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Two finished

I need to talk about books again!  This week I finished two books I’ve never read before, and both, I am smugly proud to say, are from the “I Have Been Meaning To Read That” shelf. Yes, I know: take a moment to reflect on how great I am. I’ll take the same moment to indulge in some self-congratulatory masturbation, so take your time. It is a distant and hazy dream of mine to eradicate the phrase “I’ve been meaning to…” (or its analogues, “I’ve always wanted to…” and “I’ve often thought I’d like to…”) from my vocabulary.

The Magician’s Nephew

Two things.

First thing: fantasy readers abound in my family. My Mumini and both brotherinis are dead keen on fantasy, embracing those multi-volume shelf-creakers that require an iPhone App, a GPS, a supplementary dictionary and a pull-down map to really understand what’s going on.  That gene skipped me, in favour of the “eats raw carrots obsessively” gene. I lose track of characters and then when I come back after a break I can’t remember what was going on or why they were in league with shadowy dragons or whatever. Yep, not big on fantasy, this one. This did not prevent my older brotherini giving me a complete boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia for Christmas a couple of years ago. I feel like I can’t pass given books on to charity without reading them first, so it’s nose to the bookcovers for me.

Second thing: I can handle allegories and I can handle didactic books, but I will never get over the shock of being told that the whole Narnia series is like one long “Children’s Introduction to the Bible”. (I know this is the topic of much debate, but honestly, when you notice the potential for that interpretation, you start feeling like you’re being pummeled with it.) This, more than anything else, has made me resistant to reading the Narnia series, even though I adored “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” as a child.

Right, that’s those out of the way. Anyway, I’ve just finished it. It was fun, although it’s not as satisfying as certain other “children’s” books I could name that are as gripping and exciting for me now as a grownup as they were as a mini-bethini. This one sets up the creation of Narnia, as well as the background to some of the events in the rest of the series, and some of the adventures the children protagonists go through are interesting and clever, and a lot of Lewis’ turns of phrase are really funny.  I found some of the moralistic stuff a bit hard going, and caught myself rolling my eyes at the moral decisions the child-aged protagonists are faced with, but then I remembered the whole series is aimed at children, so I stopped myself mid-eye-roll. I liked it and I’m going to push on and finish the rest of the series — but Hell’s bells, there’s still six books to go.

1984

Holy crap, why didn’t anyone TELL me? I’ve had so many people say “You haven’t read “1984”? Oh, you’ve got to!”, but every one of those people was remiss in not promptly thrusting a copy into my hands. Shame on them. I read it in…let’s see…four sittings.  Two of them on an exercise bike: total reading time, probably about three-and-a-half hours. It completely gripped me and this morning, after I finished it, I had to sit quietly for a while.  Winston’s character was as real to me as if I’d met him in person by the end of the first four pages; the atmosphere was strong and knifelike from the beginning, and the sense of building tension was electric.  [SPOILERS COMING RIGHT NOW] I was really shaken by the ending (not just the final line or anything, but the whole final quarter of the book), Winston’s fight and struggle, his determination to resist and challenge and question — and how that is ultimately stripped away from him, in a scene that will haunt me — are the stuff of epic, altering tragedy. No wonder people where so insistent about my reading it.  You should read it. Go! Now! Here, it’s even available online, free, so there’s no excuse.  What an incredible book: I feel like it’s one of those reads that stays in your mind, affects the way you see other writing, arts, and, well, the world in general. Challenging your perceptions is one of the most incredible — and valuable — things literature can do.  I love it.

Why both?

The reason I wanted to discuss both of these books in this post isn’t just because I finished them so close together. I wanted to bring to your attention this parallel: both are books with Something To Say. Look up tips on good writing and you’ll be inundated with recommendations about avoiding teaching your reader, that Action Is King (and, curiously, that Adverbs are the Enemy), and allegories and books with an axe to grind have been out of vogue for a while.  But. There is a lot of value to be found in books that have, on their sleeves, a point and a goal in mind. The Narnia books are illuminating, interesting and fun, and, at times, beautiful — I’m thinking, in relation to “The Magician’s Nephew”, of the scene with the silent Bell of Charn and the scene with Aslan singing Narnia to life, and both scenes, I think, resonate strongly with Lewis’ religious perspective.  But neither of them stirred me as much as the warning carried by “1984”, the simplicity with which oppression can emerge, and the high degree of tolerance that your average person actually has for sup-/re-/op- -pression.

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