Blind Man in a Cave: A Review of Olde Bookes: An Introduction


Max Stahl, comment editorAJ's cartoon

“It tells of an old Indian known as the Father of Stories, a man of immemorial age, blind and illiterate, who uninterruptedly tells stories that take place in countries and in times completely unknown to him… The old Indian, according to some, is the universal source of narrative material, the primordial magma from which the individual manifestations of each writer develop.”

— Italo Calvino, “If on a winter’s night a traveler

Well, here you are. I can’t account for whatever it was that led you to this particular area of the Highlights website, but perhaps you should. (And if it was I, I admonish myself.) In any event, you’re stuck. Welcome to my demesne!

I like reading. Hence, a review of old books.

“But Max!” you shout into the void, “Why old books?”

I can’t hear you. I’m on the other side of the void. But, if you insist.

Old books get a lot of attention in English class, but not all kinds of old books. Often, the books studied in language arts are considered “classics”; in other words, they represent basic literary elements or ideas that merit study. While many classics rank among my favorite books, I will not, for the most part, be dealing with those books in this column. My goal is to introduce you to fiction from various countries and eras, to novels and novellas and short-story collections of varying fame and acclaim, to worlds familiar and unfamiliar. Literature, I believe, possesses a transportive, immersive power that preserves, better than other media, cultures and societies long after they cease to be. As Calvino suggests, there is an underlying, ongoing narrative that ties together all humanity, past and present. Each book, then, is another sentence or paragraph in this neverending story. If one were to read only contemporary literature, he or she would be missing out on hundreds of preceding chapters; it would be like starting a novel in the middle.

I have no problems with contemporary literature. I love recent books as much as I do older ones (shout-out to Junot Díaz, Dave Eggers and Jhumpa Lahiri). But you can read about modern literature elsewhere (see the New York Times Book Review or Michael Silverblatt’s radio show “Bookworm”). This column is rooted in the past.

Some rules I have set up for myself:

1. Reviews will be published the first school day of every month. This will keep me focused and motivated.

2. I will review only novels, novellas and short-story collections. While I appreciate a good poem or play, I do not know these media well enough to write informed reviews of them.

3. The books I will review will be at least 50 years old. An arbitrary number, I know. I may choose to break this rule at least once, provided I have a good enough reason.

4. I will review at most one work per author. For variety’s sake.

5. No book that I review will be in the curriculum of any English teacher at this school. I will follow this rule to the best of my knowledge.

Literary scholars have boiled down narrative to a finite number of plotlines. Ideas, though, are infinite and eternal. Let us, together, explore some of these ideas as we venture into the vast and verdant realm of old literature.