I was just too young to love you

Like many American teens, I was the victim of a well-meaning society that used high school English classes to pound an appreciation of classic literature into my head. Like many American teens, I rebelled against this attempt to pry open my mouth and pour culture down my throat. Unlike many who endured this experience, I went back to the well of literature, in my own good time.

I’m lucky. Some unexplainable motivation drove me back into the arms of the people to whom I had been so rudely introduced in high school. The clumsy way these folks were pushed into my face might have put me off reading altogether, as I’m sure it did to some.

Fortunately, I had friends like Edgar Rice Burroughs, who kept me entertained with his less-than-classic adventures. While school was doing all it could to sour me on reading, Tarzan, and an assortment of Martians, kept my nose in books.

Charles Dickens

He looks so stern and boring, but he’s a little Dickens on the inside.

This still doesn’t explain why I came back to the “classics.” That was dumb luck. Without luck, I still wouldn’t have a good word to say about John Steinbeck. In school, I hated Steinbeck; I hated that little dog of his; I hated the cob-job of travel trailer he supposedly tooled around America in; and I hated the arrogance that made him think I had the least bit of interest in his vacation. These fires of hatred burned so brightly that they blinded me to the merits of The Red Pony or Of Mice and Men.

Years later, I picked up East of Eden, and read it with actual pleasure – something I had no right to expect, from my past dealings with its author. I re-read Of Mice and Men, a great story, even though I can’t quite put my mind into George’s way of thinking at the end. I’ve never returned to Travels With Charley though, and I doubt I ever will. I’m afraid it would stoke up that dormant hatred again. It was a horrible choice for introducing a young reader to Steinbeck. I get angry just thinking about it.

High school prejudiced me against people I’d never met. Somehow, I got through those years without having been made to read Dickens. This was my great escape. I was sure that Dickens would make me gag, just the same as the other old timers had. It was years before I got brave enough to pick up A Christmas Carol, mostly by accident. For all those years, I had counted a man among my enemies who should have been among my dearest friends. But I suffered from an extended case of Dickens-phobia, along with Shakespeare-phobia, and all the other phobias associated with my forced exposure to books heavier than my immature attention span.

The phobia I’ve never overcome is the one about Shakespeare. Every English teacher in school was determined to make my class appreciate Shakespeare. There was no reprieve from Shakespeare; his ghost haunted every grade level.

william shakespeare

I’m still wary of him after all the kids he humiliated in front of the entire class.

What made Shakespeare so insufferable was the demonic idea that his plays must be read aloud in class. If you can’t despise a piece of literature enough, reading it silently to yourself, just have your 10th grade classmates stumble over the text until even the teacher can endure no more and calls upon someone else to stumble. To this day I cannot read Shakespeare for fear that I will hear a teenager’s tortured voice as he stammers and stutters, banging his shins against those hurdles of words, arranged in an order completely nonsensical to everything he has ever read before.

How many more readers of classic literature would there be if only our teachers had respected the literature a little more, rather than spraying it at us from a fire hose? If a teacher had given me Hamlet and said, “I think you’ve earned this,” I would have put more effort into understanding it. Even if they had said, “You’re not ready for this yet,” I would have wanted to figure out why not. That’s the way I got interested in beer.

My peers and I became devotees of beer, mostly because nobody in authority thought we deserved it. We showed them. Maybe I’ve reached the point where I’ve earned another crack at Shakespeare, but I’m haunted by traumatic memories. Even though I don’t deserve it any more than I ever did, I’ll probably crack a beer instead.

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Watch your backstory

I mentioned before the modern requirement that novels begin with a hook. This is the opening bang that grabs the reader’s attention so that he stands a chance of getting to the rest of the book in this age of the short attention span.

Most real stories don’t start with a bang. The stories we hear at parties don’t begin with a crescendo; they build to it (if we are lucky). Jokes don’t begin with a punch line. But we have to look party acquaintances in the face, making it awkward to walk away from their stories after the first sentence.

Nobody thinks you are rude if you walk away from a novel because it doesn’t hook you right away. That’s the advantage polite society has over novels.

The good news for novels is that the hook doesn’t have to be explosions and frantic action. It can be an unusual situation. It doesn’t have to make the reader’s heart race, so long as it makes him curious. The example I used before was that of a character burying a dead body.

Opening with an unusual situation can be more appropriate than actual fireworks for many novels, but it comes with its own baggage. The unusual situation has to be given context; it’s baggage needs to be unpacked. Inside its baggage is a very harmless-looking bundle called backstory.

Backstory never looks, to the author, like something that could blow up on him. There are no lit fuses or open flames. Backstory merely needs to be explained, but if it feels, to the reader, like it is being explained, the result is an explosion of boredom. That’s the anti-hook. Goodbye reader.

Not all backstories are created equal. Some are easier to finesse than others. If the person burying the dead body is a serial killer, the unusual scene can be explained by his future actions. Less background information is necessary.

minimal backstory required

The professional grave digger doesn’t require a great deal of backstory to put his actions into context, and he is probably a more sympathetic character than the serial killer. (Photo: John Vichon)

The situation doesn’t have to be unusual for the character, only for the reader. If the situation is unusual for the character, it will likely require more backstory.

