Monday, January 25, 2016

Philosophy of Travis McGee #6

Last Published Work 

This is a bonus Philosophy of Travis McGee blog.  I say that because the comments of McGee that I'm going to share aren't taken from one of the 21 Travis McGee novels.  In fact, they aren't from a MacDonald novel at all.  I cut them all from an essay he wrote at the invitation of Jean Trebbi, then Executive Director of The Florida Center for the Book.

The essay wasn't an easy piece for John to write.  When he completed it, he sent it to John Cole, then Director of The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress with this explanation for the delay.

"...the mountain has labored and brought forth a small, mangy, bad-tempered mouse of 7200 words... I could not make the essay work, and I could not imagine why.  I must have done two hundred pages of junk.  Then Jean Trebbi wrote asking why didn't I use the device of a conversation between McGee and Meyer.  Why indeed?... I am very sorry for taking so damn long."

In his Afterword, John Cole said, "MacDonald's dialogue between his fictional characters McGee and Meyer about reading was unlike anything I had read.  It is somewhat bad-tempered, but it also is thought-provoking.  Those who read it or hear it (or perhaps someday see it enacted) will remember it."

Reading for Survival is the last published work of John D. MacDonald.  The little bound essay is long out of print.  I found a few used copies listed on AbeBooks and Amazon.  I don't recommend them because they are both overpriced and in poor condition.Though they may be advertised as like new, the binding was cheaply done, and I promise you, it will fall to pieces. However, do not despair, click on the link at the beginning of this paragraph and in an electronic instant a digital copy in Word format will  reside on your computer.

Here are excerpts from the work to convince you the click will be worth the effort:

(Meyer) “Let us try to imagine a day in the life of Homo erectus one and half million years agoPicture him as a member of a hunting party, advancing through scrub land. He will be tense, using every sense. Aware of any change in the direction of the breeze. He will be listening, watching, scenting, with hundreds of dangers in his memory banks, thousands of experiences of the hunt in mind. He will have to have learned how to make weapons, learned a crude pharmacology, learned about fire, learned the vulnerability and the danger of many creatures, learned his place in his social order, learned how to fight other men, how to instruct children, how to build shelters. Perhaps, most important of all, he has learned that he will have to keep on learning and remembering or he might die in a very sudden and bloody manner, just as he has seen individuals of his tribe die when they forgot some essential crumb of knowledge.
            This is a demanding life. It is full of stress. And the key to survival is memory! That’s what takes up most of the room in our skulls. Out of memory comes the learning of relationships, and out of that comes creative change, improvements, reductions of risk. And there is a constantOWhhh selectivity at work. The inattentive child is eaten by wild dogs. The forgetful man is killed by the snake he should have seen. Those dull of wit are overwhelmed by the need to remember so many things, and so they perish and the species is improved thereby."


(Meyer) “Inevitably, Travis, man acquired so many artifacts he had to devise some way of keeping track of them. He had gone beyond the capacity of memory. The first writings we know of, other than the famous Code of Hammurabi in 1800 B.C., are records of shipments of goods in the Middle East. Pots and grain and tools. Writing and reading were elitist skills for fifteen hundred years and more, and then along came Johann Gutenberg in the fifteenth century with the invention of movable type. And that is when they began to fill the libraries of the world with the record of mankind, his tools, his history, his wars, famines, voyages, metallurgy, romances, superstitions, inventions…”
            Then Meyer did an odd thing. He reached across the table and clamped a thick hand around my forearm just above the wrist. I could feel the pressure of it. His gaze was very intense. “What we did to ourselves, Travis, within the past four hundred years, has been to make memory, as a key to the survival of the individual obsolete.” And now memory is not all that critical. I mean you can survive without having to remember much. Like remember to stop at red lights, take your pills, lock your doors. We don’t have to stalk anything in the jungle, or remember the shapes of leaves. So that takes away a big problem, doesn’t it?”
            “Does it create a bigger one?”
It is always irritating when he prods me, and sits back with his blue eyes alert and bright, waiting for me to pick up on the clues.
            “I’ll give it a shot. Okay. It must mean that a lot of the capacity of the brain is going unused. Are you saying it is going to atrophy?”
            “No. What should people be doing with that capacity?”
            “Give me a clue.”
            “There’s a clue for you in something Mark Twain said. ‘The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.’”

“How do we relate to reality? How do we begin to comprehend it? By using that same marvelous brain our ancestor used. By the exercise of memory. How do we stock the stores of memory? By reading, Travis. Reading! Complex ideas and complex relationships are not transmitted by body language, by brainstorming sessions, by the boob tube or the boom box. You cannot turn back the pages of a television show and review a part you did not quite understand.

“I would not demand that a man read ponderous tomes, or try to read everything—any more than I would expect our ancestor to examine every single leaf on a plant he remembers as being poisonous. I would expect that in his reading—which should be wide ranging, fiction, history, poetry, political science—he would acquire the equivalent of a liberal arts education and acquire also what I think of as the educated climate of mind, a climate characterized by skepticism, irony, doubt, hope, and a passion to learn more and remember more.”
            “How many of those do we have these days?”
            “A pitifully small percentage of the race, and growing smaller every year. Sixty million Americans, one out of every three adults—according to an article I read recently in Psychology Today—cannot read well enough to understand a help-wanted ad, or the warning label on household cleaners, or an electric bill, or the instructions on a package of medicine. They are disenfranchised, completely cut off from any knowledge of history, literature, and science. And because they can’t read they become negative role models for their children, who, in their turn, will become a new generation of illiterates, of victims.”

“Beautifully said,” I told him.
On the way back I told him that he had made me feel guilty about my frivolous reading fare of late, and what might I read that would patch up my comprehension and my conscience at the same time.
            Meyer thought about it until we had our drinks. He took a sip, sighed and said, “I’ll lend you my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.”
            I am halfway through it. And the world has a different look, a slightly altered reality. That fourteenth century was the pits!

Note - I added the link to A Distant Mirror - and though I'm not yet half-way through it, as McGee was when he had the conversation with Meyer, I also recommend it.