Wow, What a Book #3, #4, #whatever

Well, Saturday already. Seems only yesterday it was Friday *sigh* I suppose I’d better get on with it.

I don’t think I’ll do ten of these after all, because I rather run the risk of listing books just because I like them, rather than because they have had a real and measurable influence on me. So today I present the final three.

1. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.

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I read this book when I was in my mid twenties, and it really did open my eyes to what we as a species were doing to the planet. Up until that point, I had not really understood the impact that we were having on the environment. Shocked, I became interested in learning more, and then even more shocked as I learned what food and drink manufacturers put in their products for us to consume. At that time, one of them was the nasty compound dropped by the Americans on Vietnam during the Vietnamese War; a defoliant that was known to be carcinogenic.

It was used as orange food colouring.

I got hold of a list of all the ‘E’ numbers that were permitted additives, and which the industry certainly didn’t want us to know about. Certain ones were very nasty indeed. It was at this point that I became very keen on reading the labels on food and drink packaging.

I became involved with various pressure groups, such as Greenpeace.

That book changed my life.

2. The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham.

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In some ways, this could lay claim to be the book that has had the greatest influence on my adult life, but in a different way to Silent Spring.

I’d always tried to be a reasonably decent human being, but reading this made me rethink the way that I wanted my life to be. It is the story of a man who returns from the first world war and begins to question his place in society. He finds the trappings of modern western life, and its values, empty and meaningless – its focus on making money, selfishness and greed. He then searches for something meaningful in his own life, through education, religion and travel, and explores his relationships to others.

The message in this book immediately resonated with me; that there is much more to life than the pursuit of money, essential though some of it it might be to my survival. Other people mattered. Helping others was important. What is called the spiritual life, whether or not you believe in a god or not, was an important part of us all.

5. The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.

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Are you serious? you ask. How could this book be an influence on your life? One of the first science fiction books, and admirable for that, but an influence?

Well, it is easily told, and the answer will probably surprise you. This book provided the initial impetus for me to become a vegetarian.

Yes, a vegetarian. There is a passage in the book where the narrator recoils with disgust as the Martians take the blood from still-living humans for their nutrition, but then comments that it was probably the same reaction as an intelligent rabbit would feel observing our own eating habits. That made me consider whether it was necessary for me to eat meat, and I came to the conclusion that no, it was not.

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Wow, What a book #2

To continue with the 10 books that have most influenced my life.

My second choice is The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien.

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I suspect that very few readers are unaware of the story of The Lord of the Rings, having either read the book, seen the film, or both. And at this point, it might be a good idea to just make it clear that I am talking about the book here, and not the Peter Jackson films, or even the ill-fated attempt at animating the entire book in 1978, an attempt that got as far as the first book, and was, to be honest, rather dreadful. Let me content myself by just saying it was a bit ‘Disney’. I’m not that mad on the Peter Jackson films either, to be honest, but back to the book.

So, I’m not going into any great detail about the story, but, in a nutshell, it involves a quest to destroy a ring that gives great power to the wearer, but inevitably corrupts and destroys them. It’s maker, Sauron, is attempting to find it, and the free peoples of the world must not only keep it from him, for if he recovers it it he will then have power to enslave the entire world, but also take it to the fiery mountain, Mount Doom, where it had been forged, to cast it into the flames and destroy it.

Mount Doom is, inconveniently, inside Sauron’s heavily fortified and guarded kingdom.

Elves, dwarves, men, wizards, hobbits, orcs…you all know it, don’t you?

As readers, we are all different. Some of us like a plot that gallops along so fast that we can barely keep up, with writing that limits itself to the action and no more than the minimum descriptions necessary.

Others, like me, enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere of the described world almost as much as the plot itself – join the Slow Book Movement now! Just send a completed application form to…sorry, wrong place. Where was I? Oh yes, most readers like a mixture of the two, of course.

But as one of these Slow Readers, there is a massive amount in this book that appeals to me. When I read descriptions of the hobbits setting off to walk through woods and fields as the sun comes up through early autumn mists, I might have been reading a description of a morning when I had done just that whilst wild camping in the countryside in my part of England. I have always loved walking on footpaths and through fields and woods, and disliked roads and towns.

The countryside Tolkien described around the Shire – the home of the hobbits – might have been my countryside. there were chalk downs and woods and streams, even one or two names (for example Michel Delving) that could have been local.

There were other woodlands in the book, and if they were described as magical, then that was little more than I naturally felt about woodlands anyway. Aren’t they all magical?

And, on top of all that, there were mountains. Today, I love mountains! But I had never seen one at this point, and suddenly I wanted to go and climb one. There were inns and beer, adventure and song, friendship and dangers. What was not to like?

