With Crichton, it is always a gamble whether whatever strange and new idea has latched onto will overcome his overbearing personality. His assurance tWith Crichton, it is always a gamble whether whatever strange and new idea has latched onto will overcome his overbearing personality. His assurance that science will always go wrong makes for easy potboiler plots, but you do get the feeling that if he were a caveman, he would mistrust a sharpened stick.
Crichton's sensationalism and misuse of scientific concepts has made him untrustworthy as a guide on any serious issue, but in the case of runaway dinosaurs, we do not need to heed his warnings about the 'dangers of cloning'; we can simply enjoy an idea that was ridiculous before Crichton ever touched it.
At least we are spared the author's libelous personal attacks in this book. If you have a plane ride and a love for dinosaurs, pick it up. The movie's better, though....more
Hawthorne is the equivalent of nudging someone and winking without actually thinking of anything interesting, risque, beautiful, or even useful. It isHawthorne is the equivalent of nudging someone and winking without actually thinking of anything interesting, risque, beautiful, or even useful. It is sad that a man with such a voluminous writing ability was seemingly devoid of any notion of what to do with it....more
This book is the perfect representation of a historical period: just before American novelists caught up to their British counterparts, and just afterThis book is the perfect representation of a historical period: just before American novelists caught up to their British counterparts, and just after they thought they had....more
Sometimes truth isn't just stranger than fiction, it's also more interesting and better plotted. Salinger helped to pioneer a genre where fiction wasSometimes truth isn't just stranger than fiction, it's also more interesting and better plotted. Salinger helped to pioneer a genre where fiction was deliberately less remarkable than reality. His protagonist says little, does little, and thinks little, and yet Salinger doesn't string Holden up as a satire of deluded self-obsessives, he is rather the epic archetype of the boring, yet self-important depressive.
I've taken the subway and had prolonged conversations on the street with prostitutes (not concerning business matters), and I can attest that Salinger's depiction is often accurate to what it feels like to go through an average, unremarkable day. However, reading about an average day is no more interesting than living one.
Beyond that, Salinger doesn't have the imagination to paint people as strangely as they really are. Chekhov's 'normal' little people seem more real and alive than Salinger's because Chekhov injects a little oddness, a little madness into each one. Real people are almost never quite as boring as modernist depictions, because everyone has at least some ability to surprise you.
Salinger's world is desaturated. Emotions and moments seep into one another, indistinct as the memories of a drunken party. Little importance is granted to events or thoughts, but simply pass by, each duly tallied by an author in the role of court reporter.
What is interesting about this book is not that it is realistically bland, but that it is artificially bland. Yet, as ridiculous a concept as that is, it still takes itself entirely in earnest, never acknowledging the humor of its own blase hyperbole.
This allows the book to draw legions of fans from all of the ridiculously dull people who take themselves as seriously as Holden takes himself. They read it not as a parody of bland egotism but a celebration, poised to inspire all the bland egotists who have resulted from the New Egalitarianism in Art, Poetry, Music, and Academia.
Those same folks who treat rationality and intellectual fervor like a fashion to be followed, imagining that the only thing required to be brilliant is to mimic the appearance and mannerisms of the brilliant; as if black berets were the cause of poetic inspiration and not merely a symptom.
One benefit of this is that one can generally sniff out pompous faux intellectuals by the sign that they hold up Holden as a sort of messianic figure. Anyone who marks out Holden as a role-model is either a deluded teen with an inflated sense of entitlement, or is trying to relive the days when they were.
But what is more interesting is that those who idolize Holden tend to be those who most misunderstand him. Upon close inspection, he's not depressive, not consumed with ennui or an existential crisis, he's actually suffering from 'Shell Shock'--now known as 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder'.
The way he thinks about his brother's and classmate's deaths--going over the details again and again in his mind, but with no emotional connection--it's not symptomatic of depression, but of psychological trauma. He is stuck in a cycle, unable to process events, going over them again and again, but never able to return to normalcy.
It takes a certain kind of self-centered prick to look at someone's inability to cope with the reality of death and think "Hey, that's just like my mild depression over how my parents won't buy me a newer ipod!" It's not an unusual stance in American literature--there's an arrogant detachment in American thought which has become less and less pertinent as the world grows and changes. As recently as The Road we have American authors comparing a difficult father-son relationship to the pain and turmoil of an African civil war survivor--and winning awards for displaying their insensitive arrogance.
