Saturday, April 14, 2012

Fahrenheit 451: We Need to Be Really Bothered

            I saw that some unlucky fellow stumbled on my blog by typing into Google, “What does Montag mean when he tells Mildred ‘We need to be really bothered once in a while.’” I thought I would write about what that means.

            Dystopias are hyperbolic versions of our world, intended to make a point. The author will take a contemporary issue they’re concerned about – in Bradbury’s case, the rise of TV and the decline of American readers – and make the issue much more obvious than it is in real life.

            In Bradbury’s world, individuals have become desensitized due to television. Nothing matters except for the petty arguing of the people on their TV screens. However, outside of their homes wars are raging and television-less people are dying. Soldiers are going to war and their wives are too busy peering into their TV screens to notice. Children are growing up parentless for the same reason. And, above all, everybody is apathetic to these issues. No one cares.

            Actually, not true. Montag cares. That’s why he’s our protagonist. Montag gets “really bothered once in a while.” Quite often, actually. And I think Bradbury would like it if we got really bothered once in a while, too.

            However, Bradbury also makes the point that perhaps the world isn’t as apathetic as it seems. Maybe it’s just hopeless, and feels too defeated to face its fears. So it tries self-medicating its problems away, and as a result it turns to TV. TV is a nasty medicine, though – it doesn’t do anything to stop Mildred from attempting suicide. Montag remembers her suicide attempt shortly after telling her to be bothered, and the memory quiets him.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: The Best Book

Imagine going home one day to find an extra door in your house. Perhaps, on your second floor, there were two doors. Now there are three. What are you to do?

Imagine you are speaking to someone when a strange man erupts out of your living room mirror.

Imagine that magic is real, but has fallen into disuse. Now only "theoretical magicians" exist - men who gather in clubs to endlessly argue, but never practice, various branches of magic.

Imagine you leave a store one day and a man runs out to you with a silver diadem in his hands, saying that you left it behind. "But this is not mine!" you say. He assumes you are joking. "Oh, as if I have not seen it on your head a hundred times!" But you have never seen the crown before.

You are picturing a very small chunk of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Susanna Clarke spent ten years writing her massive, 800-page tome. In it is a story of two magicians living in an alternative Victorian England, where magic is real and socially accepted; but woven into that story is an entire false history of English magic. Clarke's book is riddled with footnotes describing a very convincing history that does not exist, outlining the rise, decline, and eventual revival of English magic. In it magic is made so historically convincing that, by page 200, you feel it must be real.

I keep trying to convey to people how amazing this book is, and I end up scaring them with my desperation. Or else I bore them with long rants about Clarke's clever methods. I'm like the first practicing magician of Victorian England, fretful Mr. Norrell:

"He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him."

Last night I was carrying on and on about this book to a friend, and once I stopped to catch my breath she said, "As wonderful of a synopsis as that was...could you tell me the book's title?" ...Oh. Yes. Yes, of course.

At some point I was reading this book and it suddenly dawned on me that this is my favorite book. That concept has always sounded very silly to me, but I feel confident in saying that the thousand-or-so books I've read in my life have not compared to this one, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

This is the best book. I don't know what else to say. More posts on this soon.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Invitation to a Beheading: A Confirmation


I found a quote from Nabokov's Strong Opinions that more or less confirms what I speculated on in my earlier post (You can find that post here):
'How do you write? What are your methods?

I find now that index cards are really the best kind of paper that I can use for the purpose. I don’t write consecutively from the beginning to the next chapter and so on to the end. I just fill in the gaps of the picture, of this jigsaw puzzle which is quite clear in my mind, picking out a piece here and a piece there and filling out part of the sky and part of the landscape and part of the—I don’t know, the carousing hunters.' [emphasis mine]

He wrote in fragments, in pictures, like a fickle painter jumping to and fro on a canvas. You can see this while reading his work.

In honor of that confirmation, I will quote another fragment of Invitation to a Beheading that has made a home in my mental collection of prose:

"Cincinnatus kept staring into the book. A drop had fallen on the page. Through the drop several letters turned from brevier to pica, having swollen as if a reading glass were lying over them."

