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The Importance of Reading Ernest

After I read The Paris Wife, the novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, I became intrigued and somewhat obsessed with the Hemingway legacy. I have an endearing habit (I think it’s endearing; my family has other words for it) of becoming obsessed by details of things that interest me. There was the time we watched a documentary on Napoleon and I became a Josephine freak for a few months, reading biographies and spending copious amounts of time looking up tid-bits about her online. Years ago, I had this thing for the Temple of the Dog, a band with members of  Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. If anyone has ever wondered about Temple of the Dog, I’m the go to person.

Temple of the Dog

But I digress. Back to Hemingway. I decide to read his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, because the characters are thinly veiled sketches of his real life friends (ex-friends would be more accurate) that appeared in The Paris Wife. And because Ernest is a big gun. He literally changed the soul of writing. What better ammo to put in my writing arsenal.

I buy the book, eager to read this minimalist style I keep hearing about– the lean, taut prose of Hemingway. On the very first page, (It wasn’t even an entire page. It began 2/3 of the way down) I encounter these words: painfully, thoroughly (twice no less), really very, promptly, permanently, certainly.

EIGHT adverbs. What’s up with that? Aren’t adverbs those awful beasts that pave the road to hell? Isn’t Hemingway himself the icon of  lean, kill-the-adverbs prose?

I read on, a deep furrow between my brows. After a few pages, I have the feeling that I’ve read this type of writing before. Then it hits me. It sounds like something S¹, my thirteen-year-old, had written. And the shallow characters bewilder me. I’m confused and disappointed. Lest you think I’m  also arrogant, let me say that I knew the problem was with me. I try dissecting each sentence, phrase and word to better understand it. My confusion only gets worse.

The Muses for The Sun Also Rises.

My brother, a huge Hemingway fan, came to visit this weekend. He notices the book right away, drawn to it by invisible tentacles, and picks it up. After telling me how brilliant it is, he asks how I like it.

“I don’t,” I whine. “He uses ‘then’ and ‘and’ way too much and he’s so wordy. Blah, blah blah. Where’s all that lean prose?”

My brother puts on his patient, let-me-explain-this-in-a-way-you’ll-be-able-to-understand face. “Before Hemingway, prose was very wordy, descriptive and long. You need to be familiar with what came before so you can see the differences.”

The dim light bulb went off somewhere in my head. “And after Hemingway, writers imitated his style. That’s why it sounds so ordinary to me.”

My brother nods, already immersed in the book.

“But what about the adverbs and the ‘thens‘ and ‘and’s?” I ask in a slightly less whiny voice.

My brother and D¹ say in unison, “You’re over analyzing it. Just read it and enjoy it.”

D¹ is compelled to continue because she loves analyzing me. “You have this bad habit of over-analyzing everything. Remember when we watched The Prestige and Inception? You ruin it when you analyze so much.”

So, I confiscate the book from my brother and start over— just reading it and not paying attention to mechanics like adverbs or length. That makes all the difference. Funny how brilliance is more obvious when you’re not looking for it. I couldn’t put it down; thank God it’s not that long. I even find myself imitating it, saying things like, “I rather like that song,” or “Oh, rather.” instead of plain “Yes”.

East of Eden: I rather think I'll like it.

Once I got past all my hang ups, I really enjoyed the book, and I “got” it. But if I had a day job (not that staying at home with the kids is a vacation), I wouldn’t quit it to become a literary critic anytime soon. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I rather think I’ll enjoy it.

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4 comments on “The Importance of Reading Ernest

  1. Never mind Hemingway I loved the way you wrote about the discussion between you and your brother. I’m having a coffee at the moment and you added significantly to my pleasure in the moment. Thankyou

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    • My brother and I have had some very colorful discussions, but he lives in China so we don’t have them very often anymore. It was just luck the he was back for a visit at the right time to explain it to me.

      I hope you enjoyed the coffee.

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  2. Hi Dawne, I tutor an adult reading student and at the suggestion of my brother we have been reading Hemingway. It is a good fit for my reading student because he likes fishing and going up north. Just an fyi. I have experienced that feeling with art work at times or movies, such as Citizen Kane. I was thinking, what’s the big deal, or something similar. Usually it is a similar case where they were ground breaking and then after that their style became commonplace.

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  3. I remember watching a show about Elvis, and what a ground breaking musician he was. They played the top ten pop songs from just before he hit the airwaves. The difference was amazing: Pat Boone, Perry Como, etc. then Elvis.

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