The Big Read Blog (Archive)

All Right, Then, We?ll Go to Hell

November 13, 2008
Washington, DC

It's always a little embarrassing when your favorite lines or passages in a book are everybody else's favorites too. My favorite moment in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and quite possibly in all of American literature besides, comes when Huck famously chucks generations worth of inherited prejudice and throws in his lot with the escaped slave Jim.

The key to the scene is that Huck doesn't know he's a hero. He honestly believes this act of transcendent brotherhood amounts to a moral failing on his part, but he can't help himself. As literally as literal ever gets, Huck'll be damned if he's going to betray his friend:

"I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell?"

I'm thinking of this passage now because, okay, because I like the lump that forms in my larynx whenever I do. But it's also on my mind because, regardless of how you or I voted for president, something pretty amazing happened last week. Like Huck on the raft, America overcame generations of conditioning and decided that some things matter more than race. Whatever happens politically, they can't take that away from us. As Linda Loman says in Death of a Salesman, that's an earthquake.

How did this happen? There's no shortage of theories. It was the debates. It was the economy. It was the failure of the Bradley effect. It was the triumph of the Buffett effect. It was the flush of the Coriolis effect.

What was it? I'll give you my theory in four words:

It was the memoirs.

Are they great books? Beats me. I haven't finished reading them myself yet, and besides, I don't review books for a living anymore. But there are millions of copies of the president-elect's two memoirs in print. Pretty plainly, over the last few months, barraged with hours of unrelenting adversarial ads, millions of voters opted to do exactly what the NEA's two major reading studies show that voters almost always do. They sat down to read.

Look at the beautiful accompanying photograph by Mark Quigley if you don't believe me. Voters read, and readers vote. I'll bet you anything that plenty of voters all across the country spent the last couple of months checking out the president-elect's books and getting to know him. Whether they liked him is almost beside the point.

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Readers line up to vote. Courtesy of Mark Quigley. Flickr.

That's what books do. They are, as I've said elsewhere, the purest unfudgeable fingerprint of the human soul. You can lie for a sentence, or even a chapter. But over the course of an entire book, try though some disingenuous authors have, sooner or later even liar will get tired and tell the truth.

Did the president-elect mean for his books to introduce him so ingratiatingly to the country, and ? even though the first one came out fully 13 years ago -- to refute any eventual attempts to demonize him? Dunno.

Week after next I go to Huntingdon, Tennessee, to interview Hal Holbrook on stage about Twain as part of the town's Big Read of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. For me, this looms as the consummation of a lifelong dream. I've admired Holbrook since I was a kid, when his appearance on television always signaled something sharp, maybe even important. Later I read his terrific introduction to the playscript he stitched together for his one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight! This was the purest unfudgeable fingerprint of a smart man even more besotted with Twain than I was. I can't wait to meet him, and to ask him what Mark Twain might have thought about last Tuesday.