Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Months before finding this classic at my local used bookstore, I had an exchange with an atheist about morality. He’d insisted that children are born with empathy, inclined to share, and, if not corrupted by society, religion, or a sociopath gene, will grow into adults of a similar disposition. I noted that his faith in human nature was both startling and na├»ve, that parents and society teach children these virtues, and that it’s a circular argument to deny the inherent selfishness and other vices for which humanity has cornered the market and instead relegate bad behavior exclusively to the insane and the religious zealot. Of course, the atheist must additionally dismiss the atrocities humanity has committed toward one another in the name of political expediencies, as well as crimes of passion, cruelty, and the tendency humans have for self destruction in general. Evidently, the atheist reconciles his faith in humanity’s goodness against human history in general by rendering these horrors mere anomalies.

During that exchange, I didn’t refer to this book as an example of what I meant since I hadn’t read it yet. I was familiar with only its plot and theme. Golding wrote that his novel was an effort to show that defects in society stem from defects in human nature. I got some other things out of it, too, probably things Golding didn’t intend.

I couldn’t help but associate the children with certain political parties. Early on, the kids elect a leader who encourages foresight and diligence. Yet before long, human nature trumps reason. The less intuitive ideals are abandoned in favor of more immediate pleasures, and denouncing this shared hope for something yet unseen (their potential rescue) creates the vacuum from which despair feeds. The foregone conclusion to unsupervised kids stranded on an uninhabited island. If only that atheist I debated believed in a higher authority beyond human ingenuity. I can imagine him as that initial leader, insisting on a basic goodness from those who seize the opportunity to exploit it, and, having no source from which to appeal to their alleged empathy, becomes a victim of his false paradigm. Or not. I mean, what do I know?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce (1911)

Since there’s no plot, no characters to recall, no thesis statement or theme (beyond tongue-in-cheek hostility) to keep track of, this is perfect bathroom reading. Using only one word to describe it, I’d go with sardonic, a word, incidentally, not in this dictionary. Nor is sarcastic, cynical, acerbic, sacrilegious, or amusing. Yet this dictionary is all those things. If you enjoyed Woody Allen’s Getting Even or Side Effects, which I recommend (“You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.”) or Fran Lebowitz’s Social Studies or Metropolitan Life (“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”), then you might enjoy this book. Some choice selections, truncated:

Birth, n. – The first and direst of all disasters.
Egotist, n. – A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Friendless, adj. – Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.
Saint, n. – A dead sinner revised and edited.
Self-esteem, n. – An erroneous appraisement.
Twice, adv. – Once too often.
Year, n. – A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

You’ll find wittier definitions than these within, but they’re much longer. In several places, a single definition might take up an entire page. A limerick or a poem accompanies some.

Three quarters into the book, I realized why I’d put off finishing it; when it’s not contemptuously funny, it’s still contemptuous. The smirking tone wore on me after a while, and I had to offset the mood it generated with lighter reading. Recommended, but not in a single sitting. Sure, you’ll laugh; you’ll smile; but you’ll grimace too. Approach in high spirits. When spirits falter, bookmark. Rinse and repeat. Treat it as you would garlic or sour cream or chili powder; a little goes a long way.