Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Every year I make a list of the 15 or so books I’m most ashamed to admit I haven’t read. It’s always short enough to allow time for spur-of-the-moment picks, and long enough so I get a sense of completion when I’m finished. The list also functions as a diary of sorts. When I look back at the word file entitled mustread_99_doc., I can get a good idea of how I spent my leisure hours during my junior year of high school.Among the recent issues Lapidos has cleared up for Slate readers: Can a Man Become a Magnet?, How do archaeologists estimate the size of ancient populations?, Why Would Clemens Shoot Up With B-12?, and Why Is Florida God's Waiting Room?.
At the top of this year’s list – Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), Stendhal’s masterpiece about French society during the end days of the Restoration. His protagonist is Julien Sorel, an ambitious carpenter’s son who idolizes Napoleon, but who realizes that the path to power is no longer through the army (as during Napoleon’s time), but through the Church. He’s good at acting the part of a young priest in training (he even memorizes the gospels in Latin) but he has no innate sense of devotion or traditional moral compass.
Le Rouge et le Noir can be roughly broken up into three parts: Julien’s seduction of a provincial mayor’s wife – Mme. de Renal – his sojourn at a seminary, and his brief dalliance with Parisian high society. Throughout, Stendhal engages in some fairly obvious criticism of the hypocrisy that pervades French culture, which might’ve been bold at the time, but which now seems too heavy-handed. Still, there’s a lot to like: Stendhal’s great at describing firsts: Julien’s virgin voyage (Julien has no idea what he doing, but grandly envisions himself as a Napoleonic soldier subduing an enemy), his first dinner with aristocrats (awkward!).
Speaking of firsts, I recently went off-list to read First Love by Turgenev on my friend Nick McDonell’s recommendation. It made me wish I could read Russian, because I felt like I was reading something truly great, only through a haze.
Read more Slate articles by Juliet Lapidos.