Books vs. Movies Part III: Everybody Wins!

Bro, Do You Even Read?

 

I’ve now written about movies over books. It felt false; I had to work too hard to convince myself that movies were actually better than books. I’ve been telling my students for years that they should try arguing from the opposite side, as a way to gain depth to their perspective, to understand their opponent – and therefore defeat him more easily – but I guess I haven’t done it myself, not often enough. I’m not sure if that says something about our society, that we have trouble stepping out of our comfortable ruts and visiting ruts on the other side of the road (which is certainly true) or if it says something about me, about my arrogance, telling people what to do when I never do it myself. It’s probably the second one. I’d like it to be the first.

I wrote, as well, about why books are better than movies; or to be more precise, why people who watch movies but do not read books are destroying our society. It didn’t feel false: I believe that. I’ve read Fahrenheit 451, and I’ve seen how close Ray Bradbury got to what is actually happening in our world; people who don’t read at all, and thereby don’t gain the necessary skills that reading can give, are a genuine threat to us all. They lack imagination, and they lack empathy; but they don’t lack power, or influence, or a voice. And thus are they very dangerous.

But while that essay didn’t feel false, it did make me both angry and sad; and I’d rather not feel that way. So I find myself seeking a middle ground: something that will be true to what I really think, but will also be fair to the other side, and won’t make me feel like I’m pointing fingers at those I damn to perdition, sentencing them to burn at a stake, flames rising from burning books (Because zealots always destroy what they love, along with what they hate) to purify their corruption. Arguing for destruction is no way to accomplish anything but destruction; if I imagine my angry essay becoming influential, all it leads to is a witch hunt for the non-reader, and protestations of devout readerlihood. I would, for the first time, expect the Spanish Inquisition.

So the middle ground is this: I am currently reading a difficult book, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. And it’s fascinating, really; it challenges me to find hidden meaning, it makes me think things I’ve never thought before, it gives me insight and inspiration. But it’s hard. I can’t read it for long, especially not after a day of teaching and/or reading essays. So when I get home, in the late afternoon or early evening after I’ve relaxed post-work for an hour or two, I may read it, for an hour.

Then I watch TV. Or play mindless video games, things like Mah Jongg or Candy Crush or Guitar Hero. Then, when it’s time for bed, I read again (because screens disrupt our sleeping patterns) – but then I read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Because it’s relaxing.

I don’t watch very many movies, specifically, but it’s a fool’s game to try to build a distinction between movies and television; television breaks up a story into chapters, or it tells several related stories – a literary model followed by the best-selling novel of all time, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Right now my wife and I are watching Dexter, at a rate of about one episode per night; a single season, twelve episodes, is indistinguishable from a long movie – like, say, The Lord of the Rings, which is nearly twelve hours total in the extended editions, just like a dozen episodes about my favorite serial killer. My wife joins me for the TV show, and then she goes to her studio and draws and paints; she hasn’t read a book in months. She feels guilty about it, and I know that’s because of me and my ire about non-readers; but I don’t consider her a non-reader, just a person with a very difficult and trying job who prefers art as a means of relaxing at the end of the day. How can I criticize that? Is art any less valuable than reading? Of course not.

But how can I let people – specifically my students – think it’s okay to watch movies and TV? Just because I try to find the middle ground, enjoying both books and television, that doesn’t mean that my audience will join me there. I know how it works: when I tell students that the first draft doesn’t have to be complete or polished, you don’t give me something rough; you give me one paragraph that’s mostly typos. When I tell you the book report doesn’t have to cover the entire work, you give me something that only covers three chapters. When you realize I’m lax about deadlines, you simply stop turning things in until I actually give you zeroes and your grade drops. When I say once that grades do matter, everything else I ever say about grades not mattering is gone forever – I confirmed your preferences, your prejudices; now you’re done listening.

 

You really are good Americans.

 

So if I say that movies are entertaining, and are important as a source of relaxing entertainment, how do I convince you that you also need to read, to do the work, to make your mind tired before you get to the relaxing part?

 

Here goes. Reading is like working out. If you’re really dedicated, if you truly love it or it suits your ambition, then you can do it every single day, for hours at a time – but then mentally you’re the equivalent of this guy:

And nobody wants that.

For most people, who just want to be healthy and happy, you should work out a few times a week, on a regular basis. Read something challenging. Of course it doesn’t have to be a book, specifically, and it doesn’t have to be fiction; it just has to be reading, and it has to be challenging. This is where you strain, and work until you fail; this is where you build strength. Then, on other days, do something like cardio or abs: read something easy, something you could keep reading for a while without hurting yourself. The key there is to keep at it, to not give up.

Once you have done your workout, then it’s time to relax: do something easy, something that doesn’t tax your brain at all; watch a movie, watch a TV show, play a video game (And please don’t tell me that video games are mentally challenging. I play them, too. They’re not. If figuring out how to finish that mission on Grand Theft Auto is mentally challenging, then your brain is out of shape, is a couch potato of the first order. You need to read more.), have a conversation, take a walk, take a nap. Take it easy.

But for the sake of your mind, don’t just skip straight to the nap. Americans already do that with exercise, which is why the nation is unhealthy and out of shape; our brains are moving that way, as well, as we spend more and more of our time taking it easy, and not enough of it working out. You also don’t want your brain to look like this guy:

Image result for homer simpsons flopped on couch

Moderation is the key. A little of this, a little of that; a little reading, then a little Netflix.

Now: as a student, you get a pass, like my wife does; you are involved in a mentally taxing endeavor, one that takes up all of your time and mental energy. So your free time should be spent relaxing and recovering. Until you reach the point where you aren’t having to work very hard mentally: summer time, or senior year, when you have two academic classes and nine TA/free periods. Then you need to work out. Then you need to read.

It’s important. It’s necessary. And because our society is based on information, which is still transmitted through the written word, then the mental exercise you must master, and then continually practice, is reading. Challenging reading. Depending on what else you want to do with your life, other mental exercises may be necessary for you, as well: math, science, art, engineering, music, what have you. Perhaps making movies will be your mental challenge, and if so, carry on: it is a difficult thing to do well, as shown by the number of people who do it badly. Movies are fun, but they aren’t necessary: except inasmuch as relaxation is necessary. As to the question of whether watching movies is a necessary means of relaxation in our culture, if you must watch certain movies or television shows in order to understand how our culture works and to participate in it, I leave that argument for another day.

Right now, my brain is too tired. What time are those sports games on?

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Books vs. Movies Part II: Books

Here is the second essay: here is the one I wrote because I felt  dirty after writing the first one. Because I don’t actually think movies are better than  books; not at all, not in any way. In fact, I think the preference for movies over books is extremely harmful to our society.

So I wrote this one. Please note: it is directed at my students, who are as I describe them here. I expect that people who read this blog are not the non-readers I describe. Though the ending call to action still applies, to all of us who haven’t given up hope.

Not sure if I have given up or not, yet. But this essay is pretty clearly on the side of despair.

Enjoy!

Everything Is Terrible And We’re All Going To Die

 

I’m not like you.

I’m sure that’s not a surprise.

Unlike most teachers, I think, and say, that grades don’t matter and test scores don’t matter. Because all that matters is learning, and grades and tests don’t measure that; they may test what you know, in terms so specific that they become useless, but that doesn’t say what you will do with that so-specific knowledge: will you forget it the minute the test is over, the grade is filed? Will you be inspired by that knowledge?  Affected by it, changed by it? Tests can never measure that, and grades can never rate that. That change, that inspiration, is the purpose and value of education. That’s what matters.

