Brave New World—still very relevant

Brave New World

By Aldous Huxley

Published 1932

Read Feb 2021

Unlike many others, this reader didn’t read this book in high school or college but rather this reader’s first reading of this book is as a retired person who spent decades in a life science business.  

The first part of the book was riveting for this reader.  The development and utilization of biochemical and biological techniques to drive different levels of intelligence and to generate multiple copies of the same clone is discussed by the Director to a group of new students.  He then shows them the psychological conditioning techniques being used, some during sleep and some using rather harsh approaches, to influence ways of thinking, preferences, and aversions.  The only possible give-away that this wasn’t written in 2020 is the need to use only red-light on embryos of a certain age as they can’t withstand other types of light—as, the book indicates,  is the case with photographic film. 

We eventually meet Bernard Marx, an A+(levels given grades A through F indicating level of intelligence)  who has helped develop the sleep conditioning techniques.  His intellect is A+ level but he’s shorter than most and some of his thinking isn’t fully aligned with the World State’s policies. His colleagues suggest these defects are due to unplanned exposure to ethanol during this development.  He wishes to date Lenina, a B-level woman.  She’s been exclusively dating someone, which is not within policy, and her roommate has counseled her to stop doing this and adhere to the policy that “we all belong to everyone” and spread herself around a little more.  So she accepts Bernard’s invitation for a date which isn’t entirely satisfactory for either but that doesn’t preclude them from deciding to go on a holiday together.  Interestingly, all the male level A/A+ characters are interested in dating only level B/B+ women…. 

Their holiday to the Savage Land in Arizona and the direction that takes the plot provides a new set of characters and enables the author’s ability to dive deeply into the consideration of the World State’s set of policies regarding fidelity (no need—everyone belongs to everyone), parenthood (no longer considered useful but actually damaging to development of citizens), leisure (the best part of life but only so much time can be spent here so that people don’t think too much), finding bliss through soma, a potent drug readily available (why not?), happiness (it is better to be happy because of lies than be unhappy), literature (no need for it—books banished because they cause people to think too much), aging (no longer relevant—biology has done away with that).  Even the scientific questions considered are limited in the New World order so that the equilibrium of the current society isn’t disrupted. 

Brave New World came out in 1932 when the relevancy of the innovation of Ford’s Model T and Ford’s production line technology was much more apparent than it might be today.  The references to Mr. T and the “sign of the T” will likely become lost on readers less familiar with Henry Ford, his impact on manufacturing, and the Model T.  The “sexual revolution” happened between the book’s publication and today so the concept of sex outside of marriage and outside of any kind of commitment is taken as a matter of course now, a very different situation than when the book was published.  However, today’s society views regarding parenthood and the role of fathers in raising children are very different than when the book was published—-much higher expectations for deep physical and emotional involvement vs only bringing home a paycheck. 

Regardless of the differences in the views on society brought by readers today vs the readers when the book was first published, the questions the book raises regarding engineering people biologically and psychologically remain very relevant and perhaps even more so now.   In-vitro fertilization has certainly become a reality although driven by the parents of the to-be child and not The Director.   However, who owns the un-implanted embryos is a question that remains incompletely settled.   CRISPER technology has the potential for changing a person and has been used to create a set of twins that lack a receptor required for infection by HIV.  The question(s) of whether and how to use this technology is only in its infancy.  Who has the right to decide these questions?  Is it a right of all or in one or few based on their power and authority.. 

Brave New World doesn’t describe the road society travelled to reach the Brave New World state but rather it focuses on the state that’s been created.  This reader anticipates the author chose the Bernard Marx character and his story of wrestling with the Brave New World state and his place in it to provide the reader some hope that we don’t need to take the same course.  However we do need to think about how we decide what path(s) society takes as technologies are created and developed that could alter our course significantly.

This reader applauds high schools and colleges that include this book in their curriculum.  However, this reader also recommends that adults of all ages should read or re-read this book as well since they are the ones in positions of decision making that should be informed by thinking about these critical topics now. 

