Adventures in Reading

Fiction: Nation by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been trying to write on Terry Pratchett’s Nation for ages, so here are a handful of notes I wrote down while reading: story begins with a creation myth, looks at god superstitions, written by an atheist, some characters taught an unquestioning faith in belief, religion and/versus science.

Nation is Terry Pratchett’s most recent novel and the first in quite awhile not to occur within his fantastical Discworld series. In a bit of an alternate reality that is very similar to our own 19th Century, a tsunami strikes destroying much of the populations of this world’s equivocal South Pacific and also happens to shipwreck an English ship. The only immediate survivors are a man-child (with no soul (give me a moment on this)) MAu and a British girl going by the pseudonym Daphne.

I can think of three reasons why you would want to read this book, and the first most easily being that you love Terry Pratchett and as there is no new Discworld book this year what else are you going to read? Believe me, you won’t be disappointed!

Secondly, this is a wonderful book for young adults. Our protagonists are both at the coming-of-age period when the tsunami strikes – it’s The Lord of the Flies with much less madness and much more humor. Mau is returning home from his rite-of-passage during the disaster and his ceremony is never concluded, and thus he finds himself in limbo without his soul from childhood, but no way to enter manhood. Daphne is going to meet her father who is a member of the British Empire and one in a long queue to be the next king. Nation is interesting, thoughtful, funny, and has some brilliant speaking points: sex and gender, religion, colonization, beliefs, etc.

Three, you love atheism, hate atheism, or are interested in atheism. Pratchett, an atheist, has written a book on belief, why people believe, and perhaps even the need for some people to believe. The book concludes with a series of warnings including that the book might make you think. Unlike Pullman’s more in your face style, Pratchett is putting out the query of why do people believe and trying to present his answer.

The book concludes with Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins visiting the island. Really, what more do you need?

Conclusion: Keeper.

Other opinions: Book Addiction.


Revisted Reviews: Atheism by Julian Baggini

I finished Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini. For the most part, it reassured my beliefs and choices as well as answered some of the questions I was seeking. Largely, does atheism only exist as a critique against other religions (which it seems to be in many discussions) and atheism as a belief system itself. It lightly delved into quite a few philosophical arguments for atheism and responses to arguments against atheism.

Of course, Baggini did dwell on the relationship of atheism and religion and did spend some time refuting religious beliefs and reasons to believe in religion in the sense that there are practical and factual reasons. That is, Baggini doesn’t so much as negate religion as much as realistic belief in it and the requirement of blind faith to accept it.

I think what I enjoyed most is Baggini’s look that atheism is neither a positive nor a negative outlook on life. Rather, it’s a realistic and naturalistic approach to life and that atheists can define and find their own good and bad. Too often atheism is confused with nihilism. Additionally, the book helped me to distinguish the lines between atheism and existentialism more so than I previously had.

Interestingly enough, the book included a quote from my favorite – Terry Pratchett, “I think I’m probably an atheist, but rather angry at god for not existing.” When I shared this with my partner he didn’t get it at first, but everyone reaches for belief differently and Pratchett succinctly describes my somewhat rocky journey in wanting to believe in something only to realize that what I wanted wasn’t some supernatural entity. I’ve also slowly been becoming more and more aware of the religious privilege around me.

Publishing in the 1950s

From Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “On A Book Entitled Lolita” from November 12, 1956:

“Their [publishing companies] refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.”

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I first read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass in high school, but for the life of me I could not recollect three-fourths of the book during my reread. The premise of the book was familiar as were certain scenes, but overall I was drawing gaping blanks. Recently The Golden Compass has had quite a bit of media attention because of the film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman (soon to be out in theatres), and perhaps more interestingly the criticism and outright banning of the film and book from religious groups.

The world of The Golden Compass is similar to our own world circa the 19th Century. Some geography and historical matters have changed, a race of talking bears exist called panserbjørnes, and every human has a sort of familiar known as a dæmon. The hero of our tale is a young girl named Lyra, and she quickly becomes involved in a theological and philosophical trip that will land her in a different world all together.

Prior to reading the book, I participated in a good bit of discourse with my co-workers regarding adult’s reactions to certain themes and language in children’s books. Reading a book at different ages will almost always result in differing interpretations. It seems what you get from a book is largely based on either what you are told to get from the book or what you are looking for. Consciously or unconsciously how we approach a book defines what themes, symbols, plot points, etc. are important to us. Our approach to a novel seems to differ every time we engage with it. Thus, how an adult, or specifically a parent, may read a book is perhaps drastically different than how a child, a parent’s own child, will engage with the same book.

