words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Morality


Good morning, class.

I’ve made it to the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There are parts I like and parts I don’t like, but one thing continues to stand out to me: Frankenstein is considered by many as the birthplace of science fiction. The genre has a reputation for being male-dominated—as though Star Wars and Jurassic Park are only meant for men—and yet, science fiction seems to be established by a woman. It’s a reputation perpetuated by sexism and confounded by Frankenstein‘s very existence.

The blueprint of the story is well-known, even though the details have been undone and remade over two centuries of reinvention. An ordinary man, Victor Frankenstein, sets himself to the extraordinary task of creating life, and in a way, conquering death. He becomes a now-stereotypical mad scientist, unrivaled in determination and unthinking of consequences; and his creation is much more monstrous than he anticipated. The monster, sympathetic as he is, rampages through Frankenstein’s life until a devastating climax, and we readers are meant to learn our lesson: mindless ambition, even for the right reasons, can cause serious harm.

The original story is much more literary than it’s several reimaginings. It’s framed in a handful of narratives and allows for different perspectives on morality, fault, religion, and science. Most importantly, the monster himself is a fleshed-out character—thinking, learning, and speaking monologues on par with Frankenstein himself. It may not be realistic, but it’s the key to understanding who this creature is, what he wants, and why he acts the way he does.

The monster may be terrifying, but he is equally a victim of humanity’s abuse and hatred. It’s made very clear that the monster’s villainy exists because he has known nothing but misery—he was never loved, and that makes him as evil as he is. He is rejected and feared by all, and to defend himself, he quickly learns to fight back against those who mean him harm. He learns the ways of violence and revenge to survive, and the blame is traced back directly to his creator.

It’s a fantastic story, and a revolutionary concept. But it isn’t my taste—it drags on quite a bit, with Frankenstein’s inner turmoil egregiously taking up most of the story. The middle of the story—about 7 chapters—is told from the monster’s perspective, and while I appreciate the narrative need for this section, it’s just so tedious. I want the storytelling approach to be different, so it’s hard to enjoy the book, even with so much to like.

Author Mary Shelley

But after all this, there so much it does that redefines science fiction. My favorite interpretation of Frankenstein portrays Victor as a sexist (and knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this holds up well). Victor’s approach to creating life removed any female presence, as though in his eyes, creating life should be a male enterprise. The resulting monster is one made without female influence, and it’s Victor’s manly actions that continue to antagonize the creature, the consequences of which are irreparable. With Frankenstein, Shelley defined sexism through a male lens (as a story told by a man) and she proved that the simple act of excluding women results in disaster.

It’s clear why Frankenstein makes the 50-books list. It’s Gothic literature at its core, and science fiction before science fiction existed. It’s a story that stood the test of time and continues to affect its genre. And no matter my taste, it is a good story—one worth reading at least once.

That’s 50 books! This blog is nearing its end, and I’ve got to more posts to write—my definitive ranking of all 50 books, from least favorite to favorite, and one final review of my experience as a whole. And that’ll be it!

Thanks for reading,

Prof. Jeffrey

Money: A Suicide Note

Good morning, class.

So . . . I’ll just come right out and say it: Money: A Suicide Note is one of my least favorite books of all time.

To read Martin Amis’ Money is to be met with a tour de force of alcoholism, drugs, addiction, rape, sexism, homophobia, manipulation, and toxic behavior the likes of which no one should have to endure. Money is a kaleidoscopic perspective on humanity’s fast and entertaining decay, due almost entirely to the concept of money and its poisonous fumes.

I will admit, there are parts I liked, or at least appreciated. And in theory, the book is a perfect criticism of celebrity lifestyle and capitalism. Money points out our inherent cultural flaw, our need for, dependence on, addiction to money—better than most books I’ve read on the subject. I have no doubt that that’s why this novel made the list.

But the details—the characters, plot, symbols, words—made me sick. It was crass and disgusting. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had known what I was getting into (before seeing the list, I had never heard of Money before, so I went in cold); after all, I’ve seen movies and read books that aim to be offensive, and the best ones, like Money, have a clear and even moral purpose, like criticizing cultural flaws. Still, I’ve never enjoyed reading a book less, and I won’t get that time back.

But the least I can do is tell you who these unlikable characters are, and a bit about what they do that’s so unlikable. The narrator is a man named John Self, a conceited, sadistic, out-of-control addict attempting to adapt his story into a movie. He is surrounded by celebrities that are as self-absorbed as he is, as money-addicted and as morally bankrupt too. He spends his days in constant cycles of prostitutes, alcohol, smoking, and mindless purchases, and all the while he experiences a ceaseless and vulgar inner monologue that is as carefully crafted as it is offensive.

