Monday, April 28, 2014

The Old Woman and The Book

I've been reading a lot lately. I've been reading so much that I wouldn't even call it reading. I'd call it inhaling. I've been sucking up prose like I've been on a literary diet and I haven't lost any weight so now I'll just binge to make myself feel better while saying, "It's okay, I'll start over tomorrow." Not that I have ever, ever done that with food. Or alcohol. Nope.

I found a bunch of great sites on the Internets, and rediscovered a few that I forgot usually make me laugh so hard I almost pee in my pants. (Or, now that I'm 40 and have had a kid, actually pee in my pants. A little.) I got a few literary journals. I started asking for book recommendations from friends in anticipation of a long, luxurious summer where I'm not so exhausted by work every day that I read two sentences before falling asleep.

Somewhere in all that reading, something tipped me off to Hemingway. I thought I should give him another shot. I last read Hemingway in high school and I hated him. Hated. Him. But since the guy is critically acclaimed and revered and had cats with six toes for Pete's sake, I thought I should give him another whirl. After all, I learned that while I hated asparagus as a child, I love it as an adult. (To be clear, what I was fed as a child wasn't technically asparagus, but something mushy labeled as asparagus and stuffed into a can, where it fermented into a substance that smelled similar to the deposits our cat left in his litter box. And on certain walls of the house.) After years of hating Indian food, I have discovered that I do, indeed, love Indian food. So I thought it was high time I took ol' Hemingway out for another spin.

I chose "The Old Man and The Sea" for several reasons. First: it is regarded as the work that cemented his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. Second: it is always on the lists of books people must read before they die. Third: it's short. Not necessarily in that order. Anyway, that's what I picked and downloaded to my Kindle. I mentioned it here and then had a discussion with a cousin who is currently in high school and who had to read it. (Hi, Dan!) I was part of the way through the story when we talked yesterday, and he swore vehemently that it is terrible, and that Hemingway was a terrible writer. "I'm not so sure," I said. "I think there's something to it."

Well, now I am sure. There is something to it. It is an absolutely incredible story, and I love it. I stayed up late last night to finish it, because I had to find out what happened to Santiago. So then I thought about why high school kids hate it, despite all of its critical acclaim. Why did I hate Hemingway so much when I was in high school?

Here's why: unless you have had life experience that involves real pain, real loss, real hope, and enough bashing about the head and shoulders as to what is important in your life - truly important - then you will never understand it. In other words, you need to be 40 or older to read "The Old Man and The Sea." Why high school teachers across American think that their students will get one iota out of this novella is a complete mystery to me. Did one of them decide, decades ago, that this was a good idea and so everyone else thinks they must also require it? Doesn't anyone see how futile it is to make children read this book?

When I first earned my undergraduate degree and wasn't too sure I was ready to grow up and actually work ("Ugh, finding a job is just so hard!"), I tossed around the idea of going immediately into graduate school for my MBA. I applied to a couple of schools, including Washington University. Wash U sent me a lovely rejection letter that I can paraphrase to this: "You are too young and you don't know shit about the business world to get anything out of our program. Come back in 10 years." I was offended. I had just earned a Bachelor of Journalism from The World's Finest School of Journalism, Magna Cum Laude thankyouverymuch. "But I'm a good learner! But I can keep up! But I can contribute!" I had a thousand buts. Then the biggest but happened: I found a job and forgot about grad school in lieu of earning a paycheck.

When M and I were in grad school for our MBAs a few years ago (not at Wash U...holy high tuition, Batman), we had people in our classes who were brandishing their newly-minted bachelors. They were much like I was: brash and smug and self-righteous with all the knowledge that comes from book learning in a sheltered environment. We laughed at their posts on our discussion boards, gleefully rebutting their naive ideas with, "Yeah, that'll never happen in the real world...and here's why..." We had actual experience under our belts, and we had learned that experience trumps book learnin' any day. Wash U back in 1996 was right...I was too young and I didn't know shit about the business world and I'd have gotten only a fraction out of an MBA program at that time. And I would have been able to contribute nothing.

This is how I feel about Hemingway's "The Old Man and The Sea." It's considered a great book for good reason: it's a freaking great book. But the only way you'll get anything out of it is to have some real world experience that involves actual stress. Not the pretend stress of "Oh no, I have a big test in a week and it conflicts with a project due in another class," but the real stress of "Holy fuck, we have a mortgage and bills and a baby on the way and neither one of us has a job."

I wish high school teachers would stop assigning this book. To a student, it is terrible. Hemingway is a terrible writer. Mainly because to a student, it is impossible to relate to Santiago's struggle. Without experience, it is impossible to understand. But to someone who has experienced the joys and frustration of a life and a career well-loved, who has scars (both emotional and physical) that are well-earned, it is a work of brilliance, completely relate-able and loveable and, perhaps most important of all: understandable.

Max does not have six toes, but he is missing a fang.
Perhaps when I am long dead and considered a great writer,
only by those 40 and over,
I will be also known as a woman with one-fanged cats.


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