Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Shark or crocodile? Or Baghdad?

I stumbled upon this image while looking for pictures of what crocodile claws look like (don't ask why, but I urgently needed to know), and it seemed an appropriate image for the day because for some reason when we woke up this morning, before even getting out of bed, Jim and I were discussing whether we would rather lose a leg to a shark or a crocodile. I really couldn't decide, but Jim was quite certain that he would prefer a shark, believing it would be a quicker process. A croc might have to take more chomps than a shark. I don't know if that's true, and I hope I never know.

I must say, this morning's conversation, grim as it was, was much better than waking up to hearing on the radio that 183 people had been killed just that day alone in Baghdad, which made it something like the second bloodiest day of the war so far (last week). The war? What war? Oh. . . the war it's so easy for Americans to pretend is not happening, except when the pesky radio wakes you with news like that. What a way to start the day. Poor us, having to listen to that. Solution? Set the radio to a music station. It's really that easy to pretend your nation is not at war.

So, next question: would you rather lose your leg to a shark or a crocodile, or would you rather live in Baghdad?

If it sounds like my tone is light, please believe it is not. It is bitter. I've been doing some writing in preparation for a talk I will be doing next week at the public library in Topeka, Kansas, and since the library has embraced the book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for its summer reading program, I am rereading the book, and really thinking about it. And wow is it a great book. Here are some of my thoughts so far:

The best hope for humanity is suppleness of mind.

Mark Twain said, "You should get your mind out and dance on it. That might take some of the rigidity out of it," and I love the image of a whole roomful of square-dancers tossing their hard-as-snail-shells minds on the floor and tromping all over them until they are as supple and fine as well-loved baseball mitts. Minds can harden into shells that no new ideas can penetrate, and more importantly, no empathy can penetrate, and I think that might be our downfall. Those hardened chitin minds are what enable some people to think things like "Iraq = bad," an unsophisticated thought unworthy of our humanity. {I read an interview recently in which a writer (forget who, sorry) told how after 9/11 her child's classmates were scribbling Afghanistan off the maps in their textbooks, and how chilling that was -- the message these children were getting from somewhere to obliterate an entire nation. And sadly, it's not just kids who think that way.}

The next part of my thinking is that the two best ways to keep a supple mind are: travel and fiction. Two of my favorite things, as luck would have it. Not everyone can travel, especially as children, but everyone can read. And the more books we read, the more our humanity grows, the more sophisticated our empathy, the more supple our minds, until at last we are not the sort of people who could ever believe that a whole nation of people, or a whole religion, could be evil or lesser, but only different, and probably not even all that different. The more characters we read, the more we subsume them, they become a part of us, and our minds grow. And grow. And then when we hear a news headline, our imaginations are that much more equipped to supply flesh and blood images to go along with them. And to every situation that the news reduces to its most simplistic factual elements, we can imagine a story behind it. Even if we are not imagining it just right, as readers who have made a thousand characters citizens of our own vast minds, we can imagine the complexity, the challenge, the struggles of strangers. The way poor decisions beget more poor decisions, the way desperation leads to tragedy, the crazy paths that lead people to do the things they do. And we can never just shake our heads and make simplistic judgements. We readers know how complicated life is, and not just our own, but all the lives we've read about. And knowing this makes us better.

The main character in Fahrenheit 451, Montag, happens to have retained, against all odds, some suppleness of mind in the midst of his lunatic world, some faculty that allows him to wonder and to think. That is the seed of hope. When you hear that someone was raised deep in a fundamentalist sect of a religion, be it Christian or Muslim or other, has been reared on intolerance and yet managed to disentangle their minds from it, you see: there is hope. Not everyone can do it, but I bet fiction readers stand a better chance than most.

So read and let others read. Anything and everything. Down the path of banned books, and the path of no books, lies a poor, starved world filled with hard, dull minds. Don't go there!


Jim Di Bartolo said...

This was AWESOME baby! I love how in thinking of what to come up with for a speech, the thought process itself has become something worthy of a speech in and of itself. Wow sweety :) And AAAAAAAmen to your thoughts and opinions expressed here. Especially the idea of keeping one's mind open to ideas, individuals, beliefs, etc. that are different than our own.

Luv ya,

Amber said...

Yes, Amen. It really is just that easy to forget about the war, isn't it? And when you're over there, that's all you want to do - get back to the States and forget about it. Yet, when you do return, it's still in the back of your mind, sitting like an emu egg, ready to break out and run around all over your nice pretty self-absorbed thoughts.
Some days I drown in wonder at the monsters that tie Humanity down, and then there are other days when hope prevails and it seems like Humanity has an improving, evolved future. Those are the days I've been reading.

Jone said...

Wow, Laini. The discussion about the losing a limb to a crocodile was like the conversation at school yesterday. Apprently, somewhere in Asia, some young boys were taunting crocs with sticks. The crocs had enough and ate one of the boys. It happened at a zoo...you have given me another book to put on my re-read list.

gerry rosser said...

Croc or Shark? Hmmm. I can't decide.

If one wants to read fiction, there is plenty to be found in the non-fiction section of your favorite bookstore or library. (And, of course, the fiction sections, although there is probably more truth there).

Marilyn said...

Laini, this is a very insightful post and I wholeheartedly agree re travel and fiction. It's no accident that I didn't begin to cultivate some compassion until I finally took a real leap into reading fiction...at 35. (I had a hard time staying present in a book during my drinking days.) I'd traveled for years by that point, but it was fiction that made me really start focusing outward with a genuine appreciation for differences. Long ago I heard Ray Bradbury give the commencement speech at the college graduation of one of my best friends from high school. I can't remember exactly what he said...I just remember coming away feeling VERY inspired.

heidi said...

HI Laini! I was so happy to see your beautiful butterfly wings on the Disco Mermaids comment board. Now I'm visiting your adorable blog! Great post---guess what? I played Clarisse, the open-minded heroine in the play Fahrenheit 451 when I was in college. It opened my mind and soul to so many different things especially censorship and writing. My novel SEA takes place in Muslim Indonesia and primarily focuses on the relationship between two teenagers, one very western American and an orphaned Achenese boy, obviously raised with such different backgrounds and beliefs, but who are both really open-minded and curious about the other. Bridging the gap. Do what you can. Hey, I finally got a lj, so please visit me there! Take care!

[a} said...

I have always LOVED that book! Ray Bradbury writes very intensely, v. aggressively, but it's such a fitting style. Have you noticed that many of his predictions about the future have already come true? Example being the iPod!

I don't agree with you on one thing. It's not always the quantity of books read that matters so much as their quality. Some books dullen the mind. We need time to ponder over a book. It is better to absorb the goodness in one book, I think, than to simply breeze through a dozen without retaining much.

This is a really excellent post, by the way. xoxxxo

[a} said...

P.S. I remember how after 9/11, in my school in Canada, many kids said outright racist remarks to Muslim kids..as though WE were responsible... :( One girl came up to me and said: "My parents say all you Muslim people are --bleep---" Perhaps the city I lived in was particularly racist, but all the kids ganged up on several Muslim classmates, too, throughout the school years. One of those sad memories. How was I supposed to describe to them how much I hated those bombers, with all my soul?

[a} said...
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