Sunday, September 26, 2010

2,602: 1,001 Book/Banned Book challenges - Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is ranked at number 52 on the American Library Association’s list of most banned or challenged books and has been frequently challenged, usually for its portrayal of sexual behaviour and drug use.  In Ireland, it was banned in 1932 for being anti-family and anti-religion.  It is generally considered one of the great Western dystopian novels of the 20th Century, alongside Orwell’s 1984 and has given us the Alpha male (and, latterly, the Alpha female).

In Huxley’s Brave New World, love, family and religion have been eradicated.  War and conflict has been ended by the formation of the World State and the creation of a new society.  Children are artificially produced in Hatcheries and Conditioning Centres.  Scientific and industrial techniques are used to separate new foetuses into five castes (Alpha to Epsilon), with differing mental and physical attributes, and to engineer individual babies to suit their pre-determined careers and roles in society.  In addition to the physical engineering of society, babies and children are psychologically conditioned to be happy as a member of their caste and to accept and behave according to the cultural mores of the Brave New World.

The elimination or war and the imposition of a cap on total human population mean that material goods are in plentiful supply.  People are conditioned to consume, to have promiscuous sex and to need to be in the company of others.  The use of a recreational drug, Soma, is encouraged and seen as perfectly normal.  A desire to be alone is seen as anti-social and the concept of the family is considered pornographic.  The few individuals who do not conform are, when caught, exiled to remote islands such as the Falklands or Iceland to join communities of other non-conformists.

There remain a few reservations where “uncivilised” people live, savages who practice the old way of life in isolation from the rest of the world and it is the sudden contact between one of these savages and the World State that forms the basis of the plot.

If I’m being honest, the plot itself is pretty flimsy and almost seems to be a mere device to allow Huxley to develop his world.  The strength of the book is in the ideas that Huxley explores.  His world is basically a deadened world where emotions are dulled and peace maintained by the nihilistic hedonism of the populace.  History is not taught and historical books are forbidden, although there is probably no need for a formal ban as the vast majority are simply not interested.

On the face of it, Huxley fears the advent of such a world and, on this basis, the various bannings of Brave New World do not make sense as he is ostensibly warning us against the consequences of the very behaviour patterns that caused its banning.   And yet, I found that the book is not quite that clear cut.

We might find the society of the Brave New World disturbing – the engineering of foetuses into different castes, the elimination of family ties and the gruesome description of the birthing process are fearsome to our minds, used as we are to free will.  But if we have no free will and are conditioned to be happy in our pre-determined places, would life be so bad?  We would know no alternative and would not have anything to contrast against.  We would have been created content.  This is a very different future to that foreseen by Orwell, for example.  The Brave New World is not maintained by force and coercion.  It is not a miserable place, merely a dulled place.  Huxley himself seems ambivalent about it – the reservation from which the Savage comes is portrayed as a dirty and impoverished place and its inhabitants are not the Noble Savages of legend.  Even the World Controller, Mustapha Mond, is one of the more positively drawn characters of the novel.  On this basis, the attitude of the Irish government begins to make more sense if one accepts the premise that books should be banned for portraying unconventional behaviour positively (which I don’t!).

This is a profoundly thought-provoking work and a book that still has relevance for us today.  I read it and 1984 together and the two books are fascinating counterpoints to each other.  Ultimately, I recoil from the World State and its deadened, shallow world view but have to recognise its superficial attraction.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

2,603: Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief

Arsène Lupin is not the sort of chap one would like one’s daughter to bring home for tea.  In fact, if she did, it would probably be a good idea to count the teaspoons after he had left, because Lupin is a burglar, pickpocket, blackmailer and an escaped convict, amongst his other distinctions.  Still, in many ways, he is a force for good.  He draws the line at murder, is not averse to helping his great adversary, Inspecteur Ganimard , to solve a tricky case and his victims tend to be rather unpleasant creatures.

In fact, Lupin is part of a small literary tradition of gentlemen thieves and adventurers who stroll through life operating firmly on the wrong side of the law, whilst following a personal code of honour.  Amongst his spiritual companions are his near contemporary A.J. Raffles, the cricketing gentleman thief of Victorian London, and Simon Templar, also known as the Saint.  There is even a slight whiff of Lord Peter Wimsey about him, in terms of his personal style and panache, although the two tread very different paths.

I have a personal fondness for late Victorian and Edwardian mysteries and detective fiction.  As well as Lupin and Raffles, I am a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast and am also perfectly happy to dip into a Sexton Blake story, a Father Brown tale or one of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels.  It has to be admitted that, in general, many of these types of book contain shallow characterisation, are stylistically clumsy and rely upon frankly implausible plot devices.  But who cares?  They are rattling good yarns that demand no real concentration and are perfect with a mug of tea and a plate of buttered toast on a cold winter afternoon.

