What I’ve Been Reading, August 2008

Sometimes, we find ourselves drawn to what’s comfortable.

Books Received:

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue #28 – Dave Eggers (editor)

Books Read:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami (not finished)

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue #28 – Dave Eggers (editor)

Aesop’s Fables – Aesop

I spent most of the last month fighting through an extra-long book – Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – not because it was difficult or boring (on the contrary, it’s really, really good) but because I have fallen out of the reading routine. The daunting nature of a 500+ page book contributes to an apathetic reading schedule, one that vacation and preparation and childrearing can only heighten.

And then, like a beacon of light, McSweeney’s delivers. Again. With – get this – a collection of fables.

Fables! Ha!

What do you remember about fables? When was the last time you read one? I mean, true fables – the short-form, lesson-teaching kind, chock full of animal personification and solid morals. It’s been a while, probably.

Aesop's FablesI know it was for me. In fact, it had been since high school. During a bout of Medieval immersion, a time when Malory was as important to my life as is Marx to a Communist, I found myself enthralled with the symbolism and frequency of myth. Not myth in a science fiction sense, but myth in an old bard sense, the telling of tales from one person to another, the epic poem, the British legends; Beowulf, The Odyssey, Canterbury Tales, Le Morte d’Arthur. And through this, I entertained a short child-like fascination with the most basic of tales: Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables.

These were the building blocks of children’s literature, the foundation upon Willems and Boynton now tread. But they were also life lessons, the best way to convey a message in the days before mnemonic devices were commonplace and the written word was still foreign.

So fables became legend. And McSweeney’s tackles the subject with gusto, asking eight writers to come up with their own version of the fable, binding them in small, attractive mini-books and arranging them to create a beautiful and artful package of literary wonder. It’s what McSweeney’s does best – find a theme, create beautiful book design, accomplish what’s becoming more and more impossible: a book worth keeping based on look alone, a book worth treasuring because of great content.

McSweeney's #28The best of these stories are simple, yet surprising. Arthur Bradford’s “Virgil Walker” follows an orphan octopus on his travels through a pet store and beyond, and Sarah Manguso’s “The Box” touches on a person’s ability to harness power through a simple secret. My favorite was Brian Evenson’s “The Book and the Girl,” the love affair between, naturally, a book and a girl, with the book’s need to be loved changing to fit the needs of a terror-stricken little girl.

I finished the entire set in 30 minutes.

And I needed more.

So I ran – nearly literally – downstairs and grabbed Aesop’s Fables. Dusty from two years untouched on the shelf and neglected from over a decade of ignorance, it was like holding a relic, like finding an old school-aged drawing in a box at your parents house. It was familiar, but foreign, as if I couldn’t remember the time it came from but was fully aware of its significance.

I dove in. I took it on the plane and read it in Virginia. Each story was about 100 words, and each held a life lesson, regardless of how relevant.

It’s funny how the same characters always keep popping up. The poor fox, demonized yet cunning, given a bad rap and justifying my fascination with the species in Mammalogy class so many years ago. The lion, a strong and ruthless killer, using its weight and power to get whatever it wants. The donkey, a punching bag; the monkey, a fool. Each animal receives a certain treatment, a certain human quality, and it’s easy to see where those treatments carry through to the rest of literature and modern culture, through every Disney movie and every allegorical work of fiction, from The Lion King to Animal Farm.

There are three simple rules you can learn from Aesop’s Fables:
1. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t go for something you’re not, because you will be exploited.
2. Live humbly, if you can. Only the powerful ever seem to get away with being greedy, and even the Lion catches some flak from time to time.
3. Don’t be foolish. Life smart. Cunning will get you a lot, true smarts will get you everywhere.

The stories are humbling, really. Many morals seem to repeat, but at the end, I couldn’t help but thinking I had just read a textbook on rational thinking. Or street smarts. Or how to engage an adversary.

In fact, I felt as if a child-like curiosity had returned, that complex issues could really be boiled down to the bare minimum. It gave me hope that people could understand how their actions affect others, that each action carries with it a reaction. That life wasn’t solitary. That you have to give to get.

Best of all, I felt as if I had read something that bordered on legendary. Fables are simple but they’re striking. They work for eternity not in spite of but because of their simplicity. As Jess Benjamin, a former McSweeney’s intern, writes in the introduction of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #28:

The best of these stories last because their stories last – because they are conveyed in a way that cuts through the illusion of time and age and application. This is why Silverstein’s The Giving Tree will continue to resonate and why Dr. Seuss will keep on inspiring; we are never too old or young to be reminded of our mortality and the nature of our relationships, just as we are never immune to any truly universal message.

In a time where political trends nearly drive me to depression and the changing world leans further and further into demise, simplicity – the ability to focus on the issues that drive us instead of the inconsequential details – is welcome.

Even more, simplicity is necessary.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 11th, 2008