Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" and the difficulty in persuading your friends to read good books

A couple of days ago when visiting my parents, I found my copy of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I opened it at an idle moment and glanced down the first page, and before I could stop myself I was quite caught up in rereading it. I found it nearly as entertaining as the first time I'd read it, not on account of the plot (which, having read the book once before, I already knew), but entranced by the mastery of the language.

In case you have not read this book, it is a fantasy set in an alternate history of 1800s England, where there are magicians, fairies - real fairies, malicious and very powerful, not the fuzzy cute nice fairies that modern children's literature sometimes describes - and a lot of sometimes creepy, often funny action.

It is not every author whose books I can reread. The works of Wodehouse, Jerome, and Pratchett are among my favorites to reread, and now I'm happy to include Clarke in the list.

I'd left my copy of Strange & Norrell at my parents' in an attempt to persuade my mother to read it. After reading the book for the first time, I'd been filled with an almost religious zeal to convince my friends and relatives to read this masterpiece. Reading it could do nothing but good for their minds, I reasoned, and I thought I should encourage this mental uplift with word and deed.

My father last read a book in the 1970s, before I was born, so it was no use suggesting that he read it (I'd tried persuading him to read Wodehouse in the past, to no effect). Instead, I told my mother about the book and described it in glowing terms: the story, the characters, the brilliant use of language. And I gave her my copy of the book and suggested that reading it, she would find it a far better thing than she had read in a great while - which was not difficult, for her recent taste in literature ran primarily to cooking recipes in womens' magazines.

She took the book without much enthusiasm and said she'd read it, but she did not. This, while distressing, did not surprise me greatly, because my mother has a low opinion of my taste in books, dating back to when I was in my early teens , and she looked through a copy of Stephen King's It that I was reading at the time, obviously anxious to investigate what I found so enthralling in it; she lost no time finding the one description of group sex, and gave me an exasperated lecture. I believe this is a gift given to mothers everywhere, to unerringly home in on the one or two things you're reading / doing / whatever that you'd prefer she did not know. Anyway, as a result of that look through It, and a few subsequent such books (including, notably, Clive Barker's Imajica), my mother takes a very jaundiced view of the books I read and these days she goes to great lengths to avoid reading them, or indeed, even looking at them.

I also recommended to my sister that she read Strange & Norrell, and she was impressed to the extent of picking up a copy of it herself, which pleased me. My sister is two years older than I, and when we were children it was always the case that she introduced me to new authors, while I was still reading books that she'd outgrown two years ago.

"Oh, you're still reading that!" she'd say, eyeing my Enid Blyton with a look of gentle pity. The first time she had occasion to point out the immaturity of the Enid Blyton I was reading, she herself was reading a book by Louis L'Amour. Her description of the book had me all eager to read it myself, but when I did, I was disappointed.

The book (Mojave Crossing) involved a protagonist who spent great amounts of time crossing a desert. This desert (as any sane man might expect) is hot and dry, and our hero did not enjoy the heat and lacked water. Page after page was devoted to his search for water and I found the description did not grip. Where was the exciting action, I wondered. Where were the secret passages? (I was, after all, still in my Enid Blyton phase, where secret passages were de rigueur.) I saw no point in a book that lacked secret passages and offered such a poor substitute for them as a desert with no water. I felt I could take deserts or leave them, so I left them and went back to my Enid Blyton.


Some eight years later, when I was in college, I looked at one of the Enid Blytons (Five go to Demon's Rocks) that had so fascinated me as a child, and I was appalled. The book seemed to ooze condescension at the reader, as if Enid Blyton had thought to herself, "What complete nitwits children are, to read this bilge I write, but I suppose I must keep them entertained or they will make even greater pests of themselves than they normally are!" I was quite put out with my younger self for having lapped up this patronizing malarkey. True, I had always suspected that my mentality at the age of 9 was indifferent and scarcely human, but I hadn't until then fully plumbed the depths of inanity that was my mind at 9.

A few years after that, when I was 12 or so, years during which I remained staunchly anti-L'Amour and avoided his books with the care others would take to steer clear of venomous snakes, I had to accompany my sister when she was taking a veena lesson. I was not involved in the lesson, and I did not have a very musical soul, and I found the lesson was rapidly beginning to wear on my nerves.

