Tag: literature

Wheel of Time

So, thanks to this nice little pandemic, I have a little more free than usual, and I thought it would be a good time to take in a long series. So I chose Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Big mistake.

It actually wasn’t bad as far as quarantine fodder goes. Quarantine books don’t really need to be good so much as they need to pass time well. Wheel of Time was absorbing, read easily, and wasn’t mind-bending or too disturbing. But the characters, my God the characters.

I hated just about every character in the book. My favorite characters are the ones I only disliked.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, is abjectly stupid. Almost always when someone did something smart is when some kind of magic overwhelmed their intentions and they ended up doing the right thing reluctantly and often now knowing how they did it. Furthermore, few of the characters were credible; their personalities were malleable to the needs of the story. The one thing you could trust about the characters is that if their personality changed it was only to make them stupider. It’s like Jordan had no idea how to create drama other than for people to fall into ridiculous traps or refuse to believe people who were trying to help.

I pushed through to about a fifth of the way into the fourth book, giving it a chance to get better, but finally I read a chapter so awful I had to stop. Though in truth it had been coming for awhile.

Since I didn’t finish, I do wonder about the future books in the series. I lost all interested in finishing (especially given the reputation of the books to drag on as the series progresses) but it’s possible, especially once Sanderson took over.

  • Do any of the main characters make a single good decision on their own in the entire series?
  • Does any character ever, even one time in the whole series, give a straight answer to a question? (I’ve heard that this is the main difference with the Sanderson books.)
  • Does it ever happen, even one time in the whole series, that a main character staying at an inn just checks out the next morning and moves on? (On screen, I mean; I know it happened a few times off screen.)

I’m exaggerating a little, but not much. The problem with these books isn’t that characters make stupid decisions, it’s that they make nothing but stupid decisions. It’s the sheer relentlessness of these simpleminded drama devices used over and over again.

It’s regrettable, too, because apart from the characters there was a lot of good stuff in these novels. The worldbuilding was fantastic. The different countries and their cultures were interesting. The backstory was very interesting, and the way details of history were revealed, and how it affected the present-day plot, was great. The mythology was terrific; if they hadn’t been terrible characters for the most part, the Forsaken would have been great villains just due to their circumstances. I didn’t even mind when Jordan went off on long descriptions (they weren’t that long).

Even the characters had their moments. I was amused how often Nynaeve (who I disliked and therefore was one of my favorite characters) resolved problems just by punching people, for instance. But all in all, the characters were just so awful I couldn’t read on.

My most hated fictional protagonists

The vast majority of time, whenever we read a book or watch a movie or TV show, we sympathize with, if we don’t actually like, the protagonist. This is because the writer controls our exposure to the character and can present the character in a sympathetic way, even when the character has attributes we don’t like.

Some other stories deliberately make the protagonist unlikable or unsympathizable. But again, the writer is controlling our perspective, only now they’re presenting the character in an unsympathetic way.

But once in awhile, a storywriter will intend to write a sympathetic protagonist, but fail. That’s what this post is about. This post is a list of fictional sympathetic protagonists I hated and actively rooted against.

Toru Okada, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles

Toru Okada, from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, is my fourth most hated protoagonist. Actually hate might be a strong word, and I suppose my hatred mostly isn’t actually personal against Toru. It’s mostly that I didn’t want Toru to ever come into contact with anyone. Toru was basically a bum who had a house thanks to family, and was as ineffective and useless a main character as I’ve ever seen. But somehow, in the rare times he ever did anything, everyone he came into contact with ended up with major psychological trouble, at least until some shady people recognized his “talent” and exploited it.

Toru, by virtue of being the one of the most ineffective and useless people ever written down, was the one who deserved the psychological trauma he was causing others. Not that the other characters were any good—in fact, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is probably the only book I’ve ever read where I didn’t like a single major character (note: until Wheel of Time)—but they were at least doing something.

