An Interview with Bruce Gans: What Have You Read Recently?
Michael F. Shaughnessy – If you are talking about influencing students in our classes the only feeble weapon in our bare arsenal is to share the concrete basis for being enthusiastic about reading such books.
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico
1. What have you read recently that has really made an impact on you?
The book that has made the biggest impression on me recently is Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest. Stalin famously observed, the death of one person is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic. I, like many people, knew there had been a Soviet induced famine in the Ukraine but Harvest of Sorrow reversed its transformation into a statistic back into its original form of a living tragedy of stupefying human suffering.
The book recreates the step by step mass murder by following individual Soviet bureaucrats, Politboro members, soldiers, and the hordes of true believer apparatchiks “missionaries” who carried it out. Conquest also shows particular human beings the who the Communist regime murdered in the millions and millions by removing whole peasant populations from their homes and then their country–, man, woman, child, infant, cripple and elderly– and dumping them in the arctic regions of Siberia wilderness often with no housing there so that they had to take shelter from the snow and arctic cold by cutting down trees or scooping out dugouts to sleep in. Conquest also describes how the Soviet government sent agents into the huts of the peasantry—that was the level of their living conditions–to confiscate all the food they owned in their homes and then all they had grown and harvested so that millions more were starved to death so the Soviets could move their own people in to work on newly created large government owned farms, collectives, kolkhozes, which turned the Ukraine into a place that no longer exported grain as it had for centuries, into a zone unable to grow enough food to even to feed itself.
The reason this book had such a tremendous impact on me was only partly the astounding scale e of human evil it spreads out before you page after page and the lasting despair and frustration reading the book produces by its depiction of immeasurable cruelty inflicted on millions of innocent human beings. It was this combined with the world’s ignorance that this ever happened. That millions of people can be objects of a government policy so successful that their genocide is achieved and the world is entirely unaware of the event so that millions of people have been denied even the dignity and humanity of having been murdered in a universally known and most important crimes in history. This for me was a new form of horror and especially disturbing.
Incidentally, Harvest of Sorrow also successfully depicts a very refined and subtle form of nauseating evil–the evil man enjoying unsolicited praise and admiration from an adoring public. Stalin forbid the press to enter the Ukraine aside from the New York Times reporter Walter Duranty who wrote that there was no famine taking place although he knew full well he was lying. It is thought that he did this because he agreed with Stalin’s that this was for the good of the cause and also because going along with genocide meant he would have access to Soviet officials for news stories his competitors would and did lack. Harvest of Sorrow also relates how Duranty subsequently received a special award years from national media for his outstanding reporting from the Ukraine. Next time you see for sale T-Shits and postcards depicting the Art Institute’s Andy Warhol portrait of Mao, get in the spirit and tell the clerk you want it embroidered with the logo: Walter Duranty lives!
2) A while ago, I decided in my own odd strange way that I would write re-reviews. I felt there were certain good books that deserved re-discovery and I re- reviewed John Irving’s book “A Prayer for Owen Meany “. What book do you think needs to be rediscovered?
In this area, I tend to be a Johnny One Note. The Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich has never received the recognition he deserves. It is as absurd that he has not won the Nobel Prize as that Nabokov never won. Personally Voinovich has lived a life of heroic courage along the lines of Solzhenitsyn, Shakarov and Sharansky. His books, in particular The Extraordinary Life and Adventures of Ivan Chonkin, Monumental Propaganda, Pretender to the Throne and In Plain Russian have a unique combination of humor, comedy, satire, social criticism and love of people.
He is easily one of the two greatest comic writers of the 20th century and perhaps of all time. It is also a miracle how a man who grew into manhood under Stalin and worked professionally under the Brezhnev regime could write books of such sunny unsentimental love of mankind. For that matter of course it would be a miracle, though a lesser one, if he had that attitude living in any culture at any time.
A second one I would recommend is Ludwig Von Mises. He is today considered along with Milton Friedman the most important economist of the twentieth century. Every high school child should be required to take a class in economics and have his work as part of the curriculum. Doing so would produce a whole generation of people who understood the mechanics. People who do read him will find without a doubt that their way of looking at the world will change forever, and that they will understand human freedom and society in a deeply wise and accurate way. He also writes with a clarity of style, thought and logic of the first order. Any literate adult can read most of what he has written entirely by him for pleasure. I am also very impressed by him because he fled to America during Hitler’s empowerment and could not get a job at a university because there was a universal consensus that John Keynes was infallible and his free market analysis was the work of a crank.
