Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Book #6 - "The Red and the Black" (Stendhal)

I've now finished five books from The List of 105...down to the last 100!  I'm currently working on Stendhal's "The Red and the Black".  And yes, I mean "working on" rather than "reading".  For while it's an entertaining book so far (I'm about 80 pages into it), it's a whole different nut to crack than the first five books.  For one thing it's the first book from The List that was not originally written in English.  And while I'm not one to judge translations, not being able to read the original French (and my two years of high school French have long since vaporized), there are some phrases now and then that seem clunky or awkward.  Is it Stendhal or is it the translation?  I don't know.

The other thing that makes the book challenging is that it was written around 1830, and it talks a lot about the French politics of post-Napoleonic France.  That made me go and brush up on my early 19th century French history,, which was a fun diversion.  The main character, Julien Sorel, is obsessed with Napoleon, and has a great ambition to rise up from his common origins and be a great man, like Napoleon.  But it's unclear exactly what his talents are, aside from being able to recite Bible passages in latin.  The character is also hard to understand, at least for me.  Stendhal goes into great detail about his actions and motivations, but a lot of times they seem, well, odd to me.  And I don't know if that's intended, or if I just don't get the character, or if his behavior is rooted in early 19th century French norms that I haven't been exposed to.  We'll see if I am able to understand him better as the novel goes along.  Stay tuned...

Friday, January 25, 2008

My Antonia - My Thoughts

I finished "My Antonia" last night.  I laughed, I cried.  Seriously, I cried.  Like a little schoolgirl.  And I hadn't even had any whiskey!  What gives?  Well, here's the deal...

This book really doesn't have a plot.  It's the story of the lives of Jim Burden and his friends, family, and neighbors, living in a small town out on the Nebraska prairie.  Yeah, stuff grow up, people die, people are betrayed, women get know, life.  But there's no real plot; the book is almost just a series of episodes in these people's lives.  So why did I find this book so great?  Because Cather gives this story an incredible tone...a tone of wistful longing, of nostalgia.  The inscription at the beginning of the book is from Virgil:  "Optima dies...prima fugit".  I never learned latin, but one can decifer this..."Optima" is optimal, "dies" is days, "Prima" is like prime, or primary, i.e. first, and "fugit" is flees, like a fugitive.  (See, who needs to study Latin anyway?)  "The best days...flee first".  Things used to be better.  The good old days.  It's all downhill from here.  You get the picture.  The story opens with an introduction by another (unidentified) narrator.  In the introduction, we learn that Jim's life is disappointing, and that he looks back longingly on his memories of Nebraska, particularly of the Bohemian immigrant Antonia.  So the book starts out nostalgic for an idyllic prairie past, and it never lets up.  Yet, I never felt manipulated, and the book never falls into melodrama.  No, Cather is good.  Real good.  And I have the wadded up tissues to prove it.

As I touched on in my last post, it's interesting to think about this book and "Main Street".  The two were written within a year of each other, yet their views of rural small town life couldn't be different.  "Main Street" is often scathing social commentary.  But there's nothing scathing about "My Antonia".  That's not to say that Cather is not aware of the problems of living in a small town.  There are lots of problems in "My Antonia"...the American-born look down on the immigrants, there are tensions between protestants and catholics, and, as in "Main Street", there is the very great pressure to conform to social norms.  But Cather focuses on the good, on the ties of family and friends, and of the indomitable spirit of the early settlers of the plains.  In other words, on the good old days.  Yep, they're gone forever.  All we can do is look back, ever so longingly, and shed a tear for what we've lost.  Nothing but more disillusionment ahead, to be ended only by death.  But hopefully not before I finish the remaining 100 books on The List.  Next up:  Stendhal's "The Red and the Black".

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book #5 - My Antonia (Willa Cather)

Man, my reading's been just moving right along lately, fueled by whiskey, enthusiasm, and some great writing.  I'm already half way through "My Antonia".  Alright, admittedly it's not so long a book, and I had an extra day off this week which allowed me some extra reading time, but still...  The book is narrated by a boy, Jim Burden, whose parents die when he is ten years old, and he is forced to move from his home in Virginia to a farm in Nebraska where his grandparents live.  At about the same time that he moves there, a Bohemian family (meaning an immigrant family from Bohemia, not the Kerouac clan) moves to the neighboring farm, and he befriends their oldest daughter Antonia.

