September reading review – We’re now over a week into the month of October, but I have only just now finished up my review of September reading. Thanks to a significant amount of time spent ill, I ended up reading quite a bit last month—a full dozen books, actually. Seven of those books are a series, though, and I will be discussing those as one, so I will only be dealing with six “works.” As you might imagine, this is going to be an extremely long entry—nearly 8,000 words long, in fact, so strap in.
In the Heart of the Sea (Nathaniel Philbrick, 2000)
I saw the film version of this book on a plane once, so when I saw the book in the bookcase here in our new apartment, I was immediately drawn to it. (If you’re not familiar with the story, it is the true tale of a whaling ship that was destroyed by a vengeful whale, and of the survivors’ desperate struggle to cling to life on the ocean.) I ending up reading it from cover to cover in one sitting. What can I say—I’m a sucker for true stories researched and told well, and this one was both. Also, I was sick, and we didn’t have an internet connection that first weekend, so this seemed like a pretty good way to pass the time. If you’re curious about how the film compares with the book, I can say that this is yet another case where the book is much better than the film. I did enjoy the film (although it was, generally speaking, critically panned), but the depiction of the survivors’ suffering was rather weak compared to the horror of the book. The film characters look like they’ve merely had a bit of a rough day at sea, not like they are starving and truly desperate.
I must confess that I have very limited experience with real hunger. There have been times when I have been hungry, but I have never experienced true starvation—like many people around the world have. I do know that I get very irritable when I am hungry, though. Over the summer, HJ decided that she wanted to a do a “fruit cleanse,” and she somehow convinced me to do it with her (my mom joined as well). The conceit is that you eat only fruit for a period of three days. You can eat as much fruit as you want, but there is a catch: You can only eat a single type of fruit at each meal. So, for example, you might have pineapple for breakfast, apples for lunch, and bananas for dinner. Fair enough, right? Well, can you imagine eating more than, say, two apples in a sitting? As a skinny guy, I can’t. Maybe at best I could stuff down three, but that’s a stretch (literally—I would be stretching my stomach). The problem is that a single large apple has only a little over a hundred calories. Two apples would be under 250 calories; even three would be about 350 calories. A large banana has roughly the same amount of calories as a large apple (maybe a few more). So, you’re starting to get the picture here: In a given day of this cleanse, you’re getting maybe 750 to 1,000 calories total.
Now, I’ve fasted before. I once went four days without eating a thing, and I only started eating again because I thought it might be a good idea. (This fast wasn’t something I did on purpose—I just stopped eating out of depression, but that’s another story.) After the first day, the hunger pangs went away, and I was able to go about my business without too much trouble. Granted, I didn’t have as much energy as usual, and I imagine that if I had continued on that way things could have gotten bad, but it wasn’t that difficult to do for a relatively short period of time. During the fruit cleanse, though, I was constantly hungry. And I became a nightmare. At one point I probably could have strangled the next family member who smiled at me. HJ and my mom didn’t seem to have a problem with it, and they both finished the cleanse looking disgustingly pleased with themselves. But it only took me a day to turn into a wild, vicious animal. I had planned to stick it out just to prove that I could—and I have a strong enough will that I know I could have done it—but I realized that it was making me miserable and everyone around me miserable, and that it was foolish to continue for the sake of my ego. So I stopped, ate a regular meal for lunch on the second day, and was more or less immediately a much more pleasant person to be around.
That may seem like a bit of a rambling tangent, but I share the story because I can absolutely imagine how hunger might make people do things they would otherwise never dream of. Imagining as I read being stuck in a small boat in the middle of the ocean, rationing out food and water to keep myself alive but never having enough to be relieved of hunger... this made me tremble with dread. It is easy to sit at home and judge people for extreme actions (such as cannibalism) taken in times of starvation, but what would I do in the same situation? I don’t know, and I hope I never find out. But do I think I am capable of eating a fellow human being in order to survive? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m capable of that. So I will withhold judgment, and be grateful that I can read about this horrific experience from the comfort of a warm house with food in my belly, even if I was sick. (Actually, I forgot all about my sickness while reading the book, which is saying something.)
