A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Three Books

The 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine captivated me pretty thoroughly when I was a kid.  I can't remember now how old I was when I first saw it, but I'd guess it was after I first got heavily into Star Trek (around eleven) but before I discovered Robert Heinlein (about fifteen).  Everything about the movie--its determinedly Victorian setting, its dashing but quiet hero, its crazy but elegant design for the time machine, the perfectly coifed hair of the Eloi--fascinated me.  Much of the television and film I watched as a child inspired me to dream about entering the worlds portrayed--to serve on the Enterprise, to hitch a ride on the Millennium Falcon, to play tricks on unsuspecting adults with an identical twin, to escape a cruel orphanage and wander the streets of London--these were all fantasies I had, games I played in my childhood.  But The Time Machine inspired no such games.  I was content simply to observe.  Except in one moment, except during one line: "Only, which three books would you have taken?"

 "Only, which three books would you have taken?"

The Time Traveler, called "George" in the film, has returned from the future, moved his time machine to a location which will be more favorable in the future, and left again.  George's friend David, finally believing George's story of time travel, puzzles over what he may have taken back to the future with him.  The housekeeper declares that nothing is missing . . . "except three books!"  She can't name which ones (she must have been a singularly incurious creature not to have noticed over years of dusting those shelves which three books ought to have been in those gaps), and David says it doesn't really matter what they were.  But, he asks her, a twinkle in his Victorian eye, "which three books would you have taken?”

Dashing but quiet hero in crazy but elegant time machine.

Which three books, indeed.  David's line is both an answer and a question.  It's an answer to "What does one use to (re)build a civilization?"  Books!  Of course.  But assuming your time machine isn't big enough to pack along the contents of the British Library, you're going to have to choose.  I've thought about this line often since I first saw the movie, and it became one of those family quotables:

Mom: Don't forget to pack something to read for the trip!
Sprout: (with Victorian twinkle)  Ah, but which three books?

I never wanted to hop in the time machine with George.  The Eloi were stupid, and George seemed taken with Weena (for reasons which escape me, despite her perfectly coiffed hair), which would have frustrated my little adolescent heart.  Besides which, everybody knows that if you get your paws on a time machine, you go back, not forward.  Silly George.  But that question pulled me in, made me want to participate.  It seemed like a challenge, somehow:  Okay, Little Miss Likes-to-Read.  Which three books would you take.  Hmm?  Sometimes I was content just to hold the question in my mind, other times I liked to outline the ways you might deduce what George himself had taken.  But I rarely got down to answering the question, as put to me.

Perfectly coiffed.

I often distract myself from the question of what I would take by playing with that puzzle of what George did take.  Impossible to know, really, though there are some clues (albeit not super helpful ones).  The gaps on George's shelf limit the size of the books.  (They limit it fairly ridiculously, actually.  Any three books that slotted into those gaps could hardly have been more than pamphlets.)  There's also the consideration that George's three books were next to one another on the shelf.  (A cinematic shorthand, this, probably, but still, there it is.)  How does a turn-of-the century quiet, but heroic, English gentleman arrange his books, anyway?  By subject?  Author?  Chronologically?  Some combination of these?  And how lucky for him that the three books happened to rest (nearly) side-by-side within his system, and on a shelf so conveniently at eye level.  Fabulous forward thinking, George.

Three books, next to one another, at eye level, from my shelves.  Probably not George's books.

Then, of course, there's limiting one's choices to what had been published and made available to quiet, heroic, English George in January of 1900.  Sadly, The Lord of the Rings is right out.  And what did George read?  And not just read, but purchase for his very own?  Science, surely.  And him being educated and gentlemanly and English and turn-of-the-century-y, probably literature and history and maths.  Probably well-read, our George.

A possiblity.  Poor Eloi. 

But all this "what would George take?" avoids the stinker, the put-it-on-the-liner: Which three books would you take?  Putting aside the flummery of concentrating too hard on the trivial particulars of George's choice (next to each other on the shelves, size of the gap, and so on), there are a few questions I think one must ask oneself if one is really to try to answer David's twinkly question.  First, who are the books for?  You (shall we upgrade you to "The Time Traveler?  Let's shall.), or the Eloi?  If for the Eloi, The Time Traveler (Trav, for short) is probably looking for some basic primary instruction books.  "See Jane Run" and "Math Made Easy," that sort of thing.  The Eloi have a long way to go, and while it might be tempting to hand them Two Treatises of Government and pray, they surely aren't ready for the deep end just yet.  (We'll ignore, shall we, as the film does, the astronomical odds against Trav and the Eloi speaking, after the passage of 800,801 years, a mutually comprehensible language.)

Or are the books for Trav?  I think the books are for Trav.  If it were me (and that's the point of this exercise, non?), and I'm limited to three books (which, Trav oughtn't be.  Shouldn't Trav be able to make infinite trips back in time and ferry forward all the books he'd like?  Or stop somewhere in the future and benefit from books with a greater accumulation of knowledge behind them?  But the film seems to assume "no," so we'll keep the limit: three.), I wouldn't waste my space on books whose usefulness is short-lived.  What would Trav do when the Eloi graduate first grade?  No, I'd take books for me and rely on being able to teach the Eloi the basics without the help of primers.  So, the books are for Trav.

