“The Importance of Literature”
Writing has been my passion since I was 13 years old, and I started not because I had some lofty ambition to become a best-seller, or even publicly known, but because I had an active imagination that was best expressed in words. I didn’t know how to make video games at the time, and my toys, which I was outgrowing, did not inherently create the explosions I had seen in my mind, or any “automated,” interactive, constructive, or destructive scenarios I wanted to play out. Because I wanted to tell stories somehow, I figured writing was the best way to go, if not the only way.
And the crazy thing about that is, at the time, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading.
Whether it deserves it or not, I blame the education system for the latter issue. In junior high and high school (actually, my junior high had become an official middle school the year I reached eighth grade, so I’ll say middle school and high school for this point), I was forced to read books that were written decades earlier, addressing topics I had neither knowledge nor interest in learning about. One in particular, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, I had to read twice, once in eighth grade and once in ninth. I didn’t enjoy it either time, and was notably upset when I was told to read it a second time. In tenth grade, I had to read Nectar in the Sieve, which bored me so much that I never finished it, even for a grade. Granted, I’m sure I would appreciate both books more today, now that I’m a 40-year-old adult who doesn’t need explosions to enjoy a story (even though it still helps), but I still would never automatically gravitate toward either.
The stuff I read in high school that I could read again and enjoy today include The Great Gatsby, which I believe is the book I’ve read more times than any other and will probably read again because it’s so freaking good (I honestly need to read all of Fitzgerald’s works to truly appreciate his genius, I think), The Catcher in the Rye, which was my favorite at the time, but has since been supplanted by Mr. Gatsby and friends, and To Kill a Mockingbird, which was just a brilliant piece of writing through and through. Each of these books had an important place in 1990s high school literature, establishing a foundation for society and whatnot, but none of them had ever turned me on to reading.
It took Alex Garland’s The Beach to get me to see that novels could actually take place in the modern world, present universal truths relevant to today and tomorrow, and still be interesting, and ultimately to get me interested in reading more books.
It was not an easy thing for me to become a regular reader of present-day fiction. It took me months to finish reading The Beach, and the only reason I bought it was because I had flipped to a page where the main character was talking about Super Mario Bros. I was impressed that someone had thought to bring pop culture into fiction, and I wanted to support any book that considered me its ideal reader. Kamala Markandaya, the author of Nectar in a Sieve, clearly wasn’t aiming to capture a 15-year-old boy who still watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Saturday mornings. I’m sure Markandaya had a compulsive urge to write the novel and knew that there was an audience for it. Maybe it was unfortunate that some educator believed I was that ideal audience. But, for as much as I appreciated the effort, The Beach didn’t captivate me the way it probably wanted to. Well, it did at first, so that’s not a fair statement. But it lost momentum for me when I realized I was basically reading Lord of the Flies (another classic) in a modern skin, which ultimately didn’t appeal to me. If I were to read it again today, now that I’ve built up my reading experience to sustainable levels, I might enjoy it much more. Might.
However, what it did accomplish initially was to break the wall that Nectar in a Sieve and required reading like it forced before me. Even though it wasn’t the book that turned me into an avid reader, it did give me cause to explore other titles. I think it was Tunnel Vision by Keith Lowe that finally got me to take reading seriously (even though MTV published that book, and I don’t believe it was ever one to be taken seriously), and that encouraged me to look up the author who wrote the book that the John Cusack movie I had seen in college a couple of years earlier was based on, even though I didn’t like the movie as much as I’d wanted to but was curious about the book that inspired it, since I knew it was based on a book, and that, of course, was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, who became one of my favorite authors, as About a Boy is in my Top 10 favorite novels of all time (up there with The Great Gatsby and Syrup by Max Barry), and definitely the right one to discover, even if his latest, Funny Girl, isn’t particularly great.
