Legend of Sleepy Hollow

legend of sleepy hollowLegend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, Washington Irving

There is a part in the Sketch Book, at the end of a short story, “A Christmas Dinner”, where Irving reflects that these small reflections may not have enough to offer, and may not be serious enough.  They are not, after all, full of deep philosophy or new knowledge or serious thoughts and prescriptions for the way we live. He answers his imagined critics, “[I]n writing to amuse, if I fail the only evil can be in my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humor with his fellow beings and himself sure, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.” And, all I could think was, “God bless you, Washington Irving.” Friends, after reading Gulliver’s Travels and reports on climate change, after listening to current event podcasts and attending lobby events for immigrants and refugees, this book was exactly what I needed.

Despite the titular story, probably the most famous of Irving’s, this is much more Sketch Book than Sleepy Hollow. There are a handful of tall tales, including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Specter Bridegroom”, but the others portions of the book are almost entirely Irving’s thoughts on regular events, slices of life he’s seen, personal stories he heard in the country, thoughts on the tourist sites of England, and other sketches as they’ve come to him. They are, by and large, enjoyable, and it would be difficult to find an author with an outlook more opposed to that of Swift. Irving relays syrupy tales of filial piety and parental love he hears in the country with barely a question of veracity. In his report of touring Stratford on Avon, as well as other parts of London, he responds to a difficult-to-believe tale by saying, “I am always of easy faith in such matters, and am ever willing to be deceived where the deceit is pleasant and costs nothing. I am therefore a ready believer in relics, legends and local anecdotes…and would advise all travelers who travel for their gratification to be the same.” It is obvious that Irving did not have even a whiff of cynicism about him, and would not have known what to do with such a feeling if he encountered it. Probably feel only pity for the person and then go on his merry way.

While much of Sketch Book is only tall tales Irving has written, or his enjoyable thoughts as he travels, there are a few points of seriousness, despite Irving’s protestations to the contrary. He has two essays on Native Americans, one talking about some of the heroes among the Native tribes, another reflecting on the plight of the Native Americans and the wrongs that have been done them. In discussing some of the heroes, heroes who fought the white colonists, Irving specifically mentions that many would prefer to think that these heroics, that bravery, family, and other such characteristics don’t exist among the tribe to better justify our mistreatment, but can any of us really say that this is the truth? Or that any of the settlers wouldn’t react the same say if someone came to their home? These, too, are not cynical, but rather lovingly written essays and entreaties to one’s better nature. And they serve as a reminder that in times of social sin, those who can accept the status quo—or even engage in the evil around us—would have everyone believe that ‘everyone’ feels the same, that respecting the rights of others or the existence of other races was never even an option, never discussed. But that is not the case. There are always those calling for the right thing to be done, in any age, and here is a record that even in the 1800s there were people, people who were hardly radicals, calling for respect for the Native American tribes.

Naturally, given my other reading materials, this is the sort of essay I tended to zero in on and meditate on, that most stuck with me for later. But while these essays were welcome and moving additions, by far the greater part of the book are the simpler sketches, the celebrations of ordinary life, of small acts of kindness and generosity, of the minor joys one can receive. It was a thoroughly enjoyable book, and even in its more serious sections radiated a benevolent view of human nature, a hope to appeal to our better natures, and a desire to “penetrate through the gathering film of nature.” I think we could all do with reading this book right now.

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Gulliver’s Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts

gulliver's travelsGulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

It is strange what sticks in the popular imagination, isn’t it? Gulliver’s Travels is a sprawling tale, taking our titular hero on four separate journeys to even more islands and societies. Written by a master satirist, author of A Modest Proposal among other essays, it works as a parody of the popular travel tales of his day, a critique of utopia, and is a deeply misanthropic and biting satire of Jonathan Swift’s own time. And yet somehow, it has been commonly reduced to this. It is a simplistic version of Gulliver’s Travel, to say the least.

