John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is the perfect read for the waning days of summer, when early evening thunderstorms break the heat, and when children play under moonlight — knowing their freedom will soon end. In the more than 50 years since it was originally published in The New Yorker, Cheever’s tale has become an undergraduate rite-of-passage, a staple of graduate writing programs, and a favorite of readers long out of the classroom. In the same way that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are often relegated to shorthand, Cheever’s tale has its own summary: a man’s decision to swim home is not what it seems. The genius of Cheever’s narrative is how it courts, but ultimately resists, myth. The story gestures toward The Odyssey, but remains painfully provincial and absolutely suburban.
When a story reaches iconic status, we trade the actual text for its themes. Granted, the thematic considerations of “The Swimmer” are nearly endless. It is a love letter to youth and sport; document of mid-century Protestant despair; a metaphor for our seemingly perpetual American economic downturn. “The Swimmer” could be put into conversation with Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, contrasted with the Lisbon family’s superstitious suburban Catholicism in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, or perhaps best paired with Laurie Colwin’s fine story “Wet,” another tale of secrecy and swimming. It is also a quite teachable tale: no other work of short fiction better examples John Gardner’s potamological concept of fictional profluence than a story the main character of which travels by water.
“The Swimmer” begins passively enough: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” “Midsummer Sundays” is so lithe and hopeful that it carries into the “whispers” about hangovers in the second sentence. The town church, golf course, tennis courts, and wildlife preserve are all full of the talk. Most blame it on the wine. The opening paragraph’s haze blurs into the location of the story’s first scene at the Westerhazy’s pool.
“The Swimmer” is a sad story, but its sadness is particular. Neddy’s story is surreal and finite. He is handsome, confident, and athletic, and yet a footstep away from the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. When Cheever writes that Neddy “was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure,” the tongue is out of the writer’s cheek and pointed at the reader. Average comic writers pine for laughs. Brilliant comic writers embrace tragedy.
Cheever takes his time with tragedy. At the Bunkers’ pool, “water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend it in midair.” Ned exists on another, mystical, almost psychotropic plane. He would get along well with Oedipa Maas. Of the party, Neddy “felt a passing affection for the scene, a tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch,” yet he does not wish to be deterred by the party chatter.
He soon reaches the Levy’s home. There are few architectures more soulless than an empty suburban space, and Cheever captures it: “All the doors and windows of the big house were open but there were no signs of life; not even a dog barked.” Having crossed eight pools — half of his intended journey — Neddy “felt tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything.”
Then comes the storm:
It was suddenly growing dark; it was that moment when the pin-headed birds seem to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recognition of the storm’s approach. Then there was a fine noise of rushing water from the crown of an oak at his back, as if a spigot there had been turned. Then the noise of fountains came from the crowns of all the tall trees. Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?
There is a hint of the supernatural in this prosaic world. Michael Chabon has called “The Swimmer” a ghost story, and he is correct. All suburban stories are ghost stories.
Neddy leaves the cover of the Levys’ gazebo to see red and yellow leaves scattered across the grass and the pool, and “felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.” It is easy to read such lines and think that this wealthy man who lives in a wealthy area — he needs to cross a backyard riding ring on his way to the next pool — is not worthy of even our comic sympathy, but Cheever’s story has mysterious ways. Neddy is a pathetic soul. He is not simply a failure — he is unaware of his failure.
Look back to the first page of “The Swimmer.” From the dreary, town-wide hangover of Sunday morning emerges Neddy. His introduction follows the most syntactically simple sentence in all of valorized literature — “The sun was hot” — and his first action is sliding down a banister and giving “the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room.” Neddy is sound in mind and body. He greets the reader with a smirk.
While talking about the story, A.M. Homes notes “Life is incredibly surrealistic…So many things are so odd. You just have to be aware of it.” Homes sees the same literary moves occur in the fiction of Don DeLillo, particularly White Noise. Sarah Churchwell, likening Homes’s own work to the fiction of Cheever, explains that the latter’s “power comes from the bait and switch: he lures you into a complacent chuckle and then stabs you in the ribs.” Even Cheever felt that pain. He thought “The Swimmer” was a “terribly difficult story to write…Because I couldn’t ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying. It wasn’t a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables.” Cheever “felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story” — a lament the syntax and soul of which is baked into the syntax of “The Swimmer.”
The story’s second half contains a naked “elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists,” Neddy’s athletic exhaustion, a visit to a “stagnant” public pool, changing constellations — and yet so much more. Don’t take my affectionate word for it. Find a copy of The Stories of John Cheever, sit in front of a window on a cloudy day, and re-read “The Swimmer.” Allow the story to bring you back to the temporary innocence of July and August. Experience the deep melancholy of its final paragraph as you get ready for the cold months ahead, but don’t worry: there is always next summer.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Last winter I visited family in the Texas Hill Country for the holiday. As always happens when my cousins and I find ourselves in our ancestral home for any extended time, full of ham and sick to death of Friends reruns, we eventually made our annual pilgrimage to the thrift store. A quick walk down the street from my grandparents’ house, the local D.A.V. is little more than a shack with a cracked concrete front porch and dumpsters full of castoff donations in the back. This isn’t one of those classed-up thrift stores one sometimes finds in cities, full of marked-down designer goods and “hidden gems.” The D.A.V. is a store with a wall of dusty coffee carafes, their matching coffee makers long lost, bins of fuzzy toys still full of fleas, and tables stacked with naked VHS tapes and elementary school dioramas. Everything feels like it came from the home of a retired rancher who also happened to be something of a fashion plate in the ’80s. To say we love it is an understatement.
In the back of the D.A.V. there’s a dark, water-damaged corner with a few bookcases, which someone half-heartedly started organizing five years ago and then abandoned. My cousins and I usually avoid this area — it’s a little creepy, even for our Southern Gothic tastes, and the books aren’t very appealing. Aside from the typical thrift store celebrity memoirs, Christian romances, and cookbooks, there isn’t much selection, and my attention is usually too absorbed in comparing polyester shirts and chipped coffee mugs to even browse. But on this particular trip, I spotted a bottle-green book marked Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels on the first and only shelf I looked into, and promptly added it to my cache of broken and cast-off items. I bought the book for 80 cents, took it home, and immediately forgot all about it.
Three months later, I found it again while straightening up my apartment. Only last week did I actually check through which 101 novels are immortalized as “best.” Collected and printed by Barnes & Noble in 1962, 29 years before I was born, that 101 includes only 56 titles I recognize. I have read a mere 19. Among them are the usual classics — Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey, Little Women. But there’s also Ivanhoe, which I’ve read, and Ben-Hur, which I haven’t, despite my grandfather’s frequent prodding, and then there’s something called File No. 113, which I didn’t know was a book at all and which frankly sounds awful.
Of course the very idea of a book composed solely of the plots of other books is ridiculous, and I bought it mostly as a joke. Let’s read what they have to say about Moby-Dick, I thought. Try to sum that up in two pages! And what’s Les Mis like in 3,000 words or less?
But underneath that joke was a little sincere curiosity — what is File No. 113? – and more than a little self-recognition. If I was alive and reading in 1962, decades before Google and Wikipedia and Goodreads, I just might have purchased Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels at the original price of $1.75 out of a very sincere and un-ironic impulse to know as much as possible about every book ever published without necessarily taking the time to read them all. I say this because I have that impulse now, in 2015, and because I had it in 1996, when I learned how to read, and if I am lucky enough to make it to 2062 I will probably have it then, too.
