mjj (flemmings) wrote,

Closed readings

Have finished To Say Nothing of the Dog. It improved in the second half, before I quite lost patience with it, because the first half narrator was as hapless and irritating as Rincewind. And was a pleasant page-turning read, especially as I wasn't trying to keep track of what these slippages and anomalies were supposed to be.

And so it's done and so now what?

You read the book and the book's done. It doesn't connect with anything. It doesn't lead anywhere. You can talk about it with other people who've read it-- if there are any-- but that's about it. It's a subject like the weather that's useful for small talk; sometimes, as with HP, it's about the only thing it's useful for. (And filling the time between breakfast and bed.) Like HP, the more people there are to talk about it with, the less interesting the conversation is likely to be. Is it possible to have a profitable discussion with anyone about The Da Vinci Code?

I don't want to argue utilitarianism in reading. I feel reading should be a pleasure that needs no justification. But me personally, if a book doesn't lead into something beyond itself, it's like a bag of potato chips when I want protein and veg and rice. The 'beyond itself' can be hints towards stuff I can use in my own writing, or the clarification of an archetype, or a precise expression, or whatever. But I need something beyond the closed solipsistic circle of the book itself. Unless it's one of those kappa books that drags you in and drowns you, but that's a different kind of usefulness. 'Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul.'

Which is why Three Kingdoms feels the exact opposite of a solipsistic book. Things get clearer as I wade through Liu Bei's endless campaigns and Cao Cao's ever-iterated ambition. The Romance is the most accessible way of getting at events and personages that people have been referencing for almost two thousand years (which is why it's silly of me to snicker at the Romance on the occasions when it does indeed become romantic. Liu Bei coming *three times* in the *snow* uphill both *ways* to see Zhuge Liang and falling on the man's neck and being told, each time, that he'd got the wrong Zhuge yet again-- 'no, I'm his uncle, my nephew's out hunting'.) I knew in a general way who Zhuge Liang was but now I'm finally *seeing* the figure that, alas, grabbed so many people's imaginations, and seeing why he did. 3K is base knowledge for so much in Chinese and the Japanese culture. (The Japanese think they wrote Three Kingdoms as they think they composed Comin' Through the Rye.) Not knowing these guys in their proper setting, even through the necessarily distorted lens of a translation, is like not knowing the text of Hamlet or Macbeth-- stuff that's quoted for four centuries without cites because everyone *knows* what 'O my prophetic soul!' or 'All the perfumes of Araby' refer to.

And I can't think of a modern English book that does that. Even Tolkien and his labyrinthine world leads only to Tolkien fans and bad-by-definition Tolkien imitators.
Tags: 3k, reading_09
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