To continue with my 100 book challenge I decided to step away from the naturalists and the old favorites and attempt to read a piece of “real literature”—The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. In all honesty, I had no idea what to expect from the book. All I knew was that Byatt had won the Booker Prize for Possession in 2009, that this book had won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in Fiction in 2009 as well, and that the spine kind of jumped out at me from the shelves. I love children’s books; I love books for adults published no later than the Victorian Era. Seeing that title in gilded text against a blue spine seemed to be a sign that this would be the book to carry my reading habits forward into the realm of modern fiction.
I discovered a few things while reading. No surprise to anyone, Byatt is a superb writer. The story depicts the lives of a family in the years leading up to WWI. Byatt’s construction and use of language unlocks the magic found in the ordinary, through joy and tragedy alike. Reading this was a master class in how to write fiction, and every aspiring writer should be using this as an exemplary textbook.
Secondly, it is really hard to read a novel of this level and syntax when all I have been reading otherwise is internet-grade writing and as many free New Yorker and Paris Review articles I can get my hands on. Now there is nothing wrong with writing for the internet. But if anyone thinks that we are getting the same mental exercise though a medium where 1000 words seems too long and literally anyone can post anything and assert it is true, as when novels had to meet certain language and quality standards and were both edited and screened before publication, I would challenge that person to try to read any classic from the last 100 years and see how hard it is to get back into the habit of reading. In fact, to really see how much our use of language and syntax has shifted, read texts from different eras, beginning with Shakespeare. Change isn’t bad, but change in language use has an effect on cognition, and is something we should all be aware of (its your brain, use it or lose it).
I think most importantly, however, I realized that the power of literature, perhaps especially fiction, lies in its ability to simultaneously present a fictionalized depiction of the past alongside an evocative reflection of the present. Although we usually designate that power of reflection as a quality of fairy tales in particular, fiction in general allows us to look at the world we know through a different lens because we can focus on the ties between people over facts. In doing so, we get to examine human behavior through a new lens, and look at how people have not changed as much from the past as we would like to believe. Though The Children’s Book was set in the period preceding The Great War, the fracturing of society as people split into different philosophical, religious, and political camps while trying to understand the world did not seem so far away from the state of the world today. Additionally, different depictions of mental illness, family strife and interpersonal relations can help us to look at emotionally intense situations in a removed state. In doing so, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our society, because ultimately, our ability to empathize with characters is dependent on us internalizing the universal nature of the human condition. And that is the true magic of literature.