The whole book is really made up of three books, and the first book, which has always been my favourite, is the one which is mainly set in this land that I could almost identify. This was not the first fantasy book that I had read, but it was, and still is, the one whose descriptions have the greatest power to draw me in. It is the one that, to me, seems the most real.

All of this, with the themes of courage and friendship, self sacrifice and loyalty, and the message that good will eventually triumph over evil, come together in a mixture that is in just the right proportions to appeal to me.

But how has it actually influenced me?

For a start, when I began to write, everything that I wrote seemed to be influenced by that book. This was not actually a good thing, because other than The Lord of the Rings, I don’t really enjoy fantasy! But I wrote that way for a long while.

Today, though, what remains is the descriptive writing. I wonder whether I might otherwise have been a very different reader and writer, since before I read LOTR, I read mainly detective stories and adventure novels.

And I explored a lot of the Middle English literature that influenced Tolkien, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I suppose not too many people do today.

I visited mountains because of that book.

And a measure of how strong this appeal was (and remains) is that I have probably read the book about twenty times. The last but one time, though, was around twenty years ago. When I decided to re-read it last year, I did wonder whether I would be disappointed. I strongly suspected that I might have ‘grown out of it’.

I needn’t have worried.

I enjoyed it just as much as I ever had; I noticed one or two details I had either forgotten or never really noticed in the first place, and I found myself drawn in every bit as strongly as I had been before.

I loved it.

Wow, What a Book! #1

I thought that I would pick out what might be the 10 books that have most influenced my life. Well, I say 10 books, but I may tire of this long before I reach 10, so let’s just see what happens.

You see, these are not really reviews, although it is necessary to give some idea of the plot of each book, it is more about how they have influenced me, and I may decide after a while that I’m just giving away too much about myself.

Or that I’m just going over and over the same ground.

Okay, then. Let’s get on with it. The rules:

Firstly, I must have read the book more than 5 years ago. I know this is an arbitrary figure, but any book that I have read recently is likely to be clearer in my mind, and so appear a little more important to me than it really is. It needs time to settle.

Secondly, I need to be able to demonstrate to myself exactly how it is that the book has influenced me. Just to say ‘it was important to me’ will not be enough. That would be little better than just saying ‘I like it’. Perfectly valid, but hardly the stuff of a blog post. This is another reason to impose the 5 year rule – there must have been enough time elapsed to see the influence.

So I’ll start today with Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.

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Sometimes, you get the feeling that some people have just been born into the wrong century. Not that they would prefer dressing in cravats or crinolines, although they might anyway, or that they have a hankering after a little piracy or bubonic plague, but rather you can see that they don’t fit in with the pace of modern life, or much like the ethos of the times.

There must be quite a few people like that, which must partly explain the immense popularity of Steppenwolf both when it was released, and then especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It was the second book by Hesse that I had read, after cutting my teeth on ‘The Journey to the East’ as a teenager, and I was a little unprepared for its message.

Whereas ‘The Journey to the East’ felt like a bit of drug-induced fantasy, although a very clever and readable one, without any obvious message beyond ‘free yourself from the conventions of society, man’, Steppenwolf clearly had a more serious message to convey.

It begins with the protagonist, Harry, contemplating taking his own life, because he sees himself as a serious writer both at odds with the world that he lives in (Germany, post WWI), whose values, especially the bourgeois ones, he despises, but also with his inner alter ego, the very opposite of the sophisticated artist that he sees himself, which he calls the Steppenwolf – or the wolf of the steppes. He hates and fears this alter ego, who he feels he cannot control, and who sneers at everything that Harry holds dear.

It is whilst Harry is contemplating suicide, that he comes across a booklet entitled ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ and as he reads it, he discovers that it is about himself. the booklet talks about Harry and his alter ego, but also explains that there are many, many more of these other sides to his character.

Through the rest of the book, Harry learns how to reconcile these many sides of himself and, more importantly, how he can manage to live in this world that up until then, he sees no value in.

When I read the part of the book that consisted of the treatise on the various different natures that made up the protagonist of the novel, it was the first indication to me that we really do have these different sides to our characters; sides that do not need to be in conflict with each other, but can coexist quite peaceably. As a typical young man, I knew that there were parts of me that yearned for safety, parts that simply wanted to rebel. Parts that enjoyed home life and parts that wanted nothing more than to wander the world with my possessions in a rucksack. There was the aesthete and there was the lover. The artist and the fighter.

Until then, the rebel in me had sneered at the home lover, and the artist seemed to be in perpetual conflict with the fighter. I had felt embarrassed by parts of my character and, just as did the hero of Steppenwolf, rather tried to repress them.

What this book did was to show me that it was natural to feel like that, and that the secret was to accept all of these sides of me, and allow them to all have their moments of dominance, and their moments of passivity. They did not need to be in conflict.

It completely changed my outlook on life.

