If there’s one thing I love to do, it’s to burden myself with a huge “to-read” pile. And, goddamnit, thanks to Marina Warner, that pile just got even bigger.
But let me back up a bit.
I listen to a lot of podcasts; one that I subscribe to in particular is the CBC radio show Writers and Company hosted by Eleanor Wachtel. A few weeks back, it aired a pair of interviews with Marina Warner that I found particularly fascinating. One was about European fairy-tales, and brought up long-forgotten memories of how my older sister had a copy of From the Beast to the Blonde lying around the house when I was a kid – the cover came back so crystal-clear in my mind that I immediately had to borrow the book from her the next time I visited her home.
The second was meant to drum up interest in her latest book about the Arabian Nights – and boy, did it succeed. However, instead of reading her book, I started to read the Arabian Nights itself. It has not been a smooth adjustment.
Holy hell are these stories different from the kind of reading that I’m used to. The narratives are so long, and so nested together, that after a while they start to swim and blur together before my eyes. And my god, they’re all plot. Plot, plot, plot, plot plot! I recognize that this is necessary to the central conceit of the Arabian Nights as a whole – Scheherazade has to keep things moving forward relentlessly so she can survive to the following night – but the reliance on happenstance and coincidence is astounding.
This change in style is jarring because the slush reading I’ve been doing for Electric Velocipede has forced me to read everything critically. Stilted dialogue? Reject it. One dimensional characters? Reject it. Unnecessary infodumping? Reject it. Bad plotting? Reject it.
Yet those qualities are – in my mind – the most visible characteristics in the Arabian Nights stories I’ve read so far (I’m only on night 25-ish out of 1,001). I really don’t know how to process it, and I’m also aware that condemning these stories for being the way they are illustrates a really narrow, limited, Western-oriented perspective on how narrative works. This post is just a way for me to exercise my jaw a bit and get the shakes out of my system.
What about you? What books have forced you to reassess your opinions on how stories should work?