Contempt and Hate

I don’t think most of us understand hate.

I know I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever actually felt it.

We use the word often; I use it all the time. I hate voluntary ignorance; I hate violence and war; I hate BBQ potato chips. But we also say “love” more than, I think, we mean it: I love my dog and I love my wife, but I also say I love Ren and Stimpy (Ren more than Stimpy – though I still love Stimpy, the big goof!), and I love Cheez-Its. Obviously, the feelings aren’t the same, aren’t even similar, and I have written before about the absurdity of this language, with its incredible vocabulary and the multiple nuances and shades of meaning available in the specific words and the specific uses we can put them to, having only one or two words for a positive feeling – I “like” this, and I “love” that. Now, that actually isn’t true, we have a ton of words to describe good feelings; and it would make me ecstatic if we could start saying adore and cherish and esteem – I am fond of funny T-shirts! I hold napping in high regard! – but that’s probably not going to happen.

Considering, however, all of the talk that has been flying about regarding hate “lately,” with Charlottesville, and with the alt-right administration currently abandoning the White House like lice fleeing the comb, I think this particular word requires some serious attention. I fear we are misusing it, and therefore making a mistake in how we handle the people, the groups, and the actions to whom we apply it.

Now, as I am unsure that I’ve ever genuinely experienced the feeling of hate (which doubt makes me think that I can actually be sure that I have not, because I think if I had, I would know it), it would seem that I could not write about it; but I can speak from observation, and also from the similar emotions I have felt, as hate is on one end of a spectrum, and all of us have been somewhere on that spectrum. I also have expert testimony to draw from: because I talked to my wife about this subject, and I asked her, “Do you think you’ve ever experienced real hate?” She said “Yes” before I could even finish the question. Without hesitation, without equivocation. I don’t intend to air her dirty laundry here, but suffice to say that one of her parents is one of the best people I’ve ever known, and the other one is very much the opposite of that. (For those reading this who may actually know my wife and her family, be aware that you have never met the shitty parent; you know her step-parent, who is a fine person as well.)

Here is how she describes what she feels for that parent. Every time she thinks of this person, it makes her angry. Angry enough to do harm: to punch, to kick, to attack. Every single time. It follows her around, she said, this anger; it is a part of her, and it never goes away. This is partly due to the fact that the object of her hatred, as one of her biological parents, is also a part of her; she knows this, and she hates that it is so. Everything that she hates about this person, reflects in some way on her, either because of their connection, or because of how it makes her feel. Which just makes her angrier.

That is hate. Hate is anger that lasts, and that never goes away. Violent, intense anger, anger that taints everything around it, including one’s own self: to have something or someone in your life that you hate would make you upset with yourself for feeling this way, particularly in this culture that teaches forgiveness and resolution and closure. My wife cannot force this to heal, cannot close this wound; and so it festers and aches and weeps. This, of course, intensifies her negative feelings, because then she feels saddened that she has to continue dealing with this, that she can’t find a way to get over it or get past it; and then she naturally blames the source of that hate for bringing these other terrible feelings on her, as well, for being so hate-worthy that now she has to carry all the rest of it along with the hate.

(A final note: she is right. That parent is worthy of hate. It’s the closest that I feel to hate, as well, because of what my wife has had to suffer, and continues to suffer. The cultural trope that my wife should forgive and forget is nothing but nonsense. That person does not deserve forgiveness. Those of you who may feel the urge to say that she should turn the other cheek, that her feelings are only hurting her and will go away if she forgives: shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.)

I have felt anger that made me want to do violence. I have felt it several times for a single person or event, so I think I have felt some level of hate; but my hate, my anger, has always faded, and I’ve always been able to feel better afterwards. That fact has enabled me to call myself a pacifist, to say that I oppose violence in all forms at all times. Because I have always been able to escape my desire to do violence, so I have the luxury of thinking that people can always do that, can always turn the other cheek and just – calm down. (Also, I have never had to fight for my safety or my life, and so I can think that people never really need to do that.) This has made me incapable of understanding people who are members of what we blithely call hate groups: why, I think, can’t they just calm down?

There’s two answers, there, because I think there is more than one type of member in a hate group. Probably there is a spectrum as broad as the number of people in the group, but there are two categories at least we can put them into, and should. One is the group that is actually, genuinely filled with hate: every time they encounter the object of their hatred – let’s say, every time a Neo-Nazi encounters a Jewish person, or every time a Klansman meets an African-American – they are filled with a rage that brings them to violence. That rage never fades; they carry it with them, everywhere, always. It is a part of them. It is possible that they are upset with themselves, and saddened, as my wife is, that they cannot simply let that rage go; I would wager that if they lose loved ones, family members or friends that turn a cold shoulder because of the Klansman’s/Neo-Nazi’s hate, that they wish that they could just let the hate go. But they can’t: and every negative feeling that gets piled on someone who hates, gets added to the list of reasons to hate. The object of the hate receives the full blame for all of the consequences of hate. The Klansman thinks, “If those [African-Americans] wouldn’t be so awful, then my life wouldn’t be so terrible. I hate them even more for making me hate them, and for screwing up my life with that hate.”

This kind of conflict cannot be reasoned with. It cannot be cajoled away. I don’t know that it always lasts for everyone who feels it; surely some people change. But I don’t think there is a pattern to that, not a process that can be prescribed to end real, violent, hate. I think the only thing that can be done about it is my wife’s solution: separation. She never sees the person she hates, and never intends to. It doesn’t make her feel better, it doesn’t make the hate go away; but it keeps her from becoming violent. It minimizes the occasions when she has to think about it. (And I have to say: as important as I think this topic is, I feel terrible that writing this is going to drag my wife back down into everything she feels about her family. I really am sorry. She will of course read this before it is published and so it is possible, if she wishes it, that no one else will ever read it.) That’s the best we can do with the people who feel genuine hatred.

But for the rest of them – probably, I think, the majority of them – what they feel is not hatred. For them, it’s more like me saying I hate when my students ask me the same question three times in a row (“When is this due?” “Friday. It says it on the board.” “Wait – when is it due?” “Friday.” “What’s due on Friday?” “I hate you.”). That does drive me crazy; but it doesn’t make me feel violent, and it doesn’t make me feel sad. I don’t even know that it makes me angry, as such.