In Swift’s tale, Lemuel Gulliver takes a position as a ship’s surgeon, and later a captain, traveling the world. In the first tale, he is quickly shipwrecked and finds himself in the land of Lilliput, with diminutive people only a few inches high. Though they are understandably frightened, they eventually let him stay. He learns much about their society, including the deep rifts that have arisen over which side of an egg one cracks to open it (a satire I trust does not need much explanation), and eventually loses favor after refusing to enslave their enemies, the Blefuscudians, similarly sized people of a nearby island. He ends up being arrested and sentenced to be blinded, before a friend helps him escape. This is the part you most likely know from children’s cartoons.

The story continues, however. Gulliver meets the Brobdingnagians, peaceful giants who take him in as a pet and are horrified by hearing of the weapons of war possessed by England. His traveling box is eventually picked up by an eagle and dropped into the sea, where he is found and returned to England. On his next voyage he is attacked by pirates and marooned near a series of islands with commentary Swift wanted to shoehorn in but not enough for individual stories—Laputa is a flying island devoted to learning, but with no way to apply it. They are routinely throwing rocks and the island below, Balnibarbi, devoted to research with no direction, such as turning marble into pillows and using waste to find evidence of political conspiracies. Other islands include one where they summon ghosts, and one where they are immortal but continue to age. He eventually makes it back to England by way of Japan for a short rest before returning to sea.

The final voyage sees him mutinied and an increasingly cynical Gulliver ends up in the land of the Hoynhnms, intelligent and wise horses who are constantly fighting off the Yahoos, savage humans not unlike those in Planet of the Apes. Here, Gulliver falls in love with the Hoyhnhnms society, their honesty, peacefulness and wisdom, and begins to despise people who he sees as barely evolved Yahoos. The Hoyhnhnms see him the same way, however, and send him back to Britain, where he lives out his life in a stable, talking to the horses.

 

Gulliver’s Travels, written shortly after Robinson Crusoe came out, was meant to parody the many such travel narratives at the time, and poke fun at many aspects of British society. It would, no doubt, be much better read in a class where someone could explain all of the jokes. I only got about half. And, like many classics, it is shockingly dirty. One wonders why schools allow it in their classrooms! He gets kicked out of Lilliput because he puts out a fire by pissing on the castle and the town (the Lilliputians are quite insulted.) In Brobdingnag there is a whole section of him basically crawling around on a giant’s breasts. Whenever anyone complains about entertainment today and says we must think of the children, remember: people were filthy back in the day. Shakespeare sounds better than South Park now because of the old-timey words and the British accent, but back then? It was not.

I remember reading this book in high school and liking it quite a bit, and I think it probably spoke to me much more back then, when I was angsty and definitely better than the rest of the world and reading Voltaire and other contemporaries. This time around, it was simply too dark. The misanthropy was too much. And the misogyny as well—I understand that Swift exaggerated the misogyny some to parody it as well, a common theme in his books, but the problem there is there are many who would see what he wrote and not assume it was exaggerated. Maybe things were better than, but I read all satire these days with an eye towards Poe’s law.  Basically, with all that’s going on right now in the world it was darker than I wanted. But that’s definitely on me for picking up Swift and wanting to be cheered up—what did I expect?

Cannery Row

Cannery Row  Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

A fairly short book, Cannery Row isn’t so much a novel as it is a sketchbook. Published in 1945, it takes place on a particular street in Monterey, CA, during the Great Depression. The book covers the characters and their goings on, a window into one particular place and time and the people making their lives there.

The ostensible plot of the book centers around Doc, a marine biologist who works at the lab in Cannery Row and is likely the most “respectable” person in the book. He studies the marine life and collects specimens, which he packs and sells to labs and classrooms around the country. Mack, the leaders of a very contented community of drunks and layabouts, decide to throw a thank you party for Doc to thank him for all the good he’s done for them and everyone else. Along the way this premise is used to flesh out the people and buildings who are to be found on Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is an evocative writer, able to set a scene or make you know a person with a few well chosen words or phrases. And he is an amazing observer of humanity. Steinbeck is a master of find a way to describe those aspects of people or humanity that are under the surface, the type that seem to go away when you look at them straight on, and find a way to describe them perfectly. It shows up in all of his books, which are populated with such poignant characters, but in a book where the story is the characters, his talent really shines.

