Everyday Miracles

There are two tales to this post, one leading into the other. This is what literature enthusiasts would call a “frame tale” structure, but let’s not clutter this post, intended to be sweet and heartwarming, with literary devices. Instead, let’s begin with the first story…

It was nearly midnight, but my eyes, as usual, would not rest without being lulled to sleep by the words of books. So, stealing across to my bookshelf, I skimmed its neat rows in the dim light for something to read. But I did not want just anything; it needed to be something special… Tolkien? Too heavy. Austen? Too flowery. Poe? Too dark. Even these, among my favorite authors, were not the companions that I sought. Disappointed, I sat back on my bed and 51JJC4Z7VHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_then, in a flash of inspiration, remembered the slender green volume that I had never gotten around to reading, waiting patiently under my nightstand.

Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories

 By L.M. Montgomery

It was cute and light and adorable, so I read several of its stories before falling asleep. Reading this book was like receiving a Christmas present and I am so glad I waited until now to read it. (Actually, I just forgot that I owned it, but shhh…)  In this story collection, Montgomery writes of a woman sharing the bounty of her picnic basket with suffering strangers, a girl sacrificing her only valuable possession for the happiness of her cousins, and forgiveness restoring friendships. On the surface, these are just good “chicken soup” tales, but I realize that they are also tales of miracles.

When I say “miracles”, I do not mean huge displays of splendor, but tiny instances of service and joy that often get overlooked, but that Montgomery had a special talent for finding and recognizing in her writing. I seek to do the same in my own writing and it is here where the frame story comes into play. You see, the reason I find these stories so touching and lovable is that they are so clearly real.  I do not know if they all happened exactly as L.M. Montgomery penned them, but they are distinctly believable in their displays of everyday Christmas miracles. (I know that sounds like a Hallmark card, but it is true!)

Today, I stumbled upon a Montgomery-esque Christmas tale myself…

My great-grandparents, both in their mid-nineties, live in an assisted living facility. My grandparents (who are pretty great, but not old enough to have the official title) heard that many of the residents of the care center do not have any family left and would be spending the holidays alone. Being the generous-hearted people that they are, they spent their day at the facility handing out gifts to these lonely people and invited me to come along.

As an introvert, I was uncomfortable speaking to and giving gifts to strangers, but, as a musician, I was in my element performing for them. So, forming a rather eclectic quartet of two basses and two sopranos, three friends and I set off to sing, praying that we would successfully sight-read our carols and – I’ll admit- hoping that the elderly residents would be either so tickled or so hard-of-hearing that they would not mind our lack of practice.

They did not.

Well, at least the ones who let us sing for them did not. There was the occasional woman who, upon being asked if she would let us sing for her, replied “I don’t think so,” and shut the door before we could sing the pickup note, but on the whole everyone was gracious. We were offered donations, candies (probably those little strawberry hard candies that everybody has yet nobody buys…), and, by one insistent man, cupcakes.

“No, thank you!” we replied to every offer. “We just wanted to spread some Christmas cheer!” Our listeners would look at us in surprise when we did not ask for anything in return and we would bow and “Merry Christmas” our way down the halls.

None of this really resembles Montgomery’s stories yet, but I suspect that if I had stuck around to hear what happened between the residents after we left, tiny Christmas miracles might have revealed themselves. Even from what little I saw, there were hints of miracles that made my heart happy.

For instance, there was the man in the wheel chair who beamed through our carols, cradling his Christmas gift in his arms. Then there was the woman who declared “This is the best way to wake up from a nap!” and proceeded to hug her friend, who wiped her eyes and wished us all of God’s blessings. And of course, how could I forget the single woman, perhaps a widow, who stood in the doorway with an expression of pure surprise and delight as we sang “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”? Even a husband and wife, who were said to be deaf by a man I assumed to be their son, smiled at us and clapped enthusiastically when we finished our song. And then there was the woman who asked us how much we had to practice to sound so beautiful (we quickly offered to sing another carol to avoid admitting that we had not practiced at all) and after her came the table of friends who applauded even after our truly horrible reading of “Silent Night.” Most poignant to me, however, was when my ninety-six-year-old great-grandfather, who has been more quiet and tired than before lately, laughed aloud, pretended to conduct us as we sang for him and my great-grandmother, and then bragged about us for the remainder of the afternoon to anyone who would listen.

Yes, joy resounded louder than our four voices in the halls of the senior living center. You might not think so to look at the dim rooms and quiet common areas, but behind the doors hung with wreaths and decked with an odd assortment of stuffed animals, holly, and stockings, lived men and women who, by hearing a simple carol, were able to remember Christmases past. As one tearful woman said, “Oh, this brings back so many memories. It’s simply beautiful.”