I think the word for what I feel at those times is: contempt. Maybe disgust, but I think disgust has a visceral, nauseous element; disgust turns one’s stomach. Students not paying attention doesn’t turn my stomach. What it does do is make me smirk at them, and think mean things about how dumb they are – after all, why can’t they read the due date on the board, right over there? Why weren’t they listening when I explained this to them not thirty seconds ago? They must be idiots. They’re not, not really: I’ve been a teacher for 17 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a student that I would call an actual idiot; every single one of them was either capable of doing what I asked, or had a reason (such as autism or developmental disabilities) why they couldn’t do it. The majority of them have not done the majority of what I have asked, but not because they were idiots. When I think that, it is a dismissal, a belittling, created from my contempt.

That, I think, is what most members of hate groups actually feel for the object of their “hate.” Contempt. I think their ideas are about as valid as my contempt for my students when they don’t listen, and I’d guess that every instance of contempt is similarly unfounded; it may be that their contempt is, like mine, largely projected: I get mad at my students for not listening at least in part because I know full well that I never really listened to my teachers when I was in high school. My irritation with them is certainly some irritation with my past teenaged self, seen reflected in their slack jaws and dull eyes, so like my own. It’s also true that they are most distracted when my class is most boring, and I know that when it is boring, it is mostly my fault, not theirs (though I will note that often the boring things I teach are unavoidable: somebody has to explain commas and apostrophes and the passive voice); when I taught John Knowles’s terrible novel A Separate Peace, boredom was the appropriate response. Maybe even contempt.

But I’m not all that interested in trying to understand why Neo-Nazis feel what they feel, whether it is contempt or it is hatred; I don’t really care. There isn’t a way to feel hatred for an entire race that is justified the way my wife’s hatred is justified, because an entire race of people cannot be guilty of heinous acts towards a single person. Contempt for an entire race is also moronic, as my contempt for my students would be if it lasted more than a few seconds; but after they all know what the due date is, we go back to discussion of George Orwell, and they have intelligent and interesting things to say, and I realize they’re not at all idiots, and I was being a jerk when I thought they were. I don’t understand why Neo-Nazis and Klansmen don’t have that same realization. I kinda think they’re idiots. That is the biggest difference: my contempt is only momentary, and never very serious; a Neo-Nazi feels a long-term, maybe even a permanent contempt for the contemptuous object. Enough to make him willing to join the swastika crowd. The Neo-Nazis that aren’t idiots – and of course there are some such – either feel hate, or they are those who can be turned away from their hate groups, those people who make a friend of a different race and realize they maybe shouldn’t be marching in the hate parade.

Here’s what matters. Contempt can frequently be dismissed as unimportant, because it does not incite violence. Nobody wants to hit someone they feel contempt for; the object of contempt is too pathetic, too insignificant, to go through all that trouble. You might shove them out of your way, but you would never pursue them and beat them; you would never run them down with your car, or hang them from the nearest tree. Those are acts of hate. Hate, obviously, should not be dismissed as harmless. That is not to say that everyone who hates is violent or murderous; but the emotion creates the chance of violence, where contempt does not.

I think a lot of our treatment of Neo-Nazis and Klansmen and other white supremacists is contemptuous. We make fun of them, we belittle them, we dismiss them. We feel contempt for them, because we think that all they feel for their victims is also contempt, so we don’t really worry about them doing harm. (Also: they’re idiots. I think.) By contrast, our treatment of terrorists is fearful: because we know that they feel hate, and therefore are they very dangerous. People who would set off a bomb in a crowded place are full of hate. People who would drive a car, or a plane, into innocents, are full of hate. And if and when we see white supremacists marching, at night, carrying torches, chanting “BLOOD AND SOIL!” we recognize that as more than contempt: that is hate. You watch video of police officers setting attack dogs on civil rights protesters, it is clear: that is hate. Hate, genuine hate, must be treated as something dangerous, because it is. Treating a person filled with hate as if they only felt contempt would make us vulnerable; we can turn our backs on people who feel contempt. We can get up in their faces during a rally, we can yell at them, we can follow them playing “Ride of the Valkyries” on a tuba. We can laugh at people who feel contempt. It is dangerous to treat those who hate as if they only feel contempt. That is the first mistake we have made in the past, and hopefully, the events of Charlottesville will remind us that ignoring, dismissing, belittling those who actually hate is never going to make them go away. For them, we must make them go away: we must enforce separation. Which probably means law enforcement.

But here’s the thing. When we treat those who only feel contempt as if they actually feel hate, that is ineffective, too. Because it isn’t justified: a guy who makes racist jokes doesn’t need to be on an FBI terror watch list. Some putz who hangs a Nazi flag on his house, or a Confederate flag on his truck, doesn’t need to be treated as if he is about to explode into violence. And if you confront that person and say, “You’re full of hate!” in whatever way you say that, they will say, “No, I’m not. I don’t hate anybody. I just think racist jokes are funny, and the Confederacy fought for Southern pride and state’s rights.” They may say, “I have plenty of [black/Jewish/female] friends.” And maybe they do, though I think it is hard to be friendly with someone for whom you also feel contempt. But regardless, they do not feel hate. They can reasonably deny any label that they are members of a hate group, or that they are a violent threat to a civil society. If you try to force that label on them, they can turn it around and call you intolerant, and a bigot; they can call you Communist or antifa or the alt-left. They can claim that you are limiting their freedom of speech by keeping them from speaking on your college campus. They can take the moral high ground. Then they can argue for greater freedom for their groups and their causes – and then that means greater freedom for the members of those groups and causes who actually feel hate, who are genuinely dangerous.

Then you get Charlottesville.

So the issue is, we have to make a distinction between those who feel contempt, and those who feel hate. And we have to treat them differently. The hateful must be watched, and prevented from doing harm; the contemptuous we should ignore.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as I’ve gotten in my plans for how to fix all of this. I do not know how to discern hate from contempt; they probably blend together for the observer, they may both be present in the same person. No reason why a Neo-Nazi couldn’t feel contemptuous of Jews and hate African-Americans, for instance. Or feel contempt for African-Americans and hate black policemen, specifically. A contemptuous person may get angry and sound just like someone full of hate, even if that feeling fades quickly, where it wouldn’t in someone who genuinely hates. But I do think that we will make more progress, and have better results, if we treat the two categories differently when it is clear which is which. That crying Nazi who got banned from OKCupid, for instance? That dude is not full of hate. A man who hated non-whites would hate them more after they got him banned from Tinder. He might lie about it, of course; but I think he probably would not cry.

Though maybe that thought is coming from my own contempt.

I hate that.

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead

by Ayn Rand


I don’t think I understood this book.

