As many of you know, I’ve embarked on a journey of fiction (not a fictional journey, I hope!) over the last few years. I like to think that I’m reclaiming my childhood love of reading for the pure fun of it and because I need/crave the creative spark that nonfiction was not giving, and various other (mostly valid) reasons. But I know myself too well (and some of you know me even better) to accept that a fa-la-la reason like fun was enough to take on the ~classics~ of fiction. No, there was something deeper driving this here train.
Get to the point, Sara: I’m reading fiction again, really good, rich, beautiful (and old) fiction; I’m also watching a lot of old movies (and one contemporary series.) Hang with me and I’ll share my recommendations below.
But because I am who I am, I can’t just read and watch and enjoy, nooooo, I must go introspective and analyze why (always the question, why) I am drawing from the well of the old and the beautiful. It probably has something to do with my age, and the desire to preserve the worthy art that has gone before me, and also how shallow and fast and ugly our twenty-first-century culture has become in contrast. There is a personal motivator here: I believe that we are shaped (for good or ill) by the culture/art we consume, and I want to be shaped by virtuous things to honor and reflect the beauty of God (and His good world).
One helpful guide in this pursuit has been Karen Swallow Prior’s, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. She advocates for reading quality literature because it allows us to have a kind of simulated experience of exercising our moral judgment, therefore shaping our character, which eventually predisposes us toward virtue. Or, as she succinctly puts it, “Reading literature, more than informing us, forms us” (Brazos Press, pg 22). The experience itself then matters; how deeply we are engaged and moved by a story, how well it is written, the cadence and word choice and character development and description of setting, all contribute toward a lasting effect on our hearts and minds. Not just content, but form. Beauty matters.
I’ve tried reading airport paperbacks. Literally, I’ve been the person stuck in some god-forsaken airport with hours to kill and nothing to read (I’ve since learned my lesson) and bought one of those “best seller” beach reads, only to regret it 1 1/2 chapters in. I’ll admit to checking out more than one novel from the library at a time and not finishing anything I brought home. Of the novels I’ve tried: I’ve donated many neglected, half-read paperbacks to Goodwill, passed a few on to a more suited reader, and thrown a couple straight in the trash. [A Rule of My House…if it reads like trash, it becomes trash.] What do all of these have in common? They were all written (badly, blandly, and boring) in the last 20 years. Sigh.
When your era lets you down, what’s a girl to do? She goes back in time, baby.
Specifically to 1816, with Mary Shelley’s penning the Gothic novel Frankenstein (or, The Modern Prometheus). Widely recognized as the first real piece of science fiction, Mary wrote the novel over a storied summer hanging out in Geneva, Switzerland with her lover Percy B. Shelley and Lord Byron. Mary came from a rocky upbringing by two socially and politically radical parents, had recently left her first husband, and subsequently faced the unthinkable agony of losing her first child (by Percy). She would go on to endure much suffering in her young life, but this summer found her nursing her second baby, traveling with famous (if not debauched) poets, and the unsuspecting birth of her most memorable and epic tale. As you probably know, Frankenstein is the doctor and the Creature is the tragic bearer of a burden he did not ask for…but I won’t get into that now. Later, perhaps.
I bring up Frankenstein because it is an apt example of what I am trying to unpack here. The cultural icon of the stiff, angry, not-so-jolly green giant that struggles to string four words together is miles away from the story itself; we are so far removed from the original source as a culture that we refer to the monster by the troubled doctor’s name. And we are no better for it. The image of a mad scientist vengefully piecing together parts to make a “man” rings fiction only to those who haven’t read the book, or to those who haven’t read the news lately. The image may still send electrifying shivers down our spines, but apart from the moving prose—which flows from Mary’s mother compassion and finds kinship with those who suffer—it is a cheap thrill. Likewise, when we divorce the contemporary (and sick) fascination to recreate humanity by our medical elites from the original source and design (and, ultimately, the Author-Creator) we end up with empty materialism, driven by satanic impulses of unchecked power. As the Creature pleads for redemption at the hands of the doctor, he laments (with more than a touch of tragic irony),
“You accuse me of murder, and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!”
My hope is for a holy dissatisfaction with these second and third-rate imitations. Why should we be satiated with something so shallow, and so far removed from the original masterwork? Why settle for Boris Karloff when we can dive deep into the creative mind of a Romantic icon? And why exchange the truly original, beautiful, and objectively good design of man for something almost, well, monstrous?
As promised, here are some recent things I’ve truly enjoyed (as in, I felt in no way cheated, but actually quite inspired):
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Andrew Klavan’s The Truth and Beauty
and When Christmas Comes
Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well
Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Dial M for Murder
Thank you for taking a few moments to think this through with me. If you’d like to continue the conversation, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Shoot me a message and let’s talk.
Until next time,
p.s. And yes, we have welcomed a new little pup into our home this week. Welcome Juniper/Junie/June Carter, the dog!