I’ve been retired for almost a year now, and when I bump into people I haven’t seen in a while, they usually ask me two questions:
What are you doing?
The first question is easy, and I quickly answer with a one-word response: “Great.” I am thoroughly enjoying the freedom I now have to do whatever I want each day. During my 40-plus years as a teacher, I used to get up early each morning to read a bit and try to write a bit as well before I tackled my daily responsibilities as a breadwinner. Inevitably, I’d find myself in the middle of reading a chapter or writing an essay or a short story when the time came to shower, dress, eat breakfast, and head out the door. Today, I no longer face that daily task, and I am free to read and write for as long as I’d like, which is, essentially, the answer to the second question.
When I tell people that’s what I’m doing with the majority of my time, however, they look at me with disbelief, as if to say, “Really? That’s all you’re doing? Reading and writing?”
“Yes, it’s wonderful,” I reply to those who actually verbalize their astonishment.
For some reason, many of these people expect more. They expect me to golf or travel or exercise or volunteer in the community, and I’ve done a bit of all of those activities, but reading is still at the top of my list each day — followed closely by writing, of course. So, since I now have the time to read the monsters that I would avoid previously, I thought I would mention some of those monsters that I am now reading plus a few that I enjoyed from the past.
For me, a “monster” is any book over 500 pages. Yes, I love to read, but I’m not the fastest reader, so I often avoided these heavy books during my career because I felt it would take me years to get through them. Fortunately, now that I have more time, I am ready, willing, and able to tackle these previously intimidating volumes.
Ulysses by James Joyce. Near the end of the 20th century, the Modern Library, an American book publisher, polled its readers regarding the best novels of the 1900s, and Ulysses was rated number one (https://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/). Similarly, this book was at or near the top of other comparable lists. I first heard about this book (published in 1922), as an English major in college over 50 years ago, but until now, I never got past the first few chapters. Yesterday, I completed page 284, so I am almost halfway through its 644 pages, and I am struggling. Based somewhat on Homer’s The Odyssey, Joyce’s novel covers one day (June 6, 1904) in the life of Leopold Bloom in Dublin, Ireland. I hate to rate this book so early in the process, and I am determined to finish, but I don’t see how this rambling, stream-of-consciousness epic will make my list of favorites. I’ll keep you posted if that early evaluation changes.
11/22/63 — A Novel by Stephen King. When I retired in early June of last year, my generous co-workers gave me a substantial gift certificate to a local, independent bookstore, and I bought this book immediately. I wanted to read it back in 2012 when it was published, but its 842 pages scared me, and I resolved to “save that one for retirement.” King, of course, has written many “monsters,” most of which I have avoided because they are literally too scary for me. In addition, I don’t normally read time-travel books, but since I vividly recall the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I was eager to give this reimagining of that fateful day a try, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Unlike Ulysses, which I have to force myself to read regularly, I eagerly and quickly devoured this particular monster.
Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. When our daughters were young, Barbara and I read the first of this seven-volume, approximately 1,400-page series to the girls, but we never finished volume two, and I’m not sure why. These Christian allegories written in the early 1950s are still popular today, and according to Wikipedia, they have been “adapted for radio, television, the stage, film and computer games.” At various times, however, they have also been criticized “as not politically correct for school reading” and even banned for “graphic violence, mysticism, and gore” (https://thehopefulheroine.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/banned-book-review-the-lion-the-witch-and-the-wardrobe/). As a result, I want to finally read The Chronicles to judge their merit for myself, and, thus far, I have enjoyed the first two books of this easy-to-read collection.
Grant by Ron Chernow. Prior to retiring, I watched the Ken Burns documentary on The Civil War, and I read Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly. Those two works convinced me that I wanted to know more about Ulysses S. Grant. Consequently, I read simultaneously The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and Chernow’s biography of the Commanding General of the Union Army and the 18th president (1869–1877) of the United States. Since Grant’s autobiography only describes his life up to the end of the Civil War, it does not qualify as a monster, but Chernow’s biography of Grant — like his biography of Alexander Hamilton — is definitely a monster and definitely worth reading. My high-school and college history instructors would be so proud to know that I am finally learning so much about our nation’s past.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. When our younger daughter was in high school, the drama club produced this dramatic classic, and that spring performance inspired me to read the book that summer. Quite honestly, I hadn’t initially understood the whole story, and I got lost in the Battle of Waterloo. Still, the unbelievable resurrection story of the criminal Jean Valjean, the pursuit of Valjean by detective Javert, and the relationship between Fantine and Cosette are extremely compelling. Once you start reading, you won’t even notice that this book is well over a thousand pages.
Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. In a similar fashion, I was first introduced to this book by the 1977 TV miniseries broadcast by ABC. The network aired the eight episodes on consecutive nights in an era before the invention of the VCR, video cassettes, or video streaming. In other words, if you missed an episode, you were out of luck until the network aired the series again. I was so captivated by the TV story of Kunta Kinte, a slave who was brought to America from Gambia, that when I missed one or two episodes, I needed to read the book immediately. Haley initially claimed that the story was a true retelling of his family’s history, but since its original publication, many historians and scholars have concluded that at least some parts are pure fiction. Nevertheless, whether fact of fiction, this classic may be, after The Bible, my favorite book of all time — definitely worth a read.
So what about you? Have you read any good monsters lately? If so, please feel free to recommend your favorite and to mention your least favorite, recent or otherwise, in the comments section below.