Overheard on my volunteer shift in the bookstore the other day: one member of a couple declaring very seriously to the other, as the duo browsed the $5 bestseller table, “I’m just opposed to time travel in general, you know?” I was unable to crane my head around the computer without it becoming obvious I was eavesdropping, so I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation– but it did go on, giving the impression that there was much of urgency to discuss, in the way of real-world possibilities (and their attendant merits, ethical dilemmas, and so forth) of leapfrogging from one era to another.
Sure, this topic has provided grist for literature and film both great and inane; I’ll admit to finding the first Bill and Ted movie, well, excellent, maybe because it could really qualify for membership in both of those categories at the same time. And why not discuss time travel seriously; not too long ago, space tourism was inconceivable, and now we’ve got bazillionaires chomping at the bit to spend a few hours in oxygen- and gravity-free zones, rather than throw down some of that cash on, say, the alleviation of global poverty or at least something that won’t pollute the atmosphere with a sloshing tank of rocket fuel and other detritus.
But I digress. Maybe confronting supposedly impossible scenarios, such as time travel, could act as a training ground for development in mature civil discourse. After all, getting shouted down and insulted by your opponent regarding the ethics of popping into your parents’ teenage years is far less likely than being (emotionally, at least) mauled by an ideologue at a town hall meeting. I’m certainly not going to base a curriculum in civics on the possibility, but maybe because there’s less at stake in digging into far-fetched hypotheticals, people are more willing to entertain each other’s conflicting views and arguments– and if they realize they can get along even in a heated debate about worm holes or the risk of retro- (or would it be pro-, here?) actively annulling your own existence, they could take it to a real-world level and be willing to work together to confront anything from potholes to prison reform.
That rosy little pipe dream is probably akin to the faith I want to have in kids– and adults– who really took Harry Potter, especially volume 5, to heart. If those readers can remember that particular volume’s beautiful elucidation of how ideology works– and the entire series’ wrangling with the noblest way to confront very difficult, very terrifying situations, and apply it to their own world, I’m willing to refrain from throwing in the towel just yet. And if an examination of magical worlds can do that for us, well, so, too, can a variety of other apparently frivolous conversations. Carry on, then, with your bookstore conversation, sci-fi couple. Carry on.
After the one guy with an unidentified hardback propped against his knees got swallowed up in the flood of rain-fleeing humanity entering the train this morning, I noticed something curious: an unusual number of people with old-fashioned reading material in their bags or purses– cheap paperbacks crushed in between laptops and absurdly tiny umbrellas, more cared-for volumes and long-read magazines neatly filed in multi-compartment attachés. The carriage was crowded; I had to hold my own book uncomfortably close to my face to read it. But in addition to wondering why so many people’s bags were gaping open, I also wanted to ask all these book-stashers, “If not now, when?” Maybe they were all lunch-break readers, or were only carrying around an extra paper-bearing pound or two as a last resort against boredom.
For a cause I’m unable to identify, that peek into so many people’s toted-along interior lives made me sad; for some unknown reason, the scene constituted something less than an active network of signals from one book lover to another that a compatriot was in his or her presence– something not quite on par with the literary version of a secret handshake. Maybe having possible dystopian scenarios much more in my mind of late, I’m also seeing closed, carried-not-read books as little flashes of samizdat-to-come. I can only hope if that situation does arise– if the groundswell we’ve seen of late of outrage at and purposeful self-quarantine from unfamiliar ideas and people does turn into active persecution of, say, those who openly welcome dialogue with and education about things and groups deemed officially unacceptable– that a solid network of resistance will also emerge. It could simply be because I’ve always loved books and the possibilities they offer that I also believe in their power to take us beyond, and connect us in order to overpower, countless forms of ugliness, and to teach us how to stand firm in the face of difficult and frightening situations. But my mind could also be swerving off into possibly overblown fearscapes at the sight of bagged books because frightening regimes’ first targets are so often words and the people who love the truths they contain.*
So when I urge people to read, usually, I’m really just expressing a hope that they’ll find a new source of enjoyment and meaning in their lives. I know that books won’t solve even half the problems on this planet, even if we read the good ones with open hearts. But whether histrionic or not, that faith in the written word also houses the kernel of a plea that extends beyond the strength and imagination the best of our literature can offer and encourage: take what you learn, and respect your teachers, yourself, and the strangers you’ve never even seen, enough to uphold those lessons in your actions. Don’t give in, and don’t hide the books.
