Saturday, July 21, 2007

Nonbelieving Literati

As of a week and a half after its original posting, my latest puzzle has been solved by only two of you. So I hereby give honorable mention to (1) John P., the Spanish Inquisitor, whose brain I didn’t torture sufficiently to keep him from finding the correct answer; and (2) Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, who cheerfully came up with the solution.

Although I’m not going to publish that solution here — in case anyone wants to take the challenge belatedly — I will mention that a part of the puzzle led to the name: Gore Vidal.

And Gore Vidal, as he always does, got me thinking. Since he’s often wordy and long-winded (coming from me, those terms are not necessarily insults), my thinking followed suit. Here’s what I thought:

So many bloggers in the Atheosphere are science professionals, or at least heavily science-oriented. And that’s good. Although I’m not a scientist myself, I enjoy reading well-written books and articles — and posts — aimed at the educated layman. My personal library has an entire bookcase devoted to literary explications of science.

But scientists shouldn’t feel that they’ve cornered the market on nonbelief. There are plenty of us folks in the humanities who also have no faith in faith.

The list of great and near-great freethinking authors, for example, is a long one. It contains, among others, such non-scientists as: Ambrose Bierce, Pearl S. Buck, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, H.L. Mencken, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, the above-mentioned Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, and H.G. Wells.

I think it’s time we atheists draw some inspiration from literature as well as science.

Now, I’m one of those people who are gifted with incomplete retention, or, to put it another way, almost complete non-retention. When I read a novel, I tend to remember a few snippets of dialogue, some vivid mental pictures, a handful of the most eccentric characters, and the bare outlines of plot. When I say bare, that’s what I mean, naked all the way down to the skeleton. I forget most of the specific events, get the ones I do remember out of order, and sometimes “recall” incidents that would come as a complete surprise to the author.

My lack of better memory is a boon, though, because I can reread any book after about five years, and feel like it’s brand new. I’ve been known to pick up a mystery that I’ve read four or five times before and sit on the edge of my seat trying to figure out who the murderer is. And when I do find out, I wonder: “Was that who did it last time?” Ah, the blessings of premature old age.

Almost two decades ago, I first read Vidal’s Julian, a novel about the late Roman emperor who attempted to eradicate Christianity as a force in his empire. I remembered that I liked it a lot, and not much else. But since I deigned to mention the author’s name in my trivial puzzle, I decided that I owed it to myself to reread a book that made a huge impression on me in the 1980s.

Anyway, I’m about a third of the way through. After each reading session, I think, “This would be a great book for an atheist reading group.”

And so I’d like to propose such a group. My idea is that nine or ten of us — if we can get that many to commit — will read a book every month and a half or so. That’s a long enough time that even the slowest readers, or those with the least amount of time, can participate. We’ll take turns making book suggestions. The only stipulation will be that the book not be an atheist diatribe, best-selling or otherwise.

We’ll target a specific day on which to finish. On that date, or shortly thereafter, each of us will publish a post about the chosen book. (In fairness, those of us who finish reading early may write our posts, but not publish them online until everyone has had a chance to complete the reading.) The post will not be a review or a summary. It will be an essayistic ramble on what the book got us thinking about. Whether we liked the book or not, we’ll use it as an entry point to our own thoughts. If enough people are interested, perhaps we can even publish a Carnival of Nonbelieving Literati a week or so after each target date.

I’d like to propose Julian as our first book, and September 15th as our first target date.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I have the same reaction to novels you have, though I remember even less. Usually my brain retains nothing more than two check boxes, one of which is checked. "I liked it" and "I didn't like it". Overall impressions is usually all I remember. But, oddly enough, I rarely, if ever, re-read a book. There are too many others out there to read. "Too many books, too little time" is my motto.

I have a few of Vidal's books on my shelf that I've read over the years. All novels: Burr, Empire, Lincoln, 1876. But I never read Julian, so count me in. I'll find a used copy somewhere ( is great for books)

If this turns out to be a success, just don't start picking books like "Ulysses", or "War and Peace", etc.

And many thanks for the puzzle. I'm terrible at puzzles, but this one got me going. And first prize was a bonus. My date with your pastor was a resounding success. She's now an atheist.

Anonymous said...

It's a great idea and you can count me in!

English Literature was always my favourite subject, right through to university (although I didn't graduate). In the last couple of years I've read very little fiction, not because I didn't want to but because it seemed like a luxury I couldn't afford when I could be reading non-fiction and learning in a much more direct fashion. It's nice to be given an excuse to do some more novel reading, so thanks!

