Wednesday, February 24, 2010

he is a man and not a piano-key

As I have made clear before, Russian lit holds a special place in my heart. Now, I'm usually more of a Tolstoy gal than Dostoevsky, but you can't deny that this guy was a genius.

"I am a sick man...I am a wicked man."

Thus begins Notes From the Underground, a tale told to us by an unnamed man who attempts to explain how he could go from a seemingly normal and stable citizen to the depraved creature he is now. The first half is his ranting at us, explaining his philosophy.

"Every man has some reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself, and every decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away.
That is, one can even say that the more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind."

His issues with society and with human nature really make you think. A lot. About conformity, logic, imagination, intellect, and so many other issues. Every page has big idea that really challenged me.

"Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn't calculate his happiness."

The second half of the book recounts an incident with the narrator and several of his old classmates that end up having dinner together. Our narrator makes a pretty big fool of himself and ends up bearing his soul to a whore. That incident reminded me a lot of the scene in the Catcher in the Rye where Holden has the prostitute over in his hotel room.

The writing style and the characters were familiar and fit right in with Dostoevsky's other works. This is a short piece but it packs a powerful punch. Read it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Apparently, you've developed a soul

"When man's freedom equals zero, he commits no crimes. That is clear. The only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom."

We was written before 1984 and Brave New World and influenced both works. This is a futuristic society where people are referred to as numbers and where they work in unison for the One State, ruled by the Benefactor. In this society, the sum of all parts is greater than the individual; a single person is nothing without the whole. Personal freedoms are extremely limited and all must sing the praises of the One State. Guardians are among them, watching over them in case any should defy the laws. One State. D-503 is our narrator, he is writing notes to be put upon the Intergal, a space ship he is building to bring the One State's ways to other worlds.

In this society, everyone has the right to have sex with anyone else, all one need do is register for that person and receive a pink ticket to lower their blinds. This is one of the only instances of privacy they have, as the buildings are made of glass. The society is encased in a dome, the Green Wall keeping the outside world apart since the 200 Year War.

D-503 meets a woman, I-330, with whom he falls in love with. She is part of a group called Mephi, which is trying to organize an uprising against the One State. D-503 struggles to justify his actions with I-330 with the ideals that have been instilled in him. She challenges the rules and ideals of the One State, and while D-503 claims that he hates her, he cannot but do what she tells him to do.

"You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved."

What interested me a lot about the beginning of this book was D-503's interest in mathematics, and his fixation upon the square root of negative one. As an imaginary number in a very cut and dry world, D-503 cannot wrap his mind around this concept and even recalls throwing a fit in school when he learned of it. Imagination is not desirable in this society, and there is talk of an operation to remove it from the brain.

"Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one."

The appearance of math in dystopian literature is really interesting to me. I just finished reading Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground (I'll try to blog my thoughts on that soon) and one thing that stuck out there was the notion that 2+2=5 (this notion is not exclusive to Dostoevsky, but also connects to Tolstoy, Orwell, and Turgenev, among others - interesting wikipedia entry here). In Dostoevsky, he uses the equation to assert his free will over logic.

We has some great imagery in it. According to the Table of Hours, every number wakes at exactly the same moment, chews the same number of times in precision and marches down the streets in time with each other. The great Benefactor's machine deals with those who rebel by vaporizing them in front of a placid crowd. He is able to describe the women in the story almost exclusively by describing their mouths.

Obviously this novel has some deep allusions to communism, an issue that Zamyatin was dealing with in Russia. In the novel, private property isn't an option anymore, even children are considered property of the state. Nothing is private, even voting is done out in the open, in front of everyone.

To me, a dystopian novel can have but one ending, and that is not a happy one. This one is no different; and even though I could see where the book was heading, what fate lay in store for I-330 and for D-503, it did not lessen the impact.

And that will heal you?

I consider myself well-read, but I think I dropped the ball by not picking this one up sooner. I've had it sitting on my self for a year or so. Once I started reading, I could not put this book down.

The book is based on Eggers's real life, when both of his parents died from cancer and he was placed in charge of his younger brother. Eggers (21) and Toph (8) move from Chicago to California and Eggers does his best to be a parent/brother and juggle a new career and find a sense of community with his friends. Also, he auditions for MTV's the Real World.

I think that Eggers does a beautiful job of capturing the joy and fear of being responsible for another human being. The conversations and interactions between him and Toph are ones I can easily imagine my brothers having.

"Then, at the moment that I am turning the corner, I become convinced, in a flash of pure truth-seeing - it happens every time I leave him anywhere - that Toph will be killed. "

That fear is something I can identify with, if to a lesser degree. I have two siblings much younger than myself, who I am babysitting at the moment, and am fiercely protective of them. I worry about them a lot and when I am watching them I feel much like an auxiliary parent as opposed to just a sister like I feel around my older-younger brothers.

I did have a bit of trouble getting through the introduction the first time I picked this book up. Eggers' style is very different from the type of book I usually enjoy (old Russian novels) but I think that reading his short story collection, How We Are Hungry, helped a lot. His writing is different, very different, but very real. He breaks the fourth wall, his characters yell at him for using them as plot devices and the copyright page is unexpectedly hilarious.

I loved this book and highly, highly recommend it to anyone. I'm sure I have mentioned before that Eggers founded McSweeny's, which I also suggest checking out.

"Please sound normal, Toph, you are normal, we are normal so just sound normal please can't you? Don't sound like I've been beating your, like you're in the bathroom hiding from me, because I have been there, have hidden from parents before, have been on the other side of a door being stuck with all conceivable parental force, have searched the bathroom for places to hide, have found a place in the closet where the bath toys are kept, under the lowest shelf, and I have hidden there, and have seen, darkening the white slit of light under the door to this closet, his shoes, and then the white light everywhere as the door is opened..."

looking for the library where it lives

I haven't been blogging too much lately because I have been very busy starting graduate school! I am going for my Master's degree in Library and Information Studies. Classes started about two weeks ago and I am really enjoying them so far.

Library: An Unquiet History, was my first assigned book for one of my classes. I actually picked this one up awhile ago because it seemed like an interesting read. It was certainly nice not to have to buy this at the school bookstore, where it, along with every other book, was overpriced.

Battles covers an overview and histories of libraries throughout time. The book is a bit scattered, jumping from place to place and from idea to idea. It seems a bit unorganized but interesting. Many of the things he talks about I would want to read more about, such as the ancient Muslim libraries which were just as impressive, if not more so, than the library at Alexandria. He hits the big topics, Alexandria, Guettenburg, the Nazi book burning, and the development of modern libraries.

I think this is a good book to get a quick look into the world of library history, however, I think that there are some better more complete works out there, such as A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes, which covers book collecting and libraries. Basbanes book is much longer than Battles, but far more interesting.

One, heartbreaking quote:

"Andras Riedlmayer described a colleague who survived the siege of Sarajevo. In the winter, the scholar and his wife ran out of firewood, and so began to burn their books for heat and cooking. 'This forces one to think critically,' Riedlmayer remembered his friend saying. 'One must prioritize. First you burn old college textbooks, which you haven't read in thirty years. Then there are the duplicates. But eventually, you're forced to make tougher choices. Who burns today: Dostoevsky or Proust?' I asked Riedlmayer if his friend had any books left when the war was over. 'Oh yes,' he replied, his face lit by a flickering smile. 'He still had many books. Sometimes, he told me, you look at the books and just choose to go hungry."