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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 22, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Ben-Hur, Crusoe, Dell.com

When people cast doubt upon whether America was founded as a Christian nation need only read fiction from our first century to understand what this means.

It isn't a matter of law, it's a matter of culture. It was simply taken for granted that any reference to God referred to the Judeo-Christian God, and most particularly to the doctrines of Christianity pertaining to God.

When the great anthem of the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," swept the nation, no one bothered to question the lyric "In the beauty of the lilies / Christ was born across the sea ... As he died to make men holy / Let us die to make men free."

Americans routinely likened themselves to Israel (the way we now liken ourselves to Rome) and both Old and New Testaments were so current in the culture that biblical references never had to be explained or even cited.

Now, of course, this seems almost inconceivable, but the change has been relatively recent. When I was young, writers like Lloyd C. Douglas (The Robe, Magnificent Obsession, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, The Big Fisherman) and Taylor Caldwell (Dear and Glorious Physician, Great Lion of God, I, Judas) dominated bestseller lists with openly Christian works.

And Civil War General Lew Wallace's epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was the most American popular novel of the second half of the 1800s, leading to elaborate stage productions and then several movie versions, the last of which won eleven Oscars, including Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director (William Wyler), and Best Picture.

Can you imagine an openly Christian film sweeping the major awards like that today?

I read the book version of Ben-Hur as a lad, and so it was near the top of the list of classic books I recently downloaded from Audible.com.

When I was a kid, I'm certain I must have skimmed the opening, however, for Wallace regarded it as his duty, apparently, to open his novel with the story of the three wise men, and attempting to reconcile their religions with Christianity.

(Now, of course, biblical scholars who allow them to have existed at all, assume that the "wise men" from the east were probably Babylonian Jews, living under the rule of Parthia, so that they would come into the Roman Empire as strangers -- but would regard themselves, correctly, as being as Jewish as any in Jerusalem. In fact, Mesopotamia was then, and remained, until Muslim crackdowns a thousand years later, one of the great centers of Jewish thought.)

The result of Wallace's theological exercise is (a) a lesson in how all religions are secretly Christian, (b) Christianity is just one of many manifestations of God's teachings, though it is the most complete, and ( c) one of the most tedious sets of chapters ever written under the name of fiction.

Even after the actual story starts -- i.e., when we finally meet young Judah Ben-Hur -- the story is constantly stopped cold while Wallace lectures us on this or that bit of history.

It makes you wonder at the inexhaustible patience of readers in the late 1800s.

But slowly, bit by bit, through long tedious dialogues and political explanations and other long stretches of discourse that Americans no longer tolerate in our fiction (not even our literary fiction), the story begins to take hold, and as Wallace's pace picks up a little, our reading speed slows down to meet him halfway.

The book is, quite simply, abridgeable. It begs to be shortened. It begs to be skimmed.

But you can't easily skim an audiobook, so I listened to every word.

And by the end, I understood why it was so vastly popular and penetrated American culture to such a degree. Coming on the heels of the bitter Civil War, in which more Americans died than in other war we have fought, this is a novel about Christian forgiveness, even of those who continue to hate us and try to destroy us right up to the end of their lives.

That was a message Americans wanted and needed by then; it was, perhaps, part of the influence behind the tendency in some states, as the number of veterans decreased, to have veterans of the Union and Confederate armies march together in Memorial Day parades.

Now, though, having forgotten the Civil War (and how easily hate-filled rhetoric can lead to irrevocable actions and unspeakable bloodshed), what emerges from the book is not the message of openness, forgiveness, and tolerance, but instead the Christian story that weaves through the redemptive story of Judah Ben-Hur.

As an audiobook, the Audible.com unabridged version, read by Jim Killavey, has its problems. The main one is that it's so unabridged. But Killavey, too, had his problems.

He's a talented voice actor, but a quirky one, too, with a ... tendency to take ... pauses in odd ... places. And it seems his may have been a home-studio recording that was merely picked up by the publisher (Blackstone), since it does not come up to present standards of accuracy.

In other words, he absolutely butchers the pronunciations of place-names in the book, and there are common English words that he repeatedly mispronounces. "Revenue," for instance, he pronounces to rhyme with "menu" (re-VEN-yu) rather than "avenue" (REV-uh-nu).

But even with his problems, Killavey brings the characters to life, and I'm glad, for my purposes, to have listened to the unabridged version. Why? Because it's good to have experienced what Wallace thought was important in his book, rather than what a modern abridger thinks is most worth keeping.

*

A book that remains vivid in our public memory is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which some people regard as the first true novel in the English language.

In evaluating such a claim, one must keep in mind that "novel" was not, back in 1719, the universal word for "book-length work of fiction." The word "romance" did that duty; "novel" came from the French term for "New Romance" -- nouvelle roman -- and it referred only to romances that stressed real-world stories about people who were (usually) commonplace folks, not of heroic stature.

The idea was to stress believability over excitement, and Robinson Crusoe does that.

In fact, Defoe stresses realism and plausibility so much that at times Crusoe almost reads as a refutation of Swiss Family Robinson -- though of course it's really the other way around, with SFR coming nearly a century after Crusoe.

