A lot of the books I’ve been reading lately, or re-reading, as the case may be, come from a different time. (The recent list, wherein you can see my cataloging background in the copyright notation: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, c1964; Dear Mr. Henshaw, c1983; The Mouse and the Motorcycle, c1965; Blubber, c1974; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, c1970; and the Ramona series, started in 1955 with Beezus and Ramona and being largely published in the 70s and 80s, ending with Ramona’s World in 1999.) The books are quaint, for lack of a better word, but it makes them timeless. Blubber‘s Jill Brenner’s hobby and obsession is stamp-collecting, which dates the book a bit, but it makes her interesting. In Ramona and Her Father, patriarch Robert Quimby spends much of his unemployment by the family’s solitary landline phone, waiting for a call to come. Compare and contrast that with Feed‘s protagonist Georgia, who, in 2040, is so media-saturated that she never goes anywhere with less than a dozen microphones, recording devices, and general gadgetry hidden on her person. The world she lives in, that the novel is set in, is a future dystopia, but what part is the dystopia? The zombie invasion, or the constant media immersion?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that technology is the downfall of society, or that social media is going to bring about any sort of apocalypse. This is a blog, after all. But there is something charming about novels set in times gone by, the way they’ve started to become period pieces in their own right, but still remain accessible. Look at The Mouse and the Motorcycle*, where one of the main conflicts comes from human boy Keith’s sudden fever, which can only be relieved and cured by an aspirin, which seems to be impossible to get in this off-beat, off-road, run-down little hotel. Ralph gets to save the day by exploring the whole of the hotel and heroically transporting a solitary loose aspirin to the ailing boy, when his parents have given up and decided to wait out the night. If the book was set today, the hotel would be equipped with WiFi, and Keith’s folks could just go online, order bulk aspirin on Amazon, and have it overnighted to the hotel. Ralph would never get to be the hero. (There’s a decent chance they’d also search for a good exterminator on Annie’s List, or maybe have found a different hotel on Yelp altogether, and then where would we be?) These books may only work in the dubious time period in which they’re set, but that’s the brilliance of them.
(*Another wonderful point: Keith’s toy motorcycle and ambulance work through the simple magic of making the proper sounds. Ralph becomes a motorcycle racer simply by having his mousey lips be the motor. It is delightful, and a detail I’d long forgotten.)
One of the main events of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the punishment of Mike Teavee, who is ‘rewarded’ for his laziness, crankiness, rudeness, and overall enthusiasm for (violent) television, by putting himself into a large beam that then transmits him across the room to reappear in a television at the appropriate size. (Side note: I’ve just started on Roald Dahl’s Matilda, wherein Matilda’s father enthuses that his daughter should stay home, because they have a lovely TV with a twelve-inch screen. Had Mike Teavee gone into the laser today, he would’ve come back out at nearly normal size.) The Oompa Loompas’ resulting song goes on for multiple pages, their longest yet, detailing the horrors of television and the pleasures and redeeming qualities of books. (They even give examples and recommendations, which is a little odd coming from a series of knee-high people relocated from a remote and dangerous jungle to live and work in a massive underground factory never seen by outside eyes. When do Oompa Loompas get time to read? Why is it they’ve supposedly discovered this benefit of so-called civilized society, but still wear leaves?) It’s an author’s message if ever there was one, made a good seven years before his novel was adapted for the silver screen (and another good forty odd years before it was adapted a second time). It was made during a time when it could still have some impact.