Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Author, Hero

When I was still a teenager, when I was beginning to move away from the various worlds of science fiction and fantasy that occupied my imagination, when I began to leave the acid washed pages of my comic books behind, as I was moving past the authors I had been introduced to in school, the so-called American novelists, such as Lewis, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, it was then that I discovered Dostoyevsky, and a whole new dimension of literature became open to me.

This was the crossroads where literature became philosophy, and the human condition was laid bare.

Through the great Russian novelist I came to understand the power of narrative, its effectiveness at conveying certain truths that no human being can escape the grip of, and for whatever reason there are no authors more adept at this function than the Russian’s, with Fyodor Dostoyevsky being the foremost practitioner of this craft.

His influence on me was profound.

From Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground, to The Idiot and the Brothers Karamozov, which are perhaps his most famous works in English, I spent years reading his corpus, all the way through my twenties and into my thirties I tracked down his cannon, until I was left with translations of his notebooks to read…which I did.

I purchased the notebook for A Raw Youth at a used bookstore in Minneapolis (Majors and Quinn), one summer when I was on leave from the Navy. It was the first of these that I discovered; in those pages I could see the way Dostoyevsky constructed the arc of his stories, how he developed his characters from ego to id, from false-self to true-self, from, privilege to despair.  

I also found an Imperial Ruble, tucked into its pages, a bookmark left behind by whoever was last to read to it.

The note was wrinkled and faded but still a treasure to me.

When I discovered Dostoyevsky I came to consider him as the father of existentialism, and through him I learned to love Dickens, who Dostoyevsky considered to be the greatest author of all time.

It has been one hundred and forty years since Dostoyevsky went down into the dirt, his influence has not waned, and we have not changed, his insight into the dilemma of human existence remains, I think it is even more pertinent in this—the digital age.

Ursula K. Le Guinn – Author, Hero

It has been three years since this great woman and thinker moved on to the next world; she was a hero of mine.

The first book of hers I read was a novella titled The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction book, but it was so much more. Through this short piece she spoke to me about the nature of reality, the function of consciousness, of what it means to be a human being.

She took the title from the writings of the Taoist, Chuang Tzu (book 23, paragraph 7):

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do so will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven ~

Her book, which both dramatized this sentiment and recapitulated this warning took me outside of myself and allowed me to see the whole-world in a different way.

I was fifteen years old at the time, and without realizing it I found that I had been introduced to Taoism (the esoteric tradition), which provided me with a perspective that would subsequently shape the future course of my life.

I read many other books and articles written by this great lady. When I was in the Navy I found great comfort in the Earth Sea Chronicles, a series of four books in which she introduced a hero whose greatest enemy was himself, but not himself exactly; his enemy was the specter and shadow of guilt that most, if not all, human beings carry with them, because we are unable to ask for and accept forgiveness for the things we have done that have hurt or harmed those near to us, even their adversaries, because we are not able to forgive ourselves.

These books were so simple and brief that they could really be seen as fairytales for children to read, and indeed they can be read on that level, but her stories were so masterfully crafted that adults will find them even more engaging for the depth that is present right below the surface.   

Three years ago this great luminaries departed from our world, leaving a legacy of literature to light the way for us.

We need this light more than ever; if we liken our civilization to a garden the garden we live in has been long under shadow. The fruit of our progress has been drying on the vine, fellowship and common purpose have suffered accordingly. We need these heroes, women and men like Ursula Le Guinn to light the way, to bring us to the edge of the cloud of unknowing, to usher us into the mysteries that are hidden in the mist.

Doris Lessing – Author, Nobel Laureate

I first encountered Doris Lessing’s writing when I was serving in the Navy, stationed at the Naval Hospital at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina.

I plucked one of her books off the shelf in the library, having no idea who she was or how significant her work had been to twentieth century literature.

The book I selected was from her science fiction series, Canopus in Argos, I took the first book in that five part series off the shelf, titled: Shikasta and I read it over the next few days.

Reading Shikasta filled me with a kind of existential pique. Her characters were so real, the questions they grappled were profound, especially to me at that time in my life, and the response she gave to those questions moved me.

Through her characters she addressed the philosophical questions and fundamental truths that mattered to me most:

What is the nature of reality?

What is the purpose of existence?

What is the meaning of life?

Doris Lessing did not attempt to answer these questions the way that a philosopher would, by presenting a set of propositions with arguments for and against, laid out in a treatise or an essay.