The End of the Affair–Greene Classic

The End of the Affair

By Graham Greene

Published 1951

Read Oct 2020

Many of Greene’s works have been adapted for film and this book is no exception. This story, set in London during and after WWI, was adapted as a movie twice:  one film was released  in 1955 and one in 1999.  An opera based on the book premiered in 2004. 

We meet our protagonist and narrator, Maurice Bendix, about two years after the end of his affair with Sarah, the wife of a civil servant.   He recounts the story:   Maurice had been interested in writing a story about an administrator in the government so met Sarah and her husband, Henry.  Maurice and Sarah carried on a passionate affair that lasts about two years.  Bendix tells us he knew the affair was coming to an end, driven in part by his jealousy, but he did not expect the abruptness of the ending which occurred after his house was damaged by a bomb in 1944 and he was nearly killed. 

The story now moves forward:  Maurice remains angry with the ending of the affair.   He encounters Sarah’s husband, Henry, on the square on which both of their residences lie.  Over drinks, Henry takes Maurice into his confidence that he thinks Sarah may be having an affair.  Maurice privately hires a detective without Henry’s knowledge to determine the identity of this new lover to appease his own jealousy.

The detective obtains Sarah’s diary which explains the end of the affair and her new love interest. The second half of the book relates Maurice’s handling of this information and the events that follow.

Greene converted to Cat holism at age 24 and several of his books have strong Catholic themes.  This is the fourth of those novels.  In this one, the characters struggle with the question of believing in God, a struggle Greene also shared prior to his conversion and again later in life.

Greene was both a “popular” and “literary” author.  Greene’s literary talents are well displayed in this book.  Making the main character and narrator a writer is especially interesting as he relates Maurice’s approach to his work and the challenges he faces in his writing while being in mourning for the affair and while he struggles with questions of faith.  This novel demonstrates Greene’s ability to weave a classically interesting tale of an affair with philosophical questions that remain impossible to completely answer and to keep both topics fresh despite the passing of nearly seventy years since the book’s original publication. 

South Pacific: It’s About the Waiting

Tales of the South Pacific

By James A. Michener

Published 1947

Read Oct 2020

Although this reader had never actually seen a stage or film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”, three songs jumped into her brain immediately when this book was selected as a book for this reader’s book discussion group:  “Some Enchanted Evening”, “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”, and “Bali-ha”.  This reader is happy to report this book is quite engaging and serious and not at all what this reader was expecting from the familiar songs—a light romantic comedy. 

When first released (the book in 1947 and musical in 1950), memories of World War II remained fresh in readers and viewers minds.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.   The musical was adapted for the screen twice:  for the big screen in 1958 (the film was a blockbuster) and for TV in 2001.   What accounts for this appeal in the late 40’s and 50’s and what accounts for the familiarity for even this generation?

James Michener was 40 when he enlisted in the US Navy.  He was sent to the South Pacific. He earned the rank of lieutenant commander and had various assignments.  He began compiling his observations about his experiences during that time.  Michener begins his book “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific.  The way it actually was.  The endless ocean.  The infinite specks of coral we called islands.  …. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting.  The waiting.  The timeless, repetitive waiting. But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene.” 

 Michener’s book (his first of over 40) is a collection of related short stories told, after the introductory piece, in approximate chronological order.  Each chapter is a complete story in itself and characters from one story carry into other stories.  While the stories can be read individually, knowledge of previous stories provides more depth of understanding of aspects of the story at hand.   The author makes clear who is narrating in each story.  Most of the stories are narrated by an officer who completes a range of assignments supporting various commanding officers.   In each case, the reader feels as though the narrator is speaking directly to him/her.

