Maturity, in my experience, means knowing little and assuming even less. When I was young I grew up on a diet of books that were linear—plots were easily followed and there was clear resolution at the end. Who, as a kid, thinks that such a standard is impossible? One of this year’s reading challenges was a book nominated for an award in 2018. That assures a pretty current book, and I chose Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. Like life, it’s not linear. The narrator is unreliable. There are a lot of threads left hanging. It’s also a completely mesmerizing story. I selected it not because the content deals to a large extent with religion—I had no idea that it did when I selected the book, but, given what I do on this blog it was definitely a bonus.
I don’t want to give too many spoilers here since this is a novel well worth reading. I’ve always been impressed with writers who can convey accurately what it was like to be a teenager. A time of awkward discovery when we learn that things weren’t what we thought. Linda, the narrator, has been raised in a religious commune in the northern Minnesota woods. When a Christian Scientist couple moves into a cabin not too far away, she becomes a trusted “governess” for their young, sickly son. Unable, for religious reasons, to admit their son’s illness, they entrust him to Linda’s care. She comes to know each person in a unique way and learns that even adults don’t have the answers.
An interesting conceit for a story—one minority religion learning about another—the book ranges wide and far from that. Life as a teenager is when one typically both needs and rebels against religion. The awakening of adolescence, something our psyches aren’t equipped to comprehend much before this time, throws everything into confusion. History of Wolves won’t lead to any answers, but it is a useful discussion partner to have along the way. The Christian Scientists I’ve known have to face some of the same issues raised in this tale. Ironically, the advance of science has hit this group particularly hard. Novels such as this demonstrate that we, as a species, still turn to religion to explain our world. We’re frequently told that it’s safe to ignore—it’s from the childhood of our evolution. I wonder, however, whether Homo sapiens have just begun to reach adolescence and we are just starting to learn what it means to be adults in a world we don’t understand.
Whoever Modern Mrs. Darcy is, she keeps me honest. This is my third year of doing her reading challenge, and in an effort not to go out and buy all the books I want, I try to select from among my own pre-existing collection tomes I’ve never read. One of the categories this year was a classic you’ve been meaning to read. I spied on my shelf a copy of Jules Verne’s Master of the World that I bought before my high school years but had never actually consumed. I think I was a bit put off by 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Don’t get me wrong—that’s a great book, but it’s dense and long and very detailed. And I was probably too young when I read it. Master of the World, like 20,000 Leagues, was part of Verne’s magnum opus Voyages extraordinaires, a set of fifty-some novels recounting, well, extraordinary voyages.
What makes Master of the World topical to this blog is the Devil. I’d better explain that. The story surrounds a somewhat naive detective trying to solve the mystery of a great, inaccessible, hollow mountain in North Carolina. While investigating this mountain (prior to the age of heavier-than-air flight) he learns of an automobile that is terrorizing the United States by driving 200 miles per hour. The credulous colonials seriously think that perhaps the Devil is driving this car. While that may be but passing fancy, it’s an image that replays itself throughout the book. Anyone who recklessly drives so fast—and the car can transform into a boat, submarine, and airplane as well—must be diabolical. The Devil’s amusements seem pretty tame, and the driver isn’t supernatural after all, once he’s discovered.
Robur the Conquerer is Master of the World, in his own opinion. At the climax he flies his marvelous machine into a hurricane, proclaiming his mastery like a good mad scientist. The machine, called The Terror, is destroyed and Robur is presumably killed in the storm. When our narrator returns home after several weeks missing (he was kidnapped by Robur and thus learned a bit more about the driver’s madness), his housekeeper has the last word. She declares that although Robur was not the Devil he was worthy of being so. The Devil has become a lot more nasty since Verne’s day, apparently. Why, our own government makes Robur the Conquerer look like an amateur demagogue. Either we’ve become terribly more accepting of everyday evil, or the dark lord has grown even worse over the century. I, for one know which one to believe.
How do you decide on a favorite author? The question has been looming in my head as I’ve been reading through old novels on my shelves. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I walk into a bookstore. You see, my parents weren’t readers. As a child my literature was selected from the book table at the local Goodwill. I had no literary advice of ancestral pedigree. Teachers had assigned some books I’d liked, but nothing that really grabbed me. How was I to go about finding a favorite author? My favorite novel, hands down, was discovered in seminary. Moby-Dick is, to my way of thinking, the perfect novel. But I’ve never read anything else Melville wrote. I’d discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, but he was no novelist. Who suggested these books on my shelf?
Among those responsible was a young woman I knew when I was in college. She was in high school, but she’d grown up in an educated family and she was passionate about her authors. Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Were among her favorites. I was startled to realize that among the books I found myself reading as 2017 draws to a close were both Hardy and Vonnegut. A blast from the past. Then, of course, my wife has suggested many books to me. We still read together—a practice we started as newlyweds (today commemorates the start of that status, by the way, which occurred 29 years ago today). There’s an intimacy involved in sharing books.
For the past few years I’ve been participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. Since it involves only a dozen books it’s seldom a problem to finish it. We go to our local independent bookstore and seek advice. I encounter writers unfamiliar to me. I still struggle, however, with that favorite author question. As I lay down each book I say to myself—was that the best I’ve ever read? Maybe the point is that there is no favorite author. If I were to sit down and try to list everything I’d ever learned from the fiction I’d read, I’d never stand again. The list would be endless. The lingering longing after closing a book, feeling as if I’d just had an intimate evening with the author, requires a certain literary promiscuousness. I enjoy many authors in many different ways. More often than not, they have changed my life. I look forward to the reading challenge of 2018. No matter the disappointments of politics and human folly, I’ll have good books to read as the world wobbles onward with no particular goal in mind.