Noticing the small things

March is National Reading Month. To that end, I will read so much and post so often you will be sick of me by April 1.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

imagesI came across that quote by Mark Twain again recently and it resonated with me because I had been marveling at and ruminating on one particular word in a book I recently finished.

I’ve written before about Alexander McCall Smith and how clever I think his writing is and how heartfelt. I was reminded of that when listening to “The Girl Who Married a Lion,” his collection of fables from Zimbabwe and Botswana.”

The pieces collected in this book tread the ground most fables do — and people who are ungrateful, or sneaky or dishonest or vain get their comuppance usually in a way that’s not just fitting but funny.

These tales have great titles, “The Strange Creature Who Took the Place of a Girl, Then Fell Into a Hole” and “The Grandmother Who Was Kind to a Smelly Girl” and “Tremendously Clever Tricks are Played, but to Limited Effect.”

I’m no fable-ologist, or whatever it is you call someone who studies fables, but I find it so intriguing that people from vastly different countries have told similar stories for centuries. For instance there is a story very like The Pied Piper of Hamelin and one almost identical to the one in which Br’er Rabbit cries, “Don’t throw me in the Briar Patch!” I can only assume that means people have the same motivations, frustrations and feelings no matter what their circumstances or their geography are. But to express the lessons in ways that are so alike is fascinating.

I also like the inexplicable things in the tales, beyond, of course, the talking animals. Like how on earth a snail could be a good farmer? McCall Smith tackles some of these oddities head on, like in “The Wax Children” when he writes, “No one knows why their children were made of wax, they just were.” It tells the reader, don’t get hung up on the details, the messages are the important thing here.

The messages, of course, are that good things usually come to the people who do the right thing for the right reasons, and that horrible incidents, like getting eaten by a crocodile, are reversible, if you learn something from them.

McCall Smith imbues these tales with a playful spirit, which brings me back to the word in question.

It was “noticed.”

Not a sexy word, I know, but stay with me here. In the story titled, “Head Tree,” he writes, “One day his wife noticed there was a tree growing out of his head.”

My first thought was: “Noticed? You notice someone’s getting gray or putting on a few pounds, you don’t notice a tree growing out of someone’s head.” Why not “saw” or, even better “was shocked to find.”?  Surely “noticed” was the worst possible word, it’s for something that’s been there all along but you just saw for the first time. But then I realized how funny that choice was. I imagined the woman looking at her husband over breakfast and thinking, “Hmmm, I never noticed that tree growing out of his head.” Maybe even asking him, “Honey, did you ever notice the way that tree is growing out of your head?”

It still brings a smile to my face and that, I’m certain, was McCall Smith’s goal. I imagine him chuckling as he typed it.

It’s a little thing, but it is, of course, the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning. Hey, that sounds like the title of a fable.

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