A Reader’s Communion

Being a librarian, I often enjoy deeply delightful conversations about the love of books as objects. Places with books are places of power. Thoughtful people often try to describe the joy they feel at simply standing in a library or bookstore, surrounded on all sides by so many books. They can sense the psychic thrum of books waiting to be read, which is to say they feel a keen awareness of their own curiosity and native weirdness.

I often remind people that a library’s books are meant for borrowing. They can find them, use them, take them home at no cost. It may surprise you the number of people who recoil in a kind of horror at the thought. Oh no. I couldn’t. I prefer to own my own books.

I get it. Books are precious. Brand new, first-owner books are a powerful fetish. Used books found in a used book shop are like mysterious treasure bottles washed randomly, wonderfully on your personal shore. Ebooks ward against the boredom of grocery store lines. Audiobooks fold the time-space continuum, transmuting the experience of a 35 minute commute into a momentary jaunt, a kind of teleportation.

Recently, I had opportunity to read a borrowed book from the library. This, for me, is no uncommon thing. This particular borrowed book, however, happened to have one of the old stamped date due pockets in back. The book itself was first checked out to someone three months after I was born.

Understanding that this book and I were roughly contemporaries, I became curious to know about its life. Not the title but this very book, specific.Stamped date due pocket for borrowed library book

The pocket was a parade of dates: 5/31/1974; 9/4/1975; 6/3/1976; 2/4/1977; 5/23/1980; 8/6/1981; 8/20/1981; 5/10/1982; 5/22/1982; 6/4/1982; 8/12/1982; 5/26/1983; 1/29/1985; 10/19/1989; 7/20/1992; 2/1/2002.

What hands had held this very book while I was still learning to focus my eyes and grasp objects? What secret places — living rooms, bed rooms and apartment balconies — had this book seen? Where had this book gone and been?

I wondered about the reader who read this book a few months before Star Wars lit across its first screen. Did they know how much movies would come to embody our mythology? Did they care?

A sequence of three dates in May – June of 1982 where, perhaps a slow reader wandered casually through the pages, not finishing, stopping by to beg renewal for another few weeks at a time. Or maybe this was a time in their life interrupted by catastrophe and distraction. The illness of a loved one. An illness of their own.

Or, instead, during those same six weeks, a bevy of readers waiting impatiently to have their turn at that month’s hard-to-find book discussion group selection. There was no Amazon. People waited for things.

There is the mystery of the book’s resurgent popularity between 1980 and 1983 and then three year rest between 1989 and 1992, which was a mere nap compared with the long hibernation between 7/20/1992 and 2/1/2002.

And how did it feel for this book to be lifted from the shelve on February 1, 2002? I imagine it would have seemed a kind of liberation, as if waking anew to one’s purpose after a long, dusty dream.

And, finally, the mystery of whatever checkouts we cannot see beyond 2002, an event horizon in reverse, an interregnum between present and past that we cannot imagine because the library no longer stamps date due slips.

As I am reading, all of this serves to remind that books are all infused with holy and mystical purpose, but borrowed library books, perhaps more than all others, connect us to the unseen community of other eyes, hands and minds. A date stamped library book is a talisman of time travel, connecting us in communion with the readers who came before and the readers who will come after.

This is not a thing I can easily tell people in a casual conversation standing in a hallway. So I am telling you, so you can understand and, perhaps, yourself reach for a dusty date-stamped book to borrow.

Nineteen Eighty-Four | Goodreads Review

Nineteen Eighty-FourNineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a sophomore in high school. I understood the novel then as political allegory, a dystopian fantasy of a possible, but unlikely, future. Like many Cold War kids, Oceania seemed to me an alternative future West fallen into the authoritarian trap of the Soviet Union and Communist China. I understood that Orwell wasn’t making a hard prediction about my imminent future. I was ten years old in 1984. None of that stuff had actually happened.

I recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four expecting to be newly terrified by the prescience of Orwell’s warnings. I was. Big Brother’s authoritarian regime maintains power through a combination of surveillance technologies, willfully impoverished discourse, an infinitely malleable sense of the historical record and a collective surrender of belief in historical truth.

I reread the book thinking the surveillance situation is much worse. Winston has to navigate the omnipresence of bidirectional telescreens on every wall. We carry our own personal surveillance machines in our pockets and dutifully report through the day via social media. The day after I finished reading, I saw my first ad for Facebook’s Portal, which has Muppets happily chatting away through the convenience of smart televisions converted into living room telescreens. Add Siri and Alexa. What can go wrong?

