Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The wisest book of all time? Pilgrim's Progress

'I’m busy, why should I read a blog post about an old book?' you might ask.

Well, Pilgrim’s Way is a classic – no question. One of those ‘must-reads’. The second best book of all time, in fact, according to the Guardian. What if it’s chock full of wisdom and deep insights into life? And what if this post sucks out all that valuable gold-dust – buried deeply inside – and lays it all out nice and snappy to be consumed in four, life-changing minutes? 

Here’s a quick run-down of the plot

Christian feels a burden on his back, and, after reading an ancient book, he knows in his heart that he must set off on a journey. His wife and children will not come with him, so he leaves them and goes alone. Soon he meets a friendly man called Evangelical who gives him detailed instructions to get rid of his burden. His pilgrimage starts at a gate. He passes through and straight away is challenged by a hill called Difficult, which he struggles up, and meets a companion called Faithful. After finding the Interpreter who is able to shed a little bit of light on the path, he has many adventures. Christian does battle with a fiendish monster in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, is locked in a castle by a Giant Despair. Eventually he gets to the end of his journey, and finds a river that he must plunge into, trusting himself to the lord. 

Later on, Christian’s wife seeing her error in not going with Christian decides to set out in his footsteps. She goes and is protected by one Great Heart as she travels and becomes wiser and more mature. Eventually the day comes for her to be appointed by God, and there the book ends.

Why is it mind-blowing? 

Well it is chock full of hidden wisdom. Here are the three key insights:

1) Clever people will disagree with you
Pilgrim’s Progress makes plain that doing anything worthwhile is a difficult journey. And, as Christian finds, life is full of people trying to throw you off your course. Those people will have whole systems of logic in their heads to support their view. As well as whole networks and hierarchies of people who agree with them. In fact, what they say might even make sense – for them. But in order to get what you want, you have to go through these obstacles. The way to do that is not by convincing them, or by compromising on your destination, it’s by sticking to your way: the straight and narrow.

2) People don’t want you to change
Christian’s wife and children cannot see any rationale for his leaving – they think it’s all in his head, and so they stay behind as he sets off. That’s true of life too. The people around you probably don’t want you to go on the journey. They don’t want you to change or leave because they like you as you are. That means if you want to do something different, not only will they not want to come, but they will resent you for leaving. They might even laugh at you, or look down at you for it. But – and this is important – when you succeed people will follow you, just like Christian’s wife eventually does. People like well-worn paths. They might not help you blaze one, but they’re sure to follow once you do. 

3) Being a hero is a choice
Ultimately, Pilgrim’s Progress is a chronicle of every hero's journey. A lone man, setting out by himself is tested and pushed to his limits, but he stays true to his mission and, with help, manages to succeed in his goal. Later people follow him.  But unlike, say, Odysseus – who was a hero in stature – Christian is a hero because of the choices he makes. He isn’t especially strong, or clever, or bold. He’s just a man who chooses to take a journey to seek what he thinks is right. Being a hero isn’t about who you are, it’s about the choices you make, and the journeys you take. Being a hero is a choice.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Silas Marner (George Eliot)

Silas Marner – a young man, shy and early-wronged – lives an inward life. He works, and weaves, and becomes fixated by the gold he receives in payment. He collects it, piles it it up, and takes it out just to stare at its shimmer. One day, this precious bounty is stolen and, now forced to lead a life free of luster, his world falls apart. Meanwhile a rich aristocrat in his village has secretly married a peasant girl, who has born him a child. But the women dies, and the body and child are found by Silas half-frozen on the side of a road. The aristocrat, unwilling to compromise his reputation, says nothing. Silas takes the child, and finds awakened within himself a deep-rooted compassion, only dormant it seems, not dead, during his period of reclusivity. Silas nurses this young girl, keeps her safe, and – finding her full of living gold – she  becomes his redemption. Slowly and surely Silas’ human side is drawn out, but this fragile recovery is threatened by forces far outside of his control....

Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.” 

George Eliot is my favourite writer.  Since Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede are all amongst the best things I’ve ever read, I was likely to come to the conclusion I did: Silas Marner is bloody fantastic.

Spring Water

Most fiction that you read is like wine – rich, delicious, flavourful. George Eliot’s is like water – pure, clean, and essential. She writes about life almost style-lessly; her fiction is a snapshot of real life. But it’s better than that.  Her books have the most wonderful – almost mathematical – coherence. The plot seems to be driven entirely by the characters, and these characters are driven by their thoughts, and these thoughts are influenced almost entirely by other events and characters within the world of the novel. It’s a great big sea of causation. I think George Elliot gets too little credit for the simple intellectual difficulty of what’s she achieves. She manages to solve the nth-level, simultaneous equation of causation  within the novel, and turns it into a coherent – and riveting – story.