Are they books to entertain and sustain Trav amongst the bovine Eloi he hopes to reanimate and educate?  Or are they books Trav hopes will help him build a civilization?  It's tempting to say that survival is what's important here; don't waste space on books that don't focus on the practical.  But can Trav really leave the accumulation of centuries of art and literature behind?  And what of the Eloi's spirit?  If Trav can teach them to feed and clothe and govern themselves, but they learn nothing of love and kindness and treachery and courage and pain and compassion, has he really saved them?  No, I think it has to be a combination of both--the practical and the artful.  Trav must not only teach the Eloi how to sustain life, but also how to live.

What Trav needs to know to help the Eloi build a civilization can be divided into four categories, I think: agriculture, medicine, government, and art.  The Eloi have been provided for by the Morlocks for so long that they have lost all knowledge of how to care for themselves.  They must learn to find or produce their own food and clothing.  The Eloi had become apathetic under Morlock-rule and wouldn't have cared about treating the sick or caring for the injured.  But Trav has reawakened the glimmerings of compassion in them, and they may now want to help each other overcome pain and illness and injury (and childbirth--oh, Trav.  Have fun.)  With their spirits awakened and their oppressors vanquished, they will have to learn to keep peace and make decisions among themselves.  And their minds and hearts must be cultivated if the effort put into all the rest is to be worth anything.

Four categories, only three books.  Trav might want to leave behind any representation of art on the strength of the argument that as the Eloi develop their own civilization, they will develop their own art.  After all, civilizations before them did.  This is probably true, and will almost certainly happen regardless of Trav's bringing them some representation of art from the past.  (In fact, if the Eloi don't develop their own art, Trav has probably failed.)  But if Trav were interested in letting the Eloi develop on their own, with no connection to any culture of the past, he might as well stay at home in 1900 and carry on tinkering in his laboratory.  The premise defeats the argument.  And even if the Eloi can get along without some art, Trav probably can't.

Unless Trav is a master farmer and a medical professional, he probably needs a book each on agriculture and medicine.  Even if he has expertise in one of these fields, they seem too important to go galivanting hundreds of thousands of years into the future a-civilizing without some reference books.  That leaves government to leave behind.  Assuming Trav is not an absolute dolt, he ought to be able to help the Eloi set up and understand some basic governing principles on his own: Decide on the rules.  Decide how to and who does enforce the rules.  Decide how to decide who decides on the rules and how to enforce them.  Any kid who ever had a tree-house could do it.  (It's not as if the Eloi have the population, weaponry, or know-how to destroy themselves and everything around them if they mess it up.  Yet.)  And if things get too out of hand, Trav can always name himself Interim Grande Poobah of the Rules I Just Made Up until he thinks the Eloi have matured enough to handle it on their own.  (You sure you wouldn't rather stay home with a cozy fire and a cuppa, Trav?)

A cozy cuppa.

Trav's three books, therefore, are a book on agriculture, a book on medicine, and a book of art.  But, still, which three books?  I won't limit myself to books available to George in 1900, as doing so wouldn't get at the question of what I would take (and I think it likely that 1900 would have offered up similar books to George).  My three books would be (drum-roll?) The Riverside Shakespeare, The AMA Family Medical Guide, and The Homesteading Handbook. If I can take only one book to represent art, a Shakespeare collection seems a good bet--perhaps it doesn't have everything, but it's got damn near.  Tragedy, comedy, drama, poetry, betrayal, love, loss, horror, elation.  Bonus: it's good to read aloud.  You can't, simply cannot, pick one book that makes up for leaving all the others behind, but the oeuvre of Billy Shakes is about as good a salve for that wound as there is.  The Family Medical Guide and The Homesteading Handbook, taken together, will offer some practical advice on small-scale farming; child-birth; herbal medicine; emergency first aid for bleeding, broken bones, fever.  They will also provide a lot of information that will be useless in a place with no electricity, hospitals, or modern equipment, but that's a-civilizing for ya.  The movie's end makes George's springing off to save humanity from its apathetic self a heroic gesture, one which looks pretty in a Victorian sitting room as night and snow begin to fall.  But bringing up the Eloi will be a back-breaking, desperate, wrenching task, full of screams and dirt and death and blood, but these books might, might, help Trav avoid a few tragic mistakes.

My real answer to "which three books?" is probably "None."  If I'm honest, I probably wouldn't go back to help the Eloi.  That's why The Time Machine didn't much inspire childish games for me, why I never got around to really answering the question.  Because answering "which three books?" feels a lot less twinkly than asking it.  It's a philosophical question, and the only possible answer is desperately practical.  George wasn't going on an adventure.  He was going to try to snatch humanity from the clutches of a doom of its own making.  Bless you, George, for trying.  David knew.  He knew what George was in for, knew how unlikely he was to succeed (despite his twinkling).  Which three books will save us?  That's what he was asking.  Only, which three books?

*Pictures credits:
(uncredited photos are my own)

Film Excerpt
The Time Traveler 
Portrait of a Lady