May 29, 2012
I choose books by their covers, wine by its label, and movies by their trailers. And I thought I didn’t care what other people thought of my choices. Until I had an encounter with O. W. Toad.
I wasn’t always that way. When I was younger, I knew that knowledge was the key (to what I wasn’t sure), and that I was ignorant about many things. I relied on the well-informed and scholarly to choose things that would help me attain knowledge.
I also knew with a certainty that belied my youth, that classical literature was the foundation of knowledge. During high school my brother developed a consuming passion for literature. He devoured it like potato chips. He became my literary mentor. I borrowed his books– Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Dostoeveky. But I couldn’t devour them. I nibbled at them like they were steamed broccoli. I didn’t enjoy it and if I got any benefits, I wasn’t aware of them (I felt the same about broccoli).
Movies weren’t foundational to knowledge, but they could be building blocks. So I looked to the experts, the movie critics, to guide me into knowledge-acquiring-movie-Nirvana. The critics led me to Pulp Fiction. AAAAHHHH. I wanted to bleach my brain after that. Then their wisdom led me to Sideways. And I wanted to hunt down the critics that had “widely acclaimed” it and demand reparation for the two hours of my life that had been wasted. And while they were at it, they could reimburse me for the movie rental.
In the end, I owe those critics (well, let’s just call it even) because I begin to choose movies without reading reviews first. Move over Quentin Tarantino, I’ve realized I’m not meant to be knowledgeable. Enter Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde. I don’t care what the critics say.
Literature followed a different path. I just stopped reading for myself; I read to my kids. But when I started grown-up reading again I browsed the bookstore shelves with the anticipation of a teenager with a shiny new driver’s license, getting into a car alone for the first time.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
I didn’t look at the best-seller list or book reviews. I chose the books that called to me. And I began to acquire knowledge. Not the kind I’d thought was necessary. The kind that taught me about other people, living in their own bubbles, trying to give me a glimpse of themselves. Both of us, reader and writer, connecting somewhere in our guts.
After reading lots of contemporary fiction, deciding to read classic literature again was like summoning up the courage to tip-toe into the cold lake water at the beach. I was fearful that if someone didn’t explain it, or tell me what to think, it would be lost on me. In fact, I was so focused on the mechanics I almost gave up. My brother told me to chill and just read it. So I did.
And I still do. And for the five hundred salient points that sail right over my head, I’m smart enough to get three or four. And that gives me plenty of stuff to ponder.
Which finally brings me to the point of this post— Margaret Atwood (also known as O. W. Toad).
I’d been hearing her name often so I decided to read The Handmaid’s Tale. It was not what I was expecting, and it was not like anything I’ve ever read. As I read, I was vaguely aware of a running commentary in the space between my conscious and sub-conscious minds. It went something like this: “What are her views on this (whatever cultural issue)? Is she trashing my views? Is she anti-Christian? Does she…..?” For the first few chapters I waited for a bogeyman to jump out at me and attack. But he never did. And I became engrossed in the tale and the place in Atwood’s gut that had given birth to it. It was an amazing place.
When I finished it, I gave it four stars in my Goodreads/Facebook account before indulging in my usual obsessive information glut (this explains my in-depth knowledge of things like Temple of the Dog, the life of Ernest Hemingway, and the in’s and out’s of NASCAR racing).
I saw things like “anti-Christian” and “mocking traditional values”, and my heart did a little jumpy thing and a thought went through my mind, like a wisp of smoke, incoherent, just a dread— “Maybe I’m not supposed to like Margaret Atwood’s writing. Maybe I should delete my high rating so they won’t know.”
And I wondered if this place is unique to me or do we all live here? In this place where we believe that someone “from the other side” doesn’t have anything relevant to say, and isn’t worth listening to. So we don’t.
Then I shook my head and the smoke cleared. I did not delete my rating and I won’t delete my opinion. I can’t live in that place. If I did, I’d have to love Pulp Fiction.
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