Are Historical Movies An Insult to History?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 14, 2015

Last night I watched Belle Starr, an old 1941 western with Gene Tierney and Randolph Scott. I didn’t know anything about Belle Starr before the movie, other than her famous name. So after the show I looked her up on Wikipedia. The movie was complete bullshit. Now this is a particularly bad example to ask this question: Should we avoid movies that claim to be based on history?


In the past year I’ve seen films about Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and J. M. W. Turner. All three films won awards and received much critical praise. In each case I felt like I was looking at detailed recreations of the past. Yet, when I read “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” by Christian Caryl, I was troubled that I might have gotten a very wrong impression about Alan Turing. I now wonder about my history lessons on Hawking and Turner. Watching those films let me feel I was getting to know those men. Now the more I read, the more I doubt, the more I feel confused, and even misled.

Movies make a far greater impact on our brains than reading black and white words on paper. Even documentaries can give the wrong impression, so we must be extra cautious with historical fiction. Should we assume any fictional account of history is only fiction? That’s really hard for me to do. I can’t turn off my sense that I’m learning history when I’m watching a film, or reading a historical novel. If I know some of its real, then all of it feels real, especially if the storytelling is good. Fiction can be very convincing.

We have all kinds of ways of learning about history. History books, journals and courses are the most respected sources, but there is also museums, paintings, photographs, archival film, newsreels, sound recordings, transcribed interviews, letters, diaries and even archeological artifacts. If you’ve ever seen a Ken Burns documentary, you know how powerful such evidence can be. Yet, when we watch a movie, it feels like we’re reliving history. It’s very hard not to let Hollywood teach us about the past.


I must wonder, did The Imitation Game treat Alan Turing fairly? Would Alan Turing have been flattered to see himself on the big screen as a cinematic hero? In a way, it was vindication for being mistreated in life. In another way, it was an insult, because they still got him wrong. I’m pretty sure the real Belle Starr would have laughed her ass off at seeing Gene Tierney’s version of herself. Stephen Hawking has been very kind in his praise for The Theory of Everything, saying it was broadly true, and at times it felt like he was seeing himself on the screen. However, Slate magazine compares film and history in “How Accurate Is The Theory of Everything?” and again, I’m disappointed by how I’ve been tricked. How disconcerting must it be for a real person to compare what they see on the big screen to real memories?

Our approach to history has always been fast and loose. Often shows on The History Channel are an abomination. Remember, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the quote, “When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.” Of course, that’s the movie’s side of things. Quite often when I see clips from Fox News, I get the feeling their sense of reality was learned from Ronald Reagan’s screenplay tinted view of history. We often remember the facts the way we need them remembered.

I’m starting to wonder if I should avoid any film or television show that claims to be based on truth, because movies are so powerful, that once I see them, that’s how I see history.


The Way We Were and The Way We Are

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 9, 2015

One of the few positive aspects of getting older is living long enough to see great changes in society. Although, a savvy young person should be able to observe the same changes by watching old movies. It’s not the same thing as living through those changes, but it’s good enough for intellectual chitchat. I’ve been watching a lot of old movies from the 1950s, especially ones from 1951, the year I was born, and struggling to understand why I like them so much now that I’m 63. It’s amazing how much different America is today than it was then. What’s far more important, is seeing how we’ve stayed the same. That takes a discerning heart, and it’s easy to overlook how we haven’t changed because all the new stuff overwhelms our senses.

To get the easy stuff out of the way quickly, in the 1950s there were no smartphones, internet, personal computers or social apps. White males dominated society, people of color were barely visible on screen. Women usually wore dresses, stayed at home defining themselves as wives and mothers. There was a double standard for sexuality back then, and women were considered tainted if they had sex outside of marriage. There wasn’t much of a youth culture. Watching these old films its easy enough to spot obvious differences between then and now, like how men wore hats and suits all the time, and cars looked like those we see in Cuba today.