John Self reminds me a lot of Holden Caulfield, the main character and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield is similarly problematic, with his intrusive and offensive thoughts filling up most of the novel; but I liked reading The Catcher in the Rye, and I know exactly why it was better. Caulfield was an angsty teenager, dealing with a lot of personal issues in the way a teenager might—lashing out at adults, behaving irrationally, refusing to face his issues head-on, etc. Even so, ultimately The Catcher in the Rye is about a search for happiness, and Holden’s care for younger children (and their untainted innocence) expresses that. Our focus on a an unlikable narrator becomes our focus on a teenager in crisis and on society’s mistreatment of children.

But Money doesn’t do that. John Self is a grown man, and spends a lot of time blaming his equally terrible father for his own mistakes, despite having the ability to change his ways. He has broad generalizations about the world and its mechanisms, and everything he says is questionable or flat-out immoral. He despises people that are different from him and he despises himself. He crosses the line from offensive to unforgivable far too often, in ways I don’t care to repeat. And unfortunately, he is on every page.

Author Martin Amis

Now, there are things that I like. For instance, its clear that Martin Amis knows what he’s doing—John Self’s diatribes are despicable, but well-written. The clever word choice and puns, the perfectly captured voice of John Self, the balance of the whole story from beginning to end . . . Amis is a craftsman.

Amis also happens to write himself into his own novel—a fun meta twist that uses “character-Martin-Amis” to help show what “writer-Martin-Amis” is trying to do. He gets to poke fun at his own pretentiousness and explain his actions for creating a character like John Self—it’s his way of putting all of the poison of fame and fortune into one tragic character, destroyed inside and out by the way we live now. The episodes with “character-Martin-Amis” stood out as Money‘s most creative and intriguing moments.

And yet, for all its technical brilliance, I can’t stand the novel’s content. Money‘s plot is weak, spending more time creatively caving in on itself than telling a story, which I could live with, except that whatever story is left is detestable. The thinness of the plot is paired with disgusting scene after disgusting scene—an endless episodic bombardment of debasement and degradation. I didn’t enjoy it and I’m glad it’s over now.

With that out of the way, I can look forward to the remaining books on the 50-books-list. I can’t guarantee I’ll enjoy what stories are left, but it’s a safe bet that Money is going to remain at the top of my I-hated-this-book list for quite some time, if not forever.

Next up, I’m finishing The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope—a novel that, so far, I have enjoyed. That’s more than I can say for some books.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

“What is this state, seeing the difference between good and bad and choosing bad—or consenting to bad, okaying bad?”

—from Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

“I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show—when the pinch comes there ain’t nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat. Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on,—s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up; would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad—I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?”

—from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

—from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Welcome back, class.

From the start, I was comparing Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both focus on characters with mental illness, as well as the concept of mental illness, while tackling loosely related problems like American culture, sexism, and the conflict between the individual and society. But that’s it. Beyond that, the books are as different as The Diary of Anne Frank and the Harry Potter Series.

And what makes them so different? Kesey’s novel is only about mental illness on the surface. There are clearly characters who are mentally ill, including the narrator, but that illness is simply the backdrop for a larger story—a story about oppression, anarchy, identity, and society. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t about curing those who are ill, but about freeing those who are enslaved. There are issues with that approach, but the story is good enough to rise above those issues.

First of all, the writing is SOLID. Everything about Kesey’s style is original, enjoyable, clever . . . it’s audible and graphic and is meant to immerse you into the vivid and uncomfortable world of a mental ward. On this ward, tragedy and terror happen without warning, and the smallest of details cause the biggest impact—the writing reflects that, and the few peaceful scenes that occur take such sharp turns into chaos that, after a while, the reader realizes there aren’t any peaceful scenes at all . . . only anarchy and the build-up to it. The genius of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in Kesey’s portrayal of the story’s events, and if there’s only one reason it made the list, look no further. Knowing full well I can’t do his amazing style justice, I encourage you to read it yourself and see what I mean.

Then, there’s the story itself—Randle P. McMurphy is a criminal who pleads insanity in the courtroom, and winds up on the ward with the actual mentally ill. Within hours, he sees that the situation on the ward is a step above prison, but the countless restrictions make life about as flexible as concrete, and he decides that he won’t stand for it. The leader of the ward is Nurse Ratched, a domineering woman whose sole pleasure seems to be rigidity and order—every move she makes is to perfect the lives of her patients whether they want it or not. McMurphy and Ratched become fast enemies, and the rest of the patients get caught in the crossfire.

