A Most Unusual Camera

August 1, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Posted in Writing, Reading | 1 Comment
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A Most Unusual Camera

By Charles Bey

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
Ernest Hemingway

Polaroid-Land-Camera-closeup

In this concise definition of writing, Hemingway captured the essence of what hooks us on fiction. Think of your favorite author, and then consider why he or she has won your literary favor. Isn’t it because the characters and events that author has created are somehow more real than the reality of our daily lives? If readers are looking for truth in their literature, they want it in sharper focus than real life provides. There is something meaningful to contemplate in the clause “truer than if they had really happened.” When we read, we aren’t looking for what we can see out the window or on the street; we’re seeking color and clarity that furnish a realism beyond reality. In this sense, writing is like photography. When we take a picture, we’re hoping to capture more than we see through the lens.

The title of a lesser-known episode of The Twilight Zone referred to a camera with an unusual feature. This unique device was able to capture images that went beyond the material in front of its lens. It captured more than everything. In a similar manner, good writing mirrors real life in such a way that we are given access to something truer than truth.

Why have audiences continued to enjoy and respect Shakespeare so many centuries beyond his life? Isn’t it because under all the elevated language and flamboyant plot designs we see ourselves? Whether the stage is populated by Hamlet or Helena, Romeo or Rosalind, we’re engaged because we recognize elements of the human nature that we possess. And these characters allow us to study these elements from a safe distance. Their hopes, fears, dreams, and frustrations are ours on a grander scale. Our best laid plans – so often gone awry – are represented under the guise of entertainment, allowing us to examine and understand them more fully than we could ever do in real life.

Did the Harry Potter phenomenon take place because millions of people were walking around harboring a secret craving for sorcery stories? Was there an unspoken desire for fantasy novels – any fantasy novels – that would contain quirky names like Eeylopps Owl Emporium, or Hogwart’s? Did the reading public suddenly demand more flamboyant character names such as Dumbledore or Xenophilius Lovegood? No, what endeared young readers to Harry Potter were the same universal elements that comprise all great literature. Harry Potter is – beneath all the magic – an everyman protagonist with points of vulnerability we recognize and share. His world is accessible because amid the larger-than-life issues with which he deals, Harry has a daily grind of mundane considerations (homework, teachers, friends and dysfunctional family). Just as we do, Harry has personal challenges to overcome as well. At its base, the fundamentals of Harry’s world parallel those of our own. The difference is one of degree; Harry Potter’s truth is grander, sharper, somehow more real.

Why are people who don’t know anything about the Roaring Twenties reading The Great Gatsby more than eighty years after its first printing? Are they enthralled by the mystery of a millionaire who doesn’t appear at his own extravagant parties? The attraction is rooted in something much more organic. Gatsby, despite his wealth, is an outsider. He is deeply vulnerable. He loves with a worshipful naiveté. Even though he has experienced darkness, he hasn’t lost the youthful sense of wonder. These are traits to which we can relate, traits that we might hope to see in ourselves. And Gatsby lets us study them in greater color and clarity than we would find in life.

The fiction that truly moves us, the fiction that stays with us long after we’ve turned the last page, is that which functions as an unusual camera. It is shows us what life is made of by opening a portal through which we see the components as we have never quite beheld them before.

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