I was raised on book abridgments. I hoarded my allowance to buy Children’s Classics at the dollar store, titles like The Three Musketeers and Journey to the Center of the Earth condensed into little 100-page versions, illustrated with loose line drawings and bound in cardboard covers. These “classics” took me only about a day to consume, and as they stacked up on my childhood bookcase I began to feel quite well-read for a child 10 years old.
One of the best of these classics was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with its illustrations of the elegant submarine and the characters’ daring underwater explorations. I knew enough to understand I didn’t have the full story, and when I was 10 I begged my parents to buy me the original novel for Christmas, which they obligingly did. I was thrilled to unwrap the little blue book, with its sober cover and 600 pages, but when I started reading the type was too small and the sentences too long. After struggling mightily through about 50 pages, there was no sign of the Nautilus and I abandoned the new book in favor of my old cardboard version.
My favorite book during these years didn’t come from the dollar store, but it was an abridgment — a shortened version of Ivanhoe, also in a bottle green cover, this time illustrated with a knight on horseback, carrying a shield and a banner. It was longer and more coherent than the chopped-up dollar store books, and I loved the adventure of the story, the castles and tournaments and battles and ladies. So when I was 13, a few formative years after the Jules Verne failure, I set out to read the original version, lengthy exposition, dated language and all. This time I found I still loved the book, though in a different way. True, Ivanhoe no longer offered that sugary high of constant action and adventure, but there was a lingering pleasure that came from a slow immersion in Walter Scott’s long scenes. I spent hours unraveling the relationships that linked his massive cast of characters and reread the climactic battle scene (which was about as long in the original version as the whole novel was in abridgment) several times straight through. The full novel had a complexity that the shortened version clearly lacked, and though it required more work than I was used to, it was also a more rewarding reading experience. I liked reading difficult books, I realized. This was fun. This was better. And though my definition of “difficult” has changed again and again over the years, that enjoyment has stayed.
This is not to say that I’ve outgrown my craving for easily digestible narratives stripped of meaty content. I enjoy struggling with difficult books, sure, but I also Google movie plots constantly, often while watching the movie in question. I read recaps of new episodes of Game of Thrones, though I stopped watching the show several seasons ago, and I skipped the first however-many seasons of Breaking Bad, but made sure to catch the finale. Of course I should know better — what did I learn from rereading Ivanhoe 10 years ago if not to savor the actual work of reading (or, in these cases, watching), to reap the benefits of sustained attention and commitment?
But I have a small stockpile of excuses at the ready, which I deploy on my scornful friends and family every time they fuss at my Wikipedia addiction. These range from the petty (I hate suspense, and feeling left out of conversations, and just generally being ignorant) to the refined (I do away with all that petty plot business up front so that I can focus on the actual art, you know?)
Vladimir Nabokov claimed that there was no reading, only rereading. I’m tempted to agree, and my argument, though different from his, might go something like this: the first read of a given story is often so concerned with plot, with the simple mechanics of a story, the “this happened then this then this,” that it’s difficult to appreciate the story’s craft. It takes at least another reread, and probably more than that, to really appreciate a written work in its full complexity and significance. And here’s where my justification for summary addiction becomes grandiose beyond all bearing: what if I can skip that first plot-driven read by just checking a synopsis so that when I encounter a text for the first time I’m free to notice and appreciate all of it?
Turns out, it doesn’t really work like that, however much I wish it did. Knowing a major plot point beforehand spoils some of the effect. Of course it does. I’m reminded too of a time when I was little and found a book version of the first Indiana Jones film. I was so upset by reading about Indy and Marian escaping a chamber of vipers by smashing through a room filled with mummies and skeletal miscellany that when we watched the movie I cried real tears trying to convince my parents to fast-forward through the scene. They didn’t, much to their credit, and that particular cinematic moment turned out not to be nearly as terrifying or significant as I’d expected. The Raiders of the Lost Ark is still one of my favorite films, and I hate to think that I might have missed it due to summary-induced hysteria.
My plot habit has cost me in other ways, too. Having a decent sense of the overall plan of a book or movie has frequently disrupted the very sense of community I’m trying to create. I read Moby-Dick in one of those dollar store abridgments when I was about 10, and remember in vivid detail an illustration of Fedallah, the dark prophet Ahab sneaks on board the Pequod. Ten years later I read the full Moby-Dick over the course of a college semester and met weekly with a professor and three other students to compare our progress and discuss our thoughts. Part of the fun of this exercise was supposed to be the shared process of discovery — none of us students had ever read all of Moby-Dick before. But when we came to the particularly eerie chapter in which Ishmael sees five shadows dart on board the Pequod (the first foreshadowing of Fedallah’s eventual appearance), I couldn’t join in my classmate’s excitement and speculation. I knew exactly what the shadows were — some of the magic was lost for me. Somewhat similarly, a few of my friends dislike talking about Game of Thrones with me because they know full well I didn’t suffer through any of the show’s horrors, as they did, but simply read about it later on The Atlantic. I’m not a full member of the club, and I know it.
In fact, I’ve begun to worry that plot summaries (and my generally unthinking impulse to read them at the slightest provocation) actually run completely contrary to the purposes of books and film and television. I’m not helping my reading, I’m defeating it; I’m not becoming more well-versed in modern culture, I’m ensuring my separation from it. Yes, by Googling reviews of the latest Game of Thrones episode rather than watching it, I’m protecting myself from the adrenaline-fueled horror of seeing someone be hacked to bits or poisoned or set aflame. I’m encountering the story with a much clearer head than I would have if I were actually watching. But I’m also missing a vital piece of the show — it’s meant to be horrifying. And when I know that Fedallah just snuck onboard the Pequod, I’m missing something there, too: I don’t get the full sense of foreshadowing that Herman Melville intended, don’t feel the full weight of Ishmael’s quiet but growing dread. The moment becomes just another plot point to check off my mental list.
Perhaps this is all just a continuation of a much older and larger argument about why we read or watch movies or enjoy any kind of artistic entertainment. Is it a primarily emotional or mental exercise? Can it be both? By reading the plot summary of any given work, am I choosing the mental by default? By refusing to engage with a work on its own terms, am I negating the exact thing I mean to be enjoying and celebrating? Yes, I think. Maybe I am. Probably I shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s time to watch a movie and be sincerely surprised by everything that happens. Maybe it’s time to finally outgrow my love of dollar store abridgments.
But let us return, one last time, to Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels. What does it have to tell us about Ivanhoe? Nothing at all. The “plot outline,” condensed by some Prof. Fenwick Harris, is nothing more than a page-long excerpt lifted from the novel’s climatic battle scene, paired with a short critical essay on the significance of the Jewish Lady Rebecca. Given this and nothing else, a reader couldn’t possibly understand Ivanhoe. I’m not sure they could tell you a single significant thing about it. Reading the novel for the first time they would encounter every plot point naturally, would feel every feeling, and I wouldn’t dare complain. Perhaps this is the plot summary in its most natural state, freed from all excuses and justifications: mostly useless, a little ridiculous, and ultimately beside the point.