I love Cather's description of the Nebraska pioneer life.  Well, alright, this story takes place maybe a generation after the true pioneers, but it's still early country life.  In fact, the setting, rural USA in the very early 1900s, is the same as in Main Street, but maybe 20 or 30 years earlier.  But Cather's view of rural and small town life is much more sympathetic and nostalgic than Sinclair Lewis's.  Cather lived in Nebraska as a child, and it's clear she relished the country.

Actually, there have been a couple of times where I've driven through western Nebraska on Interstate 80, and decided to get off the main road and go driving through the countryside on two lane roads.  And I have to say, I LOVE western Nebraska.  It's sand hill country, which means the terrain is basically large sand dunes covered by prairie grasses.  Lots of big cattle ranches among the ever-rolling hills, and scarcely any trees around.  It's really quite beautiful, and rather remote, and I imagine that 100 years ago it must have been quite remote, and I can see where Cather would have found it evocative.  Seriously, if you ever get to western Nebraska, get onto some backroads and have a look around.  I consider it one of America's hidden scenic delights.  I mean, Nebraska...who knew?

Anyway, I'm not sure where the novel is going to go at this point, but I'm enjoying it a lot, and I like the characters.  And I have to say, there's one episode that happens maybe 70 pages in that is just haunting.  A Russian neighbor explains why he had to leave Russia and come to the US, and it involves a sleigh ride home from a wedding with a newlywed couple that ends in tragedy.  Hungry wolves are also involved.  It was an example of some really great writing, and I couldn't get it out of my head for awhile.

Monday, January 21, 2008

More on the American Superman

I finished the last twenty or so pages of Ben Franklin's autobiography last night.  Man, what a snooze.  The book got quite dry towards the end, and disappointingly ends years before the American revolution (Ben died before he could return and complete the work).  While I enjoyed the first part of the book, for a great book on Ben and his life, try Walter Isaacson's bio of Franklin.

One thing I was thinking about with Franklin is that not only was he a man of obviously great intelligence and talent, but he also had an incredible drive and work ethic that served him well.  This dude was no slacker.  This made me flash back to "Of Human Bondage" when Philip is in art school.  As I said in my post on the topic, it takes more than talent to "make it".  You have to have the drive, the work ethic, the mental focus, and confidence.  Franklin worked hard, was very thoughtful, and made things happen.  I wonder if today's world has too many distractions to cultivate Ben Franklins anymore.  What if Ben had an X-box, and cable TV, and internet access?  Would he still have put all his qualities to their best use?  Or would the distractions of modern life lessen what he could accomplish, simply by wasting his time?  How many of us is that true for?

Anyway, the work ethic continues on this end...I've already started my next book:  Willa Cather's "My Antonia".

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Book #4 - The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

It's not every country that gets to have a founding father who's a bad-ass.  Benjamin Franklin was like some kinda super hero from a remote galaxy, come to free the colonies from the Evil Empire of Britain, but who's lost his light saber and can only use a printing press and his wits.  Plain and simply, he rocked.  Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams...yeah those guys were cool and smart, but they weren't Ben Franklin, a guy who might perhaps have the best resume in all of American History.  I mean, this guy was a successful businessman, rising up from a poor background to acquire great wealth.  And then, unlike our pal Dorian Gray, he totally focused himself on his own improvement (perhaps a bit too much) and improvement of "the common good".  He started the first library in the colonies, as well as the first fire department, he raised money to build the school that became the University of Pennsylvania, he was elected to the colonial assembly, he was a successful writer, signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, was a very successful ambassador to France, and could totally charm The Ladies.  Oh yeah, and he was a famous scientist in his day who frickin' invented the Franklin stove, the lightening rod, bifocals, and the glass harmonica.  Did I leave anything out?  Hell yes, I did, because there's not space enough to list it all.  Like I said, this guy was a super hero.  If you made him up in a novel, the character would be unbelievable. He's the kind of guy you read about and think, "Man, my life is pretty frackin' lame.  I am SUCH a loser compared to Ben Franklin".  But then, who isn't?  No politician today can hold a candle to this guy.  Not even remotely.