There are less obvious differences that are more subtle to spot. Movies in the 1950s feel like they are made for adults, while many movies today seem to be made for adolescents or the adolescent in us. There were some science fiction and fantasy films back then, but they weren’t the norm. And even then, their science fiction and fantasy had a foundation of realism that modern genre films lacks. Partly that’s due back then because fewer movies were completely escapist, and they didn’t have CGI to make the unreal real—which tends to make the real unreal.

Like I said, it takes more work to study how we’re the same. The reason why we can still enjoy the plays of Shakespeare is not because we enjoy people talking funny and wearing weird clothes, but because how we see ourselves in those people who talk funny and wear weird clothes.


Last night I watched Detective Story (1951) about a morally rigid cop Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) learning his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) had an abortion before they met. Detective McLeod was raised by a criminal father that McLeod despised. McLeod upbringing contra-conditioned him to demand that everyone fit an exacting black and white categorization. McLeod judged everyone that came into the precinct as righteous or evil, with no room for compassion, or understanding. I see that kind of rigid morality all the time on the nightly news, and sadly in some people I know. McLeod’s thinking was no different from members of ISIS, people living in Old Testament times or Donald Trump’s political persona.

Ace in the Hole - 1951

A more complicated example of sameness is Ace in the Hole (1951) which also starred Kirk Douglas, as Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter capable of great compassion or cruelty depending on his personal needs. Chuck Tatum used his psychological skills to manipulate people and orchestrate sensational news stories. Tatum reminded me of Steve Jobs, because he believed it was good to push people into doing more.

The Big Heat

Many young people think terrorism is something new since 9/11. It’s always existed in human society. The Big Heat (1953) has Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) fighting terrorists who control the police force and corrupts the government. Small minded men with big guns kill Bannion’s wife with a car bomb. They kill witnesses and anyone who tries to help Bannion. Makes me think of the news from Mexico, but corruption using violence to rule is common throughout the world.

And it’s not just seeing that the bad people then are just like the bad people today. The good people then are like the good people today. Det. Lou Brody (William Bendix) in Detective Story  tries very hard to get Jim McLeod to bend and see shades of gray in the folks they arrest. In fact, if you look at every character in this film, to see what motivates them, you can find parallel characters in today’s movies and real life.

This reminds me of something I learned from anthropology. Neanderthals were a species that lived unchanging lives for hundreds of thousands of years, making the same tools in the same old way all their long species’ lifetime. Our species, Homo sapiens, have changed a lot over the millennia, yet, there are other traits that don’t change, and like the Neanderthals and their stone tools, we keep constructing similar personality traits over and over again, with the same routineness that our cousins flaked out stone scrapers.

For most of my life, the 1950s was my least favorite movie decade, but in recent months, it’s become my favorite. That will change. It always does. I stay up late watching shows that I once thought dreary and depressing, and now I find fascinating and inspiring. I remember the 1950s, just barely, since I was born in 1951, and these movies little resemble the memories I do have of those times. The closest they overlap are of a trip to New York City in 1959.

Living in Kidland in the 1950s was much different from Hollywoodland. I didn’t know any cops, mobsters, B-girls, reporters, or small-time hustlers. My world looked like those old home movies that The Center For Home Movies work to preserve. And I’d bet lots of family home movies taken today have strange similarities with home movies taken back in the 1940s and 1950s. I live in a house and neighborhood that was built in the 1950s, and sometimes on my morning walks I pretend I’m seeing the neighborhood like it was long ago. Since most people park their cars behind their homes it helps with the illusion. I see women coming out in their robes to pick up the paper, and they look like the women I saw when I delivered papers in the 1960s. I’ve read a lot of books written in the 19th century, and on the surface people appear very different, but if you look closer they don’t. Just read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. It’s much harder, but I can even find overlap with tales as old as The Bible, Homer, Plato, or Lucretius.

Even with smartphones, Ecclesiastes was right.


