Embellishment, Fabrication, Plagiarism, and Remixes

cover of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Imagine…using citations.

Jonah Lehrer is the latest in a long line of writers caught up in the scandal of fabricating facts in order to construct a good narrative for his book.  Recently a writer at the Jewish magazine The Tablet was fact checking the Bob Dylan quotations in Lehrer’s book Imagine, and discovered that a good number of the quotes are misstatements, cobbled together phrases from disparate interviews, or, some of them, fabricated entirely in order to sell Lehrer’s thesis.  In a bit of poetic irony, the focus of the book was on how creativity works.  Prior to the reveal that he fabricated these Dylan quotes, the celebrity slam site Gawker, had been criticizing Lehrer for rehashing a lot of his older articles, mining them for material for his new job blogging at the New Yorker.  Is self-plagiarism even a thing?  Lehrer has since resigned his role at the New Yorker.

While sad, this kind of story is nothing new.  Every year a new scandal comes out where people have been caught in the act of embellishing upon the truth, constructing facts to suit their narrative, and flat out stealing the words from other people’s mouths.

Earlier this year it was Mike Daisey.  Daisey had been doing a very successful one-man show called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which explores the working conditions at Apple Corporation’s Chinese factories in Shenzhen; a portion of that show was picked up by NPR’s This American Life as “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.”  That segment became the most played story the show that had ever aired, and ultimately Apple began investigating and working to fix the conditions of the workers at their factories.  But with this success came scrutiny, and it started coming out that pieces of Daisey’s story were not lining up.  Journalists at NPR’s Marketplace, who were very familiar with the Chinese factory conditions started fact checking, because elements from the story just didn’t jive with their recollections of those very same places.  Ultimately it came out that Daisey had cobbled together elements from other journalist’s experiences, sensationalized the few elements he did experience firsthand, and basically said that he did so because it made for a better narrative.  This American Life was mortified; they pulled the piece, issued a retraction, and had an entire show dedicated to exposing the truth behind the story.  The whole affair made show host Ira Glass and NPR examine the delicate line they walk between storytelling and journalism.  Amazingly the scandal has done little to stop Mike Daisey’s career, in fact, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is currently being performed by Mike Daisey right now at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in DC.  Ironically, Mike Daisey also did a one man show entitled Truth {The heart is a million little pieces above all things} about how Author James Frey embellished his novel A Million Little Pieces, and got caught very, very publicly.

A Million Little Pieces, derived from maybe three or four pieces.

A Million Little Pieces was billed as James Frey’s memoir of his life as a drug addict and criminal.  Pieces recounts some incredibly gruesome details surrounding his experiences on drugs, in detox, and the horror stories about being repeatedly busted by the police and spending hard time in prison.  The book came out to mixed reactions when it was released in 2003, particularly among people who had a critical background in substance abuse and crime.  But it was once the book was picked by Oprah’s Book Club in September 2005 that everything started to unravel.  Frey’s first appearance on Oprah in October got people questioning the factual nature of this book that was billed as a truthful memoir of a very rough life.  So the folks who run the tell-all website The Smoking Gun went digging for evidence of James Frey’s criminal background, and what they found was that Frey’s life was not as hardcore as he stated, and that in fact he had hardly ever been in jail at all.  TSG spent six weeks pouring into the details, and found that while he may have been arrested a couple of times, his offenses were petty misdemeanors with local cops, and his hardened life behind bars was anything but hard, nor was it barely any time at all.  They even turned up the fact that he had recounted a story of a horrible train accident that took the life of two high school girls he knew, and inserted himself into the narrative surrounding their death.  After The Smoking Gun story came out on January 8th, 2006, Oprah got Frey and his editor back into the studios. On January 26, 2006 she very publicly called him out on every detail that was embellished in that book.  Frey admitted on national television that he made things up. Amazingly, sales of the book barely slowed down, and it was still on the bestseller lists nine months later.

Wherein Lincoln travels through time.

