Literary Lost – Viewing Television Through the Lens of Literature

Literary Lost

Years ago I caught two episodes of Lost on TV and thought it might be a series I’d enjoy. Only it was aired too late for me, so I gave up. A while ago I discovered Sarah Clarke Stuart’s book Literary Lost, which analyses the use of works of fiction in the series. Those familiar with Lost probably know that far over 70 books are used, mentioned, discussed, and alluded to in the series.

Some of the books are important because different characters read them. Others have influenced story lines. Others have the same themes and motives. The books are mostly literary fiction.

Some of the most important books which are used repeatedly are the following: Heart of Darkness, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe, Watership Down, Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies, Our Mutual Friend, Of Mice and Men, A Wrinkle in Time, Ulysses, The Odyssey, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Stand.

Some books that are equally important but not mentioned as often are: The Brothers Karamazov, Slaughterhouse Five, The Third Policeman, The Invention of Morel, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

The Crying of Lot 49 is never mentioned but it’s narrative plays an important role for those trying to understand the end of Lost.

After I started reading the book, I finally also started to watch the series. I must say, looking at it from a literary perspective makes for really exciting watching. With the exception of Adolfo Bioy Casares The Invention of Morel, I think I own almost all the books that are important in the show and have read many. Just last week I finished The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Sarah Clarke Stuart writes in Literary Lost that the series’ use of books was so influential that it has turned non-readers into readers, rekindled the interest of some who stopped reading, and has even led to higher sales for some books like Flann O’ Brien’s The Third Policeman.

Lost has also led to special book clubs in which people don’t only discuss the series but the books that are featured. It’s not surprising that there were challenges to read all of the titles.

Sarah Clarke Stuart’s book does more than just add another layer to the viewing experience. It shows that some TV series can offer more than pure escapism and are exciting narratives in their own right. She shows that Lost is a great example of a neo-baroque series:

In the case of Lost’s hyperconscious literary references, “nostalgic reverence” is usually the motive. The on-screen appearance of a book suggests certain themes, while paying homage to that particular work. Furthering the postmodern understanding of Lost, more than one academic observer has identified the “neo-baroque” qualities of the show, using the model that Angela Ndalianis provides in her book Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment. Intertextuality is a central prong of her neo-baroque construct; she explains that a text’s allusions create “folds” and “labyrinthine” impression. Neo-baroque narratives draw the audience into potentially infinite or at least multiple directions that rhythmycally recall what Focillon labels the “system of the labyrinth”.

Of course there are similar books on other TV series. I’ve got one dedicated to Six Feet Under (Reading Six Feet Under – TV to Die For) and at least half a dozen who study Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one or the other focussing on Veronica Mars.

I know this is a bit of a disjointed post, but I just wanted to share my enthusiasm for the series and the book. I was hoping that someone might be tempted to watch/re-watch Lost and that we might be able to discuss some of the topics and books. Or that those who love the series but were not aware of Literary Lost might pick it up.

I was wondering if anyone has read Bioy Casares The Invention of Morel. It’s the book mentioned in the series I’m most tempted to read at the moment.

Have you watched the series? Did it make you pick up some books?

25 thoughts on “Literary Lost – Viewing Television Through the Lens of Literature

  1. I have not seen Lost. Like many television series these days it looks very good and I believe that I would enjoy it. However, there is just no time for more television right now.

    The literary connections between television series are interesting and have often been the subject of my musings and discussions.

    maybe someday when I have more time I will get around to viewing lost. i suspect i may want to watch the entire series.

    • It’s one of those – once you start you don’t want to stop but it’s an awful time trap. I’m reading far less these days.
      It’s a lot of fun trying to catch all the allusions and refrences.

  2. I didn’t watch Lost, but I was aware of the links with Flann O’Brien and of the mini sales spike it provoked. I often wonder in slightly amused fashion at the probable disappointment of legions of show viewers who rushed out and bought a book about fat policemen, bicycles and “mollycules”. Flann is one of my favourites, but he’s a strange mix of intense (almost parochial) Irishness and outright invention and surreality. I know Emma didn’t get on with one of his others (At-Swim-Two-Birds) last year.

    I have read The Invention of Morel, and to be honest I wasn’t much taken with it. I’ve since read others by Bioy Caseres that I enjoyed much more, but it’s very short so I will go back to it. Was somewhat nonplussed by the praise I had read for it though.

    • Funny enough in the surveys that were conducted people said that they loved Flann O’Brien, like all the other books mentioned. Lost is quite crazy and surreal too. I always thought it was just a modern-day Robinson Crusoe survival tale but it’s not. I’ll let you know what they made with Flann O’Brien’s novel.
      Thanks for the input on Bioy Casares. I might still read it as it is short.

  3. This looks like a very interesting book, Caroline. I have seen a couple of episodes of ‘Lost’ and found it gripping, but didn’t continue to watch it as it is very long (ten seasons, I think). Hope someday I will get into it. I didn’t know that many of the characters in the series were book-ish and there is a literary aspect to the series. This is really wonderful. So glad that Sarah Clarke Stuart brings out that literary connection. Thanks for writing about this book. Hope you enjoy reading those books mentioned in her book. And hope you enjoy watching ‘Lost’ 🙂

    • It’s a long show. . Six seasons but 25 episodes each, so yes, it’s a commitment. I know I will end up regretting it because it will steal reading time.
      The charcaters aren’t really take from books, but they read and discuss them. Stories and plot lines are taken from books.
      I only recently discovered how many great books on great TV series there are.

