Myth and Magic

Magic and religion are difficult to tell apart.  Scholars have known this for some time, but don’t often say anything about it for fear of offending.  A few days ago Religion News Service ran a story headlined “How the ‘Harry Potter’ books are replacing the Bible as millennials’ foundational text.”  While many reacted with shock, to me the fact that a foundational text can be identified at all is a relief.  You see, reading is good for you.  Really, really good for you.  One of the most hopeful things I observed as a parent was the increased quality and volume of young adult literature available.  Of course it’s produced to make a profit, but the fact is it showed that reading is alive and thriving.  If the young make a habit of it, well, let’s hope that habit’s hard to kick.

My own reading doesn’t always keep pace with my desire to do more of it.  I go for a couple of weeks sometimes without finishing a book.  I begin to feel depleted.  There’s something spiritual about reading, and fiction can reach parts of your soul that are on guard when non-fiction’s your subject.  And that’s like magic.  It took a couple years for me to catch on to the Harry Potter craze.  Eventually my wife and I broke down and bought book one and read it together.  As millions of readers can attest, that first book was a fishhook.  We all really hope the world does contain some magic.  Many people find that solace met with religion.  Either way, fiction can enhance the experience.  We read the original series, hanging tensely until the final volume came out.

Many of those who believe in a magical religion protested the sale of magical fiction.  We were still in Wisconsin at the time, but we saw the protestors outside a local bookstore the release day for one of the later volumes.  Like Death-Eaters the protestors opposed Harry Potter.  The root of the problem seems to have been unique truth claims.  Whenever a religion declares itself the sole harbinger of “the” truth, every other way of looking at things becomes evil.  Even if it expressly declares itself to be fantasy fiction for young adults.  Years have passed, and Harry Potter, like other forms of pop culture, has grown to the status of a religion.  Even Nones want to believe in something.  Magic and religion are, after all, very difficult to tell apart.

Quoth Hardy

There are days when the quote from an author is the best thing to happen to me.  You probably know those kinds of days—days when there’s nothing really to stay up for so you go to bed early.  Lengthy days when your Muse wins easily any game of hide-and-seek.  You see, I save most of my fiction reading for bedtime.  If I turn in soon enough I can read quite a bit before falling asleep.  Not to sell you a false bill of goods, but that’s not the source of the quote.  It actually came to me from an unrelated email about the Bible.  The quote, while lengthy, comes from Thomas Hardy:

By the will of God some men are born poetical. Of these some make themselves practical poets, other are made poets by lapse of time who were hardly recognized as such. Particularly has this been the case with the translators of the Bible. They translated into the language of their age; then the years began to corrupt that language as spoken, and to add grey lichen to the translation; until the moderns who use the corrupted tongue marvel at the poetry of the old words. When new they were not more than half so poetical. So that Coverdale, Tyndale, and the rest of them are as ghosts what they never were in the flesh.

This comes from a letter to Professor D. A. Robertson of the University of Chicago, dated to February 1918.  Hardy was a known critic of religion, but like most writers of his day he knew the Bible.  Now, I’d never generally put myself on the same page with Hardy, but something similar to this thought had occurred to me long before I saw this quote.  We treasure ancient writing simply because it has survived.  This should be a sobering thought to any of us who try to forge our thoughts into words.  We have no way of knowing if, at the time, an author was considered great.  Merely the passage of time can make writing unfashionable in its age appear brilliant.  Like rocks tumbling over each other at the base of a cataract, they find polish over time.

My particular context for receiving this emailed quote was the King James Version of the Bible.  Often considered sacred in that translation, it was not uniformly well received when first published.  There had been English Bibles before, and since the Good Book is the foundation of western literature, a new translation commanded attention.  It had its critics, but over the centuries the translation itself became holy, whether it deserved it or not.  Similarly, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible helped to codify the German language.  We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Scripture, not for its theology, but for its immense influence on western thought.  As Hardy noted, it may be the passage of time that makes writing great.  Even so we might be wise to pay attention.

Not Quite Thursday

I discovered Jasper Fforde, as these things so often happen, at the recommendation of a friend.  A writer of rare talent, he’s conjured a few meta-worlds where fiction is the subject of fiction.  Probably best known for his Thursday Next novels, the premise is that fiction can be distorted by malevolent sorts within the Book World, which is like the Outside (our world) only much more interesting.  The sole problem with series is that in order to follow the storylines, you need to be able to recall where things were left the last time.  That’s complicated when you don’t read the books in order.  I haven’t followed Thursday Next in sequence—I find Fforde’s books sporadically and pick them up when I do (I prefer not to buy fiction on Amazon, for some reason).

