Philosophy in the Bedroom by the Marquis de Sade

desade-philosophybedroomWhile everyone’s feeling naughty for reading E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey these days, I thought I would instead delve into something by the man who gave sadism its name. My fascination with reading Philosophy in the Bedroom actually stems from the fact that I’ve got a soft spot for an old Jess Franco movie called Eugenie, starring the gorgeous Maria Rohm. According to the film’s opening credits, it’s based on the de Sade book here under review. The story is simple: a rich and powerful woman, Madame de Saint Ange, with her brother, Le Chevalier de Mirval, take a naive teenage girl, Eugenie, under their wing and proceed to give her an “education” in the ways of being a libertine, over the course of a weekend. While Franco’s movie does little more than tease the viewer, the original work is quite a different beast.

The book is written in the form of a play, consisting entirely of dialogue – except for occasional stage directions about sexual positions, which came across as unintentionally comedic. I couldn’t imagine this actually taking place with actors, and I doubt it was ever made real in that fashion. However, I couldn’t help but visualise the actors from Franco’s adaptation in their respective roles. I use the word adaptation loosely, because Franco essentially did his own thing. Trust me, if he followed de Sade’s script, he would’ve been jailed.

I’m not easily shocked when it comes to sexual content, but I have to admit that I was surprised at the extremes depicted by the author. I won’t go into detail, but I simply had no idea that many of de Sade’s sexual kinks had even entered the imagination of man three centuries ago. I was under the impression that the excesses depicted in modern pornography were largely a product of modern pornography. Not so, it seems. They were here all along.

Parts of the book are actually very intelligent. There is a lengthy non-erotic portion concerned with libertine politics, which was rather boring for me. But I thoroughly enjoyed de Sade’s rant against Christianity. It was strikingly blasphemous for the time period, displaying a remarkable courage in a heavily Christianised society.

Central to de Sade’s philosophy is an appeal to nature. He views man, rightly, as a part of nature, not as a thing alienated from nature, as religion teaches. Man is not a creature that has to beat his natural instincts into submission in pursuit of some “higher” ideal. The passions of man have every right to be expressed and enjoyed without guilt, because man is an animal. Arguing thus, de Sade is well ahead of his time. It wasn’t until Charles Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection in the mid-1800s that we were able to scientifically defend what de Sade already saw clearly. Sadly, the author is unable to separate his ideas about nature from his own personal sexual neuroses. To him, every thought that excites him, no matter how deranged, is natural. It looks like the old cliche about genius and insanity being very close companions.

The erotic element of the story, frankly, does get tiresome after a while, and I almost gave up reading halfway through. I did like the philosophical side, though. How do I sum up the Marquis de Sade? Deranged genius? Maybe.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

This work by the philosopher Neitzsche doesn’t quite live up to the promise, implied in its title, of providing a deep and coherent understanding of ethics that transcends the normal cateogories of good and evil. For its time, it was likely a revolutionary overturning of traditional Judeo-Christian values, but a lot of the content is rambling in nature, veering off into all sorts of peripheral avenues, including a large section on Neitzsche’s view of women – which is particularly hard to accept in today’s world. Nevertheless, the book had its moments of brilliance, and provided some very quotable quotes (some of which are darkly humourous):

Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.

Not their love of humanity, but the impotence of their love, prevents the Christians of today – burning us.

Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice.

Neitzche views morality as man-made, consisting of master morality and slave morality – those who lead, making use of what he terms the Will to Power, and those who wish only to be led.

“Exploitation” does not belong to a depraved, or imperfect and primitive society. It belongs to the nature of the living being as a primary organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic Will to Power, which is precisely the Will to Life.

On whatever points we may disagree with Nietzche, he was clearly a very self-realised person, willing to look at human nature without masking it in self-delusion or wishful thinking. Not the best book I have read on ethics, but valuable nonetheless.

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

I’ve lived a signifiant portion of my life as both a monotheist (there is one God) and an atheist (there is no God). Nowadays, after a great deal of thought, I’m something akin to a pantheist (God is indistinguishable from the universe). In the past, I have been both a materialist (matter is what’s real) and an idealist (mind is what’s real); now I’m a neutral monist (mind and matter are both expressions of an unknown third essence). Those words may carry no relevance to the lives of some readers, but it’s where we stand on these foundational beliefs that affects a great deal of our behaviour, and hence our happiness. Philosophy, defined as the love of wisdom, is where we get our ideas about God, the universe, and the self. For most people, where they stand on those ideas comes down to unquestioned assumptions that are inherited through cultural norms. The real thinker wishes to uncover as many of these assumptions as possible, and determine for himself what to believe. That is the value in reading something like Bertrand Russell’s titanic work on western philosophy.

