Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Monday, May 01, 2006

In Which I Slip Myself A Finn

The writer William Goldman once observed to some book editors that he had done all of his “serious reading” by the time he was 25. The editors all agreed that the same was true of them.

Whereas I did absolutely no “serious reading” by the time I was 25, unless Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators count. I was assigned some of the great books in school, but those were homework. I grumbled while I read them, skipped entire chapters, relied on vague summaries from classmates. I aced my English unit on The Scarlet Letter thanks to a project in which I transplanted the opening pages to a lunar colony, but I don’t consider myself as having read Hawthorne’s novel.

All of which leads me to this two-part Shame-Faced Admission™: I’d never read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And I’m glad I didn’t. The younger me wouldn’t have enjoyed it anywhere near as much.

The under-25 me wouldn’t have appreciated Twain’s language. I would have resented the modicum of extra work his remarkable use of the vernacular represented. But the older, sophisticated me relished Twain’s singular voice, which flows with the force of the Mississippi itself.

It’s only fitting that this novel prompted an evaluation of my younger incarnation, because Huck’s exploits on the river make up one of the great coming of age stories. He learns any number of vital life lessons, foremost among them that you can’t pray a lie and that, in the words of Tom Sawyer, “Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”

In a book packed with memorable scenes – like any of the cons perpetrated by the King and the Duke – I’d have to single out Colonel Sherburn’s lethal analysis of mob mentality. The fact that Sherburn is guilty of the crime that provoked such wrath only adds to its power.

An afterword to the edition I read touches on the view that the closing chapters, in which Tom Sawyer prolongs Jim’s imprisonment so he can be freed in high style, weaken the book. I understand the argument, but I don’t agree with it. Tom’s games are a reminder of how much Huck has grown, and of how a child’s love of showmanship isn’t necessarily the worst thing to hang onto as you move into adulthood.

Speaking of Jim, Huckleberry Finn is still frequently banned in schools because of charges that the book is racist. Having finally read it, I can’t even take that question seriously.

Speaking of Tom Sawyer, here’s another Shame-Faced Admission™ for you: I haven’t read that book, either. I’ve got my work cut out for me.


Blogger Bill said...

Huckleberry Finn is a book you should read often, and starting young's no handicap. It's a great book when you're twelve or so (when I first read it), and it just gets better as you get older.

5:13 AM


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