I understood parts of it. The hero, Howard Roark, is intended, I think, to represent the ideal man in Ayn Rand’s terms: he is self-made, dependent upon no one else, answers to no one but himself, acts for no other reason than his self-interest. He is not selfish in that he does not take things that he does not earn, does not steal from others nor hoard things that others would find valuable; he does not seek to impose his ideas on anyone else. He is a mix of what I would call an artist and what Rand would call an artist, in that she puts a higher premium on production and industry than I do, and thus Roark’s art – architecture – is seen as grander, by Rand than it is by me, because Roark erects man’s greatest achievement, in Rand’s view: the skyscraper. The city. I don’t know that I see cities as the ideal human creation, but I agree that architecture is an art with a particularly elemental aspect, in that architects build our homes, build our places, and thus have great influence on our lives. I can live with that as a sort of pinnacle of value.

(By the way: it isn’t that I would argue that architecture is a lesser art than, say, literature or music or painting; it’s just that art has to have an impact on the viewer to achieve its highest, or deepest, effect, and for me personally, a building doesn’t have the same magic as the perfect poem or song or painting. Totally subjective. Speaking of subjective, Rand keeps trying to pawn off Roark’s architectural style as the perfect ideal, and I don’t see it that way; she’s clearly a fan of Modern architecture, and I like several styles. Unimportant but kind of annoying while I was reading.)

The villain, Ellsworth Toohey, is the opposite of Roark. He lives entirely through others, but focused on himself in a purely selfish, greedy, and therefore evil manner: Toohey seeks to control others, to force them to obey his whims, for no other reason than because he desires that control (Rand hints, as she states more clearly in Atlas Shrugged, that by denying his own self-interest, what Toohey really wants both for others and for himself, is death. Okay.). He uses public opinion, which he can sway, to intimidate or extort others until they obey him; if they will not, he tries to use it to destroy them. He tries to destroy Roark because Roark can’t be controlled, because Roark doesn’t care about public opinion. (One of the best exchanges in this book is when Toohey, having used his manipulative wiles to screw up Roark’s life, catches Roark alone and says, “You can tell me what you think of me,” because he thrives on hatred and envy and bile. To which Roark responds, “But I don’t think of you.” That was a great line.) But because Roark doesn’t care about public opinion – because he lives only for his own happiness, using only his own reason to determine his value – Toohey’s attempts to destroy Roark do not work. Roark, like the honey badger, doesn’t give a shit. I appreciate that. I can even admire it.

The other character I understood was Peter Keating. Keating is not the opposite of Roark, but the negative of Roark: he cares only for public opinion. He never uses his own standards, nor even his own ability to accomplish anything; like Toohey, he excels at manipulation, and Keating uses that manipulation to worm his way into people’s trust and then take credit for their work. He is supremely successful because of that, and absolutely miserable: the opposite of Roark. (Keating too is an architect.)

I got all of that. I could appreciate that story, of Keating competing with Roark and not really understanding why he feels like he’s losing even though he wins every award, every contract, every accolade that he and Roark both try for. I could appreciate the story of the evil Ellsworth Toohey trying to destroy the good Howard Roark, and Roark essentially winning that fight even though Toohey is appallingly effective at manipulation, just because Roark doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and because he is good enough at what he does for the quality of his work to show through despite what the critics have to say about it (Among other things, Toohey is the premiere critic of architecture in the book.).

What I didn’t get, though, was the love story. The female protagonist is named Dominique Francon: she is the daughter of Peter Keating’s boss and predecessor as most-successful-but-least-actually-talented architect, and she is, like Toohey, a critic of architecture. She is also, like Roark, a Randian ideal in that she thinks for herself and cares not at all what others think of her. She enters into relationships as a self-interested party offering value for value, which is how Rand says that love should work.

The problem is that she loves Howard Roark. It wouldn’t be a problem, because Roark is the ideal man and therefore of course she loves him, except: their relationship starts when Roark rapes her. Straight up, not simply according to my overly-sensitive interpretation; Roark breaks into her house at night and rapes her, and when she refers to it later, she says “He raped me.” And then they love each other. They love each other so much, in fact, that Dominique leaves Roark and marries Peter Keating. Who, because she does not at all love him, she does not respond to, turning into a lifeless mannequin whenever he touches her (A particularly distasteful element that Rand also played up in Atlas Shrugged, with one of the female villains in that book.). Now, Dominique does this ostensibly because she can’t stand to watch Roark go through the crap he has to deal with from Toohey and all of his allies as they try to destroy his reputation and therefore the man himself, but I really don’t get it. I don’t get why she marries Keating, I don’t get why she then leaves him and marries Gail Wynand (who I also don’t get), and I don’t get why she loves Roark after he raped her. I don’t get what Rand is trying to say with all of this. I don’t get why Dominique is the ideal woman when her major quality seems to be her unearthly beauty (Which, as an unimportant side note, I also couldn’t see simply because Rand’s idea of beauty is not mine: Dominique is tall and thin and pale and cold and has hair that is repeatedly compared to a helmet complete with metallic sheen. But that’s neither here nor there: if she had been described as my ideal imaginary woman, I still wouldn’t understand her actions or role in the book.) and her determination to leave the man she loves and marry a man she loathes. I don’t get how that’s good.

My problem with the book is that the parts I didn’t get took too much away from the parts I did get. I can’t root for Roark when he’s a rapist. I can’t root for Dominique when I don’t know why she does what she does. I can’t root for Toohey or Keating when I do understand that they’re scum. I would actually root for Gail Wynand, who is a badass and also a Randian ideal: he is self-interested, motivated, hard-working, and entirely self-made. It seems that his failing that makes him a flawed character is that he has built an empire based on public opinion rather than his own ideals and reason. Wynand sought power, and he found it along with wealth by becoming William Randolph Hearst: he owns all of the trashiest, most sensational, and most successful newspapers in the country. In the second half of the book, Toohey goes after Wynand (Because Wynand has power that Toohey wants), and Wynand is finally destroyed by Toohey, though Wynand makes it a Pyrrhic victory for Toohey. I’m not sure why Wynand loses, though. Rand shows how manipulating public opinion, and really socking home the idea that altruism is the only good and anyone who is wealthy is greedy and therefore vile and selfish, can destroy an empire; that’s how Toohey takes Wynand down. But I think Wynand is not supposed to be a victim, here: he is somehow partly responsible for his downfall. He used his papers to manipulate public opinion in order to garner power, and that is finally turned against him; I suppose that is his evil, his tragic flaw. But I feel that undercuts the message of Toohey’s villainy, and it made me unsure if I should be mad at Toohey or Wynand. And then there’s the fact that Wynand falls in love with Dominique, and she marries him and loves him on some level – but then drops him like a hot rock and goes back to her rapist. (And I feel like I’m supposed to appreciate how Dominique can look past the fact of her rape, and therefore I’m being like a stick in the mud or a prude or something by harping on this. And if so, well, bite me.) So is this more evidence that Wynand is flawed and I’m supposed to admire Roark more than Wynand? I don’t. I see Wynand’s evil side, in his abuse of power; but I see Roark’s evil side in his abuse of Dominique. And Dominique’s evil side in her betrayal of – well, everyone, in one way or another; particularly herself.