Unlike most of America, and presumably the rest of the world, I don’t like money. I like a few of the things it can buy me, like a comfortable home, food, electricity, pirate outfits, Converse, books, coffee; but money itself is a trap. It leads us down a very specific path, a path that we must not deviate from, or else we don’t get the money; the problem is, that once we reach the end of that path, we find that the money isn’t what we want. What we want is freedom from the money, or more precisely, from the need to continue procuring the money. But the more money we make, the more stuff we buy, and the longer we have to keep getting money to pay for the new stuff. It’s a trap. I don’t like it. That’s the rest of the reason why I don’t believe in the value of grades: because every argument for grades comes back to money.

 

I’ve already lost you, haven’t I? Sure: you don’t care about me, or about what I believe; if what I have to say has some interest or benefit for you, you’ll read it – but if not, then you won’t. And me preaching at you doesn’t interest you or benefit you: it doesn’t entertain you, doesn’t dispel the cloud of melancholy that darkens most of your days, and which you are constantly seeking to escape through whatever momentary distraction you can find; and it doesn’t earn you money. Why would you read this, just for the sake of reading? Please.

Because unlike me, you don’t read.

 

DISCLAIMER: Yes, I know there are exceptions. I know there are people reading this who are readers. But I also know there aren’t very many. (Let’s be clear: “reading” Facebook or Twitter or Reddit is not reading. Reading here means books. E-books count, but memes and BuzzFeed and the captions on YouTube videos do not.) Most people read when they are forced to, by English teachers like me; most people will read something if there is “buzz” about it. (Meaning: if it is exciting.) But most people would rather wait for the movie. Even with assigned reading, the majority of people don’t read the whole book; they read enough to know they don’t want to read any more, and then they look at the SparkNotes, or they get their friend who is a reader to tell them about the rest of it, or they just fake it on the test – because the reading doesn’t matter, what matters is the grade, which gets you into the college, which gets you the job, which gets you the money.

Allow me to quote from a book that most of you haven’t read, or if you have, you didn’t pay enough attention to.

“Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending…Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumour of a title to you, Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: ‘Now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours.’ Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick…Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

 

That is from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

And it’s you. You only read to get to the ending; once you know the ending, you stop reading –  and for the same reason, you never re-read. If you know enough to answer questions about a book – or about anything, really – you don’t see any need to keep learning about it; you can already answer the questions. You don’t see the need to learn anything other than what you will need to earn money, hopefully lots of money; and the purpose of earning that money is – pleasure.

The movie-vs.-book argument is built on a flawed foundation, the same flawed foundation that the dystopian society in Bradbury’s novel is based on: the idea of happiness.  Captain Beatty, the same evil clown who explains to the protagonist Montag how our society turned into theirs, also says this: “Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”

When we try to decide whether movies or books are better based on the idea of which is more entertaining, the argument is immediately flawed: not only is entertainment transitory and essentially meaningless, but it is also too subjective to offer any coherent judgment: this fellow says he likes books more because they are more entertaining; this chap says he likes movies more for the same reason; and neither can be wrong, and neither can be right. We must turn to Bradbury – a novelist, of course – for a reasonable determination of value. If we believe that human society is valuable and worth preserving, then books offer a better opportunity for the continuation of the species than do movies. If, on the other hand, human culture is nothing more than what Beatty describes – something that exists only to provide its constituents with pleasure, with titillation –  then it doesn’t matter whether books or movies are better; at that point, humanity doesn’t matter, because something that exists only to please itself is too insular, short-sighted and pathetic to survive.

In that case, movies can be better. You can just keep watching Netflix until the ice caps melt and the water supply vanishes and the food supply follows; maybe you can watch The Road to get some pointers on what comes next. I’d tell you to read the novel by Cormac McCarthy, but – well. Don’t worry: the movie has Viggo Mortensen.

Bradbury shows in his book – and any observant student of humanity can confirm –  that books stimulate thought, and that novels promote empathy. Books of any stripe can provide evidence, rational argument, and conclusions about any subject; following the path of reason improves one’s ability to do the same. Novels create characters, who then give the reader a glimpse into their lives and psyches; understanding those people, assuming one can suspend disbelief enough to see the characters in a novel as people, at least potential people, improves our ability to understand actual people. Movies do neither of those things. Bradbury, who loved movies and television, has his Wise Old Man character offer the possibility that movies and television could offer the same thing that books do  – the same argument I’ve been hearing for years from my students when they try to explain to me why they don’t need to read, not really – but in my opinion, Bradbury was wrong about that. I don’t think movies and television can help, not at all.

The key, I think, is imagination. Imagination is the survival skill that enabled humanity to rise to the top of the food chain; because we could imagine what would happen when the mammoth came by, or when the saber-toothed cat jumped out of those bushes, we were able to plan for the possibility; that advance preparation made up for our total lack of physical prowess compared to other species. Imagination gave us the chance to survive long enough to build a civilization; imagination, in the form of ambition and aspirations, gave us a reason to build a civilization and allowed us to build civilization into what it is today; imagination would allow us to solve the problems we face that threaten our survival in the future.

If we still had imagination, that is. But you see, imagination requires a human intellect to create: to fill in blanks, to build images and scenes based only on hints. The kinds of things we do when we read, where even the best authors can only tell, never show. The kinds of things we never do when we watch movies or television, because they show: the images are created for us, the characters are presented to us, a fait accompli, without any need for our participation, for our imagination. The most we can do with a movie is decide if we like the image as presented to us; decide if it is entertaining or not.

Now, someone with imagination can watch a movie or a television show and have a new idea; they can think of what could have happened if the characters had encountered a different situation, or had different traits, or different resources; a person with an imagination could think of how a situation they watched on Netflix could parallel one in real life, and how the Netflix situation could lead to a real-life solution.

But you don’t get imagination from watching movies. You get it from reading books.

There is some good news. Our technology already exists, as does our science; and the lucky thing is, one person with imagination can keep a hundred engineers working, a thousand, more –  just ask Elon Musk. Or Nikola Tesla. So as long as there are a few readers, a few thinkers, those people may be able to keep us afloat, in terms of problem-solving and innovation, for a few generations more; but that’s where we hit the empathy snag. You see, the notable problem in the society of Fahrenheit 451 (By the way: are you tired of me talking about a fictional society instead of the real world? Yeah. Check your phone: maybe there’s something more interesting to watch on YouTube. People falling down, or something. “Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag; everything bang, boff, and wow!” What am I saying? You’re not still reading this.) isn’t a lack of technology; their technology is more advanced than ours. The problem is that they don’t care about each other, and thus they don’t care about themselves. They run each other down in cars for fun. They commit suicide at an absurd rate – and they don’t care. They go to war, and nobody really pays any attention until the bombs actually drop on their heads: and even then, they only notice when the television screen goes blank, in the split second before it all turns to ash and dust and nothing.

