His Dark Materials – The Search For a Difficult Pleasure

I should really write two or three blogs this week, because there are lots and lots of words and stories presenting themselves as important to me recently. I’m trying (and failing in a spectacular fashion) to compose a short story for The Vanderbilt Review by this weekend, and the only reasons I haven’t yet entirely quit are the brilliant author pep talks on the website for National Novel Writing Month. When I compare my particular case of writer’s block with the hopelessness of trying to piece together an entire novel… there’s some schadenfreude  for sure.

                As I scrolled through the list of literature lovers whose essays are intended for encouragement in this month of inane novel production (by the way, some people really look like authors. Is there something I can do to be like them?), several names caught my eye as old favorites: Neil Gaiman, Brian Jacques, John Green, Garth Nix, Robin McKinley, Philip Pullman. Having been away from these authors for a while, I decided to revisit Pullman’s His Dark Materials over break. This trilogy of “young adult” novels is filled to bursting with literary allusions and a coming-of-age story for children and adults alike. As Pullman himself remarked, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” Too true, especially when your theme is a rebuttal of the central themes of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a celebration of the original sin that Milton and centuries of church teachings have condemned.

                What’s the story of these novels, Nathan?  I hear you asking. While it would take more than a full blog to do any justice to the story, the basic premise of the first book, The Golden Compass, begins with Lyra, the trilogy’s protagonist. Her uncle’s experiments and studies on a mysterious substance called “Dust” (eventually found to be the equivalent of our dark matter, but also the source of consciousness and, in the eyes of the church, the manifestation of original sin) lead her into a battle for the human soul as the Magisterium (Pullman’s church establishment) seeks to destroy this Dust, unknowing of the consequences for human consciousness.

The plot thickens when Will, a boy from our world, accidentally finds his way through a rift between universes into a third (the second and third novels take place in a variety of universes, traversed through rifts torn in the fabric of space, by the way) where Lyra is taking shelter. Their intertwined journeys introduce character after character based off of those from Milton’s work, from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and from older European folklore. In the interest of convincing first-timers to read through all three (the second and third of which are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), that’s where we’ll stop, but I will say that the allegory present in books two and three is impressive in scale and incredibly thought-provoking.

                A young adult epic on the rebellion of two children against the powers of organized religion is bound to provoke criticism, and His Dark Materials does not disappoint (though its admittedly much more subversive themes attracted relatively little attention next to the harmless Harry Potter series). Banned from many a school system library, Pullman’s works bring to mind the Oscar Wilde quote: “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” Indeed, the controversial nature of the story is the foremost reason to read it – Pullman presents two young characters with compelling growth and a coming-of-age story engaging to younger readers, set amidst a philosophically gargantuan conflict and a three-novel-scale commentary on the true nature of consciousness and sin in the human experience. Sprinkle in travel among parallel universes, fantastic creatures and settings from a parallel Himalayan mountain range to the underworld itself, and you have a story with enough depth and complexity to make its young-adult classification seem frankly foolish, but enough creativity and diversity to defy any boring classification like “Adult Literature.” What, then, should we call Pullman’s trilogy?

                “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure.” – Harold Bloom

I’d call it “required reading.”


Lincoln (Would Get My Vote)

If there’s one thing that America lacks as a virtue (or at least finds itself in short supply), it’s perspective. We have a widespread tendency to get wrapped up in our own problems and opinions and forget to take a breath and a chill pill every once in a while. The relevance of this problem is perhaps greatest today; Today the American people will celebrate the freedoms and rights of our democratic republic by electing the next President of the United States or allowing our current President to serve another term.

