Read Harder 2017 — Questioning my choice for #17

Published January 31, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

So, as I was looking over the list of challenges, one of the early choices I made was that for #17 (“Read a classic by an author of color”) I would read something by Dumas, because I’ve never read any Dumas, and that seemed like it might be fun.  (Depending on which book, naturally.  Some will be more fun than others.)

But I’ve been thinking about it in the last week or so, and I feel like that would be obeying the letter of the law in defiance of its spirit.  Yes, Dumas was a person of color, which makes it especially awesome that he became one of the most famous and well-read of French authors.  But he wasn’t writing about his own experiences, about what life was like for himself or other people of color in 19th century Europe.  And coming from an aristocratic background (on his father’s side, that is), his experience were decidedly atypical anyway.

I know Book Riot doesn’t give a specific reason for any of the individual challenges, but I feel like the idea behind the whole challenge is to ensure a fully diverse reading experience.  Dumas mostly wrote about the elite experience — kings, queens, and the upper classes — and almost all of it about white people.  Turns out he did write one book with a mixed-race lead, Georges, but in learning about it, I accidentally read the whole summary on Wikipedia and now it feels sort of pointless to read the book until I’ve forgotten what the summary said.  (Yeah, that was dumb of me…)  Besides, the lead was still very much a part of the upper class, like Dumas himself.

So, I’m trying to pick out something new to read for this one.  I know there’s no shortage of them, but if possible I’d like to read something I already own or can get out of the library, as I’ve already bought a lot of books for the challenge, and plan to buy more.  (I can’t help it; I found nearly a dozen books on their list of YA/MG books by LGBTQ+ authors that all sounded really good, and none of them are in the library!  Besides, many of them are debut novels and therefore the authors need the support.  “Classics,” being defined as books over 50 years old, obviously don’t need my financial support.)

My other initial thoughts had been a couple of books that have long been on my “gee, I should read these someday” list:  The Tales of the Genji and The Journey West.  Both are in the university library, but The Journey West is in four volumes which combine to about 1500 pages.  Genji‘s translation, in two volumes, is listed at just over 1000 by the university library.  So, you know, massive.  Not really conducive to getting a lot of other books read.  (Especially since I’d like to tackle last year’s and/or the year before’s challenges this year, too.  As it turns out to be a lot more fun to select books on a mission like this.)

So, looking around at books I already own and haven’t read yet, I’ve got three that would count for this, but one of them is going to be #11 (in that Korea is more than 5000 miles from where I live) and was in fact purchased for that purpose.  (Also, the translator is a professor at my school, so I’d been planning to buy it anyway, ’cause how cool is that?)

The other two have been sitting in one of my many “to read” piles so long that they have Borders Books price stickers on the back.  They are The Pancatantra by Visnu Sarma, and The Adventures of Amir Hamza by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami.

The former is a Penguin Classics edition, and this is what it says on the back:

First recorded 1,500 years ago, but originating from a far-earlier oral tradition, the Pancatantra is ascribed by legend to the celebrated, half-mythical teacher Visnu Sarma.  Asked by a powerful king to awaken the dulled intelligence of his three idle sons, the aging Sarma is said to have composed the great work as a series of entertaining and edifying fables narrated by a wide range of humans and animals, together intended to provide the young princes with vital guidance for life.  Since first leaving India before 570, the Pancatantra has been widely translated and has influenced a vast number of works in India, the Arab world and Europe, including the Arabian Nights, the Canterbury Tales, and the Fables of La Fontaine.  Enduring and profound, it is among the earliest and most popular of all books of fables.

And the latter is a Modern Classics edition, and this is what it says on the back:

Here is the first unabridged English translation of a major Indo-Persian epic:  a panoramic tale of magic and passion, a classic hero’s odyssey that has captivated much of the world.  It is the spellbinding story of Amir Hamza, the adventurer who in the service of the Persian emperor defeats many enemies, loves many women, and converts hundreds of infidels to the True Faith before finding his way back to his first love.  In Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s faithful rendition, this masterwork is captured with all its colorful action and fantastic elements intact.  Appreciated as the seminal Islamic epic or enjoyed as a sweeping tale as rich and inventive as Homer’s epic sagas, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is a true literary treasure.

So, based on the blurbs, Amir Hamza sounds like the more fun read, right?  (With considerable bonus points for being an Islamic work.)  Unfortunately, it’s about 900 pages long.  The Pancatantra is over 400, which sounds short compared all these others, but those kinds of collections can really take it out of me when I try to read them all at once.  (Seriously, I couldn’t even get through Aesop’s Fables at all.  And I found myself rage-quitting Canterbury Tales after a particularly misogynistic story.  Though I plan on going back and finishing it eventually, because I liked most of it.  Ditto with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, though there I’m only going to go back and finish for mythological/mythographic purposes.)

I’m definitely left torn as to what to pick for this challenge.  Obviously, it doesn’t matter right away, ’cause I’m only about a third of the way through the book I’m reading right now (challenge #5), and I have another one out from the library already (#3), on top of the numerous books I’ve already bought.  (#2, #12, #13, #16, #19, #21 (though it hasn’t arrived yet), #22.  Also, I might use books I already owned for #9 (depending if I can find the one I want on my messy, messy shelves, and if it’s gotten too musty in the 20+ years since I last read it) and #14.  Ironically, though I’ve bought several off the list of suggestions for #15, I’m not planning on using any of the ones I’ve so far bought for that challenge.  I’ve yet to decide which of the remaining ones I’m interested in to use for that challenge.)

Given the recent political attacks on the Islamic faith, I’d like to do what I can to prove that not all Americans are anti-Islam, and while reading an Islamic classic is hardly a big gesture, it is at least something.  (I’ve already given money to the ACLU once this month, and I’ll be doing so again next month.  And probably to an organization that’s exclusively intended to protect immigrants and/or religious freedom.  And, of course, to either the NAACP or Black Lives Matter (or both), since February is Black History Month.)  So that does make me lean towards Amir Hamza, but the 900 page length is a bit daunting.  (And I don’t particularly want to re-read The Arabian Nights, so that’s not on the table.)

So…this post was, I suppose, mostly just me babbling about “not sure what to read several books down the line,” but I guess I just felt like sharing?

If anyone’s got any suggestions for what to read for #17 (either from the two I’ve got or of things I should be able to get in my university’s library), I’d certainly appreciate them.

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