You’re heading that way, now. People don’t care about each other the way they used to. Oh, some still do; most still care to a certain extent – but a lesser extent than in the past.  I can tell because look at your politics: not that you elected Mr. Trump, but the reason why you did – because you got tired of caring about other people’s problems. You don’t want to worry about refugees, or about problems in other nations, or the reasons why people do things we don’t understand, like carry out terrorist attacks in the name of an ideal; you don’t want to think about long-term issues like climate change, and you don’t want to pay taxes that don’t help you directly – don’t want to pay for other people who can’t find jobs, or who get hooked on drugs. You want to keep your money for yourself, not spend it on other people. Just like you don’t want to learn things that don’t directly increase your chances of finding a job that will earn you more money. Those other things don’t matter. Those other people don’t matter.

 

In Fahrenheit 451, when Montag goes looking for a way to solve the problem – he can’t possibly think of a solution himself, never having used his imagination and barely his intellect in his bookless life – he finds an old English professor, a man named Faber. He asks Faber what they can do, and Faber doesn’t give Montag much hope.

“The whole culture’s shot through. The skeleton needs melting and re-shaping. Good God, it isn’t as simple as just picking up a book you laid down half a century ago. Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen [In the novel, the firemen burn banned books, and the houses where they are hidden. And sometimes the people who hid them.] provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it’s a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels any more. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily. Can you dance faster than the White Clown, shout louder than `Mr. Gimmick’ and the [television]`families’? If you can, you’ll win your way, Montag. In any event, you’re a fool. People are having fun.”

“Committing suicide! Murdering!”

A bomber flight had been moving east all the time they talked, and only now did the two men stop and listen, feeling the great jet sound tremble inside themselves.

“Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the families. Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”

“There has to be someone ready when it blows up.”

“What? Men quoting Milton? Saying, I remember Sophocles? Reminding the survivors that man has his good side, too? They will only gather up their stones to hurl at each other. Montag, go home. Go to bed. Why waste your final hours racing about your cage denying you’re a squirrel?”

“Then you don’t care any more?”

“I care so much I’m sick.”

“And you won’t help me?”

“Good night, good night.”

 

On the off-chance that you don’t like what I’ve said here, and you care enough to do something about it, the solution is simple: read. Read for real, read for your mind and your imagination; read for your future. It doesn’t matter what you read: it only matters how, and how much. Read with your mind, and read as much as you can. If you ever have younger people you can influence, as a teacher or a parent or a mentor of any kind, try to get them to read, too. It doesn’t take everyone: it just takes some. More than a few, if we can.

I hope for your sake that you do. As for me, I’ll be dead by the time the world falls apart. I’d like to think that the books I write will outlive me.

But I doubt it.

Good night, good night.

Books vs. Movies, Part One: Movies

I’m having my classes write arguments, one at a time, which we then discuss with the whole class; one student starts an argument on any topic they wish, and then someone else has to volunteer to argue the other side of that topic. If nobody volunteers, either the first student has to write a second argument from the opposing viewpoint — or I write an argument opposing them. Last week one of my students wrote about why books are better than movies; he did a good job, and nobody wanted to argue with him.

So I did it. And writing this made me feel so awful that I had to write one about why books are better than movies, which I did; but that one made me so depressed about the current state of the world that I had to write a third essay, more upbeat, about moderation between the two.

I’ll be posting all three over the next three days. Here’s the first installment: the dirty one. Enjoy. (Don’t hate me.)

 

All right: pay attention, because I’m only going to say this once, and then after that, I will go back to denying everything in this essay.

Most of the time, I mean what I say. I really think that grades don’t matter, that math is evil, that violence is never the answer – and that books are always better than movies.

But sometimes, those things aren’t true. Sometimes the opposite is true.

Grades matter when the reward for the grade is worth the time spent earning the grade. Grades matter when you set yourself a grade-based goal, and then, through hard work and improvement, you achieve it. Grades matter when you need grade-based scholarships to pay for college, which is too damn expensive to be worth it. Oh – and sometimes you don’t need college at all.

Math is both the foundation of the universe, and the clearest expression of its poetry. There is no work of literature more musical than the Fibonacci sequence, or the Golden Rectangle. I don’t think there should actually be a distinction between math and language; both get you to make the same journey, from concrete fundamentals to abstract concepts that bend and hurt your brain. Both are necessary. Both are fascinating. And I genuinely like, and admire, Dr. Sade. [Blogger’s note: Dr. Sade is the head of the math department at the school. He is a brilliant man and an outstanding teacher, and one of the most sarcastic, cynical people I have ever met. He and I have a running feud about math and English: he says that I love to hug my students, and I call him an emotionless mathematical golem. It’s fun.]

Violence is always wrong, but sometimes it is necessary – and sometimes the positive outcome is worth the cost. The Nazis needed to be stopped, and nothing but war would have done it. Bullies need to get their asses handed to them, and rapists should be stripped of a pound of flesh – probably a very specific pound. People who suborn terrorists and create suicide bombers need to be set on fire, and then we should all gather round and spit on the greasemark they leave behind. If you hurt my family, I will buy a gun, learn to use it, and then shoot you in the face.

 

After I admit all of that, it isn’t very hard to say that movies are better than books, is it?

Because they are. Not in every case, no – but in quite a few of them. Mostly, they’re just – different.

The real problem is the same here that it is with the whole math-English feud: this shouldn’t even be a fight. The real problem with this argument is that books and movies simply can’t be compared: they have different purposes, different strengths and weaknesses, and different definitions of success. A book is successful when it changes you; a movie is successful when it creates an intense immediate response, laughter or tears or a scream. A movie can create an immersive experience, tantalizing  your senses and crafting a new reality for you; a book forces you to create your own reality, without any connection to your senses — thus movies are fun and books are useful. Movies are fast and books are slow. The purpose of a movie is to offer an escape from reality; the purpose of a book is to bring us closer to reality. There are some books that reach for the movie goal and movies that reach for the book goal, but they aren’t the best, in either case. The best movies make the world disappear for a few hours: The Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. The Marvel Universe. They take us away from our world, and bring us to another world, where things are – not necessarily better, but the problems are not the same problems we face. Even in serious dramas, the ones that win Oscars, the problems aren’t the same as they are in the real world, for real people: Hollywood chooses extraordinary people with extraordinary stories, so that when the rest of us watch the film, we can imagine a life entirely different from our own, for a few hours. Slumdog Millionaire is about a penniless orphan growing up in the slums of India in the present day; The King’s Speech is about the King of England during World War II. Neither is about me.

Marshall McLuhan, an influential media theorist, said “The medium is the message.” He meant, among other things, that the way information is transmitted to the audience is at least part of the essential meaning of the transmission: that is, these things I am writing now, for this class, would be different if I were simply saying them; the fact of my speaking rather than writing would change the words I would use and the way you would understand them. The fact that I am writing this out instead of simply rambling on from behind my podium has a large influence on what I am really trying to say, even apart from the point I am making with the words: I am trying to say that this thing, these words, this essay, is a more important point than one I would be making in discussion. If I made a channel on YouTube and recorded a video of myself talking about this, that would change the message as well. There are things that you can only say in a two-hour movie, and other things you can only say in a 300-page novel; and they are not the same things. If you try to say the same thing in both mediums, one of them will fail. This is why movie versions of books are inevitably different, and the only time they are really successful is if the message is changed to fit the medium.

