Nate Meyvis

Reading notes: The Sorrows of Young Werther

  1. I note with embarrassment that this is the first German novel I've ever finished. (If memory serves.)
  2. Of every novel I've ever read, this might be the hardest to read as intended, or as its original audience would have read it. In 2023, Werther is hard to see sympathetically.
  3. It's also hard not to read him as adolescent, in a way that's probably anachronistic. (Consider: "My days are as happy as those reserved by God for his elect; and, whatever be my fate hereafter, I can never say that I have not tasted joy,—the purest joy of life.") And thinking of Werther as adolescent is where I come closest to liking him.
  4. My favorite passages are where the narrator gives general remarks about human nature. (Consider: "In this world one is seldom reduced to make a selection between two alternatives.") This is rarely what I like best in a good book.
  5. These days I'm often thinking about which "classic" books are more and less often read relative to their fame. War and Peace is famously long and challenging, but I'm rarely surprised to discover that someone I know has read it. I can't remember the last time someone of my acquaintance talked about reading any Goethe, or specifically The Sorrows of Young Werther. The book that makes me most curious in this regard is Balzac's The Human Comedy. It's quite famous and quite influential--just read what Rodin said about him!--yet I cannot name a single person whom I'm confident has read it. (I read the first bit of it, and it was both wonderful and accessible.)

Published 2023-05-26.