Arguments fall apart

At the urging of a friend, I finally moved Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to the top of my reading list, and then read it in a few hours this week. People had been recommending for some time that I read it, and, well, there are just too many damn good books in the world, so I didn’t get to it until now. 

If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s lovely prose, spare and driven, and with complexity beneath the surface that I’ll be exploring in subsequent readings.

And plus, every time a person reads it, a nut gets its wings. After finishing the novel, I recalled an entertaining post Michael Bérubé wrote at Crooked Timber, with one of his trademark post titles dropping coy references to hip and current musical groups so that the young people will find it relevant. The post discussed the usual bleatings by Conservative Academics that the Literary Canon is being eroded by the relentless inclusion of writers who have the temerity to be not-white, or not-male, or not-dead-since-before-the-bleaters-were-born, or some combination of the three. It’s an old argument, an evergreen, and yet no matter how many times the argument is made it never gets any more justifiable. Or for that matter more interesting.

Michael quotes someone quoting someone, a two-level quotation, in this case Rachel Donadio, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review on September 16, quoting Boston College PoliSci professor Alan Wolfe:

One can debate the changing fortunes of writers on the literary stock market, but it’s clear that today the emphasis is on the recent past— at the expense, some argue, of historical perspective. As Alan Wolfe puts it, “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ”—Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria—“but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”

Michael goes on to advance a very good argument that the Canon is not a zero-sum enterprise, not a bookshelf of fixed length onto which one can pile only so many Great Books without worthy ones falling off the edges, as is usually the case at my house. And then follows a thread of 139 comments from Crooked Timber’s very well-read commentariat, a couple of which argue with Michael that their kids won’t read any book they’re not forced to on pain of failing grades, seeming to thus imply that this is a failing of the school.

I went back to that article this afternoon and read it, all 139 comments of it, and came away shaking my head. Because Donadio’s passage right there contains the seeds of its own irrefutable rebuttal, and no one there caught it.

Consider a better-known bit of Canon fodder. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is part of the Literary Canon, in most listings of the Canon I have seen. It is a rich retelling of the Mississippi-River-rafting adventures of the title character and his companion, Jim, during the time of the Great Depression, replete with metaphor and visceral imagery and dialect rendered with an expert ear. And because Huck Finn is part of the Canon, almost everyone reading this will either have read it or pretended to in order not to have felt left out of a conversation. Most people in the US at least have an idea of what the book is about.

Thus anyone reading this post with a tiny bit of attention to detail will likely be scratching her head at the thing I just said about the Great Depression, because the novel is set at least 70 years earlier, before the Civil War and Emancipation. The time frame is, in fact, crucial to the plot of the book, seeing as Jim is on the lam (or, spoiler alert! at least thinks he is) from what in these days of heightened sensitivity to the plight of the rich and evil are probably more correctly called the slave-owning community.

One could read a couple of interesting levels of meaning, were one inclined to make compost of Freudian slips, into Donadio’s epenthetic explanation that Achebe’s novel is set in “postcolonial Nigeria.” To the imperialists, Things probably did seem to Fall Apart when Nigeria achieved Home Rule in 1960. But the book is in fact set at the very beginning of the British colonization of Nigeria, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Donadio made approximately the same magnitude of error as would be required to assert that Jim and Huck were running away to join the fight against Franco.

No one reasonably expects your typical American to know the dates of conquest or liberation of African countries. You’d have more luck heading to the hardware store, buying a pound of roofing nails, and then coaxing the nails to discuss Mamet. But the plot of Achebe’s book— or the second half of it, anyway — revolves around the dissolution of culture ways caused by the British Invasion.

To allege that the book covers “postcolonial Nigeria” is to say you have not read the book.

My point here is not to make light of Michael for missing that note. No, I am saving that for later, over coffee perhaps, preferably with an appreciative live audience involved. Nor am I chiding the Crooked Timber commenters for failing to pick up on Donadio’s mistake. Really, catching that kind of thing is more like proofreading than criticism, and some of the commenters in that thread could out-erudite me right into the ground on most topics.

