Friday, May 17, 2013

The Book that Changed My Life

If it's true we are what we eat, the same must be said about what we read. Few things are as meaningful as a good book. As a source of influence, entertainment, instruction, and inspiration, books have no equal. It shouldn't surprise, then, that some go on to break our hearts and, yes, even change our lives. 

Though my own selection might strike others as obscure, these books mean enough to me that I'm willing to risk a little reproof. One influential read came recommended by a health nut, a book about nutrition, The Sunfood Diet Success System by David Wolfe, a vegan. This was back when I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and drank scotch from the cask. It was a horrid book, poorly written, and self-published back when the term 'indie writer' was synonymous with 'conspiracy theorist'. Wolfe gave the dreaded term 'purple prose' a whole new meaning (the entire book was printed in a purple font color). But his testimony and anecdotes convinced me to give it a try. I quit smoking, lost considerable weight, impressed my doctor, and felt (physically) better than I ever had. I would've remained a practicing vegetarian were it not for the inconvenience. (Unless you enjoy cooking for one, raw fruits and veggies are your only bread and butter. That and actual bread and butter. And anything else that doesn't involve the death of animals. But try to eat out with friends and find meatless alternatives on a menu. I haven't abandoned the diet, but I cheat on the go.)

Another book that made a big difference was Animal Rights, opposing viewpoints, edited by Janelle Rohr. This was around the time I'd become eligible to vote. Animal rights was a hot button issue back then, and rather than rely on the consensus of friends and family, I'd decided to do my own investigation by reading what proponents of both sides had to say. 

The book is a collection of essays on everything from abattoirs to zoos. What intrigued me most, oddly enough, wasn't whether the ethical treatment of animals should or shouldn't involve a moratorium on hamburgers or lab rats or whaling or even whether the continuation of any of this stuff is or isn't morally right or humane, though these are certainly important considerations and worthy of debate.

Instead, what intrigued me was Rohr's principle purpose – to arm the reader with the tools essential for critical thinking. She does this by outlining basic rules of logic and summarizing some common fallacies, such as what constitutes a circular argument and how appeals to emotion and to authority, while useful and maybe legitimate, are no substitute for deduction. She then offers two essays, one for and one against, say, fur trapping, after which she asks the reader whether s/he spotted the fallacies. Another pair of essays would follow arguing for and against, say, primate research or hunting. Subsequently the reader is taught how to dissect a given argument, evaluate its merit, and determine whether it warrants the essayist's thesis statement.

I found these exercises exhilarating. It awoke in me a love for logic. Philosophy became my fetish, and I would go on to apply what I'd learned to an array of subjects.

As a Christian, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the Bible as an important influence. Certainly my faith, based on the teachings in the Bible, changed my life. But, to be fair, the good book can't be considered the catalyst for my conversion so much as an ongoing resource, since my transformation began with the apologetics of C. S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and, to a lesser extent, Francis Schaeffer. At the risk of seeming impious, I probably owe as much to Mere Christianity, Between Heaven and Hell, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent as I do to the New Testament.

Around this time I developed a fascination for ancient civilizations and got interested in these same ancient peoples' belief systems. This is when I actually read the Bible from flyleaf to flyleaf, as well as The Upanishads. This in turn got me interested in world mythologies, Edith Hamilton's great work Mythology chief among them. And this indirectly bled into a passion for legends of antiquity, folk tales and the like.

Contemporary fantasy fiction was the next step in my literary journey. That year a friend introduced me to Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, George MacDonald's pair of Princess tales, and C. S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles. Shortly thereafter, I'd reached the bottom of the book bin, reading mostly poor grade fantasy fiction by some popular but mediocre writers. I asked a well read friend whether he knew of any epics comparable to Tolkien's Rings trilogy he could recommend. The result was Stephen R. Donaldson’s extraordinary novel Lord Foul's Bane from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

This dark, controversial story altered my ideas about conscience and culpability. The protagonist's deeds and the subsequent complications that ensue impacted me like no other work of fiction before or since.

You can find hundreds of reviews of the novel on amazon here and a stellar examination of the plots, themes, and implications of the entire Chronicles on wikipedia here.

