Friday, May 07, 2010

I did the unthinkable today....

I threw a book in the garbage. It's maybe the second time in my LIFE I've done that (the other time was a religious book that was questionable anyway, but the margins were filled with notes from a pedophile about the text, and I just couldn't tolerate it even though the notes were about religion, not other nasty stuff).

ANYWAY, this time it was Steinbeck. I never have liked Steinbeck (I know--among other English teachers, it makes me EVIL!). My impression of his work is that, in trying to make his characters round, he balances every good with an equal evil, which means you get either wimpy, wishwashy characters with no moral center, or bad guys (because even a great hero, if he does despicable enough things, is no longer a hero). There are no good guys. No heroes.

Unfortunately, in real life this isn't actually accurate. In real life there are bad guys, and wishywashies, but there are also GOOD guys--really really good guys, whose good far outweighs their bad.

 Granted, everyone does bad things. The flaw that I find in Steinbeck is that he makes the good and bad equal. For example, King Arthur: great hero, saved England, everyone adores him. I can stand that sometimes he's proud, sometimes he's selfish. Those things make him human. But when he collects all the babies born in the last 4 weeks and murders them (all by himself, to hide a sin)'s too much. He is no longer a hero.

I don't think Steinbeck writes classics. (I KNOW! It's not okay to say that. But someone needs to speak up!). Critics and English teachers, ultimately, don't have the privilege of deciding which books are classics. Classics are determined by the reading public and by time. Shakespeare has NOT stuck around for hundreds of years because of the English teachers. Nor has Mark Twain. And, despite what they told you in school, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and many of the other "great" writers are not being taught because they're classic works of literature. They're being taught because they are easy to teach from--they're loaded with political, historical, and social issues that give the teachers something to talk about in addition to the nice writing. (It's like the Academy Awards--they aren't given to the truly classic movie of the year--they're given to the movie that the Academy wants to promote because it furthers their agenda.).

Anyway, I threw the book (It was Steinbeck's "translation" of King Arthur tales, but it was so very Steinbeckian that I have a hard time believing it was as strict a translation as the introduction claims) away because after reading about a third of it, I realized I didn't want my advanced readers who are still only small children to pick it up and delve in. Little too much graphic gore. Lot too much immorality (sex on the first page--typical of Steinbeck). And, what's more, while they talk about religion and Christ all the time, the overt message of the book is that repentance is a myth--that once you make a choice (usually an innocent one or a mistake, not an intentional evil), it puts you on a path from which there is no escaping, no changing, no amount of sorrow or penitence can fix.  I have no problem if my kids find the book in the library and want to read it when they're a little older. But I didn't want them poking into it now, when they're really just too young for it. Besides, I got them White's "Once and Future King" so they still have access to the stories.

So I confess: I threw a book away.

I also learned something from it. Something not related to Arthur or writing (I learn a lot about writing from Steinbeck--mostly what NOT to do). Something about religion.

And that is: If there is no repentance (in other words, no Christ), then the freedom to choose that we call agency is completely frustrated because Steinbeck's Arthurian view of life becomes a reality. Without repentance, without the Atonement, one little choice CAN set us on a path to destruction that we can never escape from (and EVERYONE at some point would make that choice, leading us all to destruction). The existence of the Earth and our lives on it would, in an eternal sense, be a complete and utter waste. The key to everything is that ability to choose, or to make mistakes, and then TURN BACK and choose differently with different results.

And it's a good thing we can turn back.

1 comment:

Becca B said...

I don't like Steinbeck either. Or Fitzgerald. You make me feel better. I was thinking I was weird for a student of Humanities and English.