Friday, June 8, 2012

What the F!#& Should I Read Friday: The Man Who Was Thursday

What The F#!& Should I Read Friday: Books to Make Your Weekend Weird & Wonderful
The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton
Oxford University Press World Classics Edition, 1996

Fair disclosure warning: this is my favorite book of all time. And yes, this edition is from 1996, but the book was originally published in 1908. This book is a marvel and a wonder, and if you don't want to read it at least a little bit it might seriously jeopardize our chances at a long-term friendship. So no pressure, or anything. Side note: it is also directly responsible for my very wonderful relationship. I started reading it aloud to K on our very first date, and by the time we got to chapter three, well...that was it. Furthermore, it should be noted that his extremely epic blond beard and curly mustache both derive directly from the facial hair of the main character of Thursday. As in I said him, "Hey, so you should probably have a pointed yellow beard like Syme" and then he did. ALL I DO IS WIN.

This one. STAY AWAY.
You may have noticed that I have a thing about which edition I think you should read.This is because it makes a bloody difference, dammit. In this case, the edition I want you to read has several things going for it: a pretty stellar introduction, really stellar textual notes (which you will need, okay, to understand jokes about stuff that is a century old) and also two extra short stories at the back, which Chesterton wrote before he wrote Thursday, which do a very cool job of illustrating how disparate ideas come together to make something epically awesome and more than the sum of its parts, in this case the topics of God and Anarchy. If you can't get this Oxford edition, fine; just whatever you do don't get the f!#&ing Ignatius Press version, with annotations by Martin Gardner, because they are unbelievably annoying. Gardner apparently saw the book as a chance to write about everything he ever wanted to say about Edwardian England, whether or not it is even remotely relevant; at one point he uses an incidental mention of "gollywog" to go off for two full pages - three if you count the illustration - about the history of the word, which he begins thusly: "This lengthy note will tell you much more about gollywogs than you may care to know, but I hope you will find it an interesting sidelight on Edwardian England."  Yes! That's right! It IS much more than I care to know! IF I WANTED TO READ ABOUT GOLLYWOGS I WOULD HAVE BOUGHT A DIFFERENT BOOK. Also, these are FOOTNOTES, not endnotes, and so the actual text of the story takes up literally four of the thirty-two lines on the page, half the next page, and did I mention the illustration? Oh, I did? Well, anyway, that's the page after that. He does this several times, just wandering off on his own trains of thought, which he seems to find utterly fascinating, and leaves the actual text of the book to occupy a couple lines at the top of the page as, you know, a special favor. He also plugs his own books, and most of the actually useful footnotes are just quotes from other people's annotations. It is maddening. I would mind less if the notes were at the back, where they might provide an interesting addition, but having them in the text makes me want to RIP THE PAGES.

Oh yeah, and then also? he has GIANT SPOILERS in the footnotes. Thursday is, among other things, a mystery novel. You know what ruins mystery novels? GIANT F!#&ING SPOILERS, that's what. And don't even get me started on the place where he started to go off about how one of Chesterton's images could be taken as a symbol of string theory. He's like "so I know Chesterton probably didn't intend this, but..." NO SHIT, SHERLOCK. You know what they didn't have in 1908? STRING THEORY. You just wanted to look smart, and instead? You look like a jerk who just likes to see himself talk.

Sigh. Sorry, Mr. Gardener, that was maybe kinda mean and harsh, but really, dude. Don't do that. Anyway, ladies and germs, your five questions are, as always...

1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
2. What the f!#& is it about?
3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
4. When the f!#& is it set? 
5. Why the f!#& should I read it?

Also, I have some fun news about an awesome reading adventure that's starting up later this month, so keep reading, because you too can be a part of Putting the Blog in Balrog!

 1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
This is a maenad. This vase is from, oh,
330ish BC. So Lewis TOTALLY KNEW
they were some crazy-ass ladies and
he put them in Narnia anyway. See, not
so stuffy after all. Via Wikipedia (yup).
 The author of this book is a man named G. K. Chesterton, and to be honest, you don't need to know that much about him to think this book is the tits. ("The tits" is a synonym for "the shit," if you were confused for a minute there. Because shit is kind of gross, and tits are - we can all agree on this, right? - pretty much awesome.) He was a late convert to Catholicism and turns out he was an anti-Semite, which is super lame, but none of it shows up in Thursday even a little so I can still love it without being a self-hating Jew. he had some fascinating ideas and beliefs, and his way of approaching Christianity & God in his writing is similar in many ways to C.S. Lewis - who you may hate, because I know some people find the Narnia books to be cutesy twee advertisements for Jesus, but they're only that if you vastly oversimplify them. In fact, both Chesterton and Lewis had some very weird radical thoughts on God and Nature. Prince Caspian, for example, is not only full of wood spirits and dryads and such, but also has a jolly cameo by Bacchus and the Maenads. See, I'm pretty sure Jesus was not down with the pagan gods of wine, let alone their maddened dancing girls. And no matter how obnoxiously paternalistic Aslan might be, he's a lion. Similarly, the deity in Thursday is a little more complicated than just the Big Beardy In The Sky. So if you're kinda like me, and have a knee-jerk reaction to Books About Religion or Books Written By Religious People, fear not. Awesomeness abounds despite the author's yay-God-type proclivities.

