The Count of Monte Cristo

“All human wisdom is contained in these two words – Wait and Hope”
-Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

The past couple weeks were quite busy for me because of Christina’s graduation and a particular book that I needed to read. This book was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and I was putting off reading it because of its sheer size – almost 1500 pages. To read this many pages in a span of two weeks required a lot of time, patience, and questioning. I say questioning because it is not every day you see a person walking around with a massive gray book. On a couple of occasions, young children asked me if I was reading the Bible or the Dictionary. People thought I was a Jehova Witness or some sort of hipster-encyclopedia salesman trying to pawn off printed editions of Wikipedia. The book itself became my second half and each night, depending on my mood, I would stare at it with elation as the best book ever written or dread as the longest book ever printed.

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I just finished it today, and without a doubt, it is one those books that forever changed the way I look at literature and the potential of writing to impact human thought. The plot is one of revenge and redemption: a young man is unjustly sent to prison, escapes, and returns to bring ruin to those who wronged him. Most people have seen the movie, but the plot of this novel is nothing like that of the 2002 film; a 10 season HBO drama would barely give it justice. To better understand this epic story think of those 200 layer salads your aunt brings to a potluck; at first, it looks too formidable to eat, but with each successive layer, you find yourself enjoying the complexity, and eventually, you crave reaching the bottom which contains that mysterious jello.

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The Count of Monte Cristo is a story about revenge, greed, death, despair, hope, love, and wisdom. Throughout the plot, there is an overarching theme of contrast – characters swing from the highest peaks of happiness to the lowest states of depression; opulence is juxtaposed with impoverishment. The main character, The Count of Monte Cristo, was at one point on the verge of death from starvation and at another the most wealthy host of a grand dinner party in the heart of France. This contrast is highlighted throughout the book because it represents Dumas’ ultimate point to the reader, “Wait and Hope.” Or put in another way, one must be patient in life and hope that God will look favorably upon their plight. The Count of Monte Cristo waited and hoped for his rightful revenge, and his wrongdoers were eventually punished.

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Alternatively, other characters in the book waited and hoped for their loved one’s safety and were rewarded with both a stronger relationship and a greater appreciation for life itself. A fuller life is the ultimate reward of “Wait and Hope,” because it allows one to not only reflect on the future but also appreciate what is had in the present. One of the best examples comes at the end of the book when the villain is eventually imprisoned. He has lost his family, his fortune, and his fame but still he waits and hopes that a savior will come. His savior does come in the form of the Count of Monte Cristo, who through his own ability for hopefulness forgives his transgressor. Life is burdensome, and when we don’t feel like it is in our favor remember that even in the lowest depths of existence, hope and patience are tools that can carve a way out of any indomitable prison.

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The Diary of a Nobody

“It’s the diary that makes the man.”

-George Grossmith

Did you ever have a diary? I always thought a diary was for wimpy little girls who needed to get their emotions on paper via multi-colored pens. I kept a paper diary only two times in my life. The first time was a dismal attempt at recording my “feelings” after coming home from a mission trip. We were told to read the Bible and write about our sinful teenage misgivings – after writing “I looked at a girl’s butt” for the hundredth time, the diary got thrown out. The second time was when I lived in Honduras for three months. My Mom recommended that I record all the happenings so in the future I could look back at the events with greater detail. That diary was actually a success, most of its contents included missing Christina (my future wife) – and with parallels to my first diary – her well-shaped contours.

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I still thank my Mom today for suggesting the diary in Honduras, and I think it primed me in some ways to create my third diary: SAPERE AUDE. This blog is really just a public journal with an overarching theme of discovering wisdom; it’s kinda like a log for a runner but instead of miles ran, it is the number of books read. Blogging is an incredibly rewarding experience that channels my inner little girl to express myself to people all over the world. Throughout history, people have kept diaries in the hopes that they would be published for public consumption – this was most popular in the 19th century and led to the classic The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.

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The Diary of a Nobody is the fictitious diary of George Pooter who is a lower-middle class Englishman in the 1880’s. Pooter writes in his diary in part to record important moments, witty jokes, and mishappenings which are regular occurrences. Mr. Pooter personifies the class structure of late 19th century England; the lower classes try to be more like the upper classes, and the upper classes scorn their faux ladder climbing. One attempt at modeling the upper class was writing a diary which many wealthy people kept to later publish – making them quite famous. The problem is that Mr. Pooter is a “nobody” in a family that makes fun of the idea of his diary becoming syndicated; it’s the modern day equivalent of a friend saying they deserve a reality show because of their exciting life – (cue eye roll). 

