When I approach the end of a wonderful book I am reading, I feel a sense of loss. I do not want it to end. Is it over? Really? Sure, you can read it again, but without the sense of discovery. Yes, there are more fish in the sea, but it is just not the same.
I feel this most strongly with long books, such as Shogun and Infinite Jest. You invest a lot of time in a one-thousand-page book! But nothing came close to what I experienced with Victor Hugo’s remarkable Les Misérables.
I stumbled into the stage musical of Les Misérables fully thirty years ago. I had no idea what I was about to see. Sure, I had taken college world literature classes and read that part of Les Misérables where the priest buys Jean Valjean’s soul for God with the silver candlesticks. So now it was time to read the book.
I spent months reading it, re-reading sections to get the characters clear, taking notes and driving friends and family crazy by pointing out all the things in the book that the musical left out. Did you know that Javert was born in prison? Did you know the innkeeper became a slave trader?
I had a “relationship” with the book. Then it was over. I felt betrayed. How can Hugo write such a book and then just stop?
I’m feeling a similar kind of regret with a book I have now written and given over to a publisher. The book is A New Haunt for Mr. Bierce, an imagined afterlife of Ambrose Bierce, American Civil War Union soldier and writer.
The book was inspired by a dream about Bierce and began as a kind of ghost themed murder mystery. Then it changed, evolved into a reflection on aging and death. Then I finished. It is due out early 2022 through BQB Publishing.
I think I stopped too soon. I regret that I…
In my last blog I talked about an author, Eric Hoffer, whose ideas from seven decades ago inform the present. In True Believers, Hoffer wrote about the hearts and minds of those who become involved in mass movements. He writes that whether the ideology embraced is politically left or right, religious or agnostic, or conspiracy based, the “believer” is much the same. Such followers are people who have lives that lack meaning. Belonging to a movement gives them purpose.
Hoffer’s ideas translate directly to issues that face democracies today. Citizenship in a democracy places a burden on the individual. Active participation in choosing leaders, at a minimum to cast a vote, is work. Some find it attractive to give away their identity, their freedom, their choices to a powerful person or movement, and thus be unburdened of the demands of citizen participation.
True Believers echoes the work of an earlier writer, Ambrose Bierce, Civil War Union soldier. No one has written, before or after Bierce, with greater clarity of the everyday experience of men in war. Bierce wrote of the horror of war, and of the attraction of men to engage in it. In What I Saw of Shiloh, Bierce writes of the call of the “wizard youth” who would pull him back to soldiering. He compares favorably the rewards of the life of the soldier to the “ugliness of the longer and tamer life” beyond the battlefield.
Hoffer writes that men recently discharged from military service are often prime recruits for mass movements. They leave a time of their life where everything was scripted. A hierarchy of authority freed them from the burden or organizing their lives. Back in the civilian world, they seek structure, belonging, someone to organize things.
I believe the ideas of Bierce and Hoffer inform much that is happening in the US today. Some grow tired of the demands of participatory democracy and find refuge in groups like militias, authoritarian leaders, and the pull toward other processes that would establish a more simple authority in their lives.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.