It's hard to explain adequately how I feel about "The Hobbit." Simply put, it's one of my favorite books, I've read it more times than any other novel...moreIt's hard to explain adequately how I feel about "The Hobbit." Simply put, it's one of my favorite books, I've read it more times than any other novel (though I'm not sure what that tells you about me).
I discovered Tolkien's masterpiece (I do prefer it to The Lord of the Rings) for the first time when I was probably 9 or 10 when I found a copy in a cabinet in my grandfather's dusty basement. My previous exposure to the fantasy genre had been limited to C.S.Lewis' "Tales of Narnia," and I don't know that they really qualify quite the same way. Despite a loose cover with all the color of 1950s publishing (the bright, beautiful artistry that seemed to grace the covers of fantasy novels in the 1970s was yet to come when the copy I held in my hands had been printed), Mom recommended it, and so I started in on Bilbo's tale, on "There and Back Again" as he called it, and was soon in as much love with a book as a ten year-old boy could be.
I remember devouring the book, over and over, reading it a good five or six times before I picked up "The Lord of the Rings," which is weighty in comparison, and then another four or five times again through my teen years.
In comparison with the heavy world building that modern fantasy genre readers seems to demand and expect--think the fourteen volumes of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" or George R.R. Martin's complex "Song of Fire and Ice" or the fathomless world of Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont's "Malazan Book of the Fallen"--Tolkien's introduction of Middle Earth is light, almost playful, even when the adventure becomes dark and dangerous. I've heard it said that Tolkien invented hobbits because his home country England lacked, or had lost, a native mythology (I guess elves and dwarves are more Nordic or Germanic?), and he set out to restore it. With that effort, we are introduced to hobbits, and particularly Bilbo, who becomes the exception to the rule while still typifying his race, who are homebodies that in time will carry the fate of the world in their hands, but really, at essence, want little more than to sit at home in peace. Add in Gandalf, who becomes the quintessential image of a wizard forever after, complete with beard, peaked hat, vague magical powers that seem a cross between smoke and mirrors and real supernatural ability, but who is benevolent, wise, and always a friend to the good. Rounding out the simple cast of main characters are the thirteen dwarves and a host of other minor characters that appear, briefly, cameo-like, in Bilbo's story: men, goblins, skin-shifters, eagles, elves, wolves, and one clever, mean, nasty dragon.
In as much as the world building has nothing to shout about compared to other more robust works, Tolkien's simplicity is in many ways why "The Hobbit" has resonated for so many years and will continue to resonate. It is a clear eyed adventure where there good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. Escape from the mundane of daily life, and run away on an adventure. Leave the heavy issues to the real world.
Through it all, few of Tolkien's characters ever receive enough attention for significant character development. Bilbo is the focus, and it is his story, even if it is not his quest; that belongs to the dwarves and their leaders, Thorin, "King under the Mountain." Yet, but for him, his clever problem solving, spunk, and courage, time and again the expedition to the Lonely Mountain would have been ended, whether at the hands of goblins beneath the Misty Mountains, in the cocoons of giant spiders in the darkness of Mirkwood, or in deep prison cells as captives of woodland elves.
So, yes, the story is plot heavy and character development light. When rumors, proved to be true, emerged that Peter Jackson would turn the short novel into a three-part trilogy on the big screen, I found myself questioning how he would fill the time. After all, "The Lord of the Rings" is far longer and more detailed, but still only produced three movies. Much lighter and quicker a read, "The Hobbit" seemed to merit only one...until I finished the rereading. Light as it is, the story is plot heavy, with "one thing after another" happening as Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves follow their quest to regain the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug. Three movies may not be as difficult to produce as I had thought, and I think that others who have enjoyed the book might feel the same. "The Hobbit" is a novel as beloved by its fans as any this generation, and by extending the treatment to three movies instead of one, Jackson will mitigate the danger of complaints that this part or that were cut out to fit in the time frame available in a big screen production.