The importance of perspective in an election (and the seemingly universal lack thereof) lies in an examination of the consequences of the outcome. For many, a second term by our sitting President is apparently akin to taking a time machine directly to 1960s Soviet Russia, while for others, Romney’s election signals a one-way plane ticket to Canada. We view the results in the context of how they affect us personally, failing to keep in mind Kennedy’s famous mantra on “what we can do for our country.” Of all Americans, in fact, few give as much to their country as the President: being leader of the free world isn’t easy. The most trying Presidency in our history, however, will likely not be the Obama administration, nor the potential Romney administration, but Abraham Lincoln’s.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is one of the most compelling pseudo-biographies of all time, and is a fascinating look into the life of a man whose Presidency is as much myth as fact in our day and age. Based off of extensive research into biographies, letters, memoirs and diaries and proclaimed factually sound by the leading Lincoln experts and historians of our time, this novelization of Honest Abe’s presidency is a perfect election-day read. The Lincoln here is alive and breathing, and is a strong-willed yet flawed man – A real person rather than the simplified, bearded face in the history books. What makes the person of Lincoln so intriguing, Vidal shows, is that his entire Presidency is a tragedy.

                Lincoln’s election served as the signal for the secession of the Confederacy’s first seven states in 1860, the final of many signs that civil war was coming to America. “I hold,” he once said, “that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual.” Vidal portrays this determination to “preserve the Union” as an obsession, an idea to which Lincoln is forced to wholly dedicate himself in the face of a war-weary North and a cabinet full of dissenters. The tolls of the Presidency on Lincoln are horrific – Domestic troubles, political betrayal, and the failing of his health all consume his well-being, leading Lincoln to the tragic realization that, in my opinion, defines the novel as such an emotionally riveting and intense story: He must become a martyr for the Union.

                “I have no justice, or anything else now. It is fate that guides us all – and necessity.”

Lincoln’s resolve to restore the Union is nothing less than heroic. He tiredly utters the words above as he sits in Jefferson Davis’s chair in Richmond near the end of the war, the conflict and his defiance of those who would abandon the cause having robbed him of most of his strength. The only peace Lincoln seems to know during his embattled Presidency comes at its end: “He is lucky. He will belong to the ages, while we are obliged to live on in the wreckage.”  It is poignant indeed to think that President Lincoln knew he must give himself entirely to the Union, and the cost, in the end, was “the last full measure of devotion.”

                After you cast your vote today, pick up a copy of Vidal’s novel, sit down and read through it instead of watching the polls. The Presidency will be decided whether or not you have the news on, but you may be able to feel more empathy for the victor having seen the cost of the station: These men deteriorate in the Oval Office, sacrificing their health, their families, and, in some cases, their lives to the nation. The responsibility of maintaining a moral compass in peacetime, much less in a crisis like that of civil war, at the helm of the United States is tremendous and impossible to completely understand as an American citizen. That being said, Lincoln makes it a lot easier.

The Perfect Storm

Hurricane Katrina was one of the defining events in America’s modern history. It destroyed a city and showed us, for the second time in a few short years, that our oceanic isolation does not make us invulnerable to harm, and especially not invulnerable to the whims of nature. For some Americans, it was a rude wakeup – Oftentimes catastrophic weather seems relegated to international news (tsunamis never seem to hit Panama City Beach) and disaster movies (The Day After Tomorrow – style) rather than being a serious concern. Many of the most famous nature writers of yore wax eloquent on the virtues of nature, the beauty and grace of flowers and grass and peace and all that good stuff. For instance:

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” – Walt Whitman

Good stuff. Maybe it’s misleading of me to use a Whitman quote (that guy really loved grass), but the point remains: we like our nature to either be tranquil and freeing (“Earth laughs in flowers” – Emerson) or spectacular to the point of absurdity (again, The Day After Tomorrow works here). So what happens when the weather comes along and threatens our day-to-day routine, our homes, and our livelihoods? 

Hurricane-turned-“superstorm” Sandy has been thrashing the Northeastern U.S. for several days, and the scope of the damage is only now becoming fully apparent. Millions are without power, over 40 have died, and transportation has ground to a halt in our largest city. “All of us have been shocked by the force of Mother Nature,” the President told us yesterday, a statement that seems to echo the repeated naivete of mankind in the face of freakish weather.

Reading about the formation of Sandy (the combination of a high-pressure system, a low-pressure system, and a hurricane) brought to mind an eerily appropriate quote from a book by Sebastian Junger:

“Meteorologists see perfection in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case, this is the perfect storm.”

