Definitely Maybe… (a book review)

It feels a bit funny to see the cover of this book with English words on it, because I know its original Russian version so well. The book is really, truly Soviet, if I may say so. I mean to say that in it, the characters, their moral/ethical positions, the setting, the events, and everything else up to the last line is filled with the worldview of the Soviet people. Well, this makes the book even more interesting for us today, when the Soviet Union is only history.

Still, the problems raised in the book are global, or I’d rather say, universal. The novel is amazing in its ability to live and remain ‘fresh’ through time: today, half of a century later, it reads as if it was written just yesterday by someone who always looks into the future.

I am sure, the authors did.

Definitely Maybe (Russian: За миллиард лет до конца света,  literal translation: A Billion Years Before the End of the World, sometimes called Definitely Maybe: A Manuscript Discovered Under Unusual Circumstances) is a science fiction novel by Russian writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, first published 1974. The story takes place in Leningrad, USSR. The protagonist, an astrophysicist Dmitry Malyanov, is officially on vacation, but continues to work on his thesis, “The Interaction of Stars with Diffused Galactic Matter”. Just as he begins to realize that he is on the verge of a discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize, his life becomes plagued by a number of strange events, which finally lead him to a great deal of stress and make him unable to do his research anymore.

Little by little, Malyanov begins to suspect that someone (or something) deliberately intends to prevent him from continuing his work. Meanwhile, the same idea occurs to his friends, also talented scientists, who find themselves in a similar situation—some powerful, mysterious, and very selective force impedes their work.

An explanation is proposed by Malyanov’s friend, the mathematician Vecherovsky. He posits that some mysterious force is trying to slow down mankind’s scientific pursuit, which might become a threat to the very fabric of the universe in some distant future. In fact, it is the Universe itself that resists attempts of rational beings of constructing supercivilizations. Vecherovsky proposes to treat this universal resistance to scientific progress as a natural phenomenon which can and should be investigated and even harnessed by Science.

As the novel concludes, the other scientists, including Malyanov, have been forced to abandon their research, and Vecherovsky remains alone to battle the universe and continue their work.

I just finished reading the book for the 4-th or possibly the 5-th time, and enjoyed it again– maybe even more than the previous times. It glows with love for the world we live in. It is profound in thought; it touches deepest problems of human ethics, and at the same time, it is full of humor and life. I do recommend you to try reading it.

Also, I absolutely love and would like to recommend a few more books by Strugatsky brothers:

Snail on the Slope (Russian – “Улитка на склоне”) is a philosophic and deeply psychological sci-fi novel ;

The Doomed City (Russian: Град обреченный) is a 1972 science fiction novel — an absolutely amazing philosophic piece to read

Roadside Picnic (Russian: Пикник на обочине), a 1971 novel; within ten years after the first publication, 38 editions of it were published in 20 countries.

The Ugly Swans (Russian: Гадкие лебеди) written in the 1960-ies, but published only in 1987, during Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

Side Thoughts About Reading Fiction

Has it ever come to your mind that mankind might have never accepted the idea of writing books that are supposed to give the reader nothing, but pleasure? I am talking about fiction. Well, we all know that quite many people find fiction books absolutely useless and never read them. In the early ages, especially when only a tiny part of society could read at all, the mankind could easily decide to pass on fiction at all and limit itself to just using books for the purpose of sharing useful information, like coursebooks, instruction manuals, all sorts of directories and documentation, etc. Wow, just think about it: people might have never understood the pleasure of reading for fun. Eww, what a dull planet we would be then!

Unlike other inventions of the mankind, and even more — despite them — fiction books manage to remain incrediblly popular among millions, and this fact itself is amazing.

“It took thirty-eight years before 50 million people gained access to radios. It took television thirteen years to earn an audience that size. It took Instagram a year and a half.” says Gary Vaynerchuk, a social media personality and a serial entrepreneur. I can’t help thinking that, with all these changes in the world, with so many other things to see and experience, and with having dramatic lack of free time, people’s affection for reading fiction looks… well, it looks kind of weird!

