Runners Who Read

Who knew? A bunch of runners who enjoy reading and discussing what they read.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Shifting Perspectives

Forgive me, but this is rather long…

I’ve been reading quite a bit (thanks to this blog). After I finished The Second Coming, I read the following in quick succession:

Franz Wisner – Honeymoon With My Brother
Peter Kramer – Against Depression
Terence Real – I Don’t Want To Talk About It
Mary Oliver – New And Selected Poems – Volume One
Mary Oliver – A Poetry Handbook
Neil Peart – Ghost Rider
Susan Isaacs – Compromising Positions
Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
Nick Hornby – High Fidelity
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four
Lionel Shriver – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Carol Shields – The Stone Diaries
A.S. Byatt – Possession
Anne Lamott – Bird By Bird
Anne Lamott – Blue Shoe
Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
Andrew Greer – The Confessions of Max Tivoli

I’ve enjoyed getting back into the reading habit. It’s been decades since I’ve read anything but technical papers and reports (and poetry…always poetry). Again, I thank all of you for inspiring me

It is 1984 that I wish to speak to (although the reading list, as a whole, is pretty good). I’d read this book about a half-dozen times before. This last read affected me deeply.

I realized how much one’s perspective changes over time. I first read 1984 in high school. I was attending an all-boy’s Catholic school (in the “Honors” class). Anyway, we read this book and argued its meanings vigorously. Oh, how we debated Nazism, Stalinism, European Socialism, Marxism, Maoism, Capitalism, etc., etc.! We knew that 1984 could never happen here in America. We were full to bursting with book smarts and testosterone. We felt our opinions had gravitas. We considered ourselves to be thoughtful intellectuals. My God, we had even begun to shave!!! Turns out we were just downy-whiskered children. We understood nothing.

I picked up this book again in my late twenties. I had been to the Soviet Union. There I met my paternal grandfather for the one and only time. You see, he had been exiled to the Russian gulag slave-labor prison system for 20 years. He spent several years in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo prison being tortured and beaten repeatedly (he became epileptic as a result). It was in Lithuania that I heard about aunts, uncles and cousins who had starved to death in the frozen Siberian wilderness. I had people hush me on the tram when I offered an opinion about what I saw all around me. I saw the “Dollar Stores” (stores that only accepted U.S. currency…i.e., money from tourists) with shelves creaking from the ponderous mass of merchandise…and the empty bakery and butcher shops that supposedly offered goods to the average citizen. I saw long lines in front of shops. I saw abandoned churches. I saw political posters and slogans everywhere. I slept in a room where the radio played constantly…eavesdropping on my every conversation (the hotel guests and staff had warned me the rooms were bugged). I saw frustration, hopelessness and fear. My perspective had changed. George Orwell was right. He had brilliantly foreseen the motives, means and methods that would be used by those in power to stay in power. I finally understood what that meant in human terms. I had witnessed the reality of what George Orwell had foreseen.

It wasn’t politics that drew me back to this book. No, I’d had my fill of doublethink and the realities of power. I was haunted by the final vision of Winston and Julia sitting in two iron chairs with nothing to say to each other…I wanted to revisit their love story.

I’ve come to understand that George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, actually) saw the world with an exceptionally keen eye. He was not writing about a particular regime. He understood universal truths. He wrote that there are three kinds of people in this world: the High, the Middle and the Low. I’ve come to understand the truth of that. I look at the world, and my own United States, and I see how the struggle manifests itself. We live in a time of doublethink and Newspeak here within our very shores. Orwell understood power and control even better than Karl Rove. But Orwell wasn’t just an observant critic. He understood that, while we will always be subjected to the whims and the grotesqueries of the High’s, our human relationships are our only salvation. Our only refuge against the horrors of the world is our basic humanity. Love is our only sanctuary. I’ve come to understand what I think Orwell was trying to communicate. Only love can protect and save us. That “what mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself.”

I see now that Orwell wrote a cautionary tale. The world is harsh. Power is cruel. All we have is love. Betray love, reject love and you are surely doomed.

