Day 11: A book by my favorite author

I have been neglecting the book challenge for a while now, simply because as I look ahead, I can’t really see myself addressing some of the upcoming challenges, i.e. “a book whose main character I’d like to marry.” I mean, what am I, 12? Moreover, it seems to me that this challenge is best-suited for people who have read only a moderate amount. Clearly someone who has not read at all, or too little, would find it impossible to complete, but it’s equally difficult for someone, like myself, who has read so much. It’s proven nearly impossible at every turn to come up with a single book to respond to the daily challenges. But I began this challenge and so I will press forward and see it through.

Today’s challenge, despite my complaining above, is not too difficult. My favorite author is Umberto Eco, and I think anyone who has been following my blog since the beginning will say that it’s obvious. I have written about him repeatedly (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and as I was getting my blog off the ground I had to curb my desire to write about him more lest this become an Eco blog (not that it would be a bad thing). He has been my favorite writer since I was introduced to him in my first college English Comp. course, and have loved his work ever since, his fiction and non-fiction equally.

His work is superbly intelligent, philosophical, historically rich, and always challenging,  while at the same time expressing such a love of language and the written word that reading it evokes a feeling of sheer joy.  They are brimming with an almost excited intertextuality that create these wonderfully complex literary labyrinths. Through his brilliant and beautiful use language, his fiction, which often revolves around the theme of the power of words to shape reality, has the ability to create universes that the reader can easily lose themselves in, as I have repeatedly. In short, reading Eco’s work fills me with a giddy excitement and happiness that I seldom feel with other writers (except maybe Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, both who are linked to Eco in many ways).

Insofar as a particular fictional work by Eco, I’ll select my favorite to discuss briefly here, Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times, each subsequent reading revealing something new and unexpected. I mean no hyperbole when I say that no two readings of this book have been the same. The book, sometimes referred to as the “thinking man’s DaVinci Code,” (they’re in an entirely different league if you ask me), tells the story of three bored editors who, on a bit of a lark, start feeding random bits of a seeming never-ending list of conspiracy theories (think Freemasons, Illuminati, Templars, Rosicrucians, Blavatsky, etc.) into a computer program, Abulafia, who invents connections between their entries. As with many of Eco’s books however, what is written becomes reality, and as they re-write history, their immediate realities are greatly affected.

A superficial read will reveal an exciting and enthralling story, but it is far more than that. I am always surprised the level of historical detail, and although not a philosophy book, it is indeed deeply philosophical in nature. It is far less about the conspiracy theory than it is a book about language, symbol, text, and reality. It evokes Saussure and Meillet in the sense that in this narrative, language is a system where “tout se tient” or where “everything hangs together.” The narrative is only half as exciting as the revelation that language is everything, with lines such as “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.” or “what our lips said, our cells learned.”

Another thing that makes this book, well any book by Eco, so wonderful to read is the care he takes with words. The writing is beautiful and the joy he takes in the written word is clearly evident. These are the opening lines of the book…

That was when I saw the Pendulum. . . .

I knew- but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing – that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by π, that number which, however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of π, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.

Eco wrote, in his essay “Postmodernism, Irony and the Enjoyable”  that the perfect postmodern book is one that can be enjoyed both for its surface story, but which also contains a rich philosophical subtext. This book, along with the rest of his novels including his most recent The Prague Cemetery, seamlessly fit that description.

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

Today Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Geisel Seuss, would have turned 108 years old. I have always loved him. There is something about so magical, imaginative, and whimsical about his stories and his animations that captured my interest as a child and has kept me captivated ever since. In fact, as I left the doctor’s office the day that I found out that I was pregnant with my daughter, I went straight to the bookstore and bought her Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

On and on you will hike, And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems whatever they are.

You’ll get mixed up of course, as you already know.

You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.

So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact

And remember that Life’s a great balancing act.

Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.

And never mix up your right foot with your left.

As an adult I discovered the “secret” art of Dr. Seuss, which is just as whimsical and playful, but with a definite satirical edge, and certainly not meant for children. Here is one of my favorite pieces from this collection.