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The thing is, I identify with Mr. Pooter with this blog. I know that it is just me rambling about weird subjects, but sometimes I think it may make me famous one day; maybe my post about the War of 1812 will go viral! One can fantasize, but the real motivation for keeping any type of diary is the ability to look back in time. Life is so fascinating that writing consolidates details that may otherwise be forgotten – thankfully I can share those memories with my readers – even if I never surpass the status of a “nobody.”

Cold Comfort Farm

“Well,’ said Mrs Smiling, ‘it sounds an appalling place, but in a different way from all the others. I mean, it does sound interesting and appalling, while the others just sound appalling.”

-Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

I once went through this weird phase where I wanted to be a gentleman farmer. I spent countless hours researching heirloom crops to grow and obscure breeds of animals to raise. I romanticized the agrarian lifestyle; always picturing myself leaning on a fence looking out at a pasture of sheep or goats. I thought there was no better life of freedom or satisfaction – at the end of the day I could kiss Christina, eat apple pie, and read the Bible to my 10 children. In an attempt to test the waters of farming, I convinced my parents to put a garden in the backyard. To make the long story short, I dreaded watering and weeding the stupid thing and when something did finally grow, a wild beast ate it before I could gain any tangible satisfaction.

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After that failed attempt at farming, I put my rural dreams to the side and took up a much more suitable occupation – reading books and writing obscure blog posts. Every now and again the dream resurfaces of eating pie while staring at my goats but Christina usually squashes them with an impersonation of myself during the aforementioned gardening days…”(in an old man voice) Oh, my backkkkk, I fricking hate bending over, I need a chair to sit down to get these things out.” This precarious relationship with agriculture framed my mindset while reading the 1932 classic Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – a parody of the rural novels from 19th century England. Suffice it to say it motivated new Google searches for “how to garden in a wheelchair.”

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The title of Cold Comfort Farm is named after the main farm in the book and paints the picture of natural beauty while simultaneously highlighting the backwardness of rural England. The main character, Flora, comes to the farm to essentially mooch off her relatives with free room and board. Her relatives, the Strakadders, are best described as Sussex hillbillies who are superstitious, uneducated, and set in their ways – even though their ways make zero sense. Flora spends the book, in a quite hilarious manner, fixing the Strakadders problems, and facilitating them to lead better lives. At first, it is slow going, but with finesse and humor, Flora helps each member to truly blossom to their full potential.

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This novel is meant to show that no person is irredeemable and that the countryside not only has beautiful landscape but also beautiful people. England at the time was still quite pretentious when it came to class differences and Cold Comfort Farm is a direct attack on the negative attributes of the “stiff upper lip.”  It is not that Flora tries to change the Strakadders into pompous-city folk but rather helps them see their skills in a new light – leading them in the first steps towards their lifelong dreams. Many times we judge others who live differently and we try to change them to be reflections of ourselves; like a farmer trying to coerce me to weed when I am just more suited for Wikipedia.  In a world rife with division – Republican/Democrat, Rural/City, North/South, Black/White – we need to be reminded of this more than ever.

 

Pride and Prejudice

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
-Jane Austin Pride and Prejudice

There are some books out there which never seemed imaginable for my reading list; one of which was always Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin – my 6th classic. Jane Austin always seemed like the ultimate kryptonite to male ego. No man could dive into a Jane Austin book and come out with any remaining masculinity. It’s like accidentally using Vagisil Body Wash when taking a shower and then going through the day questioning the existence of your gender; requiring a impromptu Civil War reenactment to reverse any damage. I actually bought Pride and Prejudice at Barnes and Noble which was a big mistake. Buying this book was kinda like buying a dirty magazine – eye contact at checkout being a nonnegotiable. What made matters worse was the fact that I had to ask this little old lady to find a copy for me. Like a scene in some twisted comedy, she had to announce over the intercom, “I need help finding Pride and Prejudice for this nice young man.” We ended up spending the next 30 minutes navigating the store to find a copy that didn’t have a cover designed specifically for hipster feminists. I finally settled on a bright blue copy which was the closest thing to a “manly” version – the old lady quickly ruined this triumph with the words, “oh how cute, my daughter has the same one.” The shame I felt climaxed at the counter when the clerk asked me why I was reading it – my answer was that it was for an “all-female book club.”

Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813 and was a critique of the “Sentimental” novels of the mid-18th century. The Sentimental novels usually focused on the power of emotions over reason – many times in relation to marriage. Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, questions the advantages of marriage and questions the “pride” and “prejudice” between different classes of people. Early 19th century England was all about social distinction, manners, and status. The main characters of the novel continually are judging themselves in relation to others and questioning the proper ways to interact. Marriages are based not on love but rather upward mobility – women with small dowries seeking rich men and poor handsome men seeking wealthy-spinster women. The novel starts out like an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians but actually ends up being pretty captivating by the end; the journey to becoming married is not straightforward and not always a sure thing. Many times, I found myself rooting for a couple but then being surprised by plot twists which totally changed my outlook – highlighting my own prejudices. This novel is not just about romance but rather our human nature to judge others. It also speaks to our stubbornness to accept wrong doing and the barriers that pride presents in our daily interactions. It was actually a great novel that dissolved my long standing pride and prejudice towards Jane Austin. We always need to be reminded to not judge a book by its cover – maybe I’ll go back to Barnes and Noble for the more feminine cover.

 

Scoop

I may sound like a broken record but I am going to say it again, “news is crap.” Most news is just gossip that does nothing for our life except waste our time or make us more depressed. For example, I turned the nightly news on and it was all about a murder that had taken place the previous night. How do I benefit from knowing about this murder? Am I going to change my habits? Should I buy a gun? Should I refrain from drug deals at 3:00 AM? The only thing that will change is my equanimity – from peaceful to paranoid. I don’t listen to the news and I know very little about current events. Does this make me ignorant? Yes and No. I am oblivious to trivial matters but if the news is important enough – the word will eventually reach me; but when I do hear about it, I have a breadth of knowledge to contribute which the news could never provide. I am ignorant about Donald Trump’s myriad mishaps but I am not ignorant about the mishaps of the French Revolution. I am ignorant of the most recent natural disaster but I am not ignorant about Plato’s philosophy on human suffering. It is better to study the past so that you have a foundation to understand the present. This point is best illustrated by a toddler who is told by an older brother that an evil clown lives in his closet. With no background information or knowledge of clown behavior, the kid pees himself for the next month.

I bring this topic up because my 5th classic, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, is a satire on the news business and how the news “supposedly” educates the public. Scoop was written in 1938 and is acclaimed for its portrayal of the Fleet Street culture in London. Fleet Street was the mecca of England newspapers and there was a lot of money to be made from constant news. The problem in Scoop is that there is a lack of stories happening in the world and the bigwigs are anxious to keep the printing press hot. They end up sending, by mistake, a part-time columnist to an obscure country to report on a potential war; the dilemma is that there is no real turmoil to report on. Journalists keep flooding the small nation in search of a “scoop” – in the end a story has to be partly falsified and exaggerated in order to sell papers. Scoop is actually pretty funny and is a critique on the deplorable state of new’s media and their incessant need for sensationalism – seemingly stamping “news” on everything. This book parallels our current media’s incessant need for material and the subsequent decline in reporting. Not even speaking of “fake” news, the “real” news is rarely ever worth a second glance; like a Shepard eternally crying wolf! Waugh could never have imagined the internet age but his novel is more applicable today than when it was published. Instead of chasing our tails, let’s spend more time in well researched books and periodicals which are respected. Don’t take the bait and believe your brother – “Breaking News: Killer Clown Discovered to be Vacuum Cleaner!”

“‘You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news. Of course there’s colour. Colour is just a lot of bulls’-eyes about nothing.'”
-Evelyn Waugh Scoop

 

 

 

From Russia With Love

The name is Bond…James Bond. This is one of the most infamous phrases ever uttered in popular culture. When one thinks of Bond they think of a clever English man who is quick on his feet and miraculous in bed. Men want to be him and women want to be with him. It seems like there are a million Bond films that have gone through more lead characters than Dumbledores in Harry Potter. I remember watching old Bond films and marveling at all the exotic locations, expensive cars, and sexy women. Unfortunately, I am nothing like James Bond – I could be a spy as long as I got 9 hours of sleep and could swoon women while wearing my bedtime bite guard. Bond is synonymous with excitement and this is why I was pumped to read my fourth classic, From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming. From Russia With Love is the fifth book in the Bond series and it was written in 1957. In total, Fleming wrote 14 bond books starting in 1953; he wrote up until his death in 1964 and several authors have taken up the series since then. From Russia With Love is considered one of the Top 100 Classics and was immensely popular when it was originally published. The plot takes place in Istanbul and entails a beautiful Russian woman seducing Bond so he can be assassinated by an evil Cold-War spy. The book has a lot of twists and overall it is a pretty fun read – my take away from it may surprise you.

