Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Friday, September 04, 2009

Serious fare for serious readers

The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.

--Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People”

Summer reading is a euphemistic phrase meaning trash.
The New Statesman, a British weekly magazine, sought to combat this problem recently by offering a list of 50 books that would enlighten readers instead of lulling them.
Among them: Ibsen’s 1882 classic of the man who declares that “the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over.” He knows “the minority is always right.”
Also: “The Second Sex” (1949) by Simone de Beauvoir, an educational feminist work before the word was in widespread usage.
Others: “The Communist Manifesto” (1848) by Marx and Engels depicting the economic injustice suffered by 95 percent of the people of the world at the expense of 5 percent of the owners of wealth;
“The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) by Frantz Fanon, a savage indictment of colonialism; “Germinal” (1885) by Zola, a compassionate view of French coal miners suffering the exploitation of capitalism;
“The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) by Steinbeck portraying the injustices suffered by migrant workers; “The Other America” (1962), Michael Harrington’s depiction of poverty in America;
“Catch-22” (1961) by Joseph Heller, wonderful satire of the stupidity and butchery of war; and a 1949 essay by Einstein, “Why Socialism?” He urged us not to be so enamoured of science that we forget human problems.

Adelle Davis, nutritionist, organic foodist and food fadist, popularized the saying “You are what you eat.” I disagree. You are what you read, as Deidre Pike, dear teaching friend once noted in a column.

Here are more literary thoughts:

Hamlet is the greatest play ever written. It’s so cerebral with more great lines than any other play.

Next greatest is Lear. It is more powerful, more emotional than Hamlet. It contains one of the gloomiest lines in all literature: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Sensitive souls are moved to tears by the absolute integrity of Cordelia. Her foolish father divides his kingdom among his three daughters on the basis of their professions of love for him.

Cordelia’s sisters, Goneril and Regan, lather the king with insincerities. When Lear asks Cordelia how much she loves him, she replies: “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.”

Lear recoils, declaring, “So young and so untender.” Cordelia counters: “So young, my lord, and true.”

I took “The Golden Bowl” by Henry James on a three-week vacation to England. It was a terrible mistake as I had learned long ago but had forgotten.

James, considered by some critics the greatest American novelist, is unreadable. His novels are discursive, overwritten, wordy, repetitive and dense.

My opinion was corroborated by Alec Guinness in his book, “A Positively Final Appearance.” A few pages of “The Wings of the Dove” left him “dizzy and breathless with the length of his sentences.”

Elsewhere Guinness remarks that noise distresses him more and more. D’accord! In this Noise Age you can’t escape noise pollution in even the better bars and restaurants playing the caterwauling of rap, reggae and rock.

And how about the guy in the SUV idling next to you at a red light with the raucous notes from his boombox pounding in your ear? It makes you close the window even on the hottest summer days.

Even after decades of admiration for Oscar Wilde, I am still surprised to discover new facets of his genius. Namely, his little known “The Happy Prince and Other Stories.”

These fanciful tales are about love, wisdom and worldwide justice. It requires a stone heart to avoid shedding tears at the end of “The Happy Prince.”

Otherwise, the Wilde story is well known. He reached the heights with his play, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He plunged to the depths in Reading jail. But that horrible experience produced two masterpieces, the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and his prison letters, “De Profundis.”

Another work that declares Wilde’s genius is “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” In it he writes:

“The true perfection of man lies, not in what he has, but in what man is”…
“democracy means bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people”…
“One is sickened, not by the crimes the wicked have commited, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted”…
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at…
“that monstrous and ignorant thing called public opinion”…
“the public has an insatiable curiosity to know everything except what is worth knowing.”


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