June 28th, 2006

Shock therapy

Last Dance of the Intelligentsia

Do not read Foucault's Pendulum.

Let me amend that. Do not read Foucault's Pendulum for the sake of reading Foucault's Pendulum. It is at least 200 pages too long, and do you really have that kind of time? The last couple months, I have been inexplicably been having issues with my own mortality—okay, it's actually not too inexplicable when you consider that my uncle keeps talking to me about what I'll be doing when I have kids of my own and what I'll be doing after I retire and I am TWENTY-FUCKING-FOUR AND DO NOT WANT TO HEAR THIS SHIT OMG—and fearing that life really is too short, and I have such a limited time to read all the books there are that I should use my time wisely. I need to know that I will get something out of a book, that when I have finished it, I will feel truly accomplished. Why should I spend over two weeks reading a book "because I'm smart and smart people should have read this book"? Life's too short.

Do I feel accomplished for having read Foucault's Pendulum? Um, well, yeah, I kinda do, especially considering the number of people who have admitted to not making it all the way through. But what have I earned? Really, how can you drop a Foucault's Pendulum reference into casual conversation without sounding like Alex Turner an insufferable twat?

"Oh, ho ho, you seem to be searching for Belbo's trumpet!"
"For what?"
"Belbo's trumpet! From Foucault's Pendulum!"
(And that's when you get punched in the face by eirefaerie.)

See, the book technically sounds good. The basic idea, according to the book jacket, is that a few overeducated arsemonkeys with too much time on their hands concoct this Plan that the Knights Templar supposedly had to keep this Big Secret all to themselves. But then their made-up Plan seems like it's, um, not so made up anymore.

The problem is that first part takes FIVE HUNDRED FRELLING PAGES. Almost the entire book is made up of people researching history, and that is just not fun unless you're, like, obsessed with history. In The Name of the Rose, the history lesson digressions were just local color; in Foucault's Pendulum, they're basically the meat of the book. Yes, it can be funny at times, but those times are few and far between.

Now, I am glad I stuck with it because most of the construction of the Plan was pretty interesting, and the last hundred pages or so, when the second part of the premise pays off, is very satisfactory in its own way. It becomes an existentialist mini-treatise on the meaning (or lack thereof) of life, and I found the ideas Eco was playing with fascinating. But I couldn't help but think he didn't need this gargantuan text to play with it. This text with, and I don't think this is an exaggeration, hundreds of characters, most of them merely pawns in the Plan, none of whom I really cared about. The book was basically all details. Couldn't he just have summarized, well, what the book jacket already told us, and then muse from there?

The problem is I cannot say. I cannot say that I didn't need to have gone through all five hundred pages of story, have taken that immense journey with the characters, followed their many adventures, so many of which I didn't even feel needed telling. Because all that plot is what backs up the message at the end of the book. I still think he could have shaved at least 200 pages off, though.

So maybe you should read Foucault's Pendulum, but read it for the right reasons. Read it because you want to and you feel like you'll get something out of it, not because you "should."

If, however, you're still interested in books you "should" read, here's a random assortment of such books that I recommend:

  • Catch-22, by Joseph Heller — This book is really, really funny. Like funny ha-ha, I swear. Funny like people will give you looks because you're cracking up too much. It's funny, it's funny, it's funny, and then oh my God it is sad. You won't even see the sad coming because you were too busy laughing. And then you won't know whether you're still allowed to laugh.
  • Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky — I read this book in high school because my English teacher described it as the story of a man who kills someone just to see what it feels like, and that really intrigued me. It turns out he wasn't entirely accurate, really, but it got me to read it, so whatever. This may have been the first "classic" book that surprised me by being actually enjoyable. Like, "Sorry, I'm not going to play outside; I'd rather read this book by a Russian dead guy about Nietszchean ethics" enjoyable. I mean, you've got a murderer going mad with remorse, a brilliant detective who engages in some of the most exhilarating dialogues I've ever read, and the inevitable whore with a heart of gold. Also, a wicked plot twist that totally shocked me simply by existing because holy crap, are you saying Good Books can have wicked plot twists?
  • Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez — It's a tale of unrequited love that spans, like, FIFTY YEARS. It caught me off guard when the person I thought was going to be the main character died in the first chapter. This was another book I read in high school for outside reading, and I was again surprised that a book by such a lauded author was so entertaining.
  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner — Okay, this one may not be for everyone. But I read half of it in one day, reading nearly the entire day straight, and it fried my brain in such an awesome way that I cannot help but love it with a mad love. It's tough; it's Faulkner. But God, it's so amazing in the way that it takes one story, a story that you can just look at the back and see in a chronology of events, and imbues it with so many shades of color and power. It's a story about stories and why we need them and why it's important that it's called history.
  • Watership Down, by Richard Adams — I'm not even sure if this makes it onto most "should" lists anymore, but it's my favorite book about talking rabbits ever.

    In conclusion, The Shipping News still blows.