I claim to be a literate individual. But, of course, before they let you teach English Language Arts to seventh graders, you have to prove it. They want you to prove you can handle a classroom, and not only can read and write, but can teach seventh graders to do it too… at least to a minimum competency level. After all, the English language in the hands of a hormonal personality-bomb otherwise known as a seventh grade boy or a seventh grade girl, it is a potential weapon of mass destruction.
I set out to become more than merely competently literate in high school. Even then, I wanted to read all the best books ever written and learn to write like that too. In fact, I set myself a quest when I was a junior in high school taking Mr. Sorum’s version of the novel-reading class set out by the Iowa State Board of Education’s curriculum guide as The Modern Novel, a quest to find and read the greatest novel ever written. I started in that class with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
But that fit too easily into the “Modern Novel” thing since it was written in the 60’s and I was reading it in the 70’s. I had to be more illogical than that. So, I also found a book on the Scholastic Book Order form called The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy and read that. It was not exactly a modern novel having been written in the 1870’s and was actually a 96-year-old book when I read it. And it was a tragic love story where everybody ends up married to the wrong person and true love was thwarted up until the chapter where there are multiple drownings. I, of course, fell in love with the Reddleman, Diggory Venn (Reddlemen go from farm to farm dipping sheep in the reddle to kill ticks and fleas) who is covered head to toe in red dye from dipping sheep. He is the humble soul who loves the good girl that the bad man wants to marry even though he’s actually in love with the bad woman who wants to marry Clym Yoebright (the returning native of the title) for his family fortune so she can escape the hated heath country. I realized from the first chapter onward that I was supposed to identify with Clym as the main character. But, illogical introvert that I am (and that Diggory also is) I had to identify with the humble Mr. Venn. And guess what? Diggory not only saves Clym from drowning as he lets the bad man and the bad woman visit Neptune the hard way, he also gets to marry the good girl in the end.
Goofy choice for a great book, right? But it is a great book. It is about people who love drama in their lives and live for the wrong things in life getting what they probably deserve while the plodders and reddlemen get the real rewards in the end. Victorian hooberglob, sure… but good hooberglob with vivid characters, an oppressive setting, and a darkly comic look at love, repressed love, evil love, and just plain love in the end.
But I couldn’t go on thinking forever that The Return of the Native was the best novel ever written. I would go on to read some very good Hemingway, some x-rated Heinlein, and a couple of dog stories before I finished that class. (I definitely read more novels than anyone else in that class as most of them were making their book reports from the blurbs on the back of the book and the part they hide inside the front cover rather than actually reading a whole book.)
But then, as a freshman in college, I was introduced to Saul Bellow.
Good god! Why had they been keeping this writer a secret from me?
Humboldt’s Gift was the book we read and discussed in class. It was written the year before we read it and it both won Bellow a Pulitzer and helped him win the Novel Prize for Literature the year after I read and studied it. It is the story of a friendship between writers. The narrator, Charlie Citrine and the Humboldt poet from the title get to know each other in a friendship that spans the decades between the 1930’s and the middle of the 1970’s. But it also convinced me that most great writers and the books they write that become great books are totally obsessed with sex and death. Charlie is mourning in the story about his latest divorce, his new love that his last love is keeping him separated from, the death in an airplane crash of his love before the lady he just divorced, and his own obsession with his own death.
Yes, sex and death. Lesson learned about great books.
And I learned all those lessons again in a book I found at the university book store by Bellow and read on my own. Henderson the Rain King is about a rich and socially powerful man who is seeking the meaning of life and totally dissatisfied with everything he has discovered so far.
He goes on a trip to Africa complete with guide and tourist group only to take off on his own when he gets there, hiring a native guide, visiting a native village, lifting a gigantic stone statue of a god, and accidentally becoming the official Rain King of the Wirari tribe. He then goes into a long period of philosophical discussion with the tribal king, pokes around at learning the meaning of life from an African point of view, and then goes on a lion hunt with the king wherein the king is killed by the lion, making Henderson the new king, the next step up from tribal Rain King.
And then there was William Faulkner.
Yes, the drunken postal clerk who wrote some of what may be the best novels ever written.
Make that some of the best super-wordy novels ever written, long paragraphs and all.
I have read more Faulkner than just The Sound and the Fury. But this is the first Faulkner I read as part of an American Literature class in grad school.
The title of this book is based on the Shakespeare quote from MacBeth’s soliloquy. “…It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury… signifying nothing.” So, this writer can poke fun at himself.
The three main characters of the book, the Compson brothers, are three very different viewpoint characters that take the swirling toilet bowl of stream-of-consciousness narratives about life in Mississippi and show us how meaningless and pointless our lives are. Benjy is the mentally handicapped brother who barely understands anything about the world around him. Jason is the hot-headed brother working in a farm-supply store and constantly fuming about money and class struggles. Quentin is the lucky brother who gets to go to college and mess up his life on a bigger stage than the other two. Caddy is the sister that all three talk and think about, especially when it comes to the tragedy of what actually happens to her. Everything is one big joke to Faulkner, as demonstrated by the scene in the end of the story where Jason (symbolizing Fury) is beating the snot out of his loudly squalling brother Benjy (the Sound.) It almost seems like the entire story is one big set-up for that one final sight-gag.
I have to say, I considered all of these books as potentially the best novel ever written. But none of these were the final choice. And the four books that I intended to add to this discussion weren’t the final choice either, so I had no trouble editing them out as this essay is way too long already. But the fact that I read and loved these books is basically proof that the reading part of being literate I have down. I’ll bet, if you have read this far, that you haven’t read any of these classics. But I don’t bet money. And you probably didn’t even read this far into a big-windy essay like this one. It doesn’t matter. These books exist. I love them. And I am glad I made them part of my little introverted and totally perverted world.