The Aftertaste of Portnoy’s Complaint

Portnoys-complaintWhy do we rate some books as classics, while many other books remain labeled in our minds as ‘just another great novel’? To me, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a good example illustrating the answer to this question.

When I opened Portnoy’s Complaint for the first time, I could feel its Jewish-American scent from the very first lines. It felt like being physically present in that community and knowing the protagonist and his family in person. The images drawn by Philip Roth were so vivid that I was disgusted by the feeling of presence in their bathroom when I came across the descriptions of various physiological acts performed there by the protagonist. Some scenes disturbed me: they reminded me of other similar families which I used to know. The first pages caused some unpleasant aftertaste, so I had to close the book for a while and let my disgust calm down.

However, the book did not let me go, I started thinking about it. Surprisingly, the scenes that had caused my disgust in the beginning, slowly floated away with time, and then the main character — the self-antagonistic protagonist with painfully inflamed, guilt-infested mind, captured my imagination. The few first pages of the book left such a strong aftertaste that I had no other choice, but to open the book again and read it to the end.

To be honest, this guy–the protagonist–still disgusts me: this obtrusive Jewish bore keeps making me think about his problems… against my will! No, I am not going to discuss his mental and emotional health here… not in this post, but isn’t it amazing how the protagonist has all the qualities of an antagonist, and in fact, in this book, he is both! Two in one!

What attracts my attention is the fact that Philip Roth’s novel has captured my imagination so much that, weeks after reading it, I still return to it in my mind, thinking about its characters as if they are real people living next door.

I am certainly not the first one to develop this aftertaste from the novel. The book has  been sensationally popular; millions of people have read it since the day it was published. As Bernard Avishai wrote in his article for Huffington Post,

“By 1975, six years after the book’s publication, Portnoy’s Complaint had sold nearly half a million copies in hardback in the United States, three and a half million in paperback. The book brought what was in the back of our minds to the tips of tongues.”

The reviews of the book are countless, too. And quite controversial. Some rate the book as absolutely excellent, others are openly negative, but nearly no one evaluates the book as average.

The novel touches every reader in a unique way, no matter what kind of emotions it evokes, because Portnoy’s Complaint is–

“…a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect–and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.” NYTimes review

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How to Pick the Right Book to Read?

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Deciding what book to read is becoming more difficult every day due to the tremendous, ever-growing offer of books in the market, and I assume that making this choice will only become more challenging in the future. Whenever we approach a book shelf (or equally, when we do an online search), we have a number of personal preferences/criteria in mind, but neither the short description of the book, nor its cover, nor illustrations can guarantee that we will like the book. Looking through the readers’ reviews is also only a relatively-efficient way, because– well, you know, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Is there an algorithm for selecting a book with a near 100% satisfaction guarantee?

Yes, there is one for me, and it is really simple. I believe that any book can be fairly evaluated by the quotes taken from it and the readers’ ratings of these quotes. Luckily, there are a number of websites (goodreads.com is one the most popular among them), where you can find lists of quotes nearly for every book. Whenever I need to make an opinion about a book, I go to those pages and read the quotes left by the readers of the book.

I know, it would be logical to ask, “What if a book has not been quoted on Goodreads yet?” Well, to me the answer is simple: I will wait till it is. There are thousands of other books to enjoy.

Another question would be, “What if I don’t like those quotes?” In this case, I’ll exclaim, “Great! This is exactly what you need to make your choice!” The best way to determine for yourself if the book ‘suits’ your personal taste and immediate reading needs is to read a few lines which other people have aready noted as the best pearls of the author. Simply look through the quotes and decide whether if you like them, or not. If you do, you will be reading the book the next minute. If you don’t, you can move on and look for another book.

My method may not be perfect, of course, but it suggests some degree of objectiveness, so it works for me. For example, if I search for quotes from Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller), I can see hundreds of quotes left by grateful readers, and I love nearly all of them. When I look for novels by James Patterson, there are also lots of quotes, but they are not always good to my liking. At this point the choice becomes personalized, and this is very good, because everyone can quickly determine for themselves, who of the authors they like more.

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The Thing About Luck

luckHuman luck is real, and it is a she. I have always known this with my subconscious mind, and now, when I have spent enough time studying it, I have learned to stay inspired with it. Luck shows itself to those who really want to see it, and Alice Hoffman’s words are correct: you don’t know if it is good or bad until you have some perspective.