Jack Tripper, Three’s Company

Jack Tripper and the Three’s Company gang basically exhibit what I like to call sitcom-think. Basically it means that as soon as you suspect someone might disapprove of something you did, you go to ridiculous extremes to prevent that person from finding out, and oftentimes the scheme is obviously not something that can be sustained. To a certain extent this kind of thinking to drive half-hour sitcom plots so a lot of sitcom characters have it, but Jack Tripper takes it to an unbearable extreme, and he never learns anything, ever.

There are other sitcoms where people never learn anything (Seinfeld is a classic example) but in those, the character is at least somewhat high-functioning in their default state. Jack Tripper is the kind of character whose whole reason for existing is to learn a lesson. In other works, that’s the sole reason this kind of character would be a protagonist, and you can never feel a catharsis until that character learns their lesson.

But we never have a catharsis in Three’s Company because Jack never learns, in fact he never even faces any seriously negative consequences at all.

I realized how bad I hated Jack Tripper when I was watching Three’s Company once, and realized that I was actively, from the bottom of my heart, rooting for the thug Jack was trying to avoid. I’m not just saying that to be edgy or to exaggerate: I really, from the bottom of my heart, wanted the thug to beat up Jack Tripper.

Aron Trask, East of Eden

I am not sure whether John Steinbeck actually wanted us to like Aron Trask, per se, but we definitely were supposed to symathize. I didn’t. In fact, I think one of the most delightful things I ever read was the scene were Abra burned all his old love letters.

I hate to say it, but Aron represents (to an extreme extent) some of the faults I see in myself, so maybe I’m being unfair. (I should mention that I am talking about the Aron from the novel; in the movie a lot of the subtext on Aron came to the surface, giving him more of an edge which actually made him less nauseating.) Aron is the prototypical fragile pretty-boy. As a youth Aron was shielded from reality, by virtue of being the favorite by everyone on accont of being so pretty and sweet. As a result he became one of those people who believes anything can be overcome by the power of love—not just any love, his love specifically—and is genuinely wounded to his very core when reality happens and everyone doesn’t share it. And—this is the nauseating part—his reaction to reality is to double down and get even more idealistic and then get even more wounded when his efforts still produced no results.

I can only imagine what his evenings with Abra were like, she being forced to listen as he got more and more crazy and earnest over how powerful their love was and that it could overcome anything.


Nikolai Rostov, War and Peace

My most hated character of all is Nikolai Rostov from War and Peace. I read War and Peace the very boring summer before I headed off to college, and I may have misunderstood Tolstoy’s intent. But Tolstoy seemed to intend Nikolai and his sister Natasha (also not one of my favorites) to represent normal average people who were swept up in the events of the Napoleonic Wars, but in fact they were pretty much just the redneck trash on the lower-end of Russian nobility. Honestly, the Rostovs in general could very well have been a reality TV family with all their drama.

You might have noticed a theme in characters I don’t like: they tend to be ineffective people who react to difficult circumstances with even more ineffectiveness. Nikolai is no exception: he pretty much sucked at everything he tried. But what made Nikolai truly insufferable was that, not only did he think he was just a great guy in every eay, the other characters did too.

So. Nikolai Rostov, in his actions and thoughts, is probabaly the biggest pussy ever set upon paper, but the author, all the characters in the book, and Nikolai himself, thought that he was this great awesome guy. As a result, everything he did wrong (which was, in fact, everything he did) was forgiven… because he was such a great guy. And we are supposed to feel sorry for this great guy when all this bad stuff happens to him—a good portion of which was his own fault—and oh, by the way, when he backstabs his own cousin, breaking his promise to marry her so he could marry an heiress (who deserved better) so he could get weasel out of the gambling debt he got himself into, we’re supposed to think, “Ah, there’s a guy who got things done in the end.”

I wanted to strangle him right through the page.

I highly suspect Tolstoy intended for the in-universe sympathy for Nikolai to be ironic. I hope so, because other than the Rostovs, War and Peace has a lot of good characters and was a great story. But if it was ironic he played it perfectly straight: maybe until the epilogue where Nikolai’s nephew has no respect for him but does respect Pierre and his father Prince Andrei.

