When books become a part of you

by John MacBeath Watkins

We've talked before about the stories of our lives, and the way language enchants the world. But what stories have become a part of you, and will live on in those you have helped to make?

I've been thinking about the books that were built to last, those stories people will read five centuries from now, like Shakespeare. It won't be the books people read because they are fashionable, or because they want to improve themselves -- Shakespeare's goal was to sell tickets to his plays, the get people to settle their bums in the seats of the Globe Theatre.

So we can rule out the liars. like Greg Mortentson or Lance Armstrong. Yes, they sought fame with their books, but they took the simple shortcut of lying. Not respecting liars is part of the way we define our boundaries.

We don't want to take lies into ourselves, to make them a part of us. That's part of the beauty of fiction, that it's entirely made up, everybody knows it's made up, so how can it possibly be a lie?

No, better to accept what we get from earnest efforts to write the truth, or lies that are intended to convey a greater truth, as in fiction.

Who will be read a half millennium from now? I'm confident that The Lord of The Rings will last. Tolkien was writing a mythic epic while all the self-consciously "great" writers were writing social realism. And Hemingway made his work accessible while writers like Samuel Beckett were making meaning an enemy.

These men were great exceptions to the fashion of their times. Emily Dickenson, writing only for herself, managed a power that those writing for an audience of more than one could never equal.

How were the great writers regarded in their own times?

Shakespeare appears as a man with bourgeois goals, who achieved them. He seems to have written until a tremor in his hands made it hard to do so, then became a grain merchant. Whatever may be said of him, and much has been said, he was the sort of writer who could use make-believe to tell the truth about human nature. The Merchant of Venice, in other hands, could have been ordinary. He took a stock villain of his time, the Jewish money lender, and showed his humanity, making him tragic rather than simply evil.

One measure of great art is that it changes you. No one could watch The Merchant of Venice without gaining a deeper understanding of a hated minority. Most of his plays influence people in more subtle ways, giving us a better understanding of how the human spirit confronts love, war, betrayal, greed, and any number of other things.

Most writers only succeed in entertaining us, or may even fail at that. Reading and re-reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn changed me. The lesson that sometimes the problem is not the cruelty of the Simon Legree type, but the willingness of good, law-abiding citizens to follow evil laws is one of the most important to come from the American experience of slavery. And that's easy to say, but to get people to really understand it in their bones, having Huck decide he's willing to go to Hell for breaking the law and setting Jim free is the better lesson.

Heart of Darkness changed me as well, and no doubt haunts many who have read it with the excesses of the human spirit it portrays. One of his lesser-known books, Victory, portrays a man who has tried to do no harm in the world by not engaging with it, then helps a woman who is in an abusive situation get away and falls in love with her. It's a tragic psychological novel that leaves you feeling different when you've finished it, and at the same time a South Seas adventure story that established Conrad's popular success in this country.

But of course, it's not all fiction that becomes a part of us. Books that show us the beauty of knowledge or of craftsmanship can change us, and set us on a different path in life. American Small Sailing Craft, by Howard Chapelle, opened a new path to me when I read it in 9th grade and sid so for many others, giving us a connection to the history and craft of sailing, a sport that was being transformed by mass production.

The first book I read, sounding out the words an actually understanding them, was about steam engines. Tales of Dick and Jane held no attraction for me, but I so wanted to know about steam engines that I pushed through the barriers and read a book far above my grade level. There are books we know have changed our lives -- The Female Eunuch, by Germain Greer, would be mentioned by many of my female friends. But because it has changed them, it has changed me, despite my never reading it. It has changed me because it has changed my world.

And that's how we construct ourselves and our society. It's really all about people changing people, sometimes at a distance of time and place, as they do through books. Books change your mind, because people change your mind. Homer, Plato, and Aristotle are a part of me because I've read them, have changed me more than if I'd met them and been unable to understand what they were saying. Through the miracle of language and of books, people's voices from thousands of years ago can change me and become a part of me.

But what will last, what will become a part of future readers? Probably those who can do what Shakespeare did, and show us truths about how human beings work. Richard Harding Davis, one of the most popular writers of his time, is seldom read today, because for all his popularity and political influence, his work lacked that element. Who reads Soldiers of Fortune today? Yet, we read Conrad, his contemporary, because his characters are more real to us and the way the events in his books change tells us more about ourselves.

Or maybe someone will find more to admire in Davis than I do. Moby Dick was not considered a masterpiece until after Melville's death. Shakespeare's star didn't rise right away -- in his lifetime, he was not considered substantially better then Ben Johnson, who wrote the introduction to the First Folio edition.

Will Kurt Vonnegut last? Certainly he speaks to people more deeply than such 'serious' writers as Norman Mailer. It strikes me that he is more likely to be read centuries hence than Mailer or John Updike, so much admired by the critics of their time. His willingness to be absurd, to make the books playful while making his points, makes his work both more accessible and less ordinary than a writer like Updike.

We live in a time when there has been more published than ever before, and the internet makes the cost of publishing plunge, so we can expect the explosion of words to expand further. Will this mean more masterpieces, or just more junk to sift through? I suspect the latter, in a way, because we can only make so many books a part of our common literature. Much that is worthy will be consigned to the junk pile, simply because there is room in our minds for only so much.

We are fragmented now, a patchwork of language and culture, but just as local dialects are disappearing and local accents becoming less pronounced as we all watch the same newsreaders, we can expect more parts of the world to participate in the commercial and media culture of the most successful purveyors, from Hollywood to Bollywood. That would lead to a more homogenized world culture.

Of course, another possibility exists, we could fragment into many subcultures, each with their own common literature that becomes a part of those who belong to that subculture. If that happens, there is room in the great hive mind of culture for many things.

Time will tell.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self