But James Frey is old news.  Let’s talk about Bill O’Reilly.  In November 2011 the National Park Service, who oversee the Ford’s Theatre historical site reviewed Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book Killing Lincoln.  The Ford’s Theatre is the site of Lincoln’s assassination and the NPS contracts with a bookshop full of Lincoln memorabilia and literature there.  The Park Service, wanting to maintain the integrity of the historic site, reviews all of the products for their accuracy before they are added to the shop.   O’Reilly’s book was determined to be too factually inaccurate and lacking in documentation to be worthy of being sold at the Theatre.  Reviewer Rae Emerson provides chapter and page quotations from Killing Lincoln, contradicted by factual references from numerous other sources to support the verdict.  Among the embellishments are such glaring errors as Lincoln meeting in the Oval Office, which didn’t exist until forty years later during the William Howard Taft administration.  While it could be argued that factual inaccuracy, or embellishment make for colorful storytelling, the fact that O’Reilly is a journalist makes the laxity all the more glaring.

Honestly, we’ve all taken shitty notes.

If journalists get knocked for not fact checking, a historian’s reputation can be ruined if they slip up, especially if the error involves more than just not reporting facts accurately, but plagiarizing the work of other historians. Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of several presidential biographies and a regular commentator on PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer was caught up in a plagiarism scandal in 2002.  The Weekly Standard ran an article that laid out how Goodwin had lifted entire phrases, sometimes paragraphs from three earlier works when composing her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.  The quotations were not cited or even listed as quotes in the book.  Goodwin attributed the error to writing out her notes for her books in longhand on legal pads at the time, and she issued a public correction of her work as well as disclosing the settlement she reached with author Lynne McTaggart, who wrote the book Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, a source for some of Goodwin’s quotes.  But the gaffe cost her credibility, and for several years she did not appear in her role as a PBS expert historian.

The W stands for Wikipedia.

But what if it’s not a historian or a journalist, but actually a history maker who plagiarizes?  What if it’s a former President?  Well, it happened.  Former President George W. Bush was caught plagiarizing in his book Decision Points.  Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post detailed a handful of instances where the former President, and most likely his assistant Peter Rough, lifted passages from other books and publicly accessible news articles about events that took place during the Bush presidency.  The strangest thing is that many of the anecdotes refer to events where Bush was not even present, like the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  That story was taken word for word from Ahmed Rashid’s article in the New York Review of Books.  But that’s just the beginning of a litany of stories lifted in their entirety from other writers, not the least of which was journalist Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War, and General Tommy Franks’ memoir American Soldier.  Looking for unattributed quotations in Decision Points became something of a game, and ultimately a joke.

But plagiarism doesn’t always devastate a writer’s career or make them a laughingstock.  In 2010, 17-year-old wunderkind Helene Hegemann was called out regarding her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill for taking as much as up to an entire page from an earlier book entitled Strobo.  Nevertheless Hegemann was nominated for a prestigious award for new German authors, and the prize committee was fully aware of the plagiarism.  Rather the author defended her use of previous works as being a product of her generation’s exposure to mashups and remixes.  In fact the committee viewed this as a central conceit of the novel.

And it’s true that, to some extent, society’s attitudes toward copyright are changing.  The ability to rapidly copy files makes plagiarizing (or remixing) incredibly easy.  You don’t even need to type the words yourself, just highlight, copy and paste directly into your document.  This ease of use has removed a lot of the burden of plagiarizing.  Where Goodwin copied from book to notepad to typewriter, and lost source information in the process, today a writer need only copy and write an entire book never knowing or caring the source of the material.  Then again, just as easily that same author can copy and paste the URL of his source directly into his document, just as I have done throughout the process of writing this article.

I’ll leave you with this wonderful little Op-Doc from the New York Times entitled “Allergy to Originality” where two characters debate whether or not anything could be considered original anyway.


World Wide Mind

I’ve only just begun reading Michael Chorost’s new book World Wide Mind: The coming integration of humanity, machines and the Internet, but I’m already struck by something wonderful that gave me chills.  From page 27:

A brain-to-brain communications technology would change all that. It would reveal some of a person’s “interior” to the collective…And if one saw groups moving in perfect synchrony to accomplish an object, unrehearsed, without orders, one might begin to believe that they have a consciousness independent of each individual’s objectives. If you knew where your friends were by using the same parts of your brain that track where your arms and legs are, and if you could coordinate your motion with them when needed, then your friends would feel like a part of your body.  You would remain an individual, but you would have a new status as an integral part of a group.