The realism takes this form: Crusoe manages to salvage a few things from the wreckage of the ship, but much of what he saves, he never uses, and much of what he needs, he never finds. It happens again and again that he says things like, "I had salvaged a few spyglasses [he uses the term "perspective glasses"] from the wreck, but I didn't have one with me."

Then there's the wonderful dugout canoe Crusoe builds -- only to realize that there is no way that, a man alone, he can get the canoe from where it was built down to the sea.

Swiss Family Robinson almost never allowed such lack of foresight! They were able to duplicate European civilization, and always foresaw future problems well in advance.

Defoe's experiments and engineering projects often fail, and he freely confesses to making a perfect botch of many things he tries. He runs out of things -- like ink -- and has no idea how to make more. He cuts a back door to his fortified cave dwelling (which has no front door, but instead a ladder over a stockade), and then regrets it, and builds another stockade that includes that door inside it.

He makes human mistakes. He has human failings.

And he shares them with us in exhaustive detail.

Crusoe is never so excruciatingly tedious as Ben-Hur, partly because Defoe never digresses from the first-person narrative. This is Crusoe's story, and so it reads like a book a man like Crusoe might have written, based on his diaries and memories years after the fact.

So realistic is the book that Defoe includes the natural repetitions that an unschooled man like Crusoe would have written. For instance, three or four times he mentions money he salvaged from his own and another shipwreck, and each time he tells us, as if it were the first time, that this fortune in silver and gold had no value to him because it had no use on the island.

Other things he "learned" at one point he "learns" again at another. He tells us something, then refers back to his diary and gives us another, and sometimes semi-contradictory, version of the same events.

In other words, not only is the story realistic, but the manner of its telling is true to the character supposedly telling it. Defoe was inventing the English version of the "new romance" and he set a remarkable example.

One of the truths about the character of Crusoe that fairly dominates the story is this: While Defoe is writing a highly realistic story of survival and human resourcefulness, the character Crusoe is writing the story of his religious conversion.

Like many a middle-aged (or old) person, Crusoe, in looking back on his life, sees moral lessons in it, and seems to tell his story primarily with an eye to helping readers avoid his many mistakes.

And such was the pervasiveness of Christianity in that era that neither Crusoe nor Defoe bothers to explain or defend any Christian precept that comes up. Worldly and Christian ideas, in fact, are mixed together willy-nilly, because that's how people of Defoe's time thought of the world.

In 1719, there was no "science" distinguished from religion. There was only "stuff we all know," and it included natural history, theology, engineering, practical religion, and all the skilled trades under the heading of "learning."

It happens that Crusoe knew something of basketweaving and seamanship, and had observed enough of husbandry, hunting, farming, and Christianity that he was able to do all of them passably well, once he saw the need.

It is simply taken for granted that Crusoe recognizes that his previous life was full of foolishness (in disregarding the good plan of life laid out by his father) and wickedness (in living as a sailor among sailors, and repeatedly rejecting good life situations and putting all at risk).

He faithfully recounts how slowly he comes to see the goodness of Providence (the polite euphemism for God in his role as non-miraculous manipulator of events), which saved only him alive from his shipwreck and placed him where he could so easily get what he needed to survive, and to live for decades before realizing that his island was rather often visited by cannibals -- who never saw him until he chose to be seen.

And even after he does repent, Defoe has Crusoe faithfully recount his several relapses, his tendency to leap to his own decisions and plans instead of trying to seek God's will, and so on.

Crusoe speculates so sincerely on how the will of God manifests itself in a person's life that, if he were accidentally elected President of the United States, he would surely be vilified and ridiculed for daring to suppose that a person can seek to discover God's will and follow it in the course of his life and duties (cf. George W. Bush).

Of course, along with Christianity come all the other attitudes of the time. Crusoe regards it as his natural right to enslave people of other races who come under his control; but he also knows that so do those people themselves, because slavery was a part of the natural world, and while one European Christian would not dream of enslaving another, it is assumed that all non-Europeans and non-Christians should as a matter of course labor to serve the will of their betters.

The smug intolerance of the politically correct has dissertations-worth of fodder here for condemning people of the past. True multiculturalists, however, will recognize that this novel is an artifact that shows us our own past. And since the politically correct even now have exactly the same attitude as Crusoe -- i.e., that they are entitled to make all decisions for people of less correct views, who exist only to serve them -- the truth is that Crusoe reveals many things, both noble and annoying, about human nature.

In short, this is a truthful book, and remains the superior of many (or most) of the novels written afterward.

John Lee's reading of Crusoe is superb -- and even though his English accent includes a bit of the nasality of the actor Nicol Williamson, this does not interfere in the pleasure of hearing his nearly perfect interpretation of the book.

Even with Crusoe's repetitions, Crusoe does not need to be abridged. Listening to every word of the entire book was a pleasure. There is more of Treasure Island than of Swiss Family Robinson in the telling, and one can see why, with an exemplar like this, writers after Defoe sought to write novels rather than the traditional romances.