But back to the book itself. Each time I have read it felt like a fresh adventure, and as I read this time I felt young again. As I turned over the last page in the early hours of the morning after tending to a fussy one-year old, I smiled with the ever buoyant Gandalf telling Bilbo that he is only a small piece in the world. Later, I believe in "The Lord of the Rings," Gandalf will note that it is on small things that the world hinges, but I don't have to imagine what foreshadowing this is: I have seen what happens next.
As the book closes where it began, in the quiet little hobbit-hole ("and that means comfort")I found myself looking forward to introducing Bilbo and Gandalf to my children. They are still too young, but the years are coming when they will perhaps still still enough for me to read to them the tale of Bilbo and the trolls Bert, Tom, and Bill, or the riddles in the dark with Gollum, or in the mountain with Smaug.
That perhaps is the lesson from Tolkien, if there is one, that I take away from "The Hobbit." Nothing has brought me happiness like what I have found in my home--in my wife, my children, and, occasionally my books. As much as anyone can seek adventure, in the end the peace and contentment we seek is in the (mostly and occasionally) quiet of home, where we can curl up with a good book, a warm drink, and the adventures of our imagination. I look forward to the day when I can share that adventure with my own little "hobbits," reading the tale of Bilbo the Hobbit to a new generation of adventurers. (less)
I didn't manage to finish this...it was just too slow. That said, I really enjoy Henry James use of language, his careful description, and the way he...moreI didn't manage to finish this...it was just too slow. That said, I really enjoy Henry James use of language, his careful description, and the way he steps into the protagonists. At times, I very much felt the creepy that he intended.
However--get to the point. Dan Brown isn't a fabulous writer, but he could teach James a few lessons about pacing.(less)
Every once and a while I read a book because I'm supposed to, whether because it won the Pulitzer or Nobel or Booker, or some other prestigious prize,...moreEvery once and a while I read a book because I'm supposed to, whether because it won the Pulitzer or Nobel or Booker, or some other prestigious prize, or it's just old enough to have been granted "classic" status.
Usually, the book turns out to be just as good, or at least just as notable, as it is supposed to be.
With "Confederacy of Dunces," though, I've found that I'm at a loss. I don't know what to think about it, let alone what I'm supposed to think about it.
There's no doubt that it's brilliant. From the first sentence ("A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head."), the pages drip with colorful language, signs of a masterful command of the English language. Witty, cynical, sarcastic, and, again, witty, the writing is a delight to read.
But what is it? Is it satire? Is it comedy? I admit, as soon as I finish here I'm going to go pick up a literary review or two by someone who knows what they're talking about, someone who can tell me what the book means. Because, like driving by a really bad multivehicle accident, at first glance it's not clear what's going on or how it happened. And, when were watching the dunces that are the main characters, it's hard not to see it as a car accident about to happen, or happening.
Or rather, what it means, what the commentary is, on race, on gays, on the sixties, on New Orleans...or if it's even commentary at all.
At the very least, or perhaps most, the book made me laugh, smile and cringe, sometimes all at once. Why exactly it won the Pulitzer I couldn't say, but it was worth the read.(less)
When a book has stood the test of time, has been deemed a "classic," reviewing becomes something of a futile effort. Like an art critic reviewing the...moreWhen a book has stood the test of time, has been deemed a "classic," reviewing becomes something of a futile effort. Like an art critic reviewing the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel with anything short of awe and respect, reviewing a classic novel feels a little arrogant. How does one critique what is universally acknowledged?
And so we come to the book: Robert Heinlein's "The Moon is Harsh Mistress." In the world of science-fiction, Heinlein is a giant, called the "dean of science-fiction" and seeing four of his books win the Hugo (a record, if I am not mistaken). Published in 1966, before Kennedy's moon shot had succeeded, it is clear that "Mistress" is looking far ahead in time, and I can only imagine how forward and revolutionary it was at the time, even if there are elements of it that feel dated now. As a classic, it's beyond me to critique, but I'll at least lend a few thoughts.