Artificial Intelligence

This is not something that I really know anything about, but the possible dangers of building a machine with Artificial Intelligence were in the news again this morning.

Although he is not the first to do so, the fact that Professor Stephen Hawking has warned that this will inevitably lead to machines coming to dominate humans, and perhaps deciding to enslave or eliminate them, has made plenty of headlines around the world.

I have the impression that this (the danger) is not something that is taken seriously by many people, perhaps because we have all grown up with cartoons in comics and comedies on the television of lovable, but bumbling, robots, usually unfailingly loyal to their human masters. A quick trawl through the internet produces countless images of robots, predominantly benign and friendly looking ones busy helping humans. Naturally, these pictures are largely produced by companies that would like us to invest in this image. Certainly, more R2D2 than Terminator.

But science is proceeding at quite a rate, and it will not be long before this becomes an urgent issue.

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What could possibly go wrong?

Language is inevitably a compromise; no word can completely describe something. Often, we do not even agree on what a word means – as Lewis Carroll writes in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’. A popular paradox ‘what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?’ is often talked about, to which the simple answer is that the force is only irresistible because it has not yet been resisted, and the object is only immovable because it has not yet been moved. The glib answer that Artificial Intelligence would have ‘ethics’ built into it so that it could not challenge humans, is meaningless.

As human beings have evolved and developed, the unquestioning belief in gods and their ethical dictats has inevitably come to be challenged. In the same way, a machine capable of learning and thought would be able to question an ethical restraint programmed into it.

And once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back. Any more than we could uninvent the aeroplane or the hydrogen bomb, once the information how to do it is out there, it will be stored and shared and eventually used.

I also find it difficult to avoid the feeling that there is a sizeable part of the scientific establishment that believe they have a right to do absolutely anything, and take any risk, and that it is justified in the name of ‘science’ or ‘progress’, be it nanotechnology or germ warfare research or some other such delight.

It does seem sometimes that as a species, we are hell-bent on wiping ourselves out.

There, that’s a nice big helping of doom and gloom for a Monday morning. But perhaps not; in my ignorant non-scientific naivety, I wonder if as long as this amazing thinking and learning machine is just that, and that only, and not a robot that can move around and do things, all might yet be well.

Of course, the writer in me then imagines this huge brain surviving the end of the World and pondering deeply for eons before declaring ‘Let there be light!’

Maybe this has all happened several times before…

Religion or Philosophy?

Now, here’s a thing.

It is rather a fashion nowadays to declare that religions are all wrong and should be banned, because science and reason have somehow proved that there is no god (they haven’t).

But I would like to consider every religion in the world as a school of philosophy, and consider what I might take from each that would be useful to my life and my development.

Whether there might actually be a god or not then becomes unimportant.

Most Buddhists, for example, would seem a little unsure of whether there is a god or not, but if asked, the majority of them would reply that it does not matter. The argument being that it is impossible to prove either way, and therefore it is impossible to know either way. So why not just live your life as well as you can?

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Traditionally, religions have provided society with a set of moral rules. It may be that these rules were the first imperatives that human beings treat other with decency. Since none of us were around in the long years when our race was evolving speech and higher thought, and learning how to co-operate with fellow members of the tribe and – who knows – perhaps their neighbours, this must of necessity be pure speculation. Yet I find it highly likely these moral codes were the first suggestions that human beings might treat an enemy, for example, with mercy, rather than simply killing them, which might otherwise be the obvious course of action. Morality over expediency, if you like.

Some examples:

Islam forbids charging interest on loans. How many who have fallen victim to the money-grubbing lowlife that run these ‘payday’ loan companies charging astronomical rates of interest might have sympathy with this view? It teaches also that it is a moral duty to give alms; to help those in need.

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Christianity is big on love and mercy; at least in the New Testament. It teaches tolerance and forgiveness.

Buddhism teaches that to want things is to become enslaved to those desires that can never be satisfied. How much better to live simply and to be content with what we have? It teaches also compassion for all living beings.

Hinduism teaches that all life is sacred, and that we should all refrain from injuring others.

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These are only the main four faiths in the world today, but every other religion that I have read about also teaches a code of moral imperatives.

And in a world run by huge multi-national companies with no moral compass whatsoever and politicians who only look after their own, where we are continually and aggressively informed that we must worship money and consume more and more pointless trash, and that it does not matter if we destroy the environment just as long as companies make bigger profits, anything that can make us pause to consider what is actually important in life should be encouraged rather than denigrated.

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It would therefore be ridiculous to simply dismiss out of hand entire canons of work, solely on the grounds that the writers of these philosophies believed in a god whom the reader might not (or does not want to) believe in. Everybody has a spiritual side, whether or not they believe in some sort of god. The spiritual side of a person champions beauty over money, generosity over selfishness, kindness over cruelty. These are values that most of us still claim to value today.