Lying With Books

Walker Percy

Walker Percy

This is not a post about lying on the beach with a “beach read.” It may, however apply to what you read on the beach.

I’m at a conference this week and one of our speakers quoted the American novelist Walker Percy who once said,

“Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition, so that one never recognizes oneself, the deepest part of oneself, in a bad book.” (From Signposts in a Strange Land.)

Percy goes on to observe that books may titillate and engage our attention in a voyeuristic way and yet leave us with a sour taste, because their portraits of the human condition and the moral universe they create fails to ring true. Novels that are true are similar to walls that are plumb or good carpentry where all fits.

Our speaker went on to extend this axiom to other pursuits such as economics (“bad economics always lie; they lie most about the human condition.”) He proposed that our condition is one of being “glorious ruins”, both noble with high aspirations, and yet fallible and finite and that when we try to tell any story that denies this reality, we tell a story of hubris that lies about the human condition.

I think this is what has always troubled me about the characters of Ayn Rand’s fiction. All are strong and assertive and capable and their only downfall is a system that fails to realize their egoistic drive to succeed. There is no self-awareness of the tremendous capacity for not only good but also evil that runs through each of us.

One of the conclusions drawn in this presentation was the importance not only in writing but in our politics, our economics, our home life, to become tellers of good stories if it is a good society we would shape.

He suggested that the good stories are not ones of living happily ever after but rather ones of proximate good, the good that is possible for people who are “glorious ruins.” We enjoy good, but hardly perfect marriages. We achieve proximately and not ideally good “all or nothing” political solutions.

I think Percy and our speaker are on to something. The stories I’ve loved the most are honest and create characters I can believe if not always like. They are stories that make me reflect both on the darker angels of my nature, and aspire to something better without ever denying what I am.

I would be curious what others think about this. Have you come across books that you felt lied about the human condition? And do you think that the telling of good stories, the creating of good narratives, in the sense of proximate good, is important in shaping the good society?

Don’t Judge a Classic by Your High School Experience!

Publisher’s Weekly recently ran a post titled, “10 Classic Books You Read in High School You Should Reread.”  Most of the post is devoted to a list, which by and large I think is pretty interesting. The writer notes that there are some choices that would evoke a “meh” from him, such as Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter.  Not sure I would agree with either, even though the latter was pretty tough going. Here are some of my thoughts about why we shouldn’t write off the “classics” we struggled through in high school.

1. Most of us were more pre-occupied with the girl or boy sitting next to us than what the whale symbolized, or the complexities of sexuality we encountered in Anna Karenina that were still years ahead for us.

2. In high school, we just didn’t have that much life experience to find the life experience in these works making much sense. It seems to me that one of the attractions of Young Adult fiction is that it connects to current, not future life experience. I also suspect for this reason, it will be less interesting as these Young Adults go on in life.

3. Conversely, as we do go on in life, we need works that explore life in its complexities and ambiguities, that explore the depths of human experience and character.

4. Not all high school teachers were created equally. Some were able to capture the imaginations of their students enough to have them explore worlds beyond their own in the literature they read and then find the connection back to their own world. Others were less inspiring and not a match for the works they were called on to teach, as valiantly as they tried.

5. Hopefully you are a better reader now than then, though that cannot be assumed. As I explored in “Digital Brains?” our internet usage may militate against the kind of attentive, slow reading great books require. Along the way, I hope you have had to do enough of the attentive, focused reading that you are able to engage the worlds of classic writers.

I really didn’t get into Steinbeck in high school. Reading him more recently, I discovered what a great work East of Eden  is and the profound insights into mid-life, and human nature more broadly that we gain in Winter of our Discontent. What I find as I go on in life that I hunger for something deeper than quickly browsed stories on the internet, tweets and status updates. I long for something deeper than I find in a “beach read”.  Centrally, my faith answers to that longing, but great works that explore the human condition also capture my imagination and “read” me.

What high school classic have you reread and what was your experience.?