I definitely agree with John's motto "Too many books, too little time".

The Exterminator said...

John & tobe:

I'm so glad you guys are the first to "sign up" for Nonbelieving Literati. To celebrate, I've created a link list at the left of my blog. This could turn out to be stimulating and fun. Already, I'm eager to hear what you think of the book, even though I don't know yet what I think. Let's hope we get a few more members before our September launch.

John begged: ... just don't start picking books like Ulysses, or War and Peace, etc.

I think we should limit ourselves to novels that are (1)intelligible and (2)liftable. That would eliminate both of those mentioned. I'd also be very happy not to see Moby Dick as anyone's recommendation.

tobe, you said: In the last couple of years I've read very little fiction, not because I didn't want to but because it seemed like a luxury I couldn't afford when I could be reading non-fiction and learning in a much more direct fashion.

Yes, what you said applies to me, too. Most of my reading is non-fiction. But every now and then, I go on a novel binge. Oddly, even though I agree wholeheartedly with John's books/time assessment, I usually include at least one or two rereads as part of my spree.

the blogger formerly known as yinyang said...

Does the "essayistic ramble" have to be any good? If not, I'm in.

The Exterminator said...


You're too self-effacing. I'm sure your rambles will be no more rambly than the rest of ours. Glad to have you in the new group, to which I've added the name of your blog.

Paul said...

I'm interested. Sign me up.

The Exterminator said...


Consider yourself signed. Thanks.

Cragar said...

You can count me in. I have been looking for a new book to read anyway. I will try and pick it up later this week.

The Exterminator said...

It's great to have you with us. I've added your name to the Nonbelieving Literati blogroll.

Anonymous said...

My copy is ordered and on the way.

Reason's Whore said...

The reading group sounds like a great idea. My only hesitation is I just picked up an old Gore Vidal book and found it totally unreadable. I may give it a whirl, though, so put me down as a "maybe"

Also I think you owe the winners of the contest some Jesus Jelly Beans, or maybe a Jesus lollypop. That was tough!

The Exterminator said...


If you find the book unreadable, you shouldn't struggle through it. Instead, you could write an essay about why you disliked it. I think taste is a legitimate issue to address, and would make a very interesting post. I hope that if the book group continues, we won't always (or ever, really) be unanimous in our praise. How dull!

There are plenty of allegedly "great" novels that I've found unreadable. And I certainly don't think Julian would be counted as a classic that one couldn't live without. (FYI: For me, only Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, and Bleak House fall in that category.)

Anyway, I'm going to add your name to the Nonbelieving Literati blogroll, and look forward to a potentially devastating critique. That would be nifty.

And you're right. Jesus Jelly Beans would be a nice prize. Or how about little flavored Christian hearts with sayings like: "Take, eat; this is my body" or "Man shall not live by bread alone" or even "By their fruits ye shall know them."

Anonymous said...

Hey. If it's edible, I don't care what it says.

Though a green bottle with the word "Heineken " on the side might be nice. Cold. With 23 identical bottles.

Reason's Whore said...

Messiah, that was the one. So bloody pretentious and surprisingly dated.

Hopefully Julian will be better. I'm certainly intrigued by the subject. Hubby already has the book so what the hey. And no worries about false praise - I calls 'em like I sees 'em.

EnoNomi said...

I'm new to the blogging game, but I'd like to try my hand at it. Count me in!

Bob Kowalski said...

How do I sign up?

There's a couple of novels by Robert Graves that merit more attention than they seem to get.

Do the books have to be fiction? D.H. Lawrence wrote a short book on the Apocalypse. It's been a long, long time since I read it.

You mentioned Joseph Conrad. I don't recall religion playing a prominent role in any of his novels. But it's quite possible that he discussed religion in an essay.

Going back to the question of whether to limit the book list to fiction: essays or even books by a notable author that don't usually get read. Lawrence's essay on the Apocalypse for example.

Joseph Brodsky (former US Poet Laureate) had a longish essay on Byzantium.

I suggest that we not limit ourselves strictly to fiction but also include literary essays which are neither strictly fiction nor strictly nonfiction.


Gregory Lynn said...

I love the concept and will attempt to participate regularly. I've got a bunch of reading piled up so I dunno if I can sneak Julian ahead in line but I shall try.

The Exterminator said...

