Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Part of an occasional series of less-well-known books I love.

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy

Despite the subtitle, Lost in the Cosmos is only a mock self-help book. It doesn’t pretend to have answers, but instead has many questions, a multi-chapter diversion about the theory of symbols and language, and two science-fiction short stories.

In a recent issue of a home-and-garden magazine, an article listed fifty ways to make a coffee table.

One table was made of an old transom of stained glass supported by an antique brass chandelier cut ingeniously to make the legs.
Another was a cypress stump, waxed and highly polished.
Another was a big spool used for telephone cable set on end.
Another was a lobster trap.
Another was a Coca-Cola sign propped on Coke crates.
Another was a stone slab from an old morgue, the blood runnel used as an ash tray.
Another was a hayloft door set on cut-down sawhorses.
Another was the hatch of a sailboat mounted on halves of ships’ wheels.
Another was a cobbler’s bench.

Not a single one was a table designed as such, that is, a horizontal member with four legs.

Question: Why was not a single table designed as such rather than being a non-table doing duty as a table?

(a) Because people have gotten tired of ordinary tables.
(b) Because the fifty non-tables converted to use as tables make good conversation pieces.
(c) Because it is a chance to make use of valuable odds and ends which would otherwise gather dust in the attic.
(d) Because the self in the twentieth century is a voracious nought which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform its own nothingness by ingesting new objects in the world but, like a vacuole, only succeeds in emptying them out.

(Check One)

The first half of the story is questions such as this, interspersed with hypothetical scenarios. Each question focuses on some aspect of who we are, both individually and collectively. Then, in an odd but effective twist, the book veers off into a chapter about “semiotics”: how we use symbols to communicate, how these symbols gain meaning, and how we use symbols differently than any other creature.

The end of Lost in the Cosmos contains two science-fiction short stories. The first story is particularly compelling because it deals with the fall of man: that man gained consciousness of himself and soon after was destroyed by that very consciousness. The alien race, on the other hand, has preternatural consciousness: they have avoided “the malformations of self consciousness”. The aliens refuse to let man land, because they are fallen and have not asked for help. The state of fallen mankind described in this story is different but has striking parallels to the story of the fall of Adam.

For a book which bounces quickly through language, transcendence, evolution, boredom, and sexuality, and pretends to classify everyone’s self-understanding in 16 categories, Lost in the Cosmos is a surprisingly coherent and enjoyable story. It is sometimes aggravating, especially when none of the multiple-choice answers comes close to your answer, but it will always provoke thought about how man knows himself, and how you personally know yourself.

Available at amazon.com.

If you’ve read Lost in the Cosmos and want to dive deeper, Walker Percy wrote a less-fiction on language: The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other (also available at amazon.com).

Less-Known Books: Enchantment

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Like many of my friends and coworkers, I love books. Often I’m surprised that my friends have never heard of a book I particularly love. I think there are enough of them that I could post every other Thursday for the next year: I hope my friends and enemies will post their favorite books I might not know about in return.

Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card

After all the fairy tales he had read and studied, the one possibility he had never entertained was this: That they might be true…

When twentieth-century scholar Ivan Smetski discovers and saves Sleeping Beauty from the spell of the evil witch Baba Yaga by proposing to her, their troubles have only just begun. Together, Katerina and Ivan must save her kingdom from the evil witch, who has enslaved the bear-god and uses his power.

Orson Scott Card is a master of character, and Enchantment shows the true power of his writing and creativity. We see the rich relationship between Ivan’s parents; the interdependence between the kingdom and the king in Katerina’s time; the truce between the Church and witchcraft; and the slow discovery of marriage between Ivan and Katerina themselves. The treatment of marriage is enlightening and joyous.

Card is rightfully famous for his science-fiction novels, especially the Ender series. But Enchantment is one of his best, and is certainly worth a trip to the library or amazon.com.

What Do People Do All Day?

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

There are very few picture books which talk about money, and even fewer do it well. Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? is a notable and wonderful exception.

Scan from "What Do People Do All Day?": Farmer Alfalfa selling produce

Throughout the book, characters are creating value by farming, tailoring, or baking. They sell their goods for money, use it to pay for raw materials, buy gifts for their wives, and put the extra in the bank. When the tailor decides to build a new house, he hands a large sack of money to the builders. When the mayors of two towns decide to pave a road between them, they have several huge sacks of money for the road builders.

I recommend pretty much anything by Richard Scarry, but this is my personal favorite. If you have children under the age of ten, or just love picture books, look for it in your local library or bookstore.