Saturday, November 15, 2014

Independent People by Halldór Laxness, or, The Digital Reading Experience

I've tried to write about Independent People since I read it in early September, but every time I'd draft a paragraph I veered to blathering about the reading experience, forgetting about the story itself. I thought I'd wait to forget about this pesky interference of the vessel on which the story was brought to me, but it's no use. So here we go.

I read both printed and digital books. I buy all my knitting books in paper form, because I need to browse back and forth quickly, or I want to have all the instructions available at one glance; I buy printed novels if I know I'll end up lending or gifting them. I buy new books from authors I know I'm going to reread again and again. I buy books from second hand stores, although it pains me that authors are not getting anything for my purchase. 

I like my Kindle, too. I've bought a bunch of novels in digital versions that I already own in paperback, simply because I don't want to drag ginormous books with me during my commute, or when I'm traveling abroad because I like traveling light. And, most of the time, I buy printed books from where I'm visiting, so I want to save that space in my luggage.

Interestingly enough, if I'm at all skeptical about whether I'll like the story or not, I'll buy it digitally, because I don't want something potentially disappointing littering my shelves. Most of the time, though, I place a hold at the library both for the printed and the digital version, and see which one is available first. 

In addition to promoting clutter-free shelves, digital reading offers an experience printed books cannot: a nearly complete lack of spoilers. I love it. I don't pay attention to cover art because I just navigate to the Buy button, click it, and start reading; I don't get to flip the book over to read the blurb in the back. My mind is not primed for the story based on how good the graphics on the cover are, or the spoilers provided in the back cover. This is why I was so upset when I finally saw Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the bookstore: both the front and back cover give the twist in the novel away, and it's a twist that made me think about larger, ethical questions, because the author had so cleverly made me empathize with a situation by not telling me, the reader, the whole truth. It was great, and I felt so bad for any readers who wouldn't be able to experience the same.

Reading digitally would have been a New Critic's dream: you turn the book on and start reading from page one, never seeing a biography for the author, or a spoilery blurb, or choice quotes handpicked by the publisher to praise the novel that will prime you to look for those positive features in the novel yourself. You shove the author aside and just let the story come to you. Usually, I also skip any introductions written by other authors--I'll make up my own mind first, thank you very much. 

This unadulterated reading experience can be kind of scary, too: I have to actually form my own opinions about the story! What if I had given up on Independent People because it was dragging on in the beginning, and then later someone had pointed out that the author won a Nobel price for the story? Obviously, I'd be a real dumbo to admit that I didn't like a novel that was so widely revered. I just wasn't reading it right. Yeah, that's it! Let me give it another go and make sure I now understand why I have to like and appreciate it. 

Digital reading could work as a blind literary taste test. It might also help people get over some hangups about cover art (that's me) or about certain genres. What if I just give you a book and tell you to read it because it's good--do you really need to know whether it's fantasy or not, or whether it's true crime, because you can't stand those genres? Good stories should transcend their genres, and people should feel free to toss a book into the corner because they hate they way it's written, or because of the ideas it represents, not because they are categorized under a narrow label. 

But onto Independent People. A friend of mine wrote a short recommendation for it, and because I was about to leave for Iceland I downloaded it onto my Kindle. I read absolutely nothing about the story beforehand. 

And it was a weird reading experience, but in an eye-opening way.

I didn't know beforehand that it was an epic.
I didn't know that it wasn't written last year; it was written in the 1950s. 

So I started reading, becoming increasingly more puzzled.

A bunch of people were introduced, and I had no idea who was the main character. I almost gave up because the first 50 pages or so seemed to be constantly building up for something, but nothing was getting resolved--but curiously, that was the reason why I eventually stuck around. The story seemed so... large. Just as I had gotten to know one character a bit, a new chapter began and someone else was now introduced. Were they all going to meet at some point? How were they related? And what's all this stuff about politics? I wanted to know where it was all going.

Once I was on a roll, I decided to look up the author. 

Finding the story's publishing date and its genre of course colored my perception of the story. Whereas earlier I'd thought that the author was putting himself in the shoes of Icelanders from the days of yore, and I wondered what Icelandic people actually thought of his portrayal of their history, I now realized that the author--and his parents and grandparents--had more or less lived in the times he wrote about. Ah, so he's a reliable source, then, writing to his peers who had just come out of the book's historical events in the past decades. The intended audience was now completely different than what I had expected.  

I know, I know; who cares what the author's intent is, right? But stories are written with certain audiences in mind, and if you are supposed to write about what you know, how can we not take intent into account? 

Although I enjoy the blind taste test reading immensely, I still think it's often important to be aware of the historical backdrop for a story, or the author and his or her intent, although enjoying a story is by no means dependent on these factors. Learning more about Halldór Laxness and the novel helped me to understand its significance in its cultural setting. The experience is kind of like reading Heinlein: whenever I find myself annoyed by some of the social conventions in his novels, I check the publishing date and go, ah yes, he wrote this in the frigging 1940s. They're still annoying conventions, but I understand them better in their context. 

As to Independent People... I ended up loving it. The protagonist we follow the longest, Bjartur, is lovable, yet infuriating: to him, independence means a herd of sheep, a small crop to live on, and never being in debt to anyone. He leaves a wake of tragedy behind him because of his unwillingness to deviate from his personal morals, mostly in his relationships. When his daughter, Asta, is old enough, the story switches to following her being trapped in the crop to make sure that Bjartur's dream of independent living comes true.

It's an absolutely heartbreaking story, yet at the same time a fascinating insight into Iceland and its cultural and political background. 

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