New CLASSICS Read: The Red and the Black

I chose a big ol’ fatty of a classic book for my next read, so we’ll be here a good long while. Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is my next Classics Club read. It’s my 9th read from my five-year list, which puts me right on track to finish on time. I may even finish a little bit early, but that just means MORE classics read, because non-fiction and classics are the books I love most.

the red and the black book cover
I’m still posting daily on my IG account @californiareader

I first heard The Red and the Black mentioned in How to Live – What to Do by Josh Cohen when I read it back in June of last year. I know this because, with a bit of digging, I found my booklist notecard for it, mentioning where and when I heard of the book. But there’s something missing from those cards, the why. What was it that made me add this book to the list? I haven’t got a clue.

Looking back at my reading journal, I find only the title and where in the book it was mentioned, nothing about why I would have made a note of it. I must remedy this situation. From now on, no book is added to the list without a reason written alongside the title. By the time I get the hang of all this, I’ll be dead. Ugg.

I went back to How to Live – What to Do and found the pages where The Red and the Black was mentioned. Cohen was writing about human ambition based on collective vs individual good. I’m not sure I agree with him that collective good is better. That probably sounds terrible, but I have a feeling that we all pretend that what we do, we do for the greater good, when in reality we put ourselves first, our own happiness. That doesn’t rule out doing things for others, but I do think we only do things for others because it makes us happy or serves us in some other way. I know there’s philosophy about this, but I’ll have to come back to it another day.

The book is on my list, and now that I’m sitting here trying to remember why, it’s all slowly coming back to me. See? Blogging is really for my own selfish reasons. It’s fun for me, I get some modicum of attention, and it helps me formulate my thoughts, remember what I’ve read and why because I find myself compelled to look back through my notes. My blog posts may even serve the greater good in the future. Who knows? I’m sure it hurts no one that I spend this time here. If it did, say if I were neglecting other responsibilities or inciting people to do violence, I would put aside my own joys and stop, maybe find another way to make myself happy without causing harm.

Hmm… wild. That’s the difference between right and wrong, not motivation, but effect.

Picking up this fat book, over 600 pages of classic literature, I thought I’d be fighting through every page, but I fell madly in love with it immediately and find myself sitting down to ten or fifteen minutes of reading whenever I get the chance.

I read the introduction, of course. That always helps me put the book into context since I’m not that much of an academic reader. I did get the chance to go to university, but I studied theater design, and only stayed a year and half before… That’s another story. The introductions help me understand better what I’m about to read. And this one was especially helpful to me, as a reader and as a writer. It was this paragraph by Bruce Robbins that made me smile and settle into the story as if it were a gift:

“Stendhal’s attempt to win fame as a writer was definitely second-best, in his own mind, to the goal of using worldly power to change the world, as he had tried to do in his youth. He felt perpetually at odds with his unheroic time, whose only heroic act seemed to be the seduction. If he ever found the sort of readers he wanted, he thought, this would only happen in some unimaginable future. And they would only be a “happy few.” He compared writing to buying a lottery ticket whose grand prize was to be read a hundred years later. The book you hold in your hands makes a lucky winner of him – but also of you.”

Bruce Robbins quote from the introduction

In my usual “out of context” style, I tell you what the paragraph meant to me. As a writer, blogger, reader, whatever, my own goal is less to be popular than to be seen by any fellow serious reader. I don’t read and write to escape my current reality, as I feel most people do. I do it to learn, understand, and apply what I find to the world around me, to make myself a better person, and to share that understanding with as many people as want to listen. Sounds so lofty and unattainable, maybe even a bit conceited.

I, too, have thought to myself that I’m really writing to some future person that might stumble across what I’ve left behind and find joy in it, like a message in a bottle thrown to sea.

Stendhal published The Red and the Black in 1830, in France after Napoleon’s death. French history is fuzzy to me, so I’ll be doing my best to look into it more. I read a biography of Napoleon years ago and loved it, but that’s all I can say about it now. I’ve leant it to two other history lovers, and they enjoyed it too. There’s also a French Revolution book sitting on my TBR shelf that my brother-in-law leant me. Maybe I’ll read that alongside this.

One thing that seems fascinating to me is that the author lived his whole live in one of the most turbulent times in Western history. What would it be like to bring him here (ala Bill & Ted style) and talk with him?

The Red and the Black wasn’t translated into English until 1913, nearly one hundred years later, and here I am nearly two hundred years later, picking up the Barnes & Noble edition at a used bookstore for $7, snuggling into my couch in the desert with a cup of coffee and falling in love with his characters.

Oh! And I’ve recently joined Goodreads, so I’d love to be “friends” there if you have an account!

More From The Red and the Black
Spring: Novels, Passion, and Thought
Classic Fiction Does It For Me
Final Thoughts on Stendhal


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