Basically, I dislike everyone in this book, and so I can’t see the ideal aspect I’m supposed to appreciate and try to emulate. I was not made happy by the happy ending.

So I figure, either I didn’t understand the book well enough to appreciate it, or I did understand it, and it’s pretty much evil crap. Either way, I can’t recommend it.

I invite anyone who feels they can explain the book to me to do so. I completely accept that I am not a fair judge of it because I didn’t really get it, and I would like to understand it even if I still don’t agree with it, should that be the case.

What It Means to Be a Writer

Scrolling through my Twitter feed when I found a link to this piece.

I walk by accident into one of London’s über-bookstores to be taken over by a very familiar type of sadness—as a child I used to feel this way when thinking about the cosmos and my own insignificant place in it. This is London’s biggest bookshop: 6.5 km of shelves, the website proudly tells us, as if this particular length and not another were a reason to rejoice. Book after book after book thrown into this worded jungle—a hoard that could be a waking counterpart to a Borgesian wet dream. Fiction books and books on writing fiction. Photography and art books and books on photography and art. And so on: most forms of expression and myriad words of meta-dialogue, some of them even justified or at least nicely edited and with colourful covers. Nothing escapes this total library: no corner of the universe or the mind is left unaccounted for. It is a hideous totality for it is an ordered totality, filtered through the minds of who knows how many marketing specialists; it is effective as a selling platform but it is a desert of anonymity for the diminished names on the shelves. Were I ever to be asked for a writing tip, something born out of this experience would be my choice: walk into any gigantic bookshop and think whether you can face being one more name lost in this desert of words. If that ideal situation proves too much to bear do something else with your time (it is of course highly likely that if you go around asking for writing tips you will never make it on print).

Okay, first of all, that parenthetical comment at the end gets you a punch in your snooty little snoot with a fist labeled Fuck You. I presume you mean that true poetry, great writing, emerges from the soul as a fait accompli, like Athena cracking her way out of Zeus’s head fully-grown; if a would-be writer is too naive to recognize this immortal truth, and to think that one could simply ASK for a way to be a better writer, then that person is doomed to less than mediocrity. Or else it is the bourgeois feeling of the “writing tips,” the oversimplified, sanitized, pre-packaged saccharine packets that show up in ten-item numbered lists on the various clickbait websites advertised on Facebook. I am more understanding of contempt for those, as I am contemptuous of people who make a living on the internet by telling people how to make a living on the internet – by running a website telling people how to make a living on the internet, which is done (Spoiler alert!) by getting people who want to make a living on the internet to buy your secret to making a living on the internet; and the people who do this always seem to call themselves “writers.” But my contempt is for the people at the top of the pyramid: not for the people down on the ground, choking on dust and sand, dreaming of a way to climb. Those people who want writing tips because they want to be better writers deserve respect for their courage in trying to find a way to get what they want; and their desire to improve, whether or not they know a good path to improvement, is admirable and not at all an indication of their potential as writers. Fuck you in the snoot, sir.

Now let’s talk about the central issue here. You’ve got two problems with this bookstore and the despair it engenders in you. One is that your words will never be truly unique, because somebody out there will say pretty much the same thing you say – or in Borges’s universe that you reference later, with his infinite Library of Babel that holds all combinations of letters and thus every possible book, one of the other volumes on the shelves will say exactly what you say. And maybe Borges was right and it does repeat in a chaotic pattern for eternity, if such a thing can be said to exist. Right? All the kilometers of fiction books, the books about art and photography and writing; all been done before, nothing is new, nothing is original. Somebody get me a cigarette and a bottle of cheap red wine, and build a Parisian basement cafe around me for a tomb.

The second problem is that you will never be the one person whose words everyone reads, everyone knows, everyone talks about; because there will always be so many others putting words on the page, that it is impossible that your words would be the ones that capture every reader at once. Particularly not if you want to capture every non-reader as well. This problem seems to be the larger one, as you speak more of being lost in the noise than you do about repeating what has already been said.

The futility of writing is something I face up to every time I set pen on paper or hand to keyboard. Why am I doing this? My compulsion to write does not occlude the uselessness of filling pages with words. I know that what I do is pointless, one more message in a bottle in a moment when everyone else around me is also casting messages adrift.

This is a poor proof. Your message in a bottle being surrounded by other messages in a bottle does not make your message pointless. Not even in the metaphor: so long as one person finds your message and reads it, and – I suppose – comes to rescue you from your desert island of despair (Perhaps your bottle message is something entirely different, something like “If you let your eyes go unfocused, a Moen kitchen faucet starts to look like a snobbish sheep with a very long snout. But it’s hard to recapture the magic once your eyes go back to normal and the sheep turns back into a faucet, so don’t waste it.” In that case, you won’t be rescued, but somebody may spend a lot of time squinting at their kitchen sink because of you, which is pretty funny, really. I’d call that success.), then your bottle was a success. You won. You did what you set out to do. You made your point. Wherefore, then, does it become pointless? Is the idea that the thousand bottles around your bottle make it less likely that your bottle will be read? This is not true for the same reason your enormous bookstore should not lead to despair. Ready for the reason? Here it is.

There is more than one person reading. (Shocking, I know. Hold onto your snoot, Buttercup.)

Let’s start with the metaphor. There are a thousand bottles with messages in them, bobbing in the water by the seashore. If there was only one person walking by, and for some reason that person had sworn a sacred vow to read only one bottled message, then your chances of being read are a thousand to one. Agreed, and that would suck. But in the – ahem – “real world” of this fantasy, that one guy wouldn’t stop at one bottle: he’d keep opening bottles. Because if he was doing it out of curiosity, out of a need to see what was written on those messages; or if he was looking for the perfect message, the one that would speak directly to his soul, then reading one message would never be enough. He’d read another, and another, and another. He’d probably try to read them all. I would. Wouldn’t you? If you saw a thousand bottles bobbing in the water with message inside them?

