Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

2018.08.15

Literature and Life

 

It is always of great interest to me when, typing the name of a foreign author or expert in a field, spellcheck knows the person of whom I am writing.  This is especially true with today’s featured author.  There are other Russian notables with very similar names and, quite frankly, I expected to be suggested that I was trying to type one of those.  However, Nabokov is well-known in the data spelling files of my computer!

 

“Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.”  This incongruence is just one of many in regards to Nabokov.  Born in St Petersburg, Russia, Vladimir learned to read and write in English before he did in Russian.  As a teenager he published a collection of 68 poems entitled “Stikhi”.   Zinaida Gippius, renowned poet and first cousin of Vladimir Gippius, critiqued the collection to Nabokov’s father: “Please tell your son that he will never be a writer.”

 

Nabokov’s father became a government official after the Russian revolt in February 1917 but in October another revolt found the family fleeing to Ukraine.  They soon sought refuge in Western Europe with Vladimir enrolling in Trinity College/University of Cambridge.  Studying zoology and then Slavic and Romance languages, he earned hi BA in 1922.  The family had moved to Berlin in 1920 and Vladimir followed.  That same year as he graduated from Cambridge, his father was accidentally shot while shielding the real target.  This them of accidental death occurs frequently in Nabokov’s writing.  Though his mother and sister moved to Prague, Vladimir stayed in Berlin, using the pen name V. Sirin.

 

Nabokov married a German woman and had one son but then, as anti-Semitism grew, they moved to France.  In May 1940 the entire family except his brother fled to the USA to escape the advancing German troops.  His brother Sergei died five years later at the Neuengamme concentration camp.  The Nabokovs settled in Manhattan and Vladimir began volunteer work as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History.  A year later he became part of the faculty at Wellesley College as a guest lecturer in comparative literature.  At the same time he was the de facto curator of lepidoptery at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

 

Vladimir Nobokov spent the waning years of his life in Switzerland, enjoying writing.  His sone became an acclaimed operatic basso in Italy and the family enjoyed relative q1uite and success with Vladimir’s success as a writer.  Nabokov’s creative processes involved writing sections of text on hundreds of index cards, which he expanded into paragraphs and chapters and rearranged to form the structure of his novels, a process that has been adopted by many screenplay writers in subsequent years.

 

Quoting  Darren Wershler) in his “The Locative, the Ambient, and the Hallucinatory in the Internet of Things” (Design and Culture):  “Nabokov is noted for his complex plots, clever word play, daring metaphors, and prose style capable of both parody and intense lyricism. He gained both fame and notoriety with his novel Lolita (1955), which tells of a grown man’s devouring passion for a twelve-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His longest novel, which met with a mixed response, is Ada (1969). He devoted more time to the composition of this novel than any of his others. Nabokov’s fiction is characterized by linguistic playfulness. For example, his short story “The Vane Sisters” is famous in part for its acrostic final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave. In another of his short stories, “Signs and Symbols” (1958), Nabokov creates a character suffering from an imaginary illness called “Referential Mania,” in which the afflicted is faced with a world of environmental objects exchanging coded messages.”

 

Nabokov is also known for his scientific endeavors and watercolors of butterflies.  Additionally, he was a self-described synesthete, who at a young age equated the number five with the color red.  Synesthetes experience a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color. 

 

Nabokov’s favorite book is said to have been “Ulysses” by James Joyce.  He felt Joyce wrote beautifully proclaiming:  “Joyce can turn all sorts of verbal tricks, to puns, transposition of words, verbal echoes, monstrous twinning of verbs, or the imitation of sounds. In these, as in the overweight of local allusions and foreign expressions, a needless obscurity can be produced by details not brought out with sufficient clarity but only suggested for the knowledgeable.”

 

Of the reader, Nabokov write:  “Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”

 

In his “Lectures on Literature” he explained the trifecta of writing.  “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storytellers, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

 

“To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

 

“The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.


Of writing, Nabokov once said “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.”  Indeed, I think this is why all writers put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. 

Miller-Hemingway

Arthur Miller

Ernest Hemingway

2018.08.13-14

 

Today we are focusing on two authors who might well be called the “bad boys of literature”.  I am posting their favorite books together because, although they both lived somewhat of a rebellious life and rebelled against some of the confines of literature, they both share some favorite books. 

