Two very different books have captured the deepest part of my reader soul this summer: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. The Goldfinch is an obvious choice because I am an English teacher who loves Dickens. For the first time, those who airily told me it was Dickensian were right. What I love about Dickens is his panoramic love of the almighty Word, his placement of his characters always into the larger context of the world, the intersection of intellect, emotion and spirit than he calls out of you as you read, his utter confidence that good is absolute in the world. No one is just a villain, a lover, a father, a demon in his works. There is a greater system at work in the world and Dickens is recharging it as I read. And Donna Tartt's book also seems to be a compendium of all her experience in the world. To my delight, a central theme in protagonist Theo Decker's life is one that even my least engaged student would recognize as a theme in each of my courses: "And isn't the whole point of things-beautiful things- that they connect you to some larger beauty?" Yup, this is a book about a boy whose entire life is about protecting his possession of the most beautiful thing in the world-which may turn out to be his very existence. He loses his family, finds a new one, becomes a drug addict and an antiques expert simultaneously, and finds himself on the wrong end of a dangerous drug deal stranded in Amsterdam without a friend. But he always has his goldfinch-or at least he thinks he does. The belief turns out to be more important than having it, by the way. The book is panoramic, profound and full of allusions that I would never have seen 20 years ago. Yet another reason to be perfectly fine with getting older, and loving Dickens/Tartt too.
But then we have Cryptonomicon, a 1000-page origin story of the Enigma code, the digital computer
and invention of RAM, the NSA, and all the people necessary to tell the story. Alan Turing in is the book, for God's sake. There is a 4-page description of the proper way to eat Cap'n Crunch cereal in the Philippines set only a chapter or two away from to the illustrated iteration of the first generation of RAM as well as the extremely scientific connection between masturbation and effective code breaking. One of the characters invents the digital computer, calling it the compute-er. It is a wild ride requiring commitment, a comfort with the dizzying speed at which Mr. Stephenson invents words and worlds and then plops you down into an easy chair to enjoy the thorny but hilarious path to true love. Everything about this book SCREAMS epic. And yet, just like Tartt's book, there might be a writerly preoccupation with creating something beautiful, and just, and important.
Is this why I loved both books? Probably not--it's too symmetrical. But they each seem to feed some part of me that needs to be fed. I feel as though I am a puzzle piece in the transition from a book world to a digital world. I do know that I will be referring to each of them this year as I design a track for each class I teach. Sometimes the books I don't teach are the ones that control the ones I do.
*Read This Summer
Gun Machine-Warren Ellis
We Were Liars-E Lockhart
Deep Blue-Jennifer Donnelly
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown-Holly Black
The Tea Rose-Jennifer Donnelly
Mr Mercedes-Stephen King
The Goldfinch-Donna Tartt
Reading to come before August 18:
How the Light Gets In-Louise Penny (book club)
The Book of Life-Deborah Harkness
The Historian-Elizabeth Kostova
another Neal Stephenson book as demanded by daughter