Friday, December 16, 2005

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian and The Golden Compas by Philip Pullman

Students often like to make the case, especially if they don't like their grades, that what one likes in writing is subjective (and therefore can't be graded). I like to make the case, especially with students, that really great books aren't subjective. That quality writing goes beyond taste to be impressive no matter what the preferences are of the reader. And I believe this, but perhaps only with a fairly sophisticated, widely-read reader, who can recognize when a book is achieving its own goals. And Master and Commander, a book I read because of some quality recommendations from trusted friends and the force of millions (hundreds of thousands? I guess we're not talking television here) of fans, is a case of a book I could appreciate but not love. The Golden Compass, which I read for precisely the same reasons, is another. And the thing holding me back from love, I suspect, was character. Master and Commander is great at conveying a world (for those who don't know, the novel is the first in a long series which traces the friendship of a Captain and a doctor, as well as a lot of battles at sea, during the Napoleonic Wars), and it has what I guess is an exciting plot, but I never felt close to the people involved. My favorite moments were the character moments, but the book was mostly battles. So it was liked but not loved.

The Golden Compass also felt more plot-driven then character-driven. This I suspect is the difference between those who favor Rowling over Pullman--character over plot or character over ideas. Pullman's novel (the first in a trilogy) is undoubtedly more original than Rowling's Harry Potter series, and its ideas are definitely more complex and sophisticated, but I just don't know his protagonist (I've already forgotten her name--see!) as well as a I know Harry, and so I worry about her less, and therefore feel less as I read.

And I suppose this idea--that I rank a novel that makes me feel over a novel that makes me think (for the record, I prefer novels that do both)--does support the fact that there is a level of subjectivity to responding to writing. Though grading fairly still isn't nearly as difficult as students think it is.

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