Silas Marner is slightly different – it’s a little parable, a short novel that packs a big punch. It feels almost concentrated. This novella is as stylistically sparse as other of Eliot’s novels – there is no rhetorical flourish, improbable circumstances or unexplained moves. it is as inner-driven as the others. Real characters make real decisions in a world that seems real, yet, somehow, the resulting story is as concentrated as a myth, an allegory, an essential component of human life.

That’s amazing! George Eliot has developed a foundational, archetypal expression of human existence, just by describing a situation that you feel could really happen. Hamlet needs huge drama, huge sweeping emotions - great speeches, betrayal, death. George Eliot simply takes a seemingly random snapshot of life and comes out with a similarly profound result.

Eye of the Tiger

I think there’s hidden wisdom in there too - and it’s pretty coherent. By hoarding gold, Silas Marner is fostering love for something internal – his work, his wealth. Don’t we all hoard things, inside of us? The novel is saying that losing that thing you love – that you feel you rely on – will hurt you badly, but it won’t destroy you, and, perhaps, is is the loss that will make your redemption possible. And, ultimately, that redemption will be found both in giving love to somebody, and allowing yourself to need help. It is found in a focus, not inward on your own pain, but on the world around you. 

Silas Marner is a triple distilled story,  as pure as mountain melt-water. This is myth making at it’s most sublime. Eliot’s story is full of wisdom, but stylistically clean - it seems to just be a slice of life, imbued with qualities that make it more than real life, more than fiction. It is almost something magical, with a simple trope: the path to saviour is love.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Three Men in a Boat

"I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” 

The Guardian describes Three Men in a Boat as one of the funniest English books ever written. Which is an interesting description for a book that – as evidenced by its title – aspires to nothing more than the gentlest of humour. The plot ingeniously keeps to the same pace as the proverbial boat, a leisurely drift down the Thames. And like that eponymous boat, you could never say it was making slow progress, but only because it decidedly isn’t trying to get anywhere. So put your feet up on the prow, pour yourself a porter or three, and watch the sunlight dance lazily on the riverbank.

The actual plot goes likes this: three lazy hypochondriacs decide to take a trip down the Thames to get a change of air, thinking it will be good for their various catalogue of imaginary ailments. They set-out, and basically nothing really happens to them. This is fiction at its least embellished. Highlights of the book include a struggle to put up a tent, someone falling into the water, and – I’m scraping the hull here – a man drinking lemonade. There was nothing in this book that could be described as a plot, and you’d have to push the boat out for ‘caper’.

“You can never rouse Harris. There is no poetry about Harris- no wild yearning for the unattainable. Harris never "weeps, he knows not why." If Harris's eyes fill with tears, you can bet it is because Harris has been eating raw onions, or has put too much Worcester over his chop.”

On smiling

Yet, even with so much action packed in, this book doesn’t lose touch with its humourous soul. It’s fantastic. It certainly floated my... water-vehicle, and – for a book billed as humorous – it certainly is funny. Sort of. It’s just hard to describe exactly how. It isn’t rolling on the floor funny, or laugh out loud funny, or even ‘hey guess what I just read’ funny. It is the kind of wonderful book that will make you... smile.  And not one of those big toothy grins, or wide beamers. It’s more one of those little half-cocked, one-sided knowing smiles that drifts from ‘oh stop it... you’re incorrigible’, to ‘ah, isn’t it nice to be alive’.

It is nice to be be alive, especially when reading this book. Even more wonderfully, I think, I learned precisely nothing from reading it. Not only did I not gain any new knowledge or wisdom, I had the strange feeling that I had actually lost some whilst reading it. Not the important stuff, you understand, but I decidedly felt that some of the less useful neurons swirling around the recesses of my mind had jumped ship. Probably a few phone numbers, some school history, and the price of cheese puffs at Waitrose.

Wot I thunk

This is Jerome K Jerome’s magnum opus. A book that stunningly manages to recreate the experience of sitting in a boat for days on end. The murky water of the Thames, and amber nectar of a warm beer will be evocated for you so strongly that you’ll feel like putting the book down and swigging the imaginary ale until intoxicated. But in doing so, you’ll just be drinking the book in - and hey, rather that than Thames water.