Image Credit: Nicholas Eckhart.
Here’s a common literary conundrum: who much should you assume your readers know going into your novel? Explain too much, you risk condescending; explain too little, you risk being esoteric and possibly confusing. With small aspects of a book, it’s all about deciding what’s necessary information. If a certain piece of information is absolutely vital, then err on the side of explicitness. If not — if, say, the information is merely for thematic or subtextual reasons — then depending on a reader’s knowledge (or their inquisitiveness to go and look it up) is probably best.
But what if your entire book is based on another one? What if a certain piece of information (in the cases of these books, a writer or a specific novel) is foundational to your text? How, then, should you proceed? Should you explain the referenced work so that those unfamiliar with it can enjoy your book? Or should you simply accept that some readers will fall behind and end up befuddled? It’s a tricky enterprise, and since there are as many ways to pay homage to earlier literature as there are ways to create new literature, I thought it would be useful to see how some contemporary writers approach this finicky issue.
Let’s get right into some examples. The most straightforward way to pay homage to another writer is to simply write them into the narrative. Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection Wild Nights! uses the voices of famous authors on their final days. In “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House,” Poe keeps a diary tracking his new post as “Keeper of the Light” for a lighthouse in Viña de Mar. His first entry is dated October 7, 1849, which was the date of Poe’s death (hence the title). Oates has a lot of fun playing with both Poe’s style and his Gothic genre. On his second day, Poe wakes from “fitful” sleep that seems to “cast off totally the morbid hallucination, or delusion that, on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died.” Oates captures the language of Poe, as well as his ceaseless morbidity. Would readers unfamiliar with Poe’s biography recognize this description of Poe’s actual death in Baltimore? Or will they miss the hint? Will it matter if a reader does not know that “The Light-House” was the last piece of fiction the real Poe was writing before his death? And that Oates here even quotes from it? Does any of this really matter? Oates, consummate (and unbelievably prolific) storyteller that she is, makes the narrative compelling even for the uninitiated, but it’s interesting to consider how knowing certain things will change the experience of reading the story. Those who know something about Poe will instantly spot the date of his death and know that this is the tale of some sort of afterlife, while those who don’t know Poe will figure it out as the story unfolds. Which is the better experience? Who is reading the story in the right way?
Of course, there are plenty of historical novels that feature authors as characters, but those aren’t the kind I’m interested in here. I’m more interested in those works that aim to riff or play with past fiction, the kinds that are unafraid to run with the ideas of other writers, too, not merely their biographies.
Michael Cunningham wrote two books that take as their inspiration other writers’ works. His Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours examines Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway via three women engaged with Woolf’s novel in different ways: composing it, reading it, living it. But it’s Cunningham’s lesser-known Specimen Days that I’m interested in here, because it explores its foundational text in such unusual ways. Though its title is taken specifically from Walt Whitman’s book of autobiographical essays and sketches, Cunningham’s novel could be said to take Whitman himself as its foundational text––Specimen Days celebrates Whitman’s spirit as much as any individual work, though obviously Leaves of Grass is the primary model. The novel is really three thematically linked novellas, each focusing on a man, a woman, and a young man. Whitman’s presence pervades the stories, yet he remains elusive. In the first section, “In the Machine,” Lucas, the boy, refers to the great poet as “Walt,” like a close friend. Set in the late 19th century, “In the Machine” recounts a fire at the Mannahatta Company (named, of course, after a poem of Whitman’s), a factory near Washington Square. As the blaze ravages the building and innocent workers leap from windows to escape the flame, Lucas thinks he sees something: “Was that Walt, far off, among the others, Walt with his expression of astonished hunger for everything that could occur?”
“The Children’s Crusade,” the second piece, features a detective in 21st-century New York investigating a series of terrorist bombs instigated by an old woman who quotes Whitman. “What are you saying, exactly?” the detective asks the woman, who replies, “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world.” To which the detective says: “You know your Whitman.” Her minion of boys, who call her Walt, since she believes so much in the beauty of the world as Whitman wrote it:
To someone a hundred years ago, as recently as that, this world would seem like heaven itself. We can fly. Our teeth don’t rot. Our children aren’t a little feverish one moment and dead the next. There’s no dung in the milk. There’s milk, as much as we want. The church can’t roast us alive over minor differences of opinion. The elders can’t stone us to death because we might have committed adultery. Our crops never fail. We can eat raw fish in the middle of the desert, if we want to. And look at us. We’re so obese we need bigger cemetery plots. Our ten-year-olds are doing heroin, or they’re murdering eight-year-olds, or both. We’re getting divorced faster than we’re getting married. Everything we eat has to be sealed because if it wasn’t, somebody would put poison in it, and if they couldn’t get poison, they’d put pins in it. A tenth of us are in jail, and we can’t build new ones fast enough. We’re bombing other countries simply because they make us nervous, and most of us not only couldn’t find those countries on a map, we couldn’t tell you which continent they’re on. Traces of the fire retardant we put in upholstery and carpeting are starting to turn up in women’s breast milk. So tell me. Would you say this is working out? Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue?
A far cry from the America Whitman described, isn’t it? (Though the world of the first story, Whitman’s world, serves to considerably undermine this nostalgic, revisionist view.) That Whitman would be used as motivation for terrorism seems plausible here. Cunningham engages with Whitman’s texts (and Whitman-as-text) in as many ways as he can: what did Whitman’s poetry mean to those who were alive when he wrote it, who could witness the same New York depicted in the pages of Leaves of Grass? What does Whitman’s America say about our America now? What does all that suggest about the future (which is dealt with in the final story, “Like Beauty,” set in New York 150 years from now)?
I read Specimen Days concurrently with Leaves of Grass, which at the time I was reading for a class. It was a wonderful pairing: I grappled with Whitman’s absorbing poetry at the same time I got to read a novelist do the same thing. Cunningham doesn’t expect you to have read Whitman, as he provides quotes and even some analysis along the way, but I would wager that my experience was greatly enhanced by my immediate knowledge of Whitman’s writing. For no matter how much shorthand Cunningham provides, Whitman defies summary. Leaves of Grass enfolds you with its endless lists and keen observations and joyous optimism. One can read Specimen Days and “get” Whitman’s place in it without having read a word of his poetry, but to feel it, to attach more philosophical and emotional resonance to the book’s themes, to understand its “multitudes,” you need Whitman himself.
Memories of those books ran through my mind as I read Maya Lang’s debut novel The Sixteenth of June, which has the rare claim of being a book based on a book that’s based on another book. The title date is, of course, Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set. It is also the date fans of Joyce’s modernist epic come together for an annual celebration. The Sixteenth of June features such a party, but not just any Bloomsday, but the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. The party is thrown by the Portmans, a wealthy couple in Philadelphia. Their two sons, Stephen and Leopold, are name after Ulysses’s protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Leo, the younger son, is engaged to a woman name Nora, like Joyce’s wife. Long’s novel has the same number of chapters as Ulysses and employs many of the same techniques. It is, in other words, wholly dependent on Joyce’s novel.
