Sep 12

The Sound and the Fury

by in Books, Reviews, Teaching

Readability006The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Add this book to my quickly growing list of books and authors that are highly regarded yet deeply disappointing to actually read. I understand that it was different for its time and it is supposed to be a little challenging. I really don’t mind spending time with a book that is both if it makes sense in even the most remote possible way. Rambling sentences, no punctuation, no discernible narrative, the endless introduction of new characters without establishing any existing ones, a lack of an even vaguely understandable time structure…these are all things that I as an English teacher deduct points for.

It all feels to me that over time everyone has simply agreed to heap critical praise and adoration upon this novel rather than try to explain it or actually admit that they hate it or don’t even begin to understand it. For me reading is about enjoying my free time by being taken somewhere else with characters and stories that are engaging or teach me something. I want to spend my limited amount of time on Earth using the amazing gift that is the written word by reading books that inspire me with the beauty of a well constructed sentence or a clearly conveyed thought or idea.

This book shows signs of being able to do that but instead ultimately comes off as lazy, unfocused, and experimental for its own sake. I am so glad my high school teachers didn’t make us try to endure this mess. I guess it is not for everyone and that I should begin reading any book without any preconceived notions about what it is, what others think about it, or what I should expect when reading it. That is not fair when taking in any work of art for the first time.

That being said, I am not even sure why I write reviews like this at all. I feel a little like I am hoping Faulkner himself somehow reads THIS REVIEW and feels bad about short-changing me as a hungry and patient reader. Perhaps I want someone else out there to tell me why I am wrong. However, when I am spending my precious time and money to do something I dearly love, don’t I have the right to get what I want out of the experience? After struggling through half the book, isn’t it my obligation as a consumer to put it down, bang out a grumpy summation and move on to something that makes me feel the way I want to?

Readability003After mulling this over a while, I decided to consult an expert. I recently asked Rebecca Foster, a prolific reviewer on many sites, including Goodreads and Bookkholic, about her views on the subject of literary criticism, pure reading, how best to approach finding and reading a new book, and when to walk away. Ms. Foster currently reads and reviews a staggering 250 books a year. I explained that since I moved to Korea I have replaced hours of TV viewing with hours having my nose buried in books instead. I went on to mention that my current dilemma (or challenge) with reading (and life in general) involves managing expectations versus reality. I am learning to live my life and travel with an open mind, yet I find it hard to do the same when looking for my next good read.

I love that so much information, background, and reviews exist at the touch of a finger, but I fear this is making it difficult for me to enjoy a book on its own terms and without preconceptions. Recommendations, awards, and “best-of” lists, like the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels, are also invaluable to me when determining what to add to my “Want To Read” list. Once I arrived overseas, I started out determined to read each book front-to-back to give it a fair chance to move me somehow. Since then, I have modified this to at least 100 pages. I decided life is too short to spend it reading bad literature. Ultimately, my real questions to Ms. Foster were these:

How do you approach a new book? When do you feel it is acceptable to put a book down and walk away when it isn’t engaging you? How do you read and review so many books without being influenced by the opinion of others?”

Her response was a breath of fresh air and a truly sensible perspective:

“Hi Matthew,

I certainly rely heavily on newspaper reviews, prize shortlists, and personal recommendations (including via Goodreads) to find new books to read. But, of course, this is all a subjective game – and even books with rave reviews that get onto the bestseller lists can be huge disappointments.

The best advice I’ve heard on how much of a chance to give to a book is from Nancy Pearl, who came up with the “Rule of 50″: give it 50 pages to grab you; or, if you’re older than 50, subtract your age from 100 and that will be the number of pages you should try. To be honest, though, I’m usually clear on whether a book will be my cup of tea within the first 20-30 pages. I wouldn’t want to waste any more time on a book I won’t eventually at least like, if not love. I mused on this and other things in an article about “readability.”

If I think I’m interested in a book, what I might do is skim some newspaper reviews and get a general idea of what people on Goodreads have thought of it, but I won’t read any details – certainly not any spoilers. Only after I’ve read the book will I compare my opinion with the critics’ in any depth.

In terms of where to start with a new author, I have a few different theories! I asked a number of friends whether they would read a) an author’s first book, b) an author’s most famous or bestselling work, c) their latest book, or d) whatever comes to hand. Most people seemed to go with b), or would take a friend’s recommendation of which book to start with. I published a general summary of the results here – and I’d be interested to hear what you think too!

All the best, Rebecca”

Readability002The article on “readability” is highly insightful and well written. I can now feel more comfortable moving on from a book that is not engaging or entertaining me. The “Rule of 50″ is half of what I have been practicing on my own, but perhaps a more patient approach overall is equally advisable, especially after doing your research first.

I too am constantly looking for that drug-like feeling or “ecstatic absorption” mentioned in the article that only a book can provide, so there is no shame in putting down a book and moving on to something else. Just as one book will open new doors and lead logically to the next one, sometimes the decision to move on is simply a matter of “not now” rather than “no.”

I think all of the ideas in the article on “Where to Start with a New Author?” actually have a lot of merit. Flexibility and open-mindedness seem to be the best attitudes for me rather than hard and fast rules. I am inclined to favor the serendipity (or synchronicity) approach recently as sometimes terrific books simply have a way of finding their readers at just the right time (or in the best sequence).

This can also be said in music about a good song or album, too. First novels and debut albums have a lot in common with respect to the fact that it actually took the author (or artist) their whole life to come up with the first one, whereas the sophomore effort may only take a year or two to create. The Doors put out all (six) of their studio albums over just four short years. However, some of my favorite artists are the ones that have challenged themselves to grow and change over the course of their artistic lifespan.

Readability004The band Rush remarked in their 2010 biopic, Beyond the Lighted Stage, about the different periods in their long career and say that (essentially) the fans that have sustained them the longest are the ones that are just as curious about their new directions and experiments as the band members themselves. I started listening to them right in the middle of their career with Signals and then worked my way back through their catalog and then forward with each new release.

I think you can do this with an author or genre, too. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you start as long as to start somewhere. Just as what is popular music-wise is rarely synonymous with what is good (I am talking to you, Justin Bieber), the best-seller list can be avoided altogether in favor of the “spirit of perversity” mentioned by Ms. Foster and following that less-travelled road can prove to be so much more memorable and all the more rewarding. Thank you, Rebecca, for putting me back on the good foot!

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