Where Do Old Nerds Go To Die?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 1, 2015

While I was still working and planning my retirement, I assumed I would eventually relocate somewhere with a low population and high density of 55-plus people. I don’t like the idea of getting old and living in a big city. The older I get, the less I tolerate the hustle and bustle of young people. Now that I’ve been retired for a couple of years I’m feeling a stronger urge to find that place. In my mind I picture the elephants in the old Tarzan movies who instinctively knew the path to the secret elephant grave yard. My instincts are taking me in weird directions.

Staying put in my house that will be paid off in four years will be the easier, less stressful path to take. Yet, now is the time to consider moving to a town that’s safer, quieter, more beautiful, and possibly populated with people more like myself. I figure the older I get the more stressful it will be to move, so if I’m going to move, doing it it sooner would be better than later. Deciding where keeps haunting my mind. Starting over means both adventure and loss. I moved a lot growing up, so I know what it’s like to begin again in a new town, leaving all my old friends, and having to look for new ones. However, I’ve been settled in one city for over forty years now, so I’m a much different person.

When I wonder about where to retire I fantasize about my ideal living environment.  Susan would like to stay near her family, but I feel we’ve always stayed near her family, so maybe it’s my turn to pick. My sister lives near West Palm Beach, Florida, and I grew up in Miami, where my oldest friend still lives. Nostalgia makes me want to return home, but South Florida has changed a lot in 45 years. Thomas Wolfe was right, we can’t go home again. And when I drive around Florida using Street View on Google Maps it’s not the terrain I want to see when I leave this planet. But what landscape do I want to pass my waning years viewing?

If you think about it, where you retire is where you’re likely to die. And as much as we like to think about beautiful bucket-list places around the globe, most people want to die at home. And to be honest, it would be much more natural for me to die in front of my computer monitor or big screen TV than on some scenic mountainside or majestic beach. I fantasize I want to move to one of those beautiful mid-century houses I see in Atomic Ranch Magazine, in a quiet 55 Plus community of blue state folks. I could do that, but nagging doubts hold me back.

I’ve been anguishing over that issue for months now, so I was surprised this morning when my unconscious mind spit out the answer. And it wasn’t what I expected at all. Out of my dark subconscious a ray of illumination informs me that thinking about where to move my body is a diversion from the real issue I face; where to locate my mind.


Now, here is where things get really squirrelly, and my unconscious mind shows its savvy awareness of my true motivations. I’m almost embarrass to admit what my dark mind tells me, because it seems like a kind of perversion of the natural. What I love are high resolution screens. What I enjoy most is processing reality through television screens, computer screens, tablet screens and smartphone screens. Because wherever I move, what I want is a comfortable house that will hold all my screens and a high speed connection to the internet.

That should have been obvious to me all along, because for all these months I’ve agonized over where to retire I’ve also been researching how I can upgrade all my screens to 4K resolution. When I contemplate this revelation I realize I spend most of my waking hours in front of screens, and the only time I prefer 3D reality is when I’m with people, eating, going for walks, or looking at paintings in museums. Most everything else I prefer digitized.

Where to retire will be the best place for me to keep my screens and speakers, hang out with friends and go for walks. I’m not really interested in golf, shuffleboard or skiing, although if I lived somewhere where people did those things daily I might do them to be social. I need a certain amount of social time, but not nearly as much as I crave screen time.

It’s weird to confess I love books, movies, television shows and music so much, but if you think about it, I’ve always loved them, so why should I expect to change? What would be great is to move to a retirement village populated by people like me who want to socialize by sharing what they are learning and experiencing from their screens.

Is there a place where old nerds go to die?

Then my unconscious mind informed me of its second revelation. It’s not time to be thinking about dying, or even retiring. Just because I’m retired from the world of work doesn’t mean I’m retired from my ambitions. My hidden self informed me this morning not to waste time on thinking about where to live, but to apply that processing time to being creative. I retired from work to have time to write. I have that. I’m already where I need to be.

Thinking about beautiful locales of where to live was only a way of avoiding working on my ambitions. I need to move to Shangri-La when I no longer have the will to keep trying and want a pleasant place to wait to die.

