Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Long ago, when I had just entered my teen years, I put down the latest installment in Sarah Dessen’s White Girl is Lonely; Finds Quirky Boy with the slightest hint of dissatisfaction. Up until that point, I couldn’t get enough of the formulaic girl-is-weird-and-alienated; girl-finds-weird-boy-with-common-interest; strife-that-separates; girl-and-boy-get-together. But this time was different. Where reading about the torturous build-up and, finally, the pay-off of all that hard work had once satisfied me in a way that other books could not, as I entered the phase I’d like to call Regret-Con 1, I became jaded. Life isn’t like that, I said to myself as I dyed my ponytail a shitty blue and blasted Good Charlotte. I didn’t relate to these books anymore. And lord knows what teh boizz did when confronted with the Meg Cabots of the world.
Frankly, the YA section in Barnes and Noble—any book store, really—is sad. Just…sad. It is aimed towards tween girls who are just discovering their hormones and love for romances shitty and well-crafted alike. It is sadly lacking in really smart stories that recognize the balance of good and bad in the world—and how, sometimes, that balance tips in favor of the bad. I know that the first time I decided to step foot outside of the warm, forest-themed children’s section, I was scared. I walked myself through the Romance, Mystery, and Religion sections, meandering my way over to Literature. Do it, you won’t, I taunted myself as I pretended to be interested in Lolita.
Of course, as with any teenager, the moment I heard “You won’t,” I did. I just kind of…dove in. But I was lucky to have picked up a book that, prosaically, was simple enough for a 14-year-old to understand. I may not have always grasped the meaning behind the words, but, by trial and error, I got there eventually. I picked up Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s tired, it’s cliché, it’s for teen boys who don’t understand satire. But, dude, 14-year-old me loved that shit and, no offense to Meg Cabot, but I burned my Princess Diaries collection that night. After that night, and several more embarrassed trips to the YA section, I never turned back. Except for that one time that Sarah Dessen published a book when I was in college. (I swear I bought it for a friend.) But I digress.
To be honest—and I feel this is the problem with kids these days—I was intimidated. I didn’t know where to start; I didn’t know how to enter this world. Literature—both modern and classic—can be, to put it lightly, wordy. Confusing. These writers are the big boys: the ones who play around with conventional syntax and grammar; the experimenters and the artists; the ones who will be misunderstood and written off as elitist.
And yeah, if you don’t know where to start, it’ll seem that way. But hey, in order to get to the roof you gotta start at the bottom of the ladder, right? Trust me, these books are as accessible as Twilight. Actually, probably more so., because no one needs to read about hard, marmoreal bodies at that age.
So what better way to kick off the inaugural issue of Stop Reading Crap Made for Five-Year-Olds than to pay homage to the big Papa himself—Ernest Hemingway? No one has had a more direct effect on modern American prose since Hemingway blew through this country on a ten-toed cat’s back 50+ years ago. And his novella, The Old Man and the Sea, is the perfect way to ease on into the world of good books. It is, if you will, a literary form of Just the Tip.
The thing is, as simple as Old Man and the Sea seems—especially given that we assign it as reading to high school freshmen—it’ll fuck you over if you don’t pay attention. You see, this novella is much like the sea itself in that, if you don’t watch your back, mama shark gonna come get you. No, just kidding. THAT WAS STUPID. What I mean is that Hemingway is such a brilliant writer that the novella becomes the ocean itself. It seems quiet, almost empty, on the surface. Yet, if you dive into the water—really immerse yourself and pay attention to what he says—you’ll find that his story is teeming with next-level shit that will make your brain dizzy.
It’s a story about a man and a fish. But more than that, it’s a story of the continual ebb and flow of triumphs and tribulations, of suffering and jubilation, of the will to go on and the inclination to give up. This is, to put it lightly, powerful stuff—especially to any angst-ridden emo-child who feels he/she is, like, totally misunderstood. (Do they still exist? Is it 2003? Where am I?) His vernacular is jarring, to say the least—especially to those who assume that literature means every other word is decasyllabic. (HA! See what I did there?) But his vernacular is raw and cuts you open, so you, as the reader, become the man himself. It is sensual and fully committed to the world of fishing.
Every moment, Hemingway gently reminds you that you are on a skiff out in the middle of the ocean, that you are thirsty and hungry and tired to the point of collapse, but that you must go on. And he does it all without having to actually say The old man was dying of thirst. The old man was tired. Instead, he shows you the black spots that blot his vision as he struggles against the line. He takes you along with the old man as the line runs through his hands and cuts him. Clumsy he is not.
Hemingway asks: what is it to suffer? It is a question a lot of people think they have the answer to, but Hemingway makes no declarations. He just allows the old man a back-and-forth, a meditation on life, without trying to pull the wool over your eyes and make you decide one way or the other. He doles out equal measures of hope and despair.
In conclusion: You don’t need a thesaurus to read Hemingway. You just need a heart beat, and a good sense of humor when it comes to 1950s race and gender stereotypes. For such a racist turd, he is quite the sensitive soul. (Like how I slipped that one in there without having to face the controversy? Zing.) No, but really, all joking aside, you’d have to be dead inside not to want to cry after going on this epic and emotionally exhaustive journey with this man. In what might be one of the most heart-wrenching and story-defining moments, after a three-day struggle that would kill any ordinary man, the old man tells himself, “It is silly not to hope,” If you don’t cry, then you are a robot and I hope you will at least show the human race a bit of kindness when you take the fuck over.
Great, but not perfect.