The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Solstice. The shortest day of the year north of the equator. Hereon, the days grow longer, which makes some happy. It does me. I don’t do well as the amount of daylight ebbs. A death watch. I’ve done a couple of those. Sitting with close ones. They knew they’re dying. So as the subject arose in last conversations, I didn’t step around it. Death is a time for ultimate honesty given its finality.
The winter solstice is a mixed bag. The looming stretch of biting cold and snow can be depressing. But for those who enjoy curling up with a good book and a hot tea or chocolate, it can be, as Andy Williams crooned, a most wonderful time of the year.
Many prefer movies over books. That’s unfortunate, an aspect of our busy culture that values immediate gratification over anticipatory happiness. That’s not to disparage film. Great ones—e.g. Citizen Kane—abound. But if you’re like me, you prefer packing your bag and accompanying characters on their journey. You prefer allowing your imagination to roam freely rather than allowing it to be plied by a director and his cameraman. You understand reading a story helps you feel more strongly what the characters feel…their anxiety and confusion and doubt and wonderment and…
Good fiction. You can’t beat it. It comes in a variety of genres: literary, science, historical, romance. It allows one to escape and detach from day-to-day experiences while providing a variety of emotional experiences and outcomes. It can be simple entertainment with no goal other than to entertain. Romance and murder-mystery/who-dunnit novels serve that purpose.
Good fiction can also have a message, a point to make. I prefer novelists of that bent, classic writers such as Mark Twain and John Steinbeck and recent ones such as Toni Morrison. Their stories delve into the human condition. They pull the veneer off our personal and societal sensibilities and expose our inglorious shortcomings, failures, hypocrisies, double-standards. Some don’t like that. Political correctness is, after all, a one-way street.
The greatest dissection of American mores and social culture remains Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I periodically reread the passage about Huck’s moral crisis. The law and his church say he must turn in Jim, a runaway slave, who has become the father his “pap” never was. But his conscience eats at him.
“It was a close place,” says Huck. “I took it (the note to Miss Watson about Jim) up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”
Huck’s encounter with the Duke and King is as revealing today as it was 130 years ago. They were frauds and when the townspeople realized they’d been had, they tarred and feathered the two miscreants, an act that makes Huck sick.
“Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,” he concludes.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald stands as the seminal expose of America’s love affair with wealth. Nearly 100 years old, yet timely. Old money v. the nouveaux riche. Environmental degradation in pursuit of accumulation. Sterility of culture. Working poor as pawns for the rich. Idolization of wealth. Self-worth measured by the size of one’s wealth. If we were honest, we’d admit the dollar sign has far greater power and influence over us than the stars and stripes.
Since high school, I’ve found Russian novelists—Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, Pasternak—compelling reads for the same reasons I find Twain and company compelling. They delve into Russian mind and soul, steeped and steeled over a millennium of Orthodoxy, harsh long winters, and gulags, so vastly different than the American.
One could turn to current-day pontificators for an understanding of our present woes. Or one could curl up with those guys. They told our story before it happened.