Since I’m not an old nerd ready to die, then I’ve got to get back to work.

Have screen—will travel.


Fun With Memory Loss

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Last night I watched Seven Men From Now, a 1956 western with Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher. (I had to look up the year and the spelling of Boetticher’s name in Wikipedia.) It’s a movie I had seen recently. My memory told me it was a few months ago, but it was July of 2012. (I had to check my Amazon Orders history to find out when I bought the DVD.) Last night I started watching the show from a recent DVR over-the-air broadcast recording, before switching to my DVD copy. I was surprise by how little I remembered. In fact, before I watched the film again last night I could not have written down anything about the plot, other that what the title triggered in my memory—Randolph Scott is out to kill seven guys. I didn’t even remember it was revenge for them killing his wife. I’m sure I’ve seen this film other times, but my memory completely fails me. I’ve been addicted to westerns since the 1950s, and every few years I binge on as many 1940s and 1950s westerns I can find.


I’ve been paying attention to how well my short term and long term memory works. I don’t recall hearing the phrase mid term memory, but it feels like I should have that kind of memory too. I know my short term memory is failing because it’s very difficult for me to keep running scores in games, or remember which exercises I’ve done in my morning physical therapy exercises. Obviously, my failure to remember anything from a movie I watched three years ago says something about my long term memory.

What I want to do is write down a list of scenes I remember from last night, and then in a month, make another list of scenes I remember. Then do it again in a year. I’ll have to either update this essay every time I retest, or republish it as new. I’ll leave the DVD somewhere to trigger my memory in a month.

This morning I’m surprised by how much of the film has stuck with me overnight. One reason might be because I was comparing the video quality of the broadcast version against my DVD copy. And throughout the film I consciously admired the scenery.