And if it was more than one guy on the shoreline? If it was actually a crowded beach, with tourists, and beachcombers, and dogwalkers, and a tai chi group, and a bunch of hungover teenagers wrapped in sandy blankets and the stench of wet cigarette butts? The bottles would catch all of their interests. They would all want to open their own bottle, be the first to read a message. Then they would share the messages they found with each other. They’d be diving into the water, throwing bottles back onto the shore, shouting and laughing and waving their messages over their heads. The more bottles there were in the water, the bigger the spectacle would be, and the more those people would be drawn to where the bottles were. They might even come back the next day to look for more bottles.

Are you following me, sir? Those bookstores with the kilometers of shelves? They are not only filled with books, they are filled with people. People who read books. And those people never stop at just one book. I know: I used to frequent a very similar establishment, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. Five floors of twelve-foot-high bookshelves, covering an entire city block. I never expect to see so many books on display in a single place in my life again. I could spend the rest of my life reading (Ah, bliss!) and not finish a single floor’s worth of books. I went there every month for the ten years I lived in Oregon, to buy books, and you know what? That place was always packed with people. With readers. Never mind the kilometers worth of shelves: how many kilometers of people do you think go through those stores on any given day? 3,000 people, on the average. [source] Average front-to-back measurement of a person is approximately ten inches; I’m an American and we’re thicc, so let’s bump that up to a round foot. (Screw the metric system, though I’ll convert for your convenience, sir.) 3,000 feet of human every day, which is very nearly one kilometer of human flesh – around 915 meters, to be precise. And that’s not even lying down head-to-foot. That means that in a week, if the London store has a similar number of visitors, the people looking at those books outdistance the books they are looking at. And I can tell you that the turnover rate for the people looking is far higher than the turnover for the books on the shelves.

There are an enormous number of books in the world, and it grows every day. It is impossible for one person to read them all, and realistically impossible that one of them will be read by all people.

But that doesn’t mean that my book won’t be read. It doesn’t mean that your words will never be seen.

I think about selling my books, which I have not yet succeeded in doing. But let’s imagine that I do so: imagine if my sales, by every measure of the publishing industry, are absymal. Let’s pretend that I only sell one thousand copies of my novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate. So lame, right? I am – what was your phrase? – “lost in this desert of words.”

A thousand people bought my book. Presumably that means a thousand people read it. (Some surely would cast it aside in disgust or disappointment, sure, but I think some of them would like it enough to share with someone else, or else resell it. Let’s just imagine that one sale equals one reading.) Think about that. I have never been in a room with a thousand people who all know me: not in the way that a reader knows at least an aspect of a writer. I have spoken to thousands of people in my life, but I doubt that a full one thousand of them cared about what I had to say: cared enough to sit down, in a quiet room, and spend hours just listening to my words, thinking about my thoughts. Hearing me. If I could sell just one thousand copies of my book, then I could achieve that. So what if at that same time a million people were listening to Stephen King, and ten million were listening to Kim Kardashian? So what if the world is larger than I can speak to at once? So what if all I can have is one small corner –with one thousand people listening to me?

Isn’t that enough?

Think about it in terms of time. I don’t know how many hours it takes me to write a book, but the pirate book was finished in about a year, so let’s use that. It’s a pretty fast read, I think; someone could finish it in maybe ten hours of reading at a leisurely pace, maybe even less. If a thousand people spend ten hours reading my book, then the year of my life spent writing it (And of course the vast majority of that year was spent sleeping, working, eating, singing in the shower, watching TV, playing The Sims, et cetera) has turned into ten thousand hours of other people’s lives spent – on me. There are 8,760 hours in a year (And 525,600 minutes), so even if I had spent every single one of them working on my book, that time spent is balanced by time spent reading my book if only a thousand people were to read it. More than balanced.

So the question is, what more could you possibly want?

If the only thing that would make writing worthwhile, that would give this endeavor a point, is if every single person on Earth read your work, and only your work, then I agree that writing would be pointless. But I can’t fathom a writer, a real writer, being that childish, that selfish, to think that the world must revolve around your work and your work alone. I mean, the only cultural phenomenon with that impact is Wyld Stallyns. Granted, you’re not them, and neither am I. And that stings a bit, I’ll bet. Yeah, it does me too.

I’ll comfort myself just thinking about how easy it would be to get a thousand people in the world to read a decent book. Shit, if all I want is readers, I could offer it for free and get that many readers without even trying. You wrote this obnoxious angsty piece of snobbery, and I read it, and then spent – mmm – more than an hour responding to it. See? The time you spent on this crud then earned for you this time spent out of my life. Time I could have been reading, ya selfish bastard.

And honestly, I think this is enough time spent on you. I am sorry that your life is so empty and meaningless, and sorry that I threw a couple of hours of my life into your black hole of an ego. Do us both a favor: gain some perspective, will you? Thanks.

(I have to say: the rest of the piece has some valid points about marketing on social media, and about the democratization and banalisation [His word] of writing that has occurred through the internet. There is some good thought here. If there hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have read all the way to the end, and then taken the time to write a response. I don’t disagree with everything he says. Just the central premise. I dream of having a thousand readers, and I am absolutely sure that, even in a world inundated with voluminous writers of every imaginable quality and a limited number of readers with a limited number of books they will read, still: I will hit that mark. And it will be worth it.

(Thank you for inspiring me to write this, sir. Now pull up your fucking pants.)

Book Rant — I mean, REVIEW: Dune Messiah

Dune Messiah

by Frank Herbert


What does it mean when you don’t understand a book?

This is something that has bothered me for a long time, now. Because back in grad school, I signed up for a class that was going to focus on James Joyce’s Ulysses; each student in the seminar was going to annotate one chapter of the thing. I had never read Joyce, and so I got Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man out of the library, and read it, to give myself some idea of what I was in for.

Couldn’t understand it at all.

Two weeks later, I dropped the class and dropped out of grad school.

Joyce wasn’t the only reason I did that, and that wasn’t the only book I couldn’t understand. But it’s bothered me ever since, both looking back on that period in my life, and also whenever I read books now that, like Portrait of the Artist, I just can’t really grasp. There’s a spectrum, of course: some books I get almost all of it, except for a certain section, or just a few paragraphs; some I can’t break into at all. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of the latter; Wuthering Heights, one of the former.

And Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, the sequel to the legendary classic Dune, is another one that, like Wuthering Heights, I couldn’t quite get all of it. And I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not as smart as I think I am, or if Frank Herbert thought I (and the rest of his audience) was even smarter than I am, or if Frank Herbert wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought he was. All I know is, though I could follow most of the plot, and there are parts of this book that I actually really enjoyed, there were a number of sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters that I had to read over and over, and at some point, I said “Screw it,” and just skimmed those parts, thinking, “Yup, don’t get this. Don’t get this at all.”

So the general idea of the book: Dune is a story of intergalactic intrigue. There is a noble family, many millennia in the future, called the Atreides; they are put in charge of the most valuable planet in the galactic Empire, the planet Arrakis: known as Dune, because the entire planet is one huge desert. Dune is the most important planet in the galaxy because it is the sole source of melange, the spice; the spice is a drug that allows people to see into the future, which is the only way that spaceship pilots can steer through hyperspace. The spice has various other effects, too, not the least of which is that it extends human life (Unless you stop taking it, in which case, you die.). So the Atreides family gets to take over Dune, but unfortunately, they have enemies, and their enemies invade Dune and wipe the Atreides out. The wife of Duke Atreides escapes with her son Paul, and they find refuge among a group of desert nomads called the Fremen, who are, because of the incredibly harsh conditions of their life on Dune, the baddest-assed badasses in the whole galaxy. Paul and his mother are adopted by the Fremen, and over time, Paul comes to be their leader; he leads the Fremen back out of the deep desert and reconquers Dune, and from there, the entire galactic empire, because as soon as he controls Dune, he controls every powerful person who uses the spice, because if he cuts off their supply, they will all die. He threatens to do that, and he also blackmails the emperor, and hey presto, Emperor Paul Atreides. End Book One.

Now, that’s not the whole story. There is a crapton more, because Frank Herbert liked him some complicated universes, and there are various factions and issues wrapped up in the whole thing – the Landsraad and CHOAM, the Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, the Sardaukar, on and on it goes. There are also prophecies and religious ideas, and Paul becomes Muad’dib, and the Mahdi, and also Usul, and he’s the kwisatz haderach – it’s a lot. You wouldn’t want this guy’s life. But that’s the main plot: family gets destroyed, son comes back and takes revenge and seizes power for himself. Combination of Macbeth and Hamlet. No problem.

But then there’s Dune Messiah.

I would like to note here that my father, in discussing this series with me some years ago (This is my second time through the series; the first time I made it to Book 4, God-Emperor of Dune, before I gave up.), expressed his opinion that the first book was a fluke, that the other five books were the ones Herbert wanted to write, and the first book had somehow gone astray — and was, he said, the only book Herbert wrote that is worth reading. Just something to keep in mind.

In Dune Messiah, Paul Muad’dib has been Emperor for twelve years, and his legions of Fremen have been waging a successful jihad against the rest of the galaxy – there’s a point when Paul talks about Genghis Khan and Hitler, and the millions of people they killed; then he says that a conservative estimate would put his death toll at 90 billion humans. Paul and his sister, St. Alia of the Knife (If I ever had a daughter, that would be her name. St. Alia of the Knife Humphrey. And I wouldn’t let her shorten it, either.), have been turning themselves into religious idols, mainly because both of them are prescient: they can see the future. It doesn’t seem like this is a good idea, though, because neither of them want to be gods, and they have grown to distrust their own theocracy. Paul is also having trouble in his personal life because he has a sort of unofficial marriage with the Fremen woman he loves, Chani, but in order to become Emperor he had to officially marry the daughter of the former emperor, a woman named Irulan, whom he doesn’t care about but has to placate in order to keep his throne secure. Both of these women want to have Paul’s children. Paul only wants to have children with Chani, but he can’t cast aside Irulan; but for some reason (it isn’t an accident) he and Chani can’t conceive. Meanwhile he’s dealing with this whole issue of the Fremen turning on him, partly because they think he’s become corrupt, partly because they’ve become corrupt – it’s not clear. And then there are the Bene Tleilax, (Want to know how to pronounce all of these names? So do I. Guess. It’s what I do.) who resurrected one of Paul’s old friends and teachers, who was killed in the first book when the enemies overtook Dune, and have now sent that guy to — maybe kill Paul? Maybe help him maintain power? We don’t know. And then there’s a guy floating in a tank of orange gas, because he’s so addicted to the spice that he breathes the shit; and that makes him prescient, though not as prescient as Paul – because of the kwisatz haderach thing, in addition to the fact that Paul’s horking down spice by the bucketful; but the kwisatz haderach thing is why the Bene Gesserit are so obsessed with him, because the Bene Gesserit are a quasi-religious order who are basically eugenicists, who have been trying to breed the perfect human for like ten thousand years, and they finally did it, and it’s Paul. And now they want him to have kids and pass on his perfect genes – but Irulan, who is a Bene Gesserit, is their choice, while Paul only wants kids with Chani, but if he binds himself more closely to the Fremen then they will take the whole Messiah-Jihad thing waaay too far, and will kill Paul’s whole family and probably the universe, too. And Paul can pretty much see all of the possible futures, except for where another prescient person is involved because then they muddy up the timestream because they can see what’s coming and therefore can react to it, which changes Paul’s ability to see what comes next, and so he’s trying to pick the best future but he can’t really see which one it is, and every future kinda sucks.

And that’s not even what I couldn’t understand. Other than the Bene Tleilax, who literally make no fucking sense but are really cool anyway because they have these people called Face Dancers who can change their appearance at will and I love that name, I could follow all the political stuff. And most of the time stuff. The last ninety pages or so are the best part of the book, largely because the motivations become simple; also at one point Paul gets blinded – but it doesn’t matter because at that point he can see the future so completely clearly that he can see where everything around him is, in his visions; so he can point to people and describe their appearance, even though he has no eyes in his head, and it’s both cool and interesting.

No: the problem with this book is the way people talk. Herbert expects us to pick up on their subtleties, to understand not only what they say but what they really mean, so clearly that he never explains what the characters mean when they talk. It’s worst with two specific characters, both related to the Bene Tleilax: a Face Dancer named Scytale, and the resurrected friend of Paul’s, who was originally named Duncan Idaho and now goes by the unfortunate name of Hayt, which is much too much like a bad screamo band name. When these two guys talk, it just – it makes no sense at all. In the first chapter, Scytale is having a meeting with his other anti-Paul conspirators, and he says, “You wish to draw me into this fools’ fight? Very well. We’re dealing with a potential messiah. You don’t launch a frontal attack upon such a one. Martyrdom would defeat us.” I mean, okay, but you know what he left out? What their goal is. Kill Paul? Replace him? Take down his self-made religion, and his jihad? Bring back the old ways? We have no idea. They just – can’t have a martyr. And then one of his partners says “You think that’s the only danger?” And when Scytale doesn’t respond, and she says, “Well?” Scytale says, “I was enjoying the silence. Our hostilities are better left unvoiced.” And again: what hostilities? It’s never explained. You don’t like each other, sure, I don’t like you either, but – why not? If you don’t like each other, why are you working together? And why is it better if the hostilities are left unvoiced?