The volume contains around 800 pages, divided into three parts: (1) the ancient Greek philosophers, (2) philosophy under the triumph of Christianity, and (3) philosophy from the Renaissance to the present (mid-twentieth century). I confess that after about two hundred pages I was feeling quite fatigued, and I had to wonder just how much I was taking in. If you asked me right now to tell you one significant assertion by Empedocles or Protagoras, I would be lost. It’s impossible for the brain to hold this amount of information. But the real value in reading, I realised, was the ability to compare my own personal philsophy with the assertions of past philosophers. I found my own belief in a universe of perpetual flux mirrored in Heraclitus, and my belief in an underlying non-duality of all things reflected in Parmenides.

Following philosophy all through the Christian era was fascinating, in light of my Christian past. I came to realise that Christianity truly is a spent force in the world. Despite pockets of contemporary success, especially in the USA, its influence is nothing compared to centuries past. What we see today is more like a last gasp. Under the pressure of science, there is simply no going back to a universally Christian civilisation. As a general history of Christianity, Russell’s book is incomplete. The same is true of the Greek era. This was the one weakness in the volume, and created an additional difficulty for me in understanding some of what I was reading. Although I have to wonder just how big this book would have ended up, if the author had chosen to be more thorough in his telling of history. So perhaps I shouldn’t complain.

Regardless of how much or how little I can recall, I now have an overall picture of the history of philosophy. Some of the questions asked by philosophers were of great importance; others were intellectual dead-ends, issues of mere syntax. Oftentimes, a philosopher was overly influenced by his culture. Sometimes the success of a philosophy was determined more by political considerations, than pure logic. Ultimately, I came away with a sense of confidence about my own beliefs, since I found nothing to refute them within Russell’s work. And while I love philosophy, an awareness of such of high level of differing ideology through the ages can only make one wonder how far we might yet be from the truth in our present.

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Imagine a world of only two dimensions: length and breadth, but no height. Imagine sentient beings living in this world. Everything appears as a horizontal straight line, like looking at coin on table, keeping your eye level with the edge of the table. Now imagine that a sentient sphere, gazing at this Flatland from above, decides to venture down and communicate with a square. From his vantage point, he can see everything. The walls of Flatland are no barrier to his all-seeing gaze. He speaks to the square, but the square cannot see him, so he physically descends into Flatland. As his girth intersects with the dimension, he appears to the square as a circle which widens as he descends. The poor square has never seen anything like this, and believes that he is experiencing a paranormal visitation. Things become even more alarming for the square when the sphere pulls him up into Spaceland. But the sphere is shortly in for a suprise when the square questions him about the logical possibility of a fourth dimension of which the sphere is not privy, just as the square was not privy to the third.

Now, you either love this sort of a mindfuck or you don’t. I’m a great believer (for philosophical reasons that I won’t go into just now) that there is more to the universe than material reality. This charming fiction provides a mathematical basis for such a notion. It behoves us to try and conceptualise a fouth dimension which sees into the third in much the same way that the third can see into the second. It’s impossible to wrap your head around, just as in the story it’s impossible for the square, once returned to Flatland, to describe his experience to his companions, or even to accurately remember it. I’m someone who has an appreciation for things of a magical or psychic nature, so I know that there’s something to the idea that Abbott presents, although I would hasten to add that his presentation is an approximation, not a factual description, of a higher reality than the physical dimension.

Concurrent with a discourse on dimensionality, the story also provides a satirical commentary on social customs of the Victorian era in which it was written, especially as it concerns the abuses of religious authority in preventing the free speech of those who think different. Although this book is classified as fiction, because it is first and foremost a story, I believe that a reader seeking entertainment will find much less pleasure in it than the philosopher-at-heart. To the latter, I thoroughly recommend this little volume.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World takes place in a dystopian future masquerading as a utopia. The whole world is united under a World State. Eternal peace is maintained, not by threats of punishment, but by the most intimate control of the human race – a control that begins even before a person is born.

In this future, natural reproduction has been done away with, and by means of technological advances, humans are now spawned in vast “hatcheries.” Through chemical interference, the development of a foetus is arrested, so that different social classes can be maintained, to fulfill various functions in society. Only members of the highest caste, the “Alphas,” are allowed to develop naturally. World population is permanently limited to two billion people.

Once born, all education is performed by rote, using technology called “hypnopedia” – learning while you sleep. This way, everyone is implanted with the same ideas, such as “Ending is better than mending” to promote continual consumerism. People are conditioned to view the idea of “family” as repulsive and even funny.