Orwell might not have imagined emoji culture, the gradual transformation of written language into a hieroglyphic soup of images and gifs. If you can’t find a suitable GIF to express a reaction to the news of the day, is your reaction really worth expressing? The Ministry of Truth might admire the efficiency with which we are thinning the dictionary for ourselves.

Finally: history, which deserves its own essay. Impossible to ignore the constant stream of news releases and press statements issuing from the White House saying the President didn’t actually say the thing we all just heard him say. And the ever shifting sand of which countries are allies and which enemies. It is enough to know that we have always been at war and will always be at war. The details of how we are fighting and why change quickly. Who can keep up?

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book written to unsettle. It does. Most unsettling, in my latest read is the ease with which people adapt to the new situation. Winston grew up in times like our own. He remembers different rules, different norms. He remembers he had a mother who loved him and a sister. He just can’t quite remember what happened to them. Society under Big Brother is a society organized to forget, to be mollified and directed. The privileged adapt most quickly because they have the most to gain.

And so, rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2019, I am thinking less about surveillance tech and government misinformation campaigns and perpetual war. I am thinking about the Two Minute Hate, that purging parade of raw emotion that unites everyone in a blind, patriotic fever. The enemy changes during the rally and no one notices. No one cares. The core values we carry as baseline assumptions for how democratic society operates — social and family bonds, rule of law, civil discourse, the value of dissent — are lost in the span of one generation. It takes one generation raised with new rules, new norms and new language, to create a generation incapable of the habits of thought that make democracy possible. They haven’t actively rejected democratic society. They can no longer imagine it.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is worth a read if you haven’t read it recently. The first half is a little bit of slog. The second half is the stuff of nightmares. Read to be disturbed. Read to become distrustful. Not only of government but distrustful of ourselves.

View all my reviews

Speed Reading: A (Hoped For) Superpower

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Whenever people ask me this question, I usually run down the traditional pros and cons of invisibility versus flying versus mind reading but the honest, actual truth is I’d choose speed reading. I would rather read three times faster than I do now (with complete recall and undiminished joy) than prowl forbidden hallways unseen beneath a Cloak of Invisibility or leap tall buildings in a single bound or peer inside the unguarded mind of friends and foes.

With the talent of speed reading, I could plow through my personal bookshelves and liberate the unread volumes from their years of dusty confinement. I could traverse my library’s bookshelves, first reading everything that interested me from the new book shelves before systematically attacking the circulating stacks in Library of Congress Classification order. First: philosophy, psychology and religion. Then: World and American History. Then: Geography and Anthropology. Next: Political science, law, education, music, fine art, language and literature, science, medicine and technology. I would weave from topic to topic, bouncing from print text to eBook and back again, setting each discipline atop the other like a foundation of well-hewn bricks. When I had digested the entire collection, I would end my journey in the Zs, which is where Library of Congress places Bibliography, or Books about Books. And I would take extravagant notes until my Goodreads account was bursting with To Read titles. And my college would have to hire two additional interlibrary loan clerks to manage the volume of my requests.

The PDF app on my iPad would rejoice whenever I pushed an article there because, at last, articles saved for eventual reading would be read. And my Pocket app for mobile would be a well-oiled machine — articles in, articles read.

It would be a joy.

And so, try to imagine the scene when I came home from work today and my wife said, “Do you want to sign up for this summer speed reading class? They meet for two hours every Monday evening in June. Its kind of expensive, but we can figure it out if you want to give it a try.”

Yes!

When the call center guy at registration asked about my goals for the program, I told him I read about 20 books each year but want to read more. My dad’s dad took a speed reading class many years ago and eventually came to read a book a day. I know because my grandfather let me scavenge his basement mounds of mass-market paperbacks. That’s where I found out about Clive Barker and Dean Koontz and Robert R. McCammon.

And so, I signed up for summer speed reading classes with the University of Tennessee non-credit program. I gave the call center guy at registration my credit card number and fully expect to gain an incredible superpower in return. I always look forward to summer but this summer is going to be extra nerdtastic. You can have your fantasies about invisibility or flying or mind-reading. I will be gaining an actual super power. I’ll be learning how to read. By August I expect to be making my way through the Top 100 Lists of the Top 100 Books About x.