Ulysses, famously, is based on Homer’s The Odyssey. The idea was to take one of literature’s greatest epics and pare it down to a single day of a human life. The grand in the ordinary. But Joyce goes so much further: he meticulously crafted Ulysses to mirror Homer’s tale of Odysseus and his journey home. He famously said of the book, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” An egotistical claim, to be sure, but one that has yet to be disproved––here I am today, still writing about this goddamn book. In a letter to his Aunt Josephine, Joyce suggested that she read The Odyssey first. “Then buy at once,” he continues, “the Adventures of Ulysses (which is Homer’s story told in simple English and much abbreviated) by Charles Lamb…Then have a try at Ulysses again.” Joyce, then, expected his readers to not only enter his book having already read The Odyssey, but he also wanted them to pore over the text to decipher its innumerable mysteries.
Maya Lang, in The Sixteenth of June, expects no such thing. Her novel is a lovely, light-on-its-feet production, a flowing narrative of young people trying to find their way. Twenty-somethings Leo and Nora have reached an impasse in their relationship: engaged with no wedding date, in love but static, together but growing apart. Leo’s brother Stephen, also Nora’s best friend, plods along at grad school, seven years into his dissertation. Their day begins with the funeral of their grandmother, a woman the family had mostly forgotten about, relegated as she was to a nursing home (“And nursing home is a misnomer,” their father says, “It’s a social living community for seniors”). But before she died, Stephen had begun to pay visits to her, unbeknownst to the rest of the Portman clan. When Stephen’s secret is exposed, questions abound about his intentions. Michael and June Portman, the parents, decide to hold their Bloomsday centennial despite the funeral happening on the same day, a decision that irks Stephen considerably.
One needn’t have read James Joyce to understand this kind of family dynamic. In fact, for the first 50 pages or so I wondered if maybe intimate knowledge of Ulysses might hinder my enjoyment of Lang’s book. I couldn’t help but trace Joyce’s influence on every page, even occasionally spotting some passages lifted directly from Ulysses, as in the introduction of Stephen: “Stephen fills the white bowl with hot water. He cups the bowl in his hands and carries it to his desk, where a mirror and razor lay crossed.” This echoes the famous opening of Ulysses, which goes: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” A bit later, Leo recalls his time in London, where “[there] was no freak-out about cholesterol, fat. They ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” which Leopold Bloom also did in the beginning of his day. Other references aren’t direct quotes: as Stephen contemplates his life, he considers:
How much easier to just go along and agree. To watch the trajectory of the ball long ago set in motion and see where it will land, as though you are not the product of its outcome. To watch as though you have no hand in your own life. As though the only words we have available to us were written long ago in a blue book. As though we cannot make our own stories, decide our own fates.
Ulysses, when it was first published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922, featured a blue cover with white lettering, so people eventually referred to it surreptitiously as “the blue book.” Lang is having a bit of funny in this pensive moment: Stephen, as a character, can’t make his own story; he’s stuck in someone else’s.
Strange that my knowledge of Ulysses actually distracted me from a story predicated on it. Typically, I would imagine the opposite being the case. But luckily Lang’s wonderfully engaging prose and her believable characters overtook me, and soon I forgot to look for allusions and just enjoyed the novel.
One of the most enjoyable things here is the way in which Lang traces her characters’ thoughts. Leo, Stephen and Nora alternate the point of view, and Lang settles herself comfortably in their skin, a fitting technique for a predecessor of Joyce, who mastered free indirect discourse better than maybe any other modernist except for Virginia Woolf. But the spark that makes Lang’s methodology unique in its own right is the way her characters think about the things they might have said to someone. Repeatedly, Leo and company imagine conversations that did not happened, almost as much as we’re given conversations that actually did happen. This is not unlike the “double stream of consciousness” that Morris Ernst emphasized when he defended Ulysses in court in 1933, (“Your honor,” Ernst said in court, “while arguing this case I thought I was intent only on the book, but frankly, while pleading before you, I’ve also been thinking about that ring around your tie, how your gown does not fit too well on your shoulders and the picture of John Marshall behind your bench.”) except here it is as if Lang’s characters, like all of us, are trying to live out a hypothetical other life for themselves, to experiment privately with a life that could have lead but ultimately did not. And sometimes these unspoken words contain within them the thing most necessary to say: Leo wishes he could ask Nora “what it feels like when she pulls” her hair, a condition known as trichotillomania that has afflicted Nora since her mother’s death; Nora wishes to confront Leo’s mother June for her haughty and cruel condescension; and Stephen dwells on the things he would have said to Nora about her relationship with Leo, which Stephen thinks has hindered her development as a person and artist.
This kind of thinking takes up much of our lives. We regret the things we said as well as the things we didn’t say, and moreover, we think about those things all the time, a constant process of rewinding and rewatching and dreaming of rewriting. But, as Joyce points out, “It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream.” We can only move forward, but that doesn’t mean our minds are not stuck in the past.
Most of the characters in The Sixteen of June either don’t like Ulysses or haven’t read it (or, often, they attempted it and stopped). Stephen is even skeptical that his parents, the ones throwing the party, don’t even really like Ulysses: “I sometimes think,” he says, “they’re more interested in what Ulysses says about them than what it actually says. Our truest relationship with books is private. I love Gatsby. I love Mrs. Dalloway. But I would never throw a party for them. A party ends up celebrating not the book but its title.” Nora never got through and it seems that Leo never even tried. This accurately reflects contemporary attitudes of young people toward Ulysses. To them, it is not “the great repository of everything,” as one character puts it, but a pretentious, irritatingly confounding book, with few rewards and annoying champions (“His work is Everest,” the same character says, “No one climbs Everest and says nothing of it!”). Yet here they are, these young people, caught in a story, a world inescapably shaped by Joyce, for no matter what you think of his most notorious novel, it has influenced you, it has defined and refined your ideas of literature, art, obscenity, human thought––even if you disagree, even if you are indifferent.
Homage is a way of acknowledging our forbearers, to celebrate where we came from by updating the past, calling back to it, poking fun at it, challenging it, embracing it, adoring it. Oates goes at it directly, Cunningham a little more abstractly, and Lang indirectly and directly. There is no right way to pay homage any more than there is a right way to love something. And asking yourself how much information you should expect your readers to know is ultimately fruitless. They’ll come into your book with so much more baggage than a knowledge of or respect for a given writer or novel. They bring their pasts into it, too, with all its force and unaware influence. What they know doesn’t matter, because the division between a reader who isn’t familiar vs. a reader who is amounts to a false dichotomy. There is actually an infinite number of ways to experience a story, and no writer can predict them all. Oates and Cunningham couldn’t foresee how much their readers know, just as they couldn’t foresee anything about them. Lang doesn’t know if you’ve read Ulysses; probably she doesn’t care. She wants you to feel her characters think and live (and think about living); the Ulysses stuff reinforces many of the themes, functions as a big blueprint, and serves as the occasion of the novel’s central set piece, but its nuances are not crucial the work as a whole. So if you’re paying homage to someone, to something, to anything, just write it the way you love it––passion is more important than knowledge, anyway.
I imagine the only thing worse than being a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month is being the parent of a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month. Has the fighting begun? The daily reminders and the task-mastering and the endless, tedious, summer-joy sucking arguments? We might still have a good week or so before the upcoming school year reaches back into blissful summer time and asks, not kindly, how far along you are in your summer reading assignments.