I guess we’re supposed to either figure these people and their goals out from subtle clues, or else just – know. Somehow. Herbert never explains what the Bene Tleilax want. He says that they create tools, but by the end of the book I don’t know if Paul is the tool, or if Hayt/Idaho is. Or both. Maybe neither. And it’s not just these people, though Scytale is the worst: we’re not clear what Paul wants, or what St. Alia of the Knife wants, or what the Fremen want, or anyone, really. Which made this book terribly annoying when it wasn’t talking about very simple things: by the end, Paul wants his wife Chani to live. We get that. St. Alia of the Knife wants to be loved. Sure, yes, good. Hayt wants to be Duncan Idaho again, and remember what that meant. I get that, and I approve. And if that had been what the whole book was about, I would probably like it; as I said, there were parts that I liked, and I did really like Dune.

But then there’s this kind of shit: (Note: Hayt is a ghola, a reanimated zombie, basically, who used to be Duncan Idaho; he is also a mentat, which is a human computer, like a Vulcan, pure logic, no emotion, super fast thoughts. There is no reason to think he would know the future, and yet somehow they all seem cool with him making predictions. Your guess is as good as mine. Oh – and he has steel eyeballs instead of normal ones.)

“Hayt,” Paul said, “are you the tool of my undoing?”

“If the substance of here and now is changed, the future is changed,” the ghola said.

“That is no answer!” Chani objected.

Paul raised his voice. “How will I die, Hayt?”

Light glinted from the artificial eyes. “It is said, m’lord, that you will die of money and power.”

Chani stiffened. “How dare he speak thus to you?”

“The mentat is truthful,” Paul said.

“Was Duncan Idaho a real friend?” she asked.

“He gave his life for me.”

“It is sad,” Chani whispered, “that a ghola cannot be restored to his original being.”

“Would you convert me?” the ghola asked, directing his gaze to Chani.

“What does he mean?” Chani asked.

“To be converted is to be turned around,” Paul said. “But there’s no going back.”

“Every man carries his own past with him,” Hayt said.

“And every ghola?” Paul asked.

“In a way, m’lord.”

“Then what of that past in your secret flesh?” Paul asked.

So. Dunno why Paul asked that first question when he’s the one who can see the future. Dunno what Hayt’s answer means. Dunno why Paul asks the second question, either; Chani wants to know what the hell he’s doing with this zombie thing that can’t be trusted, and Paul doesn’t fucking help at all, he just makes it more confusing – and he completely ignores Chani when she voices the same confusion that I’m feeling. Which I assume is why she changes the topic entirely in the middle of the conversation – maybe she’s offended by the money and power comment, though I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s offensive – but then Paul is the one whose answer makes no sense, but they slip right past that into this last exchange, ending with the “secret flesh” thing, which – huh? He’s no secret, you’ve known all along that he’s the reanimated zombie of your friend. Everybody knows it. What fucking secret flesh, Paul? WHY DON’T YOU MAKE SENSE, PAUL?!?

Anyway. Maybe it does all make sense, and I’m too dim to understand it. All I know is, I probably should have stopped after the first book. I don’t think I’ll read the third.


One last thing: I have a new theory why this book was so confusing for me. Here is the cover of my book (finger added for emphasis):

And here is the title page, also with emphatic finger. See the problem?

Book Review: Modoc

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

by Ralph Helfer


This is a very sweet book, an amazing story about a remarkable elephant. It is also unbelievably cheesy.

That doesn’t have to be a problem, of course. Most love stories are cheesy to one extent or another, and this is, most definitely, a love story. It’s a story about a man named Bram Gunterstein and the three loves of his life: the two women he loved, Sian and Gerdie, and the elephant, a female Indian pachyderm named Modoc. He called her Mo. Mosie.

Mo and Bram were born on the same day, in the same hour, on the farm owned by Bram’s elephant-trainer father, near the Black Forest in Germany. The two grew up together, and the pastoral idyll of this portion of the book is almost painfully innocent and sweet – it did, for me, get a bit saccharine, especially when Gerdie comes into the picture and she, Bram, and Mo spend summertime frolicking through the hedgerows and splish-splashing in the lakes. Ah, Youth. But then reality catches up and the owner of the circus where Modoc performs with her elephant family sells everything to an American circus owner. Bram is to be left behind as Modoc and the other animals are moved to America.

But Bram can’t leave Mo. So instead, he leaves Gerdie – and as sad as it is, it is clearly the right choice.

Unfortunately, when Bram and Modoc leave the pastoral perfection of their childhood, frankly, the shit hits the fan. A whole lot of shit hits a whole lot of fans, and spreads far and wide. The two have incredible adventures, most of them in some way terrible. There is suffering, war and blood and death, disease and starvation and fire and misery. There is also a tremendous amount of love, and quite a lot of spirituality; Bram believed that the way to God was through communion with nature, particularly through close bonds with specific animals as he had with Modoc. If he was right, then he no doubt found his way to God, because I can’t imagine a closer bond than his with this elephant.

In the end, I liked the book. It was absolutely riveting at times, and heartbreaking at others; though the author, Helfer, who knew Bram and Modoc both towards the ends of their lives, tends heavily towards the cheese, I would say it’s because he’s an animal trainer, not an author. I will also say he’s a much better poet: there is a memorial poem he wrote included at the end of the book which is by far the best moment of writing. But even if he was a terrible writer – which he is not – this book would be worth reading just for the story, and the characters. Definitely recommended.

Book Review: Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark


by Lloyd Alexander


I grew up reading the Chronicles of Prydain by Alexander, and I only discovered as an adult that, in fact, the man wrote several other books. It’s been a lot of fun discovering and reading those other novels, even though it makes me feel kind of dumb that I didn’t already know about them; after all, Alexander won two National Book Awards and was nominated for four more, so . . . I guess everybody but me knew about his broader legacy. I would like to blame my parents for not telling me about Alexander’s other books. And also Piers Anthony, who so captivated my youthful love of fantasy that I read every single one of his books. Including his genuinely crappy autobiography, Bio of an Ogre.

