Our copy of Lord of the Flies is falling apart. I have not read the book in, oh, thirty-five years or so, and I decided to re-read it this week because I want to use the character of Piggy in another context, and I needed to refresh my memory. And as I've read, the book has surrendered to Time in the way that books do: Pages crack and pull loose from the binder's glue, which has also given up the ghost and no longer practices its one virtue of adherence.
Just about every page has pulled loose as I've turned it, as if it's telling me Since you'll not read this book again, take these pages with you ... as if I need yet another reminder of aging and mortality and things falling apart ...
I have only about forty pages left now, and I am surprised by a number of things, most notably that I haven't forgotten very much about the book. I could have told you (had you asked) the principal events (though I would have scrambled the order), the names of many of the characters, the road map of disintegration that the young boys take in my disintegrating copy of the book.
I'm surprised by something else, as well. But stay with me a moment while I digress. Flies was originally published by Golding in 1954. It was his first book. It sold zip. He was a struggling and, by most accounts, a not every effective secondary school teacher at the time, and he would work on the manuscript of Flies while his students were doing busywork at their seats. (I cannot imagine a teacher who would write in class! How unprofessional!)
Then came the 60s. And Golding's dark view of human nature seemed something we ought to talk about. The book came back in print and took off the way NASA rockets used to, and by the time I began my teaching career in the fall of 1966, it was part of the English curriculum of high schools all over the country. Its appeals to adolescents then were patent: It involved kids; it had the old what-would-you-do-on-a-desert-island? theme; it dealt with ghosts and monsters and imagination; it had violence and gore. And even better for school use: no sex. (Schools will tolerate some violence, but teaching a sexy book is a tacit request to meet the school board up close and personal.) In fact, it had no women at all, which, I suspect is one (good) reason it has been disappearing from the curriculum.
|Image from Peter Book's 1963 film|
But now I'm back to what's surprising me as I'm re-reading it: It's not all that easy to read. There are many long paragraphs (my students always hated those--in just about any book); the vocabulary is a bit sophisticated: furtive and hiatus and ebullience and numerous other SAT-quality words appear throughout; many of the sentences are intricate and lyrical: "Either the wandering breezes or perhaps the decline of the sun allowed a little coolness to lie under the trees" (31). That sort of thing.
My sense is that today's young readers lack patience for that sort of thing--but, to be fair, I lacked patience for it too when I was fifteen and sixteen, those days when the only things that truly engaged me were my girlfriend, lunch, the basketball game that night, the latest episode of 77 Sunset Strip or Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.
Link) John Carey's fine biography of Golding (1911-1993, almost the same dates as my father's)--William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies--and I learned therein that Flies had been Golding's first book. I had read only one other--The Inheritors (a novel about prehistoric men) for some class at Hiram College. But Golding had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I read only two of his books?
So off I went in 2010 on my of my maniacal read-a-thons: I read all of Golding's work (novels, essays, plays--even a travel book about Egypt) and took furious notes while doing so. (Yet another Nerd's Holiday.) And I liked most of it, loved some of it, hated a little of it--the way I feel about most writers when I read all they've published.
Still, I'm liking Flies as I go through it again, more than I thought I would. And, sure, it's falling apart now.
But so am I.