JBT – Paradise Lost

Joe’s Book Tour – John Milton’s Paradise Lost

These next couple books I can’t remember in what order I read them, but I know they were all in High School around the same year.  The first on this list is Paradise Lost.

I was raised Catholic, as I’ve mentioned before, and I read my bible and went to Sunday school and catechism on Wednesday’s in preparation for my Confirmation. Yet, I still base most of my ideas of The Fall, God, Satan, and even Jesus, on what I read in this book.

The impact it had on me came from the moment when Satan decides that he’d “rather rule in hell, than serve in heaven”.  You see there’s a moment when Satan realizes that he could ask God for forgiveness.  Even after all he’s done: waging outright war against God.  God would still forgive him.  That’s how god is (at least in the new testament).  God is all about love and forgiveness.

Yet, Satan knows that even if he were taken back, even if allowed to be at the left-hand of God again, he would just get jealous again.  Satan would want more.  So he decides, because he, like everyone else, has free will, to rule in Hell and see if he can stick it to God by corrupting he’s favorite creation, Humans.

What struck me most is I’d never considered that Satan might just have been an overly-ambitious angel, who just couldn’t admit when he’s wrong.  I’d never considered the idea that he might have regrets.

It’s also funny to think that in 1600 Milton must have known people who make mistakes and, instead of admitting they’re wrong, double down.

This influenced my thinking by not allowing me to simply say, “that person is evil and that’s why he does what he does.”  That line of thinking could no longer hold water.  If Milton in the 1600s could conceive that the master of evil himself could have explainable motivations, everyone could.  People have bad brain chemistry, bad genes, bad environments, or some combination of all of those and other things.  Evil actions exist, but EVIL doesn’t.  And, understanding why people do things doesn’t condone those actions but it can help us to actually solve problems.  You see, if you simply believe there is evil and some people are evil, there really isn’t anything you can do about it.  But if you understand that certain genes can increase the likelihood of someone being violent, especially when paired with certain environments, then you can actually reduce violence.  Understanding that a certain brain chemistry needs to be regulated by medicine to prevent either murder or suicide is much more helpful than simply saying “The devil made them do it.”

We all have free will, and some people do honestly choose to do bad things, but what this book taught me was that I can’t simply rush to judgement on anything without at least trying to see the other side.

That’s the great thing about good literature, you can find yourself exploring ideas that have very little to do with the original text.

Anyway, I’ve cut this short because this book actually brings up a ton of thoughts that go off in even more random directions. Also, as I mentioned in my post about blogger’s block I’ve been letting this keep me from moving forward.  So I needed to just get this out there and move on.

Hopefully, the next post comes out a bit quicker.


Bloggers Block

I get bloggers block, what I’m calling writer’s block for people who try to blog, quite often.  Usually it is a paralysis that comes from too many topics to tackle and not enough hours to write about them.  This time, however, I gave myself a series of blogs that would be about a subject that I have thought about for quite some time: The Books That Influenced Me Most.  Thought that would help keep me on track: I was wrong.

I’ve become stumped on one title.  I’ve written most of the blog, but feel I’m missing the point of its lasting influence.  The title is Paradise Lost by John Milton, and it is one of my all-time favorite books.  I’ll probably post it this weekend, but as I was writing I kept switching ideas and themes.  Which is good if I were writing a book on Paradise Lost, but not a blog post.

I know what other books are supposed to be a part of this series, so I figure I’ll write a few of them down here and maybe that will help get me going.  I’ve often heard when you have a mental block you should just push forward.  If you are blocked writing: just write.  Don’t worry about whether it’s good or not, just do it.

So that’s what this is.  Me just writing so I get something out there.

Here are some of the books I’ll feature in Joe’s Book Tour.

  • The Stranger by Albert Camus
  • Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol
  • That’s Not What I Meant by Deborah Tannen
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • The Evolution of Desire by David Buss
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  • From Good to Great by Jim Collins

Hopefully the blog posts to go along with those titles will be coming soon.  Also, I may remember a few titles as I’m writing others so the list might expand.