 

Henry Miller is not an author for whom it is difficult to list favorite books.  He did, in fact, write an entire book about the subject.  Entitled “The Books in My Life”, Miller described these books as “a vital experience”.  What a glorious critique for any author to receive! 

 

Ernest Hemingway once proclaimed “There is no friend as loyal as a book!”  It was said that he would, on occasion, send a list to select friends of those books he would “rather read again for the first time… than have an assured income of a million dollars a year.”

 

One of the favorite books of both of these acclaimed writers was written by a writer we’ve already discussed – Mark Twain.  The book is “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.  This novel by Mark Twain was first published in the United Kingdom in December 1884 and in the United States in February 1885. Commonly named among the Great American Novels, the work is among the first in major American literature to be written throughout in vernacular English, characterized by local color regionalism.  I will note here and now that it is often on lists of books to be banned or censored because of the language. 

 

Sometimes listed as “Adventures of…” and other times “The Adventures of …”, this book is unusual for its beginning.  It opens with a “notice” from a character named G.G., identified as “the Chief of Ordnance.”  G.G. demands that no one approach the novel with intent to find morality and/or seriousness. In its declaration that anyone looking for motive, plot, or moral will be prosecuted, banished, or shot, the Notice establishes a sense of blustery comedy that pervades the rest of the novel.  This is followed by an insert from the author himself called “the explanatory”.  The Explanatory takes on a slightly different tone, still full of a general good-naturedness but also brimming with authority.  In the final paragraph, Twain essentially dares the reader to believe that he might know or understand more about the dialects of the South, and, by extension, the South itself.  Twain’s good nature stems in part from his sense of assurance that, should anyone dare to challenge him, Twain would certainly prove victorious.

 

Those wishing to have this book banned object to the language of the period.  To be sure, the language was inflammatory, not in intent perhaps but in usage.  In his book, Twain accurately portrayed the period historically as well as the absurdity and lack of humanity in assuming people should be valued by the hue of their skin.  It also portrayed the class structure and how those caught in the middle might object, seeking a better form of humanity.

 

One might say that the yearnings of Huckleberry Finn are reflected in the lives of Arthur Miller and Ernest Hemingway.  Both men engaged in adventures trying to find themselves and a better version of man.  “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a serious novel, and Twain’s note on dialogue speaks for the authority and experience of the author and establishes the novel’s anti-romantic, realistic stance. In short, the Notice and Explanatory, which at first glance appear to be disposable jokes, link the novel’s sense of fun and lightheartedness with its deeper moral concerns. This coupling continues throughout Huckleberry Finn and remains one of its greatest triumphs.  It is the approach I feel that Miller and Hemingway also sought in their own works. 

 

This series is about more than just favorite books.  It is about how those books have influenced not only the lives of writers but also our world.  “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” asks a very important question – What is freedom?  Huckleberry Finn presents two main visions of freedom in exploring questions about the meaning of liberty and at what price, if any, a person is truly free. Both Huck, an abused, neglected young boy, and Jim, a black slave, seek freedom, though they have very different ideas about what freedom means.  Both seek that freedom by running away from their life situation and the Mississippi River becomes their avenue to freedom.

 

One of the unforeseen effects of this book was the opening of a youth crisis shelter eighty years after the book’s publication named Huckleberry House.  A shelter for runaway and homeless youth located in San Francisco by Larry Beggs, this shelter offers counseling, food, shelter, and medical attention as needed.  Today Huckleberry Youth Programs also sponsor Huckleberry Youth Health Center, Huckleberry’s Community Assessment and Resource Center, both in San Francisco as well as the Huckleberry Teen Health Program in San Rafael, CA.  Huckleberry’s for Runaways opened its door on June 18, 1967.  Their efforts helped change being a runaway from a criminal offense to the concerned social problem it is.  Today the justice system is able to encourage voluntary communication with parent and child using family therapy and other helpful tools instead of merely incarcerating the child.