For example: The Shining is both an excellent book and an excellent movie; but the book is about how a haunted place, the Overlook Hotel, can drive a decent man insane; the movie is about how isolation can make an already unbalanced man really lose his biscuits. The movie is visually stunning; the book is incredibly creepy, with one of the most subtle, slow builds of suspense that I know. The movie has very little suspense: as soon as the winter starts, Jack Torrance starts losing those biscuits; it’s just a question of how many he will lose, and what he will do when they’re all gone. As an audience member, though, you’re not even thinking about that: you’re just looking at that screen, watching the blood come pouring out of the elevator, wondering what’s really going on in Room 237, freaking out over those two little blonde girls at the end of the hall. It’s an entirely different experience. Is it better than the experience of the book? I don’t know; is filet mignon better than remembering how to solve a difficult math problem on your final? How do you compare the two experiences?

You don’t. But because books and movies have this one essential similarity, that they seem to tell the same story about the same people and the same events, people inevitably compare them; because books and movies are two things we truly love, and because different people tend to like one or the other more, we talk about this comparison a lot, and we have a lot riding on the answer. Every time a movie person agrees that the book is better, it feels like a win for the book side – which wins should include The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Watchmen, and The Black Cauldron and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and every time I say that movies are better than books, it’s a win for movies – which have to include, among others, Stand By Me, The Godfather, Jurassic Park, James Bond, and everything written by John Grisham.

So let me just go ahead and take a side. Movies are better because brevity is the soul of wit: the goal of all literature is essentially entertainment, and it’s simply easier to be entertained when you don’t have to work hard for it. It is easier to be entertained for the two hours of a movie than it is to be entertained for the twenty or more hours of a book; parts of that book, no matter how good it is, are going to get boring. Movies never have to be boring. Movies are unquestionably more popular, and therefore more influential: there were 1.36 billion movie tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada in 2012; there were about 620 million books sold in the U.S. in 2013 — half as many. We also re-watch movies more frequently than we re-read books; I’ve seen The Lord of the Rings a dozen times or more, but I’ve only read it three times all the way through. Books represent the work of a single person, the author; a movie can have many different talents adding to the overall effect, from the writer to the director to the musicians on the soundtrack to every actor in the film; therefore where one person may be weak, someone else can pick up the slack. In a book, though, if the author is bad at, say, comedy, or action, or interesting dialogue, you’re just out of luck: that part of the book is going to suck.

Because movies can create a more immersive, sensation-rich experience, they can have a stronger visceral effect on us: movies scare us, sadden us, anger us, and elate us more easily and more intensely than do books. We cry at movies; we sigh at books. Movies make us laugh out loud until our bellies hurt; books make us chuckle, a little. We can get an adrenaline rush from movies, which no book can really do. Movies can be extremely sexy; books trying to be sexy are just awkward. We remember particular lines and scenes from movies far more often than we do from books. I can quote you pretty much all of Monty Python and most of Star Wars; but I can’t remember anything from a book with the same accuracy. We bond over movies, going to see them with friends and family and on dates; who goes on a date and reads a book together? Who sits with their friends and reads? It’s not “Barnes & Noble and chill,” after all: there’s a reason for that.

The truth is, books are a part of our past. An important one, still, but a fading one. Movies are our future. Don’t let yourself get stuck in the past.

Lie For a Mockingbird

So I have this essay I wrote yesterday. It’s an example for two of my classes: my AP Literature students and my Honors Freshman English — the latter we enjoy calling HELA 9, while the former insists on “It’s Liiiiiiiiiitt.” I was going to write two essays, one for each class; but both are writing literary analysis, just on different works and using different prompts: HELA 9 is writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, using simple essay questions I came up with; the AP class  is writing about Macbeth, using old AP test prompts. I wrote this one about TKAM, using an AP prompt; I figured that way I could use it for both classes, without stealing anyone’s topic idea.

I don’t know if people want to read these essays I write for school; but right now, this is pretty much all I’m writing. And, as my wife pointed out when I talked to her about posting this, this is part of me, my life and who I am. And God, I love this book. Just reading the last scene to find the quotes I wanted actually made me choke up a little.

So, here you go. Enjoy. I’ll post another essay in a couple of days, and a book review as soon as I can get to it. You can always pop over and read my time-traveling pirate serial, Damnation Kane.

 

(2016) Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character’s dishonesty may be intended either to help or to hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone’s feelings, or to carry out a crime.

Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

There’s a lot to argue about in literature: was it the Lady or the Tiger, was Shakespeare one man or many (or a woman?), is it Gatsby’s fault or Daisy’s? But one thing we cannot argue about – for it is true beyond contestation – is that Atticus Finch is the best human being ever to exist. Best father, best lawyer, best person. Bar none. No question.

It says something, then, that at the end of Harper Lee’s classic, Atticus, the pillar of moral rectitude, the antithesis of all hypocrites and liars, the man who is the same on the public street as he is in his home – that man chooses to lie. And not only to lie, but to convince his young daughter, Scout – the second best person in all of literature – to lie, as well. It says that sometimes, in certain extraordinary cases, it is not only acceptable, but even good, to lie. Because sometimes, telling the truth would be like killing a mockingbird: harming someone who never did anything bad to anybody. And that, of course, is a sin.

Not all liars are good liars. Two other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bob and Mayella Ewell, lie extensively, and perniciously. The court case the Ewells precipitate serves as the major conflict for the novel’s larger scope; the story is both about the children growing up, and also about this case, and how the Ewells attempt to take advantage of the prejudice of the time even as Atticus tries – unsuccessfully – to fight against it. The case is built entirely on lies, and Atticus shows the jury the truth – against their will, at least in part, because so many things would be so much easier if they could just believe that the Ewells are telling the truth. But they can’t believe that, because the Ewells are not telling the truth. Atticus shows the jury the truth, both about the specific case and also about the Ewells; and because he does, he becomes a target of Bob Ewell’s violent tendencies, his savage and furtive need for revenge; this then creates the need for Atticus’s own lie, and Scout’s as well.

Mayella, the victim of a series of family secrets, including her father’s alcoholism, his physical and mental abuse, and even his sexual abuse of his eldest daughter, tells a number of lies in the name of finding some small token of real affection – because what her daddy do to her don’t count, as we hear from her own victim. When Mayella, a 19-year-old white woman in the town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930’s, decides she wants to kiss a man who is not her father, she seeks out a man she can manipulate and control: a black man. We can understand this, as Mayella has no control over her own life, which is spent taking care of her drunk father and her seven younger siblings; but Mayella wants something more than a life of filth and degradation, as we can see from the geraniums she grows and tends in the junkyard where her family lives in squalor. We appreciate this. Mayella is harmed, repeatedly, by those who are stronger and more violent than she; so when she looks for romance, she tries to protect herself from harm in this vulnerable moment – perfectly understandable. And, as far as it goes, this gives us a reason to at least forgive her various lies: she sends her siblings to town for ice cream, so that she can be alone with her would-be lover; she tells the man as he passes by that she needs help with a repair job inside the house,  so that he will come inside with her, which he would normally never do, knowing how impolite it would be considered for a black man to be alone with a white woman – and also, how dangerous. Then, when Tom Robinson, this kind-hearted man – chosen also because he is, as Scout sees, a fine figure of a man (or would be, if he were whole and not lacking the use of his left arm – and there can be little doubt of the symbolic value of that handicap for Mayella, who is frequently and savagely beaten by a left-handed man: Tom must be a man she does not need to fear), and chosen despite the fact that he is married with three young children – comes into the house, Mayella lies again to get him into her actual grasp, telling him to get her down something from on top of a tall bureau, and then grabbing him around the legs in an awkward and almost precious embrace.

