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Sunday, June 20, 2010

To tell the truth

I have to confess that despite the fact that I loved studying English, and despite the fact that I did work pretty hard in school, I was not a very well-read English major when I first graduated from college. I knew I should read the stacks of books assigned for classes, but I was so very gifted in the art of BS that it seemed a shame to just waste that talent. I read most of the assignments, I think, but I also managed to ace tests by reading dust jackets and back covers; sometimes I didn't even do that. 
Then I got lonely. To be more specific, I got a job traveling about the Midwest, teaching reading and study skills seminars at colleges. For the two years after graduation, I spent seven months out of the year living out of hotels for two weeks at a time, sometimes close enough to home for visits, but usually not. Sometimes I went a month or two without seeing anybody I knew. 
Like a travelling salesman tossing playing cards into a hat, I started reading. And reading. And since I was teaching kids to read super-fast, that meant I was reading super-fast. I got through the first five Harry Potters in something like a week. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arther's Court survived half of a weekend. Sometimes I'd go to the bookstore and read an entire book in one sitting to save the cost of buying it. 
Then one day, I found an old copy of Jane Eyre lying in a classroom where I was teaching. I hated Jane Eyre in high school and college. I thought. I vaguely remembered reading a chapter or two for some class and ditching the book, probably in favor of video games. But at the end of the day, I found myself driving to the Books-a-Million, an hour down the road, to get my own copy. It was the craziest thing. Reading Jane Eyre was almost nothing like torture. I didn't lose my will to live even a little. I mean, don't get me wrong, I still didn't like it by any stretch of the imagination, but it was, as one of my college professors once put it, "a big bowl of lima beans." Not tasty, but worth it. 
This sent me on a quest to track down and read all the books I'd blown off in high school and college. That was a long list, but I took care of most of it in a semester. This found me, at 24 years old, calling friends to tell them, "Holy crap, To Kill a Mockingbird is totally good!"
It's a slender waif of a book, short and simple enough for a child, yet rich enough for a grown-up to get something new from it each time they read it. 
Which makes me wonder, what in the hell happened to Harper Lee. The woman publishes a couple of stories, writes one of the best books, if not the best book, of the 20th century, and then that's it. She publishes a couple of essays, graciously accepts some honors and awards, but mostly just disappears. How does something like that come to pass, that someone with such incredible truth tells all of the truth she's got to tell and then stops speaking? It happens, of course. Lewis Carrol doesn't write any other novels after the Alice books, Rita Mae Brown, whom I've mentioned before, wrote the amazing Rubyfruit Jungle, but since has only written novels about cats who solve mysteries. JD Salinger's list of novels is on the skimpy side. 
Yet we've got Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich and John Grisham who just keep spitting them out. You might point out that alphabet mysteries and contrived courtroom dramas take far less effort, but if you think that, you've probably never tried to write one. I recently read Dead Until Dark, one of the books on which the show True Blood was based. I think I wrote better in high school. Yet I've tried, a hundred times, to sit down and crap out a romance novel or a mystery just to see if I could and never gotten past a few chapters. I'm sure writing one of the greatest works of American literature takes a lot out of you, but it's hard to imagine it takes everything.
Not that I'm criticizing Lee in any way, or saying it would be easy for her to write anything. I'm not saying it's impossible she's just said all she needed to say. It's just funny, is all.
At any rate, 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Read TKM in 6th grade... got through it because I had to. Read TKM in middle school, also because I had to. Also watched the movie, which was pretty good for an old black and white one. Read TKM in highschool and actually read it. Turns out it was actually a neat book. :) I suppose the school systems around here did an ok job of shoving a good book down my throat.