I teach high school English in a town that has a mandated summer reading program. The program prides itself on being more progressive than most: students are allowed to choose their books, provided that those books are represented in the Accelerated Reader Program database. The kids keep track of how many “points” each book is worth, as determined by the program, and are asked to read a different number of points depending on what level of English they are enrolled in. Students in Standard English must read 10 points, Academic English students read 20, and Honors read 30. Point value is determined, as far as I can tell, by the number of pages. So this means that on average, students are asked to read somewhere between one and four books over the summer to meet the requirement.
Then comes September. We don’t quiz them on the first day, or even the first week, because everyone would fail. The policy is that the students have until the end of September to “finish” their summer reading, and by this date, must log into the software in their English teacher’s presence and complete the AR quiz on the books that they read. Most students use this time afforded to them to swap summaries of books with simple plots, to recall what books they might have read with their middle school English classes and never tested on, or to calculate how many three-point Dr. Seuss books they would have to test on to reach their assigned point value. Last year The Hunger Games movie was released, and about 50 percent of my students tested on that book. Students test every year on the Harry Potter books, because HBO runs the films for week-long stretches, giving kids every opportunity to get the plot down.
Watching them game the system, it seems it takes more work to successfully not read than it would to just pick up a book.
Yes, there are ways that I could crack down on the requirements and my watchfulness of their testing practices. But I can’t bring myself around to it. Summer reading assignments are a waste of time, and I’m a busy lady. Not only that, but focusing on the Accelerated Reader point values of books and testing the students on inane and helplessly specific plot points would fly directly in the face of all of the work that I am doing in September to teach my students about being readers.
I have some readers in my classes: they are the kids in September who couldn’t care less about the Summer Reading assignment. They’ll search through the database for two or three of the 10 books they read this summer, and test on those. They’ll do well enough, though they will often be frustrated to earn a 70 percent on a book that they read 100 percent of because they missed question 6: Couldn’t remember what color shoes the protagonist’s uncle bought him before moving away. For readers, AR will just be an annoyance, or at worst a source of unwarranted stress, because they already know how disconnected summer reading assignments are from the true motivations and rewards of reading.
But my non-readers. I’m spending September trying to teach them the practices of readers. I’m stressing the payoffs, I’m playing book matchmaker, I’m modeling my own practices and talking about my favorite books in my classroom library. I’m telling them how they were born with a love of reading, reminding them of The Giving Tree and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Captain Underpants, and telling them that school took this love of reading from them, killed it. And then, gritting my teeth, I’m reminding them that they have to complete their department-mandated summer reading assignment by September 28th.
Summer reading assignments and reading quizzes and book reports don’t teach our students how to be readers. They teach them that reading is a school-centered activity. That it is a chore. That they aren’t good at it if they can’t remember insignificant plot points. These assignments set students up to cheat, or to fail, and always to regard reading as a drag.
This is how we breed kids who say they “hate reading”. The very act itself. They don’t like the books they have been forced to read, and so they’ve written off the entire activity, as if being forced to eat their vegetables had driven them to swear off food entirely.
Summer reading assignments aren’t just ruining students’ last few glorious weeks of summer, aren’t just adding to the already arduous load of summer assignments from other classes and adding stress to what should be a period of freedom, aren’t just causing fights at the dinner table and taking away Xbox playing privileges. Summer reading assignments are killing a love of reading.
You read for its own sake. To learn, to travel, to be spooked or heartbroken or elated. To grow.And when you do this, when reading becomes something that you authentically value, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. You start to reach for more advanced reading material, inferring word meaning, connecting with characters and identifying their growth, interpreting nuances of meaning and symbolism with delight and awe. When you write, your sentence structure becomes more complex and sophisticated. You write with greater imagery. You take emotional risks, understanding that good writing is honest.
I know because I see it happen. When I take away book reports and reading quizzes, when I eliminate deadlines for finishing books and specific title requirements, my students are free to read books that they choose, and as the year progresses, they choose more and more and more.
“How are we being graded on this?” they ask, at the beginning of the year. “You get full credit just by reading,” I respond, and they stare at me confused for a second longer before shrugging and turning their eyes back to the page.
I don’t assign anything to reward or punish them for being readers. What I do, is assess their skills as the year progresses. That’s how I know that that when you read a lot of books you like, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. That’s how I know that my instruction meets the Common Core State Standards for Education without ever forcing them to read The Odyssey, or making them take a test on a book.
That’s why I don’t want anything to do with assigned summer reading.
In June of last year, my students wrote book reviews which I posted on my website organized by genre. Their classmates and my students who followed are able to reference this list for recommendations. This year, my students wrote letters to an author who influenced them. Almost all of the students were writing to an author of a book that they chose to read this year. Many of them were writing: “Your book is the first book that I actually read.” Or: “Your book taught me that I don’t hate reading.”
Because there were no reading deadlines, most of my students were in the middle of a book when the last day of school came around, and so summer reading was something that was just going to happen.
And what if it doesn’t? What if, after reading all year and understanding its value and feeling the sense of ownership that comes with making his own decisions about what he does and learns, a kid still chooses not to read a single book in July or August?
Like I said, I’m a busy lady. This is just not something I can get worked up over. I’ll catch you in September, and we’ll do it right.
Image Credit: Flickr/Enokson
No one knows why we have brains. We take for granted the brain’s associated functions—emotion, contemplation, special awareness, memory—and yet the reason some life on earth has a brain and other life doesn’t is an unanswerable question. Daniel Wolpert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, theorizes the fundamental purpose of our brains is to govern movement, something necessary to humans but which trees and flowers can live without.
Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a brief and pithy recounting of Foer’s exploration of the fuzzy borders of his brain—a marveling at how and why it’s able to do something quite unexpected. Foer is a science writer and enthusiast of curiosities who’s worked for Discover, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Esquire. Moonwalking with Einstein is a chronicle of his year training to compete in the U.S. Memory Championships—an arcane competition among adherents to the method of loci, an ancient memory technique that makes it possible to retain great volumes of random information.
According to the theory, more commonly known as the Memory Palace, the human brain is capable of retaining huge amounts of information subconsciously. Details about color, texture, light, smell, and spatial arrangement are all absorbed in an instant, whether or not we’re aware of it. But we lose all the less immediate information, even when we want to remember: telephone numbers disappear, faces lose their names, and the year the Mexican-American War is irretrievable.
According to the method of the Memory Palace, first formulated by the Greek poet Simonedes, hard-to-retain facts can be pinned in place by transforming them into visual icons in an imagined location. Each fact would become a representative image–the more bizarre and lascivious the better. These images would be placed in a childhood home or a college dormitory, any intimately remembered location. In this way memory becomes a process of traveling through a non-sequitur mental landscape instead of a flailing for disappearing facts.
In mid-2005 Foer was a struggling, young writer living in his parents’ house in suburban Washington D.C. trying to make a living as a freelance writer. After a chance visit at the Weightlifting Hall of Fame, Foer started wondering if there was a Hall of Fame for smart people. Some cursory searches led him to the U.S. Memory Championships, where a small and eccentric group of mental athletes compete at memorizing long strings of two-digit numbers, the order of cards in a deck, and matching 99 faces and names after five minutes of exposure.
