I’m always looking for book recommendations, particularly from people with whom I don’t generally share reading preferences. A recommendation from a book friend might be much better tailored to my tastes, but a book recommendation from someone not familiar with my own preferences in reading tells me a lot more about them. Invariably, if someone who has never recommended a book or author to me before suddenly does, I will hunt down that book immediately, because even if I don’t like it, it will tell me a lot more about the person who recommended it. That carries a lot of weight with me.
P.D. James is one such author. She was recommended to me by my grandfather, who has made a sport of sending me news articles and recording TV shows for me, but never before recommended a book. In fact, I didn’t even know he was a voracious reader until it came up randomly in a phone conversation, and suddenly he was gushing about this awesome lady author, and her entire bibliography. Before he’d even finished his first sentence I knew I had to look her up.
Primarily a mystery author, P.D. James has been writing since the 1950s, and her career is largely contemporary with my grandpa’s life. She’s 93 now, and still publishing–her murder mystery Pride and Prejudice sequel novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, came out in 2011. But the first book I found by her was The Children of Men (yes, there’s a movie of it, though looking at the production stills they changed a lot), which places itself firmly in the category of dystopian scifi. The basic premise is that all of humanity has gone infertile, and seems to be going out with more of a fizzle than a bang when confronted with the existential terror of having no lineage. It’s a pretty exciting read. I didn’t love it, but I enjoyed it enough to pass the recommendation on.
What was most interesting to me about this novel, in the context of my own life, was how concerned it is with the legacy of parenthood, and the vitality of children to a continuing world. None of my cousins have yet produced children, and this has been a topic of some discussion between me and my grandfather, so it was interesting to try to look at this story through his eyes.
The novel’s protagonist, Theo, is an aging Oxford professor who accidentally killed his only child by running her over in a car. His feelings about this incident are somewhat ambivalent, which mirrors his ambivalence toward the dying world around him with its lack of children. As the novel progresses, however, his feelings slowly thaw, and he begins to feel a sense of longing for the days of children, and even to grieve the loss of any chance of a relationship with his own daughter. His entire emotional journey is structured around learning to appreciate the beauty of children.
Obviously, the world we live in has more children than it knows what to do with, so it’s easy to forget how much we really are reliant on the idea of future generations. The whole world hasn’t gone infertile, but birth rates are on the decline, and there are some interesting discussions to be had there. I’m still not sold on the idea of ever having children (sorry, grandpa), but it’s interesting to contemplate what a decision like that might mean on a grander scale.
If you get a chance, I highly recommend picking up a book recommendation from someone new. You never know what you might find out about their interests. As for me, I’m going to go see if I can find some of those mystery novels….
“If from infancy you treat children as gods, they are liable in adulthood to act as devils.” –The Children of Men by P.D. James