Life consists of work (that that lower castes are conditioned to love), frivolous entertainment, recreational sex, and drug-induced happiness. Man is made to feel content in his bondage. This is a society where there is no place for individuality, and little hope of it sprouting. People are simply cogs that service a vast, efficient social organism. The only places that have any freedom are reservations where “savages” live. Although citizens are free to take vacations to these reservations, this appearance of freedom is made grotesque by the crippled nature of the minds of the holiday-makers.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, a technique which the author uses to allow the reader to view this strange society from a variety of angles: from those who control it (Mustapha Mond, a World Controller) to those who are alien to it (John the savage). Somewhere in between we have the interesting character of Bernard Marx, an Alpha who suffered a chemical mishap before he was born – something that left him uncommonly small of stature, a disadvantage that imbued him with a sense of individuality born out of adversity. But if you’re expecting Bernard Marx to be the hero of the story, think again. Likewise, if you are expecting John’s “savage” upbringing to bring a ray of sanity to the proceedings, nothing so uncomplicated or idealistic ensues. This is a highly unpredictable tale.

While the technology foretold in this novel hasn’t emerged in quite the same way, we see similar methods of mind-manipulation employed in television (subliminal advertising) and education (learning by rote). Brave New World is essentially a satire of our utopian pipedreams and a sober warning about the price that would have to be paid to ensure the continuance of such a “paradise.” There is not a single gun in sight, nor a single murder commited, and yet the cost of such a dream is appalling.

Brave New World is a complex novel of great insight. It taught me something about the human condition, and left me with a sense that there was more going on in the story than I could grasp with a single reading.

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley

Ape and Essence begins in a movie studio, with a script accidentally falling from the back of a trolley full of manuscripts (what authors would call the slushpile) on its way to the incinerator. Two movie executives pick up the screenplay and they are so moved by the story that they seek out the writer, a man named Tallis. Finding him deceased, this part of the story ends (about a quarter into the novel). The rest of Ape and Essence is the mysterious script itself, presented to the reader without modification or editorial comment.

When I say “script”, it’s really a bit of a curious script-novel hybrid – not nearly as sketchy as a screenplay, which is good from a reader’s point of view. We are transported to a world where apes act like people, but in a manner far more surreal than Planet of the Apes. Tribes of apes go to war against each other, each one keeping its very own Albert Einstein on a leash. The symbolism is obvious: the apes allude to the stupidity of mankind, going to war with nuclear weapons and bringing about universal destruction.

Around page fifty I was getting frustrated with the book’s strangeness, but it’s at this point that the story shifts to a post apocalyptic 22nd century and stays firmly grounded therein for the remainder. The world has been devasted by nuclear and chemical warfare. Only one country remains unscathed, for no other reason that it was of little strategic importance during World War III: New Zealand. And the New Zealanders are now making their first sea voyage to rediscover America. Among the crew is our protagonist, the botanist Dr. Poole. Not long after they arrive on shore, Dr. Poole is kidnapped by natives and the rest of his crew are forced to abandon him. He finds himself all alone in a society very unlike the Christian one he came from. The citizens now worship Satan (whom they call Belial), essentially because, given the state of the world, Satan appears to be in charge. Mutation has caused biological changes in mankind. Women typically have three sets of nipples, and mating takes place during a week-long orgy once a year. Anyone who has yearnings to mate all year round is referred to disparagingly as a “hot.” Dr. Poole establishes a place among these “savages” due to his knowledge of botany and the benefits he can bring to the civilisation. Much of the book concerns Dr. Poole as a fish-out-of-water, undergoing changes due to his environment.

Huxley is known for putting a lot of subtext in his novels, although it’s hard to gauge exactly what points he’s trying to make at times. I guess this novel fits in with the mid-20th century preoccupation with the end of the world by nuclear war. It reminded me a lot of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, only more wacky. Wyndham presents Christianity-gone-mad, whereas Huxley goes for Christianity-gone-Satanic. However, it must be said that Ape and Essence loses none of its charm for its strangeness. I had a great time with this novel. Particularly eyebrow-raising (when you consider the era that it was written) were the sexual elements of the story. Nothing too gratuitious, but the very inclusion of an orgy in which the protagonist participates was quite daring.

I enjoyed this novel particularly as a clash of societies, where the rightness of one’s own views are challenged by submersion into an alien environment, and where something that you might call “humanity” manages to emerge, despite the pressures of both paradigms. I very nearly gave up at page 50, before the real story got rolling; glad I stuck with it.

