“This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway.”
I’ve quoted this before, but it feels right to repost. It comes from Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and the words are uttered by a character who would die to defend his books in a future where it’s the job of “firemen” to burn them.
It’s his definition of what makes books worthwhile, and it has become mine – guiding me in my choices of what to take note of when I read. It has become the reason I write this blog (when I do), and what I hope might be present in my writing one day.
But what the hell is it? How can you judge something to be true? What does it even mean when looking at fiction – after all, each book is a very long succession of lies. Over time, I’ve noticed my clippings have fallen into several categories.
Whenever I come across a declarative statement about something general, my ears perk up a little. Every simple assertion is making a claim towards being true (including this one). Only some of them have that “truthy” quality I’m looking for though, and it’s tricky to define until I see it.
Excessive obviousness is too boring to comment on (as with this statement). So banal sentences are out. Equally, statements that are too abstract – the kind that can be found on motivational posters on grey office walls – are useless for my purposes. Here’s one from brainyquote.com: Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence (as paraphrased from Vince Lombardi, a very successful American football coach). The statement’s not wrong, and it might even be useful, but it’s not all that interesting either.
In terms of the Bradbury quotation at the top, inspirational sentences don’t have “pores”. Our minds slip off them. Instead, weirdly, I find myself drawn to provocative statements – ones that might well lead people to cry out: “That’s NOT true!!”.
Here’s the character Pilar from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls:
“I would have made a good man, but I am all woman and all ugly. Yet many men have loved me and I have loved many men. […] Look at the ugliness. Yet one has a feeling within one that blinds a man while he loves you. You, with that feeling, blind him, and blind yourself. Then one day, for no reason, he sees you ugly as you really are and he is not blind any more and then you see yourself as ugly as he sees you and you lose your man and your feeling.”
Such statements don’t fit neatly on e-cards, but they have something to them. Statements that are simply, evidently untrue ( say, “Welshmen are born with tails.”) don’t elicit the same reaction, unless they’re connected to a power struggle. Provocative statements might well be untrue, but they will also tap in to something – perhaps a widespread misconception – that demands a debate.
A good description literally consists of “truthfully recorded details of life”, and makes up a fair portion of many books, both fiction and non-fiction. If the passages are written clearly, observantly and authentically, I think there’s little difference between great authors describing places they’ve been to and mediocre bloggers doing the same.
This version of truth is far less difficult to get at: observed and verified facts. Of course, our world overflows with these, but some are more interesting than others.
In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond puts forward a very detailed and well-supported theory about how human civilisation developed as it did, favouring Europe and Asia rather than the Americas or the sub-Saharan Africa. One particular fact stuck in my mind though, explaining why zebras weren’t domesticated as horses were. It turns out that they’re very difficult to handle.
“Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting a person and not letting go. They thereby injure more American zookeepers each year than do tigers! Zebras are also virtually impossible to lasso with a rope – even for cowboys who win rodeo championships by lassoing horses – because of their unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly toward them and then to duck their head out of the way.”
Another version of “truth” that I watch for in my reading. An original metaphor opens up possibilities in the way we think – who knew stars could be anything like balls on a blanket until Einstein envisioned it?
These are the nuggets that I collect from my reading, and gradually share with the world. Have you read any truth lately?