Thursday, 23 October 2014

Lev Butts' Top Ten (Part II)

Last month I started to count down my top ten books or series that have "stayed" with me (whatever that means) throughout my life.

I may have bitten off more than I could reasonably swallow.
It was a bit of an undertaking, and I only got through the first two.

These books aren't going to read themselves, so let's cut the introductory fluff and get right to it then:

8. The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien


As far as I'm concerned, these are the best covers ever bound.
As a kid, I loved the Rankin/Bass cartoon version of The Hobbit. I watched it every time it came on television. This was so long before DVD's, mind you, that we didn't even have VHS yet.

This is how we DVR'ed back when the world was young and dinosaurs ruled the earth.
This meant that I could only watch it once a year if I were lucky, so for the weeks before it aired, I was the best behaved kid you ever saw. I'd eat all my vegetables and possibly even liver to avoid running the risk of being restricted or sent to bed early on broadcast night.

I'd sing the songs along with the television. I'd climb over the furniture while the dwarves were in the lonely mountain. I didn't miss a minute of it.

Except for this guy; I hid behind the couch for him.
And this is why I'm arachnophobic to this day.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out there was a book, too!

And a sequel!

Three of'em!

And they all came in one convenient box!
It was the only thing I asked for that Christmas. I finished the entire series in a month.

And that's when Tolkien ripped out my still beating heart and stomped on it.

In short, The Hobbit tells the story of a little guy who goes off with some dwarves to regain their treasure. On the way, the little guy finds a magic ring that makes you invisible. The Lord of the Rings tells about the little guy's nephew who has to go on a journey to destroy the ring in a volcano. Amid all the walking to and from treasure, the little guys learn that they can affect the great events of the world, but even if they win, they will be forever changed and not all for the best.

The Lord of the Rings wasn't the first time I encountered a story with a sad ending (The Empire Strikes Back did that for me), but it was the first time I encountered a story where the heroes win and are so depressed in spite of this victory that they can't live in the world anymore.

Spoiler alert
It may be the first adult life lesson I ever learned:

Sometimes you can get exactly what you want and still be miserable, and there's very little you can do about that.

7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


My high school English teacher told us there
was a naked woman on this cover in order to
encourage us to read it. When I found it,
I wanted to punch her.
If The Lord of the Rings taught me my first adult life lesson, The Great Gatsby taught me the first immediately applicable one.

Fitzgerald's book is a searing indictment of the roaring '20's and the decadence of the Jazz Age. It is such a successful and scathing critique, in fact, that anyone who reads the book cannot help but want to go back to the 1920's, and sneer at everyone reprovingly while guzzling bathtub gin and seducing flappers.

On top of all of this, it tells the story of a gangster who's in love with an air-headed rich girl who's married to an asshole of a rich guy who's sleeping with a poor idiot who's married to a loser who kills the gangster in a swimming pool.

Spoiler alert
What makes this story better than your average pulp fiction gangster story is that you kinda feel sorry for the gangster, Jay Gatsby, who really turns out to be a sad (and more realistic) version of a Horatio Alger hero: he's a poor kid from the midwest who impresses a rich con-man and eventually rises through the ranks of his benefactor's organization in a vain attempt to make enough money to deserve the rich girl from old money he's in love with. Sure he makes money and rises through his own efforts and hard work, but unlike Alger's boys, he will always fail to fit in because his money is not the right money. It's new. He will always be outdone by the people with old money.

In fact, Daisy (the poor little rich girl) and her jerk of a husband, Tom, both sit idly by and let Gatsby die because at the end of the day, they don't see his death as their problem (even though they are both to varying degrees responsible for the events leading to it).

Which brings us to my favorite quote form the novel, and the most important life lesson I ever learned in high school:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
After reading that line, I knew with a certainty bordering on the religious, that I did not ever want to be that kind of careless.  I never wanted anyone to think of me the way Nick Carraway, the narrator, thinks of Tom and Daisy. I didn't want to be Nick Carraway either, the poor sod who has to clean up everybody else's mess, and I certainly didn't want to be Gatsby, who is eaten up and spit out by other people's carelessness.

Though, he does manage to look suave and debonair while he's being digested.
I just knew I didn't want to be the kind of guy who left messes for others. I wanted to be the character who isn't in The Great Gatsby: the guy who is responsible enough to clean up his own messes without letting others get hurt in the process.

Though I certainly wouldn't've said no to some swinging jazz, bathtub gin, and a flapper or two.

Next Month: We creep ever nearer the end with numbers 6 &5.



Damn you, Mrs. Clowers.



7 comments:

madwippitt said...


Hobbit and Lord of the rings - tick. But Gatsby? Perplexed. I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks it is overrated. I didn't care much for the bloated Tender is the Night when we did it for A level either. I just don't get Fitzgerald. I have tried, but you can definitely keep him for your shelves! :-)

Dennis Hamley said...

Gee, Lev, I'm going to have to wait a long time for 9 and 10. You made me start thinking what my ten most significant would be but at the moment 'tis too hard a knot for me to untie. But I do rate Gatsby higher than Madwippit does both for its ironic, tragic plot and its extraordinary senses of time, place and atmosphere. I wasn't there to judge how accurate they are but they have the ring of absolute authenticity and dangerous moral ambiguity. So my taste for flappers and bathtub gin is as strong as ever, though never, I fear, quite fulfilled.

Nick Green said...

I was thinking only yesterday: what book - no, what writer's whole body of work - has inspired so much other art in the forms of literature, drama, music and visual art, as The Lord Of The Rings? I racked my brains, and could only come up with the Bible, and legends like King Arthur (neither of which really count, being committee efforts).

Say what you like about Tolkien geek-dom, it's an extraordinary prolific sub-culture, triggered by a single work (more or less) by a single writer. That's more than astonishing.

Speaking of Tolkien-inspired art, Lev: if you have at all a taste for rock music, then I point you towards Bob Catley's very obscure album 'Middle Earth'. A brilliant homage beyond all expectations. Naturally he's from Birmingham, like the great JRRT himself.

Susan Price said...

I've never read Gatsby - but Lev, your account of it makes me want to.

Lydia Bennet said...

gollum and gatsby, strange bedfellows indeed! always fascinating to read what others love - and what people see in them.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Yes to both of these, Lev. My dad 'discovered' the Lord of the Rings in our local library, a few years before it became the cult it eventually was - we both became pretty much obsessed with it! I love Gatsby too, but it's one of those books they do at school here, before most of them are mature enough to understand it.

Reb MacRath said...

Still haven't touched Lord of the Rings. But I'm with you on Gatsby--and am loving the way that you're stretching this thread out!