Eno: You're counted. I've cracked the "code" to your name, but I don't know what the expression means. Are you willing to enlighten me?

Bob: You sign up by asking: "How do I sign up?" So you're signed up as of the moment that you posted your comment. Welcome.

I think literary nonfiction is fine, but let's keep away from specifically atheistic tracts. When it's your turn to select a book, feel free to pick whatever you'd like.

I'm not sure about Conrad's nonbelief, although he's mentioned in most lists of famous atheist writers.

By the way, I've just gone out and repurchased those two Claudius novels by Graves; I read them originally when PBS ran the series based on them. I guess Julian is getting me interested in revisiting other historical fiction about the Roman Empire.

Rasputin: It would be cool if you could participate in the Julian ... um, I don't know what to call it. Maybe it really will turn out to be a carnival, since there are now ten of us.

In any case, I'm adding all three of you to the growing Nonbelieving Literati blogroll. It's great to have you with us.

Unknown said...

I'd also like to join, if the group isn't already too big. I love the idea.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to join even though none of you other than the Sacred Slut know me. The book sound intriguing and the potential posts even more so.

If you're doing a coordinating mail list, my address is melanthropos-at-gmail.

The Exterminator said...

The group is definitely not too big. Thanks for joining.

Well, I guess the rest of us will get to know you.

I hadn't thought about a coordinating mailing list, but it might be very useful for reminders, developing a book rotation, and just general shout-outs. I'll keep everyone posted about developments through this blog for now, but if we get to twenty or more members, I think I'll have to take some email addresses. Thanks for passing along the idea.

EnoNomi said...

You cracked the "code" to my name? I'd love it if you could tell me, because it's actually a hold over from High School when my friend and I were comming up with names for her Chihuihui. The full name was Eno Nomi Yoko Ono Yoda. Eno would be Brian Eno and Nomi would be Klaus Nomi.

I'm sure what you came up with is much more interesting.

The Exterminator said...


I like the straightforward Brian Eno allusion much better, but EnoNomi spelled backwards is "I'm on one." I thought it was some kind of Briticism meaning "I've had too much beer."

John Evo said...

Exterminator - this is a very interesting concept. And Julian looks like a book I could get into. I am deeply entwined in a book by VS Ramachandran - "The Phantoms in the Brain". If I can wrap it up soon enough I'll get on to Julian with that Sept. 15 deadline in mind.

God I hate reading deadlines. I've been out of school for 30 years and do it for PLEASURE! LOL! By the way, if you haven't read "Burr" by Vidal it's absolutely classic. At least that's the way I REMEMBER IT!

So you can sign me up, but I'm one of those slower readers you referred to so don't penalize me if I post after the rest of you!

The Exterminator said...


Welcome to the group.

Burr is one of my favorite books. If you liked that one, I think you're going to enjoy Julian.

John Evo said...

The local branch of the L.A. Library just happened to have a brand new copy on hand so I grabbed it. Now I'm reading Rama maniacally (that would be a page every two minutes, in my case) so that I can try to catch up. I may not be blogging as much for a while!

Anonymous said...

Interim report:

My copy of the damn book finally showed up last week. Can you believe it took three weeks to come from some guy in Alaska? I started it, but I'm only about 75 pages in. I hope to have it done by the 15th of next month, but I am a slow reader, and I have a lot of other things to do between now and then.

Darren said...

Well, it sounds like an interesting idea, although I'm a bit late to this party. And I'm not so keen on fiction right now. I'll wait and see what the next book on the table is.

vjack said...

Sounds like a great idea - I only wish I had found it sooner. I'll have to finish the book I'm working on now and see if I can't time it right so I can get in on the next one.

The Exterminator said...

vjack, Darren:

I'm adding both of you to the list of members, although we won't expect you to post about Julian.

Thanks for showing interest.

Ben D said...

What a good idea. I'd like to be a part of it, but I don't think I'll be able to read Julian in time. If I could join for the next one that would be great.

Anonymous said...

His Grumpyness would like to join in with The Plague (the book, not his condition), if you're still taking in new members.

Unknown said...

My copy of the damn book finally showed up last week. Can you believe it took three weeks to come from some guy in Alaska? I started it, but I'm only about 75 pages in. I hope to have it done by the 15th of next month, but I am a slow reader, and I have a lot of other things to do between now and then.

SI, that's why I don't order from I should get my copy of Not the End of the World in tomorrow. ;)