About two or three years ago I read a biography of Franklin by Walter Isaacson.  This was my first intro to old Ben, and it got me hooked on this superfly American hero.  So I was definitely looking forward to reading Franklin's autobiography and hear the story from The Man himself.  The first hundred pages or so are great...Franklin states at the beginning he's writing these memoirs for his son, so he will know his father's history.  The story is fun and riveting, and Franklin's humor totally comes across.  He tells of growing up in Boston, and being apprenticed to his brother to become a printer.  His brother is not the nicest guy, and beats our poor super hero, eventually causing Franklin to run away from Boston, where he was born, and travel to Philadelphia, where he works for another printer and eventually owns his own print shop.  He's livin' the American dream!  The tone of the first hundred pages shows Franklin is having a good time writing and telling his story.  But after writing these first 100 pages or so, Franklin put down his pen and didn't pick up his writing for several years.  He took it up again when he was urged to finish writing his story for the public.  Well, it's good that he continued, but the tone is completely's more impersonal, less quirky, and frankly a bit stodgy and dull.  He mentions his adult son, but there's no background given about his son growing up, or anything else about Franklin's family life for that matter.  Where did you go, Ben?  It feels like he got more conscious of his place in history and toned down the parts involving the good stuff like prostitutes and such.  Too bad.

By the way, one thing I learned was that people drank a heck of a lot in those days.  Franklin tells of when as a young man he went to London with a friend and worked at a printer shop.  The employees all drank pints of ale all day, starting at breakfast and ending after dinner.  And this is not under the table, as they have the ale delivered to them at work in a keg.  They are amazed that Franklin, who won't drink with them, gets a lot of work done, and can carry a load of paper under each arm and go up the stairs without falling.  Woohoo!  Times have definitely changed.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Book #3 - The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

If you love flowers, this book is for you.  I mean, if you seriously love flowers.  I swear, at least once a page Wilde mentions flowers.  Either some flowers in a vase, or flowers in a garden, or something or someone looks like a flower or is colored like a flower, etc.  What's up with that?  Do flowers represent the beauty of youth, both of which fade and wither after blossoming with great beauty?  That's my guess.  But maybe Wilde just likes flowers.  A lot.

My only other exposure to Oscar Wilde, aside from rreading this novel, was listening to The Smiths back in the 1980s.  Morrissey was seriously into Oscar Wilde...and flowers too, how interesting.  I still have a faded old Smiths t-shirt with a bouquet of roses pictured on the front.  "A dreaded sunny day, so I meet you at the cemetery gates, Keats and Yeats are on your side, but Wilde is on mine".

Anyway, I think we all know the basic story of this book.  Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man, who has his portrait painted by an artist and admirer, Basil Hallward.  A friend of Basil's, Lord Henry Wotton, meets Dorian at one of the sittings, and imparts on Dorian that his beauty will fade.  Dorian is distressed, and wishes the painting, which he fears will serve as a reminder of his beauty after it is long gone, would age instead of himself.  Naturally he gets his wish, and naturally it all turns out very badly in the end.

Lord Henry exerts a corrupting influence on Dorian, both through his words and a rather mysterious book he gives Dorian.  Dorian embarks on a hedonistic life, using his beauty to seduce women and men alike.  Woohoo!  And as his corruption and decadence grows, the portrait, which is now safely locked away in Dorian's attic, becomes more and more hideous.  Dorian takes opium on occasion, eventually kills Basil Hallward in front of his portrait, and blackmails a former male lover into helping him dispose of the body, causing the former lover to commit suicide afterwards.  How delightfully wicked indeed!  Eventually, after nearly being killed by the vengeful brother of a woman he once loved and dumped (which lead to her suicide), he decides to give up his decadent life and repent for his crimes.  But when he looks at his picture after deciding this, his portrait has eyes that betray hypocrisy.  Dammit, how does that painting always KNOW?  So he decides to destroy the portrait with a knife...and when he stabs at the picture, his household servants hear a scream, and find him lying dead, hideously aged as in his portrait and stabbed with his own knife, while his portrait now looks like his young beautiful self.  Well, OK, kill your conscience and you kill yourself, that much I get.  But clearly Dorian didn't think this whole thing through very well...I mean, dude, if a picture is aging and you're not, then destroying the picture is probably not going to work out so well.

