#67 A Review of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Cover Image The Old Man and the Sea is a short simple novel that was written by Ernest Hemingway in the 1950’s. 
 
The story tells the tale of Santiago, an old fisherman, and his epic battle with a giant marlin fish out on the open sea.  It has been eighty-four days since last catching a fish.  His apprentice, a young boy named Manolin, has been forced by his parents to start fishing with another crew, leaving Santiago to fish alone.  They feel Santiago is unlucky and want their child to spend his time catching fish with another crew.  Manolin still keeps an eye out for Santiago, making sure that he helps him take his equipment on and off the boat each day.  There is a real sense of caring and friendship between the two. On the morning of the eighty-fifth day Santiago claims that he will catch a fish!  Out he goes on his normal routine, baiting the sardines and setting up the fishing lines.  It takes a little while but he soon sees the line tugging on one of the fishing poles.  He knows it to be a large fish, judging by how the fish is tugging at the line.  It is this fish that Santiago will wrestle with for the remainder of the book.
 
This was not my first Hemingway novel.  I read The Sun also Rises when I was still in high school.  I didn’t remember what it was about and decided to embark on a crusade to re-read it and other Hemingway novels.  Hemingway truly does have a great simplistic style about his writing in this novel. Everything is fairly straight forward, one major conflict with two major characters. 
 
I recognize that this novel changed the way writing was looked at and done in the 50’s. Sadly, I couldn’t get into the novel.  The story seemed so dragged on. The battle with the fish is almost 70% of the entire book.  It’s page after page about how the old man is holding the fishing line, how hard the fish is tugging on the line, which direction the fish is swimming in, the old man hurting, etc. I enjoyed the interaction between Manolin and Santiago more than anything else, and craved for more of that.  Since the old man is out at sea alone while the struggle with the fish is going on, all the dialogue is one-sided.  He talks to the fish and himself, and after a while just becomes too much to listen too. 
I understand the major theme of the story, overcoming even the most insane circumstances with faith and confidence, but I just couldn’t wait for it to be over. I’m upset with myself for not liking this more than I did.  I would have thought that I could relate to the theme of the novel since I myself am battling to read 100 books this year. Thankfully, this hasn’t deterred me from reading Hemingway’s other works and I’ve eagerly added them to my to-read pile. 
I strongly encourage others to try to read the book.  While I myself was not a huge fan, you yourself might like it.  If you do, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
 
2 out of 5 stars.
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A Rebuttal of Complex Reading vs. Simplistic Reading

Earlier today I posted a blog entry entitled “Complex Reading vs. Simplistic Reading, which you can read here. Adam has written a rebuttal of his personal views on the subject which you can read below:

Adam says:

I was always taught in school a simple acronym when writing short or long essay questions; K.I.S.S, or Keep it Simple Stupid. (I think my teacher’s just added on the stupid part to get a laugh out of the students)  It’s that very same rule that I feel many authors should comply with when they write their novels. Many times authors feel the need to explain the hell out of a situation to give the reader a visual to base their understanding of the novel off of. I believe that’s what a person’s imagination is for. Yes, the setting needs to be set and characterizations need to be established but I think some things are better left unspoken. Many times, in my opinion authors over-write their books when they should instead follow the same advice I was given as a middle school student and keep it simple stupid.

I don’t necessarily mean simple wording or simple language when I say keep it simple. I understand that as a person, you should constantly challenge yourself and reading is an admirable way to do that, but I think that some things are better left unsaid. I think the author should give basic details and cut out a lot of the extra stuff, or fluff. Think of Fluff when you put it on a peanut butter sandwich, it adds nothing to the sandwich. If you cut it out, you don’t necessarily miss it. A lot of times authors go off on a 40-page tangent to say what could have been said in 10 pages. They instead should challenge the reader with introducing them to new language and new ideas, but not bore them with inane details. 

One author who I feel understood the average reader like me, kept it simple, and didn’t bore readers with frivolous details was Ernest Hemingway. In his short, but classic novel The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway got right to the point and told a story about an old man and the sea. There’s no 7-page digression of how the water is calm or how the old man is conflicted between capturing the fish or humanity. It is a simple worded book and is a story in it’s basest form. You may say that I am being lazy by not wanting to read all the details or read longer novels but I like that the story is just that, a story.

You may or may not know this about me, but I am obsessed with musicals. The best comparison I can make to what I am trying to say is that a book with tons of inane details is like a poorly produced musical.  The reason the musical is so bad is that the music doesn’t push the story forward. The characters sing for the sake of singing, leaving the audience bored with the musical. I feel when authors over-analyze the setting or go into every last detail about what the character is wearing, it takes the reader away from the main plot of the story. Unless the character’s clothes suddenly go up in flames and we have to figure out why it occurred, I don’t need to know that the shoes they were wearing were given to the character on her 12th birthday by grandma. I just think those minor details are filler and fluff. 

