Wild Things

islanddrmoreauLast year my wife suggested we each do a reading challenge for the year. The one we selected was Modern Mrs. Darcy’s, which, with only a dozen books, seemed doable. What makes it a challenge is that to meet Mrs. Darcy’s expectations, you have to read certain types of books, not just go through the stack beside your favorite chair than never seems to get any smaller. I finished the challenge in October or November and posted on most of the books on this blog. This year’s challenge includes a book you’ve read before. Since I’ve been reading about horror movies I decided to reach back to childhood and once again read H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. It was a timely choice.

For anyone not familiar with it, the story concerns a mad scientist (Moreau) who experiments on animals, making them “men” on an isolated island in the Pacific. These creations aren’t fully human and most of them are blends of different animals as well as part human. They can talk, and they can reason, in a rudimentary way. To create them without anesthesia, Dr. Moreau subjects them to tremendous pain and to prevent them from attacking him, he establishes a basic religion where they obey his rules or he will subject them once again to the “House of Pain.” The narrator, victim of a shipwreck, ends up on the island and has to come to an uneasy peace amid these very strange circumstances. The heart of the book is the chapter where Moreau explains what he’s doing and to justify it he makes a secular theodicy. He is, after all, god to these poor creatures. The book has been made into a horror movie or two over the years, but I’ve never seen any of the cinematic treatments.

What struck me as particularly interesting, revisiting this book some forty years after I last read it, was how easily Wells slips into theological thinking. This is a book unafraid of implicating the Almighty in the troubles of an island that clearly stands in for the world. I wouldn’t have noticed that as a tween. I don’t think there even were tweens when I was one. In any case, the story ends in chaos, rather than creation. What makes it such a timely choice? I suppose the arrogance and entitlement of Dr. Moreau suggested themselves as analogues to our current situation here in the US. Only Moreau is clearly intelligent as well as deranged. This little book is a cautionary tale of what happens when a strong will has its way, unimpeded. It might be a good time for all of us to pick up a copy.

The Found World

LostWorldChallenges will make you do funny things. One enjoyable dare has been Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. With a modest twelve books in twelve months goal, the specific target is to read the types of books laid out. Into one of those categories, for me, fell Michael Crichton’s The Lost World. It’s sad that I feel I need so many disclaimers—I never really outgrew my love of dinosaurs—such escapist literature is indeed a guilty pleasure. Crichton could write a quick read, not bothering to pause for literary hindrances, and this novel fits the bill. It always surprises me when at the end of a traumatic story where friends die (this time ripped apart by reptilian carnivores) that the protagonists escape and never mention the dead. They joke, explain holes in the story, and generally look forward to a better, raptor-free future. There is, however, some food for thought here, among the lucre-grubbing sequel to Jurassic Park.

The first religious element that caught my attention was resurrection. Ian Malcolm rather convincingly died in Jurassic Park (and even an unconvincing death works for most people). In The Lost World he’s suddenly back again, with a barely disguised deus ex machina, and is as diffident as ever. The other former protagonists know better than to return to an island full of dinosaurs. Resurrection is a time-honored literary trope. So much so that it’s sometimes difficult to believe that death is in any way permanent. Well, come to think about it, the dinosaurs too are resurrected. Do reptiles have souls? Crichton’s dinosaurs seem to.

Then, just over halfway through the story, I was stunned. The chapter, or section, called “Gambler’s Ruin” explains how science and religion (or the humanities in general) are really the same. I couldn’t believe that a bestselling novel actually took the point of view that scientific objectivity is just as fraught as post-modern literary theory. There is no way to observe without influencing. When a conscious presence enters the equation, the facts have to counterbalance in return. Many, of course, would disagree in principle. Still, this unexpected bit of profundity stopped me in mid-chomp. Materialism, beguiling as it may be, doesn’t explain Heisenberg or Schrödinger. It takes a resurrected mathematician to do it. No wonder chaos abounds in this world where dinosaurs still rule the earth.

And a Literate New Year

One of the most common criticisms of religion, among its detractors, is that it is “uninformed.” I suspect that this is intended to critique the education of those who adhere to religion. It is not too often, however, that you see those who disdain religion giving credit where credit is due. Reading, for example. Although reading has changed in its accidents and character over the millennium, it remains the case that texts—what would eventually evolve into books—were originally a religious creation. Once writing moved beyond keeping track of things like how many cattle a person owned, and grew into literature, that literature was based on religion. We recognize many of these stories as myths today, but that does not devalue them. They are our earliest stories. For many literate people throughout history, their initial reading material was the texts of their religion. One of the purposes behind public education was to teach children to read the Bible. Religion and reading naturally go together.

Now that a new year is upon us, many websites are offering reading challenges for the new year. Long ago I gave up on resolutions. I figured if I noticed something wrong in my life, I wouldn’t wait until January to fix it. Nevertheless, the start of something new is inspiring and full of hope. So it was when my wife showed me Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge, I gladly accepted. Like many reading challenges, the goals are based on about a book a month—twelve titles for the year. My personal goal is to get over one hundred books read this year, but I like the challenge to read particular kinds of books. On this particular challenge, for example, are books that intimidate you, or that you’ve previously abandoned. Books, such as many of us have, that we own but have never read. Although we may not know what it is yet, a book published this year.

Apart from being a kind of religious activity, promoting literacy is surely one of the best ways to address social ills. Those who read learn to consider the viewpoints of others. I disagree with a great deal of what I read, but I would not wish not to have read it. “Iron sharpens iron,” as one old book says. To put it in modern terms, the only stone hard enough to cut diamond is diamond. Reading material that engages critical faculties is like that. Even so, reading books that are simple or fun also offers bonuses. A guilty pleasure read is one of my favorite rewards. For our own sakes, for the sake of the world itself, I hope that everyone takes up a reading challenge, no matter how modest, as a way of celebrating a new year and, I truly believe, a better tomorrow.