by Nathan Buckman,
Grub Street Managing Editor
One of my favorite writing maxims is this: We do not write to fill a page; we write to fill an idea. With this maxim in mind, I approach literature with something akin to the reverence given holy writ, for literature’s probative exploration into the nuances of thoughts and feelings animates the depth of good literature as it gives testament to what it means to be human. For instance, I love poetry for its concision and its emotive verve. I want to feel something when I read literature, but I don’t want to be bogged down by sophomoric sentimentality.
Literature must be salient and must retain its dignity. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter pierced my soul like the stitching of the emblazed A over Hester Prynne’s breast. The tormented Claude Frollo and his Ananke (fate) in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame from the prolific Victor Hugo delved into the darkness of a man driven by his own demons. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reverberated the cacophony of nature and science—the painfully human tale accentuated the true characteristics of a monster. These stories had gorgeous emotive vitality without succumbing to sentimentality.
Stories have fascinated me throughout childhood, and now, in adulthood, I study them and their effect, their mechanical structure and poetic cadence—and the rhetoric of language. I read voraciously as a child. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer filled my aspiring mind; Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain taught me the connection to nature and the need to nurture wonder; Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Sign of the Beaver gave me an identity. Literature does that—gives an identity to the reader.
Like David Balfour in Kidnapped and Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island from the auspicious Robert Louise Stevenson, I want literature to breathe in that exuberant adventure of life. James Baldwin, a Harlem Renaissance writer, says: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Words have meaning and can elevate a person’s soul to the peaks of the Himalayas or can descend that soul to the cavernous heart of the mountain. In that pursuit, there is no nobler an Ananke than reaching for the green light in the distance (reaching as Gatsby did in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). Through (L)iterature, I reach.
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.