On Literature: Things Fall Apart


The first Sunday after school started this year, my ninth-grade son said he had to do an assignment on his alleged summer reading, due the next day. So he had to read a book in one day. I gave him Things Fall Apart because I had it lying around, and I thought it was easy to read. But he hated it because, according to him, it was boring and not much happened in it. He wound up reading about the first third of it, and I even read some chapters out loud for him so he could keep going while he made himself lunch. I read him four pages of description of the harvest festival and he said, “Wait. They’re just having a New Year’s party? Well then why don’t they just say that.” We talked a little about the protagonist, Okonkwo, and how he’s a wife-beater and also winds up killing the adopted son he loves because his religion demands it, and how the Christian missionaries make inroads that wind up weakening the society because they accept outcasts and twins whom the Igbo ostracized or killed. But then my son bailed and decided to just read the chapter summaries on SparkNotes.

I refused to be involved in this SparkNotes crime against literature, but at this point, figured I couldn’t forbid it, either. The most famous African novel in the West and you won’t even read it all the way through, I said disapprovingly. But I also found myself wondering, with a chuckle, do any kids read much anymore? Plus, while Achebe was my first introduction to anything African, nowadays the African folktale is the cliche introductory reading passage in my kids’ schools. So I couldn’t argue it was important for exposure to a whole different world.

But then I sat up with him until midnight while he worked through the SparkNotes and the questions he had to answer. I figure nobody should have to be alone while they’re doing something they find boring and hard. And meanwhile I read the news on my phone. At one point I was reading an article in the New York Times about the adolescent mental health crisis, which is getting covered a lot, but almost to the point where it’s a bit much. I mean, it’s true that the pandemic sucked and so does climate change and yada yada yada, but kids are resilient and I don’t agree that (as this particular opinion writer argued) the answer is to get a whole generation in therapy and on psychoactive drugs. And my son looked over at what was on my screen and asked about the headline. “Teens Are in Distress?” he said, and without thinking I said “Yeah, y’all are fucked,” and we both burst out laughing, almost till we cried. And then he said, “I’m not in distress, I’m not even mildly disgruntled,” and went back to his assignment.

The next day at breakfast we talked more about themes in Things Fall Apart. I said I’d thought the theme was “colonialism’s evil,” but now I thought it was more about how internal divisions make a group vulnerable. He talked about how Okonkwo kills himself because he realizes his people won’t fight, and because if the Christians are right about the Igbo religion, then maybe he killed the adopted son he loved for nothing. Also, my son said a big theme was how Oknokwo was ashamed about his father and didn’t want to be seen as less than a perfectly masculine man, and so he hid his feelings and did things that wound up hurting himself, as well as others.

And I thought about the African folktale-style reading passages that are the current elementary reading cliches and realized how different those are from Achebe. Those things are in the style of what American kids also read about Native Americans. They’re anecdotes written for white people, to make them see strange cultures as sympathetic: see the lovely ancient traditional beliefs about the turtle, or the snake. Meanwhile Achebe’s Igbo are flawed and troubled and messed up, just like everybody. And it hit me, with the force of a major duh: that’s because he wasn’t writing to persuade suburban white people to care about Africa. He was writing a great book.

Overall I felt pretty lame about how I couldn’t get my son to read a classic novel. But then he told me about the followup exercise he did in school, where he had to team up with a classmate to discuss each other’s books. The other student, he told me, said “I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the conflict is that someone stole the stone.” That made me smile. I can’t help but believe that a partial, SparkNotes-mediated reading of Chinua Achebe is better than no Chinua Achebe at all.

~ Kimberly Gladman ~