 

Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, and Ernest Hemingway all sought to reflect the times in which they wrote of but also to illustrate the idiosyncrasies that humans often portray in their living.  Often humankind seeks to emancipate itself from itself.  We create the very constrains within which find ourselves bound and then rebel against.  In their writing, they all asked us to take a good look at ourselves and then, if possible, make tomorrow a better day and create a better world. 

George Saunders

George Saunders

2018.08.10

Literature and Life

 

Ask a writer why he/she writes and you get a variety of answers, depending on what time of day it is, what they’ve just eaten (or haven’t eaten), what is going on in the world, etc.  At the core of it all, though, most will admit it is because they feel a need to let out what is in their head.  I really like the way George Saunders puts it:  “It seems to me a worthy goal: try to create a representation of consciousness that’s durable and truthful, i.e., that accounts, somewhat, for all the strange, tiny, hard-to-articulate, instantaneous, unwilled things that actually go on in our minds in the course of a given day, or even a given moment.”

 

Here is how Saunders describes himself:  “I was born in Amarillo, Texas, grew up in Chicago, and (barely) graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in exploration geophysics.  There was an oil-boom on, which meant that even someone like me could get work in the oil-fields.  So after college I went to work in Sumatra, as a field geophysicist.  We worked four weeks on and two weeks off, in a jungle camp that was a forty-minute helicopter ride to the nearest town – so this is when my reading life really started.  The game became filling up an entire suitcase with books sufficient to get me through the next two weeks of camp life.  About a year and a half at this job, I got sick after going swimming in a river that was polluted with monkey shit (I remember looking up at about 200 of them, sitting on our oil pipeline crapping away, and thinking: “I wonder if swimming here is okay?”) and came home to try and be Kerouac II.  I worked as a doorman, a roofer, a convenience store clerk, and a slaughterhouse worker (a “knuckle-puller,” to be exact), and all of this contributed to my understanding of capitalism as a benign-looking thing that, as Terry Eagleton says, “plunders the sensuality of the body.”

“I’d always been interested in reading, ever since a nun I was secretly in love with turned me on to “Johnny Tremaine” in third grade.  But I’d never met a writer and so it took me awhile to realize that a person could actually write for a living.  In 1986, at a wild party in Amarillo, Texas, I found a copy of People Magazine in which Jay McInernry and Raymond Carver were profiled.  Before this, I’d never heard of an MFA program.  I applied to Syracuse, got in, and had the great good fortune of studying there with Tobias Wolff and Douglas Unger.  I also met my future wife, Paula Redick there, and we got engaged in three weeks, which I believe is still a program record.”

 

Saunders is quite the prolific writer, having written books, articles for “The New Yorker” and “GQ” magazines, a best-selling children’s book, two screenplays, and a host of essays and short stories which have won him high praise and awards.  He has taught at the Syracuse MFA program since 1996 encouraging other young writers just as he himself had been.  “In 2001, I was selected by “Entertainment Weekly” as one of the 100 top most creative people in entertainment and by “The New Yorker in 2002 as one of the best writers 40 and under.  In 2006, I was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.  In 2009 I received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.”

 

George Saunders lives in the Catskills of upper New York State but it was a writer born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Washington state that got him there to study.  Tobias Wolff is an American short story writer, memoirist, novelist, and teacher of creative writing. He is known for his memoirs, particularly “This Boy’s Life” and “In Pharaoh’s Army”. He has written two short story collections, including “The Barracks Thief”, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Wolff received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in September 2015. 

 

It was Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” that convinced Saunders he wanted Wolff as a mentor.  The book is a collection of twelve stories with such characters as a teenage boy who tells morbid lies about his home life; a timid professor who, in the first genuine outburst of her life, pours out her opinions in spite of a protesting audience; a prudish loner who gives an obnoxious hitchhiker a ride; and an elderly couple on a golden anniversary cruise who endure the offensive conviviality of the ship’s social director.  Fondly yet sharply drawn, Wolff’s characters stumble over each other in their baffled yet resolute search for the “right path.”

 

George Saunders has said that “fiction has a way of reminding us that we actually are very similar in our emotions and neurology and our desires and our fears.”  He describes his process this way:  “So for me the approach has become to go into a story not really sure of what I want to say, try to find some little seed crystal of interest, a sentence or an image or an idea, and as much as possible divest myself of any deep ideas about it. And then by this process of revision, mysteriously it starts to accrete meanings as you go.”

