Thursday, May 28, 2015

Freedom of/from Religion

The House Civil Law and Procedure Committee of the Louisiana State legislature wisely voted last week—and by a 10 to 2 majority—to “return to the calendar” House Bill 707, popularly called the Marriage and Conscience Act, effectively ending any chance for the bill to be voted into law by Louisiana’s legislators this year. Less wisely (at least in my opinion), Governor Jindal responded to this development by announcing his intention simply to issue an executive order that will, in his own words, “accomplish the intent of House Bill 707” anyway, in effect executing an end-run around his own state’s legislature. Unwise doesn’t mean illegal or immoral, of course: if the laws of Louisiana permit the governor to circumvent the people’s elected representatives by issuing orders with the force of law, then he is by definition not behaving illegally by exercising that right. (You can’t, after all, behave illegally if you are behaving legally.) But the whole concept of this kind of so-called “religious freedom” legislation is an issue that needs to be resolved through the medium of sustained, thoughtful national debate, not through gubernatorial grandstanding.
I’ve written to you at length about the various initiatives to enact so-called “religious freedom” laws that purport to guarantee that no citizen ever be required by law to act contrary to his or her religious principles, most recently about eighteen months ago when I expressed myself regarding similar legislation that was then pending in Arizona and which was ultimately vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see that letter by clicking here.)  When put that way, these laws sound like the kind of “apple pie” legislation that no one could seriously oppose. What, indeed, would be the opposing argument? That a nation that has enshrined freedom of religion among its most sacred principles should not grant its citizens the legal right not to betray the principles of their faiths to suit the wishes of others? And yet it turns out to be far more complicated than that.

When the issue on the table has to do with a florist refusing to sell flowers to a couple for use as centerpieces at their same-sex wedding—the specific issue that prompted my letter to you a year and a half ago—it feels easy to know how to feel: surely it does not actually contravene anyone’s principles to sell flowers to gay people to use as they wish! You can only argue to the contrary if you can say clearly what specific principles those would be, yet the need not only to identify such principles, but to identify them with those held by large numbers of other citizens, actually is the sticking point here. No one is going to argue seriously that people in our nation should not be free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience and thus to choose what faith publicly or privately to embrace. But the question on the table is more nuanced than that and has to do more with the issue of whether citizens should not also be free to determine for themselves what spiritual principles they wish to guide them forward in life in an absolute way unfettered by any obligation to conform to the standards of others. Should that freedom be extended to principles personally held by some individual who perceives them to constitute part the spiritual platform upon which he or she stands? Or should it only extend to the principles of “real” religions that everybody’s heard of? If the law requires the government to develop a list of “officially recognized faiths” in that regard, would it be a positive or negative development? Is religion essentially private and personal? Or is it, almost by definition, a group enterprise? If the latter, how large must the group be to matter? Can tiny groups count? People like myself who belong to minuscule religious minorities would be well advised to think so! And yet our nation’s religious leaders are not at all unified regarding the issue. Many oppose this kind of “Religious Freedom” legislation. Many, but not all! Just the other day, for example, I noted that fifty Orthodox rabbis took it upon themselves to write to Governor Jindal in support of the then-pending legislation.

The rabbis make a compelling case. They conjure up the specter of synagogues being sued for refusing to permit non-kosher caterers to serve meals on their premises or for declining to host interfaith marriages. Surely, most Americans who think of these as reasonable activities would find it correspondingly unreasonable for a couple to be refused service merely because they wish to serve ice cream after their roast beef at their own wedding reception, or because a bride and groom have decided to have a Jewish wedding even though only one of them is technically Jewish. The rabbis argue that laws like the one proposed for Louisiana, not unlike the similar bill signed by Governor Mike Pense into law in Indiana last March, would prevent there being legal consequences for declining such business on the grounds that accepting it would require a businessperson to contravene his or her religious principles. If a few gay couples are inconvenienced when some specific florist or caterer declines their business, then that, the rabbis suggest, would indeed be a small price to pay to preserve freedom of religion in our country. (If you wish to read more, click here for the text of the rabbis’ letter and the names of its signatories.)

