Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Same as it ever was

A moment inspired by an early moment in
The Sirens of Titan.
I don't read much. Which may be plain to you.

It's quite possible I type more than I read, which is a bad recipe for good typing. Or writing.

Reading has always been … such … a … chore. As a kid, I couldn't overmatch the notion there was always something else I could be doing. As an adult, I'm sure there's always something else I should be doing.

Yes, yes, reading transports and enriches and transforms and immerses. I understand that. I have even felt these a few times. But reading always feels to me like extravagance, excess, impediment, like purposeful time wastage — and I waste too much time already.

What's more, when I do read, it's usually before bed, so to read at any other time induces a Pavlovian reaction to sleep. I'm done after five minutes.

What's even more, the ocean of books I am supposed to read as a useful citizen of the world is whipped to killer waves, a ceaseless storm swallowing up the shore all around, and I am small and hopeless in my inner tube.

Behold, then, the miracle that is me, reading two books at once! A little bit of each in sequence, not simultaneously, of course.

Not only that, get a load of me already drawing parallels between these two disparate works — and with the way I think at this point in my life.

It's very early yet and I could be wrong as wrong can be about these comparisons. At worst, I'll get another post out of this, a mea culpa.

One book is A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.

The other is The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

Should I finish them, they will be major conquests in my barely perceptible onslaught against the family library, or what I call, "What are all these books and where did they come from?"

I picked up Vonnegut because, beaten about the corners already, it could take the abuse a recent family camping trip might render. Zinn's History is fat and hardbound and pristine and unwieldy, and wouldn't fit in the car.

I'm trying very hard not to read anything about Zinn's History, even though I'm suspicious. I pried it off the shelf because I had missed a lot of U.S. history in school (long story) and thought I could get it all back in one fell tome.

It reads like a well supported opinion piece, and I'm afraid by the time I flop exhausted onto the last page (688, before the bibliography!) I'll end up with many more thorny questions than answers.

Zinn's point so far, which I gather stitches his book together — the Constitution is set and the country is just now trying to figure out how to behave when I left off — is essentially: Them that has, gets.

Columbus showed up and began the brutal decimation of native cultures through might and greed. White Europe found nothing wrong and everything right with similarly decimating Africa and turning its people into chattel for its own gain, with ready new markets in the New World. Colonists wanted the western lands, and too bad for the Indians who lived there. The insular rich colonists were only too happy to let their lesser displaced citizens and white former servants fight the Indians because, you know, less muss and fuss.

So were the Colonial people in power too ready to rally their lessers to fight their battles against the British, with just enough romance in the Declaration of Independence to delude the lessers into some unrealizable idea of the American Dream — without disrupting the power base and their holdings.

Land barons got to keep their ill-gotten land under new rule. Slaves would still be slaves, Indians would be driven into the ground, women had no say, no rights.

All men are created equal. Except not you or you. Definitely not you, who don't fit the strict definition of "men."

Power and money rule, is Zinn's theme. Same as it ever was.

I slog ahead in glacial anticipation of how all of this turns out.

Vonnegut says the same thing, though he means: Same at it ever was, since the beginning of time until the unending end.

By not reading much, my literary DNA is gunked up with a lot of John Steinbeck and Vonnegut. Something about the way Vonnegut voices his ideas fits like snug proteins between the cadence of my thoughts.

Vonnegut writes a lot about humankind's inhumanity and cruelty and madness, its pointless quest for just about anything. Slaughterhouse-Five was about as reasonable a reaction as could be to witnessing the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, in which Vonnegut wrote of Tralfamadorians, alien people who exist throughout all time at once and see the great arc of absurdity and want us to chill out because it's always this way and always will be.

I understand I'll encounter the planet Tralfamadore soon enough in The Sirens of Titan.

Though one is science-y fiction and the other may end up being a weighty screed, the two books speak to the same thought: All this craziness and unfairness? All this injustice? It's been going on for a while. The pattern is quite predictable and traceable, actually.

Each book implies the unanswered question: What are you gonna do about it?

Oh, just remembered — I finished another book not long ago: Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, by James S. Hirsch: It was our son's and came to our house some time ago to gather dust.

My favorite player whom I never saw play, Willie Mays troubled me as an adult because he came off in interviews as arrogant. For the longest time I stayed away from the book because of it, unwilling to mess up my romantic manufactured memories of Mays as player.

But Hirsch's book revealed Mays is just being frank. He is probably the best player ever, gifted and able and willing to play the game the way no one has before or since, so to him such brilliance is just a recitation of facts. In fact he is shy and suspicious of adults and more comfortable around children.

A deeply flawed and inconsistent person — and aren't we all, except spared the public stage? — Mays was sure and supreme on the field. The book describes the Giants' (New York and San Francisco) rocky and rollercoaster existence, punctuated a few years by triumph. Mostly though, heartbreak and disappointment, games so important at the time now just so many statistics trampled underfoot. Such is baseball.

Same as it ever was, as I listened to the Giants lose to the Arizona Diamondbacks last night, knowing the Los Angeles Dodgers had beaten the Colorado Rockies, dropping the Giants to four games out of first place in the National League West behind L.A. with only a week and a half more regular season baseball to play.

What are you gonna do about it?

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