 

“Character is the sum total of things you can’t explain.”  Maybe this why some writers have a hard time explaining why they write.  Saunders has said that his greatest fear would be to discover he has gone through his life sleepwalking.  “To me, the writer’s main job is to just make the story unscroll in such a way that the reader is snared … seeing things happen and caring about them. And if you dedicate yourself to this job, the meanings more or less take care of themselves.  We try, we fail, we posture, we aspire, we pontificate – and then we age, shrink, die, and vanish.”  George Saunders has been called a master of the American short story and if you have not read one of his works, please treat yourself. 

 

 

 

Seuss and Sensibility

Seuss and Sensibility

March 2, 2018

 

Four years ago during Lent on each Wednesday I discussed a book written by Theodor S. Geisel.  Today is his birthday (post humorously) and I can think of no greater writer to discuss when it comes to knowledge than Geisel, or Dr. Seuss as he is better known. 

 

In “Horton Hears a Who”, Dr. Seuss introduces us to universal citizenship, a theme common in all the Horton books.  Horton hears a voice coming from what looks like a speck of dust.  Dust usually doesn’t speak so Horton investigates and learns that size does not matter.  Horton discovers that the tiny speck lives in a very small world, a world he does not see but one that exists that same as his big world does.  He realizes that he doesn’t know everything and that the possibilities and potential of the universe are endless.  He also comes to understand his role as caretaker and wise citizen of the world in which he lives.  He realizes he has a role of responsibility in life.

 

Any gardener will tell you that everything you plant is not going to grow.  As mentioned yesterday, I was not born with a particularly vibrant green thumb and almost half of what I plant becomes avant-garde artwork on the canvass of my yard, not lovely beautiful plants.  Interestingly enough, I have the best luck with the smallest of seeds, tomato seeds.  Spend a quarter and buy a pack at your local dollar store and then open them on a damp paper towel.  They are miniscule!  One cherry tomato plant, the little tomatoes, can produce 10-15 pounds of tomatoes.  A regular size tomato plant can yield up to 30-40 pounds of tomatoes.  All that fruit (Yes, tomatoes are a fruit that we consider a vegetable due to their nutritional value.) can come from that one little tiny seed!

 

Of course, like Horton, we must look where we are going or, in this case, where we are planting our tomato seed(s).  Starting them indoors is ideal but I have just messed up the soil outside, tossed some down, and had them grow.  [This comes from the woman who does a good job of killing even the weeds in her yard!]  Key is the soil, watering, and the temperature after you plant the seed(s).  Horton heard a voice and knew regular specks of dust don’t talk so he should take care and investigate.  His caring was the seed that allowed the Who to live, just as the gardener’s care allows the tomato seed to live.  Horton could have heard the voice and not cared.  He could have seen the dust and swept it away. 

 

A seed will only grow if it is in the right soil and cared for in order that its purpose might be revealed.  As we strive to grow in knowledge and self-knowledge, we need to remember that we often place ourselves in environments that are not conducive for our growing, our personal development.  From one little seemingly speck of dust, Horton heard a voice that opened up the possibilities of the universe to him and his role in it.  A mighty faith can grow if we are wise in where we plant ourselves.  Invite some friends or family over and celebrate the miracle of multiple pounds of friendship that come from that one little seed known as invitation and companionship.  I hope you find that your communion of loved ones and nature will yield you a bountiful time as you grow a better self.

 

Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss!  Happy new day of the rest of your life to each of us.

 

 

Get Busy

 

Get Busy

 

Easter 20

 

 

 

I adore books.  Whether it is at a tag sale, a consignment shop, a library or a bookstore, books just seem to call out to me.  On occasion, I apparently call out to them as well.  You see, it is not unusual for a book to simply and quite literally fall at my feet.  When that happens, I usually find that within the books are little tokens of wisdom at a time when I most needed it.  So now, whenever a book seems to fly off a shelf or table, I go on a literary surprise hunt and get busy learning.

