September 20, 2000
There would be commentary here on Alan Lightman's new book, "The Diagnosis," had I actually read it. However, at this point in time, I have not, and can thus only comment on the reading that I recently attended.
After the reading, Mr. Lightman and I discussed his transition from writing short stories to an overly full-length novel ("scary") and the fact that his daughter currently attends my alma mater. I believe that he was also just about ready to invite me to visit him in his office at one point, as he teaches just across the river from me at MIT, but I might have interrupted him at that point, prefering the sound of my own voice to anyone elses'. And while he was a very nice man, the reading itself left me disappointed.
Features of Lightman's new book include, but are not limited to: an examination of the state of our society with regard to technology and the overwhelming abundance of information, speed (as in rapid motion, not amphetamines), cautionary tales of using email to communicate with your young son, and a novella. The last of these items seems to be the most interesting but was not included at all in the reading or subsequent discussion session. Had this been a more amateur novelist, I would have attributed this exclusion to nerves, but given that this man is a published author over half a dozen times over and is a university professor, I can only assume that he himself is not very confident in his work and is shielding as much of it as possible from the audience before they actually pay for it.
In fact, given that this man is a professor at MIT and has written such works as "Einstein's Dreams" which was one of the more poignant and well constructed series of short stories I've ever read, I was surprised when he began his reading with a series of starts and stutters, beginning first with the admission that no matter how often one is published, one is always nervous about how a new work will be received. Well of course. But he did not make this statement as a way of bringing himself down from the level of "distinguished novelist" to "ordinary joe" so that we, the audience, would be able to relate to him. Instead, he said it so deliberately and so sincerely that it seemed he was genuinely frightened that we were going to boo him off the lectern.
Now it is entirely possible that I do not recognize genius when I see it. And I will be the first to admit that being a good writer does not mean that one will be a good orator. As I prepared to ask my question during the post-reading question and answer session I could feel my pulse quickening and when I finally opened my mouth to speak the words just stumbled out of them. And yet I feel that I have a firm grasp of the English language in written form. But this man has been teaching forever. Could it be that his students have to suffer through the same pregnant pauses and statements of "ummm" as we, the audience, did?
The reading, which consisted of the first several pages from the book, only managed to partially hold my attention and I found myself drifting off and staring the titles of the other books surrounding us. We were in the Art section. It was not that the subject matter was not interesting, but merely that I was not as drawn into the novel's world as quickly as I would have liked. I was left with the feeling that I was going to have to try very hard to care about what happened when the main character after he discovered that he did not know where he was going that one morning on the subway. Unfortunately, I believe that much of the problem was in the delivery of the lines which, when presented by Lightman, seemed flat and dry.
After the actual reading came the aforementioned question and answer session, during which time the author was careful not to answer anything with any sort of clarity or conviction. He had noted that his novel is an attempt to bring some sort of awareness of the direction in which our society is traveling, most notably a downward spiral that, if left unchecked will result in our (as a society) losing our humanity all together (his ideas, my words). Continually he mentioned that "we" are losing our "center" and that we are going farther and farther away from the way things were. However, when asked whether there was a period in time that he saw as being where we "should" be, as a society, or a period in time that he had in mind when writing this novel, Lightman threw out some statements about the Industrial Revolution and ended with the notion that where we "should" be is an individual's own opinion and he did not presume to make any sort of statement regarding where we should be as a society.
There are few different possible explanations for this behavior. The one that makes the most sense is that this man was not interested in answering the questions with any sort of clarity. He did note that he made no attempts in his novel to offer any solutions to our society's pending problem, but merely aims to raise awareness. I am nevertheless disappointed as I often enjoy these situations as times to find out more about the inner workings of the minds of authors, to find out what they were thinking and in what sort of context they were operating when writing. I can understand, though, the reluctance to do so if in fact Lightman had wanted us to enter into his novel with no preconceived notions of what we should be thinking.
Another theory is that Lightman was simply not equipped to answer the questions that were posed of him. While this is certainly within the realm of possibility, again I have trouble believing that this man, who has clearly spent quite a bit of time thinking about the subjects surrounding his novel, would have little to say about them, especially given his role as educator. I am more than happy to dismiss this argument and give the author the benefit of the doubt.
The final theory that has been presented to me is that Alan Lightman's cat was hit by a car that morning and as a result, he was too emotionally distraught to form cohesive thoughts and sentences during his reading. While I have no proof of this situation, I have heard that he is an interesting speaker and that he exhibited none of the characteristics that I have noted here, which gives this theory some merit.
At the heart of it, Lightman did have some interesting things to say. He seems fairly certain that we, as a society, are heading down the road to what can only be called "Hell" and that if we don't stop and thing about the implications of what we are doing soon, we will eventually reach our destination. During the question and answer session it was noted that people have always been seeking speed, and that while the speed may have increased, the actual rate probably as not. That is, people on horseback welcomed the automobile just as we are now looking forward to space planes that will move us around the world faster than ever before. And yet the actual desire to move faster, to gather more information, is not actually a new phenomenon.
To this, Lightman pointed out that while the desire may have been there before, the means were not, and it was this precise technological hurdle that allowed for more reflection on the world. To be sure the desire to travel faster existed, but until such mechanisms were in place, people had to walk to get from point A to point B, and in that walking, there was time to think, and to become more human. In today's society, when people on the subway balance coffee cups and personal organizers, the time for reflection has been displaced by time for productivity. It seems that this is the basic subject of "The Diagnosis" and Lightman seems as suited to take it on as anyone else.
Did I enjoy the reading? Not during and not immediately following. I found myself wondering what exactly I had listened to (including the student who kept refering to email exchanges between father and son in the novel as cute, to which the author quietly responded, "Thanks") and whether or not I would have been better somewhere else. In the end, however, it has given me much more to think about and Lightman did in fact raise some interesting points, both in the reading and after. I just had to take the time to dig for it.