Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A failure to communicate

The Rachel Joyce novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is a story about communication, or the lack of same. The main characters, Harold Fry and his wife, Maureen, are people who aren't very good at communicating, especially with each other. One of the few colleagues Harold ever had a real conversation with in his entire working life was Queenie Hennessy, the dying woman he is walking hundreds of miles to say goodbye to.

Joyce puts a number of notable lines in her novel, and many of them have to do with communication. Here are a few I like:

It wasn't enough to send a letter.

Nowadays, of course, most of us don't even send letters. We send e-mails or texts or perhaps greeting cards with our message, such as it is, already printed in them when we buy them. Letters are better (I surprised myself by writing two in a single day recently), but much better still is meeting face-to-face, perhaps over a meal or a beverage. That's when true communication takes place.

It was a long time since he had made a woman laugh.

For a man, there are few pleasures quite like making a woman laugh, almost any woman, in fact. The joke or witticism represents a means of communication. So does the laugh.

The hiking man continued talking. It occurred to Harold that he was one of those people who didn't require other people do have a conversation.

We all know people like that. My father, so unlike me, was one of those people. He could corner a complete stranger and tell stories for hours. On his deathbed he joked that he wanted an open casket at his funeral "so everyone can see what I look like with my mouth closed." I loved my father and felt blessed to be his audience and to hear those same stories, which I now treasure, over and over again. Of course, most such people we try to avoid and, if we can't, to escape as quickly as possible.

But for years they had been in a place where language had no significance.

That's a way of saying that Harold and Maureen no longer have anything to talk about, at least not with each other. Sadness fills this novel, but that line strikes me as among the saddest passages.

And what no on else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.

We all, to one degree or another, put on a show for others. We try to appear kinder, happier, smarter, and as Harold observes, more normal than we really are. This, too, is communication, even if it involves communicating a falsehood.

He only said, "Well, goodbye, Maureen," because it was a sentence. He didn't want to hang up any more than he wanted to walk.

In my notes I transcribed the line as "he didn't want to hang up any more than he wanted to talk," which struck a chord with me, recalling past telephone conversations with loved ones when I had nothing left to say but didn't want to break the connection. The actual line seems meaningful, too. Too often, unable to say what is really on our hearts, we speak in cliches and familiar phrases that mean little but fill space. Or we just say goodbye.

"What will you have?" she said. She wanted to add "darling" but the word was too shy to come out.

Not much commentary is needed here, but I like how Rachel Joyce makes the word, not the woman, the shy one.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Harold Fry's pilgrimage

Twice in my life I have taken long walks, once a distance of 10 miles, to help raise money for worthy causes. Even so I have never quite understood what walking or running long distances or devoting long periods of time to jumping rope, rocking in a rocking chair or whatever has to do with benefiting someone else.

This came to mind as I read Rachel Joyce's impressive novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. A retired 65-year-old Englishman, who still lives with his wife though it feels like they have been separated for years, gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a woman he once worked with at a brewery. She tells him she is dying from cancer in a hospice in Scotland, on the coast of the North Sea. He writes a quick note to her and sets off on foot to post his letter. Yet he keeps walking and walking, feeling in his heart that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie will keep living. And so, over three months, he walks the entire 637 miles to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The title of Joyce's book provides the first insight. Harold Fry's long walk is a "pilgrimage," suggesting he does it as much to help himself as to help Queenie. Certainly that 10-mile walk in support of my son's school benefited me, as well. For years I had a doctor who would always ask if I could walk home from his office, which was about 15 miles away. Each time I would mention that 10-mile walk, implying that if I could walk 10 miles, I could probably do 15. I always felt the hike got me off the hook somehow.

In the novel, Harold's pilgrimage helps him immensely, even though he is weak, frail and exhausted by the time he finishes. It clears his mind and cleans his conscience, making him feel that a quiet man who had been virtually invisible for so much of his life can still make a difference in the world. And the pilgrimage helps his marriage. Maureen, his wife, at first is shaken that her husband should set off on foot to cross Britain to see another woman. In the end she sees him as a hero, her hero.

As for Queenie, yes, she learns Harold is on his way, and she hangs on.

People could just donate to a good cause without anyone having to walk or run long distances. Harold Fry could have just gotten into a car and driven to Berwick-on-Tweed. Yet Rachel Joyce shows us that the effort that goes into something can be as important as the final result. Life is about the journey, not the destination.

Friday, January 23, 2015


This book should lend some support to the skeptics claiming that the term " the scientific revolution" is another one of those prejudicial historical labels that explain nothing.
James Hannam, The Genesis of Science

When I reviewed James Hannam's book a couple days ago, I mentioned his contention that the Dark Ages were not really as dark as we have been led to believe, that some important scientific progress occurred during that period of history. Furthermore, he argues the Renaisance was not, in all ways, an improvement over the Middle Ages. In some ways it was a step backwards.

