A few days ago, for the first time since last year, I devoured a book. You know what I mean. It goes beyond not being able to put the book down. Every turned page feels like a wonderful revelation, and your inner-motor is operating solely to propel you through the book.
The book that did the trick most recently was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I went in with fairly low expectations. I had taken my dad’s copy of the book, and he said he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I read it a couple weeks later. In one sitting. I was up past six in the morning. If I had tried to sleep, I would have failed.
(If you haven’t read this book, don’t worry. No spoilers here. Eric hasn’t read it either, and I don’t want to ruin it for him.)
The book succeeded for me on two levels. A.) It was a rip-roaring, spell-binding, good story. I was thoroughly engaged. B.) I loved the writing.
It’s odd to think of a 1985 sci-fi novel published originally by Tor Books as a literary classic, isn’t it? Ender’s Game reminds us that a good story and the use of language can transcend genre.
I don’t know if scholars think Ender’s Game was particularly well-written. I don’t particularly care either. As Tobias Wolff reminds us in his short story “Bullet in the Brain,” the beauty of language is quite subjective.
Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and some asks the cousin what position he wants to play.
“Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all—it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.
The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant,
They is, they is, they is.
Sometimes beautiful language is hearing an Appalachian man with a pronounced accent simply say, “it edifies,” in a documentary. And sometimes, a sci-fi novel printed on pulpy paper is full of it.
That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood. The same voice that had once protected him from terror. The same voice that he would do anything to keep alive, even return to school, even leave Earth behind again for another four or forty or four thousand years.
After reading that passage, I noted the page number. I didn’t write it down or anything, but I didn’t forget it either. While it operates functionally in the context of the novel, it isn’t context dependent at all. That’s part of what I like about it. I can take out that piece of text and make it mean something personal and unique. It’s mine.