It’s easy to see McMurphy as the hero and Ratched as the villain, and while Ratched has next to no redeemable qualities, McMurphy is a far cry from a great leader or liberator in any scenario. His criminality alone isn’t a series of innocent slips—it’s implied he’s done some terrible things. He has moments of kindness, most of which are veiled maneuvers to try to get what he wants—more freedom on the ward for something trivial, or at least the ability to upset the power dynamic and throw Ratched off her game. But there are moments of rebellion on behalf of the other patients, and those moments make McMurphy more complicated and more interesting. Kesey refuses to let McMurphy fall into labels that trap him like “hero” or “anarchist” or “revolutionary.”

One of the flaws of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is its Hemingway-esque focus on masculinity—this is a novel about men and for men, with a sexualized woman as the villain. In this world, men are celebrated for things that are crass and inexcusable, disguised as rebellion against the established order. But, to be fair, in a world where the established order is a specific kind of oppressive—sexless, muted, inflexible—performing revolutionary acts that flaunt morality or social code may be inherently good. What bothers me is that these acts tend to be for men at the expense of women, and Kesey created a story that allows for that, knowing that to soften the backward-ness of these dynamic characters would be to weaken the story. The good and powerful themes of this novel come at that cost, so be willing to pay it when you pick it up.

Despite that backward-ness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a violent wit and a very, VERY well-told story. It may be played for crazy at the expense of the mentally ill, but it’s a novel that presents the distinction between society and its marginalized individuals with force and flare. I encourage others to read it with eyes open for the good, the bad, and the ugly.

That’s FORTY BOOKS DONE. Only ten more to go! There are some books in this final round that I’ve already read, and some that I know absolutely nothing about, so we’re not going into unfamiliar territory but we are reaching the end of our journey. I feel more enlightened already.

Next up is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, similarly controversial for very different reasons. I hope I can do it justice, because I’ve read this novel several times, and I’ve loved it and hated it, and even felt a high-school-indifference to it. We’ll see how it goes.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

His Dark Materials Trilogy

Hello again, class.

I started The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, months ago. Within a few chapters, though I barely knew the characters or the world Pullman had built, his writing drew me in—in a way that hasn’t happened with me since I read Harry Potter. Pullman’s teenage fiction novels are written like poetry.

I finished The Amber Spyglass, the third book in the trilogy, a few days ago. The series as a whole is controversial, intoxicating, and jaw-dropping in all the ways sci-fi and fantasy should be—it completely surpassed my expectations. I can think of hundreds of reasons why this book series made the list.

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The story follows Lyra Belacqua, a young girl with a propensity for lying and storytelling. She lives in a world a lot like ours, with a few key differences—one being that every person is born with a daemon, a spirit-like animal that acts as a conscience. Lyra, with her daemon Pantalaimon and her friend Will Parry, gets caught up in a peculiar adventure, involving a kingdom of armored bears, a clan of witches hundreds of years old, a mystical truth-telling compass, a series of otherworldly portals, and a cast of characters with dangerous and obscure motives.

For all the plot over three heart-pounding novels—The Golden CompassThe Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—Pullman never forgets the carefully structured theme of innocence in the face of corruption. Of all the enemies Lyra faces, the corrupt Church is probably the most intimidating. The Church of Pullman’s universe is overbearing, manipulative, and full of subservient agents who will do anything in the name of the Authority.

But for Pullman, it wasn’t enough to point out the corruption of religious institutions—his novels attempt to reveal corruption in the existence of God. He writes about the ongoing battle of humanity, between those who humbly submit to a greater power and those who seek wisdom and refute oppression. His novels point out the inherent immorality of a Kingdom of Heaven, like the immorality of any dictatorship in the modern age. The overarching plot of the trilogy goes so far as to use Christian theology (and mythology) to dismantle the Christian story of God—portraying God as the villain of humanity’s ongoing battle.

Naturally, the His Dark Materials Trilogy was met with controversy. Pullman’s story isn’t just atheistic (which can be controversial by nature)—it is also mature, saturated in sci-fi violence, and marketed for a younger audience. It’s probably still banned across the globe.

The trilogy makes a strong case for atheism, which was hard for me to read, but also helpful in my understanding of life outside of religion. I grew up with religion in my life, and I’ve come to accept those that don’t have religion in theirs—it’s simply not for everyone, and that’s a hard lesson to learn. I started reading The Golden Compass with something like a religious bias, and it made me read everything Pullman wrote with a grain of salt.

