I have identified an issue with reading around the world in this particular fashion: It’s hard not to compare each book against the others — especially when the settings and the subject matter are similar. For example, in Things Fall Apart, The Poisonwood Bible, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and Wife of the Gods, characters discuss the idea of the “coming back baby” or the idea that twins are an abomination and should be left in the woods to die.
It’s interesting to read about the first time, maybe even the second time, but by the fourth or fifth time, it’s hard to feel there’s any originality in the telling of that particular piece of African culture. I think I can liken this to watching documentaries about 9-11. While footage of that horrible day in US history still has the ability to reduce me to a puddle of tears, if I were dedicating months to watching 9-11 documentaries, there would come a point where — EVEN IF I were emotionally affected — I would end up comparing them all and just saying, “Show X told that story better. And I don’t need to hear about Y anymore…okay, I get it, it’s a big deal.” Gosh, that makes me sound callous and that isn’t my point AT ALL.
I’m saying that this spotlight on what everyone wants to talk about is only magnified by reading books from the same continent in rapid succession. In Europe, I was bombarded by Communism and the effects of the World Wars; in Africa, it’s the old vs. the new — superstition and tradition vs. medicine and science, black vs. white…oh, and, dead children. A baby or child has died in almost every book I’ve read. (And you should know — that is devastating for me each time.) I know it’s easy to generalize literature from each area of the world under certain umbrellas. It’s also easy to point out their differences, to show what they do well, what they miss. You see both the omissions and the additions like a neon sign when you saturate yourself in one area.
Reading We Wish to Inform You is different because the only other non-fiction I’ve read in Africa have been the two memoirs. This book is instructive, well-researched — its depiction of genocide is both emotive and informative. I wouldn’t say the book is objective, while it tries to offer up explanations behind certain US/UN policies, the author is quick to make his own opinions clear. It’s fascinating. It’s amazing. It’s a must-read. (I’m 50 pages from the end — expect a full review tomorrow.)
But I’ve been wondering how my feelings about this book are reflective of this challenge? You know, I’m in Africa — I’m surrounded by war, death, famine, sadness, racial tensions. Reading this particular book within close range of all the other books? Has that decreased the impact it could have on me? I’m pondering this. I’ve been pondering this since the Mankell book because I thought that I probably would have liked that book a lot more if I hadn’t been reading so many other books with similar settings and “life in Africa is isolated and hard” plot lines.
When I was taking my awesome Vietnam class in college, I loved it, but I inadvertently put into place a nearly ten year (wow!) moratorium on any literature (fiction, non-fiction, or otherwise) related to Vietnam. Will I get burned out by all this too? Am I going to spend next year curled up in a tiny ball rereading all of my Jane Austen novels?