Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Realized recently that I’ve never read many of the classic works of literature: no Dickens, no Hemingway, no Austen. So I picked up a dozen or so and I’m going to work my way through them.

Heart of Darkness is one of those books I’ve heard about for years, especially about its influence on other books and movies (notably Apocalypse Now).

It’s an odd book, short and yet seemingly told with one long breath, filled with racist slurs but treating the plight of africans under colonial rule with sympathy, overflowing with details one minute and skipping ahead days the next.

A few things about writing I learned from it:

  • Dropping the use of chapters, and keeping the narrative flow constant, means there’s no pauses for the reader to use as an excuse to put the book down.
  • A story that reads well aloud can be forgiven a lot. There’s large points where Conrad tells instead of showing, or skips over details, or repeats words and phrases, but it never bothered me enough that I stopped reading. The language drew me in; it sounded like the narrator was there whispering in my ear, and how could I be so rude as to stop listening?
  • First-person narration is still very powerful, combining direct access to a character’s thoughts with the characterization and reading speed you get from dialog.