Incidentally, since we’re on the topic of cannibalism, in a visit to Salem a few weeks ago I discovered that cannibalism was actually once a fairly normal part of life. Mummies were used to make medicine in Egypt, and in Europe the bodies of executed criminals and others were thought to have great power in the field of “corpse medicine.” King Charles II of England made his own corpse medicine in the 17th century, and his father, King Charles I was made into corpse medicine. In that light, the eating of human flesh to stave off starvation doesn’t seem quite as grisly.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time talking about hunger, starvation, and what people will do to survive, but there was a lot more to the book than that. One of the many other differences between the film and the book was that the film made the first mate (played by Chris Hemsworth) out to be a much more heroic figure and the captain out to be much more of a villain than either where in the book. In the book, they are both complex characters with their own motivations and trials, successes and failures. You know, like real people. All in all, I definitely preferred the book to the film. I know this is a relatively short review (especially compared to what’s coming later on in this entry), but I was very sick when I read the book and did not take any notes, so I’m just going solely on my fevered memories here. I did enjoy the book quite a bit, though, and would recommend it if you’re a fan of history and true stories.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne, 2005 [English translation by Lewis Mercier])
This one I’m going to keep real short. As I was wondering what book to tackle next after finishing In the Heart of the Sea, I remembered that my friend’s son was reading this Jules Verne book when we visited them over the summer. Also, it seemed like a logical step from adventures on the ocean to adventures under the ocean. I have read the book before, but it’s been decades—probably over three decades now. I was a big fan of Jules Verne when I was younger, but my favorite of his books was Journey to the Center of the Earth, followed by Around the World in Eighty Days. I’ve read both of those numerous times over the years, but this is only the second time I’ve read 20,000 Leagues.
Verne’s stories are, of course, science fiction, with a heavy emphasis on the “fiction.” There are many aspects of the story that are scientifically untenable, but that’s not really the point (and much of what looks clearly untenable to us now is only so in retrospect). The point is that Verne had an incredible imagination and a knack for telling fantastic yet believable stories. Reading 20,000 Leagues as an adult, I think I caught a lot more than I had as a child—like the political aspects of Nemo’s one-man struggle against imperial Britain, for example. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially since it was almost entirely new to me again, but I think I still prefer Journey. The two works do have some similarities, of course, namely in that they both have narrator-protagonists who are taken on a journey against their will to a fantastic world. I think I have more of an appreciation for the relationship between the protagonist of Journey and his uncle, and the setting of that book appeals to me more as well. But 20,000 Leagues is still a great book, and I was happy to be able to discuss it (if only briefly) with my friend’s son when they came up to visit a couple of weeks ago.
The Harry Potter Series (J. K. Rowling, 1997-2007)
Yep—I read the whole series. The first book happened to be one of the books I found in the bookcase here, and I read that while I was sick. Then I decided to just read the rest of them as well. I’ve actually read the books before, but I never got around to writing a review of them (which is something I had intended to do), so I figured I would read them again and take this opportunity to finally check that off my list. I’m not going to bother reviewing the books individually, although I will say that Order of the Phoenix is absolutely unbearable. I thought so on the first reading, and I thought so this time around as well. It is the longest book in the entire series (even longer than the book that was made into two films), and most of that is filled with Harry being a whiny, insufferable teenager, lashing out at all those around him. Why did I put myself through the torture a second time? I did it for you, dear Reader. I did it for you.
There’s a lot that could be said about the Harry Potter series (hereafter, “HP”), but I’m only going to address a few areas, and (relatively) briefly at that. The first is the writing. Stephen King famously said that J. K. Rowling never met an adverb she didn’t like, and boy is that ever true. Rowling is particularly fond of adding adverbs to dialogue tags. If I had a dime for every time that Hermione said something breathlessly, I’d have almost as much money as Rowling. In terms of technique, the writing isn’t the best, but if we’re being honest it’s also not anywhere near the worst. Also, bestseller lists have shown that the technical aspects of writing are not nearly as important as simply telling a good story, and Rowling’s ridiculous success would seem to indicate that she has indeed spun a good yarn.