  4. Hi, Caroline! Thanks so much for your review. I’ve never read the book “Literary Lost” nor seen the show “Lost.” The tv thing is partly because most good stuff is on too late, as well as that all good tv not re-reruns have gotten more and more expensive in the “packages” they provide, and so we’ve had to cut down on more and more of the shows we liked to watch. Still, it encourages me no end to know that literature has come to life again on a tv show, and I will be sure to recommend this book to people I know who watch a lot of “high-end” tv. I hope to be able to comment more often again on your site, as I have not been able to do since sometime in the early fall, because the two online library websites I was using were making updates or something, and they were not accessible to me, plus my transportation to the physical library ended. I had even cut down on the number of posts I was able to do on my own website. Isn’t it always the way? Everything goes ker-flooey at once! Ta! for now.

    • I noticed your absence on your blog. And here. Glad that you’re back.:) It’s always the same. Everythign always happens at the same time.
      As for the TV packages. Switzerland has Netflix since the end of last year and I noticed they update regularly, adding more movies and shows. Lost was added last week.!
      I guess it varies from country to country but I could imagine you’d get it in Canada. Lost and Netflix.
      I think this is an exciting series because it combines so many genre. It’s like a portal/quest/mystery/time travel/Sci-Fi/Ghost story.
      And I agree, it’s mazing a series could make people read and discover literary books.

      • Hi, sorry, just a footnote. I’ve no doubt they do get the show in Canada, especially if it’s on Netflix, but I’m in the U. S., despite appearances (i.e., having gotten a lot of my university schooling in Canada). Thanks for noticing my dereliction of pleasure (it can’t really be called a dereliction of duty, since I enjoy commenting on both my site and yours. You cover so much more territory literarily speaking than I can in the same amount of time. You’re a good reader, which makes it all the more surprising that you are also such a fast reader!); it’s nice to know that people notice that I’m around or not, as the case may be!

        • How odd. I could have sworn you live in Canada. Well -it should be on Netflix in the US.
          I don’t know about reading faster. I hardly ever pick hefty tomes.
          I do notice whether you’re around even if I don’t always read/comment. 🙂

  5. I haven’t ever seen Lost – how are the books used? Are they discussed by the characters in the series? Are they books they happen to have with them, or find? I can’t imagine how they fit in, but am curious to know!

    • Exactly, they are discussed by the characters. Or sometimes a character is seen reading one and then later something happens that has an uncanny resemblance. Or they quote them. Or it’s purely intertextual. Mini-retellings and the like. I’m watching season one where the use of books starts slowly. In the later seasons the use is more extensively. Sometimes an episdoe has a title that will reference a book. “White Rabbitt” for example. It’s clearly taken from Alice in Wonderland but there’s no rabbit in the series, it’s something else luring the character. Occasionally you even need to know a book to make sense of an episode.

    • It takes a while until the books become more important. At first there are little hints but once they realized people liked it, they incorporated more and more. So you have to be patient. Season 1 isn’t as literature-heavy yet.

  6. I’ve never seen an episode of Lost but the book does sound interesting enough to stand on its own, so I may pick up a copy. I’ve noticed this kind of thing in a lot of “series TV” in the last few years, and it always makes me smile. I remember watching Mad Men always wondering which book the two main characters were going to be reading in bed. Just adds to the fun.

    • I didn’t know that about MadMen as I haven’t watched it. I agree, it does add to the fun. I always try to see what people are reading in movies and series.
      In this case it gives a whole new twist to “books to take to an island”.

    • If you don’t want to watch the series you’re in a better position to read the book because it’s spoiler-heavy. I will have to wait until I’m advanced in te series.

  7. I must admit I thought Lost was kind of a Survivor-type show and just didn’t want to commit that much time. You’ve made me interested, though.
    I often pick up a book when it’s referred to repeatedly in the book I’m reading or the movie I’ve watched. Wouldn’t it be nice to be responsible for so many people reading great literature?

    • I think they got a real kick out of this and even started using a consultant to help them choose books in later seasosn.
      I too thought it was a survivor story but when they are hunted by a polar bear in episode two it is kind of obvious that strange things are going on on that island.

  8. A very interesting post, Caroline. I watched part of the first series of Lost, but time got the better of me and I fell out of the swing of it. I wasn’t aware of the literary references, but Sarah Clarke’s Stuart’s book does sound intruiging.

    Grant (at the 1st Reading blog) has reviewed The Invention of Morel, fairly recently as it happens. I’m very keen to read it myself as I loved the novella Bioy Casares wrote with Silvina Ocampo, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate. It made my end-of-year highlights. Morel sounds somewhat different to the joint novella, but Grant liked it and I’m curious about the premise. It’s on my post #TBR20 wishlist.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I think it’s a very interesting book. The use of literature in the series is different than what I’ve seen in other series. It’s not just randowm books reflecting one character’s taste but they ae part of the story and the interpretation of it. It’s not a series you can just dip into.
      I don’t think I saw Grant’s review. Thanks for mentioning it. I’m interested in reading it. I remember you liking the joint book.

  9. I haven’t seen this series and I hadn’t heard of it to be honest. Now I’ll have to look it up. I own the Invention of Morel but have yet to read it–sounds good, doesn’t it?

  10. I had no idea! I am not much for watching TV. I will hear of something good and borrow it if it is on DVD but I always fizzle out before I get too far in. Since it is TV I am not sure I mind, but I do wonder sometimes about my attention span. I like the idea of the literary twist, though. It might be fun to read along with watching but that is a lot of books! How many seasons are/were there?

    • There are 6 seasons of 25 episodes each. And each episode ends with a cliff hanger. It’s really bad. I’m quite good with wathing whole series. I stick to them and won’t watch anything else until the series is finished. Mostly. 🙂

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