Faile, Wheel of Time

Oh God, Faile. It’s not much of exaggeration to say I stopped reading Wheel of Time because of her. Even without her, I’m sure I would have stopped at some point because she’s just the worst of an entire cast of awful characters who I was starting to see would never get better. But the moment I decided to put the book down forever, it was largely because of Faile, and she made everyone around even more stupid than they already were.

It was Chapter 16 of the fourth book; it was probably the worst thing I had ever read in my entire life, a long argument with her boyfriend who loved her for some reason and was trying to make her hate him so she didn’t accompany him into danger. It was ten relentless pages of this awful argument, neither one of them managing to communicate even the tiniest bit of understanding, and she stayed at an intensity level of 11 the whole time.

I did actually finish it, and intened to read on, the but the coup de grâce came right after, when the one remaining main character who hadn’t yet done anything stupidly melodramatic (Lan) panicked like a baby when he found out his crush was going to go on a mission, after 3+ books of being nearly completely implacable.

If not for Faile, I probably could have dealt with Lan’s melodrama and at least made it to the end of the fourth book. But I didn’t read past the end of that chapter.

Books I’m Embarrassed not to Have Read Yet

The other day I was looking for a B read (I was in the middle of my A read) and pondering what I should start on next, began to think about what books I’d be embarrassed if it were revealed that I’d never read it.

Of course, the obvious thing to do in that situation is to make a list and post it publicly on the Internet, so everyone can see what I have never read.

  • Dune, Frank Herbert
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain. (In fact other than a couple short stories I’ve read almost nothing by Twain.)
  • The Odyssey, Homer
  • Something by Ayn Rand
  • Something by Nietzsche
  • Something by Lovecraft

It was almost painful to think about the situation of admitting I’d never read Dune. That one I’m taking care of right it now.

The Mark Twain was is pretty painful as well. I have to give America its props. America, you may have noticed, doesn’t have too many classic writers compared to England. (I believe this is because America was nation-building for its first hundred or so years and had not a many resources to devote to more artistic endeavors. By the time America came into its own as a civilized country, the art form that was drawing all the talent was cinema.) So I really have to read one of the few American authors who can hold his own with the greats.

Ayn Rand and Nietzsche are authors I don’t expect to agree with much (except for that irritating little “grain of truth” you know you can’t argue with), but part of being well-rounded is exposure to ideas you might not agree with.

Jane Austen’s Greatness

I recently think I put my finger on what makes Jane Austen so great, and I did it by comparing her to John Steinbeck, in particular, his novel East of Eden.

East of Eden follows the lives two families in living in the Salinas Valley: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. The Hamiltons are based on Steinbeck’s own family on his mother’s side (in fact, Steinbeck himself appears in a few scenes as a child). The Trasks, however, are purely fictional.

Steinbeck is not quite at the level of the great classic writers, and East of Eden belies this fact, in my opinion, but in a fascinating way. Comparing the scenes that focus on the Trasks to those that focus on the Hamiltons, it’s hard to imagine that they take place in the same universe. The events in the Hamiltons’ lives, based on the lives of real people, seem highly familiar and realistic. A few scenes really hit home compared to my own life, such as the scene after Sam Hamilton fainted and his family realized he was getting too old for farm life, and they were all passing a bottle of liquor around deciding what to do.

The Trasks, however, live in a world of subtle fantasy. It’s not that the events in their lives weren’t real things that happen to people (although there were several events more sensational than most families ever have to deal with). No, the subtle fantasy comes from how the events were arranged to provide a cosmic meaning to the whole thing. Real lives have no comic meaning (that we can discern, anyway), they just happen. Real lives don’t have foreshadowing, don’t follow a three-act structure, and don’t use arc words. The Trasks lives had all these things, and so they seemed fictional compared to the Hamiltons.

I want to point out that this something I felt first, then analysed later. It’s the sort of thing that seems bit odd and uncanny while reading, but one doesn’t identify the discrepancy until reflecting on the story afterward. I’m fairly certain Steinbeck wasn’t doing this on purpose (if he had been I suspect he would have done things to make the contrast more apparent, but who knows?), and that’s where he belies his not-quite-among-the-greatest writing ability.