This was a fun read, and a quick one (it only took me a week), but I  didn't get into it in an intellectual way as I did with "Of Human Bondage" and "Main Street".  There's a lot in this book to think about...the corrupting influence of others, the role of art in life, the power of youth and beauty, and the superficial nature of society that exalts both.  Lord Henry in particular, but also the other characters at times, speak in aphorisms which must be read slowly and mulled over.  Still, this book didn't get my mind going so much, and I'm not sure why.  Maybe these issues just don't hit as close to home for me as the ones touched on in the previous two books.  Or maybe it's the setting in aristocratic Victorian England that seemed a bit alien to for a wicked gothic tale, but not something that seems so relevant to my own life.  And funny, that's similar to what I touched upon on the last it's hard to get high school students today interested in 19th century English literature, as they can't relate to it so well.  Hmm, maybe the same thing is at work a bit in me.  Or not.  Maybe it was just this book.  Well, we'll see, as I have many 19th century english novels ahead of me on The List.  And don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the book a lot.

But now it's on to the next book!  I should probably have read "Faust" next, to stick with the general theme of this book, but instead I've turned to the story of a life the very opposite of Dorian's decadent one..."The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin".

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reading the Canon in High School

There was an interesting post on the New York Times website today, which can be found here:

It's about teaching literature and "the classics" to high school students today.  Seems like it's hard to get them interested in 19th century literature, at least in the author's experience.  I was quite fortunate in having gone to a great public school system, and having some great teachers.  Even so, I think of the books I read for high school english...Crime and Punishment, The Stranger, Giants in the Earth, David Copperfield...I'd love to go back and read those books again, since I think I'd get a lot more out of them.  Even though I had some excellent teachers, who helped me learn about literature and appreciate reading, it seems that as an adult the experience I bring to my reading helps me appreciate it all the more.  At least that's how I'm feeling about this current reading I'm doing.  It's's important to teach literature to high school students, but perhaps the real reward for them will only occur years later when they pick up a book and can fully appreciate it through the lens of life's experience.  Fuck, maybe I should make another list of all the great books I read when I was younger and then go re-read them.  I wonder how different they would seem...would some seem much better than I previously thought...and some seem much less significant?

And as somewhat of an aside, if you had asked me in college what the two books that influenced me most were, I would have said "The Magic Mountain" (Thomas Mann) and "100 Years of Solitude" (Gabriel Garcia Marquez).

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Return to Human Bondage

I've been thinking a bit more about "Of Human Bondage" the past few days, and want to comment on a couple of points.  The first is on Philip's obsessive, crazy love for Mildred.  As someone with an advanced degree in biology, I have wondered what exactly love is on a biochemical level.  Why do we fall in love with someone?  Are there chemicals released in our brains that act like drugs, which get released and give us that lovin' feeling?  After all, as greater philosophers than myself have already said, love is a drug.  You get too much, you get too high, not enough and you're gonna die.  Or something like that.  It makes you feel crazy, giddy, excited, high.  And if it's withdrawn, it hurts like hell, and it takes a long time to "dry out".  Do some people get addicted to that drug?  Philip continues to seek out Mildred even though intellectually he realizes she's bad, she doesn't return his feelings, she uses him for money, she annoys him, and they have nothing in common.  Yet he still keeps coming back for more.  Isn't this like a drug addict?  So does that mean there really is a drug released in the brain?  We know the brain has natural opiate compounds, similar to heroin and morphine, which cause, among other things, "runner's high".  Does the brain have opiates involved in the feeling of love?  Yet opiates also dull pain, and my pain response to injury does not seem to be affected by whether I'm in love or not.  I'm sure some scientist somewhere has studied love and it's effect on the brain.  I'll have to see what I can find.

And second, I have been thinking about how Philip goes from career to career before he finds something that (1) he can tolerate and (2) he's good at.  Fortunately he finds both.  But how many of us never do?  How many people are just mediocre at our jobs?  Or are good at their jobs but either don't like it, or like it for awhile and then grow bored.  How many people are just mediocre at everything they've tried?  Does everyone have at least one talent?  And no, "totally rocking out" does not count as a talent.

Ah well, just some random thoughts, generated by literature and a nightcap of rye.  Now it's on to book #3...The Portrait of Dorian Gray!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Release from Human Bondage (Spoiler Alert!)

I finished "Of Human Bondage" his morning, after a long reading session yesterday on a coast-to-coast plane trip.