This is probably as good a time as any to note that I am not going to worry about spoilers here. That is, I am going to discuss important plot points without bothering to hold anything back, so if you somehow have not been exposed to HP yet and plan on reading the books in the future, you might want to skip this. This is not to say that I am going to be nitpicking plot holes or anything like that—even the best books suffer from plot holes from time to time, and I’m inclined to be forgiving here, especially since the plot holes don’t really affect the story. I’m also (mostly) not going to analyze the story, which follows a well-worn heroic template, either. I’m more interested in the world of the HP universe. By way of easing into that discussion, I’d like to point you to a podcast by the philosopher Roger Scruton on HP. His main point is that “Potterism” espouses a sort of “soft socialism” by teaching people that anything is within reach, if only one knows the proper spell. As he puts it: “Rowling’s hero and his circumstances have so invaded the culture that people are beginning to live in a kind of cyber-Hogwarts, believing that all is within their power, since wishing for something is halfway to obtaining it.”
I’m not going to discuss the socio-political implications of Potterism (or if it even really deserves the status of -ism), but Scruton makes two points in support of his argument that I found interesting in and of themselves. The first is something that I had not thought of before but struck me like a bolt of lightning when I heard it. The stories, he says, “rely on an old-fashioned and very English form of enchantment, while avoiding all reference to our traditional religious beliefs.” Of course, he’s absolutely right. Of the Malinowskian triad, only science and magic are present, and religion is left completely out of the equation. In the HP books, magic is set only against muggle (the wizarding world’s term for non-magical peoples) technology; there is a wizarding equivalent for just about every field, whether it be communication, transportation, or even sport. But there is no mention of religion; the closest we get to a church (as far as I can remember) is the graveyard in which Voldemort finally returns to life, but I can’t remember there being an actual church next to it. There are all sorts of people in the muggle world, but not once do we see a priest. Sunday is only important insofar as there is no postal service.
This is fascinating to me, although perhaps not for the same reasons that Scruton has in mind. From an anthropological perspective, it seems as if the HP universe—and magical peoples even more so than muggles—should most certainly have some form of religion. Why? There is one very convincing reason: In the HP world, we know without a doubt that human beings have souls that are distinct from their material forms, and that there is an afterlife for these souls. The ghosts at Hogwarts are irrefutable evidence of this. Many a reader might wonder why not all who die remain in this world as ghosts, and, after Sirius’s death, Harry goes to Nearly Headless Nick to ask him this very question. Nick informs him that he remained as a ghost because he did not have the courage to “go on,” indicating that the proper path for a deceased individual is to leave the mortal realm for whatever comes next. When Harry faces Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest and is hit with the killing curse for the second time in his life, he finds himself in a pure white, radiance-infused version of King’s Cross, where Dumbledore tells him that, if Harry wanted, he could probably catch a train. When Harry asks Dumbledore where the train will take him, the old wizard simply replies: “On.” Harry is in a liminal place—appropriate, then, that it should be represented by such a liminal location as a train station—and has the choice to either move on (that is, die and enter the afterlife) or return to fulfill his destiny.
Add to this the fact that magic has no answers regarding the immortal soul and the afterlife, and the argument grows stronger. Snape, at the beginning of the first Potions class Harry and his cohorts ever take, tells the students that he can teach them to even “stopper death.” This is likely a reference to the Elixir of Life, created with the help of the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Sorceror’s Stone, as in the US versions of the book). This elixir can indeed keep the drinker alive indefinitely, but it must be drunk continuously. Horcruxes are another means of prolonging life, though they are a much more evil and costly method than the alchemical use of the Philosopher’s Stone. There are many substances and spells that can bring someone back from the brink of death; unicorn blood is one, but drinking it curses the drinker. For all the ways that wizards and witches have of keeping the Grim Reaper at bay, though, there is no bringing back someone once they have passed on. That is, the magical world has no answers for the riddle of death. This is something Harry runs into several times over the course of the series, first with his parents, then with Sirius, and later with Dumbledore. He does talk with his deceased parents twice—first during the duel with Voldemort in the graveyard and second before his encounter with Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest—but both times they are only shades, not really a part of the material world. Even the Resurrection Stone, despite its name, can’t really bring people back from the dead. Given all of this, one would think that wizards would develop some sort of beliefs about the soul and its ultimate destination, but we never see anything of the kind.