4) Bruce, I have to tell you that sometimes I get frustrated when someone mentions an author and talks ad nausem about ONE of their books. For example, everyone seems to talk about Jack London and ” The Call of the Wild” but he has written literally a slew of other books- Martin Eden- and a host of short stories—How do we get people to really delve deeply into an author?
5) To continue this line, I can recall reading The Three Musketeers, but later discovering that Dumas had written a number of other books- equally enchanting, equally interesting, and equally heroic. Do book publishers need to point readers to other great works of certain authors?
Questions four and five are sufficiently similar that I would like to write one answer for both.
I have a question I have to ask you: why is it our job to get people to read more than one book by one author? As we used to say when I was in college—who died and left us in charge?
If you are talking about influencing students in our classes the only feeble weapon in our bare arsenal is to share the concrete basis for being enthusiastic about reading such books.
But publishers cannot get readers to read more than one book by an author either. That is the great thing about America and I am serious as a seizure about this. All people get to decide what they thinks is good for them and what they do not think will be good for them even if other people like you and me know what is REALLY good for him or her.
People read more than one book by the same author for two reasons—apart I mean by being forced to do so by their college instructors or their bosses.
The first is the addiction factor. My two twelve year old daughters for example, needs no encouragement to read several books in a series concerning a hero who is part god, part child who has various adventures in connection with antagonists from Greek mythology. When I am driving though rush hour traffic or doing extended tedious housework nothing makes it go more pleasantly than listening to an audio book by Elmore Leonard or Jamie Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series–this last in fact I have now exhausted. This was no doubt why Dumas wrote so many of the Musketeers books which were immensely popular in his day.
The second is entirely independent of publishers and faculty. Here the decisive motive is upon the range and depth of one’s curiosity. I read Harvest of Sorrow by Conquest because he had gotten me interested in Stalin’s regime after I read his book about The Great Terror, another democide that murdered millions that to this day the world has no visceral concrete conception. And those books led me to pick up some out of print collections of Robert Conquest’s essays. So, I often read a number of books by the same person out of self motivation.
But look–if a guy is holding down an exhausting job or wants to spend time with his wife and kids, or does not have a mind that has a ferocious constant need for intellectual stimulation, or has no aptitude for reading serious literature (my father for example, who was considered one of the top practitioners in his field never to my knowledge was ever caught with a serious novel in his hands—no sale bucko.
Then there is someone like me. Without a word of encouragement from teachers, friends, family or publishers, from the time I was in high school I took it as a given, that it is the responsibility of every human being to read all the greatest books that have ever been written. It was not until my 30′s that I looked up and realized that 99 per cent of mankind considered such a responsibility absurd if they considered it at all–which they did not. And my social reward for my diligence was that as a rule, people who I had in part done this so that they would respect and me and enjoy my company, discreetly considered me someone preoccupied by boring stuff they could not possibly relate to and so I learned to generally never bring it up–try suggesting to a girl for a blind date seeing a new production of Aristophanes’ Assembly of Women and see what reaction you get.
6) Every once in a while, I pick up a paperback and am enthralled, even though I know little about the author. Take Ayn Rand for example- I read Anthem, and then learned about her life and other books (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead etc) Is there an art or a science to encouraging individuals to learn about the life of the author?
There you go with this encouragement stuff again. What you are really talking about is whether there is a science to arousing someone’s intellectual curiosity. The answer is No. You can tell people why you find a person’s life so fascinating, but whether this touches a person’s curiosity is decisively the sole domain of the person. Students are more likely to imitate their parents and if growing up they see their parents reading biographies they are probably more pre disposed.
The decisive element is the student’s attitudes, period. In teaching serious literature I without fail, educate the students about the historical and social forces at work at the time and the salient facts about the author’s life. But unless the student feels a personal identification with the author, or is capable of a higher conceptual level of curiosity—I have for example been so impressed with my most recent rereading of the achievement of Don Quixote I went out and bought a biography of the fellow. But that sort of motive for learning more about an author is rare.
7) Let’s throw out some names–Henry Morton Robinson- I have read his book The Cardinal, many times, yet I have been unable to find out much about his life or other books. I wonder why it is so difficult in certain instances to find out much about really (at least in my opinion) great writers?