* In the last few years, J.K. Rowling has provided incredible models both of courage vis-à-vis tyranny, and of how that tyranny works. Want to see some of the best delineation since Václav Havel of how ideology functions? Check out volume five in her Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix, with Dolores Umbridge schooling us all in evil’s comfortable relationship with treacly cuteness. And for a reminder we all need to hear, there’s also The Goblet of Fire, with Dumbledore’s admonition that a time will likely “come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy” (differently phrased, I think, in the movie version). (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, New York: Scholastic Press, 2000: 724.)
As entire carriages full of sleepy World Series viewers trundled into the city’s heart this morning, I spied two passengers reading words on paper: the first had a volume of Harry Potter in her lap, although I couldn’t tell which one; the second, standing in front of me, was studying a xeroxed copy of an article out of Science, Technology & Human Values.
Had I not left the page I scribbled it down on at work, I would be able to give you an exact quotation of one of the piece’s subject headings, which I found sort of charming, something which might have been “Why Exactly Are We So Persistent?” As I was wondering why it was so important to me to figure out what exactly the document’s owner was learning about, I noticed a dude unable to take his eyes off the smartphone screen being held by the stranger in front of him. I’ve no idea if our visual eavesdropper was attracted by an e-book or a lengthy salacious text exchange or the morning’s 47th replay of game seven’s final out– but his persistence in keeping that screen in view was undeniable.
The woman I spotted on the afternoon train with a biography of Selena (Quintanilla Perez, not Gomez) disappeared into another car; by that point in the day, though, any persistence I’d started out with had fallen beneath any useful level, and all I noticed while staring slack-jawed out the windows was a beautifully waning fall day.
I’m a sucker for school-centered tales;* I always have been, and probably always will be, fascinated by the weird balance teachers have to strike between classroom persona and private life, and by the unavoidably charged atmosphere of kids figuring out and being excited and scared by still-new life while trying to emulate adult worlds that must seem so much freer and intriguingly populated than their own. And as a student, even up through grad school, instructors were these near-untouchable shells who I was convinced were hiding something alluringly fascinating beneath the surface. ** Admittedly, my starry eyes got me into a few embarrassing entanglements, but none that have left me with anything but a chuckle at the power of naïveté and maybe, evidence of a bit of divine protection.
Given this bit of context, it’s unsurprising that I’m loving Michel Butor’s Degrees, a teacher’s chronicling, for his nephew (who’s also his student), of the lives of a class at a French lycée. The nephew is also having his say now in the process, and is delighted (by this point, at least) with the secret project he and his uncle share. I’m loving it, as I said– but it’s also bringing back the terrible amounts of pressure I put on myself as a student, especially in high school; the absolute affliction– generally, morally, and even existentially speaking, if that final adverb makes sense– suffered at the thought of being found to exhibit anything less than perfection.
Although Butor’s bringing to the fore some of the fretful anticipation of, say, being called on in class or being hit with a pop quiz, there’s nothing about these fifteen-year-old boys or their lives that has them scholastically harried the way I was at their age. Of course, it’s another time (the 1950s) and place, and even gender, that are being portrayed here, but I’m finding these subjects’ relative nonchalance interesting. It may be that enough time has passed outside that world that I can finally sit back and wonder at the tremendous amount of importance, and hence, anxiety, school held for me, even while I truly enjoyed the things I was learning. Given, that education was significant; I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for my being dutiful and self-demanding in the classroom. But I was hit last night with both an observation– namely, that it’s hard to believe, now, in the intensity of my feelings back then– and to accompany it, a question that put that very same observation into nervous doubt: were I to return to one of those uncomfortable desks today, would fear suddenly descend upon me, turning me into forty-year-old admiring-fearing mush when faced with the well-meaning demands of an educator? I almost laughed at the hypothetical– but was so unsure of how I might really react, I couldn’t bring that disbelieving chuckle out into the vocalized open, even within the safe confines of my lone room.
