Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Summer Book Report

In this, the second in my two-part series of non-political blogs, I thought I'd comment briefly on what I've been reading (other than legal materials) over the summer. I went to Barnes & Noble where they had a buy two, get one free sale going on. I picked up Dostoevsky's "House of the Dead" and "Poor Folk" (one volume), and then I figured, hey, I can't afford not to buy another book. Specious logic, to be sure, but I like buying books, so I wasn't interested in detailed self-analysis of my logical conclusions. I also picked up Bram Stoker's Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other short stories. my wife wondered out loud if my particularly gloomy choices indicated anything. What can I say - I like gloomy.

I read Jekyll and Hyde first. It's set up like a mystery novel, but of course everyone in the world knows exactly what's going on the whole time, so there's no mystery, and therefore the book loses a lot of its effect. I kept wondering how much scarier the book would have been if I had approached it with a blank slate.

Then I read Dracula, and I could not put it down. I read long into the night - and suffered for it the next day at work - because it was so amazingly scary. I find it interesting that, like Jekyll and Hyde, I knew the story from the get-go. There was no mystery about it. I mean, if you get a letter from a guy named Dracula, who lives in Transylvania, and he's got creepy powers over wolves, for crying out loud you know he's a freakin vampire! Jonathan Harker was either exceptionally dim, or else he lived before Bram Stoker immortalized the story. But although it is so well-known, the story is so masterfully crafted that it totally creeped me out.

So as far as creepiness goes, Dracula wins, hands down. But I actually found Jekyll and Hyde a little more thought-provoking. The complex interplay of good and evil, struggling in a man's soul - and the question of whether "good" even means anything in the story, is far more philosophically stimulating than anything I saw in Dracula. Of the two, I'm much more likely to re-read Jekyll than I am to re-read Dracula because that latter is terrifying, a thrill for the sake of a thrill, and masterfully done as far as that goes, but that's all there is to it.

I haven't touched Dostoevsky yet. I'll let you know how it goes.

Right now I'm reading a book of short stories by Hemmingway. It's a book my parents gave my for Christmas perhaps ten years ago, and which I've started a few times, but never got very far. It's hard to read a collection of short stories quickly, because every few pages you have a good stopping point.

Another thing I've noticed about the book is that it really highlights Papa's growing skill. The first five stories are the last five he wrote, and then it goes in chronological order. The first story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, is fascinating. In about 30 pages he guides us through complex relationships as they shift in comparative advantage, and what that does to each of them. It is riddled with fascinating details, brilliant flourishes, and philosophical bits to mull over after you finish reading. Then you get into the early stories, and the mastery vanishes. Well, it doesn't vanish, really, you just step into a time machine to a point where the mastery isn't there yet. And you read that, page after page after page, and it's all dreary Hemmingway. He's realistic about the dark things in life, the despair and hopelessness that are to be found everywhere and at all times, but he seems quite blind to the good things. Francis Macomber's life may be happy (eventually), but that's exactly why it's short - a good thing can't last.

Criminy, Ernest, just because your life sucked so much you put a shotgun to your head and pulled the trigger with your toe doesn't mean everyone's life is that dreary. Believe it or not, there is some happiness in this world. Dracula recognizes that, even if only through Dr. van Helsing's campy melodrama. Robert Louis Stevenson recognizes it in some of his stories - consider the "victory" at the end of Markheim - although there is nothing of real happiness in Jekyll and Hyde. And Dostoevsky, as dreary as that man could be (I've read Devils and Crime and Punishment) never ignored the happiness in life. It's what gives Dostoevsky such enduring readability. He recognizes the gloom, but gloom is never the only thing there.

I did really like Hemmingway's "After the Storm." Not because it departed from the others, thematically, but because it's about a guy doing shipwreck diving from a boat in the Gulf of Mexico. It made me wish I were on a boat in the Gulf. Oh, well. My wife talked me into going to Lake Powell in a month, and I guess that's probably even better (for water-skiing purposes, not for diving purposes).

Having said all that, let me end this non-political post by observing that I sure do miss Howard Dean.