As it turned out, my experience of reading The Poisonwood Bible took place largely outside the book. Everyone who saw me reading it flew into passionate tones, recalling particular descriptions, scenes, or characters with a fondness I recognized well—I have felt and do feel it for my own favorite books and the characters that inhabit them. Their enthusiasm was infectious. I was excited to delve further, deeper into the story, and for a while, I was swept up in the complete engrossment that usually delivers me into “favorite book” territory. It’s a beautiful book with real, vivid characters and a thought-provoking, at times gut-wrenching, message. It’s got an unforgettable setting and an epic story arc. Oprah loved it.
But as I plowed through the last 150-ish pages of the book, I felt frustrated. After the Price family’s years in Kilanga come to an end, the book takes on an entirely different rhythm, jumping around through the next 40 years to follow the sisters far into their adulthood. I found myself at first feeling nostalgic for first three-quarters of the book, then really wishing the author had ended the story earlier, and finally, almost bitterly, wondering why she (and her editor) had forced me to stick with these characters through every last notable moment of their lives. The magic was gone. I didn’t care anymore. I felt relieved to leave these characters behind, rather than creating a permanent room for them in the cozy, creaky-staired Character Inn of my imagination. It wasn’t that the book was too long, exactly—it was that it was too much. The author had told me everything.
I should probably caveat this by telling you that I’m one of those people who loves being left hanging (by an author or filmmaker, though not particularly by real-life acquaintances). You know how David Lynch films sail around in a stream of semi-consciousness, only to leave you wondering what the hell that was? You know how Lost never really clarified the whole black smoke thing or told you what happened to Walt? Or how Bret Easton Ellis punctuated American Psycho with a giant WTF? I love that. For me, it’s about sharing ownership. When an author, filmmaker, screenwriter, or whomever gives you something—a detail, a question, a storyline—and then steps away, something magical happens. It becomes yours. It takes on a singular, unique life for each individual reader or viewer. The story becomes a living, organic thing with an infinite number of resolutions. And that’s almost the best part of being a reader or an audience of art in any form: that moment when you get to “take it from here.”
I remember a professor in college once saying that he didn’t think it mattered what an artist intended with his or her work. It’s not a novel concept, but it stuck with me, and I still find it weirdly inspiring. Sure, the intention matters to the artist, but there’s a transfer of creative energy that happens when a piece of art—be it music, a painting, a photograph, a film, a novel, or something else entirely—is released into the world. At that point, the intention evolves into the meaning that’s felt by its audience—the layers and layers of interpretations and responses and theories and sparks that are made when that strand of creativity brushes against a personal experience to create a new, individual meaning. That vibrant, expansive life only comes from leaving stuff out. Letting go of the intention. Giving the story over to the reader or viewer, and ultimately to something bigger and more powerful than the artist alone could have created.
In the end, I guess I should have known what I was getting into; it was called The Poisonwood Bible, after all. What the author gave me felt like a sacred text—sacred to her, not intended for any meddling from me. What I wanted was a story I could carry with me, think about, wonder about a little longer. What I wanted was to be left hanging.
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