And yes. You’ll be most welcome to peruse my basement.

Why We Read: A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I just finished reading an extraordinary book, Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. This post isn’t going to be a clever literary analysis or full of especially keen observations on the mechanics of a well-made story. I won’t gush on and on about the exquisite pacing, the truly-drawn characters and the subtle, satisfying twists that make this book so enjoyable. We can talk about all that some other time.

This is a thank you. I am grateful to the writer who made this story and to the friend who suggested I read it. This book found me at exactly the right time.

I am 40 years old. I am a reader. Since the age of 7, there has never been a time when I did not have at least one book in progress. There have been months and years when I have read less and more slowly than I had wanted. There have been entire years recently when I have felt my attention too scattered and dissipated to really enjoy my reading, but I have read anyway because it is a thing that I do. Reading is who I am.

This book reminds me of why I read.

I meet A.J. Fikry and recognize two things. 1: Individually, our lives are unsatisfying because they are too short and too limited. 2: We make our lives satisfying by connecting with other people. It is only by connecting our lives to other lives that we get to experience the richness and power of our purpose.

This is why we read.

We read to connect. We read to connect to the characters inside the stories. We read to connect to those people who have lived before us in other times at other places. We read to connect to the strange folk who spend their lives making up stories. We read to share ourselves with the world and to let the world share itself with us.

Life is full of plot twists. I hope it does not spoil things too much to tell you that Fikry becomes a father even though he is entirely unprepared for the experience. His life has been narrowed by loss and disappointment. He learns to make his life larger again by sharing it with his foundling daughter, Maya and through her with more and more people. As soon as he begins to open, his life grows and grows.

The novel is organized, in part, around journal entries Fikry writes for his daughter, in which he shares thoughts about the books and stories he has read. Each becomes a kind of sign post for life. The books he has read interpret the many frustrations, challenges and triumphs that make up a life. Fikry gives his daughter a love for books. In that love, she is given all the tools she needs to live a purposeful, joyful life.

As a father, I am inspired by the extraordinary gift Fikry has given his daughter. My own daughter is seven. I want her to be brave and curious and kind. I want her to feel at home in the world and help others feel at home as well. I want her life to be an adventure, full of purpose and work that demands her best attention and effort. I want her to connect deeply, as I have, with the people with whom she will share this world and with the people with whom she will share her shelves.

I am raising a reader because the world needs readers. The world needs thoughtful, reflective, curious minds tempered by generous, tender, expansive hearts.

I am grateful to this particular story at this particular moment for helping me remember.

This why I read. The world requires it.

Questions and Answers about Books I’ve Read

Being a librarian, I spend most of my working day online — email, web searches, database articles, Twitter, Facebook, a few dozen blogs. Sometimes, really fun things capture my attention, like something washed up on the shore.

Today’s web gift was this Entertainment Weekly interview with Jonathan Franzen (“Jonathan Franzen on the Books He Loves and Loathes“). I enjoyed Franzen’s The Corrections and How to Be Alone very much. The interview is fun because it reveals Franzen as a reader to be a normal guy who likes Asimov but hasn’t yet actually managed Moby-Dick.

I like these questions so much I decided to have a go at them myself just for fun. Think of this as one of those silly games people play on Facebook, except interesting because it is about books.

What was your favorite book as a child?

That’s not so easy. All the books I read as a kid tend to wash together for me. As a kid, I loved the mere act of reading more than any one specific book. When I picture myself reading as a kid, I see myself reading The Black Cauldron series by Lloyd Alexander. I don’t remember specific plots, but I remember being completely captured by the stories, and I remember the look and feel of those books very well.

What is your favorite book that you read for school?

I remember reading The Sun Also Rises several times my junior year of high school. I was knocked out that the writing was so spare and there was so much dialogue. I knew there was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that I didn’t really understand. I loved the way the story hinted at big, complicated, grown up things without coming right out and talking about them. That felt pretty true to life. The things people are willing to talk about are usually pretty trivial. If you listen carefully, people tell you more than just the things they want you to know. They end up telling you the things they need you to know.

What’s a book that really cemented you as a writer?

 Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson as a junior in high school helped me realize I could dress spiritual experiences up in words. It also made me comfortable with reaching for the big, vague ideas in my head and just keep turning them over on the page until I got the sense of what I was talking about. So much of Emerson for me is a blend between brilliance and bewilderment. He helped me learn how to toss it all in.
Is there a book you’ve read over and over again?

