If you follow this blog regularly or interact with me on Facebook, you probably know I’ve been reading Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. A lot of people read this book in school or prison. It’s one of a thousand great books I’d been meaning to get around too.
The whole idea of getting around to books is something I’ve been thinking around lately. I tend to buy a lot of books, even with stealing as much time from the dreary daily chore schedule I’m on, they pile up at a faster rate than I can read them. I wish I could get through books like Johnny 5 in Short Circuit. I’ve tried a bunch of different speed reading methods, and none of them really help.
Most of the speed reading practices actually promote skimming, which I think is bogus. Either read a book or don’t. If you don’t immerse yourself and take time to understand what you’re reading, you may as well just read the Wikipedia summaries of the books and move on. For me, reading great literature is not about cramming info into my head, it’s about changing my thoughts and understanding of the world.
The Count of Monte Cristo is the longest book I’ve read in several years. If I recall correctly, the last one I read that was over 1000 pages was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Since the book is set in a real historical period, there isn’t a lot of world building like you’d find in a fantasy epic. There are no chapters devoted to explaining dragon physiology or the history a wizard war. What you get are really sweeping character builds. These characters are, to use E.M. Forester’s term, “round.”
The elements that do have a bit of theatrical whimsy are largely Oriental in the complicated ways criticized by Edward Said. The East is exotic, but not deeply explored here, beyond descriptions of mind altering drugs, tobacco, fine silks, and other luxuries. The Count himself is referred to as Oriental, or in a way, otherworldly.
Some reviewer online made a point I found interesting: they said The Count of Monte Cristo could be considered an early super hero. He has gone through an extreme transformation, seeks to right wrongs, has a vast fortune, and displayed several talents that are repeatedly described as incredible, for instance, his amazing accuracy with his pistols.
It certainly isn’y worth shitting too hard on that theory, but I would probably reverse the formula. Superheroes are modern interpretations of The Count. As much as I grew up loving comic books, I can barely stand them now, especially my old favorites put out by Marvel. It seems to me comic writing peaked during the Neil Gaiman/Alan Moore era (which has arguably not completed). Now that film technology is so fantastic, I don’t know that the crazy scenes depicted in comics are as fantastic. Part of the fun of reading X-Men was wondering what Wolverine’s claws actually sounded like. Or how it would look when Nightcrawler “bamfed” into another room. Now we know, and we all know it the same way.
There are several film adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo. No matter how great special effects get, they are not likely to capture the detail and tension of 1000 revenge filled pages. Sure, you can portray the events, but are you ever going to be able to capture Maximillien Morrel’s heartbreak? Will any actor, besides perhaps Daniel Day Lewis be able to portray, using only his eyes, the rage felt by Valentine’s grandfather when she is poisoned?
Reading this book was a nourishing experience. If you are not regularly exposing yourself to great writing, great plots, and great themes, you are probably shorting yourself as a writer. For the last year I have struggled writing things beyond these short blog posts. I felt like I lost my fiction gear, but the truth is, I wasn’t reading much fiction. Non-fiction is tremendous, as are biographies, but there is something about fiction that lets you really get into deep human truths.