Jane Austen, however, achieves this level of complete realism, but with characters that are completely fictional. I realized that I’d had the same reactions to scenes in Emma and Pride and Prejudice as I’d had to scenes of the Hamiltons in East of Eden, and that’s when I realized just how life-like Austen’s characters and situations are. For instance, I was awed by the familiarity of the scene when Lizzy and Jane had to correct their mother on aspects of English law. Scenes like this show Austen almost casually finding that familiarity of daily life in her fictional characters that Steinbeck could only find the ones he based on real life.

Oftentimes it’s hard to see what makes a particular creator great. But then you reflect on the their works a bit, analyse them a bit, compare and constrast them to other works, and suddenly they rise up to reveal their greatness. It always amazes when that happens.

Harry Potter

I generally don’t buy books that aren’t available in an ebook format; therefore, I didn’t read Harry Potter (in English [1]) until a couple months ago, when it was finally released as an ebook. I immediately purchesed the whole series and it has been my B read [2] up until I finished in about a week ago. Here are my thoughts.

This does contain spoilers.

One thing most people agree about JK Rowling is that character is her best skill, and I agree wholeheartedly. Which is why I’m going to begin by discussing what I didn’t like about her characters.

For the most part, the characters are tenaciously consistent in their behavior to the point that it comes off as almost juvenile, until something happens that reveals their underlying motives. Snape is shamelessly biased against Harry and for the Slytherins, doesn’t make attempts to rationalize his bias, and at no point is seen going against this for appearance’s sake. The Dursleys outright hate Harry, to the point of abuse, and don’t even try to pretend otherwise. Draco is completely mean-spirited and doesn’t show a hint of a greater aim (good or evil) beyond putting others down.

The insidious thing about this is the shameless consistency is completely superficial. Dig beneath a character’s facade and a being with complex motivations appears. The problem with that is, you never know who is secretly evil or good: nothing about their behavior foreshadows it. So for instance, nothing Draco does until the very end of the fifth book suggests that he is anything more than a petty ostracizer, so it seems that Draco’s character inexplicably changes in the final two books. And yet it’s not so: then more complex Draco that emerges in the final two books is completely congruent with the Draco of the first five books. Petty ostracism is exactly what we’d expect an insecure, glory-seeker would do until pressed by circumstance to move beyond that. So, although the characters are drawn up well, every character development is a random surprise rather than something that was set up previously, and I didn’t like that.

Other than that quibble, the character was very good, and I can’t remember a book where I had more unexpected in-character moments. (For example, Luna’s question, “Is that why you dyed your eyebrow, for the party? Should I do mine too?”, came out of nowhere but was so totally Luna.)

I believe that Harry Potter will be studied as a classic for how it does character alone (and especially the way dialogue supports the character).

Now for other aspects of the books.

The style of Harry Potter was natural-sounding and easy to parse, rather pleasantly concise I would say, if not spectacular. You can tell she tried to reflect the pace of the action in the prose (for instance, using shorter sentences and omitting details in the Quidditch scenes to reflect the quickness of the game); this is successful but other writers have done it much better.

The style did have an odd quirk. I once read a review that pointed out that Rowling tends to avoid using the word “said” to mark quotations, replacing it with other words like “cried”, “exclaimed”, “quipped”, etc., and rather formulaicly, as if it were an eighth grade writing assignment. I didn’t notice it before I read that review, so the overuse of words other than “said” doesn’t sound overly stilted, at least. However, now that it’s been pointed out to me, I do notice it quite a bit, and it does seem a little silly in many places.

The story itself it had strong and weak points, but it passed two crucial tests for me. One, I was hooked. Whenever I got near the end of a book, I found I couldn’t stop reading because I had to see how it turned out [3]. Two, I regularly go back to reread sections.

The main weakness of the stories is that many plot turns are hard to swallow, even allowing for a reasonable suspension of disbelief. The fourth book, Goblet of Fire, was the one I found particularly dubious; I simply found it too contrived, and didn’t find anyone’s reaction to the odd circumstances believable. This, nevertheless, didn’t stop me from reading through to the end once I got to the late chapters, so I suppose it wasn’t a deal-breaking weakness [4].