(At this point, I should probably say that the afterlife is not religion’s only concern, and that the major world religions concern themselves with the afterlife to varying degrees. However, the afterlife is a very important of Christianity, which is culturally the dominant religion where the HP series takes place. While it is true that much of Christianity deals with how one should act in this life, we cannot forget that the apostle Paul says very clearly that the Christian faith is pointless without the resurrection of the dead (see I Corinthians 15:13-14). Thus I don’t think it is too much of a leap to assume that the irrefutable existence of the soul should lead to some religious thought in the HP universe.)
I’m not sure why Rowling eschewed religion entirely. In Scruton’s view, this was a deliberate choice as part of an attempt to convey a particular (and damaging) worldview. Perhaps. I do wonder, though, if Rowling simply did not want to tackle the complexities of a world that included the full Malinowskian triad. Because it certainly would have complicated things. I do find it to be a fascinating question, though. What would religion look like for wizards and witches? Would it be something unique, like everything else in the wizarding world? Or would it resembled muggle religion, and act as something that could bridge the gap between the two worlds? I suppose we will never know.
The point that really resonated with me from Scruton’s podcast, though, was the distinction between two different types of children’s literature: the “less artful” form, which is “addressed specifically to the child’s state of mind” and is “not about the world as it really is, but about the world as children perceive it when deprived of adult wisdom and experience,” and a more artful form (seen in the works of Lewis Carroll, for example) that is “aimed not at the child, but at the idea of the child, literature that frames the childish mind, treasures it, and also uses it to convey truths about adult reality.” The HP series, in Scruton’s opinion, is of the latter kind, and shows “an adult world entirely invaded by childish fears and illusions.”
I have to agree with Scruton here, even if again I am not as interested in pursuing his argument to the end he reaches. When forced to give my opinion of the HP series to friends and acquaintances, I have described it as a metaphor for what it’s like to be a teenager, or at least how teenagers view the world: Adults are evil at worst (Snape) and opaque at best (Dumbledore); every situation is fraught with peril, even mortal peril; and in the end it is the kids who have to save the day while the adults look on. In other words, it is about “the world as children perceive it when deprived of adult wisdom and experience.”
I became convinced of this not because of the actions of Harry and his friends (although emo Harry in Order of the Phoenix brought my patience to the breaking point), but because of how the adults act. Take Snape, for example, who is Harry’s nemesis from the moment the young boy sets foot in Hogwarts. We learn later that he hates Harry because Harry resembles his father James, who tortured Snape when they were at Hogwarts together as students. We also learn that many times when Harry assumed the worst about Snape, Snape was actually acting in Harry’s interests. The first example of this is during the Quidditch match in the first book, when the children assume that it is Snape who is jinxing Harry’s broom, but it turns out that Snape was actually muttering a counter-curse that probably saved Harry’s life—or at least saved him a lot of pain and suffering. And, at the end of the series, we learn about everything that Snape had done along the way to help Harry, all out of love for Harry’s mother.
Years later, Harry names his son after Dumbledore and Snape, and he tells him that Snape was “probably the bravest man I ever knew.” OK, so I’ve read the HP series twice now, and this still feels entirely unearned to me. I guess we’re supposed to have a change of heart toward Snape because of how he suffered as a child, and because his love for Harry’s mother was pure and undying, and because he was really working for the good guys all along. There’s no denying that Snape played a critical role in Dumbledore’s master plan, and without him everything would have fallen apart. But that doesn’t change the fact that Snape was a petty, vindictive, and small man who had no problem using his position of authority to torment Harry (in particular) and everyone who was not a member of House Slytherin. I dreaded reading those sections in the books when Harry and the Gryffindors have Potions with Snape, because I just knew Snape was going to be his usual awful self.
There is one scene in particular that sticks with me. Harry has just completed a potion and brought the flask up to Snape’s desk for grading. He then turns away, so we don’t see exactly what happens, but we hear a crash and shattering of glass, followed by a gloating “Oops” from Snape. “No marks for you once again, Potter,” he adds (I’m paraphrasing). So, wait, back up a second. A teacher deliberately and openly sabotages a student’s work and then punishes the student for it? How is that in any way fair? It’s not, of course, because Snape is a horrible, morally bankrupt person.
