Friday, March 29, 2013
This post has been a while in the making. I think about this topic all the time, and am constantly evaluating books. "Is this novel perfect?" I ask. "On a scale of One to Peter Pan?"
Because there are a few perfect novels in the world. Truly perfect, I mean. Not flawless, but books written exactly the way they should be written. Books that are universally profound, books that are beautiful, books that are whole, uplifting, and enlightening.
And I'll tell you of the perfect novels that I have read in my life, because I know that you are all very curious.
They are Peter Pan, East of Eden, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Secret Garden, Winnie-The-Pooh, Anne of Green Gables, Holes, and Charlotte's Web.
There are many books that I love. I love some of them more than the above books, perhaps, but I don't think that they are quite perfect. For example, I have read the Harry Potter series more times than any adult in the world should read them. I adore them. I think they are gripping, hilarious, touching, profound, and unique. But they are far from perfect. I will not dwell on their imperfections, but they're there.
Other books that I think are beautiful and were so, so close to making the cut? A Wrinkle in Time. Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland. Little House on the Prairie. Tuck Everlasting. The Great Gatsby. Chronicles of Narnia. Many others.
Those books are perfect to me. I could read them over and over again, but I don't think that they are quite as universally profound. Many people read them and think them strange, or find flaws with the characters, and (as with many books with sequels) they aren't quite whole. They aren't as circular and complete, as fit as those truly perfect books.
Also, you may have noticed that most of the novels that I list as perfect are children's books. I think that almost always, children's books are better. There are few books written for adults that I feel any desire to reread (or at least, reread dozens of times) and not because of length. Because adults are flawed. Adults are so screwed up, confused, and depressing. Often, even if they try to do the right thing - they just can't. That can still create a perfect novel (Hellloooo, To Kill a Mockingbird. East of Eden.) but it's much harder.
Truth and understanding is usually much simpler than we expect.
What a book for adults can dance around, and try to explain vaguely and broadly is expressed by Pooh in a single conversation.
Like this one (one of my favorites from the books):
"Tigger is all right really," said Piglet lazily.
"Of course he is," said Christopher Robin.
"Everybody is really," said Pooh. "That's what I think," said Pooh.
"But I don't suppose I'm right," he said.
"Of course you are," said Christopher Robin.
Children's book have a unique way of making simply everything clear, understandable, relatable.
They are also blessed with the otherwise unachievable ability of including magical things that are not magic. The glory of springtime; of completely non-sexual love for a friend; of girls becoming women; of knowing you can do something - and then doing it. Those things are magical and beautiful. They are incomprehensible. They are so astounding, awesome, staggering, and amazing that the only way to describe them perfectly and give them the credit that is due, is through the eyes and understanding of children - who aren't yet jaded from years of springtime to have the gall to think spring is ordinary.
Needless to say, I am a big believer in children's literature. I think every single one of you should go pick up one of the kids books that I've mentioned and read it today.
Seriously, it won't take you long to read, and it will inspire and uplift your spirits. If you're my neighbor, I can lend one (or 50) to you.
I want to talk about each of the eight novels above, but I won't. That's too long and too boring. So I will talk about half. My favorite half.
Do you want to know a secret about me? You totally do. It actually makes me nervous to write, because I know how silly this is. When I found out I was pregnant with the boys (before I knew it was twins), I was stupid with excitement. It was everything I wanted for myself and my life. A baby!
And then, a day or two after I found out - I had a breakdown. A total, flipping breakdown. Because if I was pregnant, if I was having children of my own, if I was a grownup - then I wasn't Peter.
I was Wendy.
Wendy grows up. She chooses to grow up. She rejoices in her age. Her motherhood. Her life. But some tugging heart-string always whispers to her about Peter. About riding on the back of the wind, about playing house, and swimming in the lagoon.
But Wendy grows up, and Peter doesn't. And that is why this book is perfect. Because, from the very first line in the book - you know. You know that Wendy grows up and Peter doesn't. You know the entire story, not just the story of this handful of children, but of all children of all time.
All children, except one, grow up.
And there's nothing you can do, and all the while - nothing you would really want to do - to change that. If Perfect things can be ranked, this book is The Most Perfect Book ever written. Everything else ties for second.
If you have not read this book before, but only seen movies (or even the play!) they do not do it justice. Go get that book. (Alternately, sometimes it is titled "Peter and Wendy," FYI.)
(For more embarrassing stories about me being in love with Peter Pan, just ask my mom about Halloween, or my husband about our weeping-filled visit to his statue in Kensington Gardens.)
The Secret Garden:
This beautiful book is similar to Peter Pan, in that it tells the story of the whole world since the beginning of time, through the story of one little girl.