This is the last sentence of Chapter Seven.

(By the way, in case you, like me, did not know the definitions of bevier and pica, the former is 8-point font, while the latter is 12-point font.)

 It's impressive that...

...Nabokov was mindful enough to note the effect of water on text. We've all seen it, but, as Sherlock Holmes would say, have we observed?
....he chose to write about it at all.
....he wrote about it well.

   His words are precise. 'Brevier' and 'pica.' Maybe these are more common words than I know them to be, but it's inarguable that Nabokov has a rich, distinct vocabulary. I wonder how he acquired it, especially since English was his third language. Did he have a systematic method for scooping arcane words into his active vocabulary?

Brevier and pica....brevier and pica indeed!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

If on a winter's night a traveler: Thinking About Thoughts

         I’ve been reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, translated most skillfully by William Weaver. It’s taking me much longer than it ought, seeing as how delightful it is and how reluctant I am to put it down once I pick it up.
            If I ever die (what a peculiar thing to say – of course I’ll die. And yet I can’t bring myself to say it with certainty. I need…the possibility…of something else.), I hope it happens quickly. I hope I don’t have even a millisecond to register that I am dying – I hope I am simply dead. Because if a tiny crumb of Time is given to me, I will consume it with one thought, and that thought will not concern myself, my family, any place I did not travel to, any thing I did not learn, or any amount of money I failed to make. The thought will be: I have not read enough, I have not written enough, and just thinking about thinking this thought makes me weak and nervous, tight-throated. Whenever I think about  how I may someday think this thought in some vague version of my future, I immediately start scrambling for all those books I want to read, and reread, and I start reading scraps of them all, absorbing none of them, and it’s awful.
(That was a very good excuse to not have finished a book yet, wasn't it? I'm almost proud.)           
            So Chapter One of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler: It begins by greeting you, the reader, very fearlessly, flaunting its second person with a sly I’m-very-clever-don’t-you-think-so? smile. (I do, in fact, think so.) It soon flashes back to when you bought the book in the bookstore. After it's done describing how you bought the book, a new sort of unfinished story begins, about a traveler in a train station.
         The part that addresses the reader directly feels more like a prologue than the first chapter, as if the two separate sections were accidentally merged. I wish it were a prologue, because then I would be able to say I have a favorite prologue, and it’s Italo Calvino’s, and I would feel somehow more well-read if I could say this.
            Italo Calvino, like most writers, is obviously a reader. Here’s an excerpt from his should-be-a-prologue-chapter-one:
            “In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.”
            And he continues to describe, among others,
Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
Books You Can Borrow From Somebody
Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages
Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer
Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified

            It brings me so much pleasure to be accurately described. What gives me even more pleasure, however, is seeing the world through a lucid lens that is far too lucid to be my own. Italo Calvino saw the world crystal clear. He must have, to alertly take note of how his own head processed the various books in a bookstore. These are all thoughts I’ve had as a reader and book-buyer, but I’ve never thought about those thoughts. I’ve never acknowledged that I have those thoughts, before Calvino pointed it out to me.
            One of the most pleasing things a writer can do for a reader is point out a reader’s thoughts, and force, for a time, mindfulness into the spirit of the reader.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

On Finite Communication, and Fandoms

            There are so many limitations to how well you can know someone. You can be married to another for twenty years, wake up every morning together, speak every day, but you’ll never be inside the other’s head. You’ll never share the same brain. And you’ll always have memories, of a time before you met that person, as if that person once didn’t exist, at least not for you. And is your significant other the only human with whom you want to connect? No, of course not. But people are wary of letting others in. So many conversations are superficial, like two consciences just barely skimming each other. More intense conversations involve a further mingling of consciences – more satisfying, yes, but still not enough. Not just because you’ll never share brains completely, but also because there are going to be quirks that you can scarcely tolerate in the other person. And the other person likely lacks the self-awareness to notice his quirks, let alone why the quirks exist. In order for meaningful conversation to take place, you must push those hated quirks of the other person to the back of your head. But they’re like a festering wound, and eventually they’ll reek so much that – meaningful conversation be damned – you’ll hate that person anyway, want your connection with him to wither.