2. What the f!#& is it about?
Ah. Um. Good question! I'm glad you asked! It's about a poet who becomes a detective, and a giant anarchist plot. Or it's about a man who loves order descending into chaos in order to find God. Or it's about the relationship of God to Nature. Or it's a wild nightmare. Or it's about love. Above all, it is a poetic adventure, and I suppose it's up to you to decide just what exactly the poem is really about. (Is that a cop-out answer? Maybe, but it's also completely correct.)

3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
It's surprisingly slim, really, so not on long train rides. Somewhere you can really sit back and enjoy the language. It is a lovely, luscious read, so pick a pleasant place. Better yet, read it out loud to a friend who loves great literature, or have it read to you by someone who really knows how to make a sentence sing.

4. When the f!#& is it set?
The Man Who was Thursday is set (as touched upon above) in Edwardian England, and as such some of the references are admittedly, um, well, dated. The footnotes provide most of what matters, and assuming you are a reasonably logical person, you can fill in most of the missing gaps. If you are not a reasonably logical person, you might enjoy it anyway, because it is more magical than logical anyway and knowing what Colney Hatch is won't really lessen that if you have at least a smattering of imagination.

5. Why the f!#& should I read it?
A duel! Via the improbably-named Find A Property Blog
You should read it because it is exquisitely written, first of all. Okay, so I just finished Stephen King's On Writing, which was pretty okay, I guess, and he talks a lot about adverbs, and how there are too many of them, and they should be stricken from the page wherever possible. Well, maybe in a thriller, yes. But sometimes things like adverbs are a delight. Sometimes language is a toy, not a tool, and Chesterton plays with it. Listen to me when I say this; this is important. Every single sentence in this book is a joy to read. Each one is a delicate and fabulous construction, a vivid confection of words. Think of this book as an old-fashioned candy shop, a delightful emporium of linguistic treats. Also, it is very, very funny - at least, I think so. In fact, when my father first read this book to me when I was nine (okay, yes, a lot of it went whistling over my head, but still) there came a passage that made me laugh so hard he was seriously afraid I was going to choke. I can't quote it to you, because it will spoil things in the first half of the novel. It is full of dialogue that sparkles like champagne, and descriptions that glow as hot and bright and wild as the sunset that opens the book, and characters of a marvelous and dancing quality. It has duels, and car chases, and hot air balloons (well, one, anyway); an escaped elephant, a bomb, a secret language, conspiracy, philosophy, theology, and bonhomie; it's got deception and intrigue and disguise and frock coats and nobility and despair and plenty of drinking. It is a tiny, perfect masterwork of a book, an antique pocketwatch with the golden gears all showing and shining in that kind of marvelous movement that you just can't get these days. Look, this book could never be written now. It would be a joke, or a very bad pretension, or just fall awkwardly flat. But it is a glorious, serious romp of a novel, and you should fill yourself full of the effervescent gleam it offers you. It is a joy to read. Really.

(And no, no pocket watch photos for you. Pocket watches are hip now, man. You wanna look at a magical pocketwatch, get your ass on Etsy.)

Like this one! not-entirely-unrelated news, sj over at Snobbery is hosting a Lord of the Rings reading fest this summer! If you want to join in (and you DO, there will be DRINKING GAMES, and possibly PRIZES), you need to do almost nothing at all other than check out the schedule and get yourself a sweet icon. Oh yeah, and read several thousand pages of wonderful Middle Earthian awesomeness. sj is especially looking to have folks join who have  never ventured into the books before, although I find it somewhat unlikely that any of those people read this blog. BUT if you are wary of the nerddom or the boringness, fear not, excellent people are here to help you understand that fantasy is fun and you're allowed to skip the boring bits. Onwards to glory!


  1. great review! I laughed my head right off!

    1. ha! Thanks! I was worried about this one because I love the book so much it's almost impossible for me to write a recommendation that doesn't involve me eventually just whacking you over the head with my (now-very-battered) edition of it and yelling JUST READ IT! JUST F!#&ING READ IT! over and over until you acquiesce out of sheer fear.

  2. I've meant to read Chesterton for a while now, but he hasn't actually made it into the stack despite the fact that I have some of his books. Not that one, though.

    Lewis felt that other religions were a reflection, so to speak, of Christianity. Glimpses of the truth that didn't quite capture the Truth. So it's always made sense to me that he included that stuff in Narnia. Have you read his space trilogy?

    Generally speaking, I'd love to be a part of a LotR blog thing, but my reading list for the summer is kind of full already. :(


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