The comparisons between Sandy and the 1991 Nor’Easter now commonly known as “the perfect storm” have already been extensively made, but, apart from an attempt at interviewing Junger in hopes of obtaining a foreboding quote (which ended in failure, thankfully), little attention has actually been paid to The Perfect Storm. The story, familiar to many from the movie adaptation (nothing like George Clooney to spice up those boring books), is that of the Andrea Gail, a swordfishing boat and her crew lost at sea during the storm. The question raised in the very first pages of the book is one that extends beyond the impact of a single storm:

“How do men act in a sinking ship? Do they hold each other? Do they pass around the whiskey? Do they cry?”

Junger struggles with this question in his attempts to portray the last hours of six men through the scope of “creative nonfiction,” a genre that focuses on constructing a narrative from factual plot points and characters (other examples include Capote’s In Cold Blood or Michener’s The Source). The real power of the story is found in this struggle rather than in the ferocity of the storm, or even in the heroism of the pararescue personnel who rescue the crew of a downed Air National Guard helicopter. We can marvel at heroism or shudder at descriptions of the storm (NOAA buoys recorded waves up to 100 feet tall, that’s scary as shit), but nothing stirs the heart quite like the fear of pondering our own last moments. We are forced to acknowledge our own mortality in the face of circumstances beyond our control, and we are reminded of what is ultimately our individual frailty in the face of nature – It can be the journey-work of the stars, but it can be massive and indifferent, and we might do well to remember that before the storms lurch towards our population centers.

 In other words, read a book and do some reflection. It’s good for you.

@CyrusHarding and The Mysterious Island

Cyrus Harding would have a great Twitter account.

Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island is my favorite novel, in no small part due to the most remarkable of the protagonists, Cyrus Harding*. The only time he’s not fascinating me with his encyclopedic knowledge and determination is when he’s disappeared, presumably lost to the ocean, near the story’s beginning (SPOILER: He is alive). To qualify such a ridiculous claim, though, as the idea that a character from a Jules Verne novel would be a good Tweeter, I should first provide some backstory.

Cyrus and his five companions (one of whom is his Labrador, Top) are POWs in the Civil War who, through their audacity and spirit of adventure (two traits of which they have no shortage), escape from the Confederate fort where they are being held via hot air balloon. A massive storm sweeps the balloon away and eventually drops the men and their canine on a resource-rich but isolated island, where they not only survive, but thrive thanks to their indomitable will and the vast intellect of Cyrus the engineer. As Cyrus leads his friends, all of whom commit themselves wholeheartedly to creating a home on Lincoln Island (the name given their landmass by the group in honor of the then-President), he proves himself to be an endless fount of pithy wisdom, which I love!

“It is better to put things in their worst light at first, and to reserve those which are better, as a surprise.”

This could easily be a Tweet. He even had enough spare characters to add one of the infamous Twitter hashtags:

          @CyrusHarding: It is better to put things in their worst light at first, and to reserve those which are better, as a surprise. #optimism

The possibilities are endless! He could Tweet all his great conversational quotes,

          @CyrusHarding: All great actions return to God, from whom they are derived. #Reassuring

or he could Tweet his own favorite quotes (which I’m pretty sure would be the only thing I’d do with a Twitter – why make up my own words when there are so many good ones already out there??):

          @CyrusHarding: “I can undertake and persevere even without hope of success.” #WilliamofOrange #Thatguyrocked

The six settlers eventually overcome the basic challenges of survival such as food and shelter, leaving them time and inclination to improve their standard of living, to make their stay on the island more like living and less like surviving. It’s the juxtaposition of these two parts to settling that I like the most: Surviving is a natural instinct, but looking for fulfillment, working to constantly better oneself and make the most of a situation is a human instinct. As the basics of survival become less of a pressing issue, however, the island presents new challenges to the settlers, including a mysterious presence whose appearance only comes at times of dire need. This strange, seemingly omnipotent third party brings about my favorite selection from the novel, and one of my favorite quotes of all time:

“Nevertheless, his dogged sense of reason was exasperated to find itself faced with such a thoroughly inexplicable event, and he raged at the thought that around him, or perhaps above him, lurked an influence he could not define.”