I used to think that this has something to do with the insatiable appetite of all humans for obtaining new emotional experiences. The best (or the safest) way to get them is to make yourself comfortable with a book in a soft chair and follow your protagonist’s adventures, unless you perfer to throw yourself into the storming ocean of real life experiences. Through centuries, fiction books continued to play the role of a soft sedative for emotionally thirsty people. But now, in the 21-st century, when we have all sorts of other emotional teasers like television, the Internet, virtual games, etc., why do we remain so attracted to books? So I think that it is not just about emotions — fiction books help feed our thirst for fantasizing. Our imagination refuses to be chained within the limits of a movie, or a game, or something that has been prepared for our eyes, and — alas! — has a finished, static shape. We need more: some basic blocks for experiences which we can build and colorize in our own minds, to our personal tastes, and fiction books, so far, remain the only phenomenon that can give it to us.

Please, let me know what you think about this. Your comments are very welcome.

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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Novel Chapters of the Size of Tweets?

Whenever I come across an attractive piece of reading, my first thought is: Why don’t I check out the Internet for some quotes from the book first? If I like the quotes, I can devote a few minutes to reading about the book and its author, and only then I would take the book and start reading it. shrinking-1

In the new millemium, this tendency has grown into a common pattern for many of us, because our time is too precious and the abundance of books which are marketed as bestsellers is so mindblowing that we simply cannot afford to ‘read everything we can get our hands on’, as many readers use to say about their childhood habits.

This change is going to influence the writers’ work, too. Today, the life of an author is such that in order to conquer readers’ attention, one has to compress every thought to the size of a tweet. I won’t be surprised if I see a bestseller with chapters of the size of tweets some day. This is the specificity of our time, and authors will have to adjust to it.

Our available reading time is shrinking, so do the lengths of fiction and non-fiction works. This is the thought that I wanted to share here, so I will wrap up the post, hoping that somebody will read it to the end.

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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”.

A Horror Book for a Vanilla Reader…

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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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Being yourself in the 21st century

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. Oscar Wilde

Now, replace the word “mask” with the word “Facebook” and read the quotation again. It remains true in today’s world, doesn’t it? We can put in “Twitter”, or “Google”, or any other name of a virtual communication network, and Oscar Wilde’s words will sound like a correct observation about our current lifestyle.

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A century ago, a mask (a really good one) was needed to help a person feel safe about speaking out their mind. Today, you can click on an “enter” button and write anything you want on a virtual wall; what is more, you can be pretty sure that you won’t be made responsible for your words. Does this mean that “being yourself” and expressing yourself openly has become more welcome in today’s world?

Honestly, I don’t think so. Our current lifestyle has given us unprecedented freedom of expressing ourselves and sharing knowledge with each other – freely, unconditionally, and practically in no time, but today, unlike it was in Oscar Wilde’s time, even when you say something meaningful to the world, your words will drown in the ocean of other stuff, which pours into our minds through social networking systems, press and media every minute.

Well, of course there are topics which people prefer to bypass even on social media. I have noticed that some articles of ambivalent meaning on Facebook (nothing special, just the ones that require a different angle of vision) are often ignored and receive no feedback at all, which means that people are still wearing their masks, even when their identity is “protected” by the freedom of social networks. Yeah, people have become smarter.

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But have they become wiser?

There is so much information everywhere around us that we – the people of the 21-st century – have learned to protect our minds against it: we simply don’t care anymore. In our crazy run away from the past to reach out for the future we forget to pay attention to the reason of the run.

To a 21-st century writer, whose mission is still the same – to observe and reflect the reality as it is – the new system of mind protection raises a problem: I mean, how can writers’ voices be heard when the readers have lost the ability to care?

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In the 20th century it was not unusual to hear a saying that “a good writer is the nerve of his time”. The new millennium has led us to an opposite approach: how good is the writer’s “nerve” unless it is connected to the reader’s brain?

