This is a pop quiz. Sure, you can copy and paste these lines into a Google search or look at the answers at the bottom of the page. But you won’t will you?
In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.
A screaming comes across the sky.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. The time matters, too.
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.
Once in a while whenever I can get them away from the dog.
Whenever I find then hidden at the houses of friends who “borrowed” them.
Are you crazy, who has time to re-read old books when so many new books are published?
Whenever my stack of new books runs out and the next Amazon shipment is days away.
My answer to this hastily thrown together set of questions is #5. When I read a great book the first time, I think, “I’ll remember all of this forever.” When I re-read it ten or twenty years later, I’m amazed at how much I’d forgotten.
Returning to a favorite book is like having a new conversation with an old friend. I don’t re-read books as often as literature professors because many of them read books again every time they teach them in a course. While some literary criticism is interesting, I seldom read it, even when it focuses on the books on my selves I like the best. I don’t like being skewed away from my impressions of a book over time by reading what others have said them.
My favorite room at Asheville, North Carolina’s Biltmore House is the library. My library wouldn’t look this good because I buy mostly paperbacks. They don’t wear as well or look as nice on shelves that climb all the way to the ceiling. As it turns out, some of my paperbacks are so old that the pages fall out when I read them. Suffice it to say “Perfect Binding” (the style used for most paperbacks) isn’t perfect. The glue deteriorates over time.
I doubt that any of my old books are worth a lot of money, so you won’t see my name attached to a newsworthy sale of a book at a famous auction house. In addition to the favorites I’ve owned for years, the most dear are those that were once owned by my parents or grandparents. They speak to other times and other places, but re-reading them occasionally is almost like a psychic experience because my imagination tells me what my relatives thought and felt when they once read the words I’m seeing years later.
Every time I re-read a book, I discover something new about the story or about me. Sometimes I remember where I was when I first read it. Sometimes I’m disappointed because I no longer like the story and I see that I’ve changed from the person I was when I thought it was the best thing I read “that year.” However, the books I turn to again and again are always a special pleasure because through luck or magic or the author’s skill, they have kept their excitement, sense and relevance.
Perhaps some of you have found some of the same things to be true whenever you took an old book off a shelf and enjoyed it again.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer,” “Sarabande,” “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire,” “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Mountain Song,” and “At Sea” in addition to numerous Kindle short stories.
How do you see the world? Looking at the major issues we face—global warming, AIDS, terrorism, overpopulation, unemployment, renewable energy, the environment—do you view the world as “too broke to fix” or still within our capabilities to drastically improve and correct?
The books writers write are often impacted by their world views. Some agree with Jean-Paul Sartre’s statement that “Man is a futile passion.” In fact, looking at most of the fiction published during the last hundred years or so, I suggest that most authors either agree with Sartre or think the public agrees with Sartre and wants to read stories that corroborate this world view.
In my latest post on Sarabande’s Journey, World of Wonder finding ‘Life in Truth,’ I wrote that “a lot of mainstream fiction has fled from wonder, pulled by science, technologies and difficult-to-solve world issues into realism, powerlessness, despair and alienation.” Some of this fiction gives us happy endings, but they’re usually small endings in a sea of troubles. That is to say, the lovers who will live happily ever after will do so as long as the screwed-up world allows it.
The alternative proposition to readers and writers who agree with Sartre is neither naiveté nor the false believe that life will save warring factions from themselves if only the parties involved will sit down and sing “Kumbayah” together. While naiveté and “Kumbayah” bring their adherents many positive moments and, perhaps the illusion of positive action, they are—I believe—taking a bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach to the problems of the world and, worse yet, to their own personal development.
In my novel Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, my protagonist—who is trying to create a magical cloud inside his apartment—is advised to close his eyes. Why? Because as long as he sees that the cloud isn’t there yet, he’ll become more and more convinced he can’t create it. When he stops looking, he’s successful.
Now, I would never suggest that we stop being aware of the world’s problems and thereby give up on all the logical, science-and-techology-based approaches to solving them. Instead, I prefer the approach advocated by mythologist Joseph Campbell: “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” As long as we, as individuals, focus on the huge problems of the world for which we see no viable solutions, we not only feel more alone, but more powerless as well.