But what about his noble fight for good, you cry. Pshaw, I say. Pshaw! Snape did what he did out of love, because he thought he was protecting Harry to honor Lily’s memory. Dumbledore lied to him, of course (as he lied to most everyone), and Snape was stunned to learn that Dumbledore had only kept Harry alive so that he could die at the proper time. Well, love is a good motivation, right? Love is, in fact, the most powerful magic in the HP series, and it is what saves Harry from not one but two killing curses. The first time he is saved by the love of his mother, who sacrifices herself for her son, and the second time he is saved by his own love, when he sacrifices himself for his friends. (“Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his friends....” I could swear I’ve heard something like that somewhere.) This is the true love that has true power. Snape’s love? Petty infatuation. He never loved Lily; he simply wanted to possess her, or at best have someone on his side, and he failed to win her because he couldn’t understand how to relate to her. Snape wouldn’t know true love if it waylaid him in Knockturn Alley and stole all his galleons.
Oh, but Snape was tortured and ostracized as a child! you say breathlessly (heh). Surely he deserves some sympathy for that! Perhaps. Maybe if he hadn’t grown up to be such a raging jerk I would have more sympathy. But you know what? A lot of people suffer as children, and they grow up to be relatively normal human beings. Thus I have little sympathy for Snape, and I find Harry’s assessment of him as “probably the bravest man [he] ever knew” laughable at best.
Snape is probably the best example of how childish adults act in the HP universe, but there are plenty of other cases I could point to. Sirius, who is made out to be a surrogate father figure to Harry in the books, is incredibly childish. He is just as stubborn as Snape when it comes to letting go of the past, and his reckless behavior is constantly getting him in trouble. It’s almost as if he never grew up. You would think that the time he spent in Azkaban (the wizard prison), which normally drives people insane, would have furnished him with wisdom and patience, but no—he is as impetuous and foolhardy as ever. And this is one of the good guys!
I could go on—there are many more characters to choose from—but I think I’ve made my point. The world of HP is so filled with adults acting like children that it boggles the mind. One could argue that this is somewhat of a reflection of reality, and to an extent I might agree, but the degree of childishness on display here is truly astounding. How does a world like this make any sort of sense? Well, it makes perfect sense to the mind of a child, who sees adults and their motivations as mystifying and the rules of the world as arbitrary and most likely created for the sole purpose of torturing the child.
There are, of course, counterarguments that could be made, and I am certainly generalizing and not going as deep as perhaps I should, but I would like to finish this entry at some point before the end of the month. Suffice it to say that, right or wrong, this is how I perceive the HP series. I felt this way after the first reading, and a second reading has only reinforced it. You might conclude, then, that I hated the books. This is not true. If nothing else, Rowling knows how to spin a good yarn, and I enjoyed the books for that. But I also had trouble taking them seriously quite often, and I found myself frustrated at those times when the childish mind is most dominant. I wonder how I would have reacted to the books had I read them as a child, like many of the younger generation growing up today. I wonder if I would have seen through Rowling’s colorful world to the childishness at the core, or if I would have instead identified with it.
Before I move on, there is one more thing I wanted to mention. It is a very minor thing, and I probably wouldn’t bother mentioning it at all if I hadn’t talked about hunger and starvation above. In the final book, Ron, Harry, and Hermione set out on a quest to destroy the Horcruxes. During this time, Ron becomes a right grouch, and eventually he leaves Harry and Hermione. In the films, this is attributed to the evil power of the Horcrux that they take turns wearing. The thing is, Hermione also takes her turn wearing the Horcrux, and she doesn’t become unbearable. Harry does become irritable and snappish, but this is not of the ordinary for him by now. So why is it that Ron seems to be affected the most? There is no answer in the films, but in the books the answer is fairly clear: Ron is hungry. The trio never have enough to eat, which means they can never fully take the edge of their hunger. Harry is even sympathetic; he grew up knowing hunger, but he knows that Ron didn’t. This bothered me when I read it in the last book again, because in the film Ron is made out to be particularly grumpy. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that hunger was too pedestrian a reason for acting like a jerk? If so, then Rowling was wiser here. And since we’re on the subject of Ron getting shafted in the films, I’d like to leave you with a video essay I stumbled across on YouTube. In it, the critic deftly takes apart how Hermione is made into a perfect, flawless character while Ron is just played for laughs. He becomes, to reference another fantasy film series adapted from best-selling books, the wizarding world’s Gimli.
