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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 6, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Treasure Island, Earth Without People

I just finished listening to Neil Hunt's superb reading of Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (Recorded Books, 1988, 6 cds, 6.75 hours).

I read this book, as most boys did (and many girls as well) before I was in my teens, and I hadn't read it since. But when we think of romanticized pirates singing pirate songs, digging up treasure, finding skeletons, drinking rum until they're so stupid a boy could defeat them, it did not begin with Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Stevenson's novel was first published in 1883. The other great pirate book of my childhood, Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini, was published in 1922.

Sabatini's book was intended for adults -- as attested by the love story at its heart, and the fact that the hero (played by Errol Flynn in the great black-and-white movie; many, including me, think of it as Flynn's best role) is forced into piracy because he has been unjustly sentenced to slavery on a Caribbean island.

Captain Blood never kills anybody who doesn't deserve it, keeps his word at all times, and he and his men are a force for righteousness.

While there are still bad pirates in Captain Blood, our hero only kills one in a fair fight (and then only to save the honor and then the life of his beloved).

But Treasure Island has no such sanitized pirates. Long John Silver, the driving force in the story, may be smarter than the average pirate -- he has money stored up in banks in England, not in buried chests on remote islands -- but he's still a murderous, treacherous scoundrel.

The hero, Jim Hawkins, never accepts becoming a pirate himself, even though such a choice is offered to him. He faces death or torture rather than surrender his honor. It was a different era, wasn't it?

But Silver -- we see him commit cold-blooded murder of an honest man, and even when he is bargaining for his life, Jim Hawkins sees him contemplate treachery when it looks like it might serve his purpose.

He saves Jim's life, yes, but primarily to keep him around as a bargaining chip, and when Silver manages to escape punishment in the end, the best we can hope for is that he has enough money that he can retire and keep an inn, where he will presumably murder fewer people in the average week.

Isn't it an odd thing that we now live in an era when it feels almost surprising that Jim Hawkins chooses to act honorably at all times -- and so do the adults who are on the good-guy team. Yes, the Squire can be a blustering idiot sometimes, and the Doctor is sometimes too upright for his own safety, nobly treating wounded bad guys at risk of his own life. But their honor is never compromised.

We're so used to heroes with feet of clay that we forget: There really are good people in the world who do not break their word, even when it is inconvenient to keep it; who do the right thing even when nobody is looking, especially when there might be great profit in malfeasance. Even if they have foibles and make mistakes sometimes, their goodness is not in doubt.

Why shouldn't books be written about such people? Yet a writer can sometimes feel as if he must apologize for creating a hero who is truly noble.

Nowadays, it seems almost obligatory that we sanitize our villains and stain our heroes -- but Treasure Island proves how well a story works when we simply tell the truth about good people and bad people in the world.

Here's the other remarkable thing: Stevenson was a terrific writer, and Treasure Island is filled with of clever, effective prose. This book holds up astonishingly well -- especially considering that there are many far-more-recent books that have already collapsed under the weight of time.

No wonder it has become a classic.

A classic, yet one that is rarely taught in literature classes. Why not? Well, in the first place, it doesn't have to be taught. More than 120 years old, it is still completely accessible to a modern reader -- and to children at that. When I first read it, I had no idea what half the nautical terms meant -- but it didn't matter because the story does not depend on its readers understanding every word.

Now I do know the meaning of all the nautical terms (I didn't read Horatio Hornblower for nothing!), and I've read many thousands of books since then, and Treasure Island still had the power to catch me up and lift me out of myself and give me another life, that of a boy who gets caught up in a small war and takes responsibility for doing whatever he can to bring about the right outcome.

It made me want to teach a class in the great adventure novels, the ones that survive, not because they are taught in classes, but because volunteers read them -- parents hand them to their children; children hand them to each other.

Treasure Island and Captain Blood were both given to me by my parents, as were Tom Sawyer and Little Men and Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur

and Peter Pan.

In fact, that's quite a list right there. If you toss in a brace of Dumas novels (pere et fils), a Hugo (Les Miserables), a Verne (20,000 Leagues? Around the World?), a Walter Scott (Waverley? Ivanhoe? Kenilworth?), and perhaps a Merritt or a Haggard, or Graustark or The Prisoner of Zenda, and you will have a course in the real literature of western civilization -- that is, the stories that the reading public took to their hearts and have never forgotten.

The stories that reflected, reinforced, and transformed our civilization.

It is our noble, romantic fiction that teaches us the virtues our civilization thinks we ought to admire.

Today, though, the fiction most admired by our elites seems to teach us that selfishness is better than sacrifice, that virtue is a fraud forced on the weak-willed by those who wish to control them. Our litterateurs will insist that it is not the business of literature to teach virtue; but in fact literature teaches virtue regardless of the author's intent.

The only issue is which virtues will be admired.