"The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is the story of a revolution, the rebellion of the lunar penal colony against the master nations of Earth told through the voice of a computer engineer who inadvertently finds himself at the center of events. Along with an aging professor, a beautiful agitator, and a computer that becomes self-aware (and is seeking a sense of humor, decades before Star Trek: The Next Generation had Data trying to understand humor), he leads the prisoners and free people of the Moon to attempt first the overthrow of a warden ruling the colony, and then the Earth's worldwide government that tries to put down the rebellion.
In contrast to the Gene Roddenberry idyllic version of the future--where worldwide government has resulted in perpetual peace and the end of economic tumult (or any visible economy at all, for that matter)--Heinlein's world of 2075 is gritty, dangerous, and free on the frontier (the moon), while the Earth is ruled by a large, bureaucratic government that is bloated and corrupt. Indeed, Heinlein's novel has rightly been called a novel of libertarian revolution. On the moon, laws are limited, government small, and only the strong survive.
Seriously. Like a penal colony in any frontier land, be it was the New World or Australia, the environment is harsh, the rules are only those that are created by common consent. In one scene, a cultural norm is broken when a tourist from Earth propositions a woman in a bar, misunderstanding the cues. Rather than push him out an airlock or compete in a duel to the death, both completely acceptable options in the lunar culture. Instead, a third option is proposed and followed--an impromptu jury with a respected member of the community serving as the judge. It hearkens back to medieval England and the power of the jury to nullify laws and set people at liberty to serve justice.
It's a little unnerving, but Heinlein's libertarian republic is by no means perfect, but sees elements that seem to echo the Russian communist revolution and the rise of a small, secretive group that manipulates the rest of the country to their own ends. Seeing the mix between a libertarian society and communist-like principles of revolution seems a little odd and occasionally out of place, but the integrity of the characters themselves lets the story carry to a simplistic conclusion where the heroes remain uncorrupted by the secret power they hold.
At the heart of the story is the phrase "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," or TANSTAAFL as it is commonly known among the Loonies, or the natives of the moon. It's the idea that nothing is free, and to everything there is a cost. It's the idea that everything is negotiable, it is why the cost for freedom is high, and describes why in the end freedom is more available on the frontier where those who are strong enough are able to win the rewards of their labors. To his credit, Heinlein endorses the right to bargain ones efforts and resources with a simplicity that others, most particularly Ayn Rand, spend thousands of pages attempting: “It is ridiculous—pestilential, not to be borne—that we should be ruled by an irresponsible dictator in all our essential economy! It strikes at the most basic human right, the right to bargain in a free marketplace.”
Ironically, this does not lead to great wealth. Quite the contrary. His protagonist, not unlike every other lunar libertarian, describes himself as “Not wealthy, not weeping.” He has enough to be comfortable, but he’s not wealthy. What really matters is not lucre, but freedom to do as one chooses, to be responsible for ones choices, and to succeed or fail on the merits.
The problem is the state. While a necessary evil, its needs are secondary to the individual. A trip to Earth shows endless bureaucracy, lines to stand in, forms to be completed, licenses to be sought and obtained, taxes and fees to be paid. On the other hand there “are no circumstances under which State is justified in placing it’s welfare ahead of mine.” If the individual’s needs are subsidiary to the state, the individual is no longer free to choose.
Even if it does occasionally seem dated, Heinlein's genius is in looking ahead down the road of human history and imagining what might be. Without using technology that is so far advanced that it is more magic than science, Heinlein is able to focus on a story that just happens to take place over a hundred years down the road, though that story might just as easily have been set in the past or on our own planet. Whether it is creative family structures, a land with no laws but is crime free, or a jargon that bastardizes Russian, Chinese, and English, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” retains a timelessness that while perhaps not the most exciting read, is guaranteed to provoke thought and conversation for decades to come. (less)
I'd like to give it four, because the book has that mind-popping aspect that makes for great sci-fi, but the focus on sexual mores of society (even if...moreI'd like to give it four, because the book has that mind-popping aspect that makes for great sci-fi, but the focus on sexual mores of society (even if it never actually showed anything) bothered me....is that our society will ever focus on? Sex?