The stories are about the people who serve on the islands on which equipment and supplies were landed to support various campaigns and where airplanes and PT boats landed and were repaired.  They are about the US Seabees who build the beaches on which the Marines and Sailors land to take control of the island and the airstrips that are used by US Navy airplanes of all sizes that fulfill various purposes:  bombers, dogfighters, scouting, etc. They are about the officers who have a variety of roles including supply officers, doctors, nurses pilots, communications officers, and recreation officers (this one focused on enabling “the waiting” to be bearable).  They are about the men who sweat in the hot humid climate and try to stay sane while waiting for the call to action.  They are about the coast watchers who provide the Navy vital information regarding the movement of their Japanese enemies.  They are about the nurses who are officers but who generally have backgrounds more like the enlisted men, with whom they are forbidden to socialize, than with the male officers.  They are about the officers that engage their men to build an airstrip in the middle of a jungle in 15 days and they are about the officers that disengage their men through arbitrariness and disinterest in their needs.  They are about the French plantation owners and their native and Tonkinese (North Vietnamese) workers that live on the islands.  They are about the entrepreneurial Tonkinese who gladly sell the sailors and marines what they need across a wide range of goods and services.  There several love stories, two which are a large focus of the musical. (The three unforgettable songs that are in this reader’s brain are related to these love stories.) The stories confront prejudices borne by the Americans regarding the various people living on the islands.   (The musical confronted this issue directly as well.)  The stories are stitched together by the recurring characters and how their experiences impact them.  The stories lead from the pronouncement of a group of admirals to take a particular island through the development of Plan Alligator to the strike on the targeted island and the aftermath of that battle.

Although not written as historical fiction, it serves as such to those reading it in 2020.  An indicator of good historical fiction, according to this reader, is that the reader is motivated to learn more about the subject.  Michener’s book had that effect on this reader.  Michener’s book provides the human face to that part of the war and gives it life that “regular” history books and TV programs using film from the time don’t provide.  This reader has a new appreciation both for the magnitude of the undertaking of the war in the South Pacific and the lives of the peoples involved.  And those songs will remain firmly embedded in her brain.

Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton

Published 1905

Read Nov 2019

We meet Lily Bart as a 29 year old single woman.  She has no siblings.  We learn that shortly before her father’s death he revealed to his family that they had been living beyond their means for some time and they were essentially broke.  After his death, Lily and her mother had managed to keep up appearances as Lily had only recently “come out”.  After her mother died about two years after her father, her father’s sister agreed to take her in for a year, a situation which she extended indefinitely.  The aunt provides Lily an irregular clothing allowance and a place to live with the usual amenities the upper class address.   Now 11 years after coming out, Lily remains unmarried. In addition to the irregular clothing allowance, she has only a very small income to cover her other personal expenses which causes her difficulties as she attempts to “keep up with the Jones” which includes playing bridge for high dollar stakes.  She knows her only solution is to marry someone with sufficient capital and income to support her lifestyle.  But herein lies the issue.  She would also really prefer to marry someone interesting and that she loves (or at least could come to really love vs just tolerate).  

When we meet Lily she has a two hour wait for her train to Bellomont where she will be spending the weekend with her friends Gus and Judy Trenor.  She runs into Lawrence Seldon who is quite willing to entertain her at a teashop during her wait.  While walking in his neighborhood he invites her, on a whim, to his apartment in a bachelor apartment house for that tea and she accepts.  They spend a enjoyable time together.  She indicates she can talk freely to him as he isn’t someone she would consider marrying (insufficient funds).  She laments her situation as a marriageable girl—the restrictions and expectations.  On leaving the apartment house on her way to the train, she encounters Mr. Rosedale and lies about why she was at that address which he knows is a lie.  This is the first of several missteps Lily takes in the course of this story.  The second mistake is to lose the possibility of engagement to Mr. Percy Gryce, a wealthy but dull and conservative man.  She chose to spend Sunday afternoon with Seldon after dodging the church service Mr. Percy Gryce was attending.  This act, in addition to learning that Lily gambled at cards, prompts Mr. Percy Gryce to leave Bellomont early, without an engagement to Lily Bart.

Through the rest of Book 1 we see Lily make several more missteps as she attempts to fund her gambling debts and live the more generous and glamourous life she prefers.   In Book 2, we see Lily bear the consequences of her missteps and the solutions she attempts to repair her situation.  Her aunt dies and leaves her only a small inheritance so she loses her address and residence.  She is innocent of deeds she’s rumored to have committed.  She has no protector or councilor.  But Lily retains her principles and writes her own terms within the narrow confines available to her.  She remains loyal to her friends even when they are not loyal to her. 