 

 

 

“The Unmistakable Touch of Grace” by Cheryl Richardson is one of those books that literally dropped into my life via the top of my head.  I was sitting in the coffee shop of a local bookstore when an employee rolled a cart passed our table with stacks of books on it.  The top book dropped onto our table after bouncing on my head.  The paperback didn’t hurt,; it just startled me.  Then we all laughed at the irony of the ungracefulness of a book about grace.  The book looked interesting and I ended up taking it home.

 

 

 

At home, my book about grace slipped of my bed, this time due to the antics of a very large dog.  It landed on the floor open to this passage:  “As painful as they may be, some of our most difficult relationships hold the promise of our greatest healing.  When you learn to see your relationships in this way, you might discover that the friend who constantly took advantage of you, did so (on a spiritual level) to challenge you to stick up for yourself.”

 

 

 

Mindfulness and this passage have a great deal in common.  Tikun-olam is a Hebrew concept which means “Improve the world”.  Mindfulness encourages us to do that very same thing and the above passage lets us know we can do that even in the midst of our darkest time.

 

 

 

Mindfulness teaches us to never take our living for granted.  Each minute not only counts, it is a lesson for us.  It is very easy to savor the good times but unless we get busy and learn to savor the negative experiences, we are prone to repeat them time and time again. 

 

 

 

Recently I was taken advantage of and it hurt, especially since I had just given this person an expensive gift.  About a minute into my own little pity party, I suddenly remembered to be mindful of the big picture. I realize that I was more proud of my actions and generosity than I was hurt.  After all, I cannot and should not want to control others.  I can only dictate my own actions.  By practicing mindfulness, I realized an inner peace and calming of the soul. 

 

 

 

When you find yourself in those dark hours or hearing that negative voice, take a moment and get bust being mindful of the complete moment, what preceded it and then realize what will make the future better.  When we get busy with savoring life our life, we will realize the beauty of its being.

 

Seuss and Sensibility

Seuss and Sensibility

Lent 22

 

Two years ago during Lent on each Wednesday I discussed a book written by Theodor S. Geisel.  Today is his birthday (post humorously) and I can think of no greater writer to discuss when it comes to knowledge than Geisel, or Dr. Seuss as he is better known. 

 

In “Horton Hears a Who”, Dr. Seuss introduces us to universal citizenship, a theme common in all the Horton books.  Horton hears a voice coming from what looks like a speck of dust.  Dust usually doesn’t speak so Horton investigates and learns that size does not matter.  Horton discovers that the tiny speck lives in a very small world, a world he does not see but one that exists that same as his big world does.  He realizes that he doesn’t know everything and that the possibilities and potential of the universe are endless.  He also comes to understand his role as caretaker and wise citizen of the world in which he lives.  He realizes he has a role of responsibility in life.

 

Any gardener will tell you that everything you plant is not going to grow.  I was not born with a particularly vibrant green thumb and almost half of what I plant becomes avant-garde artwork on the canvass of my yard, not lovely beautiful plants.  Interestingly enough, I have the best luck with the smallest of seeds, tomato seeds.  Spend a quarter and buy a pack at your local dollar store and then open them on a damp paper towel.  They are miniscule!  One cherry tomato plant, the little tomatoes, can produce 10-15 pounds of tomatoes.  A regular size tomato plant can yield up to 30-40 pounds of tomatoes.  All that fruit (Yes, tomatoes are a fruit that we consider a vegetable due to their nutritional value.) can come from that one little tiny seed!

 

Of course, like Horton, we must look where we are going or, in this case, where we are planting our tomato seed(s).  Starting them indoors is ideal but I have just messed up the soil outside, tossed some down, and had them grow.  [This comes from the woman who does a good job of killing even the weeds in her yard!]  Key is the soil, watering, and the temperature after you plant the seed(s).  Horton heard a voice and knew regular specks of dust don’t talk so he should take care and investigate.  His caring was the seed that allowed the Who to live, just as the gardener’s care allows the tomato seed to live.  Horton could have heard the voice and not cared.  He could have seen the dust and swept it away. 

 

A seed will only grow if it is in the right soil and cared for in order that its purpose might be revealed.  As we strive to grow in knowledge and self-knowledge, we need to remember that we often place ourselves in environments that are not conducive for our growing, our personal development.  From one little seemingly speck of dust, Horton heard a voice that opened up the possibilities of the universe to him and his role in it.  A mighty faith can grow if we are wise in where we plant ourselves.  Invite some friends or family over and celebrate the miracle of multiple pounds of tomatoes that come from that one little seed.  I hope you find that your communion of loved ones and nature will yield you a bountiful Lent as you grow a better self.

 

Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss!  Happy new day to you!

 

 

Embracing the Passion

Embracing the Passion

Lent 10

 

Yesterday we learned of the passing of a great American writer, Harper Lee.  Harper Lee was a daughter of the Deep South, that part of the United States of America that was explored a century before the Pilgrims began their epic ocean crossing.  Born in Alabama, Harper Lee died in the small town she wrote about in her ground-breaking novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

 

Another writer’s death was also reported yesterday, that of Umberto Eco.  While Ms. Lee sought to show the world its true reflection, Mr. Eco looked for the same in symbols and signs.  Umberto Eco was a scholar but sought to see how the world viewed itself through not only words but also music, religious icons, signs, symbols, and graphic artwork such as cartoons.

 

Several days ago we talked about the image people sometimes set for us – the restrained studied indifference that is seen as being socially correct.  Neither of these writers wasted time with any of that.  They both embraced their beings and their worlds and sought to make both a little better while keeping their eyes wide open.  In short, they both embraced their living with passion, great passion.

 

Both writers also had legions of critics.  Harper Lee’s critics were usually rather silent, that is until her second book was published last year, “Go Set a Watchman”.  Her first book gave us a distinct hero and was written as a commentary seen through the eyes of a child.  People were comfortable with that because it gave them an excuse for their living.  It recognized that we all live each day with the experience for that day the same as a child’s first time as doing anything.  In her second novel, however, Lee expected her readers to have grown a bit and gives them an adult story that is complete with raw, unapologetic truth.  No one wanted to be held accountable and the book was met with great negativity.

 

Eco’s biggest critique was that he saw nothing as being too menial and looked for meaning in everything.  The writer Salman Rushdie who would later have to live in hiding because of a death contract on his head placed there by Islamic Extremists once described a novel of Eco’s as ““humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.”

 

Umberto Eco spoke at least five languages and never apologized for his passion about what he saw in the world.  He once explained his viewpoint to the London newspaper “The Guardian” in 2002: “I’m not a fundamentalist, saying there’s no difference between Homer and Walt Disney… but Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is.”

 

Harper Lee, though looking very different from the stereotypical Southern damsel yet always reminiscent of the grown-up version of her character “Scout”, explained her lack of hurt feelings this way:  “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.  One does not love breathing.”  She also explained her title”  “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy….they don’t do one thing except sing their hearts out for us.  That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

 

Both writers sought meaning and encouraged their readers to find the passion in their living.  Sadly many people are frightened when confronted with someone doing just that.  Do we really fear passion or do we fear what their passion requires of us – a true and honest look at ourselves?

 

“To Kill a Mockingbird” brought the inequities of racism into focus and gave meaning to the daily struggles of its victims.  Umberto Eco’s novels are a bit more involved, his most successful being “The Name of the Rose”. but they do much the same thing.  In spite of having once won a literary competition for young Fascists as a lad growing up in Italy and later a member of the Roman Catholic Church, Eco was considered a liberal.  As a girl growing up in a small town in Alabama, Lee walked among the tides of racism every day and brought a liberal, humanist approach.

 

Both of these writers embraced life and humanity in their passion for writing.  They saw the need for greater humanity in the world and encouraged people, by their example, to embrace the passion of living.  Sometimes the truths about which they wrote were discomforting.  Passion is not always wine and roses and warm sweaty embraces.  Passions can sometimes hurt.

 

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for,” said Harper Lee during a ceremony in 2007 when she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom.  She had lived in New York City for decades but returned to her Alabama small town home that same year.  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

 

I invite you to crawl inside your own skin and walk around in it.  Not the skin the world wants you to wear but the skin that makes you feel alive, that gives you a passion for living.  Embrace your own passion and then make it your identity.