By the books they love shall ye know them; and the literature beloved by the literary elite is a paltry thing, for the only "nobility" universally admired seems to be when persons who fancy themselves to be superior to ordinary people "stick it" to society at large.

But then, what would elitists admire except literature that celebrates elitism?

I'd rather live with and near people who read and loved the books I just listed than those who think contemporary "literary" novels are the cat's meow.

But then, I'm just a tired old man who was filled with joy at discovering that Treasure Island was even better than I remembered; it's not Stevenson's fault that I compare the wonders of his book with the largely unwonderful books that receive official praise these days (though of course there are exceptions).

If you have children, and haven't yet given them (or read to them) Treasure Island, I urge you to brighten their lives with it.

And if you happen to buy the audiobook read by Neil Hunt, and listen to it with them, it is a gift that will not be forgotten.

*

A reader recently responded to my moaning about how impossible it is to get Tropicana "Pure" Valencia orange juice in Greensboro by telling me that you can still get it -- at, of all places, WalMart. Most specifically the WalMart at US29 and Cone, where Carolina Circle Mall used to be.

Now, at this moment you might not find any, because my wife and I just cleaned out what they had (except the pomegranate juice); and what they had wasn't much, just three bottles of orange-with-pulp and one bottle of mango-orange.

But the tags are there for the pulp-free, the pulp, and the mango-orange, so presumably they'll restock and I won't have to wait till I can get to Wegman's in Virginia.

Another reader pointed out that there is a Wegman's closer to Greensboro, at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

But that brings us to an old debate. There are those who swear that if you are headed for Washington DC it only makes sense to go by way of I-85 and then I-95.

But my wife and I have timed it, and it is faster to go by way of US29 and I-66. And by "faster" I mean an hour.

That is, if you don't get lost in the confusing new bypass around Lynchburg that constantly tries to throw you off into the Virginia countryside -- you have to exit at least twice just to stay on Route 29.

But if you know the road, US29 is a four-lane that follows a much more direct route to DC than the freeways. Plus the scenery as you pass through Virginia horse country is far better than the coastal forest, unbroken by other scenery, that dominates most of I-95.

So lovely as Fredericksburg is -- and it's one of my favorite towns in Virginia -- in my experience it is not closer than Gainesville, which also has a Wegman's.

Then again, "closer" and "faster" are almost meaningless concepts to most Greensboro drivers. Because of the miraculously random way our roads have been laid out (about to be tortured even further by the destructively outdated path of our new belt route), it is almost impossible to calculate the "best" way to get from one point to another in Greensboro.

Here are several rules my wife and I have discovered or invented for driving in Greensboro.

1. No road can go straight for more than a mile without changing its name.

2. If a road seems to go in the direction you want, it will peter out, veer away, or dead-end.

3. Whatever landmark you're depending on has been torn down or renamed.

4. Whichever way you feel like going is the best route.

*

Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us was pointed out to me after I mentioned the History Channel's Life After People.

Since Life After People follows the usual cable-channel-original-documentary pattern of spend most of each segment promoting both this and the next segment, and reminding you of the last one, each episode repeats itself endlessly and delivers only a minute dose of information.

By contrast, Weisman's excellent book delivers an astonishing amount of information.

Weisman has an attitude -- but it's an informed one, based on facts. Yes, it can be taken as the standard eco-puritan's diatribe about how humans are ruining everything.

But then, humans are ruining a lot of things, and endangering others.

Weisman pays lip service to the global warming shibboleth, but includes the fact that we have had warmer periods than now. He does leave out the information that carbon dioxide has a minuscule influence on our atmospheric greenhouse effect compared to, say, methane. And he spends a bit of time telling us how hard it will be to get rid of all the "extra" carbon in the atmosphere.

But at least he admits that carbon dioxide is a terrific fertilizer for all plant life.

More to the point, he spends the vast majority of the book on real problems. There is an odd kind of multiple-personality at work here, though. He gives us real science on how quickly some aspects of the environment will recover if humans abruptly disappear.

But then he points out that if we left some of our most dangerous enterprises untended, our disappearance would then lead to catastrophe. Having built a massive refining and tank-farm establishment near Houston, we essentially hold the whole region hostage, since if our species were expunged from the planet, our enterprises that depend on constant vigilance would cause damage that would take a long, long time to recover from.

Some will take these passages to mean "It's already too late" and "better stop these awful humans before they cause any more permanent damage."

Others will take them to mean, "You can't help anything by getting rid of us; instead, we have to work to find technological ways to avoid further damage and to clean up the damage we've already caused."

I'm in that second group.

The trouble is, most people are in the third group. "Damage? What damage?" combined with "The free market is bound to deal with this in the long run" (which is ludicrously false) and "somebody will find a solution."

Well, nobody will find a solution unless somebody is looking, and nobody will be looking unless there is money to pay for their time and equipment, and authority to give them access to information and, ultimately, to give them power to mandate changes.