Like Tess d’Uberville, Lily is alone and must clothe, house, and feed herself.   Like Tess, the man she loves turns away from her.  Like Tess, society’s expectations and restrictions regarding her gender are limiting and unfair.  Like Tess, she is principled and works to manage through the increasing number of obstacles in her path.  This reader became a fan of both Tess and Lily. 

The Woman in White

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Published serially in Charles Dicken’s magazine “All the Year Round” 1859-1860; in book form in 1860

Read Dec 2019

The Woman in White has had a long history, being first published serially in 1859-1860 and being adapted multiple times for theater (starting in 1860), in film (starting in 1912 and as recently as 1982), TV mini-series in multiple languages (starting in 1971 and as recently as 2018).  It brought commercial success to Collins if not critical success at publication.  It made the “the top 100 greatest novels of all time” list compiled by Robert McCrum for the Observer in 2003. 

What has made this novel so engaging for all this time?  The story includes love, deceit, thrills, mystery, intrigue, and a virtuous approach to revenge.  It is set in a time and place when marriages are arranged by parents, are necessary to provide financial security for women, but in which married women have a very unequal position in the marriage. 

Collins uses a structural device he used again in The Moonstone:  portions of the story told by different narrators, each being a primary witness to the material they provide.  Walter Hartright, a young teacher of drawing and of limited means, compiles the story which he has been driven to reveal in his quest to restore the stolen identity  of the woman he loves but could not marry due to social standing issues and prior planned engagement arranged by his love’s father.  This approach provides not only “reliable narrators” (and “real evidence” for Hartright’s case), but also a chance for the reader to engage directly with, become familiar with, and to form an opinion regarding each narrator, most of whom are essential characters in the story. 

The serially published novel was a huge hit for Dicken’s magazine.  Collins is adept at creating many engaging and interesting installments for a serial, each keeping the reader looking for the next issue, which nicely publish as a (very) long novel.   This was an enjoyable read via audiobook (25 hours at 1.25 speed) for this reader while cooking, cleaning, gardening, driving, etc.  This reader anticipates it would may have been somewhat tedious at times to read “via eyes” given the language and intensely detailed descriptions, but this reader agrees with McCrum that it’s a very worthy read.

War and War and Tolstoy

War and Peace

By Leo Tolstoy

Published serially 1865-1867; in book form 1869

Read May-July 2019

I listened to the 2007 Naxos AudioBooks version of the English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, read by Neville Jason, while referring to the Kindle version of the 1942 Oxford University Press Inner Sanctum Edition of the same translation.   The hardcopy of the Inner Sanctum Edition included a 12 page leaflet providing maps, a list of characters, both arranged in order of their appearance and in family groups, and a list of dates of principal historical events; this material was also included in the published hardcopy.   This edition also included Aylmer Maude’s preface, a brief biography of Tolstoy, and an introduction written by Clifton Fadiman which comments on the parallel between Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s invasion in 1941-42.   While the Kindle version doesn’t include the leaflet, it does include all other aspects of the Inner Sanctum Edition and is certainly easier to transport and store than the original hardcopy version. 

Neville Jason’s reading is fabulous. His reading allowed very easy assimilation of the various forms of the names of the numerous characters.  As the book progresses, and in the entire Epilogue Two, Tolstoy gives the reader various, sometimes lengthy, philosophical essays on his views of particular battles, the overall war with respect to causes of initiation, progression, and ending, Napoleon and Alexander, the documentation of war in history books, and the art of writing history itself, among others.  This reader anticipates these essays could have felt a bit tedious when reading “via eyes” but Neville Jason’s reading enabled this reader’s full engagement and a sense of Tolstoy earnestly speaking directly to this reader. 

Apparently Tolstoy chose the title “War and Peace” to replace the title (“1805”) originally used as the work was published serially.  Certainly the full work covers the period extending to 1820, with focus  on the Napoleonic-Russian War of 1805 and the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 so “1805” was an insufficient title.  The discussion of Peace is limited, however, unless he uses this term to cover the fictional story of five Russian families and numerous minor characters.  Or perhaps he used the term “Peace” to describe the period before the involvement of Russia in the 1805 war and the period between that war and Napoleon’s invasion.  In any case, he doesn’t overtly discuss “Peace” but he certainly discusses “War” as noted above. 