The New World Order by H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells is best known for his fiction. This little book is non-fiction. It’s essentially a very long essay on the subject of globalisation, something that is highly relevant in today’s world, where we see so much centralisation of power underway, as corporations merge into bigger corporations, and governments become collectivised into unions. When reading this book, which was published in 1940, it’s important to remember that the term “New World Order” didn’t carry the same sinister significance that it has in the minds of many conspiracy believers today. What I’m saying is, let’s not call Wells a bad guy on the grounds of the title alone. There’s much in the book to commend it.

Here are three quotes that I find particularly impressive. I don’t know how much these will strike you, but I personally went through an awakening about eight or nine months ago, where I became aware of how much my mind was being manipulated by the dogma of religion and the false assumptions of science. In my eyes, these quotes are as fresh and relevant today as they ever were.

On religion and its resistance to criticism:

Most of our belief systems rest upon rotten foundations, and generally these foundations are made sacred to preserve them from attack. They become dogmas in a sort of holy of holies. It is shockingly uncivil to say “But that is nonsense.” The defenders of all the dogmatic religions fly into rage and indignation when one touches on the absurdity of their foundations. Especially if one laughs. That is blasphemy. This avoidance of fundamental criticism is one of the greatest dangers to any general human understanding.

On our planet-wrecking consumer mentality:

Natural resources are being exhausted at a great rate, and the increased output goes into war munitions whose purpose is destruction, and into sterile indulgences no better than waste. Man, “heir of the ages,” is a demoralised spendthrift, in a state of galloping consumption, living on stimulants.

On the false assumptions of science that turn us into know-it-alls:

“Science” comes to us from those academic Dark Ages when men had to console themselves for their ignorance by pretending that there was a limited amount of knowledge in the world, and little chaps in caps and gowns strutted about, bachelors who knew all that there was to be known. Now it is manifest that none of us know very much, and the more we look into what we think we know, the more hitherto undetected things we shall find lurking in our assumptions.

The thrust of the book is this: Wells believes the world must become collectivised under a single leadership, or else the world is doomed to destruction by inevitable war. He bases this conviction on something he calls “the abolition of distance.” War, in olden times, was fought by travelling on foot or horseback to your destination, but in the modern world of technology, it is now possible to attack any part of the world very quickly. Everyone is neighbour to everyone else, in that sense. It begs the question, how do you defend your border? You can’t. The abolition of distance, Wells argues, creates too many possibilities for devastating war scenarios, and makes the end of the world inevitable.

Much of the book theorises about what sort of world government could function to be fair to all people. This was tough stuff to understand for me personally, because my political knowledge is not good. The overarching question I kept asking myself was, “If there’s one force at the top of the tree to which all others are subservient, how do you stop it turning into a global tyranny somewhere down the line?” It seems naive to suppose that a single centralised world government would simply stay good and fair over time. And if there are no powerful independent countries (which is the idea) to call upon for help to release you from such tyranny, what can you do? Nothing. In my mind, centralisation of world power is one way to world peace and a very short step from permanent tyranny. The book didn’t give me answers to that objection. Wells was firmly locked into the mentality that the world as it stands is doomed unless we centralise power. I’m not sure if the present world system really does need to collectivise, and I certainly don’t think a single world government is the answer. We’re almost seventy years past the writing of this book, we’re in possession of far more destructive technology, and we’re still here.

In any case, this book is an illuminating, thought-provoking read.

Dune by Frank Herbert

I’m really struggling to summarise Dune because the mythology created by Frank Herbert is so rich. In fact, I understand he spent about five years researching before writing this tome. Anyway, first a little background. The known universe is governed by a series of feudal houses, with an emperor reigning supreme over them. Central to the novel are House Atreides and its enemy House Harkonnen. As the story commences, the emporer gives control of the desert planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune) to House Atreides. The move from the water-rich world of Caladan to the dry wastes of Arrakis dramatically changes the life of young fifteen-year-old Paul Atreides. The native people of Arrakis, known as the Fremen, wonder if he is their long-awaited messiah, according to prophecy. The planet’s main commodity, a powerful substance called “spice melange,” which has many uses across the universe, begins to have a strange effect on Paul. He starts to see visions, and wonders if he could indeed be the messiah of the Fremen. Meanhile, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is plotting the downfall of House Atreides and the takeover of Dune, but he hasn’t counted on who Paul really is.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and it’s a joy to read. I found myself taking my time with it because I didn’t want it to end. I loved being in this strange mythology. What’s clear is that the author isn’t making this up as he’s going. He has thought long and hard about the ecology, religion, culture, politics and technology of this world of his. It’s as breaktaking as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. If there is one weak spot in the whole package, it’s in the very clear-cut roles of good guys and bad guys. House Harkonnen, and all its members, is thoroughly immoral, led by the Baron, who is an obese man with a liking for young boys. He is saved from being a two-dimensional villain by the depth of his cunning. The war between the Atreides and Harkonnens is a too-simple battle of good versus evil. This polarised viewpoint, in my humble opinion, isn’t a true reflection of wars in the real world and was the only disappointment in a work of brilliance.

