50. ‘Candide’ by Voltaire

I have a vague memory of reading Candide back in high school. Similar to many of my high school reading experiences, very little comes to mind. I remember it was funny and also a tad risque. Unfortunately, the rest gets lost in that jumble of forced readings. Picking it up as an adult with way more experiences under his belt was a much more rewarding time. Published in 1759 as a satire on certain religious and philosophical theories, I can’t remember the last time a classic made me laugh but also contemplate my role in human existence. I also found that the work is still relevant in today’s tragicomic world.

VOLTAIRE

The story centers on Candide, the bastard nephew of a powerful Baron in Westphalia, a region in Germany. Candide lives a life of luxury in the Baron’s castle along with his tutor Pangloss who teaches his students that “everything is for the best” and that they “live in the best of all possible worlds.”  Candide is a simpleton who believes in this optimistic philosophy with all his being. He is also romantically in love with the Baron’s daughter. When the two are caught showing their love for each other, Candide is immediately ostracized from the castle which begins a comedy series of misadventures. During his travels around the world, Candide witnesses all manners of the world’s cruelty such as illness, torture, wars, religious intolerance, an earthquake, and death. Over the course of time, Candide begins to question the blind optimism of Pangloss. Voltaire manages to keep the mood light in this book by filling it with ridiculous characters and several humorous moments. Never since Jonathan Swift, have I seen satire done so well.

First, I think it is so awesome that the writer Francois-Marie Arouet changed his name to “Voltaire.” He truly was the rock star of the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire detested the overly optimistic philosophy of Leibniz and had no issues with criticizing it throughout the story. Although written as a novel, it does read more like several philosophical conversations. On the one side, we have Pangloss who argues that we should just accept the world as it is and remain optimistic. Then there is a philosopher named Martin who Candide meets during his adventures. Martin who believes the world was created “to drive us mad.” In between, we have Candide whose “face was the true index of his mind.” Although he grows and changes by the end of the book, the one factor that kept Candide going was the thought of reuniting with his beloved. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say it is funny yet endearing at the same time.

After meeting an old farmer, Candide’s final advice is that we must “cultivate our garden.” Throughout Candide, there were numerous gardens serving as religious motifs. As I closed the book, I thought a lot about what this final statement meant. Although the world has changed a lot since the time of Voltaire, in many ways it’s still the same. There is hatred and cruelty everywhere we go. Simply turn on the news and within five minutes, you’ve heard about three deaths, or a rape, or another act of violence. Often, there is negativity and heartache everywhere you look. When all of this is happening, it makes it difficult to continue looking for the fairy tale. My take on Voltaire is that he didn’t want us to just turn a blind eye to the darkness whenever we encounter it in all its forms, but to try and create the best life possible for ourselves. Optimism is an essential element, now more than ever, to survive this insane world. It doesn’t mean we should just be positive and let fate dictate our paths in life. We work hard to build the best possible world we can. It is also essential to truly believe in ourselves. A friend once told me that rather than exalt others, I should put myself on a pedestal. These wise words will always resonate with me in whatever path I pursue in life.

“It is love; love, the comfort of the human species, the preserver of the universe, the soul of all sentient beings, love, tender love.”

 

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!

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49. ‘The Last Man Who Knew Everything’ by Andrew Robinson

In my ongoing efforts to read more nonfiction books, I came across this rather interesting one in my local library. I have always considered myself a bit of a polymath (psychology and fiction writing), and have been interested in understanding scholars who have multiple interests. When you think of the term “Renaissance Man,” historical figures such as da Vinci and Einstein come to mind. But as biographer Andrew Robinson, states, Thomas Young “beats them all”.

ROBINSON

If you’ve never heard of Thomas Young, don’t beat yourself up. I hadn’t either until I read Robinson’s biography. Thomas Young (1773-1829) was a scientist who devoted himself to a number of disciplines. Trained as a physician, Young found his curiosity was too overwhelming to devote purely to the practice of medicine. In the course of his short life, Young made significant contributions to the world in the areas of physics, vision, musical harmony, and deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. If you think that’s already a lot, trust me when I say I’m just barely scratching the surface!

“Open any book on the science of light and vision, and you cannot miss the name of Thomas Young.”

In physics, Young had the nerve to contradict the great Isaac Newton who theorized that light was composed of particles. Young developed the wave theory of light which was proven correct. In physiology, he made several advances in understanding how they eye works, defining astigmatism, and proposing a theory of how our retina’s detect color. Young’s three-color theory was finally confirmed over a century later! His additional credits to science include his theory of elasticity and a formula for better understanding the workings of human pulse. He contributed dozens of entries in the encyclopedia from music theory to carpentry. In short, Young was like Buckaroo Banzai except he didn’t have a rock n’roll band or save the world from an alien invasion.