One author who did detail overload is Stephanie Meyers. I can just picture 2,000,000,000 teenage girls cursing my name, but it is true. Twilight was one hell of a boring book. She went into so much minor detail about everything.  It didn’t make me like the story any better; it made me dislike it to the point where I couldn’t finish the book. I couldn’t handle the 40 pages of explaining one simple event that could’ve been explained in 10 pages. A lot of that book was filler crap, and I refused to read the other three because I didn’t want to put myself through that sort of torture again.

I think books are best when kept simple. When reading a book, the author should give you the basic details, but then you, as the reader, should be able to imagine what the author is telling you.  In my opinion any other way is being spoon-fed the information. When Kim and I were discussing this she said that if you’ve never been to a place or never given the details, how are you to supposed to get a feeling for the surroundings? I am not advocating that all details should be thrown out the window, I just think the author should give us the basic details of the surroundings and we figure out the rest. As readers, we should be able to visualize what the author is saying from the hints given. If the author said, “The setting is a typical high school cafeteria, it is raining and all the kids are wearing rain coats and boots” we should then be able to visualize the kids walking in wearing squeaky boots.  We assume that the boots will be squeaky because we’ve seen in our own daily lives that wet boots squeak when you walk on the floor.  We can also assume that if a kid didn’t bring an umbrella they’d be wet. I don’t need the author to go on a tangent talking about little Pete and how he’s upset because he didn’t bring an umbrella.  I can assume that because I’ve been in that situation. We should as humans take our own experiences and be able to visualize the scenes in our own mind without be giving every little detail.

If you’re like me and want to read novels minus the fluff, two other works of literature come to mind; Of Mice and Men and Our Town. Both of these works are literature in its purest form.  In Of Mice and Men  Steinbeck strips everything down, into a quick and easy read.  Our Town is a play that doesn’t deal with the frivolous components that are often connected with a play. There are no sets and nothing to distract the reader from really understanding what actions the characters are taking. In my opinion they show that literature is at its best when there is nothing distracting the reader from the main plot.

Complex Reading vs. Simplistic Reading

Adam and I were discussing The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway when we began discussing complex books vs. simplistic books.  We started discussing it because I was talking about how The Old Man and the Sea speaks in very simplistic language. I personally am a fan of classic literature books, books that follow the style of Jane Austen’s writing period, and also books that make you think.  It’s not very common that I read a book written in simplistic terms.  While it’s a nice break, I enjoy reading to enrich my mind, grow my vocabulary, make me think, and also make stop and pause to look and appreciate the things around me.

Adam had said he wished more writers would write simplistically. He felt that books get overly wordy and explain everything in such small detail.  He would rather be able to think about what it looked like, smelt like, felt like, etc on his own. He wants authors to cut out the “fluff” and get down to the nitty-gritty.  I can agree with him about fluff to a degree.  Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck has almost a full chapter explaining in extreme detail about a turtle crossing the road. It is the MOST boring thing I’ve ever read in my life. So on the subject of “fluff” I can agree to a degree with Adam.

The more and more I thought about what we were discussing the stronger I felt for books that weren’t super simplistic. In my eyes reading holds the keys to enriching people’s lives and minds.  For people who will never be able to travel to Europe in their lifetime, they can pick up a book and read about what it’s like. Those that will never make it scuba diving, mountain climbing, sky diving etc, they can pick up a book and read about others experiences doing it.  None of us know what it was like to live in the past when King Henry VIII ruled, but we can pick up a book and read about what it was like.  If writing was always written simplistically, we might not be able to experience any of these things through words.

Reading complex things also expands your intelligence.  The more you read the better your vocabulary gets and your sentence structure get stronger.  You learn to recognize metaphors, themes, similes, protagonists, antagonists, conflicts, resolutions, etc. 

When I think of classic literature I don’t think of simplistic authors or simplistic books – I see Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Poe, Arthur Miller, Steinbeck, etc. I see Pride and Prejudice, Macbeth, North and SouthTo Kill a Mockingbird, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, etc.  These books are taught in schools and taught year after year because we learn from them.  As a child you’re taught with picture books, then you begin reading and move to chapter books, as we get older and our brains can handle more we begin reading “the classics.”  That is how we progress on to college and into the working environment. As our brains retain more knowledge our reading levels change, allowing us to read more complex books. I think in order to continue to grow intellectually, that adults should read complex books.  Throwing in a simplistic book here and there is ok, it gives your brain a rest, which is definitely necessary.

As I was talking to Todd last night I said to him that I think reading books with details is important as well.  For me reading poetry expands the meaning of love, reading books that discuss the look, smell, taste of things enriches my own senses.  Reading about a sunrise/sunset and then seeing one – I can understand the text better and understand the beauty around me.

I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts on what I’ve said.  Adam has been kind enough to begin writing a response to my thoughts that I’ll post up before the week is out.  Please comment and let me know what side of the argument you fall on!

Happy Reading!