Cannery Row reminds me of nothing so much as Richard Brautigan, in all the best ways. He’s not nearly as absurd, and all of Steinbeck’s sentences make sense, but the book also doesn’t feel entirely real, either. Cannery Row seems to exist just next to our world, the way much of Brautigan’s writing does. But at the same time it’s easy to put oneself there. I smell the tide and feel the cold water when reading of Doc’s excursions the same way I smell loam and feel Northern California fog when I read Brautigan.

I adore this book. Steinbeck is always a joy to read, but it can be hard to be joyful when reading his stories. Cannery Row is a departure from those, although similar to books such as Tortilla Flat, which played with the same concept and location but with a different group of characters. It’s not that it’s all slight, as there is much going on under the surface of the story, but the book doesn’t deal with heady subjects, just the basics of living and the many different ways people go about that. It’s a delightful novel, with beautiful language, and that radiates with love for its subjects. A truly wonderful experience to read.

The City and the Stars

the city and the starsThe City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is the best writer of the “Big Three” sci-fi authors, speaking in terms of the craft of writing. Better than Asimov, far better than Heinlein. He and Bradbury are probably the best of the classics. Clarke’s interesting to read as well, though, because he foresees societies that really are different than our own, and, setting him apart from others, his future societies are often relatively free of conflict. His books are rarely violent, and barely any conflict. They slowly move forward with people more or less behaving decently, and even most of those who don’t still trying to do the right thing. They’re carried forward almost entirely by the writing and new ideas. One almost gets the sense he finds classic story elements of violence, distrust, and other conflict get in the way of the ideas he wants to pursue, with how quickly he rushes in in each book to explain, “Those silly problems of jealousy and anger weren’t a problem anymore! And no one would consider hurting someone. Now, on to the real meat of the story.”

That being said, if you read too many of his books in a short period of time they can start to get a bit tedious. The first time you read a book where nothing much happens and humans have become exceptionally advanced and everyone more or less gets along it’s rather refreshing, and it seems like such a brave choice from the author. After three or four you kind of want something to happen.

The City and the Stars is much farther in the future than most of Clarke’s books, an incomprehensible one billion years in the future. The main character, Alvin, lives in the self-contained city of Diaspar, where all decisions have been outsourced to artificial intelligence and humans study, produce art, wander the city, talk with one another, and whatever else they would like to do, with no concern for money or need until they decide they’d like to have their intelligence returned to the central computer and returned at a later date. Interesting to consider the way science fiction authors of the past considered automation–Clarke would have been all for a universal basic income and incredibly productive robots. I believe Asimov and many old “what does the future hold!” Disney cartoons thought that was the goal, as well.

The artificial intelligence for Diaspar controls everything, including the mix of personalities in the city, and every now and then they throw in a “unique” such as Alvin, someone who is a brand new personality mix rather than an old one retrieved from the archives. As a “unique” Alvin isn’t terrified of leaving the city of Diaspar, which all others are afraid to do. No one ever travels outside the city walls. He does, finding a new city, Lys, which limited their use of robots and instead perfected the human mind and telepathy. Two paths for humanity. There’s more that comes after explaining why most humans left earth, why some stayed behind and created the only two cities left on earth, Diaspar and Lys, and something about a galactic intelligence-another Clarke staple-but honestly the first half of the book was the most interesting.

I enjoy Clarke. I am heartened by the obvious hope he has for humanity, and it’s rather curious to read Utopian rather than dystopian science fiction these days. His writing, as I mentioned, really is excellent. I find myself hoping he’s right that we can make a good future for ourselves. It usually puts me in a better mood. Plus, this is also a fairly slim volume, so it was a quick read. For future reading, though, I just think every now and then I need some action.