JBT – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This is the first “banned” book I ever read.  It wasn’t banned at my school, and I didn’t read it for class, but I knew that this was one of those books that certain schools banned.  I knew it was banned partly because of the use of the “n-word”, but reading it then (and then I read it again for a class on banned literature in college) I was struck by how we re-write history to make it more tolerable to ourselves.  We want to erase the n-word from the book, but then we’ll forget just how pervasive it actually was in that time period, and I fear we’ll forget how ugly the word actually is.

We live in the supposedly more enlightened time of the 21st century and people still believe horrible stereotypes about gays, blacks, Mexicans, and others.  And I believe that books, and other media, that force us to see the racist beliefs we had, and still have, in stark relief are important.  Putting this book out without the n-word allows people to think that time period was better than it was.  When we consistently make movies that show gentle slave owners who secretly supported abolition, it blinds us to the horrors of amputations, whippings, rapes, and lynchings that were a “normal” part of plantation life.

However, I understand why many would like that word erased, and this is not about defending it’s use here.  What this post is about is what this book meant to me.

The scene I remember most from this book was this one moment when Huck Finn decides that he’s going to “go to hell” rather than do what society would say is right.

Society, and the law, demands, and he was raised to believe, that Jim, as a slave, was the property of Miss Watson.  He writes a letter to her telling her where they are.  Then thinks on how nice Jim has been to him, how he’s cared for him and told him he was “the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now” and he picks up the letter.

I took it up, and held it in my hand.  I was a-trembling, because I got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and I tore it up.

– page 207 from the Signet Classic Edition

That section has stuck with me all these years.  In preparing for this post I picked up my old copy of Huck Finn and I had a faded bookmark between those pages.  I read this book first in Junior High and that was the moment that I realized that sometimes the popular opinion my not be the right opinion.  That society as a whole could be wrong.  That laws themselves might be unjust.  That what you’ve been told all your life, might be wrong.

I was raised Catholic.  Sin is a real thing.  Eternal damnation is a real thing.  Yet, I cannot conceive to even believe that homosexuality is a sin.  That two people who seek to do nothing more than love one another, would be eternally damned to a lake of hellfire.

I, of course, also became an atheist so it’s not like religion guides my thoughts much, but it’s just another example of how I decided between what I was told to be true, and what I feel to be right.

I, like most people, would like to believe I’d have been an abolitionist if I lived during the Civil War era.  Considering I live in a theist society and claim atheism, I’m probably right.  I grew up in the patriarchal machismo south Texas and support Gay Rights and consider myself a feminist, so the odds are probably better than average I’d buck the system.

So that’s how the book influenced me.  It presented a time when people, a large swath of society, said one thing was right, true, and just, and the book counters, “Just because everyone is heading one direction, doesn’t mean it’s the right direction.”

As a historical artifact I also feel it’s necessary.  There’s a moment when Jim is talking about what he’ll do when free and talks of saving up money to purchase his wife back, and try to buy back his children, or steal them back if the slaver won’t sell them.  Huck Finn reacts with shock that Jim would speak so boldly, not with shock that he must try and purchase back his family.  That society is what Mr. Twain (or Clemens if you prefer) hoped we’d never go back to again.  A society that is shocked by speaking out against evil, rather than the evil itself.

That too is why this book is on this list.  The evils we must speak out against today may not rise to the level of slavery, but they are no less important to speak out against.  There may never be a time period where someone isn’t being oppressed or having their rights stripped, heck states are suppressing voting rights and it’s 2014!  2014 people!  So we must continue to speak out when required, and choose to “go to hell” rather than do what “society” says is right.

Thank you Mr. Twain for teaching a young boy that lesson.

JBT – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus

This is the cover I most associate with Frankenstein.
This is the cover I most associate with Frankenstein.

I read too many books to reread a book very often, but Frankenstein I have read at least 4 times.  I say at least, because I know I read it first in jr. high (for fun), then again in high school (for which I wrote a paper), then for two different classes in college (for which I wrote two other papers).  I think I may have read it another time for fun, but I can’t remember for sure.  If I had to pick a favorite book, this would probably be the closest thing to one.  There are only a few other books which I’ve read more than once (and they each appear on this list).

What I love about this book, and literature in general, is that it’s open to so many different interpretations, and at each point in my life it meant something different.  When I first read it in junior high, it opened up to me the idea that “truth” could be gained by reading.  That the world could believe something, and think they’re completely right, but be completely wrong.  That the media could so shape a person’s point of view, that it could distort reality.

