There is an intended compulsivity to my To-Be-Read list. Theoretically, I read what’s on my stack in the order in which it was added to the stack. My books should all wait their turn behind the velvet line divider next to the sign that says “Wait Here For Next Available Associate”. It’s a neat, orderly procession because I don’t like my books to crowd me and line management is important. In theory, everything executes like clockwork, one of those Swiss clocks that is a marvel of efficiency and accuracy.
In practice, my To-Be-Read list is less a line of well-behaved books patiently waiting their turn than a crowd rushing the entrance of Toys”R”Us the day after Thanksgiving. There’s pushing, shoving, hair-pulling, and at least one fistfight. I want to be methodical and deliberate, I really do, because from the outside that approach seems marvelously productive. It’s a practice I have yet to translate into reality. For example, I’ve had Stacy Schiff’s The Witches on my list since the day it came out. That book is a straight-up diva though and I haven’t had the necessary uninterrupted time that a diva demands. Then there are my disappeared titles, because I lost my working TBR list in a disastrous iPhone update a few months ago so there are a bunch of books that I know I want to read but no longer know the names of. WHYYYY APPLE WHYYYY??? Then, of course, there are the books that are recommended to me by other enthusiastic readers. I get super pumped for those because sharing is caring and asking me to read a book you like is a secret mystery-coded message that says you like me BEST of all the people you know. It’s ok! I won’t tell anyone else that I am your favorite. If all of this feels like an elaborate justification as to why I just had to bump Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the top of the stack last week, well, your instincts are dead on.
Mary Shelley: Whut
Me: DEAD on. Get it??
Mary Shelley: Ugh
I suppose if any book is going to push to the front of the line with terrible manners and superhuman strength, it would be Frankenstein. The story behind the book is almost as famous as the book itself. In 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband the poet Percy Shelley were on an extended European tour, staying away from England for really good reasons that included avoiding Percy’s first wife Harriet, who was a tad cranky because Percy had run away with Mary while still married to Harriet. While in Switzerland, Mary, Percy, Mary’s stepsister Jane and their friends Lord Byron and John Polidori found themselves stuck inside on a rainy day. They challenged each other to tell ghost stories to pass the time and that was one hell of a one-up story session because that little party germinated both the vampire genre (hat tip to John Polidori) and the Frankenstein monster.
Percy: Whatcha doing Mary
Mary: BRB writing classic horror novel
Percy: Well “classic” might be premature—
Mary: also inventing science fiction
Percy: Okay, sure, it’s original but-
Mary: what’d YOU do today
I hadn’t read Frankenstein in a long loooong time and in truth, I didn’t read it that closely the first time. It was assigned reading in a British Literature class, a class in which the volume of assigned reading was honestly insane. The teacher’s approach was basically “British people wrote a lot of stuff. Let’s read all of it in two months.” It was all I could do to keep up with it. By the time that class was over, I was so burned out I hated England, Princess Diana, tea, Masterpiece Theater, and Monty Python. As a result of this shallow immersion, most of the Frankenstein lore I was carrying around in my head was supplied by Mel Brooks. (I’m not even sorry because Gene Wilder’s hair in “Young Frankenstein” is perfection.) When a friend told me she was reading Frankenstein for her book club and struggling a bit with it, I couldn’t abandon her to the wilds of English gothic horror. I had been there, and I have the scars to prove it. It was time to up-end my TBR stack yet again, stop skating on my sketchy, force-fed-British-Lit Frankenstein memories, and give that tall drink of mostly dead water the attention it deserved.
One trip to the used bookstore later, I was prepared to be scared. The Frankenstein monster we know, the force of nature that is a dangerous combination of brute power and pure instinct, is a creepy figure, but the Frankenstein monster in the book is actually far removed from today’s pop culture, neck bolt version. The monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, is an arrogant scientist who single-mindedly pursues the ultimate scientific challenge – creating life in inanimate tissue. Once he reaches his goal, he abandons his creation, unable to come to terms with the ramifications of his actions and unwilling to accept responsibility for his profound discovery. Mary Shelley curses her monster with self-awareness, a being who is unable to feel gratitude for the life he was given because he knows he is ultimately not of the world that he’s living in. This book is wildly modern, and the questions Mary Shelley raises about the ethical pursuit of knowledge are even more relevant now. I was also stunned at what a huge whiny man-baby Victor Frankenstein is. I missed that completely the first time around. I was rooting for the monster, frankly.
Mary: Me too TBH
My TBR stack is still a work in progress, a messy monster of my own creation. After I finished Frankenstein, I went back to the next book in the stack and promised myself no more interruptions. I’d completely forgotten that Charles Finch’s new one in the Charles Lenox series, The Inheritance, came out this week. Ooops. Charles Lenox has VIP status at my club so he always goes to the front of the line. I’ll get back to the stack right after I finish it.
You might be able to catch the National Theater Live’s version of Frankenstein. It’s making encore rounds now. Check it out here.