Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Love, death, ghosts, and history. What a sad, funny, interesting and heart-squeezing novel.

From Wikipedia:

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt […].[10]

What must that feel like… to not only finally complete a project you’ve been thinking about for decades, but to also have it be so acclaimed?

I hope he feels proud, because it is great. I never would have though a book written in such a strange way could evoke such strong feelings, but it does. After a few pages of it, you don’t notice the strangeness as much. Or, you do, but it is no longer a hindrance. It blends into the feeling of it. The idea of dozens or hundreds of viewpoints coalescing into a single story of a single night.

I think anyone with an open mind could enjoy this book. The only people I’ve seen saying bad things about it are just complaining about the way it’s written, not what’s written.

The only minor complaint I had was how short it was. The 360 or so pages it claims would actually be probably half that, if each page were covered with words instead of having them spread out as it is formatted.

Read if you want something fresh and interesting and heartfelt!

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Infinities

The idea of dying, and being gone forever, never existing again, is scary. But the idea of always existing, forever, with no end no matter what you do, is pretty horrible too.

Maybe humans fear/are repelled by ideas of the infinite because everything we know is finite. Would experiencing something infinite relieve that fear? Maybe, but how to do that…

Going to the Eclipse

I will see the total eclipse on the 21st! I will have to sleep in my car and drive for many hours, but I will see it!

I’ve never seen one, and can’t help but wonder what it must have been like for ancient peoples who had no idea what was going on. I’m sure total eclipses spawned religions like meat draws hornets…

The fear, the awe, the beauty… all of it combined must have driven people mad thinking the world was over. What did they do in those minutes of darkness?

Maybe I’ll find out next week…

Doers and preservers

I just listened to the section in Crime and Punishment featuring the talk about Raskolnikov’s article. (very minor spoilers) The article talks about what Raskolnikov calls ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ people, and their differences. The ordinary people, he says, are happy to be ruled and told what to do, and have not many exciting or interesting ideas, and live normal, daily lives of work, family, and happiness. ‘Extraordinary people’ are geniuses, leaders, inventors, and those who ‘create new words’. These people are not as bound by authority, and rules. This being the major point. Ordinary people are bound by the law, extraordinary people are not. Extraordinary people’s conscience allows them to break the law for their ideals/inventions/causes, without guilt, or with some remorse but knowing it’s worth it in the long run. Raskolnikov says these people have ‘the right to break the law’. Not that they have the right to go unpunished, but that their conscience gives them the right to break the law without guilt.

This started me thinking about similar thoughts I’ve had. Not about crime, or punishment, but about people’s reactions toward new ideas in general.

There seems to be (generally) two kinds of people, but instead of ordinary and extraordinary, I thought of them as ‘preservers’ and ‘doers’

Preservers are resistant to change and want to keep things the way they are, or if they want change they want it to be the way something was in the past. When presented with a new idea, new cause, new invention, new way of looking at things, new discovery–they will find the problems with it, the reasons not to embrace it, the reasons it is dangerous and should be avoided, the reasons it is wrong or immoral. This seems to me to be the majority of people, though I do not think that makes them ordinary.

The ‘doers’ are the people who present the new ideas, strive for change in our way of life, make discoveries and propose inventions, etc. They fight passionately for these ideas regardless of the negative consequences, possibly without even looking for or imagining there could be negative consequences. These people seem to be a minority–at least the ones we hear about.

I think we need both kinds of people. We can’t embrace every idea that anyone has, we need the preservers to knock down and find the negative side of every crap idea to prevent them from getting anywhere. The ideas that are strong enough to survive the attacks of the preservers, will eventually convince them.

Of course, someone could be both preserver and doer, and probably most people have a lot of both in them. But it seems that those who make big discoveries and movements and inventions are less negative people who are willing to embrace an idea regardless, or in spite of consequences.

So next time you’re reading the comments on an article about some neat new thing, and run into the inevitable crowd of people finding something wrong with it or dangerous or saying ‘oh no humanity will end because abc,’ try not to be annoyed, and instead be glad–they’re doing a job you don’t have the pain of having to do! (or if you do, I thank you that I don’t have to be the one doing it!)

A modern afterlife

Several scientists in recent news articles have been stating that they think we live in a computer simulation. They think the odds of this are very high. What question that leaves unanswered, is whether we are a creation of whoever wrote the simulation, or if we are self inserts in the simulation. In other words, are we also simulations, or are we the creators of the simulation, living in it but without memory of entering it? The former seems much more likely.

What kind of world do the creators of our simulation live in? Is it an experiment forgotten about and left running? Is it known across the land by everyone? Is it someones personal project and they have complete control over it and us? Are there ‘simulations rights’ laws that would prevent our creator from abusing us for their own amusement?

Mostly this sounds like a terrible thought. One more afterlife to worry about…

Magic vs facts

Ritual, magic, mystical powers–these things seem to comfort and guide people much easier than facts or science.

One of the short stories at the end of the glass bead game features a ‘rain maker’, a sort of shaman type figure who is in charge of when to plant crops, and is supposed to warn of impending storms and droughts, etc. One night, there is a meteor shower, and the village is freaking out, thinking that the world is at an end. The shaman notices that all the stars he’s familiar with are not moving, and determines that this must be something going on in the air between the earth and the stars, not something happening to the stars themselves. He tries at first to tell people this, to explain to them with facts and logic why they should not be afraid, but he can reach no one. When he starts chanting a ritual song, however, the village joins in with him, and unites as one in their chanting at the fiery sky.

This made me think. There is value in religion and ritual in uniting people to a cause. Facts and logic may work on certain types of people, but they often do not. People are not often calmed or spurred to action by statistics or data or proofs.

Perhaps scientists and economists and other figures working in logical and fact based professions should learn the language of ritual, magic, and religion. Maybe with this knowledge, they could find a way to state their warnings and advice in words that will actually sink in.

Monastery life

I think I could be happy being a monk/scholar/priest, whatever you want to call it. A person who leaves behind ‘life’ in order to devote themselves to the world of the mind/spirit. If I could spend every waking hour studying, reading, learning, teaching, etc, I think I could give up material possessions and all the things involved in ‘real’ life.

This is what the character in ‘the glass bead game’ has done. He is devoting his life to study and learning, and introspection. This sounds very appealing to me. I sometimes think I could be happy if I could just be left to my own interests with a safe place to sleep and enough food not to starve.

But… the appeal of all the entertainment and other things I consume daily is strong, and might not be so easy to give up…