Still, I do believe in the value of reading, and by "reading" I mean "reading books." I worry that in our headline-driven, Twitter-dominated society, human beings, myself included, are losing the ability to concentrate on complex ideas for extended periods of time. I also miss the joy I used to take in getting lost in a good book. So last year I created my own reading challenge, which goes something like this: "Pick out a book and read it."
You think I'm joking. I'm not. Right now, it's the best I can do. And for the most part, it's working for me. I've read more books over the last year than I've read over the last five years. I'm not going to tell you how many books that actually is.
Recently, though, I seem to have hit a snag. I have tried one book and another and nothing has grabbed me. So I finally did the obvious thing: I asked my daughter for a suggestion. She readily obliged, and I started the book she gave me a few nights ago night. At this writing I am ten chapters in.
The book is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, one of Caitlin's favorite YA (Young Adult) authors. I am impressed. The story is engaging, and so is the first person narrator. But one of the things I am most appreciating is the style. For me style is as important as story. When it comes right down to it, plot lines can be reduced to a few essential arcs. People are born. They die. Along the way they do stuff. The greatness of a book is in the telling, in the ability to memorably and freshly cut to the truth of a situation in a way that makes you say, "Yes, that is exactly it." I am seeing this characteristic in abundance in The Fault in Our Stars. I am also meeting characters who are real and likable and intelligent. The book does not come across as one written for teenagers. It is devoid of clichés. It is a book about the human condition, and that is something that has no age limit. Here is an example that I think can be understood and appreciated without context or comment.
"She didn't want to dump a blind guy," I said. He nodded, the tears not like tears so much as a quiet metronome--steady, endless.
"She said she couldn't handle it," he told me. "I'm about to lose my eyesight and she can't handle it."
I was thinking about the word handle, and all the unholdable things that get handled. "I'm sorry," I said.
He wiped his sopping face with a sleeve. Behind his glasses, Isaac's eyes seemed so big that everything else on his face kind of disappeared and it was just these disembodied floating eyes staring at me--one real, one glass. "It's unacceptable," he told me. "It's totally unacceptable."
"Well, to be fair," I said, "I mean, she probably can't handle it. Neither can you, but she doesn't have to handle it. And you do."
"I kept saying 'always' to her today, 'always always always,' and she just kept talking over me and not saying it back. It was like I was already gone, you know? 'Always' was a promise! How can you just break the promise?"
"Sometimes people don't understand the promises they're making when they make them," I said.
Isaac shot me a look. "Right, of course. But you keep the promise anyway. That's what love is. Love is keeping the promise anyway. Don't you believe in true love?"
I didn't answer. I didn't have an answer. But I thought that if true love did exist, that was a pretty good definition of it.
There's a lot more where that came from. I think I'll get back to reading. And when I'm done I'll ask a girl named Caitlin what my next book should be.