Modern Wisdom from Classic Books: The Human Condition

Modern Wisdom Through Classic Literature: The Human Condition

Hopefully, we’ve all had at least one moment when we’ve meet someone and thought, “I can’t believe how much we have in common!” These moments can inspire feeling seen, validated, affirmed. They can make us feel less alone, more connected. Here is at least one person out of the billions on this planet who *gets* what we’re about.

What can be just as remarkable is when we feel connected despite seemingly having little in common, at least on the surface. Continue reading “Modern Wisdom from Classic Books: The Human Condition”

Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature: Book Reviews

When do you seek out other readers’ responses through book reviews? Does it depend on the genre of book?

When do you seek out other readers’ responses through book reviews? Does it depend on the genre of book? What is the function of book reviews?

Is it to “save” people from a “bad” art experience? Can bad art exist? If it’s art, isn’t it, by definition, beautiful? Otherwise, wouldn’t it be failed art or attempted art or, you know, just … not art?

Recently, I read a time travel novel for middle grade readers, Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague. I bought the book without knowing anything about it other than the jacket copy’s description because time travel novels are one of my favorites. (Perhaps this explains why I ended up with two copies … oops.*) When the story opens, 13-year-old Margaret’s father has been found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to death. Desperate to save him, Margaret draws on her ability to time travel. Her quest takes her back to 1938, the year a tragedy soured the life of Lucas, who grows up to become the judge who sentenced Margaret’s father.  The story took a turn I won’t reveal (spoilers) other than to say it moved me to reflect on the power of living in the present moment. It’s a message I need to be reminded of often as I have a bad habit of obsessing over the past.

I rarely read extended reviews before reading a book. A friend’s recommendation, or the appeal of a book’s themes or jacket copy, is enough to inspire me to dive in. Extended reviews are for later, during or after reading a book I have a strong reaction to – whether it’s being moved, impressed, angry, surprised, provoked, etc.

When I read reviews, I’m not looking for a breakdown of what did and didn’t work according to one person, even one very smart or respected person. I can decide that for myself. Nitpicking about perceived flaws doesn’t interest me either, unless they’re so egregious as to disrupt my ability to engage in a story’s world. (If that’s the case, though, my reading experience probably isn’t interesting enough to inspire me to look up other readers’ responses.) I don’t expect a book to be perfect. That would be weird. I mean, what’s perfect on this planet?

I read reviews to connect with others’ experiences. Did others see and feel moved by this too? Did they see something I missed that will deepen my experience of a story? Continue reading “Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature: Book Reviews”

On Reading “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells

Well's haunting story about a man who travels to the future spawned the term "time machine" and time travel novels as a genre.

Well's haunting story about a man who travels to the future spawned the term "time machine" and time travel novels as a genre. Though time travel novels are a favorite of mine, I’d not, until last week, read the one that started them all: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It’s one of the few time travel novels I can recall reading in which the main character travels to the future. Reading it made me realize how fixated I am on time travel to the past. I don’t seem to wonder as much about life in the future. I’m not sure what that says about me and whether I should like it, but there we are.

Wells’ classic, published in 1895, is credited with coining the term “time machine” and spawning the science fiction genre. It begins with a group of men discussing the nature of time and space. A scientist/inventor, known only as The Time Traveller, tells the group that time is a fourth dimension through which humans can move. He demonstrates with a tiny machine he holds in his hand. Before the men’s eyes, the machine vanishes. The Time Traveller claims to have sent it into the future.

At their next gathering, the men hear the story of The Time Traveller, who takes over as narrator. He describes his experiences traveling to the year 802,701, where he encounters two human-ish creatures – the Eloi and the Morlocks – in a desolate landscape of crumbling infrastructure and underground lairs. The Eloi, who live on the surface, are soft, helpless, and harmless. Meanwhile, the Morlocks live underground, ascending at night for sinister purposes.

