The Novel I Didn’t Read (The Dog that Didn’t Bark!)

“Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart” So writes the narrator of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind. I wonder if children growing up will have one of those seminal texts–will it be Twilight or the Harry Potter series or Hunger Games? Or maybe they will have a song or video game (or a movie?) that is the first text into their hearts. What does that first text into our heart do for us (and to us)?

About 15 years ago I was teaching a course in American Naturalism and assigned Jack London’s Call of the Wild; two students told me they had read it as 6th graders (they were juniors) and that they therefore “knew” the book and told me it would be a waste of time for them to re-read it.  I suggested that it would not be the same book this time around; turned out they loved reading it again and indeed found it a different book because they had become different readers.  As the discussion ensued, they told me that the same year they read Call of the Wild that they also read the GREATEST novel ever written, to whit, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.  They were adamant about its place in literary history and they kept after me to read it and couldn’t believe that ANYWHERE there existed an educated person who had not read and LOVED this book. So, I read the book.  I thought it was cute. They were anguished! How could I not see its greatness?! I realized that for them it was the book that first found its way into their hearts–and I already had that experience.

18 months or so ago our terrific department chairs, Sam Haller and John McConnell, asked faculty to “blurb” a book that made an impact on us as a child–I submitted the passage that follows:

As a child I was enchanted by mysteries and read countless Hardy Boys’ novels and later the entire Doc Savage series.  My parents tried to encourage and direct my readings and gave me copies of G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mysteries and, one year for Christmas, a complete set of Sherlock Holmes’ stories.  A central feature of mysteries is that THINGS WORK OUT IN THE END. The fictional representation of the world fit with my Catholic upbringing and the notion of a providential order to the world–things will work out even if we don’t currently understand them.  So, in some way, evil is understood to be a temporary state and finally not as powerful as the good.  It is with this background that I read, at age 13 in the fall of my 8th grade year and perched in my top bunk, George Orwell’s “1984” which seemed from the back-cover blurb to be  a sort of mystery.  And what a mystery–I just knew that Winston would win–and against fantastic odds! I’d never seen such problems placed before the hero, such powerful enemies, such betrayal, such an enormous task.  As the pages dwindled down I couldn’t wait to see how Orwell would extricate our hero from the tremendous oppression and how the revolution would be pulled off.  And then the pages dwindled to nothing and Winston “loved big brother.”  It was my first real glimpse at the adult world, a movement from the pre-lapserian to the post-lapserian state.  I have reread “1984” every year since that year–a streak that reached 40 consecutive years this year [1971-2010–and I taught it many of those years]. I’m still working through its epistemology, its politics, its calendrical framework, its Promethean infrastructure, and its analysis of language and thought–but those are just ways of intellectualizing a text that I wrestled with as Jacob wrestled with the angel.

Well, I didn’t read 1984 in the calendar year of 2011.  I do expect I’ll read it again in the next couple of years since I’m not done with it yet.  Curious, there are books that I find so completely disposable that I cringe at the thought of re-reading them (Catcher in the Rye) and a great many books that have my admiration but not my love.  However, to expand on the observation about the first book into our hearts–I think there are also places for the first mature book into the mature reader’s heart (Invisible Man); the first book where the mind of the author and the mind of the reader are a match (Little Big Man); the first book of genuine adult wonder and transcendence (Ovid’s Metamorphoses) and so on–I need to work on these and other categories–mea culpa.  I do know that I’m  looking for books (texts) that have “significance” for me. 

When my poetry students “taught” a song that meant something to them to their classmates this past Spring, I was struck by their bravery–they had to expose themselves, make themselves vulnerable, about what matters to them–but these were some of our best classes as I watched them intellectualize the reasons for their love.  They could only hope to get close to what the song meant to them–its significance–though words eventually proved to be inadequate (but just because an act is ineffectual or fails in some way does not render it meaningless–a paraphrase from 1984!).    I post below my final exam for my World Literature class that asks my students to think about “significance” and significant texts.  (I gave out the exam on January 17–that’s correct–more than 4 months before they would write–and we worked on it during parts of 40 days.) Here’s hoping EVERYONE has at least one significant text in his or her life–and can explain why that is–you’ll be astonished at what you find out:

 Daniel McMahon, Final Exam,May 25, 2012 8:30-10:30 Room 308

 In a well-organized and thoughtful essay that contains an introduction, supporting points from the various stories that help your arguments, and a conclusion that evaluates the stories, please address yourself to the following.  Using the quotation below, please respond to it in light of our reading this year. (If you are in the Honors section you MUST write about Invisible Man and FOUR  (4) other texts; if you are in the College Prep section then you MUST write about Invisible Man and THREE (3) other texts.) Remember that “artistic” elements and “meaning” are more under the author’s control—though not absolutely—and should be discussed as such; “aesthetic response” and “significance” are more the province of the reader.  While you need to discuss something of the artistic element and the creation of meaning for each text (narrative p-o-v, use of symbolism, naming of characters, participation in a tradition, use of horizon of expectation, etc.) what I am MOST looking for is your discussion of “significance,” what the story means to you and how you are affected by it. You may choose one (1) text that you know that we did NOT read as a class (a song, book, movie, etc.—remember that EVERYTHING is a text).