On that note, I’ll end by saying that the HP series seems to be the younger generation’s Lord of the Rings. I have read that series (plus The Hobbit, and even The Silmarillion when I’m feeling saucy) more times than I can remember—and Tolkien has plenty of problems of his own. But I think this will be the last time I read the HP books. I don’t think there is anything left there for me now.
The Vintage Ray Bradbury (Ray Bradbury, 1965 [1945-1959])
This is a book that I found lying around my parents’ house when I was cleaning up over the summer. I brought it up to Cambridge with the express purpose of giving it a read before donating it somewhere (I’ve got way too many books that need to be shipped back to Korea before we go). It didn’t take me too long to get to it, and it was a welcome change from the HP series, even if at times I did find some of the stories rather depressing.
This is a hard book to judge as a whole, as it is a collection of short stories, including famous ones like “The Veldt” and “There Will Come Soft Rains.” I would have to say that my favorite stories were those that dealt with things happening on places other than Earth—usually Mars. Bradbury has a way with words whenever he is writing, but when he allows himself to veer into the truly fantastic, just reading the lines on the page is like sampling from a flight of the finest quirky craft beers. “Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out of their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp. And from the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle” (From “Ylla”). Maybe I’m just weird, but I love that. It’s like the best possible mad lib of a universe of mad libs.
Then there are those stories where Bradbury touches on something that I think we all know deep down inside: that there is something not a little fishy and even scary about children. “Hail and Farewell” is a benign take on this, but “The Small Assassin” kept me up the night I read it before going to bed (thereafter I stopped reading Bradbury before bedtime). “A Medicine for Melancholy” and “Fever Dream” touch on the maladies of youth, and the latter is a good way to segue into something that also held a strange fascination for Bradbury: the horror of the human body. Both “Skeleton” and “Fever Dream” tell of bodies that rebel against their owners—and win. In “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” a man is betrayed by his fingerprints, which multiply like spiders at a crime scene (although it could be argued that this is more of a psychological story than a genuine physical betrayal of the body).
This led me to ponder the nature of horror for Bradbury. Different writers deal with different types of horror. For Lovecraft, horror is of the eldritch variety, a great and hidden truth so horrible that it drives mortal minds insane. Stephen King’s horror is diverse and varied, often dipping into the supernatural. Bradbury’s horror, at least drawing on the stories included in this book, is a very human horror. Magical things do happen in his stories, but the most horrifying scenes are those in which we have brought some calamity on ourselves through our hubris or carelessness. “And the Rock Cried Out” and “The Fox and the Forest,” both firmly rooted in reality (even if that reality is speculative, as in the latter story), cultivate a growing sense of dread that is entirely human in cause. “The Veldt,” a story I remember reading as a young child, blends a number of these themes together: the scariness of children, the hubris of humanity, and the dangers of technology.
At any rate, it was a pleasure to read Bradbury again after so long. Reading a few of the stories was like visiting with old (albeit somewhat disturbing) friends, but most of the stories were new to me, or at least ones that I did not remember. I’m glad I decided to keep this book around.
The 6 Sacred Stones (Matthew Reilly, 2008)
Now we shift gears yet again. The 6 Sacred Stones (hereafter “SSS”) is an action-adventure novel by the Australian author Matthew Reilly. If you are wondering what kind of book this is, an excerpt from the jacket blurb will probably suffice:
After their thrilling exploits in Matthew Reilly’s rampaging New York Times bestseller, 7 Deadly Wonders, supersoldier Jack West Jr. and his loyal team of adventurers are back, and now they face an all-but-impossible challenge.
A mysterious ceremony in an unknown location has unraveled their work and triggered a catastrophic countdown that will climax in no less than the end of all life on Earth.
But there is one last hope.
Because of course there is one last hope. My eyes rolled so hard when I read this that I got a lovely panoramic view of the inside of my skull.