The story is mesmerizing and haunting and, I’ve read, meant to comment on the Victorian era. I perceive that in the narrative’s skepticism towards the notion of progress, the idea that we move – or can move – steadily forward, gradually perfecting ourselves. As I’ve written before, I’m more inclined to believe cyclically rather than linearly about human progress. Steady forward progress would be ideal, obviously. But I don’t see as much evidence to support the notion historically. The desire for it, though, and the fear that we’re not actuating it persist, which may explain, at least in part, why The Time Machine continues to be read today. I don’t suppose it’s for the Victorian critique, in particular or isolation.

The Time Traveller is repeatedly struck by the Eloi’s incapacities. They’re kindly but hapless. He observes, “It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. […] There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

If we actually achieved the ideals we seek (in the context of the narrative, comfort and ease), the story seems to say, they would destroy us. This reminded me of what Azar Nafisi cautions in Reading Lolita in Tehran: “Be careful with your dreams. One day they may just come true.” 

Later, a character remarks of The Time Traveller, “He, I know – for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made – thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so.”

It’s may not be the most cheering thought. But if hope is to be found, perhaps it’s in committing continually to strive, never to rest in the surety of our ideals, to recognize that even those ideals themselves may only ever be as imperfect as we are.

Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature, Part 1

Classic literature, like fantasy, separates us from the familiar trappings and references around which we construct our arguments and defenses.

Classic literature, like fantasy, separates us from the familiar trappings and references around which we construct our arguments and defenses.Years ago, when I was trying to shape my dissertation study, I had the “brilliant” idea to study how reading changes us. I’d been a reader for as long as I could remember. I recognized that the books I’d read throughout my life, in school and out, have shaped the way I think and act in the world. I wanted to understand how that happens, how it works.

My dissertation chair never came right out and said, “That’s a dreadful dissertation topic.” An exceedingly gentle and wise man, the kind of man about whom people are likely to say, “they don’t make them like him anymore,” he wanted to see me finish my dissertation sometime before the universe’s inevitable flame-out. He asked me questions. He showed me what such a study might entail. He invoked the vaguely Orwellian sounding Human Subjects Committee.

Somehow, by the end of our extended pre-proposal discussions, he delicately helped me construct an infinitely more manageable – and quantifiable – study: I looked at how writing handbooks advise student writers to incorporate texts alongside how “exemplary” student writers actually incorporate them. I worked with published texts and numbers. I enjoyed researching and writing my dissertation immensely … even if it was the kind of study that exactly seven people on Earth are likely to read (because they had to): The three members of my dissertation committee, my two outside readers (who probably skimmed it), my writing partner, and me.

Conducting my study helped me think about the ways we bring other writers into our work at the language level. It was fascinating and instructive. I’m grateful for the years I spent working on it. Still, my larger question has lingered. Earlier this year, I articulated some of the related questions circling around that larger one: Continue reading “Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature, Part 1”

Why I love reading classic literature

Classic literature literature reminds me not to take things too personally. It allows me to reconnect with the idea of literature beyond the context of my time.

One reason (among many) I enjoy reading classic literature: It’s a finite world.

Having gone on to claim their “celestial rewards,” as Charles Dickens put it so elegantly (Pickwick Papers, I think, or maybe Hard Times?), authors are safely out of the picture. Therefore, they can’t get into Twitter wars with critics over how their work has been interpreted. They can’t reveal appalling personal views after I’ve already fallen in love with their work. They can’t continue releasing more and more information about characters or stories that obliges me endlessly to reframe the original. They can’t write sequels, disappointing or otherwise.

Just David Copperfield and me ... and coffee, and s'mores.
Just David Copperfield and me … and coffee, and s’mores.

To be clear, I don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with the above. In fact, I love attending author talks and hearing what inspired a story I enjoyed. I love being able to say to an author, “Thank you for this experience. Thank you!” I love knowing Nick Hornby and Haruki Murakami and Zadie Smith are still alive and well and hopefully, if I’m lucky, writing more books. Continue reading “Why I love reading classic literature”