Two Influential Books

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Today, while we were all doing our own things at home, my son decided to pull the book Great Disasters off the shelf. I like that he feels comfortable just walking up to a shelf of non-kids’ books and pulling out whatever he thinks might be fun to look at.

But I’m not sure Great Disasters fits his idea of “fun.” He kept turning the pages getting more and more worked up. On some pages, there weren’t any pictures to upset him, but on others, he saw huge tsunamis, fires, and volcanoes. I thought he was doing alright when he was just counting the volcanoes in one picture, but then he turned the page to see the Titanic, half sunk, sticking vertically out of the water. “Oh no,” he said, genuinely distressed, “did these people all die?” Then he got to page 232, which detailed the train derailment in New Zealand back in 1953, in which 151 people died. The two-page article shows a painting of the train disaster. It’s probably one of the most graphic in the book. Train cars are falling off a bridge, the engine has succumbed to the waves, and the bridge is falling apart, putting the other cars in peril. Owen started crying.

Jennifer hugged him and told him not to look at the book. I closed it and told him that he shouldn’t torture himself like that. The cover of the book showed the Empire State Building back in 1945, right as a plane slammed into the side of it. I had to assure Owen that the building was okay and that not everyone involved died.

The book is on a higher shelf now, out of the reach of five year olds.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Definitely one of the most influential books in my life has been Tom Flynn’s The Trouble With Christmas. I’m excited to say that, today, I met Mr. Flynn. Not only that, but I attended a presentation he delivered at the Ridgedale Library.

Flynn’s presentation, like his book, starts off by asserting that Xmas is almost entirely pernicious. He explains why it’s not even a Christian celebration, why it’s arrogant to assume that all Americans want to join in on this 6-week long holiday, how it’s stupid to tell everyone to get together with their families during the worst travel time of the year, how it promotes greed, insane consumerism and environmentally destructive practices, and how Santa is a damaging practice passed down by parents who lie to their children.

Flynn noted that the top three heart attack ‘death dates’ in the US and Canada are New Year’s Day, Xmas Day, and Boxing Day. He said he’s been Yule-free since 1984. He had some humor, too, noting that “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has the same metric structure as “House of the Rising Sun” (meaning you can sing the lyrics interchangeably), and he provided a recording of such a mash up as proof. He also noted that his book makes a great holiday gift.

Getting more serious, he asserted that if Jesus is not your savior, then Xmas is not your holiday. He said a non-believer who celebrates Xmas is the ultimate contradiction in terms: they don’t believe in God, yet they celebrate his son’s birthday. In a sense, then, they’ve thrown out the babe but kept the bathwater. He further claimed that Christians should be visible not celebrating Xmas. He argued that we aren’t at the mercy of the elements anymore (really?) and so it was juvenile to celebrate the return of the sun. He pointed out that many cultures, Buddhists, Taoists, and people in tropical lands, do not celebrate Xmas (yes…but that’s not my culture).

Flynn offered up 6 reasons why the Santa myth is a terrible, terrible tradition (the reasons had significant overlap), all of which I agreed with. He concluded by saying: “Let’s all just say no to Santa Claus.”

Say no to Santa? Sure. Christmas? Not so sure…

During an extended Q-and-A session, audience members asked how he felt about solstice and freethought celebrations. Others asked what he thought of the so-called ‘war on Christmas,’ and others wanted clarification on some of the historical anecdotes he provided.

You know, in the past couple of years, I’ve met some of the authors of some of my favorite books, and it’s been a real treat getting to meet them. But Flynn represents the first author wherein I both enjoyed his book and disagreed with (parts of) it. Back in the spring, when I met Leowen, I felt stupid afterward because I didn’t have anything interesting to say to him besides ‘hey, will you sign my book?’  So this time, I decided to offer a comment and a question that would catch his attention. To my delight, he called on me. Here’s what I said:

“Mr. Flynn, I have both a comment and a question. And the comment is one that you might not like to hear, but I think I might be unique among your readers in that I never celebrated Christmas in my entire life, then I read your book, and I’ve celebrated it ever since. And my question is this: So you say that if I do celebrate Christmas, then I’m a hypocrite. But if I don’t celebrate Christmas, then my family would just think of me as a hateful asshole. [Yep, I swore. God, I love swearing. Fuck!] And since that’s what a lot of people probably think non-believers are anyways, then what’s the harm in just spending the day with my relatives, not saying the prayer with them, not saying ‘happy birthday baby Jesus,’ but still sitting by a tree, swapping presents, having a great meal and being with people I care about?”

Before Flynn could answer, the woman sitting in front of me turned around and said, ‘that’s a great question!’ Meanwhile, the woman sitting next to me nodded in my direction and said, “I was thinking the same thing.” Flynn began his response by saying that, admittedly, everyone’s situation is different, and then he said…oh, wait, we’ll never know, because other people started blurting out similar responses affirming what I said and some guy in the second row decided he had a question that needed to trump mine RIGHT NOW! I really hate that. I wanted to hear what Flynn had to say, not some guy sitting in the audience.

As far as what Flynn did say, he’s right: everyone’s circumstances are different. For one thing, Flynn goes to work on Xmas day. This is not an option for most people (retail, postal, etc…). For another thing, I spent thirty years sticking out like an idiot trying to give a ‘good Witness’ to people by not accepting their holiday invitations, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna do that now – now that I know god is fake.

Anyway, I went up to Tom Flynn afterward and asked him to sign my book. I showed him something I had taped on the inside cover; it was a portion of an Awake! article that quoted his book. I told him that it was because of that quote that I bought his book. And he said that the Watchtower’s use of his quote (which he noted was quote-mined – big surprise!) caused his book to go into a second printing. He wondered aloud why a simple quote would cause so many people to buy his book. I said, “I think I can answer that for you,” and I told him that the Watchtower frowns on its members reading non-JW books. “Most JWs libraries consist only of Watchtower books, and maybe a cook book and a dictionary.” I then told him that seeing his book quoted likely made many JWs think, “Hey look – a worldly person knows Xmas is a sin! And since the Watchtower writers read his book, then it must be okay to read it.” The rest is history. He said he always wondered if the Watchtower’s duplicitous use of his quote ultimately caused people to see the light, and I said his book had a share in my decision to leave. He shook my hand and said that even though I’ve gone from not celebrating Xmas to celebrating it, that he was proud of me for leaving the Witnesses. “I think we can consider that a net gain for the human race,” he said in his Santa-like voice.

He signed: “To James – Have a Happy Humbug! Tom Flynn.”

No you may not borrow my copy.

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One Response to Two Influential Books

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