Other than that, a great and interesting, thought provoking read.(less)
If you're looking for something from Ayn Rand that's a tad bit shorter than "Atlas Shrugged," but can still show you her philosophy in a nutshell, "An...moreIf you're looking for something from Ayn Rand that's a tad bit shorter than "Atlas Shrugged," but can still show you her philosophy in a nutshell, "Anthem," her novella set in a dystopian world of the future, may be worth the effort. It didn't take me more than a sitting and a half to flip through it.
Objectivism: an extreme philosophy that is to the free market what communism is to liberalism, just in the opposite direction. Instead of glorifying collective action, it glorifies the individual, the ego, denigrating all else–love, charity, God, and any kind of shared effort or brotherhood. I’m all about independence, freedom, and self-reliance, but Rand sees no need for sacrifice, charity, or love, even when no coercion is present.
This last one, love, is perhaps the most difficult piece for her to handle, and she so clumsily. Quite ironically, he only female character, rather than typifying the EGO she emblazons on the last page of the novella, does not exist in her sole woman character, but to give and to serve her male counterpart, Equality 7-2521, our narrator and protagonist. He sees her, and finding no specific qualities but that she returns his affection (a play on the elementary school “eye game” where shy children flirt only by taking turns catching each other’s eyes). From there on, she seems only to live to serve. She gives him water when he thirsts, follows him into the Uncharted Forest when he flees the City, becomes his lover, and tells him that she loves him. In return he names her Gaea, an interesting play on the Greek goddess of the Earth who was mother to other gods and goddesses. In other words, her highest purpose, still, is only to give birth. In contrast, Equality 7-2521 renames himself Prometheus after he who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, a play on his role in discovering, or rediscovering, electricity. We see a contrast in their roles as Prometheus represents power, gives names to himself and her, and pronounces the dawn of a new age, an age in which EGO rules, not “brotherhood” or the smothering power of “we.”
And Gaea, the once named Liberty 5-3000, will be the mother of that new empire, quite literally.
I don’t mean to denigrate the role of women in bringing children into the world. No man can fully repay the debt he owes his mother, or the mother of his children, for bringing him and future generations to this world. However, women’s purpose and gifts and abilities do not end, or begin, with child-birth.
But I digress. In any respect, Rand places the entire sum of glory on the power of the individual, with no recognition of the powers above or in the shared responsibilities we have to each other. It’s a stark world in which she lives, and I am confident that it is better we live in a world that is neither her’s nor Marx’s,her ideological opposite.
Never the less, “Anthem” is worth the read, if just for it’s thought provocation and the warning that it gives to the results of too much institutional control and too little individual opportunity for growth.
I recently read the short brochure “A Free-Market Monetary System,” a compilation of Friedrich A. Hayak’s 1974 Nobel Prize speech “A Pretense of Knowl...moreI recently read the short brochure “A Free-Market Monetary System,” a compilation of Friedrich A. Hayak’s 1974 Nobel Prize speech “A Pretense of Knowledge” and a short essay on proposing a free-market monetary system (hence, the name, see?). Both are short, and neither waste any time proposing radical changes to what was then, and indeed what is still, the status quo in monetary and economic policy. Both the essay and the speech are worth reading.
In “A Free Market Monetary System,” Hayek warns that as long as central banks are in control of the money supply, we can expect to see the economic highs and lows that we have come to expect, better known as “bubbles” and “recessions.” Both are part of the market corrections that result when markets try to correct for artificial highs created by monetary policy in the control of a central bank. Hayek’s recommendation? Let private enterprises issue their own money for circulation.
