Sunday, July 03, 2011

vacation reading ii

What is this 300-gram lump of plastic good for? Certainly not serious reading, during which I find myself reaching repeatedly for the pen or pencil to underline, marginalize. It's good for free downloads of public-domain novels. Five read in the last week, all in a rush, basking in the sun or rattling on the subway – Jules Verne's Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues, The Mysterious Island, Wells's War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Books I'm not sure I've ever read before (Wells, probably, Verne, perhaps) but know every detail of, thanks to Classics Illustrated.

They say Verne was badly translated in the 19th century, which I can believe – I know franglais when I read it, & recognize a hasty, sloppy translation. But then again, porcine ears rarely produce haute couture handbags: how do you gracefully translate the vast, exhausting data-dumps of zoological, geological, botanical, chemical material he foists upon you? Centre of the Earth is Ruskin's geology without the lyricism; Twenty Thousand Leagues is Moby-Dick's ichthyology without the humor. At a pinch, if you were on a desert island The Mysterious Island could teach you how to puddle iron, mill flour, distill sulfuric acid, manufacture nitrogylcerin, and dress a bullet wound thru the chest.

Always one feels the pressure of sheer knowledge that Verne wants to convey: admittedly, to a young audience, teenaged readers who honestly hunger for basic facts – and who I suppose don't blink at the fact that his is a world entirely without women. The five castaways on the Mysterious Island, by the time the volcano blows their high-tech Swiss-Family-Robinson-civilization to bits, have all of their needs met in overplus by the end of their first or second year there; their robust homosociality seems entirely to obviate any needs of the "flesh" (tho the relationship of the sailor Pencroft to his ward Herbert seems quite "spoony" to a 21st century reader). In contrast, Wells's waif Weena (Time Machine) and the unseen but yearned-for "wife" of War seem to present a positively rounded, "progressive" picture of the human race.


Archambeau said...

I hear you about information overload.

It was a big thing in the mid to late 19th c. to convey information in literature. Tennyson always worried that he'd have to revise some of his poems to keep them in line with what science had to say about things. I suppose it has something to do with the whole aesthetic/useful divide not being as strong as it is today.


man and van London said...
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