Friday, July 30, 2010

The Mind behind the Book

I've always been of the opinion that reading foreign literature (especially in the original, but even in a reasonable translation) was not only a cheap and safe form of world travel, but an opportunity to get a glimpse of what I like to call "national character" for want of a better phrase. I'm talking about something that is more personal, more linked to the nature of an individual -- and in this case to a nation -- than the term "culture" usually represents. So it is that the Bryson memoir of the fifties (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid) is quintessentially American, compared, say, to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

I've also always been of the opinion that something of the writer's mind is revealed by his or her writing, maybe particularly but not exclusively in the case of fiction. I enjoy discovering an excellent writer and then going through all of that writer's previous works and emerging with a bit of a sense of the writer's mind, his or her interests and insights, themes and techniques, and perhaps a quick peek at the writer's "worldview" and stance in the face of the big issues: life, death, love, loss, grief, sin, redemption, war, politics, relationships, ambition, greed, lust, etc.

I don't tend to read much nonfiction other than some of the books we choose for our twice-weekly discussion group, the books that I copyedit, the articles I read in the New York Times every day, and the occasional magazine article. Last Saturday, I was in the library browsing through my favorite section, "New Fiction," and I noticed the woman next to me picking up and looking over a number of novels I'd recently read and liked. I made a comment and suggestion and we got to talking. It was great fun. We seemed to have so many authors, themes, and so on in common. But she mentioned a nonfiction book at one point and said, "It read just like fiction. I couldn't put it down."

Thinking back on this, I realized that it's a rare thing for me to find nonfiction that reads like that, and I remembered the last time I had that experience. Some time ago, in our group, we read Barack Obama's early book, Dreams of My Father. It had been written a number of years before I had even heard of the man, but we were reading it after he had become the president. It read like fiction. I was totally engaged as a reader. I couldn't put it down. And I was thoroughly impressed with the mind behind the book: the personal honesty and straightforwardness, the sincerity, the intelligence, the depth of psychological insight, the sense of history and community, and the essential American character.

Not long ago, we read his second book (written before he ran for president) called The Audacity of Hope. It doesn't really read like fiction for the most part. It's less personal and more political, most certainly. But, again, it was tremendously impressive in terms of the writing itself and in terms of the mind behind the book. The section on the history of U.S. foreign policy is better than many of the political science textbooks I edited when I worked at the university. His assessment of the changes this nation went through in the sixties aptly matches so much of my own experience. His analysis of the challenges we face as a people, as a nation, and as a planet is outstandingly comprehensive, far-sighted, and right on target in my personal opinion.

Of course, that doesn't not mean that he will be able to do what he proposes -- for myriad reasons. But the breadth and depth of his vision as revealed over the pair of books is enough for me to take heart and hope for the best. And this is coming from a person who pretty much lost interest in politics after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.

I have, however, voted in every presidential election and some regional ones for the past four decades since I turned 21 years of age. But I only got interested in politics again, to tell the truth, because the George W. Bush administration was creating so much damage to international affairs, domestic policies, the governmental system, the environment, and the balance of power between the corporate elite plutocracy and the people of the United States that I couldn't ignore politics any longer. I didn't campaign for Obama, but I voted for him. I don't watch television, but I watched the inauguration and I watch the YouTube versions of his weekly address every single Sunday and I read the papers.

I have mostly steered away from political views on Susan's Blog, preferring to offer garden photos, fiction reviews, links to my articles on beaded jewelry, and cat photos, but these two books and the mind behind them were exceptional, and I wanted to pass that on to any who were interested. Comments?

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