Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Robbins, Tan, and Hauptmann

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read three more books this week, all of which I recommend. Some of them are more inspiring than others, though…

Awaken the Giant Within, by Anthony Robbins

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“Beliefs have the awesome potential to create or to destroy. Your beliefs can give you the power to create massive, immediate, empowering changes in your life, or they can smother any hope you have for a better future.”

I heard about this book (and the motivational speaker Anthony Robbins) from someone I knew. It sounded intriguing so I took out the audiobook version. It was a very good decision.

Robbins himself narrated the audiobook, but it wasn’t as much of a narration as it was a motivational speech in and of itself. Now, there are motivational speeches that can get you excited in that moment, but it seems to me that the more powerful motivational speeches are ones that leave a lasting impression on you. This book was in the second category. It combined examples (Robbins’s own story, the amazing story of Honda’s founder, etc.) with actionable advice. It was also short enough to get through in a day or less. So, if you’re looking for some inspiration, I’d definitely recommend this book.

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan

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“I learned about opening moves and why it’s important to control the center early on; the shortest distance between two points is straight down the middle. I learned about the middle game and why tactics between two adversaries are like clashing ideas; the one who plays better has the clearest plans for both attacking and getting out of traps. I learned why it is essential in the endgame to have foresight, a mathematical understanding of all possible moves, and patience; all weaknesses and advantages become evident to a strong adversary and are obscured to a tiring opponent.”

The Joy Luck Club is about a woman named Jing-Mei Woo whose mother has died. Her mother was part of a mah-jongg group called “The Joy Luck Club” and now Jing-Mei Woo has to fill in her mother’s place. In the process, she learns her mother’s secrets, hears the stories of the other women in the club, and gains more insight into her identity as a Chinese-American.

I thought the book would be a novel, but it felt more like a collection of short stories told by each woman in the Joy Luck Club (and by their daughters). Interestingly, I own an “Intro to English Lit” anthology which actually included one of this book’s chapters in its short story unit.

Each short story/chapter was well-written (some were better than others). What made the book good was that the chapters were connected to each other. You’d hear the story of one character’s chess career in one chapter and then another chapter would reference it in passing.

Also, because there were so many characters, the book contained a variety of experiences (instead of just telling one story). One character had an unhappy marriage, but not all characters did, for instance. That felt refreshing.

So in the end, even though The Joy Luck Club felt like a bunch of short stories, the book itself felt unified and very satisfying to read.

“The Weavers,” by Gerhart Hauptmann

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“HORNIG. We know all about that. A man from the government arrives, knows better than all of us, acts as though he’d seen it all himself, walks a bit round the village where the stream runs and the nicest houses are—doesn’t want to get dirt on his nice, shiny shoes—and so he thinks it’s as nice everywhere, climbs into his carriage and drives home again. And so he writes to Berlin, ‘There is no poverty here.’ If he’d had a little patience and climbed up to the villages near the source of the stream and across the stream on the far end or even off the road where the little, single huts are, and the dirty old hovels on the mountain-side, some of which are so black and ruined it wouldn’t be worth putting a match to them and setting them alight, maybe then he’d have written differently to Berlin.”

Gerhart Hauptmann was a German playwright from the turn of the 17th century. He was apparently a great playwright, admired by people like Chekhov and O’Neill, so I had to see what the hype was about. I started with his most famous play, “The Weavers,” which is about a group of weavers who riot because they are not getting paid enough to survive.

The play itself had no main protagonist. It was a little like The Joy Luck Club in that sense. It also had the same kind of variety of experience but in this play the variety was unified around the event of the weavers’ revolt.

Now, while Hauptmann could have villainized the person who was in charge of the weavers’ pay, he didn’t. He humanized everyone, which made the play less about “workers have to overthrow their managers!” and more about “everyone’s well-intentioned but there’s something that gets between peoples’ understanding of each other and causes futile and senseless chaos.” Basically, in humanizing everyone, Hauptmann showed that the conflict wasn’t as cut and dry as it may have seemed from one or the other side. Nobody really knew what they were doing, and this powerlessness was fascinating to read about.

Overall, what seemed to make this play so good was the fact that Hauptmann didn’t stop with showing a conventional “good vs. evil” struggle. By humanizing all his characters he was able to get at something more realistic and more insightful than he could have done had he just taken one side or the other. I would definitely recommend.


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