Perhaps it's time we woke up and realized that the well-fed despondence of the white man should not be equated with a lifetime of death, starvation, war, and traumas both physical and emotional. And as for Salinger--a real sufferer of Post-Traumatic Stress who was one of the first soldiers to see a concentration camp, who described how you can never forget the smell of burning flesh--I can only imagine how he felt when people read his story of a man, crippled by the thought of death, and thought to themselves "Yes, that's just what it's like to be a trustafarian with uncool parents". No wonder he became a recluse and stopped publishing....more
A rather strange experience: here is a book which possesses many great qualities--it is well written, has a gripping story, and a great depth of psychA rather strange experience: here is a book which possesses many great qualities--it is well written, has a gripping story, and a great depth of psychology--but it ultimately falls into that secondary tier of modern novels that fail to make a full philosophical exploration of their quandries.
Perhaps the relative slimness of this book--often cited as the best novel of the Twentieth--is related to that shortcoming. While the political message is powerful and the philosophical questioning interesting, both are infrequent and less profound than I grew to wish.
It has always been my preference that a book lay out the whole case, giving both sides of the issue and inviting the reader to think things over and come to some conclusion. I am much less fond of works with 'a message', even if that message is fairly strong, since issues tend to be far too complex to admit a straightforward answer.
As one commentator pointed out, this book's central thesis was not merely an idea at the time of writing, but a worldwide 'experiment in progress'--the experiment of Socialism. But I never felt that the book proved its dour case that the regretable outcome was actually caused by Socialism. There are very few cases where man has even tried to develop some other form of governance, and even after a revolution succeeds, idealism invariably devolves into another oligarchy.
This book has often been compared to 1984, which tackled the same theme, and it's true that Koestler outdoes Orwell in precision of structure, fineness of language, realism, and character psychology, but I still prefer 1984 as an exploration, because it showcases a greater depth and variance of ideas, and has a speculative outlook. Koestler wrote a proof of what had already happened, while Orwell was more concerned with what our past would do to our present, and our future.
Without an influx of progressing ideas to match the deep human conflict, Darkness at Noon became superficial and tedious. Even with good writing, a matching understanding of psychology, and a complex story, without grubbing at deeper concerns a book may inform, but will not inspire.
The birth of Socialism was marked by The Communist Manifesto, but its scope was too narrow, and falling to Hume's is/ought dilemma, the philosophies Marx outlined were never really given form--proving once again there is noting inevitable about an ideal. But this book of its demise shares a similarly narrow view--a gravestone may be a monumental sign, but the dates it gives are not the story of a life....more
"There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?"
-H.P. Lovecraft, 1929
What really makes Lovecraft int
"There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?"
-H.P. Lovecraft, 1929
What really makes Lovecraft interesting is the degree to which he was a student of the Horror genre. As his influential essay Supernatural Horror in Literature shows, Lovecraft was a voracious reader who went far afield in his search for interesting Horror authors. If Lovecraft hadn't been such an odd recluse, and instead pursued an academic career, we might not have had to wait a century for scholar S.T. Joshi to drag the genre into the sphere of literary criticism.
Due to his vast knowledge, Lovecraft was able to pick through influences and styles when he wrote his stories, but instead of synthesizing all of those disparate inspirations into a new vision of his own, Lovecraft was more likely to work in bits and pieces, creating recognizable, sometimes formulaic story types in which we can easily trace the ideas he drew from Dunsany, Blackwood, Hodgson, Chambers, or Bierce.
Beyond that, his style was not always engaging, relying as he did on rather purple prose and extended explanations of his characters' innermost thoughts, instead of letting the actions and subtle cues speak for themselves. As such, his stories tended to lack the power and poetry of the great Horror authors who influenced him, but Lovecraft was such a prolific author, and so invested in his genre on a conceptual level that he did create a number of classics.
He also had a considerable influence on other writers through the vast correspondence which he kept up throughout his whole life with lasting, notable authors such as R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Derleth, Clarke Ashton Smith, and numerous others, not only introducing them to the many ideas and authors Lovecraft had collected, but opening himself up to the thoughts and experiences of all those young, up-and-coming authors.