Hannam criticizes what he terms "value-laden names" given to historical periods. In the quotation cited above, he points out the prejudice inherent in the phrase "the scientific revolution," usually applied to the period from Copernicus to Newton. But that ignores the revolution that took place during the Middle Ages that made the work of Copernicus and Newton possible, as well as the scientific revolution that has taken place in every century since then.

Historians are not alone in using value-laden labels. Scholars in other fields do it, as do journalists, writers, politicians and others. Labels are a shorthand way to categorize not just periods of history but also people and places. In high school we probably placed classmates into boxes, the jocks, the nerds, the popular kids, whatever. This can prove a bit embarrassing years later, perhaps at a class reunion, when we notice how successful someone from an outcast group has been since graduation.

Decades often get labels that may or may not accurately reflect what was going on in that decade. We had, for example, the Gay Nineties, the Roaring Twenties and the Swinging Sixties. Such terms hardly tell the whole story about what took place during those periods. The Eighties were often called the Decade of Greed, which never made sense to me because people really didn't seem any more greedy then than in any other decade before or since. Then I realized the name was probably intended to besmirch Ronald Reagan, who was president during most of that decade. If more people enjoyed prosperity while Republicans were in power, it must have been because they were greedy and got their money by taking advantage of others.

The labels red states and blue states, indicating how states have voted in presidential elections in the past, have been used and misused by members of both parties to refer to the people of those states, never mind that states often vote one way in one election and another way in another or vote for one party in a presidential election and another party in the same election for governor or other offices.

Generations, too, get labeled. We have, for example, Baby Boomers, the Lost Generation, Generation X, etc. Sometimes the labels may be useful. Other times they are just a way of placing people into handy boxes, just like high school.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Dark Ages in a new light

The Dark Ages weren't nearly as dark as we have been led to believe. So argues James Hannam in his 2009 book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middles Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.

Historians have told us that human progress pretty much came to a standstill during the Middle Ages. Not until the Renaissance, beginning in the 14th century, did science,  technology, the arts, etc., begin to bloom. Hannam contends the Renaissance was actually a step backward in many respects. The Renaissance, he says, was "if anything, even more superstitious and violent" than the Middle Ages. Belief in the occult, especially astrology, became stronger. In terms of science, significant work by scholars of the Middle Ages was ignored, while Renaissance scholars turned back to the teachings of Plato and others from an earlier time for scientific insights.

Fortunately the printing press had been invented late in the so-called Dark Ages, and most of the earlier writings on scientific matters had been published and preserved. Later Galileo and other Renaissance thinkers made full use of these books in their own work, even though they did not usually give sufficient credit to those whose work they built on.

Those earlier men of science have much less familiar names, but Hannam seeks to give attention to many who led the way, including people like Richard of Wallingford, Richard Swineshead, John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Cecco D'Ascoli. Today the Church and science are often perceived as being at odds with each other, especially over the question of the origin of life, but most of these scholars from the Middle Ages were men of the Church who saw it as their duty to discover everything they could about the universe God made. Had it not been for the Church, the Dark Ages might actually have been dark.

Hannam even argues the Inquisition was not nearly as bad as history has led us believe. The Church did send some people to the stake, but they were relatively few. In most cases the Church sought ways to avoid severe penalties. The Inquisition, the author points out, introduced a new legal system still in use today in which crimes are actually investigated and defendants are given an opportunity to defend themselves.

"Ironically, by keeping philosophers focused on nature instead of metaphysics, the limitations set by the Church may even have benefited science in the long term," Hannam writes. "Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, the Church never supported the idea that the earth is flat, never banned human dissection, never banned the zero, and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas."

Hannam writes for the lay reader, not for either scientists or historians. Read his book to see the Dark Ages in a new light.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Look, Ma, no hands

I am reading the book Faulks on Fiction: A Story of the Novel in 28 Characters by Sebastian Faulks. I will probably have more to say about the contents of this book later, but now I am more interested in the book itself. Published in Great Britain by BBC Books, the volume is a trade paperback of less than 400 pages, yet it seems larger and heavier than most books of this length. Furthermore, the book is something like a bear trap. Open it and it wants to spring shut. To read it requires using both hands to hold it open. After a chapter or two, one's hands might even begin to get tired from the effort.

If Faulks on Fiction is a two-handed book, most of the books I read are one-handed books, mostly trade paperbacks that I can easily hold open with one hand, leaving the other hand free to take notes, drink tea, scratch my nose or whatever.