“The meaning of a text is NOT something that is contained within it or that can be extracted from it, but rather it is the product of the interaction between the author, text, and reader…. The ‘artistic’ element comprises the text created by the author, whereas the ‘aesthetic’ response is the realization of the text accomplished by the reader.  A literary text exists, that is, ONLY when it is read.  A second polarity of ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ is then introduced.  ‘Meaning’ designates the referential totality that is assembled in the course of reading, and ‘significance’ the reader’s absorption of that meaning into his or her own experience.” [Let these five sentences percolate in your mind, mull them over, swirl them around on your tongue, play with them]

Plato, Allegory of the Cave

Plato, Apology of Socrates

Ovid, Lycaon

Ovid, Deucalion and Pyrrha

Ovid, Arachne

Ovid, Pentheus

Ovid, Baucis and Philemon

Ovid, Pyramus and Thisbe

Tim O’Brien  “The Things They Carried”

O’Brien, “On the Rainy River”

O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story”

O’Brien, “Enemies,” “Friends”

O’Brien, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”

O’Brien, “The Man I Killed”

O’Brien, “The Lives of the Dead”

McMahon, “The Horror, The Horror”

Horacio Quiroga, “Juan Darien”

Karel Čapek, “How the Poor …”

Čapek, “Last Judgment”

Guy de Maupassant, “Mother Savage”

Frank O’Connor, “Guests of the Nation”

Uwem Akpan “My Parents’ Bedroom”

Joao Rosa, “Third Bank of the River”

Daniel Keyes, “Flowers for Algernon”

Ted Chiang, “Understand”

Chiang, “Hell is the Absence of God”

Chiang, “Liking What You See”

Chiang, “Story of Your Life”

Chiang, “Division by Zero”

“Chushingura/47 Ronin”

Shiga Naoya “Han’s Crime”

Akutagawa Ryunosuke “In a Grove”

Kikuchi Kan Beyond the Pale of Vengeance

Masaki Kobayashi, Harakiri

Masaki Kobayashi, Samurai Rebellion

Leo Tolstoy, “The Three Questions”

Tolstoy, “Esahaddon, King of Assyria”

Alfred Hitchcock, Rope

Carlos Fuentes “Aura”

Christopher Nolan, The Prestige

Christopher Nolan, Inception

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

*Ralph Ellison, Invisible Manrequired writing

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Bernard Schlink, The Reader



Filed under 1984, books and learning, teaching, theories of reading, Uncategorized

12 responses to “The Novel I Didn’t Read (The Dog that Didn’t Bark!)

  1. In graduate school a professor asked the class, “What is the purpose of the novel? What should it do?” I answered, “Change your life.” Everyone laughed, but the next class the professor said he had decided that I was exactly right: a powerful piece of writing should change one’s life, however small the degree. Book that changed mine: “Grapes of Wrath,” which I read for fun the summer between 6th and 7th grade. I learned about suffering and poverty and injustice and perseverance. The book taught me empathy.

    • Hi Professor Gerhardt, too cool! What a great note. I’m pretty sure you’ll find our theme for the coming year in sync with your notion of the novel (or “significant” art of any kind). I didn’t read “Grapes” until I was a senior in college–I admired it and was moved–but the time had passed for it to make its into my heart (curiously, I read it in a Sociology class and was the only English major–many students in the class had far more powerful reactions to it than I did–a reaction I attribute to the sense that “Grapes” was competing with many texts for my love but was a lense for sociologists to see the world). I see clearly how it could alter someone’s life and direct one’s notion about what “significant texts” can do. Dan

  2. Charlie Kenny

    Glad I had that easy guy Buck Offutt. I not sure I would have made it in your class. I certainly found Hamlet significant.

  3. Charlie, I’m humbled by your sense that Buck and I exist in the same universe of teaching. For many in Buck’s class “Hamlet” was “significant.” For me, “My Last Duchess”–a short poem by Browning–scared the daylights out of me as a reader because I was testing my “reading” skills with it. Do you think “Hamlet” works, in part, because nearly any adolescent male can relate to a character who: has problems with women and authority, has a love of competition, has a best or good friend, is convinced that he and he alone is RIGHT, and is searching for his place in the world? D

  4. Eric Cortellessa

    Dr. McMahon –

    What an absorbing post.

    Stephen Greenblatt’s essay “Resonance and Wonder” deals with how, a work of any kind, can come to be significant for someone. He notes that resonance is that which you know or have experienced, wonder is that which stops you in your tracks, and that the experience of wonder often depends upon recognition of resonance.

