When you study literature, it's easy to forget that there is more to study that what it written on the page, more than the language and the story. Recently when I went into the local bookstore, I ran into someone who has forgotten that. She was commenting negatively on the choice of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower as Book of the Year for HSU and CR. "I can think of so many better choices, books that are better written," she stated sourly.
It's true that Parable is sci-fi, a genre without high traditional literary value. It's true that it's easy to read, straightforward and doesn't use many big words. It is organized chronologically and doesn't rely on tricks of foreshadowing or flashback. It's true that it doesn't at first seem to invite deeper formal analysis.
Meaning runs in more than a single direction, not only deeper into the work but also outward, not only hermeneutic but also heuristic, not only centripetal but also centrifugal.
What is significant about the book is what happens when young people read it: they begin thinking and making connections with current events and with their own lives. Of course we discuss genre and narrative structure. But what makes Parable Book-of-the-Year material is not what's in the book, but what students do with the reading of it. Its significance, in other words, is less about form and more about function.
Let me tell you a few of the things HSU students (including myself) have chosen to draw from the book and explore further:
- The importance of WATER (this seems so obvious, but we do take it for granted. Looking around at Humboldt County politics, water is one of the most important political issues. Yet it goes largely ignored -- except by the politicos and their watchdogs -- because water isn't sexy. It's governed by boards and districts and the Brown Act and blah blah blah. What a shame, because a few days without clean water and, believe me, there would be nothing more fascinating than water).
- Fire and Myth- associated across most cultures with destruction, resurrection, and human emotion, specifically: change. How interesting is that? Think of the phoenix rising from the ashes.
- Company towns- built around an extraction industry. All homes and businesses owned by the company, all residents are employees or their families, and all the money people are paid goes back into the company. Towns fold when the resource being extracted evetually runs out, leaving people without an income source, marketable skills or any culture other than what the extraction industry provided. Sound hauntingly familiar? It was so convenient when there were finally environmentalists to blame for the cessation of the industry.
- Survival and what it takes to be prepared
- Race issues
- How we assign value to things
- Guns for protection
- The Tao Te Ching
- The Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead
- The Underground Railroad
- Sojourner Truth
- Significance of Northern Migration in African American history
- Refugee marches
- The decision to colonize space
- Empathy and sociopathy
- Desalination plants
- The cultural meaning of rituals
- Babylon, Revelations, the Biblical Parables
- The fourth Law of Thermodynamics
Not to mention that the story takes place in California between LA and Humboldt on familiar highways and among familiar landmarks.
Not to mention that the author is among the few African-American science fiction writers.
Not to mention that the narrator and hero of the story is a teenager, female and African American.
So if the lady in the bookstore knew any of this -- if she ever watched a classroom of college freshmen come alive with literary discussion -- would she still question Parable's Book-of-the-Year status?
Like in the Biblical Parable of the Sower, what matters where the seed falls and what happens to it once it has fallen.