Having majored in English, I’ve encountered a lot of the “standards” books, plus a lot of books that made me wonder why they were on the reading list at all.
What makes a good book? Well, we’ve talked about that before on this weblog, and there’s really no single answer. Complex imagery, of course, with adept handling of the language; a memorable narrative voice; a situation with which the reader easily identifies; a touch of something greater than all of us; hope; important questions that are not completely answered within the text.
Without being too much of a deconstructionist, I’d like to hazard a guess that each of us has read at least one literary treasure that simply isn’t recognized as one. It’s got all of the above, but for some reason it never made the leap to being recognized as great.
Hence this week’s Monday Morning Question. Let’s say you have a friend who teaches English at a local college. She’s talking to you about her upcoming classes next semester, pre-ordering the texts, and she says, “What book would you recommend I teach?”
Then she adds, “And please, not the Bible or anything written by the author of Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family. I’ve already got them on the syllabus.”
You think for a while: what book that everyone else has underrated would you want analyzed for the greatness everyone else has missed when they passed over this gem on the Barnes And Noble shelves?
Me? I’d immediately reply with one of two things.
First, Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was
by Barry Hughart. Brilliant work, terrific humor, and an assortment of characters none of whom is easily characterizable nor pigeonholed on the moral scale. It deals with ancient China, but a fantastic, magical China. Parts of it I’ve remembered for the two decades since I first read it. I think it would stand up to college-level analysis. In fact, during college I passed it off to one writing instructor, who told me, “Yeah, learn to write like this.”
Second, The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. Written from behind the iron curtain, it attempts to get across an anti-communist, anti-government message without ever appearing to do so. The result is pulp SF that, if you look beneath the surface, holds a rich understanding of the human spirit as it struggles to survive in the face of oppression. The translated pieces are a marvel, and you’ll find a story with internal rhymes as well as a seven line poem, cleverly rhymed, about a haircut: full of pathos, tragedy, betrayal and triumph, and every word beginning with the letter S.
After I’m done recommending these two and before I can go on to recommend Diana Wynne Jones, the professor turns to you for your suggestion. Reply here in the comment box or on your own weblog (and I’ll link to you) and tell the world about your hidden literary treasure.