Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wilkie Collins, or How An Obsession Starts

How do you choose what you're going to read next? Is it something you're in the mood for? Is it something you've already read? Do you pick something you never thought you'd read? For me, it's like following a thread.

T.S. Eliot wrote a very profound and influential essay called "Tradition and the Individual Talent" in 1919. I first read it in undergraduate studies, and studied it again in-depth during grad school. I wrote several papers on the points put forward in the essay and I also thought about its effects on my own reading life. One idea put forward is that every new work of art draws on what came before, in the same vein of the saying "There is nothing new under the sun." After deep study of this essay, I realized I had been doing my whole life what he described as the normal progression of art: choosing based on what came before.

I have recently begun reading Wilkie Collins with fervor. His writing is amusing, interesting and engaging. I love his style and his story lines are almost impossible to figure out before the end (with the exception of the short book "My Lady's Money," which I figured out by the end of the first couple of chapters). And it seems like it would be normal, given my interest in 19th century British literature and his contemporaries, that I would gravitate towards his books, but the strange thing is that I had never even heard of him until a couple of years ago despite his fame.

In examining how I choose books to read, I like to go back to the previous books I've read and try to figure out how I got to the point at which I am currently. The book that led me to read Collins was Dan Simmons' novel "Drood," which was fantastically dark and gave me a horrible impression of a writer struggling with an opium addiction and his own narcissism. Simmons painted him as a self-centered and devious human being. Why would that make me want to read his books? Because the constant mentions to "The Moonstone," one of Collins' most famous works, intrigued me. I wanted to know what this book was and why it was so important to the story Simmons was writing, and from there I realized that, whatever Collins may have been personally, he was a damn fine writer.

Now, when it comes to Dan Simmons and how I came to read his books, that was pure chance. I found his book "Endymion" on a library shelf while looking for vacation reading, and didn't realize that it was the third book in a four-part series. But from Simmons so much reading has sprung. I read "The Canterbury Tales" (albeit for class but I would have made it there on my own eventually), and from there I bought, with every intention to read, "The Decameron" (it's on my list!). His "Hyperion Cantos" series also exposed me for the first time to John Keats, who has since become my favorite poet, and who also practices the tradition spoken of in Eliot's essay. When you come to the understanding that artists are influenced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by what came before, your reading possibilities are endless. If you want to know where their style and stories came from, check out their predecessors and influences, and even their contemporaries. You may be surprised at what you end up reading.

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