If your introduction to Dune has been the 1980s David Lynch movie, I can tell you that the book is so much better. I decided to watch the director’s cut of the movie after reading the novel, and it felt like watching a summary. A visual feast, but a poor attempt at storytelling. The novel is a far bigger and more personal story. The more recent mini-series does a better job than the movie, and is a fairly faithful adaptation, but I don’t recommend watching it before reading the book, as the book is a superior experience.

So many novels are forgettable, but Dune stays with you like a memory. It’s not often that I have such good recall of events and character names. Frank Herbert wrote six Dune novels before he died. I’m looking forward to Dune Messiah.

The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

A mysterious misty spray drifts across the sea, colliding with our protagonist, Scott, while he’s out on his boat. He thinks nothing of it until he begins noticing his diminishing height: one seventh of an inch every day without fail. The premise is very much a in keeping a noticeable trend in 1950s science fiction. It was the era of oversized or undersized monsters and mutants, from the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and the gigantic ants of Them!, to the microscopic adventurers of Fantastic Voyage.

The idea of shrinking a person to a few centimetres in height is one you can have a lot of fun with as a storyteller. The scope of unique situations you can put your protagonist in is vast, as evidenced by an entire TV series, Land of the Giants being devoted to the idea. But I suspect no one has done it better than Matheson.

I’ve heard that Matheson originally structured the events of the novel in a completely linear fashion, from 6 feet to zero, then later restructured them so that he was able to tell two stories side by side, hopping back and forth in time. The first story is all about how Scott copes with people’s attitudes to him while his height diminishes. The second begins with Scott trapped in the basement, only a few centimetres tall and presumed dead, and tells the tale of his struggle to survive in that environment against such adversaries as food out of reach and a black widow spider. The two sides of the novel are quite different in tone, and readers will probably have a favourite depending on their taste. For me, my preference was the former.

We see Scott struggling to maintain a sexual relationship with his wife when he is conscious of becoming more like a boy than a man. We see him going for a walk at night and offered a lift by a drunken paedophile. We see him defenceless against the bullying of a gang of teenagers. We see his own daughter defying his fatherly authority because of his size. We see his wife unconsciously talking down to him like boy. We see him degenerating to the level of peeping tom to a teenage girl. In all of his suffering there are a few moments of relief, one of which is a brief but touching relationship with a dwarf. I only have vague memories of the movie adaptation of this novel, but I’m pretty sure much of this stuff never made it in (it has always been the case that you can get away with more in books than you can in films). That material was so much more interesting to me than reading about Scott finding inventive ways to climb gigantic tables, etc. Although that side of the story was certainly fascinating, too.

Having read Matheson’s I Am Legend recently, I’m noticing how he works. He takes an essentially ridiculous notion and drops a totally believable three-dimensional character into the middle of it. The novel then becomes the story “What would you really do, if this were happening to you?” And Matheson has a real knack for it. I can’t help picturing him lying on the floor of his basement, looking along the ground with his eye, imagining himself as Scott. When reading the novel, I lost count of the times that I read something and thought in amazement, “I never would have imagining seeing the world like that.” Matheson’s observations were so perceptive.

However, I have to question the value in the author devoting such creative energy to a concept that is, at its heart, daft. A better way to phrase the question is this: “Is there something more to The Incredible Shrinking Man than mere b-movie fodder?” When I thought about this, the answer was yes. The novel is, intentionally or not, an apt metaphor for disability. It’s a tale that motivates us to empathise with those whose bodies have betrayed them, those who struggle to be seen as normal or equal to the rest of us.

Despite all the good things I’m saying about the novel, oddly I found it difficult to keep on reading. I’m not sure why. Possibly because the tiny print on my old paperback annoyed me; maybe because I remembered not liking the ending from the movie. Either way, I’m glad I made it to the end. It’s a story with great depth that I’m not likely to forget.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. He is the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that hasn’t so much wiped out humanity as changed it. By day, the city belongs to him. He is, for all practical purposes, completely alone – free to roam the concrete jungle, foraging for food supplies, equipment for his house, and entertainment to quell the loneliness. But come nightfall, they come out.

