Real Swift

Thanks to all the folks who checked out my words about the spouse. Next time: nude pictures!

Over the years I’ve been part of an online book club. I’m fortunate in that I can leave the bulk of current events to DP; I don’t know if one house could sustain two people going full-tilt at the daily mail, and certainly not two with histories of depression (mine the classic inertia, his more grounded in anxiety; we try to time our afflictions, not always successfully). Though he’s a great source when I need books on 20th century political history or any U.S. history, he obviously doesn’t have as much time for contemporary fiction, and non-U.S. history pre-20th century. (I am a history nut as well; there’s a non-fiction reading group for that, as well as the amazing Ann Arbor library.)

Anyway, in a publishing world where there’s a ton of crappy fiction released constantly, the group has helped me find some gems. Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way, Atonement, Never Let Me Go – OK, the last two weren’t exactly secrets, but I doubt I would have gotten to them if not scheduled on the list. There are also some real clunkers, including a ghastly book called The Dive from Claussen’s Pier, but every 3 or 4 months a classic gets thrown into the mix, good for a non-English major like myself (I was theater, I read all the plays, which isn’t that impressive since there aren’t that many). I made it through the first 50 or 60 pages of Gargantua and Pantagruel last year before the poop jokes and giant body parts did me in. I mean, I’m glad I read what I did, but there’s only so much time in the day. Unlike some list members, I don’t hang on to the bitter end no matter what. If I’m not feeling a book, I bail.

What I am feeling right now is a reread of Gulliver’s Travels. I love Swift. When I teach argument, I always have the kids read Modest Proposal, and I delight in its ability to freak people out 300 years after it was written. What I like about it even more is that it’s not overly challenging to read, and it’s easy to show that great writers communicate simply and precisely – good for students who think the Harry Potter and Twilight series are the height of fine literature.

I’ve never read the complete Gulliver, just the 2 famous ones, with the Liliputians and the Brobdingnagians. I’m reading a version annotated by Isaac Asimov, who I think must have been a bit of a nutter. Every single measurement is lovingly explained in a paragraph-long footnote in which he either marvels or gasps at Swift’s accuracy or arithmetic lapse, respectively. That said, the historical footnotes are pretty swell, and I’m finally getting my Tories and Whigs straight. Yeah, I know, I could have looked this up on widipedia, but one has to make choices in life.

I’m finding the book to be tough to put down, a pleasant surprise, mainly because I’m always pleasantly surprised when a book is like that. I gather that section 3, which looks to be a big mishmosh of stuff, is weaker than the other 3, but I shall gut it out if need be to get to section 4, which has the horse characters with the name I’m not even going to attempt to spell from memory, but which is supposed to be particularly brutal. I have no idea who the targets are, but I do like a good ass-whuppin’ as much as the next pacifist.

So if you’ve never read Gulliver’s Travels because you remember a couple of weird cartoons from when you were younger and you think it’s going to be sort of dumb, I encourage you to prove yourself wrong. There is so little decent satire available right now; most people aren’t even quite sure what it is. Read another pissed-off Irishman’s (did you know the spouse if half-Irish? The other half is French. You can imagine the appetites….) reactions to his savage times from a few centuries back.

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