I write all of this to express the importance of not just of reading, but to love it, and to find works that allow you to love it. By finding and reading books we love, we can develop a healthy reading habit that can carry us through the rest of our lives, and teach us things along the way. Right now, I’m reading The Martian by Andy Weir, and even though I lost my taste for science fiction back in the ‘90s, this book reminds me why I don’t have to eschew it completely. It’s so good, and I daresay its goodness has much to do with its relevance to what I know and understand and enjoy. Ready Player One is another one that straddles the lines of sci-fi, pop culture, adventure, and pure entertainment, a book that I absolutely loved and absolutely would’ve missed out on had I not refined my taste for reading years earlier, in spite of the damage that high school literature had caused me during my formative reading years.
That said, the books that reached me did so because they touched on a point of personal identity that other books like The Good Earth could not do. This isn’t to say that I think The Good Earth is a bad book. Not at all. It’s a classic for a reason. I’d even consider it a valuable resource if I ever wanted to familiarize myself with early 20th century Chinese dynasties. But, as of now, as it was back in high school, it’s not my thing.
However, families are relevant, and family sagas are universal, and that’s what The Good Earth ultimately is written to be, so there’s probably much to glean from it that’s relevant to all of us, and I just didn’t know how to appreciate that as a 14-year-old who looked forward to watching whatever was popular on Saturday mornings back in 1990.
I started writing my first major story, City Walker, the same school year I had to read The Good Earth the first time (1989-1990). It was an action-packed random events story about a man looking for a television repair shop. If I had been well-read, even as a 13-year-old, I would’ve realized that I was writing a meandering story that had no sustainable plot line. But I was watching a lot of television in those days, and I knew what made a story worthwhile, even then, and I knew as I was writing it that what I was writing wasn’t anything particularly good. Even when my English teacher offered to read it whenever I’d finish it, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t show her. Thinking about it all these years later, knowing all that I know about story now, I can safely say that what I had written over the course of two years was not a story, but a series of pointless events. But they were pointless events that allowed me to get my worst ideas out of my system. They also allowed me to develop a cast of characters that I actually did like, and wanted to see more of. This lead to me writing an updated version of the story as a screenplay a few years later. It still wasn’t good, but it was better.
Literature didn’t teach me structure, not as I understand it today, but it did teach me value. I knew from the books I didn’t enjoy that the story I was having fun writing was not great. Perhaps that slaps the face of anyone who has ever said, “If it feels good, do it.” No, you really shouldn’t, not unless you’re going to learn from it, and sometimes what you’ll learn is that you shouldn’t do it, even if it feels good. I didn’t enjoy The Good Earth when I read it, and come to think of it, I don’t recall enjoying The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, either (the fact that I love it now tells me that I should reacquaint myself with the classics, now that I’m at a point in my life that I can appreciate them). But it did teach me the idea of scope. It did teach me that actions have consequence, and that even characters we don’t like can still be memorable. I don’t remember a lot of the things I’ve read in my life, but I can still remember vividly how poorly Wang Lung treats his wife, and how creepy it is that the grandfather wants the warmth of the baby to help him sleep at night, and how systematic O-Lan’s birthing ends up being each time her water breaks and she heads into the bathroom to deal with it. Oh, and the fact that I remember these characters’ names also says something about it. I didn’t like it. But I sure as heck remember it. I vaguely remember the characters in Anonymous Rex by Eric Garcia (they’re dinosaur detectives disguised as human, if I recall), but I don’t remember much about the story itself. Bits and pieces. Of course, weirdly, I enjoyed Anonymous Rex far more than I did The Good Earth. I wonder if I did simply because it was unconventional and not at all the kind of book my Honors English teacher would’ve assigned me in eleventh grade English. Or, maybe because I didn’t have to read it, I decided that I wanted to read it. All a bunch of maybes.
Ultimately, if we want to write, we need to read. In the years I wrote stories without reading other people’s published stories, I had a lot of fun, but I also wrote a lot of crap and didn’t learn anything. These days, I learn plenty. More on that next time.
Next Week: “The Importance of Experimentation and Ignoring Fear“