Why Write Books?

Among the many ways to tell a story, what makes books/novels still one of the most effective and useful mediums for delivering a story?

For whatever reason, this question came to me and lingered in my head as I recently read the novel Barometer Rising. The historical nature of the story had me comparing the events of the novel to a news report, documentary, and even to more modern movies that I’ve seen. I can’t imagine any of these, or even other forms of digital story telling would be as effective as communicating this particular story as the technology of a book.

Book stories are slow, they simmer, even the fast paced ones release an aroma that permeates the minds of characters and objects in the novel. BR is filled with the city of Halifax’s presence, until the final explosion. This is significant to the story itself. Messages have rich weight in novels. Many modern digital story telling platforms are fragmented.

Despite this permeation, books are a medium that requires readers to complete the connection between information sender and receiver. Unlike more visual media, the black and white pages force the reader to be active in creating the story in their minds. This activity, this closure, engages readers with the same lure of a black and white photo, enticing a reader into it signal, to fill in the color.

Language alone is a limited technology. However, words strung together can form metaphors that reveal what descriptions cannot. More words combined in paragraphs and scenes, act like cells that form organs and organisms, creating bodies and worlds. In BR each chapter uniquely covers one day in the span of the story – readers are drawn into a world filled with time and duration.

Understanding the people and the place in BR was key to confronting complex messages about the war and the impact it had on North American soil. The character Geoffery Wain made me see that the bored generation of wealthy new world aristocrats, born at the top with nowhere to go, backed and extended the war because it provided them with a hierarchy to climb. Their impact on North American society was as devastating as a bomb on Canadian soil, not only for fanning the flames of war but also for neglecting the promise of a new world, and for neglecting the new type of man and woman born of this continent.

The experience of the Halifax explosion, the significance of the events would be lost on me, were it not sent via book, sliced out of time.

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Secret Consent

The Ghomeshi sexual harassment case of this past year was one where a high profile public figure in Canada was able to walk the line of legality and get away with sexual harassment.

The hinging factor of the legal case, as I gathered from just finishing reading Secret Life, is that of consent. This became clear to me towards the end of the book when the author describes his research into BDSM. In these communities, people are upfront about what they want to do and who they want to do it with, something Ghomeshi usually wasn’t. He used false pretense, surprise, and the threat of guilt to engage with women he desired, in the aggressive manner that suited him. Without consent, he utilized his power and ambiguity of action to get what he wanted.

What stands out to me was that after he jumped and attacked a woman, he would often text them something to the effect of “Oh, if you’re going to be cold now, you are going to make this awkward.” This is manipulation, shifting the responsibility of action onto the victim. He forced people to confront his sexual tastes, rather than the other way around. Manipulative people do this, they find ways to put the ball in your court and then, with clear conscience, claim that you could have acted as you please.

I can’t help notice the role of technology here (texting), that enabled Ghomeshi to maintain a presence and a dialog that ultimately signified consent (in a legal and public opinion sense), without actually getting consent. Technology provides an easy way to maintain presence, yet also provides a way to remain ambiguous – this isn’t good nor bad in itself, except that courts and legal matters need to take such new forms of communication and relationship status into account. As does public opinion.

As a side note, Secret Life is as much an exploration into journalism in Canada in 2016, as it is an account of the JG scandals. I also recently read No News is Bad News, also about journalism in Canada and published in 2016. Both books were well worth the short time it took to read them – I am on the lookout for similar reads.

Suffered the Loss of Expectations

I just finished reading The Dispossessed, a science fiction novel by Ursula La Guin. If you’re worried about spoilers for a 40 year old book, you might not want to read this post. I don’t normally do book reviews here, but hopefully the reasons why I’m writing this will be apparent.

The Dispossessed is a story about a settlement of people on a moon that orbits a ‘mother’ planet that is pretty much Earth-like. The unique thing about this settlement is that they are a society of anarchists – they have no government, no rules, and no laws. We find out later that public opinion and ‘sway’ fill in this absence of rule. As time moves ahead, this settlement starts to develop an influential structure of public opinion that begins to cramp their freedom.

There are many themes in the book, here are a few:

  • walls
  • women’s role in society, sexism
  • the different ways to run a society

Walls are prisons, and when you build a wall to protect your freedom it keeps you locked in just as much as it keeps others out. Walls are also inescapable in the book, each human is self contained by their own wall, in the grand metaphorical way but also in a practical temporal way.

The settlement is a woman’s society, one character says at some point in the middle. It took me a while to pick up on this, but then it becomes obvious, the themes of motherly love, and the possession that women and men feel for each other either as lovers or as parent and child. But, these are relationships that anyone can choose to maintain or not. The Earth-like ‘mother’ planet is run by men. There are wars and inequality there, and nobody can do much about it.

There’s a lot of ideological discussion about society in the book, much of it involves concepts of freedom and time. You’d have to read the book to get it, and to take from it what you feel is worthwhile. Much of this discussion I found reassuring, and looked back on, and reread yesterday, the day after the American election, when I finished it. Some excerpts:

“What we’re after is to remind ourselves that we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone.”

“Fulfillment is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal.”

“So looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.”