I absolutely love the humanism – Cyrus is never as frustrated by any physical or mental challenge on the island as he is by the thought that his life is being governed by the unknown. If there’s any reason to read this novel besides the excellent plot (Verne pioneered science fiction, and if any of the stranded-on-an-island bit sounds cliché, it’s not – he was one of the first to write such a story), it’s Cyrus Harding. If there was ever a role model, the eternally optimistic, strong-willed engineer is it. Cyrus shows us the power of knowledge, as well as the power of confidence and determination in the face of physical, mental, and spiritual adversity. We could use some more courageous men and women like Cyrus Harding.

          @CyrusHarding: A man must do his duty, right to the bitter end! #InspirationalQuotes #YourDutyToReadThisBook


*The more recent and more proliferated translation opts for Cyrus Smith, which is apparently truer to the equivalent of Verne’s original French, but the older translation I read many a time in one of my middle school libraries featured Cyrus Harding, so he’ll forever be a Harding in my heart.

Homer, Tennyson, and Escaping the Cubicle

“How dull it is to pause, to make an end

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”

The world can be awesome (see last week’s blog), but sometimes adulthood looks pretty bleak. Don’t get me wrong, being financially secure and comfortable is a great place to be, but the day-job working world (from the outside) seems like an incredibly dull place. I suppose it’s just the way Western society works that makes us subsistence-centric, but it’s sure enough to make a guy wish for some old-fashioned (and I mean old) adventure. Fortunately, books have always had my back when I want to travel, and this time is no different. For one of literature’s greatest adventures, I only had to go as far as the bookshelf next to my desk!

Homer’s Iliad (which, in fairness, is a poem rather than my usual prose) has all the elements of a great adventure (and, honestly, defined those elements, being one of the oldest things ever written): Prophesies, epic quests, great battles and heroic characters that make working in a cubicle seem laughable. Much of the poem’s attention is on Achilles, the famous hot-headed, half-divine warrior with the foot problems. For anyone unfamiliar with the story of the Iliad, we find ourselves on the plains of modern-day Turkey, at the foot of the walls of Troy, where the Greeks are laying siege to the Trojans to reclaim the Spartan king’s wife, Helen. The majority of the plot develops in the tenth and final year of the siege, when the (presumably impatient) besiegers and besieged do quite a lot of battling and tricking one another. The gods are present too; Zeus and Apollo are Trojan supporters, while Poseidon and the rest of the gods favor the Greeks. The details of the story are too extensive to even summarize, but a few of the most important characters should make an appearance in this case for reading Homer.

First, Achilles. Half man, half god, Achilles spends the latter of the Iliad rampaging around the walls of Troy, slaying enough men to stop a river with their bodies as a result of his grief over the death of his comrade Patroclus. His rage proves itself enough to actually defy fate itself (which was kind of a big deal in those days) and his love for his countrymen is pretty inspiring. Homer treats Achilles as the main protagonist of the poem, so you’ll get to know him well.

As interesting as Achilles is (his name is a Greek conjunction of “grief” and “people,” yet he embodies the idea that war is glorious CONTRADICTIONS EVERYWHERE), I’m personally an Odysseus fan. Odysseus conquers the Trojan War in basically the same way I try to conquer things like breakfast or homework: with equal and very large doses of eloquence and badass. The timeless Trojan Horse ploy was his brainchild, and he alternately rallies/calms the other Greeks as the situation calls for – Odysseus embodies leadership at its finest.

Now, as an aside – it’s been at least two weeks since I’ve written about a male British author from the 1800s (far too long), and one of my favorites has a word or to say about Odysseus (Ulysses) – Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tennyson’s Ulysses is, without a doubt, my favorite poem of all time. To talk at length about the Iliad but leave out this excellent piece of supplementary literature would be a disservice to all three readers of the blog. Ulysses finds Odysseus an aged king, sitting on his throne in Ithaca, wishing to once more journey forth in the face of peril. Behold!

