How understanding an author changes your reading experience

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By Michael Nye

Over the summer, I made a trip with my family to Hannibal, Missouri to see and experience Mark Twain’s hometown. We became tourists for the day by purchasing the relatively overpriced, all-inclusive tickets that would allow us to take a tour of not only the Interpretive Center, but also Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home, the Huckleberry Finn House, the Becky Thatcher House, the J.M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office, the Museum Gallery, Grant’s Drug Store and the Tom and Huck statue. We even ended the day deep inside the damp and slippery Mark Twain Cave where the character Tom Sawyer had one of his many adventures.

Even though it’s a tourist trap, I couldn’t stop my nerdy, book-loving heart from filling with joy as I stood and ‘painted’ the famous white fence from one of the opening scenes in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I stood inside Mark Twain’s home, and I felt strongly connected to the infamous author. I was in the one-roomed home that inspired one of the most controversial yet important books in the history of literature, and it was wonderful.

That day trip really did have an effect on the way I understood “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I finally had a visual component that I didn’t have before that made the scenes actually come alive in my mind, I understood the characters on a deeper level and I even had a better sense of the man who wrote them.

After that visit, I wondered if that could be the case with every author and book I’ve read. Could I find a deeper connection to any book if I just took the time to learn about the author? Would going to Walden Pond in Massachusetts help me get inside Thoreau’s head? Would staring into the pond for hours help me better reflect on my life? Aside from the fact that Thoreau would be thoroughly upset that I was walking the same path as he had, instead of creating my own path, I do think that extra bit of understanding would create a more powerful reading experience for me.

It’s even more interesting to look at how we can come to understand our contemporary authors and their books through the many resources available on the Internet. Whether one sees social media as an inventive tool or the end to face-to-face communication as we know it, it has offered the opportunity to connect more with authors, if we choose to do so.

Take John Green for example. He has an active online presence. After I finished reading his book “The Fault in Our Stars,” and after I put down the tissues and collected myself enough to resemble a human being again, I went online to find out more information about the author of the terribly depressing yet touching story. I discovered his Twitter and his personal webpage, and two hours later, I had a deeper understanding of the book and its characters. On his webpage, John Green describes the symbolism in the recurring images of water to show water’s power to both create and destroy life. The main character, Hazel, has thyroid cancer, so the fluids that fill her lungs threaten her life at a young age. On the other hand, water is a necessary means of survival. John Green also reveals his inspiration for the book and he admits why he chose to end it the way he did, just to name a few.

It wasn’t a critic or conversations with friends that gave me the answers I craved. It was the actual author of the book who made himself available to his fans to help increase their reading experience. By reaching out to his audience himself, he allowed the world he created to live on past the last page.

Now, do I have the time to always be looking into an author’s background? Nope. Do I have the money to travel all around the world to recreate scenes from my favorite books? Definitely not. But I sincerely believe that spending that time or that money, when it is available, does enrich one’s reading experience. It bridges that gap between the seemingly unreachable author and the reader. I know it has also personally inspired me on my path toward a literary career. Who knows, maybe the people I have met so far in my relatively short life will become characters in one of my future short stories or books.

What I do know with certainty is that every experience of mine has helped me grow intellectually, and those experiences are what I use on a daily basis to fuel my creativity. Have I experienced it all? No, and I’m far from it. But every single person, place, success and failure that I have encountered has had an effect on the person and the writer I am today.

With that in mind, seeing for myself the ways some of my favorite authors have integrated their lives into their books has created a more meaningful reading experience for me. Unlike the books I fail to invest extra time in and choose to just put away and casually forget about, the ones where I seek out information on the author’s life give me more. By that I mean the more you put in a book, the more it will give back, and I think that all begins by taking a look at the person who created it in the first place.

Countering Pre-Emptive Censorship

By now, you have probably heard that even dudes that have been dead for 100 years and have a new hit collection of musings gets, yup, censored.  With the aid of Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben of Auburn University, NewSouth books is set to release an updated version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the offensive racial slurs “nigger” and “injun” scrubbed out of the text.

The response has been about what you would expect from people who find censorship, cultural revisionism, and political correctness cloaked in the idea of “compassionate advocacy” to be both dangerous and incredibly stupid.  For me, the goodie is from Ishmael Reed:

Instead of doing a gotcha search on Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” I recommend that its critics read it. They will find that Twain’s Jim has more depth than the parade of black male characters that one finds in recent movies, theater and literature, who are little more than lethal props.

The response to this decision by NewSouth has been overwhelmingly negative, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this edition won’t still be released and snatched up by schools.  Both NewSouth and Gribben have little to say on the commercial viability of this project, so who knows what kind of audience there might be for this edition.

Most of the discussion has focused on the lack of good teaching and/or the intelligence of children.  But what else does this suggest about how we now view our art and literature?  Something about our cultural response to the Twain controversy has also struck me as a little … well, ideoglogical.

With no context at all, you probably are against “censorship” and “political correctness.”  But you probably don’t think much about what the words really mean: you’re against them because they have negative connotations.  They just sorta make you instantly think negative thoughts, maybe some freedom of speech and expression stuff.  A scholar like Brennan, who clearly should know better, has thrown all his weight on one word, without any sense of its context.  It’s almost like he never read Huck Finn.  In fact, his justification seems to be entirely because he finds saying these words aloud makes him uncomfortable.

Words matter. Any writer knows that. And yet, words also have no power. Think about it. The word “google” was meaningless twenty years ago – we didn’t “google” anybody until there was a company and a search engine and a common usage to make that word a verb, which has probably annoyed more than a few lexicographers.  Words cannot literally hurt you: you cannot walk down the street and have words crash on your head (like birds in Arkansas) or have someone stab you in the chest with a word. Words gain their meaning and their emotional impact from the cultural context that we create for them. To view Twain’s language as the same as our own 21st century language is foolish.  It seems such a gross misunderstanding of how to approach art, history, and literature that I’m mildly amazed this idea even made it through a single NewSouth editorial meeting.

By trying to removed two offensive words, Brennan is actually giving those words more power.  It’s also giving them power in their 21st century context.  Trying to redact and censor only makes the offensive words stronger, more seductive, more (oddly) offensive.  How does Brennan and NewSouth not see that?  We would laugh if someone tried to cover a nude statue with a fig leaf or hold a sheet of paper over an exposed breast in a Renaissance painting.

Only this isn’t funny.  This whitewashing of our books doesn’t, apparently, even need to be done on the sly, like it was with Amazon and Orwell’s 1984 just a few months ago. To be fair, the reporting indicates this was a question of copyright rather than content.  I am making a bit of a leap here, and I acknowledge that.  However, in an increasingly digital world, if people truly believe we do not ban artwork but we can simply revise it, shape and change the content, and truly believe this innocuous and decent and will do so openly, we should be very, very frightened.

Would it do any good to tell NewSouth we don’t want sanitized Twain?  If so, here’s the contact page: let ’em know.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.