The system of magic was surprisingly consistent, given how many seemingly random effects pop up. I wasn’t expecting that.

My favorite character is Phineas Nigellus Black. My favorite living character was probably Luna Lovegood. There really weren’t any significant characters I didn’t like in the whole series; I would say the least interesting character was Cho Chang (and she gets a pass because she was understandably upset about her boyfriend dying).

One fascinating thing is the similarity of Harry Potter’s home life with Jane Eyre’s. In Jane Eyre, Jane was (like Harry) orphaned at a young age and adopted by her aunt. Like Harry, Jane had a fat, spoiled, abusive cousin. And like Harry, the reason Jane’s relatives detested her so was because of her refusal to conform to their way of thinking. Jane was intelligent and creative (more of a Ravenclaw) while Harry was noble and open-minded; this was a stark constrast to their vehemently banal adoptive parents.

Speaking of Ravenclaw, that is definitely the house I’d belong to myself. However, on a lark I went to JK Rowling’s Pottermore site and underwent the Sorting ceremony there; the site sorted me into Slytherin.

[1] A few years ago I purchased the Latin translation of Harry Potter, and read through about half of it. Yes, there is a Latin translation of Harry Potter. I was surprised to see how many nuances I caught when I read it in Latin.

[2] My A read at the time was The Last Temptation of Christ. I guess I’m burning in hell either way.

[3] My advice on how to put Harry Potter down: stop reading in the middle of a chapter during a transition. The chapters usually end with some drama that makes you want to see what happens next.

[4] For an example of a deal-breaking suspension of disbelief, see the movie Signs.

The Grapes of Wrath

I’ve often observed that a lot of people have an almost hostile cynicism to anything more sophisticated than ordinary. Whenever a movie tries to be a intelligent, whenever it tries to pass up the common banal snarky dialogue and obligatory shots, whenever it tries to use camera work and writing to tell a more profound story, these people will roll their eyes and say, “That director’s full of himself.” Or, if an actor is acting his part with power to reflect the intended power of the scene, they’ll say, “That actor’s full of himself.” If a novelist tries to pretty up her writing style, and to adopt a tone beyond mere storytelling, they will say, “That writer’s full of herself.” If an artist sculpts a creature that doesn’t exist, if a songwriter creates a beautiful harmony with a new instrument, if a painter paints something in a different color to symbolize sadness, they will roll their ways and say, “Those people are so full of themselves.” Anything that these people believe is “high-falootin'” they denigrate and treat with scorn.

I am not like this. If anything I’m the opposite: I’m cynical of the ordinary, or rather, of contentment with the ordinary. It doesn’t mean I respect anything out of the ordinary (I’m looking at you, people who cast simple cubes out of iron and claim that it represents the suffering of Bengali farmers), but whenever a work tries to be something more profound than ordinary, I respect it, even if it doesn’t quite succeed.

John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath is a work that does try to be sophisticated like this. The chapters of The Grapes of Wrath alternate between an ordinary narrative style, and a non-narrative style that Steinbeck uses to highlight the deeper meaning of his work. And all I have to say about it is this: John Steinbeck is full of himself.

He’s a great narrative writer, and I enjoyed the narrative chapters quite a bit. The best of his non-narrative chapters were the “essay” chapters, the ones where he used full sentences and spoke directly to the reader. Especially good is Chapter 25, the chapter where the words “the grapes of wrath” appear a metaphor for growing discontent among the working class.

But for the rest of his non-narrative chapters: wowsers. They were bad. It seemed as if he had this idea that he would alternate between narrative chapters and essays, but it turned out that there much more story to be told than there were lessons to be learned, and so he had to find aw way to tell the story in a non-narrative style. And the result was not good.

The chapter where the car salesman keeps wishing he had more jalopies was probably the worst thing I’ve ever read. It was the stream of the car salesman’s thoughts, and I don’t think Steinbeck used a complete sentence once in the whole chapter. I guess the point was that evil salesmen don’t think complete thoughts, or something like that, but it was poorly done and pretentious. To make matters worse, its storytelling function was confused, since you don’t know if the people he’s bargaining with are the Joads or not, since you never know if Steinbeck is talking specifically or in general.

