I recently read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It’s structurally odd – six stories which are all set in different historical periods and linked – but not causally.
i.e. the first strand is written as a journal, and the second has a character who finds the journal in a library and reads it, but is otherwise unconnected. It has the first half of all six narratives chronologically and then finishes them off in reverse order – i.e. 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1 – so it ends with the one it started on. There are themes that run through, but still, it’s basically a book of shortish stories arranged in a gimmicky way.
Even so, I think it does, on balance, feel more like one work than six. And a lot of the writing is very good, though some strands are more successful than others. I still can’t decide whether the whole manages to be more than the sum of the parts. Does the result justify the gimmick? The historical sweep of the book, taken seriously, implies a kind of importance – it is a narrative on the Grand Scale. But actually it’s several narratives on the small scale.
I’m going round in circles (rather like Cloud Atlas). I am glad I read it, but not as impressed by it as I was hoping, given the reviews.
I’ve also just read Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, by Lauren Slater. I read it in a couple of sittings, because it was readable and interesting, and I’d certainly recommend it, without feeling it changed my view of the world. That might seem like a high bar to set, but considering that I know relatively little about experimental psychology, there was room for it to teach me stuff. In the event, most of the experiments were more-or-less familiar from other reading. I suppose psychology has quite a high public profile.
Next up – the new translation of Don Quixote. January 16th was the 400th anniversary of the novel’s publication, and as I didn’t finish it when I tried reading it as a teenager, I thought this was a good time to have another go.