Monday, September 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #45: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

"Only letters which have come down from the founders can make it possible for the founders to speak directly to the latest heirs. It is then self-contradictory to wish to return to illiteracy. We are compelled to live with books. But life is too short to live with any but the greatest books." Leo Strauss, "What Is Liberal Education" (1959)

There are many variations on the above theme, but Strauss' here is particularly relevant since it comes in the context of educational development. I have had to read this book no less than five times in the course of my meandering college education, and I have to tell you, I do not understand what the hell academics respond so enthusiastically to in this damn book. It's not a bad book, and it's not a hard book, and it's not an uninteresting book. It's just overused...pointlessly. Not ONE of the five professors who assigned the book have come up with a concrete statement on its relevance. Some books defy concrete definition of their "point" - philosophical texts in particular are more likely to be discussion which teach us methods of thinking rather than solid proofs - but still have value. This isn't a waste of time, but its only prevailing point seems to be "Ethics can be tough to navigate, morals are hard to express concretely, and sometimes white people and religion are bad," and that is simply not enough to justify the damned tonguebath that this book routinely gets. The reviews on the cover and inside page sound like they were pulled from the jacket of the Republic. This is not the Republic.

Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, who is a villager of Umuofia. He is kind of a jackass and is largely insensible to the virtue of everything that is not power and war. He has built a grand life, but has done so largely at the expense of healthy family life (even by the standards of his village) and his own moral sensibility. He winds up in exile ostensibly for a horrible accident but more likely because of his involvement in the death of Ikemafuna. The story then turns to his son, who rebels against this life much as Okonkwo rebelled against his own father's example. The whole tale works in the shades of grey that one encounters in the course of ethical discussion, and provides an excellent examination of varying theories of relativism.

The problem is that those relativist themes are pretty much it for Things Fall Apart, and it routinely gets held up as this all-encompassing statement on ethical thought. Examining one dusty corner of philosophical thinking on ethics isn't enough for the level of cachet afforded this novel, particularly if said corner is bullshit (sorry, there are absolutes). There was a time when I liked this book, but that time passed three readings ago and I don't think this is one of the great books one should spend time with if he wants to obtain a deep working understanding of ethical theory. If professors and publishers alike could stop promoting the book as such, it would be much easier to appreciate what it DOES offer - an engaging story that presents interesting questions about ethical behavior to be considered - and judge it on its own merits.

224 pages

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