The Road to Character

This is not a preachy post, don’t worry. This is a book I am currently reading. I have had this book on my shelf for some time now. I’ve also heard a lot of people talking about it, and some YouTubers I really like also recommend this book – so I always meant to read it, I just couldn’t find the time. Oh wait, now that I have used this phrase let me tell you what I think about it. I despise people who constantly keep saying “I couldn’t find the time”, myself included. Some of us are busier than others sure, I accept that. I am not saying all of us have equal freedom in distributing our time as we please. What I dislike about the people who say this (again, I am including myself in this list) is that these are often also the people who like the idea of being busy. You know the sort. The kind of people who wear their schedules on their sleeve like some masochistic badge of honour. The kind of people who brag about how little they sleep, or how their kids have forgotten what they look like, or the ones who constantly joke about having to get a divorce because they work so hard. I always associate this phrase with that brand of unlikeable human being – and so I’ve come to dislike the phrase too.

The thing that pushed me to read this book before its time (I had a bunch of other books lined up before I was going to touch this book) was my dog. He’s a cutie but a bit of a menace. Of all the things he could have developed a fondness for, he likes chewing up books. Well, actually paper, but that includes books too. Older and mustier books are his favourite. Those we have to keep out of his reach. But the ones he can reach, he does take time out from his busy schedule of terrorising everyone at home to get some quick reading (chewing) done. He had already ripped the cover in half when I rescued the book from him. I have decided to finish the book before he completely destroys it (for some reason he remembers the books he has started eating and always prefers to go back to those books before picking out new ones).

The premise of the book is that there are different aspects of our personality – what the author calls our Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the outer self focused on worldly accomplishments like good grades, a high paying career and what not. Adam II is the more sedate inner self that isn’t really focused on all of this. What Adam II wants instead is to like itself for nobler qualities – like being a dependable person, being a humble person, having faith in yourself that you are living life according to principles you hold dear. We need to nourish both Adams in order to live a fulfilling life.

The book challenges our newfound ideas of ‘authenticity’ and says people nowadays focus too much on their internal cues and not enough on their circumstances or external cues. We spend so much time thinking about what we want, how we can make ourselves happy, how we can be the most ‘authentic’ version of ourselves, that we forget to focus on some of the more important aspects of our personality, things that are not necessarily determined by our internal strife. Basically, this idea of ‘Big Me’ has taken over our lives when in fact other qualities (such as humility, hard work for the sake of hard work, helping others, having a purpose in life other than yourself) are more likely to make us happy. But what is “happy”? The book says happiness is so often associated with a fleeting emotion of positivity or giddiness, when in fact, it is more like a long lasting contentment and pride in yourself.

I like the way in which the book highlights different versions of what a ‘fulfilling life’ looks like by talking about real world examples of people who have lived according to their Adam II principles. I like how the book doesn’t just set out one kind of successful life. The author doesn’t sugarcoat anything either – it isn’t as though if you live as per Adam II you’re going to have an easy life. Most of the times you’re not. Like the first woman he talks about has a very successful and long political career, but this comes at a great personal cost. The second woman he talks about isn’t even what we would consider to be a ‘conventionally successful’ person. She had no public life. Her only claim to fame is being the mother of a president of the United States. Her Adam II shines through in how she has raised her children and how they carry with them the lessons she teaches them throughout.

What I like best is that it reinforces the idea that life is a single player game, and everything outside of your head is just white noise. Faith seems to be quite central to having any sort of meaning in your life.

Little girls, big monsters

I recently started watching ‘Foundation‘ – a series based on a set of books by the same name by Isaac Asimov. I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi movies and novels, but I’m really feeling this new one. I like the premise of it – the prediction of the ultimate demise of a civilisation. I haven’t read the novels yet, but after having seen the series (at least the first two episodes) I think I know my next book purchase. I’ll admit, the fact that Lee Pace plays Brother Day (the emperor) is a big reason why I’m enjoying the show so much.

