Friday, January 8, 2016

The opposite of fractions

Literature was the opposite of fractions; it combined the broken shards of daily experience into a seamless whole.
Deborah Solomon, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell and Mary Barstow
The line quoted above comes in Deborah Solomon's biography of artist Norman Rockwell when she is writing about Mary Barstow, who would become Rockwell's second wife. Mary had studied English literature and creative writing at Stanford and hoped one day to write novels. But, just out of college, she found herself teaching school. As a student, she had never understood fractions. Now she had to try to teach them to seventh graders. A bright student, she had skipped seventh grade herself. Now she was teaching that grade, and that meant teaching fractions. And that brings us to Solomon's wonderful line: "Literature was the opposite of fractions."

I am reminded of my granddaughter, now in middle school, who like Mary Barstow loves literature and hates math, although she gets straight A's in both subjects. Not everyone who is good with words is bad with numbers, and vice versa, but that is often the case. I don't think that is the point Solomon is making, however. Rather she is speaking about how fractions are about dividing numbers down into smaller bits, while literature is about uniting the small bits of character's lives "into a seamless whole."

No novel, no matter how long it may, tells the whole story. An author cannot include a character's every thought, experience or action. Rather the novel is made up of fractions of characters's lives, assembled in a way that makes them whole.

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