The book created controversy when it was published as the critics and public found it difficult to classify the book—not history, not a “normal” novel.  This reader sees the book as a form of historical fiction.  There are many (apparently some 160) real persons in the book, some only referenced and others actively involved in the story.  Tolstoy provides five fictional Russian families and numerous minor characters to engage the reader with a sense of the society of the time, to provide multiple stories of potential marriage matches, and to provide characters’ experiences in entering the service, in battle, and in the service of the army.  But unlike “normal” historical fiction, Tolstoy weighs in often with his personal take on various topics as noted above.

This reader invested unusually heavily in this book, purchasing both the two volumes of audiobook and the Kindle book.  The other investment, which seemed somewhat daunting at the beginning, was that the audiobook version requires 62 hours of listening.  But now that this reader is finished with listening, this reader frankly misses Neville Jason’s voice describing the various trials and tribulations of the five Russian families (which won’t be divulged here as you will want to discover yourselves) and providing this reader Tolstoy’s view on the various topics previously mentioned.  The only disappointment was in Epilogue 1 when Tolstoy’s view was divulged of the only purpose of women (to be married and raise children).  But this reader must give him a small pass here as this vast saga of families and the course of Russian history is so completely engaging.  This reader did utilize some other sources to comprehend better aspects of Russian and Napoleonic history that may have been familiar to his earliest readers.  Since this reader’s primary identity is “learner”, this book delivered well more than 62 hours of learning.  The Kindle version indicates average reading time of 32 hours.  This reader fully recommend investing savoring this book; Neville Jason’s version is time very well spent.

Anna K, Audiobooks, and Discussion

Anna Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy

Published serially 1873-1877

Published in book form 1878

Read 2014

This reader is publishing this essay on a book read several years ago because it was a great example for this reader about the experience of listening to the book vs reading “with your eyes”.  Tolstoy’s “first novel” and very great work is a large one—850+ pages or so.  Dispersed within the story of two marriages—the crumbling of Anna/Alexey Karenin’s marriage and creation and maturation of Kostya Levin/Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage—Tolstoy has long extensive sections on hunting, harvesting grain, serfdom, political discussions at a dinner party, sending soldiers to a war of unclear purpose, and several others.  This reader may have struggled through these sections if reading the hardcopy (or Kindle!) version of the novel, but was enriched by them when they were being read by a good reader and the reader was walking, exercising, driving, gardening, cleaning, or many other types of activities that allowed concentration on both the book and the task.  I heartily recommend this form of reading to enable immersion in books. 

Tolstoy provides an interesting look at Russian society shortly before the freeing of the serfs, with particular emphasis on the arrangement and state of marriage in upper society with respect to the public and personal expectations of marriage.  Anna is in an arranged marriage that “saves” her from a situation of no wealth and no obvious family with which to live.  However the marriage is not personally fulfilling to her, and perhaps not to her husband.  While perfectly acceptable to have discreet affairs to “fill the gap” of an unsatisfying marriage, Anna chooses a different path with her Vronsky.  Tolstoy uses this story to develop his thesis that an eternal error men makes is in “imagining that happiness consists in the realization of their desires”.  However, the maturation of Kostya Levin and Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage may contradict this thesis.  However they chose their marriage following a courtship focused on love (as possible within the constraints of society) and live in the country, generally unblemished by the trends and pressures of society.

Obviously there is much Tolstoy covers in 850+ pages which is not discussed here.  Listen to the book to find out the rest.  One last remark, however, regards the volume of books published while Anna and Vronsky are exiled to his country estate and the volume of books published now.  Anna and Vronsky read essentially everything that was being published at the time in French or Russian—history, science, fiction, poetry, etc.  It would be impossible to read even a small percentage of everything published now even when a person’s life is devoted to nothing but reading.  This reader benefits from book clubs which provide a great selection of books for the discussion season—either by the learned facilitator compiling the list for the season (and one providing “off-season suggestions) or through suggestions from well-read members which is winnowed down to a list for the season.  Usually the lists contain books this reader would never otherwise read but are enriching in usually many ways. 

