I’ve been pondering a series for this blog that is inhibited only by the amount of time I have to read fiction as a graduate student. Since rekindling a fire within me for reading novels I have desired to re-read the novels that I either (1) read in high school or (2) thought were too “stupid” to read in high school. The facts, in my experience, are these: In high school, we are introduced to the great literature of history. We are told of Dickens, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Tolkien, Twain, Woolf, Austen, etc. and are given easy reading schedules that I actually feel can take away from the experience of reading a book (perhaps something is lost in a purely academic reading of a novel, rather than a plunging in and devouring of the text). However, we refuse many of these greats because they don’t speak to the experience of most high schoolers, or the language they use is too boring or dense for the majority of teenagers to stand. Thus, in the end we read a few and can say we have read a couple classics (I can only remember just how many people in my Facebook feed suddenly claimed to have “loved To Kill a Mockingbird in high school” when it was announced that a second book would be released), but I don’t know if we can say that we actually know a thing about them.
Thus, this new “series,” which will in no way be released consistently, is my idea to venture back into High School in a sense. Generally, these books are “classics” for a reason, and while some, even with fresh eyes, still fall flat (The Old Man and the Sea, for those curious about a classic I just don’t think is that good), it has so far, when I have bothered to read something old, been a rewarding experience. The point of this small introduction is simply to say this: If a book review has in parentheses to the right of it “RRHS” then that book was something I read or gave up on reading in high school. RRHS, of course, meaning Re-Reading High School.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was a book I was supposed to read as a freshman in high school. I’m not sure I trust my own memory on this, but I believe I read about twenty-five pages, deciding then that I didn’t like it. I thought the book to simply be boring or irrelevant to what I cared about. It truly must have not mattered at all to me, because I couldn’t even remember that it was about so much more than white missionaries invading a black village in Africa. When I was read the first 120 pages last night, I couldn’t believe this was the same book that I had been lectured on in school.
Things Fall Apart is much more than the simple story of history (Truly, even Disney’s Pocahontas nails this when the Chief comes out the hut and declares to his tribe: “These white men are dangerous”). Things Fall Apart is easily one of the most nuanced book’s I’ve ever read, intersecting between critiques of patriarchal societies, religious fundamentalism, cultures of fear, and the relativity of the term “justice.” Above many things, the book, following the story of Okonkwo and his family, is about the importance of understanding the role that fear plays in our decisions, in shaping who we are and how we react to things. Fear shapes destinies if we let it consume us. In telling us who Okonkwo is, Achebe writes on the most important passages in the book:
“Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.”
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Okonkwo is highly esteemed member of his village because of the grasp he had on his family. That he was able to rule over them like a man. The book makes multiple mentions of this point, that Okonkwo is a man because he has taken a title. That he has taken his place in ruling over women. This is the inherent problem for Okonkwo and why the book is titled what it is: the world inevitably passes him by. However, it does in such a way as to make the reader ask if this new way is really any less destructive. The book is marked by a longing for kinship, which it finds only in the past. Even before the missionaries arrive, there is talk from the elders of how useless and “effeminate” the younger generation is. The clans only fear is the future, so they remain in the past.
“Those were the good days when a man had friends in distant clans. Your generation does not know that. You stay at home, afraid of your next-door neighbor.”
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Such as statement is self-evident as to why the book is so complex. In such a small statement, Achebe writes of the problem from multiple angles (You are not like us. You are lazy. You are too much of an individual), then traces it within the statement to it’s engendering, which the speaker has little awareness of: fear. Fear of becoming what isn’t the same. Fear of not holding the correct values. Fear of letting what is known to work collapse into dilapidation. It is this fear that drives every critique of the book. It drives each character in every decision they make. It pervades the village’s conception of divinity. Even in the missionaries opening statement of why they have come to the village they speak of fear; fear of a newer, bigger God that will burn you forever after you die. So clearly is the central question of the book that it rings forever, never going out of date or becoming meaningless: What is fear doing to us? Achebe wants us to answer the question before it is instead asked: What has fear done to us?
Things Fall Apart is commonly called a masterpiece and is rightly so. Not only is the novel enjoyable, but its message is one that should be taken to heart and grappled with.
Recommended to: Everyone, though the book is unsettling. Great books have that tendency, though.
Avoid as if it were a Patriots Scandal and you’re the NFL: Nobody. It’s a great book that isn’t structured or written in a difficult manner. There’s not a lot of effort in reading the book, just in coming to terms with what it is potentially trying to say.