Come, my friends,

T is not too late to seek a newer world…

…To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.”

There is absolutely no way to not feel inspired by this poem.

Homer introduces us to the epic heroes of the Greeks, to the classic mythology that shaped a civilization and that still has the power to stir us today. Even a few pages of The Iliad are enough to cure the stalest cubicle-dweller of complacency (and replace it with restlessness). Homer is (sort of) like the most highly regarded self-help author of all time. If you can accept that premise, then:

1.       Read The Iliad (and The Odyssey when you’re done).

2.       Enjoy this second (and incredible) passage from Tennyson’s Ulysses, which is like the much shorter sequel to Homer’s self-motivation poems:

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.”

Fabric of the Cosmos (So Many Books)

Stefanie Hollmichel loves books. A circulation assistant at a university library, Hollmichel describes herself as an “omnivorous reader,” a term I will be blatantly lifting for my own nefarious purposes from now on. In addition to being an omnivorous reader, she’s clearly a prolific one – Her “Books Read in 2012” list is in the 50s right now, an impressive feat when considering the depth and breadth of her selections.

The appropriately titled So Many Books is Hollmichel’s personal blog, where she writes bite-sized reviews/musings on what she’s read, as well as some other fun tidbits like excerpts from letters (I found one from C.S. Lewis on how to write that I think I’ll be putting on my wall) or the importance of reading banned books. I’ve been exploring some of her older posts, as well as keeping up with her near-daily updates, and I haven’t been disappointed! Her wide selection of titles and her lack of pretension remind me of myself (or how I’d like to think of myself, at least). What really sealed the deal for me, though, besides her very extensive list of “bookish quotes” (“It is the good reader that makes the good book.” – Emerson) was the discovery of one of my favorite science books in her past reading lists: The Fabric of the Cosmos.

Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos is the second of his three popular books on complex modern physics, and, in my opinion, the best one. Greene is perhaps the world’s leading expert in string theory, a new area of study in physics aimed at modeling the universe in a way that can unify Einstein and Newton’s currently incompatible theories of relativity and motion, respectively. Nerd-speak aside, the science addressed in Greene’s work is mind-boggling at the very least. What makes Cosmos (not to be confused with Carl Sagan’s also-excellent book) remarkable is its accessibility despite the inherent complexity of the topics addressed. Greene starts readers with a basic introduction of Newton, Einstein, and Mach, then takes a turn for the weird as he addresses quantum mechanics, the linearity and flow of time, spacetime symmetry and inflationary cosmology, and unification of theoretical physics. Rad.

Hollmichel puts the reading experience of Cosmos rather well:

“The book made my head hurt but it was a good hurt, the kind that comes from thinking hard. And sometimes I thought I grasped what Greene was talking about when I closed the book and then the next day when I picked it up I realized I only understood a little bit…More things than you expect will stick and some things that didn’t make sense in chapter four will suddenly make sense–mostly–in chapter thirteen.”

The fact that Hollmichel, whose reading list for this year includes Dickens, Euripides, and Kafka, not only read but apparently immensely enjoyed it (“I’ve not read Elegant Universe [Greene’s first book] but now I’ll have to”) speaks to the repressed Renaissance man in me. The desire to read in a thousand directions and the desperation that comes with knowing you can never read as much as you want to are all too familiar, and the quiet enthusiasm for words (“I also like to read ingredient labels, but won’t talk about that here”) is endearing and relaxing. It’s appropriate, I suppose, that a blog about books should be comfortable in tone, like sitting in a squishy armchair and talking to a friend about your respective book lists over a cup of coffee. On a rainy day.

In a sweater.

