Wednesday, January 23, 2008

E-mail to Bill Grassel, 1/1/2008


Subject: White Noise

Hey Bill,

I just finished White Noise. Great book! You can recommend reading or movies to me anytime.

As my latest attempt to integrate reading into life as a student, the book was somewhat of a failure. I got through most of the first part laboriously, a couple of chapters at a time, in the weeks after you gave it to me. I read "The Airborne Toxic Event" over Thanksgiving and "Dylarama" in the last two days, fitting with my previous pattern of binge reading over vacations.

Looking back, I'm not sure which part of the book I liked the most. It was more the consistent voice and themes across the three parts that I loved. I was somewhat detached from all of the discussion of death in the final part, since thanks to Jesus I need not fear death (though I think I fear's easier not to fear death when it does not appear to be imminent).

I read the final 100 pages today, so that's what's freshest on my mind, but there were a couple of things in it that really stuck out to me. The protagonist's long walk with Murray and their dialogue about death, and how it is wholly unnatural and wholly bad and not apparently necessary, was a blast to read. I also loved the faithless nuns, who just say "Do you think we are stupid?" to questions of belief, and the dialogue about how nonbelievers need believers. "They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely." It's so true.

Ah, the notion that postmodern life obliterates any question of God or the supernatural. Do you think it's a recent thing? I think on one hand there have always been atrocities and great suffering that challenge an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God. On the other hand, I think the current flavor of materialism or naturalism or whatever you want to call it is relatively new. The wholesale and universal acceptance of Darwinism as the explanation for our existence and the larger illusion (and illusion it is!) that science disproves anything that is unseen and not governed by the four fundamental forces of physics is prevalent and quite poisonous to belief.

But you know and I know that everyone knows God to some degree, and people reject Him fundamentally not because they have insufficient evidence but because they want to be their own bosses. However, I think the climate of the times gives people the excuse they are looking for not to pursue such questions seriously, as if they have been decided once and for all by great men of the twentieth century.

I went on a bike ride in the midst of my reading. I was struck as I noticed the way my mind would try to describe the things around me the way Don DeLillo would. Do you notice as you read for a long time that your thoughts afterwards are crafted to resemble the narrative style of the author?

What's really interesting about this pantomime to me is I noticed things that I would have never noticed otherwise, like the really faint flutter of a flock of birds overhead. Perception of everything is altered, as you interpret raw sensory data first through the lens of the author and second from your own in a reactionary way, weighing and testing what the author has to say about reality.

So when you read a book, the author is really handing you the set of goggles with which he or she views the world. If you're like me this effect wears off after a while, but like the stretching of dough it doesn't return to exactly the state in which it began. It's changed slightly but perceptibly, and over the course of many stretches the form is drastically changed.

So one ought to be careful about what one reads, because one's mind becomes like that of the authors whose works one beholds. This is how you become a Marxist, by holding up Marx's goggles to your eyes and saying, "This makes sense!"

Think then about reading the Bible. The authors in question are, on one level, great men who intimately knew God, and on another level, God Himself. By reading the Bible we put on the goggles of not just the author, but the Author, and our mind becomes like His as we learn to see His creation as He does. What a privilege, and what a desirable discipline!

I am a Christian, not principally because I seek to escape the terror of my death, but because I hold up Christ's goggles to my face, and everything makes sense. As C. S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

Happy New Year.


[Note: I've been thinking of making this e-mail into an essay for this page since writing it, but I found that it already articulated most of what I wanted to say. I have only barely edited the writing for this publication.]


M. Weed said...

Don DeLillo is one of the few contemporary novelists good enough to have that paradigm-transference effect. He's an alchemist of the mundane --- but not in a mundane-becomes-sublime/exalted kind of way (which is how most postmodern creative people see themselves, because they don't believe in anything that's ACTUALLY sublime). Rather, in his work the mundane becomes ominous, forboding, paranoia-inducing (the supermarket scene!!!). I love that. It's the closest thing to fables or cautionary tales that the postmodern world has produced. Beware aimless floating on the sea of radio and television signals...

Nicholas said...

Speaking of supermarket scenes, try going from reading White Noise to The Omnivore's Dilemma, another book which from a completely different angle finds the supermarket somewhat ominous and unsettling.

For better or worse, the supermarket is one of the wonders of the world. Fruits and vegetables with continental divides in their geographic origin (not where they're grown, where the species originated) lounge in adjacent bins, for just one example.

I want to write a short story about personified fruit at the University of Pennsylvania, each taking on the characteristics of its region of origin in the same kind of engineered ethnic diversity that the student body here has. Or something like that.

And everyone wants to be like the banana.

Zachary said...

I'm mostly psyched that you're using your blog to erode Bill Grassel's near impregnable American Eagle Model complex.
Also, I thought I'd take the opportunity to keep it real and tell you that you're a huge e-bag.
Naw, just kidding. But I wanted to say it.

Anonymous said...

write that piece and turn it in to penn gazette! they'll like a piece that fits this year's penn reading project :)