Century of Books

My project to read the top 100 English-language books of the twentieth century.

Location: San Francisco, United States

I am an Australian writer and blogger living in San Francisco. Visit my professional site at caitlinfitzsimmons.com, or my travel and food blog at Roaming Tales or my personal blog at The Niltiac Files. I am also on Twitter as @niltiac. See the full list of books or visit me on BookCrossing.

21 June 2006

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

What a fabulous book! I can see why this is considered one of the great books of the twentieth century. I wonder if it's on all the lists - it certainly should be.

When writing instructors tell their students to "show, not tell", they should simply point them in the direction of The Color Purple by Alice Walker. It's incredibly evocative of character, setting and emotion yet it is not heavy-handed. Books about injustice often fall into the trap of telling you what to think and feel but Walker never falls into that trap.

It was heartbreaking to read about life as a poor black woman in the early twentieth century and devastating to read about the annihilation of the Olinka - African tribal people displaced by roadbuilding and rubber plantations. Walker doesn't flinch from the truth yet she also shows us great love, compassion, loyalty and happiness.

I found this book very easy to read. I really enjoyed both Celie and Nettie's voice. Often I find that when authors try to write in dialect or show an uneducated grammar and vocabulary it doesn't work very well and distracts me from the story. Even something like Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting worked much better for me as a film than a book and that's probably an example of where it's done better than the norm. But Walker does this effortlessly so that you barely notice but it helps to evoke character.

I love at the end that Walker thanks the characters in her novel "for coming".

32 down, 68 to go...

PS I am most of the way through A Suitable Boy!

04 June 2006

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

When it comes to dystopian visions of the future, George Orwell's 1984 gets all the attention but I think Brave New World is the superior book. It's thematically very cogent with a strong central argument and it's also scarily prophetic with many of Huxley's darker imaginings coming true.

I read this book virtually in one sitting on a plane journey on my way to a two-week holiday in Italy. The book was quite powerful and although the ideas it expressed and the problems it explored were not new to me, it still had me pondering them more deeply. It showed quite clearly and dramatically the deep flaw at the heart of the seemingly benign utilitarian principle of 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. But does it mean that happiness is not the point? This is Huxley's contention as he seems to be arguing for the existence of God and a striving for the divine and self betterment as being more important than mere happiness. I'm more or less an atheist so I don't have such easy answers yet the world of the novel is clearly abhorrent to me. Perhaps I can believe in a higher good than happiness without God or religion? Or perhaps it's a question of defining happiness and whether I think true happiness is possible without freedom and self determination?

The book was intended as a comment on both the Soviet Union (note the names like Marx and Lenina and Trotsky) and also, as the forward points out, the consumerism of the United States. And indeed the book has its strongest resonance not as a critique of communims but as a warning against the danger of corporate tyranny. It looks increasingly like the corporation, rather than the nation, will be the defining force of the 21st century and we need to think very seriously about how to retain autonomy and freedom as individuals and a society.

So much of the book is already coming true and not just the obvious stuff like the advances in genetic engineering. To name a few, there's the indoctrination from birth in rampant consumerism (it's axiomatic in Huxley's dystopia that 'ending is better than mending' and in our own society many toddlers can pick out the McDonald's logo before they recognise numbers or letters), the increased sexual freedom (which frankly is not all bad), the shallowness of mass entertainment (reality TV anyone?), the preoccupation with celebrity (note how they gush over the savage but shun his mother for being fat and old), and the crazy tabloid antics of the news media.

Brave New World is the template and inspiration for many, many similar works of the twentieth century. Reading it was quite a revelation.

31 down, 69 to go...

PS I am one-third (a bit over 500 pages) of the way through A Suitable Boy.