Bottom lines:  1) Engage with audiobooks to expand your reading experience (and probably your reading volume) and 2) Seek out and join book discussion groups that can help find books worth your limited time to read and that can provide a great experience in digesting these books in ways you can’t by yourself alone.

The Scarlet Pimpernel—An Early Batman?

The Scarlet Pimpernel

By Baroness Orczy

Published 1905

Read Nov 2018

Using the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, when any French aristocrat could be accused and sent to the guillotine in a matter of hours, Baroness Orczy crafts a tale of romance, intrigue, and adventure.  She creates a character that is a major irritant to the French police as he routinely rescues French nobility from their death sentences and lands them safely on British soil.  His true identity is known to only his few co-conspirators and even his beautiful French-born wife is unaware that her foppish husband is actually capable of repeatedly tricking the French police.

Orczy provides the reader much adventure, which we conveniently experience through the eyes of the wife who races after her husband.  She seeks to somehow save him after she mistakenly revealed to Citizen Chauvelin the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel who Chauvelin seeks to arrest and behead.   Orczy exposes the wife as a self-absorbed and actually cruel woman who feels she is trapped in a loveless marriage to a dolt she expected to adore her forever as he did before their marriage.  She eventually realizes her short-sightedness and seeks to be redeemed by preventing Chauvelin from succeeding to arrest her husband.  In contrast to her husband, she has no plan of any merit but the reader is glad she pursues this lack of plan so that we can follow Chauvelin’s hunt with a first row seat.

Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel is a forerunner of the Batman/Bruce Wayne and Superman/Clark Kent.  The allure of a person who can successfully battle “the bad guy” who is actually a “regular guy” in real life remains popular.  The format for this new (?) type of story in 1905 was live theater (The Scarlet Pimpernel was first a play written by Orczy and her husband) which was then turned into a published book.  Orczy provided her adoring public with a series of books about the Scarlet Pimpernel and his troop.   Various film, stage, and television adaptations followed.  Currently the format for this type of story is comics/graphic novels that get turned into cartoons, television shows, and “block-buster” movies.  Zooks!  (a word first used in about 1600!) What will the format be in the future?  Stay tuned….

So It Goes

Cat’s Cradle

By Kurt Vonnegut

Published:  1962

Read:  August, 2018

I first read Cat’s Cradle while in late high school or early college (as a full-blown science geek) when I read a number of Vonnegut’s books.  At the time I was enchanted by his irreverent style and outrageous characters and his apparent scorn for religion.

As I now read this book about 40 years later, I can see a number of things I couldn’t fully appreciate then.  When I entered the work force, there were a number of companies, including the one I joined, that had “pure research” groups.   Coming directly out of a post-doctoral fellowship, joining a Research Lab with essentially no direction regarding my work was extremely attractive.  The big companies that could afford this luxury really valued the fact they were contributing to the knowledge of the world and let their highly geeky have a lot of rein, asking only that they patent their discoveries (for which they were paid a small recognition award).   We currently benefit from this—Xerox, Kodak, GE, Bell Laboratories, among others, invented technologies that we rely on today—the computer mouse, graphical user interfaces, digital photography, much of the technology in cell phones, etc.  None of these companies now have “pure research” labs now and companies rely on academics and start-up companies, which are developing academic findings into something attractive to bigger companies, to produce the novel technologies they buy and utilize.  Their “Research and Development” labs are really Product Development labs that are focused on using technologies, occasionally creating needed enabling technologies, to create products for the marketplace.  So it goes.

