The Once Upon a Time Business

November 25th, 2007

The title of this post is from the web site for author Phillip Pullman. I love this quote. What he actually said is this…

As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means. The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain. Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business.

Can I just repeat that last part…

He’s in the Once Upon a Time Business and not the Message Business.

There’s been a lot of stuff floating around cyberspace about this man and his work. I have read all three of the “His Dark Materials” books. They are very good. The first one The Golden Compass is a work of art. The second one The Subtle Knife is a great story. The third one, The Amber Spyglass is very dense and complicated and tricky but also a fascinating read.

We live in a culture of emptiness. We give our kids plastic and Disney and Cartoon Network and McDonald’s happy meals and it is the same as giving them nothing. Because that is what all that stuff is. There is no depth, no merit, and no knowledge to be gained. We put their young minds in tepid water and expect them to grow. Even when we give our kids books!

As a former children’s librarian I can vividly attest to the amount of crappy children’s books that flood our market place EVERY DAY. I know because part of my job was to peruse every single new children’s book that came into our library. I both loved this job and hated it. I hated it because there was so much crap being published that I wondered how on earth it ever reached the market. I loved it because every once in a great while, a volume would come from the “new book cart” to settle in my lap that would shimmer like the stars.

From the first page of these rare books, I would recognize a brilliance, a skill, and an ability – to weave a story together, to hold a child (and an adult) spellbound, to captivate an audience.

I worked at the Manhattan Public Library in Manhattan Kansas for only one year, but during that short time I compiled a mental list of must reads for kids based on the new books that came through as well as a few classics that were new to me. Phillip Pullman was one of those authors.

He does not treat kids like morons – he respects their minds and their imaginations. He is not writing to create a marketable product, he is writing to create a riveting story. A story that I have no doubt, will become a classic.

Due to some of the hype from the upcoming release of the movie, The Golden Compass, there seem to be many people living in paralyzed fear of this brilliant author – I hope you at least read the first book before you make your judgement. It is ridiculous to forward those silly panic stricken e-mails without first reading these books.

I do realize that Phillip Pullman is a self proclaimed atheist. He admits to this on his web site. I myself am not an atheist – but I occasionally have doubts about the existence of a benevolent God. What thinking person does not? It might be easy to believe in a caring God in our nice warm homes with our loaded refrigerators. But perhaps not so easy if you are an Iraqi citizen or a family in India living on the streets, relying on your three year old to generate enough pity for a loaf of bread.

Maybe Phillip Pullman just has a harder time shutting down the part of his mind that us church going Americans so easily turn off. Not that we don’t care and give and try to help, but do we really let it in???

I refuse to demonize a brilliant, creative man for his personal beliefs when they are founded in hard thinking, but I do pray for him. And as a fan of great children’s literature, I celebrate his books. They are worth a read. And they may even deepen your own faith as you gotta think about things a bit after you read them. Which is why I love his books to start with. The thinking part. It is especially good for kids to have to use their brains once in a while.

Oh dear – this was a bit of a heavy handed post for me. But it has been on my mind for a long time. Tomorrow something much lighter – I promise!