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Books can give perspective to an otherwise vacuous life

October 02, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

It is a high probability that many readers have, at one time or another, had a friend or associate insist that a certain book "must be read right away" because "it will change your life." Since you want to please them, you dutifully purchase the book and look for the transforming words. The epiphany might or might not happen.

My experience is "a mixed bag," as they say, and I would like to share a sample or more.

In 1970, Richard Bach's imaginative book "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" made a sensational appearance. The topic (the power of the free will) was attractive as well as the cost ($4.95). Photographs of soaring birds were scattered liberally throughout -- a reminder of the sense of uplift and flight into the heavens with a higher calling.

It is understandable that many would be drawn to the story of a gull, hampered by a crippled wing, inspired to fly. Overcoming all obstacles, he screams from above, "I can fly! Listen! I can fly!"

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This is "feel good" literature and will always inspire confidence in the power of a free will. Hard-nosed realists who challenge this romanticism are not welcome even though they would like to see a good case made for free will and self-determination.

There are features about this book that make it troublesome for thoughtful readers. To begin, a gull is not the most appropriate symbol for free will and self-determination. A gull is completely activated by instinct, which dictates its behavior. They might appear to be "free" as they effortlessly glide aloft, but their behavior is governed by instinct. Another important consideration is the lack of recognition of forces that inhibit freedom, such as heredity, environment and unique experiences. This was interesting, but not "must" reading.

In 1974, another "must" read aroused considerable public interest. Author Robert Pirsig came out with "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," which told the story of a father who wished to bond with an alienated son. To accomplish this goal, he orchestrated an imposing joint riding trip on a motorcycle across much of North America. The idea was that this togetherness would give time and connection a chance to heal any wounds and insert a bit of philosophic give and take from time to time.

It is still difficult for one to imagine how it is possible to bond with anyone as the back-seat passenger on a single motorcycle. Maybe this could happen if frequent stops were included and the travel time each day was kept in check. Seeing the back of a head and hanging on with so much trust in the driver might put an edge on "bonding." Believe it or not, reconciliation did take place and we have been told that where there is pain, there is gain. This is also interesting "feel good" writing, but not "must" reading.

It is wise to end on a positive note. One book that was recommended, "Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis (1927) qualifies as "must" reading. This novel was as real as life -- just as a good novel should be. Burt Lancaster was at his very best in his portrayal of this lusty, self-promoting, theatrical evangelist.

One event is permanently fixed in my mind as an object lesson for a young seminarian. Lewis described this crowd-baiting, charismatic huckster at the head of a frenzied mob of "true believers." They are on their way to drive out of his church, a fine, intelligent, but mildly liberal "modernist" minister.

That scenario and a vivid awareness of inter- and intracongregational doctrinal entanglements in literalist denominations was enough to put the brakes on that profession. It would be interesting to know how many other would-be ministerial students were seriously influenced by Lewis' novel.

What one "must" read varies from person to person. Books are useful variously -- they report on history and culture, transmit useful knowledge in the arts and sciences, introduce great people and inspire powerful emotions and values, which confer a civilizing character on those who read. These incremental gifts from the printed page might give perspective to an otherwise vacuous life.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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