If we've learned anything, it's that the free market will simply move manufacturing to places that don't spend any money on prevention or cleanup. This is a case where government intervention, in one form or another, is the only thing that prevents worsening the situation.

But don't read this book as a screed. Read it as entertainment! It's simply fascinating to find out which human artifacts will last -- which of our monuments are permanent.

The Great Wall of China, for instance, requires frequent maintenance in order not to crumble and erode into the surrounding terrain. But the Chunnel -- the underground tunnel that links England and France -- will survive into geological time. Not that it won't get lost -- the entrance on the French side, in times of highest water, will be submerged. But it will be there.

Another thing we learn is that there are no permanent failsafe systems. Without constant vigilance, nuclear reactors and chemical refineries are all potential disasters -- and that means we must maintain that vigilance!

One ongoing disaster is plastic. With few exceptions, even plastic that "breaks down" just turns into smaller pieces of eternal plastic. It's finding its way into the diet of fish; it's choking the swirling dead zones of every ocean; eventually it's going to be a part of every living thing on Earth -- until a bacterium evolves that will actually consume it.

The odd thing is that plastic can be eliminated by ... burning it. Breaking it down into its constituent elements.

The problem is that one of those constituent elements is vast amounts of carbon -- and because we have so much faith in the unproven (and so far unprovable) dogma that loose carbon dioxide is "causing" global warming, we have forbidden ourselves to get rid of plastic in the only way that actually works.

By the time you're through reading The World Without Us, you have the contradictory beliefs that (1) we are a terrible problem to the whole planet and (2) if we were wiped out by a plague and simply disappeared, it would cause immediate and permanent damage to the planet.

It's as if we're our own hostages.

Look, we are no worse than any other species that acquires dominance -- we continue to engage in the behaviors that have brought us reproductive success and niche dominance all over the planet. I wish environmentalists would stop injecting pointless and counterproductive moral tongue-clucking into every discussion.

Even Weisman engages in it, though he does it less than most. But while we celebrate the marvels of all the other species, let's remember that we are also a species, and a doggone successful one.

You don't solve a problem by punishing success -- to eliminate us would be as stupid and short-sighted as eliminating any other species.

Instead, we need to use our incredible ability to transform our own behavior through changing the stories and rituals that define us as cultures.

We have done it many times before -- Christianity, for instance, eliminated infanticide and abortion, which were shockingly common in the Roman Empire before the Christian ascendancy.

And Hinduism eliminated meat-eating in an entire subcontinent, turning us away from our natural omnivorousness.

To condemn the people who confer obvious benefits on society because they have not yet learned how to do it without overlarge environmental costs merely guarantees inaction.

Instead, our effort should be to find economically viable alternatives to those things that are causing or risking the worst damage.

Which is yet one more reason why the insane dedication to undetectable anthropogenic global warming is so very dangerous. It's dangerous because it's distracting us from the real problems, and because, when it becomes clearer than it is already that this has been a vast hoax, in which "scientists" demanded that we do the very unscientific thing of taking their unproven (when not disproven) assertions on faith, the public will, quite naturally, assume that environmentalists are always crying wolf.

But that's what happens when scientists stop being scientists -- endlessly skeptical of their own findings -- and start being eco-puritans -- telling whatever story they think will get them the results they want.

Weisman is a good and thorough cataloguer of science, and usually he remains well within the realm of sound, logical extrapolations from the existing evidence. I really believe that this book -- or at least all the information in it -- should be in the minds of everyone in business and government, at every level, so that we can have some hope of undoing, repairing, and avoiding the worst kind of damage.

I also believe that those who treat environmentalism as a religion in which the devil is the human race are causing every bit as much damage to the environment as anyone who manufactures plastic or releases raw sewage into waterways.

Because, like PETA, which makes a lot of people want to wear fur and eat meat, those who smugly try to force their environmental will on others through deception or endless fear-mongering (not to mention acts of terrorism) merely create resistance and disbelief. They turn people who might have been their allies into enemies.

And if, by so doing, they prevent or delay actions that must be taken, they have harmed us all.

Think of the Taliban: Its coercive measures end up causing more resistance the moment their grip on power is broken or relaxed. The only method of change that actually works is persuasion and mutual consent, resulting in laws that level the playing field for those who comply with the rules that preserve the environment, instead of the current direction we're heading in -- forcing on us all rules that damage the economy without doing anything good at all.

Just remember that all the supposed "remedies" for the probable non-problem of carbon emissions damage our ability to maintain the amazingly productive global economy we all depend on -- including the people who have so much leisure they can waste their time pushing their untested faith on everybody else.

It is that global economy that will provide us with the means of solving the problems that already exist and preventing the ones that loom; destroy that economy (and with it a huge percentage of human life on this planet), and you will cause immediate disaster -- as documented so effectively in The World Without Us.


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