“Thus religion is always insisting on the shortness of human life. But it does not insist on the shortness of human life as the pessimists insist on it. Pessimism insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is valueless. Religion insists on the shortness of human life in order to show that life is frightfully valuable — is almost horribly valuable. Pessimism says that life is so short that it gives nobody a chance; religion says that life is so short that it gives everybody his final chance.”–G.K. Chesterton
We all know those books. We’re assigned them in some English class, have heard of them before, know they’re well-regarded, and are probably mildly interested in them. And then we read them.
And we ask ourselves what exactly is going on. Why are these books remembered? What’s the big deal? There doesn’t seem to be much of anything extraordinary about these books, they’re just…books. They don’t seem to be life-changing, worldview-altering, or even mildly interesting. We’re left wondering why this is a book that so many people regard so well.
I read a book like this recently, and you’ve almost certainly heard of it. It’s called Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. I finished the Prologue and the first tale and was completely at a loss as to why I was reading this. I knew that there must be some reason this book was remembered, but I was genuinely clueless as to what that reason was. That’s when I remembered what W.H. Auden said.
He said, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”
It’s a simple quote, but it’s something that resonated with me. Even though I didn’t “get” Canterbury Tales, I knew that there were people that did–and when they got it they realized that this was a good book. Canterbury Tales is remembered, like all classics (at least according to Auden), because there is something quite worthwhile about it. So I gave it a chance. I kept reading it, and kept trying to figure it out. I went to class still with no idea as to what the point of it all was.
And I walked out of class knowing, at least in part, what Canterbury Tales was all about, and why it was remembered. The point of this post isn’t to analyze Canterbury Tales, so I won’t go into detail on that. It was such an interesting experience that it reminded me of something that Sam Koenen, a teacher, said when talking about how many people read books today.
“Modern readers judge a book within the first few paragraphs. More charitable readers might make it through a few chapters, but ultimately, if the book doesn’t justify itself to the read he condemns it as useless. The modern reader assumes that he stands as judge over the book. The book has to satisfy him, because it exists solely to benefit him. And for most modern readers, if the book isn’t immediately accessible and appealing, it’s trash.”
I’ve seen this as true in my own reading. I’ll be reading a classic, not get it, and assume that therefore there’s nothing there to get. What Koenen pointed out to me is that that is an incredibly impatient and arrogant way to view a book, especially a classic. Auden reinforces the point by assuring us that classics are classics because there’s something there. He assures us that we won’t be disappointed when we decide to give the book a shot. Combined, I think that what Auden and Koenen are telling us is that we should give a book a chance. Even if we don’t get it right away, or at all, we should still give it a shot.
It may take some time, it may take some discussion and some reading of other’s writings on the subject, but it will be worth it. Classics are classics for a reason, and I need to remember that.
I found this quite humorous. I do wish Safire would have included what Orwell did after he gave his list of writing rules. He said, “break any of these rules instead of saying something outright barbarous.” This list is helpful, but as many authors have pointed out, rules are quite difficult to pin down when it comes to writing. That being said, enjoy the quote.
“Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”–William Safire
Whatever your opinion is of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the story behind it is fascinating and heartbreaking. She wrote it because she was asking a question–as she puts it, she wrote it because she was wondering about something. It was something her son had asked her, when he was flying missions in the first war in Iraq. He said that every day he was flying he would look down through the smoke and ask himself, “why do people do such terrible things to each other, and what can we do to stop it?” Her son tragically passed away.
That’s a powerful reason to write a book, and that’s an incredibly difficult question. When Lowry attempted to answer it in The Giver she gave us what is, in my opinion, an absolutely amazing book. To be honest, it’s one of my favorites, if not my favorite. Thus, I was quite excited for the film, but had low expectations. I was worried that since the book was so introspective the film wouldn’t be able to capture the emotion, the drama, and the conflict that goes on.
Sadly, I was right.
The Giver, the film, should be given credit for trying really hard. Whether for good or for ill, the film sticks rather close to the book. While it did introduce more action, as well as increase the scope and focus of the film, by and large this is The Giver.
And actually, I think that’s one of the flaws of the film. Like I said, the book is incredibly introspective, and that’s one of the primary reasons it worked, in my opinion. The book isn’t about a community that’s lost emotion and color and beauty, it’s about a boy who’s lost emotion and color and beauty. The difference is everything. The book doesn’t try to make grand statements about humanity and all of human experience. Instead, it tries to tell the story of one boy and his experience, and in so doing happens to say something grand.
The film reverses that. It tries to say something grand, and happens to have a boy at the center of it. Which, of course, misses the entire point.
