Mister Litlove’s Reading

As the year draws to a close, so I realise that I have not filled you in on Mister Litlove’s responses to his special selection of books. A while back you may recall, we put together a list of books for him and he’s been making his way through them ever since. One of the reasons I am reminded to do this is that, for Christmas, I gave him Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe (which, bless him, my husband refers to as The Enchanted Universe) and he has been absolutely loving it. This is probably the biggest hit from the list so far. It’s a popular science book about string theory, which Mr Litlove says is explained brilliantly, in such a way that it is (relatively – heh) understandable. Brian Greene has led the reader through the theory part and is now describing his own experiences as part of a group of scientists and mathematicians working at the outer limits of our knowledge. What my husband has particularly appreciated is the voice of the narrator, which is intelligent and clear and carefully marking a trail through highly complex scientific thought for the reader to follow.

It is interesting to me that he has loved this book unreservedly, but found the narrative non-fiction works – House by Tracy Kidder and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – left him with niggling uncertainties due to the style. ‘I felt I was being sold fiction as reality,’ he said of both of them, which is testimony to the tendency, originating with Capote in America, to relate an experience in the past with all the speech left in, transforming the incoherence of ordinary people into the smooth personalities of storybook characters and suggesting that there is ultimately one way to view events. I think narrative non-fiction is really interesting, because it is basically true that what you get is most certainly not exactly what was lived, precisely because it tries very hard to present the veneer of reality. It is the non-fiction version of fiction written in the present tense, which really gets to me as it’s the only tense that a story absolutely could not take place in.

In both instances, changes are made in order to engage the reader more fully in the story, to immerse them in something that feels like it’s really happening around them. Since the 1990s there’s been a tendency in cultural artefacts – movies, books, art – to give the spectator/reader an experience to take away with them. Previously, art (mostly) offered itself to a spectator/reader acting as a witness, who could sit at a little distance from the events, watching them go past, and reflecting on them. There is no value difference to extricate here, the approaches are just different: one more cerebral, one more sensational. For my own part, I can’t abide being forced into an experience I may not have chosen, and much prefer art that allows me to be a witness. But that’s just me. I do think, though, that it’s an intriguing litmus test to take, to figure out how much like reality you want your fantasies to be, how much you like art to show or hide its mechanisms of construction, how much you want to be carried away to an elsewhere, even one inside of yourself.

But I digress. The novels Mr Litlove has read so far are Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler and I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. He enjoyed both very much. Charlotte Simmons is about a reserved, hard-working young woman who arrives at university to find it a hotbed of sex and sport and scandal, and the painful process she undergoes in order to fit in. Saint Maybe is a family story, which begins with a tragedy: Ian inadvertently causes the death of his brother in a car crash, leaving three small children pretty much orphaned. Feeling responsible, he puts his life on hold to bring them up. ‘In a way,’ said Mister Litlove, ‘they are both about the difference between the way we think life ought to be and the way it really is.’ I thought this was an astute comment, although it takes us back full circle to narrative non-fiction, and the difference between the reality we live (confusing, bewildering and when seen through the perspective of string theory, truly bizarre) and the reality that certain kinds of art embody, all smoothed out with fantasies of comprehensibility and order and value.

We move forward through life with idealism and fantasy guiding our choices, we live in brute instinct and perplexity, and we look back with hindsight that allows us to extract meaning – meaning I should point out, that often changes the further in time we move away from the events themselves. These dynamics, forwards into the unknown, and backwards over reality, are so often at complete odds with one another, it’s not surprising that so much of art is about negotiating the disjunction. Perhaps that’s why The Elegant Universe is so satisfying to Mister Litlove; it brings together all the madness of temporality in a hugely sophisticated theory that proves we still don’t understand the half of life on this planet.



11 thoughts on “Mister Litlove’s Reading

  1. I read The Elegant Universe this year as well and really enjoyed it. It did make string theory a little more accessible although it was still hard work and made me want to go out and read more about dark matter and dark energy (which I’ll hopefully do next year).

  2. I think my h would enjoy The Elegant Universe too. Mister L’s reactions are interesting, as are yours in reflecting on it. I think I’m more of the non-fiction ought to be non-fiction view myself, excepting memoirs but I prefer memoirs that are the meditative sort (like Annie Dillard’s).

  3. How interesting.

    I really enjoyed I, Charlotte Simmons when I read it. It’s more than just Charlotte meets sex and sport and goes out in the big world. What touched me in this book is the “sharp social analysis”. Tom Wolfe shows that outsiders from the working class who get in Ivy League school with scholarships get lost because they don’t have the proper social background. More than the lack of money, what can lose them is that they don’t know the unwritten rules and the history of the place the other know through family history. Charlotte doesn’t know what going to that field trip implies. Hoyt doesn’t know that after partying his buddies spend hours in the library studying. I guess you have met some in your professional life.

    The more I read your posts about your husband’s reading experience, the more I trust him to choose books for mine. Good news, the Greene has been translated into French. So I hope you’ll keep us posted.

  4. You might also want to suggest Neil deGrasse Tyson, K.C. Cole, and Michio Kaku to Mr. Litlove if he’s interested in more physics/space nonfiction! They’re all a bit more accessible than The Elegant Universe (which I also really enjoyed) but still very smart and fascinating.

  5. So glad Mr. Litlove’s reading has been such a success. Greene really is a good writer and explains things so well that one can understand it, mostly. It’s really interesting that he didn’t care so much for the narrative nonfiction though. I agree with his assessment. I tend to read narrative nonfiction more as fiction but with more facts and sometimes footnotes. Your final sentence made me laugh because it is very likely close to the truth. I’m reading a book about memory at the moment and for all that we know about the brain and how it works we still hardly know anything.

  6. The Elegant Universe sounds just brilliant. You’ve posted a most enjoyable review. I particularly appreciate the last paragraph… beautifully written. Thanks litlove for all the insightful posts this year. Have a wonderful 2012 you and your family. I look forward to another year of Tales from the Reading Room. 😉 Happy New Year!

  7. Elegant or enchanted or both…it sounds pretty good to me. Lovely post, my friend. Sending you good wishes and happy thoughts through the cosmos for a joyous 2012.

  8. It’s really cool that Mr Litlove is reading from the list you made for him–and interesting insights, too! I’d like to read more nonfiction next year–I tend to keep to memoirs and biographies, but would love to branch out into science–it would have to be for the layperson though as a lot of it intimidates me! I’ll have to check out Brian Greene since he seems a favorite so far! Have a really great New Year, Litlove and Family! 🙂

  9. Thank you so much for your thoughts. Your last paragraph especially crystallizes that weird schism between how we imagine our life should go and how it really does. I just added some good books to my TBR pile, too. Thanks!

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