Books Explaining Other Books: Juxtaposing Readings

Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition (1911)
(Photo credit: Stewart)

I had an interesting reading experience recently. The experience wasn’t so much what books I was reading, but what books I was reading in relationship to other books that I was reading.

First I read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I picked it up for a number of reasons. Many people judge it to be an American literary classic, and I believed that I probably needed a change from the early twentieth-century British stuff that I normally read. I was also interested in the book because Percy lived in Louisiana, the greatest state in the union. Since I love all things Louisianian, I decided that I’d better become familiar with one of our novelists. Finally, it seemed like a good time to dip into the novel because it was set in New Orleans during Carnival season, and Mardi Gras was upon us.

The Moviegoer is an existentialist novel about a New Orleans stockbroker named Binx. We see him visit his high-society relatives in New Orleans and his backwoods relatives in Mississippi. No matter where he is, Binx is plagued by the everydayness of life. His traumatic experiences during the Korean War left him with an unshakeable ennui. Binx is mentally unstable, and he’s not the only one in the book who’s a bit crazy.

I will admit that I was somewhat disappointed by the novel. I read a couple of chapters with mild interest. Since I persist in this state of exile (Texas), I was glad to read about the streets of New Orleans, but I quickly found myself getting bored. I put the book down, but an attack of conscience made me pick it back up again. I persevered to the end, but the novel was just as dull at the end as it was in the beginning.

Which brings me to the second book. After I finished The Moviegoer, I picked up G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (back to early twentieth-century British stuff). I had never read this book before, but a friend had recently quoted it, piquing my interest. Chesterton’s book is primarily about religion, not literature, but something he wrote towards the beginning jumped out at me because I had just finished The Moviegoer.

Chesterton complains that many modern novels are boring, and he offers the following insights:

The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

The above passage startled me since I had just finished reading a novel about a lunatic in a dull world. I found the timeliness of the passage almost spooky. Chesterton gave voice to the inchoate criticisms of my soul, reassuring me that it wasn’t my fault that I found The Moviegoer dull.

Drawing connections between texts is one of the great joys of reading. Books and essays (and perhaps even blog posts) are part of a great conversation that’s been going on since the beginning of human history. Some of the voices speak deep truths, while others are frivolous. Some are even liars. Too often we focus on the individual voices, neglecting what the conversation itself tells us about what it means to be human.

This particular juxtaposition of readings has delighted me and renewed my desire to listen to the larger conversation. Bad books make the good ones appear even better, and this interesting reading experience has spurred me to read more and read more widely. But my next book might be a fairy tale.

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