My name's Dave. I'm working on it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Wrapped Up in Books

I am always reading a few books at once. It takes focus to fight the tendency to spread myself thin among too many, so the general rule of thumb is one work of fiction at any time. Books of philosophy on the side are acceptable.
For the last few months, my fiction of choice has been Atlas Shrugged. I chose it in part because my friend Nick cited it as one of his favorite books. It has been gathering dust on my shelves for years. His death seemed as fitting an occasion as any to pull it out, to become familiar with something that had touched him so greatly.
I knew going in that it was a book which provoked extremely mixed reactions, positive and negative. On two occasions now I've had friends who, after glimpsing the book in my hand, say "I'm sorry." As if it were an unfortunate twist of fate that found the book in my possession, a cruel sentence that I was forced to read it. I always blink when people say this. I know I am a very impressionable person: whatever I'm reading tends to affect me quite a bit; sometimes my mind succumbs to a more forceful one. Though those days are over, by and large, I'd be the first to admit that reading this book has, at times, put me in a very cold and inhuman way, much like the central characters. I've felt judgmental. I've felt robotic. Full of thoughts of motive power, etc. But I remain, still, quintessentially myself.
I can see Ms. Rand's ulterior motives in her writing (come on, subtlety is hardly the woman's strong suit. You can't really miss the subtext). But my fortitude is such that reading this book is not going to transform me into a Heartless Capitalist, who suddenly abandons all thoughts of compassion as gratuitous and irrelevant. And despite her obvious agenda and seriously heavy-handed writing style, there is a lot more to the story and the characters than the capitalist stance. And love her or hate her, her intelligence can hardly be disputed. And encountering an intelligent mind, even if you don't agree with it, is always worth doing. Perhaps especially if you don't agree with it. How dull would it be to go through life exposing ourselves only to those thinkers and artists who reinforced the ideas and philosophies we have already chosen for ourselves? It is precisely those who think differently from us that encourage us to grow. Anything else is just stagnating.
So what, then, is meant by their condolences?
I can interpret it as a statement of sympathy or pity, as I said above, but what is there to pity? The hours I spend reading this paperback tome which I'll never get back? Perhaps. If there is anything I consciously try to avoid, it is the wasting of time. And should I see others pursuing a course I felt was a waste of theirs, I might feel inclined to intervene. But is reading this book really an example of such a waste? Compare it, for instance, to the hours I spend nestled at my computer, idly letting my life slip away into the recesses of the internet. Or the hours I lose when I go out and get drunk and/or stoned, reducing my mind to a feeble, ineffectual state and probably consuming a good deal of fast food in the process. Is this not pitiable, from a different vantage point? Each person chooses their own standard by which to decide what is and what is not a waste of time. Is it not enough that I find it worthy of my time, to read this long and logorrheic book? Is it not enough that I learn from it?
So what can I say to them? The same answer I would give anyone questioning my motives: I entered into it, as I do all things, with a clear sense of purpose. I chose it because it will help me grow. And, to be sure, it will shape me in ways I can't foresee. If I am not strong enough to withstand a forceful mind, what other way for me to learn but to throw myself into it? How can I hope to grow if I don't experience the diversity of thoughts and opinions that exist outside of my head?
But ultimately, the real point is this: I've chosen it for myself. Every day I see people behaving in ways that seem absurd to me, and wonder why they live the way they do. Why they do things which, to me, are so foolish and wasteful. I both want to condemn them, and, at the same time, help to correct them. But who am I to do such a thing?
Everyone has to find their own way to live as they see fit.
I read on, and remember why I began it in the first place. I think of Nick reading it, and wish I could sit down with him and talk about it. I imagine our minds meeting on the page, and I realize how much of ourselves are left in the things we loved.
And that, if nothing else, is reason enough.