If the character burying the body is someone who never imagined themselves doing such a thing, and will not likely make a routine of it, then the author has to spend more time going backward. How did this character end up in this unlikely spot? This brings heightened danger of putting the brakes on the story as well as confusing the reader.

Backstory is one of the most difficult elements of storytelling to pull off. Yet, when the only people who are allowed to start a story at its beginning are those we can’t gracefully escape, it is necessary. Making the opening scene unusual to the character as well as the reader makes the backstory even more difficult the navigate.

But there is a silver lining.

Novels in which both the reader and the character begin in an unusual spot, have the potential to be the most interesting of all. They can foster a bond between character and reader that the reader is not likely to form with a serial killer. If the author can sprinkle in the backstory carefully enough to interest and enlighten the reader, the story’s potential is well on its way to being fulfilled.

I hope to master the art of backstory someday, because I’m not that much into serial killers.

Books I can’t remember

I can’t quite pull off blaming my inability to remember the overwhelming majority of what I read on the French. Even though the French are not doing a single thing to help me with this problem, they are not to blame. I can’t remember what happened in books written by Americans either.

It’s not uncommon to forget what happened in books you didn’t enjoy. Do I have the slightest idea why Mr. Darcy came to visit the Pride and Prejudice gang? No, I do not. But I was forced to read that book at some point during my schooling. I didn’t want to read it, and I was happy to forget about Mr. Darcy and his visit to the sorority house right after I failed the pop quiz.

But am I normal in forgetting the plots of books I enjoyed? My overall memory is no worse than average, so why can’t I remember anything I read? The one hypothesis I have concocted (the French are to blame) does not stand up to the scientific method, so I am at a loss.

This affliction wouldn’t be bad if there were only 100 books in existence. Then, it would be a pleasure to forget all the plots, once I had burned through the library. I could read the books over again for the first time. But there are far too many books in the world to have to go back and redo the ones forgotten.

I don’t even get to come off as “well-read” in literary conversations. I have to say things like, “Yeah, that was a great book, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you why.” If you ever get into a literary conversation with me, you might as well start off assuming I’m a poser.

Here are four books I really enjoyed reading, and the sum totals of what I remember about them.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Some guy (presumably, The Count of Monte Cristo) is jailed unjustly. He escapes, possibly by playing dead (that might be the movie version, or some completely different book – not sure). Somehow, he works his way back into high society and formulates a precise list of all the other high society folks who have wronged him. He plans a specific revenge for each of them, and then I don’t know what happens after that. My guess is that he works his plans to perfection and reveals his true identity to rub it in. Honestly though, he might just as well fall down the stairs and break his neck. I really don’t remember him doing anything specific.

NOTE: This is the French not lifting a finger to help me with my troubles. What I remember most about this book is the overabundance of characters with similar French names. I couldn’t understand how one character was so ubiquitous until I figured out that he was actually three different guys.

Dumas

Dumas: A Frenchman who confounded me by giving all his characters French names. What nerve!

Ethan Frome – A farmer type guy brings home a young girl to live with him and his wife. That doesn’t even really sound right, but I’m going to go with it. Anyhow, the farmer starts to like the new girl, and that becomes a strain on his marriage. This might have happened in winter, because I have this image of a horse-drawn sleigh. There may even have been some kind of sleigh wreck, but I’m probably just making stuff up now. I remember I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this one. I don’t remember why.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame – This hunch-backed dude works as the bell ringer in a big church. He falls in love with a beautiful gypsy girl who is out of his league. The priest, or some other big-wig of the church is also there, and he’s not such a good guy. The hunchback ends up taking a header off the bell tower, or something terrible like that, and I don’t know what happens to anybody else. I remember being impressed with the storytelling in this book, with the exception of one miserable chapter that described the city of Paris, in whichever century the story took place, to excruciating detail. The names of the French people in this story didn’t vex me at all, which puts another nail in the coffin of my sole hypothesis.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – There’s a cruel slave owner in Kentucky (?) who owns Tom as well as some others. There’s a little girl involved in some way, and she has to cross over the river on broken ice, which is considered somewhat dangerous. Whether or not she makes it is anybody’s guess. Also, the final disposition of the other characters is unknown. I remember being pleasantly surprised that this book read much less like a political tract than I’d expected. It was actually an entertaining story. I cannot begin to tell you why.

Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Not as preachy as she looks.

I wonder if there’s a name for my disease. How can I enjoy reading certain books so much, and then not remember a thing about them? It’s discouraging, especially now that I am resigned to exonerating the French and leaving my own mind to shoulder the blame. I would love to be able to tell you why The Hunchback of Notre Dame is such a great story; I just can’t. But after this, I’m sure you will have the confidence in me to just take my word for it.

Am I the only one with this condition? Are there books you’ve enjoyed but can’t remember? Did my hazy recollection come close to the plots of any of these novels?