Vonnegut likely didn’t realize this would be the course of industrial research given that he wrote Cat’s Cradle when pure research in big companies was driving many of the benefits noted above.  He does put his finger on an important aspect of those heady days of pure research at big companies.  These companies, and the few that can still afford “pure research”, provided scientists the ability to not worry about funding for their work (unlike the research sources of today—you understand this if you have any friends on faculty of universities trying to get their grants funded) which allows for great new technologies to be discovered.  What a perfect situation for truly creating lots of knowledge!  However, it can also lead to a total apathetic view of the scientist to what he/she is creating and the potential downsides morally and ethically to what their discovery allows.  The pursuit of “knowledge” has always both driven great technological gifts to mankind as well as potentially dangerous ones—the atomic bomb, the ability to alter the genetic makeup of anything living for example.  Note that the latter concern noted is a product of academic research so apathy reins there as well.  It’s interesting that Goggle’s values include “do no evil” which sounds great but certainly puts the company and the country in an interesting dilemma—to participate in the knowledge race that others with less noble values are driving or not….  Vonnegut’s Dr. Felix Hoenikker was certainly a well-constructed portrait of the pure scientist in industry—brilliant, allowed to work on whatever he felt like, whenever he felt like it and  wherever he felt like it,  and being totally oblivious or totally uncaring with regards to the uses of the knowledge he discovered and the technologies he created (Vonnegut indicates Hoenikker is the father of the atomic bomb).   He also apparently cared about nothing beyond his work as evidenced by his interactions with his children.   A telling aspect of the two is that the day the atomic bomb was dropped, Dr Hoenikker asked if his children would play “Cat’s Cradle” with them.  They didn’t understand his question as they’d never heard him ask to interact with him before.

Vonnegut uses his book to comment on another enduring foible of mankind—how to gain, retain, and use power for power’s sake.  He has characters that have given up power to do good, starting a hospital in the middle of the jungle, for instance, or that recognize they don’t have a real interest in wielding power–Frank turning to Jonah to take over as successor to the current ruler of San Lorenzo so he could avoid the people related expectations of the role and he could devote himself to the “introverted” hobbies he had.  Johan, once convinced by Frank to become “Papa’s” successor falls prey to the “rewards” of power—getting the beautiful daughter and ensuring he would have her all to himself,  for instance.

In the end, a creation of Dr Hoenikker (Ice-Nine—a concept that has been picked up by many in various art forms over the last 50 years and the name of which we’ve probably all heard somehow somewhere) has the unintended consequence some powerful inventions have and we are left to ponder a question Vonnegut poses in his book—can religion really help mankind be better or does it only provide essentially unproductive relief from the big questions facing mankind’s long-term existence.  So it goes.

Uncle Tom is Actually a Great Model

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

By Harriet Beecher Stowe

Published as a serial 1851-1852

Published in book form 1852

Read April 2018

I had heard the term “Uncle Tom” used in a derogatory way, and like the term “Babbitt” mentioned in an earlier essay, I decided the only way to understand what it meant, or could mean, was to actually read the book.  However, Uncle Tom’s cabin is a book I’ve avoided reading primarily because I find reading dialect difficult.  Fortunately, listening to the book overcame this issue and I discovered what an extraordinary book this is and how inappropriate I find derision of the Uncle Tom character.

Stowe did an amazing service to mankind in writing this book.  Using compelling story-telling, she thoroughly dispels the myth that the black race is less human than the white race and teaches that slavery should not be legal anywhere anytime.

A primary thesis is that all humans feel deep love for their children and their spouses and that forced separation from them is truly heart-breaking. A central character, Eliza, literally risks live and limb to prevent her toddler son from being sold and separated from her. (Stowe personally knew the impact of losing a child, hers to death by disease, so can write extremely convincingly on this topic.) Several slave owner and trader characters insist that their new slaves take up another spouse upon being sold and are astonished by their reaction to this directive.

Another thesis is that all humans desire the ability to read and write to enable them to read important books (most notably for her the Bible) and communicate with loved ones.  Uncle Tom learned some reading skills that enabled him to do some reading of the Bible on his own although he relied substantially on others (Master George Shelby and Eva in particular) to read to him.  George Harris obtains an education as quickly as he can once he reaches freedom in Canada.

A critically important thesis is that it was NOT true that the black race preferred to be enslaved and held by a kind and just master than to be free.  Even ever-faithful Uncle Tom surprised his kind master Augustine St. Clare with his response to being told he would be freed:  “The sudden light of joy that shone in Tom’s face as he raised his hands to heaven, his empathic “Bless the Lord!” rather discomposed St. Clare; he did not like it that Tom should be so ready to leave him.”  St. Clare did learn that Tom did appreciate his treatment from St Clare “Mas’r’s been too good; but Mas’r, I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ‘em mine, than have the best, and have ‘em any man’s else,-I had so, Mas’r; I think it’s natur, Mas’r.” In fact, Tom was willing to stay with St. Clare while he was “in trouble”—St. Clare’s trouble would be over when he became a Christian.

