As booksellers, we often overhear customers lamenting that they've always meant to read “that other Jane Austen novel,” or Graham Greene, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but just never found the time. We've tried to remedy that with our Classics I Forgot to Read Book Club by providing motivation and a welcoming space to share your thoughts.

In choosing our ‘classics’ over the past few years, we've tried to select titles that had some visibility among readers, but were not necessarily included in the standard high school English class. We've also sampled a range of genres, from mystery (The Long Goodbye) to comedy (Cold Comfort Farm) to stream-of-consciousness (To the Lighthouse). So, whether our picks are already gathering dust on your bookshelves or this is your first encounter with the literary canon, we encourage you to join us on the last Wednesday evening of every month for conversation about the classics.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

January 2010--The Wings of the Dove

by Henry James

At many of our book club meetings, there comes a moment when someone who has been rather quiet blurts out "Why is this book a classic?" The easy answer is "because Penguin (or Oxford, or the Modern Library) says it is," but of course that's not really sufficient, particularly if the book is an unusually difficult or dated one.

The Wings of the Dove is inarguably difficult, with its often murky diction, its sprawling sentences, and its microscopic attention to the nuances of thought and feeling. While the basic story and characters are interesting enough--a ruthless woman induces her impecunious fiance to woo a dying heiress--it feels as though the essential drama is smothered by an avalanche of psychological analysis. It's clear that James can write sharp dialogue and crisp, evocative description, because he does it in places... just not in very many places.

What's hard to appreciate for the modern reader, accustomed to a more streamlined narrative and a more economical survey of character interiors, is that in James's time few writers were inclined to explore the complexities of thought and emotion in any rigorous way. While his exhaustive analysis can be merely exhausting for some of us, his relentlessly honest and inquisitive probing was a new dimension in literature. In some ways it prefigured the more artful stream-of-consciousness narratives of writers like Joyce and Woolf, and in its own way was a brilliant unveiling of the complexities of the mind.

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