"Green Cat with Lights"

He also once wrote a book filled with nude women, The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family (1939), a bizarre take on the Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom legends. The book was met with a less-than-warm reception, and its failure was one of the reasons that Seuss devoted himself to writing children’s books. He later admitted, “I’d rather write for kids. they’re more appreciative; adults are obsolete children, and the hell with them.”

So happy birthday, Dr. Seuss! And thank you for inspiring both children and adults, and for showing us a world full of wonder and fantasy.

Day 10: A Book that Changed My Life

This Thirty Day Book Challenge is turning out to be significantly more, well, challenging, than I had initially thought. I have spent the last few days giving today’s topic some serious thought…

There is no one, single book that has “changed my life.” No magic moment upon reading a book that as I finished it I knew that I was forever different. What there has been, however, is a series of books, from different authors and at different times, that have forced me to look at the world, my life, my ideas and my beliefs in new and different ways. This group of books, once I really began to think about them, have quite a lot in common. They are all in some way “academic” as opposed to more popular fiction, and all have an undeniable philosophical component, although some more than others. Perhaps what the strongest common thread between all of these texts is that they have all, in their own way, helped me form my intellectual curiosities, my personal philosophical outlook, my moral and ethical grounding, and my general sense of what life should be about.

A more honest way of framing today’s post would be to admit that it’s not necessarily books that have impacted me so strongly, rather thinkers and writers. If I were to list a few, I would include as varied a group as David Hume, Carl Sagan, Thomas Kuhn, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Erwin Schrödinger, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Michel Foucault. If I were to count fiction as well, then I would also include Umberto Eco, Aldous Huxley again, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Robbins. If I included poetry, then the list would have to expand to also include William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, there is no way that I could sit and discuss a single text, or even a single author in regards to how they have changed my life.

I’ve been reading for a lifetime, and for that lifetime these thinkers and writers have had a certain and cumulative effect. They have, together, taught me to think critically and embrace reason, and to revel in questions instead of becoming entrenched in apparent answers. They have reminded me to never fail to pay attention to beauty that surrounds me, and to live curiously, openly, and passionately. They have taught me that a vigorous intellect is nothing to be ashamed of. Together they have reinforced the idea that kindness and generosity are the highest virtues, and that our significance is measured by how we love, how we think, and how our actions affect those around us. They have opened my eyes to the wonders of this universe, as well as the magnificence of our minds and our hearts. In short, they set me on the path to become the woman who I am, and every time I read anything by these scientists, writers, poets, and thinkers, I see a little of myself reflected in their words.

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as there are authors whose influence, although subtle, was nevertheless significant, and other authors who as a result of time have simply been forgotten, although their impact surely remains. Morevoer, and perhaps most importantly, I have not stopped reading. I encounter writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who, on a daily basis, push me out of my intellectual comfort zone and cause me to rethink my ideas and question my realities, and I hope that this will forever be the case.

David Foster Wallace

On Tuesday, the 21st of February, it would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday. I first read Infinite Jest back in 1997, and although I admit that I struggled through it initially, I loved it once I finished. It was witty, tragic, and so well-written. I would try to explain its basic plot, but whatever I say would not do it any justice. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean, if not… go read it.  I have since read Broom of the System, which I loved, and Pale King, which I didn’t love so much. Regardless of my personal feeling  about the last of the novel, however, there is no denying that this man had an incredible way with language, and an uncanny grasp of irony. He committed suicide in 2008 after a long struggle with depression, and needless to say, he is missed.

In celebration of his birthday, I wanted to share this video of Wallace discussing sadness, irony, and comedy in his writing. His gentleness and intellect shine clearly. Happy birthday, Mr. Wallace.

Enjoy.

Also, take a look at this article by The Awl, “46 Things to Read and See for David Foster Wallace’s 50th Birthday.” Plenty of gems here.

Ian McEwan Interviewed by Richard Dawkins

Earlier today, I wrote about Ian McEwan’s book Atonement in my “Day 4” post of the Thirty Day Book Challenge. In an attempt to shake off the melancholy that writing that post had inevitably brought on, I went through my archives of saved videos for this one, an interview of McEwan by Dawkins. McEwan is keenly intelligent and deeply insightful as to human nature, characteristics which surely contribute to his wonderful writing, but which also show so beautifully in this interview. When you have a few minutes to spare, sit and watch, you will be glad you did.