Besides convincing me to follow So Many Books (and maybe try to record my own reading lists?), Hollmichel’s “The Universe is a Weird Place” post reminds me why everyone, not just physics phans, should be reading this book. Wonder! I very vividly remember, for some reason, finishing a chapter in Fabric of the Cosmos at the barbershop freshman year, flipping back, and starting it over because I needed a second go-around just to grasp what was going on around me. It’s such a great feeling to blow your mind, to look around and see everything with a fresh eye. Too often we get caught up in the mundanity and minutiae of everyday tasks, or consider watching the Presidential debates to be thinking big. A few chapters of this book and a minute or two looking up at the stars in a glorious daze is my prescription for that particular problem, so go read! Science is waiting to show you how crazy the universe is, and your brain is waiting for the good exercise. I’ll be here catching up on So Many Books – I’ve got a few years’ worth of lists to get through!

The Moviegoer

 “Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.”

                 According to some very smart people, the rates of anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide have between doubled and tripled for college students in the past 15 years. We’re a demographic that has everything, and that’s exactly the problem – The incredible amount of information we’re expected to take in, the ever-increasing standards perpetuated by rapidly sinking admissions rates, and, most recently, the 24-hour social examination created by social networking like Facebook have left us exhausted and, in many cases, unable to cope.

                I was taught the perfect word for this feeling back in 9th grade. “Malaise” is “a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being, cynicism and despair.” Perhaps despair is a mildly melodramatic term, but there’s no doubt that we’ve got plenty of cynicism. Is there a guide to handling this feeling? A story of overcoming moral unease and cynicism to become a more fulfilled world citizen?

Nope, but there is Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

“You live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

                I’m going to be honest, I didn’t enjoy The Moviegoer the first time through. I wasn’t ready to think, and there’s no easy climax to skim towards; the payoff of the book is in its examination of an emotional state actually defined by vagueness. That being said, I generally don’t expect kids coming out of middle school to identify with malaise anyways, hormones are much too serious to be bothered with things like a nagging sense of ill-being. Back on track: The novel follows Binx Bollings, a stockbroker and Korean War veteran in New Orleans, as he struggles to define himself in terms of his few unsatisfactory relationships and the hollowness of day-to-day living. Seems relevant.

                What makes this story so interesting to me, and, I think, so applicable to today’s widespread feeling of unrest is how commonplace everything seems. Binx is not an extraordinary Ubermensch embarking on some great quest to find himself, or battling the demons of his (*Insert very dramatic mental illness or perhaps addiction*) in order to save himself and his true love, or anything like that. Instead, he struggles to find fulfillment in the small and simple interactions that make up an average day, frequently (almost religiously) turning to movies for comfort and for the soul-soothing stories they tell. In some way, we’re all struggling to find our place in a world that seems to be moving at an impossibly fast pace, and where stress and cynicism are afflictions as widespread as the plague. Unfortunately, despite what we (I) would like to think, our lives are not always Homeric adventures, with obvious antagonists and clear-cut conclusions. We do look to movies and TV for comfort and familiarity.

                “I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.”

                Last week, H.G. Wells warned us about the dangers of complacency in a technological society. Percy’s thoughts on companionship actually tie into our time in a less apocalyptic and more ironic manner – As new electronic means of communicating sprout from store shelves like so many high-priced heads of cabbage, we are getting worse at building relationships and at getting along with one another. When every piece of information, endless entertaining games, and addicting acerbic articles abound on the Internet, why should we invest ourselves in one another? The idea of surprise at finding that another person is genuinely interested in what I have to say is not a foreign one. I know I’m not always super at interacting or going out of my way to form relationships. It’s downright scary to strike up conversation with new people, and I do find myself feeling detached. In other words, Binx Bollings speaks to me personally as well as to me as a member of my generation.

                There’s a disclaimer that I’m obligated to provide here: Percy writes a beautiful and real portrait of loneliness and the search for fulfillment in the face of spiritual unrest… but doesn’t offer a prescription (this is funny because Percy was an M.D., so LAUGH!). I can’t pretend that reading this book is going to reveal the secrets of spiritual well-being, but that would be too easy anyway. Instead, read it because a deeper understanding of the problem is the only way we can find our own personal solutions. Read it because your life is too short to waste on malaise.