Then there is the lasting effect of the 'Mythos' (sometimes called the 'Cthulhu Mythos'), that interconnected set of ideas and approaches that became a sort of 'shared world' for other authors to explore--whit are still being explored in an unabated string of short-story collections published every year despite the fact that all the stories in them tend to be terrible. But the Mythos was not quite Lovecraft's original invention, it was instead an attempt to take the worlds of the previous great Horror authors and combine them into one grand setting.
Probably the most unique aspect of Lovecraft's work was his combination of the chilling, aloof alienness of Dunsany's elves with the otherworldly, interdimensional terrors explored by Hodgson to produce that characteristic 'Cosmic Horror' which, while not invented by Lovecraft, was brought to a higher lustre in his works.
Though the Lovecraft stories that I find most interesting are not his 'Poe pieces', his straight Horror works--which should not be surprising, since I'm not especially fond of Poe--but his Dunsany-inspired Fantasies, such as The Silver Key and several other entries in his Dream Cycle, which tend to be rather less formulaic recreations of the styles and forms of earlier authors, than explorations of the mind, and of possibility. Beyond that, Lovecraft's very deliberate, thoughtful style seems to work better in a world of waking dreams than one of world-hopping adventure and monster attacks.
However, in the end, I would suggest that the most lasting effect of Lovecraft's work was born in his intense dislike of seafood, which gave his monsters and beasties their shapes, and proved a much more effective choice than Hodgson's odd distaste for pig. Indeed, Lovecraft's disgust must surely rank among the most influential gustatory preferences in the history of literature....more
I was savaged by a miniature poodle the other day--wait--no, someone protested my review of The Giver the other day. If you have any pent-up rage fromI was savaged by a miniature poodle the other day--wait--no, someone protested my review of The Giver the other day. If you have any pent-up rage from that college lit teacher who forced you to think about books, be sure to stop by and spew some incoherent vitriol--my reviews are now a socially acceptable site of catharsis for the insecure.
In any case, one of them made the argument that children need new versions of great books that are stupider, because children are just stupid versions of normal people. Happily-enough, The Giver is a totally stupid version of A Clockwork Orange or whatever Dystopian book (actually, it's a rewrite of Ayn Rand's Anthem).
Coincidentally, in my review of Alice In Wonderland, I happen to put forth my own philosophy regarding children's books. In short: they should present a complex, strange, many-faceted, and never dumbed-down world, because presenting a simple, one-sided, dumbed-down world both insults and stultifies a child's mind.
However, if someone were to say that this book were a childrenized version of Starship Troopers, I wouldn't sic a poodle on them. Both present a human/bug war, deal with the issues of death, war, the military complex, human interaction, personal growth, and all that good stuff.
Also, both authors have their heads up their asses and there must be a pretty good echo in there since they keep yelling their hearts out about one personal opinion or another. However, Orson Scott Card doesn't get into his pointless author surrogate diatribes until the second book in this series, so we may enjoy the first one uninterrupted.
So it's a pretty good book for children, and like romeo and Juliet, it's easy to see the appeal: kid defeats bullies and plays videogames to save the world(in one of the sequels, they save the world by making angry comments on the internet--surprising that one isn't more popular here). But more than that, it's not a bad book in general, so I guess I don't have to bother defining it as dumbed-down, or 'for kids'. Then again, a lot of grown-ups seem like they need their books dumbed-down. Just look at The Da Vinci Code compared to The Satanic Verses, or Foucault's Pendulum; or all three compared to The Illuminatus Trilogy. I'm pretty sure when it comes to stupid versions of things, adults have the monopoly....more
Lowry's book is a piece of nationalist propaganda, using oversimplification, emotional appeals, and dualistic morality to shut down her readers' mindsLowry's book is a piece of nationalist propaganda, using oversimplification, emotional appeals, and dualistic morality to shut down her readers' minds. More troubling is that it is aimed at children, who don't yet have the critical faculties to defend themselves from such underhanded methods.
Unsurprisingly, Lowry adopts the structure of the monomyth, equating a spiritual journey with a moral one. Her Christ-figure uses literal magic powers to rebel against his society. This rebellion and the morality behind it are presented as 'natural', to contrast with the 'abnormal morality' around him.
