Monday, October 4, 2010

Lectionary Pertinacity

The last post requires some context, some explanation, and some answers to questions.  To begin with, I should apologize to anyone who likes Gregory Maguire's Wicked.  The book offers a lot that a reasonable person could enjoy.  For instance, it presents an interesting world -- derivative, but interesting.  Its principle addition to Baum's world, the idea that the Witches of the West and North were once fellow students, is a terrific idea.  Even if the Shiz Academy loses to Hogwarts like a snail to a gazelle in the race of imagination, it allows us to see an intelligently offbeat young Elphaba pitted against a preppy, too-pretty-for-her-own-good Glinda.  And even if the best new character, Boq, mostly disappears halfway through, at least he's there to entertain for a while, oblivious to the deep kinship he has with Elphaba because all his conversations with her center around his shallow infatuation for Glinda.  There's plenty here to like.  For me, the weaknesses simply far outweighed these strengths.

But then, if it's not a great book, why read it?  The first answer is that I've run out of light reading for the year -- literally light, I mean, books that I can carry around and read while walking.  I'd seen this book in the bookstores for years, and the idea of a Fractured Fairy Tale (remember this from Bullwinkle?) for adults intrigued me.  I'm also fascinated by the whole postmodern nexus of derivative works speaking to each other (true postmodernists say "texts," not "works"): the original book spawned a great cinematic musical, and a century or so later, a reworking of original book and movie spawned another (so my daughter and others tell me) great musical.  Reading Wicked makes me want to experience the original book and movie again and to see the new musical.

But the experience quickly turned dreary.  Once I found out I didn't like the book, why continue reading?  For one thing, endings can make a huge difference.  The last page of A Farewell to Arms, for instance, retroactively sets the tone for the whole book.  If we find out that the events in the book lead to understanding or some other reward, we are inspired.  Instead we learn that all is purposeless, and suddenly the book becomes dark enough to help explain its author's end.  Hoping for a reverse effect, I kept reading Wicked.  (I did not get my wish.)

For another thing, I want to keep reading just for the mental discipline.  If I stop reading any book I don't enjoy, I'll never get through my list.  The plan is a pact I've made with myself, and I don't want to let myself down.  Besides, it's very difficult for me to leave a book unfinished.  Some people would call it OCD, but I don't see why OC always has to be a D.

But then I know I won't enjoy everything on the list, and I put some particular things on the list that I'm fairly certain I won't enjoy.  Why should I do this to myself?  I have to admit that I sometimes read things I don't enjoy because I think they're good for me, like bitter medicine or exercise.  Aristotle's Logic, for example, is hard to read but has helped to focus and discipline my thinking.

Sorry to say, however, Wicked has provided neither hope, enlightenment, nor strength.  At least not directly.  Bad examples always teach, though, and less-than-great books help us appreciate great books by comparison, just as encountering the villains in great books (Uriah Heap, for instance) helps us to understand the virtues of the heroes (David Copperfield, in this instance).  Boq's disappearance in Wicked provides a foil for Dickens's care in recalling even tertiary characters near the ends of his books, and gives me greater appreciation for his artistry.  So I kept reading.

But there's also the road-accident effect.  People look because they want to see something out of the ordinary and perhaps tragic.  They want a story to tell.  I keep reading books I don't like partly for the satisfaction of being able to say, "You've got to be kidding!"  And if the book is bad in a fascinating way, it gives me something interesting to say.  I hope the reader finds it so, for -- to mention a final reward -- I just got two blog posts out of it.

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