The veena lesson involved persistent harassment of an old, sorry-looking veena, and much singing of scales (sa-re-ga-ma-pa-da-ni-sa, sa-ni-da-pa-ma-ga-re-sa!). In short order my protesting brain had memorized the scales to such perfection that my corpse would be able to recite them without trouble, and I realized that unless I took immediate steps to distance myself from the veena lesson, I would go insane. My sister happened to be reading another Louis L'Amour at the time, so I picked it up and went as far away from the singing of the scales as possible and tried to read the book.

I was surprised to find that this Louis L'Amour was great stuff. I do not recall the title, but it involved a character being pursued across a wild western countryside by Indians eager to separate him from his scalp. Our hero had his hands full staying ahead of these Indians and staying attached to his scalp, and so had hardly any leisure at all. On the rare occasions when he appeared to have left the Indians behind and took time out to smoke a cigarette (one that he rolled himself), those sneaky Indians would tiptoe up around him and there'd be a tense showdown, with the hero crouched down in cover (having stubbed out the cigarette and pulled out his rifle) and looking around for Indians to shoot. The Indians, being reluctant to get shot, would deck themselves with bushes and twigs and stuff, and move around like homicidal mobile shrubbery, hoping to thus elude detection. Anyway, it was all very exciting, and I could not believe that I'd been so daft as to avoid Louis L'Amour all these years. The book was so fascinating that the horrible sounds of the veena lesson receded safely over my horizon of thought and my sanity - such as it was - was preserved.

Having received book recommendations from my sister for so many years, I was naturally keen to return the favor with my recommendation of Susanna Clarke. Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when she dutifully read some 50 pages of the book, and seemed to find it dull and unrewarding, because she stopped reading it thereafter.

If you've ever been in the position where you've just read a sublime, beautiful book, and you want to spread your joy by recommending it to friends and acquaintances, you'll know the keen disappointment of finding that your friends, superficially sane and reasonable though they may seem, lack that spark that would let them enjoy the book. I recall once lending a terrific book by Terry Pratchett (Men at arms) to a colleague at work who seemed more inclined to read than most, and being terribly disappointed to find that he did not like the book. I could not imagine that there was anybody who could read who could not like the book. True, a lot of my other friends did not care for Pratchett, but these others are friends who care for no books at all, and generally restrict their reading to the captions under pictures of models in the less intelligent sections of newspapers, and occasionally, when they feel in the mood for a mental challenge, read the sports columns. This friend I'd loaned my Pratchett to, on the other hand, read books all the time, but under cross-examination, he admitted that his diet consisted primarily of spy-stories and the like, and that he had hunted through the Pratchett in vain for any mention of spies, and found none, which had quite killed his interest in the book.

It's been about a year since I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I still have yet to meet (in real life; various people I chat with on IRC claim to have read the book, and indeed, I found the book after it was recommended to me by someone on IRC) anybody else who has read the book, or who does not retire coyly when I recommend the book to them.

Having failed to convince my immediate circle to read the book, I'd now like to extend my appeal to the world: read this book, it is awesome!

The magic in the book lies not just in the story, but in Clarke's prose, which is almost, dare I say it, as lyrical and funny as Wodehouse. The story may not race off the page, but when the writing's as good as this, you don't want it to - you want to steep yourself in it and relish the movement of the plot.

Quite beyond the main characters, Mr. Norrell, who is so "boring" as to be endlessly diverting in his anxieties and peculiarities, and Jonathan Strange, who is obviously entertaining in himself, the minor characters are the ones that take the book beyond brilliance into greatness: Childermass, Jonathan Strange's manservant Jeremy Johns, and many others (the doctors that attended upon the King of England when he suffered his fits of insanity, for instance). All this neglects the footnotes that sometimes have complete little stories in them.

There are some moments that define the book for me: the gentleman with the thistle-down hair attempting to enchant Strange and the King, for instance - what a wonderful, chilling scene. Strange's first description of the King's roads is another, evocative of Tolkien's Moria. And these are just a few of the amazing scenes in this book.

I don't want to spoil the book by dwelling on it further, for I, like Mr. Norrell, lack a gift for making things sound interesting, and indeed many of my friends take my recommendations as things that they would do well to avoid. So, I shall say no more on this marvelous book, but do yourself a favor and read it, you'll thank me for this recommendation!

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke