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Losing Myself in a Novel Once Again

This video relates to the novel that my daughter chose for me.

I was getting a little jealous of my wife and kids a few weeks ago. Both of our daughters have really taken off in their reading lately. They are able to read pretty easily junior novels and story books that are significantly above their grade level. It is common for my older daughter to read a fairly long book in a single day. My wife has also been into reading classic literature again, and she joined a women’s book club a few months ago. Their latest book has been “Catcher in the Rye,” one of my old favorites. (Like many adolescents, I went through a Holden Caulfield phase, but that is another story.)

There was a time in my life when I was a pretty avid reader of novels and of other forms of classic literature. Some of this was a requirement of courses that I took, but most of it was by choice. I decided during my college years that I should read as many of the classics as I could, and I was surprised the other day when browsing a “Barnes & Nobles” book shelf by the number that I have actually read. Today, that phase seems like a distant memory. These days, I do not read as much as I would like. Work, parenting, exercise, and this recent writing addiction have gotten somewhat in the way. And when I do read, I try to make it as “productive” as I can. In my case, this usually means current events or history, material that I hope will make me a better teacher.

As I watched my wife and kids reading stories for enjoyment, it reminded me of how much I miss the experience of losing myself in a novel. Reading fiction is a whole different experience from the kind of expository writing that I typically peruse. I remember when I used to get so immersed in a book that I no longer noticed myself physically reading the text. Instead, the words were instantly translated into visual images in my mind. It became more like watching a movie. And when I would watch the actual film versions of some of these books, the movie never looked right. After all, I had already visualized the characters and settings perfectly, and the movie images could never be as rich and detailed as those produced by the book.

So I decided to go wild and start reading some good literature for fun again. When I shared this plan, my older daughter became really excited and started running off ideas in her head for books that I “had to read.” Then, it suddenly struck her. She ran to the closet and pulled out “Where the Red Fern Grows.” Now I had heard of this book, not realizing that it was a popular children’s novel. So it somewhat fit the “classics” category, but it wasn’t quite at the level that I had in mind. But she was so excited, and it seemed like it might be a good light read to get me going again. Then, the reason that I “had to read” this book suddenly struck me. This could be both fun and “productive.” We could have a great time discussing and maybe even analyzing this book that she clearly loves. I could also be, for a change, a role model for the book lover that she has already become.

Today, after just a few short weeks, I finished the book. I actually found myself finishing the last part in a reading frenzy before taking off for class, and I must admit that the book has some great storytelling. The best parts are the suspense-filled, action scenes involving the hunting of raccoons and the near death – and eventual death – sequences that are described in excellent detail. I’m sure that this is why my daughter loved it. It’s just a damn entertaining read. But is there more to the story than a kid going on hunting adventures with his two loyal dogs?

To a certain degree, this is a simple story about basic, primal things: growing up, hunting, survival, and being in touch with nature. In addition, however, a couple of deeper themes come up throughout the story. The first has to do with the love and devotion that people feel from their pets (especially dogs). In this story, the characters are continually amazed by the behavior of the narrator’s dogs. Part of this comes from their amazing skill as hunters, but even more striking are the loyalty and devotion these dogs show to both the boy and to one another. When the boy speaks, the dogs seem to understand him. If the boy is threatened in any way, then the dogs will risk their lives for him without any hesitation. The dogs always look out for one another, and they refuse to do anything if the other is not present. They seem to epitomize the phrase that “a dog is a man’s best friend.” So do dogs feel real love and devotion to their owners and to one another? Or, as some might say, are they simply pack-animals that instinctively latch on to the “alpha male” as a means of survival? Some would say that when a dog stares at you with those big brown eyes, he or she is expressing devotion. Others would see this as an instinctive, manipulative technique designed to get some food out of you. Unless some of us get the chance to be reincarnated as dogs, we may never know.

The book also talks a lot about divine providence. On multiple occasions, events occur in which the boy is convinced that God is looking out for him. He prayed for dogs, and one day he came upon a classified ad describing where he could buy them. When he could not cut down a tree to capture his first “treed coon,” the wind suddenly picked up and blew it down. When he struggled to find the right names for his new dogs, he suddenly saw two perfect names carved on a tree. And the list could go on. Many people will swear to their dying day that they have had experiences which prove that God was watching over them or had a plan for their lives. I can think of key decisions or circumstances in my own life that seem to be part of a plan that I did not recognize at the time they occurred. Is there something to this? We may have to wait for the afterlife, if there is one, to get the answer to that one as well.

I do not claim to know if animals are capable of love or if there is such a thing as divine providence. I suspect, however, that the human mind may be wired to see both of these phenomena. When dogs seem to do remarkable things, these actions stick in our mind. But when they do standard stuff like beg for food or sniff each others’ butts, it tends to get filtered out. Are we merely seeing and locking away in our memories the actions that confirm what we want to believe? The same question, of course, could be asked about divine providence. Indications of some sort of a plan may be the circumstances that stand out while the day-to-day, random, uneventful, pointless occurrences fade away. As I have written before in this blog and will probably write again, the older that I get the more convinced I am that core human beliefs are not generally based on evidence. Instead, we (often unconsciously) seek out evidence to keep our core beliefs intact. Our minds do not respond well to a radical shake-up of the fundamental views that help us make sense of things. (Just think back to most of the religious and political discussions that you have ever had.)

So now I am excited about talking to my daughter about the book. I’ll stay away from the heavy philosophic topics and do what teachers like me are supposedly trained to do: ask questions. It will be interesting to see if she saw this as more than just a fun story. Then I will need to find a new book to read for fun as a break from the “productive” non-fiction. Does anyone have any ideas?


  1. Asimov wrote a lot of non-fiction and I have heard it is very good. I have only read his fiction so far, though. Anyway, I love science fiction. I wish I had more time to read for pleasure. During the beginning of each term, I read my textbooks like crazy so I can indulge in a good book or five towards the end of the term.

  2. Graduate school robbed me of my love of reading for fun. There's no reading for fun in a History PhD program! Then my children were born so I had little mental energy.

    Then I'd read in spurts and stops. But since September, I've been reading on a regular basis and I feel so much better.

    Glad you lost yourself in a novel.

  3. I've read 50+ Asimov science fiction books, about 20 of his science books, 20 of his mystery books, and 20 of his history books. Yes, Asimov wrote history books, and very well done, too.

    In high school chemistry, I wrote a term paper on carbon, and used Asimov's book on carbon as my primary info source. I was surprised that Asimov wrote an entire book just on carbon. Carbon is key to life and wealth (hydrocarbons like oil are just water and carbon, & diamonds are just carbon).

  4. Smart of you to read with your kids. My oldest will soon be reading for fun, and I look forward to when he and I can read same stuff, and discuss what we've read.


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