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“For those of us lesser mortals who feel instinctively drawn to versatility of genius, Young is guaranteed to be an inspiration; while others whose taste is for genius with a narrow focus will feel bound to regard him with skepticism.”

One of the reasons why Young isn’t as popular as other scientists is that he chose to be anonymous in his studies for a number of years. He worried that his patients might not take him seriously as a medical doctor if they learned his attention was divided among so many different subjects. This leads to the other reason why Young is not as world renown; he spread himself fairly thin. Although he contributed so much to the world, he never truly specialized in one field meaning his impact would be minimized. As an aspiring polymath myself, I can empathize. It seems nearly impossible to truly become a master of multiple fields. Finding time to expand my work in the counseling field in addition to writing seems almost impossible sometimes. I haven’t come close to achieving 1% of what Young accomplished, and I feel like there will never be enough time to experience other fields.

“It is a disturbing thought, especially for a specialist, that a non-specialist might enter an academic field, transform it, and then move onwards to work in an utterly different field.”

One of Young’s greatest and yet most controversial of his many accomplishments involved his attempts to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Young had a passion for Egyptian hieroglyphics and spent years working on understanding the language. Eventually, his work would be overshadowed by the French scholar Champollion. With the work Young did complete, one can argue the field of Egyptology would be nonexistent. Champollion never viewed Young as a colleague and often appeared harsh in his criticism of him, likely due to the fact that Young was viewed as more of a dabbler. Young once remarked that “scientific investigations are a sort of warfare … against all one’s contemporaries and predecessors” and he attracted more than his fair share of hostility. As well as being criticized for being a non-specialist, Young was also viewed as not being the most genial person to be around. I guess when you are trying to accomplish so much, it leaves little time to make lots of friends.

48. ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

I wanted to read Lincoln in the Bardo for two reasons. It won this year’s Man Booker Prize for George Saunders, a writer I’ve been curious to try for some time. My second reason is that I’ve always held a fascination for Abraham Lincoln and this period in American history. Lincoln not only guided our country through one of its darkest hours, but the former President also had an interest in the supernatural. While this novel was definitely unlike anything I’ve read in the past, I can’t say I necessarily loved it.

SAUNDERS

Lincoln in the Bardo is based on the tragic death of Lincoln’s son William. The story is that following his funeral, Lincoln returned alone to the crypt several times to hold his son’s body. Saunders uses this to create a story about a realm that exists between life and death known as “the Bardo.” Souls from different time periods exist there and interact with each other. In fact, most of them don’t even know that they are dead but instead believe that they are just sick and recovering. Lincoln’s arrival to the crypt to spend time with his dead son creates interest among the various residents of the Bardo, as this is an occurrence that has never happened before. The other souls develop a fascination for young Willie and start to question the nature of this existence. They begin remembering their own lives and the circumstances that led to their arrival in the Bardo.

It’s always interesting to read an author who breaks down the walls of writing and creates something unique. The majority of Bardo is written in the form of a play told by the different deceased inhabitants. There are three main characters who narrate most of the action with several other spirits appearing throughout the story. This took some getting used to for me, but I finally got there. Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters that contain excerpts from fictionalized historical documents pertaining to the events leading up to and following Willie’s death. These two styles actually work together quite well to tell a story about loss and coming to terms with grief.

I think that the unique way Saunders tells this story is what makes this work and takes it a step above any other book about loss. The use of the outside narrators witnessing these events creates a distance between them and the reader creating the effect that they are not exactly here with us. There are moments that are funny, while others are very sad. I particularly liked the scenes where a spirit would briefly transform into the person that could have been.

Another quality of the book I enjoyed was how Saunders portrayed Abraham Lincoln. Seen through the eyes of others, the former President is a deeply conflicted man who is extremely caring and would do anything if it meant saving his son. Even after Willie’s death, his father refuses to let go and accept its finality.

Although a good story, I’m not sure if Bardo was worthy of the Man Booker. In fairness, I haven’t read the other nominees for this year so perhaps Saunders did deserve the prize. I think my problem is that the story didn’t move me the way it was supposed to have done. Once I got used to the style, I felt like I was just making it through the book and not taking away the deeper meaning. I get that the themes of the book are learning how to let go and making peace. I also thought it was an interesting story, just not one I would pick up again. For me, this was a case of the writing structure overshadowing the story itself.

Perhaps there is something with me I’m not willing to let go of yet.

“And yet no one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly.”

 

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!