I have read Stephen King’s The Stand at least 6 times. It is a totem for me. My original mass market copy fell apart so I got rid of it. The copy on my shelf today is the updated trade paper edition. I miss the mass market copy with the blue cover and yellow eyes. That book was my serious friend.

What’s a classic that you’re embarrassed to say you’ve never read?

I’ve never read The Red Badge of Courage. No one ever made me. Its not an easy book to just pick up and read if no one is making you.

What’s a book you’ve pretended to have read?

I nod sometimes and smile when people talk about Red Badge of Courage.

I have only read Leaves of Grass in snippets and snatches. I’ve read the whole thing in pieces but never in one continuous run. Still, I talk about it like a single, magical experience every reader should have. That’s not really being honest.

What’s a book you consider grossly overrated?

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Don’t get it. Don’t want it. Way to many easter eggs hiding in Joyce’s work. A good book shouldn’t require a magic decoder ring.

T.S. Eliot is the same for me. To much work. Not enough substance.

What’s a recent book you wish you had written?

I was pretty knocked out by Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead. He does some really tricky things in that story that simply amaze.

What’s a movie adaptation of a book that you loved?

I haven’t read Ender’s Game but loved the movie. I’m actually not sure if I want to read the book. I’m afraid it won’t live up to the film. I’m usually the other way around about these things.

What was an illicit book that you had to read in secret as a kid?

A collection of Greek and Roman mythology. It was illustrated with line drawing and photographs of classical statuary. All of the characters were naked, which my mother thought highly inappropriate for an eight year old. There was a conversation and it was decided that the text was suitable and that I wasn’t receiving any prurient satisfaction from the nude gods, goddesses and heros. Pretty tame stuff. Naked bodies were uncommon in my home. We didn’t even subscribe to National Geographic.

I realized from this small controversy that my mom couldn’t handle the more disturbing stuff I read later as a teen. I had to hide my Clive Barker graphic novels. They were everything bad — naked, demented and, occasionally, I suppose, depraved. I got them from a friend who got them from a comic shop in Nashville. They weren’t easy to get. I cherished them for the garish green sticker on the covers that read: “Not suitable for children. This is intended only for adults.” Super fantastic stuff.

What’s a book that people might be surprised to learn that you loved?

Native Son by Richard Wright. Not sure why, but people seem really surprised when I mention how much I enjoyed it.

If there were only one genre you could read for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I think I could satisfy myself by reading only science fiction from now on. The quality of ideas in good science fiction excites me. There’s no better way than science fiction to talk about the ways we live our lives today.

What was the last book that made you laugh out loud, and what was the last one that made you cry?

Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House has some wonderfully funny stories in it.

Room by Emma Donough choked me up a bit. I didn’t cry. If I did, nobody saw me and can’t prove anything.

What are you reading right now?

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

Okay. That was fun. Now, its your turn. I’d enjoy hearing your take on any or all of these questions. Post comments here or blog them and post the link.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (book review)

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a short, savage, surreal meditation on the fate of women in fairy tales. A few of the stories succeed brilliantly. Most fall short. This is a collection of stories about men, women and the ways in which innocence is sometimes given, but more often taken. It is violent, bloody and sometimes vile. It is also, at turns, beautiful. Sometimes painfully so.

The men are beasts — lecherous, gluttonous, power-mad. As is often the case in fairy tales, the women are sacrificial virgins offered to sate the voracious appetites of terrible monsters. Sometimes, the women are ruined by failed, disastrous relationships. Sometimes, the women are rescued, Occasionally, the women give themselves over to their own transformations and become strange, beautiful, savage creatures in their own right.

The best story is the title story, which is a magically realistic retelling of The Beauty and the Beast. “The Company of Wolves” is also terrific. Wolves feature prominently throughout the stories — lycanthropes, condemned souls and a few strange twists on the Red Riding Hood theme.

There are plenty of wonders throughout the book and some really powerful imagery. Most generally, the writing is too heavy, packed tight with  arcane description. This collection of stories aspires to transport the reader. Skim through. It is a short book but I found myself taking a long time to read it. I pushed my way through. I was not carried.

The Best Dads List

I have a great dad. I hope you do, too.

