When my wife and I were going through counseling before we got married, our counselor, Chris Mitchell, told me, "Never stop pursuing your wife. Always remember that there is infinitely more to discover about her." That may have been the best piece of advice I have ever received, and I've found it to be true. Betty is the most amazing person, and she never ceases to surprise me. Innocent Smith, the hero of G. K. Chesterton's Manalive, will go to any length to remind himself that the things he loves in this world are worth loving.
It isn't the people we love or the things we love that become dull; it is we ourselves who become dull to them. We are like the people in Wordsworth's "Westminster Bridge" who, dull of soul, pass over the breath-taking bridge every morning, thinking nothing of it. Smith says of himself, "I am always trying to find him--to catch him unawares. I come in through skylights and trap-doors to find him." He tries to surprise himself, not with new and exotic things, but with the most familiar things that he has forgotten he loves. Michael Moon calls him "a ritualist," and when he encounters a Russian, Smith tells him that the Communists have it all wrong: "True revolution is a return."
In this wild pursuit, Innocent Smith is full of boundless energy. He climbs trees, shoots guns, folds origami, collects colorful bottles, all with the seriousness of a little boy at play. In fact, I think he exemplifies Schiller's assertion that we are most human when we play better than any other hero. Paradoxically, this way of finding himself comes through losing himself. Jesus would like that. "He was not asserting himself like a superman in a modern play. He was simply forgetting himself like a boy at a party." In one funny scene, which I won't explain and ruin for you, Chesterton quotes Tennyson:
"Self knowledge, self reverence, self control:
These three alone will make a man a prig."
The quotation pretty much defines the villain of the book, Dr. Warner, if he is even alive enough to be called a villain. Mary Gray, the quiet heroine, advises her friends to look for men who "look outwards and get interested in the world." With the open eyes of an outward look, a man can wake up to his world and find eternity in a puddle. A letter from Innocent Smith and one of his friends veers off on one of many tangents: "What is a puddle? A puddle repeats infinity, and is full of light; nevertheless, if analyzed objectively, a puddle is a piece of dirty water spread very thin on mud."
I've read this book three times now. It's becoming a ritual! It's not the easiest book to read; Chesterton's wit is sometimes overly complex and hard to follow. High school students may feel at some points like they are wading through mud, but I guarantee that if they will give themselves over to it, they will find it full of light.
- Jon Carter
- I am a high school English teacher who loves to read, and I'm passionate about finding quality books for my students to read. The reviews on this blog will reflect what I am currently reading and sometimes what my students are reading. The books that appear on the list are ones that I think would be of interest to high school students, are age appropriate in content and difficulty, and in some way tap into eternal truths. Most are classics, but some are just fun, popular books.