Author Philip Pullman

That doesn’t stop me from agreeing with most, if not all, of Pullman’s criticisms of the corrupt church he is familiar with. Religion has a history of abuse that cannot be dismissed, and those that choose to live with religion must always be aware of the power, and therefore the corruption, that religious institutions have a tendency toward. Aware of that corruption, Pullman pushes back against religious institutions through these novels—through literature, popular culture, and the education of young minds. Children will eventually have to make their own theological decisions in the real world, and books like the His Dark Materials trilogy can be a healthy part of making those decisions.

Like I said, these books were hard to read at times (I work at a church, for crying out loud!) but it certainly helped that these books were well written. It always impresses me when books have strong messages delivered by strong characters, and a fantastic fantasy world to back up big ideas. For a novel to work, all of the separate puzzle pieces have to fit together well, and the completed puzzle has to leave an impression. These three novels did both.

My next read is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and I’m diving into this one cold. I can only hope it’s good!

Have a good week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Brave New World

Hello again, class.

I’m still a little surprised that I was able to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in high school—at the time, it was the most sexually explicit required reading that had ever crossed my path. But I had a teacher who made it clear that this was an adult novel . . . it wouldn’t be fun or funny. It would be challenging and disturbing, and probably raise more questions than it could answer. In another teacher’s hands, I would have written this novel off as weird; but as I read it for his class, and as I reread it over the past few weeks, I realize that this book is one of the few that invited me to read more challenging stories, even if I didn’t like them.

And there are parts of Brave New World I don’t like, but the novel is special for that exact reason. You aren’t supposed to like it because it’s not entertainment . . . it’s a warning.

The society of Brave New World runs on a set of rules that everyone happily follows; for instance, solitary actions are as prohibited as possible, and in sexual terms, everyone belongs to everyone else. Extreme emotions have been all but eradicated with removal of the family unit, genetic modification, psychological conditioning, and a drug called soma. Without extreme emotions—passion, rage, fear, jealousy, misery—all that’s left is a mellow contentment. Between universal happiness and ideals like truth, beauty, or knowledge, the populace has overwhelmingly chosen happiness.

And that’s the setting for a rather depressing story, told from the perspective of a handful of individuals in a society where individuals shouldn’t exist. Bernard Marx is the catalyst for the plot—a man shorter than those he is genetically similar to, and therefore made an outsider. He is simple and somewhat shallow, but by being an outsider, he refuses to medicate himself for happiness and wishes society were different. His friend, Helmholtz Watson, is an outsider because of his affinity for poetry—the happiness of their society begins to wear itself thin for him, causing him to challenge social norms for the sake of the beauty of language.

Author Aldous Huxley

But the real outsider is John the Savage, a man born in one of the few Savage Reservations left that are not “civilized” like the rest of the world. His mother was a woman from civilization, but she became trapped visiting the reservation and was left there, unexpectedly pregnant with John. He grew up with a different skin color from everyone else in the reservation, so he had been an outsider his whole life—then the opportunity arose to visit civilization, as a scientific and social experiment. But he soon learns that the “brave new world” of civilization is terrible, where adults act like children, morality and freedom are all but stripped away, and humanity is weighed down under machines and medication.

Huxley’s novel portrays less of a dystopia and more of a parodied utopia; there’s a clear distinction. A dystopia is inherently bad, like 1984 or The Hunger Games, where it’s clear people are suffering due to humanity’s mistakes. But Brave New World actually represents a utopia—an almost unrealistically happy society, without war, poverty, famine, misery, or burden. The only person who cannot bear this society is John, who grew up apart from it.

1984 is about a regime holding power and using ideology, propaganda, and torture to subdue threats . . . humanity’s enemy is more powerful than ever, but it’s the same enemy: an upper class with all the power. Brave New World might even be scarier, because there is no enemy. Humanity simply gave up, surrendered to happiness. All the things we like to think make humanity good—art, morality, intelligence, curiosity, passion . . . all replaced by peace. A numbing, terrifying global peace.

Brave New World is a warning, but not like most dystopian novels, warning us against threats to society. It’s warning to us that if our everlasting search for happiness and comfort continue, we may gain peace, but we will lose what makes us human.

Nothing hits this point more at home than the many Shakespeare references throughout the novel. Shakespeare has been completely removed from this society, because his words are too beautiful and evocative. His stories of revenge, passion, tragedy, and love cause too much instability to the stable World State, so his works cannot be allowed to exist in society.