Lowry doesn't seem to understand that we get our morality from our culture, it isn't something in-born that we 'lose'. This is the first hint of Lowry's misunderstanding of the human mind. She assumes her own morality is correct, and then builds her story to fit it.
She also makes the character act and think like we do, despite never adequately explaining how he came up with such unusual notions. It's the same trick many historical fiction authors use, leaving us scratching our heads as to why a Fourteenth Century French peasant speaks like a second-wave feminist. I'd suggest that Lowry falls to this fault for the same reason they do: she has no talent for imagining how others might think differently.
Lowry's book ends with the standard nonspecific transgressive spiritual event that marks all monomyths. Since the book is not a progressive presentation of ideas, it does not suggest any conclusion. Instead, the climax is a symbolic faux-death event (symbolic of what, none can say). Confusingly, Lowry later redacts the ending in the sequels, undermining the pseudo-spiritual journey she created.
Though some call this book 'Dystopian', it's closer to the truth to say Lowry borrows elements from the Dystopian authors, attempting to combine the spiritual uplift of the monomyth with the political and social deconstruction of the Dystopia. What she doesn't recognize is that the faith of the one conflicts with the cynicism of the other. She draws on ideas and images from many other authors: Bradbury, Huxley, Orwell, Burgess, but doesn't improve upon them.
These authors created novels that reflected the world around them. They based them on the political events of the times, presented with realism and careful psychology. Though they presented the struggle between the individual and the society, they portrayed morality as grey, and suffering as the result of individual human faults, not political systems. Lowry doesn't realize that the best way to critique Fascism or Communism is not to present it as 'evil', but to simply present it as it was.
But Lowry's world is not based in reality, it is symbolic and hyperbolic. Instead of writing about how poverty makes the world seem small and dull, she has the characters magically unable to experience life. Instead of an impersonal government, she presents a sort of evil hippy commune.
The only political system it resembles is a school, which is a neat little trick to get the kids interested. The idea that 'school=unfeeling totalitarian hell' is not an uncommon one, but it's one I'm surprised teachers would support. The book also suggests a creche, but lacking similarity to any real-world system, it doesn't work as a political criticism.
Lowry creates this artificial world to suit her purposes, but it is not a symbolic exercise like 'Animal Farm'. We understand that the pigs of animal farm are symbolic, because there are no talking pigs. Lowry's world is more insidious, since its oversimplification is hidden. She builds an artificial world to support the dualist morality that she's pushing. She presents the same knee-jerk fears about euthanasia and abortion that people use against Women's Rights or Health Care.
Worse than these Straw Man arguments is the fact that she never deals with the economic causes of totalitarianism. Tyrants don't just rise up and take control by their own force of will, they come into power because of the socioeconomic situations that surround them. Lean times produce strong, fascist leaders while profitable times produce permissive, liberal societies.
Strong, centralized leadership simply doesn't self-propagate in cultures where everyone is clothed, fed, and housed. The Holocaust was socially about some ideal of 'change' and 'purity', but it was economically about the transmission of wealth from Jews, Poles, and Catholics to Germans (and more specifically, to those Germans who had elected the new ruling party).
The atrocities of war are, for the most, part committed by normal people to other normal people. By presenting the power structure as 'amoral' and 'inhuman', Lowry ignores the fact that people will willingly cause others to suffer. Painting the enemy as 'evil' and 'alien' is just an unsophisticated propagandist method.
She contrasts her 'evil' with the idealized 'goodness' of emotion, beauty, and freedom. This is nothing more than the American dream of 'specialness' that Mr. Rogers was pushing for so many years. We are all special, we are all good, we all deserve love and happiness. Sure, it sounds good, but what does it mean?
Where does this 'specialness' come from? If it is just the 'sanctity of human life', then it's not really special, because it's all-encompassing. If all of us are special, then none of us are. There's nothing wrong with valuing life, but when Lowry presents one mode of life as valuable and another as reprehensible, she ceases to actually value humanity as a whole. Instead, she values a small, idealized chunk of humanity. 'People are good, except the ones I don't like' is not a moral basis, nor is it a good message to send to kids.