But what did I think of the book, you ask. Well, surprisingly enough, Reilly is not actually that bad of a writer. I say this off the bat because I’ve read other books that have interesting stories but pretty poor writing—Dan Brown books spring first to mind. I’ve read a number of Brown’s books, and I’ve done so because he tells a good story, but I go in knowing that there is going to be a lot of cringing. After I read the jacket blurb for SSS, I expected much of the same here, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Reilly has a decent handle on the craft of writing. He’s no Ray Bradbury, of course, but there wasn’t all that much cringe because of the writing itself. The one thing that did make me cringe was more of a stylistic tick than an actual writing issue: Reilly has a habit of writing lines that are supposed to be mind-blowing in italics. I don’t have an example on hand, and I don’t feel like diving back into the book to find one, but that’s OK, because a crack team of assassins just busted down our front door and shot up our bathroom sink! You get the idea. I started reading these lines in the voice of a five-year-old child gleefully describing a massive crash using his toy trucks as props (complete with vocalized explosion sounds). It certainly made the experience more entertaining.
OK, so the writing isn’t that bad, even if it is often way over the top, to the extent that italics are needed to distinguish between just plain over-the-top and super over-the-top. But what about the story? Well, the back cover review blurbs include words and phrases like “sheer exhilaration,” “hard-core action,” and “video game-style thriller.” That last one is quite apropos, I think. For starters, I have never seen an action-adventure book with as many diagrams and illustrations. We have diagrams of the many symbols that the team come across, of course, but we also have little maps and side views showing how certain areas described in the book are laid out. I got the impression that Reilly was trying to stay one step ahead of whoever might eventually turn this into a film, but the connection to video games also makes a lot of sense—not that it is going to be made into a video game (I hope?), but that it was written for the video game generation.
Yes, there is a lot of action, and it is indeed very fast-paced; the book is over four hundred pages long, but I breezed through it. As you might have guessed from the jacket blurb I quoted above, this book is not the first in the series, and it is nowhere near the last (my astute guess is that it is the second of seven). So the real test of whether I enjoyed this book is whether I plan to continue reading in the series... and the answer to that question is “No.” It all felt a little empty to me, to be honest, and that probably has a lot to do with the fact that I wasn’t really invested in the characters. This is a criticism that Scruton leveled at the HP books (callback!), but characters in SSS are either good or bad. If they are good, they are just, loyal, noble, and brave. If they are bad they are cruel, opportunistic, dishonorable, and craven. There is no in between, and there is no character development. Remember that kid with his toy trucks? Well, the whole thing reads like a kid playing with his plastic action figures; even if they are fully poseable, they are still just action figures.
I guess that’s about all I have to say about this, but there is one more thing I want to gripe about before I let this one go. There is a character in the book, a young girl whose name I have already forgotten, who apparently has the mystic ability to read an ancient Egyptian cuneiform called the Word of Thoth (or something like that). Every time the characters come across something written in this language, they turn to the girl and ask her to translate—and every freaking time she shrugs and rattles off a perfectly literary sight translation of the text. The shrug in and of itself makes me hate her—oh, what, read this ancient language that no one else knows? Yeah, sure. Yawn—but the way she rattles off the translation absolutely infuriates me. This is not how sight translation works. Even if she does have some magical ability to understand the language, understanding a language and being able to express its content in another language, and in literary form at that—and after a single glance at that!—is something entirely different. (Look what you’ve made me do, Matt. Now I’m italicizing everything, too.) This frustrated me every time it happened. Firearms experts see the wrong gun being used in a film and go crazy. Historians read some blatant abuse of history and lose it. I guess my trigger is people failing to understand how translation works. Unfortunately, not a lot of people really understand how translation works, so I get triggered a lot.
Oh, and you might be wondering why I read this book in the first place. Well, it was a gift from my mom (hi, Mom!). I debated how honest to be in this review here, knowing that I would essentially be slamming a gift, but my need for truth ultimately outweighed my desire to be a good son. Sorry, Mom. I’ll make it up to you somehow.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig, 1999 [25th anniversary edition]
When Robert Pirsig died this past April, I thought I would finally sit down and read his book, or at least the one that made him famous: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book came out the year after I was born, which means I missed its original period of popularity, and by the time the twenty-fifth anniversary edition came out in 1999, I was already in Korea, so I missed that second opportunity as well. One would think that I would have read it at university—not for a class, necessarily, but on my own, as I did with many books—but for some reason I never did. It might have had something to do with the title; to be perfectly honest, the idea of motorcycle maintenance held no fascination for me whatsoever, and I couldn’t see how zen would fit into it anyway. I suspected it was a gimmick, and perhaps for this reason I never picked up the book. Needless to say, I was wrong, and motorcycle maintenance was not just a gimmick—it was a vehicle. But I didn’t learn that until this year.