Then there are no-hands books, those that lie open on any flat surface. I have such a book on my breakfast table now, The Genesis of Science by James Hannam. Not only does the book stay open while I eat, I can leave it open all day without fear it will  suddenly spring shut. I chose this as my breakfast book specifically because of this quality. My hands tend to get messy as I eat breakfast.

My wife, who since childhood has had the use of just one hand, always prefers hardbacks to paperbacks because they will stay open more easily.

We have all kinds of ways of categorizing our books. Mostly we sort them by author or subject matter, but some may group them by size or even color. Some keep paperbacks away from hardbacks or old books away from new books. Most of us separate, even if only in our minds, books we've read from those we haven't read, as well as from those we are in the process of reading. Grouping books by how many hands it takes to hold them open is just one more way.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Writers at the end

Great writers do not necessarily lead great lives, and the end of their lives can be as miserable as anybody's. Wild Nights!, the 2008 book of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, examines the last days of five of the greatest American writers. Although she writes fiction, Oates did her homework and bases her tales on biographical information about the writers.

The one possible exception may be "EDickinsonRepliLuxe," a wonderful bit of science fiction in which Oates imagines a future time when anyone with enough money can purchase small robots with the appearance and personalities of famous people from the past. Mr. and Mrs. Krim choose to have a little Emily Dickinson in their home. Is there any other writer whose personality would be less suited to being, in effect, someone's household pet than the reclusive poet? Little Emily, her pockets stuffed with little pieces of paper covered with lines of poetry, tries to keep to herself until Mr. Krim, his wife away, decides to finally get his money's worth. The title of this collection, by the way, comes from a Dickinson poem.

The least successful story, "Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House," takes the form of journal entries written by Poe while living in a lighthouse near the end of his brief life. Oates captures the increasing madness and declining health of the writer, but I didn't find the story very interesting. The three others prove to be gems, however.

"Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906" focuses on Mark Twain's late-in-life fascination with pretty girls between the ages of 10 and 16. He called them his Angelfish. In the story, Maddie is the favorite of his Angelfish, with whom he maintains a secret correspondence and conspires to meet in their secret place until he discovers, to his horror, that she has passed her 16th birthday. Then he shuts her off completely, even after the girl's mother, discovering his letters, begs him to write again because Maddie, in her despair, refuses to eat.

"Papa at Ketchum, 1961" takes us inside Ernest Hemingway's mind as he contemplates suicide. Always vain and selfish, he worries that even with a shotgun he will not do as good a job at it as his father managed with a handgun.

The writer who looks the best at the end of his life, at least in these stories, is Henry James in "The Master at St. Bartholomew's." The pompous and privileged writer, who loves being called the Master, chooses to become a servant to English boys wounded in the trenches during the Great War. He volunteers to help at a hospital in London where many of these soldiers are brought. At first he only talks with them or reads to them, but as the burden of so many wounded becomes too much for the strained hospital staff, he takes on less agreeable tasks, including emptying bedpans. Never in his life has he performed such labor. Now he does so willingly and with pride, wishing there was more he could do for these boys.

Oates has given us some fine stories about some fine writers. They may be fiction, but you will feel like you know the writers better after reading them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Welcoming places

He felt strongly that libraries of any kind, even one this grand, should prove welcoming places.
Christopher Fowler, Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart

I am writing this in a library, the spacious, modern, beautifully designed and welcoming public library in Largo, Fla. I have loved this library since my first visit a number of years ago when I came for an appearance by Bob Greene, the former syndicated newspaper columnist who had written a new book. Now I come here sometimes three or four times a week during my winters in Florida.

Never mind the cliched image of a spinsterly librarian shushing children and other patrons who fail to speak in a whisper, I think most public libraries are welcoming. They have to be. Their services may be mostly free, but still the jobs of librarians depend on patrons using those services, just as the livelihoods of shopkeepers depend on their customers.

Perhaps fewer people read books today than did a few decades ago, but libraries still seem to be busy places. People go there for meetings, to use computers, to check genealogy records, to read the daily newspaper and the latest magazines, to learn English or to learn how to read, to shop for inexpensive used books offered by the Friends of the Library and to check out movies, music CDs, recorded books and sometimes other items. I've known libraries that lend jigsaw puzzles, works of art and even athletic equipment.

Libraries are such welcoming places that even authors, publishers and bookstores rarely complain about them, even though public libraries significantly cut into their income. When I attended a discussion by independent bookstore owners at Kenyon College last fall, I noted that while they complained about the negative influence of Barnes & Noble, Amazon and discounted books in general, they had nothing negative to say about libraries. Almost everybody loves them.