Literacy Rant: Closing Thoughts

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So the task was simple. Pick five and only five books that would do two things: stand as a crash course in literature and encourage the reader to continue that education on his own. I’m pleased with the list and stand behind it, but there are a few random thoughts that occur to me.

I’m not a misogynist. But I may be a chauvinist. There aren’t any women authors on the list. The books are by and large ‘boy stories’. Women could, and certainly do, enjoy them but they all have male heroes and are generally male viewpoints. In part this is because the list was made by an older dude (me) for a younger dude (an illiterate moron I work with). The only real candidate I could come up with to fit the criteria was To Kill a Mockingbird. This is probably, and hopefully, just a hole in my own reading preferences, but if I were making a list for a young lady who didn’t want to read about wolves and murderers…well I’d be pretty much screwed.

I’m not a snob. I have a problem with people who look down their noses at popular fiction just because it’s popular. The books on the list are generally considered classics, but they’re also good stories. I think they’re all powerful as Literature with that stupid capital ‘l’, but if you don’t enjoy reading something what’s the goddamned point? Take away that snobbish capital ‘l’ and you might have better luck getting somebody hooked on reading with Harry Potter. Those books are easy to make fun of if your reading nose is in the air. I read every one of ’em and thought they were pretty flippin great.

I’m a paranoid conspiracy theorist. Fahrenheit 451 made my list because it was more accessible than 1984 but I really wanted 1984 on the list. I don’t know if people are truly getting dumber, although it certainly feels that way. It’s easy (and apparently human nature) to think kids are more stupid than you are. But it’s not a case of raw intelligence so much as a framework to express that intelligence. A book like 1984 can give you the syntax to express what you think of things with names like red light cameras, full body scans at airports, the patriot act, or tracking chips in your phone.  As far as I know, 1984 is no longer widely taught. I’m not sure that’s an accident.

I have no idea if this will work. The young guy I made this list for transferred to another department and I no longer see him. If he had read the list, I don’t know if it would be the magical transformation I hoped for. To tell you the truth I don’t think he would have even tried to read them. I can’t force him. Well, I suppose I could, but that would be me infringing on his right to be aggressively ignorant and I am a strong believer in individual rights. I’ll keep trying though. His replacement is another young kid. If I throw enough books out there maybe one will stick.

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Crash Course in Literacy: Part 5

No Country for Old Men (film)

Image via Wikipedia

When I started this list, I mentioned that I had a reading order in mind for the books. It’s an order based on very subjective (and very arguable, I’m sure) feelings of ‘hard’ versus ‘easy’. Fahrenheit 451 is a great book but I consider it an ‘easy’ book. It’s fast paced, kind of fun, and a quick read. That’s not a knock either. The idea was to snare the young man who doesn’t read and you’re not going to do that with War and Peace or Moby Dick or really anything with a decent movie version out. The tones of the books (also very subjective) seem to get darker and more intense as they go along. And that brings us to the graduate course in this super-truncated literary education.

Cormac McCarthy is less subjective, less arguable. His books are not ‘easy’; the man doesn’t use quotation marks! The tone is bleak, desolate, relentless, dark…yeah all of those coupled with rape, incest, murder and other cheerful bits of violence. That cheerful was sarcasm. Somehow, though, his prose manages to be beautiful, his characters compelling, and his storytelling is imaginative and gripping.

No Country for Old Men is McCarthy at his best. It takes place in the West. Texas to be exact apparently circa the early eighties. It is at the same time the Mythic West of America but he subverts the reader’s expectation of that Mythos to explore things like the meaning (if any) of bravery, the meaning (if any) of right and wrong, the meaning (or existence) of morality, and the true depth of darkness one (apparently) human being is capable of. If that all sounds heavy, it is, but I don’t think it’s on purpose. McCarthy doesn’t appear to be subversive for its own sake. I think he just really sees things this way and those are the stories he tells.

No Country is simple enough. A blue collar kind of guy finds a bag full of money. The manner of the finding leaves no doubt that this is blood money from across the border. He takes the money and the cartel is after him. He makes a run of it and he seems to be doing well but it’s not just gun thugs after him. Also after him is a truly remorseless killer who doesn’t like to get blood on his clothes. Also a sheriff named Ed Tom.

