When I was about seven years old, I discovered books offered me a way to immerse myself in adventure and temporarily escape life’s discomforts. Novels, and later, poetry, were the genres I turned to most often. Though I also liked history, science, biographies, and art, there was something about a piece of sustained fiction that enthralled me so deeply I could easily ignore anything around me: the television, my siblings’ bickering, the vacuum cleaner, my parents’ calling me to dinner. In later years, immersed in a book, I risked going late to class or missing my stop on the F train. The only area of my life where I understand what is meant by hyperfocus has been reading.
Then I had children, which changed everything. I remained an inveterate reader, but I found it far easier to get through non-fiction, poetry, essay or short story collections, and literary memoirs than to devote myself to novels. It was simply too easy to get lost in a book of fiction, to wrap myself in those worlds to the detriment of my own. Too easy to become irresponsible to life’s requirements, which were suddenly so many and so urgent. If my situation had been different–let’s say, commuting by train for half an hour or more daily–I might have continued reading a hundred or more novels a year. But I was home in the rur-burbs with two young kids, and I could read only in short spurts throughout the day. Granted, I read a lot of books to my son and daughter, some of which were new to me and most of which were fictional…but a bit below my grade level.
Those children are in their 30s now, but I became so accustomed to the non-fiction genre that only recently have I begun to turn back to my first love, the novel. Granted, I did my reading-all-of-Dickens stint during covid, and I never completely abandoned reading novels; but I got out of the habit. Because my workplace office is now in the library, however, I have been picking up the occasional, usually contemporary, novel that appears on the library’s New Acquisitions display. This is where I found R.F. Kuang’s book Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution. Imagine an alternative Dickensian-era Britain, with the underlying power struggles between education and political power as per Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and the almost-believable otherworldliness (and creative footnotes) of Susanna Clarke’s fiction…with the late-adolescent outsiders who bond over knowledge that cements the Harry Potter books…and add some genuinely academic background on linguistics and etymology.
That’s about as close as I can describe Babel by means of other books, but what I really enjoyed about the novel is the way it got me thinking about how dismayingly interconnected education and scholarly pursuits are with power structures such as governments, politics, wealth, and colonialism. Kuang deftly shows her readers how the focus on knowledge that her characters love and possess talent for inevitably leads to a narrowness in their perspectives that differs almost dangerously from an uneducated ignorance. They are good young people, but they operate as elites in a fundamentally callous system. The system either corrupts or smothers. The “fun” part of her world construct is that power operates on the use of words: on languages and their etymologies, which are magical enhancements.
But of course, power does hinge on the use of words, doesn’t it?
The question this poses in my mind has something to do with poetry, with the writing of it, the speaking of it, its use of words that are not magic but can carry with them a power to evoke that seems pretty magical at times. Reading this novel was not only entertaining (sad, thrilling, surprising)–it got me, after I’d completed hyperfocusing, to reflect on ideas that twine with the roots of poetry. To me, that’s the best takeaway from any reading experience.