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.

The Prague Cemetery … finished.

The last page.

After sneaking a read every time I had a free moment, I finished Eco’s book, The Prague Cemetery late last night.  I was going to write as soon as I finished, but I realized that I had to let the book sit for a while, as I wasn’t sure what I was feeling when I put it down. Part of it, I’m sure, was separation anxiety … that book had practically become a physical extension of my arm these past 2 days, even my students were making fun of how I would read even while walking.  That always happens when I finish a book that I’ve become so involved with – the physical act of putting it down is draining, difficult, and sad.

But there was something else, this book was a decidedly uncomfortable and at times unpleasant read.  As one reviewer put it,

In our world of political correctness, it’s something of a visceral shock to be plunged into the slime of group invective.

It put the reader in a position of being complicit in terrible, hate-driven events, and part of me felt like I need some kind of ritual ablution to wash off the guilt. That very unsettling feeling, however, was what made the book such a powerful read.  Let me backtrack a bit before I get too far ahead of myself…

The basic storyline is as follows.  Our protagonist, Simone Simonini, after describing in discomfiting detail just how much he hates everyone (and I do mean everyone), realizes that he has lost his memory of recent events.  He recalls the day he met Sigmund Freud (“Dr. Froïde,” whom he doesn’t trust because, of course, he’s Jewish “Jew and German are a mix I don’t much like”) and where Freud explained his early, not yet fully formed, ideas that would eventually become the foundations of his Psychoanalytic theory, such as “talking cures,” in which talking about past events help unearth buried memories. This recollection causes Simonini to decide to start a diary to attempt to get at his lost memories.  Here is where the story really begins.

Simonini soon realizes that he is not alone. He seems to share his home (via a secret passage way), and perhaps even his body with a priest, the Abbé Dalla Piccola, and through their diary entries  (and the occasional interjection by the mysterious “Narrator”), we get thrust into the world of 19th century conspiracy theories, freemasons, patriotic wars, secret services, Satanic Black Masses, forgeries, murder, and betrayal.  We begin to understand why these memories have been lost – they contain exactly the kind of things that we would rather forget.  The story culminates with Simonini’s role in forging/creating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (the recurring theme of forging fake documents, of plagiarizing plagiarisms, reminded me very much of Jorge Luis Borges).

The Prague Cemetery, in true Eco fashion is incredibly historically rich. Nearly every single character in the book “actually existed, and said and did what they are described as saying and doing in this novel.”  From big names like  Dumas, Hugo, Dostoyevsky (Eco is quite adept at intertextuality), to minor, but just as significant individuals, Eco’s impeccable research shines here, immersing the reader in the late nineteenth-century Europe. The story underscores many, if not all, of the darker ideas and ideologies of this period, such as the pseudo-scientifically grounded theories of race and racism (Gobineau makes his appearance), the fusion of nationalism and racism and xenophobia, the near institutionalized hatred of anything perceived as “the other,” and of course, what forms the core of this book, rampant anti-Semitism.

But the book is much more than simply a narrative history of the seedier side of the Belle Époque.  For Eco (and in typical Eco fashion), the real story lies in the manipulation of our cultural narratives and stereotypes to strengthen the incredibly dangerous sense of “us and them.”  Here is where our anti-here, Simonini, comes in.  Simonini is man so prejudiced against everyone that he borders on misanthropic.  He is a liar, a forger, and a murderer.  The only thing he talks about with any tenderness is food (and libraries), but those exceptions hardly serve to make him any less spiteful.  Hardly a protagonist that the reader can rally behind, but that is precisely the point.  Our anti-hero forges, lies, betrays, and murders his way through Italian Unification, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, the Franco-Prussian War, the Russian secret service, and ultimately the publication of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Always underscoring the way preexisting prejudices are reformed to substantiate and justify incredibly hateful, and/or politically expedient, acts. As Eco states early in the book,

If what is written is written, then it has actually happened. Believe in what is written.

And Simonini takes a behind-the-scenes, yet pivotal, role in creating the texts that shaped history (i.e. the forgery that convicted Captain Dreyfus of treason, and, of course, what the book is about, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

This book is unique in that the story is presented to reader through three distinct voices, those of Simonini and of his “second self,” the Abbé Dalla Piccola through the diary mentioned above, and The Narrator, the mysterious voice that reads their diaries, interprets their texts, and, most importantly, that speaks directly to us, the Reader. Whereas both of Simonini’s personas write for themselves (each other?), the Narrator writes to us, directly drawing us into the narrative.  By doing this, he makes us forced accomplices in these terrible events that unfold.  WIthout his unique voice, we could remain comfortably outside of the text, passive readers instead of active participants.  The Narrator’s presence doesn’t give us that option.

One of the many anti-Semitic images shown to the reader.

At the end, this book felt like a much-needed cautionary tale.  We live in incredibly scary times; the economy is collapsing, we’re as politically divided as we have ever been, anti-intellectualism is gaining popularity by the second, and pseudo-science is being used to justify all manner of dangerous and costly ideas.  Moreover, we are a jaded generation, and a sterile book laying out the minefield that we are walking through would be completely ineffective.  By surrounding the reader with uncensored hatred, both through text and image (most of the images coming from Eco’s personal collection), and by forcing the reader into a position of accomplice, Eco successfully shocks and shakes the reader out of comfort and complacency and highlights the process by which normal people are seduced an manipulated into believing in scapegoats, and how stereotypes are used to create real enemies.  In the book, it was the Jews (the book ends towards the end of the nineteenth century, and every reader knows the horrors that were to await them  in the twentieth century), and if written during the Cold War it could have been the Russians or the Chinese.  Who would it be about if it was written today?

We live in a time when it feels that we are standing on a precipice, and this fear for our futures leaves us susceptible to exactly the kind of manipulations described in this book. Eco, by laying the process shockingly bare, warns us against our darker natures and inclinations.  We should listen to the warning.