All those lies for Mayella would be forgivable (Though the fact that she attempts to ensnare, through deception, a married man, makes all this much less sweet – a mood that is portrayed perfectly when Mayella tells Tom, “Kiss me back, nigger!” Ah, l’amour.) except for the most important lie, the lie that Mayella tells herself: that she can get away with this. It’s really quite absurd: we don’t know how long it would take the Ewell children to go to town and get ice cream, but neither does Mayella, and since Tom doesn’t see the children at all, they’re already on their way when Tom walks by after work. How much time does Mayella have, in the best case, for her tryst? Not even that long, of course, because her drunken abusive father returns home even sooner than the children – another circumstance she should have been able to foresee, but must have told herself was safely impossible – and catches her kissing Tom. In that moment, we see the truth of Bob’s twisted psyche: he does not rage against Tom, despite the obvious “sin” he has committed, the unforgivable sin of embracing a white woman; no, Bob yells, “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill ya!” at his daughter. Bob knows who is behind this, and we know a truth then about Bob. This truth, of his hatred of his daughter and his attraction to her, as well, leads him to beat her black and blue, even while Tom runs away.

But Tom doesn’t escape, as Mayella must have known he wouldn’t; she then turns him into her scapegoat, aided and abetted – perhaps provoked – by her father. It is not immediately clear to the reader why the Ewells do this, or even who is really behind it. Does Mayella insist that Bob help her create this fiction, in order to protect her virtue? Does Mayella see this as one small show of love she can actually garner from her father? Or does Bob run for the sheriff in order to teach Mayella a lesson? Maybe he does it to show Tom that he can’t get away with trying to put the moves on a white girl? Does Bob lie to himself about that? Do they seek only to gain the temporary approval of the white people of Maycomb, who are glad for a chance to put the blacks in their place, and might be a little grateful to the Ewells for creating that opportunity? That may be: Bob gets away with several small offenses against the elites of the town, including Atticus; he even, for a little while, gets a job, before turning back into the welfare-cheating drunkard he’s  always  been. But we don’t see any reward for Mayella. All she gets is a beating. Presumably more than one.

When Atticus argues this case in the Maycomb County Court, he describes Mayella’s act as something like what a child does when she breaks something: she puts the evidence of her crime as far away from herself as possible. Mayella, Atticus says, is putting Tom Robinson as far away from her as possible, in order to cover up her crime of lusting after a black man. Perhaps the childishness of that metaphor gives us our clue about Mayella’s role in this: perhaps she seeks only self-preservation. But I don’t think so: because it is Mayella, far more than the foolish and untrustworthy Bob, who seals Tom’s fate. After Atticus shows how much of her story is a fabrication, Mayella makes one last statement. She talks about another fiction of the time and place, Alabama in the 1930’s; a commonly accepted one. By calling up this fiction, she forces the men of the jury into a role that at least one of them (who argues for acquittal) does not want, but cannot escape. Mayella says,

“I got somethin‘ to say an’ then I ain’t gonna say no more. That nigger yonder took advantage of me an‘ if you fine fancy gentlemen don’t wanta do nothin’ about it then you’re all yellow stinkin‘ cowards, stinkin’ cowards, the lot of you. Your fancy airs don’t come to nothin‘—your ma’amin’ and Miss Mayellerin‘ don’t come to nothin’, Mr. Finch –“

In the next line of the book, Scout observes that “she burst into real tears.” Real tears, because Mayella is indeed distraught, as who wouldn’t be; but real, also, in contrast to the falsehood she just spoke. The men in the courtroom – and mostly, she is speaking to the jury, as Atticus and Judge Taylor and Sheriff Tate are unlikely to come to her defense – are not cowards, or at least not in this instance. But by insisting that she is the victim of a sexual crime, committed on her white self by a black man, those fine fancy gentlemen have no alternative but to act as Southern gentlemen would have acted at the time: they must kill the black man who defiled the innocent white girl. They cannot take the word of a black man over the word of two white people, not even when that word is the truth. And indeed, in the face of that universally accepted lie, Atticus’s fancy airs don’t come to nothin’. The jury convicts; Tom goes to jail; he is there shot and killed, supposedly while trying to escape – but that is another lie, as he is shot seventeen times, a number of wounds impossible to credit were he actually in the process of climbing the fence of the football-field-sized exercise yard. Tom was, of course, executed by the white prison guards, probably as revenge for his “crime.”

That’s a sin.

Bob Ewell tries to commit another sin, equally heinous; unable to directly harm his perceived enemies, Judge Taylor and Atticus, Bob goes after two other people who did him no harm: Atticus’s two children, Jem and Scout. Bob tries to kill them both as they walk home in the dark on Halloween. But Bob unwittingly chooses the worst possible place to make his attempt on the children’s lives: he attacks them near the Radley house, where lives the most dangerous man in the entire town: the mad boogeyman, Boo Radley. Boo Radley’s reputation is another lie, because the genuinely kind-hearted shut-in hears the struggle, and at great risk to himself, charges out of his hermit’s cave and saves the children by killing Bob Ewell with a kitchen knife. Sheriff Heck Tate investigates the scene once the children are brought home safe – by Boo, who may actually get to compete with Scout and Atticus for the title of Best Person in Literature (He’s certainly the dark horse candidate) – and then the sheriff goes to talk to Atticus about what he found. Atticus is trying to think clearly through his haze of terror about the near-murder of his children (At least partly his fault, both for opposing Bob Ewell and then underestimating the brutal drunkard’s willingness to cause harm), and trying to figure out how much red tape Jem will have to go through for having killed Bob in defending his sister, which is the story that Scout told them both. Not a lie, that one; she wasn’t able to see what really happened, and she’s guessing; Atticus takes her at her word.

But Sheriff Tate knows better: Sheriff Tate knows that Boo Radley brought out a knife from his kitchen and stabbed Bob Ewell with that knife. Tate knows this because he found Bob Ewell’s knife, a switchblade, at the scene, possibly in Ewell’s hand – he says he took the knife off of a drunk man. Tate pockets that knife, and then tells the Finches a lie: he says that Bob fell on his own knife, the kitchen knife, which Tate says Bob must have found in the dump. “Honed it down and bided his time… just bided his time.” Atticus thinks that Tate is trying to save Jem from having to go through the legal system, but that isn’t it. Tate is trying to save Boo. Because Boo is a shut-in, a deep recluse who is nervous just being in a room with other people; and if the truth comes out, then Boo will suffer.

“I never heard tell that it’s against the law for a citizen to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did, but maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin‘ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes. To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an‘ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin. It’s a sin and I’m not about to have it on my head. If it was any other man, it’d be different. But not this man, Mr. Finch.”

Mr. Tate was trying to dig a hole in the floor with the toe of his boot. He pulled his nose, then he massaged his left arm. “I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir.”

And Atticus, finally understanding Tate’s point, makes the decision. He turns to Scout and says, “Scout, Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”

Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might. “Yes sir, I understand,” I reassured him. “Mr. Tate was right.”

Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’d be sort of like shootin‘ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”

Atticus Finch – and Heck Tate, who is also a genuinely good man – decide to tell a lie in order to save Boo Radley from attention, which to him is equivalent to harm. The decision is surely made easier for them by the fact that Boo has not, in truth, done anything wrong; by the laws of our society, his act was justified, and no murder. But these men do not lie easily or willingly; throughout the book, Atticus has refused to contemplate saying something or doing something other than what he believes to be right. He won’t even tell little white lies: when his brother Jack explains to the very young Scout what a whore-lady is simply by putting her off with a distraction, Atticus says, “Jack! When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em.” And then when Scout asks Atticus what rape is, he responds by saying it is “carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.” Where most people would hem and haw, where even the otherwise bold and straightforward Calpurnia told Scout to ask her father what it meant, Atticus simply gives a clear and uncensored definition. He tells Scout the truth.

But in this case, in this one case, Atticus is willing to lie. He is willing to tell his daughter to lie, as well. Because Atticus knows that what makes an act a sin is not truth, or falsehood: it is harm. Because they do nothing bad to us, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. It is not a sin to lie for one.

Steamed

Image result for katie macalister steamed

Steamed: A Steampunk Romance

by Katie MacAlister

 

Didn’t like it. Not because it was a romance, I generally like romances, especially with a fantasy twist; and I like the concept of steampunk quite a lot.

Though I have to say: does anybody know where the good steampunk is? The stuff has just exploded on the fantasy/sci-fi scene in the last ten years or so, and I have yet to find a steampunk book I really liked. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan book was the best I’ve hit so far – though only because Jim Butcher’s book The Aeronaut’s Windlass is pure fantasy despite it having airships, because anything Jim Butcher writes is better than almost anything else. I tried Cherie Priest and didn’t like the one book I read, though that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like something else she wrote. But yeah: not impressed with the steampunk. I feel like authors aren’t using it to their advantage: they’re just like “Goggles and zeppelins are awesome! Yeah!” When they should be saying, “So I’ve got this fantasy idea, right? With epic heroes and a battle between good and evil that ends with good victorious? But wouldn’t it be awesome if I wrote it like H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur Conan Doyle?!?” Yeah. It would. Let me know when that happens, okay?

Maybe I’ll write it.

Anyway. The steampunk in this book was really just background, and it should have been, because MacAlister didn’t do much with it either. The steampunk background is not bad, though; the political structure is pre-World War I, with the Emperor of England and Prussia fighting with the Ottoman Empire while also dealing with a rebellion at home; the main heroine is an airship captain, which is cool, and they use steampunk aether guns, which was great; the manners and dress are Victorian, which was sometimes amusing, though that mainly just came out in discussions of bustles and corsets.

MacAlister had the somewhat interesting idea of taking her hero from the modern world and shifting him into a steampunk world; it’s a bit like the movie Kate and Leopold, but in reverse. The problem with that was she didn’t do it terribly well: the hero is a scientist who is working on a quantum something-or-other – let’s call it a flux capacitor – and his sister, joking around with her brother in his lab (because sometimes twenty-somethings act like they’re five [Though to be fair, the sister acts that way throughout the book, so it’s not an inconsistency; she’s just annoying]), drops it onto a live electricity source, and WHAM! The two of them are shifted into an alternate time stream – and 3,000 miles east of where they left, for no particular reason. I mean, okay, sure, it’s a romance; but I honestly don’t think there’s any reason to slack off on the non-romance aspects. The reason Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is so amazing is not just the romance; it’s because that woman is a hell of a historical novelist, almost too obsessive with her research and realistic details.

But the poor science-fiction and okay steampunk are not the issue: because this is a romance. No, the problem with this book is that the romance sucks. This guy, this Jack Fletcher, is freaking annoying. For a scientist in love with an airship captain, he is pretty much just a bro. He somehow has the idea that sexual harasssment equals flirting – and he pulls this, “Hey, I’m a man; of course I’m going to stare at your boobs and then make comments. That’s how men show appreciation!” all the damn time. And though there are some gestures towards Victorian sensibilities, which should have had either the woman herself or some of the men around her challenging this sexist oaf to a duel, really it boils down to a woman flapping her hand and saying “Oh, you!” while giggling after the guy pinches her ass.

The woman, Octavia Pye, is more interesting, because here is a good steampunk opportunity: she is a Victorian gentlewoman, but she can be an airship captain because the steampunk world is more modern and thus potentially more egalitarian; she can also be experienced romantically, and be interested in sex instead of having to swoon at the thought of a man unclothed. And MacAlister does that pretty damn well: Octavia pushes Jack away as a Victorian lady should, and then when they do get together, the sex scenes are actually quite good, both sexy and hilarious. But she puts up with too much of the bro-bullshit. There’s a point when they’re going to go into danger, and even though Octavia is a military officer, an airship captain, and Jack is a Quaker, this Bro actually says, “I grew up to believe a man must stand between a woman and danger.” And somehow the Quaker pacifism turns into, “Well, as long as I don’t kill the man, I can definitely beat the snot out of him with my mighty manly bro-fists.”

Anyway. They fall in love too quickly, as romances tend to do; the story sort of wakes up after the romantic scenes and is like, “Oh wait – wasn’t there supposed to be a plot line somewhere around here?” and then they live happily ever after, maybe setting up for a sequel which I will not be reading.

Suggestions for good steampunk are welcome.

Sir Gawain, Sir Orfeo, and a Pearl. Oh — and Tolkien.

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This was the cover I had, but . . .

 

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… I like this one. It feels like those awkward medieval memes. I dig it.

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo

by J.R.R. Tolkien

This was an interesting one. I’ve never been all that interested in The Silmarillion and the Lost Tales of Middle-Earth; I think The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are such miraculous, incredible books that they are more than enough for one great author’s lifetime. But Tolkien wasn’t just a great author; he was also a scholar of languages, Middle English and several Scandinavian languages, Old Norse, Finnish, and so on. This translation, though it has its creative elements, seeing as how Tolkien had to re-create the original intent of the text in modern English, it really falls more in his scholarship than in his fiction. And just like On Fairy-Stories from The Tolkien Reader, this is a hell of a piece of scholarship (he says in a state of blissful ignorance).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I have read before; taught it to my students a couple of years ago. It was fun: it’s a King Arthur story, one that has a nice supernatural element as well as one of these ridiculous tests of chivalry that the Arthurian legends seem so attached to. (Sure, you can be the High King, act noble, unite the kingdom, bring back morality – but can you keep your cool when your wife is sleeping with your best friend? How about THAT!?!) In this story, a Green Knight appears at Camelot during Christmas, and offers a bet: any knight who is willing can take the axe he’s offering and trade a single blow with him: and the knight gets first shot. At the Green Knight’s bare neck. Nobody takes the Green Knight up on it: seems like such an obvious trap, you can almost hear Admiral Akbar shouting it in the background; and besides, they’re all full of yuletide cheer, wassail and meat pies and roast beast. So the Jolly Green Giant mocks the Round Table’s chivalry and courage – and King Arthur can’t have that (So you can fight off all of your enemies – but can you stand a nameless stranger calling you a wuss? DIDN’T THINK SO!), so he jumps up to take the challenge, but Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and one of like five or six knights who all get called the second-mightiest after Lancelot, takes it in his place. He takes the axe, he takes a swing, he chops off the Green Knight’s head.

At which point the Green Knight picks up his head, tells Gawain to come find him in a year and get his return stroke. Then he laughs and rides off.

