A good portion of my close friends have been to different countries—whether on mission trips, study abroad, or vacations. The farthest I’ve been out of the country is the very edge of Canada, where the most memorable event was seeing an albino goat. My roommate likes to push me to study abroad—to change my life, see the world, etc.—but time and money make this nearly impossible. So I turn to books.
The 2014 Man Booker prize was just awarded this past week, and it’s made me long to travel the world again. The novel that won was entitled The Narrow Road to the Deep North and was written by Richard Flanagan. Flanagan, an Australian from Tasmania, emerged the winner out of 156 total entries. This scenario might not seem like much, but the rules of the Man Booker prize were changed this year to allow any author who writes in English to enter into the competition. Sarah Churchwell, a judge for the award, wrote an entire article dedicated to the process of choosing a winning novel. She addresses the change of rules, and says this of it: “I have always thought nationality a strange eligibility requirement for literary prizes: readers don’t care what passport an author holds. That’s literature’s entire point: it lets us traverse boundaries.” I can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want to read a novel by a non-American, but maybe that’s just because I have always been intrigued by other cultures (I used to devour those gold-covered journals written by fictional, historical young girls). I loved being transported to another world through literature—a place that was different than my cornfield backyard.
In his acceptance speech, Richard Flanagan addressed his view of the novel: “They are one of our greatest spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual inventions. As a species it is story that distinguishes us, and one of the supreme expressions of story is the novel. Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life, or they are nothing.” Of course, there’s all sorts of theoretical debates about whether or not life is reflected in novels or novels are a reflection of life, but the point of the matter is that literature allows us to reflect on our lives, the lives of others, and how those two intertwine. A.C. Grayling, the chair of the judges for the Man Booker prize, stated in a Washington Post article that Flanagan’s novel “bridges East and West, past and present, with a story of guilt and heroism.” His story brings together different generations, geographies, and feelings in “prose of extraordinary elegance and force.” Yes, the novel is obviously well written, but it also unites different cultures and beliefs and locations in one chunk of printed paper. Novels give people the opportunity to travel the world in the comfort of their own home. That sounds like a Kindle ad, but speaking from personal experience, it’s true.
Maybe that’s the whole purpose of the Man Booker prize—to bring together 156 authors who can unite an entire world through their works. I can’t personally vouch for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but I trust that the judges picked a novel that will influence the world and allow me to travel through time and space.