My heroine Inga in A Soft Spot for Luck believes that–

…luck is a careless moth. It appears all of a sudden, circles around your hand, even touches it jauntily, and flies away, so you can’t catch it. We spend our whole lives chasing and trying to catch our luck, when in fact, all we need to do is just stretch out a hand and let it land there… Moreover, while we chase our moth of luck, we balance on the edge of an abyss, and the name of that abyss is Fate.”

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To those who needs a vivid image of it, Luck looks like a moth. To some it is a myth, a thing to believe in; to others, it is an invisible being – a smart one – which offers us chances to pick from. But finally, luck is always drawn to the feeling that can be developed in us: inspiration of love.

Let me say this again: Luck is real. It is everywhere, inside and around us. We live in it like fish lives in water. Luck is our natural habitat, it is our other air. We simply don’t realize its presence, because we can’t see or touch it.

We tend to forget this at times – like breathing the air. But whenever we walk into a stuffy room, we start worrying about air conditioning, don’t we? The same thing with luck. We start complaining about luck insufficiency or luck failure when we don’t have enough of it. There is no need to follow or chase our luck; we just need to prepare ourselves to live with whatever it offers us.

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Huxley’s Novel Where Nothing Happens…

This post is about Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. I just ran across a short Youtube video, where the reviewer’s main idea was to say that ‘characters talk a lot’, but ‘nothing really happens’ in the novel…

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I happened to have Crome Yellow in my home library since I was a teenager. The book was not a translation into Russian: it was an original, unabridged edition, a rare thing for the books, published in the Soviet Union. Now, I even think that the Soviet-time censors allowed it to be published because they also saw Crome Yellow as a book where ‘nothing really happens’. A perfect book for a censor, no doubt.   aldous6

It rested untouched in my room, on the English books shelf, for years. Published in 1979 by the USSR’s “Progress” publishing house, it was smaller than  traditional books, but a bit larger than classical Penguin books, so my mother left it standing right behind the glass of the shelf, showing me its whole cover, while a few dozens of original Penguin editions (once brought by Dad from a conference trip to America) were obediently lining along the shelf behind it.

Every morning, a sun beam creeped into the room to count little penguins on the book spines (I deliberately kept the curtains wide open to let the sunbeam in). I would wake up and lie quietly for a while, listening to birds chirping right outside and watching that beam. It would creep along the shelf and light up little images of penguins one by one, until it reached the bright yellow cover of Crome Yellow, and then the whole shelf would start glowing with tender, yellowish light. When the beam reached leter ‘R’, it was time for me to get up and go to school.

I did not try reading the books from that shelf until I was 16 or so. They were written in real American and British English, not the English that I was taught in the Soviet-time high school, so they were too difficult for me to read. When I finally turned my eyes toward that shelf, I was a senior high school student, preparing to enter a university department of English language and philology, and I was looking for every possible opportunity to learn the ‘real’ English language, which the natve speakers used.

Crome Yellow was the handiest book to reach, so I took it from the shelf first. Having struggled through the first dozen of pages, I realized that I could read it– with dictionary, of course, and very slowly, but I understood the language in general. Then, with every next page, I got used to Huxley’s style, and reading became easier. I think I did not understand some of the idioms, but I sensed sarcasm and the witty style of a young, intelligent and a bit maximalistic narrator from the very beginning. Thanks to Crome Yellow, for the first time in my life, I felt proud of myself: I could read original English classics!

At that time, I had no idea about other books written by Huxley, neither I knew who he was or when exactly he lived; I could not even tell whether he was British or American, but reading Crome Yellow opened the whole new world of literature-in-English for me. It was largely due to this book that I finally decided to pursue the idea of obtaining a university diploma in English language and literature.

Now, when I am familiar with most of Aldous Huxley’s books, I realized that I never happened to re-read Crome Yellow since university. I downloaded it for reading this morning, and from the very first lines I am in love with this book again!

How could that reviewer not see the wonderful work of mind going on right behind the words of the characters? How can anybody say that ‘nothing really happens’ in the book, when what happens every second is the work of sharp, witty, observational mind, which provokes the reader to think together with the narrator? To me, the excellence of the novel is exactly in its atypical plot structure: the simplicity of the plot was developed deliberately in order to picture the life of people, who ‘talk a lot’ and would like to accomplish a lot, but their intentions seldom go farther than just talking, so ‘nothing really happens’ in their lives.