So it turns out, this is actually a common legend from Middle English time; so common that scholars call it The Beheading Game. The rest of the story is Gawain riding off to meet his doom, and spending some time visiting a strange knight in a castle, where Gawain is nearly seduced by the knight’s hot wife (This is that test of chivalry I was talking about.) Then Gawain goes and finds the Green Knight, where he receives his just desserts, which I won’t spoil.

I actually really love Tolkien’s translation. It’s both readable and grandiose, the way a 800-year-old epic poem should be; and Tolkien went for a more unusual verse form, one that is truer to the original: he doesn’t use end rhyme very much (SGATGK has verses that end with a brief four-line phrase that does have rhyme, and Tolkien keeps those), but every line has as much alliteration as he can squeeze in there, often focusing on the specifically important words in the line. It’s interesting, very rhythmic, very catchy. I recommend it.

Then you get to Pearl. Pearl is another epic poem, this one 101 verses, that came from the same manuscript that held SGATGK. It’s about a man who has lost a woman he loves; maybe his sister or mother, but most likely his daughter; he calls her nearer in blood than a niece or aunt, and he doesn’t feel romantic about her, but that’s all he says about their relationship. What he talks about is the fact that she has died, and he feels awful; then he goes on at length (Creepy, creepy length) about how she and thousands of other perfectly pure young dead women have now become the Brides of Christ in Heaven; then he gets chewed out by Pearl’s ghost because he isn’t sufficiently happy that she is now in Heaven and mass-married to Jesus, which apparently is the ultimate success for these people; then he has a long vision of Heaven and how swell it is there. It’s another excellent piece of translating, as this one does have end rhyme in a very specific scheme; there’s a nice turn in every stanza that I enjoyed spotting and then looking for. Most annoying thing is that it’s set up in five-verse segments, each set of five using the same ending line or phrase for all five verses, and thus having a connected rhyme scheme – except for one frigging verse in the middle, between 70 and 76, when there are six verses. Yeah, okay, you wanted 101 total; did you need to do it THEN?!? Not the beginning, the precise middle, or the end – no, this guy was like, “I think we should change it up at the ¾ mark. Yeah, that sounds good. Bah. Pearl is a lovely translation, but I kind of hated the story,

I did like Sir Orfeo, which is essentially the Orpheus story: Sir Orfeo is a king with a world-class talent for the lute; his wife is kidnapped by the Faerie, and Orfeo goes after her and wins her back with his lute-playing (Actually, I think it’s a harp, but in my epic Medieval English poetry, every instrument is a lute.) and then tries to recapture the kingdom he left behind to seek his wife. It’s the shortest, and the only actually romantic one, in my opinion; I liked that one, too.

Overall, it’s a nice book. Tolkien impresses, and the poems give interesting insights into Ye Olden Tymes, which I have enjoyed ever since Me Youngen Tymes. Recommended for other word- and myth- nerds.

Truth

It seems to me there are three ways to come at this essay about the different kinds of truth. The first and most obvious – to me, at least – is to quote the diabolical Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, who, when on the witness stand and told that the court wants the truth, scoffs, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth! No truth-handler you! Bah, I deride your truth-handling abilities!”

The second (and only slightly less amusing) is to make reference to the classic Dwight Schrute meme where Dwight points out the problem with a statement – here, if I may indulge in a visual, is one of my favorites:

Image result for dwight schrute false meme

But I believe I will select the introductory quote about truth that is nearest to my own heart: Dan Rather, the former anchor for the CBS Evening News, said, “The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.’”

I would like to poke you with a sharp stick called ‘Truth.’

This would seem, at first, a fruitless enterprise. After all, truth is truth; how can there be kinds of truth? But in fact there are, simply because we are flawed creatures, we humans; we cannot know everything, and so we cannot know absolutes: there may be circumstances and conditions under which anything we think to be true may in fact not be. Therefore there are at least two levels of truth: truth we can know, and truth we cannot because it is absolute and thus requires omniscience. Or more simply, truth we can know and truth we cannot know, but which is nonetheless truth. The key here is to accept that knowing truth changes its truth-value, which is the concept I hope to prove in this essay; the upper limit is truth which requires omniscience to know, but there are degrees leading up to that limit, and recognizable categories, which I will attempt to explicate.

By the way: because I wrote out that Sideshow Bob quote, now my word processor wants to autocomplete “truth” into “truth-hand” every time I write it. This is both wonderful and annoying.

Like truth.

Let us begin with a basic understanding of truth. Truth is perhaps best defined through defining its opposite, falsehood; I would argue that there are essentially two kinds of falsehood, which are one, untruths, and two, lies. Untruths are things – ideas, statements, assumptions – that are not truth because when one attempts to verify them objectively, one finds reality does not match the untruth. If I were to believe it is raining outside because I am in a room with no windows, I can look out through the door and discover whether my belief is true, or untrue: if it is raining then the belief is true, and if it is not raining, then the belief is untrue. This is the first point in arguing that knowing truth changes the truth-value: because the belief that “It is raining outside” is objectively true somewhere, presumably at every possible instant that one could believe it – especially if one broadens the concept of “rain” to include liquid precipitation on other planets and celestial bodies. So sure, it is always raining SOMEWHERE – but unless it is raining where I personally can verify it through my senses, then it doesn’t really matter to the truth-value of my belief; if I were to step outside into a sunny afternoon and say “It’s raining,” someone’s response would likely be

Image result for dwight schrute false

The second kind of falsehood is a lie: this is when the truth, objectively verifiable through the senses, is known, and an idea is put forward that is known to be counter to that truth. This is when I am in a room with windows, looking out at the sun, and I say, “It is raining.” The advantage for our purpose here is that it doesn’t matter which kind of falsehood it is, the truth is always the same: objectively verifiable through the senses.

But there is a difficulty there. Because there are truths that we have discovered, truths that we know, that are not verifiable through the senses, that are not objective. A strict prescriptivist of truth would argue that these truths are therefore not true, because only objectively verifiable facts can be true. To those people I say: talk to Heisenberg. (And this is funny, because it’s mostly science-y people who would say that, and Heisenberg is about as science-y as you can get. Take that, science!) The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that when a particle has two complementary properties, such as position and momentum, we cannot know both properties at the same time. If we know precisely where the particle is at a given moment, then we have frozen that particle in time, which means at that instant, to us, it has no momentum: picture it as a snapshot of the particle, showing us where it is, but in that snapshot, it is not moving. Alternatively, we could know the particle’s momentum, its velocity and direction; but we can only measure that by tracking its movement – which means that, over the time period when we re tracking its movement, we cannot say precisely where it was: only give a range, somewhere between Point A and Point B.

The real point is, that particle has both momentum and position, and both of those properties have objective truth, both are definite, verifiable facts – but we can only know one at a time. Knowing one makes it impossible to know the other, but it doesn’t change its truthiness.

Therefore we must add a word to our definition of truth: truth is an idea that is potentially objectively verifiable through the senses. If we had world enough and time, we could verify it; therefore it is true. But I hope we can all see that a truth that is objectively verifiable through the senses has more impact, more weight – more gravity, let us say – than a truth that is only potentially verifiable. If I suspect that the rain falling outside my room is in fact acidic, but I don’t have the instruments to test, then I may want to respond as if it were acidic, and act to protect my plants, let us say; but in the process I will undeniably encounter the verifiable truth of the rain itself: I will get wet. I am more likely to respond to the fact of wetness than to the theory of acid; that truth, then, has more weight, more potential to change my thoughts and actions. That truth has more gravity.

