This column appears in The Bitter Southerner, a neat website devoted to educating Northerners (a.k.a. Yankees) on the wonder of the South. Like this site but do disagreement slightly on the comment regarding “states rights” in the About section.
The cold months are for the hard books, the ones that reward — sometimes even magically — a reader’s persistence.
By Chuck Reece
The winter reading season summons both guilt and opportunity for the dedicated fan of the book. Guilt, because that curl-up-under-a-quilt reading time, which winter offers, calls upon us to attack at long last the most challenging volumes. Opportunity, because if you attack a challenging one, it can — given a little patience and persistence on your part — open its wonders to you.
Take Old Bill’s greatest masterpiece, for instance. The first time I attempted Faulkner’s daunting “Absalom, Absalom!” my reaction was something along the lines of “My god, what have I done?” The first sentence was hard enough.
“From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself borne inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”
That’s 123 words, filled with long, comma-less strings of adjectives. And that sentence is only about a 10th the length of the longest in the book.
I persisted only because I was on a Southern Lit-class forced march. Unread, ungraded. Couldn’t have that. Then, about 150 pages in, something happened. It finally dawned on me that what I was reading was like the voices in my head — chattering endlessly, always modifying and questioning. I realized Old Bill had somehow managed to translate internal conversation not only into language, but also into an epic tale of three families — and the greatest meditation ever written on why we love and hate our region simultaneously. Now, I find new rewards in “Absalom” with every repeated reading.
Certain books still taunt me; their codes seem uncrackable to me. James Joyce still eludes me, and I wonder how many times I’ll have to pick up “Infinite Jest” before I finally finish it. If ever.
So today, let’s talk about The Bitter Southerner Family’s winter reading habits. Do you use the winter to take on the difficult books? Which ones have finally revealed themselves to you? Which ones do you just have to put down, winter after winter? Tell us of your successes and failures, preferably with your own photographs of the dog-eared copies of the books in question.