Book Review: The Sun Also Rises -- #1 In My 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge


The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.... The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose....” Ecclesiastes as quoted in the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises.

The Book Review

The debut novel by Ernest Hemingway is arguably the best book he ever wrote. It was an instant bestseller, and is today considered probably “the” book of his generation. Published in 1926, between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, it captured the mood of the “Lost Generation”. These were war wounded souls for whom life’s peacetime events seemed insignificant. Many like those in this book stayed behind in Europe and indulged themselves in lives that would have provoked scandal back home. 

In fact, The Sun Also Rises was considered scandalous by many when published, including Hemingway’s own mother, who reportedly wrote to the author that his was “one of the filthiest books of the year”, and that  “every page fills me with sick loathing.”

Back then the scandal about the book had to do with its use of swear words and its depiction of “loose morals” in the relationships between the male and female characters. More recently the book has been criticized for the antisemitism and bigotry of its characters - the derogatory language used about the Jewish character Robert Cohn, and the use of both the N word (repeatedly) and the F word - as well as its realistic depiction of bull fighting.

The story is told through the eyes of Jake Barnes, an American news reporter in Paris whose war wounds have left him impotent. He is surrounded by a group of friends, American and British. The English Lady Brett Ashley proclaims her love for Jake, but given his inability to have sex they both realize they’ll never be more than confidants and close friends. 

The main action in the book is the result of a love triangle around Brett that plays out on a trip to Pamplona, Spain where the group goes to take part in the Fiesta de San Fermin. They take part in the annual running of the bulls, and are daily spectators at the bull fights. There is much drinking and partying.

It's clear that Hemingway sees bullfighting as a metaphor for manliness.  Jake’s love of bull fighting is in some sense a compensation for his own perceived lack of manliness given his war wounds. He is a true aficionado of bullfighting, and he takes the time to let us know that he's recognized as such by the Spaniards he has befriended in Pamplona. Bullfighting means even more than that to Hemingway, who wrote later that attending a bull fight is like watching a great tragedy - like “having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you.” The tragedy that surrounds the bullfighting in the book mirrors the misadventure that the happy trip of Barnes and his friends becomes. 

Given that Brett is the epitome of the 1920s New Woman - liberated and promiscuous - it’s not unexpected that she falls for the handsome young bullfighter. This, despite being accompanied by her supposed fiance Michael on the trip to Pamplona, and having just completed a dalliance with Robert Cohn. Cohn keeps hanging around though others in the group (especially the would be fiance) repeatedly urge him to just go away. 

Through it all, even through the fist fight at the climax of the book, Jake remains detached while still a part of events, a reflection of the detachment of his whole lost generation.

It's Hemingway’s writing style that makes the book transcend its story of lost souls spending their prime in partying and dissipation. The spareness and understatedness he’s known for is at a peak in this book. It’s a real pleasure to read.

When it comes to classics like this it doesn't feel right to assign them a rating. What I will say is that I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this book and would recommend it highly to anyone who has not yet read it.

NOTE: I found the quotes from Hemingway and his mother in the excellent Wikipedia article on this book, where they are appropriately attributed.

Classics Challenge

This is the first book toward what I’m calling my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I’m challenging myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics per month for 2022. It’s part of my overall goal to read 100 books again this year. How I got these Modern Library editions is explained below...

Collecting Modern Library

When I first got out of college and settled into my own place one of the things I liked to do on weekend afternoons was visit bookstores, especially used book stores. After I moved for my job to Evanston, IL, the home of Northwestern University and a number of really good used book shops, this habit increasingly picked up. (One of the best of those book shops was the amazing Bookman’s Alley, which sadly closed in 2013.) 

It was during this time that I began collecting pocket sized hardcover books. I just liked the idea of the pocket sized hardcover. Modern Library editions were easily collectable - they were popular in their time which meant there were alot of them about, and they at one point had a whole series of numbered classic books. Every time I went to a used bookstore I’d seek out small hardcover books and ended up with quite a collection of them, including over 40 Modern Library editions.

Reading Modern Library

The thing about this collecting habit I had back in the 80s is that, at the time at least, I viewed these books more as art objects than books. While I was buying them, I was also buying trade paperbacks to read, and satisfied myself with just displaying my pocket hardcovers on my bookshelf.

As time went by I found the love of my life, and the two of us settled down and began putting our energy into our life together and our careers. My book buying jaunts went by the wayside. And, unfortunately, my reading habit dropped off as well.

Now that I’m retired I’ve picked up reading again and have been writing my book review blog for the past couple of years. As 2022 approached I thought about my reading goals for the year. I want to read some classics this year, and what better way to do it than by picking these “art objects” off my own shelves and treating them like the books that they are!

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This classic book is now in the public domain and is available in a number of different formats from a number of different publishers. In most of the bookseller's links above, and in the description below, I’ve chosen to feature the 2016 edition from Sribner's Hemingway Library. Scribner is the book's original publisher. This edition includes introductions by the author’s son and grandson, as well as appendices of original material that Hemingway cut from the book.

Title: The Sun Also Rises
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)  
Publish Date: February 16, 2016 (originally published October 22, 1926)
ISBN-13: 9781501121968
List Price: $18.00 (Trade Paperback as of 1/2022)