Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Achebe's book is important... even if I don't really remember it.

Does anyone remember that book, Things Fall Apart?

I do. I remember I had to read it in middle school, back in the days when I threw my books carelessly around, didn't hesitate to dog-ear the cheap pages, and felt like it was okay to write notes in margins in bleeding blue ink or underline sentences in hot-pink highlighter, just because I was reading this book for school. Regretfully, my copy of Ishmael has been defiled this way, including my name scrawled in huge black block letters on the side of the book (you know, the opposite of the spine, where all the white pages push together?).

Anyway though, I do remember owning a copy of this book, reading it, and even discussing and possibly writing a 7th grade essay on it. But I could not tell you at all, what this book was about, other than that it was about some African tribes. I'm sure it was very important at the time in my development as a young person trying to understand the world's cultures, but really, the two books that made any impression at all on me in that class (aptly named "Foundations") was Ishmael and the play Inherit the Wind.

So I thought, that's not a problem! I'll go to my shelf and find my old copy (because I never threw out any of my old books) and thumb through it. Maybe looking through a few pages will jog my memory! Well, sitting front and center on my shelf was another Achebe book - Arrow of God (another book that I have no recollection of), but I didn't see Things Fall Apart. And let me explain my bookshelves here. They are not your average bookshelves. They are falling over with books. Brimming with books. About to collapse from the sheer weight of the multiple-tiers of books I have, over the years, forced upon their wooden planks with the skill of a Tetris player. If I have new books, I will find a way to fit them onto these two shelves. Which, by the way, my mom reminds me were the first pieces of furniture she ever bought and built by herself, back when she was 22 and living alone in a studio. Yes, these shelves are that old. It says something about the quality of furniture back then.

So, no, I can't find the book. Because if it's anywhere, it's buried behind levels of other novels and textbooks that have since entered my life. So, no. I still have no idea what Things Fall Apart is about. I still don't remember why it was (is) such a highly acclaimed piece of literature.

But does that make the fact that Chinua Achebe was just awarded the Man Booker International Prize any less noteworthy for me? For some reason, no. Why do I care? I don't know. Maybe because even though I can't for the life of me remember the book, Things Fall Apart's name alone conjures up memories of my young education. Or maybe I just like that an author whose name I recognize won an award. Or maybe because the book is so old, and about this topic that doesn't really get that much coverage, that I think it's a nice change up. I'm not sure exactly what this prize looks for - the website says that it's only given twice a year, and this is only the second award given - but it's nice to see some international fiction being recognized. You know, diversity and all. Bring the people of the world together. Share things. That sort of thing. As a writer, there's only so much you can do by way of contributing to the world (something I struggle with a lot), but I think this medium as a forum to foster understanding and urgency is important.

So, okay, I can't recommend the book, except that it's something important enough that I read it in a class other than English. It was important enough that we used it to study cultures and foundations of civilization. I think that shows something essential. Shows its resonance. When your book stops being just a work of fiction, but transcends to be a model of something interdisciplinary, speaks something greater, in a way almost academic, even if (especially if) its for young minds.


And oh, thanks to the NYTimes blog for alerting me to this. Yes, I leech all my news from other sources, but who doesn't?

2 drops:

moonrat said...

I remember it, but only because I read it in adulthood, well after everyone else had read it, because everyone else had read it and I felt left out.

Although apparently I don't remember it well enough to give a nice concise description--I remember an African father and husband who struggles through a series of bad sweet potato harvests and through the advent of Christian missionaries who reallocate tribal resources toward building their church and then end up abandoning the village, anyway. I thought it was awesome. And now I totally have to reread it.

Chainz said...

Things Fall Apart is one of my favorite books! I never had to read it in middle school, so I read it a couple months ago. It is amazing. It basically describes the culture clash that came with colonization. More importantly though, it was a slap in the face of books like Heart of Darkness. It showed both the beauty and the ugliness of aspects of one particular African culture - and it showed you this from the inside. Because it focused on one character and the details of his life, it showed that different cultures in Africa cannot be lumped together in one category; they are unique and varied and each should be considered on their own.

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