Ed Cooke, a confident young British competitor with a roving imagination, tells Foer that these seemingly impressive feats are within anyone’s grasp. Even Foer could become a competitor. Foer decides to test the theory and accepts Cooke’s tutelage. As he begins his training routine, picking locations for his own memory palaces and building a network of imagery to associate with various playing cards and number combinations, Foer also intersperses a survey of the brain’s biology and some of its strangest outliers.
He starts with the Greeks who considered memorization an essential part of human learning. “The great oral works transmitted a shared cultural heritage held in common not on bookshelves, but in brains,” Foer writes. One literally internalized philosophers’ arguments, histories, and poems. Knowledge didn’t come through exposure but through rumination and concise mastery born out of recall. Today we know where to look for answers, but the Greeks carried the answers within as instantly recallable memories.
The extent to which we’ve delegated the workings of memory to Google prompts a scary question about our culture. “What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?” It’s a sensational question and Foer–wittingly or not—proves our memories are mostly constant, and there isn’t actually a dramatic difference in mental capacity between memory champions and everyone else.
Before beginning his memory training Foer visits K. Anders Ericsson, a professor and researcher at Florida State University’s Department of Psychology. Foer describes Anderson as the “expert expert,” most popular for his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field, an idea Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize in Outliers. Anderson and his aids spend three days studying Foer before his training, and again a year later after he has set the U.S. record by memorizing the order of a deck of cards in 1 minute and 42 seconds.
While Foer’s ability to recall numbers has increased more than two-fold, his functional memory—the everyday process that’s not given the luxury of palaces and non-sequitur burlesques—remains largely identical. In fact, Foer recalls taking the subway home after a dinner in downtown D.C. with friends to celebrate his achievement. Upon getting back to his parents’ house he remembered that he’d actually driven to the dinner and had left his car parked downtown without any further thought.
One of the overarching questions in Moonwalking with Einstein, then, is not whether we’ve been impoverished by the fleeing of memory techniques, but rather why memory masters don’t seem to gain any irrefutable benefits from leading their field. Indeed, Foer describes a few people with brains predisposed to having powerful memories in dysfunctional terms.
There is S., a Russian journalist in the late 1920’s who never took notes in editorial meetings and still remembered addresses, names, and instructions perfectly. He was the subject of a seminal neuropsychological study on the brain and memory, and yet he had trouble holding a job and experienced many of the same traits that would later be ascribed to autistic savants.
Then there is Kim Peek, the Utah man who memorized phonebooks and was the inspiration for the movie Rain Man. Peek’s memory didn’t need the rigorous training and discipline practiced by mental athletes. And yet he required a caretaker (his father) all his life and never held a job or moved beyond the thrill of memorizing town populations and mountain elevations.
Foer acknowledges the perversity required to take a normally functioning memory and force it to work more like Peek’s or S’s. At one point he has to stop using the image of his grandmother in his card memorizing routine because the vulgar actions he subjects her to are too disturbing. Cooke similarly excised his mother from his practice, preferring instead celebrities and sports figures who can be contorted, defiled, and penetrated without rippling any darker waters.
In order to memorize faster and in greater volume, one has to push one’s brain to the outer limits of incoherence. To create a record of external order the memorizer must make a non-sequitur carnival of their inner orders, connecting a 5 of Clubs to the image of Dom DeLuise karate kicking Pope Benedict XVI, or a queen of spades to Rhea Perlman anally penetrating ex-NBA star Manute Bol. What rescues these discrepant fantasies is the tie to a rather dull system of real world meanings, which might not have been worth remembering in any case.
What’s most interesting about Foer’s book is not its value as an idea exploration—he well documents how the Memory Palace has already been exploited by salesman and self-promoters—but in the kernel of a confession about his own life. Foer describes Moonwalking With Einstein as participatory journalism, but he never gets very far in describing who he is and what lay beneath the ordered surface of his account as a grown man living with his parents, trying to make a career out of writing stories about the country’s largest popped corn kernel, whilst privately carrying on a year-long project of memorizing random number strings aided by a pair of blackout goggles.
Foer writes in a conversational but distant vernacular, like someone telling a curious story at a cocktail party and all the while talking around the less entertaining truths below the surface. His describes Perlman’s and Bol’s encounter as a “highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress.” It’s belabored for comic effect, but the obfuscation deadens the image itself, scandalizing something that is a natural product of Foer’s creativity.
In this regard, Moonwalking With Einstein fits handily inline with the recent tradition of “big idea” books that take a breezy survey of scientific inquiry and discover some general truisms. In place of George Plimpton’s lyrical self-awareness it has Gladwell’s impersonal concision and Steven Johnson’s sense of portent without quite proving anything. Given enough time, all science writing—no matter how casually or clinically it is presented—winds up being wrong. Likewise, any work of participatory journalism that finds the undertaking more interesting than the author is bound for obscurity. What endures is the record of the human experience not the best scientific explanations our generation—and one’s past—could come up with.
Foer is moving all around some of the most personal ideas in human experience–the intersection of the erotic imagination, nostalgia, lust for new experiences, and the tiny electrical impulses that accompany them. When Foer wonders if the loss of poetic immersion once common in antiquity is debilitating today, I immediately think of Lolita. “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
As with Wolpert’s theory that the brain is necessary for movement, Foer describes the idea that everything we understand in the world is built on the recorded images of the past. This is how we can all have such different experiences of fixed historical events—the election of a president or two hours in a movie theater. This is why both the places that form the locus of memory, and the ghostly signifiers that populate them, are unique to the holder of the memory–always a childhood home or school. And yet all we are ever doing is moving from one place to the other, creating muscle memory for a neuron to send out an electrical pilgrim from one place to another.
When I criticize Foer for being impersonal, it is a product of my own confessional instincts. My own writing is the kind of memoiristic turning of the embers that has become a cliché in an age of blogs and self-published novels by thrift shop dilettantes, who seek to prove themselves by bending the non-sequitur memory into something sensible; an image that will survive with or without its associated deck of cards.
In the same way that science writing winds up being wrong in some way or another, few of my own scraps of memory have been true. There is always some detail wrong. I once described an ex-girlfriend with black hair. “I have brown hair,” she wrote me after reading it. I’d moved across the country for her so hair color was a painful thing to get wrong. Likewise, the details of my childhood, travels, career, who was there during big events in my life—these details are all less there than I think. So too Foer’s mnemonic Greeks, who remembered The Odyssey in the broad strokes but varied the details and line orders while still thinking they had it syllable for syllable.
When I try and pull a specific image through the blurred depth of field time sets in between, I find the need to invent something becomes instinctual, almost thoughtless. This is the spirit moving through Foer’s book, the Albert Einstein who moonwalks down an empty suburban hallway—a figure that never was, now a memory that can’t be erased.