If the specialness is only based on fitting in with a certain moral and social guideline, then Lowry isn't praising individuality, she's praising herd behavior. The protagonist is only 'special' because he has magic powers. His specialness is not a part of his character, it is an emotional appeal.
The idea of being a special individual is another piece of propaganda, and its one kids are especially prone to, because kids aren't special: they are carefully controlled and powerless. Giving a character special powers and abilities and then using that character to feed a party line to children is not merely disingenuous, it's disturbing.
There is also a darker side to universal specialness: giving a child a sense of importance without anything to back it up creates egotism and instability. Adults noticed that children with skills and friends had high self-esteems, but instead of teaching their children social skills and knowledge, they misunderstood the causal relationship and tried to give them self-worth first.
Unfortunately, the moment unsupported self-worth is challenged, the child finds they have nothing to fall back on. Their entitlement didn't come from their skills or experiences, and so they have nothing to bolster that sense of worth. Instead, any doubt sends them down a spiral of emotional instability.
A single book like this wouldn't be the cause of such a state in a child, but it does act as part of the social structure built to give a sense of worth without a solid base for that worth. People like to believe they are special, kids especially so, but being a remarkable person is not a result of belief but of actions. If the book had informed them, then it would leave them better off, but giving them a conclusion based on emotional appeals does nothing to build confidence or character.
Many people have told me this book is good because it appeals to children, but children often fall for propaganda. Children develop deep relationships with pop stars, breakfast cereals, and Japanese monsters. This does not make them good role models for children.
Feeding 'specialness' to kids along with a political message is no better than the fascist youth programs Lowry intends to criticize. The obsession with individuality is just another form of elitism. It's ironic that people in America most often describe themselves as individuals when pointing out the things they do to align themselves with groups.
But banding together in a community is not a bad thing. For Lowry and other 'Red Scare' children, any mention of 'communal' can turn into a witch hunt, but we all give up some personal rights and some individuality in order to live in relatively safe, structured societies. There are benefits to governmental social controls and there are drawbacks, and it's up to us to walk the line between the two. Anarchy and Totalitarianism never actually exist for long: we are social animals.
It's not difficult to understand why Lowry is so popular, especially amongst educators. The message she gives aligns perfectly with what they were taught as kids, from Red Scare reactionism to the hippy-dippy 'unique snowflake' mantra. These ideas aren't entirely misguided, either. It's good to recognize the benefits of difference and the dangers of allowing other to control our lives.
If a reader believes that fascism and socialism are inherently wrong and that their own individuality is their greatest asset, they will likely sympathize with Lowry's work. However, this doesn't make the book honest, nor beneficial. One of the hardest things we can do as readers is disagree with the methods of authors we agree with ideologically.
It makes us feel good to find authors who agree with us, but this is when we should be at our most skeptical. Searching the world for self-justification is not a worthwhile goal, it simply turns you into another short-sighted, argumentative know-it-all. 'Yes men' never progress.
Lowry is toeing the party line. She does not base her book around difficult questions, like the Dystopian authors, but around easy answers. She doesn't force the reader to decide for themselves what is best, she makes it clear what she wants us to think. Her book is didactic, which means that it instructs the reader what to believe.
Even if her conclusions about Individuality vs. Community are correct, she doesn't present arguments, she only presents conclusions. Like rote memorization or indoctrination, she teaches nothing about the politics, social order, economics, or psychology of totalitarianism or individuality. The reader is not left with an understanding, just an opinion.
The baseless 'individuality' of the book lets the reader imagine that they are rebels--that they are bucking the system even as they fall into lock-step. By letting the reader think they are already free-thinking, Lowry tricks them into forgetting their skepticism.
She is happy to paint a simple world of black and white, and this is likely the world she sees. I doubt she is purposefully creating an insidious text, she just can't see past her own opinions. She writes this book with a point to make, and makes it using emotional appeals and symbolism. She doesn't back it up with arguments because she doesn't seem to have developed her opinions from cogent arguments.
In the end, she doesn't show us that the structure of this society is wrong, she says nothing poignant about individuality vs. community; instead, she relies on threats to the life of an innocent infant. Yet nowhere does she provide an argument for why communal living or the sacrifice of freedoms for safety must necessarily lead to infanticide.
