notes from
the MUCK . . .

How does your garden grow? With muck, muck and more muck! I spent much of today finishing the final muck box and then shifting muck from one box to the next. The first box, which the Big Lad is enthusiastically pointing out, has been rotting down for two years now and once we’d removed the top quarter of unrotted material, we found we’d hit the pay dirt.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


"And yet, a peculiar, twisted sense of duty forced him to remain awake and continue the lost battle to the end-even though it were only a battle with windmills."
Darkness at Noon

Sometimes people ask me how my reading project is coming along, so I thought I'd post a brief update, along with some thoughts on the books I've read so far. Actually, I've only finished two out of the fifty, but I never said this was a race. Besides, one of the two was, like, real long and stuff.

Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes
translated by Edith Grossman

Often cited as one of, if not THE greatest novel of all time, Don Quixote provided me with a much different reading experience than I expected from a book written in 1605. I thought it would be a tedious and frequently boring, if ultimately rewarding, journey. Fortunately, Don Quixote is nothing short of an endless delight. William Faulkner supposedly read it at least once a year, and he was able to do that because the novel is so rich in offerings that returning to it again and again is bound to reward the reader with new discoveries each time. In addition to the familiar story of a mad farmer who imagines himself to be a gallant knight, Cervantes spices up the tale with countless little Shakespearean-like vignettes and characters that are themselves little nuggets of genius. And, of course, there's the greatest character of them all, the "amusing" squire, Sancho Panza.

There's a great deal to say about this book, but this isn't the time or place. Please read it so I can have someone to discuss it with. Some details that might surprise you:

1) Don Quixote is not an idiot - he's simply insane. When it comes to anything outside of his knight errantry delusions, he's actually quite brilliant. The speeches he delivers throughout the novel are full of quotable bits of wisdom on par with Shakespeare's monologues. Sancho, on the other hand...

2) The windmill thing only takes up, like, 3 pages. It's far from the funniest example of his lunacy.

3) Don Quixote is considered the first "modern novel." While I'm not entirely sure what that means, or why it matters, I was definitely impressed with how self-aware and ironic the text is. For example, the novel is actually two books, the second part having been written ten years after the first. In it, all the characters have read, and make frequent reference to the first part. Cervantes was very keen on playing with notions of fantasy and reality, and the motif extends well beyond the realm of his central character.

So yeah, it's a great book. If you decide to read it, I highly recommend the Grossman translation. She took a simpler approach to the language than most, arguing (I think correctly) that Cervantes never intended to alienate his reader with lofty verbiage, so why should English readers not have the same sense of immediacy when they read the work today? Besides, Castilian Spanish has changed so little in the past four hundred years compared with English, sp that even a modern Spanish speaking reader isn't going to have to struggle with archaic expressions and syntax. Grossman writes with economy and style, allowing the wit of Cervantes to shine through brilliantly.

Darkness at Noon
Arthur Koestler

Matthew suggested that I add this book to my list, and I thank him for that. Again, the experience I had with it was very different than what I expected. Given the subject matter, I thought I was in for an endless cerebral discourse on politics and totalitarianism, with the characters serving as little more than stand-ins for various ideologies. While all of that was true on some level, the book has much more of a heart than I anticipated. It's peopled with very real figures, and it is ultimately, in fact, quite a page turner.

In this 20th century tale of a lone man struggling with morals in an immoral political environment, I was also surprised to find not only references but similarities to Don Quixote. Rubashov's impossible fight against the establishment he helped to define is a grand example of a modern quixotic battle. Like Don Quixote, Rubashov's tragic flaw is his inability to live in a world he cannot accept. They are anachronisms, operating as if their codes and philosophies were still worth a damn in the realities they inhabit. Though they waiver, neither of these characters can allow themselves to totally abandon the guiding principles they have embraced so tightly, for that would mean total self-destruction. Ironically, the tighter they grip their respective world views, the more they shape their surroundings into places where they need their beliefs the most. In this way, they grow more crippled and incapatable, their antiquated ideals serving as their only crutch.

Another surprising thing about Darkness at Noon is how much it resonates in contemporary America. I found myself pausing after many of the passages to think about the current administration, and about the changes to our political milieu since September 11, 2001. There are plenty of useful insights in this little book, and I came away with the unsettling feeling that maybe this isn't such a unique period in history after all.

So far, then, I'm off to a great start. I hope most of the books on my list are as enjoyable, profound, and readable as these two.

Next up: Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.