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Speed(y) Reading December 5, 2006

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.

A few books for those in search of something quick to browse through:

Anthem is perhaps not the best place to start with Ayn Rand (that honor would have to go to Fountainhead, in my opinion), but it does have the benefit of being perhaps her shortest novel.

The themes touched upon in Anthem are much the same as those in her other works: the celebration of individualism and the dangers of communal society. Set in a post-cataclysmic future, the story is about a man called Equality-72521, who lives in a society where individuality is not just frowned upon but is in fact criminalized. There is no “I” in this society, there is only the “We”. There is no such thing as individual achievement; instead what is important is what society as a whole deems is important. There is no such thing as vocation either, as a person’s pursuits are determined by what is dictated by a council from on high. It is, in short, very much like the polis that Plato describes in The Republic, right down to the mating rituals that ensure that the identity of one’s family members remains forever clouded in mystery.

Against this backdrop, Equality-72521 is different. Actually, he dares to be different, and the story recounts his attempt to overcome these limitations on a journey of self-awareness. It is journey in which he discovers who he is, rises above the depths to which he has been damned and (we hope) brings society to task for the ultimate injustice of robbing people of their individuality.

Given the book’s length, Ayn Rand is able to successfully depict the world that she would have us believe exists. However, as in her other novels, there is a tendency for the narrative to proselytize and become preachy. Still, it is an interesting and thought-provoking book. Beware of the centennial edition, though, as it is only half as long as it seems. The manuscript is printed twice: the latter half of the book is a reproduction of the original British publication, with the author’s handwritten comments and revisions.

* * *

I’ve never been the literary type and haven’t otherwise been moved to give Kurt Vonnegut’s work a try. But having read Cat’s Cradle, I can see why he is held in high esteem. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that Vonnegut generally and Cat’s Cradle more specifically are probably on the periphery of my literary comfort zone; to my mind, the book is akin to a cross between Catcher in the Rye and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, two other books just beyond my tastes. Notwithstanding this, Vonnegut weaves a tale that is both unusual and absurd enough to actually be entertaining.

In what will perhaps be the worst summary of a Vonnegut book, allow me to describe it thus: it is a satire about modern civilization and its science, its religion, its politics, its people. The story follows a writer intent on authoring a book about Franklin Hoenikker, the father of the atomic bomb, and the day the bomb was dropped on Japan. In the process, he gets in touch with Hoenikker’s children, each of whom have in their possession some very dangerous piece of technology. As it happens – as it was meant to happen – the lives of the writer, the Hoenikker offspring, and the precepts of an unusual religion are inextricably intertwined and may very well decide what happens to humanity altogether.

The book itself is unabashedly cynical, but its sensibilities are right on (or maybe that’s because I’m a cynic myself). While the story generally meanders along for perhaps half the book, it does come together quite nicely towards the end, though the ending is arguably a bit perplexing. In terms of form, the writing style and exceedingly concise chapters make for easy casual reading. Where content is concerned, the book is actually much deeper than it seems, and much of the book is devoted to introducing readers to Bokononism, a religion of untruths and calypsos that, in spite of itself, is perhaps the most original and insightful set of precepts to have seen print in a very long time.

In all, Vonnegut puts it best: “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.”

* * *

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a book for book lovers, if anything because the premise is too good to pass up: what if the reading of books were made illegal?

Indeed, this bit of social commentary depicts a futuristic society where a concerted effort has been made to destroy all available books, executed by firemen who burn the offending materials, the homes of those suspected of owning them, and occasionally the owners themselves. The protagonist, one Guy Montag, is such a fireman who turns fugitive after his secret library, composed of few books he has been able to save from book-burning excursions, is discovered and set on fire. Hence the title of the piece: 451 degrees fahrenheit is supposed to be the temperature at which book paper burns.

At once akin to but less severe than George Orwell’s 1984, it is fairly obvious that Fahrenheit 451 is an out-and-out critique of censorship. Beyond that, however, it is also a tale of the dangers of modern life: the desire for convenience, conformity and comfort. Indeed, in the book’s context, the former is inseparable from the latter. As the story progresses, these themes take on a life of their own and are arguably pushed to their logical conclusion – and make a lot of sense. There is also a certain timelessness to this tale penned in the 1960s, given its eerie parallels to the present-day and the various media that have supplanted the discipline of book-reading (for many of the same reasons identified by Bradbury).



1. Jan Vincent - December 6, 2006

I was never into to Sci-Fi but I really love Fahrenheit 451. It was recommended to me only a few years ago and I was hooked by the premise.
What book would you memorize for the sake of humanity? I would probably memorize the stuff of C.S Lewis.

2. Benedict - December 6, 2006

hiya roomie… still as intellectual and witty as ever ya. =)

been a long time since i logged on your blog.
hope things are going well on your end…

3. Brian L. Belen - December 6, 2006

Wow. Benedict (who drives expertly as he drifts to theleft) does read my blog. I’m not worthy!

Jan: I don’t think it’d be a good idea for me to memorize a book for the sake of humanity. I’d probably be inclined to take some creative license. =)

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