Blame and castigations aside though, this is a genuinely good book. It is more adult than the Chronicles of Prydain: it really only belongs in fantasy because it’s Lloyd Alexander. He never writes with too much magic, but this book has none; rather, it has – politics. It’s about a printer’s assistant, Theo, who goes on the run after his master Anton is killed by the military as part of an attempt to control the press. The printer’s assistant hooks up with a con man and snake oil salesman who is a mixture of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and the King and Duke from Huck Finn; he’s a big, bombastic, lovable rogue who makes no bones about the fact that he’s in it for the money and will tell whatever lies he can in order to get it. He’s a lot of fun and he makes the book a lot of fun.

It isn’t all fun and games, though: the fear and anger over the printer’s death and the subsequent flight are quite serious. Theo eventually parts ways with the con man and joins up with a group of intellectuals leading a rebellion, who are a great set of characters; the last third of the book is a quite realistic portrayal of the beginnings of a revolution, including Theo’s efforts to print anti-royalist pamphlets as his own efforts to free the people. Yeah: definitely not a simple children’s book.

The book leans more fantasy in the royal aspect of the politics: although there is a definitely historical feel in the elements about revolution, the causes of the nation’s oppression come straight from a fairy tale. The king is bereft and despondent to the point of uselessness over the death, several years ago, of his beloved only daughter. An evil counselor – I definitely think of Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin, or Flagg from Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon – has taken over running the kingdom, and is trying to consolidate power for himself, becoming a tyrant in the process. He is overcome not by the revolution, but by the direct actions of our hero, who essentially saves the day – though there is a twist I won’t give away.

It’s a good book. The characters are well-drawn, as is the setting; the plot is a little haphazard, which I think is because of the mix of fairy tale and historical novel, but it isn’t hard to follow. And the other reason for the somewhat complicated course of the story is: this is the first book of a series of three. So there are seeds planted here, paths started but not taken to their ends, because there is more story to tell.

I’m going to try to find the other two books. I recommend this one.

One last note: the biggest downside of this book, for me, was honestly the cover. I hated this image, and the way it depicted the characters, so much that I tried not looking at it while I was reading the book, and even now I can’t stop thinking bitter thoughts. Yech. But of course, don’t judge this good book by its crappy cover.

The Complete Douglas Adams

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide

by Douglas Adams


I don’t think the world needs me to say that these books are brilliant and wonderful. They are brilliant and wonderful, but I hope everyone already knows that. If anyone out there within sight of these words has not already read these books, then you absolutely must pick them up as your very next piece of reading – particularly since it is summer time, and there are no better beach reads than these.

There are a few things that I will add to the conversation.

First, this Omnibus edition is probably not the best way to read these books; it’s convenient to have them all together, but it’s much too large and unwieldy; this is the kind of book that you almost don’t want to read lying down in bed, because there’s no way to hold it up without your arms getting tired. And very little in life makes one feel more pathetic than watching your arms tremble from holding up a book. Also if you are, like me, prone to dozing off while reading, this book will do real harm if it falls on your face. I will also say that the bonus story here, Young Zaphod Plays It Safe, was almost entirely pointless. Not in a wacky Douglas Adams way, but in the way that I didn’t know why I had read it.

On the other hand, while I have seen the first three books everywhere for years in small convenient paperbacks, I have not seen the last two books, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless in the same format with the same frequency. And just like Star Wars, while there are plenty of people who carp that the first three are the only good ones, I disagree; Mostly Harmless has some flaws, but So Long and Thanks for All the Fish not only fits in well with the others, but it has one of the best romances I have read in a light-hearted book. There aren’t a lot of comedic authors who can tell a good love story (Christopher Moore is actually the only one who comes to mind), but this book is a good love story. It is worth reading all by itself. Mostly Harmless probably is not, but it has some absolutely wonderful moments: Ford Prefect pulling a Mission: Impossible on the Guide central office; Arthur Dent as Master Sandwich Maker; the realm of The King; the planet of What Next. I hated the ending, predictably, as it is not funny; but it certainly puts a period on the series. I think fans of the books should read it, most definitely.

The second thing I would like to add is this: not only was Douglas Adams a creative genius and a hilarious man – probably the funniest author I know of – but he was, simply put, a hell of a writer. This is his description of the Vogon Constructor Fleet in the first book:

The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the way that bricks don’t.

That last sentence is pure genius. And for a simpler, beautifully done writerly trick, this is the way he describes the actual destruction of Earth (I can’t think that’s a spoiler: it happens at the end of the first chapter, for Pete’s sake.):

There was a terrible ghastly silence.

There was a terrible ghastly noise.

There was a terrible ghastly silence.



Some of my other favorites:

The first thing that hit their eyes was what appeared to be a coffin.

And the next four thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine things that hit their eyes were also coffins.


(Describing a paranoid military character practicing his menacing:)

Number Two’s eyes darted feverishly about the room again and then settled back on the mirror, like a pair of flies briefly distracted from their favorite piece of month-old meat.


From Life, the Universe and Everything:

“The dew,” he observed, “has clearly fallen with a particularly sickening thud this morning.”


This, from So Long…, is a description of the woman half of the romance, and this is why this book should be read and enjoyed.

She was tallish with dark hair which fell in waves around a pale and serious face. Standing still, alone, she seemed almost somber, like a statue to some important but unpopular virtue in a formal garden. She seemed to be looking at something other than what she looked as if she was looking at.

But when she smiled, as she did now, suddenly, it was as if she had just arrived from somewhere.


And what may be my favorite description of all time:

If you took a couple of David Bowies and stuck one of the David Bowies on the top of the other David Bowie, then attached another David Bowie to the end of each of the arms of the upper of the first two David Bowies and wrapped the whole business up in a dirty beach robe, you would then have something which didn’t exactly look like John Watson, but which those who knew him would find hauntingly familiar.


The last thing I will say about these books is a personal confession: when I was 12, I auditioned for a school production of Pirates of Penzance by reading the Vogon poetry from Hitchhiker’s Guide. And when the director tried to cut me off by saying, “Okay, thank you,” I held up one finger to signal that I wasn’t yet done, and went ahead and finished the piece.

I didn’t get the part.

But you should get these books.

Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me,
As plurdled gabbleblotchits,
On a lurgid bee.
Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes,
And hooptiously drangle me,
With crinkly bindlewurdles, mashurbitries.
Or else I shall rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon,
See if I don’t!