So many of the values I carry with me come from behaviors and beliefs my father modeled. My dad taught me to be respectful, tolerant, and curious. He taught me to enjoy doing hard things, to set high expectations for myself and not settle for less than my personal best. He also modeled patience, but I’m not sure that one stuck.

I’ll write more about my dad in a later post. Tonight, I am thinking about great dads in literature. These are the dads we get to adopt from our reading. Aspirational dads who offer enduring examples of what it means to be a father.

Here’s the start:

  1. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird — He’s a obvious choice, I realize, but there is really no better example of a dad who is calm, rational and able to use the experiences of everyday life to create lasting moral lessons. Atticus is an exemplar for his kids. They don’t, of course, realize how special he is until they get some distance. When my daughter was born, a friend gave me a paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird wrapped in a homemade cover that read A Gentleman’s to Fatherhood. She was right.
  2. Oskar Schell’s dad in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close — We never meet Oskar’s father. He dies in the World Trade Center collapse before the book begins. Still, the memory of his father’s life and the trauma of his loss motivate Oskar on a quest of discovery that brings him into greater awareness of the world and how it really works. Our fathers set us on paths to become the people the world needs us to be.
  3. The dad in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — The world we knew is gone, destroyed by war and nuclear winter. Civilization has collapsed. The survivors are crazed, amoral cannibals bent on destruction disguised as survival. The father shephards his son on a walk across the country in hopes of finding some better life. There is no reason to believe they will find it but the father keeps them alive, moving forward and, above all, protects the innocence and hope in his son because he knows his son is going to need that hope to help build a new world. In the event of nuclear catastrophe or zombie apocalypse, this is the kind of dad I hope I could be.

That’s my start. Let’s make this a team sport. What dads from literature inspire you?

 

Marginalia

A colleague I respect very much died a few weeks ago. He taught history. We were friendly but never close. We rarely found ourselves in the same place at the same time. I never made an effort to correct that. I should have.

He loved books and the way books carry ideas from one person to another across time, across space. He loved books as physical things and wrote in the margins of the books he was digesting.

Before he died, he left a few books from his collection to my library. I am reading one of his those books now because I want to enjoy something that he enjoyed and want to benefit from the notes he left behind.

I am reading Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is a personal favorite of mine, though I sometime find it difficult to explain why. My daughter, Emersey, takes her name from Emerson. Emerson was the subject of the first lecture I ever gave. I was a senior in high school.

Emerson is difficult. I struggle with him a lot. Sometimes he writes in oversimplistic aphorisms. At other times, he relishes long, overly florid abstractions that do not connect to reality. He is optimistic but often lapses into outright manic idealism. His philosophical work with Plato, Kant and Hume is beyond my grasp. His religious ideals are just plain silly.

And yet, I am drawn to Emerson. I keep pressing my mind against his prose, believing there is something profoundly rewarding at work in there. Emerson celebrates direct experience. He requires scholarship to have a purpose. He sees poetry and art as a vehicle of transcendence. He understands that religious salvation is about the here and now, rather than the hereafter.

We are kindred spirits, though we do not yet understand one another very well. I keep working with him, and he, I believe, with me.

We are both prone to extremes. We both struggle with ideas as a necessary precondition for experience. We both find refuge in nature but believe our times are moving toward an extraordinary manifestation of greatness. We are patriots in that we believe the genius of our country is in finding and feeding the spirit of creativity and innovation. Emerson wrote during the ascendancy of this genius. I am uncertain if I am writing closer toward it apex or if that spirit has crested and now makes it slow descent.

Emerson wrestled with the ancients — Plato, Jesus, Socrates.

Emerson speaks to the 21st century. I am not yet sure what he is saying.

All of this sits in my mind as I read through the pages that my now gone colleague also read. I see the lines that he underscored and the words scribbled in the margins. He read this book mostly as an attempt to tie earlier influences to Emerson’s later works. He notes passages from journals that correspond to later essays. His notes are not profound. They are thin and few. They stop 105 pages in.

I want to ask why he stopped making notes there. Did he not finish beyond that point? Did he stop making the connections solid with notation? Later this evening, I will have read past the point where he stopped keeping notes. I will keep going, enjoying this one last connection we share to a thinker we both admire. It is enjoyable to hold this book he held and consider the value of things he thought worth noting. I will keep going and I will want to ask him, why this note? Why not this?

