I remember learning about the literary canon in college, the all-important collection of books that everyone should read if they want to be especially smart and profoundly educated. To this day, I can’t remember what that list consists of. And in an effort for full disclosure, I should mention I hadn’t read all of the books on the list nor have I bothered to since.
That’s not to say that there aren’t great books mentioned; I’m simply being stubborn. For something to be worthy of a list that is so widely known among literary types and the well educated, shouldn’t the titles evolve as our art does? Here is an institution costing a small fortune to attend – a place that is supposed to expand our minds as well as our experiences – handing out a piece of paper with a list of books to read. And not just a list, The List. A list that says “we know you’re here to learn as much as you can about art and literature and to add a few more life-experience notches to your belt, but these are the only books that are worth a damn.” That’s not progressive. That’s not forward-thinking. It’s backward, and it’s wrong.
Thankfully we have authors like Jonathan Safran Foer who continue to push boundaries with his craft, to play with style and develop characters who make us think and feel and ache the way Oskar Schell does.
I might not remember the titles of the canon printed on my syllabus from Professor Robideaux’s “Intro to the Classics,” but I will never forget this book.
Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is about a lot of things, all told around the dueling stories of Oskar, a nine-year-old whose father died in the Twin Towers on September 11th and the tragic love story and history of his grandparents, German immigrants and survivors of, among many things, a deadly round of WWII bombings of their hometown.
Oskar himself is a lot of things – odd, perhaps; sad, of course – but mostly he’s genuine and feels every emotion honestly and raw. He is desperate to reconnect with his dad and preserve his memory. When he finds a mysterious key hidden in his father’s closet, Oskar sets out on a secret mission to find the lock it belongs to, setting into motion a series of events that not only affects his life but countless others.
Oskar’s grandparent’s survival is both twofold and lived twice-over, both having lost everything in the air raids that ravaged their hometown and again, more subtly, when they lose each other and pieces of themselves in their marriage. But their constant, their reason, becomes their grandson. Although each followed his own path, they are led back to each other – and in a way themselves – by Oskar.
But mostly Loud & Close is about life. And death. And how so many of us confuse the two, choosing to either slowly die while living or to wind up living only in death, echoing in the memories of those who remain. This book reminds us that even though our existence can be bleak in its vastness, that vastness can also be the thing that makes it remarkable.
Both stories remind us that life is simply about perspective. We are here to be remarkable, however we plan to do that is up to us. We as a species have the ability to become famous athletes, give to charity, heal the sick or parent our young; our only objective is to make a change. No matter what we do, big or small, our role on earth is to affect something.
Something I hope my children understand from a very young age is that education happens anywhere. Education happens everywhere. I want them to strive for the highest education necessary for the goals they wish to achieve, but I want them to always remember that schooling comes from the most unexpected places, the cracks in between, the places we don’t even notice we’re noticing – from listening to your favorite elderly neighbor as she waters her garden on a crisp spring morning or immersing yourself in a work of extremely poignant and incredibly touching fiction.
Never stop seeking. Never stop inventing. Never live within a canon.