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Some personal favorites

Essay by Lynda La Rocca

Books – December 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN THIS TROUBLED WORLD, it’s helpful — at least, it’s helpful to me — to remember that human nature is, well, human nature. Time passes, lifestyles change, and technology advances, yet we remain collectively governed by many of the same forces that motivated our ancestors.

Sure, many of us try to live by the Golden Rule. And we try to love our neighbors even half as much as we love ourselves. But ah, the lure of those seven deadly sins — and the ease with which we justify indulging in them, particularly in anger, and in the hatred and violence it generates.

And so I’m heartened by books like A History of Force by James L. Payne, which posits that our species is actually becoming less violent, daily media reports of chaos and mayhem notwithstanding. Frankly, I’ve held that view for decades, and so I’m happy for this reminder that I’m far from alone. While I’m still reading this nonfiction work and therefore can’t yet consider it a favorite, I’ve already become intrigued by Payne’s exploration of cultures that were adept at dishing out violence and vengeance.

Two such cultures, ancient Greece and ancient Rome, are the focus of Edith Hamilton’s classic Mythology. While Hamilton doesn’t analyze her subjects’ behavior or motivations, she does masterfully capture the tragedy, treachery, heroism, and hedonism that make these stirring tales as relevant today as they were centuries ago.

From the exploits of the Greek and Roman deities — who were often capricious and cruel enough to make even the most devout believer consider atheism — to the superhuman sagas of heroes like Hercules and Aeneas, and the tragedies of doomed lovers like Pyramus and Thisbe, these myths reflect the best and worst in humankind.

No home should be without a copy of this extraordinary collection, both for Hamilton’s storytelling skills and for its importance as a reference source. These myths and legends are not just the fountainhead for much subsequent literature; they’re also the origin of many commonly used expressions.

When someone “opens a Pandora’s box,” for instance, they unleash the same evils as did the hapless Pandora, whose curiosity led her to defy the gods by removing the lid from a box they had forbidden her to open. A rich, successful person is said to have “the Midas touch,” a reference to a greedy king to whom the Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus to the Greeks) granted the terrible power of turning whatever he touched into gold.

Deadly sin also figures prominently in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a frighteningly prophetic and scathing indictment of censorship. In Bradbury’s nightmarish society, the written word is forbidden and “firemen,” like protagonist Guy Montag, start rather than extinguish fires. They burn books, which have been outlawed.

“It’s fine work,” Montag tells a young neighbor. “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.”

But once he connects with underground rebels who preserve what cannot be physically saved by memorizing entire texts and literally becoming walking libraries, Montag is himself transformed into a fugitive relentlessly pursued by authorities determined to wipe out every last written word and every last vestige of independent thought.

Want to scare yourself? Then read this book, particularly passages like this one: “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually, gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored…. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

And this: “Impatience. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere. The gasoline refugee.”

Or this: “If you’re not driving … at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four-wall televisor. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”

WHEN BRADBURY published this novel in 1953, most U.S. households didn’t yet contain even a single, fuzzy-screen, black-and-white television set. What must the 86-year-old author think now about the ubiquitous cell phone, iPod, and personal computer?

Henry Fielding knew nothing of technology run amok when, in 1749, he published his great picaresque novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.

As Tom, the handsome, lusty (those deadly sins again!), devil-may-care ward of the saintly Squire Allworthy, pursues his true love, the virtuous Sophia, he finds himself embroiled in intrigues and scandals that are often laugh-out-loud funny. But these exploits also generate compassion for this unjustly maligned young gentleman, whose noble spirit and kind heart (along with a series of hilariously comic coincidences and surprising plot twists) ultimately save the day.

When not focused on his characters’ escapades, Fielding expounds on everything from philosophy and classical literature to the narrow-mindedness of pedants and yes, the deadly sins. Here he takes on envy, in a passage that resonates as clearly today as it undoubtedly did in the 18th century:

“To say the truth, want of compassion is not to be numbered among our general faults. The black ingredient which fouls our disposition is envy. Hence our eye is seldom, I am afraid, turned upward to those who are manifestly greater, better, wiser, or happier than ourselves without some degree of malignity, while we commonly look downwards on the mean and miserable with sufficient benevolence and pity…. But enough of a subject which if pursued would lead me too far.”

Me, too. And so I’ll close, but not before wishing everyone the happiest of holidays, free from all but the purest and loftiest sentiments!

Lynda La Rocca reads in, and writes from, a quiet place in Twin Lakes.