Who they are depends on whether you are most familiar with the original 1954 novel written by Richard Matheson, or one of its three film adaptations. Yes, three! I Am Legend was first filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, starring Vincent Price. This film remains the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which is no surprise since the screenplay was written by Matheson himself, albeit under a psuedonym. Matheson didn’t want his name associated with the movie because of some changes to the script demanded by the producers. The creatures in this movie are like George Romero’s zombies with just enough brains to speak. Romero himself cites this film as influential in making Night of the Living Dead. The creatures are called vampires, and vampires they are, except for the lack of fangs – possibly a budgetary restriction. But they can’t stand sunlight, crosses, and can be killed with a stake through the heart, just as tradition states. Matheson’s novel features all that plus the fangs and a lot more agility.

In 1971 I Am Legend was remade as The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. This time, the only vampiric trait the creatures possess is an aversion to sunlight. They are much more humanlike in terms of their rationality – they’re not interested in drinking your blood – although they’ve been transformed into black-clothed religious zealots with a hatred of technology. To them, Robert Neville epitomises everything that led to the destruction of the world. Matheson, as you can guess, was not involved in this adaptation. Although The Omega Man departs greatly from the original story, it’s still a worthwhile film. It served as my introduction to the novel. I first saw it as a child, and it was a very memorable experience.

In 2008 I Am Legend was made yet again, this time keeping its original name, with Will Smith in the title role. A massive budget went into this adaptation, and it shows. The city is fabulously deserted, decaying and overgrown, thanks to the wonders of CGI. This time the creatures are exclusively computer generated. In stark contrast to the staggering zombies of the first movie, these are fearsome, frenzied killing machines, scarier than a lion bearing down on you. Again, it’s far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it remains my favourite of the three movies for its portrayal of Robert Neville, his loneliness, his desperation, his struggles, his griefs. The director really had his head screwed on. Will Smith’s natural talent for looking cool is subdued and we are treated to a movie experience where substance wins over style.

Sadly, none of the movies bar the first has embraced the courage of the novel’s startling climax. The novel’s ending (as well as much of the content) is so different that I would gladly encourage viewers to watch both The Omega Man and I Am Legend before reading the novel. It might even enhance your reading experience, because you will be saying, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down.” However, save The Last Man on Earth till later, because that movie is a 95% copy of the book.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I want to share a couple of examples of what makes Matheson’s writing so good. In the story, Robert Neville has fortified his house against the enemy. He lives every day in isolaton and every night listening to the mocking cries of the undead outside his door. And then one morning, an unusual visitor shows up …

For an hour he [Robert Neville] wandered around the neighborhood on trembling legs, searching vainly, calling out every few moments, “Come on, boy, come on.”

At last he stumbled home, his face a mask of hopeless dejection. To come across a living being, after all this time to find a companion, and then to lose it. Even if it was only a dog. Only a dog? To Robert Neville that dog was the peak of a planet’s evolution.

And then, when Neville manages to lure the dog into his presence with food, he is fearful of scaring it away again …

But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching empathically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautifully ugly dog.

As you can see, Matheson has a talent for both empathy and artistry. I think I’m getting a feel for the way he works. He will take a ridiculous notion that has no place in reality (be it vampires here, or a shrinking man, from another of his novels), then he will throw into the scenario characters that are totally realistic. Matheson gives you the impression that he has thought long and hard about what it would be like to be in a situation like Robert Neville’s. I Am Legend is the tale of a real man in the midst of the fantastic. Zero melodrama. It’s a short novel, barely more than a hundred and twenty pages, but it’s a more rich reading experience than many a five-hundred-page tome.

Not many novels have been made into movies three times. The fact that this one has is testament to how good it is. One of the first post-apocalyptic novels, and still one of the best.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I’ve been putting this review off, because I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. I knew I liked this novel, liked it a lot, but I couldn’t figure out why I liked it. The book has certain traits that, at face value, are going to look like negatives. For one, the drama is so mundane. It’s the tale of several consecutive days in the life of a 1950s boarding school student, right after he gets the news that he has been expelled. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, goes from place to place across New York, meeting various people in an effort to kill time, because he’s determined not to head home and face his parents before they’ve had a chance to hear the bad news and simmer down for a couple of days. Nothing earth-shattering happens during those few days. The highest dramatic point is when Holden foolishly hires a prostitute, then gets bullied by her pimp over payment. Holden isn’t even a particularly likable character at times. By his own admission, he is a habitual liar, and frequently enjoys spinning a yarn to those he converses with.