I still haven’t gotten over my obsessive need to research books and find out what everyone else thinks about them before I buy them – and so I’ve been on forums discussing this series too. While going down the rabbit hole, I landed on a book club discussion with Margaret Atwood on her book Cat’s Eye. A bit of a jump from science fiction I know.

Now Atwood is a favourite of mine, and I finished reading Cat’s Eye very recently (I think I mentioned it on this blog as well). On the fact of it, the novel is about friendships and bullying, and how often the two coincide in the same person. More than anything though, the book is about time, and specifically what it does to our memory. The things we remember. This is how Atwood describes it, and honestly, now that I’ve heard her say it, it makes a lot of sense. It is a book about the ravages of time. What seem like huge crises when they are happening are barely remembered later on. Especially the childhood stuff.

I don’t like how a lot of people insist on talking about childhood as the happiest time of our lives. I don’t know about the rest of you, but the only reason I look back on my childhood with any fondness is because I have forgotten most of it. This is not to say that I had a bad childhood – on the contrary, my parents did everything they could to make sure I have a good one. But, I also think that experiences are a lot scarier as a child because everything is happening to you for the first time. You have no precedent for any of the stuff that happens to you, and while this makes your enjoyment in the new more pronounced, it also makes the bad things really bad. And the thing is, as a child, not many of your concerns will get taken seriously. Everyone else is a giant, and they seem (or at least seemed to me) to be very unconcerned with things that go on in a child’s life for the most part. I speak for myself here, but I think I have only become happier as I have grown older.

When asked to talk about what the book is primarily about, Atwood responds by saying it is a book that shows that little girls are not “sugar, spice and everything nice.” There is a great line in the book which sums this sentiment up, “little girls are only cute and small to outsiders, to each other they are life sized.”

A question Atwood gets asked quite often is how she reconciles the character of Cordelia (the antagonist and childhood bully) with the feminist aspects of her writing. The response – what does feminist aspect even mean? If you think about it, for the longest time, women have been allowed to inhabit one of two characters according to Atwood – the whore or the angel. All the grey area in the middle is usually reserved for men. Male characters are allowed to have layers because they are treated as human beings. Atwood says her characters are simply human beings, and so it is more than natural that some of the women might be grey. I’ve heard this sentiment before too, when a lot of people were asking George R.R. Martin how he manages to write female characters so well and give them so much depth. His reply was similar – he said he treats them like human beings. And thank god he did. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the absolute joy of a character that is Cersei Lannister.

But I don’t think this discussion on the kind of spaces females are allowed to habit are limited to fiction. Even in the treatment of real women, I’ve seen mainstream media try to fit them into one of these two moulds often. Like the discussion on Elisabeth Holmes (of the Theranos fame). I remember how the discourse on this woman went from all positive (a genius) to all negative (the worst kind of scam artist, someone who would intentionally get pregnant in the middle of a court case to delay the proceedings). But if you contrast this with the treatment of men who have had a similar fall from grace you’ll see what I mean. Take Dominic Strauss-Khan for example. I saw the documentary on his case (available on Netflix I think) a while back. Throughout the documentary, numerous people, whenever they mentioned his predatory behaviour (let’s be polite for a minute) would almost always mention how he was a great economist, or how save for this one fault he was a great man. You see what I mean? Layers and complexities of character that are so readily accepted in a man seem unfathomable in women. When in fact, it should be the opposite if anything. In the words of Granny from Downton Abbey, “I am allowed to be contrary precisely because I am a woman.”

Fitzgerald in a bookstore

In the book I am reading right now, the best friend, or at least one of the friends, comments that all authors should write books as if they were going to be beheaded the day they finished writing. Extreme, yes. But what a thought. The book is called ‘This Side of Paradise’ by G. Scott Fitzgerald. It is quite famous, so I’m sure this is not the first time you’re hearing of it. It is one of those books everyone knows about, and that adds just the right amount of sophistication and distinction to your conversation if you ever mention it in polite company – regardless of whether or not you’ve actually read it. I’ve known about it for sometime. But having read the book Fitzgerald is best known for (The Great Gatsby), I never really felt any real need to check out his other books in a hurry.