In politics, making extreme claims about the opposing side is called mud-slinging, it is an underhanded and dishonest tactic. It works. Arguing intelligently is difficult, accusing is easy, so that's what Lowry does.
She is another child of WWII and the Cold War who hasn't learned her lesson. She quickly condemns the flaws of others while failing to search out her own. Even after the Holocaust, there are many racist, nationalist, violent Jews; conflict rarely breeds a new understanding.
America condemned the faceless communal life of the Second World, and yet America created The Projects. We critiqued strong governmental controls, but we still have the bank bailout, socialized medicine, socialized schooling, and socialized charity. America condemned the Gulags and Work Camps, and yet we imprison one out of every hundred citizens; far more than Stalin ever did. Some are killed, all are dehumanized.
As a little sci fi adventure, the book isn't terrible. It's really the pretension that goes along with it. Lowry cobbles together religious symbolism and Dystopic tropes and then tries to present it as something as complex and thoughtful as the authors she copied. Copying isn't a crime, but copying poorly is.
Like Dan Brown or Michael Crichton, she creates a political pamphlet of her own ideals, slaps a pretense of authority on it, and then waits for the money and awards to roll in--and they did. Many people I've discussed this book with have pointed to those awards as the surest sign of this book's eminent worth.
Award committees are bureaucratic organizations. Their decisions are based on political machinations. This book is a little piece of Nationalism, and so it was lauded by the political machine that Lowry supports. The left hand helps the right. If awards are the surest sign of worth, then Titanic is a better movie than Citizen Kane.
What surprises me is how many of those who brought up the award as their argument were teachers. If a politically-charged administrative committee is the best way to teach children, then why do you take umbrage when the principal tells you that bigger class sizes (and fewer benefits) are fine? Listen to him: doesn't he have award plaques?
The other argument is usually that 'kids like it'. I usually respond that kids also like candy, so why not teach that? Some people also get angry at me for analyzing a book written for children:
"Of course it's not a great book, it's for kids! If you want a good book, go read Ulysses!"
I prefer to give children good books rather than pieces of political propaganda (even if they agreed with me). Children can be as skeptical, quick-witted, and thoughtful as adults if you give them the chance, so I see no excuse for feeding them anything less.
Kids aren't stupid, they just lack knowledge, and that's a fine distinction. It's easy for adults to take advantage of their naivete, their emotionality, and their sense of worth. Just because it's easier for the teacher doesn't mean it's better for the child.
When we show children something that is over-simplified, presenting an idealized, crudely moralizing world, we aren't preparing them for the actual world. If you give a child a meaningless answer to repeat, he will repeat it, but he won't understand why.
Why not give the child a book that presents many complex ideas, but no rote answers, and let them make up their own minds? If they don't learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff and form their own opinions early, in a safe, nurturing environment, what chance will they have on their own as adults?
In all the discussions and research regarding this book, I have come across very little analysis. It's especially surprising for a book with such a strong following, but there aren't many explanations of why the book is supposed to be useful or important.
This lack of argument makes sense from a political standpoint, since there is no reason to analyze the worth of propaganda: its worth is that it agrees with society and indoctrinates readers. Analyzing it would defeat the purpose; political diatribes do not stand up to thoughtful attention.
Perhaps someday someone will create a thoughtful, textual analysis of this book that will point out its merits, its structure and its complexity. I've gradually come to doubt it. I never expected when I wrote my original review of this book that it would garner this much attention.
I still welcome comments and thoughts, but if your comment looks roughly like this:
"You should read this book again, but this time, like it more. You think you're smart but you aren't. You're mean. Lowry is great. This book won awards and kids like it. It's meant for kids anyways, why would you analyze what its about? I bet you never even read the sequels. Go read 'Moby Dick' because you are full of yourself."
I've heard that one before. If you do want to comment though, you might check out this article; I find it helps me with presenting my ideas....more
Are you the sort of person who hears other people discussing books and finding yourself wondering how they can even form opinions on stories? I mean,Are you the sort of person who hears other people discussing books and finding yourself wondering how they can even form opinions on stories? I mean, either you like it or you don't, right?
Well, if that's you, then read this book, The Giver, and Siddhartha (if that sounds like too much, substitute Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the latter). Once you've done that, you'll feel all sorts of strange emotions and ideas swirling around inside you and you, too, will be able to talk about how a book made you think.
