Reading The Hobbit makes me want to drink tea. So does Jane Austen. And Tolstoy. I suppose it’s just the power of suggestion, but I wonder how much deeper this influence goes.
One book that had a great impact on me was Cheaper by the Dozen. I must have been in middle school when I first read it. The father, Frank Gilbreth, was an efficiency engineer, and I have been obsessed with efficiency most of my life. He invented a concept called Therbligs (Gilbreth spelled backwards, almost.) I wish I could quote the exact passage, but my copy is still in a box in my living room, but here’s what I remember:
A therblig is a unit of action. So, if you are combing your hair, the first therblig is to locate the comb, the second is to move your hand to the comb, the third is to grasp the comb, the fourth is to lift the comb, etc. Obsessing over the distance between tools and color-coding items helped me a lot when I worked at Starbucks. I think I’ve mellowed a bit, because I no longer get so frustrated when things aren’t organized efficiently, or traffic doesn’t behave the way it should. Still, having read Cheaper by the Dozen when I was young had a strong influence over my behavior well into my 20s.
This worries me because I wonder how other books have influenced me in ways I haven’t noticed. I read Jane Eyre recently, and it struck me how awkward Mr. Rochester is. I wasn’t able to judge his awkwardness when I was young, so did that set me up to respond to awkwardness as normal and normal social cues as odd? I’ll probably never know.
It’s amazing that it has taken me so long to begin this blog. I’ve loved books my whole life. I went to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, so that I could study the Great Books Program.
Since I graduated in 2005, I’ve moved to Los Angeles, back to Santa Fe, Boston, and finally: Austin. I have lived in Austin for 4 years, but only just got my own apartment last March. I finally have a space of my own, so I’m going to fill it with books.
This Christmas, I decided to take a week in El Paso to pack up all the books that have sat in boxes, to bring them to my little apartment in Austin, and finally set up my library. My mom rented a Jeep for me as my Christmas present and I piled in the boxes of books:
1. Those Starbucks boxes have been with me since I left Santa Fe in 2007. The very large, silver bags of coffee beans came in those boxes, we called them bullet bags. Those boxes are the perfect size for moving, you can fill them full of books and still lift them and wrap your arms around them. I have moved books across the country, up 2 flights of stairs, down 2 flights of stairs, up 2 flights of stairs again, down 2 flights of stairs again, and back across the country again. I know what I’m talking about.
2. I have at least 3 copies of Jane Eyre. I mean, when your copy is stuck in a box in El Paso and a new Jane Eyre movie comes out while you’re living in Boston, you have to buy another copy. I can’t explain the third copy.
So now, after carrying all those books up 2 flights of stairs again (by myself–RAWR), my tiny efficiency apartment is full of boxes of books. Time to buy some bookshelves. To be continued…
Chapter 7 of The Hobbit Party discusses Tolkien’s love for nature. I remember watching The Two Towers in the theater, when Treebeard describes Saruman has having “a mind of metal and wheels ;and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for a moment.”
Tolkien’s attitude toward the industrial revolution always made me uncomfortable. Growing up, my family would regularly go hiking or camping and I still love to escape from the city to be among trees and water.
A 2010 study asked 280 subjects in Japan to take strolls in both the park and the city. After the nature walks, the participants showed lower “concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure.” Strolling through parks is apparently a popular hobby in Japan, and goes by the poetic and slightly racy name of “forest bathing.”
On the other hand, the kind of people who generally speak out about protecting the environment are also the kind of people who tend to place little value on human life. They also tend to support laws that violate property rights–which I cannot support.
And so, Witt and Richards come to the man responsible for an inordinate amount of anxiety I suffered in college: Rousseau.
One mistake that Tolkien-appreciating contemporary environmentalists seem prone to is seeing Tolkien as a kissing cousin of eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau… The English writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalyrmple summarizes Rousseau’s view as “the complete opposite of the idea that man is born with original sin”, and suggests that it spread quickly through Western culture “because it means all you have to do to be good is to be your true self, and since your true self is really determined, you know what your true self is by doing exactly what you like.” The idea does more than excuse bad behavior, Dalrymple emphasizes. On Rousseau’s telling, “doing what you like, exactly what you like, becomes virtue, which is one of the reasons, for example, why in this country now, people who get very drunk in public believe that they’re acting virtuously”
We’re back to hippies. “Be true to yourself” is a nice concept, but it also forgives a lot of selfishness. Virtue is not about acting on impulse or instinct, but rather, recognizing that serving others’ needs actually makes us better and happier. Humans constantly struggle with the conflict between short-term satisfaction and long-term satisfaction, just ask the diet and fitness industry. It’s not that “be true to yourself” is wrong, we just have to be clear what it means in practice. Jacobs wrote in Drop Dead Healthy that he took a picture of himself and ran it through some aging software. He used the picture of his future self for motivation to eat healthy and exercise, being true to his future self who will want to play with grandchildren and remember their names. That picture reminded him of long-term satisfaction, which helped him deny short-term temptation to sit around and eat junk food.
I always get lost in these trains of thought… For example, communities with strong familial bonds show high incidence of longevity, because maintaining relationships is healthy. So is it selfish to maintain a friendship because of the ultimate benefit? Or is it unselfish, because you’re considering another’s needs? I suppose it’s both, and doesn’t really matter.
As for environmentalism, it does not make sense to simply leave nature to its own devices. The Hobbit Party cites Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans who identify Tolkien’s attitude as “humans are best seen as both managers and servants, gardening a natural order that is useful but also valuable in its own right.” This reminds me of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth first sees Mr. Darcy’s home of Pemberley.
Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.
Earlier in the novel, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s home serves as the example of awkward taste. Pemberley provides a beautiful, orderly home for the Darcys without disrupting the natural resources of the country side. Humans and nature coexist harmoniously at Pemberley, same as the Shire. The presence of human civilization does not automatically cause the destruction of nature, as Rousseau and his intellectual progeny believe. Rather, as in the Garden of Eden, we are here to serve as caretakers.