As I predicated, Mildred returned (no, no Philip, don't do it!). She'd been dumped by Philip's old friend and was supporting herself and her baby by walking the streets of London as a prostitute. Philip takes her and her baby in, even though he can ill afford it, and she lives in an extra room in his apartment, supported by Philip. She half-heartedly looks for a real job, but doesn't try too hard. Philip enjoys her company, and is really into her kid, but claims his feelings for her are gone, and won't have sex with her, even though she offers it in payment for his kindness. She tells Philip that she's realized he's the only gentleman she has ever really known. They squabble and argue, have little in common, and Mildred continues to milk Philip of money. She tries harder and harder to get Philip to have sex with her, but he says he's no longer interested in her that way. Mildred seems interested in Philip now only when he doesn't want her any more. Hmmm, how many of us have experienced THAT? This eventually drives her into a rage, and when he returns home one night, he finds she's torn up the apartment, destroyed or vandalized everything he owns, and has left him (again). You think this guy would have learned! Well, I tried to warn him.

Anyway, since the episode with Mildred cost him much of his remaining inheritance, he takes the rest and makes a bet in the stock market. This doesn't go well, and now he's really screwed, as he doesn't have the money to continue his medical studies. He has to drop out of medical school after his uncle, the Vicar, refuses to lend him any money. He then lives in abject poverty for awhile, working in a department store. After a year or two his uncle dies, leaving him with enough money to finish his medical training. He finds he's good at medicine, and is good with the patients...his experience with poverty helps him relate to the poor and ill.

He runs into Mildred one more time...she sends him a letter and asks to see him. He finds she's once again a prostitute, and has some kind of disease which she seeks his help with. I can't figure out what she has...TB, or some sort of STD? Nonetheless it seems quite serious. Philip gives her medicine, and never sees her again, leaving her to her fate. We also learn her baby has died. So that is that. Philip, finally, seems to be over her.

The book ends rather unexpectedly. Philip ends up having a fling with the young daughter of a friend. He says he doesn't love her, but is clearly attached to her. When he learns she is pregnant, he decides to chuck his dream of traveling the world as a ship's doctor to settle down with her, raise a family, and practice medicine. He convinces himself this is a noble sacrifice, even though he's bumming he won't be able to be a solitary world traveler, as he longed to do for so long. Yet, when his girlfriend tells him she's not pregnant after all, and he's free again to think of travel, he becomes dejected and realizes that he really does want to marry her and settle down. So he asks her to marry him and she accepts, and they all will live happily ever after. Or will they? Her answer to his proposal of marriage is with the words "If you like". This is exactly what Mildred would say. His girlfriend (Sally) clearly is interested in him, and mothers him, but is somewhat detached. While it's clear she's not another Mildred, and Philip is not obsessed with her as he was with Mildred, I wonder where all this will leave them in a few years.

And why does Philip decide to marry her and throw away his dreams of being free from human bondage? I couldn't decide at first if this seemed false or not. But it seems to me that Philip realizes that he is longing for family, for a closeness that he's never really had since his mother died. He won't have the adventure that he would have had traveling the world, but he'll be happy. He won't have the destructive passion and intensity he felt for Mildred, but he will have a good life. Kind of like the life he might have had with Norah had he not been so obsessed with Mildred at the time (although Sally is younger and more attractive physically than Norah). Kind of like the life that many of us middle class folks end up living. And it isn't so fact, it can be pretty damn good. Well, until you hit 46, and freak out, and start reading and blogging about all the books you should read before you die.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Bad, Bad Love

I'm still plowing through "Of Human Bondage". It's a great read, but I'm not the world's fastest reader, and I've also had to do a lot of reading for work in the past few days which has taken me away from the book. Which sucks, because it's really good. Philip, now in medical school, has fallen into an obsessive love with a waitress named Mildred. I tell you, Maugham is really good with characters...the main characters are so intricately portrayed, and even the incidental characters are all well drawn and quite vivid. But where was I...oh yes, obsessive love. Philip falls for a waitress, I mean falls hard, and it ain't good. Mildred is thin, anemic, and impressively manipulative...but Philip has to take half the blame because he falls for it so completely. He falls for Mildred, showers her with love, and she's oh so obviously half-hearted about the poor guy. Then she runs off with a married man that Philip has been seeing her flirt with, and that looks like the end. So Philip then starts seeing Norah, a divorced woman, who showers him with love and affection. Philip and Norah really have an intellectual connection, which he most definitely did NOT have with Mildred, and she's so good and loving to him. But of course, Mildred comes back, pregnant and dumped by the married guy, and Philip immediately drops poor Norah and spends all of his not-so-abundant savings to help out Mildred. Mildred readily accepts this, and again half-heartedly starts seeing Philip again, but is quick to dump him for a friend of Philip's. Yet Philip is not blameless, for when he realizes that Mildred and the friend are interested in one another, he throws them together and pushes it. This guy is seriously masochistic. I mean, Mildred takes advantage of him, and Philip not only turns a blind eye to this, but seems to relish it in a way. Why is that?