I suppose I can see both side of the issue—nor do I feel that it isn’t ever appropriate or wise to compromise on some sincerely held beliefs for the sake of preserving or strengthening others deemed even more crucial to the public weal. (President Lincoln may have been right or wrong to suspend writ of habeas corpus on a nation-wide basis in 1862, but the concept itself that it can be reasonable to suspend some specific civil rights in times of great upheaval seems to me beyond debate.) Indeed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 specifically decreed that  government can “substantially burden” a person's exercise of religion if doing so advances an important national interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible. In 1997, however, the Supreme Court determined that the federal act does not apply to the governments of individual states, as a result of which decision almost half the fifty states have now enacted state laws designed to protect citizens for behaving in accordance with their religious values. But hiding behind the question of the reasonability of these laws is another one that strikes me as fundamental to the discussion, yet which seems for some reason rarely if ever to be aired in public.

Who gets to speak for a religion? Or, to ask an even more basic question, who has the right to determine what a religion is, or what the adherents of a religion must believe or how they must behave? If we are going to countenance laws that permit citizens to ignore the law when they are acting out of religious conviction, then must we not first determine who gets to decide what the principles of a given faith actually are? Can citizens themselves come up with the spiritual principles they then wish to exercise their First Amendment right to pursue as their personal spiritual path forward through life? It seems odd to extend spiritual sovereignty only to groups and not to individuals. But even if we were to go that route, then would we not need first to say clearly how big such a group must be, and what specific hoops its adherents must jump through for their religion to be recognized as such by the justice system?
Governor Jindal clearly thinks that “religious” opposition to same-sex marriage is wide-spread enough, and inherently defensible enough, to justify making it illegal for the state to take action against people who bring that specific conviction to life by refusing to have anything to do commercially with same-sex weddings. But what if someone held a similarly profound and guileless conviction that interracial marriage was sinful? That’s a far less widely held view today, obviously. But why should one citizen be granted the protection of law and another not merely because the latter’s principle is less popular than the former’s and thus has fewer adherents among the voting public? What if someone were honestly and genuinely to feel him or herself visited by the spirit of prophecy and vouchsafed truths that run counter to cultural norms that prevail in our society? Surely the adherents of faiths that feature belief in an omnipotent God do not want to argue that the same God who made heaven and earth would not be able actually to tell somebody something! But what if that something involves a deeply unpopular idea, one that endorses behavior that is currently illegal?

It’s a slippery slope indeed for people whose holy Scriptures endorse bigamy and slavery—do we want to argue that people who sincerely believe those institutions are religiously mandated should be protected from prosecution because they act out of profound spiritual conviction? Is the use of peyote in religious ritual, the original issue that prompted the 1993 federal act mentioned above, widespread enough to make sanctioning its use like the granting of special dispensation to certain specific religious groups, including my own, to use wine during worship during the dark days of Prohibition? The story behind that law is instructive. In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled against two Native American substance-abuse counselors from Oregon who had been fired from their jobs because they tested positive for peyote, a hallucinogen used as part of worship at their church. It was a close 5-4 decision, but the final verdict was that the use of peyote was not protected by the First Amendment. And instructive too is Justice Scalia’s justification of his own nay vote. Allowing someone to break a law because of religious conviction, the justice wrote, “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civil obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”  That may have seems like a real possibility but, in the end, the people spoke and the federal bill was passed. The right to worship as one chooses was deemed to trump legislation that prevents such worship by outlawing some necessary part of it. But religion is not just rite and ritual…and so we are left on the horns of a mighty dilemma with respect not so much to the use of wine or peyote, but with respect to public behavior prompted by what a citizen perceives as his or her religious principles. Should the right to act in concert with one’s deeply held spiritual convictions be deemed so sacrosanct as to warrant the interruption of other citizens’ civil rights?  Or should the blanket right of all citizens to be treated justly and fairly under the law trump the right to act in accordance with one’s faith?