Todd Walters is a graduate student at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He also co-authors the politics and culture blog Neither Property Nor StyleTonight, the roles of Socrates and Galileo will be played by Horton and the Mayor of Whoville, respectively.This past Friday night, I was dragged to see the new animated film Horton Hears a Who!, based on the well-known Dr. Seuss book published more than fifty years ago. Given my general antipathy to cartoons, I went in with low expectations. But despite my attitude and the lukewarm reviews that Horton has received, I realized that hiding just below the surface of this very simple tale about a well-meaning jungle elephant is a wonderful allegory about scientific and philosophical revolution, the dangers of autocracy, and the political implications of religious faith. Bear with me as I explain.While the screenplay augments the details of the original text, the overall plot remains fairly straightforward. Horton is a whimsical elephant residing in the Jungle of Nool, who one day notices a tiny, circular “speck” of dust floating around in the air. Being an elephant and all, Horton’s extra-large ears provide him with a super sense of hearing. Thus, he is the only one in the jungle who hears the high-pitched yelps emanating from the speck, which he eventually realizes are the voices of the tiny people of the tiny town of Whoville located therein. Horton manages to make contact, by way of a tuba-horn-amplified drain pipe, with the bewildered Mayor of the town, who has already surmised that Whoville is not alone in the universe. The action heightens as Horton and the Mayor disclose their findings to everyone around them, and the crux of the story turns on the persecution of both noble protagonists by their respective societies for espousing these unacceptable beliefs.The original book does not depict Whoville or its internal political and social dynamics in any detail, so this must have been the invention of the screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, and it provides an apropos parallel to the events unfolding in the Jungle. There, children of various exotic species are already following in Horton’s footsteps by looking for their own inhabited, floating specks of dust. But their fun is spoiled by an authoritarian Kangaroo who will have none of this nonsense. She haughtily dismisses the existence of anything that cannot be touched, seen, or heard, a notion that would certainly register with any moviegoers (whether old or young) who have ever pondered the existence of a higher power or reflected on the debate between materialism and spiritualism. The Kangaroo even goes so far as to hire a hit-man (well, a hit-eagle, actually) to confront Horton and destroy his precious speck along with whatever fanciful worlds live inside it. When the eagle fails in his mission, the Kangaroo then leads an angry mob to imprison Horton to put an end to all the tomfoolery.It seems, then, that we have in Horton a hint of Socrates, a pariah who has broken free from the conventional thinking of his contemporaries by way of an exceptional skill to grasp a deeper reality that is, in fact, real, but that cannot be empirically demonstrated to the average citizen. He has become one of the fortunate few to break free of his chains and exit Plato’s cave, where the true nature of physical forms (in our case the speck of dust) can be understood for what they are, not merely for what they appear to be. Horton also stands accused, like Socrates before him, of corrupting society’s youth with his alternative vision of the natural world.Similarly, the Mayor, as the only inhabitant of Whoville who senses any danger and, for most of the story, the only one who has actually spoken to Horton, encounters the same kind of resistance. When Horton warns of the potential doom that awaits Whoville, the Mayor takes the bold and courageous step of warning the other Whovillians about the threat. Like Horton, he is asking his society to accept what he knows on faith alone. But when the Mayor goes before the town’s oligarchic council of elders, we see that he has no real power, but is a merely a puppet of this exalted body. In fact, when the Mayor suggests canceling an upcoming celebration that will honor the town’s uninterrupted history of utopian hedonism, the elders bring down a giant glass barrier – what I can only describe as a “cone of silence” to any fans of the old “Get Smart” television show – in order to prevent the audience, i.e. the attending townspeople, from being exposed to so ludicrous an opinion. So it appears that the Mayor is the story’s Galileo in having proven, through scientific instrument, the relation of his own world to the larger universe above and beyond. In other words, he has realized that the sun does not revolve around Whoville (with due acknowledgment to Copernicus).We see, then, in Whoville the dangers of autocratic rule, the secrecies it requires, its outright hostility to any sentiment that might disrupt the narrow party-line or the folkloric pillars on which it has been built. In short, the Council is putting Whoville at risk by not heeding the Mayor’s warning. Their commitment to maintaining the town’s utopian state of existence and their rejection of pluralism, though not conveyed by Dr. Seuss himself, nevertheless speak to the lessons that he may have been getting at in the post-World War II context in which he wrote – namely, the inevitable evils that lurk around the corner of any attempt to build a perfect society out of, in Kant’s words, the “crooked timber of humanity.”The events in Whoville also speak to the more general matter of authority and rebellion. A.O. Scott touched on this point in an insightful essay on Seuss called “Sense and Nonsense” in the New York Times Magazine back in 2000. “Seuss’s moralism,” he said, “was a vision not just of how children should behave, but also how the grown-up world should be. World War II, part of which Seuss spent making propaganda films for the Army…honed his temperamental distrust of authority to a fine political edge.”The flip side of the autocratic regime, of course, is the dehumanization of the individual, and nothing defines Horton Hears a Who! if not its famous admonishment, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Scott commented on this dynamic, too, when he noted that, in Seuss’s body of work, “An overt concern with social justice resounds through the anti-Fascist allegory of Yertle the Turtle, the satire of racism in The Sneetches and the humanism of Horton Hears a Who!” It is exactly that – humanism – that is the central lesson of the Horton story, and this lesson, we shouldn’t have to be reminded, is worth teaching over and over and over again to both children and adults alike. The message was relevant when the book first came out in 1954 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb (according to some accounts, the real target the author had in mind), and it remains relevant today for myriad reasons that should be obvious to all.As my brain generated this philosophical mumbo-jumbo while sitting in the movie theater, I had to constantly remind myself that, at the end of the day, for most viewers, Horton Hears a Who! will be nothing more than a colorful story about two imaginary worlds with a simple take-home lesson: Respect the rights of others regardless of their physical stature or societal position. So, despite the entertaining tale that it tells and the rich philosophical foundations on which it was built, I doubt that the film will garner a spot in the pantheon of great Western thinkers for either Dr. Seuss or the screenwriters of Horton. The latter, by the way, have also brought us the recently released movie College Road Trip, which I can only imagine must be an alternative take on Homer’s Odyssey.