            This is a depressing business, thinking of our finite connections to others. Fiction, though, is different.

            Fiction allows you to do what you would never do with real people. It’s never socially unacceptable to pry too far, or think too deeply about a fictional character’s motivations. Everything about the character is open to scrutiny: Childhood experiences, school friends, love life, eventually death, familial relationships, habits, places travelled, most bizarre thoughts. And since the character’s not real, there’s never been a time when you didn’t know her. You don’t have to be bugged by knowing that she had a childhood you didn’t get to experience with her – you can experience it with her. Time is meaningless when you care about a fictional character, and the connection to the character has no limitations (besides, of course, the character’s lack of existence, which is less major than it sounds).

Some reverence for the orginal, before...
            It’s relieving to know someone else as completely as you know yourself – to know what type of music he would like, to recognize the clothes he’d buy, to hear his thoughts inside your head. And you can never be wrong about him, you can never mistake a song he’d like for one he wouldn’t. He’s not real. You’re making things up as you go. Fictional characters are flexible.

            Consider the beloved Sherlock Holmes. If you were the roommate of Mr. Holmes, if he were real, you would likely despise him. He’s a drug user, he falls into bouts of depression and doesn’t leave his couch for days, he clutters the kitchen table with his science experiments. He’s aloof, he keeps weird sleeping hours, he invites seedy characters into your home, he deduces personal things about you that you wished he didn’t know. He’s condescending and sometimes manic. Objectively, Mr. Holmes makes a terrible roommate. But why is he so loved by the millions, timeless since his initial appearance in A Study in Scarlet? Because through fiction you are able to understand Holmes. It’s impossible to find someone odious if you fully understand them. Holmes’s drugs and mood changes and science experiences, the seedy characters and sleeping hours, even his violin playing, all stem from his need for continuous brain work. He was blessed with a remarkable brain and now he struggles to occupy it. After knowing that, you sympathize with him, and his quirks become manageable. Endearing, actually. In real life, however, it’s unlikely you would be able to lucidly peer into his brain. You’d probably move out of his flat in a week, leaving 221B behind forever.


            Onto a slightly different topic: fanfiction is a beautiful, underestimated process, because it allows its readers and writers to strengthen the “connection” they have to fictional characters. A book is read, and one of its characters is especially loved by the masses. Fanfiction is written about the character’s childhood, about how she became the lovable person she is in the book. Events that were alluded to in the book are written out in detail through fanfiction. The gaps are filled. The character is realer than ever.

            Fanfiction often isn’t taken seriously because anyone can make it. There aren’t any agents or publishers rejecting the rubbish stuff. But there is well-written fanfiction out there. Heaps of it, genuinely good. Deep, thoughtful, well-researched. So the argument of fanfiction being for-and-by silly 13 year olds doesn’t hold.

...I show you Benedict Cumberbatch's version of Mr. Holmes.
            Perhaps another reason why people rarely admit to being fans of fanfiction (except among close friends) is because it involves admitting that they have simulated an intense and deep connection with someone who does not exist. In many ways, it’s the most thorough connection they’ll ever have, and it’s personal. Letting the world see that they know someone thoroughly could make them vulnerable. In fact, I feel a little embarrassed by writing this, as if someone will think I’m crazy for feeling connected to fictional characters. But if you’ve ever read a book, then you’ve likely felt the same.

            In this way, fanfiction is what people write while they’re waiting for brain-merging machines to be invented. One day, maybe we will be able to share all of our thoughts with others, know each other completely. But until the world can figure out how to overcome finite communication, fictional characters are all we’ve got.

Friday, January 13, 2012

I Read Schopenhauer and Got Sad

I purchased a copy of Key Selections from The World as Will and Representation and Other Writings, edited by Wolfgang Schirmacher. I actually read this back in December, but I never blogged about it. I got a little down, let’s say. Not depressed or anything – just down. It was the weather, or the school, or the Schopenhauer, or the me. Let’s blame it on the Schopenhauer because that sounds most romantic.