We have entered into a debate that feels as though it is about the rule of law, but is actually about the nature itself of religion itself. Since government should, in my opinion, never try to breach the wall between church and state, laws that require the government to determine on its own the worth of devoutly held spiritual principles constitute a dangerous turn away from the rule of reason. Citizens should be permitted to follow the spiritual path of their choosing in accordance with their own consciences. Citizens should never be permitted, however, to trample on the civil rights of others as part of their own spiritual discipline…and that should be a foundational principle that applies regardless of how sincerely the individual in question believes in the worth of some specific part of that discipline. To worship the God in whose image all humankind is made by denying the innate right all human beings possess to chart their own path forward in life without being hampered by others’ principles—that seems like an iffy enterprise to me at best, and—particularly when used to justify discriminatory behavior that impacts negatively on the civil rights of others—as something far more pernicious than that.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Clattering Train

Unless this is somehow the first of my letters that you’re reading, you already know about my predilection for old books…and particularly for the kind that allow us to see history unfolding before our eyes as a narrator who was present on the ground attempts to describe events he or she personally experienced. The autobiographies of the famous are part of that genre, obviously, although it is surely also the case that the very last thing most people should be permitted to do is to tell their own story. But also included in that category are books written by the closest relatives of the great, people well positioned to know their subjects intimately and personally, and thus to be able to provide a window into that person’s interior self that would otherwise be closed off to the public. In that category are some of my favorite books about, not by, some of my favorite authors: Anna Dostoevsky’s book about life with her husband (published simply as Dostoevsky: Reminiscences), Sophia Tolstoy’s Diaries (featuring fifty-seven years’ worth of diary entries about her often tumultuous life with Leo), and, most recently (because one of her students’ parents gave it to Joan as a gift after her terrific Schechter production of Les Mis last spring), Adèle Hugo’s coyly-titled, but extremely interesting and surprisingly intimate, Victor Hugo by a Witness of His Life.  Less stirring, but also fascinating, is Martin Freud’s portrait of his father, a bit pathetically entitled Glory Reflected: Sigmund Freud, Man and Father. And there are many others as well.

And then there are books written by talented authors about events they personally witnessed. Sometimes these books are ghoulish (I am thinking in that regard specifically of the autobiography that Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was ordered by his captors to compose in the spring of 1947 during the weeks between his conviction as a war criminal and his execution), but more often they serve not as freak shows or the literary equivalent of horror movies, but simply as windows into history.  I wrote a while back to you about my experience rereading Ulysses Grant’s account of the Civil War, written as the author lay dying specifically to raise funds for his wife to use after his death. (The plan worked too—in the end Julia Grant received almost half a million dollars in royalties from her late husband’s Personal Memoirs, a goodly sum even today but a true fortune in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Interesting too, but far less well known, is Mrs. Grant’s own book of memoirs, a book first published in 1975, almost three-quarters of a century after its author’s death.) I’ve written about my experiences reading President Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe and finding it strangely—and disappointingly—dull. I wrote a few weeks ago about my plan to read Jefferson Davis’ The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government this summer as a way of looking at the Civil War from a vantage point wholly other than the one I’m used to. But the greatest of all these “I was there” books has to be Winston Churchill’s six-volume work, simply entitled The Second World War. And he was there too, and for more or less all of it.

Published over a period of six years that ended with the year of my birth, I read the first book when I was a senior in high school and the rest in the course of my college years. They stay with me still, or parts of them do. And it was something that Churchill wrote in that first volume that somehow came to me, entirely unexpectedly, when I first heard about the terrible Amtrak accident of earlier this week, the one on the Washington to New York train on which I myself have been a passenger many times. The specific stretch of track on which the derailment occurred has its own tragic history: it was less than a mile from this week’s crash site that a 1943 train derailment resulted in the death of seventy-nine people and more than one hundred wounded, some grievously, on a similar Washington-to-New York run. But this week’s disaster was horrible enough: the number of dead is fixed at seven as I write and the wounded at more than two hundred. But there are still passengers unaccounted for and it seems very likely that the number of dead, but only possibly the number of wounded, will rise as the wreckage is cleared.
One of the most foundational points in Churchill’s work is his conviction that the story of the Second World War can only cogently be told in light of the First War. And, indeed, it is both because that idea seemed (and still seems) so interesting to ponder, and also because I was so young when I read the first book, that that first volume, entitled The Gathering Storm, had such an effect on me. In the part that I wish to share with you, Churchill is writing about the mid-1930s, which he recalls as a depressing time for him personally and, on a larger scale, for his nation. In the specific section of the book devoted to the events of 1935, the House of Commons is busy debating a proposed increase in funding for the Royal Air Force, which debate Churchill finds dispiriting and rooted in what he himself considers a faulty and fully-fantasy-based understanding of what the future might bring and at best a half-hearted sense that any future war with Germany was going to have to be won in the air. And then he writes this, which passage somehow surged out of my unconscious to assert itself as I read the newspaper accounts of the Amtrak disaster:

There lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown writer about a railway accident. I had learnt them from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school in Brighton. “Who is in charge of the clattering train? / The axles creak and the couplings strain, / and the pace is hot and the points are near, / and sleep hath deadened the driver's ear, / and the signals flash through the night in vain, / for death is in charge of the clattering train.” However I did not repeat them.

Why that stuck in my mind, I have no idea. But, intrigued by the vagaries of my own subconscious, I set myself to discovering the real story behind Churchill’s comment. It turns out that it’s significantly less interesting than I would have expected. The long-since forgotten poet Edwin James Milliken (1839-1897) had apparently heard of a train wreck that had cost the life of a guard working for the London & South Western Railway, and which had apparently ensued when the engine-driver and his engine-stoker both fell asleep on the job. It was, among the world’s rail catastrophes, a modest disaster. Yet the poet’s conclusion, just as chilling now as then, is what struck Churchill as he listened to Parliament dither about the worth of upgrading their own nation’s air defenses and realized that his country too, just like the runaway train in Milliken’s poem, was too headed for a disaster that could possibly still be headed off, but which would become inevitable soon enough…once the decision to stint on RAF funding was made, once the train was simply going too fast for its own braking system to stop it.

I would like to reproduce here the end of the poem, which reads as follows:

Sleep—Death's brother, as poets deem,
Stealeth soft to his side; a dream.
Of home and rest on his spirit creeps,
That wearied man, as the engine leaps,
Throbbing, swaying along the line;
Those poppy-fingers his head incline
Lower, lower, in slumber's trance;
The shadows fleet, and the gas-gleams dance.
Faster, faster in mazy flight,
As the engine flashes across the night.
Mortal muscle and human nerve
Cheap to purchase, and stout to serve.
Strained too fiercely will faint and swerve.
Over-weighted, and underpaid,
This human tool of exploiting Trade,
Though tougher than leather, tenser than steel.
Fails at last, for his senses reel,
His nerves collapse, and, with sleep-sealed eyes,
Prone and helpless a log he lies!
A hundred hearts beat placidly on,
Unwitting they that their warder's gone;
A hundred lips are babbling blithe,
Some seconds hence they in pain may writhe.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver's ear;
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

In theory, death is just the name of the absence of life, just as silence is the name for the absence of sound. But silence feels real when we are surrounded unexpectedly by it, just as does death feel entirely real when we confront it in the context of family life or when it touches our friends or our neighbors. So the poet’s notion that the accident occurred because personified Death seized the train, because as a “hundred hearts beat placidly on” a line was crossed that could not be crossed back over, that at a certain moment what a few minutes earlier had been a horrific possibility became an inevitable catastrophe…that notion that life is far more fragile, and intensely more arbitrary, than any of us would ever wish to admit—that is what Churchill meant when he recalled the last lines of Milliken’s poem and likened England to a train whose engineer succumbed first to drowsiness and then to sleep, and whose personal failure led to disaster.

Coming on the heels of the Germanwings disaster in March that cost 144 passengers and six crew members their lives, it suddenly seems less safe out there…and I’m the kind of person who prefers to take the train precisely because it feels so much safer than flying. (That’s an excellent example, by the way, of a personal conviction that is true and false at the same time.) But the question of whether one form of travel is safer than another is hardly the point, which is far more potently just how delicate our places in the world truly are…and just how thin the foundation stones upon which we stand and on the apparent sturdiness of which we convince ourselves it would be irrational not to depend. But, at least in the final analysis, it’s all a chimera. Things are safe until they aren’t, until the engineer falls asleep, until the pilot’s suicidal tendencies cross the line from troublesome to irresistible, “until the silver cord snaps and the golden bowl breaks, until the pitcher shatters down by the spring and the wheel at the well is ruined, until the dust returns to the earth as it once was and the spirit returns to the God Who once gave it…then Kohelet’s truth will be wholly obvious to all. The merest of breaths, proclaims King Kohelet—everything is as insubstantial as a single breath.”

