The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, Preface by Jane Smiley, Introduction by Robert Kellogg, 5/5
I’m not usually one to complain about scholarly features such as an extensive introduction, maps, diagrams, summaries, analysis, etc., but by page 73, I was ready to just get to the fun stories already! By any standard definition of “fun,” I would have quite a while longer to wait; the first saga’s opening paragraphs read about as smoothly as a cross between the Old Testament and War and Peace. Once I gave up trying to remember who was who’s father’s best friend’s son and where they came from and where they were going, I was able to enjoy the dramatic events for their human interest without getting too bogged down by genealogical, geographical and historical details.
That is not to say that I learned nothing about Norse culture along the way. The stories in this book corrected many misconceptions I had about Viking life; yes, they glorified masculinity to a level that many today would find intolerable, but they were far from being merely uncivilized, lawless barbarians. In fact, they had well-defined legislative and judicial infrastructure (though the enforcement of laws and rulings sometimes required one to show up with a large group of armed friends) and more respect for women’s rights than might be expected. While there are fantastical elements to some of the stories (especially the shorter tales at the end of the book), the overall tone was much more prosaic and historical than I expected.
Why I read it: I have read traditional stories from many cultures and this thrift store find piqued my curiosity. I started it while in the ER the weekend my son was born, then re-started it once I caught my breath over a year later!
Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder, translated by Paulette Møller, 2/5
The most thought-provoking aspect of this reading experience was simply trying to understand how a book featuring such peculiarly bad writing could be published at all, much less become an “international bestseller.” Half of it consists of dialogue between two-dimensional characters, so stilted and unnatural it has to be read to be believed. The other half reads like increasingly vague course descriptions for philosophy classes taught by someone who considers Wikipedia articles to be the pinnacle of literary accomplishment through the ages. In my experience, fiction writing this bad generally relies on themes like sex, mystery or fantasy to attract readers, so I guess in a twisted way this book’s very existence is a testament to the powerful appeal of philosophical ideas and the ubiquity of existential angst.
Why I read it: recommended to me by a gym friend.