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Pickle Me This

March 19, 2008

How to be bad

So let’s begin with the assumption that the purpose of a book is to impart a lesson, though of course this isn’t something of which I am convinced. Children’s books in particular seem to have this expectation foisted upon them, which might be sensible for practical reasons (so much to learn, so little time, so might as well combine some tasks) but this still strikes me as a limited approach to reading (as well as a bit boring).

But what would happen if we approached adult fiction similarly? I believe it would underline the ridiculousness of what we expect kids to be reading, but it’s still interesting to think about. And for the sake of interestingness then, I will consider two books I read this weekend, both of which I enjoyed immensely: Paul Quarrington’s The Ravine, and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy.

Such is the best thing about avid reading, I think– how one book after another can illuminate connections you mightn’t have thought of. Because otherwise, would I have noticed the similar tones of these novels? The identical aspirations of their protagonists, and the tendency of these protagonists to alienate those around them, to choose less effective means of communication, to be mean and often downright awful?

The last point being important as I consider one of Harriet’s few negative Amazon reviews: “Harriet is a mean-spirited little girl… We spent many sessions discussing what was wrong with Harriets positions and perspectives as we went through the book. She is compulsive and obsessive and is in serious grief over the loss of her nurse. These issues were completely glossed over.” From there this fair comment does descend into a bit of madness (“After reading this book, it is obvious to me why the 60s and 70s became a child-rearing society that created the greed, personal lack of accountability, and negativism in the young adults of the 80s, 90s, and new century”), but we won’t think about that part of the story right now…

Because it’s true, Harriet is mean. I don’t know that I would so pathologize her outbursts, but indeed even in all her spirit, she behaves in inappropriate ways. As does Quarrington’s Phil, whose name could be substituted for Harriet’s in a disapproving review of The Ravine. Now remember that we’re assuming the purpose of books is to impart lessons, so isn’t there still something we can learn from characters like these?

Because ideally we would like books to teach us and our children how to be good. But failing that (and inevitably so, I think) isn’t it actually as effective and more realistic for stories to teach us how to be bad? Or more specifically, to teach us how to be bad in the best way possible? Because for most people, badness is going to happen at some point.

Now Quarrington’s prescription is less clear than Harriet’s, whose nurse informs her: “1) You have to apologize 2) You have to lie”. Of course this statement is qualified, but it still strikes me as quite useful advice. Awkward to deal with in “sessions” discussing “glossed-over issues ” and “wrong perspectives” (gross), but realistic and helpful in so many ways. A lesson Phil McQuigge might have been well served by.

Still, what Harriet and Phil are doing is more complicated than what our amazon reviewer supposes. We’re to imagine being them, though we aren’t required to act on that. (Is it that children can’t be trusted to make this kind of distinction?) and this exercise is pointless if a character is morally unambiguous. To me reading has no lesson but this very act of imagining, but what a lesson is that, worlds colliding and all.

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