An exam question

Continue the extract as a piece of imaginative, discursive or persuasive writing that evokes a particular emotional response in the reader.

Twice before, a book had turned him inside out and altered who he was, had blasted apart his assumptions about the world and thrust him onto a new ground where everything in the world suddenly looked different — and would remain different for the rest of time, for as long as he himself went on living in time and occupied space in the world. (Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1)


But who is this young man whose life has been marked, not by three houses, or friends, teachers, kisses, moments in footy games, or dogs, but by three books? He is no one special – and this is part of the problem he will seek to address. He’s just Ryan Greeley, seventeen years old, with a mother at home and a father in logistics. One thirteen-year-old brother. A dog, of mixed breed. A haircut that could be Emo, or just regular-needing-done-again-soon. A preference for History over Maths. A dislike of melted cheese.

And what were the three books? We will only be really sure about the third one. The others we can only surmise from his bookshelf – such as it is. We expect exceptional people to have read exceptional books. Ordinary people, we think snobbishly (angry at our own ordinariness) have either read ordinary books or no books at all. Besides, there are legal restrictions around naming the books that Ryan allegedly read.

Allegedly when did these books which can’t – for reasons that will become clear – be named, when did they get read? Well, knowing how immediate the effect of the last one was, we can work backwards, pinpointing times when Ryan changed. So the first must have been when he was about twelve, when he turned into the boy we now know. A dangerous age for boys who may (or may not) just have read Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, and realized that the world is built on pain and terror.

But where on earth would he have got something like that? Who would have been irresponsible enough to have given him something like that? Books, like babies, arrive whether or not it’s convenient to have them, although most people don’t keep babies in a pile in the corner. Was it the school librarian, a beautiful girl in the cafeteria, or was it because he was $2 short in the second-hand bookshop and simply had to have it? It doesn’t really matter because eventually the location of the books was inside Ryan.

Of course, this doesn’t tell us why he was so impressed by them. The authors of books associated with Ryan claimed that, despite most writers saying that they wanted to write work that changed lives, in fact this was a pretty far-fetched idea. He couldn’t have been that impressed by their work. But when no one around you has ever said anything that isn’t purely mundane, when your understanding of language that moves the whole soul is entirely theoretical – you know it’s out there but it’s never happened to you – you’ll naturally be impressed by any other register. And when it shows you the plain, unvarnished truth of your own life and every else’s as (for argument’s sake) something like The Last Messiah does, well, it’s like comparing a full, live, in-your-face symphony, to your father’s shaving-mirror humming.

So how does he behave?

There is Ryan Greeley, shocked and furious, strung-out and sleepless since he finished this last, dreadful, book, doing what seems the best, the right, thing to do. The book is in his jacket pocket, where it will be found later by the forensic officers, and highly publicized. It will become one of a small number of books prohibited to the under-18s and sold in shrinkwrap. His finger brushes the creased cover one final time, then returns to the trigger of the Hi-Point 995 carbine, and he pushes open the classroom door.


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