Stowe is quite relentless in her promotion of Christianity throughout this book.  However, I was not in any way disturbed by this this aspect of the book.   Tom’s faith in his vision of Jesus and heaven is what enables him to bear the separation from his family and the tremendously bad treatment by his final owner.  Whether you share these beliefs, it is very likely you will appreciate the “bright line” that Tom draws regarding what work he will and won’t do for his master.  While Tom demonstrated multiple times he was a faithful and valuable servant, willing to do most any work that required of him in an honest and trust-worthy way, he was unwilling to whip other slaves or do them any harm on his master’s behalf.  He demonstrated his faithfulness to “do as Jesus would do” in this regard.

In addition to the character of Tom, on whom Stowe bestows nearly Christ-like willingness to suffer on behalf of others, Stowe gives us the character of Eva.  So compelling is this character to be loved by readers for her freely given love to all servants in the house and to her flawed parents, that Eva became a very popular name given by readers in the 1850’s to their own children.  Eva goes to church with her mother weekly, but, unlike her mother, clearly truly absorbs the message to love others and to love her Lord.  She is sad that she will leave her father before he becomes a Christian but is convinced he is good and will eventually turn to her Lord as well.

Stowe shows us Christian action by the Quakers who help Eliza, George, and their son escape from the clutches of slave-hunters.  When one of the slave-hunters is hurt, but fortunately not killed by George, the Quakers do not leave him to die but rather take him to a home of one in their community who tends to him while he heals, despite his initial protests.

However, Stowe is quick to chasten Christians who do hold prejudice in their hearts or unjust actions towards slaves in her story (consider St. Clare’s aunt’s reaction to Topsy and Senator Bird’s need to change his mind and go against the Ohio version of the Fugitive Slave Act which he supported).  In her final chapter, which, interestingly is a small sermon to her readers, Stowe both provides facts supporting theses discussed above and damns Southern views of slavery.  She equally blasts Northern tolerance and promotion of slavery to appease unity across the states.  She calls to task the unstated prejudice of Northerns which they harbored against blacks then and which will surprise those migrating from the Jim Crowe laws of the south when they reach the north during the Great Migration.  Her book continues to raise an unflattering mirror to us even in 2018.

Stowe’s book was hugely popular when released in serial form and after its publication in book form.  It was originally published in a time when the general population was not a reading one, yet it sold over 300,000 copies in the year of its publication.  The popularity is not surprising.  I myself raptly listened to the sorrowful death scenes and the exciting scenes of flee from relentless slave-hunters.  I cheered when several characters are reunited after years of separation.  I dearly hoped for Tom’s return to his wife and family.  I understood the arguments for sale of Tom and Eliza’s George by Mr. Shelby and rejoiced when Mrs. Shelby deters the slave-hunters long enough to give Eliza a head start.

Stowe’s story-telling is riveting.   Stowe’s messages are clear and strong.  The strong appeal of her serial gave her license, of which she fully took advantage, to write a final chapter that is a clear and unflinching sermon to her readers then and her readers today.

I wish this book would be taught more frequently in schools but its length is likely a deterrent. It needs to be read to dispel the inaccurate views we have of the book from such sources as the play put on for the King in “The King and I”.  Misunderstanding of the novel was promoted through the numerous dramatizations of the book in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s which eventually twisted some of its characters and themes. During my lifetime, term “Uncle Tom” is considered a derogatory one, likely developed because Tom doesn’t fight his oppression the way George Harris does.  I personally found Uncle Tom to be a very noble person and one who provides a welcome model of living according to a strong moral compass—be honest, be respectful, be devoted to your family, love others, help others, do no harm to others and be willing to lay down your life rather than cross a moral “bright line”.   This is a book that needs to be read to be understood.  Just as we learned that listening is a practical way to read by Master George and Eva reading to Tom, listening is a practical way to read this powerful book.