I only have two self-imposed rules when it comes to reading. One: If I don’t like a book, I won’t force myself to finish it. I came about this rule from studying literature in college, which meant having to read a lot in order to get good grades (graduated with a 3.79 GPA). I enjoyed reading most works, a majority I felt indifferent about them, and I absolutely detested a select few. An anecdote to those detested few comes from when I was reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I can’t exactly remember why I didn’t like it, I do remember it having to do with the main character annoying me, but I grew impatient with the character and the writing style of Woolf (think purple prose and that’s why) and what I ended up doing was literally throwing the book across the room. Unfortunately, I had to finish reading Mrs. Dalloway in order to get a good grade on it but it was then that I made a promise to myself that once I graduated college I would never force myself to finish a book I didn’t like. I’ve stuck to that rule and I will continue to stick to it. Two: I will read On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri at least once a calendar year. I’m not sure why I want to explain myself to the world as to why I follow such a rule but here I go anyways.
If it wasn’t for On the Road, I probably wouldn’t be such a voracious reader and may not even have a college degree. It was because of On the Road that I truly began to read and to enjoy it to the point where the activity has become an integral part of my life and my identity.
The first time I had ever heard of On the Road was in 1997 when I was seventeen. I was high on something, probably weed, and I was at a friend’s house watching the biopic The Doors. During the scene in which the band is high on peyote in some desert, I uttered out the line of, “I wish I could just live on the road and be free” to which my friend began to tell me about some book called On the Road by some guy named Jack Kero-something or another. Another friend of mine, who was present at that same place and time, ended up buying the book and reading it. He didn’t like it so he gave it to me. I opened it up and began to read it.
Up until that point in my life, I did not like reading books. Sure, there were a few books out there I did enjoy, Nineteen Eighty-Four and To Kill a Mockingbird being two of them, but I always found books to be tedious and boring. I had, for some inane reason, conjured up the notion that all books had to be written like Shakespeare or the Brönte sisters or Jane Austen and I found that style, at that time in my life, to be absolutely boring and banal. But as I read deeper and deeper into On the Road, the more I was amazed that a book could contain things such as smoking marijuana, infidelity, drinking binges, soliciting prostitutes, and dead-beat fatherhood and what amazed me more was that the story, which was based on true event, happened in the late 1940s, and the book was published in the 1950s. On the Road had shattered my idiotic preconceived notion of how books were supposed to be written and that such things could be written during the time of the nuclear family and Leave It To Beaver-type values. On the Road completely reshaped my idea of literature.
I can’t recall what year it was when I imposed the rule on myself of reading On the Road once a calendar year but I can say with some certainty I’ve been abiding by that rule for at least ten years. There are some years, like this year (2016), when I read On the Road multiple times. There is a comfort to reading it; like coming back home. It was with this book that I learned to appreciate literature and the art of reading, it’s my roots, and it’s incredibly important to me because of that.
When I was in college, I even wrote a final paper challenging my professor’s prompt about On the Road. Honestly, when I think about it, if I hadn’t been reading the book so much and it becoming such an integral part of my life, there would probably be no way I would ever dare challenge a professor. But after I had read On the Road the first time in 1997, I knew I was hooked on Kerouac but then that blossomed into something bigger. From Kerouac I found Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Diane DiPrima and Carolyn Cassady and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder and Amiri Baraka, just to name a few; furthermore, I became infatuated with the real story of the Beat Generation but especially with the biography of Jack Kerouac. It was studying Kerouac and the Beat Generation before I entered college (I started college when I was 27) that I knew I could challenge a professor with a sound thesis and argument and I had plenty of proof to back up my argument since half of a bookshelf of mine is filled with Beat literature and criticisms. When the day came for the professor to hand back our final papers, my teaching assistant gave everybody back their papers but mine to me. I asked her about this and she told me to see the professor after class. So I nervously waited for the end of class to come and when it did, to my surprise, the professor gave me an ‘A’ on the paper. He had wanted to see me because he told me the T.A. wanted to give me a lower grade simply because I challenged the professor but he liked my thesis and the fact I had challenged him. That professor and I ended up becoming quite close and I would later find out from him On the Road was what led him from pursuing a medical degree and changing to a literature degree, much to the disappointment of his father. To find a camaraderie with a professor under such a unique experience from one book speaks volumes of the transformative power of literature and, in my humble opinion, the power of On the Road.
