The Time Value of Literature

“A classic is a book that has lasted more than 100 years.” –

Famous Person Cited by English Professor Too Long Ago to Remember

But the forgotten famous person has a point.

Today at work, I was talking with someone about a writing project she’s considering, and two books published several years ago came into the conversation. “Of course, they wouldn’t be published now,” I remarked. Times have changed, the publisher’s needs have changed, what the market is reading has changed…the list goes on.

My subconscious mind must have thought this was interesting because the topic recurred in another guise while I was scrubbing a saucepan after dinner.

It began with recollections of a picture book my mama read us often when I was a little girl. The book is called Supposings, by Johanna Johnston, Pictures by Rudy Sayers. See? That’s already something different. Picture books now say “illustrated by” on the cover. Why did that change, I wonder? Is the word “pictures” too specific, or not specific enough?

Everything about this book reminds me of my 1970s childhood. I remember it being read to us, I remember the sunlight inside the rooms of our house and that soft “nap-time-soon” quiet feeling of cuddling on the couch with wiggling siblings, staring at pictures, pointing at things at will, floating along in the sound of our mother’s voice.

The colors in the illustrations and the style of them remind me of the curtains on the landing and a wool plaid vest my mama sewed that still hangs in my closet, simply for love.

I love this book. But if Johanna and Rudy submitted it now, would it be published? Would it be hard-back? (I don’t like picture books to be paperback. Thin and flooooppppy.) Would this simple, childlike journey through an afternoon of daydreaming be considered a plot? The illustrations would be different, wouldn’t they? Even art for children follows trends. Are those trends set more by adults, or by the shifting landscape of a generation raised in front of screens?

Supposings was published by Holiday House, Inc., in New York, in 1967. There was no such thing as self-publishing in those days. That means a New York editorial staff thought this book was a good risk. Would they now?

What was the competition like back then? Were publishers swamped with submissions the way they are now? Perhaps they thought they were, but could their swamp compare with the tsunami made possible by personal computers, internet research, and the lure of social media stardom?

Years ago, my Daddy explained to me what he meant by “the time value of money.” He told me that even if I have a million dollars, if it hasn’t been paid to me yet (or it’s tied up in a trust fund or etc. etc.), then it’s value is changed. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Is there a similar principle for literature? To me Supposings is a classic because it is lovingly bound to a host of childhood memories. My objective analysis of its literary worth will be quite subjective, no matter what. Love is not blind, but sometimes love is not seeing the same object that everyone else is.

Would it be easier to evaluate the lasting literary contribution of a book for adults? I’m not sure. Novels go out of style. So do self-help books. Medical advice? Goodness yes! But at some point in all this analysis, one must confront the reality that a change in criteria is not always a change for the better. Before we can finish judging a book that wouldn’t be published if it were submitted today, we can’t avoid asking whether it should be.

Putting Joy Into Practice: Why you need this book!

Putting Joy Into Practice

Putting Joy into PracticeHave you read Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church, by Phoebe Farag Mikhail?

This is an amazing book.

It reads like a conversation, the kind you might have on a tough day, sitting in a squeaky kitchen chair and cuddling the cup of hot coffee that’s going to keep you alive until bedtime. Christmas is coming, the world is sparkling around you, and you are exhausted by your attempts to be as happy as you expected to be. That’s why you need this book.

Reading it, I decided that most of us (including me) have no idea what joy really IS, let alone how to BE joyful. The book has many strengths, but one of the best is the way it uses clear, practical language to convey deep theological wisdom. You’ll read a sentence and think it’s simple, and then the floor will drop out of it and you’ll realize it has enough depth to keep you reflecting on it for the rest of your life.

Phoebe Farag MikhailPhoebe does a wonderful job of including the voices and experiences of the church fathers – AND those of human beings she has seen or known in modern life. She includes stories of both defeat and victory on the path to joyful living. The book is honest and hopeful. It holds you to a high standard, but gives you the tools and inspiration to meet that high standard.

I also appreciated the many ways in which the book was not “obvious.” You might think, even after a glimpse at the table of contents, that some of the 7 practices are things you’ve already heard or already tried, but as you work through the chapters, you discover their enormity. These practices are things a normal person can do in normal life. They are simple, but not easy. But even thinking about them, beginning to plan how you might attempt one or two, will stretch your mind and heart.


This book is available from Paraclete Press, Amazon, and the Ancient Faith Store. Go get it! Make it part of your devotional time in the new year, or get it for a friend who’s sitting in her squeaky kitchen chair, praying to God for a lifeline on the journey through this difficult world.