    This post comes at an interesting time for me. I remember months ago sitting in your living room talking with Erica and Chris about how I never re-read books. Not so much because I didn’t think it would be valuable or that I wouldn’t discover anything new, but because my feeling was that there was so much out there that I wanted to read, the thought of re-confronting a text was something I didn’t see myself doing much of, until long down the road. Though there was a sense that, if I already read it I already knew it.

    Since then I have re-read three, in particular. Two that I revisited from some time back (Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49”), and one that I re-read almost instantly after my first encounter with it in April (Faulkner’s “Go Down, Moses”). The first of the bunch is fitting, considering its place in my reading career that marks the threshold into re-reading, where before I didn’t feel the need to. I found it to be a completely different novel. While participating in Nick Carraway’s metanoia, I was experiencing and discovering my own.

    Over the last semester I was also reading Gilles Delueze and Henry David Thoreau. Deleuze said that “thinking consists of making connections in order to complicate our ideas and transform our lives.” He also discerns that knowledge isn’t like a tree, it’s not arborescent, but rather, more like a rhizome, because you start where you are with what you know and you begin making connections. When Thoreau went to Walden Pond, he brought all the books he had already read because he wanted to interpret what he already “knew” (even with unlimited access to everything at the Harvard Library). I found Walden to be an intellectual lodestar for coming to understand how the need to re-think what we think we already know is of such vital importance to the development of ourselves. Though I never considered reading anything once a year for forty years. Let alone “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

    The book that was the first to find its way into my heart happens to be the one you find “completely disposable.” The way in which it was significant for me is very much what is at the heart of Greenblatt’s essay. It isn’t for me now, what it was for me then, as an adolescent incipient reader, who felt he could directly relate to Holden. I won’t deny that I still like it, I do, but not for the same reasons. Its place in my heart now has mostly to do with that it was the first book I loved and it made me want to read more, because, as I realize now, it so demonstrated to me the ability of literature to embody the human voice. It was such an exciting discovery. Today literature is such a part of my life, I
    think of it as something of a propaedeutic guide to it.

    I’ve been enjoying following the blog.

    • Eric, WOW! What a spectacular post. I don’t know Greenblatt’s essay (though I’ve referred to some of his other work in other posts) but I certainly agree with his taxonomy. (I intend to write about Wolfgang Iser’s “implied reader” in a future blog which may have some similar ideas). I am an unabashed admirerer of “Lot 49” but have never been able to read anything else by Pynchon. Possibly for social class reasons or other psychological or literary reasons I have never been able to work up either affection or appreciation for Gatsby–regarded by many as the great American Novel. I plan to reread it for the fall when the new movie comes out and the DeMatha alumni book group discusses it.

      Also, I agree with Deleuze though his metaphor about knowledge is better than mine. I have described the acquisition of knowledge as movement through an archipelago where you land at points of certainty (knowledge) and then are soon coaxed into braving the uncertain waters (or the waters of uncertainty) in the hopes that you’ll come to another island–but you are never sure you will (Nietzsche, incidentally, compared the acquisition of knowledge to climbing in mountains).

      I love your appreciation of “Catcher” despite my belief that it is the most overrated novel in American literary history–and I recognize (with a bit of bewilderment) that it is a seminal part of the experience of many really smart people–such as yourself (I have the same reaction to Walt Whitman–an utter failure as a poet and thinker in my universe). That you read the blog is humbling to me–I so admire your facility with language and ideas.

  5. DICooper

    Wait, what? How much time do we have?

  6. joecee

    Totally fascinating and thoughtful blog. I recently reread “1984,” but found it all too dark for me. Perhaps it’s too real. I am wondering when “mature” reading begins. Students ask me, “What is the best book you have ever read?” There was a time when I could answer that question as easily as they do.

    • Thanks for weighing in Joe. “1984” scares me–its darkness (as you characterize) attracts and repels me (Conrad’s “fascination of the abomination”).

      Like you, I can no longer answer such a question as “best book you ever read”–only those who read little can do that. The more one reads (or thinks about texts) there is little that is truly execrable (I can find something to admire in almost anything–hence “Pulpteacher”) but I also find almost NOTHING fully satisfying. Let the dialogue continue–thank heavens I get to teach.

  7. joecee

    Eric scares me.He devours literature and theory at such a high level. I look forward to following his commentary. “Catcher” pretty much defined a generation. Merton’s “Seven Storey Mountain” and A.J. Cronin’s “Keys to the Kingdom” encouraged a generation of Spiritual quest, just as Kerouac’s “On the Road” provided a secular enlightenment.

  8. Rahsaan Johnson

    Dr. McMahon, you just inspired me to re-read “1984.” 21 years since senior year Lit class (and several visits to the former “Eastern Europe”), I’m interested in learning what new things I find in it the second time around. I’ll let you know!

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