And it was simply beautiful. We certainly were not the Cambridge singers, being just four teenagers, but even our humble songs stirred memories long forgotten and warmed hearts that might not have been expecting visitors. So really, there were miracles today, and, though on perhaps a smaller scale, they were miracles yet.

Back to the frame of my story and reading Christmas with Anne and other Holiday Stories. The characters continue to be delightful, generous, souls and their stories equally lovable. It makes me want to go back and hug those who we sang for today, especially those who gave my friends and me a bad case of “the feels” with their shows of emotion. It also reminds me to be grateful for those who came with me and helped to make today special for so many, so I must post a brief shout-out here to my loving grandparents and great-grandparents, and especially my fellow carolers, who braved sight-reading and high notes in order to spread Christmas cheer.

The Bookworm’s Guide to the Galaxy: Understanding Readers

Most of my best friends are
bookworms. We all have our favorite genres, authors, eras, you name it. We are an eclectic group of athletes, honors students, writers, artists, musicians, and gamers, yet we are united by books and our need for words.

However, it has come to my attention that this is not how most of the world and its people are and that it mildly terrifying to someone like me, who can hardly carry on a conversation without quoting a book or alluding to a classic. I have tried to be less bookish when talking to non-readers, but seeing as I run a blog titled “A Bookish Charm” and have been caught on numerous occasions sniffing the pages of other people’s books (which is one than a little embarrassing), I have not really had success with this approach. Therefore, I have (because this is what a I do in my spare time…yet another bookworm problem) devised a list of ten ways for readers and non-readers (I suppose some might call them “normal people”) to understand each other and even become good friends. 🙂 (I should add as a disclaimer that I know and care for many non-readers and mean no offense as they simply are gifted in other areas.)

For Readers:

1. Know that people will ask you if you have seen the movie adaption of the book you are reading. Try not to be offended, even if the book is waaaaay better. (Of course, if you want to ask them if they have read the book that inspired the movie that they watched, go for it.)

2. Don’t abstain from showing emotion over the book you are reading in public, but don’t be surprised when people laugh as you sob over the tragedies of fictional characters. It hurts, but we just have to live with it.

3. Don’t ask non-readers to smell books. Just don’t.

4. Accept the fact that non-readers probably will not care that your characters are on the brink of disaster and your book is reaching its climax. Even if your company’s conversations are boring and you’d rather read during dinner, sometimes it is best to sacrifice a bit of reading to pretend you’re listening. After all, you can always wonder about the book while you smile and nod.

5. If you happen to be with a non-reader at the mall, understand that he or she may actually want to visit stores other that Barnes and Noble. Just prepare yourself that you will have to try on clothes and probably stop for a pretzel before you can go spend your entire paycheck on books you do not have room for on your shelves.

6. Try not to cry and break out in sarcasm when a non-reader claims to be a reader because she read Twilight and Divergent.

7. Do not try to explain that, based on classic literature, love and happiness are not real, because non-readers will think that you are depressed and pessimistic. We readers know that love and happiness do exist in the real world; we just are trying to discuss themes.

8. Try not to be disappointed on holidays when family members give you gifts other than books. They really are trying to be thoughtful, I promise.

9. Talk to real people. Do more than just hold up the cover of the book you’re reading when somebody asks what it is. Believe it or not, this person is trying to have a conversation with you.

10. Appreciate the fact that not everybody reads. Despite what Jane Austen says (“…who does not take pleasure in a good novel must be intolerable stupid.”) there are incredibly brilliant and lovely people who do not choose to be avid readers and we can still be great friends and perhaps we ought be better off because of it; their connection with the real world and our love for the worlds of books could just be a good combination. (Maybe…)

For Non-Readers:

1. Do not make fun of us for walking and reading, smelling books, and quoting them in our everyday lives. We will label you a “Gaston” and our book clubs will either scorn you or pity you.

2. Be gentle with us. Sometimes we are upset because of a fictional character’s death or an author’s failure to produce a satisfying sequel. Don’t tease us too harshly for getting so emotionally invested in fiction and we won’t tease you for shouting at sports on the television or cursing the politicians on the news.

3. Be aware of how we socialize. If we text you with a book recommendation or invite you to go to the bookstore, know that we like you. Perhaps a lot. It is just our nerdy way of showing affection; we are inviting you into our world of books and, even if you do not accept, you should feel honored that we like you enough to think of you in between chapters.

4. Just smile and nod when we make comparisons between books and real life. If I start rambling about somebody acting like a Scarlett O’Hara, just agree and say that yes, she is being annoying and manipulative. 😉

5. Read something. By doing this, you are proving that you care about us enough to attempt to share our passion for reading. We don’t care if you read every classic on the AP Literature list; we just appreciate that you read Harry Potter or even a magazine because it shows that you are trying to form common ground with us.