I now own four editions of On the Road. My original copy, which I obtained in 1997, was from the 1994 printing and I am sure is now out of print. I no longer read this book as I don’t want it to fall apart anymore than it already is. I have a 2003 print edition that I read from now as well as first print and a pre-print editions of On the Road: The Original Scroll, which I do not read from anymore as well. Between owning four editions of On the Road and reading it every year, it may seem like it is overkill and I would be bored with reading it so much but this is hardly the case. It seems, and yes this is cliched (but true), every time I read On the Road I discover something in it or about it I had never noticed before. To me, this is a mark of great literature. Ironically, On the Road isn’t even my favorite work by Kerouac, Big Sur is (but that’s a tail for another time), and yet I keep reading it and enjoying it and being surprised by it. With that happening at least once every year, why would I ever want to stop reading it?
I think it’s safe to call The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri an English teacher’s book, meaning that it is something only an English/Literature teacher would enjoy reading. Yes, I know that is an assumption but it is one of those types of books. I tried to read it once when I was a teenager but it went right over my head. It was only until I studied it in college that I really fell in love with it.
I was lucky enough to be able to study abroad in Rome, Italy during my senior year of college. There was only one literature class offered there, which was Italian Medieval and Renaissance Literature. The first book we read was The Inferno. My professor was a short, old Italian lady who knew everything there was to know about The Inferno and The Divine Comedy as a whole. She would bring two copies of the book, one in English and the other in Italian. She would always explain the Cantos to us using the English version (the John Ciardi translation) and then she would read it to us in Italian. Let me say there is nothing like hearing Dante being read in Italian by an Italian. It certainly wasn’t the first time I had studied The Inferno but it was in Italy, with it being taught by an Italian, that I truly learned the brilliance and the genius of The Divine Comedy and Dante himself.
With that being said, there is way too much material to cover as to why there is nothing but genius in The Divine Comedy but I will say these short, brief points: One, Dante codified the Italian language, thus when people today learn Italian they learn Florentine Italian because that’s what Dante spoke and wrote in; Two, the politics involved with the story are brilliantly portrayed using heavy metaphor and it takes a lot of studying to truly understand and appreciate. There is so much to learn about Italian, especially Florentine, history and politics in order to really understand what Dante was writing about but once a person does learn, The Divine Comedy truly comes alive; Three, the transcendental nature of the poem is what I love the most about it and it is a heavy theme throughout the entire poem. Whereas most people could be fascinated by reading about a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the idea that a person has to go through Hell to get to Heaven may be overlooked and maybe overlooked too much.
I personally became intrigued with transcendentalism when I had read Walden by Henry David Thoreau when, yet again, I was in college. I like to think transcendentalism speaks to me on a personal level simply because I have experienced so much hell in my life. This feeling really awoke when I read The Divine Comedy. Dante, the protagonist in the epic poem somehow, inexplicably finds himself lost in a dark and foreboding forest at the mid-point of his life. Right away, readers are treated with the metaphor of a mid-life crisis even if it does take place in 1300 C.E. in Florence, Italy. But there is some truth to this metaphor. How many times has a person ever wonder to his or herself , ‘How in the hell did my life end up like this?’ Of course there is no turning back and Dante shows this with the path away from Hell being cut off by the lion, the leopard, and the she-wolf. I’d like to think, even if this is an assumption, that most people have felt that way at least once in their life. I have felt it many times and to be able to relate with a poet who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries speaks volumes of how well Dante wrote and how genius his epic poem is and all of this is from the first canto in the first canticle of the poem. This is what brings me back to The Divine Comedy every year. Every year, it seems, I have gone through some type of major crisis or crises and every year Dante is there to remind me I am going to go through Hell to get to Heaven.
The last time I read The Divine Comedy was in April of 2015 and just this week, the third week of October of 2016, I have begun the journey again with Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice yet again. This year the journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven has many special meanings to me due to my mental health worsening, being hospitalized for three weeks, and going through a very painful breakup with my (now ex) girlfriend of seventeen years. The mid-point of the average lifespan of a man living in the time of Dante was thirty-five and here I am at the age of thirty-six and I can only feel empathy from Dante as if he were speaking directly to me from beyond the grave. But what it really is, that feeling of empathy, is the genius of Dante and The Divine Comedy being a story that is still relevant seven hundred years after its writing. How could a work of literature of such stature and genius go unread for more than a year? To me, it can’t and it shouldn’t.