As I was saying, then, the lowest level of truth is one that is only potentially verifiable, but cannot be objectively verified. In fact there is one level of truth lower than that, based on knowledge – or rather, on ignorance; because if knowing a fact gives it more weight, then not knowing gives less. So the lowest kind of truth is truth we don’t know. It’s true, but for us, it is meaningless; because of our ignorance, this is equivalent to the absolute truths we can’t know. In either case, we can’t act on it, or change our thought process or paradigm because of it; it has no impact on us. For us, it might as well not be true, and so it has only the barest sliver of truth. That bottom level is the fact of rain outside a room with no windows and no doors. Or whether or not the worm currently crawling through the earth beneath me is depressed. I don’t know, and so cannot act on it. That’s the lowest kind of truth—and I apologize for using an underground worm’s depression as an example; I really didn’t think about the pun there.

As for truth that could be verifiable but can’t be objectively verified, let’s use as an example the infinite nature of the universe. Is the universe infinite? No idea. We’ll never know. In theory one could find a mathematical proof of it, if we could find the existence of the multiverse and the mechanism whereby new universes are created, but we can’t ever know it for sure. The only thing this kind of truth can do for us is give us a headache: it feels like we could know, but we can’t actually know. This kind of truth is a tease. At best a Zen koan.

Just above that level is an idea that I think is true, but I don’t know why I think it’s true. This kind of truth has the potential of being objectively verifiable, but I as the knower don’t know how to do that, and therefore could never verify it. This is where most racist ideas live. Why do racists think white skin is better than brown skin? They don’t know, but they think it’s true. There are quite a number of outright lies at this level, because people might be able to figure out how to verify their beliefs, but they don’t want to, because the truth will likely be the opposite of what they believe it is. That, in my opinion, is a lie: when I say it’s raining outside, but I refuse to open the door and look because I think it is probably sunny – but I won’t admit that.

The next level up is something that I am sure is true, and that I have evidence for, but which is not clearly objectively verifiable based on my evidence. This is where superstitions are found: Michael Jordan believed that his lucky shorts were one of the reasons for his success, and he wore them for every game he played. He won six NBA championships and three MVP awards wearing those shorts; so there is some evidence that the shorts were lucky. Just not verifiable evidence, because “luck” can’t be tested for – but just like (Okay, not just like) the uncertainty principle, if we were to create a laboratory experiment to confirm that the shorts were not lucky, the element of luck in the form of blind chance or influences on the experiment that we could not control would ruin the results: if we had Michael Jordan play half the time with his lucky shorts and half the time with “control shorts” (Which makes him sound like he has bladder control issues, which is just sad), that doesn’t mean we can make his teammates play the same in both games, or his opponents play the same, or even control all the other factors that go into Michael Jordan playing well or poorly. We can’t prove the shorts are or are not lucky, but there’s objective evidence in the form of success that says they are. And that’s why luck still exists as a concept, and why Jordan wore the same pair of shorts every game for almost fifteen years.

Oh – he did wash them, by the way. After every game.

The next level is one I don’t want to include, but I have to because of the parameters I have set forth. If someone knowing a thing makes it more true than something that nobody knows, then if a lot of people know a thing, it has to be more true than if only one person knows it. Because a known fact has more weight, more gravity, and that is an element of the fact’s truth-value. So the next level up is a thing that is known, with evidence but without objective verification (but still potentially objectively verifiable – have I broken your brains yet?), by a lot of people. I hate this because I don’t want to say that the popularity of an idea has any bearing on its truth, but in fact, if we want to include a truth’s potential to change someone’s mind or behavior – and I do, because otherwise there is no point to speaking about truth at all – then I have to make this a separate and higher level, because something that a lot of people believe to be true has a much greater chance of changing their behavior. This is something like this statement: Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server makes her a poorer candidate for president (Meaning she would have been a worse president than someone otherwise identical but who didn’t use a private email server; the statement that the private email server made her less likely to win is objectively verifiable truth, because: well, look.). A lot of people believed that Clinton’s private email server made her less trustworthy, and therefore a bad candidate for the Presidency. And because a lot of people believed it, with evidence (Because that’s an untrustworthy act) but not objectively verified (Because she never became president and so we can’t see how untrustworthy she would have been in the Oval Office), it had more weight: it had more impact. It changed enough votes that it, along with other factors, changed the outcome of the election. That truth had more value, more gravity, because more people thought it was true.

Are we having fun yet?

The next level is something that is true not because it is objectively verified but because it cannot be disproven. This is sort of an offshoot from the last level, because there isn’t objective verification, but there is somewhat more weight to these ideas because there is an argument to be made for them, that nobody can disprove the idea, that makes it more likely that people will accept it as truth, which increases the truth-value or gravity of the idea. (Don’t worry: we’re almost at the top. Almost at simple truth. But not quite.) This is the level where God lives. The existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, non-material personal deity is impossible to disprove: there is no observation I can make that would prove that God doesn’t exist. According to science, this makes the god-hypothesis false, because it is unfalsifiable; but I’m not talking about science, I’m talking about impact on humans through the intersection of objective reality and knowledge. There are quite a few people who know God’s existence is real, and since God cannot be disproven, that gives the idea more weight than Michael Jordan’s lucky shorts. (You have to be an atheist to make that statement with a straight face. Okay, I was smiling a little when I wrote it.) It moves the truth of religion to a higher level, how’s that? Not objectively proven, but not objectively disproven, either.

But now, at last, after ignorance and belief and faith and falsifiability and religion and – Lord help us – even sports, we come to the simplest level, and nearly the top. This is where we find: the truth. Simple truth. Facts, with known evidence, which are objectively verifiable: I can look out my door and see that it is or is not raining, and I can actually test it to make sure that it is rain. I can step outside, and I will get wet. Truth. Simple truth.

Of course, even this level isn’t that simple, because the evidence of our senses is, sadly, not necessarily reflective of objective reality; all my senses could verify that it is in fact raining, but I could be mad, or in the Matrix. But that moves us over into the question of absolute truth, and since I can’t know absolute truth, it doesn’t matter to me: absolute truth is actually down at that bottom level, truth I don’t know. (There’s no way out of Descartes’ labyrinth here, by the way. In the Matrix, it is possible to know that the Matrix is not real – but then, the second movie shows us that there is another level of truth, that Neo is the sixth version of the One, and the other characters did not know that truth; and then past that there is another level – because the character Neo, like the character of the Architect who makes him, who made the Matrix, don’t know that they’re actually in a fictional movie. The only truth we can ever know is what our senses tell us. Period. Cogito ergo sum.) We take our reality as just that, as reality, and that is all we know, and all we need to know. That is truth.

One level left: that is the important truth. The weighty truth, the truth that is both objectively verified and also able to change thoughts and actions of humans; the kind of truth that makes a paradigm shift, that combines both science and popularity, and therefore moves mountains and changes continents. Proven facts that also have gravity. This is, for example, the truth that every living thing dies.

The truth that love conquers all.

The truth that money makes the world go ’round.

The truth that man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.

The truth that art is humanity’s highest calling.

The truth that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The truth that evolution through natural selection is sufficient to explain all complexity in the biosphere.

The truth that we’ll never know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

My last truth is this: we can handle the truth. We can. We do.

Just not enough.