Thursday, October 9, 2014
Thoughts on Reading An American Tragedy
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser has inhabited my TBR (to be read) shelf longer than any other book I own. Its occupancy dates back to the 1970s when a favorite English teacher, Mrs. Perretta, placed it in my hands one June afternoon prior to graduation. She said it was a book I would surely appreciate.
After reading The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck in her class the previous year, I figured you could actually learn quite a bit about life and how to live it from a good novel. So I'd been one of a handful of high school seniors to sign up for her elective American Novels class that year. We read Tender is the Night, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Look Homeward, Angel, and a few others. She probably gave each of us a book for graduation.
All 900 pages of An American Tragedy traveled with me to college, then on to my first apartment, and my second, and to the condo we lived in after getting married, to our first house, etc. This spring, some 35 years later, I made a resolution to read it before the end of the year. I was delighted when its number came up for the Classics Club spin.
BUT when I opened the book in August, it was immediately obvious that I could not comfortably read the tiny print of that mass market paperback edition. After decades on my shelf, An American Tragedy ended up in my book sale donation box. I bought the e-book for my kindle and, for good measure, the audio version too and finally began to read.
So about the book...
Written in 1925 and based upon a notorious 1906 murder in the Adirondack Mountains of northern NY (practically a local setting for me), An American Tragedy "is the story of a weak-willed young man who is both villain and victim (the victim of a valueless, materialistic society) and someone who ultimately destroys himself. "
To me, this novel is the quintessential character study. Clyde Griffiths, the son of street missionaries, aspires to a better life, but how far will he go in pursuit of the American Dream? From a fine hotel in Kansas City, to a Chicago club, and finally to his rich uncle's factory along the Mohawk River in upstate New York, Clyde strives toward a better station in life. He makes some progress financially, but ascending the social ladder proves even trickier. What circumstances could provoke thoughts of murder in such an earnest young man?
Courtroom drama comprises the last third of the novel. It was riveting.
The audio version, read by Dan John Miller (a favorite narrator), enabled me to keep reading in the car, on my walks, and while doing chores around the house. I just wish he'd checked pronunciations - Raquette Lake is actually "racket" around here. Whispersync is really a life saver when switching back and forth from e-book to audio. Have you tried it?
Overall, I loved An American Tragedy. It was a little too long and some parts were repetitive, but the story more than made up for it. You were right, Mrs. Perretta.
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It's fun to know the background of your connection to the book. I have to admit the length of An American Tragedy has intimidated me a little, but I never thought of trying the audio and reading it as an e-book. I'm going to have to look into Whispersync. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Monica - I've combined physical books and audio CDs for years, but it always takes so long to find my place when switching from one to the other. It's really seamless using an e-book and digital download. Whispersync is an amazing development!Delete
Awesome review! I still remember a favorite high school Women in Lit teacher who introduced me to The Handmaid's Tale, A Doll House, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, among others. My English instructors were always rock stars to me. I'm glad you finally got to read it, Apparently it was a very good read for you, except a bit long and could use a bit of tightening up. Thanks for sharing your experience. I can relate :)ReplyDelete
Rita - Thanks! I have both Handmaid's Tale and A Doll House on my reread list, and read Tess for the first time last year in a classics spin - loved it! I would have sent my former teacher a letter, but she's been gone for a couple of years now.Delete
I love whispersync! What a great back story to this book. I am glad that it turned out to be an enjoyable read.ReplyDelete
Nise' - It's really laughable to think how long I carried this book around, only to donate it to the book sale. Still, it was a great read. Hurray for whispersync!Delete
So glad that after all this time, you found a wonderful book. Thank goodness for favorite English teachers--their guidance lives on!ReplyDelete
Actually the premise of the book sounds fascinating. I'll have to get a copy and add it to my classics reading list.
I have Wives & Daughters as whispersync, and mean to try it soon. The concept is brilliant.
BTW, Look Homeward, Angel is on my reread list. I loved it 30 years ago, but I don't know how I will respond now.
JaneGS - English teachers are the best! Just wish I could let her know I finally read the book. It will surely be a favorite this year.Delete
I have an audio version of Wives and Daughters and will most likely add the e-book to it when I'm ready to get started. Whispersync and classics are a perfect match.