Enjoy!

Vonnegut’s Letter: Slaughterhouse Five

A few days ago, in a comment to my post about Bertrand Russell and morality without religion, Marc Schuster wrote that his process of moving away from his religious upbringing was triggered by Kurt Vonnegut. His words rang quite true as I read them, and as I gave it some further thought I realized that Vonnegut was in heavy reading rotation at the same time that I began to really question the world, people, and belief systems around me. Although I tend to credit the scientists and philosophers for fundamentally changing my perceptions, writers such as Vonnegut certainly played an equal, if more subtle, role in affecting the way that saw and questioned the world.

I think like many others, my introduction to Vonnegut was in my high school literature class. We were assigned Slaughterhouse Five, and to this day it still ranks among my favorite books. After reading Marc’s comment, I remembered having coming across a letter from Vonnegut to his family, written shortly after his release from a German POW camp. The letter dealt with his experiences that he would later turn into his novel. As the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five states at one point in the story,

That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.

In the letter Vonnegut, then a Private, describes how he had been captured by Wehrmacht troops and imprisoned at a Dresden work camp in December of 1944; an underground slaughterhouse that was called Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five). In February of 1945, the very underground nature of the camp would prove life-saving during the nightmarish bombing of Dresden, and Vonnegut’s description of having to clear away the corpses after the bombing is not easily forgotten.

Letter from Letters of Note, originally from Internet Archive.

If you have trouble reading the letter, Letters of Note has a full transcript here.

Thirty Authors Discuss God

I’m too sick, and my head too fuzzy with medication, so instead of attempting to construct coherent sentences, I’m going to let thirty others, who are known for their eloquence, speak about a subject that comes up in this blog every now and again… religion, and its counterpart, skepticism.

Dr. Jonathan Pararajasingham, a British neurosurgeon, created a series of videos regarding the debate between belief and atheism. The first two videos feature academics and theologians discussing both belief and disbelief, with the aim illustrating his central argument that “the more scientifically literate, intellectually honest and objectively skeptical a person is, the more likely the are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god.”

In the third video of the series,  which I came across on this site, Dr. Pararajasingham compiled video of thirty renown authors discussing atheism. My favorite has to be Ian McEwan (starting at 9:28), although Douglas Adams and Christopher Hitchens are pretty outstanding, too.

Here are the authors included in the video, in order of appearance.

1. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Science Fiction Writer
2. Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate in Literature
3. Professor Isaac Asimov, Author and Biochemist
4. Arthur Miller, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright
5. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate in Literature
6. Gore Vidal, Award-Winning Novelist and Political Activist
7. Douglas Adams, Best-Selling Science Fiction Writer
8. Professor Germaine Greer, Writer and Feminist
9. Iain Banks, Best-Selling Fiction Writer
10. José Saramago, Nobel Laureate in Literature
11. Sir Terry Pratchett, NYT Best-Selling Novelist
12. Ken Follett, NYT Best-Selling Author
13. Ian McEwan, Man Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
14. Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate (1999-2009)
15. Professor Martin Amis, Award-Winning Novelist
16. Michel Houellebecq, Goncourt Prize-Winning French Novelist
17. Philip Roth, Man Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
18. Margaret Atwood, Booker Prize-Winning Author and Poet
19. Sir Salman Rushdie, Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
20. Norman MacCaig, Renowned Scottish Poet
21. Phillip Pullman, Best-Selling British Author
22. Dr Matt Ridley, Award-Winning Science Writer
23. Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate in Literature
24. Howard Brenton, Award-Winning English Playwright
25. Tariq Ali, Award-Winning Writer and Filmmaker
26. Theodore Dalrymple, English Writer and Psychiatrist
27. Roddy Doyle, Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
28. Redmond O’Hanlon FRSL, British Writer and Scholar
29. Diana Athill, Award-Winning Author and Literary Editor
30. Christopher Hitchens, Best-Selling Author, Award-Winning Columnist

Enjoy!
(And sorry for the awkward grammar, I blame the pills for the cough).

The Wisdom of Bertrand Russell

One of the benefits of being sick with this miserable cold has been that I’ve only had the energy to read and not do much else. Last night, after deciding to go to bed at an unusually early hour, I looked at my shelves and decided that Bertrand Russell would make for good company on the plague ship (as I have now re-named my bedroom), and provide a nice counter-point to the darkness of the German Romantics that I’ve been reading too much of lately.