Oddly enough, all of this bizarro baggage is just making me want to keep reading– maybe and hopefully a sign that I’ve found some sort of assistance in unearthing still-lingering hang-ups, and even better, in tossing them out the psychological door, with one good, final, loudly out-loud laugh.
* From what I can recall, the romance started with Wayside Stories from Wayside School; in the recent past, Harry Potter‘s an obvious example, and Special Topics in Calamity Physics perhaps the most delicious. As to the latter two, anything taking place in a boarding school is even better. I always felt cheated at not having been tossed into one of those establishments, even though I’m guessing a solid chunk of boarders would much rather have lived a normal, at-home life, with Friday-night football and adolescent battles with the parents.
** Somehow, I didn’t see that mystery get transferred to myself when I took up my own place behind the podium. Rather, I had the absurd sense of channeling Dora the Explorer in front of a lot of bored faces who could very plainly see the impostor standing before them.
I’ve long since realized that I have a finite amount of time on this planet– and so I’m picky about how I spend that tiny span. With so many fantastic books out there, for example, I truly begrudge the minutes and/or hours spent on less-than-stellar literature. This brand of curmudgeonliness, if that’s what it is, makes it difficult for me to follow up on earnest recommendations from people I love, but whose tastes in the written word don’t jibe with my own.* The problem becomes especially vexing when someone goes beyond a mere, “Hey check out X,” and gives you a copy of whatever it is is supposed to blow you away.
Only two times in my life have I gotten a dose of comeuppance in such a situation. A boss of mine once forcibly loaned me her copy of Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone— and I’ll have to say, after almost fifteen years after the fact, I still review some of the novel’s scenes in my head, and marvel at the fact that a man wrote such a believable female character. Then there was the time a young swain got so sick of my putting off his attempts to get me to read Harry Potter that he bought the first two volumes for me, knowing the expenditure of cash on my behalf would at least guilt me into reading them. While that particular idyll crashed and burned for about a thousand reasons, I’ll admit to being eternally grateful for that bit of literary education that happened thanks to a boy.
But I’ll set those memorable exceptions aside to announce that I’ve recently finished another unsolicited volume that does nothing to help me figure out how to navigate such situations. Offered as a helping hand for my “spiritual journey,” the memoir I just read did nothing for me one way or the other, with the exception of raising ugly thoughts in my head about people’s credulity and the tendency to fall back on the comforts of superstition. I’ve no idea how to convey my opinions about this volume to the person who bought it for me, since said individual was profoundly and positively affected by it. After all, I don’t want to seem ungrateful; how could I disparage what comes down to anyone’s attempt to express care and concern for my well-being, especially by way of an activity– reading– that can claim a solid chunk of credit for keeping me sane?
I’ll figure out, one way or another, how to handle this particular situation; after all, shouldn’t one of the outcomes of reading be honest conversation? Oh, the delicate task of negotiating the maze of individual preferences…
* This uneasiness doesn’t occur with fellow readers whose tastes do tend to fall in line with my own.
Let me take a break from the book world and admit to something that always becomes painfully obvious with films: I’ve got a thing for the bad guys– or better said, a weird infatuation with the cheesy villains.
I was reminded of this probably-disturbing fact last night when I finally got around to watching Spartacus (the Kubrick version). Crush on shirtless Kirk Douglas? No way! I was made aware, through the schmaltzy haze of ’60s nefariousness, that Laurence-Olivier-as-Crassus was downright hot, even as I was laughing at the scene that, back in the day, had people titillated with scandal. (Said minute or so pretty much boiled down to our patrician jerk letting his valet know, with Shakespearean-actor accent, that he buttered his bread on both sides, and wanted to encourage the incorruptible young Antoninus to join him in celebrating that fact.)
