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I Wish You Liked What I Like

July 7, 2011

Normally, when I do my volunteer shift at the hospital, I bring along my Sony Reader. Today, though, I’d neglected to download any new books for it and the thought of chewing through Trollope was not appetizing. So I instead lugged two and a half pounds (softcover) of Charles Bohner’s Short Fiction: Classic and Contemporary along.

I’d implicitly assumed that reading stories I’d read before would rob them of their power, but then diamonds don’t get any softer no matter how many times you’ve looked at them before. Each was as complex and beautiful as an ecosystem. This ability to appreciate literature is of course no small feat, and I don’t mean my own: the whole educational system has conspired to inculcate this seemingly useless blessing in me, and I owe a debt to everyone from Mark Twain all the way down to Mrs. Wright who, in retrospect, was perhaps a little more indulgent than I gave her credit for at the time with the boy reading stories from a poorly concealed book during first grade arithmetic.

In the midst of enjoying this faculty, expensive in every way, I was struck with the powerful wish that the rest of the world could draw the same pleasure and benefit from these stories that I do. Which, when you think about it, is rather an odd wish to have. Wouldn’t it be, from a purely selfish point of view, better for me to gain a new appreciation than to disseminate one I already have?

I have a friend whose dedication to music is much greater than mine is to literature, and it never occurred to me to wish the world had his ear (and record collection.) What precisely makes The Stooges worth listening to eludes me, though I grant that people who know a lot more about the subject than I do see their merit. While I, like most people, like music, I know I do not have the range or depth of appreciation he does, even though I know just what fruits those might bring me.

In a way it does seem a bit selfish, in the sense that any desire to remake the world in one’s image is. But I am not convinced it is simply an expression of narcissism. Not only is there the altruistic impulse, if the world were a bit more like us, after all, we could understand the people in it a lot better. I can’t fully condemn any impulse to connect with the bulk of humanity, even if the mechanism is entirely misguided.

Now, to be fair, literature has brought me more than pure aesthetic enjoyment. For while the modern Western educational system spends a lot of time and effort teaching those in its care to read, it does not seem to think it necessary to teach its charges that other people are human beings worthy of consideration and not, in fact, obstacles to be overcome or mere extensions of oneself. Perhaps this is because most children grasp this intuitively, sooner or later. I, however, was not the most adept pupil and books, stories, provided some much-needed remedial instruction. It is very hard to stay true to one’s own self-centeredness when you see it in a character you despise.

But – back to the stories themselves. Once I wrote about a character inspired to the edge of religious ecstasy by a jet engine in the Ontario Science Centre: to him it was the most beautiful thing in the world, every part working just as it should, every design tradeoff made with a full understanding of what was being exchanged, nothing to be added or taken away. That’s how I feel about a short story.

Novels ramble or bloat; only the rarest short story is improved by length. The monumental self-indulgence and superfluous intellectual pyrotechnics of Ulysses (and I am not saying Ulysses is reducible to only that) find no place in “Araby” or “The Dead.” With no unnecessary dirt clinging to its edge, I find that a short story generally cuts me deeper than a novel.

(And here I must add some credit where it is due. Bohner’s questions at the end of each story are always helpful in making sure that the stories are understood, not just read. Even though i have been reading these stories for years, there are still some questions he poses to which I do not have a satisfactory answer.)

So I have two requests: first, go and reread one of your favourite short stories. Look at it like a complex system, working to produce its effect in and on your mind. See its flaws, too, where the author used her language unparsimoniously or missed a chance to add another layer. Enjoy it in as many ways as you can.

My second request is: share something you enjoy this way with the rest of the world. Understand, of course, that three out of four people you attempt to proselytize will dismiss you as a mere enthusiast, or just be plain not interested in the subject. If your passion is somewhat obscure, you will have to arch and buttress your words with care to support the notion that it is worthy of intelligent attention. Do not let this dissuade you. It may be, or it may not, but there is no other way anyone will know.

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