The latest installment I found is One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.  It’s a bit more convoluted than the last plot I recall, but the writing is still good.  In this story, which mostly takes place in Book World, the written Thursday Next has to find the real Thursday Next (who is, of course, also written, thus the “meta” I mentioned earlier).  This is probably not the best place to start the series for neophytes.  There was an interesting aspect, however, that I feel compelled to share.  The majority of this novel takes place on an island dedicated to fiction, divided into different “countries” by genre.   Just north of Horror and east of Racy Novel is Dogma.  It’s just southeast of the Dismal Woods.  This plays into the plot, of course, but the placement is interesting.  As Thursday tells it, the full name of the region is Outdated Religious Dogma.  Then I realized something.

Simply placing Dogma on this island plays into the idea that religious thought is fiction.  There are other islands in Fforde’s world, including non-fiction.  Dogma, of course, is not the same as religion.  The definition of dogma is something that is incontrovertibly true, by the authority that states it.  Problem is, nothing is inconvertibly true any more (if it ever was).  When Christianity ruled Europe, such ideas became highly politicized.  Indeed, parts of the world could well have fit into the Book World map.  Fforde’s novel is really just for fun, and Dogma doesn’t play a major role in the story.  That doesn’t prevent it, however, from being a legitimate point over which to pause and wonder.  Fiction can be factual, but not in a dogmatic way.

The Truth of Fiction

The thing about reading is that it’s a lifestyle.  I record books both here and on Goodreads, but I read a lot more than books.  Although I don’t have much time for magazines or even newspapers, I read a lot on the web.  And billboards.  And sidewalks.  I’m quite content doing it.  One thing I’ve noticed in all this reading is that fiction writers tend to be more often cited as experts and intellectuals than do non-fiction writers.  Oh the non-fic practitioners get their footnotes, and other specialists mention them, but fiction writers get analyzed, probed, and explored.  Literary types wonder what they meant by some obscure doggerel they wrote.  When’s the last time a non-fiction writer drew that kind of attention?  It makes me wonder about all the time I’ve been spending on non-fiction lately.

I suffer from graphomania.  There’s no cure.  The other day I went looking for an old, pre-electric typewriter to get my fix in case the power goes out.  I have notebooks, zibaldones, commonplace books.  I carry one in my pocket.  I have one on my bedside stand.  And the thing I’ve noticed is that the ideas that come to me unbidden are often fictional.  You see, I have a hidden life as a fiction writer.  That persona is very poor since he’s never made any money from his writing.  He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize some years ago, but he never won.  That fiction writer has been suffering cabin fever because I’ve been finding publishers for my non-fiction work.  I wonder, however, if maybe I shouldn’t be spending my time on fiction.  It’ll never get me to the point I can make a living on it, but it might get quoted after I’m gone.

Writing, after all, is a stab at immortality.  Those of us who do it are legacy builders.  Even as the web has moved us more and more toward visual, iconic forms of entertainment, it has still left a few dusty corners for the written word.  When I pass the sometimes impressive graffiti on the way into New York I think I know what the vandals are feeling.  We’re kindred spirits.  We don’t want to be forgotten.  Whether with spray can, fingers on a keyboard, or fountain pen (or maybe even an old-fashioned typewriter) we are trying to say, “I was here.”  I used to print out all my blog posts in case the web failed.  It grew to thousands of pages.  I had to stop.  I was beginning to act like a fictional character.

Spoiler Alert

I work in a cubicle. That’s just one word shy of the famed “six word novel” challenges. I’m wondering what qualifier I should add. To understand this dilemma you have to realize a few things. My first professional job (professor) included a three-room office to myself. Also, I am a middle-aged man amid a work-pool of mostly twenty-somethings (everyone else my age has their own office). My cubicle has walls six feet high, so I can’t see, but can hear my just-out-of-college neighbors. Very few people talk to me at work. In fact, I can go an entire week without anyone saying anything to me, right here in the largest city in the country. The office is generally very quiet. You can hear everything. This leads to my concern with a very specific peril regarding work in a cubicle.

Much of the meaning in my life comes from what I read. In addition to all the books I review here on this blog, I have quite a few fiction projects going at any one time. I happen to be reading a book just now that was recently made into a movie. The reason I know it’s been made into a movie? My unseen, 20-something colleagues began talking about it yesterday morning. Complete with spoilers. Now, they couldn’t see the contortions on my face, hidden in my cubicle. The people who sit next to me work in a different department than mine and I have no reason to speak to them—they don’t even know who I am. Should I, like the voice of God, thunder unseen from my cube, “No spoilers!”? Or should I just continue to sit here with my fingers jammed firmly into my ears and hope that when I pull them out I don’t learn anything more about what I haven’t read yet?

