Books for me have always been a private thing. I’ve always relied on books. I don’t say that with any sort of sentimental feeling, either. I can’t claim for myself the “magic” of reading, though at times it’s been an obsession. Those frustrating moments growing up and waiting to be able to do something in world might have felt like forever, but were made tolerable through books. I’ve looked to books and writing for both escape and engagement, used literacy to reach out to people as well as a way to distance myself from them. Books are very powerful in that way. You can feel as though you’re having conversations with people you’ve never met and never could have met, but have such wonderful ways of changing how you see things.
One such book to leave me feeling that way was True Grit, by Charles Portis. I didn’t read this book until just a few years ago. I found this at a used book store in Pensacola. I was in the Navy at the time, and working a desk job. I’d gone in looking for honor or adventure, or some other thing like that, and didn’t find much. So I spent a lot of time reading novels, and haunting the used book store near the base, a really great hole-in-the-wall kind of place full of old paperback thrillers and romance novels.
True Grit was nestled on a shelf sagging with scores of Louis L’amours. It was a book I’d long intended to try. It didn’t disappoint. On a technical level, it’s a masterpiece. Portis writes from the perspective of an old maid writing a memoir of her youth, when she went into the wilderness to bring her father’s murderer to justice. I like westerns anyway, but this one is such a beautiful book in its own right. It shows the light touch of a great stylist. It’s spare, careful — every sentence is doing heavy lifting; every word reflects a choice based on character, dialect, and a sort of Shakespearean grandiosity. I care very deeply for style, as well as story, and when a book doesn’t take a month to read, that’s even better. This book spoke to me of wilderness and snow on the ground, and accepting life rather than ignoring it.
It is one of the few books I know of that truly is a story for all ages. It sacrifices none of the maturity or precision of detail that you would expect from a classic, but speaks to the feelings of a young person very well at the same time, without condescension or pandering. The young girl knows that no one cares about her or her righteous indignation, and yet she must persist. That same character, though, even as she wins, is too scarred by the ordeal to ever really leave it behind.
It was a great read, because it was one of the first books I ever read that helped me understand the importance of simplicity. Writing doesn’t have to be elaborate or obscure for it to be masterful; it doesn’t have to take itself seriously all the time to qualify as serious literature. In a low point of my life, it was a simple little novel like this that came along to help me shrug off the pretensions of believing that great work must be very narrow and deep.
For the young adult reader, too, there’s much to offer. It’s also funny. Funny books are often the best at communicating real sadness, and I think this book is funny enough that for young people first encountering it the poignancy could be very impactful. It’s natural that a young person should feel misunderstood or unimportant. Mattie Ross doesn’t withdraw from the world, nor does she adjust herself to fit into the world. She simply does what she must, and lets nothing stop her. It’s an inspiring motivation to me, and one that I’d love to share with a class. I’d recommend it to anyone to read, and especially anyone in high school.
Also, the movie was really good, too.