprehended by police.

 

The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr
(
by Mark Paterson)

For the kid who used to make out with the stovepipe at basement parties and who turned his locker into a shrine to Vinnie Barbarino (behaviour that was at least as much, if not more, about overcoming shyness as it was simply innate weirdness), discovering Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. as a teenager felt like a very natural occurrence. It was also very essential. Reading Vonnegut during those formative years is a blessing whose significance I still haven’t been able to fully measure.

What affected me the most about Vonnegut’s writing was how nothing was presumed. His educational background in anthropology shone through as he described daily life in a style sometimes akin to a textbook or instructional manual, as if he were writing for an audience from outer space. This allowed me to perceive the world through a different pair of eyes and to see just how ridiculous humans can be. I realized that, indeed, “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

By the time I got to it at the age of sixteen, The Sirens of Titan was not the first book by Vonnegut I’d read. It was, however, the first book – by any author – that felt like it had been written specifically for me. Space travel, aliens, robots, war, sex, religion – what more could a young man ask for? It made me laugh so much. It fired my imagination. I read it once a year for the next five years, and a few more times since. Other books have come along over the years that have been important to me, but none have influenced my life the way The Sirens of Titan did.

 

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
(
by Gina Roitman)

When I first read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, I was in my teens as well as in my science fiction phase. Written in 1931, the book was still incredibly futuristic when I picked it up in the mid-60s. I was fascinated by the notion of manufactured people, the endless assembly line of embyros, the amazing concept of test-tube babies.

It was what I remembered best about the book – the pre-determined nature of those manufactured citizens who were born (maturated as) alphas, betas, deltas, gammas, and epsilons.

When test-tube babies and stem-cell research became not only a reality but common place, I re-read the book to remind myself of how prescient Huxley had been. What was astounding, some 70 years after the book’s publication, was the discovery that what Huxley had taken aim at was consumerism and not the science of engineering humans. The nefarious programming of consumers was the true target of Brave New World.

Huxley imagined a perfect world where consumers were programmed in the womb to desire specific goods. As the powers-that-be determined how many of each kind of human was brought into being, they would also know exactly how much of each consumer item to manufacture and to whom it would be sold. The cycle of commerce was perfect…and now, it foreshadows a world not so utterly fantastical as it used to be. Scary stuff.

 

Persepolis, by Marianne Satrapi
(
by Heather Leighton)

Forget all your preconceived notions of Iran, and dive into Persepolis, a gripping graphic memoir of the author’s childhood and adolescence growing up in a middle class family during the Islamic Revolution. The feisty young Marjane not only believes that one day she will become a prophet, but also pretends that she is Che Guevara with her friends. While her left-wing intellectual parents are in the streets of Tehran protesting the Shah, Marjane demands that her father get rid of his Cadillac and that the maid be allowed to eat at the family dinner table.

The Islamic Revolution, however, takes its toll on the Satrapis. Imprisoned family members return to tell tales of torture and murder, while Marjane is forced to attend an Islamic school and don the chador, something that she and her mother protest until they are attacked in the streets by fundamentalists. The parents fear for their daughter’s safety because of her increasingly vocal opposition to authority, and at 14, Marjane is sent away to school in Austria where she languishes.

Persepolis is my all-time favourite graphic novel, and the one I have most often recommended. Not only does it give the reader a rich portrait of a country sadly known more for its religious fanatics and autocrats than its rich history, it lets us see the everyday life of an average person, a girl no less, during the tumultuous times of the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Persepolis piqued my curiosity about Iran and led me to Christiane Bird’s Iranian travelogue Neither East Nor West and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, two other books I recommend about a country that I dream one day of visiting.

 

Ullyses, by James Joyce
(
by Michael Mirolla)

My fascination with/for James Joyce began in high school when I got my hands on Portrait of The Artist. The dread and exhilaration was like nothing I’d felt before – surpassing even my first encounter with Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster at age seven. Then, while at McGill, I was fortunate to take a course on Joyce given by Hugh McLennan, thus cementing the feeling of being overwhelmed by the genius of language, both found and invented.

In my humble opinion, there is no rival to Ulysses as the talismanic English-language work of the 20th century. If other books be labelled “classics,” then Ulysses needs its own category. A category of one. Whether someone is familiar with the original Odyssey or not, reading Ulysses is equivalent to being transported into a universe where words are all that matter. And it’s hard to believe that one person put it together. Perhaps in 500 years, we’ll be debating the authorship (single or multiple), just as we do now for The Odyssey or even Shakespeare.

Reading Ulysses is a necessary rite of passage for anyone who is seriously serious about English-language literature. It is a pivot point around which modern writing revolves. And, if one of the tasks of any aspiring writer is to create enough escape velocity to orbit on one’s own, one has to know what that giant, hard-packed, seething mass that’s trying to pull you back in is all about.

Recently, I re-discovered Ulysses through a massive audio project put together by the LibriVox people. Listening, instead of reading, brought out nuances and the magic often missed on the page. And it made me think that perhaps this is how Ulysses was meant to be explored in the first place – with the ambient sounds of pubs and streets in the background.

For those who are interested, the files can be downloaded for free at: http://librivox.org/ulysses-by-james-joyce/. It’s massive: 940.5 MB with a running time of more than 32 hours. But more than worth it.

 


  • 3 Responses to “On the Beach”

    1. Beverly Akerman

      just finished rereading Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay (book club at end of July). one word: masterpiece. blows pretty much everything else i've read the past year right outta the water.

      Reply
    2. Ishtar Zahn

      This brings back some memories. Whenever our family went on one of our Outer banks Vacations, I'd always bring a few books. Few things relax me better than a good read.

      Reply
    3. Todd

      Well, I also did some reading at the beach the past summer. It wasn't your usual novels though. I was brushing through books on how to learn to surf. It sure helped me get a head start.

      Reply

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