The first selection is On the Suffering of the World, in which Schopenhauer boldly begins:
“If suffering is not the first and immediate object of our life, then our existence is the most inexpedient and inappropriate thing in the world. For it is absurd to assume that the infinite pain, which everywhere abounds in the world and springs from the want and misery essential to life, could be purposeless and purely accidental. Our susceptibility to pain is well-nigh infinite; but that to pleasure has narrow limits. It is true that each separate piece of misfortune seems to be an exception, but misfortune in general is the rule.”
One of his main points, which he brings up later, is that pleasure is merely the absence of pain. Think of a pulled muscle which has been relieved by an ice pack – the ice pack lessens the pain, and we perceive this as pleasure.

I don't understand why he wrote this without addressing the obvious argument, or perhaps I'm missing something. What about sources of pleasure that pain has no part in? Eating chocolate, for example, or hearing someone else's laughter. What about the way my ears smile when they hear Rachmaninov? They're not smiling because they're not bleeding, they're smiling because the piano is good! Schopenhauer liked sex. Did he think sex was just the absence of some pain? How does pleasure have a "negative nature" and pain a "positive" when all these pleasurable things fill us up so wonderfully? How is he defining pleasure, so that these things are not included?
I obviously haven’t studied Schopenhauer in depth, so my opinions are not opinions at all, only flimsy thoughts that could very well be wrong and will almost certainly change. But people refer to Schopenhauer as a western Buddhist of sorts. Even on the back of my book, Alain de Botton’s review mentions that Schopenhauer’s “exceptionally dark philosophy liberates us,” and Irvin Yalom has a novel out (which I haven’t read) called The Schopenhauer Cure.
This book, however, did not free me. It took my darkest thoughts and most petty grievances and put them on its pages for all the world to see. Reading Schopenhauer was like looking into a mirror; a selective, shadowy mirror. It was Schopenhauer's child Nietzsche who said "...if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes also into you." This book doesn't gaze into you so much as climb onto your back and make you carry it around, but eventually you have to shake it off. The longer it clung to me the sadder I felt, allowing this book to paint my world with deep murky purples instead of the colors of Buddhism, blue and blue and blue.*
Also, Schopenhauer has not written a word I have not thought, and subsequently I am confused as to why he’s famous today. Typically when my understanding of a subject broadens, my understanding of why that subject is appreciated broadens as well. Not so with Schopenhauer. I have no idea what makes him remarkable; reading his work did not impress me at all. What am I missing?

Finally, I haven’t read even half the essays in this book yet, but so far my favorite is On Noise. I know others laugh at Schopenhauer’s irritability where noise is involved, but I find myself very sympathetic. I too have been plagued by the useless, inane sound of the external world, and a quote I now think of daily is his:

“At times, I am tormented and disturbed for a while by a moderate and constant noise before I am clearly conscious thereof, since I feel it merely as a constant increase in the difficulty of thinking, like a weight tied to my foot, until I become aware of what it is.”
Yes. Yes, yes!

So thanks for the mirror Schopenhauer, or the monster on my back, or whatever it is I want to say you gave me. I’m a little confused about it, but that’s okay. It made for a nice, dark winter.

*This probably doesn't make sense to anyone, but I didn't want to clutter the above post by explaining more thoroughly. When I read Buddhist texts, I feel full of...emptiness, but a good emptiness, the emptiness Buddhist's speak of. You know what I'm talking about. And to me these texts are blue - a bright, vivid blue. But Schopenhauer's book made me feel dark purple. I know this isn't good evidence, saying, "Schopenhauer can't be the western Buddhist, because he's purple and not blue," but it pretty much settles the issue for me. And no one but me reads this blog anyway, so if I want to use my synesthetic proclivities as proof of something, I will.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sharp Words for Mr. Bradbury

         I finished Fahrenheit 451 and, experiencing that pleasantly sad, familiar feeling of having finished an excellent book, I was pleased to find an Afterword and a Coda still remained for my reading pleasure. But now instead of praise, I must express my disagreement in regards to Bradbury's Coda. In it Bradbury writes:

“About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.

But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?”