Capitalism and careerism buddy boy. If you were to go door to door and could not eat your next meal until you met someone else who has read The Cardinal, my bet is you would feel like a Ukrainian circa 1937 very quickly. Unless there are 10,000 people in the United States who share your voracious interest in Henry Morton Robinson and will think nothing of putting down a $25 preorder on Amazon for an upcoming book on this scandalously neglected uber genius, it is hard to imagine any publisher investing serious money in getting a book on the old boy out there.
Much as I regret involuntarily being the media through which your pain must multiply, I have to inform you that my guess is that neither a doctorate will be granted nor tenure be awarded to the young scholar who has made himself the world expert on Henry Morton Robinson, who sounds more like a character out of Spoon River Anthology.
Of course, if someone discovers that Robinson was actually a night stalking transsexual pedophile cannibal who infiltrated the priesthood and a movie studio is about to present all this in a new release—all bets are off.
8) Bruce, a slight curve ball, which may accentuate how diverse my reading interests are—Chaim Potok—I still search for some of his books about Jewish Hasidic-Orthodox culture. But is his stuff so esoteric that his great works gather dust? Anything we can do?
Chiam Potok seems esoteric to you because you are not Jewish. For the same reason J.F. Powers seems a tad esoteric to me because I am not Catholic and am not familiar with many of the saints, the Church hierarchy, the steps in religious ceremonies and so on. If you are Jewish, the stuff is all more or less homespun. But this is not the reason his works gather dust.
One is that a lot of people feel like me, that his works are not in particularly great. You want to read a truly great writer from this milieu the neglect of whose works is a terrible loss and a crime, read Abraham Cahan, specifically, The Rise and Fall of David Levinsky. Then you will see what I mean by Cahan is to Potok what Tim Lincicum is to Scott Linebrink.
The other reason Potok’s books gather dust is that MOST worthy authors’ books gather dust. Most human beings are not serious readers by reason of inaptitude, indifference or exhaustion at the end of a workday. Serious literature is entirely irrelevant to their jobs. Many other readers of serious literature take as their Literary Chingachook the New York Times best seller list where what little literature of enduring value appears does so like the fashion models going up and down the runway and disappearing forever. The enduring is not at all necessarily new so even were Potok on the level with Isaac Singer, his number is no longer going to be called.
You ask what can be done and the answers that suggest themselves are columns like yours where you can find authors mentioned not mentioned elsewhere. Another answer that will never happen is to start a journal devoted exclusively to discussions of out of print books or neglected first rate authors people would enjoy.
9) Final question- What book that you have read, are you pondering going back to RE-READ??
The same book applies to both questions so let me deal with them together. The Great Books Curriculum faculty where I work selected Illusion as the academic year theme and for my research paper course I assigned Don Quixote, excerpts of which I have assigned several times and the novel as a whole I have read twice. This semester however I was awed in delight and amazement at the levels of new meaning I found revealed in it.
For example, I have always enjoyed the novel as the first absurdist novel ever written (e.g. the section where Quixote instructs Sancho to lift his torso off the ground in the event of a loss in battle, rearrange him onto his lower half in the saddle and apply the magic balm to restore him to perfect health) one displaying the greatest mastery of formal rhetoric and reflecting of course a powerful metaphor concerning the futility of our most altruistic and egoistic ambitions.
However, this time I finally understood what a masterpiece of subtlety and multiple meanings the novel is, rather like, to use a crude comparison, one of those drawings where twenty objects have been cleverly blended invisibly into the scene.
For example, the novel happens to be not about chivalry but in many ways, a novel of literary criticism which can be seen in the scene were Quixote’s housekeeper, niece and friend the priest are debating which of his Quixote’s books to burn to cure him of his occupational delusion. The discussion however is described, as one of my students found out, much like the literal operations of the real life Spanish Inquisition while the substance of the debate is actually a severe critique of the classics and pseudo classics of the genre by Cervantes—an extended series of book reviews and argument for new esthetic principles.
A second example is that the premise of the novel really is a serious discussion of a revolt against the triviality and emptiness of everyday daily life so that the paradox becomes the more Quixote revolts against his meaningless life the more meaningless it actually becomes when it is made into a delusion instead, which itself leads to the universal and painful problem every person must face in adapting to the reality principle.
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