I love the scene at the beginning of Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) tells his English class to rip out the introduction to their poetry anthology, which is nothing more than a rubric for evaluating poetry:
“Excrement. That's what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We're not laying pipe, we're talking about poetry. I mean, how can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? I like Byron, I give him a 42, but I can't dance to it. Now I want you to rip out that page. Go on, rip out the entire page. You heard me, rip it out. Rip it out!”
Amazingly, this sort of thing i.e., evaluating literature, is not just a Hollywood device inserted into the script to help develop a character. It does exist. In fact, I found a similar pipe-laying methodology in an introduction to a book on my own shelf. The volume entitled Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction edited by Martin Seymour-Smith, rates the novels of the world’s great books based on four criteria e.g., “Readability,” “Characterization,” “Plot,” and “Literary Merit.” A book can earn up to five stars in each of the four categories. For example, Dostoyevsky’s "The Brother’s Karamozov" scores perfect fives in all four categories, while Truman Capote’s "Breakfast At Tiffany’s" scores three, one, four, and two respectively. (I guess old Martin Seymour-Smith saw right through that Holly Golightly.)
I can’t imagine taking this sort of thing too seriously, unless of course a few more categories were added, like “Cost,” “Laughs,” “Menu,” “Suspended Disbelief,” “Inspiration.” Now the former category, in my opinion, is the only true measure of any piece of literature. That is the ultimate question; did the work inspire you to act?
My favorite author of all-time, Nicolai Gogol, was reputed to have died of a broken heart because his novels had failed to change the world. Imagine that? ("Dead Souls," by the way, scored fives in all four of Martin Seymour-Smith’s categories.)
In any case, I rummaged through my own cluttered melon, trying to think of books that had inspired me to get off my duff and do something. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" came immediately to mind. I was so moved by Robert Pirsig’s encouraging words toward the mechanically disinclined that I grabbed a screwdriver and a monkey wrench – make that two monkey wrenches – and quickly and easily fixed the leaky faucet in my bathroom. Took all the washer-less parts off, found the problem (a misalignment of a thingamabob), and just like that, it was fixed. I was so full of confidence that I went on to repair the broken knob on the washing machine (epoxy) and the loose handle on the backdoor (Phillips screwdriver).
There were countless other books that motivated me, too….
While reading Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods,” I packed my backpack, called a friend, and together we hiked two hundred miles along the Appalachian Trail through the New Hampshire and Maine woods. After reading Kalle Lasn’s "Culture Jam," I wrote a 100,000-word novel with an anti-commercialism theme. Carlo Levi’s "Christ Stopped at Eboli" motivated me to update my passport and travel to Italy.
Heck, my whole life has been book-inspired. Yeah, definitely: Rip it out!
Richard Horan is an award-winning author who lives and writes in Central New York. His forthcoming novel, “SEEDS: One Man’s Journey to Find America’s Literary Trees,” is due out in 2010.