And more books…

With less than a week of 2016 remaining, it doesn’t look like I’ll quite finish my 2016 Reading Challenge – though as I’ve mislaid the paper where I was keeping track of it, I’m not quite sure which books I haven’t read.

A book based on a fairy tale? I enjoy these (not a retelling of the original fairy tale, but a new and often very different story using elements from the original), and own several, but I’m looking for books I haven’t read before. I had thought I might happen across one during the year, but I haven’t. But here’s a list that I’ll try to pick one from in the coming year (chances are it can fit somewhere in the 2017 Reading Challenge as well).

A National Book Award winner? Should be easy, but I don’t remember reading any of these in 2016 (though I have read and enjoyed several of these in past years). I suppose I could pull out Peter Spier’s Noah’s Ark, but as the story is told entirely in pictures (which makes it a great picture book to share with children and let them notice things instead of just listening), it would seem a bit like cheating to count it in a “reading” challenge. Anyway, no one except me is keeping score, so what would be the point?

A self-improvement book? I’ve read plenty in the past, and at this point tend to be skeptical of books that promise to improve my life (though I understand that even with the best books, I’m the one who has to do the improving). A book of poetry? I had trouble with that one last year, and didn’t really try to find one this year.

But I have finished up a few recently. Finding “a book and its prequel” was a bit of a challenge, since when I did a search, I found hits on a lot of books that merely preceded others in the same series, which is not the same as a prequel. A prequel is “a work (as a novel or a play) whose story precedes that of an earlier work,” and unless a series is written out of order (as some are), each story precedes only later works.

But I found two books by Elizabeth Gear, All the Windwracked Stars and its prequel, By the Mountain Bound. Quite frankly, I enjoyed the prequel a lot more. All the Windwracked Stars made frequent references to events in the past, without explaining them. Even though it was written first, it felt like reading a sequel without having read the first book. So I’m glad she wrote the prequel. And now that I look up the list of Bear’s books, I see that she also wrote a sequel, The Sea thy Mistress. I’m pretty sure it will involve a mythical creature, so that takes care of one category on the 2017 Reading Challenge already.

I had a lot of trouble with “a book recommended by someone you just met.” I don’t meet new people all that often, and they don’t generally recommend books. A friend in book club suggested that I ask one of the librarians for a recommendation. I can’t exactly say we’ve “just met” since I’ve been checking books out of this library for ten years, but checking out books rarely requires talking. Our brief conversation during which he recommended a book is probably the longest we’ve had.

So I read Martin Buber’s I and Thou. I remember learning something about in college, but whatever class it was didn’t require us to read even an excerpt. If it had, I might not have readily agree to read it now. Even the introduction warns that Buber is hard to read. According to the translator, Buber’s style intentionally prevents quick reading, forcing the reader to back and reread in order to get the sense.

I reread some sentences and some paragraphs, occasionally several times, but rereading did not generally improve my understanding. What I got from the book, I think I probably got as much from the rather lengthy introduction as from the book itself. Fortunately it is at least a fairly short book.

I puzzled a while over what to read for “a book I hadn’t read since high school.” I don’t often reread books, and those that I do enjoy rereading, I have reread at least once in the last three and a half decades. I really couldn’t remember whether I had reread A Tale of Two Cities or not, and by the time I decided, three weeks ago, to check out the audiobook from the library, it was already taken. So instead I am listening to Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne.

I must have read it back in my preteens, when I was really into science fiction (and there was less of it available in the library). I am surprised how much of it does not seem familiar. I’m quite certain I read it, but very little makes me think, “Oh yes, I remember that part.” So I’m enjoying as though reading for the first time. And when I am done, I will have to look up information to answer my son’s question, “How much of the science is true?”

I also debated over whether to reread Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the dystopian novel. I was pretty sure I hadn’t read it since high school, but I hadn’t planned to use it for that category. (My husband suggests reading books that fit multiple categories, and Huxley’s novel could also count as a satirical book, but the idea of the reading challenge is to read more books.)

I recognized the first chapter, describing the process of developing human embryos in bottles on an assembly line, each one prenatally conditioned for its role in society. But I was surprised to find that I recognized nothing after that. Some parts didn’t seem very memorable, all the various interactions leading up to the trip to the savage reservation. But it seems strange that I could have so completely forgotten that part, much less the way the book ends.

Was I perhaps too young for it to understand any of the message below the surface, so even the surface story didn’t really sink in? The plot itself, apart from the backdrop of the engineered society, is not all that much of a story. Or did I possibly not actually read the whole book? Back then I made a point of finishing every book I started (the one exception I remember was Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which I gave up when I couldn’t get through it in the four weeks allowed by the library). I suppose I could have slogged through it for the sake of having done so without really getting much from it.

How prescient was Huxley? It’s true that genetic engineering has a role that few could have imagined in Huxley’s day. But now that I’ve reread (?) the novel, the artificial development of embryos no longer looms as large (as in my memory from reading it before) in terms of what made society in the Brave New World the way it is. That is simply a means to eliminating the family as a unit of society, so that people have no one with whom they have deep emotional ties.

Deep emotions of any kind are prevented as much as possible. People have no strong desires, and the desires they do have are met as quickly and easily as possible. Any remaining dissatisfaction is to be dealt with by taking the drug soma. No one is asked to do anything hard, self-restraint is not a virtue, and the highest ideal is stability – maintain the status quo.

Would people actually trade freedom, truth, and beauty for stability and enforced happiness? I would like to think not, but then, I have never undergone the chaos of war such as that described in the novel leading up to the establishment of the new society – or that which troubles much of the world today.

But there are certainly a lot of people who seem to prefer shallow entertainment to the depth of older literature, and shallow electronic-enabled social interactions to the commitment of social organizations that require physical presence and involvement. Not that Huxley’s novel hinted at today’s widespread use of smartphones, but it is another sign of weakened interpersonal connections.

As far as society too readily using pharmaceuticals to deal with emotional as well as physical pains, I suppose the wide availability of so many legal drugs is a mixed blessing. No doubt some people avoid dealing with certain problems by means of medication, but it enables other people to deal with problems who would otherwise have been overwhelmed by them. In that, it is similar to many other technological advances.

Interestingly, the world leaders in Huxley’s novel do not encourage further technological advances. More labor-saving devices would leave people with too much leisure time, though unemployment does not seem to be an issue. The need for people to spend more money so that labor is required to produce new goods is dealt with by encouraging high consumption as a social value.

In that, Huxley does seem to have rather accurately predicted the development of a consumer culture that clamors for anything new, and replaces rather than repairs. We complain about things not lasting as long as they used to and having to be replaced, but – except for those who actually know how to build/fix things – we accept the situation, and buy replacements that we know probably won’t last any longer (but do have some nice new features).

Of course, I’ve also read lots of books that weren’t on the Reading Challenge list. Perhaps next year I’ll try to keep track of all of them, not just the ones on the list. I’m occasionally asked how many books I read. I generally say about a book a week, but it would be interesting to get an accurate count.


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