On the Transcendence of books

By Jeevarupini Gnanendran. Jeevarupini, 27, lives in Batu Caves, Malaysia. She is an ACCA student with a passion for philosophical discussions and creative writing as a form of self-expression. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

As an adult (a term which I am still taking time to get a grip with), it is sometimes hard to imagine what my thought process would have been like as a 10-year-old something. If I take my mother’s view into account, I would have been nothing less than an uncontrollable dynamo of chaos, always getting myself into trouble and letting the Id side of me run wild while my Super Ego lamented and cried in the corner. Yet despite my nihilistic destructive tendencies, I do recall that I had a fondness for reading. I wholly credit this to my parents for instilling this habit of reading in me. It would be sort of a family activity to go every other weekend to a bookstore selling second hand books and choose one or two which caught my brother and I’s attention.

As a ten-year-old then, my interests in reading spanned to books regarding prehistoric and current creatures (with a focus on their sexual habits as any normal kid would), world history, the great inventors and fictional novels. I naturally gravitated towards books with nice illustrations and supporting text. The pictures drew me in while the words kept my attention and interest. It would always be fun to read up on the history and supposed life of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and then look at the picture and wonder and how a thing could be such an apex predator with such feeble arms (guess that’s why it always looked angry all the time); or be fascinated by how a blue whale weighed more than 120 tonnes and I only weighed 120 pounds in the fifth grade (which somehow made me more body positive). But different from the illustrations of the near naked African tribeswomen in National Geographic (my puberty in a nutshell), novels had the unenvious task of grabbing and maintaining my attention with words alone.

There are quite a few novels which I read back then that I have revisited time and again. This is not to say that all of them have managed to maintain that charm which once held the fascination of my young mind (I am looking at you Hardy Boys and Goosebumps), but there are some which not only catch my interest to this day but have rather become more fascinating every time I have reread them. This is where I offer my own analysis on the above stated quote by C.S. Lewis regarding how the quality of a book should not only be sustained but increase in value as the reader ages. I do this by offering my own deconstruction of exactly what are the characteristics of some of the books which I read in my early teens that still hold up to this day and have gotten better with time. The novels in particular which I will be referencing are Animal Farm by George Orwell, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon.

Looking at all three aforementioned novels, the characteristics which lend themselves to the longevity of these novels are the element of layered complexity, narrative design and world building. There are a lot of novels or works by different authors which can be considered as masterpieces in their respective genres. A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe offers a rich introspection of a man coming to grips with the complications of becoming a father to a disabled son as well as evaluating his own life choices and the future which lies in front of him. A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov is a rich narrative of the fictional accounts of a young Russian doctor inspired by the author’s own experiences. For how rich and detailed and complex these works are, they are limited in their accessibility to a younger audience because the works require a mature mind to comprehend them in the first place. This is where the selected three novels differentiate themselves from these mature readings. They offer a story that has elements which can be easily picked up by younger readers, but has enough detail in between what has been written which makes for future reading as an adult. Animal Farm to a young reader might just be about how a group of different farm animals decided to rebel against their human master and then run the farm by themselves with certain dangerous consequences. Future reading and context establishes that it was actually a critique of the Communist government which the writer lived through. Knowing this, someone who would have read the novel as a child would have a deeper appreciation for the subtext interwoven within the narrative. Same can be said for To Kill a Mockingbird, a story which when looking through the eyes of a child, is a story of a young girl and her experiences which revolve around the town where she grew up. While the novel perfectly captures the innocence of a child’s experiences, the underlying themes of racial inequality, social injustice and mental disorders are more accessible to a mature mind. Hence, layered complexity acts as an important tool for any writer when it would come to dealing with readers of different ages. Narrative design and world building form a subset of layered complexity. It is what maintains the interests of the young reader.

As a young teen, I felt I was making a movie in my head when I read any of these three novels. How these characters in the book would interact with each other, with the written text supplying the dialogue, emotions, actions and backgrounds. The richness of what I could visualize depended on the way these stories were written. Narrative design would allow me to understand the context of a situation and how these characters interacted amongst themselves. The element of world building provided the basis of establishing background and location and supporting characters. This is the reason why I choose Master of the Game as my third choice for this deconstruction. While layered complexity is not its strongest point, it makes up for it with its incredible narrative that sucks you into its world developed and crafted beautifully in a way only Sidney Sheldon could. The overarching storyline of a family led business and its century long history made for interesting reading time and again.

Concluding this analysis, I would say that C.S. Lewis makes quite a strong point when he put forward this statement. But, I wouldn’t treat his stance on books as dogma. Not everything worth reading has to be presented in a way that is fantastical or childishly allegorical. As adults, we crave for stories which make the sub-text the central theme and in many cases what would be boring to a child is actually quite fascinating to us. The turmoil and tribulations of life experiences present themselves as subjects of interests and we smile and laugh at the oddities of what human experiences have to offer. In the end books are an artform and like the subjectivity of art, its true worth can only be measured by the eye of the beholder.

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