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Oskar, Ram, Odran

In the wake of my letter of a few weeks ago about Oskar Gröning, the ninety-three-year old ex-SS officer on trial in Germany for his participation in the murder of about 300,000 people in the course of a few months in 1944, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a good person or an evil one. Other than when serving as one of Hitler’s willing executioners, after all, Gröning was a normal member of society and a productive one. He worked. He married. He raised a family. He collected stamps. He played sports. He wasn’t a monster who could only do evil, therefore, but merely a man who once, and only in the course of a few years, participated in the perpetration of an unspeakable crime. For some reason, his story and the questions it raises have stayed with me in the weeks since I wrote about his story and his trial. And that story and those questions have prompted me to revisit some of my favorite questions about human nature, about a few of which I’d like to write today.

What does it mean to be a good person? Does it mean to be one who does good? What if one also does evil? Can good people do evil? Or does make them by definition not good people?  And what about the inverse? Can evil people do good?  Or is the more reasonable approach simply to accept that people can be good and bad. That most people spend their lives doing good and bad things. That people are capable of mostly sticking to pre-embraced principles, but that even the saintly occasionally crumble under the weight of the kind of pressure to conform that momentarily feels to them unbearable. That the natural human condition is for most of us alternately to be saintly and sinful as we stumble down the path from cradle to grave possessed both of the will to embrace the principles of moral excellence and the capacity occasionally to betray those same principles out of sloth or greed, or out of weakness.  And, indeed, if the labels “good” and “bad” relate solely to our deeds—in other words, if we aren’t anything at all other than what we dothen doesn’t it follow that we aren’t really anything at all other than the walking, talking aggregates of our deeds? Are our deeds all there is to our moral selves, then, and the rest mere blather?  To ask the same question from a different vantage point, is there a fundamental potential to do good in us all—creatures, all of us, created in God’s image—that we are free either to access or to deny? That sounds closer to how things generally feel to me…but that notion implies that there is no such thing as a fundamentally good person, or a fundamentally evil one. That some people become Oskar Grönings is not to be explained with reference to their intrinsic or innate badness, then, but with simple reference to their failure meaningfully to embrace their own potential to do good. And that basic notion of badness as moral failure rather than innate depravity is the idea I’ve been wrestling with as the trial in Lüneburg has unfolded and witnesses to the Nazis’ crimes at Auschwitz have come forward to speak.

I’ve just recently read two remarkable books that deal with these questions in a fully engaging way. The first, Akhil Sharma’s book, An Obedient Father, is the story of Ram Karan, a despicable character in almost every way. He molests his own granddaughter, mimicking his own vile behavior with his daughter Anita, his granddaughter’s mother, when she, the mother, was a girl of twelve. He is a corrupt and dishonest man as well who earns his living collecting bribes for his corrupt and dishonest masters in the New Delhi school system, which itself is merely a front for crooked political activity of the kind at which Ram excels. Nor does he have any loyalty even to his own bosses, whom he betrays in the wake of Rajiv Ghandi’s assassination when he understands that he himself will pay a huge price for sticking with the men who have given him whatever limited but highly lucrative power he has in the world.  He is also obesely fat, which girth is depicted not as a moral failing in and of itself but rather as the outer manifestation of Ram’s inability to deny himself anything at all that he’d like to have and that he finds within his grasp. He also drinks way too much.

Ram has basically no redeeming qualities at all. And yet, right in the middle of everything, this vile human being shows himself capable of great courage and, in the middle of a riot, personally steps forward to save the lives of a woman and her two children, strangers he doesn’t know and to whom he has no prior relationship. More to the point is that there is no obvious way for him to benefit by stepping into the melee—and truly risking his life—to save innocents in danger merely because they are Sikhs and the mob surrounding their shop has concluded, incorrectly, that Rajiv Ghandi’s assassin too was a Sikh. And so we are presented with a rich, intriguing portrait of the anti-Oskar Gröning. The latter is a man who lived a normal, mostly decent life but who succumbed at one specific point to the inclination to participate in a crime so great that even now, more than seventy years later, its details still seem to some extent unimaginable. Ram Karan, on the other hand, is the inverse: a man whose every waking minute is given over to corruption and venality but who in one soaring moment does something magnificent and kind, a deed of true selflessness that could easily have cost him his life.

