Last week I finished reading a “bad” book. That’s not my assessment; it’s the judgment of most critics. I liked it.
When I taught and wanted to motivate my students to read, I used to tell them that it was nearly impossible to read a book – even one with “no socially redeeming value whatsoever” – without learning something from the experience. Many of you will recognize the phrase enclosed in quotes as the one cited by the United States Supreme Court in a case involving censorship, specifically, the banning of books and, more specifically, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” a novel written by D. H. Lawrence nearly a century ago. Like a lot of legal decisions, it led to more arguments than it settled, but the book finally became available in the U. S. in 1959. (I had read it several years before while I was in Europe under the auspices of the U. S. Army. I bought and read several other books that were banned in America, so I knew from experience that a reader can learn a lot from “bad” books.) Most of “Lady Chatterley” is mild compared to what can be read or seen today. As for the court’s decision, I suspect we have a lot of people walking around with less “socially redeeming value” than any book.
I usually have two books going at the same time – one light and unchallenging, the other serious and with a lot of “socially redeeming value.” Last week my serious selection was one of Ian McKeon’s earlier books, titled “Solar.” As I said, the book got bad reviews, but McEwan, who has won nearly every literary prize available, is a favorite of mine. Although “Solar” was published ten years ago, it deals with global warming and is probably more current today than when it was published.
The protagonist, Michael Beard, is a Nobel-prize winning physicist who is attempting to perfect “artificial photosynthesis,” (This is an actual process that physicists are presently exploring. McKean has done his research; at times the book becomes quite technical.) If he is successful, it will provide a cheap and endless supply of energy and end the problem of global warming, which is the result of humanity’s appetite for energy. But Beard cannot control his personal appetites. He is overweight but continues to overeat; he is wealthy but continues to scheme for more money; he is married to his fifth wife but continues his infidelities. In short, he is every person who is willing to save the world so long as he doesn’t have to make personal sacrifices. While we have been warned about global warming for decades, to preserve our lifestyle, we continue to explore for and burn fossil fuels at an even greater rate.
Individual desires have conflicted with group needs since the beginning of time. On the continuum from selfish to selfless, nearly all living creatures lean heavily toward the former. The billionaire who hides his wealth in off-shore accounts and the walnut tree that secretes deadly chemicals around its base to discourage other vegetation have a lot in common. The “Me First” slogan that politicians use in a slightly modified form has a natural appeal to voters. Training and education can make some difference, but selfishness is fixed in our DNA.
While the excesses of McEwan’s anti-hero in “Solar” may disgust some readers, and bore others, as I read it, I wondered if it were possible for someone who was genuinely concerned about saving the world to be so blind to his own behavior. After I finished the book, I looked at my own attitude and the attitude of others around me and concluded, “Yeah, it is.”
Chuck Avery is a retired teacher who grew up in Connersville’s Bucktown neighborhood.