SRD has a unique, intense style. Everything is told in a tone verging on violence. There's a sense of urgency throughout. I've yet to find a novelist who explores the psychological turmoil of his characters with such energy and conviction. His approach exemplifies the intrinsic power of the written word. 

If any book can be said to have changed my life, it's this one. Reading Lord Foul's Bane made me want to write. Artistic expression wasn't new to me; I'd been a musician since my early teens. But only now did I consider words as evocative as music. Over time, my muse sang less and whispered more. Melodies were replaced with story ideas. I've been writing ever since. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Question of God; C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

For over half a century, the work of these two pioneers has influenced millions. Yet their ideologies were diametrically opposed. Freud assumed the Judeo-Christian God didn't exist. He based his entire life's work on the premise that the supernatural was at best untenable; until Lewis' conversion, he too held that belief. Then he became a Christian. This changed his worldview. He embraced God's love, meaning, hope, ideas and values Freud, incidentally, regarded as delusional.

The Prologue opens with their funerals – a couple of quotes from attendees, snippets and summaries from their obituaries, and a brief montage of their accomplishments. A tasty appetizer to prime the palate for the entrĂ©e to come.

The lives of these two intellectual icons overlapped in both space and time: Freud lived “not far from Oxford” where, and while, Lewis was a young professor, and the two were separated only by a generation; Lewis' body was buried just 24 years after Freud's was cremated. Both wrote passionately and extensively about their philosophies, and the two shared an interest in literature and psychoanalysis. They published several books, including autobiographies.

Nicholi sets out to address two fundamental questions “What should we believe?” and “How should we live?” He examines Freud's and Lewis' childhoods, their relationships with their families, the historical events that impacted their personal and professional lives, and the philosophies they espoused based not only on their published works but on the less public thoughts contained in the journals they kept and the hundreds of letters they wrote to friends and family. More (maybe most) importantly, the writer explores whether these men practiced what they preached, and, subsequently, whether their lives were enriched.

Both Freud and Lewis experienced heart wrenching tragedies and deep sorrows. Nicholi draws from their letters to expose these wounds. Their deaths near the close of the work, though anticipated, came too soon and made me scrunch my face and clumsily wipe my cheeks.

Detractors have expressed displeasure with Nicholi's conclusions. Some insist the pairing of the two men is unfair to Freud, that Nicholi stacks the deck against atheism, that instead Lewis should've been pitted against the likes of Sam Harris or Carl Sagan.

These objections ignore several factors, some I've already mentioned. Maybe most relevant is what Nicholi says in the Prologue:
Wherever Freud raises an argument, Lewis attempts to answer it.
Thirty years before the publication of this book in 2003, Harvard invited Nicholi to teach a course on Freud. He has been teaching the undergraduates there ever since, as well as the Harvard Medical School students for at least a decade. Initially, the course consisted exclusively of Freud's philosophical views, but as Nicholi writes:
Roughly half my students agreed with him, the other half strongly disagreed. When the course evolved into a comparison of Freud and Lewis, it became much more engaging, and the discussions ignited.
We should also remember that Freud gave us “terms such as ego, repression, complex, projection, inhibition, neurosis, psychosis, resistance, sibling rivalry, and Freudian slip.” Lewis was “perhaps the 20th century's most popular proponent of faith based on reason” and inspired a “vast number of ... societies in colleges and universities”.
During World War II his Broadcast talks made his voice second only to Churchill's as the most recognized on the BBC.
It's difficult to downplay “the sheer quantity of personal, biographical, and literary books and articles on Lewis” published since his passing.

Despite Sagan's highly entertaining Cosmos series, his important work in astronomy and astrophysics, as well as his compelling commentary as it pertains to cosmology, his influence doesn't compare. As for Harris' haphazard reasoning and saccharin science, anyone who believes this atheist would stand a chance against the likes of Lewis is engaged in wishful thinking. A brief sampling of online video or audio debates between Harris and a number of theist philosophers and scientists confirms this. Critical thinking is not his forte.