Born in Delhi, Akhil Sharma did his undergraduate work at Princeton and then ended up studying law at Harvard. Now he teaches writing at Rutgers and just last year published his second novel, Family Life, which is on my list to read this summer. I think you’ll find An Obedient Father, published in 2000 by Farrar Strauss Giroux, well worth your time: repulsive in many of its details, it somehow manages to end up as a compelling, fascinating portrait of human behavior in all its maddening complexity. It rings true in many ways and, in its own way, it constitutes a very interesting answer to my initial question about the relationship of being and doing in the context of living. I recommend it to you all.

The second book is John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness, which I’ve just finished reading. At forty-four and so exactly the same age as Akhil Sharma, Boyne is still counted among Ireland’s younger authors. Most of my readers will know him as the author the young person’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was later made into a successful movie that I wrote about at length about six years ago after seeing on an El Al flight home from Israel. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to see my comments.) But he is on entirely different ground in this latest of his novels, ground that is in every sense his own native soil. 

A History of Loneliness is the story of Odran Yates, a young Irish boy who is pushed into the seminary by his mother in the wake of a devastating tragedy that took her husband and her youngest son from her on the same day. (I won’t give the specifics away so as not to ruin the book for any of you who might read it. But the author’s account of that day is something that I expect to stay with me for a very long time.) And so, as a boy of seventeen in 1972, Odran enters the Clonliffe Seminary in Dublin and is assigned as his roommate one Tom Cardle, a boy who unlike Odran—who is at least willing to take his mother’s word that he has a calling to the priesthood—truly hates the seminary and all it implies about his personal future.

As we move forward and backward through time—the book is structured in such as way so that every successive chapter is situated in a different decade so that you only learn some of the most crucial details about the beginning of the story towards the end of the book—you begin by thinking that the book is about Tom Cardle, that this is Odran telling us his friend’s story. And it is a horrific story too, one that features not years but decades of abuse of innocent boys entrusted to his tutelage or his spiritual guidance.  But as I approached the end of the book, I suddenly realize that this was not Tom’s story but Odran’s, that the interesting character—and by far—was the narrator, not his roommate. He is a good man, Father Odran, one who accepts his vocation and spends his life teaching in a Catholic high school and then serving in a parish near Dublin. Odran is kind and just, a decent young man who grows in the course of a lifetime into the kind of avuncular pastor that any Catholic would want as his or her priest.

But in all that good, there is also bad: as the years pass, we realize that he has known about his roommate’s depravity almost from the start, depravity that among much else has eventually led to the suicide of one of Tom’s young victims. Nor is it irrelevant that among those victims is one of Odran’s own nephews, for whose abuse and subsequent troubles he, Odran, realizes himself to be at least partially responsible. And so we are left to contemplate the portrait drawn of a good man who does a terrible thing…and the fact that his is a sin of omission, that he does that terrible thing not by doing but by not doing, by not speaking up, by not having the insight to know what he should have known and not finding the courage to speak up when he should never have been silent—that seems only to make Odran’s story that much more interesting to contemplate, not to make his behavior any easier to excuse or less challenging to explain.

Both books, Akhil Sharma’s and John Boyne’s, are well worth reading. Both are upsetting in some ways, but elevating in others. More to the point is that both are very accomplished portraits of human beings who resist our natural impulse to label people as one thing or another. In every meaningful sense, the books’ protagonists, Ram Karan and Odran Yates, are men who are defined by their deeds, by their actions (which category in Father Yates’ story includes inaction). They couldn’t be less alike, these two characters. My guess is that, in some cross-over novel in which they somehow met, they wouldn’t like or understand each other. But we, the readers, understand them both…and profit from what the authors who created them have to say through their artistry about human nature. That we can see ourselves clearly in portraits of men who by every measure could not be less like us, and who engage in behavior we cannot possibly imagine ourselves mimicking—that is the sign of good writing that draws readers in and, by holding up an invisible mirror, allows them to see themselves all the more clearly. I recommend both books to you highly!