But the editors of the New York Times Sunday Book Review would never have let that pass, had they read the book. And they did, for two weeks, if one believes the correction at the base of the article. It’s clear the correction was made as a result of hearing from the readership.

Thus I infer that no one on the Sunday Book Review’s editorial staff had read the book.

Thus I conclude that Things Fall Apart is not, in fact, being widely taught as part of an oppressive left-wing literary junta occupying what was once a free and august Canon of Great Works.

But it ought to be. Even if it knocks John Knowles off the other end of that all-too-short shelf.

19 thoughts on “Arguments fall apart

  1. Tiltmom

    Go easy on the Knowles! I would have named our kid ‘Phineas’ if not for my husband’s irrational hatred of all books set in the Vietnam era.

  2. Sylvia/M

    Very fortunately (I don’t know if it still happens), our public school system opens up 9th grade with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for a summer reading assignment.  Unfortunately, it does not do much unpacking of the literary devices or cultural significances since it requires it for the summer.  That’s the only thing that makes me upset about the whole arrangement; Things Fall Apart isn’t a book you can silently absorb.  Okonkwo is such a complex man and character.

  3. kevin Andre Elliott

    Yeah, Things Fall Apart was the book for Cornell’s New Student Reading Project a few years back. Same thing though, the kids read it over the summer and write a short paper on it. There are discussion groups and a panel discussion as part of orientation, and sometimes their Freshmen Writing Seminar teachers will have the students write a short diagnostic essay on the book, but it always seems like a 2-hour discussion group and a few panels doesn’t do the books justice. Maybe that’s me being a picky English major, though.

    The sad part is that I see mistakes like the one you point out all the time, even with regards to books in the so-called canon.

  4. black dog barking

    Misusing “postcolonial” like this is a mistake I can and have made many times. In the rush to transmute thought to word I’ll simply conjure the required unit from readily available pieces. If I needed a word that meant “after the White Devil took over” I might try “post” and “colonize”, bang on “colonize” a bit yielding “postcolonial”. One of the drawbacks of the technique is that occasionally one coins an existing word with an existing divergent meaning — “after the White Devil left” in this case.

    The apparent absence of editor in catching and correcting the mistake is another data point on the role of the accountant in the modern newsroom. What we think of “edit” is closer to what we experience with “spellcheck” with the missing resources going to more important activity like investing in Collateralized Debt Obligations. Progress.

  5. Theriomorph

    Ok, first of all: Michael Berube owes me another new keyboard for that linked post. MURDERED in the Cathedral, the argument and my coffee both.

    [And now I have to confess with embarrassment that my one unfavorable criticism of “Beloved” did include a comparison to Faulkner, on the level of prose style (Willy frequently annoys me). But I swear, I thought I was making it up at the time.]

    What a hard, bright joy to see the ‘lowbrow’ bit brought low: HELLO, criticize the BOOK if you must, but READ it first, if you CAN. Morrison is nothing if not complex and difficult, for Yeats’ sake.

    Yeah yeah, I know, smart estrogen is bad enough. Brown smart estrogen? Incomprehensible horror.


    The whole notion of a zero-sum game Canon is garbage. Writers change. Writing changes. The world changes. Inclusion of changing writers from a changing world changes readers. And best of luck to all of us keeping up with any of it, because there is A Lot To Read.

    “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ”

    No, they haven’t.

    And as Sylvia and Kevin said, many who have still may or may not get it; it is written with the apparent simplicity of parable, but to think that is anything other than extremely effective technique to wend the complexity under the reader’s skin (or that a young reader – maybe any reader at all – is going to be able to unpack it easily) (or that parables do anything else), is moronic. The book functions as a brilliant, inescapable illustration of the complex dynamics of how imperialist colonization happens (among many other things). Yeah, that’s ‘easy.’ Fluff. No problem.

    Sometimes I teach “Animal Farm” to advanced college students who read it in 8th grade. Mostly they think they understood that book, too.

    —Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria—

    Glad you caught that and hit it with a stick.

    “but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”

    Well, Achebe did.