I will want to ask him why he thinks Emerson matters and what we should be taking from him that can be a benefit to everyone else.

But I can’t ask these questions. It is one way conversation. I have his book, scratched partway through with marginalia. It is insubstantial, not enough. I am on my own to explore this life that matters, for some reason, to both of us. I wish I could explain better why I feel such a responsibility to work with Emerson and why it is a comfort to know that, at least for a little while, I had a companion traveling the same road.

Year of Writing Dangerously by Barbara Abercrombie (book review)

This blog was never supposed to be about writing. Still, I  have been thinking and writing a lot about writing lately. This blog has put me in touch with a community of people are also thinking and writing a lot about writing. We are always seeking inspiration, communion and support. To those friends, I recommend Barbara Abercrombie’s Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration & Encouragement

As the title suggests, it is basically intended as a year-long writer’s toolkit for inspiration. I read it in 3 days. The entries are short — one or two pages for each day. Abercrombie provides practical, encouraging advice for writers. She does not pander or become too precious. She appreciates that writing is a struggle but doesn’t get wrapped up in the romance of that struggle.

She offers great quotes and stories from effective writers from across time. She blends their advice into a few basic tennets:

  • People who want to write better or write professionally must write every day.
  • Writers must read a lot.
  • Writers need a support network of disinterested peers who can criticize in a positive, ruthless manner.
  • Family members should not read what we write until the work is published and it is too late to turn back or make changes.
  • The best writing results from taking bad stuff out more than from adding good stuff in.
  • Unfortunately, it is as difficult to write a really bad book as it is is to write a really good book.
  • Always finish. Unless you can’t. Then don’t finish.
  • Find your process and stick with it. What works for others may not work for you. There is no recipe.

abercrombie-final.inddThe appendix offers the gift of 52 writing prompts to unstick stuck writers. They are pretty good.

Just a few pages into the book made me feel like writing. If you write or spend lots of time thinking about writing, you will enjoy this book very much.

On Monsters by Stephen Asma | Book Review

Stephen Asma’s On Monsters offers an enjoyable, if somewhat fractured, survey of monsterology through the ages. Monsters pre-date horror films and ghost stories. The concept of the “monstrous” has always been part of human experience. Each age understands monsters differently. The first half of On Monsters explores evolving understandings of monsters. In general, monsters stand outside normal experience. Monsters personify those things we do not or cannot understand. Monsters are a manifest acknowledgement of the limits of human understanding. As these limits change, our monsters change. Monsters dwell in the places we believe to be unknowable.

For the ancients, the unknowable places were empty spots on the map. This gave us the great sea monsters and terrible, cannibalistic races that inhabited the oceans and unfamiliar continents.

In Biblical times, monsters were agents of God, mysterious and unfathomable. Think Leviathan.

The earliest monsters were thought to be part of the natural order. They walked among us and lived in places we could not or should not go.

Medieval monsters were supernatural – witches and demons. They didn’t live in a special place of their own. They lived everywhere and regularly intervened in the lives of the non-righteous.

With the Enlightenment, came the medical fascination with mutation and physical aberration in the human family. “Monsters” were no longer mythical. They were miscreants, captured and preserved in jars, and offering a measure of enjoyable frisson for collectors of oddities and the paying customers of these collections. The Mutter Museum is one of the most famous collections.

Over the past 200 years or so, our ideas about monsters have become internalized and have represented what we believe we cannot understand about ourselves. Modern times have been preoccupied with psychological monsters, like serial killers, tyrants and sociopaths.

Asma is at his best theorizing on the horror genre as the “art of human vulnerability”. He is particularly clever in his discussion of slasher films and “torture porn” and how they either explore or exploit the understood limits of human vulnerability to either empower or debase.

The second half of the book is less successful. Asma struggles with contemporary notions of the monstrous in the fields of cosmetic surgery, terrorism, robots and cyborgs. This is fertile ground for exploration but he does not bring these threads to any satisfying conclusion.

For most of human history, monsters were aberrations from the intended order of things. With the advent of biotechnologies and cybernetics we are faced with the possibility that there may be no final intended order of things. If there is no intended order to things, then some would suggest there can be no monsters. Everything becomes monstrous. Asma does not reject the promise of the new technologies to improve the quality of human life. But neither is he willing to abandon the concept of the monstrous as a useful indication of something still somewhat poorly defined.