Lupin was created by Maurice Leblanc in 1905 and has since gone on to star in twenty five novels and volumes of short stories as well as films, TV programmes and stage productions.  It is fair to say that his popularity in the Francophone world is similar to that of Sherlock Holmes in the English speaking world.  Lupin and Holmes even cross swords in the 1906 short story, “Sherlock Holmes arrives too late”, in which the two men acknowledge each other as equals.  Following a complaint from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lupin later meets one Herlock Sholmes (see what he did there?) in several stories.

The Arsène Lupin stories are not for everyone.  As I have commented on earlier, their pleasure lies in their pace and in the storyline.  They are not masterpieces of literary style and so will not appeal to everyone.  If you like vintage detective stories, however, and have not come across M. Lupin, give him a go.

Next, it’s back to both the 1,001 Book project and the Banned Books challenge, with “Brave New World” and “1984”.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

2,604: 1,001 Book/Banned Book challenges - The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”  These were the words that launched a thousand fantasy novels and captivated generations of spotty schoolboys and students with too much leisure time.  With the publication of the Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford academic, introduced the world to Middle Earth and either created or popularised a number of the standard memes of fantasy literature.  Without him, we may well not have the likes of Pratchett, Eddings, Feist, Leiber and a host of other writers.  As well as books,  there are films, music, cartoons, video games, role playing games, board games, plays and musicals that have drawn on the themes and ideas that Tolkien introduced in the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion.

Since its first publication in 1937, the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield and the other members of the company that journeyed from Bag End to the Lonely Mountain, via Mirkwood to dispossess Smaug the dragon of his ill-gotten treasure and re-establish Thorin as King under the Mountain have enthralled millions of readers.  Entire books of analysis and criticism have been written, making any efforts on my part superfluous.  Having  sold between 35 and 100 million copies worldwide, the Hobbit is generally considered a classic of children’s literature  and one of the few children’s books to command a wide adult readership.

I first came across the Hobbit as a small boy in the 1970s.  It transported me from small town life in the Home Counties to a far-away land where adventure could, and did, happen to even the staid Mr Baggins, whose idea of daring was leaving home without a decent supply of pocket handkerchiefs.  I eagerly followed Bilbo on his journey from timid inhabitant of Bag End to burglar, Elf friend and Giant Spider slayer.  The Hobbit led me to the Lord of the Rings and then to a juvenile passion for Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games and instilled in me a lifelong enjoyment of fantasy novels.  I even read it in French on a family holiday to Normandy (how sad was I!). The Hobbit is often recommended as a way to encourage 11-14 year old boys to read and, although I was already a keen reader when I picked it up, I would completely agree with this.

Although it is a prelude to the Lord of the Rings and usually viewed in this light, it is really a wholly separate work.  The tone of the Hobbit is very much that of a children’s novel.  For example, one of the stylistic tools Tolkien uses is that of the author speaking directly to the reader.  Usually I find this irritating but, in the context of a story intended for children, it seems to work.  If you expect this tone to be maintained in the Lord of the Rings, you will quickly be disappointed as, somewhere between Bag End and Rivendell, the tone shifts to that of an adult book.  In reality, although Tolkien made some amendments to the second edition of the Hobbit to make it more consistent with the Lord of the Rings, he didn’t intend the latter as a sequel.  Indeed, following the initial success of the Hobbit, when his publisher asked him for more on Middle Earth, he responded by writing the Silmarillion.  This was set in a much earlier period of Middle Earth’s history, with none of the same characters and written in a wholly different tone.

In re-reading the Hobbit as part of the Banned Books challenge, I tried and failed to understand why it would have been burned (in New Mexico) or banned (several libraries and schools in the USA).  Apparently, Tolkien’s works are considered “satanic” by some Christians.  Now I confess to being no theologian but I can’t really see which part of the Christian faith is threatened by Bilbo.  Presumably, it must be the acceptance of magic use but maybe someone could enlighten me.

Is this a book that must be read before one dies?  Unequivocally, yes, yes, yes.  Not only is it an important work but it is a great read.  If you were unfortunate enough not to have encountered it as a child, get a copy now and read it.  If you have a child, buy them a copy and, if possible, read it with them.  Please.  It will be worth it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

2,605: 1,001 Book challenge - Anton Reiser by Karl Philipp Moritz

I approached “Anton Reiser” with a heavy heart. Its author described it as an autobiographical “psychological” novel which, for me, is not a good sign. It is also a German novel, which is another big, black mark in my book. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a Germanophobe by any stretch of the imagination. I like the place and, on the whole, the people. I just have a problem with German literature and, indeed, much German culture. This is more of a reflection on my own lack of seriousness and intellectual gravitas than anything else. French literature? Lovely. Italian literature? No problem. Russian literature? Yes please. German literature? No thanks. It just seems heavy and wordy and a bit dull. There is a fantastic British comedy singing trio called Fascinating Aida who sing a song about German cabaret. The song is performed in a deliberately off-key, discordant and plonking style and that is exactly how I feel about German literature. So, as I say, when the RNG gave me “Anton Reiser” as my second 1,001 Book, I was not a happy bunny, especially as I am supposed to read a Thomas Mann novel as my third book.