  1. Opens with Randolph Scott walking in the rain at night in what looks like a desert near a rocky outcrop. He’s wearing a grey slicker. 
  2. Scott goes into a cave and sees two men sitting by a fire drinking coffee. They invite him in. Scott tells him his horse was stolen and eaten by Indians.
  3. Several short scenes of them talking about a killing in a nearby town.
  4. Camera jumps to outside the cave where we hear two shots.
  5. Daylight scene of Scott riding a reddish horse with blond mane and holding a line pulling a second horse.
  6. Several scenes of Scott riding across rocky territory and desert. Then he stops because he hears something.
  7. Scott rides over a ridge to see man and woman struggling with wagon and two horses stuck in a muddy pool of water. 
  8. Close up of man and wife, woman falls face first into mud.
  9. Scott rides up but doesn’t say much. Man asks for help. Scott gets off horse and prepares to help without saying anything still.
  10. Man asks if Scott could drive the team. Scott curtly tells him to drive it himself and hooks up his two horses to the team with ropes. They pull the wagon out of the mud hole.
  11. The man and women express their appreciation and ask Scott to come with them. The man is overly talkative, and openly admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Scott says he’s heading south. Man says they are heading south.
  12. Several scenes of them crossing various kinds of country.
  13. Scott stops them when he sees cloud of dust in distance. Tells man to get his gun.
  14. A troop of Calvary soldiers ride up and warns them to turn back. The wagon man says he won’t. They continue.
  15. Scenes of them traveling across more kinds of country, including sandy desert.
  16. They reach an abandon stage station. Scott goes in by himself for closer look and finds an old prospector stealing all the booze. Bottles are stuffed inside his shirt, he clutches others, and bottles stick out of the packs on his mule. He warns Scott to get out of the territory because of the Indians. He’s hurrying off as they talk. 
  17. Old man leaves and the wagon couple ride up just as two cowboys ride up from another direction. One is Lee Marvin and he knows Scott and calls him Sheriff. Can’t remember the other guys name, either character or actor, but he looks sort of like Aldo Ray. 
  18. Scott tells wagon couple what to do as the other two men unsaddle their horses.
  19. Scene switches to dinner inside the station. Marvin is flirting with the woman and insulting the husband. Lots of tension. Scott stays outside. Marvin tells couple that Scott is chasing men who killed his wife in a Wells Fargo holdup.
  20. Scene switches to wife taking coffee out to Scott and tries to get him to talk about his wife. He won’t.
  21. Next morning as they get ready to leave they are scared by band of Indians just appearing next to station house. Scott settles the situation by giving them his second horse, which he knows they want to eat. Indians ride off. 
  22. All five people head out. Again traveling across different terrain. Beautiful fall tree leaves near river beds, dry and sandy in desert stretches, totally rocky near canyon walls.
  23. They come across signs of Indian attack. Then see a man running on foot from Indians. Lee and Scott ride off to rescue him, killing several Indians. When Scott goes to get the man’s horse who was on foot, that man tries to shoot Scott in back but Lee Marvin shoots him in the back. It seems that was number three of seven.
  24. They next stop near a river to water horses and wife does laundry which she hangs out on line. Scott helps her. Lee Marvin tells them they are wasting their time because a storm is coming up. 
  25. Several scenes of traveling and camping. Marvin tells Scott he knows the seven men who stole the Wells Fargo shipment of $20,000, but he and his buddy aren’t part of that group. He’s going to tag long while Scott tracks them down and then take the money, and informs Scott he will kill him if he gets in the way. Scott doesn’t say anything.
  26. Other scenes of traveling, eventually stopping to camp in the rain.  Marvin goes inside wagon for coffee and continues insulting the husband and flirting with the wife. The husband is obviously a coward, and the woman defends him. She also seems to be developing a thing for Scott. Oddly, lots of rain in this desert country just north of Mexico.
  27. Finally Scott runs off Marvin and his buddy for causing trouble.
  28. Sexy scene of Scott bedding down under wagon while it’s raining, and we see wife in her slip in the wagon going to bed. They talk to each other through the floor boards. 
  29. Marvin and buddy head into the town which is the wagon’s destination, and meet up with the last four of the killers. Marvin tells them Scott is coming. They say they are waiting for a wagon. Marvin and buddy realize they’ve been riding with the $20,000 all the time.
  30. The leader of the four send two of his men out to ambush Scott.
  31. Scott leaves the couple to ride into town. Gail Russell tries to kiss him goodbye. We don’t know if she was aiming for his lips or his cheeks because he turns away. 
  32. Several scenes of two riders preparing an ambush and Scott killing them. Scott gets shot in the leg. His horse runs off. He tries to catch one of the killer’s horse, and it drags him along, bashing his head into a rock.
  33. Wagon shows up, finds the unconscious Scott. The couple nurse him and husband tells wife he has what the killer wants. Scott overhears as the husband confesses he’s carrying the strongbox to the town for $500. Scott confronts him and man tells Scott that he didn’t know about the killing. Scott has him throw down the strongbox in the middle of a small canyon and tells the couple there’s a cut-off for California just before getting into town. They leave. Scott waits.
  34. The husband decides he must go into town to tell the sheriff that Scott is in the desert waiting for the last two killers.
  35. The couple arrive in town just as the two killers and Marvin and his buddy are saddling up to go look for the wagon. Husband tells killers Scott took the strongbox and is waiting for them. They go to leave, but the leader of the gang sees the husband is heading towards sheriff’s office and shoots him in the back. Marvin comes over to look at the dead body and tells his buddy that the husband wasn’t a coward after all, knowing the wife holding his body hears. 
  36. The two killers head into the canyon and circle round from two sides. Scott kills one. Marvin and his buddy sneak in and catch the leader alone and kill him. Then Marvin kills his buddy.
  37. Marvin then walks out to middle of canyon and stands near the strong box.
  38. Scott comes out. They talk. Marvin tells Scott to walk away. They have a shoot-out and Scott kills Marvin before he can even pull his guns.
  39. Scene cuts to town and Scott is in clean clothes, but still limping, directing a wagon of Wells Fargo men loading the strongbox.
  40. Wife comes out of hotel all dressed up and gets ready to go on the stage.
  41. Scott tells her he’s going back to his town and he’d see her around. He leaves.
  42. Wife tells stage driver to unload her bags because she isn’t going to California.
  43. The end