But anyway. It wasn’t the first time I found myself thinking I should pass my torch-bearing for scoundrels by a shrink; in spite of his ridiculous hair, Lucius Malfoy is delicious in every Harry Potter film he slinks through, and even Alan Rickman becomes attractive as the Sheriff of Nottingham (had his ‘do been slightly less greasy as Snape, I could easily have fallen for that weirdo, too). And need I mention Toby Stephens starring in the Masterpiece Theatre version of Jane Eyre: the hottest Rochester ever? (OK, so “bad guy” probably wouldn’t really apply to him, being a reformed scoundrel and all– but he still bears that lovely veneer of naughtiness.)
Part of my cinematic crushing may have to do with the fact that these guys are, for the most part, just more interesting than the heroes (Harry Potter accepted, methinks). Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus: meh. Sheriff of Nottingham accepted, the boys in black could probably carry on some educated and witty conversation, (1) and provide some excellent meals to boot. (Admittedly: the fact that the latter, at least, would most likely be the product of others’ unwilling labor would cast an overwhelming, deal-breaking pall over well-aged wine paired brilliantly with dinner.)
The heroes are often just so one-dimensionally upstanding, they end up getting on your nerves in the same way in which a certain type of super-healthy amateur triathlete does, bright-eyed and unable to converse about anything other than his 20-k daily run and his zeal for cutting carbs and joy out of his diet, leaving you and your own dumb reasonable workout feeling morally inferior and lazy, somehow.
The same villain-love doesn’t happen in literature, though, maybe because the written word– when it’s good, and I have very little patience for it when it’s bad– provides enough nuance to turn good guys less dopey, and bad guys less suave. Given cinema’s apparent need to crush almost everything down to an under-two-hour narrative– and American cinema’s particular mandate to value special effects and airbrushing over story– I can only imagine how difficult it must be to produce a truly rounded character in film. And that may be part of what’s kept me devouring literature non-stop my entire life, and being increasingly picky about what I watch on screen. Then again, we’ve got multiple more centuries’ worth to choose from, when it comes to options in literature.
Anyway. I’ll just tuck back into a book now (currently António Lobo Antunes’ Fado Alexandrino, which so far, contains zero literary crushes and a lot of moral damage and hurt), and pay more attention, the next time I go in for a movie version of good vs. evil.
(1) Although anyone who remembers that un-great film will recall that our corrupt law enforcer did have some cleverness about him, at least more than his henchmen, to whom he had to explain why cutting someone’s heart out with a spoon was more of a threat than doing so with a massive weapon. Note, too, that this brand of sophisticated villain eliminates outright frat-guy-esque abusers, such as The Karate Kid‘s Johnny, or his idiot sensei. Not remotely attractive.
I’m über-glad I stuck with A Thousand Acres. The thing really picked up in the second half, and of course, the book was much better– more nuanced; more willing to go more in-depth into more dark places; more cognizant of the resident seeds of evil hanging around in even the most lamblike of us– than the movie. I was especially impressed with the way Smiley had the narrator grow up and out of her meek cluelessness, without feeling pressured to bring the story to a victorious, trumpets-and-sunshine end.
The one thing the movie adaptation did well? Cast Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of Rose. And I can’t remember at all how the cinema version brought things to a close, but at least from what I recall seeing, Jessica Lange was also a good choice for Ginny, at least in pre-epiphany mode.
So: one more win for the book over the movie. While considering this competition, though, I was reminded of those rare times when each version of a story is equally as good as the other. I’m thinking about two examples in particular: 1) the account of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. I first learned about it from the documentary that detailed it all, Man on Wire. Absolutely brilliant. It sent me straight to the protagonist’s own written original, To Reach the Clouds. Even though I knew what would happen, and how, the latter had me biting my nails to the end.
2) The Harry Potter series is an entirely different animal for me, and constitutes one rare, collective instance where I’m content to let each genre exist as a set of completely unique products– maybe because all of them were of high quality, and because, given the length of the later books, I was willing to allow for some excising in the later films.
That’s all I have to say about that, though, other than the fact that I would like to check out Peter Brook’s lengthy version of The Mahabharata. The time, though! There have to be five hours free somewhere…