            He continues to give other examples of minority groups asking him to rewrite or drop his works, and then jumps to an entirely different topic, saying:
“Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ‘em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepencilled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like—in the finale—Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention—shot dead.
Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture? … The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
            And then he tells us that, “Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books first were burned by minorities.” He ends with scolding the outspoken minorities by saying that his work belongs to him, and, “All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I hit, I pitch, I catch. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try. And no one can help me. Not even you.”
            This sums up his coda. I feel it was necessary to provide the above text in order to refute it without distorting any of his ideas as they were presented.
            Firstly, the coda addresses two separate issues: Minorities asking him to change his work, and editors watering down books. These issues are often mutually exclusive, but in Bradbury’s mind they appear to be fused.

              He depicts the social activists and the sale-hungry editors as non-thinkers, the same entities with identical goals. And what could be further from the truth! How weary it makes me, this constant assumption that if you care about social justice and equity you must be sensitive, hysterical, petty, foul – an idiot. Someone whose ideas can be discarded. For the social activist is the antitheses of the non-thinker.
            The non-thinkers are the masses, those who passively consume and never stop to consider, “What are the consequences of my actions? How am I molding society by choosing this particular piece of media to digest? How is this book, this movie, this word, these clothes, changing the world? Am I encouraging the spread of an idea that, when I think about it, I don’t support?” Social activists are the ones who think complexly about what is in front of them, analyze it and ruminate on its broader implications.
            I’m disappointed that this revered writer would accept the portrayal of the social activist as the non-thinker. It only gives us all an excuse to not listen when activists speak. We accuse them of destroying Art and Freedom when they are the liberators of society.
            This blog is about me thinking about books. And yet the origins of me thinking cannot be found in books, but rather in feminism. It was feminism that got me thinking critically, and to suggest that I am a non-thinker because I am a feminist is absurd.
            In Fahrenheit 451, Montag says to his wife Mildred: “Let you alone! ... We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?
            Ah! Being really bothered about something is an action exulted by Montag, and one of the main points Bradbury addresses in his most famous book. But at the end of the book, he berates those who have become really bothered by him. The zenith of hypocrisy lies between the covers of Fahrenheit 451.
            And now I come to my point. It is okay to read books and think, “This writing is swell! But why are there only white, heterosexual males?” It is always okay to think critically about inequality – yes, even when the inequality is found in art and words. It is okay to wonder why there aren’t any women in the Martian Chronicles.
            Some writers shrink away from the responsibility of representing the world in a complex, diverse manner. And when suggested they leave their comfort zones and, say, change the genitalia or sexual preference of one of their characters, they yell in their coda, “Censorship! My art! No touching!”
            It’s not censorship. It’s critical thinking.
            And is a writer’s work a writer’s work? Which is to say, do Bradbury’s books belong only to Bradbury? I don’t think so, and I don’t think him insisting they do makes it any more true. Once an author agrees to publish and print their work, they’re giving a piece of it to each and every reader. Not legally, obviously, but I speak not of copyright laws. They’re giving the reader permission to analyze and judge the words before them. When I read a novel, its author is granting me the right to think anything I want about that novel.
            So your art is not your art – it’s your art, and also the art of your consumers. Because of this, writers and artists have a responsibility to inject social complexity into their work. When writers are writing only about white, heterosexual males, regardless the quality of their prose, I will raise my eyebrows and, yes – I will say they are not doing their job.
            But some of my favorite books do lack diversity. Fahrenheit 451, for example. Also Sherlock Holmes, many beloved plays of Shakespeare, almost any story I’ve read by Borges, etc. So clearly, the quality of a work does not hinge solely upon its representation of social complexity. But why not?
            Because as a reader, I am highly capable. When put in the hands of a good writer, my levels of empathy soar. This is because none of us, feminists or activists or passive consumers though we may be, identify only as women, or gays, or blacks. Everyone primarily identifies themselves as people. I am a person. Therefore, if I am reading about a person, I see myself in the pages.
            (If you are thinking about books narrated by animals or aliens, then you can argue that they were written by people, or say that we identify primarily as organisms.)
            To restate: Part of a writer’s job is to reflect social complexity in their work. If the writer fails, but his/her words are of quality, the reader can pick up the slack. And finally, it is okay to get really bothered about books, even if those books are by Ray Bradbury.