What books do you wish you could have written?
Well, that’s easy. East of Eden and To Kill a Mockingbird, hands down. Do I even have to go into why?
I will, because it’s my blog and it’d be kinda stupid to publish a post with only 30 words.
My experience as a little kid could not have been different from Scout and Jem’s — yet when I read about them playing with Dill, walking to school, talking to Miss Maudie, I know Maycomb just as well as they do. I want to make Boo Radley come out, I know how it feels to run past Mrs. Dubose’s house so she doesn’t start one of her rants, I feel itchy and uncomfortable when Aunt Alexandra makes me wear a dress and sit with the other ladies, I know how hot and stuffy it gets in the courtroom, especially in the higher seats for the colored folk.
And at the same time, I’m looking at Maycomb from the outside, seeing the strengths and flaws of these people and not agreeing with (or even liking) all of them, but gaining an understanding for why they are the way they are. Of course, one of Harper Lee’s main points is that it’s worth making the effort to walk in another person’s shoes, so obviously she hammers that home. But she does it so damn well.
As for East of Eden, well, I can say all the same things — that Steinbeck places me in the saga of Adam and Charles and Cal and Aron so well that I see and feel and hear everything as they do — but I’d argue strongly that few are better than Steinbeck are better at physical description and setting. I mean:
These too are of a burning color — not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of poppies.
Seriously, what even is that? How does someone come up with that kind of description? How?
I think it was 18th-19th century literary theory that came up (or at least pushed forward) the idea of writer or poet as translator — that a poet like Keats sort of “receives” his poems almost as a vision, and what he writes down from it is but a poor translation for what he actually heard/felt/experienced. I remember my professor explaining it to us by asking, “Have you ever had this brilliant thought while writing an essay, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t make it sound right when you write it down?” And all of us were like YES. The idea was both that the poet (or any artist, really — painter or musician or dancer or anything) wasn’t the actual inventor of what he wrote — his poems came to him through some divine intervention — and that our language is inadequate for expressing those things, but it’s all we have and we make the best of it.
(And if I remember that class right, Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale actually describes the process of having one of those “visions” and trying to capture it.)
Those old white guys were a little nutty, I’ll not deny that, but when you think of it, how many times do you say “There are no words for this”? When you fall in love. A first kiss. Watching a sunset. Driving into Yosemite Valley for the first time. When you hold your baby for the first time. Catching a wave on a surfboard. Launching of a jump on a snowboard. The smell of a first rain. All these sensations that you have to express, but words feel clumsy and awkward and inadequate. There are over a million words in the English language, but Greek has at least six words for love (and I think most can agree those are still not enough). Japanese has a word, I recently learned from Kiki, for the sunlight that shines through the leaves.
And we still don’t have a word to properly describe the color of poppies.
I guess what I’m saying is that, if you buy this “writers are translators” theory, Lee and Steinbeck are exceptionally amazing translators, and that’s who I aspire to be.