Have I lost my last shred of humanity? Last month I was unable to read—bored with, really—two science fiction novels, but found myself staying up late and avoiding responsibilities to read Moby Dick. The two sci-fi novels weren't slouches either, Octavia Butler and Vernor Vinge are fine writers. I simply didn't care. Melville though, wow. Even the spoilers didn't distract (the ship sinks, just like Titanic).
I suppose that sounds like a humblebrag. Maybe it is. As Muhammad Ali said, “It ain't braggin' if it's true.”1 But then Ali wouldn't be worried about the humble bit.
I do think it's odd that I've (at least temporarily) lost my taste for sci-fi. It's not as though I haven't championed the genre before. I'll continue to do so. There's a lot of good stuff (and a lot of dreck, but that's largely a function of volume) in sci-fi. Here's the thing though, sci-fi is plot driven, moral driven, it has a clear arc of progress and a certainty that, even if we can't tell the good guys from the bad, at least we can know what they did. The facts aren't in dispute. Anytime sci-fi diverges too much from this, say in Delaney's Dhalgren, Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, it is difficult to peg as sci-fi.
What I appreciate, what got me excited, about the books I did read this past month is that they aren't so easy. They're epistemically impoverished and evidence rich. They ask the reader to construct the character as a real human being, not a caricature. I think it is this demand on the reader that makes literature meaningful. It is this demand that makes me want to write, to emulate (all humility aside) these writers and explore what it might mean to be human and reclaim that humanity that I've lost. Why is this? I believe we're all a bit of a mystery, even to ourselves—then again, I've been told, in the most strenuous way short of physical violence, not to project my own inadequacies and failings onto others. But what can I do?
It is tempting here to delve into specifics, to tell you why Ahab isn't the simple obsessive he's made out to be in popular culture, to go on a tangent about negative capacity, but this isn't lit-crit, this is a blog listing the books I've read since school let out in May. So:
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried.
This is the only book to read on how to tell, not just a true war story, but that oxymoron, the true story. I don't trust simple stories. I don't trust easy answers. If I could… But when someone tells me that something is true, or right, or obvious, my eyes narrow, I check my wallet, I lock my door.
I would say that these stories are universal, that they tell us something bigger, that these aren't stories about war. These are stories about life. But then I know better. I've been told. I can't comment—I'm not privileged to comment—on war stories. No, that's not right either. The privilege runs the other way. I'm privileged not to comment.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
There is nothing new under the sun. Everything has been done before, footnotes, lengthy asides, doubt, and so on. All those literary techniques and themes you thought were invented in the last half of the twentieth century were already used by Melville. And it's worth reading just for that.
There is an old joke that a classic is a book that people praise but never read. Perhaps. But I have found that classics are most often classics for good reason. I was bored by action and sci-fi. I've been bored by thrillers. I was never bored with Moby Dick. I read it in four days and when I read O'Brien's How to Tell a True War Story and then Chapter 54, 'The Town-Ho's Story,' I couldn't help but note that Melville had written a war story. Why did it happen? What's the moral? Wrong question.
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood.
This book sits next to on my shelf, shares a publisher with, and has a similar cover to The Stranger. That's serendipitous as the two also share themes of crime, purpose, and capital punishment. I think back to reading Camus in high school. I loved the book, but got a test question wrong. The question was, why did Mersault kill the Arab? I don't recall my answer, but I read into the story I couldn't help but speculate on why he did it. What it meant. But the correct answer, the answer indicated, was that the sun was in his eyes. That answer was too literal for me, yet not literary enough. How can you sum up the reason for the book in that phrase, “the sun was in his eyes?” Yes that's it. No it isn't.
Now, why did Dick and Perry kill the Clutters?
I didn't find this book terrifying in the same way that others seem to. I didn't have nightmares. I wasn't made nauseous.2 I find it terrifying that Capote makes these killers human. He makes them your brother—you. I don't want to read about inhuman killers, Lecters and Dahmers. Inhuman killers, psychopaths, sociopaths, may as well be accidents, rockslides, lightning. Human killers—killers who are like us—that is scary. But that isn't it either. This book isn't scary at all. It is sad and only sad.
Thom Jones, Pugilist at Rest.
Another book of war stories. Similar to O'Brien, but where O'Brien looks at war as an all too real dream, a nightmare come true that one hides from, Jones finds his message in war as a place of belonging, a place that might be home and brings a perverted form of comfort that peace and civilian life fails to provide. The image of the Pugilist at Rest, the statue and the words, brings together disparate images, violence and peace, readiness and relaxation. The pugilist is never truly at rest. Or, if he is it is a kind of senescence. Here I can't help think of Muhammad Ali. Where do we find our value when our powers are taken from us? What are we good for? Ali has his answer, do we? Does it satisfy?
1 Muhammad Ali never said this.
2No, it was Rich Dad; Poor Dad that made me nauseous and wouldn't let me sleep. Dead serious, that is what my nightmares are made of.