October 28, 2007

What Book Are You?

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 7:38 pm

Continuing with my survey of old science fiction movies, last night we watched Fahrenheit 451, a movie version of the book by Ray Bradbury. It’s about a dystopian future where books are outlawed because they “confuse people and make them unhappy”, unlike the ubiquitous wall-size televisions. At the denouement (spoiler alert), the hero finds his way to the “book people”, a group of people living on the fringes of society. Each person has memorized a book, thereby preserving it for posterity. By “book people”, Bradbury doesn’t mean that these are people who like books, although they are definitely that. He means that each person has become a book. They are a book made flesh, and each of them introduces him or herself by their title: “nice to meet you, I’m Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky” or “hello, I’m Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov”. (Interesting phrase, that last one.)

Which raises the question — if you were to devote your life to preserving a single book, to spend countless hours memorizing every word, which book would it be?

It would have to be a book that is particularly meaningful to you. It wouldn’t be enough that others think it’s a classic worth preserving. You would have to be willing to become that book, to take it on as your identity. It needs to be the one book that you would want to keep alive.

So which one? The Bible is an obvious choice, but that’s too easy, kind of like Bush’s Jesus-is-my-favorite-philosopher comment. Some of my favorite classics on theology, like Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship or C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce come to mind, but the value of these books are the ideas they present, not so much the specific words used to present them. It would be much easier to learn (and to re-tell) their lessons without memorizing each and every word.

For a book to deserve word-for-word memorization, it would have to not only convey profound ideas, but do so profoundly. The words themselves would need to be things of beauty, without which humanity would be the poorer. A high hurdle indeed.

Shakespeare of course. But which play? I’m not a huge Shakespeare reader, but I’ve read my share. It would have to be a tragedy, since comedies, even Shakespeare’s comedies, aren’t particularly universal. I would narrow it down to Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.

The world would suffer greatly without Hamlet and Macbeth, but I would have to go with Romeo and Juliet. It is romantic, and I mean not only that it deals with romance, but it’s also a precursor of the Romantic period of art and literature. It not only speaks of great tragedy, but of great love, of the exalted nature of human emotion, rarely glimpsed.

Sure, Hamlet is more fashionable in these cynical times; Romeo and Juliet can seem a bit adolescent with its insistence on innocent love. But there you have it — I’m Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

1 Comment

  1. I suppose I would choose “Huckleberry Finn”, which is one of my favorite books and certainly to be considered a classic well worth preserving.

    Huck Finn leads me to another book I might consider: Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which in turn leads me to the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

    I’m not really focusing on the injustice of slavery as a theme; these are profound books that I discovered while studying literature in college. And “Crime and Punishment” was already taken.

    However, I might lean toward Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” or another Sherlock Holmes classic.

    But, if I had my ‘druthers, I’d pick “The Last Good Kiss,” by James Crumley. While it is a terrific crime noir book that I think captures the manic intensity of its age and era perfectly, it offers nothing particularly profound or deep. Yet, the language is sublime and the characterization as sharp as shattered glass. Finally, it begins with what, in my humble opinion, is the all-time best opening line in a novel ever:

    “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

    —The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

    It just doesn’t get any better than that.

    Comment by Lance — October 29, 2007 @ 5:36 pm

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