Then, you should watch Donnie Darko (which will become your favorite movie), and you can talk about how movies made you think, too. Soon, you'll be readin' and thinkin' and talkin' up a storm. It's just like a dog who eats grass so he can understand horses.
This book may seem impressive if you don't have much experience with philosophy, history, sociology, or theology, but the ideas in this book are about as complex as what you'd find in a college freshman's paper. And Quinn has an agenda: he wants to convince you, so all of his ideas are simplified and mixed up to support his conclusions. Whether he did this deliberately to convince the reader, or accidentally in the process of trying to convince himself isn't really important--which is really worse?
For example, in his retelling of the Cain and Abel story, he completely conflates Hunter Gatherer societies with Pastoral Nomads, which makes his entire argument murky. It's just another example of the 'Noble Savage in balance with nature' thing, which is terribly naive. Native cultures often transformed the land around them and drove animals to extinction, as evidenced by the way mammoths were hunted until none remained.
One archaeological team on the West Coast of America discovered that the local tribe had been systematically killing and eating all the animals in the area. Looking through the piles of discarded bones, they'd find the tribe hunted and ate one animal until there were none left, then moved on to a different animal. Eventually, the diseases brought by Europeans reached them and their population was greatly reduced, and then the animals began to flourish again.
The whole notion that humans used to be 'in balance' but no longer are is a fuzzy dream, and not useful for anyone trying to look at the world and the problems we face. Humans are not the first animals to cause extinction, we're not even the first to cause mass atmospheric change. It is a gross oversimplification, like all of the arguments in this book--and one that was already a quarter century out of date among ecologists by the time Quinn was writing.
You might ask 'why is this a problem, isn't any book that gets people to think worthwhile?'--but the problem is that through oversimplification and emotional appeals, this books actually sets out to shut down independent thought in the reader. It isn't asking hard questions as much as it's giving out easy answers. It is trying to tell you how things are, instead of inviting you to question the world for yourself.
Beyond that, the philosophy it presents is a rather insidious one, at its core. The idea that there is some 'great natural order' to things is very comforting, because it makes the world sensible, predictable, and easy to understand. If there is such an order, than we can simply trust in it, give ourselves up to it, and let things take care of themselves. It becomes a passive attitude--a question of faith in the system.
But the idea of the 'natural order' has been used (and is still being used) by power structures against the people. Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa, wrote on it extensively, using it to set up and maintain apartheid--arguing that since colonial Europeans had conquered large parts of the world, therefore it was their 'natural state' to rule, and that it was natural for native populations to be ignorant and subservient.
Likewise, when the powerhouse thinktank the Club of Rome presented The Limits of Growth in 1972, proposing that the only way to prevent ecological disaster was to maintain things as they are now, indefinitely, protesters pointed out that this policy would support the status quo, keeping the same people and structures in power, instead of trying to improve or change our current system (and of course, the club was made up of the same political leaders, businessmen, bureaucrats, and economists who would have the most to lose if any change were made in the current system).
By the seventies, there was already a sea change taking place in ecology, and it was becoming clear that, far from being in a state of self-correcting balance, the natural world was constantly shifting and changing, that animal and plant populations varied widely from year to year, and decade to decade, even in isolated populations where you would most expect to see equilibrium reached. The problem becomes that anyone who assumes that some structure is there, underlying everything, is going to trust that at a certain point, that structure will balance things out automatically.
It's like walking a tightrope and just assuming there must be a net below you that will catch you when you fall--a dangerous assumption to make, especially when we know it's not true. Taking action to stabilize our world on our end, but just trusting that 'natural balance' will take care of things on the other end is the height of irresponsibility, and bound to throw things even more out of whack. A more in-depth look at the progression of ecological theory can be found in part 2 of the BBC documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.
In the end, mixed in with wrong-headed assumptions and out of date theories, Quinn gives us nothing more than the most simplistic, basic conclusions about the world. Should people be nice to each other? Yes. Should we destroy the things that keep us alive? No. We all know that. We don't need Quinn to tell us. And we all know that solving problems is harder than saying that things could be better. I just went as deep as this book goes, and I didn't even need to give you lectures from a magical talking monkey....more