Literary Illusions is about my task of reading through lists of classics: novels, biographies, histories, plays, and poetry. I'll be recording my thoughts about them, and the challenges of reading in our busy world. The lists I will be following are from the book, The Well-Educated Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

#2 - Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan (1679)

Coming just 74 years after Don Quixote, this book is another thing altogether. This is one of the books I began last year, and I took copious notes on it, which is perhaps why I only got a little over a hundred pages into it. Now that I'm picking it up again, I'm struck by the odd style of this book. This book was the only approved fictional reading by Protestants for a few hundred years following its creation.

As such a huge part of Western, Protestant culture, there are few people who do not know the story of Christian, the Pilgrim of our story. I grew up hearing the story in various forms, and I believe read a children's version several times. I have been surprised on how many phrases, sayings, and cultural influences we have gotten from this book. Most people probably don't even realize they are quoting or referring to this book. I wonder who affected Western culture more - John Bunyan or William Shakespeare? Oh, well, that is a thought for another time.

Obviously this book is an incredibly simple allegory, that is neither subtle nor particularly clever. Considering the audience and the time, however, it was probably perfectly appropriate. At this time the Reformation was in full swing, and John Bunyan himself was persecuted for his "dissenting" beliefs. This book served as a sort of "road map" and inspiration to the countless Protestants suffering through his time. Also, the blatant parallels to Scripture and Scriptural stories might seem overdone to us, but during the Reformation, Bibles were not common and certainly not encouraged among the common people. These lessons from Christian's journey were probably like lamp posts along a very dark path. It is not surprising that many Puritans only owned (or always owned at least) two books: the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress.

As for my own journey with Christian so far - I have gotten to p. 145, which in my version is only 37 pages away from the end of his journey (the "First Part"). The second half of the book (and the longer section) is the story of his wife, Christiana, and her journey to the same City.

My only complaint so far is that everything is so very - obvious. There is no suspense as to the quality of each new character; their name gives them away immediately. Anyone with religious or theological background (such as I have), can very nearly predict the next step. But again, this may have been necessary - most of Bunyan's audience were barely educated, much less theologically so. I'll just keep telling myself that!!

For those who know the story, Christian has obviously set out, passed through the Slough of Despond, the Wicket Gate, and lost his burden at Calvary. He met his companion Faithful, defeated Apollyon, witnessed Faithful's martyrdom in Vanity Fair, and escaped Doubting Castle. One interesting footnote I came across is that the giants that rule Doubting Castle, Despair and Diffidence, are a happy couple, and I quote, "and as such are virtually unique in Bunyan's fiction." Isn't that odd? Why would he make two villains (who beat our heroes mercilessly) happily married? And why would this be so rare in his stories? Makes me wonder about his own marriage! I don't recall reading about his wife, but I've never studied his life. Funny how odd bits of personality show up in every author's work.

Anyway, currently Christian and his new companion, Hopeful, (you see what I mean about the names?!) are back on their way down the King's Highway. They are having great fun discussing theology and gossiping about a certain gentlemen, Little Faith. That reminds me of another pet peeve this book has created: EVERY proper name in the entire book is in italics. It's very annoying - like they're shouting or stressing each person's name. It's like listening to a person who accents every other word. "Have you SEEN that GUY? It's AMAZING how UGLY a PERSON can BE!!" You see? Very frustrating.

Oh well, that's my rant for today. I'm going to walk a little farther down the highway, if you'll excuse me.

#1 - Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes (1605)

This is where Ms. Bauer chooses to begin her time line of novels. I don't think that it was the first novel ever written, because I believe that the Japanese produced the first novel (The Tale of Genji). And, of course, who knows how many novels were written that didn't survive the passage of time? Anyway, this is where we are to begin.

I did begin to read Don Quixote and thought that it was rather bizarre. Perhaps it's just me, but it seems like one of the earliest novels would be more dignified and stately than this strange romp of a story. Also, why does it have to be so LONG!!! I've read War and Peace, Lord of the Rings, and the entire Bible (each of them several times!), but this book exhausted me after only a few chapters. But then, I didn't take notes on them! (Well, except for the Bible, but that's different.)

However, I have a cheerful (and a little bit shameful) announcement - I have to skip this book for now! My brother is borrowing it from me at the moment, so I shall have to go onto the next book. Whew - maybe it will be easier to tackle that one after I've mastered some of the others.

So, moving on...

In the Beginning...

I first found the book, The Well-Educated Mind, about a year and a half ago. I dutifully read the book, copied the lists, and began hunting down some of the books on the lists (it was a great excuse to buy more books!). However, I didn't get very far when it came to actually sitting down and reading the books.

You see, I am a prolific reader and it rarely takes me more than a couple days to finish a book. However, the author of TWEM expects much more than just a quick perusal. Without going into much detail, I'll just say that she recommends reading a book not just once, but 3 times in a row! And you are not to passively read the book, you are to take notes and really analyze it! Extraordinary thought.

I'd like to think that I analyze the books I read, but I quickly found that taking notes on the book is time consuming, and much more complicated than I'd thought. My reading quickly tapered off and I fell victim to the number one killer of readers: Netflix!! (I don't have cable so that wasn't a problem.)

Long story short, it's over a year later and I find myself unexpectedly unemployed. Never having been in this situation before, it didn't take long for me to grow bored. So now I shall return to my previous inspirations and endeavor to become well-educated!!
My goal is to read through all 5 lists and journal through out the process. The five lists are titled as follows: Novels, Autobiographies, Historical Reading, Drama, and Poetry. Ms. Bauer arranged them chronologically and I believe they include about 157 books. I have already read several of the novels, but I shall re-read them and endeavor to think through them.

There's my lengthy introduction - now to get started!!