Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton-Reading as Deliberate High Culture Sunday Salon

My first reaction to a book as wonderfully written as The Age of Innocence is simply to let the words flow over me, to bask in the beauty of the language and to allow my sensibility to be controlled by beauty of the work. Some of the sentences in the book are so well crafted I reread them several times just for the sheer pleasure of doing so.

I think here the form of these sentences is part of the meaning. Age of Innocence tells us a lot about how one can live within the beauty of the written word, with no concern for its meaning. The lead male persona in the book,
Newland Archer, has a deep relationship with the books he reads and does retreat into them.

There are several themes one can mine in this book (and mind). It tells us a lot about the relationship of men and women, America to Europe, old culture to new, parents to children, passion to practicality. In accord with the theme of my blog, I will post a bit about what it tells us about the reading life of the characters of the book, how they use books to create culture, to see refuge, to create bonds and exclude others.

In the High Society of New York State late 19th century it was important to read the right books

"In an unclouded harmony of tastes and interests they cultivated ferns in Wardian cases, made macarame lace and wool embroidery on linen, collected American revolutionary glazed ware...they liked novels about people in society, whose motives and habits were more comprehensible, spoke severely of Dickens, who had never drawn a gentleman"

This displays the use of reading to reaffirm our beliefs, to read the books proper to our station in life.

Books can also be used as part of a mentoring relationship.

"the shy interest in books she was beginning to develop under his guidance".

Books are also physical property. One of the great pleasures of the Reading Centered Life for many of us is to get new books. Every week there are dozens or more blog posts about new books one has gotten in the mail.
Imagine how this feeling was magnified when the books had to cross the ocean on long voyages.

"That evening he unpacked his books from London. The box was full of things he had been waiting for impatiently.
a new volume of Herbert Spencer, another collection of Guy de Mauspassant's incomparable tales, and a novel called
Middlemarch ...he had declined three dinner invitations in favor of this feast: he turned the pages with the
sensuous joy of the book lover".

Every one seriously into The Reading Life can relate to how social obligations become a burden that gets in the way of our real life, our reading time.

"he built up within himself a kind of sancturary...little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities, thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him...Outside of it he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency".

Newland Archer's books becomes more real to him them than what the world thinks is his life. Who among us that has done time in the corporate world or academia has not ended a long meeting lost in thought among the books we love, with no idea at the end what the meeting was about. (But we have learned to fake it.)

There is a lot more about the reading life, about how history books create what we think is history out of the mass of events that take place, and much more in Age of Innocence. To me personally, the deepest meaning is in the beauty of the words. Listen for a moment to this sentence and think about why Edith Wharton used the word
retailing" rather than retelling like very one else would:

"The queer cosmopolitian women, deep in complicated love-affairs which they appeared to feel the need of retailing to every one they meet, and the magnificent young officers and elderly dyed wits who were the objects of their confidences..."

Life recasts it self as a story, not as a newspaper article. The Europe created in the mind of Newland Archer (a first name worthy of Pynchon) is also a literary construct out of the books he cherishes.

I am embarked on two long term reading projects-the novels of Henry James and those of Edith Wharton. It will take me several years to complete this project. I hope in time, maybe after my one year blog anniversary in July 2010 to host a James/Wharton challenge. (I guess that would attract a rowdy crowd!!)

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


engelsigh said...

Thanks for coming by my blog. I love Gaiman. The Graveyard Book is really good. It's a quick read. I liked Coraline as well, but the movie is better. I also really liked Anansi Boys.

Michelle Fluttering Butterflies said...

Interesting thoughts on the book. I'd always meant to read Edith Wharton, especially this book. Maybe I'll hold out for your challenge :)

Unknown said...

I loved this book (and bought 'House of Mirth' after I'd finished it!). I think my review took a slightly different tack to yours though!

Table Talk said...

Wharton is one of those writers that I only really know through film and TV adaptations. I ought to actually read something, I know. Where would you suggest I start?

Suko said...

"Every one seriously into The Reading Life can relate to how social obligations become a burden that gets in the way of our real life, our reading time."

How true! Especially for those who like to savor words.

Excellent, thoughtful post!

Lisa said...

This is one of my favorite books. You have to have patience when reading Wharton, and very few distractions but she paints a picture like no one else. I'm totally game for a James/Wharton challenge!

Peter S. said...

Hi Melvin! Have you read The House of Mirth? It's also one of Wharton's best works.

JoAnn said...

Both Henry James and Edith Wharton have become favorites of mine in the last couple of years. The Age of Innocence is the last of Wharton's major novels I have to read - my favorite, so far, is probably The Custom of the Country. There's also her biography by Hermione Lee waiting in the tbr pile. I'll look forward to reading about your progress in this challenge!

Mel u said...

Rasberryswrlgirl-thanks for responding to my request-I will read The Graveyard book in 2009

Michelle-I see the James/Wharton Challenge for Oct or so 2010 to Dec 2011-would be great if you would join in-

Tony-some books I try to do general reviews on, some I just review from the point of view if what we can learn from the book about the reading centered life-I read your review also and it was very perceptive

Table Talk-start with "Age of Innocence"

Suko-thanks for the kind words

Lit and Life-would love if if you joined my challenge-

Peter S- I bought a copy of "House of Mirth" about two weeks ago and hope to read it soon

Joann-I have the Hermione Lee book also in my TBR pile-I really like good literary biographies

Author Kelly Moran said...

great blog. i'm following you now. you should check out/follow mine. i've got all things books...

Crafty Green Poet said...

I love this book, this is a fascinating and very focussed review of it.

I look forward to joining the rowdy crowds around the James/Wharton reading challenge....

Mel u said...

Kelly-thanks for the complement-I am now following your blog and I like it a lot

Crafty Green Poet-thank you for your kind words