Okay maybe it’s not that simple and if you haven’t read it that little synopsis will probably just confuse you. If it’s not simple in subject matter it is brutally simple in style. This story has been taken down to bare metal. Then had an edge put on that metal. Then that edge is honed and stropped until you can shave with it. No word is wasted or out of place and despite that kind of work from the writer, the book still expects a lot from the reader. McCarthy never once tells us, as narrator, who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy or what motivates a character or even what they look like. Everything we think or feel about a character is something we have to take based on what they do or what someone else in the book says about them. That takes a certain something from a writer…balls? insanity? reckless endangerment? Most of us as writers are concerned (read terrified) that we won’t get what we are thinking across to the reader. So we modify and explain and ramble on. Whether McCarthy has faith in his writing, faith in his reader, or just doesn’t give a shit, I don’t know. But it makes a hell of a good read and an affecting read. I would hope the experience of having a writer expect something from you and finding you are up to it would hook you on reading forever.

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Crash Course in Literacy: Part 2

I’m not sure why but when I made my five book reading list for my barely literate young man, I had a specific order in mind for the books.  Fahrenheit 451 was first because it’s fairly short and straightforward making for an accessible and enjoyable read with the ‘big ideas’ right there to grasp.  The next book is Call of The Wild by Jack London.  It’s longer yet still a pretty straightforward adventure story but has some more subtle things going for it.  It also has some fond personal memories so maybe I’ll go at it from that angle.

I don’t know about these days but there was a time when this novel was considered a classic ‘boy’s book’ like Old Yeller or The Yearling.  Perhaps it’s the adventure aspect which gets it cast as juvenile literature but it’s actually pretty dark and melancholy with some pretty intense scenes of violence and survival.  I couldn’t have been more than ten when I read it which, in retrospect, might have been a little young.  Not because a boy can’t handle the dark tone but because the underlying theme of Buck finding his way back to his wild and wolfish roots and the artful way London lays it out, might be lost on a young boy.

Buck, if you haven’t read it, is a dog.  A big and content domesticated dog in a respectable and comfortable California house.  The gardener of the household steals Buck and sells him and the dog is sent to Alaska.  The story takes place during the Klondike Gold Rush so sled dogs and their importance is a big deal.  Buck is taken on by a pair of French Canadians who train him for that kind of work.  Eventually he learns the ways of the pack well enough to challenge the lead dog.  Buck wins that fight and the loser is killed by the rest of the pack.

It was this fight and the aftermath where I started to get the idea that there was more going on here.  Even though Buck is the protagonist it’s not from his point of view.  We don’t hear his thoughts in English or anything like that.  We simply see what he does and the reactions of the humans around him and the reader has to determine what that really means.  In the case of the fight, the sledders are less concerned with the loss of one dog and instead admire Buck and his refusal to pull until he’s given his rightful place at the head of the pack.  He’s now a competent and valuable sled dog and he’s sold again to a family of greenhorns who are woefully ill prepared for life in the Klondike.  It was at this point that the book takes a big place in my personal memories.

My dad saw I was reading it and started to ask me what I thought.  My dad read a lot but usually military histories of the twentieth century and non-fiction books about the Old West.  Over the years though he would occasionally surprise me with some more ‘bookish’ literary knowledge.  This was the first of those times.  He had read it when he was a boy and now we shared that as father and son.  He never lectured me, just asked me where I was in the story and what I thought about what was happening.

In this manner I was able to realize that London wanted me to be disgusted with the greenhorns’ incompetence.  Buck eventually takes up with Thornton, a man who is much more in tune with Buck’s indomitable spirit.  Buck isn’t Thornton’s property but rather his companion and when Buck starts to hear that Call, Thornton doesn’t stop him.  Again, if you haven’t read it I won’t spoil the exact manner of the ending.  But Buck finally heeds the call and runs off into the Wild.  It was a deeply affecting book for a young boy made personal by sharing it with my father.  Since my young friend hasn’t read it I hope the same effect would make him hungry for more books with the same power.

