Book Review, Classics, Non-Fiction

Age of Reason – Thomas Paine

 
 
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Just finished reading Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason"

 
What can I say?
 
That a book written more than 200 years ago could find so much resonance today is something that is needs to be read to be believed
 
Thomas Paine was a man who was so far ahead of his time that he would be called far ahead of his time today!!
 
Thomas_Paine_(cropped) (1) The moral courage and the personal integrity that exemplified his entire life marks his written work. Age of Reason was a book that caused such an explosion in its time that it did two things – immortalized him for posterity and condemned him during his lifetime.
 
Yet at the end of his life, when he was dying a painful death, deserted by friends and shunned by people who had hailed him a hero once, he stuck to what he had believed in and displayed the same sense of sarcastic humour that he showed in his work. A life lived as written
 
Age of Reason is an all out attack on the system of organized religion – more specifically Christianity, this being the religion that Paine encountered in England, France and America, the places where he lived and fought all his life. Paine was a brilliant pamphleteer and so was used to laying out his ideas concisely and clearly without using any dense logic or arguments. He uses the same technique in his writings.
 
Reading this, even 200 years later, feels like a stirring call to arms. And the fact that a large part of this book was written and completed at a time when Thomas Paine was under the belief that he could be executed anytime makes you appreciate the book more…
 
There are two important aspects of the book that stands out – the material of the book and the way it is written
 
The material of the book is based on a simple premise – Organized religion is a sham at best and dangerous at worst. This is because the purpose of organized religion is to make us act contrary to our innermost feelings, filling our head with impossible and fantastic things that has no basis in reality. The only true religion is that of Deism and the true bible is Nature.
 
Because, as Paine explains so beautifully, God has anyway given us an abundance of miracles in everything around us, in existence itself. Why do we need foolish miracles or religion? This was the first time that material like this was published in a direct and plainly written attack, even though the thoughts on which Paine based his work had been around for some time – in the work of David Hume and Spinoza for example.
 
The book is divided into two parts – the first is a general discussion on religion and on Paine's personal beliefs. This is where he puts forward his most compelling and beautiful arguments for the religion of the mind and the heart. He explains what he feels and why he feels so. The second part deals directly with Christianity. Deals is a wrong word actually. Rips apart is perhaps more appropriate. Paine takes some of the implied and maybe even cherished beliefs of Christians and literally rips them to shred…
 
Which brings me to the fascinating way the book is written. He is attacking organized religion in open field, which at that time was immensely powerful and controlled almost every aspect of life. Yet, he never uses any circular arguments, does not hide behind any one else and or any other theory. His attacks are straight to the point and argued so logically and beautifully that the modern reader will still find the reasoning fascinating, no matter how many Richard Dawkins he may have read.
 
When he is attacking Christianity, he maintains his good quality acerbic humour to mock the beliefs and at the same time gives irrefutable proof of why he considers the beliefs to be wrong. He picks up different aspects of Christianity – the bible and its different books, the299283333_7316acf53f characters of Moses, Joshua, Jesus and the significant events on which Christianity is based – most importantly the resurrection of Jesus. This was written to make perfect sense to a complete layman on the street. And this it does brilliantly!!!
 
The style has a wonderful sense of a person who is simply trying to wake up the reader to things which seem painfully apparent once explained…
 
This is a book that I hope I will be revisiting many a times. The book that has inspired people from Mark Twain to Christopher Hitchens is not something that can be digested in one reading…
 
This a book that cannot be reviewed enough, Instead I will leave the reader of this post with some of the sentences in the book that are so powerful and beautiful that they need to be read again and again…
 
Quotes from “Age of Reason”…Read below…
 
 

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“You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

 

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy”

 

“My own mind is my own church.”

 

“But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself”

 

“Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

 

“It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication—after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him”

 

“The more unnatural anything is, the more it is capable of becoming the object of dismal admiration.”

 

“THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man”

 

“and, therefore, the only idea we can have of serving God, is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made. This cannot be done by retiring ourselves from the society of the world and spending a recluse life in selfish devotion.”

 

“As mystery answered all general purposes, miracle followed as an occasional auxiliary. The former served to bewilder the mind, the latter to puzzle the senses. The one was the lingo, the other the legerdemain. And, in the second place, it is degrading the Almighty into the character of a showman, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder.”

 

“Upon the whole, mystery, miracle, and prophecy are appendages that belong to fabulous and not to true religion. They are the means by which so many Lo, heres! and Lo, theres! have been spread about the world, and religion been made into a trade”

 

“It is certain that, in one point, all the nations of the earth and all religions agree—all believe in a God; the things in which they disagree, are the redundancies annexed to that belief; and, therefore, if ever a universal religion should prevail, it will not be by believing anything new, but in getting rid of redundancies”

 

“Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice”

 

“Divided love is never happy.for it is impossible to derive happiness from the company of those whom we deprive of happiness.”