A Portrait of William Shakespeare

But in the reservation, John finds one of the last remaining copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which he uses at a young age to learn how to read. His attraction to Lenina Crowne in the civilized world becomes reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, while his contemplation of suicide is mirrored in Hamlet‘s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Most importantly, the title of the book comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which John uses to describe civilization when he sees it for the first time: “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”

And that, possibly more than anything else, it what makes this future so horrible. To have happiness, we have to get rid of Shakespeare . . . as well as any other good story, along with God and religion, scientific discovery, and anything else that doesn’t serve the greater purpose of providing comfort and stability for society. Welcome to the brave new world.

I honestly don’t like thinking about this. At least with 1984, I can see that abuse of power is something that has always happened and will continue to happen—the current state of the political world does nothing to convince me that that will ever change. But this . . . Huxley’s novel is simply messed up, and I can’t stand the possibility that humanity might surrender itself completely. This is scarier than any horror I can think of.

So I’m just going to move on to the next novel. Hopefully, students, you feel better about this than I do. I’ve got nothing.

Next up, I’m reading Wuthering Heights, another somewhat depressing story, but at least it comes with a better ending!

Until then, be careful with your happiness and beware the future.

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me . . . Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?'”

—from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Hello again, class.

Per our discussion last week, I am unashamed to admit that I read most of The Picture of Dorian Gray aloud to myself in a terrible British accent.  When I got to the really dramatic parts, I slowed it down and pretended I was in a movie.  I encourage this sort of behavior in your free time.

Dorian Gray and his Portrait, from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Dorian Gray and his Portrait, from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Anyway, let’s jump right in—I’m surprised at how coincidentally similar Dorian Gray’s portrait is to Sauron’s ring and Lord Voldemort’s Horcruxes.  For anyone who is unfamiliar with Dorian Gray’s story, it details the life of a man whose soul is linked to a portrait of himself, manifested in two ways: he remains young while the portrait ages, and his sins damage the portrait while his soul remains undamaged.

Unlike The Lord of the Rings and The Harry Potter series, though, this is no adventure story—it’s more like a Victorian Gothic morality tale, criticizing morality.  Instead of “action,” the story relies more on dialogue and Dorian’s inner thoughts.  More than any of the books I’ve read so far for this class, it is unadulterated art, which makes it challenging and refreshing.

A Statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin, Ireland

A Statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin, Ireland

For a little backstory: author Oscar Wilde is actually better known for his plays. The Picture of Dorian Gray is his only novel, but it has moments that seem like a play—dialogue is uninterrupted by descriptions, chapters take place only one scene at a time, and the story splits evenly into two separate “acts” (Dorian as a young man and Dorian in his late 30s).  Wilde probably wrote it as a novel because he wanted to capture Dorian’s thoughts, which analyze the soul, art, God, evil, England, love, sin, and fashion…all at once.

Wilde included a preface as a way of defending his work, where he explains that art and morality are separate and criticizes nineteenth century treatment of art. I’m betting Wilde added this preface because people didn’t catch the messages in the novel itself.  No need to worry—Prof. Jeffrey caught on!  In every piece of dialogue between the three main characters, they discuss the battle between art and morality, and what that means for society.  These moments distance themselves from the story, and though they tend to come off as preachy, they’re always interesting.  These moments help the reader seriously consider Dorian Gray’s immortality and his addiction to sin.

Dorian Gray is something of a cross between a vampire and Peter Pan—stuck in the prime of his life but disconnected from his soul.  He is a lot like Shakespeare’s Hamlet—a youthful figure trapped between a tormented soul, a tragic fate, and lengthy dialogue—which further cements his status as an amazing literary character.  If you’re looking for a reason to read Dorian Gray, he’s it: his inner thoughts show us his temptation to commit evil acts and his obsession with his portrait, and the spectacle of his life is beautiful and tragic.  He disgusts, moves, and terrifies us because he is simultaneously the worst and best versions of ourselves.  Feel free to listen in on the art-and-morality lectures as you read, but you should stick around to experience the cataclysmic life of Dorian Gray.

I’m moving on to George Orwell’s 1984 next.  I’ve been remarkably stuck in the fantasy genre, and a little dystopian drama might shake things up a bit around here.  That being said, fantasy is probably my favorite genre to read in, and I’d like to hear what novels you’ve read.

Your homework: leave a comment describing your favorite fantasy novel.  Tell me what it’s like—I don’t want the summary I can find just about anywhere, because I’d much rather have your personal impression of it.  Why did you like it so much?  And the question of the hour—you know what this class is about—WHY should I read it?

I look forward to your comments.  See you next week!

Prof. Jeffrey