I’m talking, of course, about the movie and popular perception of Frankenstein as the green, lumbering, monster with bolts in it’s neck and the inability to string two words together.

The Book Was Better

Granted, the media image of Frankenstein’s monster has changed (as have the media representations of vampires, werewolves, etc), but back in *cough* *cough* the 1980s *cough* this wasn’t the case.  When I first read this book I was amazed at how different the movie was from the book (which set me up to not expect movies and books to share much in common in the future).  But from a purely mind-blowing experience, I was amazed that I, some adolescent, had knowledge that many adults did not have.  I KNEW MORE THAN ADULTS! Further, I got this knowledge by reading.

That’s a freaky experience.  I don’t think it was the first time I realized that adults didn’t know everything, but I do think it was the first time I realized that they could have beliefs that were not based on “reality” (it’s a book so it’s not technically real).  This lead me to read a lot of other classic works of science fiction to see what else I’d been “lied to” about.

Emotional Maturity

As I mentioned there are a lot of different ways to interpret the text: what it says about appearance and how people judge others, what it says about the role of science & ethics, and the dangers of man playing god, man’s relationship with God and how we feel we’ve been forsaken, etc.

The idea I most associate now with the novel is one of immaturity.  Frankenstein’s monster is, chronologically, a child  albeit in the body of a full grown adult.  As such, it may be able to speak quite eloquently, but emotionally it still responds as a child.

I don’t have kids, but I remember being one.  When I was punished for something I did wrong I didn’t say, “I DISAGREE WITH YOUR ASSESSMENT OF MY ACTIONS, BUT RESPECT YOUR IDEAS!  I WILL NOW GO TO MY ROOM AND FORMULATE AN APPROPRIATE REBUTTAL!”

No, what I, and many teens and kids say is, “I HATE YOU!”

We do this because we lack emotional maturity and we’re affected by hormones.  So too is Frankenstein’s monster.  There exists only a dichotomy of thought: hate/love, life/death, with/against.  There exist no gray areas.  That is how a child sees the world.  Being an adult means living in the gray areas.  Working at jobs you don’t like, so that you can earn money, experience, etc so that you can eventually do what you love.

The problem is that Frankenstein himself lacks this maturity.  He creates with thinking of the consequences.  He destroys without thinking of the consequences.  He reacts to his actions as if they happened to him, rather than he caused them.

These ideas have stuck with me and force me to consider my own ideas through the prism of: am I oversimplifying a complex issue.  Am I forcing gray to be either black or white.  Am I saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong”, and ending debate prematurely.

It’s been 10+ years since I last read the book, and I’m probably going to read it again soon, but it’s still something I think on every now and then.  Especially politics and the false dichotomies they force us into.  Also, how media can shape a person’s point of view and distort reality.  I firmly believe if I hadn’t encountered Frankenstein as a kid, I wouldn’t be as skeptical of the media and what I’m told as I am.

So, for making me media savvy, teaching me to look at original sources before believing something, and forcing me to resist knee-jerk emotional responses (many times unsuccessfully – but I’m trying) I thank you Mary Shelley for writing Frankenstein.

Joe’s Book Tour – The Hardy Boy Casefiles

The New Hardy Boy Case Files

Everyone Dies (unless they’re a main character)

I told you every book on this list wouldn’t be a “landmark of world literature” (description of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust from the back of the Vintage Books edition).  I’m going in chronological order of the books that had a lasting impact on me, so hear me out.

That little tiny library I told you about in the previous post, that serviced our elementary school, had many of the original (according to wikipedia they were probably updated because the originals contained racial stereotypes) Hardy Boys‘ mysteries in stock.  I loved them.  This is another clue (get it? sorry) that I would eventually love detective fiction when I got older.  In 1987, they were relaunched as the Hardy Boy Casefiles.  A darker, more dangerous series than the original.

But instilling a love of mystery is not why the Hardy Boys Casefiles #1: Dead on Target is on this list.  No, it’s on this list because it starts off with a death, a very important death.

Continue reading “Joe’s Book Tour – The Hardy Boy Casefiles”