We all have our personal books – the ones that we read at just the right time when we were young, that we know changed the way we think about things, and that have probably helped sway the course our lives have taken. For me one such book was Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” – first read when I was thirteen. The other day I spotted a paperback copy in a used book store, picked it upon on a whim, and I’m rereading it now. Somewhat to my surprise, this is only the second time I am reading it. I am an inveterate rereader, yet I had never gone back to this, one of my favorites, in all the intervening years.
I suppose I was afraid I’d be disappointed, as I was upon rereading “The Once and Future King” or “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – two books of my youth that didn’t quite hold up when reread with my older and perhaps more jaded eyes. But this is different. I am not at all disappointed by my newly rediscovered old friend. I am finding, to my delight, that I remember every character, every scene, every exchange of dialog. Even though I had only read it once, quite a few years ago, each successive page feels like a reunion with an old friend, both familiar and exactly right, like rehearing a song on the White Album.
I think one of the reasons for this is that “Stranger” is meant to be both serious and fun – a point my adolescent self had completely grokked the first time around. It has profound points to make about life, but you know you’re in for a jolly time right from that killer opening sentence: “Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith”.
Heinlein manages to convey what conventional wisdom would describe as both a radical right and a radical left ideology, and somehow succeeds in merging them seamlessly. On the one hand there is a strong message that life is only meaningful if we all look after each other, if we see all of humanity as an extended family, and care for our fellow humans with unbounded compassion. This is radical left thinking at its most pure.
At the same time, there is a powerful libertarian message affirming that each of us, every individual, is unique and unlike any other, and that as you go through life you need to ignore the damned fools and the ignorant bastards who make the mistake of thinking you are supposed to think and act like anyone else. The main character is in the rare position of starting out as a perfect innocent – able to observe his fellow humans with no prejudice, and therefore able to see each of them as they really are.
The book offers a powerful and heady combination of philosophies – extreme individuality in the service of extreme compassion: Figure out who you are, and don’t let anybody talk you out of it. Then use that inimitable discovered self to help make the world a better place for others. Looking back now, it’s clear to me that my views on self and society were more influenced by reading that book at the tender age of thirteen than by anything I was taught in school.
I was discussing the book this evening with my friend Cynthia. We got to talking about who we would cast in the movie version (although I sincerely hope there is never a movie version; I suspect any attempt would merely diminish a perfect book). Those of you who have read the book might be interested in our debate about who would be the perfect casting choice for the larger-than-life character of Jubal Harshaw. Cynthia suggested Anthony Hopkins. As for me, I’m stumped. The character is so vivid in my mind that I’m having a hard time seeing him impersonated by any mere, um, actor.
Frankly I had the same problem when I saw the film “Sophie’s Choice” after finishing Styron’s book. Meryl Streep was amazing of course, but the character in the book had grown so vivid in my mind that I simply couldn’t see Streep as Sophie, merely as somebody doing a great job of impersonating Sophie. So you can see that I’m a pretty hard case.
But I’m willing to try to keep an open mind. When I think of Harshaw, somehow I picture a cross between Ian McShane and Ed Asner, which I know sounds ridiculous. I’m guessing that a number of people reading this blog have read “Stranger in a Strange Land”. Can anybody think of who would make for the perfect cinematic “Jubal Harshaw”?