Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Report: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

I've just finished reading Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt. I felt inspired to download it (for free! Hooray for the public domain!) after reading Joseph Campbell refer to Babbitt frequently in his writings. Campbell calls Babbitt a symbol of the conundrum of modern life- how much is lost when money, rationalism and consumerism become our gods.

Babbit is a successful man, well liked, a pillar in his community. And yet. He is filled with emptiness. With boredom. He rides through his days on a roller coaster of reactions and emotions brought on by everything around him. He apparently has no center.

He is just like most of us.

As I read this novel, I felt myself becoming more and more discouraged. I've been trying to practice awareness in my life- a Buddhist approach where one observes one's feelings and thoughts from a deeper center that is beyond such trivial and limited dualities. I'd even begun to feel as though I were making progress.

But it's so easy to get sucked back into these vortexes of desire, greed, happiness, sadness, pain, pleasure. And most often, it's misery that our minds inflict on us- dwelling on slights and problems real or imagined. And then, to retreat from these thoughts, we turn to any number of pleasant diversions. Eating, drinking, sex, television, Angry Birds, drugs, or shopping? Pick your poison.

Here Babbitt is doing some mental calculations about how much money he earns and spends.

"The effect of his scientific budget planning was that he at once felt both triumphantly wealthy and perilously poor and in the midst of these dissertations he stopped his car, rushed into a small news-and-miscelany shop, and bought the electric cigar lighter which he had coveted for a week."

I sometimes find myself doing the same sort of impulsive buying on Etsy after I've made a sale. Sort of an "I deserve it" purchase.

Adding to Babbitt's struggle is the endless production of new diversions and entertainment to keep us from ourselves. These are produced with good intentions, to stem loneliness and keep us from the pain of being by substituting an ever new, constantly improving fantasy of what life could be, if only we had ___________.

Here, Lewis shows us an ad man describing his latest copy;
"So I took a shot at a highbrow ad for Zeeco. How do you like this: The long white trail is calling-calling- it's over the hills and far away for every man or woman that has red blood in his veins and on his lips the ancient song of the buccaneers. It's away with dull drudging, and a fig for care. Speed-glorious speed- it's more than just a moment's exhilaration- it's Life for you and me!"

So rarely when we buy something are we buying the thing itself. We are buying an idea about ourselves. Something we long for but don't know how to create for ourselves. It's much easier to buy an object than to create a moment in our minds and then manifest it. And advertisers make the most of that gap, convincing us of how terribly easy it is to have a new life. It's just one transaction away.

Let the rationalizing begin.

"These standard advertised wares-toothpastes, socks, tires, cameras, instantaneous hot-water heaters- were his symbols and proofs of excellence; at first the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom."

An instantaneous hot water heater sounds quaint compared with the latest I-Phone, doesn't it? Babbit's life was a veritable monastery compared to the bombardment we endure today, and yet. He still struggled. (In Babbitt's day, People wrote letters! The telephone was new fangled! They were dealing with Prohibition for goodness sakes!)

How do we find a center when we are moving at the speed of light? All the improvements and technologies in our lives make things easier, but are the right things made easier? And can those most essential things be made easier? Perhaps the essential why of our existence has to be a struggle, and avoiding that struggle is what gets us in such a mess.

When I read a book like this one, I think of Kafka's words:

"We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ...we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

While I'm not planning on banishing light reading from my nightstand, I think books that wake you to your life are essential as you move along the illuminated path of your own personal journey. Each book leads you to another that is the right one for you at just the right moment.

What books have hit you like an axe?

1 comment:

jacob said...

I'm just finishing up Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and it's hands down the most difficult and awesome book I've read in recent memory. There is so much that is intelligent and funny and bizarre there and the characters each shade your understanding of the whole mammoth narrative eventually nailing an age. Our age.

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