I’m beginning to think that literature is a little bit like wine. Some bottles can be set aside for a while and will turn into great drinks, but you can age a lousy wine until the sun implodes and you will still end up drinking a bottle of crap while you watch the world die.
Being an English major, I have had the opportunity to read a lot of old books. I’ve read much of the old canon, many of the new standards, reactionary fringe-literature books with which some people want to replace the previous two categories, and stuff that couldn’t be worse if it had been typed by rooms full of monkeys that had been raised by Stephenie Meyer. I did not read these books by choice; I read them because a knowledgeable professor in the subject area told me to.
Books like Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows or Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave stand the test of time. They are the solid French wines of my previous analogy, books that have grown deeper and richer with the passage of time, books that can be savoured generation after generation.
Books like William Beckford’s Vathek or (as I recently experienced) Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea don’t hold up as well. Vathek is like one of those pretentiously-labeled “Chateau de les Croutons de Vache” bottles that ultimately tastes like something you would buy from a Kentucky convenience store to share with your hobo friends, while 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is like a giant jug of vinegar-like slop filled with floating bits of cork and inaccuracy.
Yes, it was published in 1869, and yes I was reading a translation from the original French version, but I’ve read several books from the same era along with uncountable numbers of translations, and this is by far the worst of the bunch. It was like Verne decided to write an epic underwater scientific journey without ever once visiting the ocean, boarding a ship, consulting a marine biologist, or eating fish.
Aside from the fact that there was nothing even resembling a plot (unless you count a series of unrelated visits to oceanic points-of interest a plot), Verne seems to have gotten a hold of a biology textbook full of Latin names and was committed to getting his money‘s worth. There were many occasions where I found myself scanning through page-long lists of animal and plant life that they had just dredged up from the bottom of a coral reef, only to reach the end of the catalogue to find that not one of those now dead creatures had a damn thing to do with the story.
This leads me to my next point. Much as in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, it seems that the driving force behind every man of that era was to collect, kill, and destroy everything in the whole world. I can’t tell you how many times Verne would start out a chapter talking about the wondrously rare sea-creature flipping about before Monsieur Aronnax and Captain Nemo, only to then describe how the two of them killed the bejeezus out of it for sport. And please don’t get me started on the attitude of the Canadian Ned Land, a man known throughout the world as being the greatest harpooner of all times. I can only imagine his business cards:
“Ned Land, Harpooner. ‘If it moves, I can spear it.’ Whales and natives a specialty.”
Again, I could stomach most of this as being historically relevant and excusable were it not for the fact that Verne tries so bleeding hard to sound like a scientist. He constantly comes up with statements like, “I calculated the pressure at this depth to be the equivalent of 7428 lbs of force on every 3/5ths of a square inch on the hull of the vessel.” What possible calculation would require someone to reduce it to 3/5ths of a square inch to make it comprehensible?
It’s worse than Dan Brown. Dan Brown has the good sense to only vaguely describe his ludicrous scientific concepts. In these cases, detail is a bad thing. “The anti-matter bomb is in a frozen glass cylinder.” Fine. I’ll ignore the fact that what you described is scientifically impossible because you aren’t insulting my intelligence by trying to explain the mechanical components of the containment tube.
Ultimately, there is no point to me reviewing a book written more than a century ago by an author whose remains have long since turned to dust, dirt, and worm poop. But as one might feel after having drunk a large jug of really bad, old wine, sometimes one needs to vomit forth some of it just to try to feel better again.