Whether or not you were around or not during the 1960s, you’re probably aware that Washington, D. C. and/or the Kennedy administration was often referred to as “Camelot.” Rightly or wrongly—and regardless of political viewpoint—the Camelot we hoped for was on a par with the heroic dreams of the legendary King Arthur and his noble knights. Perhaps our hope was based on all the wrong reasons and perhaps it had too much “Kumbayah” and “Make Love Not War” in it, but it was hope. Hope has, it seems to me, become a rare commodity in both our lives and our fiction.
Looking at the rhetoric, few people believe that America as either a dream or a hope or a goal will ever become the Camelot of our imagination. Variously, it’s too late, too broke to fix, or too besieged by problems no man or woman or group can solve. In the minds of many, America is rather like the tragic world of King Arthur in Tennyson’s epic poem Idylls of the King. Epic fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson summed up Camelot, as viewed by Tennyson like this:
Tennyson’s technique is to take a genuine, honest-to-God “epic” character (Arthur) and surround him with normal, believable, real human beings who lie and cheat and love and hate and can’t make decisions. So what happens? The normal, believable, real people destroy Arthur’s epic dream.
Donaldson suggests that many of us think we’re not capable of doing anything else because we believe that since “man is a futile passion” that we are powerless and incapable of creating a living, breathing real Camelot. He writes fantasy, in part, to demonstrate that man is capable of being an effective passion.
An Alternative to Sartre
I quoted storyteller Jane Yolen in my latest Sarabande’s Journey post, so those of you who read that will, I hope, forgive the repetition. In her book Touch Magic, she says that Life in Truth (as opposed to the world we see with our eyes) “tells us of the world as it should be. It holds certain values to be important. It makes issues clear. It is, if you will, a fiction based on great opposites, the clashing of opposing forces, question and answer, yin and yang, the great dance of opposites. And so the fantasy tale, the ‘I that is not you,’ becomes a rehearsal for the reader for life as it should be lived.”
My philosophy of life does not include the viewpoint that men and women are powerless or that they don’t matter or that “evil” and “blame” are independent forces out there in the real world. As an individual, I believe in Life in Truth; that is, among other things, both a Joseph Campbell approach and a Jane Yolen approach. In my contemporary fantasies, The Sun Singer and Sarabande as well as in my magical realism adventure Garden of Heaven: Odyssey, I focus on stories with intense—and sometimes horrible—personal trials. And yet, my characters also find answers, answers that focus on themselves rather than on those who would destroy them or the world they believe in.
While I write contemporary fantasy rather than epic fantasy, I agree with Donaldson’s point of view about the value of fantasy fiction. His characters look within for answers, and this allows them to see the “real world” just the way it is while simultaneously seeing their dreams; that is to say, the world as it should be.
Paradox or not, I can reconcile Life Actual (the so-called real world) and Life in Truth, and understand clearly that while I don’t have what it takes to solve the large issues of the day, I am learning all that I need to know to solve the problems of myself. One day, as long as I don’t stare too intently at the problems themselves, the worlds of reality and of imagination will become one.
The Hero’s Journey: A Guide to Literature and Life by Reg Harris and Susan Thompson is a teacher’s guidebook for presenting Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey concepts in the classroom.
As teachers in the 1990s, Harris and Thompson felt that traditional methods of teaching literature left students with a disconnect between the materials studied in the classroom and their lives. When I was a student, I read in class because I already liked to read. But I saw clearly that peers who didn’t come into the class with a love of reading, seldom loved literature when the class war over. In short, old books were viewed as irrelevant.
Harris and Thompson found a solution in the classic hero’s journey structure because it linked what the students read about in a novel (or viewed in a film) with real life challenges, crises and questions. Harris puts it this way on the Hero’s Journey website:
“We discovered that the Hero’s Journey is the fundamental pattern of human experience, so it could be used as a foundation for studying literature and film. As a bonus, we found that when students learned the pattern, they were able to relate the themes from literature to their own experience and to better understand the journeys in their own lives.” The URL has changed to: http://www.yourheroicjourney.com/shop/
Star Wars – The Perfect Example
The guide begins with an overview of rituals, especially rites of passage, how they serve as validating road maps for day-to-day harmonious living within society and to navigating the major stages. Harris and Thompson use Luke Skywalker’s journey in Star Wars to illustrate the hero’s journey.
