I enjoyed a visit from my folks over the week of my birthday in October, and we found ourselves settling into our new place a bit more, which made it possible to read a couple of longer books. In October, I read:
- 1984 by George Orwell
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
- Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
1984 is a classic, and perhaps rightly so. I read it back in late high-school (or was it early college?), and have lately been interested in re-reading some classics that I haven’t read in over a decade. How I got through it the first time, I’ll never know. Apart from the chapters in which the story moved forward, about 2/3 of the book is little more than a series of extended monologues evaluating the benefits and dangers of an authoritarian government. It’s dry and repetitive, and I’m sure it made the point it needed to make, but I ran out of patience with it all pretty quickly.
Still, a couple of ideas struck me as particularly interesting. First, if one has control of the language (or expression) one has control of the people. This is clearly true today, and it is not always bad; for instance it is a tangible good when a change in the language used results in increased empathy and charity. Second, whole divisions of Orwell’s dystopian society were devoted to the production of mindless, lurid, sexed-up and dumbed-down entertainment in order to keep a large percentage of the population distracted and disengaged. This also is clearly true today, though it’s not in the hands of the government.
I’ve included a few quotes that struck me as interesting:
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
“But if there was hope, it lay in the proles. You had to cling on to that. When you put it in words it sounded reasonable: it was when you looked at the human beings passing you on the pavement that it became an act of faith.”
“Sanity is not statistical.”
“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”
The Girl on the Train and Dark Places were a fortuitous combination, as both are written in first person, both feature women who have suffered a great deal of harm, and both revolve around how the awful past has affected these protagonists in the still-awful present. However, similarities aside, I think Hawkin’s Girl on the Train would have seemed more impressive were it not placed alongside Flynn’s much better Dark Places. In Flynn’s novel, the characters are more sympathetic, the stakes are higher, the emotions run deeper, the prose is more polished, the twists are better earned, and the conclusion is appropriately tuned (I mean here that it hits the right blend of forward-looking optimism and understandable melancholy).
That’s not to say that The Girl on the Train is bad. It’s not bad. It’s just not nearly as good. And being not nearly as good, it feels much worse in retrospect.
Dark Places is the second book I have read by Gillian Flynn this year, and I think it’s safe to say that she will be on my “to read” list in the future.
Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a very quick read, directed to writers. A couple of friends here in Spain (very good musicians, check out their music!) recommended it, and then Jon Acuff recommended it in a video on three books that changed the way he looks at creativity.
Pressfield first identifies a bunch of little tricks creators use to avoid creating (he calls these tricks “Resistance”), then offers suggestions for combating such tricks. I found these two sections helpful and insightful. He has a third, semi-mystical section on the Muses, which I found less helpful. A few quotes on the difference between those who write and those who merely tinker:
“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”
“The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself.”
“The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.”
“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’ That’s a pro.”
And a final, longer quote in which Pressfield taps into what I think is a fairly Christian way of thinking about the gifts God gives each of us:
“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.
Do it or don’t do it.
It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.
Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
So that was my reading for the month.
As November races along, I’m only about 10% into a long book on the history of jazz, and I’m realizing I may have difficulty finishing four books this month. Oh, well.