I had to put the book down right there and think for a minute because it was giving me chills, in a good way.

A lot of people have been discussing the differences between left and right brain lately, but most all of it in a very superficial way, i.e. left brain people are methodical, right brain people are artistic, etc.  But the real distinction between left and right brain functionality is how the different hemispheres either create boundaries between individual objects, or dissolve boundaries into a sea of existence.  In Jill Bolte Taylor’s incredibly famous speech at TED, she discusses the experiences that she has since she experience a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain.  Near the end of that video she delves into the immersive experience of the right brain, becoming one with everything.  Though, the Symphony of Science version of her speech has been stuck in my head for days, particularly when Jill says “and it explodes into this enormous collage.”

If this process of developing a technologically induced group mind does come to fruition, I see the potential for having massive amounts of reconnection with the right brain.  In our current state of mind, we are all individuals, we are all separate.  This is a product of our left brain putting everything and everyone into their own little boxes, with their own little labels.  The right brain puts all those labels and divisions aside, and unifies everything.

This could be wonderful, or absolutely horrifying.  It’ll probably be somewhere in between.  Though most science fiction tends to lean on the side of horrifying.  I could easily name several examples, though the most glaring one is from the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion.  Throughout the course of the series about giant robots powered by children who fight angels, you start to discover that there is a deeper purpose to these fights.  NERV was created to further the Human Instrumentality Project, which ultimately sought to break down the Absolute Terror field that keeps all life separate from each other.  (Trust me, I’m not really giving anything away here).  The incredibly surreal finale End of Evangelion shows everyone’s individual physical bodies bursting into a golden primordial ooze, and flowing out across the world.  While this would not be the physical experience, it could be the mental experience.  Especially if this neurological tech has a deepening effect on the right brain experience of life.

Steve Jobs & Bardo

Lots of people have been pondering Steve Jobs final words, which are reported to be “Oh Wow. Oh Wow. Oh Wow.”  I have a theory, and it relates directly to two very important elements that have not really been combined as far as I’ve seen.

1) In the Steve Jobs biography it’s revealed that he dropped acid and that he believed it made him more creative.

2) He was deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism.

There is a very powerful combination of things working here.  Let’s start with the science.  Upon death the brain releases a flood of Dimethyltriptamine, which is a very powerful hallucinogen.  Amazonian shamans ingest it through a drink called Ayahuasca, and they experience things like alternate lives, time distortion and most importantly light.  It’s supposed that “the light” that people see is part of the DMT experience that hits the brain at the time of death.

The second part of this is the Buddhist component.  Surely someone who has been deeply influenced by Buddhism knows about the Bardo Thodol, known in English as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  This book describes the elements surrounding the different liminal states that one experiences in life and death, particularly in death.  There are three phases of the bardo of dying, the moment of death, the space of visions, and then the moment of rebirth.  This process is best understood if you watch the absolutely amazing film by Gaspar Noe called Enter the Void.

It’s my hypothesis that Steve, who had a passing familiarity with drug experiences, and more than likely understood the experiences described in the Bardo Thodol was able to put two and two together in his final moments and find a place of understanding and beauty.  His “Oh Wow” moment was confirmation, reverence and joy.

Oh to have a moment like that.

Genre Fiction and the Literati

Cover of Zone One, a fancy zombie story

All the literati are scratching their heads at the multitudes of supernatural creatures that have invaded the literary world of late.  Last week it was The Atlantic, which took a good hard look at some folks who crossed a culture divide and wrote literary fantastical fiction, spurred into action by the new Colson Whitehead novel Zone One, which is about zombies.  Recently author Lev Grossman was asked why Fantasy novels are so popular, and his response was basically, “why is realism so popular?”  Fantasy literature has been a part of our heritage forever, and there’s nothing saying that fantasy literature is somehow less deserving of literary merit.  Would anyone deny that The Lord of the Rings is a classic?  (And have I mentioned how much I love Lev Grossman’s work?)  This week it’s Warren Adler in the Huffington Post lamenting people’s choice to go down the road of “childhood literature,” instead the more edifying works of cultured people.  Adler’s big question is “why are we seeing all of these monster stories, and what does this mean for our culture?”  He asks at the end why are people gobbling this stuff up?