Some end notes:
- I highly recommend getting any Beat Generation literature or any literature/criticism from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California. City Lights was founded and (still) operated by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and is the authority for Beat literature.
- All of the illustrations from The Divine Comedy I use in this article were drawn by Gustave Doré and I highly recommend purchasing a copy of The Divine Comedy with Doré’s illustrations, which are works of genius in their own right.
- Finally, John Ciardi’s translation of The Divine Comedy is the best to have been published. In the three times I studied The Divine Comedy in college and all of the times I have read it since, Ciardi’s translation, notes, and preludes to each canto in all three canticles is beyond superb. The detailed notes will help any reader at any level appreciate Dante and his work to its proper degree. The entirety of Ciardi’s translation of The Divine Comedy can be purchased from a certain evil corporation.
-Matthew A. Sandusky
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Scattered Poems by Jack Kerouac 12.16
Book of Haikus by Jack Kerouac 12.16
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön 11.16 – 12.16
Buddhist Scriptures 11.16
The Paradiso by Dante Alighieri * 11.16
The Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri * 10.16 – 11.16
The Inferno by Dante Alighieri * 10.16
The Plays of Anton Chekhov translated by Paul Schimdt 10.16
The Epic of Gilgamesh * 10.16
Master and Man and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy 9.16 – 10.16
The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda 9.16
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell 9.16
Big Sur by Jack Kerouac 9.16 *
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck 8.16 – 9.16 *
Buddhism for Beginners by Thubten Chodron 8.16
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini 8.16
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri 8.16
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol 7.16 – 8.16
On the Road by Jack Kerouac 7.16 *
Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy 7.16
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 7.16
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio 6.16 – 7.16 *
Turning Confusion into Clarity: A Guide to the Foundation Practices of Tibetan Buddhism by Yongey Mingyur 5.16 – 6.16
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami 4.16 – 5.16
How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life by H.H. XIV Dalai Lama 3.16 – 4.16 *
Good Blonde & Others by Jack Kerouac 2.16 – 3.16 *
A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe 2.16
Justine by Marquis de Sade 1.16 – 2.16
The Dhammapada by Anonymous 1.16
Colorless Tsukur Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami 1.16
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath 12.15 – 1.16
Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion edited by Ryan Conrad 12.15
Tibetan Book of the Dead by Padmasambhava 11.15 – 12.15
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X 11.15
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess 10.15 – 11.15
Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out edited by Lorraine Hutchins 10.15
Haruko/Love Poems by June Jordan 9.15 – 10.15
Call It Wonder: An Odyssey of Love, Sex, Spirit, and Travel by Kate Evans 9.15
The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach 7.15 *
Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath 7.15
The Captain’s Verses by Pablo Neruda 6.15 – 7.15
She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya 6.15
Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner 6.15
The Scripture of the Golden Eternity by Jack Kerouac 6.15
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis 5.15 – 6.15
The Paradiso by Dante Alighieri 5.15 *
The Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri 4.15 – 5.15 *
The Inferno by Dante Alighieri 4.15 *
Residence on Earth by Pablo Neruda 4.15
Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men edited by Robyn Ochs 3.15 -4.15
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien 2.15 – 3.15
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov 2.15
Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac edited by Barry Gifford 2.15
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 12.14 – 2.15
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat 12.14
La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri 12.14
Poet in New York by Frederico Garcia Lorca 12.14
Full Woman, Fleshy Apple, Hot Moon: Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda 11.14 – 12.14
Mexico City Blues: 242 Choruses by Jack Kerouac 11.14
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda 11.14
Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg 10.14 – 11.14 *
The Chameleon Couch: Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa 10.14
Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 by Sharon Olds 10.14 *
Book of Blues by Jack Kerouac 9.14 – 10.14
Oil! by Upton Sinclair 8.14 – 9.14 *
Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh 8.14
East of Eden by John Steinbeck 7.14 – 8.14 *
Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov 6.14 – 7.14
The Blacker the Berry by Thurman Wallace 6.14
Cane by Jean Toomer 6.14
The Haunted Life and Other Writings by Jack Kerouac 6.14
Orlando Furioso: Part One by Ludivico Ariosto 5.14-6.14 *
Great Dialogues of Plato by Plato 5.14
The Town and the City by Jack Kerouac 4.14 – 5.14
Social and Political Philosophy: Readings from Plato to Gandhi edited by John Somerville 4.14
The Russian Revolution/Leninism or Marxism? by Rosa Luxemburg 4.14
Washington Square by Henry James 3.14 – 4.14
On the Road by Jack Kerouac 3.14 *
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin 3.14
A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin 2.14 – 3.14
