On books and apes


Most of the year I prefer paper books to ebooks, but for my summer travels I fill my trusted ereader with everything that catches my eye on Project Gutenberg, to ensure that I will always have access to something to read. A title that naturally caught my interest in this process was The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley.

The story itself turned out to be a wildly improbable tale centred around a second-hand bookstore in Brooklyn shortly after the end of the first world war. However, it wasn’t the plot that made it worth reading but the way it was brimming with the love of books and filled by quotations from books and musings on books and bookstores. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to any of the books recommended in it.

However, in addition to all the recommended reading it also repeatedly ranted against bad literature. Shallow but entertaining books that people read instead of the much better books the author believed they ought to read. In the novel the book that more than anyone else symbolized this tendency was Tarzan of the Apes, which I imagine must have been a Da Vinci code of the early 20th century. As I did have access to Tarzan I decided to take the risk, ignore the warnings, and see what it was all about.

Having read it I can certainly see both why it was so popular and why it made more critical readers despair. The plot is of course improbable but fast-paced and reasonably captivating (and not much worse than the plot of The Haunted Bookshop). The writing is nothing special but unobtrusive. The greatest flaw is instead the characters who, all but Tarzan himself, are paper thin tropes. This is most disturbing for the African characters who tend to be based on racist tropes, but the European and American characters are only slightly less cliched, take e.g. the distracted professor who gets lost trying to find a post office in the middle of the jungle… I did like Tarzan though. His transitions from life as an ape and as a man is perhaps not great literature but it is fun and gives him enough internal conflict to make him stand out from the average pulp fiction character of the time.

I count Tarzan of the Apes as my classic from the Americas for my Back to the Classics reading challenge.

12 thoughts on “On books and apes

  1. Tarzan is maybe not great literature but he certainly did take hold in the cultural imagination … I think there is a place for such reading, there is much snobbery about popular lit, but there must be something in it that feeds the human soul. Unfortunately it does sometimes go with racist or other unenlightened views but that is true of highbrow books as well, they usually partake of the mores of the time. Anyway, you make me interested to read Tarzan and see for myself!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was just what my tired brain needed in the beginning of my vacation. Tarzan may be a bit too dated to fully captivate me but I certainly think there should be room for reading good genre literature of the type that may not really challenge you or make you think, but do immerse you in wondrous adventures. I can imagine Tarzan doing just that a hundred years ago.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve been hoping to reread the sequel to the first Tarzan novel for some time but haven’t got round to it yet. This review may be the push I need: I’d forgotten that, despite its almost total lack of political correctness, it is at heart a romantic adventure, and your comments reinforce this impression.

    I looked in detail at its structure here — https://wp.me/s2oNj1-apeman — and a bit of the background, which you may find interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No, my memory is that it didn’t have the novelty or narrative impact of the first, but who knows, I read many of these Tarzan stories, picked up from secondhand bookshops, in my early teens, and I may have a different view of it all now!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s something about Burroughs writing that appeals hugely to me, Not great literature, for sure, but great fun, and I don’t see anything wrong with that! As I commented earlier, I loved his John Carter books so the next time you’re at a loose end I highly recommend them… 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m like you. I prefer paper to the Kindle but when I travel, and for books in Spanish that I can’t get in paper copy unless I pay a hefty price, I appreciate the Kindle.
    I have not read Tarzan yet, but I agree with Morley’s sentiment. However, I just think the key is in the proportion of entertainment versus good quality literature, or the fact that many never leave the world of entertainment.
    There’s many light books that are amazing and have quality because their authors understand where the type of book they are writing.
    Glad to see friends I follow in your readership.

    Liked by 1 person

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