On introductions and ratings…

Could it be that the contemporary reader is often guilty of punishing a literary work for their own inadequacies?

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Reading this NYRB Edition of two Honoré de Balzac short stories has surprisingly armed me with enough questions to animate a book club discussion.

On the matter of NYRB introductions: A friend was just telling me that aside from the beautiful cover designs, she now understands the allure of the editions through the superstars they appoint to do the introductions. I definitely agree. But Schwabsky’s introduction for Pekić’s Houses and Danto’s for de Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece have made me wonder if they were better off as afterwords, to give readers a chance to arrive at their own conclusions before having their thoughts influenced by the authoritative perspectives of the introductions.

On the matter of Goodreads ratings: I return to my first question. While The Unknown Masterpiece gets a fair 3.9 stars, Gambara gets an average of 3.2 stars. I find it problematic to rate books with stars, and I don’t have a Goodreads account because I do not believe in a system that allows people to rate Fifty Shades of Grey higher than Hugo’s unabridged Les Miserables. 😆

Honoré de Balzac wrote at a time when the lover of literature was also expected to be well-versed in the theories of visual art and music. Education and culture were not as compartmentalized and separate as they are now.

Hiding in plain sight, in these two stories, is an important record of the transition of the Romantic period to the Modern. Having read this only now, I think this should be on the reading repertoire for art historians and any lover of art.

If the brilliant passages of artistic analysis on painting and musical composition elude the contemporary reader, does it deserve 3.2 stars?

(More thoughts on the book to follow…)

Literary Symmetry

“I have relinquished Rome to the mercies of Tiberius and to the accidents of time.”

Augustus, John Williams (1971)

“I accept with calm these vicissitudes of Rome Eternal.”

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)

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“The barbarian will become the Rome he conquers; the language will smooth his rough tongue; the vision of what he destroys will flow in his blood.”

Augustus, John Williams (1971)

“If ever the barbarians gain possession of the world then will be forced to adopt some of our methods; they will end resembling us.”

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)

Happy World Book Day!

Reader, I’ve done it.

I turned the last page of the Alexandria Quartet on World Book Day 2022!

About two decades ago, I stumbled upon a fourth of this elusive tetralogy in a secondhand bookstore. I say elusive because that is how beautiful books used to be, long before the advent of online booksellers and FullyBooked here in the Philippines. And you had to wait to chance upon certain books like you would for love, sometimes even thinking they’d never come. 

Ranked among the best English-language novels of the 20th century (I still feel that the 20th century writers remain unsurpassed), I decided to be romantic about it, telling myself that I would read none of it until I had collected all four books in the same edition — and secondhand. I only found the last piece of the puzzle last year and I knew it was time. 

The copies are all mass market paperbacks with vintage cover designs, spines that cracked as I opened them for the first time, and tanned pages that fell apart… as I, too, fell apart.

Maybe I now deserve to order the edition with the Aciman introduction? Perhaps after I write my review. But first, let me catch my breath…

2021 Book Tower

In case the Philippine IATF needs further proof of how much social distancing I’ve done, the plan was to build a tower out of the books I read this year (minus the e-books and several that are currently being lent to friends).

So what have we here? A ziggurat? Pyramid? Pagoda? Babel? I am not sure anymore, that’s why I refrained from posting this when I took the photo the other day. But it is 2021, after all. A year of things not turning out the way you envisioned them in your head. And apparently, I won’t make such a good architect. Haha

But here is a pile of my closest companions at a time when physical interaction was discouraged and I could not be with people I wanted to be with; fragment of a reply to Camus’ “It is because the world is, in its essence, unhappy, that we need to create some joy,” and partial answer to his “because the world is absurd, we must provide it with all its meaning.”

Yesterday, I got on a plane for the first time since the pandemic started, and suddenly I was flooded with a bright and warm clarity that translated everything I felt and thought — and I realized, this is reading. This beauty. Even without opening the book in my hand, this is reading. This beauty, when, at last, everything worth keeping from all those pages blossoms into something that transcends language inside of you.

This beauty, is why we read.