I first read Russell in high school; it was his essay, “How I Write.” I remember liking it, but the stronger memory is of my literature teacher getting into trouble for assigning that reading. It was a Catholic school, after all, and Russell was not known for being kind to religion. That incident only served to pique my interest all the more, and by the time I started college, I had read a substantial amount of his work, including last night’s read, Why I Am Not a Christian. 

By the time I first read him, I must have been in my junior year of high school, and I had certainly already started to question my faith. As I previously wrote, that process of questioning started in the early eighties after watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. A question that always plagued me during those early years of questioning, however, dealt with morality. As someone raised Roman Catholic, morality was something relatively external; there were a set of rules you lived by, and if you transgressed, you were a sinner. If you had no religion, how would you know what was good? I found my answer in Russell, before I was even able to crack the spine of the book, in the preface.

The world that I should wish to see would be one freed from the virulence of group hostilities and capable of realizing that happiness for all is to be derived rather from cooperation than from strife. I should wish to see a world in which education aimed at mental freedom rather than at imprisoning the minds of the young in a rigid armor of dogma calculated to protect them through life against the shafts of impartial evidence. The world needs open hearts and open minds, and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new, that these can be derived.

Needless to say, a thorough reading of the book and its many essays (especially “What I Believe”) drove the point home that morality, true morality, did not have to come from a preset set of rules, but that it was and should be something internal. According to Russell, morality sprang from a confluence of love and knowledge, or as he states, “love guided by knowledge.”

So this morning, as my daughter watched her cartoons and I ran around the house singing the Spiderman theme song (thanks Marc), I remembered a BBC interview with Russell that I watched a while back. There was a part of it where he was asked what he would say to future generations, what hopes he would have for us and our children. I was lucky enough to find the exact clip, and here it is. Everyone must watch this.

The full interview can be found here, and is definitely worth the watch. He is a beautiful mind and a beautiful man. “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.” Indeed.

Enjoy!

Jack Kerouac… Movie Star?

Ok, yes, I’ve been on a bit of a Beat kick lately, and serendipitously enough, I came across this a few night’s ago while catching up on the day’s news. According to a letter that was auctioned off last week at Christie’s, Jack Kerouac had written to Marlon Brando in 1957, in an attempt to convince him to purchase the rights to Kerouac’s novel On the Road, and turn it into a film.

The letter begins,

I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it. Don’t worry about the structure, I know to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book, one vast round trip from New York to Denver to Frisco to Mexico to New Orleans to New York again. I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak. I wanted you to play the part because Dean (as you know) is no dopey hotrodder but a real intelligent (in fact Jesuit) Irishman. You play Dean and I’ll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I’ll show you how Dean acts in real life.

Brando declined to pick up the project, and as all Kerouac fans know, after 1961 the author became  somewhat reclusive, and died unfortunately young in 1969. He was only 47. Thankfully, even through these darker years he continued writing, laying bare his experiences and anxieties. It was during this time that he wrote the incredibly moving Big Sur, one of my favorite Kerouac novels.

It is only this year that a film based on On The Road is being released, starring  Sam Riley as Sal Paradise and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, along with Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst. I have to admit that I’m dreading this a bit. I tend to have a pretty terrible relationship with movies made from the books that I love, and with Kerouac, so much of what I love comes not merely from the narrative (which is inevitably altered to adapt it to film), but from the words themselves, the rhythm of the words, and the very structure of the novel… none of which can be translated to the film. This is a book that demands that you to spend time with it, slowly finding yourself in sync with its rhythm, and allowing that rhythm to move you through the pages as whatever pace it decides. I cannot see that happening in the film version. Even Kerouac in his letter to Brando acknowledges the changes that would need to be made and I don’t think I like them. Perhaps I’m being far too cynical, but I’ve read On the Road so many times that no casting agent, director, or actor can recreate what I (and countless other readers) have already seen in our minds eyes. That being said, I’m sure I’ll watch it once it’s released, and hey, it gives me an excuse to pull my dusty copy off the shelf and reread it.