Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth is so bad I have almost nothing to say about it (and so will tell you about my accidental thieving – but first…). Buck, and American and the daughter of Christian missionaries, grew up in China. These formative years must have been mistaken by her as liscence to represent China and the Chinese (and I don’t mean in an artistic, figurative way so much as an identification-I-am-Chinese-kind of way). Academics have taken this book as a shining example of orientalism. Any reader with a passing understanding of reductionist representations will likewise find the book problematic in its politics (and also boring to read). So what’s the scoop? Set (sometime) in early 20th century (somewhere) Northern China, the novel follows the family of Wang Lung and O-Lan (who spends most of the novel being referred to simply as ‘wife’) as they – through hardwork, luck and some thieving of their own – climb the social ladder (climb might be too passive a verb, maybe claw is better put) from peasant farmers to city leader and landowner (note the switch from plural to singular – O-Lan gets to be a farm worker, but not a landowner). Along the way there are biblical droughts, locusts, floods, wars, seductive temptresses, and a flat out appeal to follow Jesus. I admit I haven’t read the Bible (I know, I know) so my ability to draw biblical connections is based on my scant memories of church as a kid and the ironic inclusion of the bible in the unitarian service. But what I do know suggests that Buck is making an argument for christian redemption throughout the whole thing: avoid gluttony, avarice, lust and sloth; look after the poor, the downtrodden, the physically unfit; yea though the meek shall inherit the earth. More sentences should start with ‘yea.’ Anyway. The book was (to me) sexist, racist and classist. I could handle that if it wasn’t also – and most troubling – super boring. I didn’t care about Wang Lung or his family at all, in no small part because they were predictable and unchanging. (for some reason I can’t add paragraphs right now… So… New paragraph!). How did I accidentally steal? I was at the downtown H. library five minutes before closing and attempted to checkout (on my own) a ‘play-away audiobook’ (the kind where you just pop in your headphones and a battery and away you go – total lie, by the way, this particular play-away demanded that you hold it just so, not wiggle it – ever- and not look at it while it played or it wouldn’t play, or would stop playing midsentence and you’d lose your place. I DIGRESS). I asked for help ‘unlocking’ the book and as we passed through the checkout gates I set off the alarm. Rather than take the precious minutes to properly check the bookout, I was sent on my way. Don’t panic. I’ll return the book (though I think I’d be doing a bigger public service by hiding it away in the recesses of my basement). Because people return books to libraries. Because libraries are… the best. Imagine it: a place where you go and they just give you things to read, and play, and watch; and places to be with other people and not have to buy anything to be there; and programs and services and resources that build and sustain communities. I DIGRESS. Obviously I had to pause reading Infinite Jest to read this one. I’m back on the DFW train. I know you’re holding your breath.
The Good Earth: How I Accidentally Stole from the Public Library
Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Prize Winner, Worst Books
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