And the story it tells is one of life. A little girl who has never loved anyone (not even her parents or herself), who has never - in fact- felt any real emotion besides anger and annoyance, discovers that the world is beautiful. That she can be happy, whole, and passionate. That she can make beautiful things, love imperfect people, and fight against the wind and grow stronger. It is a story of springtime. The stirring, unquenchable warmth of the world. The fight of small living things to survive and be beautiful, even in a world that is sometimes ugly and tangled.
It has one of the loveliest quotes of all literature (actually, it has many breathtakingly beautiful words and quotes between its covers, and will make you crave "a bit of earth"):
"Of course, there must be lots of Magic in the world," he said wisely one day, "but people don't know what it is like or how to make it. Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things until you make them happen."
And one of the best reminders that I give myself (on a very constant basis, often every day and sometimes more often) is the quote from this book: "Where you tend a rose my lad, a thistle cannot grow."
I find it to be an extremely versatile bit of advice. It helps remind me to read the scriptures, to be patient with my children, to keep my home tidy.
Because if my home is tidy, it is not messy. If I am being patient, I am not being harsh, snappy, or rude. If I am reading my scriptures and making room for the spirit of God in my heart and home, there won't be room for anything else.
Because if you make a effort to keep something beautiful and wholesome, there is no room there for something ugly.
I actually wrote an entire blogpost on this book, which also dwells a lot on sensitivity, embracing emotion, and children's books. I recommend it, because it was one of my favorite posts. But it was quite recent so you probably read it.
Here is a quote from that post, however, and spoiler alert, I am currently quite obsessed with E.B. White. There will be an entire blogpost on him soon:
At the end of the book, (in case you don't remember) Charlotte's children are born (they are spiders) and one by one, they catch their little silk balloons on the wind and drift off to make their webs in the world. Wilbur is frantic. He has lost their mother, his best friend, so recently and can't bear to lose them too.
"Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye," the spiders all whisper, one after another as a warm wind carries them from the barn....
It was just so beautiful. I was overwhelmed by the life, the death, the perfectness of the novel, the sweetness of that little spider who stays and names herself Joy, because of the joy Wilbur feels for her. How Fern grows up and leaves the barn, and other "childish" things, and how next spring, and the spring after that, and every spring forever there will be new lambs and squeaking goslings.
Winnie the Pooh:
I recently read a book called "The Tao of Pooh," (which someone has borrowed and must return to me!) in it, it explains that Pooh is the master of a happy life. He delights in the simple pleasures of the world, friendship, food, snowfalls, a good poem- and is quick to be profound accidentally.
How do you spell LOVE? "You don't spell it Piglet, you feel it."
And Pooh is happy. Isn't that what we're all searching for in life?
Maybe ignorance is bliss and naivety is sheltered, but sometimes I think we are too informed and too exposed, which makes doing the right thing seem so much harder, or even like it isn't the right thing at all.
One lovely thing about the Winnie the Pooh books (go buy these for your kids asap) is that they're written very much like life itself. There is no defining moment. Many of the short stories are unrelated to each other. There aren't even conflicts in some! One reading it (especially a Mom with little boys of her own) sometimes feels that A.A. Milne was able to capture a few stories of the adventures of Pooh and his friends, because his son Christopher Robin was, for a time, among them. But Christopher grew up and left (as all children must), and the adventures continued without him. Other boys may find their way into the hundred acre wood for a season of their childhood, and delightfully find that the friends there are still willing to put on great searches for bugs with them, dig Very Deep Pits, and sometimes rest under the trees and discuss life and breakfast.
The forest will always be there, and anybody who is Friendly with Bears can find it.
I am sorry that I am not writing about the other books, especially the only two adult books that I mentioned. The reason is this: even though I love those books tremenjously (as Christopher Robin would say), I do not quite love them like I love my children's books. I have not read them already this year (yeah man. I know it's only March), and I did not read them several times last year, so I just can't give them the post they deserve. If you have not read East of Eden (because I assume everyone has read To Kill a Mockingbird) GO GET THAT BOOK. Especially if you don't want to read a book for little kids. I know that book is huge. It is. But you can do it. That book is so crazy good. And there are a set of twin boys in it, and the way they are raised and grow up will make you twin-mamas weep and cry, and clutch your babies closer. That is all.
I promised a post on children's books a few months ago, and I put it off. Here's why: there are probably a hundred books on my list, and I would feel the need to write excessive paragraphs (like the ones above) about each of them. That is too much.
That is more than anyone ever wants to read. Including me.
I anxiously await your comments on this post, which hopefully NOT say things like, "I tried to read Peter Pan and gave up because it's boring." I will cry myself to sleep for you.
Maybe your comments will say, "Here's another perfect book for you to read," or perhaps, "This is the reason that East of Eden is perfect," maybe even, "I disagree with you, and think The Great Gatsby should be added to that list."
Those comments will be my favorite. But please, leave whatever comment you desire. :)