I’ll tell you Mr. Adler.  Let’s take a little walk to a magical place called the 80’s.

I grew up in the 1980’s, and I was very deeply entrenched in pop movie culture.  My family let me watch absolutely everything that came through our cable television and they took me to movies all the time, sometimes just buying me a ticket and dropping me off at some R rated thing that they didn’t want to see.  Now, don’t go judging my parents.  I was a creepy kid, and it was a lot of fun for me.  Just like it was fun for Warren Adler to go see his serial pictures at the theater.  During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there was a huge surge in popularity in horror films, most all of them slasher movies.  First it was 1978 with Halloween that gave us Michael Myers, then 1980 with Friday the 13th that brought out Jason Voorhees, then 1984 with Nightmare on Elm Street that gave us Freddy Kruger.  These characters became the staple of an entire generation of sequel films that raked in millions (probably billions combined) in the box office.  This was the brain candy of my generation, the monsters in our closet as well as in our dreams.  We lived to be scared.

When we weren’t at the movies we were reading horror novels and comic books.  I had to read Charles Dickens in middle school, but when I wasn’t reading Great Expectations for school I was reading The Shining by Stephen King, Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, and The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker.  These works sat side by side for me growing up, and I saw little distinction.  Macbeth is just as dripping with blood and gore and witchcraft as any of the things cooked up by the horror novelists of the 80’s.  Though to be perfectly honest Dickens bored the life out of me.  I tried A Tale of Two Cities twice, and couldn’t bear it.

Swamp Thing as Green Man, Vol. 2, iss. 157

But let’s talk about comic books for a minute here.  Because this is where things get really interesting.  In the early 1980’s DC Comics had a story line running called Swamp Thing.  You may have seen the film with Adrienne Barbeau.  Wait, no, you probably haven’t.  Anyway, in 1982 a British writer named Alan Moore took over the series and he did something incredible with it.  He brought comic books into the realm of high literature.  Now, DC did something incredibly radical as a result of this shift.  They decided for that series that they were going to abandon the Comics Code Authority, which had basically meant that these works were morally safe for young readers, and instead write a story for adults.  The Swamp Thing was a ridiculous creature from a laboratory experiment in the early days of the series.  In the hands of Alan Moore this creature became a physical embodiment of nature, in the company of the mythical Green Man and Robin Goodfellow.  He was one of an unbroken lineage of mythological characters that resonated throughout time.  This nothing, throw-away horror comic became a literary masterpiece.  He went on to write some of the most transformative and imaginative pieces of literature in the world of comics including The Watchmen, a scathing psychological profile of superheroes as a people and a genre, and V for Vendetta, an homage to British Anarchism and scathing critique of the burgeoning police state.  With work like this coming down the line in the land of comics its no wonder that people who succeeded Moore at the DC Comics Vertigo line, like Neil Gaiman, continued to make the connection between the world of canonical western literature and the world of comics.

In the 1980’s comics grew up.  They found a vein in the rich literary tradition of the past and aspired to new heights.  I believe what we’re seeing now with this resurgence of horror novels and mythical creatures is a turning point for them as well.  There will always be the popular fiction churning out book after book, with whatever sells.  Then there will be those moments where someone pulls from the bag of monsters, and mixes it with master strokes of literature to create something more.  That’s why we’re seeing people like Justin Cronin and Colson Whitehead writing monster stories.  Whitehead’s influences are a lot like mine.  The fodder for new stories comes from the works of the past, and the things we read and watch as young people shape our interests as adults.  For people who grew up immersed in monsters, and loving it, it’s no wonder that we see more of them today. Does that mean literary fiction is in a crisis?  I don’t think so.  The next book after I read the first printed edition of Amanda Hocking’s novel Switched is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I think the Trojan War is always a good start for a literary classic.  Then again, I’ve got a penchant for the classics.  Not everyone does.  And that’s okay.

