Monday, September 8, 2014

Following the Abstract

I'm currently reading two books: Moby Dick and The Irony of American History.  Separated by 101 years, one fiction and the other a meditation on then-contemporary history and culture, I've discovered a weakness I have as a reader.  When reading fiction, I'm able to construct mental images of the text that I read.  I can see Ahab.  I can see the whaling ship.  I can smell the ocean breeze, touch the splintered rails, and hear the flapping mainsail.

The act of recalling a particularly vivid work of fiction is as easy as recalling a favorite movie.  We remember the scenes well because we were there with the characters, experiencing each scene a little differently than all other readers, but in no less vivid or accurate terms.  Think of Heart of Darkness, or Darkness at Noon for that matter, and you can remember the scenes because they were so well written.  We were there.

Compare this to a fine work of non-fiction such as The Irony of American History.  The slim book deals with weighty topics such as nuclear weapons, the lies of communism (and the delusions of capitalism), tyranny, and other subjects that aren't discussed all that much in the 21st century.

Here's the problem I have, as a reader: I can't see communism.  I can't see mutually assured destruction.  Sure, there are images commonly associated with those ideas, but when reading the book and grappling with those topics in the abstract it seems silly to reflexively imagine Stalin's mustache or Marx's beard every time he mentions communism.

How do I remedy this situation?  How do I become a better reader of abstract concepts?  The answer, I've found, is to write.  Writing my thoughts, making comparisons, and drawing parallels to today help concretize the abstract concepts.

It is in that spirit that I write my next post.  "Reflections on the Irony of American History"...