The film, instead of being an emotionally charged character study, is a critique of society. That means that now the question of the importance of emotions is being discussed on a massive scale, as the powers in the world of The Giver grapple with the equilibrium they’ve created and that is now slowly slipping away. Now, in of and itself, a critique of society isn’t a bad story, but the critique cannot fall prey to the same problems it is criticizing. The Giver does just this.
The Giver film starts out well–it seems like it’s going to create the emotional pull that made the book what it is. But very quickly, you realize that because the questions and themes of the book are being played out on a large scale, the emotion is disappearing. The film rises to its climax where it attempts to tell us how important and vital emotion is to human experience, but ironically fails to contain any emotion of its own.
In short, it’s an emotionless movie about the importance of emotion, and it simply doesn’t work. I think most of the other problems in the film stem from this simple fault; and as a result, the film never manages to get itself off the ground. Lois Lowry wrote The Giver to examine an important question, and she knew just how to do it. The Giver film tries to examine an important concept, but never manages to do it in the right way. I can’t recommend this film.
Jim Flynn, on why reading will free you. I wrote a post on this quote here.
“You can know enough accounting to help a corporation evade their taxes, own a large house and drive an expensive car, and yet be no freer than a medieval serf, buffeted about by social forces he could not comprehend. Or you can enter a magic realm in which people are more interesting, informed, amusing and intelligent than anyone you encounter in everyday life. You can learn about our past, its wars and triumphs, you can learn about our time, its sins and joys, about America, Britain, the Russian soul, and why we will all have to settle for less if our planet is to survive.”–Jim Flynn, “Born Into the Magic Realm”
Multiple people have written, while analyzing O’Connor’s writing, about how much humor she includes. Sometimes it’s hard to see, but with this story, The Crop, it really wasn’t hard at all. The Crop is the type of story I feel like O’Connor would write when she had writer’s block. It’s a story about how hard stories are, and the difficulties involved in writing them.
It follows a character named Miss Willerton as she attempts to figure out what she should write. As many of O’Connor’s characters that I’ve encountered so far, Willerton has a bloated view of herself, but also has a comical semi-obsession with being “sophisticated” in her writing. It really is hilarious.
The way O’Connor writes Miss Willerton allows you to feel the disdain she has for the “un-artistic” people she lives with. When she goes to sit down at the typewriter and start writing, though, she can’t come up with a story. She decides to write about sharecropping, after this amusing passage:
Social problem. Social problem. Hmmm. Sharecroppers! Miss Willerton had never been intimately connected with sharecroppers but, she reflected, they would make as arty a subject as any, and they would give her that air of social concern which was so valuable to have in the circles she was hoping to travel!
The humor is obvious, but it also provides a contrast to O’Connor herself, I find.
By this, I mean that reading this story, and seeing a writer obsessed with being sophisticated and artistic contrasted with what O’Connor seems to write about. I highly doubt she intended this, but if you think about it what are the primary subjects of O’Connor’s stories, at least so far?
Most of the time, O’Connor simply writes about, well, simple people. As far as I can tell, and I may very well be wrong on this, she doesn’t seem to attempt to make grand, sweeping statements about much of anything. Instead she tells simple stories, about a man who can’t get along with the city he’s in. Stories about a man convinced he’s right. Stories about terrified people, who think they’re stronger then they really are.
It’s an interesting contrast, and one that I enjoyed reading. Of course, as it must, the story ends with yet another humorous passage as Miss Willerton reads back over the story she’s written less than a paragraph of:
“That sounds awful!” Miss Willerton muttered. “It’s not a good subject anyway,” she decided. She needed something more colorful–more arty. Miss Willerton looked at her typewriter for a long time. Then of a sudden her fist hit the desk in several ecstatic little bounces. “The Irish!” she squealed. “The Irish!” Miss Willerton had always admired the Irish. Their brogue, she thought, was full of music; and their history–splendid! And the people she mused, the Irish people! They were full of spirit–red-haired, with broad shoulders and great, drooping mustaches.
I’ve read the story a few times, and I can’t find any deeper meaning–which is fine. Sometimes stories are just stories, and this one seems to be just that. It’s fun to read what seems like O’Connor sighing, lamenting the difficulty of story-telling. Thankfully though, unlike Miss Willerton, O’Connor actually finished her stories.
“Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do. Now, the point here is that to me this did not seem unjust. If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, “Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,” the other might fairly reply, “Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.” If Cinderella says, “How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?” her godmother might answer, “How is it that you are going there till twelve?” If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth. And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture.” –G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland”