Can Reading Make You Happier?

Ceridwen Dovey
In her article, Ms Dovey says she was “given a gift of a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence.”  She was sent a questionnaire that asked about her reading habits and her personal concerns by the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthold.  There followed an exchange of emails with suggested readings.  For those who are interested, there are a number of particular novels recommended in the article for specific reasons.
Ms Dovey says: “In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few
remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between
the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but
at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of
readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading
consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union”
with another mind.
“Berthoud and her colleague, Elderkin, trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during
psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning
home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. ‘Librarians in the
States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice
story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the
same time in the U.K.,’ Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used
in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by
psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.
“For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire
lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health
and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming
clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery,
in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when
we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone
else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in
the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of
participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display
stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that
experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading
stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.
“Other studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed something similar—that people
who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the
researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic
tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published
in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary
nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception
and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with
accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans
only start to develop around the age of four.
“Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.  ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,’ the author Jeanette Winterson has written. ‘What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.’
“Elderkin says the number of books in the world is one of the most common woes of modern readers, and that it remains a major motivation for her and Berthoud’s work as bibliotherapists. ‘We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.” And the best way to do that? See a bibliotherapist, as soon as you can, and take them up on their invitation, to borrow some lines from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: ‘Come, and take choice of all my library/And so beguile thy sorrow…'”
Thank you, Sue.

What Do Bookshelves Reveal About You?

Last month there was an article in The Daily Telegraph written by Shane Watson on the subject of our bookshelves as an important personality indicator.  This Shane Watson is not to be confused with the other Shane Watson, the Australian cricketer, and who may not know much about bookshelves, or books, for that matter.  This Shane Watson looks like this:

Her Penguin Books biography says: “Shane Watson writes regular columns for the Sunday Times Style magazine and is a contributing editor to Easy Living magazine. She is also the author of two novels, The One to Watch and Other People’s Marriages.”  There is also a third book: How to Meet a Man After Forty and Other Midlife Dilemmas Solved.  Presumably, this is non-fiction.

Turning now to her column in the Telegraph, she said: “This week a lifestyle blogger called Laura Coleman, whose house was featured in the latest issue of Ideal Home magazine, has been wishing she never revealed her tastes to the world.  Ms Coleman has bee vilified on social media, not because she has a stuffed bear in her front hall, or the world’s largest collection of framed butterflies, or a walk-in wardrobe that could accommodate six families.  No, Coleman’s crime is having arranged her books on her shelves, with their spines facing the wall, so as to keep the colour palette of the room a creamy, book page neutral.

“The incident of the backward books, apparently a decorative trend, has evidently struck a nerve – and the haters are out in force.  What kind of person arranges books in this way?

“The kind of person who doesn’t read books, that’s who.  The kind of person for whom books are just shelf fillers!  Shelf Candy!  A bad person who sees more value in the parchment colour of a page end than in the printed word!  How low is that?!

“This shelf hate seems to be driven by two impulses: one, outrage at disrespecting books and reducing them to shelf padding; and, two, contempt for the sort of people whose homes are pristine, neutral environments, all about the surface with nothing genuine behind the facade.  Poor Laura Coleman has found her shelves being held up as the epitome of style over substance and the shallowness of ‘lifestyle’ trends. . .

“Still, singling out these shelves and their owner for death by social media seems rather unfair.  It is true that unless Ms Coleman cunningly photographed all the books in situ before reversing them, she would have a job locating a specific title.  We can safely assume that these backwards books were never intended to be read again.  But in her defence, she says these are all chick lit sorts of paperbacks which (my observation not hers) you might otherwise leave on the train, or throw away to make room for others.   Books with loud covers and title like Maisie’s Fat Day Out, which don’t have much of a shelf life anyway, not to mention typically being bound in garish covers that clash with anyone’s colour scheme.

“But more to the point, who among us is not guilty of shelf rigging?  Who doesn’t have a guilty book presentation habit?  If the books on your shelves were slammed up there with no thought whatsoever for the impression they were going to give . . . then we would be very surprised indeed.”

Ms Watson then goes on to mention several ‘shelf stuffing’ techniques:

  • Hiding books that might put the owner in an unfavourable light
  • Substituting a prominent author or title for one less fashionable
  • Arranging books according to size or colour
  • Displaying books with beautiful covers at the top of a coffee table pile
  • Treating books as decorative objects  (Is this bad?)

As for me, one wall of my office has floor to ceiling book shelves, and I have to admit that most of the books are arranged pretty randomly, so I have to search for a particular book.  However, there are two shelves full of business reference books (from a prior life), one shelf of religious books, and three shelves of novels.  One of my problems is how to dispose of business books to make space for new novels.  Libraries don’t want them, and it seems wrong to just throw them away.

My bookshelves: partial view


Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel, by George Saunders, won the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and I felt obliged to read it.

George Saunders – according to the bio included in the book – is the author of nine books, including Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection).  He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.  He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo concerns the death of Willie, President Lincoln’s younger son, his burial and the President’s intense grief over his death.  This major theme in bound up in a collection of ghost stories in which a state of bardo is conceived and in which the ghosts provide a commentary on racial, social, financial, sexual and religious mores at that time.  There is no central narrator; rather, the stories are told by several dozen fictional ghost characters (two of whom are prominent) and by quotations from contemporary news articles and other sources.  These quotations lend a sense of reality, even though the viewpoints represented (of the President, himself, for example) are conflicting.  The style of the book is oblique, particularly as to the individual ghost stories, so that the reader is left to exercise some deduction and imagination.  The writing is innovative, but faultless. The author’s central question is: “how do we live and love when everything we love must end?”

For me, Lincoln in the Bardo was not an easy or a captivating read.  This was due, in part to the author’s technique of presenting the ghost’s dialogue frequently as fragmented hints (which is fine for ‘ghost speak’ but doesn’t make easy reading).  I also felt that the ghost stories did not always mesh well with the Lincoln tragedy. In my opinion, the author was trying to do too much in one novel.  Interestingly, I don’t recall seeing the word ‘bardo’ mentioned in the novel itself.  Bardo is a Buddhist concept of a transitional state between death and rebirth.  Two other minor comments.  I think the title of this novel should have been: Willie Lincoln in Limbo.  As a Buddhist concept, ‘bardo’ does not fit well in a Christian setting; bardo is a state, so the definite article ‘the’ is unnecessary – one wouldn’t say ‘in the coma’; and Lincoln (the President) was not in bardo – his son was.  But my suggested title is not as intriguing.  At the conclusion of the book, there are 11 ‘Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion’.  This says to me: ‘ I am not only the author, I am a distinguished academic’: hubris.

For me, this is another example of the Man Booker Prize Committee selecting works which are intriguing, different, innovative, rather than lucid, beautiful and memorable.

Making Oneself Clear

Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters by Sir Harold Evans Was published in May, this year, and there was an intriguing interview with Sir Harry in the June issue of Time Magazine.

The first two questions caught my eye:

Q: You discuss many writing evils in your book, from pleonasms to pesky pronouns.  What kind of bad writing upsets you most?

A: Writing that is deliberately designed to deceive – insurance policies, political statements.  Business verbosity wastes money, confuses millions.  I find myself getting much more angry about the moral obligation of fairness than I do about a misplaced semicolon.

Q: And do you believe in freedom from the language police?

A: The language police are a bloody nuisance, some linguists in particular.  The English language got corrupted by pettifoggers.  Do you know that word pettifogger?  It is somebody who stumbles over a neck, but misses the body lying on the floor.

Sir Harold Matthew Evans (born 28 June 1928) is a British-born journalist and writer who was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 when he had a falling out with Rupert Murdoch.  He moved to the United States in 1984 and was naturalised as a US citizen in 1993.   He had leading positions in journalism with US News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly and the New York Daily News.  He has written various books on history and journalism, with his The American Century (1998) receiving particular acclaim. In 2000, he retired from leadership positions in journalism to spend more time on his writing. Since 2001, Evans has served as editor-at-large of The Week magazine and he has been a contributor to The Guardian and BBC Radio 4 since 2005.  In 2004, Evans was knighted for services to journalism, and he became editor-at-large of the Reuters news agency in 2011.

Sir Harry Evans

In a New York Times book review in May 2017,  Tim Holt says: “As a master editor and distinguished author, Evans is well qualified to instruct us on how to write well. But can he delight us in the process? After reading this book, I can affirm that the answer is yes. For the most part. Up to a point.  ‘What really matters is making your meaning clear beyond a doubt,’ Evans tells us. And the key to clarity, he insists, is concision — a virtue allegedly less honoured in the United States than in the author’s native land: ‘Newsprint rationing in wartime Britain enforced economy in language, a conciseness not required in American print journalism, where acres of space invited gentle grazing.’

Holt continues: “I also enjoyed Evans’s history of the ‘readability’ movement, launched by 19th-century American reformers who wanted written sentences to be shorter and easier to understand (especially for immigrants); his witty choice of quotations, like Winston Churchill’s gibe that Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had ‘the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought’; and his various lists of pet peeves — pleonasms like ‘close proximity’ and ‘self-confessed,’ abused pairs like ‘discomfit/discomfort’ (to discomfort is to make uneasy; to discomfit is to defeat or rout), and ‘flesh-eaters’ like ‘We are in receipt of’ for ‘We received’.

In a Financial Times article in May 2017, Matthew Engel writes: “He is a sworn enemy of . . . the lonely modifier  — which means one had better explain what he means by a lonely modifier. His example is a sentence in the New York Times where presidential ‘advisers’ and the crucial fact that they were taken ‘by surprise’ were separated by 36 words of the same sentence, all irrelevant parenthetical detail. He is also a welcome enemy of two of my own hates. One is the ludicrous non sequitur, found most abundantly in American newspaper obituaries: ‘A keen golfer, he leaves three children.’ The other is what he calls monologophobia, a phrase he credits to Theodore Bernstein of the New York Times, who described a monologaphobe as someone ‘who would rather walk naked in front of Saks Fifth Avenue than be caught using the same word twice in three lines’. This is the widespread practice (also known, too kindly, as ‘elegant variation’) whereby sports writers, having said Federer once, have to refer to him thereafter as ‘the Swiss’, ‘the 35-year-old’ and ‘the seven-times Wimbledon champion’ before they dare use his name again — even if the reader ends up forgetting who is under discussion.

At the very least, Sir Harry has a keen sense of humour!

How Long Should a Novel Be?

There was an article in the 13th August 2017 Sunday Telegaph, written by Ysenda Maxtone Graham entitled “Have People Forgotten How to Write Short Books?”  She makes a number of interesting points which I will quote below.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the author of five books: The Church Hesitant: A Portrait of the Church of England TodayThe Real Mrs Miniver, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography Award, 2002; Mr Tibbits’s Catholic SchoolAn Insomniac’s Guide to the Small Hours; and Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979.  She writes for The Spectator and is a columnist on Country Life.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham

“Stranded in the middle of a great fat brick of a biography recently, I wondered: do books, like films, plays, concerts, sermons, cricket matches and, indeed, life itself have a natural length.  My instinct is that they do and that it’s about 280 pages.  To open a book, particularly a non-fiction one, and see that it’s all going to be over before the 300 page mark makes me set out into it with a spring in my step.  If it goes up to the mid 500’s, as that fat brick did, I check the back section in fervent hope that the last centimeter of its thickness will be taken up by an index, bibliography, extensive footnotes, and at least three pages of acknowledgements.  While reading such a book, I’m forever measuring, comparing ‘amount already read’ to ‘amount still to read’.

“Many fiction addicts insist that, in the case of novels, the longer the better.  Why this hurry to say goodbye to characters you’ve made great friends with?  You’ll feel bereft. When it works it is indeed a delicious feeling to be in the middle of an enthralling fictional world, less like being stranded, more like being enveloped and carried away.

“I ask Richard Beswick, publishing director of Little Brown Book Group. what his thoughts on novel length were.  ‘I like the pleasure of a long absorbing book with lots of attention to psychologically convincing characters played out over time,’ he says.  There is talk of long novels becoming fashionable again, and this ‘may reflect TV tastes for long series’, but he thinks our perception has been skewed by a few, very successful, very long novels, ‘such as those by Donna Tartt and Hilary Mantel’.  From a publisher’s point of view, they are outliers: ‘Eighty thousand words seems to be the kind of length readers like.’  (That equates to my ideal length of about 280 pages.)”

She learned at her favourite bookstore in Chelsea that “some customers had baulked at Paul Auster’s 4321 (880 pages) and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (772 pages), but had snapped up Robert Seehtalter’s A Whole Life (148 pages) and The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (155 pages)”.  She makes the point that there was a craze in the 18th and 19th centuries for the ‘three-volume novel’, and that in the early 20th century, it became fashionable for novels, like skirts, to be short.  (Except Ulysses.)

“I’ve calculated the average length of books reviewed in a literary journal last week, and I’m pleased to announce that it comes in at 296.6 pages.”

As for me, my three thrillers are about 100,000 words, as is Seeking Father Khaliq, which I would classify as inspirational.  The other two inspirational novels: Sable Shadow & The Presence, and the novel I’m just finishing now are in the 120,000 word range.  In my case, what determines the length of a novel is the complexity of the plot.  I would agree with Ms Graham that long novels can be a chore to read.  I’m currently reading On Hundred Years of Solitude (review next week).  It is 417 pages, but not only that, the font is small and the text is tightly packed.  A long read!

Review: The God of Small Things

This novel won the Booker Prize in 1997, so I am somewhat tardy in reading this Indian author, Arundhati Roy, whose background interested me almost as much as the novel.  She was born in 1961 in Shillong, Meghalava, India, to Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta and Mary Roy, a Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned with her mother and brother to Kerala.  In her early career, Roy worked in television and movies, but she became disenchanted with the world of films and began writing her first novel,  The God of Small Things  in 1992, completing it in 1996.   She has since written The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), and a long list of non-fiction works, most of which seem to be associated with her advocacy work.  Ms Roy has opposed India’s nuclear, industrial, and economic development policies, as well as US foreign policy, Israel, the Sri Lankan government, and numerous other initiatives.  She has been a controversial figure in her home country.

Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things was critically acclaimed by major newspapers in the US and Canada.  Ms Roy received and advance of £500,ooo which, along with her prize money, she donated to her causes.  The novel was a commercial success.  Critical response in the UK was somewhat less positive, and the award of the Booker Prize was controversial.  Carmen Callili, a 1996 Booker Prize judge called it ‘execrable’, and The Guardian said its context was ‘profoundly depressing’.

I found the book neither execrable nor profoundly depressing, but I didn’t think it is extraordinary as the New York Times did.

The book is set in the 1960’s in Kerala, India, and much of the story is autobiographical about a somewhat dysfunctional middle class family.  The principle characters are young twins Rahel and her brother Estha, aged about 7, their mother Ammu, who is divorced, and their maternal grandmother, Mammachi.  There are also Chacko, Ammu’s derelict cousin, his English ex-wife, Margaret, their nine-year-old daughter Sophie, and Chacko’s mother – the twins great aunt – Baby Kouchamma.  Gradually emerging from the plot is Velutha, a Paravan untouchable, who is beautiful, competent and Ammu’s lover – the God of Small Things.  There are some terrible things that happen: Estha is molested by a soft drink seller in a movie theater, the twins rebel and go into hiding, Sophie drowns, and Ammu’s affair with Velutha is discovered, but none of these events, in the context of India is depressing.  All, with the exception of Estha’s molestation are the natural flow of events.   As it is told, the assault on Estha seems largely preventable.

The writing is certainly very clever: much of the story is told from Rahel’s point of view, with child-like idiosyncrasy.   The characters are unique and credible, though I have a lingering doubt about the fraught relationship between Ammu and her twins: why did it become so bi-polar?  There is a considerable amount of scene description, such that if it were abbreviated, the book would be at least 15% shorter.  But Ms Roy’s descriptive talents are so imaginative, and with some exceptions, so satisfying, that most readers will forgive her.

If you know India and like India, this is a book that should be read, not because it will help one understand India today, but because it provides a context for today’s India.

Review: Zealot

Leafing through this book in a bookstore, I was attracted by the dedication: “For my wife, Jennifer Jackley, and the entire Jackley clan, whose love and acceptance have taught me more about Jesus than all my years of research and study”.  I had noticed that the author, Reza Aslan, had been born in Iran, and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons.  I thought: Here is a book about Jesus, written by someone who was born a Shia Muslim but is married to a Christian; this should be interesting!

Reza Aslan has written two other books with interesting titles: No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam and How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religion.


Reza Aslan

The subtitle of Zealot is The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and what Mr Aslan does in this biography is to separate the ‘historical Jesus’ from the religious icon whom Christians adore as the son of God.  While there is no original research contained in this book, Mr Aslan draws on over one hundred and fifty other published books to reach his conclusions which are largely credible and interesting.  He paints a picture of life, culture, politics and religious practices in Palestine in the first century.  It is unlikely that He was a carpenter, but because of the minimal use of wood in most houses, He, like many others, was more likely a day laborer, a builder, a tekton, who may have worked in the rapidly growing, near-by city of Sepphoris.  Nazareth was, during Jesus lifetime, a town of about 1000 residents, mostly poor peasants and day laborers.  There is no evidence that a synagogue existed in Nazareth during Jesus life: the temple in Jerusalem was the religious focus for Jews in Palestine.  It is likely that the gospel writers, who began writing at least forty years after Jesus’ death may have assumed that there was a religious meeting place in Nazareth, because by that time the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans.  Data suggests that the illiteracy rate among Jewish peasants in the first century was about 97%, yet somehow, Jesus was able to read the Torah scrolls in the synagogue.

Mr Aslan argues (successfully) that Jesus was, like many contemporaries a zealot, that is: someone strongly committed to a cause, and that his most clearly documented cause was the reform of the corrupt Jewish priesthood.  In fact this antipathy for the Jewish leadership was still strong when the gospels were written, so that politics may have influences some of the words that the writers put into Jesus’ mouth.  For example, Mr Aslan finds it unlikely that Jesus ever met with Pontius Pilot.  If such a meeting ever occurred, it would have been an extraordinary event, since in the normal course of events, Pontius Pilot merely signed the death warrant where capital punishment was sought by the chief priest.  The scriptural dialogue between Jesus and the Roman essentially absolves Jesus of any crimes and places the blame for his death squarely on the hated chief priest.  (I have always wondered why a crowd that brought Jesus so triumphantly into Jerusalem could so loudly demand his crucifixion!)

This biography makes interesting reading, and it does not hesitate to open and explore nearly every controversy about Jesus: His disciples, parents, relationship with John the Baptist, trials, crucifixion, resurrection, what He said or didn’t say, what He may have thought.  The controversies involving the leadership of the church after Jesus’ death are also examined.  These examinations may extend to the historic translations of the original text, as well as both (or even three) sides of the scholarly arguments.  Cultural, political, military, and economic evidence is brought to bear.

This is clearly a scholarly work.  In addition to the extensive bibliography there are nearly seventy pages of notes for those who have lingering curiosity about statements made in the main text.

For me, the only disappointment is that Mr Aslan has made no attempt after shattering what may be a childish image of Jesus to reconcile the ‘historical Jesus’ with the Son of God.

Review: Nietzsche

I had heard of Nietzsche, the wild German philosopher who averred that “God is dead!” when I was in my late teens.  My college roommate seemed to know about him (and Ayn Rand), but I considered anyone who would make such a stupid remark not worthy of further attention.  And Nietzsche was not among the philosophers studied in the Philosophy 101 course.

But he came to my attention about 10 days ago when there was an hour-long BBC program about the man and his life.  In the program, the “God is dead!” exclamation was attributed to the untimely death of his much-admired father at an early age from a horrible brain disease, and to his view of the culture in late 19th century Europe.  As Nietzsche saw it, the culture was wantonly secular, and self-serving.  People cared only about entertainment, pleasure, wealth, status, and image.  His view was that we had killed God (who had been alive).

The novel I am currently writing has a similar theme: society has turned its back on God.  So I bought a copy of Nietzsche by Walter Kaufmann to compare my views with those of the great German philosopher.


Friedrich Nietzsche

Walter Kaufmann (1921 – 1980) was professor of philosophy at Princeton University and a world-renowned scholar and translator of Nietzsche.  In fact, Nietzsche was first published in 1950, and has been through four editions, the latest appeared in 1974 in paperback.

It is clear from a mere perusal of the book that Kaufmann devoted much of his life to the study of Nietzsche, who was a difficult and somewhat opaque character, who fought with his mother and sister, and had a tendency to state his case in strong, sometimes extreme, language.  For these reasons, he was not well understood and attracted considerable criticism.  In fact, he became a hero of Nazi ideology, when some of what he said was either misunderstood or taken out of context.  Much of  this misunderstanding is owing to his sister who was an ardent Nazi, and who published re-written pieces of his work.  Nietzsche abhorred the German state and anti-Semitism.  His use of the term ‘blond beast’ was thought to praise Aryan purity, when, in fact, it had reference to the male lion.

The book begins with a history of  Nietzsche’s life: born 1844 and died in 1900, having slipped into insanity on about 1889.  He was made a full professor of classical philosophy at the age of 24; traveled extensively in Europe, and suffered from ill health.  He never married, but he proposed twice to Lou Salomé, a bright, strong-willed woman who was seventeen years his junior.

Nietzsche wrote fifteen books, there are also his lecture notes, his letters and his personal notes.  Rather than deal with each of his works one-at-a-time, Kaufmann addresses themes of Nietzsche’s work.  This is a better approach since Nietzsche made changes to his views from time to time.  Nietzsche was a doubter, a questioner, who took nothing at face value, yet he avoided the label ‘nihilist’ by attempting to establish pieces of a structure to replace what he had torn down.  He was anti-Christian because for him it placed too much value on faith and not enough on good works, and he called himself the Antichrist as a result of inconsistencies he perceived in Christ’s messages and actions, and because he refused to accept Christ’s divinity.  While he averred that ‘God is dead!’ because he thought people had turned their backs on God, it is not clear that Nietzsche was an outright atheist.  He seems to have had a belief in the possibility of God.

One of his better known ideas is that the basic human urge (more important than sex) is the Will to Power.  By this somewhat confusing term he meant striving to overcome the faults and weaknesses in ourselves to become as valuable human beings as we could be.  For Nietzsche there were three categories of humans which exhibited extraordinary value: artists, saints, and philosophers.  When one had overcome one’s faults and weaknesses, one became an ‘úbermensch’ – literally an ‘over man’, which has unfortunately been translated as ‘superman’, which wasn’t at all what Nietzsche had in mind: a sustained, an arduous, personal striving for self improvement which leads to happiness.  Coupled to Nietzsche’s concept of the úbermensch was the idea of ‘eternal recurrence’.  This latter was the unconditional and infinitely repeated circular course of all things; unfortunately, even if one assumes that time is infinite, this has been proven impossible.

Kaufmann is at his best shedding light on Nietzsche’s intentions, his values, and his thought processes.  As a result there is an enormous amount of detail in the book: footnotes and quotations from a wide variety of sources.  Occasionally, the logic of an argument becomes murky, but Kaufmann’s straightforward approach clarifies both the distinct character and the great contribution of this philosopher, and restores his stature in the face of unjust criticism, poor health, broken friendships and little happiness.

If one wants to understand Nietzsche as a whole philosopher, this book – rather that any two or three of his own books – is the one to read.

Use of a Plot Line

In the August issue of The Florida Writer, there is an article by Martha Alderson; “How to Use a Plot Planner”.

Martha Alderson is a historical novelist and the best-selling author of The Plot Whisperer.  She is founder of PlotWrMo and has worked with hundreds of writers in plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations for more than fifteen years. Her clients include bestselling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors.  She has authored six additional plot books.


Martha Alderson

In the article, she says that a Plot Planner “helps you to visalise your story.  Use it to do the following

  • Place your ideas and sequence your scenes to greatest effect
  • Experiment with changes in the storyline to evoke stronger reaction and interest from the reader
  • Get a sense of how your story is paced
  • Generate ideas to better develop your story
  • Solidify your understanding of the story’s core elements
  • Ensure you understand the story you are presenting”

A Plot Plan is a line which rises from left to right.  The line recedes when a crisis or moment of tension is past, and the steepness is an indication of the rate of increase or decrease in the tension.  An example is shown below.

download (1)

 A Plot Planner

“At its core the Plot Planner is merely a line that separates scenes filled with conflict and excitement (which appear above the Plot Planner line) from those that are passive, filled with summary and backstory, or heavy with information (which appear below the Plot Planner line).

“In every great story, a protagonist pushes toward something (her goal) while forces both internal and external attempt to thwart her progress.  This struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist sends the energy of your story soaring.  The more powerful and formidable the antagonists, the greater the intensity, drama and excitement in the scene.

“Antagonists fall within one of six standard categories:

  1. Another character: family, friends, so-workers, enemies, lovers
  2. Nature: hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, natural law, physical disabilities
  3. Society: religious institutions, government, customs, gangs
  4. Machine: cars, robots, spaceships, motorcycles
  5. God: spiritual beliefs
  6. The protagonist: inner life, past mistakes, fears, flaws, doubts, moral choices, willpower

“Like the surface of the sea with its white caps, waves and swells, the external, griping territory of the dramatic action, when your protagonist is out of control, fearful, lost, confused, or under the power of an antagonist, belongs above the line.  All scenes that show complications, conflicts, tension, dilemmas and suspense where the protagonist is forced away from her goals belong below the line.

“Scenes that show action where the power is somewhere other than the protagonist should go above the line: conflict, catastrophe, betrayal, deception, vengeance, rebellion, persecution, rivalry, conspiracy, suspicion.  Scenes that show emotional development of the protagonist also belong above the line: failure to cope, revenge, self-sacrifice, loss of control, anger, poor decision-making, grief, fear, greed, unhappiness, personal flaw, loss of power.

“Below the line is where the mystery lies.  Scenes that belong below the line show the undertow: the internal, emotional territory of the protagonist.  Much of the character’s emotional development is placed below the line. Any scenes which slow the energy of the story or in which the power shifts back to the protagonist belong below the line.  Scenes where the protagonist it proactive rather than reactive, or is deciding on the best course of action and then taking it belong below the line.  These scenes include: a lull in the conflict, tension and suspense, a sharing of information with the reader by telling rather than showing.  Scenes in which the protagonist is doing one of the following also belong below the line: remaining calm, coping, solving problems, staying in control, planning, searching inward, and contemplating.”

My reaction is that there are some interesting concepts here, particularly in the differentiation between what goes above or below the line, and also the various notions about character development and the management of tension is a story.  While I think it is very useful to think explicitly about character development, the maintenance of tension, and the purpose of each scene, I don’t think that I would want to plot out each chapter or the whole story.  I think that in the future, when I’m writing a summary of what will happen in each chapter, I will also mention why it is happening.

Freedom of Speech

Most of us are in favor of freedom of speech; we regard it as one of the great benefits of living in the West.  I, as a writer, am bound to be a strong supporter of free speech.  But recently, there have been at least three categories of objection to freedom of speech:

  1. Government, and other public bodies, which do not want certain items of their information exposed
  2. Individuals (mostly celebrities) who do know want their actions to be publicized
  3. Religious groups who do not wish to see any criticism of their beliefs

As a writer, I am not involved in categories 1 & 2, but I can’t resist commenting on each of them.  Regarding Category 1, the usual objection by a governmental body to disclosure of information is: ‘The public don’t need to know’ or some similar excuse.  In my experience, the real reason is; ‘We’ll be embarrassed if that is disclosed’.  To which my response would be: “All the more reason to disclose it!”  I believe that the only legitimate reason not to disclose the requested information is ‘national security’.  Not infrequently, the body will protest that disclosure represents a financial burden.  If this is actually the case (reams of information, much photocopying, etc), I believe the requesting party should reimburse the costs (but only the costs – no discouragement fees).

Category 2 has been in the news lately with some individuals obtaining court orders prohibiting the media from publicizing acts (usually sexual) which they don’t want ‘people’ (read their wives) knowing, or about which they feel embarrassed.  I have no sympathy whatsoever for these individuals.  The appropriate remedy for these problems is not to prohibit their disclosure but to avoid creating them in the first place.

Category 3 is one where I’m involved.  In several of my books, my characters have criticized some aspects of religious culture or practices.  I have, for example, characters saying that Catholicism is nearly ‘polytheistic’, because Catholics are encouraged to pray to saints, rather than to God.  This being similar to Aztec or ancient Greek beliefs in multiple Gods.  My characters have also said that Islam, unlike Christianity, has no formal, overriding instruction to love your fellow men.  They have also said that Muslims can be too defensive of their religion, thereby conveying the impression that Islam requires protection.  Undoubtedly, some Christians and Muslims would object to these comments, but they are made ‘in good faith’ without any intention to insult or injure.  In my view, no religion is perfect; only God is perfect, but no religion should be mocked.  While I defend the right of the Charlie Hebdo journalists to publish demeaning caricatures of the Prophet, I consider it to be insulting, stupid, and in bad taste to do so.  I am currently reading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  (Better late than never.)  In it, there is a character Mahound, who is a weak, indecisive prophet, who speaks with an angel Gibril, who doesn’t know what to say.  I haven’t read enough of the book to know what happens with these characters, but my reaction, so far, is that Rushdie is making fun of Islam, and, in particular, of the Satanic Verses in the Qur’an.  I’m not a Muslim, but I don’t think it’s funny, or amusing.  If Rushdie wants to say these kinds of things, he has a right to do so.  But, it’s intentionally insulting to Muslims to do so.  Back to my point about the defensiveness of Islam, I consider it a gross overreaction to sentence Rushdie to death.  If I were a Muslim who felt insulted by The Satanic Verses, I would tell the author how I felt, ask for an apology, and read nothing more that he wrote.  (But since I’m a Christian, I’ll continue reading.)