I am more convinced than ever that if we ever again are going to have decent money, it will not come from government: it will be issued by private enterprise, because providing the public with good money which ic can trust and use can not only be an extremely profitable business; it imposes on the issuer a discipline to which the government has never been and cannot be subject.
Get it? Rather than “Dollars,” we would buy, and spend, money that might be called something else. Nike “Swooshes,” perhaps, or American Express “credits.” The point is that business does not have a monopoly on money the way that government–i.e. central banks–does and therefore has a greater incentive to protect the integrity of that money from inflation and against other currencies by good policies. If it doesn’t, people won’t use it and it’s value will drop. (Can you hear the invisible hand clapping?)
“It is a business which competing enterprise can maintain only if it gives the public as good a money as anybody else,” said Hayek. Meanwhile, central banks have no such limits or restraints. Just ask Ben Bernanke.
Could it work? Would the government ever give up its control of the money supply?
Ha! Good one. Have you ever known the government to willingly give up any power?
For an interesting look at how an economy where private enterprise issues its own money, check out the speculative novel “The Unincorporated Man” by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin. _______________________
The second part of the brochure is the text of ”A Pretense of Knowledge.” Hayek’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974 (he shared the prize with Gunnar Myrdal for their work in “the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena”) was a thunderhead of a critique of policies recommended by economists and implemented by governments that had, in his words, “made a mess of things.” He attributed the failure of economists to guide public policy more successfully to a “propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the brilliantly successful physical sciences[...]” That attempt, he said, “in our field may lead to outright error.” Economics is not an exact science, and the application of “habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed” lead to a “‘scientistic’ attitude” that the unknowable is knowable.
Economies involve an “organized complexity” that is too deep for economic researchers to obtain. Speaking of wages and prices as an example, Hayek argues that “the determination of [prices and wages] will enter the effects of particular information possessed by every one of the participants in the market process–a sum of facts which in their totality cannot be known to the scientific observer, or to any other single brain.” What he is saying is that while my wife at the grocery store may know enough to decide whether one can of salsa is better priced than another–based on a list of criteria only she knows, including flavor, cost relative to other salsas, cost relative to other stores and whether it is worth driving to those other stores to get the salsa, as well as how much my daughters are fussing in the shopping cart to hurry, whether we need salsa at all, and so on–the observer, the economist or market researcher or whoever is watching, can never know all that goes into her mind.
"It is indeed the source of the superiority of the market order, and the reason why, when it is not suppressed by the powers of government, it regularly displaces other types of order, that in the resulting allocation of resources more of the knowledge of particular facts will be utilized which exists only dispersed among uncounted persons, than any one person can possess."
Only the market–the composite of my wife, and the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of shoppers out there can determine what the market value–the price–of the salsa should be.
This is why governments mess things up when they try to intervene. Whether it is propping up failing auto companies (go google “GM volt january 2012 sales” to find out that the company bailed out by Washington, D.C. sold a measly 603 Volts last month) or promoting and subsidizing “green” energy companies (for this only, google “Solyndra scandal” where even the New York Times admits that the government took risks that the market would not take. I wonder why the market wouldn’t risk it?), when government tries to pick winners better than the market, it inevitably fails or produces less success than the a free market.
This isn’t to say that economics is entirely unable to offer predictive power. Quite the contrary. It just can’t do so with the same ability as the “hard sciences,” such as physics, or chemistry.
Often all that we shall be able to predict will be some abstract characteristic of the pattern that will appear–relations between kinds of elements about which individually we know very little.[...] The danger of which i want to warn is precisely the belief that in order to have a claim to be accepted as scientific it is necessary to achieve more. This way lies charlatanism and worse. To act on the belief that that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.