Today, three decades after I was a teenager, that yellow cover still faces the window in my parents’ apartment, and the long shelf of Penguin books still makes a neat line behind it. Every time I visit my parents’ home, I am tempted to enter that room in the morning hours to see how the sun beam travels along the shelf, showing me little penguins on the book spines and creeping to reach yellow cover with big white letters: Crome Yellow. When it does, I remember the words from the book:

“All that happens means something; nothing you do is ever insignificant.”
― Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow

Aldous3It was a significant thing for me to watch that sun beam creep over Crome Yellow cover every morning: it helped me choose my directions in life. I am thankful to Huxley for this, because he could convince me so gently! Nothing really happened, but I came to the most important, life altering decision. Isn’t it what distinguishes a real classic from a scribbler?

* * *

These are my favorite lines from the book. Enjoy (or read the whole book, I am sure you will love it):

“He had been making an unsuccessful effort to write something about nothing in particular”

“Things somehow seem more real and vivid when one can apply somebody else’s ready-made phrase about them.”

“He took nobody by surprise; there was nobody to take.”

“As for women, I am perpetually assuring myself that they’re the broad highway to divinity”.

Dostoevsky’s drawings

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Fyodor Dostoevsky never discussed his drawings with anybody. Neither he left any notes describing his attempts to picture his characters or scenes from his stories. He must have believed that writing was a very intimate business, so the only person who was allowed to keep Dostoevsky’s diaries, notebooks and sketchbooks, was his wife, Anna. It was largely due to her effort that many of Dostoevsky’s sketches and drawings were preserved in very good condition and can be studied by researchers today.

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Interestingly, Dostoevsky never produced anything else but the three types of drawings:
1. Portraits of people, which were made with great attention to detail and, as a rule, they were images of his new characters, which he crafted while working on every new book;

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2. Architectural forms, mainly of Gothic style buildings, which Dostoevsky – an architect by diploma – also drew with amazing care for detail; and
3. Exercises in calligraphy, which, very probably, helped him concentrate when he was planning his novel plots, because these ‘exercises’ appear quite often among his notes, made at the beginning stages of work with every big manuscript.

D1 His drawings, as well as writing sketches are usually scattered all over the page, which shows how thoroughly he used to put together little pieces of ideas, scattered thoughts and observations to develop every scene, description, or dialog.

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This is how great books were (and are) put together: huge work of mind; mindblowing concentration of thought, amazing work of imagination.

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Love… as Dostoevsky saw it.

Love. Is it a gift given to us from above, or a skill which can be developed by learning? I have been trying to figure this out, and of course, I am not the first one to ask this question. A great thinker of the 19-th century, Fyodor Dostoevsky, kept trying to answer this question during his whole life. Some of his thoughts on the topic can be found in his immortal novels. I spent this morning turning pages of my Soviet-time edition of Dostoevsky, published in 1958.

D001Let me start with a line from The Brothers Karamazov, one of the most acclaimed of Dostoevsky’s novels: 

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Wow. Scary, isn’t it?

In the 19-th century the phrase ‘being unable to love’ sounded even worse than it sounds now: it meant that Creator himself had decided to deprive some particular people of the gift, and thus, they were in some way inferior, or sinful, or just ‘spotted’ and destinied to suffer endlessly.

Today, it is still common to hear that love is a gift given to us from above, but we tend to take it lightly, because — well — science tells us not to worry. “Love is a result of chemical reactions,” it says, “if your body has hormones — and, of course, every body has some,” it says, “then you have nothing to worry about: relax, you are capable of feeling love.”

Modern science looks at it with pragmatism, typical of the 21-st century. The notion ‘gift’ is defined by modern dictionaries as a natural ability or talent, and so, some people feel gifted for love, while others claim that love is a skill (interpreted by dictionaries as ‘the ability to do something well; expertise’), which can be acquired by training. Very convenient, don’t you think? 😉

When 150 years ago Dostoevsky wrote that–

“To love someone means to see them as God intended them.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

every reader would nod his head in agreement on reading this, a contemporary reader might shrug doubdfully or even express disagreement. Unlike our great-great-grandparents, we, modern people, prefer to believe that being in love is an exciting adventure, which may (and should) happen to anybody, it may involve lots of emotional experience, and– well, there is no need to worry: nobody dies of love anymore. Love is fun! Why even try to understand how God intended your partner, when you

In his latest stories, ever-gloomy Dostoevsky writes–

“To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Love IS a skill, agrees the great genius, because it can be developed. Moreover, it develops with suffering, it takes you time and suffering to learn the skill of love. In Dostoevsky’s latest story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, his character says:

“I want to suffer so that I may love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

If Dostoevsky’s characters finally managed to master the skill of love, they would realize the change that happened to them:

“They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

but still, there was lots of suffering:

“But to fall in love does not mean to love. One can fall in love and still hate.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

and more suffering:

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What a gloomy, dark, sad, derogatory approach! After this, I am not surprised that our high-school students are reluctant to read Dostoevsky.