She presents them in narrative, through the choices her characters make and the consequences they face, and the way they reflect on them.

I soon discovered how influential she was in English departments all around the world. Every literature major I met was familiar with her famous work, The Golden Notebook.

As I read more deeply into her collection, I found myself more interested in her examination of more subversive topics, Memoirs of a Survivor, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and The Good Terrorist.

It was then that I discovered how much of a radical this woman had been, and I was grateful to have been able to encounter her through her literature.

She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.

Given First – 2020.11.17

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien – Author

I learned how to read novels by reading Tolkien.

 

My mother had a beautiful edition of The Hobbit, hard bound in a green case with gold leaf and gilt pages. There were lovely illustrations in the book, and maps drawn by the author himself.

 

I pulled it off the shelf when I was in the third grade and I read it. Then I read the Lord of the Rings, followed by the Silmarillion, his Unfinished Tales edited by his son Christopher, and then a biography of the man himself.

 

Before I began to read his other works, I began to re-read those books. I read them all, many times over: eight, nine, ten times.

 

I remember a sensation I had on my third time through the Silmarillion, I experienced a heightened sense of understanding that came to me because I had become a better reader. It wasn’t just that I was re-reading the same material, but my vocabulary had expanded and I was able to comprehend more of the material.

 

The picture was filling in and the world that Tolkien created was coming to life.

 

I added his smaller lesser known works to the corpus of material I consumed, when I was still in the seventh grade I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Beowulf. These works resonated with my other reading interests, such as the collected and various tales of King Arthur, they also put me in touch with the broader tradition of the Viking sagas.

 

Then I began to read books about Tolkien and Middle Earth written or compiled by other authors, The Tolkien Companion, the New Tolkien Companion, along with various encyclopedias, bestiaries and anthologies depicting the arms and armor of Middle Earth.

 

Reading Tolkien put the idea in my head that I wanted to be a writer. Reading his work over and over again gave me a deep appreciation for the care and the craft he put into the work of devising his fantasy world.

 

Through Tolkien I came to have an early appreciation for the power of myths, their malleability, and the potential that we have as creative people to fashion our own myths and communicate them to the broader world.

 

Through his writing Tolkien dramatized the basic conflicts he saw at work in our civilization, conflicts between the bucolic and pastoral life with the forces of industry that seemed to be destroying the planet, the disasters of modern warfare and the suffering they visit on the world.

 

The collected stories of Middle Earth are a form of social criticism that is more relevant than ever in the twenty-first century.

 

Tolkien 

 

Given First – 2020.09.02

Alexander Solzhenitsyn – Author, Nobel Laureate

Solzhenitsyn is the greatest Russian author of all time, even greater than the master Dostoyevsky, and believe me when I say it, this is not a trifling estimation.

 

I first encountered his classic novella, A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I was in my late teens. It was just a little book, it could be read in an afternoon, but it was heavy and it was deep.

 

In my early twenties I was still heavily involved with reading other parts of the Russian cannon and I was slow to get to Solzhenitsyn’s other writings, like the famous Gulag Archipelago for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, when I came to it, I found it life changing.

 

Solzhenitsyn thought of the Archipelago as more of an exercise in journalism than literature, he was surprised by how well it was received, though he should not have been because its principle achievement, was to personalize the gulag experience which he was able to do because he himself had been a victim of it.

 

He put a human face on all of that collected suffering which touched the lives of every citizen of Russia and the Soviet Union, in one way or another.

 

Solzhenitsyn was born in Russia, in 1918 just after the Bolshevik Revolution. He served in the Russian Army during World War II. In 1944 he was decorated for valor in combat, and Awarded the Order of the Red Star, but in 1945 he arrested for saying derogatory things about the government in his personal letters to a friend, after which he spent eight years in the gulags.

 

Surviving World War II and the Russian gulags is itself a heroic feat, and his status as a Nobel Laureate is another thing that marks him as a person of significance, but what makes Solzhenitsyn a hero is his insight into human nature and his profound ability to communicate that insight through the power of prose.

 

In my late twenties and early thirties I began to read other books by him, October 1914, and The First Circle. I was awed by the way in which he could present the myriad of forces; sociatal, intellectual, spiritual and emotional that comprise an individual’s motivations, and shape their intentions, he portrayed the movement of those currents in a way that made poetry out of the lives of characters…even the most ordinary lives, even the most heinous and cruel, and because he was so adept at humanizing the characters in his novels, he allowed his reader to expand their own view of the world so that it included his, and the reader is made a better person for having read him.