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As a Writer, Know When it is Over

Stephen Crane, Author, Red Badge of Courage
Image by Tony the Misfit (Getting Back) via Flickr
The story, that is. Recently I finished a sweet little Regionalism novel about two sisters growing up in 1950’s Milwaukee. It started out well with clever anecdotes and interesting characters, but when I got to the end of the book (or what I thought should be the end) the author rattled on for another two whole chapters. Quite frankly, it ruined the story for me.
As writers we are told that our stories need to have a specific beginning, middle, and end but no one seems to know just where the end should go. Is it where the writer thinks it should be or where the reader needs it to happen? A more important inquiry might be whether or not we as writers can distance ourselves enough from our writing to see where the natural ending should come.
A great novel will end right where we as the reader think it should. Or at least we will be able to understand, given the rest of the story, why an author chose to end it where he or she did. A mediocre novel will end about two or three chapters beyond that point with no rhyme or reason.
And it isn’t just books that fall victim to this conundrum. Many of us have watched movies that seem to go on way past the logical stopping point. Maybe it is best to follow the old advice given to writers and artists: “Arrive late and leave early.”

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Extreme Characters: Death

You’re approaching the outer edge of the spectrum when one of your characters is the personification of an event, but sometimes it works.

Death has had a busy literary career: being one of the first on the scene in religious tales, founding member of the Four Horsemen, topic of a Blue Oyster Cult song, ad nauseum. Dying and what does (or doesn’t) come afterwards is one of the most fundamental questions of the human experience. Yet in spite of his importance, some of his appearances just stink.

The danger is that if you make someone as iconic as Death as a secondary character, it can look like a cheat. He just can’t gallop in as your hero gasps his last and decree “It is not yet his time!” and set everything to rights.  On the other hand, if he’s a main character what can he really struggle with that doesn’t seem trite or boring?  It’s highly unlikely the reader will really be concerned about Death’s well being in regards to the ticking bomb under his chair.

The Seventh Seal

DeathSeventhSealIn this brilliant and haunting movie, Death is challenged to a game of chess by a Knight returning from the Crusades. Death is a man with a white face and a black robe, not an animated skeleton. He is clearly different from the other characters, but not graphically so. He is quiet and calm. Relentless in his approach, but not horrifying.

While playing chess, Death serves as a foil for the Knight’s musings about the world and his fate. Death isn’t intended to provide answers, but to instead allow the audience to better understand the Knight and the Knight’s quest for life’s meaning.  It is Death’s subtle portrayal that makes him so effective.

In scenes where the Knight and Death make their moves, it is almost of two equals sitting across the chessboard from one another. This makes the Knight’s questions honest and sincere, and not the pleadings of someone cowering before an oppressor.


Pratchett_Death_in_DiscworldIt might seem that Terry Pratchett’s representation of Death in his Discworld series is on the other end of the spectrum from the Seventh Seal, but not at all. Discworld is a heavily satirical series of books, and Death is portrayed as a fully cloaked skeleton with all the classic accompaniments, including a scythe, hourglass, and pale horse (named Binky). Yet in spite of the light hearted tone, Death is a deadly serious character. He performs his task methodically, while struggling to understand the humans whose spirits he collects.

Death claims that his skeletal form is not his own, but is what people gave him by anthropomorphizing him. His home is all blacks and grays because he can’t quite get the hang of color. He keeps a manservant around for company, and once adopted a human daughter. Yet while being so riddled with quirks, all of these attributes make Death a foil for the discussions and events going on around him. In “Hogfather”, Death helps people understand the importance of belief, while in “Soul Music” he explores passion and obsession (and of course, Rock and Roll).

Yet even after making Death this human, Pratchett still created an adversary that Death struggled against – the cosmic Auditors. As great of a foil as Death became, there was still a need for that essential conflict that keeps a story turning, and not much challenges Death.

If you take your characters to this cosmic extreme, make them big but don’t worry about giving them much depth. Focus on using them to showcase the challenges and issues facing your other characters, and you can prevent someone like Death from killing your story entirely.