Damn, I’m absolutely amazed that I remember this much. I can roughly visualize the scenes I describe. I remember details like Marvin’s long green scarf around his neck, and bright yellow scarf around soldier’s neck. Gail Russell, who I remembered as Gail Davis until I got the poster above has dark hair and is very beautiful. She played the Quaker girl in Angel and the Badman when she was ten years younger. In Seven Men From Now she is described as 25, but you can tell she’s not. I remember her dresses and how tight they were in the waist and chest. They are 1950s fashion of the old west. Everyone in this film was too clean and their clothes too new.

I could probably write down hundreds of details right now. The colors in this film were extremely vivid, especially the fall tree foliage along the riverbeds. I also remember the colors and patterns of the horses. And I remember the coffee pot and tin cups in the early scenes and wondered if they were the same pot and cups in the station and those at the camping in the rain scene.

How much will I remember in a month, or three months, or next year? I know most of it will disappear. This web site, which ironically I named “Auxiliary Memory” will have these details for me to recall later, outperforming my wetware. Eventually, I will write down a new list of scenes remembered before I look at them again, to compare how much I remember and forget.


People who regularly read my blog must realize I’m becoming rather obsessed with my memory. I’m learning I must take care of my memory like I’m taking care of my general health, my back, teeth and other parts of me that are starting to wear out. Youth and vitality lets us ignore how our mind and body work. I figure the older I get, the more I’ll have to consciously study at keeping things going.

We have memory loss at all times in our life. Maybe it’s a little more scary when we get older because it happens more, but how much more? The night before I watched Pickup on South Street, a gritty film noir from 1953 about a pickpocket accidently stealing microfilm from commie spies in New York City. I don’t think I can remember it like I did the western above, since two days causes a fair amount of memory erosion. However, I might remember fifty to seven-five percent of what I remembered from last night’s flick. It was a gripping film, with lots of good emotional tension. Richard Widmark was amazing as a cold, calculating hustler. It was so riveting I stayed up well past my bedtime.

Our brains are somewhat like hard drives—they fill up. Unless there’s some kind of metaphysical networking to mystical cloud storage, we have limited space in our brains. Obviously, forgetting is essential. Imagine if we were robots that had to consciously decide what to erase each day. Lucky for us that chore is handled by our unconscious minds, yet it is amusing to consciously observe how pieces of ourselves disappear.

My fantasy analogy for getting older is to visualize a B-17 flying back to England that’s been all shot up over Germany in WWII. Aging is like the plane slowly coming apart over the English channel as more gauges and controls fail. We’re still flying, but we’re coming apart in the sky, losing altitude. We do what we can to keep flying, and as we run out of fuel, we even toss equipment out the hatch to save weight and gain a little height. We always know we’ll crash into the Cliffs of Dover, but we keep flying anyway.

I like to imagine myself as the pilot of that plane, doing everything I can to keep flying, but still laughing at the absurd existential situation I’m in.


Adding Literary Realism to Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My favorite reading genre is science fiction, but my favorite books are usually literary novels. I often think about what makes a literary novel great and wonder why those elements aren’t usually found in science fiction.

A Town Like Alice, a 1950 novel by Nevil Shute, has been made into a movie (1956), television mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997). Shute’s story obviously has lasting appeal, perfect for would-be writers to study. I’m 65 years late discovering this novel, yet it was gripping as any current bestseller. Why? To answer that is a writing lesson and not a review. If you haven’t read this novel go away and come back when you’re done, because to dissect this book will give away spoilers. There’s a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon. Make sure you get the full version, not one of the shorter editions. The audio edition narrated by Robin Bailey is wonderful.

a town like alice

A Town Without Alice is a love story related through a lawyer. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman, gets caught up in World War II while living in British Malaya, becoming a prisoner of war. She has a brief encounter with Joe Harman, an Australian, also a prisoner. Years after the war she inherits money that allows her to return to Malaya to track down Joe. The narrator of the story is Noel Strachen, a widowed lawyer in his seventies, in charge of Jean’s trust fund in England.