So, what’s to like? Well, despite Holden’s conversational lying, the narrative itself is brutally honest. It’s written in the first person – Holden writing a journal at the request of a psychiatrist after the events of the novel. The most interesting aspect of the story is in following his state of mind. Holden is both capable of youthful exuberance and depression to the point of wishing for death. I felt he was an honest portrait of the turbulence of teenage life. Although his was a lot more turbulent than mine, I could still relate to some of what I was reading, and I think perhaps that’s where my fascination with this novel lies. There were also some heartwarming moments, particularly the scenes with Holden and his kid sister Phoebe.

I was surprised to learn that The Catcher in the Rye has had a rocky road from its publication in the 1950s to the present day. The book has been banned here and there over the years. I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about. Not only did the book not strike me as harmful, I would go as far as saying that it might be the sort of thing that would help a depressed reader away from a suicidal tendency.

One of my favourite reads of 2007.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

I hate criticising classics! When a book has been around for over a hundred years and shows no sign of ever disappearing, you tend to feel a little hesitant to speak negatively about it. Somebody once accused me of writing “another abortion of a review” because I dared to tell it like I experience it. But a book hits you like it hits you, and there’s no getting around that fact without resorting to lies. So here we go once again.

I’m not sure what possessed me to read this book. I guess I thought old Verne was worth another shot since I had only read one other novel by him. Also, I was rather fond of the old Disney movie. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the story of a great monster prowling the oceans. Professor Aronnax and his young associate Conseil join the hunt for the beast. After many months of searching, battle finally ensues. But when the professor’s ship is demolished, several of the crew find themselves stranded in the ocean with the creature. Only it turns out not to be a creature at all, but a massive submarine vessel.

Here we are introduced to the well-known character of Captain Nemo, commander of his submarine, the Nautilus. Nemo is a fascinating, complex villain. His compassionate invite to take the stranded seamen on board is tempered by his intent to keep them prisoners forever. On the one hand is is capable of attacking certain sea vessels without provocation. On the other, he will risk life and limb to save a poor native from the jaws of a hungry shark. The character of Nemo is the main strength of the story and is, I would guess, an uncommon find in old fiction. In modern fiction, we have learned to appreciate realistic heroes and villains who are more grey than black or white. It’s nice to discover that this trend isn’t entirely new.

The story catalogues the a journey of 20,000 leagues across several oceans. I now understand that the title literally means “twenty thousand leagues travelled whilst under the sea,” not “twenty thousand leagues deep” (which would be somewhere through the core of the earth, out the other side, and off into outer space!). The story is episodic in nature – lots of mini adventures featuring various foes and locales that I won’t spoil. What does spoil several of these adventures is Verne’s insistence on cataloguing a horrendous amount of sea life for the reader. Fair enough, Prof. Arronax is a marine biologist, but do we really need lists upon lists of names of ocean creatures shoved in our face, not just once, but many times throughout the book? I’d like to think that Verne wasn’t descending to the level of show-off, but I’m not sure. What is certain is that he appears to have no perception that he is slowing his adventure to a crawl whilst engaging in these pointless encyclopedic epsiodes.

One interesting side of the story is the description of the submarine’s operation. The book was written before the invention of the modern submarine, although Verne cannot be credited with its design, as he was using known research of the period. I tickled me when I read about the submarine being steered by the primitive means of a pilot in a glass bubble, sonar having not been invented.

Overall, an average read. I had two versions at my disposal when reading this. A complete version and a shorter abridgement by Puffin books, which seeks to remove the problem of the lists. I chose the longer version, out of respect for the author, and I wish I hadn’t. It’s not often you’d hear me recommend a version of a book that had been tampered with, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Do yourself a favour, and read the shorter one. In days of old, readers may have had more patience, and writers less awareness of the importance of pacing. I leave you to decide whether there’s something tragic in our modern attitudes. All I know is, when I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t want to be bored.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This short novel chronicles an adventure in the life of a sea-faring drifter called Marlow around 1900. Most of the action takes place aboard a steamboat travelling up the Congo river. Marlow’s destination is deep into the jungle, to the farthest point any white man has travelled. His aim, to find and retrieve an Englishman called Kurtz. Along the way, Marlow learns a great deal about Kurtz, through people at the various stations along the river. It seems Kurtz has set himself up as a feared leader among the natives.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’m not making this book sound very interesting. If anything, the plot itself is fairly uncomplicated and run-of-the-mill. But the strength of the story lies in the way that Conrad describes what his characters go through. You might expect Marlow to marvel at the beauty of the jungle, but what happens is quite the opposite. The jungle is described as a terrifying place, almost prehistoric in nature. What Marlow experiences most of all is the fear of leaving civilisation so far behind. And when we finally meet Kurtz, we don’t find an Englishman who has brought civilisation to the uncivilised, but a man who has abandoned civilisation, seduced by the anarchy around him. The author himself was a mariner, and I get the feeling that some of what he’s writing is autobiographical.

