Image from John Irving's Official Author Site
I finally finished A Prayer For Owen Meany. It took a long time to read. It got really interesting about page 300 and the last fifty pages I had to read non-stop. But before that, I could put it down too easily.
I think I understand why it is some people’s favorite book. When you’re young, the effects of a book like this are profound. When you’re older, not so much. And I don’t think it’s because I’ve grown more cynical with age; I think it’s because I’ve experienced so much more of life. There weren’t many revelations in this book for me, but I can see that the opposite might be true for someone else. I remember reading The Brothers Karamazov when I was about twenty and thinking it was one of the best books I’d ever read. I reread it this year--that existential stuff that is so enlightening in youth simply isn't the same when you're older and wiser. At this point in my life I know that what seems real or right to me may not be real or right to someone else. I also know that examining my feelings is not always an especially effective use of time.
And this is a thread running through A Prayer For Owen Meany. I was wrong about Johnny not feeling much about the events in his life. I won’t say more so as not to spoil it, but one of the lessons of the book is that feelings are not always terribly important. Sometimes we simply need to butch up and do the right thing in spite of our feelings. Some of us accept this better than others. Some of us are lost without our anchors in life. But if we ever get one of those anchors, how lucky, how fortunate are we! Many people never have a touchstone, never find kindred spirits, never find anyone who truly knows how to love. Some only act as a touchstone to another without having one for themselves, yet they somehow find the power to go on. Where they find that power is one of the themes of the book.
While I was reading A Prayer For Owen Meany it sort of felt like an assignment, like I was back in school and needed to be on the lookout for what wasn’t being said, for the importance of the symbolism, the foreshadowing, and the imagery. Yet I can see that Irving’s plot structure is brilliant. I also dreamed about the book, and that’s a measure of how much something affects me. I don’t mean in a weird, dreams are so totally symbolic, dude sort of way, but in a way that indicates I was thinking about it before I went to bed. It’s similar to the way watching an episode of LOST makes me dream about the island. It affects me; it touches me in some way. And I was affected by the book, especially by the revelations at the end of it and how those revelations affected my opinion of the characters. I never really knew them until that moment. If I had, I would have read the book differently. But I suppose that’s the point.
There is something else I noticed. I don’t know whether it will ring true for anyone else, but here’s a quote from page 461 of my Ballentine Books version.
How hard it is… to teach wit to teenagers. I despair that another fall is almost upon me and once again I shall strive to make my Grade Ten girls notice something in Wuthering Heights besides every little detail about Catherine and Heathcliff—the story, the story, it is all they are interested in!
I had teachers like that, even in grad school. Those teachers desperately wanted me to see what they saw in a text. And that is impossible. It is reminiscent of being a teenager and having a favorite poem or a favorite song and trying to share that thing with someone else in the hope that they will also share your feelings about it. They rarely see what you see; they cannot. They are not you. They do not have your life’s experiences. They do not have your feelings. They have not experienced your particular brand of angst. I felt that those teachers were more than a little presumptuous in insisting that I see what they saw, in insisting that I accept the "official" (at least in terms of the academic world) explanation of a work's meaning. I was able to regurgitate their version for tests and essays, but then I went back to what the text meant for me and how the story affected me.
And that is one of the beauties of reading. A book doesn’t have to mean the same thing to everyone! It shouldn’t. And it doesn’t even matter if what it means to me is what the author intended. If it touches me, a story has done its job.
At least in my book.