I’m currently reading Gone So Long by Andre Dubus.
What is that book about?, you may be tempted to ask. Well, I could say that the book is about a guy who murdered his young wife out of jealousy and, now on his own deathbed, is trying to reconnect with this adult daughter.
But, I feel that brief, redacted summary does not do the book justice. What the book is ACTUALLY about is the complicated issue of how our past actions should influence, or even haunt, our current situations. If we are remorseful, apologetic, repentant about our past behaviors–despite the wounds, trauma, troubles our actions may have caused other people–are we deserving of forgiveness?
You could ask what (one of my favorite books) The Poisonwood Bible is about, and I could say it is a book about a family of missionaries who travel to the African Congo to ‘save’ and convert the Africans, only to find themselves ill-equipped and ill-fit for that environment.
But, while the plot of The Poisonwood Bible follows a similar trajectory, what the story is REALLY about is the middle class American perspective that Our Way is the Right Way, and anyone who does anything differently than us needs to change their ways to be Just Like Us. And in the case of the Price family, that very American ideology severely impedes their existence in this foreign land. The book asks us, as Americans, to scan our own perceptions of the world and how we inflict those perceptions onto other cultures–perhaps we don’t actually know everything.
I would say the same about To Kill a Mockingbird. It would be accurate to say the novel is about Scout, a young girl, growing up during The Great Depression and her reflections on her childhood, but that one sentence description does not fully investigate the conflicts of race, class, gender, the exploration of Atticus Finch’s moral character, the discussions about neighborhood gossip–and how we, as readers, may participate in those situations ourselves, and where we draw our own moral compass.
Asking the question, “what is that book about?” is loaded, because reading literature should always more complicated than a two sentence plot summary of what happens. But, of course, sometimes I think we categorize ‘books’ and ‘literature’ as the same. I would argue that, in this case, there is a difference between a book and literature. A book can be defined as multi-page document that binds pieces of paper together. We think that, because it has a cover design, a title and an author, and a couple hundred pages, it must therefore be literature, and therefore, a two sentence plot summary of what happens should be an adequate description of “what the book is about”. A book can answer this question simply–it is about a distraught wife who kills her husband’s lover and then ends up in jail; it is about a girl who finds out she is adopted and now seeks out her true parents; it is about a dog that winds up on this family’s doorstep and they teach it to do cool tricks.
Literature, on the other hand, is much more sophisticated than a two sentence plot summary. Every piece of literature can be considered a book, but not every book should be considered a piece of literature. Instead, the fundamental difference is that literature should challenge our perceptions of the world. Reading should teach me something about myself. As I’m reading Gone So Long, I should perhaps be thinking about people in my own life whose past behavior has perhaps inflicted my own experiences of the world, and determine whether or not I should grant those people forgiveness. When I pick up The Poisonwood Bible, I should examine my own very American middle-class viewpoints, and how I, justly or unjustly, project those onto groups of people and cultures. When I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I should be questioning my own moral compass and consider which neighbors I’ve consequentially made stereotypes of, and how I’ve unfairly participated in gossip. Because, when I spend 400 pages reading a story, my time should never be reduced to a two sentence statement of what I just spent several hours doing. Instead, my time whilst reading a book should be honored by expressing the deep intellectual and personal study I underwent.
Instead of answering the question, “what is that book about?” with a few basic plot points, we should really be answering with what kind of questions and investigations of the world, the human condition, culture, justice, morality, relationships, etc.–that the reading sparked in us (in English class, we refer to this as the theme of the piece of literature). And, if what you read required none of these investigations, well then, I think we can consider that a book.
(and, by the way, I’d give Gone So Long 4.5 stars, but House of Sand and Fog is most definitely Andre Dubus III best masterpiece).