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Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon #1–Spoiler Free Review and Initial Thoughts

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I just finished reading this brilliant and under-appreciated masterpiece and have plenty of thoughts and a lot say about it. Too much, in fact, for one blog post, especially since I’m swamped with work and a tight deadline. I can’t say much more than a few paragraphs about it at the moment, so I thought I’d start with with a simple, spoiler-free review and some initial thoughts. Hopefully, this will be the first in a series of posts on this book. 🙂

This statement, by Arthur Koestler, that precedes the novel, pretty much sums up everything you need to know going into Darkness at Noon.

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The “so-called Moscow Trials” were a series of three show trials, held in the Soviet Union between 1936-1938, in which Stalin had several leading Bolsheviks from the Russian Revolution and top officials (anyone who could who could possibly threaten his power) arrested, tried for treason and found guilty. Most of those convicted were given the death sentence and shot. One of the most bewildering things about these trials were the seemingly voluntary and willing confessions of guilt obtained from the accused. The trials were a sham, the accused were hardened men, heroes from the revolution who had not committed the crimes they were accused of, so why did they confess (especially when confessing would almost certainly lead to their death)?

Darkness at Noon is Arthur Koestler’s 200 page attempt to answer that question and he does so with an insight and brilliance that is pretty amazing. Set during the time of the Moscow Trials, in the Soviet Union, we follow the story of Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik leader, as he is arrested, imprisoned, interrogated and tried for treason against the very government he helped bring to power and devoted his entire life to. While in prison, Rubashov deliberates on the question of whether or not to confess to crimes he has not committed and if so: why? and if not: why not?

Rubashov is a fictional person, but the people and events that the book is based on were real. Koestler, himself, was once enamored by the idea of a Communist utopia and an eager and fanatical member of the Communist Party.

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“I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water, and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and corpses of the drowned.”

Arthur Koestler The Invisible Writing

Drawing on his seven years as a member of the Communist Party, Koestler gets to the heart of the ideology behind the thoughts and struggles and actions of those committed to the Revolution. He creates an extremely well-rounded and lifelike portrait of someone who has rejected his conscience, made the Party his god, and spent his life sacrificing others for the Cause on “the principle that the end justifies the means–all means, without exception”–only to find that the Cause now demands that he be sacrificed (and there are no exceptions).

Something I thought about a lot as I was reading, that has continued to baffle me since I finished, is the question of why this book is not more well known. I imagine the answer may have something to do with the fall of Communist Russia, perhaps people think that it’s no longer that relevant. This is probably a subject to expound on in another post, but I’ll just say here that I think this book is as relevant today as it was when it was written because it deals with human nature and our tendency, as humans, to justify our means to get our ends, our tendency to see others as means to an end instead of an end in themselves, our tendency to paint the world in black and white and form tribes and groups that value the collective over the individual and it clearly shows the terrible place all that leads to.

Another thing about this book, that took me by surprise, from the get-go, was the undeniable connection and similarity I kept seeing between Darkness at Noon and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I even stopped to confirm that Nineteen Eighty-Four was written after Darkness at Noon and that it wasn’t the other way around. This is definitely subject I want to explore further in another post, because there’s stuff in Darkness at Noon that I’m sure George Orwell drew on in writing Nineteen Eighty-Four (and possibly Animal Farm, as well) and I think he was influenced by Koestler in a significant way.

That said, comparing Darkness at Noon to Nineteen Eighty-Four is a bit like comparing two of your favourite kinds of oranges against each other. Both have their merits, but Darkness at Noon is in no ways inferior; it can easily hold it’s own and is even superior in ways.

Like I said, I think this book is completely under-appreciated, so I’m determined to do my part to make sure this book does not fall into complete obscurity. 🙂 If you’re interested in politics or philosophy or psychology or literature; if you’re a fan of George Orwell or Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Dostoevsky, it’s highly probable that you’d like this book and I’d highly recommend it!

And if you do read it or if you’ve already read it, let me know what you think! I love to hear your thoughts about it. 😀

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Hank Green–Ranting about Books

This video, of Hank Green ranting about book publishing problems, never fails to give me a good laugh. I heartily agree with pretty much everything he says.

0:20 When he starts talking about spoilers in the blurbs and spoilers because of poor layout choices… my copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four did this to me. Some book designer thought it would be a good idea to put the last three sentences of the story opposite the Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak. To top it off, my book is a second hand copy and the previous owner liked the last sentence so much he, or she, decided to underline it (!).

So, I’m seven pages into the book, and I come across a footnote that tells me to “see Appendix”. I obey and turn to the back of the book. There, the first thing my eyes can’t help but see, is not the Appendix, but the last sentence–four unforgettable words, underlined in dark pen! It might as well have written like this: SP SPOIL SPO SPOILER!!!  Needless to say, I hold a permanent grudge against both the the designer and the unknown previous owner of my book. 😦

2:10 Books that look like Twilight covers. words to live byI have to say, I was rather horrified and surprised, when I came across Words to Live By (a selection of C. S. Lewis’s writing), a few years ago, in an online bookstore. I still cringe, every time I come across it. As much as I like C. S. Lewis, I would never consider buying this book because of it’s cover. Actually, I take that back. I just realised I would buy it, in one case, only–if I wanted to give a C. S. Lewis book to someone who was also a fan of Twilight! I have yet to meet someone like that.

