Last year, I started reading all of the books on the Modern Library 100. I wanted to slog through all of the books because it:
- Gave me a goal that would keep me focused.
- Was a good way to learn more about the writers that influenced some of my favorite living writers.
- Would force me to finish some of the most popularly difficult books in modernist literature.
I think I was right about these things. But I didn’t know what I was getting into.
Recent Writing Has More Value to Me
Most importantly, I hadn’t fully considered how sticking to a list would make it impossible for me to read other books. It meant that I wouldn’t read any non-fiction for two years. Over the last few months, I’ve read Black Against Empire and What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. They reminded me that non-fiction needs to play a role in the life of anyone interested in writing accurately.
I also didn’t realize how much the bigotry discussed in modernist books would make me feel. Obviously, Heart of Darkness was going to say some things that I wouldn’t like. That’s okay, because confronting bigotted thinking and imperialism are also crucial.
Humans Are Disgusting Creatures, In Case You Didn’t Know
I might have made a mistake by reading The Sun Also Rises and The Naked and the Dead too close together. They’re probably accurate portrayals of life. They’re also depressing as hell. I came away from The Naked and the Dead wondering why the U.S. even got involved in WWII, other than being pissed off that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Most of the soldiers in that book would have happily picked up guns to patrol a concentration camp. They didn’t even pretend to hide their contempt for a Jewish soldier fighting alongside them.
Again, that’s probably accurate. But it made me dread picking up the book every night.
I have a hard time understanding why anyone really cares about The Sun Also Rises. Maybe it makes sense in a historical context. Reading it now, though, I don’t see why the writing stood out so much to people.
Then there’s the actual content. Staying as drunk as possible is an understandable reaction to a world war. A lot of the characters were living with PTSD. No faulting them there. Constantly hating on a Jewish guy, though? Yep, probably accurate. I don’t doubt that a lot of people responded like that. It’s also disgusting, and Hemingway doesn’t really address it in that way.
Plus, fuck Hemingway for making bullfighting seem like anything less than grotesque. How is it beautiful or heroic to kill a bull that’s already been stabbed multiple times? Take off your fancy clothes and go at it animal-to-animal if you want anything close to respect. I’ll allow you a knife since bulls come equipped with bulk and horns. Outside of that, it’s time for you to admit that you’re a lesser creature that must cheat to win. And you do it for pleasure instead of necessity.
Luckily, it was a short read that I could get away from quickly.
I don’t shy away from difficult topics. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have picked up Black Against Empire. Reading from the Modern Library 100, though, I almost always got the oppressor’s perspective. What did I expect from those writers? I should have known better.
I’ve gone back to my regular approach to reading. Pick up what seems interesting. Support living writers. Learn from the oppressed instead of the oppressor. Try to buy books from Amazon as little as possible, even though I will impulse buy used sci-fi more often than I should.