The thing is that all this reminds me of a couple of past relationships I've been in myself. Relationships where I've been way more into someone than they've been into me. And it's true that when you're really into someone and they sometimes seem like they're into you, but more often are passive or hostile, it makes you want them all the more, or at least it makes the feelings more intense when they do seem to return you're love for a moment. The mixture of pain and pleasure is intoxicating, and not really in a good way. I mean, from what I've read heroin is also intoxicating, and feels really, really good, but only for a bit...then it really, really hurts. Well, same idea. Having been in healthy, mutually loving relationships since then, I know this, but poor Philip does not share this knowledge, so he can't back away and look at his relationship with Mildred and say "Back off, bitch, I'm outta here"...even though I long for him to say that.

Unrequited love sucks. I wish I'd read this book 25 years might have saved me a lot of trouble. Well, actually, probably not. It's most likely something you need to figure out by living every sucky moment.

Anyway, Mildred is now gone, but I expect she'll return before this thing ends. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Book #2 - Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham)

I'm on Xmas vacation now...a nice two week long respite from work, visiting relatives scattered about the southeast and midwest, and doing some reading when I can. Actually, I've been able to get in a good bit of reading in the past few days, more than I'd usually do at home, and that's been awesome. I'm now about 2/3 of the way through my second book from the list: "Of Human Bondage" by W. Somerset Maugham.

This book is a classic bildungsroman (Now there's a word, like weltanschung, which only college graduates are legally allowed to use). The story is about (so far at least) the early life and education of Philip Carey, an English lad who is orphaned at a young age, is raised by his aunt and uncle (a vicar), goes to Germany for an education, then tries his hand at being an accountant (which he hates and is not good at), then goes to Paris to study art (which he is OK at, but decides to quit when he realizes he will always be just OK), and then goes back to England to study medicine. It's quite a good book...a little Dickens-esque at first, what with being born with a clubfoot (what is a clubfoot exactly, anyway?), and orphaned and then raised by the childless aunt and uncle in a vicarage, but as Philip grows older, it becomes a better and better read, and I find it hard to put down now.

I like this book because it makes me think. Main Street did that as well, but the styles are pretty different.

There was one theme that really struck me in the section of the novel where Philip is in Paris studying art. He is attending an art school, and is living quite the bohemian life with his fellow art students. Philip, and the reader, are struck by the fact that some of them are totally dedicated to their art, spending all their time working on and thinking about their work, and yet they appear doomed to failure as they don't have more than a mediocre talent for it. Of course, they do not realize their lack of talent, and in fact they rail against those who might criticize their work, as criticism just shows them that others clearly don't see their obvious genius. Then there is another student who is clearly the most naturally talented and original of the lot, yet he can never complete a's not good enough to him, or he loses interest, or he becomes insecure about it, etc. Having been a musician and playing in bands for years, and also as a fan of American Idol, I was struck by how common all this really is. I have seen so many musicians who are so sure of their own talents, and yet truth be told, they are really only middling. Some of them work quite hard, and yet hard work and perseverance is no match for the lack of innate talent. There seems to be in America today this myth that if you have a dream, and work really hard at it, you can achieve that can be anything you want, achieve anything you want, as long as you really put your mind to it. Well, unfortunately, this is bunk. Hard work will not make up for the lack of talent, and overwhelming talent is no guarantee of success without the ability to work really hard and see things through to the end. And even talent and hard work might not succeed without a modicum of luck. It sucks, and it's unfair, but it's the way of the world.

All this reminds me of Carol in Main Street. She wants to change things, and has the desire to make her mark, but she can never really decide exactly how to fulfill her desires, or to quite articulate exactly what they are, nor does she have the persistance and strength to persevere when things don't immediately go her way. We're all prisoners of our own limitations, whether that's lack of talent, or lack of discipline, or shyness, or lack of confidence, or whatever. The best we can do is to continue to try to "know thyself", to understand what our own particular limitations are, and to either try to rise above them or else engage in pursuits where our limitations won't be too much of a handicap. In Philip's case, he came to realize he was only of average talent, and he had the balls to ask his art professor to give him honest feedback about his talent and whether he should continue his career in art, and he also had the balls to listen openly and to decide to leave the field when it was clear he'd never be great at it. Would that we could all do the same...