Anton Reiser (a thinly disguised fictional version of the author) is a poor boy from 18th Century Hanover, who is intellectually gifted but doomed never to be able to benefit from his talents. His parents’ marriage is unhappy as their religious beliefs clash. He attends the local private grammar school but is forced to leave through lack of funds. The local prince comes to his rescue and funds his studies at Hanover’s senior school but a constant stream of set-backs result in humiliation for Anton from his wealthier classmates and, ultimately in his leaving Hanover to wander through Northern Germany in pursuit of his dreams of becoming a writer and actor. When he does obtain a place in an acting troupe, he is first prevented from going on stage by one of his many benefactors and, finally, when he manages to join up with the troupe, their manager has absconded with all their money, scenery and props.

To begin with, the story moves along with some humour and I was slightly surprised to find myself enjoying it. And then it started to go a bit pear shaped. The problem, you see, is that I really wanted to slap Reiser. He is an inveterate fantasist and is incapable of accepting responsibility for his actions. He sulks and often acts like a spoilt child. It is also difficult to decide whether he is a gifted boy, battered by life’s inequities or a self-deluded fool, with an overblown view of his own importance and ability. As I want to care at least a little bit about the lead character, this was problematic. The novel is also blighted by the incessant analysis of Reiser’s emotions and actions by the author, Karl Philipp Moritz. Given the autobiographical nature of the novel, this self-analysis may well have been cathartic or instructive for him but I found it plain annoying. It was as if Moritz was standing next to me, droning on in my ear, giving me a running commentary on the story. Finally, the continual setbacks suffered by Reiser eventually became boring and repetitious. If ever anything positive happened to him, it was certain that it would all go wrong within a few pages.

Now it has to be said that my view is not shared by all. The book is, apparently, considered by many to be a masterpiece and one of the most memorable pieces of German literature. This is yet more evidence to support my antipathy to German literature. This not a book one must read before one dies. I briefly considered using one of my substitutions on this book (see the Rules) but, regrettably, decided it was too early to do so. Bad decision. I have a few weeks respite now as I will be focussing on the Banned Books Challenge but after that I am slated for Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. It is a story of the decline and fall of a prosperous 19th Century North German family. Oh joy. A substitution is beckoning. Do I use it or do I have another go at a German novel?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Banned Books Week 2010

We are all familiar with Nazis burning books or the censorship imposed by communist regimes but book banning  also takes place in the USA, the UK and Western Europe.  We may be able to understand (if not approve of) the banning or challenging of some books but even a cursory inspection of a list of banned books will raise eyebrows.  A quick question for you – what do the following books all have in common?  Harry Potter, Twilight, the Grapes of Wrath,  Anne Frank’s Diary and James and the Giant Peach?  Yes, that’s right.  They have all been banned in various parts of the western world.

I find myself at a total loss to see why we should be barred from reading any of these books.  If they can be banned or challenged in free societies, how much worse must it be under authoritarian regimes?  If books such as those listed above can be banned under benign government, what would happen if we wound up with a government that was hostile to freedom of expression?

Our enjoyment of the freedom to read and to express ourselves cannot be taken lightly or for granted.  We may be able to laugh at the silliness of the Colorado librarian who locked away Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the weirdness of the Hunanese provincial government for banning Alice in Wonderland but what happens when governments ban books that are critical of them or church  groups can have books banned that do not conform to their strictures?  We need to celebrate our freedoms so that we do not forget how important they are to us.

Banned Books Week has taken place in the US every year since 1982, although there doesn’t appear to be a UK equivalent. This year it is taking place between 25 September and 2 October and to mark it I am taking part in the Banned Books Reading Challenge hosted at Steph Sue Reads, which started at the beginning of September.  Between now and the end of the challenge on 15 October, I will be reading 7 banned or challenged books, one for each day of Banned Books Week.  The selected works are:
  •          1984 by George Orwell.  This book has the distinction of having been banned in the Soviet Union for being anti-communist and having been challenged in Florida for being pro-communist.  Go figure.
  •          Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  This was banned by the Irish government for its depictions of sexual promiscuity and drug taking.  As the novel was trying to warn of the possible consequences of these activities, they seem slightly to have missed the point.
  •          Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.  A book about a man turning into a cockroach.  Seems harmless enough, right?  Not really.  It was banned in the Soviet Union.  For being depressing.  Unlike the USSR.  Or maybe not.  It also managed to get banned in Nazi Germany to complete a special Double.
  •          Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  What on earth could get this children’s story banned?  Well, the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit managed to have the book banned in Hunan, China in 1931 for the crime of having talking animals.  How dangerous.
  •          Fiesta: the Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.  Banned in Boston and Ireland, this book is included to represent all those books burned by the Nazis in the 1930s.
  •          the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Burned in New Mexico  in 2001 for being satanic and banned by other US school districts.  Bilbo Baggins aka Lucifer? Hmmm.  Not sure about that one.
  •          Fahrenheit 451.  Ironic really.  The book deals with the implications to society of banning books.  And then was itself banned in parts of the USA.  Really, you couldn’t make it up.

Check back here regularly to see how I get on!