Snow Crash

I’ve been on a novel reading tear lately.  It’s been really good for me to just zone out on the couch and read for evening after evening.  The latest in a string of finished reads was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Now, I may have mentioned that I have attempted twice before to conquer a Neal Stephenson novel only to give up somewhere along the way; once for Cryptonomicon (which I thought was the coolest title, but man, I could not read that thing) and then for Quicksilver (which also was cool, and had Isaac Newton and Pirates and still I put it aside). I can’t explain what leads me to put a novel aside.  In the case of Quicksilver I think it was in fact the pirates that did it.  Perhaps it was a push too far into the realm of the ridiculous that I couldn’t be bothered to care about.  I don’t even remember.  Snow Crash on the other hand I did get through, and I was legitimately hooked, but it took something almost half-way through the novel to get me.  Maybe that’s been the problem all along.

Anyhow, let’s talk about Snow Crash. Hiro is a hacker who was there at the beginning of a major shift in computer entertainment known as the Metaverse (think a grittier version of Second Life), but who had made some pretty poor decisions on how to deal with the money he made.  Cashing out too early he’s broke, and now is delivering pizzas for the Mafia.  Oh, and yeah, it’s a dystopian corporate hellhole of a world where corporate personhood has taken on entirely new levels of scary and become kind of Polis / Nation-State entities of their own.  A franchise is now also some kind of consulate with its own militia and their own rules of behavior and enemy engagement.  I can’t tell if this is some kind of critique of pure Objectivism or just a fun romp, but it straddles a very uncomfortable line.

Anyhow, early on in the novel Hiro is asked by some random shitty-looking avatar in the Metaverse if he wants to try “Snow Crash.”  Is it a virus? Is it a drug?  What’s the difference?  And this becomes the central mystery to the entire novel.  What is this virus/drug and why is it turning people into babbling idiots and crashing computers?

Now, this whole plot line wasn’t interesting to me until they started getting into Sumerian mythology.


So something incredibly ancient is wreaking havoc on something cutting edge and incredibly modern.  What follows is globe-trotting, metaverse hacking and expository rambling that’s actually kind of cool.  It’s got car chases, nuclear weapons, sword fights, punk rock shows, skateboard thrashing and wheels-within-wheels plot.  Overall kind of fun.

It did have its down sides.  There were chapters early on where plotlines were irreconcilably overlapping each other, and things were happening in the physical world in two different places at once.  And some bizarre illogical jumps to other parts of the country (Alaska to California in a day?) for the sake of, well, I don’t really know for certain.  And of course a LOT of physically impossible things that were incredibly annoying.

The tone of the novel kind of jumped around somewhere between incredibly intellectual ponderings ala Umberto Eco and ridiculous buffoonery ala Tom Robbins.  It felt incredibly incongruous in that way.  This is not to say that a novel can’t be smart and silly at the same time.  I’m just saying it felt kind of clumsy, in a Dan Brown or Agatha Christie kind of way where experts have to explain to uninformed the fancy, obscure thing that only they have figured out.  While the buffoonery made me roll my eyes at times, and the explanatory prose did get kind of pedantic, I kept reading.  Which says something.

I think what I’m trying to say is that I liked the idea of this novel.  I think it’s got a brilliant premise.  But the trappings of it kind of make me go, meh.

The Name of the Wind

I just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ novel The Name of the Wind.  I had no less than six different people rave and tell me about the awesomeness of this book, who shared John Scalzi’s breathless review of it, and also heard about it on episode 2 of BoingBoing’s Gweek podcast.  Normally this kind of passionate overflow is a turnoff, and out of sheer spite I will deny sharing in the flavor of the week.  But I found myself in Toronto, with nothing to do for a day, and figured I would fall back on the thing I always do when I’m bored and have nothing better to do: go book shopping.  So I picked up The Name of the Wind.