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver 1.14 – 2.14
Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau 1.14 *
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 12.13 – 1.14
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 12.13
Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947 – 1954 by Jack Kerouac 12.13
The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings by Marquis de Sade 11.13 – 12.13
The Paradiso by Dante Alighieri 10.13 – 11.13 *
The Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri 10.13 *
The Inferno by Dante Alighieri 10.13 *
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft 9.13 – 10.13
The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar 8.13
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin 7.13 – 8.13
The Mist by Stephen King 6.13 – 7.13
The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems: 1937 – 1952 by Allen Ginsberg 6.13
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway 5.13 – 6.13
Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo 5.13
Satori in Paris by Jack Kerouac 5.13 *
Big Sur by Jack Kerouac 4.13 – 5.13 *
Book of Dreams by Jack Kerouac 4.13
The Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac 3.13 – 4.13 *
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac 3.13 *
Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac 3.13 *
Tristessa by Jack Kerouac 2.13 *
The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac 2.13 *
Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac 12.12 – 2.13 *
On the Road by Jack Kerouac 12.12 *
Vanity of Douloz by Jack Kerouac 11.12 – 12.12 *
Visions of Gerard by Jack Kerouac 11.12 *
Maggie Cassidy by Jack Kerouac 11.12 *
Dr. Sax by Jack Kerouac 11.12
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maughm 9.12 – 11.12
Above is the list of books I have been reading since I started keeping track of them in late 2012. Books marked with an asterisk * signify that I have re-read those books having first read them prior to keeping track of what books I have read. I make a point of trying to read On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri at least once a calendar year.
To begin, I am an avid reader. I studied literature in college and graduated with an English degree with high honors (it would’ve been summa cum laude but I transferred from community college to a four year university thus not eligible for that title). Since I read so much, one thing I’ve wanted to do on this website of mine is to list what books I’ve been reading and to have a personal commentary on those books. I’m nowhere near the level of a professional critic so this is merely for my own amusement and if any readers of these reviews like what I am stating about a book, then thanks are in order to you and I hope you trust my semi-professional criticism. So, unfortunaltely for me, the first book for this task is 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami because I like to make things easy in my life. That was sarcasm.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (IMHO)
I had read a lot about 1Q84 and the magnificent tome it is of Haruki Murakami. Actually, I read a lot about how wonderful a writer Murakami is. It was because of that hearsay that I was talking about him to a family friend who then gave me a copy of Murakami’s latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. To use the colorless cliché, I could not put that book down. Much like when I read War and Peace, I took every opportunity that was free to me to read Colorless Tsukuru and before I knew it, I had finished reading the book. I was instantly hooked on Murakami. You see, I’m a sucker for character studies that are the main plot device of a novel and not only did Murakami deliver on that for me but he also did something in Colorless Tsukuru that is pretty rare for me- I couldn’t figure out where the story was going. Usually, I can put a lot of details in a story together to figure out what will happen to most characters and, most of the times, the ending to a story. It happens not only with novels but with movies as well. So when I’m taken for a ride in a story and I have no idea what or where the final destination is, I am pretty impressed and usually fall in love with the story and the writer of that story. Murakami delivered on that for me with Colorless Tsukuru and, better yet, left me with an afterglow of amazement that felt like I had been put under a spell when I had finished the book. I could not stop thinking about all of the characters and their stories and it was because of this blissful feeling after finishing Colorless Tsukuru that I was determined to read 1Q84.
It didn’t take me very long to feel that Murakami wrote 1Q84 simply to write a long novel. There were certain elements of the novel I felt were added in and not really needed to the main characters, the plot, or the novel as a whole. The two biggest examples of this were when the character Ushikawa gets his own narrative in the third book and the mysterious NHK Collector who bangs on doors. There are other examples but I’m going to focus on these two.
As much as I found the character of Ushikawa interesting, I wasn’t much of a fan of him getting his own narrative or of it being introduced in the third, and last, book. Of course I understood that Ushikawa was central for moving the plot along, especially between Tengo and Aomame, but after going two thirds of the book of only having narratives of Tengo and Aomame, Ushikawa’s narrative, when introduced, felt jarring to me and unexpected. I believe that Murakami is an incredibly talented writer and possesses the talent to have continued Ushikawa’s role in the novel without having his own narrative or having Ushikawa’s narrative introduced much earlier in the novel. However, the ultimate fate of Ushikawa was heartbreaking and the visuals created by Murakami of Ushikawa’s end in the novel were striking and memorable to say the least.