Still, a genius is always a genuis. Even hundreds years later, his words remain meaningful. Moreover, they sound like a call for action, and no one of us could put it together as precisely as Dostoevsky did:

“Love a man, even in his sin, for that love is a likeness of the divine love, and is the summit of love on earth.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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P.S. This is a photo of a page from Dostoevsky’s book of notes. One of these days, I am going to put together a little post about his drawings and calligraphy practice. It seems he loved drawing while planning his scenes.

A Jonah of Portugal: A Few Lines About Camoens

Jonah (in the Bible) is a Hebrew minor prophet. He was called by God to preach in Nineveh, but disobeyed and attempted to escape by sea; in a storm he was thrown overboard as a bringer of bad luck and swallowed by a great fish, only to be saved and finally succeed in his mission

Luís Vaz de Camões (or de Camoens) (c. 1524 – June 10 1580) is the greatest national poet of Portugal. He is best remembered for his epic work Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), the influence of which is so profound that even today, Portuguese is often called the “language of Camões”. He is also well known as the man whose life was marked with numerous troubles, which seemed to accompany him like seagulls that follow a boat.

camoesMany details concerning the life of the poet remain unknown. The historians learned many facts about his young life from his poems: Camoens was lucky to obtain a good education by having access to exclusive literature of that time, including classical Greek, Roman and Latin works. He used to read a lot in Latin and Italian, and wrote poetry in Spanish.

Now, comes the interesting part: having studied a massive amount of books, Camoens — an incurable romantic and idealist — fell in love with Catherine of Ataíde, lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and also Princess Maria, sister of John III of Portugal. Like many other immature and brave romantics-in-love, the young man had a sharp tongue and, as a sequence, could not find common language with authorities, which resulted in his exile from Lisbon in 1548. Camoens traveled to Ribatejo where he stayed in the company of friends who sheltered and fed him for about six months.

In the fall of 1549, he enlisted in the overseas militia and traveled to Ceuta. During a battle with the Moors, he lost the sight in his right eye. In 1551, a changed man, Camoens eventually returned to Lisbon, living a bohemian lifestyle.

Not for long, though. In 1552, during the religious festival of Corpus Christi, in the Largo do Rossio, he injured a member of the Royal Stables and was imprisoned. His mother pleaded for his release, visiting royal ministers and the Borges family for a pardon. Released, Camoens was ordered to pay 4,000 réis and serve three years in the militia in the Orient.

He departed in 1553 for Goa on board the São Bento, the ship arrived to Goa six months later, and Camoens was immediately imprisoned for debt. He used to call Goa “a stepmother to all honest men”.

At that point in his life, Camoens was made to believe that adventure is the real man’s second name. During his first obligatory service, he took part in a battle along the Malabar Coast. The battle was followed by skirmishes along the trading routes between Egypt and India. The fleet eventually returned to Goa by November 1554. During his time ashore, he continued his writing publicly, as well as writing correspondence for the uneducated men of the fleet.

Camoens

Luís de Camões

Foge-me pouco a pouco a curta vida
(se por caso é verdade que inda vivo);
vai-se-me o breve tempo d’ante os olhos;
choro pelo passado e quando falo,
se me passam os dias passo e passo,
vai-se-me, enfim, a idade e fica a pena.

Little by little it ebbs, this life,
if by any chance I am still alive;
my brief time passes before my eyes.
I mourn the past in whatever I say;
as each day passes, step by step
my youth deserts me—what persists is pain.

At the end of his obligatory service, he was given the position of chief warrant officer in Macau. He was charged with managing the properties of missing and deceased soldiers in the Orient. During this time he worked on his epic poem Os Lusíadas (“The Lusiads”) in a grotto.

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Camoens Grotto, Macao

Uh-huh. Once a Jonah always a Jonah! Camoens was accused of misappropriations and had to travel to Goa and respond to the accusations of the tribunal. During his return journey, near the Mekong River along the Cambodian coast, he was shipwrecked, saving his manuscript but losing his Chinese lover, Dinamene. His shipwreck survival in the Mekong Delta was enhanced by the legendary detail that he succeeded in swimming ashore while holding aloft the manuscript of his still-unfinished epic.

