This season has been one of re-reading books from my past. This was not deliberate; it just seemed that every time I reached for a new book, the closest at hand was one I had read before.
I do not generally re-read books that often. Every five years or so, I find something that impresses me so much that I read it twice over. (Hokey Pokey would be the most recent example.) But beyond that, all my re-reading is the result of research or teaching. My typical attitude is breadth over depth. I tend to read one book from an author and then move on to the next thing.
However, this recent sprint of re-reads has forced me to reflect on what a pleasure it is to come back to a book after time off. To live inside a story more than is absolutely necessary. When I was younger, I re-read books all the time. At around 10 years old, I fell deeply in love with Through The Looking-Glass. (It actually began when I saw a staged musical version of the story.) I proceeded to read chapters from Looking-Glass every night before bed for the next 10 years. Now, when I look back that same book, I struggle to understand why it had so grabbed me. But I do feel a deep appreciation for the book and how it shaped my imagination.
When I think of re-reading, I am reminded of something Jacqueline Woodson once said in an NPR interview. Woodson was being asked to remark about the fact that her older sister was actually the serious reader in the family–and how strange it was that Woodson ended up being the one to devote her life to literature. I don’t have the transcript, but I recall her saying something about the fact that even though she did not read many books growing up, when she did read, she went deep. That’s something I can identify with. And it’s something I had forgotten about as of late.
This week I found myself briefly stranded without a book, and so I to re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The book was published in 2013 to largely negative reviews. Reviewers seemed to have tired of his charmingly counterintuitive self-help busines-speak. Many rightly criticized the book for feeling disjointed … what begins as a motivational talk about entrepreneurs overcoming dyslexia soon migrates to much heavier topics, including child leukemia, civil rights, religious war in Northern Ireland, child abduction/murder, and even the Holocaust. The overall response from readers seemed to be that Gladwell was getting too lofty: better to stick with what you know.
Reading the book in 2017, however, I had a different reaction: the weakness of David and Goliath isn’t the heavy stuff, it’s the fluff at the beginning. (I would include the title among the fluff.) In 2017, the second half of the book is chilling. Nearly every example has profound resonance with the current state of the world. And it seems to go a long way toward explaining why many of the conflicts we find ourselves in are simply unwinnable. It is also a more personal book; Gladwell experienced a sort of personal religious conversion while writing it. Reading it this week, I was struck by how much more human and vulnerable the stories were. The question that rang through the final chapters was, for me, clear: Would you be willing to suffer the way these people have suffered?
Unlike Gladwell’s previous books, David and Goliath is unable to offer up a glib “takaway” that readers can apply at their next board meeting. I suspect a message as bleak as this had no real place in the (comparatively) optimistic world of 2013. But in 2017 the book feels almost therapeutic. It recognizes that there’s no easy hack to fixing certain kinds of conflicts. Instead it offers a different kind of message: it asserts that suffering creates people able to truly risk themselves in order to do what is right. In a world full of so much wrong, we need people like that. Those are what history will call heroes.
I have a lot of readers ask my why I write about characters with missing or dead parents. My jokey answer is “because then no one can ground them.” But the real answer is much more complicated. It has to do with how extreme loss conditions a person–preparing them to endure extreme pain in the future. My characters suffer over the course of their stories, and to me it seems more cruel to put an unscarred and unprepared person into such dire circumstances.
I’m grateful for this book because the next time someone asks the “Why Orphans?” question, I will have a better answer.
UNRELATED: Those who like Gladwell might enjoy his very excellent podcast series, Revisionist History. I especially enjoyed his episodes about the evolution of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and his exploration of Generous Orthodoxy.
I’ve just finished reading AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which is not a book for children. It is a sprawling, virtuosic chronicle about idealistic artists at the turn of the 20th century. The “main” character is based on real-life children’s author E Nesbit (named Olive Wellwood) and the book primarily concerns itself with Olive and her family. I’m a big Nesbit fan, so this book was fascinating.
The thing that most struck me in the book was the fate of Olive’s oldest and most beloved son, Tom. Tom is beautiful and smart and kind and innocent: he is presented as a character from a book caught in a harsh world. The novel shows Tom’s tragic decline as the victim of betrayal: abuse, cruelty, deception, parental infidelity, and (implied) addiction. But none of these are what kills Tom. Instead, it is his mother’s writing that drives him to suicide at the end of the book. Since he was a small child, Tom’s mother has been writing him a special storybook (“Tom Underground”) that was written just for him. As Tom grows up and becomes more and more troubled, these stories serve as a sort of life-line for him. But then his mother mines these private childhood stories in order to create a beautiful and successful stage play. Tom only discovers this on opening night, when he’s watching from the audience. Shortly after, he drowns himself.
The book has many disturbing elements, but this was the most disturbing by far: that the selfishness of Olive Wellwood in her writing harmed her son more than anything else. This mirrors a real-life tradition of authors publishing private stories originally created for/with children: Christopher Robin, Alice Liddell, the Davies Boys, etc. None of those children fared well in adulthood. I’ve never quite understood the nature of such trauma. Like many others, I have always assumed that there must be some other explanation for why the children grew up to be bitter and miserable. (There is no shortage of speculation about abuse.) But Byatt argues in The Children’s Book that commodifying and publicizing the private worlds of a child’s imagination is trauma enough.
Byatt forces readers to ask if the cost is too high. Yes, we have Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, but those masterworks came at the expense of real people’s happiness. I consider myself a loving father and husband, and I certainly do no conscious harm to my children. But I have always been unapologetic about using details from real life in my books–it’s all fair game if it serves the story. Byatt’s novel made me reconsider this long-held stance, which is no small thing.
Every author loves getting fan art of characters from their books! At some point, I plan to put up a few gallery posts. In the meantime, I recently saw these amazing Night Gardener concept drawings by a Thai art student named Thithipun Supampon. “Fan art” isn’t quite the right word for this–Thithipun is a freelance illustrator and these drawings are part of a thesis project. You can see more of their work here
This has been a painful and frightening week for a lot of people. At a time like this — when there such immediate need for change in the world — it feels hard to justify the work of writing children’s stories. What could be more frivolous? In many ways, my book Sophie Quire was about this very question. But in the time since I finished Sophie, the question has only plagued me more. What is the point of a children’s story? It’s a good time to remember GK Chesterton’s words:
I might add something to this, which is that it’s important to write children’s stories so that the next generation can know a monster when they see it.