My young friend Harry

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Stephanie had a very good friend who would discuss various aspects of life by email and who had read my book, Letters from a Rotarian, and so on. A very good old friend wasted no time to send me an upbeat message, thinking that this could be a very special young man and so on. I quickly reassured her that it was not what she was thinking, but that I was grateful that she had been thing of my family. Her email has made me more cautious though and reminded me that I should protect the young man’s identity at least for the time being. Nevertheless, I need to refer to him by an identity if I am to discuss his thoughts on life in these letters. I have decided to call him by another name. After all, what it is in a name. I will therefore call him Harry.

As Harry had guessed, quite a few young men and women had approached me before, in person or in writing, asking for opinions on issues and situations. I normally try to respond as quickly as I can, saying I don’t know as necessary. I have been quite comfortable with this form of discussion. I would even go as far as saying that I have enjoyed the process, which some people might dismiss it as rather impersonal and therefore somewhat unreal or even impertinent. I suppose that is one of the reasons why life is so interesting, because we are all different. And I suppose that may also explain the popularity of the Internet chat rooms.

Harry is a prolific writer. Indeed, he has an ambition to be a writer, and one of the early subjects we discussed was authors and books. In the beginning, I tried to respond his emails one by one, but soon I found I was lagging behind, particularly when I was traveling. My young friend is understanding and has kept writing, in the belief that I would respond to his views in part if not all of them. Many of his views are rather interesting and original. With his agreement, I would be writing about them in these letters, hoping they would stimulate more views and feedback from readers.

Harry addressed me Mr. Wan in his first letters, out of deference, he said, adding that mister would transcend respect and admiration. After a few letters, I encouraged him to call me by first name. He did, but only for a while and quickly shifted back to Mr. Wan me. I had no problem al all with any salutation, but I found the episode rather interesting.

Harry has espoused the one book per author theory. He has found that books by the same author tend to have a deflating value so that it would be better to read just one book from an author. My response is that it is an interesting phenomenon, possibly precipitated by how the human mind works and the way the present-day man deals with problems. For it

is only recently – last 50 to 100 years – that books have become popular and widespread. Over the years, people have written for different reasons, but in general, even today, not many people feel comfortable with leaving their works behind for scrutiny, again for a host of reasons.

Of course, Harry was talking about literary works and he went on to compare them with films many of which had derived from books. Let me say upfront that I am not competent to comment on literary works in any serious or academic fashion, not having been educated to do so and not having read as many works as I would like to. My view is that literature and for that matter any work of art is subject to interpretation and is popularized in the process by their patrons for various reasons, sometimes for the wrong reasons. Somehow, literary works and their authors are subject to greater scrutiny because they are there in a printed form which does not lend itself to further intrinsic growth or interpretation in the same way that music, painting and sculpture would. Anyone can be a critique, and there are too many self appointed critiques, particularly of books.

A great author is revered as such for many reasons, one of which is public or general acceptance. Many great authors of the past are only known by one book. One wonders what they did with their other works, prototypes or beta versions. It is not inconceivable that these authors had actually produced and written a lot, but the present day man has chosen to remember them by one “typical” piece. It follows that the state of mind of the readers could have contributed to the phenomenon. The question of how much time the average present-day man can find to read is also a practical factor. In practice, he reads very little and assimilates even less. So I concluded that reading one book per author could be a practical discipline and necessity. At least, it would be much better than not reading even one.

In his response, my young friend discussed the role of book critics, drawing on three categories of literary works, namely, poems, short stories and novels. Poems are analyzed, scrutinized and critiqued ad nauseam, word by word and from comma to full stops, possibly because they are short and conducive to such surgical processes. Harry found such analyses “meddling.” Short stories are longer, but are subject to the same dissection and processes, and literary academia will not be satisfied unless every other sentence exudes a greater meaning and understanding of the world. Once again, because the works are not sufficiently long physically, they are easy targets for amateur critics who would “exact poison” at will, rather than focus on the works and their merits. Novels are saved from such wanton surgeries by their “sheer length,” though specific passages and excerpts are often taken out at will for special treatment to illustrate whatever the critics desire to illustrate.

Harry went on to recall his experience in studying literature through reading, discussion and writing, and to articulate the merits of each of the three categories of works, referring to them as all “falling under the same gigantic umbrella.” He was not an English Literature major; at least I don’t think he was; but he is ready to discuss his personal views on books and authors. I wonder whether the education system in the United States or the person himself or both should claim the credit. In any case, I am happy for him.

As to the role of the critics, I would keep an open mind on the whole issue. After all, if one starts forming and expressing judgments about critics, that would put one in the same category and there would be no end to it. Critics themselves have become a profession on their own and no doubt would have to learn to take the good and bad with it. This year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Naipaul, was roundly criticized for expressing public gratitude to prostitutes, but the Nobel institution quickly responded that the panel had reached its decision based on the merits of his work rather than on his moral. We have never heard the criticism repeated since and by now we could not even place who were the first critics.

It may be that literature critics have flourished on the way in which literature, in particular classical literature, was taught as a subject in schools. I also share the observation of my young friend regarding how critics operate in each category of works. This could be a direct consequence once again of how the human mind works or a reflection of normal human reaction. Many people are actually a rather predictable lot. Many people react in a certain way because they expect others to behave so and they are wary that others expect them to behave as such. It is this mindset that stifles creativity and human progress. It results in generations of people using yesterday’s solutions to tackle today or tomorrow’s problems, which is not very good, to say the least. Luckily, not everyone behaves as such all the time.

I would suggest that literature, and for that matter, all art forms such as painting, sculpture, music, cinematography, media and multi-media, and even food and wine, in short anything that appeals to our five senses, exist for our pleasure and to enhance the quality of life. It follows that anything that pleases one initially would be good, but the same art form would take on a new meaning to the individual who knows more about the particular art form and be able to take new meaning or to interpret the work. Critics over the years have compared literature to wine and sometimes to something else that would not be politically correct to articulate here. I have some renowned wine connoisseur friends who would observe one and only one rule in giving advice to beginners for wine sampling. He would simply say that any wine that tastes good is good. It may sound rather crude advice, but it is practical.

The same can be true for literature and poetry in particular. Any piece of work would be good if it has intrinsic appeals. In short, the more people, regardless of their background, like it, the better it would likely to be. That was actually the test adopted by many very famous Chinese poets. I remember being moved to tears many years ago when I watched an Italian opera. I knew neither the music nor Italian, but the interpretation by the artistes, director, choreographer and conductor and the powerfulness of the music and the singing were sufficient to bring out my emotions at the time. I went away feeling great and affected after the opera. To me, it was great music, great singing and great performance, and I don’t know and would not bother to find out what the critics said the next day about the performance.

Talk to you again next week.

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