In 1570 Camoens finally made it back to Lisbon, where two years later he published Os Lusíadas, for which he was considered one of the most prominent Iberian poets at the time. In recompense for this poem or perhaps for services in the Far East, he was granted a small royal pension (15000 réis) by the young and ill-fated King Sebastian (ruled 1557–1578).

In 1578 he heard of the appalling defeat of the Battle of Alcácer Quibir, where King Sebastian was killed and the Portuguese army destroyed. The Castilian troops were approaching Lisbon when Camoens wrote to the Captain General of Lamego:

“All will see that so dear to me was my country that I was content to die not only in it but with it”.

Camões died in Lisbon in 1580, at the age of 56. The day of his death, 10 June OS, is Portugal’s national day. He is buried near Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in the parish of Belém in Lisbon.

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Mick Jagger and a Russian Book

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I just learned that when Mick Jagger (of The Rolling Stones) was writing his song “Sympathy for the Devil”, he was inspired by the book which I love more than many other books taken together and find one of the best books ever written in Russian. In one of his 2012 interviews, Jagger stated that his influence for the song came from reading Baudelaire, and even more from the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. Jagger got the book as a present from his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull. Back in 2005, Marianne herself confirmed this during an interview for Mojo magazine: «I got Mick to read ‘The Master and Margarita’ and out of that, after discussing it at length with me, he wrote that song».

Master and Margarita, written in the 1930-es, became available to the English-speaking readers only in 1967. The translators, of course, did their best. Still. the book is so thought-provoking and the story world (Moscow of the 1930-ies, the peak of Stalin’s power) is so unique that majority of the readers prefer to return to it again and again to understand and sense it better.

As a Russian speaker by birth, I have the pleasure of enjoying the masterpieces of Russian literature and poetry in originals. Every couple of months, Bulgakov’s books turn up on my table and I never put them back to the shelf until I read everything through to the very end. I am not surprised at all that Mick Jagger was inspired by the book to write a new song. If you have not read The Master and Margarita yet, do so. You will feel like having opened a new door which you used to pass by for years, and now you finally pushed it open.

P.S. Finally, another cute trivia: Ray Manzarek of the legendary band The Doors had for a long time hoped to make a movie picture based on The Master and Margarita, he believed that Mick Jagger would be the best candidate to play Professor Woland in the movie. As far as I know, the movie was never made.

Based on Wikipedia and www.masterandmargarita.eu

Sympathy for the Devil

The Rolling Stones

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah
(Woo woo, woo woo)

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made
(Woo woo, woo woo)

I shouted out,
“Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all
It was you and me
(Who who, who who)

Let me please introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reached Bombay
(Woo woo, who who)

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
(Who who)
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby
(Who who, who who)

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what’s confusing you
Is just the nature of my game
(Woo woo, who who)

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint
(Who who, who who)

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
(Woo woo)
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah
(Woo woo, woo woo)

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, mm yeah
(Who who)
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, mm mean it, get down
(Woo woo, woo woo)

Woo, who
Oh yeah, get on down
Oh yeah
Oh yeah!
(Woo woo)

Tell me baby, what’s my name
Tell me honey, can ya guess my name
Tell me baby, what’s my name
I tell you one time, you’re to blame

Oh, who
Woo, woo
Woo, who
Woo, woo
Woo, who, who
Woo, who, who
Oh, yeah

What’s my name
Tell me, baby, what’s my name
Tell me, sweetie, what’s my name…

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Albert Einstein: My Credo

What follows is a repost of Albert Einstein’s speech written in 1932. Wonderful words. Amazing work of thought. A message of a genius to all of us.

Albert-Einstein

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious.

Albert Einstein. My Credo

[Part I]
“It is a special blessing to belong among those who can and may devote their best energies to the contemplation and exploration of objective and timeless things. How happy and grateful I am for having been granted this blessing, which bestows upon one a large measure of independence from one’s personal fate and from the attitude of one’s contemporaries. Yet this independence must not inure us to the awareness of the duties that constantly bind us to the past, present and future of humankind at large.

Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here, involuntarily and uninvited, for a short stay, without knowing the why and the wherefore. In our daily lives we feel only that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own.

I am often troubled by the thought that my life is based to such a large extent on the work of my fellow human beings, and I am aware of my great indebtedness to them.

I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.

I have never coveted affluence and luxury and even despise them a good deal. My passion for social justice has often brought me into conflict with people, as has my aversion to any obligation and dependence I did not regard as absolutely necessary.