 

Inspirational Libraries Around the World

Recently, I’ve been checking out more books from my local library. In honor of my transition from used books to temporarily free ones, I’ve been researching some of the most unusual yet inspirational libraries from around the world. Here are my top favorites:

The graveyard library

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The open library in the Jewish cemetery Krems was a project developed to remember those that were lost during the Holocaust. Although this cemetery was desecrated, it has been restored and contains this project by artists Michael Clegg and Martin Guttman. It consists of three gravestone shaped bookshelves containing books about Jewish history and the philosophy of death.

Books delivered by donkeys

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This project was the brainchild of elementary teacher Luis Soriano. His Biblioburros named Alfa and Beto have brought books and hope to children in worn-torn rural Columbia for years.

The largest occupied sculpture in the world is a library!

Talk about impressive art! The administration of this public library in Nice, France is housed inside this giant sculpture of a blockhead. Artist Sacha Sosno who sadly passed away in 2013 designed this structure as the world’s largest occupied structure. I love this one as it combines two of my passions, books and art!

A library cataloged by emotions

Containing 3,500 books, the Levinski Garden Library in Tel Aviv is a completely outdoor library with an unusual method of categorizing books. Rather than by genre, the books are in order by the emotions they elicit in their readers. Each time a book is read, that person will mark the emotion they felt using colored tape. Books often move from one category to another as two readers might experience different emotions from the same book. As a therapist, I found this particular library to be so fascinating.

Little free library

Another great community building project is the Little Free Library which was designed with the idea to give children access to more books. The idea is to “take a book and leave a book” most commonly done through small wooden boxes like the picture above. It’s a great feeling knowing real people in different communities are sharing some of their favorite books with each other. This has been a tremendously successful project in areas where access to books are limited.

This is just a snapshot of some of the great library projects out there. It’s really good to know that beautiful projects like these exist in the world. I hope this post brightens someone’s day and inspires. Never stop reading.

Have you come across some inspirational library projects? Perhaps just a book-related story of inspiration. Please comment below!

 

47. ‘Orphans of the Sky’ by Robert A. Heinlein

In my ongoing efforts to read more classic science fiction, I picked up this 1941 novel by the legendary Robert A. Heinlein. Since I’ve reviewed the greats like Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury this year. it seemed fitting to add Heinlein to the mix. Stories set on gigantic spaceships have always held a thrill for me. While I wouldn’t rank this one among my all-time favorites, I really did enjoy several parts of its pulpy goodness.

HEINLEIN

Orphans of the Sky was originally published in two separate parts, “Universe” and “Common Sense.” The entire story takes place on the ship Vanguard which was designed to take the crew to “Far Centaurus.” The majority of the crew was wiped out from a mutiny, and its descendants now live in ignorance of existence outside of their spaceship. They have come to believe that the “Ship” is their universe. Moving back to a  pre-technological culture, the “scientists” interpret the old textbooks under religious metaphor. For example, written references to a ship’s voyage would be looked at as a metaphor for attaining inner enlightenment. Most of the inhabitants, with the exception of a few brave souls, do not venture to the upper levels where the “muties” dwell. There is a process at birth where any identifiable mutants are immediately killed and fed into the processor to be used as energy for the Ship.

The story centers on Hugh Hoyland who has been selected to be a scientist. Hugh is different than his fellow scientists as he possesses both curiosity and bravery. While out on a mutie hunt, he is captured and made a slave by the leader of the muties, the two-headed Joe-Jim Gregory. Both Joe and Jim have separate identities and as it turns out, are both quite intelligent. In fact, Joe-Jim have developed an understanding through reading and exploring of the true nature of the Ship. When Hugh is introduced the the wider universe outside his own little world, he is forever changed.

I think I’ve fallen in love with a specific sub-genre of science fiction, the generational ship story.  It was fun watching Hugh develop a true understanding of the universe, but the two-headed mutant consisting of Joe and Jim were by far my favorite characters. Of course, Hugh is eager to share what he has learned with the rest of the crew (surprise, it doesn’t go well). Heinlein creates a fantastic world within the confines of the Ship, and the plot moves fast as this is one of his shorter novels. I loved Hugh’s awakening to the truth and his attempts to convince others. There’s a great scene where the rebels overthrow the captain by manufacturing swords, an idea taken from one of Joe-Jim’s favorite books The Three Musketeers. I also loved the religious interpretations behind many basic scientific theories. Although a complete story in itself, I think many of the themes could easily have been expanded further such as the hatred of the mutants and the lines that get crossed between science and religion. Female readers might also find the way women are portrayed as rather sexist.

Despite being written nearly a century ago, Heinlein uses a great story to explore themes that are still worth discussing today.

“Life within the Ship, alternately harsh and workaday, had placed no strain on his innate capacity to experience beauty; for the first time in his life he knew the intolerable ecstasy of beauty unalloyed. It shook him and hurt him, like the first trembling intensity of sex.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!