6. Ask us for recommendations. Even if you don’t read them and the carefully-crafter list we draw up for you ends up in a wad in your backpack, we love being asked to share our favorites and, like reading, this allows for some common ground.

7. Take us to a bookstore. This is the best way to get to know a bookworm. Let us wander the aisles and listen to us admire the new covers of our old classics. Don’t tell us that we do not have enough money for all of the books; just let us have our fun and after we inhale enough paper and ink, we might put down our stack of books we cannot afford long enough to chat about other subjects.

8. Recognize that we are more than the books that hide our faces. Sure, books are at the top of our list of favorite things, but they are not our entire personalities! Like I said before, my bookworm friends are athletes, artists, and scholars. We like other subjects, probably the same ones that you do, so don’t be afraid to talk to us about other things. We want to get to know you too, so tell us about yourself. After all, books and people are the same in that both have stories unique to themselves.

9. Don’t worry if we withdraw for hours by ourselves. We are fine, off on wonderful adventures between the pages of our books. It isn’t that we don’t like you; we just need time to ourselves and our beloved characters. Many of us are introverts, so just understand that if we don’t reply to your text or hear you calling us to come down for dinner, we are not purposely ignoring you, just resting by reading.

10. If we are stressed out, tell us to go read. In about an hour, we will be back to our normal, nerdy selves. 🙂

If you are a non-reader and read this far, know that you are appreciated by this awkward blogger for struggling through the rambling. And now, I shall bid you adieu, for I am in the library and feel a book calling my name…

The Necessity of the Reader: A Literary Criticism of Heart of Darkness

Modernist author Joseph Conrad once said that “of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us for they contain our thoughts… they resemble us in their precious hold on life.” According to Conrad, books not only act as the vessels that preserve the themes of human life, but as mirrors that reflect the variations of those themes found within each individual reader. This reflective relationship between the reader and the piece of literature is essential to the reader’s formation of a response to that particular work and is what keeps literature resonant over the course of the centuries, continuing to intrigue generations of readers. In his novella, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad purposefully relies on the ability of the reader to fill in gaps in order to establish the overarching theme of the ambiguity of the truth and ultimately ensure the novella’s enduring resonance.

From its first pages, Heart of Darkness leaves room for the reader to make assumptions and interpret events for him or herself. The novella is structured as a frame story, featuring two narrators with distinct voices and views, as demonstrated by the opening scene. The first narrator, who remains unnamed, describes the sun setting on a river port and speculates that this river has “known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled” (Conrad 47). Here he reveals his European perspective, seeing conquests as causes worthy of titles and remembrance. However, the main narrator, Marlow, reflects sarcastically on his time spent in London, saying, “I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you” (Conrad 51). Although he speaks humorously, Marlow is mocking the Eurocentric belief that white men have the right to invade the lands of those considered uncivilized. By immediately presenting these opposing views, Joseph Conrad creates the opportunity for the reader to decide which narrator, if either, to believe and sets the precedent for the development of a core theme: the ambiguous nature of reality. In Literary Themes for Students: Volume I, Anne Marie Hacht explains that the frame tale structure, with its capacity to present differing accounts and opinions, allows for the reader to generate his or her own interpretation as well because there is no set standard. The inherent unreliability of these narrators serves a similar purpose. For instance, Marlow declares vehemently to his listeners, “I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie,” yet at the end of his tale, he lies to the Intended, telling her that Kurtz’s last words were about his love for her when they had actually been vague cries of terror (Conrad 77, 145). This proves him changeable and deluded in his view of self and is exactly what Diane Telger discusses in her essay in Novels for Students. She explains that “by presenting a… narrator whose interpretation of events is often open to question, Conrad forces the reader to take an active part in the story’s construction.” Thus, by layering the novella as a frame story told by narrators with dubious views on truth, Conrad has rendered it essential for readers to fill in the narration gaps with their own ideas and alludes to the theme of the uncertainty of reality.