[Part 2]
I have a high regard for the individual and an insuperable distaste for violence and fanaticism. All these motives have made me a passionate pacifist and antimilitarist. I am against any chauvinism, even in the guise of mere patriotism.

Privileges based on position and property have always seemed to me unjust and pernicious, as does any exaggerated personality cult. I am an adherent of the ideal of democracy, although I know well the weaknesses of the democratic form of government. Social equality and economic protection of the individual have always seemed to me the important communal aims of the state.

Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice keeps me from feeling isolated.

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.”

Einstein signature, 1932

Courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

________________________________________

Picture credits:
Courtesy of the Albert Einstein-Archives, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, Call Nr 28-218.00: 1
Hans-Josef Küpper, Cologne: 2, 3

A Horror Book for a Vanilla Reader…

art-book

The popular saying, “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are” is attributed to a stunning variety of people – Assyrians, Mexicans, the Italian mafia bosses, and even to Vladimir Lenin. I guess the ongoing popularity of the saying proves that it is correct. Well, if so, why not try and apply the same yardstick to particular groups of people, for example, to those who tend to read a lot? Let us rephrase the proverb:

“Tell me what you read and I will tell you who you are.”

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Now, think of it this way: you are an admirer of sweet, vanilla romance stories and you just met a new friend. At the very first date, he confesses to you that he never goes to bed without reading a horror book… What would your secret thoughts be like?

Okay, let us fantacize more. Suppose, you decided to read your friend’s favorite horror story — just to get to understand his taste in reading a little better — and somewhere in the middle of the book you begin to clearly realize that one of the book’s characters behaves, speaks, and even thinks exactly like your friend! Again: any secret thoughts?

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Alright, let us go a little further. The horror book scares you — not only because it is an unusual piece of reading for you, but because it reveals your friend’s personality in a new, unexpected way. At the same time, the more you read, the more excited you are by the book, so you decide to read it to the end. A plausible explanation for this decision is already buzzing in your mind: first, you want to learn as much as possible from the book; second, you want to be well prepared for the next meeting with him

And there it comes: the realization that, before you opened the book for the first time, this guy was only a friend, a nice person to be with, but now, when you learned so much about him from the book, he somehow means a lot more to you…

Well, this is the moment when I need to I put on my psychologist hat and ask for a pause, because you have just crossed your so-called point of no return: the reading has affected your opinion about your friend; now, your impression of him is a bit less candid than it was in the very beginning.

But why? What has happened?

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Well, scientists call this ‘experience-taking’, where people actually “change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.” Today, it is a scientifically proven fact that “while reading a book or story, people are prone to subconsciously adopt their behavior, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses to that of fictional characters as if they were their own.” But if so, then reading books is contagious, and reading the favorite books of our friends can lead to double effect: you’ll develop a biased opinion about your friend, plus the book might change your own behavior, too.

The tricky thing is that ‘experience-taking’ is an unconscious process, it can be very powerful because people don’t even realize it is happening to them. It begins naturally under the right circumstances. For the process to happen, you have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character’s identity. In other words, “the more you are reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” scientists say.

So far so good. At least, there is a way to avoid being ‘sucked’ into the ‘experience-taking’: you simply need to remain completely conscious (a bit skeptical, for example, or simply to do your reading when surrounded with other people who won’t let you focus on reading completely), then the book will not be able to ‘cast its spell’ on you.

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If you are an addicted reader since very young age, you will probably remember how you were ‘addicted’ to some book heroes and how they influenced you in childhood. Many parents today have to go through a worrying time of Harry-Potter-mania with their kids. Well, the influence of books is strong, and they don’t only ‘work’ in the immature minds of children. Researchers confirm that ‘experience-taking’ may lead every grown-up reader to temporary real world changes, as well.

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Having studied all this information, I have been wondering: do authors of fiction realize the real power they have in their hands when they write?

It seems that modern people, especially the new generation, are becoming more vulnerable to the effect of books. The crazy rhythm of life, the informational technologies, and the unbearable amount of information which continuously floods into our minds make us wish to hide away for a while, and the best asylum is a good book to read in the quietness of your room.

All in all, there is some charm in the contagious process of experience-taking, don’t you think? In the end, this is the reason why we read fiction: we need to be charmed by a hero (or heroine), we want to repeat their behavior, and if a book can help us learn about our real life friends by analyzing what habits they have picked up from a book, mm– why not? This is all individual. You like it? So be it.

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