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The Importance of Reading Ernest

I tried reading Hemingway when I was in high school. It was a forgettable experience. But 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. So, I spent much of my free time learning about Hemingway, sharing the fascinating information with anyone who happened to be in the room with me. I was often alone in those days.

I decide to give him another chance and read his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. After all,  Ernest was a big gun. He literally changed the soul of writing. What better ammo to put in my writing arsenal? And in all honesty, I had some tabloidish curiosity. The characters were thinly veiled snarky sketches of his real life friends (ex-friends would be more accurate) that appeared in The Paris Wife. 

I bought the book, eager to read this minimalist style I kept 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 encountered these words: painfully, thoroughly (twice no less), really very, promptly, permanently, certainly.

EIGHT adverbs. What’s up with that? Weren’t adverbs those awful beasts that pave the road to hell? Wasn’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 had the feeling that I’d read this type of writing before. Then it hit me. It sounded like something my thirteen-year-old had written. And the shallow characters bewildered me. I was confused and disappointed. Lest you think I’m also arrogant, let me say that I knew the problem was with me. I tried dissecting each sentence, phrase and word to better understand it. My confusion only got worse.

The Muses for The Sun Also Rises.

My brother, a huge Hemingway fan, had come for visit and noticed the book right away, drawn to it by invisible tentacles. He picked it up while telling me how brilliant it was, then he made the mistake of asking how I liked it.

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

My brother put 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 nodded, already immersed in the book.

“But what about the adverbs and the ‘thens‘ and ‘and’s?” I was slightly less whiny.

In  scary unison, my brother and oldest daughter pointed out that I was over-analyzing it. “Just read it and enjoy it.”

My daughter was compelled to continue because she loved analyzing me. “You have this bad habit of over-analyzing everything. Remember when we watched The Prestige and Inception? You ruined them for yourself.”

So, I confiscated the book from my brother and started over—just reading it and not paying attention to mechanics like adverbs or length. That made all the difference. Without all my hang ups peering over my shoulder, I really enjoyed the book. Funny how brilliance is more obvious when you’re not looking for it. I even found myself imitating it, saying things like, “I rather like that song,” or “Oh, rather.” instead of plain “Yes.” My family stayed out of my way until that fad wore itself out.

This is a revised post from August 2011.

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19 comments on “The Importance of Reading Ernest

  1. Great post. We still haven’t read anything by Hemingway. I’m surprised to hear adverbs were all the rage–everyone says they’re the devil now. 😉

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  2. Haven’t read Hemingway since high school, but he was a strong influence on my writing back then. Less so, now.

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  3. I loved the Old Man and The Sea when I read it in high school. What I didn’t love was the way our English teacher worked to ruin the whole experience with all these stupid assignments that did nothing to enhance the book. Few people today read for pleasure and sometimes I wonder if it isn’t because of how we were taught literature in our youth. I have quite a few friends who attend book clubs, because it’s the only way they can force themselves to read!!!!!!

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    • Very true. And the people I know that like to read don’t read the classics. I think many feel you can’t read literature for pleasure. It needs to be dissected and analyzed. The only way I can read classical literature is to read for pleasure. As you can see from the post, I’ve never been good at analyzing. But I know there are some people who get pleasure out of digging into the guts of a story. It works for them.

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  4. I love this post Dawne! I’m so terribly judgmental that I often don’t stick with some of the greats past the first two or three chapters (sometimes pages). But then, I’m also usually the lone hold out when it comes to new books as well. It’s got to be great to get and keep my attention. I’m sure the problem is mostly with me, but that’s probably something for a therapist! LOL! So now you’ve inspired me to try my hand at old Hemingway! But you’ll never see me pick up Dicken again…a girl has to draw the line somewhere! LOL!

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    • You’re right about the Dickens thing 😉 I’m judgmental too (think it’s a writer thing), but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with putting down a book you’re not enjoying, no matter what kind it is. Life is too short to read out of obligation to finish the book.

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  5. As a solid believer that highly acclaimed literature is boring to read (give me Bill Watterson over Jane Austen any day), and a guy who could never see what the big deal was with Ernie, I’ll make you a deal – I’ll read some Hemingway (you can even pick what) and you read some Dale Carnegie.

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    • You’re cutting a wide swath with your prejudice. Hemingway and Steinbeck aren’t the only authors of highly acclaimed literature. Maybe you should try reading some before you label it all boring. PS-It doesn’t have to be “highly acclaimed” to be good literature.

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      • Methinks you find offence where none is meant. I’ve tried reading a wide range of this stuff – Homer, Aesop, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Dickens, and yes, Hemingway to name some, and just find it a drudgery.

        However, turn these written works into performances and I’ll enjoy them thoroughly. I enjoy watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but reading it? Blech. I’ve seen several versions of A Christmas Carol that I like but I’ll not try to read it again.

        Call it prejudice if you like but I’ve grown weary of trying to wade through this stuff in book form. I enjoy reading, and read a fair amount, but I find “highly acclaimed literature” frustrating. I know that usually there’s a good story in there I just can’t get to it because, for me, it’s so obscured by the words.

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      • The point of the post wasn’t to shove the classics down people’s throats. I sincerely believe we should all read for enjoyment. But I think it’s good to occasionally try things we wouldn’t normally read. Sometimes we’ll stumble upon something we love and sometimes we won’t bother finishing the book. But at least we’ve taken a step out of our comfort zone.

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  6. As I read this, Dawne, I kept saying to myself, “This seems so familiar. I’ve read something like this before. Where?” Thanks for putting that disclaimer at the end. I would have driven myself crazy trying to remember where I had read something so similar about Hemingway. At least some parts of my brain still fire properly!

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