Reading this book allowed me to step back to a time that many people claim to be the golden age of “morals.” The 50’s are always remembered as the era of poodle skirts,  milkshakes, greasers, and drive-in movie theaters. It was a time when teenagers only held hands on dates, drugs were a rarity, and marriages lasted forever. I always hear this from baby boomers, “society has gone down the drain in the past 50 years…kids these days.” Of course, every generation says things like this but I think the 50’s stand out above all other decades as the benchmark of nostalgic-purity. The more I read though, the more I realize the actual 50’s was far different than what was portrayed on Leave it to BeaverFrom Russia With Love is a book that contains killing, adultery, rape, slavery, racism – making modern-day Bond films look like kid’s movies. Of course, this is spy novel – I didn’t expect some liberal-hippy fest – but I did think it would be sanitized due to its systemic popularity at the time. The thing is, the 1950’s was no more pure than today – sex and violence are universal pastimes. To make matters worse, women and all non-white races were living in a time that saw systemic segregation – literal and figurative . What one realizes is that today, more than ever, people of all backgrounds are treated with greater respect, kindness, and humanity – perhaps we should rethink our benchmark? Read the book – it may brighten your outlook on the world.

As for sex, well, I mean sex is a perfectly respectable subject as far as Shakespeare is concerned. I mean, all history is love and violence.

-Ian Fleming

War and Peace

Growing up the biggest book in the house was always the Holy Bible. The Bible stood above all other books in its shear mass – the thinness of the pages, the small font, and the endless footnotes made it formidable. Of course the Bible is in a class of its own but my third classic, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, gives it some competition in the size department: 1,400 pages of 19th-century Russian Literature. I always viewed War and Peace as the ultimate ego-trip – imagine some hipster guy walking down the street holding a copy while curling his mustache and listening to a Walkman. In all honesty, this book almost destroyed my sight; halfway through I bought a magnifying glass from Amazon that had in the description, “GREAT FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA.” It took me over three weeks to finish and I felt like a man waiting for his wife to give birth when the doctor says it will take all night – initial excitement, tears at the vending machine at 3:00 AM, and finally exhausted delirium at sunrise. Instead of a crying baby I was rewarded with a new found perspective of what art in the form of writing truly represents. War and Peace is not a novel but rather a philosophical treatise that has the added benefit of a great story. The general plot takes place in Russia from 1805 to 1820 and follows the family life of  a few Russians during the Napoleonic Wars. So what makes this book so great? The complexity of the characters mix with the backdrop of war to form a multilayered cake of delicious metaphor, behavior, and historical understanding.

As the title suggests, War and Peace, is all about contrast. The characters juggle life’s myriad curve balls: young love transforms into mature friendship, an engagement fails after an unexpected affair, happy families suffer with untimely deaths, once bountiful fortunes turn to meager incomes. The backdrop to these life events is a war that sweeps up the individual characters and the nation as whole. War that once seemed so glorious becomes surreal as the years progress. The war symbolizes both destruction and birth: taking the lives of some while bringing together people who may have never met. The philosophical theme throughout the book aims to better understand the meaning of life and man’s ability to express free will. The purpose of life, which is best expressed by the characters who suffered the most, is simply to “live” – every expression is a manifestation and glorification of God. This conclusion is simple on the surface but hard to practice: people seek money, respect, power, and control as their purpose, while “just” living seems inadequate. This purpose is mirrored by man’s desire to express free will while simultaneously being drawn by others into actions that are counter to life – war. Tolstoy makes the point that free will is not an absolute, just as inevitability (no choice at all) is also not an absolute. Thus, Napoleon – with his genius – did not impact his soldiers and the battle’s outcomes as much as he or everyone else thought. The same is true of the individual soldier’s free will – time, space, history, and infinite circumstances swinging the pendulum of choice. History, is not decided by the powerful few but is decided by a irreducible power which is wielded by innumerable individuals – always susceptible to the curve ball of life.