I know it’s just me. I don’t read the blurbs on a book before reading the book itself. I don’t read reviews of movies before seeing the film. Guys my age appreciate the craft of story, building up to the reveal, not getting it in Monday morning water-cooler talk. I finally got up and walked away from my desk. There’s nowhere private to go on my floor, so I went to the stairwell and pointlessly climbed to the top floor and back down again. I returned to my desk and they were still talking about it. Not only was it Monday morning in a New York City where nobody had spoken to me in the three hours since I arrived in town, but there wasn’t even a spoiler warning for one of my favorite pastimes. Such are the perils of cubicle life.

The Big Shill

Once in a while I have to shill. As an erstwhile academic I’m aware of the cachet my employer bears for colleagues and the elite among the general public. Still, I find articles on the Oxford Dictionaries blog irresistible. I don’t work for the Dictionaries division, but I sometimes wish I did. A recent post by guest blogger Rebecca Teich discusses pulp fiction neologisms that have made their way into mainstream vocabulary. It’s not so much the individual words that interest me as much as does the phenomenon itself. Pulp fiction is antithetical to the sophisticated literature of the cultured class. Yes, there is status snobbery involved in such an assessment—we know those who find anything “common” to be vulgar and indicative of a lack of good breeding. The fact, however, that pulp fiction words make it to the mainstream belies the singular direction of cultural influence.

Many of us who grow up in working class families aspire to better things. We see (or used to see) on television and in movies how other people live. They have things and experiences that we covet. We work hard for many years to try to get there, often being kicked back down the stairs along the way. And yet we find some of our cheap, common vocabulary creeping into the consciousness of those who can afford better. There’s even a phrase for it. Guilty pleasures are those enjoyable books or other media that are really “beneath us,” but which we secretly enjoy. I post once in a while about Dark Shadows novels which are, quite literally, among the pulp fiction I grew up reading. They reached cultural cachet with a decidedly disappointing Tim Burton movie based on that universe, but regardless, they reached mainstream respectability.

Respectability. I suspect that’s what it’s all about. We want to be shown that our dirty collars and rolled-up sleeves mean something in this world of billionaire playboy presidents and congress that aspires only to greater wealth for itself. My first job, which I started when I was 14, involved physical labor. Brooms, paint rollers, and sledge hammers. I spent my evenings watching television and some of my weekends writing fiction. Pulp through and threw. Part of me finds its bliss in knowing that other rough-hewn writers have stamped their hallmark on the literary world by pounding out gritty stories of authentic human experience. Yes, I may be a corporate shill in this respect, but then, the shill is a respected member of the pulp fiction community.

Inventing Breaks

Breaks are good for many things. Time with family and friends. Hours of non-bus time for reading. Watching movies. So it was that we went to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. It really is a bit early for my taste, to think about Christmas, but the movie was quite welcome. Being a writer—I wouldn’t dare to call myself an author—one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing. Watching a movie about it, I learned, works well also. The conceit of the characters following Dickens around, and refusing to do what he wants them to should be familiar to anyone who’s tried their hand at fiction. My experience of writing is often that of being a receiver of signals. It is a transcendent exercise.

Not only that, but in this era of government hatred of all things creative and intellectual, it is wonderful to see a film about writing and books. The reminder about the importance of literacy and thought is one we constantly have to push. If we let it slip, as we’ve discovered, it may well take considerable time to recover. Getting lost in my fiction is one of my favorite avocations. Solutions to intractable problems come at most improbable times. Although publishers tend to disagree with me, I find the stories compelling. In the end, I suppose, that’s what really matters.

On an unrelated note, this is the second movie I’ve seen recently that attributes non-human actors their real names in the cast listing. What a welcome break from the blatant speciesism that pervades life! Animals have personalities and identities. Humans have often considered the privilege of being named to be theirs alone. True, animals can’t read and wouldn’t comprehend a human art form such as cinema. But when they communicate with each other, they may well have names for us. The beauty of a story such as A Christmas Carol is that it reminds of the importance of generosity. We should be generous to those who take advantage of our kindness. Our time. Our energy. We should also be generous to those who aren’t human but are nevertheless important parts of our lives. The movie may have come too early for my liking, but the holiday spirit should never be out of season. If we’ve made a world that only appreciates kindness because much of the rest of the year is misery, it means we’ve gone too far. Films can be learning experiences too, no matter the time of year.