Soul Library

LibrarySoulsThere’s a kind of trinitarian logic to the trilogy format. Long before Hegel’s model of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, people have grouped things into threes. And there is a hook that film-makers have used to ensure that viewers will come back for the third installment: the cliffhanger. The second episode leaves everything unresolved and you’ll be sure to see the third. Think of the original Star Wars trilogy, or Back to the Future, or even Pirates of the Caribbean. In each case the first film could stand alone, but the second insisted on a third. This is a little trickier with books since, as we all know, publishing is a slow business and writing takes time. I saw Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, in 2011. I knew I would read it since the cover alone was so intriguing. Young adult literature, it turns out, has come a long way since I was able to classify myself that way. Then Hollow City came out. It ended as a cliff hanger (remember the formula), back in 2014. Just over a year and a half later, The Library of Souls was released.

Having just finished the trilogy, reading each as it came out, I would say that, like most trilogies, the first installment was the best. Freshest, a new idea, where characters exist with whom the reader participates by in filling in the blanks, a series grows more complex as it expands. Some elements that weren’t there at the beginning have to be read back into the previous installments. In my case, I’ve read so many books in the interim that some of the details have grown hazy due to the simple passage of time. Still, Riggs is to be highly commended for bringing souls back into discourse among the young. Too long we’ve been sold the story that we have no souls.

I’m not going to go into any great detail here since those who want to learn how Riggs handles the tale will read his books, but I will say that a stubborn materialism has settled over intellectual culture. Some neuroscientists have naively said, “we’ve looked for it and can’t find it, therefore it must not exist.” And since most of us don’t have access to their kinds of equipment or training, we’re told to acquiesce. Give up your souls—buy into materialism. Buy stuff. That’s what we’re all about. It is a relief, in the midst of all of this, to have a popular writer suggesting, through fiction, that it is souls that make us who we are. The books aren’t preachy. Indeed, it would be difficult to say they are religious in any conventional sense. They are, however, soulful. And for that I am very glad to have read them, even as a middle-aged adult.

Book Ends

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It’s the end of another year of reading. Since Goodreads keeps track of my booklist, I see by their accounting I finished 95 books in 2014. The final day of the year seems an appropriate time to reflect on those that made the greatest impact on me. Starting at the beginning, Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible immediately struck me as a book of high importance. In an era when religion is constantly considered irrelevant, Berlinerblau gives this trite brushoff the lie. Likewise Jeff Kripal and Sudhir Kakar’s Seriously Strange opens questions that must be addressed if we ever hope to find the truth. Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist and Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn both raise, in fundamental ways, the question of what it means to be human. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty is essential to understanding the current crisis in higher education. Edward Ingebretsen’s Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell is a roadmap through the genre of horror and its importance to society. The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan again highlights the question of what counts as reality. Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose shows the importance of separating politics from religion. Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe brings science to bear on unanswered questions.

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Books specifically concerning religion also deserve some highlighting. Karen McCarthy Brown’s Moma Lola is crucial for comprehending, in a sympathetic way, voudun in a major city. Patricia Tull’s Inhabiting Eden makes a clarion call for religions to pay attention to the needs of the environment. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is a good introduction to Scientology, while Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven serves a similar function in regards to Mormonism. Sam Harris’s Waking Up shows the need even atheists have for spirituality, complicating the sharp divide we are offered most of the time. Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton, also demonstrates the continuing usefulness of religion in a secular age. Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt calls both theists and atheists to task. Spirit Unleashed by Anne Benvenuti allows animals to have souls.

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Fiction always makes a part of each year’s reading as well. This year found me reading several ponderous tomes, but I very much enjoyed the lighter fare by Ransom Riggs, in Hollow City. James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus and K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices slaked my steampunk thirst temporarily. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita were both difficult to read as a father, but important literature nevertheless. All of these books and more have individual posts dedicated to them on this blog. I always feel compelled to make clear that I find the books I read, whether highlighted here or not, one of the most rewarding aspects of my year. The long daily commute I normally endure would be torture without my books. Each year, each day I’m thankful for those who write them, and I look forward to an equally stimulating 2015 spent with my face buried in books.

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Holy Hollow

HollowCityEveryone wants to belong, to fit in. Growing up, I seldom felt I managed it. When you’re very young you don’t know enough to notice that you are more melancholy than other kids, or that you can’t afford the nice things they can. As you reach your teenage years, however, and you know that you come from the kinds of families that other parents warn their kids about (fairly poor, very religious, and just a bit peculiar). No wonder I find Ransom Riggs’ books so engaging. Yes, they’re written for young adults, but just about anything that Quirk Press publishes is worth the read. As an adult, if I’m honest with myself, I’m still waiting to feel like I fit in. The kids in Hollow City, the peculiars, know that they can never fit in. They have special, impossible talents that make them the targets of monsters called hollowgasts, or hollows, who try to gobble down as many as possible. Monsters, outsiders, and very human relationships—it’s a winning combination.

Quite apart from the spellbinding pace Riggs spins out (he’s a master of building tension), there are some quasi-religious elements in the books as well. I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children a couple years back, and Hollow City develops the mythology a bit more. The real enemies are the wights—mean-spirited malcontents who rule the monsters. They learn that they can become demigods if they extract what makes a peculiar peculiar. That’s a religious concept: the essence that materialists tell us isn’t really there at all that makes us what we are. The children are self-sacrificial toward their mistresses, birdlike and godlike at the same time.

Peculiars have two souls, although most of us don’t know what to do with even one. The soul has, of course, come under great suspicion over the last century or so. There seems to be something that makes us what we are, and it isn’t just cells and DNA. Some call it consciousness, others personality. There are those with élan and others with spirit. We can’t call it “soul” because that smacks of superstition and yesteryear. So we read of children with two souls and none to spare. Even Philip Pullman had souls for his children in His Dark Materials. The soul, in both these book series, leaves a person completely dehumanized when it is excised. Of course, materialism will do that for free. Yes, I know it’s fiction—young adult fiction at that—but my money’s on Ransom here. Let’s hear it for those who have a surfeit of souls!