*

Not everybody orders computers often enough for it to be a bother, so I put this review at the end so people who couldn't care less can skip it and go back to looking at all the pictures of women at Greensboro clubs wearing the kind of outfits you wear when you intend to drink a lot and pick up men.

(Note to the ladies: These outfits only work on the kind of men who drink a lot and pick up women. If you manage to marry one, there is a strong chance he will continue to drink a lot and pick up women. If that's not your dream outcome, you might want to take a serious second look at your wardrobe choices.)

My wife's computer -- on which all our business, financial, and address book information is kept (mine contains mostly MP3s, audiobooks, ebooks, and games) -- was starting to make weird noises and have inexplicable interruptions. Even more than usual with a machine enslaved to the Microsoft overlords.

We have learned after 31 years of working with home office computers that when this starts happening, you simply replace the computer.

After all, by the time the computer either dies or becomes inadequate to run vital new software (i.e., killer games and major upgrades), you can usually replace it with a computer that's at least twice as powerful for about two-thirds the cost.

So I did what I almost always do, now that CompUSA no longer has a store in town -- I went to Dell's online store.

I had just replaced my old massive forty-pound (perceived weight after carrying it through the Atlanta airport) Dell laptop with a nice mini-desktop, so I went to my online account and found a nearly-inscrutable listing of the specs of the computer that I just bought.

There was no helpful "buy another just like this one" button, so I got the model number (a Precision workstation) and started over.

Things were going swimmingly until I got to "Select my hard drive/RAID configuration."

For those who don't know, "RAID" has nothing to do with killing insects or arresting gamblers.

It's a system where you have two equal-size hard drives that either stripe the data across both drives (which speeds up your system) or maintains both of them as exact mirrors of each other (which slows down your system a little, since everything has to be written to disk twice, but makes your system far more secure against hard drive failure).

My machine had mirror-image RAID with two 750gig drives.

But before I ever got to hard drive size, Dell.com wanted me to select the drive configuration. And here are the choices they gave me:

C1, all SATA, No RAID for 1 hard drive

C1a, all SATA, no RAID for 2 hard drives

C4, all SATA, RAID 0 for 2 hard drives

C7, all SATA, RAID 1 for 2 hard drives

C8, all SATA, RAID 1 for 4 hard drives

C12, all SAS, no RAID for 1 hard drive

C13, all SAS, no RAID for 2 hard drives

C15, all SAS, RAID 0 for 2 hard drives

C17, all SAS, RAID 1 for 2 hard drives

Here is what I was able to decode from this: SATA and SAS are two different drive control protocols. "No RAID" means that the drives both show up on your system separately. But what is the difference between "RAID 0" and "RAID 1"? And what are those "C" numbers?

I clicked on the "help me choose" button, thinking those terms would all be explained. Instead, I got an explanation of what RAID is and that there are two ways it might work. But it did not tell me what the result of choosing "0 for 2" or "1 for 2" might be.

In other words, it explained nothing at all. Probably the 0 choice meant drive striping and the 1 choice meant drive mirroring -- or vice versa. So I chose one of them randomly and clicked to "continue customizing," hoping to be able to adjust it later.

Whereupon I was given an error message that said that I could not use this RAID configuration with the hard drives currently selected.

But I hadn't selected any hard drives. The RAID configuration choice came up before I was given any hard drive options.

Fortunately there was a "fix it later" button on the error message that let me go on. But why should I see such an error message at all when I could not possibly have done it right? Everybody who orders RAID must see that same message! How stupid is that?

Then I came to choose the hard drive. My system needed 750 gigs, but my wife, who does not have 120 gigs of MP3s on her computer, needs only 250 gigs. So I chose that size drive ... and again got the error message, because RAID needs two hard drives. But I hadn't even been given a chance to add a second drive!

Again, "fix it later," and now I finally got to choose the second drive.

Why couldn't Dell's software (a) explain what the RAID options meant, and (b) when I chose a mirror-image RAID array, automatically add a second hard drive to my order, identical with the first, so that I got no error message based on their default one-drive configuration?

And when I chose the size of the hard drive, why didn't it automatically change (or add) the second drive of exactly the same size and type?

They could include a message telling me that I had just doubled the number of hard drives on my system, and by choosing to buy one biggish drive, I was automatically being given a second drive of the same biggishness.

All this would have been helpful. Instead, it's apparent you have to be an IT professional to order a RAID system from Dell.

Then I got to the "Select My Monitor" screen and saw that there was no option to buy "no monitor."

My wife's computer monitor is the perfect size for her, and since it's in fine health there's no reason to order a monitor with the new system at all. With the online ordering system not even offering me the option of removing the monitor, I gave up and dialed Dell's 877 number and talked to a person.

It took three minutes. I verified who I was, he pulled up the order for my computer, and I told him that I wanted to buy a duplicate of that one, only with 250gig drives and no Microsoft Office software preinstalled. He made that happen. I gave him the payment information, and it was done.

Computers are Dell's business. But you'd never know it from the incompetently written software on their website, which leaves you baffled and confused, with no help and with certain common options simply not available.

The cobbler's children have no shoes ...


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