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A holiday lesson from William Golding and Piggy

2010 December 21

Of the books that are ubiquitious in American schools, there are a few that I learn something new from every time I re-read them. My favorite for this mysterious occurrence is The Catcher in the Rye, but the book whose themes I see everywhere and often is Lord of the Flies. Year after year, I’ve found students who reach the end of the book with the pessimistic and tragic conclusion that Golding displays a humanity that is doomed to fail. Even boys on an idyllic island with every possible need for survival met will create conflict where it does not exist, isolate members of society, and ultimately destroy themselves. The questions then are: 1) Is Golding really that pessimistic, and 2) If he is, what do we do with this information?

 Well the answer, I think, is in the speech he gave when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. In an incredibly short lecture, he said this:

Then let me use what I suppose is my last minute of worldwide attention to speak not as one of a nation but as one of mankind. I use it to reach all men and women of power. Go back. Step back now. Agreement between you does not need cleverness, elaboration, manoeuvres. It needs common sense, and above all, a daring generosity. Give, give, give!

And I love this because, as it turns out, Golding didn’t want to show us the problem; he wanted to show us that the solution to it isn’t as complicated as we worry; it is stunning how simple the conflict can be solved. “Give, give, give!” Remarkable.  How many problems do we fail to resolve, when the solution is simply between two people?

Lesson No. 2 from Golding is simpler. The first 20 publishers he sent his book to rejected it. Who keeps trying after 20 rejections? God, that’s encouraging.

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