Of course, I had to find my copy and reread it. It was as good as ever, despite showing its age. (Who has an answering machine anymore, besides my mother? And between GPS and cellphone apps, it’s a lot harder to get effectively lost on the road any more.)
It’s the kind of book that has a lovely narrator's voice, one that offers comments on the proceedings, such as this one on the relationship between two main characters, an angel and a demon:
“The Arrangement was very simple, so simple in fact that it didn’t really deserve the capital letter, which it had got for simply being in existence for so long. It was the sort of sensible arrangement that many isolated agents, working in awkward conditions a long way from their superiors, reach with their opposite number when they realize that they have more in common with their immediate opponents than their remote allies. It meant a tacit non-interference in certain of each other’s activities. It made certain that while neither really won, also neither really lost, and both were able to demonstrate to their masters the great strides they were making against a cunning and well-informed adversary.”Why do I single out this particular bit? It makes me think of several things: unifying influences, an article on friendship that I read long ago, and politicians.
I’ll take politicians first, since that is the simplest and shortest to discuss. Where the quotation reads “agents”, substitute “politicians.” For “remote allies”, “superiors”, and “masters”, substitute “constituents”. The result suggests the reasoning: “If you let me pass this bill, I’ll stay out of your way on that bill, and we’ll both get re-elected, after which we can go after the robo-callers, since they are universally detested.”
And that’s all I wanted to say about politicians. Onward.
If I remember the article on friendship correctly, it claimed that shared activities have a significant role in who your friends are—more so than shared interests or values. Sharing activities isn’t exactly the same as having similar roles in different organizations, but I find myself envisioning opposite numbers from feuding governments commiserating about long and pointless meetings, superiors who don’t really understand what’s going on, insufficient resources, and, of course, the poor work ethic of today’s youth. (That last is an especially safe bet, since people have been complaining about “the youth of today” since the start of recorded history.)
This leads to the third thing I mentioned, “unifying influences.” Commiserating about similar problems is one activity that brings people together. There are a lot of other activities people can have in common: knitting, basketball, cat ownership, video games, and so on. People meeting other enthusiasts want to know: can this person demonstrate a S-S-K (slip, slip, knit)? Can this person make a foul shot reliably? Does this person know why a cat might start pulling out its own fur, and more importantly, how to stop it doing so before it goes completely bald?
In the process of discussing these important matters (move this loop to the other needle… is the cat feeling stressed or itchy?), people have a chance to discover each other’s strengths before discovering each other’s weaknesses. We all have a mix of good and bad qualities, but perhaps we are at our best when we are sharing our preferred activities with others.
This is important because we have differing mixes of beliefs and ideological positions as well. If, instead of getting to know each other through shared activities, we start by mentally sorting everyone according to one particular quality—political party, say—we risk losing sight of all the diversity of character that exists. We also risk dismissing people out of hand without really knowing anything about them.
Now I’ve really gotten far away from the book I quoted—or have I? When I think about it, one of the other charming things about the book is the unlikely alliances that form.
Probably the filmed version of the book will be very different. Certainly the narrative voice is unlikely to be there, and no doubt they’ll have changed the plot quite a bit as well. I’m still looking forward to it, though. I think it could be really fun. Time will tell (today, in fact).
Till next post.