Why Am I Reading Apocalyptic Novels Now?

From The New York Times:

A man and his son trudge through the wasteland into which human civilization has devolved. Every night, they shiver together in hunger and cold and fear. If they encounter someone weaker than they are — an injured man, an abandoned child — they do not have the resources to help, and if they encounter someone stronger, violence is assured. The man lives for the child, and the child regularly expresses a desire for death.

I am describing the novel “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy. The last time I can remember being hit so hard by a work of fiction was decades ago, reading “The Brothers Karamazov” while I had a high fever: I hallucinated the characters. I can still remember Ivan and Alyosha seeming to float in the space around my bed. This time, however, I’m not sick — yet — nor am I hallucinating.

Like many others, I have been finding my taste in books and movies turning in an apocalyptic direction. I also find myself much less able than usual to hold these made-up stories at a safe distance from myself. That father is me. That child is my 11-year-old son. Their plight penetrates past the “just fiction” shell, forcing me to ask, “Is this what the beginning of that looks like?” I feel panicked. I cannot fall asleep.

Why torture oneself with such books? Why use fiction to imaginatively aggravate our wounds, instead of to soothe them or, failing that, just let them be? One could raise the same question about nonfictional exercises of the imagination: Suppose I contemplate something I did wrong and consequently experience pangs of guilt about it. The philosopher Spinoza thought this kind of activity was a mistake: “Repentance is not a virtue, i.e. it does not arise from reason. Rather, he who repents what he did is twice miserable.”

This sounds crazier than it is. Immersed as we are in a culture of public demands for apology, we should be careful to understand that Spinoza is making a simple claim about psychological economics: There’s no reason to add an additional harm to whatever evils have already taken place. More suffering does not make the world a better place. The mental act of calling up emotions such as guilt and regret — and even simple sadness — is imaginative self-flagellation, and Spinoza urges us to avoid “pain which arises from a man’s contemplation of his own infirmity.”

Should one read apocalypse novels during apocalyptic times? Is there anything to be said for inflicting unnecessary emotional pain on oneself? I think there is.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG is reading a post-apocalyptic novel, Ready Player One, right now. (Yes, he realizes he is behind the RPO curve by several years.) He has also started, but not finished, a couple of others in the same genre.

Insensitive lug that he is, PG has not felt any pain from/while reading these books. He finds them helpful to getting his mind around a great many things that people around the world are experiencing, thinking and feeling at the moment.

3 thoughts on “Why Am I Reading Apocalyptic Novels Now?”

  1. Not a big fan of heartless Cormac McCarthy, and The Road is pretty unredeemed — apocalypse-porn with unrealistic characters.

    No wonder it depresses the reader. The reader should learn to read something more uplifting. Like Lord of the Flies or The Painted Bird.

  2. I’ve been reading this stuff, watching the movies and TV shows, my whole life. I was born in 1956, so I’ve had decades to digest all of this.

    I don’t write stories like this. I have tons of stories that happen long after the event, but not the event itself. Reading and watching take far less time than writing the story. I can’t spend that long a time living with that kind of story while writing it.

    I enjoy reading the stories, watching the movies and TV shows, but I keep reality in perspective, unlike Henry Bemish:

    Time Enough at Last

    Wiki – Time Enough at Last

    To see a nice commentary on the episode.

    I’ve caught myself saying, “Time enough at last” many times in the past month. Not a good thought, knowing how the story ends.

    The other day Dean posted about what he was seeing while taking his walk. I posted a comment on his blog, that he did not clear for the blog. This is that comment.


    Dean said: We were too early for the dog walkers, so we saw no one. Not sure that in a major urban area, seeing no one is something I will ever get used to. Not even cars on the road.

    Put your walk in the right perspective, and you will have less trouble with it.

    When things are “normal” and I take my walk through the neighborhood, I hear the birds in the trees, the dogs barking in the yard, and feel pleased, because I have memories of the neverwas where I’m walking through a radioactive wasteland, listening for the barking of mutated dogs hunting the sad survivors of WWIII.

    I went through “duck and cover” drills at school, enjoyed the movie version of Damnation Alley, and both TV versions of The Lathe of Heaven. “Do you remember the nuclear war in April 1998.” – that’s classic.


    BTW, April Fools is my High Holy day — if anyone missed the point — but that doesn’t change the facts of what I’m saying.

  3. I’m rereading old favourites like Barbara Pym and E F Benson’s sublime Lucia novels with some Dickens thrown in for good measure. All of which keep me sane and sleeping at night. Avoiding apocalyptic novels like – well, like the plague – but then I always have done. But I’m also writing a lot too. Worried as I am about all kinds of things, the empty year planner is oddly liberating!

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