The gaps left for the reader to supplement with his or her own ideas are also used throughout the novella to communicate the central theme of the ambiguity of truth. Perhaps the strongest example of this is in the death scene of Kurtz, the powerful agent at the root of Belgian imperialism in the Congo. Before he dies, Kurtz utters the famous line, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 139). This line is remembered by all who read Heart of Darkness, yet Conrad offers no obvious explanation as to what it means. Do these dying words indicate a revelation? Are they a cry for forgiveness? Or are they simply the meaningless babble of a lunatic? No definite answer is presented and thus each individual reader is made responsible for deciding their significance. This not only gives readers further opportunity to complement the text with their personal responses, but advances the overarching theme of the ambiguous nature of truth; just as there is not a clear understanding of this line, truth is, according to the evidence in Heart of Darkness, undefined. Therefore, as readers formulate their own interpretations of this exclamation, they create their own truths and the theme of ambiguous reality is made apparent beyond the pages of the novella. In her critique of Heart of Darkness, Jennifer Lipka quotes Joseph Conrad, saying that the only “fundamental truth of fiction” is its enigmatic quality; it serves no purpose and cannot effectively convey its themes if it does not allow for the reader to wonder and develop his or her own opinions. In the same way, the light and dark motif is used as a building block in establishing the larger theme of the indefiniteness of reality. For instance, as the first narrator and Marlow wait for the tide to turn at the beginning of the novella, the setting is described using both light and dark imagery. The rapid fluctuation between descriptions such as “glowing white” and “immensity of unstained light” are immediately contrasted by phrases such as “brooding gloom” (Conrad 46). The reader is presented with two conflicting descriptions of the initial setting and must decide whether to envision it in the light or the darkness and then decide what each of those views might represent. Anne Marie Hacht explains in Literary Themes for Students that the use of light and dark imagery is employed “to convey ever-shifting meanings.” This furthers the central theme of the uncertainty of truth and compels the reader to take a definite stance as the focus of the novella itself flickers abruptly between light and dark, good and evil, clarity and confusion. Both the death scene of Kurtz and the light versus dark motif exhibit the speculative quality of the novella; by requiring the reader to make assumptions based upon his or her own experiences, the reader’s response is rendered vital to expressing the concept of truth as an ambiguous ideal, differing from reader to reader.

Similarly, the response of the individual reader to Heart of Darkness allows for its elements to be examined through different lenses, not only demonstrating the theme of the ambiguity of truth, but offering different ideas as to what this illusive truth could be. For example, the novella never makes it clear whether it is in favor of or satirizing the racist ideals of imperialism. While Conrad’s primary narrator, Marlow, uses derogatory terms such as “savages” to describe the natives of the Congo, certain passages such as that describing a young agent as “gentlemanly… with a little forked beard and a hooked nose” personify the Europeans as devils, indicating that perhaps he does not view them as superior after all (Conrad 73). The stance on racism, like truth, is kept in obscurity and readers must attempt to provide their own answers. Author Chinua Achebe once criticized Heart of Darkness as “an offensive and deplorable book” that does not deserve to be included in the literary canon due to what he considered to be its racist message. However, this is only his view; other critics such as Mark Kinkead-Weekes consider the novella to be “an imaginative counter to European arrogance and blindness about Africa.” Which is the correct answer? That, being an absolute truth, is never revealed by Conrad and the reader must decide based on his or her own knowledge and intuition.  The necessity of the reader to supply possible answers to the questions posed by Heart of Darkness is further evidenced by the scene in which Marlow comes across a curious portrait.  The painting depicts “a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch” on a “somber-almost black” background (Conrad 75). Blindness in literature generally indicates a failure to see truth and this, combined with the recurrence of the light versus dark motif in the torch and the black background, possibly indicates a failure to know truth, but a determination to pursue it despite the surrounding night of ignorance and confusion.  Granted, this is merely a speculation, as the novella offers no further explanation of the portrait. However, by providing multifaceted details that pose complex questions rather than presenting the reader with simple concepts and unequivocal answers, Conrad has painted his novella to allow for the representation of numerous viewpoints. This also serves to open the door for healthy controversy between readers with differing ideas and is exactly what Joseph Conrad aimed to do as an author. He once said that his goal was not simply to tell tales, but “to make you hear, to make you feel- it is, before all, to make you see.” Through details such as the portrait of the blind woman and the consistent lack of clear meanings, Conrad encourages his readers to form their own answers to the questions suggested by Heart of Darkness, thus opening their eyes to new ideas that extend beyond what is written in black and white. The truth remains undisclosed and reality undefined, but the reading experience, according to Anne Marie Hacht, is rewarding, for it fosters a new realm of independent thought.

The frame-tale structure, dominant theme of the ambiguity of the truth, and lack of answers to significant questions all indicate that the reader is left responsible for filling in the gaps of Heart of Darkness. Without allowing for the varied responses of the readers, the theme of the ambiguity of truth that is essential to the novella as a whole would fail to be developed. In the same way, Heart of Darkness would be lost in time as a work with a limited era of relevance; without allowing for interpretations to evolve and vary between readers of different times and places, it would have failed to remain resonant into the current generation. When Heart of Darkness was first published, it shocked its Victorian audience, but now it is acclaimed as one of the best English novellas ever written because the views of its readers have changed over time and the impressionistic quality of the novella has allowed for these altered views to be incorporated into new interpretations. As Joseph Conrad said, books hold a fascination for mankind because they act as mirrors, reflecting their readers within their pages and changing alongside them. Heart of Darkness, with its enduring theme of the ambiguity of truth and reality, is a prime example of this, for without the readers filling in its gaps, it would become like the pitiable Kurtz, hollow at the core with only empty words remaining.