Thursday, September 10, 2009

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and Einstein's Dreams

While these books don't have much to do with each other, they are sort of similar in their bizarreness, their shortness, and their short chapters. Also, I read both of them in the same week, so I would feel like I was cheating if I spaced them out for two separate entries.

First, I think I should digress and talk a little about how I came to have these books in the first place. As you may or may not have heard, a few weeks ago my girlfriend Lindsay and I were on our way to New York City for the end-of-summer-road-trip of a lifetime. First to NYC, where we were to stay overnight in Time's Square and see the nightlife, then on to Atlantic City and the ocean, followed by Philadelphia, and finally to Washington D.C. Instead, we ended up stranded on the Ohio turnpike when a piston misfired through the motor of Lindsay's Saturn, leaving a softball-sized hole in its wake. We found ourselves in downtown Sandusky where the hotels are overpriced, the recommended dining is The Weenie Hut (we ate their twice) and by the grace of god there happens to be a Borders. After a wrecked car and a trashed plan to see the East Coast, I wasn't in the mood for the likes of David Foster Wallace (author of Infinite Jest, over 1,000 pages long.) I wanted something short, something easy to read and easy to get a lot of good stuff out of in a short period of time. While it's usually hard to find even one book like this, I managed to find two.

God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian is really classic Vonnegut. By this I mean the tone is perfect, the chapters are short, every page is brilliant and nothing happens the way you expect it to. This 76 page book is a collection of radio broadcasts that Vonnegut did in Texas some years back, claiming to be in the company of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian, while in a state-of-the-art maximum security prison in Texas, supposedly induced a number of near-death experiences for Vonnegut, at which time Vonnegut was able to go up to Heaven (just outside the pearly gates, as entering would mean his actual death) and interview whoever happened to be around that day.
What's best about this book is not the interviews themselves, for, in typically Vonnegut fashion, very little attention is paid to what the book is actually supposed to be about. Instead the reader gets a lot of Vonnegut's musings on death, for instance, that there is no hell. In this book, Adolf Hitler is shown to be strolling around outside the gates, and he confides in Vonnegut that he wishes some likeness of himself would be erected (I think) in the UN headquarters in New York with a German engraving that would be the equivalent to "Excuse me," or "Beg Your Pardon," in English.
We also find out that angels are the souls of babies who have died and whose souls are raised in heaven. In this book, as always, I enjoyed Vonnegut's undying optimism and humanism. Everyone goes to heaven, how nice is that? Vonnegut's epitaph is at its most appropriate in this book: "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt."

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman was second on my reading list, and it too was filled with three-page chapters and a lot of interesting stuff. This book is all about mis-imagining, or maybe re-imagining, time. The book is supposed to take place in the dreams of Albert Einstein while, in his mid-twenties, he was working in a patent office in Germany and at the same time coming up with his theory of relativity. The dreams in question take up about 90% of the book, and each one is an exploration of the daily lives of parallel universes (it would seem) where time exists completely differently from the way we experience it. In one reality time is a loop and all actions are repeated over and over again into infinity. In another it has been discovered that time moves slower for people further from the earth, so all houses are built on stilts up in the mountains. Likewise, another dream shows all buildings on wheels because it has been discovered that time move slower for people in motion. In one dream, time is not a reality, time is a sense like sight or taste. However, some people are born with a type of time-blindness and are out of the flow of time altogether.
What was most interesting for me about this book is that you begin with kind of easy observations about differences in time (that time might be a loop) and end with increasingly personalized and complex imaginings of time. Time becomes more and more relative to the people experiencing it as the books goes on, which while not the exact meaning of relativity, is genius nonetheless.

These are both books you can read in an afternoon and they are jam-packed with interesting ideas. They are good for the same reason poetry is good. Sometimes it's nice to swim in a sea of language, characters, plot and metaphors for hundreds of pages. But sometimes it's nice to read a book cover to cover in one sitting and soak it in as a whole right then and there. I like the idea that a couple of hours can alter your perception of the world around you if you've got a good enough book in your hands.

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