    Any of these folks take a glance at the frontispiece? Notice, at all, how even as it functions perfectly on the level of organizing metaphor for the novel, as epigrams generally do, how tongue in cheek the use of that canonical poem becomes?

    William Butler Yeats
    The Second Coming

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Okay, stopping now.

  6. beth

    Excellent points. I haven’t read the book yet but it’s moving toward the top of the pile. What I did read over Christmas was “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” with which I guess I’d have the opposite reaction -this book has been lauded and I think actually it is deeply flawed. I’m planning to write more about that, and about this whole subject of books by foreign or immigrant authors writing of their home countries. Some, like Achebe, deserve the praise they’ve received, but some don’t, and I think it’s important to have the courage to read all these works critically, to examine our own reactions, and know why we’re praising them -it shouldn’t be from guilt about the so-called Canon, because I think most of us have gone beyond that long ago, or even because of guilt about our history. All authors deserve to be read as writers first and foremost, not as women, Africans, Arabs, or whatever minority group they represent in the eye of the media.

  7. Chris Clarke

    Beth, I’m looking forward to what you write on Hosseini. I read ATSS this year and was quite profoundly moved, and am curious as to what you see as the deep flaw(s) in the work.

    I mean, I suspect one could spend a lifetime examining the implications of the sexual politics therein, and the story certainly stops at a very odd moment in Afghan history, with implications of a future that did not in fact turn out to exist.

    But I suspect you may have something else in mind.

  8. Theriomorph

    Beth! (she shrieks) That’s one of my imaginary husbands you’re talking about, there! ; )

    You didn’t like it? Really? Huh. I love him so much it is almost pathological. Also curious to read about your reaction.


  9. Lauren

    For some reason I’ve passed up Achebe on the visit to the bookstore several times for what are likely substandard books, but now I’m going to have to read it.

    The Yeats poem, on the other hand, is one of my favorites.

  10. Nezua Limón Xolagrafik-Jonez

    oooh i love your default icon!!!

    real funny post amigo. so many good lines. okay, well four. nah i kid! but first: i loves me some “contains the seeds of its own….” one of my all time fave lines. OH the MAMET NAILS!! oh boy.

    great stuff.

  11. Dave

    I have fond memories of listening to my father read Things Fall Apart out loud when we were teenagers. A riveting book, though not necessarily one that we begged him to continue reading after the end of each chapter. That same year we also did Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard -an entirely different sort of book. I’ve since re-read the latter, but not (sadly) the former. The Hungry Monster and the Gentleman of Perfect Parts became stock figures in my own private mythology.

  12. Joyful Alternative

    I’ve avoided Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” as a part of the English literature canon. My college literature courses taught me to stay away from any book proposed as belonging to the canon.

    But you’ve motivated me to find it and read it. Thanks, maybe.

  13. ellenbrenna

    We read “Things Fall Apart” in high school as part of the regular semester’s work. We also read “Invisible Man” and a good deal of Langston Hughes poetry.

    Other white folks I have met who were educated in the middle of the country have not read any of these books. My boyfriend has never read Achebe and sadly when I mentioned the name James Baldwin he asked which Baldwin he was the fat one or the born again Christian one.

    Considering he was raised in Colorado Springs I have to wonder whether he was joking or not.  Either way it makes me sad in my heart.

  14. Amanda French

    Wow, great point. I will say that I think it’s possible (even likely) that Donadio and most of the NY Times editors have read Things Fall Apart—it’s absolutely true that the novel is not set in postcolonial Nigeria, but surely it is at least partly “about” postcolonial Nigeria, Achebe’s Nigeria. That movie “There Will Be Blood” is set at the turn of the century and is about a money-hungry oilman and a faith healer, but I’ve already read an article in which someone wonders whether the movie might kinda be about “modern-day strong-arm capitalism and mega-church religion.” Aboutness is a slippery beast. But that was definitely a sloppy phrase on her part, and I certainly don’t believe that “everyone” has read Achebe and not Yeats. Even if it were true, I think everyone would have gotten a five-pound salami of awesome from the Achebe, and what’s wrong with that?

    Relatedly, a neato book is How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. And yes, I read it.