“If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war.”
-Leo Tolstoy War and Peace

Lucky Jim

Christina and I went to see the new Beauty and the Beast film a couple of days ago. I was not forced to see this movie and the sexy Emma Watson was not used as a bargaining chip. Disney movies bring me a lot of happiness and those catchy songs always bring a smile to my face. The only thing I didn’t like was the attractiveness of the “Beauty” and the “Beast.” Why did they cast such a good looking Bell? The whole point of this movie is not to judge people by their appearances. Even the Beast is attractive for a monster. I could think of a million things worse for Bell to fall in love with – Jabba the Hutt anyone? I like stories where two misfits fall in love – the nerds, the dweebs, the outcasts. I have always been between social groups my entire life. I get along with the jocks and the nerds: never overly obsessed about sports or comic books. I was a momma’s boy who primarily enjoyed the company of my parents – I could socialize but my special spot was always on the couch eating ice cream. All of these things were going through my head while reading my second classic, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. In this story, Jim is an awkward professor who doesn’t fit in with anyone – he goes about the story in a perpetual state of social discomfort. Jim has no passion except for hanging out at pubs and complaining about his job. This was a story with my kind of character.

Jim, throughout most of the book, has the worst luck at work and in his social life: his job is on the line, his foreplay gets squashed, his jokes fall flat, his research gets stolen, his cigarettes run out, his drunken tirades end badly, his coworkers tattle on him, etc. Jim seems like he deserves most of these problems but at the same time it is hard not feeling bad for the guy. In the end, he does end up with a lucky break that made me not only happy for him but happy for myself. So many times we are conditioned to think that the best things happen to the most popular-beautiful-smart-sporty-(fill in the blank with a stereotype) people. A great example of this is modern day comedies. Who usually plays the laughing-stock? Is it a smart-sexy man or woman? No it is usually a fat actor who is a royal screw up. Thankfully, real-life is not a TV show and we can be a successful human being without having the attributes of James Bond or a Victoria Secret Model. Appearances and personalities are what make us special. Our weirdness is not a handicap but rather our greatest asset. Was Jim lucky or did he actually deserve the good things at the end of the book? Are we conditioned to think that success is the result of skill for the popular while success is the result of luck for the unpopular? It reminds me of the eagle who was always told he was a chicken – never attempting to fly and always pecking at the ground. Embrace who you are, spread those chicken wings and don’t apologize for their stubbiness – they’ll get you farther than you think.

A Tale of Two Cities

Most of my readers know that I love nonfiction. Nonfiction to me has more utility compared to fiction. You want to learn some interesting fact? Nonfiction. You want to have informed conversations? Nonfiction. You want to seem like a jerk and voice all the answers during Jeopardy? Nonfiction. Fiction was always the red-headed-step-child of my reading repertoire. I knew there were great stories in text but honestly I felt that TV series were just as good. I never could get into the clumsy stage of learning characters and how they connected with each other – to put it another way, I didn’t like the foreplay; get me to the climax already for goodness sake! But, with greater knowledge and maturity, I found that I was missing the foreplay in many of my nonfiction choices. This was especially apparent when reading about the French Revolution. I knew that life was hard for the poor but it felt empty – I wanted more of the buildup. I got this buildup from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Dickens is the master of text for the sake of text. While reading the book I kept going back to my 13 year old self, “come on and get to the fricking point!” At last I reached the end and it was like my brain exploded with pleasure. All of the crap at the beginning actually mattered – I took away so much from the end because of the formidable journey. It’s the difference between climbing a mountain and getting to the top – sweating, crying, despairing, rejoicing – compared to driving to the top of the mountain – rushing, distracting, yawning, appreciating.

It is this change of heart that has led me to yet another over-arching goal for this blog: I will read all 1,300 Penguin Classics by the age of 60. This is a quintessential component in my search for wisdom and it will push me to read books that are arguably the best in human history. For each book, I will write a blog post explaining what wisdom I gained from the experience. The posts will not summarize the books because you can easily Wikipedia that information. I want to look into myself and at the world in a deeper manner; I believe this journey will greatly help these aims. In the end, I hope to create a book with all my posts that I can reminisce on.  A Tale of Two Cities inspired this venture and hence it is my first post. The love story in this book is one of selflessness and sacrifice. Unlike the love triangles in the Hunger Games and Twilight, the one Dickens constructs makes you question the true meaning of love. If two men are fighting for a girl can they truly love her equally? When is failure both a blessing and a curse? Is it worth getting what you want at the expense of others? Read A Tale of Two Cities and let me know. Let the journey begin.

Click here for a complete list of the classics. You can also visit the Penguin Classics Website.