Good Literature Makes the Reader “Move With” the Characters

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” — George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Sometimes when I’m reading a good book I pause for a moment to think over a very insightful passage or section I’ve just completed. Something I’m sure all serious readers do. For me, the writer has connected a number of ideas and has set my mind to work reflecting on its larger significance. This, for me, is what true education is about. From time to time, I write my reflections in a journal or jot a note on a piece of paper and insert it in the back of the book. Recently, while going through some books in my bookroom, I found a piece of paper, a reflection, folded in the back of a biography I’d read years ago with the following written on it:

It is human personality that most interest us. All through the great writings of classical authors we are most moved by greatly drawn characters. The results of character bumping up against circumstance and how individuals respond, this is what makes literature so powerful and meaningful. Think of Plutarch, Dickens, and Twain, these authors bring characters to life on the page. They live in our mind, if only briefly, sharing, in some sense giving us the experience of, their emotions, their hopes, and their tragedies. We move with them. We learn through a process of association and empathy. Feeling—empathically—what has happened to others allows us to connect with people across time and space. We share in their humanity. We learn. It is through this process that we can hold hands with the past.

The Spirits of Christmas

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I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone! —Ebenezer Scrooge

Twain on the Primal Source of Our Government!

mark-twain-1I typically read a couple books at one time. When someone asks, How can you do that?, I always reply, “Well isn’t that what you did in college or high school? Didn’t we have to read multiple books at once?” Sure we did, and I guess the habit (or more accurately, my lack of focus) has stayed with me. Well right now I’m reading both a history book and a book of selected letters of Mark Twain.

Now, if you’ve read this blog you may have detected my affection for Twain. He is, in my view, one of the finest writers this soil has ever produced. His humor and charm hit you solidly between the eyes through that trademark prose.

Last night I read these words in the opening of a letter Mark Twain wrote to Frank Burrough. It brought a good laugh and as always contained a grain, if not a bushel, of truth.

My dear Burrough,

As you describe me I can picture myself as I was 22 years ago. The portrait is correct. You think I have grown some. Upon my word there was room for it. You have described a callow fool, a self sufficient ass, a mere human tumble-bug imagining that he is remodeling the world and is entirely capable of doing it right. Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckle-headedness—and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all. That is what I was at 19 and 20 and that is what the average Southerner is at 60 today. Northerners too of a certain grade. It is of children like this that voters are made. And such is the primal source of our government! A man hardly knows whether to swear or cry over it.

I should note, Mark and I are both southerners and neither of us take any offense to the self deprecating humor. And that’s largely because it’s painfully true…

Ask Me by William Stafford

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In a book I recently bought, I came across this fascinating poem by William Stafford.

Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Like many readers, I suspect, I like the poem even if I’m not sure exactly what it means. Stafford’s meaning is enigmatic, yet mysteriously attractive. There is something deeply alluring about poetry that takes us to the edge of our understanding and leaves us there searching the depths of our soul.

In 1977 Stafford was asked if he could paraphrase his poem to provide greater insight into it’s meaning.

“When it’s quiet and cold and we have some chance to interchange without hurry, confront me if you like with a challenge about whether to me my life is actually the sequence of events or exploits others would see. Well, those others tag along in my living, and some of them in fact have played significant roles in the narrative run of my world; they have intended either helping or hurting (but by implication in the way I am saying this you will know that neither effort is conclusive). So – ask me how important their good or bad intentions have been (both intentions get a drastic leveling judgment from this cool stating of it all.) You, too, will be entering that realm of maybe-help-maybe-hurt, by entering that far into my life by asking this serious question – so: I will stay still and consider. Out there will be the world confronting us both; we will both know we are surrounded by mystery, tremendous things that do not reveal themselves to us. That river, that world – and our lives – all share the depth and stillness of much more significance than our talk, or intentions [bolding added]. There is a steadiness and somehow a solace in knowing that what is around us so greatly surpasses our human concerns.” [1977] — William Stafford

Upping my Twain

My study and my home, for that matter, are starting to become overrun with books. Actually, this started a long time ago but I prefer to ignore the realization as long as possible. Regardless of sagging shelves, loaded boxes and growing stacks, I continue to collect books. I recently told my wife I would address this addiction immediately. I would attack it with energetic vigor and a dogged determination. I will hold the line!

So with that in mind this past week, I added three more books to my Mark Twain collection.

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I already have the Complete 29 Volume Oxford Collection of Mark Twain’s works, a CD collection of his private letters, and a couple boxes of his books in various paperback editions. You see, when I read I use a pencil to underline memorable passages and make marginalia. I’m a slow reader, taking in every word and every punctuation mark. If I don’t underline passages I’m not likely to find them when I go looking for them. I can’t bring myself to write in most of my hardcover books. That’s irreverent! Well at least not in the one’s I consider my collection stock. This means I collect the hardcover books and in some cases, like my Mark Twain collection, I buy a paperback version so I can write in that book.

If you don’t already, one day I’ll have to write a post on why you should read Mark Twain. But that’s for another day.

So as for the books pictured above:

Well if you weren’t already aware, Mark Twain’s writings, beside being humorous, a work of art and fun to read, mark a transition in the history of American literature. Ernest Hemingway famously commented:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

That’s high praise coming from a winner of the nobel prize for literature. A part of Hemingway’s renown as a writer comes from his adopting a Twainesque style of writing. Not the humor so much, but the rule that a writer “Employ a simple and straightforward style,” and “Eschew surplusage.” Of course there’s a lot more to Hemingway’s particular art but he was clearly influenced by Twain.

Anyone who likes to read and write is usually attentive to prose style. I pick up books all the time and skim a few passages in order to get some feel for the writer’s prose. For me, this attentiveness to writing tends to spill over into an attentiveness to everyday speech, because good writing, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, is “the shadow of good talk.” This has become a habit. I find listening carefully to good talkers can help improve your writing. I listen for organization, rhythm, cadence, word choice, and structure. All the elements of an individual style or personality. People’s individuality and their particular way of thinking and expressing themselves is truly fascinating.

So naturally with a writer I admire, I’m interested in how they developed as a writer. What influenced and shaped their style. This is why I picked up The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. This history book outlines the beginning of Samuel Clemens’s (Mark Twain’s) career and how he and some other prominent writers of that time helped reinvent American literature.

Then we have the recently released Chasing the Last Laugh  by Richard Zacks. This book is about Twain’s great world wide tour. Mark Twain didn’t have much luck with investments and business ventures. He made a lot of money and he lost a lot of money. He got heavily in debt. He decided this wasn’t the way his story was going to end, he wasn’t leaving his family with massive debts to pay off. So Twain set out on very successful world wide tour. This book focuses on Twain’s tour around the world—chasing the last laugh.

Now, I haven’t read this book yet but I know Twain was able to pay back his debts and substantially rebuild his wealth. Full length biographies typically require a good investment of time, whereas books aimed at capturing a brief period or event in a Life are usually shorter reads and yet very informative. So this book along with, say, Man in White are good, short reads if you’re interested.

Finally, I picked up the 125th edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This edition is a copy of the original first edition with illustrations and notes as Twain originally approved. My goal is to read this one through carefully and write a review—eventually.