Sunday, November 25, 2007

Entry for August 20, 2007 - I Don't Think I'll Ever Look at Books Quite the Same Way Again ...

(This has spoilers -- not "action" spoilers, but "idea" spoilers -- don't read this if you want to have the thrill of discovery for yourself.)

The premise of The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley is a little hard to describe. It's a story about the characters in a book. The characters live inside the book, lounging around somewhere in the description or an illustration until the book is opened, at which time they rush to their places and begin to tell/act out the story for the Reader. That concept in itself is enough to endear this book to me; I can just imagine all the beloved characters I've encountered in my reading life waiting around for someone to crack the book open so they can spring into action.

But Townley is a poet, so this book isn't just a little fantasy about the hidden lives of book characters. It ends up becoming an exploration of dreams and thought and memory, of change and death, all viewed from the perspective of an unchanging storybook princess. This particular princess has an adventurous streak, so she crosses the margin of the book into the dreams of the little girl who is the latest Reader. It's fortunate that she does, because the Reader's pyromaniac of a brother ruins the book, and the only way the characters survive is by crossing into the Reader's mind.

That's when things get a little weird. At first, the characters are called "on stage" to perform in the little girl's dreams, which is difficult for some of them since they have to improvise. But as the Reader grows up, the characters are called to the stage less and less often, and finally, they set off to live in the mountains of her memory. But Readers, unlike book characters, have a limited lifespan, and once again, the princess has to take a risk to keep her friends and family from dying along with the Reader.

This book made me ponder the way memory functions -- in the book, once a person had encountered someone or something, whether in real life or through a book, an imprint (or something like that -- I'm not even sure what the right word would be) of that someone or something exists in the person's mind until he/she dies. Some never come to the person's conscious mind again, and they eventually rust away -- it was sort of ambiguous to me whether the memory/imprint disappears when they get too much rust on them. Other memories/imprints are pulled back out of the mountains in the back of our brains when something triggers the person to recall that memory. Sort of complicated -- yeah, this is a kid's book!

It's fun, though, to think of all the people and places and things that occupy my mind after 40-something years of experiences. Reading this book and thinking about its ideas got me to blow the rust off a few of those memory/imprints -- some, like my sixth-grade teacher, that I'm glad to think of again, and some, like that feckless guy I had a crush on my freshmen year of college, that I wouldn't mind to leave back in the dark recesses! (oh, the embarrassment, even now, ha ha!) And I'm aware of how many new people I've added to my brain this year through this reading resolution -- serious, dark-haired Will and simple, strong Suzanna; Beetle/Alyce, finding her own place in the world; Cassie Taylor and TJ Avery, dealing with terrible racism; heck, even Alex Rider, suave teenage spy. I like the idea of them all milling together in my brain like people at some really strange but interesting party (in a rosy pink dorm room like the one I had the first summer I went to the University of Kansas!). I like it a lot. I'm going to keep cramming more people into that party until it has to move somewhere with more room, like that quiet cove in the Smoky Mountains with the orange and purple sunset.

My sister, who is a very perceptive person, sent me a news article after I'd told her about this book. It said 25% of the population in the U.S. didn't read a single book last year. Just think of all the characters lounging against adjectives, waiting for Readers who never come.

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