I hate to say this, but today, what used to be called the “nerve” has a tendency to transform into a logbook. The only hope is that the emotional personality in each person will still remain intact, it will require some emotional activity from us. If human feelings (like compassion, tenderness, affection, sympathy or others) are going to hide behind even harder masks than a century ago, then people will probably want to turn back to reading fiction in order to satisfy their needs in emotional life. Have you noticed that reading fiction is already becoming an intimate occupation? I think this trend will intensify in the nearest future.

I’d like to share another observation here: the growing interest to reading fantasy and sci-fi books. Isn’t it another evidence of the changes taking place in human minds to satisfy our need of self-expression? True or not, but one thing I can say for sure: people are actively learning to be themselves in the 21-st century. With a new design of our masks, we still find it difficult to speak out the truth. So, some of us plunge into the world of fantasy as we look for ways to satisfy the need to be ourselves.

M. Bulgakov’s Immortal Book

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was written in the 1930-es, but remained unpublished until 1967. The author died in 1940, unaware that his book would be read by hundreds of millions, translated into all world’s languages, and named one of the best novels of the 20-th century.  Bulgakov started writing it in 1928, but burned the first manuscript in 1930, seeing no future as a writer in the Soviet Union, and then restarted the novel again in 1931. His personal drama was reflected in the book, along with numerous other dramatic and comical topics, drawn so brilliantly that, once having started reading, you cannot take a break and read it to the end.

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The book is full of strikingly wise and amazingly precise thoughts. Below are a few phrases which I tried to translate from Russian with minimal loss of meaning, along with a few well-known illustrations of the book.

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“What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?”

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“Fact is the most stubborn thing in the world.”

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“There is no greater misfortune in the world than the loss of reason.”

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“…the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves.”

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“Everything will turn out right, the world is built on that.”

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― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

 

Reading Catch 22… once again

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I have read this book so many times that it seems I can start reading a random sentence and finish it from my memory. This is one of those books which do not need being reviewed. Ii is absolutely enough to simply list a few quotes from it instead of a review and people will know everything about the book, like these, for example:

“mankind is resilient: the atrocities that horrified us a week ago become acceptable tomorrow.”

“It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

“Prostitution gives her an opportunity to meet people. It provides fresh air and wholesome exercise, and it keeps her out of trouble.”

“The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.”

“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.”

“Every writer I know has trouble writing.”

“He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.”

“What do you do when it rains?”
The captain answered frankly. “I get wet.”

“When people disagreed with him he urged them to be objective.”

Brilliant, aren’t they?

(This last line was mine.) I say, this is a good book to take on a trip with you. It gives you optimism if you are afraid to fly, it keeps you alert if you listen to it while driving, it just keeps you thinking that you are smart, too, as long as you understand the humor. And this in itself is very encouraging, isn’t it?

Nabokov’s Lolita

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“If a violin string could ache, I would be that string.” These words, better than any others, reflect the emotional content of Nabokov’s book. To me, Lolita is the pinnacle of Nabokov’s writing. The book is a masterpiece, perfect as it is: an incredible, yet harmonious blend of aesthetically beautiful narrative and a full palette of human emotions.

I remember reading the book in Russian when I was a teenager, it left me bewildered then: I could sense the beauty of the language, but I was not ready to grasp the depths of human misery, because understanding comes with experience, and I was too young for the book. Today, when I am a whole life older, Lolita is one of my personal aesthetical treasures, and I think it will remain one till the end of my life.

Very few authors have the courage to portray love in such a variety of colors. Very few can sympathize with their character so deeply that even ugliness appears beautiful in their hands. Nabokov did this job perfectly well.

Nabokov himself used to say: “Read the books that you love with a thrill and a gasp of delight” (“Книги, которые вы любите, нужно читать, вздрагивая и задыхаясь от восторга.”) I can say that this time, re-reading Nabokov’s Lolita, I experienced exactly the same feelings.

Shelf Love

live mines and duds: the reading life

May The Best Book Win!

librocubicularist | nonfiction | moonlights as the host of Silent Book Club Kota Kinabalu | writes on Scrivener