 

“To be happy in old age, it is necessary that we accustom ourselves to objects that can accompany the mind all the way through life, and that we take the rest as good in their day. The mere man of pleasure is miserable in old age, and the mere drudge in business is but little better; whereas, natural philosophy, mathematical and mechanical science, are a continual source of tranquil pleasure, and in spite of the gloomy dogmas of priests and of superstition, the study of these things is the true theology; it teaches man to know and to admire the Creator, for the principles of science are in the creation, and are unchangeable and of divine origin”

 

“for when we cease to have an object, we become like an invalid in a hospital waiting for death”

“Can we suppose it is consistent with the wisdom of the Almighty, to commit himself and his will to man upon such precarious means as these, or that it is consistent we should pin our faith upon such uncertainties? We cannot make, nor alter, nor even imitate so much as one blade of grass that he has made, and yet we can make or alter words of God as easily as words of man

 

“But all other arguments apart, the consciousness of existence is the only conceivable idea we can have of another life, and the continuance of that consciousness is immortality. The consciousness of existence, or the knowing that we exist, is not necessarily confined to the same form, nor to the same matter, even in this life”

 

“credulity, however, is not a crime, but it becomes criminal by resisting conviction.”

 

“but when it is said, as in the Testament, “If a man smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;” it is assassinating the dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a spaniel.Those who preach this doctrine of loving their enemies are in general the greatest persecutors, and they act consistently by so doing”

“And is not the evidence that this creation holds out to our senses infinitely stronger than anything we can read in a book that any impostor might make and call the word of God? As for morality, the knowledge of it exists in every man’s conscience”

 

“Religion, by such means, becomes a thing of form, instead of fact—of notion, instead of principles; morality is banished to make room for an imaginary thing called faith”

 

“certain as I am, that when opinions are free, either in matters of government or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail.”

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Book Review, Classics, Graphic Novel, Non-Fiction

(Book) The Little Prince written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

the_little_prince_011 Ok, this is one my eternal favourites. I read this again after atleast five years. This book, like Animal Farm, can be finished in less than forty minutes, but the effect that this has on you is so profound that its essence stays with you for a long long time.

The best books, I have always believed, are the ones whose certain phrases and words come to you at the right moment; when you are feeling something similar and these words come rushing back to you. That’s when you realize that the book has really been internalized.

This for me is a prime example of this. The parable of the rose in the story is one of the most moving pieces of literature that I have read. That such a seemingly complicated part of life can be explained by such a simple passage, is truly a wonder.

The book is a fairy tale parable that can be read as easily as when you are 10 years old as when you are 70. Its just that at different times in your life, you would be able to mine different meanings of the same 50 odd pages.

The little price coming down to earth after many small adventures on different planets and finally ending his journey by the side of the author who at the start of the story was pressed with more ‘urgent’ matters. In a way, the little prince is a manifestation of the lost childhood of the author himself who ‘grew up’ after he faced the cynicism and the blandness of the adults who saw a hat instead of an elephant inside a boa. This then is as much a fairy tale as much as an internal journey of self discovery – a journey that we should all undertake if we are to save ourselves lest we become completely adult.

To tell more of the book is taking away the magic. If you are reading this and haven’t read the book, please do. They may be the most important 50 pages of your life….

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Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Historical

Johnny got his Gun written by Dalton Trumbo

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Very few books can make everything around you irrelevant except the words that you read. This for me, is one of them.

I sincerely believe that this is one of the most important books of our times and the surprising thing is that so few people seem to have heard of it, let alone read it. I believe that this book tells us more about the tragedies of the last century in particular and of the way we live in general. I also believe that this book is a terrifying reminder of all that we keep conveniently forgetting.

The general perception among the lay reader is that the best and most important anti-war novel to come out of world war I is “All quiet on the western front” by Erich Maria Remarque. I believed that until I read this. It has a terrifying and a savage power that almost gets you by the throat at times, when its words probe deep into the reader’s mind and psychology. Its words tear at you and embed themselves deep and wakes you up completely from whatever sort of slumber you have been in.