If we want to talk about design choices and symbolism, I’m really not quite sure what the cover designer was going for here. Surely their target audience wasn’t Twilight fans. I’m thinking that maybe they want to insinuate food for the soul? But more often than not, in Christian symbolism, an apple in a hand means one of three things: temptation, sin, forbidden fruit. The more I think about it the more bizarre this cover choice seems. Why, oh why?!

It also bothers me when two books use the exact same picture as a cover. What’s worse is when you unknowingly buy both of them.

Case in point, my copy of The Diary of an Old Soul by George MacDonald and The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 by Paul Johnson. I bought both of these off an online bookstore, secondhand, and the cover photo was not available for either when I made my order. Imagine my surprise when I ended up with the versions that both use The Wanderer over the Sea of Clouds by Casper David Friedrich. The Wanderer Over the Sea of Clouds by Casper David FriedrichIn this case, I really wish the cover designer of The Diary of an Old Soul had a gone with a different cover. Sigh.

2:15  I have a few old books with deckle edges (i e. 80 to 100-year-old; from an era when deckle edges were still a part of the book making process) and I think the deckle edge adds a bit of antique charm to the books. But, I agree, it is annoying (and this is probably more along the lines of what Hank is talking about) when it’s a conscious design choice in modern books, just to make the books seem fancier. Deckle edges tend to get soiled and worn faster than trimmed edges, so I think it’s a pretty dumb design decision and it also looks gimmicky.

How about you, dear reader? Do you have any publishing peeves? (Tom?? I’m guessing you do. 🙂 )  If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below. 🙂

What I’m Reading #7

I was looking over my blog a few weeks ago and realised it’s been over a year since I’ve done one of these. A bit of shame, as I’ve gotten quite bit off track as far as my “reading plan” goes. For example, Dostoevsky has been completely neglected. But, at least, it’s not because I haven’t been reading; I’ve just been busy. I suppose another reason is, for the first half of this year, especially when I was going through my Sanderson binge, I was mostly reading e-books and listening to audiobooks, so my paperback stack was rather small. Anyway, this post is a bit of a catch up. I hope I can get back in the groove of doing this regularly.

Here’s a look at the books I’ve completed since my last “What I’m Reading” post.

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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
First and Second Things by C. S. Lewis
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Animal Farm by George Orwell
T. S. Eliot: Selected Poems by T. S. Eliot
On Love by Alain de Botton
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Paper Towns by John Green
Anam Cara by John O’ Donohue (Not pictured as I was only borrowing it.)

I know I always say I want to review the books I’ve read, but never seem to get around to doing so. Well, this time, this list includes some of the most unexpectedly great reads (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Alain de Botton’s On Love), as well as, the most disappointing reads (i.e. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie 😦 ) I’ve come across and I intend to blog about them. I’ve already started on a post about Tuesdays With Morrie, so stay tuned. 🙂

Aside from the sixteen books listed, I’ve also gone through sixteen e-books and audiobooks.
Wool by Hugh Howey
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
The
Hunger Games
trilogy by Suzanne Collins
And eleven books and two short stories (which I’m just gonna count as one “book”) by Brandon Sanderson (see my last post). I should probably also mention here that my passion/appetite for all things Sanderson has abated quite a bit since my last post. I guess we’ll see how I feel about him in the long run.

So, all together, 32 books completed in about a year. Not bad. That’s also not including the ten to twenty books I’m going through at the moment. I’m shooting to finish reading 36 books this year. I’ve already read twenty-five; I’m two books behind schedule. We’ll see how it goes.

What I’m Reading #5: Books I Read This Spring

So my lovely new laptop arrived and I’m now ready to commence with blogging.

I thought I’d start with a little update on what I’ve been reading these past months. Altogether, I’ve read about 25-30 books, but these are the ones I completed.

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Listed, they are:
The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Nine Stories (aka For Esmé—with Love and Squalor) by J. D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Oscar and the Lady in Pink by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Matthew for Everyone–Part One
 
by N. T. Wright
Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller
Looking for Alaska by John Green
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Just about all of these books were first-rate reads and went straight to my list of favorites. I hope I can get around to blogging about about them, because I have so much to say.

Going back to what I’d planned to read in my last “This ‘Week’s’ Books” post, I read all except one. As you can see, the four books on top, in the pictures, are also on my list of completed books, including N. T. Wright‘s Matthew for Everyone–Part One (finally!).

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I read the Crime and Punishment section in Characters of Dostoevsky: Studies from Four Novels by Richard Curle, but didn’t read the entire book as the rest of the book (as the title suggests) deals with other Dostoevsky novels. I’m still reading Dostoevsky: the Making of a Novelist by Ernest J. Simmons. It’s a fascinating read, but difficult, as I’m trying to mainly read the parts that pertain to Dostoevsky, the man and writer, and the parts that specifically relate to Crime and Punishment without reading spoilers or parts that pertain to his other novels. It’s harder than I thought it would be.

The one book I didn’t read was The Young Dostoevsky (1846-1849): A Critical Study by Victor Terras; I didn’t even crack it open. I plan on reading it once I’ve finished reading Ernest J. Simmon’s Dostoevsky book.