Neither the Members of Congress making laws, the President and his Executive Branch (proposing, executing, and, also, making laws), nor judges in their black robes know enough to out think the decisions of millions or billions of people that make up a market.
"But in the social field the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority. Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims."
We may not always understand why the market chooses what it does, but in large part the market chooses, through spontaneity, that which helps man get what he wants.
In other words, Hayeks’ message to economists and policy makers is simple: get out of the way and let the market choose. It’s much smarter than you are.(less)
How does one rate a book published thirty years ago, by an author considered among the greats of our day, and that commences one of the most read and...moreHow does one rate a book published thirty years ago, by an author considered among the greats of our day, and that commences one of the most read and popular series in recent times?
The Color of Magic introduces us to Discworld, a series that has grown to include forty novels. Given that I didn't discover Terry Pratchett or Discworld until the 2004 Going Postal, which was number 33 in the series, it might be asked how I jumped in, as well as whether the series ends. Fortunately, each novel stands alone, and no new reader needs to have read previous books in order to understand what's going on in this one.
Since Going Postal, I've since read a couple of other Discworld novels, but I've never read the early ones. That changed when, a couple of months back, my good neighbor and friend Mike mentioned that he was looking for a good home for his substantial collection of Pratchett novels, including nearly all of the Discworld novels. I about wet my pants with excitement when I heard and couldn't wait to start reading.
The Color of Magic lays out the elements of Discworld that have since become familiar to millions (I once read that Pratchett's books had the distinction of being those most often stolen from booksellers in the British Isles): Discworld is flat. As is explained in another of the Discworld novels, when introducing the character Death:
"This is the Death whose particular sphere of operations is, well, not a sphere at all, but the Discworld, which is flat and rides on the back of four giant elephants who stand on the shell of the enormous star turtle Great A’Tuin, and which is bounded by a waterfall that cascades endlessly into space.
"Scientists have calculated that the chance of anything so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one. But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten."
If that doesn't give you enough of a taste to tell that Discworld is not only part fantasy but also partly tongue-in-cheek satire, then one need only get to know the heroes of the quest to realize how little Pratchett takes his fictional world seriously (unless you consider being serious about writing a rollicking good story, which Pratchett is). Rincewind is the wizard who lacks any real wizarding skills, except perhaps that he's very good at dodging death (both in the abstract and the concrete in the person of Death). Along for the ride, if as the ostensible McGuffin, is Twoflower, a tourist from a far of empire who is oblivious to danger, and The Luggage, a semi-sentient and energetic piece of luggage made from sapient pearwood, and Cohen the Barbarian.
Each is a riff or commentary, delightfully and humorously drawn to entertaining effect, and it's not hard to hear echoes of Mark Twain and Douglas Adams in Pratchett's writing, though, to be honest, Pratchett is a flavor all his own. Here are a few lines that Pratchett slips in, each full of commentary and satire, and yet humorous all on their own:
"The Watch were always careful not to intervene too soon in any brawl where the odds were not heavily stacked in their favour. The job carried a pension, and attracted a cautious, thoughtful kind of man."
"Picturesque meant - he decided after careful observation of the scenery that inspired Twoflower to use the word - that the landscape was horribly precipitous. Quaint, when used to describe the occasional village through which they passed, meant fever-ridden and tumbledown. Twoflower was a tourist, the first ever seen on the Discworld. Tourist, Rincewind had decided, meant 'idiot'."
"What heroes like best is themselves."
"He wondered what kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place. Pretty similar to his own, he decided."
"Some pirates achieved immortality by great deeds of cruelty or derring-do. Some achieved immortality by amassing great wealth. But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying."
"I've seen excitement, and I've seen boredom. And boredom was best."
And Pratchett's The Color of Magic is anything but "boredom." If you've never had the opportunity to enjoy a Discworld novel, The Color of Magic is a fantastic place to begin.
(And many thanks, Mike, for gifting me the wonderful lands of Discworld.)(less)