Monday, June 04, 2007

On Books, Ethics, and Giant Crabs

I recently made a friend who hails from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She's new to the City of Roses, so I've taken it upon myself to get her acquainted with some of my favorite spots. She is a fellow library geek and bookstore enthusiast, and when I learned that she'd never set foot in the Central Multnomah County Library nor Powell's City of Books, my soul cried sacrilege and it became my moral imperative to rectify the situation at once.
We met up mid-afternoon and hopped the #14 downtown. After she filled out the form and was issued a library card, we set out into the heart of the library, climbing the marble stairs up up up. I walked a step behind, as in escort. It felt right that she should lead the journey. The second floor opened before us, and on each side of us an archway. Periodicals or Science?
Science. We went.
The Central Library is a big place. I lingered around the computer section while she explored, trying to keep track of her as best I could. I browsed through one of those yellow cartoon reference books, Unix for Dummies. It was Greek to me, even for one of those books. My mind kept looking for Mac or Windows, anything to latch onto. But no. Unix is outside of the dichotomy of my understanding of the technological world. I put the book back on the shelf and decided to postpone my dreams of designing a website using Linux until I could enlist a fellow computer geek to teach me in person.
We went up further, and now the choice was between History/Literature and Art/Music. I again deferred to her, thinking: Art/Music! Art/Music! I was, after all, there in part to see what free cds I could find to add a little more weight to my already obscenely bloated iTunes library.
She chose History.
We went.
As she made her rounds, I found myself standing by the columns of books on the west wall. I looked down, and beautiful little maroon book caught my eye. The spine read: On Doing the Right Thing. Above that: Nock. I pulled it off the shelf.
It was a collection of essays by a fellow named Albert Jay Nock, who I'd never heard of. The book itself was a first edition, stamped 1928. Beautiful. I flipped to the title essay and began to read. He wrote of the differences between Americans and Englishmen, specifically their particular inclinations towards doing said Right Thing. He put forth that there were three primary factors that influence our conduct. First, the laws of the land (whichever you happened to live in). He put it quite well:
"A man, for instance, may not murder or steal, because an organized power outside himself will withstand him before the fact, if possible, and make trouble for him after the fact."
Quite so, old chap.
The second realm of personal conduct, according to Nock, falls to things that really don't matter all that much one way or the other, such as what toothpaste or detergent you use (though some nowadays would claim that these are matters of the utmost importance). Last was the field of personal moral/ethical judgment, which the English, bless 'em, had a name for: Doing the Right Thing.
The essay continued by examining the degree to which this third category is affected by the growth or decline of the first category, and how in the States the lawmakers hold that it is the laws that keep most of humankind from transgressing into a sort of primitive and debaucherous state of abandon. The essay seemed to evolve then into a sort of treatise on the anarchist (what might be called libertarian, nowadays) reaction to this stance: that when laws were relaxed and personal freedom and moral judgment were given room to breathe, man would be able, through reason, experience and observation, to develop a strong inner sense of moral certainty and the faculty by which to exercise that certainty. To Do the Right Thing.
I realize that, out of context, these ideas are very simplistic and straightforward, but I marveled at the odds of ever happening upon this little book, among so many. The author being unknown to me, yet very intelligent, articulate, and agreeable to my mind. And here I had wanted to head straight for the music room. I tucked the book under my arm, and when we were ready to go, checked it out.
The walk to the bookstore took us past Jake's Grill, which brings out a special decoration once a year, around the time of the Rose Festival. I'd forgotten all about it until we were passing directly underneath and my eyes wandered to the rooftop. I almost stumbled, stopping us both and reaching for my camera. I directed her eyes upwards. And then we walked on.
At Powell's we did more exploring, me following her lead. I circled around the philosophy section, looking for a decent copy of Epictetus's Discourses and not finding one. I'm very particular about translations. I did, however, find a used copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, beautifully hardbound. And I was presented with another moral imperative: to buy it for her, much as I have felt anytime I encounter anyone who has not yet read it.
We left the bookstore and made our way toward the bus mall. I cradled the little red book in my hand, admiring it. I had half a mind to call the library in a few weeks and apologetically tell them that it had been lost; I would, of course, pay whatever replacement fees they asked. But would they really be able to replace this ancient copy? I wanted the book, but was it ethically correct to "buy" the book from the library in such a backhand manner? I looked at my companion, and then remembered the title of the book in my hand.
We both laughed.
The sun was setting over Southwest Portland, and I looked up at Jake's Grill, to bid my new friend a good day.