Thank you, Phoebe Farag Mikhail for putting this book on my path!

Facets of Close Reading

In his Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien remarks testily, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical….I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

Feigned History

A most fascinating phrase in this rich paragraph is the reference to “history, true or feigned.” We are so accustomed to defining history as the record of what has been true that this seems at first like an attempt to split hairs, perhaps a hopeful weapon against readers who were too ready to assume references in his tales to the World War where Tolkien vigorously denied them. Yet to a man who had invented a complex imaginary world and lived in it for decades, there could be nothing surprising in the idea of “feigned history.” Having taken the giant step from literal to imaginative reality, he could find no difficulty in treating the record of imagined people and events with the same discipline and care expected from real-world chronicles and scholars.

But a record, or study, of what can be found in a work of fiction may not so easily be categorized as “true” or “feigned.” Tolkien, existing in “true” life, must draw on materials from the Creator’s world to create a world of his own, and the reader’s pursuit of his meaning may undermine the idea of allegory as a tool of “domination.” Tolkien notes, “An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.” (Read my observations on this subject.) He strikes here the head of the nail that drives through critical debates over authorial intention and the existence of any text as an entity independent of its creator. It is also a touch-point between spiritual and literary theology, a bump against the reality that like God, we must create from our own substance, but unlike God, we are not the originator of that substance.

Allegory

“Allegory,” we are told, is “a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.” By this definition, despite Tolkien, every literary work is an allegory.  There is something about our means of communicating that cannot be one-dimensional. “All these things spoke Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spoke he not unto them” (Matthew 13:34). Language itself is allegorical at the most basic level – words describe meaning the way music notes depict sound. The marks themselves are nothing but what we agree to attribute to them. Communication is an equation, an exchange of factors that must always be interpreted to exist at all. Thus, a writer striving to escape interpretation is a paradox.

Alfred Tennyson is a good example, a witness against his own attempt at escape. Despite his expressed irritation with attempts to pinpoint such “hidden meaning” in his poems, he was the master of deeply symbolic, allusive language. The smallest details of vocabulary, meter, and description are laden with “meaning.” (But that is a subject for another day.) “I am a part of all that I have met,” says Ulysses, in the poem that bears his name. This is a statement he makes to himself, claiming himself as an influence on the lives of others. But so must those others be a part of him. So are we all constantly brushing against each other, leaving streaks of color, infringement, motivation, reaction, inspiration. So are we all constantly affected and affecting.

Interpretation

In my own years of reading and seeking, I have arrived at a sense that it is not the impulse to interpret and decode that is at issue. Rather, it is the counter-impulse to accept only one interpretation, to open the door in search of meaning and then slam it shut as soon as the first glimmer appears. Tennyson abhorred interpretation that reduced his poems to mathematical simplicity – this means that, this stands for that, as if the poem were a code and a single idea could decipher and replace it. This kind of reading inevitably reduces literature, or any art form, to one dimension. It collapses tension, removes whatever is dynamic or uncertain, and flattens the living entity into one cramped and stunted viewpoint. Too much is lost, too little gained.

The same tight-fisted over-simplification appears in religious life too frequently as well. God eludes us, and instead of pondering the largess of Infinity, we strive feverishly to equate Him with something more manageable. When it is used in this way, allegory is guilty as Tolkien charges it. It is an imposition rather than an interpretation, a willful choice of anxiety over comprehension. Again we collapse the tension we cannot handle.

Meaning

Meaning should be the fruit of any quest for meaning. It seems too obvious to need stating, but replacing the multi-faceted gem with the plain line-drawing is an unworthy fruit, or no fruit at all. Replacement is not the goal.

Real art explores and celebrates what is beyond its ability to depict. “Parables” are necessary because they allow the indescribable mysteries to be carried along in the limitless spaces left for them around the words and ideas we are able to describe. We “read between the lines” instinctively because we are created this way. We know there is “more to this than meets the eye.” We are wired to seek revelation because we are created in the image of the Revelator. Our ability to use this gift will be in direct proportion to our faithful confidence that our own perceptions are a tool of the revelation, but not its final boundaries.

We read closely not to reduce or replace, but to enter fully into what is present, what might be present, in the text and in ourselves. Done correctly, reading enlarges the text as we discern layer upon layer within it. Whatever we find within it, and within ourselves, the object is not to achieve the inner stillness of single meaning. The object is to draw near to our own incarnational connection with the Infinite.

 

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash