Although I would hardly have been able to articulate the thought at the time, what I found most attractive in Chandler’s work was the sumptuousness of the prose style. Even when the streets that Marlowe was obliged to go down were the meanest, the language in which they were described was rich in metaphor, at once sensuous and crisp, and marvellously redolent of mid-century California, a place and a time we all thought we were familiar with from the movies.
Poems are adept at expressing interior conflict, at enacting complex thought, at feeling strongly through not-knowing—but somehow, when we enter the territory of politics, we expect our poems to shill for votes, to argue strongly for particular beliefs. Emily Dickinson does not know if there is a god or a void, an afterlife, a stasis, or a zero at the bone. But reading her theologically inflected poems allows us to wrestle with these unanswerable questions with her—and to come out not with answers, but with a deeper sense of the questions.
In a Simpsons episode from the late nineties, Lisa Simpson, concerned that her mental skills may be deteriorating, manages to finagle her way onto a local TV news broadcast, where she urges the residents of Springfield to read two books: To Kill a Mockingbird and Harriet the Spy. At first glance, the two novels might not seem to have that much in common, but as Anna Holmes argues in a blog post for The New Yorker, the books share “ideas about the complexity, sophistication, and occasional wickedness of young girls’ imaginations.” (You could also read our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Malcolm Gladwell and To Kill a Mockingbird.)
I couldn’t care less really if I’ve disillusioned you. It is within your gift not to read the book. So really, it didn’t give me the minimum pause for thought.
At the party, Ellen counts a dozen zombies in half-assed costumes, a shredded T-shirt, a smear of fake blood. When she moves, she sweeps her cape dramatically and it feels good. There is dance music and liquor bottles on the kitchen counter and clear plastic cups. Not a shred of food, just booze. She picks up a cup and sees a fat black spider in the bottom and screams.
‘It’s fake, silly.’ Ursula plucks the spider from the cup and nests it in Ellen’s hair. In the driveway, Ellen zipped the girl into the Statue of Liberty costume she’s wearing. At first, she wanted to be a slutty witch, but Ellen talked her into the Statue of Liberty—the tallest iron structure ever built! How could she resist?
The girl vanishes into the party with her fake torch. The song changes. Bodies clump together in the living room. Ellen watches them stomp and thrash. A zombie sucks on a ballerina’s neck.
Novels remind us that the hard questions matter, they always have, and that we can’t ignore them just because we’re comfortable, well-fed, sheltered, and secure. Maybe those same comforts, which give us time and leisure enough to read novels in the first place, are the very reason why we need them so badly. A great novel is always felt as a kind of gift, and here’s the strange thing: these gifts are heartbreaks we wouldn’t suffer, tears we wouldn’t shed, agonies we wouldn’t undergo, if we simply left the books alone and did something else with our time.
'Did you know an elephant has as many neurons as a human brain?' she says. 'Did you know that they have nerves in their toenails that help them understand sound?'
‘I didn’t know,’ Ellen says.