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Saturday, August 24, 2013

My View of a Classic Novel and Our Not-So-Classic Modern Mindset

The Pioneers, by James Fenimore Cooper

Lately, I've been seeing much honor being given to a recently deceased author whose famous "10 Rules of Writing" stress the importance of fast, non-descriptive, skip-the-boring parts narrative.  It warms me to know this late author would have hated James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers, as would his adherents.  I realize there are fewer and fewer readers out there who have the capacity or desire to appreciate this type of slow, highly descriptive, thoughtful work of fiction.  Even Mark Twain railed against Cooper's lack of action, and roundabout way of speaking.  Personally, I revel in it.

It is fitting that this book tells the story of the (then) wilderness of New York as it was being invaded by the hand (and ax) of man.  Trees were being felled, clearings replaced tangled forests, and the heartless laws of men were replacing the common-sense laws of the forest.  Natty Bumppo, known as Leatherstocking, is at the far end of his 70 years of life.  His life of freedom and love of nature are in jeopardy.  The world he once knew is no more.  He is beset by such laws as hunting out of season as well as the greed of those who believe he is hiding a fortune in silver.  Modernity is not a friend to Bumppo.

The same is true for books such as these.  We're too busy to take the time to read slow books like The Pioneers.  Someone sold us a bill of goods, years ago, and said we needed to read books that can be finished in just a few days.  We need to hurry up and get to the next book.  Perhaps this was just a marketing scheme to get us to spend more at the bookstore.  I never understand why people don't think it is a bonus to get a book that sells for the same price as a quick-read throwaway pulp fiction which is three times the length and written in such a way that you must slow down and pay attention.  It certainly saves the reader money.  One need buy far fewer books when they are written in this manner.

Is this modern New York, which James
Fenimore Cooper would not recognize,
so busy and distracting that his books
can no longer be read?
But time, or the lack thereof, is not the real problem.  It is that little phrase "pay attention".  We're too distracted now to sit with a book in a silent room and concentrate on the text.  We hear music and television anywhere we go.  Stuck in the waiting room of the doctor's office?  You'll have to work hard to read a book that requires your attention, since there is music playing, and other patients surfing on their phones while telling their neighbor about the latest stupid video clip they watched.  Reading at home?  Nine times out of ten someone will have the massive flat-screen TV turned on, blaring noise from surround-sound speakers that shake the house.  How about reading on the train, or while waiting for your car's oil to be changed?  More flat-screen TVs tuned to mindless daytime talk-shows.

Even as I write this, my laptop has beeped, to let me know someone has posted something on Facebook that I might need to see.  Switch over!  See if it is a funny picture or a sad news item.  Maybe a friend posted a picture of their entree that just arrived on their table at the best restaurant in town.  (Which now make me wonder what I'm going to do for lunch...perhaps the local diner, or maybe just stay in and reheat some leftovers...hmmmm.)

So anyway, about this...what was I writing about?  Oh yes, "The Pioneers".  So modernity is no friend to these classic novels of yore.  (Yore?  Is that right?  Now I'm off track again, checking on Google to see if yore is the right word.  When I type yore, Google suggests that I meant yorehab which turns out to be a site dedicated to the obsession of playing Yoville, a game where people pretend to have a house and pretend to buy pretend items for that house.  Yorehab actually helps you find the very best pretend prices for your most wished-for pretend couches and lava-lamps and...oh, okay, I see that yore is the right word.  As defined by by Google, yore is "of long ago or former times (used in nostalgic or mock-nostalgic recollection".)  To put it plainly, people today have trouble reading books that were written a long time ago.

So if our modern lifestyle has made it impossible for you to read The Pioneers, you'll miss out on the following:
Illustration for the James Feminore Cooper novel The Pioneers,
 art by Felix Octavius Carr Darley.
 Published 1861, W. A. Townsend and Company in New York.
  The opening scene involves a shooting of a deer and an argument over who deserves the credit for the kill.  The argument is easily won by the revelation that one of the shooters could not have hit the deer because he hit one of the men in the argument, who dramatically reveals he is hit to win the argument.
  A courtroom drama that highlights the fact that men were already losing their personal freedoms in the late 1700's to the overreach of local government.
  A contest of shooting acumen in which a turkey is placed so that only his head is visible to the contestants.
  Fights, jail-breaks, forest fires, and emotional death scenes.
  A panther attack which ends in a noble warrior's bloody death.
  The chance to find out about Leatherstocking's companion, a character named "The Slut".
  A story filled with conservationist propaganda and a condemnation of the terrible genocide that the whites perpetrated on the Native American populations.
  A wonderful, warm, historical, and exciting look at the early lives of those who tamed the wilderness of New York State.

But don't worry.  No one will make you read this long, slow, dull, dusty tome.  You'll have plenty of time to read the latest spine-tingling-can't-put-it-down-page-turner so that you can quickly buy the next one.  Just keep in mind that The Pioneers was seen in the same light two hundred years ago, when the population had more time on their hands and their comprehension skills were obviously more highly developed.

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