Friday, September 20, 2013
Doing What Dad Did
Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, who is an honored man within his village. Okonkwo has a few wives and many children. He lives in his fathers' village and worships his fathers' gods. I didn't misplace my apostrophe. In Okonkwo's world, the man always lives in his father's village, and his father lived in his father's village, and so forth, so that many generations of men before Okonkwo were living where he lives in very much the same way that he is living. Okonkwo's time is different from that of his fathers though, because villagers are beginning to see white men. At first, the white men are thought to be albinos, or possibly even lepers. All too soon it becomes clear that these white men are not just people from a nearby village with a disease or a skin condition. They are people from another country, intent on converting Okonkwo's people to Christianity.
While reading Things Fall Apart, I was never sure of when the story was supposed to have been taking place, or where it was set. Most obviously, Okonkwo's village was called "Umofia", and I could tell by the tone of the story, the names that were used, and the fables of the villagers that Umofia was in Africa. I knew that the book was published in 1958, but because of how the villagers referred to the passage of time, it was not clear what decade they were living in. According to Wikipedia, it was set in the 1890s, which I probably would have realized if I knew more about the colonizing of Africa. Wiki also says that Umofia was supposed to be in Nigeria.
I thought a lot about what, exactly, makes Things Fall Apart a "classic". Judging by the standard of whether it was published before my parents graduated from high school (check) and whether it is likely to appear on my son's high school required reading list (check), then it is a classic. I've complained about my son's required reading lists to my son, saying that he should be reading more modern works. While he likes contemporary fiction, he doesn't feel that anything new is likely to ever qualify as a classic. It's tough to think of anything, even books that I love, that are going to be discussed and relevant in another 20 or 50 years. As much as I would like for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer to become a classic, it may not translate well to people who weren't alive on 9/11. Some of the other books that I've loved that are set in a less specific period and may remain relevant longer, like The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen or Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin are simply too long for required reading lists. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is a solid candidate that has been suggested by others with voices louder than mine, and I have noticed that my son will be seeing some Barbara Kingsolver on his lists in his junior and senior years. But what makes a classic?
As I was reading Things Fall Apart, I was sort of thinking of it in comparison to Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Both stories are set in a time in the past, and paint vivid portraits a certain community during that period. A person in Africa reading Grapes of Wrath and thinking that they have a good understanding of America in 2013 would be just as misled as a person in America reading Things and thinking that they understand the modern tribes of Africa. There are great books set in Africa that could give a reader a better grasp of what it is like now (or at least during my lifetime), including The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and What is the What by Dave Eggers. However, like those books mentioned above, these are also a little long for reading during a high school trimester. Things' short length, at only 209 pages, may be what has kept it on the reading lists, which is sort of sad. Maybe spending a longer amount of time on a longer book, rather than trying to fit a set number of books into the trimester would allow our kids to stop the cycle of reading the books that their fathers read, for the sake of reading what their fathers read.
Next Up on CD: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
STILL Reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I have no excuse as to why this book is taking me so long to read! I am really liking it, and even considered whether it could be considered a modern classic. But if it is taking me this long, how long would it take a distracted high school student?