The Golden Compass dragged for the first 50-pages, but it was well worth making it through those first few chapters. Lyra participates in a terrific journey that I must have been entirely oblivious to in my earlier reading. Reading the book in my 20s, Pullman – a well-known atheist – presents an intriguing and challenging commentary on the Catholic Church and theology in general. In 351 pages, Pullman slowly discloses a criticism on the brutal and unnecessary practice of various genital mutilations in religious practice and history. This is paralleled with the story as children are kidnapped to receive an “incision” that removes their dæmons, or sexual maturity or original sin, from them. The final chapters of the book quote from an adapted version of Genesis.

Considering my patchy memory, I cannot say how I interpreted these passages when I was younger. I can say that when I first heard of religious group’s criticisms of the book that I was entirely unaware of what had caused all of the excitement. I had never picked up on strictly religious criticism, but considering the ending of the book there really is not much left open for adult interpretation. To say that The Golden Compass is not outright criticizing the church is ludicrous and insulting to Pullman. However, I suppose it is little different than reading the heavy handed christian influence in The Chronicles of Narnia. More likely than not, a child will read the book for the adventure and fantasy. However, as with any book a child could become engaged and ask questions (oh, the horror!).

The Golden Compass is a grand read and one I would have no qualms handing to anyone: adult or child. Pullman has written a riveting fantasy adventure with a strong female character. An adult with only the slightest awareness of the catholic church cannot fail to read Pullman’s condemnation of church practices. Perhaps though rather than banning and censoring literature Pullman’s book can be read for the points of discussion it opens and for the magnificent story that unfolds.

Also reviews of The Golden Compass from Books I Done Read and Book Addiction.

god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
“If one must have faith in order to believe something, or believe in something, then the likelihood of that something have any truth or value is considerably diminished.”

I have been debating on whether or not to include books of a strictly (or mostly) political nature on my blog. While of course many political debates rage fiercely in regards to fictional works such as Jane Austen, but seldom do arguments over narrative structure or character disposition result in earnest offense. However, political books certainly do exist in my personal reading repertoire and rather than shying away from public comment, which I seldom if ever do, I will attempt to represent my opinions of these pieces as best I can.

If you were born or raised in the United States, undoubtedly early on you learned of certain discussion points to avoid in social situations: (1) money, (2) politics, and (3) religion. Fortunately, my family never bothered much with these notions of politeness and instead spent a great deal of time speaking about everything. Despite my personal experience, I comfortably say that religion is certainly a point of contention for many people and I dare say it has always been this way. It seems recently, and I am sure it has blipped onto the screen in the past, that atheism has become the new chattering point with some such atheist regularly making guest appearances on television or lecture tours. During the past year, three notable atheist texts have been published: Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.

I finished Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great last evening, and it is a book I do not gush about with enthusiasm but that has provided me with a great deal of thought. While the book is located in the atheist section and certainly was written from an atheist perspective, the book has far more to do with its title than atheism. I recalled the sing-songy rhyme of my childhood declaring “god is great, god is good,” and Hitchens directly challenges this idea by listing example and explanation of religions own hypocrisy and hatred. If you do not identify as religious nothing in the book is probably too great of a surprise, but if you do consider yourself religious you may be shocked and/or insulted by what you read.

What I have gushed about is Hitchens’ brilliant rhetoric and wit. Even if you disagree with everything he says, he still remains an ingenious speaker and writer. I have read a few reviews calling Hitchens angry, which immediately calls upon my response of “what is wrong with being angry?” but after reading the book I cannot agree that he is all that angry (I found him often rather charming actually) or that when he is angry that it is not an acceptable and expected expression of emotion.

Hitchens’ concludes his book expressing his desire to see an updated version of the Enlightenment, which held particular interest for me after my recent Enlightenment inquiries in application to Jane Austen. I admit that I am a bit trumped at envisioning a New Enlightenment as the former Enlightenment was so thoroughly entrenched in a white, western, patriarchal, male, ablist, heteronormative, etc. perspective that I cannot easily imagine what a New Enlightenment embracing a wider perspective could be. However, I do believe Hitchens extends an interesting and plausible possibility to define the future of humankind in a secular world.

Overall do I recommend the book? Sure, why not? It was an enjoyable and informative read for myself though I must confess I am far more interested in his new collection of essays The Portable Atheist. However, it is a political book and being so I am sure the reader is (mostly) aware of what they are getting into as well as their response to reading such a text. I admittedly was not hugely interested in reading any of these books I have mentioned until fairly recently, but now that I have finished Hitchens’ book I do await the other books with much anticipation.

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