The Ugly Truth

antique-books-charles-dickensI am not a verbal person. I am a writer. I was born with a birth defect to my ears. Once discovered, when I was 2 or 3, doctors were able to correct most of my hearing with a series of operations over a number of years. Operations eventually fixed most of the hearing problem… but it took 7-8 years of speech therapy to teach my tongue to pronounce words in a way that others could understand.

To this day, I need to “practice” words and names I have never tried to say before. I prefer to see things written and to write. And I avoid saying certain words altogether. I have one vocabulary I use for speaking and another for writing.

In the West of my youth, my slow speaking pace and peculiar verbal style that occasionally includes a mild stutter, frequent “re-starts,” and a number of hesitation-pauses did not seem particularly pronounced. Westerners have been known to be slow talkers.

But when I headed to college in the Midwest and seminary in Chicago, it was noticed. One professor even told me that at first the faculty had thought that I must have had a substance abuse problem at one time. He said they thought that was the case until they started reading what I wrote.

I communicate one way in writing and one way in speaking. They are remarkably different. And hence, I often feel like the Apostle Paul,  “His letters are weighty and strong, but… his speech of no account.”

Ours is a verbal world. Politicians are measured quite often not by what do as much as what they say. Verbal awkwardness is often construed to be a sign of intellectual deficiency. George Bush, the younger, was often proclaimed by his critics to be an “idiot” because of his well known habit of mangling American English. That he had graduated from an Ivy league school and had an MBA from Harvard and had risen to become the most powerful man in the world, was totally dismissed. Because George Bush would sound occasionally like someone not fully acquainted with the English language, many came to believe that he must be a fool.

To quote the Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz, it is has long been my observation that, “some people without brains do an awful lot of talking don’t they?” In fact, the more eloquent and polished a speaker seems, the less likely I am to trust the words that they are saying: used car salesmen, talk radio hosts, lobbyists, politicians….

Truth and eloquence are not the same thing. In fact, quite often truth is an ugly and confusing thing. Politicians talk-radio hosts, NRA mouth-pieces, abortion-rights advocates, and Fox News anchors make their living “prettying-up” things… using language to obfuscate and confuse. Those who get their news only from radio and television soundbites are quickly led astray. Images and eloquence rule the day.

But when we teach children to read literature, poetry and fiction and drama, we teach them the truth about Truth (with a capital “T”). Truth can sometimes be messy and ugly and difficult and demanding. But in the end, Truth alone matters… not power or advantage or money or winning or looking good. Literature alone teaches us that.



Book Review: Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway

A poor scan of a great cover
A poor scan of a great cover

There remain hundreds of books on my reading “to do” list, yet sometimes I find myself re-reading an old favorite. With poetry this is a fairly straight forward venture. I browse through the volume looking at notes I have made, lines I have underlined or otherwise marked in some way. It is interesting to see where my tastes have changed, to be reminded of lines, to see again poetic influences I may even have forgotten about on anything but a sub-conscious level.

With a novel or book of non-fiction this is a different experience altogether by definition. Re-reading a novel or full length non-fiction work is more of commitment. And since it is more of a commitment, it needs to be a real special book.

Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa is such a book for me.  It is special for me because it was the book, more than any other, that introduced me to real writing and real literature. It was the book that made me want to read something more than comic books and sports biographies.

I spend a part of every working day in and out of a middle school media center (library). In middle school, juvenile fiction is king. It has also become huge business. In the early 1970s, there was not a lot of juvenile fiction… and what there was did not interest me in the least.

In 1972-73, I was in 7th grade and 12 years old. I did not want to read about kids like me, I wanted to read about men. I knew about the kid world… what I wanted to know about was the world of adults… the real world.

One day I pulled down a copy of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa from the library that was in our English teacher’s classroom. I suppose I liked the cover and that it was about Africa and hunting. Who knows why we choose some of the books we do?

Whatever the reason, that moment changed my life. Until that moment, when I had to read something I always chose non-fiction (and that is probably another reason I chose it). As soon as I finished Green Hills of Africa, I started The Sun Also Rises and after that… book after book, novel after novel, poetry book after poetry book until this day.

I am pleased to say that The Green Hills of Africa holds up well. It is Hemingway. It is memoir in muscular prose. Ostensibly it is about a safari he and wife, Pauline, took to Africa in 1933. It is more than mere travelogue though, for Hemingway intersperses with details of his hunting, discussions of writers and literature: Twain, Dostoevsky, Stendahl, Flaubert, and Tolstoy. All these writers I began reading within a few years of having first read The Green Hills of Africa, precisely because Hemingway recommended them.

When I am in the middle school media center, I will often look at the books that are there. There is no Hemingway. There are plenty of books about boys and girls, and many of these are very well written… but there are few about men and women doing the kind of things that many middle schoolers want to know about. There are no books that would have appealed to me.

My life was changed because I picked up The Green Hills of Africa and discovered great writing and great literature, because I found out about Tolstoy and Stendahl and Dostoyevsky. I am forever grateful for that serendipitous moment. I am forever grateful that I had access to adult-level books like this in my classroom when I was just 12 years old.