What to say about Harry Potter that hasn’t been said? One approach, I suppose, taking a page from the New York Times, would be to cover the coverage. I, for example, was delighted by the Times’ hypocrisy in covering as news the New York Post’s and New York Daily News’ early publication of movie reviews of Harry Potter 5 (these tabloids sent their reviewers to the Japanese premier, which took place before the American and European premiers), and then publishing their own early review of an illicitly purchased copy of The Deathly Hallows. It was not a “spoiler” – no major plot details given away – but there was, in the very fact of a review published on July 19th, inevitably and implicitly, a nanny-nanny-boo-boo quality to the piece.I have been rather under-whelmed by the reviews of the book (my own efforts included). One particularly aggravating feature is the gushing – and totally unexplained – lists of high literature to which Rowling alludes. I have seen Kafka and Milton on these lists. I would be beyond delighted to know where Rowling alludes to Kafka or Milton. Please post a comment if you know. The larger problem here is that the business (nay, the responsibility?) of a critic is to show and not tell – or, at the very least, to do both. That’s the business of good writing in general. (Even an editorial has a responsibility to tether the opinions it offers to substantial, justifying fact or theory of some kind.) I have been frustrated at the love-fest quality of Potter reviews generally: substantial observation falls aside for adulatory effusion.The following are a few (I hope) more substantial critical sallies at The Deathly Hallows and the series in general. I also forewarn those who have not finished the book that they read on at their own peril. Substantial details of the final book are discussed.Rowling’s gift as author is her masterful skill as an architect of plot. As she has said, she imagined Harry’s story as a seven-book series from the beginning and each book has been carefully seeded with clues and pre-history that become newly significant in subsequent installments. The Deathly Hallows, more than any of the other books (because it has all of the other books to draw on) achieves a higher degree of plot complexity. It is in this (alone), I would say, that she resembles Dickens: the complex interweaving of individual personal stories into a larger, coherent plot. Though I think that in basic concept, the Penseive (the ability to experience other people’s memories as an unseen observer), consciously or no on Rowling’s part, owes something to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, wherein Ebeneizer Scrooge’s moral and spiritual re-awakening is facilitated by ghosts who squire him, also unseen, through his own past and future and other people’s presents.The Penseive is also Dumbledore’s means, particularly in The Half-Blood Prince, of teaching Harry to read meaning and significance in personal history, a task Harry must undertake alone in the seventh book, with Dumbledore gone. And Harry’s task in the seventh does not just involve “reading” Voldemort to figure out where the Horcruxes are, but making sense of Dumbledore’s own past, and his character and trustworthiness, in light of it. The question of whose version – whose reading – of events you take, and the troubling multiplicity of accounts about a single event, has been dramatized throughout the series by The Daily Prophet and particularly by the antics of the muck-raking Rita Skeeter (who pens a tell-all biography of Dumbledore in the Hallows). Rowling also dramatizes the difficulty and the importance of reading, and reading well, in Dumbledore’s mysterious bequest to Hermione of a copy of the wizarding fairy-tales of Beedle the Bard. When Harry is (rather fantastically) reunited with Dumbledore, Dumbledore again emphasizes the importance of what and how you read: “And his knowledge remains woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing.”While Harry and Dumbledore have taken the time to read Voldemort’s past – to “know thy enemy,” He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has failed to do his homework, which would have involved, very cleverly on Rowling’s part, the reading and comprehension of not only Beedle’s tale, but, in essence, Harry Potter – not the books themselves, perhaps, but some version of Harry’s life history. And one last observation on the limbo scene between Harry and Dumbledore: It reminded me of the final scene in Vanilla Sky, where a similar choice is made in a similarly surreal/psychic landscape. I also felt that the model for Harry’s particular strain of self-sacrifice resembles, in certain structural aspects, the story of Abraham and Isaac, wherein the absolute willingness to make a sacrifice of life, is the thing that frees you from actually having to make it.I applaud Rowling’s clever double-ending. That you think it’s over – are really and truly convinced that it’s over – and then have an even greater joy in finding that it’s not. But I also take issue with those who use the term “adult” too freely in their descriptions of The Deathly Hallows. In the best sense of the word, Harry Potter finishes as it began: as children’s literature. Consider, for example, the dead. Rowling does not kill off a single central character (Harry, Ron, Hermione); nor any from the slightly lower tier including Hagrid, Neville, Ginny, and Luna. The only Weasley she kills off is the one with a identical twin – and we get Percy back, so in total the Weasley numbers remain constant. The deaths of Tonks and Lupin (who appear very infrequently in this volume – so there’s less to miss) allow for the somewhat satisfying emergence of a Harry- and Neville-esque war orphan (their son, Teddy) for the next generation. And it also seems fitting that Lupin – and even Wormtail – join Sirius and James in the Great Beyond. Colin Creevy and Dobby – also possibly Hedwig – are innocents but they were never crucial players so far as character went (and, truth be told, Colin Creevy and Dobby had an irritating spaniel-esque quality that is often the mark of a dispensable minor character). My favorite Death Eater death was that of Bellatrix Lestrange: uber-anti-mother destroyed by ur-mother Molly Weasley. Snape dies, of course, but it’s a kindness given the tragically loveless life he leaves behind. And Dumbledore, who actually is dead, is functionally revived in this final volume by the limbo scene, Snape’s memories in the pensive, the crucial role of his pre-history, and the appearance of his doppelganger-ish brother. You lose no one you can’t live without, is what I mean, and even get a few back through redemption and other means.This is pure children’s lit – though Rowling’s Aeschylus epigraph may have led you to expect otherwise. Good triumphs over evil (if that’s not the crux of a child’s plot, what is?) and this triumph justifies and then eclipses the losses that made it possible. The world is made right and the survivors are not psychically broken by their efforts – they enjoy life again, they thrive. Especially for grown readers, one of the chief pleasures offered by Harry Potter and books like it, is their allowing us to experience – to believe in, however fleetingly or wistfully – the kind of idealism and heroism that most of us lose faith in, willingly or no, in adulthood.My parting thought concerns what I consider one of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s fantasy genre as Rowling practices it: Its striking correspondence to the ancient epic tradition, in all of its un-ironic hero- and nation-making high seriousness. I find it particularly suggestive that epic, a genre that emerged and defined early human civilization, is now relegated to literature for humans in the early stages of life (from infancy to infancy, one might say), though I have no substantial thoughts on what it means about us as a culture. Harry Potter borrows much from the ancient literary traditions of Homer and Virgil – visits to and from the dead, prophecies, fantastic beasts to be slain, enchantresses to be escaped, magical objects, tragic flaws, heroic friends lost in combat, battles, and choices of world-determining import. The difference is that heroism and glory in war are not ends in and of themselves in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, as they are in the Illiad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. All of the sublime feats of daring and self-sacrifice that this last volume offers are done to keep the mundane yet magical manifestations of human love going: friendship, family, marriage, children, education. As the epilogue, with its glimpse of a new generation of Hogwarts students, parents, and teachers, demonstrates unquestionably, the purpose of heroism is not becoming a hero, but preserving the people, places, traditions, and values that gave you the strength to confront death and pain in the first place.As to the lasting power of this literary phenomenon – whether it is one for the ages – I think that cultural studies, at the very least, will see to it that future generations look back at Harry Potter. How and why did it (somewhat like, though far-surpassing, best-sellers of yore Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Sherlock Holmes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin) become such a prodigy? As to literary merit, I think, as I said earlier, that Rowling’s skill as a plotter is tremendous: She has a gift for pacing and suspense, for the deft orchestration of clues and of characters’ plot-functions. She is not a stylist – the best that can be said about her literary style is that is transparent and unobtrusive. Of characterization, I would say that Rowling’s characters have an archetypal appeal (the arch, wise, and serene mentor; the affable and fiercely loyal but intellectually diminished sidekick/best friend; the brainy, bossy, dorky-yet-attractive-in-her-braininess female), but that character development is a bit thin – nowhere near so well done as the plotting.Ultimately, though, I think this will be enough to secure Rowling and Harry literary immortality. We shall see.
No wonder Odysseus had so much trouble finding his way home. It turns out that there is some dispute as to the actual historical location of Ithaca, where Penelope waited for her hero husband to return. As noted in a recent article in The Economist, in The Odyssey, “Homer’s Ithaca ‘lies low,’ but its modern namesake is hilly. And though Odysseus’s island is ‘farthest to sea towards dusk,’ today’s Ithaca is close to the mainland in the east.” This disparity hasn’t gone unnoticed by historians and geographers over the years, but now, for the first time, investigations may provide clues as to the true location of Homer’s Ithaca, as geologists using a subterranean scan determine if Kefalonia, to the west of present-day Ithaca, was once actually two islands, the westernmost of which would fit Homer’s description. Locals are taking sides as Odysseus’ home brings with it a lucrative tourist trade.