Descent Into Hell
Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams, 2/5
I’m not going to lie: I had absolutely no idea what the heck was going on for large portions of this novel and ran immediately to Google after finishing it to see what overarching themes I was too oblivious to comprehend. I guess it says something that the most helpful-looking analyses were hidden behind academic paywalls…
Undoubtedly, Williams had a more coherent vision than what he communicates through the overlapping stories of a saintly poet, an orphan haunted by her doppelgänger, the ghost of a past suicide, and a historian who creates a succubus from pure ego, among others. In retrospect, it is surprising that a novel with so many interesting characters could have so little plot and so many tedious passages of incomprehensible spiritual imagery. There are several places in which Williams purposefully disintegrates the English language in what I can only guess is an approximation of what having a stroke would feel like.
All in all, not my favorite reading experience, though with themes like art, sacrificial love, death, and the sin of self-absorption, I can understand how it might resonate better with other people or at another time.
Why I read it: the last of Williams’ seven “novels of the supernatural” I had left, since starting with All Hallows’ Eve.
Think and Grow Rich
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, 2/5
Just from the title and short author bio on the cover flap, I expected this book to be pure baloney, but I never expected to encounter such a bizarre combination of sound psychological principles, medieval science, “New Thought” spirituality, and grandiose (though entirely unsubstantiated) personal anecdotes.
First, the bad: Napoleon Hill was undoubtedly a committed conman and lifelong liar. Even if you don’t believe all of the unsavory claims in Matt Novak’s extensive exposé of Hill’s life (warning: it’s an almost 20,000-word monster of an article that will suck you in from beginning to end), you would have to be very credulous indeed not to spot numerous red flags that indicate the questionable character, yet unquestionable audacity, of Napoleon Hill. His main claim to credibility hinges on close personal association with an impudent list of famous, well-respected figures such as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and multiple U.S. presidents. Unfortunately, all detailed records of these relationships were allegedly destroyed in a fire (eye roll) and Hill was wise enough to save his stories until the people in question were dead and thus unable to contradict his incredible claims. Even the tale he tells in Think and Grow Rich of his own son, born without ears but allegedly made to hear by the single-minded positivity that is a central tenet of the book, is at complete odds with a later article in which he credits chiropractics alone as the miraculous cure.
Despite the author’s personal shortcomings, this book is strangely motivating and encourages many proven strategies for success, such as goal-setting, visualization, positive thinking, forming good habits, and collaboration. If you can get past the mysticism and pseudoscience, there are some good things to be gleaned. For example, while I don’t agree with the extent to which Hill credits misfortune to negative thinking, I did feel challenged to reconsider the effect that negative thoughts might have on my life. For some reason, I can easily see the benefit of positive thinking, but view negativity as somehow neutral, which is clearly not the case.
Why I read it: Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rafael Lovato Jr. mentioned it in an interview.
Of Mice and Men
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, 3/5
It is embarrassing to admit, but I really don’t understand why this novella is so famous and respected. Is it merely because of the shocking ending? The fact that it was censored by many schools? Besides the linguistic value of the dialogue, which can be presumed to accurately represent the spoken English of a certain time and social class, I found little else to recommend this simple story. Yes, it is competently written, has some nice imagery and a few touching scenes, but by the end the main sensation it inspired was the question “Why?” As in, “Why was this even written? Why would anyone want to read it?” Now there are many works of literature for which I could not answer those same questions, but the big difference is that those works of literature don’t really inspire me to ask those questions in the first place.
I thought this edition’s substantial introduction would perhaps give some insight into the book’s point, but it was full of “troubled interplay,” “concentration on the circumscribed space,” “allegorical potential,” “symbiotic dependency”…all the silly things that scholars love to write about writing and readers hate to read. The most helpful bit was an actual quote from Steinbeck to his disappointed agents: “I probably did not make my subjects and my symbols clear. The microcosm is rather difficult to handle and apparently I did not get it over–the earth longings of a Lennie who was not to represent insanity at all but the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men.” I would have to agree with the author that this point was not at all communicated by the story, at least to me.
As a side note, I cannot believe that high schoolers are forced to read books like this, The Old Man and the Sea, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies and the works of Shakespeare. Whatever their literary value might be according to scholars and those with mature taste, I only know that, if this were the only sort of literature I was exposed to at a young age, I would likely not read at all.
[Why I read it: It is famous, but wasn’t really on my radar until I saw several references to it in the film Man on Fire (1987).]