I don't remember much about Look Homeward, Angel now and have considered rereading all the books from that class. I still ask myself how I ever ended up in pharmacy school! ;-)
Wow, that was a long time to have a book in your tbr! I wonder sometimes if I'll have books sitting around that long. (I'm looking at you, War and Peace.)ReplyDelete
High school reading has stayed with me as an adult too. From classics to genre. I read Octavia Butler's Kindred in grade 11 and it is still one of my favourite books.
Loni - I'm there with you on War and Peace! I HAD to rush out and buy the new P&V translation in hardcover when it first came out. It's still on my shelf unread. When I finally do get to it, it will probably be on my kindle... that hardcover weighs a ton!Delete
It's been ages since I read Kindred. That is definitely worth a reread!
First of all, LOL on trading in those high school and college-era paperbacks! Me too, my friend!ReplyDelete
I remember reading this is high school or college but not too fondly. But I don't remember that it had 900 pages. Maybe it was much shorter when set in that tiny font? :) Good for you for persevering!
As for Whispersync, I learned about that wonderful thing from you! Very cool and very tempting.
Audrey - I wouldn't feel so bad about donating that book if I hadn't moved it around so many times in the last 35 years, lol! It may not be quite 900 pages in a nicer trade paperback edition, but the small print on all those small page - yikes! Once you try a long classics making use of whispersync, you will be a convert...I guarantee it!Delete
I enjoyed your review JoAnn. I'm glad you finally got to read the book and enjoyed it! I haven't read too many classics so probably won't get to this one. I don't usually listen to books either so probably won't get to the Whispersync feature, but it sounds facinating.ReplyDelete
Pat - This is definitely not a book for everyone and the local element held a lot of appeal for me. Whispersync has been a huge improvement for readers like me that like to read AND listen... it makes it even easier to fit more books into my life.Delete
Huzzah! Wanna read it sooo bad. But it's a commitment and I've been slumpy. Maybe soon.ReplyDelete
Andi - Yes, it's definitely a commitment and a little too long, but what a great story. I really want to read Sister Carrie now and am wondering if it focuses on the same issues but from a female perspective... will have to investigate.Delete
I have had this on my TBR shelf for way too long (though you definitely have me beat!) I really want to dive into it though and should make it a priority soon.ReplyDelete
Melissa - It really was wonderful and the audio helped a lot!Delete
I think I enjoyed your backstory to this review as much as the actual review.ReplyDelete
An inspirational teacher is something I wish on everyone just once in their school life.
Brona - I was lucky enough to have two truly outstanding teachers - one for English and one for chemistry. Still can't believe I carried that book around for decades only to donate it in favor of an electronic edition!Delete
How wonderful that you had such a great English teacher. I didn't but my daughter has and it's been amazing what an appreciation for literature she picked up. I do want to read this one though the sheer size is scaring me off right now. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the audio version. I will keep that in my mind when I get to it (and that will happen!)ReplyDelete
Katherine - A good teacher makes a world of difference.. so glad your daughter has one! An American Tragedy is a little bit too long, but such an outstanding story. I'm going to try Dreiser's Sister Carrie at some point.Delete
Oh my goodness, that really is a long time on the shelf. So glad you enjoyed it after all of these years of dusting it!ReplyDelete
Lisa - I guess all those years of lugging this book around were worth it:)Delete
You know I love this book, but I think I love your TBR story even more. That is a long time to carry a book around. Was it just the size that kept you away from it? And the reading list for the class took is great. I've read most of those. If memory serves, Sister Carrie does focus on a similar theme, although I think Carrie's story is much more about survival than it is about getting ahead.ReplyDelete
Thomas - That was by far my favorite high school class! I've often thought about reread all those novels. I loved them way back then, but often wonder what perspective a few more decades might add.Delete
I don't know why I carried that book around for so long... in college I didn't have time, I avoided classics in my late 20s, was too busy with little kids in my 30s, etc. It was never about the length though.
I wondered whether Sister Carrie might be the same thing from a female perspective. Hope it doesn't take me another 30 years to read it ;-)