We want to read all the greats in literature but don’t have time. We want to think critically and really interpret the work, but understanding the writing of Kafka, T.S. Eliot, and Chekov is far removed from the “reading for pleasure” impulse when we do have time to enjoy a book.
Here in The Story About the Story, from Tin House Books, editor J.C. Hallman does the work for us. He presents us with over 400 pages of great writers who are reading and thinking about great writers. Some of the resultant essays are interpretive, some are analytical, some are envious. Above all, they hold all writers to the highest standards and honor the sheer power of writing to reach people: heart, mind and soul.
Hallman calls this collection not criticism or debate but a “personal literary analysis – criticism that contemplates rather than argues.” I’ve often disliked the core element of some literary criticism for presuming it is within our right to interpret what an author meant, wrote, or should have written. Hallman agrees “Criticism should limit its concerns to what a writer has attempted to express and how he has attempted to express it.”
There are more than 30 essays in The Story About the Story, combining a shared love of words, reading, and writing. They come to us from people who fully understand the labor and struggles involved in writing a book, and they allow us to “celebrate the work, rather than exhaust it.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s interpretation of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka includes an actual Nabakov sketch of Samsa’s apartment. The critique of this story draws us into Nabokov’s discussion of fantasy and reality, as he carefully analyzes the story’s structure and themes, scene by scene. Nabokov's thoughtful critique of The Metamorphosis actually improves our enjoyment of the original story, through Nabokov’s curious insights into the story’s symbols.
Michael Chabon evaluates what Montague Rhodes James, a highly anthologized English author, is doing in his writing of Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad. Chabon asks us to slow down and consider what this ghost story really is. He analyzes this work by M.R. James, reflecting on the genre, its psychology, and our capacity for terror and emotion, along with the “hyperacute sense of the past” shared by most great ghost story authors.
Ultimately all stories – ghost stores, mysteries, stories of terror or adventure or modern urban life – descend from the fireside tale, told with wolves in the woods all around, with winter howling at the window. After centuries of refinement, Chabon reveals “the short story retains its fundamental power to frighten us with its recognition of the abyss at our backs and to warm us with its flickering light. "
Milan Kundera’s essay “Something Behind” is a piece I will read and reread about finding and seeing the truth in our writing and in reading. He speaks at length of the “radical autonomy” of the novel, (of the poetry that is the novel), that allows us, as it did Kafka, to “say things about our human condition… that no social or political thought could ever tell us.”
Sven Birkerts, author of Reading Life: Books for the Ages, analyzes a stanza of Keats' poem “To Autumn.” In the depth of ten pages, Birkerts tells us why it is a beautiful poem. The essay offers us an extraordinary insight into the mind of Birkerts, as well as a lesson in the interpretation of poetry. Birkerts understands our difficulty in judging the work of poets and knows why the encounter with words on the page is so thrilling. “Let’s not forget that we read poetry in the odd hour, as amateurs, while Keats pressed his lines into place with the full intensity of his being.”
Throughout The Story About the Story, our perception of beauty, if you will, derives largely from a complex series of sound and sense interactions, many of which are apt to elude us in rushed reading.
If you love literature, don’t borrow The Story About the Story, because you’ll never give it back. Buy it.