I picked out this book by chance. I was away from home on a family holiday where I visited a small and fairly unknown bookstore that sells old used books. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve wanted to get into the habit of buying second-hand books and buying books without knowing much about the book or the author (if you’ve been around for some time you know I like to do a lot of research before committing to a literary purchase). Visiting this bookstore seemed like the perfect opportunity to test out my new shopping resolution. I failed, quite miserably. I saw a lot of old books, books without names, books where the name of the author was faded or scratched out, and most importantly, books that did not have a summary. I picked them up and read through them, and some of them seemed quite interesting too. But I just couldn’t get myself to buy any of those titles. Maybe in some time. So, anyway, after spending about two hours searching for books to buy, I landed up on the modern classics section and I ended up picking up authors I had heard of but not necessarily read before. Like, did you know that there was a third Bronte sister? Anne. She wrote a book too, though her achievements (clearly) almost always get overshadowed by those of her more famous sisters. Apart from the fact that I find such concentration of talent in one family mildly upsetting, this was news to me (I picked up her book too – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

Now unlike Anne, Fitzgerald is a a literary giant. I’ve read his work before, and I enjoyed it. Plus I was getting out of a Gossip Girl re-watch phase so I decided to give his book (his first novel) a shot. Don’t get thrown off by the Gossip Girl reference. It isn’t as random as it seems. The character Dan Humphrey is a loose retelling of the character of Fitzgerald himself, and the world Gossip Girl creates is also reminiscent of the worlds our author is obsessed with, and describes in all his books (some variation of, at least). Now I will be honest with you, I probably came across this theory somewhere a while back, but I can’t remember the source, so I’m just telling you what I remember. Please feel free to discuss and analyse this comparison as much as you want, and let me know if you disagree with me. Dan is Fitzgerald in that he is obsessed with the lives of the super-wealthy, and is constantly insecure because he has no access to it, to them. So, he does the only thing he can think of, and writes himself into this world of obnoxious privilege. Suddenly makes Gossip Girl look intelligent does it not?

Apart from the fact that I wanted to sound exciting in drawing room conversations and the Gossip Girl comparison, I was also interested in this book because a lot of people say it is semi-autobiographical. Amory (the main character) is supposed to be Fitzgerald. He wrote the novel in a rush too, because his marriage to Zelda (an extremely fascinating character in her own right – and the author of some of Fitzgerald’s better works according to some conspiracy theories) depended on his publishing this book. Plus the book celebrated a 100 years last year I think. With all this background, I am determined to get as much enjoyment as I possibly can from this book.

I’m halfway through right now. The first reaction I have to this book is one of alienation. I knew what I was getting into – the frivolous lives of the elite full of their imagined difficulties made worse by their inconstant temperaments. Even with that in mind, something about the book just isn’t sitting right with me. I love superficial characters. I love characters that are so fundamentally flawed they have to spend the entire novel justifying themselves. But even I find it difficult to like Amory. It isn’t just that he is conceited. He is also vapid in a lot of ways. Plus I think the pandemic has something to do with it. If I had read this novel when all the clubs were open I might have enjoyed it more. I might have even tried to relate to it, and tried to be as superficially condescending as our protagonist is. But because I am stuck at home, and because there has been a massive shift in my perspective, I just don’t find the book enjoyable. The dialogues all seem like a bunch of close friends are discussing issues you have no business, and moreover, no interest in listening to. The whole affair seems like a dull party that you only ended up attending because you had nothing better on your social calendar. There is some voyeuristic pleasure in looking into their lives yes, but I don’t know why everyone hails this as one of the best novels in modern literature. At best, it is just okay. Maybe I will change my mind when I finish the book.

Other books I bought –

  1. Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  2. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Beautiful and the Damned
  3. Margaret Atwood – Cat’s Eye
  4. V. S. Naipaul – A Turn in the South
  5. A.S. Byatt – Possession