I found this to be a difficult novel to understand fully. Other reviews have described it as dealing with moral struggles. I felt the story was much too vague in that respect. The novel is also difficult to read because of the way paragraphing has been handled. At one point, a single paragraph ran across three full book pages. Why? Well, the story is written from the point of view of Marlow, aboard a boat on the Thames, narrating his adventure to his shipmates. The entire story is written as one large quotation. I’ve seen this done very well, such as Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. But Conrad seems to feel this this format won’t allow him to space his paragraphs out in normal fashion. For instance, when two people are speaking together, Conrad rarely if ever takes a new paragraph each time the conversation switches between persons. Instead, quotes are sandwiched together, one after another, along the same paragraph.

I got some enjoyment out of this novel, but as I was reading it, I found myself being glad that it was so tiny (under 100 pages). With prose that was this awkward to read, I couldn’t have faced a longer book.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

What’s a thirty-four-year-old man doing reading Alice in Wonderland? you might ask. Well, I have a fascination with classic literature, and this is one of the most popular novels. It’s not hard to find references to Alice in modern film and literature: since I’m a sci-fi fan, the character Morpheus in The Matrix is the first one that jumps to my mind. For whatever reason, Alice has stuck in the public’s imagination.

I didn’t find much enjoyment in reading during my pre-adolescent years. Hence, this is the first time I’ve ever read Alice. Can it be enjoyed by an adult? That’s too general a question. Was it enjoyed by this adult? Not overly. It’s a story about a girl who’s sitting by the riverbank with her sister. She spots an odd-looking rabbit; it’s wearing a waistcoat. The rabbit enters a rabbit-hole. Alice goes in after him. She falls and falls, eventually landing on a pile of leaves in a tunnel. What follows is a series of bizarre encounters with characters that range from eccentric to psychopathic (usually talking animals of one kind or another). Alice herself does a lot of growing and shrinking in order to squeeze through small spaces and get from place to place. At one point she creates a lake out of her own tears. Each scene in the story has very little to do with any other, and there is no motivating factor in the story’s progression other than mere curiosity. I am loathe even to call this an adventure, on that basis; it reads more like a child’s acid trip. In the end, the story resorts to the most shameful plot device of all, in order to get Alice home: “It was all a dream.” This just would not fly, if written today.

In fairness, Alice was not written for someone my age, so I should try and ask myself whether I think I would have enjoyed this as a young boy. When I think about what I did like as a boy (Star Wars, Knight Rider, The A-Team), again I have to say no. I suspect Alice is for little girls only (and that’s a place I just can’t take my mind back to!). However, I can’t ignore the fact that there is children’s literature that I do enjoy today. And it’s not all boys’ sci-fi adventures. Take C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The haphazard structure of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland pales by comparison to the carefully woven tapesty of Lewis’s novel. So, I’m sticking to my guns. Alice gets a thumbs down.

The Lurking Fear and Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft was very prolific in the short-story department. In this 180-page volume we have eleven of them, plus a novella. Some I found tiresome reading, others predictable, and a few quite enjoyable.

The stories usually revolve around rational men being confronted by hideous and terrifying sights that should exist only in nightmares. Lovecraft’s grasp of the grotesque is certainly very vivid, but I found his writing lacking on an inter-personal level. Also, the horror in Lovecraft’s fiction is somewhat narrow – usually restricted to the monster-in-the-closet variety. I can see how this might appeal to children or those of a superstitious bent, but it doesn’t do much for me personally.

My favourite story in the volume was, “The Temple” – a tale about a German U-boat captain losing control of his submarine and floating off into uncharted deep sea. Both the atmosphere and the state of mind of the captain were vividly described, and it was a fascinating journey into the unknown.

The inclusion of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is also notable. One of Lovecraft’s larger works, it occupies over a third of the book’s length, and tells the story of a man passing through a grimy, dilapidated town called Innsmouth, pausing a while to investigate some of the strange legends about the town. Although this novella takes an absolute age to get past first gear, it has a pretty hair-raising climax that is worth the wait.

Here’s the table of contents: “The Lurking Fear,” “Dagon,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The White Ship,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “From Beyond,” “The Temple,” “The Moon-Bog,” “The Hound,” “The Unnamable,” “The Outsider,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”