 

Solzheinitsyn

 

Given First – 2020.08.03

Brenda Ueland – Author

Brenda Ueland

Brenda lived most of her life, writing and teaching in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the city where I grew up, within a mile or two of where I have lived most of my life.

I was well into my forties before I even knew who she was, but from the moment I read her book: If You Want to Write I knew that I had found a mentor whose simple prose and honesty could guide me in the maturation of my own work.

Brenda, taught writing at the YWCA, she published a memoir about her life growing up in Minneapolis. She wrote for local newspapers and magazines.

She was born at the end of the nineteenth century and lived out her twenties in New York City. She was connected to various movements in art, literature and politics. She was a proto-feminist and revolutionary thinker, and she came to all of that with a simple self-assuredness that was her defining characteristic.

This is why she is a hero to me.

In her teaching, which she summarized in her treatise on writing, she offered the most basic advice to her students: she told them to find their own voice and write from there.

She encouraged her students to simply be themselves, to tell their stories with the written word as if they were speaking to their closest friend, to shout when they are shouting to whisper in the time of whispering.

She told them to be true to themselves, to write with authenticity, because the reader will know if they are faking it.

She encouraged her students to listen to themselves, to become familiar with the sound of their own voice.

Her book on writing had been out of print for nearly forty years until, a few years after her death in the 1980’s, it went back into production and became a best seller.

Like Brenda herself, her book was ahead of its time.
Given First – 2020.03.05

Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Author

When I was still a teenager and began to move away from reading science fiction, fantasy, and my comic books, when I got past the authors I had been introduced to in school, the so-called American Classics such as Lewis, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, it was then that I discovered Dostoyevsky.

A whole new dimension of literature opened up to me, literature became philosophy.

Through the great Russian novelist I came to understand the power of narrative, and its effectiveness at conveying certain truths that are universal to the human condition.

For whatever reason there are no authors more adept at this function than the Russian’s, with Dostoyevsky being the foremost at the craft.

His influence on me was profound.

From Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground, to The Idiot and the Brothers Karamozov, which are perhaps his most famous works in English, I spent years all through my twenties and into my thirties tracking down his cannon, until I was left with translations of his notebooks to read, which I did.

I purchased the notebook for A Raw Youth, at a used bookstore in Minneapolis (Majors and Quinn). It was the first one that I discovered, In its pages I could see the way he constructed the arc of his stories, and developed his characters from ego to id, and I found an Imperial Ruble, tucked into its pages, a bookmark left behind by whoever was last to read to it.

The note was wrinkled and faded but still a treasure to me.

I considered Dostoyevsky to be the father of existentialism, and through him I learned to love Dickens, who Dostoyevsky considered to be the greatest author of all time.

It has been one hundred and thirty-nine years since he died, and his influence has not waned.
Given First – 2020.02.09

Dostoyevsky

Reflection – Ursula K. Le Guinn, Author

Ursula K. Le Guinn

It has been two years since this great thinker moved on to the next world.

She was a hero of mine.

The first book of hers that I ever read was titled The Lathe of Heaven. It was science fiction, but it was so much more. The book spoke to me about the nature of reality, of consciousness, of what it means to be a human being.

She took the title from the writings of the Taoist, Chuang Tzu (book 23, paragraph 7):

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven ~

Her book, which then recapitulated this warning, took me outside of myself and allowed me to see the world in a different way.

I was sixteen years old at the time, and without realizing it I found that I had been introduced to Taoism (the esoteric tradition), which provided me with a perspective that would shape the course of my life.

I read many other books and articles written by this great lady. When I was in the Navy I found great comfort in the Earth Sea Chronicles, in which she introduced a hero whose greatest enemy was himself, but not himself exactly; his enemy was the shadow of guilt that most if not all human beings carry with them, because they are unable to ask for and accept forgiveness for the things they have done that have hurt or harmed other people, even their adversaries, because they are not able to forgive themselves.

They books were so simple and brief that they could really be seen as fairytales for children to read, and indeed they can be read on that level, but the story is so masterfully crafted that its depth lingers right below the surface.

Two years ago today one of our great luminaries departed from our world, leaving a legacy of literature to light the way for us.
Given First – 2020.01.22