I can't imagine a skeptic coming away from this work still convinced atheism has anything attractive to offer. Freud's philosophy led to fits of depression and repeated thoughts of suicide; Lewis' faith resulted in personal fulfillment so that even at his most desperate and lonesome hour, he discovered not only an alternative to despair but a joy that surpassed his expectation.

A compelling account of two legends, their legacies, and the implication and consequence of their philosophies. Well written and researched (40 pages of notes and bibliography).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations (1992)

I have an aversion to driving in the rain. Reduced visibility, lightning, the risk of hydroplaning  these things make me nervous. But years ago, I braved a Texas summer thunderstorm despite these obstacles. I was on a quest for a book of idioms, and being on a quest romanticizes life's challenges, emboldens the adventurer. At least that's what I told myself.

The rain smacked my windshield like pellets. Lightning flared like a heliarc. But I drove on. I finally pulled into the unpaved parking lot of my local library, shut off the engine, and listened to the terrific kettle drum solo on the roof of my Taurus. I wondered whether I should wait for the concert to end before sprinting the sixty yards from my car to the main entrance. Sensing the onset of a migraine, I bolted.

The rain struck my umbrella like a fusillade as I splashed along the sidewalk. Beside me, the heavy traffic eased forward, headlights blazing, creating the appearance of a funeral procession.

If my dash to the doors had caused me to overlook the early afternoon's preternatural gloom, I couldn't miss it now; the 
library's main entrance, a huge multi-pane glass facade, swelled like a reactorIt was as if the sun, having fled the sky, had found refuge within the bowels of the building. Ads, posters, and schedules taped against the inside of the glass facing out were illumined like lampshades, made semi-transparent by the brilliance beyond.

I pushed past the waist-high turnstile and rushed to the reference desk. That's when I noticed I'd already tracked half a dozen figure eights of unpaved parking lot mud across the linoleum. I returned to the commercial entrance mats and pawed them with my sneakers like a bull preparing to charge as thunder slammed the building and sent the fluorescent lights into arrhythmia.

I never found that book of idioms, but I
 did grab four hardbound volumes featuring everything else from epigrams and aphorisms to proverbs, bon mots, and toastsThe quaint quartet was part of a set called Complete Speaker’s and Toastmaster’s Library, and today, all these summers later, I can't help but consider the contrast between those and this more recent read, Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations, which seems so quarrelsome by comparison. 

Looking back on those four volumes, a symbiosis of sentiment seems to have pervaded. It was as if the composers of each entry all shared the same sensei. I remember imagining those authors and orators at some highbrow dinner party, rapping their champagne flutes with their spoons, clearing their throats, and affirming what everyone else in attendance regarded as true, the unique rhythm and timbre of their voices being the only real disparity. I'm sure the distance of time, from this moment to those many summers ago, morphs mobs into choirs, but I elect to cherish this fond fiction, if it is indeed a fiction, until some snooping statistician proves me wrong.

In contrast, wordsmiths from Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations are more likely to incite a food fight. Regarding Beauty...
What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon also be beautiful.” - Sappho
It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” - Leo Tolstoy

Body and Face...
How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” - Katherine Mansfield
If anything is sacred the human body is sacred.” - Walt Whitman

Optimism and Pessimism...
The optimist claims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” – James Branch Cabell
I came to the conclusion that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself.” – G.K. Chesterton

I've got only two complaints. While I oppose the ad hominem, I take exception to known subverters and tyrants. I'll abide Timothy Leary, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, even Carl Marx, but why quote Fidel Castro, Stalin, or Mao Tse-Tung? Incidentally, those last two villains, though featured in the book, aren't listed in the Index. Conversely, the humorist Fran Lebowitz, while indexed, isn't featured in the book. 

Here a better writer would insert a pithy remark about how recording the deeds and declarations of moppets and mass murderers is perfectly acceptable for biographies, encyclopedias, and history books but shouldn't appear in a tome whose subtitle reads 4,000 thought-provoking quotations from the world's most celebrated men and women. Personally, I'd prefer they be consigned to a grimoire entitled The Infamous Drivel of Communists and FascistsRegrettably, despite my inordinate exposure, I'm incapable of crafting such a pithy remark.

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...