Like many fantasy stories this novel involves magic, monsters, faeries, music and food.  And you can find synopses galore if you wish to find them.  That’s not really what I want to talk about here.  The story, while absolutely gripping, meant less to me than the subtext of the book and the mechanics of the world. I know that sounds incredibly dorky, but hear me out on this one.  The Name of the Wind is more than just a story about a heroic bard who lived a hardscrabble life who rises to power and prominence.  It is really the story about the power of language, the power of perception, and the knowledge of how to wield the two of them properly.

Half-Built Houses

There are two moments in the city of Tarbean when narrators other than Kvothe begin a meandering tale down a road paved with religious mythology.  The first is Trapis, who Kvothe believes may be a former priest of Tehlu.  Trapis tells the story of how Tehlu bound Encanis to the iron wheel.  Within that story there are elements of truth, but those elements are often obscured by the religious pretext of the story as it is told.  Within this novel we never discover which of them is which, but there is a clear importance to the inclusion of this story.  Secondly is the story told by Skarpi the wandering tale-teller in the pub.  Skarpi tells the story of an ancient empire and the betrayal of Selitos by Lanre, and the founding of the Amyr knights.  He concludes his story that Tehlu, their God, is but one of these many knights.  This earns him the ire of the priesthood of Tehlu and he is escorted off stage to answer for crimes of heresy. The very explicit statement here is that the church may not be giving us the whole story.  That for whatever reason they have chosen to believe and enforce the belief in an entirely separate mythos, where Tehlu is born of a virgin, descended of himself, and comes to this earth to cast out demons.

Who knows whether either of them is correct.  But given that the story of Lanre is what led to the protagonist’s first dramatic loss, I think we can see which way the author is leaning.  However, it’s not their correctness that is really the point, it’s their incompleteness.  Each of them is a shadow of the truth.  These stories are half-remembered whisperings of people who lived and fought and died eons before.  If the chaos of the Archives* is any indicator, and I believe it is a huge one, it should just be assumed that no one really knows the truth of anything.  The very few, who know oh so little, are the ones who have lost their minds in order to find that truth.


Much like Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea there is an intense focus on the power of naming things. However, unlike Earthsea the reality is that very few people understand or know these names.  Much like the stories of ancient peoples, faeries, and Gods, the true names of things are lost to them.  Only in brief glimpses of deep, deep understanding or subconscious upswell do any of these names come forth.  They are primal.  They are the foundation of the world. They are something more than a word.  They are the very nature of being.  In this sense Rothfuss is touching on the ineffable names of things we see in mystical traditions like Kabbalah, where inscribing a word of power on a clay mannequin would bring it to life, and removing a single letter would make it crumble to dust.  This kind of understanding is something that the Kvothe has been pursuing all his life, however short that life has been at this early stage in his tale.  But again, their understanding suffers, because the world has moved on, languages change and names of power are lost in the chaos of the world.


The other important element running through the novel is the discrepancy between outward appearance and interior nature.  Kvothe, as a trouper, was skilled in the art of changing faces, being what he needed to be when he needed to.  He forgets that skill early on, as a result of his young tragedy.  But time heals all things and he regains his ability to become who he needs to be.  My mind turns again to magic, specifically the art of glamour.  This is a common faerie story element.  The faeries appear to us as shining, beautiful creatures, haloed in light and full of grace and poise.  And yet, when that glamour is cracked, the truth of what lies beneath is revealed and we see the dark and ugly things that they may be.  People are not so different.  Ambrose certainly may look like Prince Gallant, but he is a lech, a bully, and harbors murder in his heart.  Kvothe on the other hand projects an image of steel, passionate fire, and sprinkles the school with tales of his unnatural heroism.  Deep inside him, he has doubts, he questions his ability to do things, and yet in moments of crisis he is able to tap into his projected persona and make the miraculous happen.  Sometimes these things will never be known, or never known in their truth.

All of these elements are woven into each other throughout the course of the novel.  There are many things that we know.  There are vast oceans of things that we don’t know.  There are things that were known, but are lost to us.  There are things that we believe we know, but which upon examination betray how much we don’t know. 

The Name of the Wind asks the reader to develop his Alar so that he can believe that there is a fundamental, objective truth to all things and at the same time believe that he will both know it and never fully understand it.  The stone will fall and it will fly away at the same time.