Besides the ridiculous quasi-narrative chapters like these, there was another thing Steinbeck used to get his non-narrative chapter count up, an old classic: filler. Such as the whole chapter devoted to a turtle crossing a road. Now, of course the turtle’s trek was really a metaphor, and can credit Steinbeck for finding a creative solution to technical problem, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this wasn’t filler.

Overall, the book was a good read and Steinbeck has written a profound work that makes us think about how we treat our fellow people, but when it came to the non-narrative chapters he was totally full of himself.

While we’re at it, we might as well deconstruct one of the “lessons” from The Grapes of Wrath a little. In the story, after the Joads have had some trouble with the law in some of the labor camps, they find a government-run camp that treats them like actual human beings. The Joads are even introduced to amenities they never had in better days in Oklahoma, like toilets.

Now, it’s clear what Steinbeck was trying to suggest here. But let’s look a little more deeply at this. In the government camp, the people were treated with dignity, but no one had work. And once the Joads’ money ran out, they had to hit the road, and find work with the dehumanizing corporate plantations. But then, though they weren’t living well, they at least got to eat, and even had a little leftover to small luxuries (Cracker Jack).

So. Capitalism treats people as much like dirt as it can get away with, and it requires the Socialism to force it to treat people like human beings. But in a Socialist utopia, there is no production so no one eats. So the lesson here is: if you want dignity, you need Socialism. If you want to eat, you need Capitalism. And if you want both… well you can figure it out. I think it’s a great (if simplified) lesson. I just don’t think it was the lesson that Red commie socialist Steinbeck intended.

Finished the Divine Comedy

Every so often I’ll see a little clip or summary of some work that will evoke some sort of deep interest in me, and not merely grab my attention. Somehow from that small bit of information I know this will be a work I’ll appreciate, and I am usually right. Such was the case for the Divine Comedy by Dante. As soon as I learned what it was about I pretty much had to read it someday.

It’s really tough reading, however, and I didn’t finish my first couple attempts at it. I finally got a good verse translation (I can’t stand prose translations) to read on my Amazon Kindle (John Ciardi), which is not to say it was any easier reading. But this time I pushed through. (This was facilitated, in part, by my car being out of order for three months. I had plenty of reading time busing to work every day.)

I don’t think the overall style of the poem could match me better. Pretty much everything in it was something I enjoyed. The structured, well-thought-out hierarchy of the world, the breadth of cultural allusions (although all the Florentine allusions were a bit too much), the allusions to science and astronomy, the fantastic imagery, and a lot of deep symbolism (about half of which I missed, and the other half I was only alerted to by footnotes). It lacked some of the annoyances many poems have, like wailing self-pity (except for one small part in Earthly Paradise).

But my favorite aspect of the poem was Dante’s willingness to break form. In fact, it seemed like he broke form an optimal number of times, just enough so that one couldn’t make any sort of sweeping generalizations. Every location he went was like the other locations, yet unique in its own way. This gave the poem an uncanny aura of realism in spite of the fantastic setting.

My favorite such diversion happened in Purgatorio, on the terrace where the Saved souls did their pennance for Sloth. Throughout the poem, Dante and his guide (Virgil or Beatrice) would stop to talk with the people wherever they went, and those people generally had a lot to say. But when Dante arrived at the Terrace of Sloth, the souls didn’t stay to talk, since their pennance was to run around the terrance non-stop. The souls would only run by, identify themselves, and run off. So, Dante and Virgil spent their time on that terrance talking between themselves. Dante the Poet wasn’t afraid to break the form of his story, even though talking to people in the next world was one of the most important aspects of the story.

All in all a very good read. If you’re in a mood for some really tough reading I highly recommend it.

Major works of literature I’ve read

Here is a pretty complete list of literature (excluding short stories and poems) that I’ve read. I tend to go for quality over quantity.

