I’ve been on a book-buying frenzy lately. In my foolish youth (that is to say, before I met Cheryl) I had to move around a lot. Following my first divorce, I had a period where I was both broke and rootless and often just rented rooms to live in. As a consequence, while an avid reader, it wasn’t convenient to lug around boxes of books. Fortunately, used bookstores would take my old books as currency for new books which could then be traded in for other books. I’ve also never moved to a new city without obtaining a library card within the first week of my residency.
A few years ago, when I did finally settle down into houses I owned with space to store stuff, technology intervened and suddenly I could grab any book I wanted to read out of the thin air on my Kindle or phone. Thus, I’ve read uncounted thousands of books but currently own barely a hundred. Now, I’m finally addressing the mismatch between the library in my mind and the library on my bookshelves and hunting through used bookstores for affordable hardcover editions of books I cherish.
Last week I picked up a gorgeous Easton Press edition of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, bound in leather with gold foil edging the page. I’ve listened the free audio edition of the book on Librivox and downloaded it for free to my Kindle. The novel lives in my mind. Still, it’s nice to look up and see it on the shelf and be reminded of the bleak wisdom within its pages.
Jude the Obscure is perhaps the darkest of Thomas Hardy’s novels. Two of Jude’s children are murdered by his mentally ill third child from a previous marriage. It’s difficult to put a positive spin on an event so tragic, and Hardy doesn’t bother trying. He spends the early part of the novel building Jude up as a sympathetic, smart, hard-working, and ambitious protagonist. The rest of the book he shows again and again why being smart, hard-working, and ambitious isn’t always enough to overcome the obstacles of poverty, class, and social prejudices. In the opening pages, Jude is given some books by a teacher who is moving away. This sets Jude on a path of self-education, and gives him the dream of going to college. But when he arrives in the college town, he finds that his self-education hasn’t been sufficient to qualify him for a scholarship, and his poverty prevents him from paying the tuition. He takes up work as a stone mason, where his work ethic and ability to learn make him valuable. Unfortunately, it’s also work that’s physically taxing and mind-numbing. Body, mind, and soul are all soon worn down.
Spoiler alert: Jude dies in poverty, loved by no one, having accomplished nothing at all of note in life. The book ends with his wife on the prowl for a new husband before he’s even been buried.
Why write such a dark book? Why read it? Ultimately, the purpose of a book like Jude the Obscure isn’t to argue that success and fortune in life isn’t possible. Instead, it’s to highlight existing injustices. Jude may be a self-taught scholar, possibly a genius, but he lacks the family connections and fortune that allow men of lesser talent access to higher education. It’s also a way of deepening empathy in the reader. We know Jude is a good man who’s worked hard to better himself. But we see him make a poor match in his first marriage, then fall in love with a woman and live with her outside of marriage, a scandalous arrangement that further limits his social mobility. We also watch as chronic illness grinds him down as the job he needs to feed his family slowly kills him. If you didn’t follow Jude’s story from the beginning, and only learned of a poor man who died anonymous and unloved, it would be easy to dismiss him as a loser somehow deserving of his fate. Instead, the reader is force to acknowledge that sometimes people come to tragic ends no matter how hard they fight to succeed.
One irony of loving this book: Jude’s main tool for self-improvement is reading. Which, it happens, is my main tool for self-improvement. And, ultimately, the central thrust of this essay: Reading is still an important foundation to a wise and happy life and absolutely central to having any hope of a functional society.
These days, the world seems increasingly focused on trivia. Our ability to focus or place things into perspective is wrecked by the echo chamber of social media where complex thoughts get boiled down to some still frame from a movie overwritten with five or six words in large block type. As a writer, I appreciate the importance of statements that are concise and to the point. But are we seriously to debate every important issue of the day within the 144 character limit of twitter?
We live in a world where complex ideas are increasingly stripped of context and nuance. Books are still the best tool available for gaining perspective. I don’t know how anyone can make sense of debates over illegal immigration if they haven’t read Grapes of Wrath. (Which isn’t about illegal immigrants, but still shows the forces that would drive people from their homes to seek work in strange lands where they are not welcome.) For that matter, Grapes of Wrath is also a book about man-made climate change, and about the impersonal forces of economy and law that compound the tragedy. But, there’s also an important hopeful lesson to be gained. We now have the benefit of hindsight. The plight of the Okies didn’t doom their descendants to permanent poverty. The dust fields and ruined earth were eventually reclaimed and once again made fruitful. On a long enough timeline, all tragedies become histories. Life moves on.
I’m not arguing that well-read people can’t and won’t be upset by current events. Sometimes, we’ll be even more frustrated. Has no one else read Brave New World? But I can say that if you make a concerted effort at reading more novels, especially old novels, you gain the perspective to stop seeing current events as current events. Everything that happens, from the most stupid and outrageous politics of the day, to the most heart-breaking and tragic wars and natural disasters, all become part of a larger, grander, still ongoing story of the world. We’re just witnessing the middle chapters, and if you’re jumping into the story without reading the earlier chapters, you have no hope of making sense of what’s going on.
And, at the risk of sounding like a public service announcement… you’ll find those earlier chapter in books. Put down your phone and get to a library. If enough of us do it, maybe we’ll have the wisdom to steer the world onto a better path. Perhaps that’s only a dream. But what’s so wrong with a dream?
Welcome to my worlds!
I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collection, There is No Wheel. In 2017, I'll be releasing a new superhero series, The Butterfly Cage. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public.