And that is why this book is brilliant.

* And oh yes, I was totally geeking out about the library. Especially the delicious madness of medieval filing systems, and the ineffability of subject analysis.

You Know Nothing (about A Song of Ice and Fire)

On Thursday I finally finished my month-long reading of the new George R.R. Martin book, A Dance with Dragons.  And while I could sit down right now and reveal a ton of spoilers, I will instead take a different road and talk about the overarching story themes that I’ve only just realized.  Sometimes I’m a slow reader, not just in terms of pace, but also in terms of picking up on the broader details in a work until I’ve sat with it for a some time.  I’ve spent months going through A Song of Ice and Fire and only now has all of this actually struck me.  The following is a kind of thematic overview of the series as a whole coming from the mottoes of the lordly houses of Westeros.

The Starks: Winter is Coming
Work For The Common Good

When Old Nan tells you stories about The Long Night, you had better listen, because there’s wisdom in those words.  Very few people are looking at the bigger picture, and perhaps no one is at all.  Those who do act in concert with the bigger picture get derided as mad, but ultimately this will lead them to a better position. Most everyone is only looking out for himself, and doing things that are utterly destructive (to others and themselves) regardless of the consequences.  With a winter of indeterminate length settling into the country, Westeros is still in the dregs of a continent wide civil war utterly destroying the last harvest and killing off the people who would have brought that harvest in. This can’t possibly end well.  Only those who have been working for the common good, and they are few, can even begin to help people make it through this grim future.

The Targaryens: Fire and Blood
Birthright Varies From Kin to Kin

One of the recurring themes in Song of Ice and Fire is that there are certain qualities in each royal house that are just waiting to be awoken.  There are talismanic creatures whose fates are entangled with those of their owners.  When the humans fail to become one with their beasts, or even recognize their warnings, the human suffers, and harshly.  Beyond their animal ken, there are also near magical abilities that only work when one is truly aligned with his/her true nature.  When a pretender to that power tries to exert some kind of authoritative claim to that power, he is viciously cut down.   But become one with your power, and you will see the most miraculous things you will ever know and people will tremble before you.

The Lannisters: A Lannister Always Pays His Debts
Debts Must Be Repaid

While not their official words, this is the most common phrase associated with the Lannisters.  This is taken both literally and metaphorically.  It’s no secret that from the very first book that the kingdom is totally bankrupt and been amassing a tremendous amount of debt for bread and circuses.  They’re borrowing from every royal house and foreign countries to keep King’s Landing fat and fatter.  But every debt has to be repaid eventually, and if the king doesn’t pay up, well, maybe the banks will find someone who will and finance them instead.  I find it amazingly prescient that Martin went to the lengths of exploring defaulting on the national debt, especially in our current political situation.  Beyond the debts of actual monetary value, there are also debts of besmirched honor and tarnished virtue.  These require acts of contrition in order to truly expiate the guilt.  Some characters take this seriously and go to great pains to restore their honor, and others do only what is required while crossing their fingers so that they can get through the shame and get back to business as usual.

The Wildlings: You Know Nothing
Presumption is Hubris

I know the Wildlings are not a royal house, but theirs is the greatest wisdom, especially in the latest book. The biggest mistakes are those created from characters who are completely ignorant of the culture that they are attempting to dominate.  People just grossly assume that everyone just acts the way that they do, and that they can proceed as they always have and force their way upon the group they’re conquering.  You see this when people take the wrong hostages (people who have no value in terms of lineage, because succession doesn’t occur the same in other parts of the world); when people attempt to operate with a concept of honor when cunning is required, and vice-versa; when someone attempts to act where he is unqualified or ill prepared; and when someone veers from the course that they must take.  All of these people succumb to their hubris to some degree, and often unto the bitter, bitter end.  Interestingly only those who know that they know nothing are doing well, and those who feign at doing nothing are thrown for a loop.

I’m certain that I could pull more of these from the words of the other houses, but I’ll leave those to other readers.  But know that I’m going to keep combing through these words to see what else I can find.