Monday, January 12, 2009

My Apocalyptic Christmas Reading

Over the Christmas break, I read two books that were published before I was born, and that I last read in the early 80's. I was surprised at how well they held up, at how much I still enjoyed them--not always the case when one revisits the obsessions of one's adolescence!

I read Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle in one big gulp. It's an alternate history kind of book that imagines the world as it would be if Germany and Japan had won World War II. It also includes an alternate history book in the novel that imagines how the U.S. would be different if the U.S. had won the war--yet the history that it spins out is different than the real history. I think I actually appreciated the book more now, because I know more of the history of that time period, and so I could appreciate Dick's imaginative leaps.

It also makes me a bit dizzy to think about how much history could have been radically changed if just one detail turned out differently. In the book, FDR dies in the 1930's, and so he isn't there to lead the Allies to victory. It's a similar theme that we find in many holiday movies (thank you It's a Wonderful Life), so it was even more interesting to have my reading experience juxtaposed to holiday movies--and to have them all juxtaposed to the steady stream of dreary news.

It's not unusual for me to have an apocalyptic appetite, but I usually don't indulge in it during the holidays. Just before the break, however, I watched part of the greatest nuclear war movie ever, Threads. So, I was more than ready for my next apocalyptic book, A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. This book, too, is a sort of alternate history, complete with monks in a monastery, keeping knowledge safe (or inaccessible, depending on your viewpoint). The book revolves around technology and its power to both save and redeem.

I also read Home, by Marilynne Robinson, which, although it didn't have a nuclear explosion (or several, the way that A Canticle for Leibowitz did), was rather apocalyptic in its own quiet way. It asks the question of whether or not we can ever escape our childhoods or learn to make happier choices. It's a slow-paced novel, yet I never wanted to throw it across the room. I was reminded of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, where the characters wait and nothing much happens and doom threatens--yet we continue to hope it will all turn out OK.

Will I be reading happier things in the new year? Only if I stop reading the newspaper!

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