Postscript: I asked Buddha when we’d have another round of book nominations and selections. He expressed his dismay that this blog seems moribund. The very idea saddens me. Granted, I’m being selfish here, but I’ve enjoyed reading the selected books and the resulting commentary. Maybe Ed’s right. Maybe there is no longer any interest among the reading runners to continue this blog. The only way we’ll find out is if people speak up. So, if you’d like to continue and contribute, let your feelings be known. Post a comment or send Ed an email expressing interest. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.


Blogger bct said...

I've been wondering when we'd pick another book! I think it's only been moribund because we've all finished weighing in on Kevin. Perhaps we just need to tighten the timeline a bit: pick a book and set a starting date for discussing it, so that most of the commenting takes place in a more compressed time period. The Kevin threads were much better if you read them all in quick succession.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Thanks, Jon. Well, "dismay" is perhaps somewhat strong, but I just don't know that it's viable to go through a book selection process when the only people who seem to stop by are Berenice, you, myself, and Nels. Then again, we could certainly pick a book between the four of us, if you'd like.

I'm currently re-reading Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude after an abortive attempt at The Brothers Karamazov (in the new translation). Just couldn't get into it right now -- intriguing writer, but a difficult style requiring more effort than I can afford to give it at the moment.

Also reading Loori's (ed.) Sitting With Koans, a collection of essays by Zen teachers on koan study/meditation that has been very helpful.

I wouldn't force the koan book on anyone, but I would heartily reccomend a group read of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Wonderful book.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Funny you should mention Marquez. I absolutely LOVED "Love in the Time of Cholera" I thought it was a magnificent read. I picked up 100 Years of Solitude but kept getting bogged down (the similarity of the names had a lot to do with it). I never finished it (Bill Clinton wrote that this book was his all-time favorite).

I read the Brothers Karamazov years ago and enjoyed it. I've got this thing about Russian authors and composers...there's a cultural resonance there, I think.

Let's see if anyone else chimes in before we settle on a book. I'm open to everyone's ideas. I'm rather fond of having books handed to me that I may never have read if left to my own devices.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Nels Nelson said...

I read, sometime last year, Marquez's memoir, Living to Tell the Tale. Nice. If you like his novels, then I bet you'd like this. I just finished reading a Dawn Powell novel, Angels on Toast. I've had the book on my shelf for years. Yesterday, no, it was Tuesday actually, on Tuesday, I began Philip Roth's The Human Stain. I'm maybe 60 pages in, but so far, I think it's good. His description of the year, 1998, boiled our world down nicely, to me at least.

So there it is. Or there I am. Either/or, no?

9:12 AM  
Blogger T said...

I'm here, too! I've been wondering about a new book selection. Personally, I'm currently doing some timely reading of "The Feminine Mystique" and that James Frey book (although not in public... I'm embarrassed to be reading it). I like the idea of condensing the commenting period -- I like being told what to read and when to read it. The sooner the deadline, the more spurred to action I am.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

OK, I'm confused here. "T" are you Tracy or Thorin? Either suits me just fine (if it's you, Tracy, welcome home!)...and if it's you, Thorin...well, the "Feminine Mystique" seems somehow appropriate.

5:24 PM  
Blogger T said...

It's Tracy.

4:44 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Ah, my favorite Egyptologist is in the house!

5:21 AM  
Blogger Clothesdwyer said...

I drop by the blog from time to time and, must confess, am more lurker than participant. I find the discussions interesting and enjoy it all--being a voyeur is fun!

Jonas did nail this one: Orwell was a visionary. I think the recent effort to extend health insurance in 1992 is a master example of doublespeak, convincing the ones most probable to lose their health insurance to reject a "government run" plan that would "limit your choices" (hah! what choice?), and then, to have the power to reverse course and pull back benefits plus cut Medicare at the same time shows mastery of public relations and opinion. Doublespeak works, and continues to work, which is why the silent opposing party is unlikely to have any voice in the next election, even though the current powers are not held in high regard.

Oops--too political. Well, maybe Orwell would have liked it...

2:50 AM  

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