Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Distractions and Namelessness - Not a Good Reading Combination

Currently Reading: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Apparently I went through a bit of a stretch during which the books I read left little to no impression on me. However, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that this is purely a reflection on the novels. After all, I read The Old Man and the Sea in a desperate attempt to reach my February goal of four books for the month and then my two subsequent books, The Red Badge of Courage and On the Road, were read in the midst of my Australia trip frenzy. For the first time in a while, my life was actually more interesting than those of the characters I was reading about. Exciting and glorious as this change was for me personally, it has been a rather negative development for both my reading and blogging habits.

I mean, how could Jack Keruoac’s rather redundant journey back and forth and back and forth across the United States possibly compare with spelunking in the Jenolan Caves? Could I really be expected to be more interested in Henry Fleming’s cowardly actions in The Red Badge of Courage than in my cruise on the Great Barrier Reef, complete with an introductory scuba dive?

I think it’s reasonable to say that my lack of interest in these novels was only about 30% due to the actual writing and stories. The other 70% was purely distraction.

All this being said, though, I’m not sure I would put The Red Badge of Courage at the top of my favorite books list even if I read it with laser focus.

The story follows a young private, Henry Fleming, who joins the Union army during the Civil War, imagining that the glory of battle awaits him and he’ll have a chance to show what a manly, brave hero he is. Instead, (spoiler alert) he runs away from his first skirmish. After wandering around, encountering other soldiers and even watching one of his friends become delirious from his injuries and die, Fleming eventually rejoins his regiment. In the final battle of the novel, Henry becomes the hero he desired to be when he refuses to let the colors of his army fall even after the previous flag-bearer is killed.

Stephen Crane very effectively shows the true ugliness of war, rather than the romantic image of it. He demonstrates through Henry that not all moments of battle are moments of glory. These soldiers are simply men, who get scared and injured and even die, all for the sake of some higher-ranking soldier’s purpose. Crane shows how most men do not end up with their names in the history books, but are rather sacrificed as faceless, nameless pawns in a game of chess.

The problem for me, though, was that Crane did this last part too effectively. He chose to barely ever mention characters by name, instead referring to Henry almost exclusively as “the youth” throughout the novel (I had to look up Henry’s name before writing this post, that’s how little it’s mentioned). Each soldier then becomes barely different from the next and they almost cease to become individuals. It’s an incredibly powerful way to highlight how this is the case for soldiers in war, but it backfired a bit for me. By having almost all of the characters become an amorous blob of soldier, I found it very hard to get invested in anyone. It was much harder to care for Henry when I often couldn’t tell when he was being mentioned or not. Again, a very powerful implication of the ability of war to strip away a person’s identity, but made for slightly less interesting reading.

Again, it very well could have been that I just was far more interested in petting a koala…