Are you comfortably numb?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Editorial Issue 1309

I finished a book yesterday. It was one of the best books I've ever read. The kind that when you're in the process of reading it, you can't stop thinking about the characters, no matter what you're doing. While you're in a lecture, you're wondering what they're up to; where the next twist in the plot will turn. Your waking desire is to feel for the cover that sits within inches of your head, poised where your eyes will focus upon opening. Books like this are precious; when you're reading them you know they'll make it onto that well-worn mental list that you reach for every time a stranger enquires as to your literary taste.

The book was a novel entitled We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver. Its selling point lies not only in its intriguing title but its subject matter: a teenage mass murderer. Contrary to what you might expect on first view of the cover, Kevin does not have special educational needs, nor is he a child caught in the cross-fire of a custody battle. He is a boy who killed nine of his classmates when he was 15.

I can see why others would be less than enthralled by the intricate language, but it was to my taste, and I enjoyed every carefully chosen word. It was well-structured, too, written in a series of letters to the author's estranged husband, wherein she relates in painstaking and galling detail her experience of Kevin's birth and upbringing. The reader is privy to the thoughts and feelings she never aired with her husband, which gradually conspired to build a suffocating barrier between the two.

But what also impressed me during the period it took to read this novel was just how much we should treasure books. Books are there to be savoured, not just swallowed whole like the televisual snack food we crave. It takes time to read a book, and, more importantly, it takes commitment. You are part of the process – you, the reader, form a dialogue with the author in which you chew over their ideas, pondering what you like and what you don't. You certainly don't get spoon-fed a book – there are gristly bits that take some digesting, and the careful reflection this demands can sneak surreptitiously into your thoughts for days. Unlike a television programme that you idly watch (ironically in order to "switch off"), you can purge any forgotten, niggling details with a turn of the page, retracing the plot contours and replaying the character development to your heart's content.

The written word also readily invites us to empathise with the characters it crafts, unlike its image-filled counterpart, which can only tell us what we already know. You can only identify with pictures up to a certain point; they can only show us what everyone can see all the time anyway. Words, on the other hand, allow the author to enter through the window of our soul, to the innermost thoughts that we thought pertained to us, and only us. A writer can turn reflections, feelings and even intuitions into prose that resonates as deeply within us as the private sentiments it reaches are buried. I found myself constantly under the uncomfortable impression that Lionel Shriver had researched her book by delving into my brain for evidence of the human experience. Not because I am the mother of a child killer, but because her ability to pen instincts and notions that I thought transcended words is uncanny. It's what makes me love Steinbeck and anyone else who has this ability, and it's what simultaneously makes me despair at my own lack of it.

In an age where film appreciation entails a wide-eyed curiosity and awe towards special effects, witty scripts and clever acting, don't forget the book. Instead of watching people pretend to be as real as possible, read a novel where pretend people are impossibly real. Just make sure it's a good one.

In short: you need to read about Kevin.



  • I'm reading Baby's First Pop-up Book at the mo. It's a challenging but rewarding literary adventure. I'll let you know how it turns out.

    By Blogger Tom, at 4:50 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home