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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Adding Surprise to Your Reading Life

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Recently I was attempting to reorganize my books — well, that’s a lie, I was attempting to ORGANIZE my books, which had never been organized — and I found a copy of “Washington Square,” by Henry James. It’s a tiny novel, “a slip of a thing,” and was originally serialized, so it’s snappy and swift. (James’s later novels are the opposite: byzantine, subtle, even the subtexts have subtexts, etc. They are wonderful but require deep concentration.) Anyhow, I hadn’t read “Washington Square” for a decade, and happily dove into what Wikipedia calls “a structurally simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, unemotional father.”

While technically accurate, that summary undersells the book. It is a roller coaster. Catherine is the daughter in question, and she is an affecting character, even if James compares her intellect to “a bundle of shawls.” The conflict between Catherine and her father centers on a scheming guy who courts Catherine for her money. Catherine’s father sees right through this gold digger, but Catherine falls victim to his masculine wiles. The back of my copy has a blurb from Graham Greene that states “Washington Square” is “perhaps the only novel in which a man has successfully invaded the feminine field,” which is offensive to all genders — but a terrific entry into the Backhanded Compliment Blurb Hall of Fame!

I’ll take the chance here to share a curious datum about James that may or may not influence your reading. One of his close friends was Edith Wharton, and many years ago I visited Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Mass. (You can take a tour! The gardens are magnificent.) Wharton built special guest quarters for James at the mansion, including an en-suite bathroom. When I visited, I couldn’t help but notice that his bathroom had no toilet. I’m pretty certain the other bathrooms had toilets, which are generally considered a staple of the bathroom genre. Was the lack of toilet something James had … specifically requested? One must ponder.

Read if you like: Meddling in other people’s business, “Succession,” bulldozing over hundreds of red flags in pursuit of a crush

Available from: Penguin Classics (or score a copy on eBay, like I did)

Plunge further into books at The New York Times

Send newsletter feedback to RLTW@nytimes.com

P.S. Pro tip: If you’re not currently seeking a book to read, you can always stash these newsletters and refer to them next time you need one. As Alec Baldwin famously said in “Glengarry Glen Ross”:

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