My thirteen-year-old and I still read books together; I read and he points out where I get things wrong. He’s old enough now where we can read grown-up stuff, and this has given me an opportunity to revisit the sort of book I might once have brushed over as part of a curriculum – never to my, or the author’s, advantage. For some of these putative masterpieces I can better remember the corresponding Cliff Notes’ summations, in such a hurry was I apparently to get to the next on a list of twenty-seven other required titles.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was probably on such a list, but I think I must have lingered a little over descriptions of the punishing working conditions at the Ministry of Truth, of Winston’s horrifying physical deterioration, and also the bit about the rats, because all of these have remained a part of my daily frames of reference, and I was able to give my son a cautionary heads-up when we returned. In any case, I was heartened to discover that, page to page, the story was as riveting as it was important, and not merely another exercise in academic hand-wringing. Because I am always a little worried about the possibility that this particular thirteen-year-old is getting dragged along in a trail of my nostalgia, might recognize our ritual for a relic, and decide to just
chuck it, but we lived to read another day, and to Mr. Orwell I remain forever grateful.
So we tried Animal Farm also, which proved just as absorbing, and kind of hilarious, as well as vaguely reminiscent – for both of us I think – of all the little fables that got us started back at the end of the last century.
Some of us remember the outlines of the story: Pigs lead the animals in a rebellion against a shiftless, drunken farmer, make big, utopian plans, then everyone eventually takes their places in an equally insidious hierarchy where the pigs become indistinguishable from their former oppressor. What I did not remember, and am glad to be able to refer to now, probably endlessly, probably at no provocation whatsoever – what really resonated was the windmill those animals plan, and laboriously execute, and watch crumble, and debate, and kill each other over, and redesign, and obsess about (“I must work harder,” repeats Boxer, the muscular quarter horse), this massive Sisyphean rock they keep pushing up the hill, which gradually becomes their undoing.
I’m not sure why this sort of outcome is also a commonplace in children’s literature, particularly in the matter of building, though I suspect it’s a valuable counterweight to all of the infinite encouragement we are in the habit of receiving (in bookstores, in theaters, everywhere!) which is these days probably responsible for a couple more broken dreams than self-making billionaires.
In picture books, anyway, the letdown usually amounts to nothing more traumatic than getting sent back to more or less where you started before the megalomania kicked in, though occasionally an artist is to be applauded for attaching more serious consequences, as Henrik Drescher does in McFig and McFly: A Tale of Jealousy, Revenge and Death (with a Happy Ending) where achievement is unequivocally the product of petty, un-neighborly envy, growing and rising into roof decks and Corinthian columns and bungee-jumping platforms, its progress apparently unstoppable except by future generations. When McFig takes a precipitous dive for his excess, and McFly fades more slowly into a fuzz of nature show reruns, we are left to squirm a little at both the mercilessness of their demise and the subsequent dismantling – brick by flying buttress – of their spectacular legacy.
Because we cannot help faintly admiring such monuments to single-mindedness, venality, or even blind, foolish ambition. In The Simple People, Node, a kind of ur-human creates a “look-through” thing out of sticks and vines that becomes the inspiration for a building that grows over time into an airless hell-on-earth. All this until somebody finally remembers the noise of the wind as it whistles through a crack in the wall – “Oh-h-h-h-h” – and they climb back into the sunshine, dancing and feasting, and maybe not so Simple anymore.
Then in No Room for Napoleon, there does, in fact, end up being room for the titular doggy dictator, even after he has ruined a pretty good little island with his bossy big ideas. That the natives choose to give him a second chance speaks less, I hope, to something as bland as the spirit of forgiveness than to whatever charisma compelled them to do his bidding in the first place.
In M.T. Anderson’s Me, All Alone, at the End of the World, even the title announces some melancholy. This is preceding the arrival – and tacit admission – of civilization and all of its rowdy dysfunction, though I would not venture an opinion as to which one is happier – the boy at the end of the first world, or the boy he’s become by the second - anymore than I can presume at the relative contentment of Orwell’s animals - before they dreamed of windmills, and after one got built. Happiness is wily and inscrutable that way, equal parts wishfullness and pride at knowing better. What we learn from experience may feel treacherous sometimes, or disappointing, still if there is any consolation to be gained, perhaps it’s from learning together - the reading, and talking, and nodding, which point to the closest we’ll ever come to real wisdom.
We live to tell. That is our advantage as a species, I think, though in telling we are also free to extend that privilege to animals, to trees and inanimate objects. I’ve always imagined the great peace to be found at the end of The Little House derives less from her learning her lesson about wanting to live in the big nasty city, than having borne witness to all of the miracles of industrial evolution – of subways and tenement houses and skyscrapers – then lived to reminisce. Because she would have been miserable otherwise, stuck for eternity pining over the promise of lights in that bottomless sky.