The NHK Collecter was a mysterious character that none of the three characters who interacted with him (Tengo, Aomame, and Ushikawa) ever caught a glimpse of. It’s because of this that I felt the NHK Collector was an unneeded character who didn’t do anything to drive the plot along and was only there to add a bit of mystery and, if nothing else, to elongate the length of 1Q84. Furthermore, there was never any conclusion drawn about the NHK Collector, which I wouldn’t usually mind; however, I feel that a character can be left unresolved at the end of a story but that character needs to be important as a plot device. I guess it could go without saying that I felt the NHK Collector did not fulfill that role. I understand who Murakami hinted was the NHK Collector but even that was left unfulfilled as if he didn’t know what to do with the character.
The title of the novel, 1Q84, and the allusion to Anton Chekov, I found to be quite interesting. Of course the fact the novel takes place in a major city, Tokyo, and in the year 1984, and the title 1Q84 all lend themselves towards George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. As for Chekov’s role in 1Q84, Murakami brings in Chekov’s experience on Sakhalin Island and the idea that if a gun is introduced in a play it better be fired by the end of the play. But I found these obvious elements to actually be deterrents to the reader specifically used by Murakami to test the reader’s ability to look past what is obvious and what is not; or, what is real and what is not. What is real and what is not real is an important theme in 1Q84. I found nothing in common that was terribly important to the story when it comes to 1Q84 and Nineteen Eighty-Four, except for the fact both novels take place in the same year. What Murakami tells the reader of Chekov is also made obvious. Aomame buys an illegal handgun and threatens to use multiple times but she never fires it, thus breaking Chekov’s rule. The character Tamaru tells Aomame the story of the Gilyak people, now known as Nivkh people, and Chekov’s observation of how they would always walk across fields and never use the roads that the Russian settlers had built. This read to me as an obvious metaphor for Aomame being in the alternate year of 1Q84 and not in the actual year of 1984 and that she must do things differently than what appears to be right or easy or even real.
What struck me about those major elements was they they were deterrents to more subtle allusions. I know Murakami personally has an adoration and appreciation for Russian literature (who doesn’t really?), hence the numerous references to Chekov, but 1Q84 felt more like Franz Kafka or Gabriel Garcia Marquez to me than Chekov or Orwell. There is magical realism in 1Q84 and it is a major player in the novel and Murakami does the genre justice with his approach and use of it. There are only subtle changes between the years of 1984 and 1Q84, so much so that both Aomame and Tengo notice these subtle differences and actually question their own sanity because the differences are so minute. Yes, there are two moons in the sky in the year 1Q84 but aside from Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa, we don’t know if anyone else in Tokyo or Japan or the entire world for that matter even see the two moons or, if they do, if it is normal to them. This reminded me so much of when, in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s family never acknowledge he had turned into a giant insect-like creature or that anything had changed at all. And just as much as Gregor Samsa had to adjust to life in his new body, Aomame and Tengo had to do the same by having been transported to the alternate reality of the year 1Q84 and like Kafka, Murakami never gives the reader an explanation nor does he even hint at one.
However, not having everything explained can be problematic for many readers of 1Q84. I remember when the television show Lost ended its run and a vast majority of its loyal viewers cried foul because so many questions came up in the show’s six seasons but only a few were answered by the series finale. I believe that magical realism can and does have the same effect of a fair amount of readers who are not familiar with or fans of that literary style. There is no explanation given by Murakami about the Little People, the thunderstorm, how Aomame physically got pregnant, and, again, how Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa ended up in the year 1Q84. Personally, this doesn’t bother me. In fact, I feel not having an explanation of everything that happens to characters in a story of any kind is actually more realistic. There are so many questions in our everyday lives that have not nor will ever be explained in our lifetimes so why should any story be any different? And that was what I loved most about 1Q84 and it was that which gave me the Murakami afterglow when I had finished reading the novel.
With 1Q84 being only the second Haruki Murakami book I have ever read, I do believe I am hooked on him. I already know he has written better stories than 1Q84 and not because professional critics have said so but because I’ve read one in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, but this only makes me want to read more of his works and to do so with enthusiasm.
But take this all as you like, because it is all In My Humble Opinion.
-Matthew A. Sandusky