This book is about Joe Bonham, who is the narrator of this novel. A foot soldier in World War I, he wakes up in a hospital bed and realizes that he is deaf. He is miserable but then realizes that he could have been worse. Slowly however, he begins to realize, to his terror, that he has become a living dead (which becomes for him an unique platform to have his ‘say’). He has not only lost his hearing ability, he has lost his arms, his legs, and his face has become a hole without a nose, mouth, eyes – just a forehead. An impossible case, as he himself admits but which has become true nevertheless…

And therein begins the story. Completely helpless and unable to communicate at all to the outside world, Joe begins to try and resurrect himself, try and find ways to cope. For example, he is unable to do something that we are take as an implicit – keep track of time, which he realizes is the backbone of keeping one’s sanity. After multiple failed attempts, he finally dawns upon an ingenious solution to keep time – with the only sense he has left, through his skin.

As he begins to create his own universe, we also begin to discover Joe, as we go along with him as he remembers the events of his short life – his father, mother, siblings, friends and some of the women in his life especially Kareen – the woman he loved and whom he left behind when he went to fight the great war. Each part and member of his life is remembered in different episodes and across time – from his childhood to late adolescent. We go through his ups and downs as he grapples with his world just like anyone else – with heartbreaks, joys, sorrows and finding love. Which brings into contrast the cruelty with which his life was brought to a crashing halt – all the more cruel since due to his condition, he could not be identified and so it was unlikely that his family, friends or Kareen ever knew he was alive.

While he thinks about his life, he also begins to think (which by his own admission is all that he can do really) and slowly develops a philosophy (which he wants, at the end, unsuccessfully, to share with the world) about what is most important to an individual (the part which more than anything makes it an important anti-war book). He also becomes aware of his unique position – he is one who has, in many ways, come back from the dead and he realizes that he can tell the world a thing or two of truth that no-one can tell.

The book ends with him making a superhuman effort in coming up with a way in which he can communicate to the outside world only to be thwarted in his attempt to get his message across to the world (and what he wants to say to the world makes for some chilling reading and for me, was the best part of the book). He is thwarted, he realizes, by a world that is afraid of what he can say and the truth of what he wants to say. Its a world that needs to lie for things to go on….

The book is extraordinary in that it combines the personal and political beautifully. The passages about his life are poignant, especially his parting with Kareen and when he remembers the rituals at home at Christmas. The passages about his developing philosophy is one of the most stirring cries for sanity that I have read in a long long time.

The whole book hammers through you as you read it. And when you have read it through, the book’s words simmer long after you have closed the covers. For me, it is one of the rare category of books that change a part of your life’s philosophy and something that becomes a part of you; one of those books whose words come back to you when you are doing something completely different…

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Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Horror

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

14565283 This was one hell of a controversial book when it came out in 1867. Of course with reading banned books of almost 150 years past, you wonder at all the fuss. But the fact that the book has the power to move us even today, is a testimony to the power that its words must have wielded when society was much more prudish – about themselves and their own nature.

This book can be read as a tale of human psychology under circumstances of passion and crime resulting from passion and can be read by some as a morality tale which speaks of the adage “Crime does not pay”. I prefer to read it in the former category, which was the original intent of Zola.

The story is about Therese Raquin, a woman who has been deprived of fulfilling her natural instincts due to circumstances of her birth which has led her to live under the protection of her aunt who is well-meaning but stifling with her care and who is married off to her cousin Camille (the aunt’s son), a sickly complaining man who cannot match upto Therese’s expectations – physically or otherwise. She puts on a mask of dumbness to get through her monotonous life. A ripe case for adultery.

Enter Laurent – a friend of Camille into their life and the inevitable  game of adultery begins but they have to remove their obstacle – Camille first. The story then picks up as the act is done but peace eludes the murderers as they grapple with their own terrors which ultimately prove to be their undoing.

The power of the story is in its simple worded passages. There is no melodrama. The horror of the situation is stated as is and as we move on in the story, the horror deepens because Zola skilfully uses words which conjure up a dreary, dark and soulless world which seems haunted by the living as well as the dead. As Therese and Laurent descend into madness, the story brings out every detail of their torment till you actually see it happening in front of your eyes. The aunt’s sudden paralysis and the consequences only serves to increase the dark terror.

In the end its a good study of how human nature is so unpredictable – in love and in crime. Its also a testimony to the fact that we know so little of ourselves and we would act and react under life changing decisions especially when one is acting under passions.

It was a landmark novel when it came out in 1867 and its surprising how much power the words still have when similar stories and indeed Emile_Zolamovies have been churned out by scores over the years. Though better psychological horror stories have been written by later authors – Stephen King for example, this work stands out for the starkness of baring how human nature works.

I ended up sympathizing with Therese by the end of the book, even though Zola tries his hardest to try and make us not to. Though she suffered for what she did and almost went out of her mind, she did something that was built in her character and could not succeed only because of some hidden repulsion in her which she was unaware of before.

All in all, its a good book to read – if for nothing else as a pioneer in the genre.