I started reading, back then at the end of April or beginning of May. I must admit that I was not at first enamored with the book. Let me begin with a brief explanation of the format of the book for those who may not have read it: It is a narrative of a motorcycle trip taken by the narrator and his son, interwoven with the narrator’s comments on certain philosophical issues, namely (and ultimately) the question of what quality is. (It is also the story of a man trying to trace his own philosophical path before a psychotic break—let’s just say that there’s a lot going on in this book.) For the first part of the trip, the narrator and his son travel with two of the narrator’s friends, John and Sylvia. What turned me off about the book at first was what I perceived to be the narrator’s rather cold attitude toward his alleged friends. He seemed dismissive of them at best, and contemptuous at worst. It has actually been quite some time since I’ve read that first part, so I’m only going on faded memories here, but in retrospect I think this was the result of the attempt to distinguish between two types of thinking, classical and romantic. The author used the art of motorcycle maintenance as a means to explain these two types of thinking, with himself as a classicist and John as a romanticist. I interpreted this part to be a condemnation of romanticist thinking—although now, having finished the book, I realize that this interpretation was incorrect, or at least not what the author ultimately intended.
At any rate, I stopped reading the book, and then summer came. When I returned to Cambridge and once again began reading avidly, I realized that Zen was still there, lurking at the edges of my mind. So I determined that I would stick it out and read it through. Unlike many philosophy books, it is actually quite easy to read, and I did not get the sense that the author was either deliberately trying to obfuscate or simply unable to get his point across. In fact, the author had a skill for taking for complex and mind-aching ideas and turning them into something that was easier to digest. Perhaps because the reading itself was pleasurable as opposed to painful or laborious, I returned to the book with a new determination. As you might imagine, since I am writing about it now, I did indeed finish it. In fact, the more I read, the more keen I was to continue. The book had taken hold of my mind and would not let go.
I realized that many of my initial assumptions were mistaken, and a picture that I had only caught fuzzy glimpses of began to come into sharp focus. It would be impossible to cover everything in such a brief review as this—and I’m not going to pretend that I successfully digested everything there was, either—but I can say that the book got me thinking deeply about many things. In particular, the discussion of Quality, which forms a central pillar of the narrator’s philosophical quest, was a revelation for me. I taught translation for six years, and during that time countless students asked me what makes a “good” translation. My answer was often a variation of “If I could articulate that in the span of a class I probably wouldn’t need to be teaching you.” The idea was that a “good” translation was made up of so many subtle and undefinable things that there was no way you could talk about a “good” translation in the abstract. However, since the entire goal of teaching translation is to teach students to produce good translations, my courses all—whether they dealt with technical or literary translation—were ultimately quests to discover what exactly a good translation was. I regret now that I had not read Zen before embarking on these quests. It would not have given me the answer, but it would have at least shown me that often we were asking the wrong questions.
To say that Zen affected me deeply would be an understatement. When I finished reading it, there were tears in my eyes. I said above that I would not be revisiting the Harry Potter books, as there was nothing more to be gained from them. Well, the opposite can be said for Zen. I feel like I have only gleaned a fraction of what is there for the taking, and that returning to this field will reveal ripe grains still left to pluck. I will definitely be returning to this book in the future to continue the journey.
There is a lot more that I could say about this book—I could discuss, for instance, the narrative conceit of a motorcycle trip occurring simultaneously with the narrator’s musings on philosophy, and what the masterful weaving of these two threads achieves—but I think this is enough. Well, no. It is not enough, but it is either I stop here or carry on for another several thousand words. Seeing as how I am already well over seven thousands words at this point, and keeping in mind my desire to actually finish this and put it up, this seems like a good place to stop.
So, that was my reading for September. I probably read more last month than I have in any other month of my life—or at least for a very long time—especially when you consider the fact that I read a number of things for academic purposes and decided not to include them here. Certainly I have not read as much for pleasure since the days of my youth, when I would often hole up in my room with books and become lost in their worlds. Adult life does not generally afford such indulgence. But I suppose that is one silver lining to the sickness that hounded me for much of September. Let’s hope I don’t read nearly as much for the remainder of my time here.