So I just finished reading “The Maltese Falcon.”
I’d love to be able to carve out sentences like Hammett did. There’s no fat in his prose– it’s all lean. And it’s got some amazing lines in it. Seriously, who wouldn’t remember a line like “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”? It’s got that perfect blend of bad-assery and casual ease that’s the essence of noir.
That’s the one daunting thing about reading through the classics. For every book that you read and go “Meh, this is a classic?” there’s another book that stomps all over your illusions and remakes your worldview.
When I started out reading the Top 100″ novels list put out by the Modern Library, I expected a lot of boredom and torment. “Everybody knows” that the classics are lame and stuffy. But I’ve read some novels that have truly made me a better person. I can’t speak about the times they were written in– since I just don’t know that minute of detail about most historical periods– but now, today, they’re still visionary. They say important things about humanity and give us insight. What more do you need from a novel?
I don’t even dare to lump myself in with those authors. I’ll never be Saul Bellow or Ernest Hemingway. (Some people might think that this is a good thing, since they hate those authors. YMMV . .. for me, they’re amazing.) If I could write just one great line in an otherwise good book, I’d be happy with my career. I hope I get there.
Some of those writers just smack you in the face with their greatness and throw great lines around like confetti. I can’t even hate them for it– I’m too grateful for the experience of reading them. I’ve only read 34 of their 100 suggestions. I’ve still got 2/3 of the list to go . .. what other wonders are waiting for me? I’ve already read the shockingly modern “The Way of All Flesh” which showed me that the people of the past were just as sophisticated and tragic as they are today. I romped through Roman times with “I, Claudius” and drank the bitterness of war with Hemingway in “A Farewell to Arms.” Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” left a scar that still throbs whenever I read someone blathering about Jane Eyre, and “A High Wind in Jamaica” added its own layers of memories of the Caribbean.
And would I be who I am today if I’d never read “Henderson the Rain King”? Surely not. It’s left a mark on my soul, alongside Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.”
Just remembering these books has made me eager to find the next amazing novel. Maybe I’ll even find love where I never expected to, as I did for Faulkner after loathing him in high school. I’m starting to like Henry James’s work, which is an ominous change. There’s a book waiting out there which will mold me, shape me, and remake my assumptions.
I can’t wait to read it.