My favorites:

  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
  • Beowulf

I very much liked these:

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Don Quixote (part 1) by Cervantes
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift
  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  • The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  • Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis
  • The Horse and his Boy by C. S. Lewis
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • Lady Windemere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde
  • Divine Commedy by Dante

I liked these:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • Focault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
  • Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams
  • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams
  • Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway
  • Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
  • The Magicians Nephew by C. S. Lewis
  • The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • Don Quixote de La Mancha, Part One, by Miguel de Cervantes
  • 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne (audio)
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin
  • The Iliad by Homer

These I didn’t like too much:

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
  • The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis
  • Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
  • Our Town by Thorton Wilder
  • Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

I completely disliked these:

  • A Separate Peace by Anthony Trolloge
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
  • Antigone by Sophocles

These are the books I’ve found too boring to finish (so far):

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in fairness, it was fine until it should have been over)

Then there is Shakespeare. I find it too hard to pin down exactly how much I liked most of the plays; it changes all the time. Each one I’ve read twice was better the second time. The ones I liked, roughly in order:

  • Macbeth
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • King Lear
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Hamlet
  • Julius Caesar
  • As You Like It
  • I Henry IV
  • Richard III
  • Measure for Measure
  • The Tempest
  • Othello, the Moor of Venice

And the ones I didn’t like:

  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Coriolanus

And the ones I found too boring to finish:

  • Love’s Labour’s Lost

The Real Story Behind the Iliad

The Scene

A cheap pub in Corinth, on the coast of Greece, BC 876.

The Players

About 20 low-ranking Greek warriors, having just made landfall after having sailed back from a war with a small city-state on the coast of Asia Minor. They had names such as Agamemnon, Odysseus, Aias, Menelaus, Nestor, and so on.

A bartender by the name of Calchas.

Three whores named of Helena, Chriseis, and Briseis who sat in the company of the warriors.

A young poet by the name of Homer.

The Situation

Everyone in the room is drunk off their ass on cheap wine and mead.

The Action


[Dings his glass with a spoon.] Friends! I’d like to make a toast in remembrance our departed comrade, Achilles, who fought and died valiantly for us! To Achilles!


To Achilles! [They drink.]


Achilles was the best warrior in the Greek army! He brought down Hector, I tell you!


Hector? Who’s that?


Hector! Why, he was leader of the platoon we faced off with. Big scary guy.


You mean Achilles got the platoon leader? No way!


He got the platoon leader, I say! In fact, I’ll tell you the whole story. [Downs a cup of mead.] It began about three months into the war when Agamemnon and Achilles got into a little argument over who got to rape this little Trojan girl they captured first. Agamemnon won, and Achilles got real pissed and went to the sick tent for a few hours.


Yeah, Achilles was a good warrior, but you gotta admit, he was also a big priss.


He didn’t come out till the boy who used to always tag along with him—what was his name? Patrolcus?—got killed. Meanwhile…

[The story rambles on, including stories such as the time Menelaus grazed the brigade leader’s lieutenant Paris with a spear, or the time when someone from behind hurled a spear that wounded this crazy guy who was standing next to Hector.]

…but then he found out about Patrolcus and went berzerk, and flew into battle. He even had body armor.


Oh, shut up, he couldn’t afford any body armor.


I think it was probably bandages he got from the sick tent. Probably didn’t help him any but it looked awesome. He flew in a rage and killed about five Trojans and stood right there facing Hector. Hector should have layed him flat with a spear but he flat out missed. Then Achilles was on top of him.


Achilles was a lucky guy, eh?


No, not really. Soon after that, that Paris guy came in and stabbed Achilles on the ankle with a spear. Turned into gangrene and he died of it. That’s another story, though. Still, better to go out in glory than to die a coward, and if Achilles was anything, he was brave.


And a priss.


[Approaching the group of drunk warriors] Hey guys, that was a really interesting story. Mind if I make an epic poem out of it? I’ll give you guys each two drachmas for the rights.


[Look around at each other.] All right! More wine and mead! Woooo!


Um, I’m gonna make a few changes…. [His words are drowned out in the ruckus.]


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