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Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Historical

One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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This book’s greatness lies not because of any complexity but because of its seeming utter simplicity, which when taken in context of the subject matter leaves the reader with a sense of horror.

The crime of Soviet Russia under Stalin against its own people is today a well documented fact and it is Solzhenitsyn, a victim himself, who was one of the first to start the movement. Even though the facts are well known, they in no way prepare you for a personal journey through the mind and eyes of someone who has been directly a part of it.

The book is a chronicle of one day of a prisoner called Ivan Denisovich, a carpenter, who is numbered S-854, in an unnamed Siberian camp. What makes this book so believable in the first place is that Ivan Denisovich (or Sukhov as he is called in the book usually) is an absolutely ordinary person who would normally be living a quiet unobtrusive life somewhere. He does not have an ‘education’ and has lived the life of a craftsman – a carpenter. For this reason, he does not have an ideological or political underpinning to his condition and this is what make the book and its account an account of the ordinary men and women. Because the book then becomes one of survival – while trying best to maintain a modicum of dignity and self respect. It also becomes an account of compromise, in many strange ways.

Sukhov makes the reader go through his day with its difficulties and small joys and peppers it with his observation. Any person who has read prison accounts would know that prison changes priority of things and small things become things of great importance. We understand that in theory. What Sukhov does is that he makes the importance of those small things so obvious that you would find yourself believing in it and agreeing even before you know it – like the spoon that has been with him for eight years or a piece of steel that he risked punishment to smuggle in to the camp. He makes these things seem so much like everyday life and of so high importance that you are forced to jolt yourself out of the book at times to realize that what is being described is a part of history that is shameful, a part in which the prisoners were treated as mere commodity and worse and that this was a life that was utterly brutal and inhuman. Then you realize that the perspectives are different – you would be looking at the experience from a distance in time and would be taking a mere historical overview. Sukhov, on the other hand is trying to get by each day and things that would not strike us as essential to us becomes a matter of life and death in the camp – something that an old hand like Sukhov understood implicitly without dwelling too much on them.

For example, the need to keeping some bread on the side (hidden, sewn away in his mattress)for emergency or the cunning needed to get a second helping of a bowl of mess food which was more water than food is given the importance that it had in their lives. The importance of the work gang in their lives and the small things necessary to keep their body warm while working in freezing cold on things which seem unnecessary is shown starkly.

The slow and unconscious dehumanization or should we call it de-civilization is shown brilliantly . He lives only in the present out of sheer necessity and out of habit. At one time he dwells on the fact that he does not have any responsibility except for himself – the higher ups make all the decisions for him and it suited him just fine. He makes references to the casual and often unnecessary brutality of the guards but not out of any real anger – they are just doing what they are supposed to do and you did your best to do things without getting caught. His personal references are scant – we are told he has a family in his village. He had told his wife not to write letters anymore since there was nothing that he could write and he could not relate anymore to the ‘outside’ world. We are left to judge for ourselves whether this is escapism or realism or both working in tandem. His family is his work gang and his father is the gang boss who takes care and looks out for them. He wonders whether he actually wants to go back to his village if the authorities ever let him go. He realizes he does not know whether he can fit back. The things which we hold to be so self-evidently important and feel so emotional about have become a world which exist only in the abstract for him.

It is a Kafkaesque world which is a truth in itself. There are higher-ups who are mysterious and the only point of contact for the prisoners to this mystery are the wardens and guards – victims of different sorts themselves.

There are two parts of the book that I found particularly terrifying. The first one is that when the prisoners are hurrying to get back to their own camp from the work camp before its gets cold and before the other work gangs come and fill up the places they want to go – mess, barber etc. We understand that this is one time of the day that they get for themselves and they want to get there as soon as they can. When one of the members is missing because he had fallen asleep, the prisoners howl at him like animals and are literally ready to kill him with their bare hands because by being late, he had ended up making everyone lose time. Even a normally sane Sukhov is ready to tear out the late prisoner’s limbs. The guards count again and again and then they set off. On the way they see that another work gang was coming late. On seeing this, Sukhov’s gang start running inspite of exhaustion just so that they get ahead of this gang and save some time. The race is shown as vitally important to their survival. This almost necessary anger born out of lack of anything else to direct it to is one of the chilling passages.

By far the most terrifying part comes at the end when Ivan Denisovich looks back at his day and feels that it has been a ‘great day’ – he could preserve the extra bread he had saved, he was able to get two extra helping of the food, he managed to smuggle a piece of steel that he could use for making a knife, he had felt good making a wall as prison work, he had bought off some tobacco and he had not been put in the cooler (punishment cell). He felt good and he felt at home…

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