Like the rite of passage, the journey focuses on personal transformation. Once students can identify the journey’s major steps and resulting transformation in fictional characters, they will begin to understand how similar journeys are cropping up in their own lives even though they may be less dramatic than a popular novel or feature film.
This well-organized curriculum is organized into ten parts and a supplementary appendix:
Ritual and the Rite of Passage: an introduction to the transformation as a foundation for studying the journey
The Hero’s Journey: an introduction to the eight-stage hero’s journey pattern, its stages and dynamics
Gawain and the Green Knight: a retelling of the traditional legend to study the journey in literature
The End of Eternal Spring: a retelling of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, emphasizing the role that compromise plays in our journeys
The Legend of the Buddha: a retelling of the legend of Siddhartha as a model of the spiritual journey
Hero’s Journey Film Project: uses Field of Dreams (or a film of your choice) to explore the journey in a modern story
Write a Hero’s Journey Short Story: students write their own hero’s journey story using the pattern
The Call Refused: uses Groundhog Day (or a film of your choice) and the Greek myth “Minos and the Minotaur” to explore the dangers of refusing the call
Hero’s Journey Group Presentation: project in which student groups research non-Greek/Roman hero myths and present them to the class
My Journey: two projects in which students to explore their own journeys: a personal mandala and an autobiographical essay
Appendix: materials and handouts you can use with the book and to explore the journey pattern in other works
High school teachers of “English” and “Literature” courses can mix and match modules into their own lesson plans or present the complete curriculum. The guide should also be valuable to writers studying the hero’s journey for use in their own stories as well as for youth group leaders and camp counselors who are presenting “lessons in life” programs.
“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular…but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive.” — Annie Dillard
Perhaps it as escaped your notice, but all “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” are not European, and neither is their focus restricted to fiction.
That said, Annie Dillard’s literature invites your consideration.
Much has been written about the lack of precision in the passages in Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will outlining the scope and intent of the Nobel Prizes. Yet, within the world of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, outstanding work seeks (and finds) its own angle of repose, and there it sits like a beating heart within the body of all literature as that which best sustains the art within its time and place. Its pulse beat is unmistakable. Had Nobel been more precise, our definition of great literature might have had the clarity of a very small pond.
Much has been written about the great precision author Annie Dillard brings to her fiction and narrative nonfiction, including her Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) and her metaphysical exploration of God, pain and suffering, Holy the Firm.
In spite of Dillard’s well-developed powers of observation and the precision with which she describes that she sees, critics and other readers have not been able to pigeon-hole the author’s intentions and stance. Henry David Thoreau’s influence on her work is obvious; her work also calls to mind such nature writers as Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey as well as the transcendent quality of anthropologist Loren Eiseley.
Yet, in an age where knowledge and respect for the natural world tend to go hand in hand with advocacy, Dillard’s focus is nonjudgemental. She observes and writes without bias and without prescription.
“Dillard dazzlingly and fearsomely expresses what most people never pause to notice. That facility with language and capacity for sitting still and remaining awake to detail constitute her great gift. Her central contribution to ecotheology is that she displays, in minutiae, what has been and what still exists in a number of significant bioregions. She also exhibits for the ecological thinker that familiar twentieth-century phenomenon: an inability to move from observation to ethic, a sense of personal insignificance and alienation, a tendency to let things alone,” writes Smith.
Dillard’s work returns again and again to the natural world and to man’s place within it. While critics and other readers might be more comfortable if her writings could be defined with a short, crisp, unambiguous statement, such a thing would greatly limit the scope of Dillard’s most outstanding work in an ideal direction.
In her New York Times review of Dillard’s 2007 novel The Maytrees, Michelle Green aptly sums up the author to the extent that that’s possible: “In the three decades since Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the nonfiction debut in which she introduced a prose style so gorgeously precise that every sentence sang, this poet, essayist and journalist has written nine original volumes powered by spare but brilliant language.”
An ideal direction, to be sure.
A recent suggestion by critic Janice Harayda that I consider what nature writer might be worthy of the Nobel Prize was the welcome catalyst for this post.