Noel can’t know everything that goes on in this story, but Nevil Shute has him tell the tale. Jean either relates her adventures in person, or via letters, but it’s still not enough for Noel to know everything. So why does Shute have this old solicitor be the storyteller? I think it’s key to why the novel succeeds.

We generally read novels that are in the first or third person. First person novels are very intimate, but have limitations. Third person POV allows writers the most latitude for giving reader information, but it adds an impersonal distance from the character. That’s why many modern writers often use a very close third person. It lets the author convey details the main character won’t know, yet stay close enough to let readers feel intimate with their protagonists.

Nevil Shute knew Jean and Joe could not be writers, and he wants the reader to think this is a true story. By having Jean’s solicitor tell the story in first person, it makes the story feel very true. An “as told by” kind of narrative. A Town Like Alice is based on two real events, but greatly changed for the novel. But it’s also part speculation, about how to revitalize a dying town in the Australian outback. Shute had immigrated to Australia after the war and he obviously loved the frontier life and people. Some of this story feels journalistic with vivid details that Shute must have experienced first hand. Science fiction writers must invent all their details, which puts a burden on realism.

Yet, it’s the accumulation of significant details that make great prose.

My reading experience has taught me stories that feel real often become classics, even if they are entirely made up. One reason why Jodi Picoult novels are so popular is because she starts with headline news and then creates a fictional tale that riffs on reality. Her stories feel real. Genre readers gorge on mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romances, but genre fiction seldom feels like true stories. Most literary novels seem like thinly disguised real events, or excellent forgeries of reality. A Town Like Alice grips us like a memoir or travelogue rather than a novel.


I recently read Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, a 1970 science fiction novel that was obviously inspired by The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The reason why I felt Silverberg’s novel is better than the average science fiction novel is because he created that sense of literary realism, even in a fantastic setting. I wonder why more science fiction writers don’t use this technique? Too often I feel genre writers imitate movies and television shows which seldom seem lifelike. We’re given thrills to replace believability.

I’ve written several drafts of science fiction novels over the years and have never liked what I’ve written. I think my failure is because I’ve modeled my stories on science fiction novels. The lesson I learned from reading A Town Like Alice and Downward to the Earth is I should model my science fiction on literary novels. I’m surprised more science fiction writers haven’t created stories inspired by literary classics like Silverberg did with Downward to the Earth.

Look how successful Andy Weir did with The Martian, which descends from Robinson Crusoe. And isn’t it particularly strange that we never see epic love stories in science fiction? I can’t think of any SF story that comes close to Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. I believe the huge success of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was due to it feeling like Graham Greene wrote a science fiction novel, and the reason why I like The Water Knife less is because it feels like a movie thriller.

Can science fiction writers set a story on the Moon, Mars or some distant planet in another star system and make readers feel like they’re reading a true life story? When Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719 readers thought it was a memoir from a real castaway. I’m tempted to write a science fiction novel inspired by Dickens’ Great Expectation, and model the characters on people I know. I lived many Pip like experiences I could use.


A Reading Plan For An Aging Brain

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 24, 2015

I no longer read to kill time because I’m running out of time to kill.

This essay is for bookworms who are getting older. I’m not sure younger readers will appreciate what I’m going to write about unless they are trying to anticipate getting older like I am now. I’m discovering in my sixties that things are changing once again, adding to that illusion that every decade of life is different.

Getting old is fascinating. You expect your attitude towards life in your autumn years to feel the same as it did in your middle years when you planned your retirement. It hasn’t worked that way for me. Even my relationship with books has changed. I assumed I’d get to read more books when I retired, but I’ve discovered I should intentionally read less. I want to read more, the hunger is there, but the urge to read parallels my sex drive; my mind is still horny but my body has lost it’s enthusiasm. My motto for aging is, “Do more with less.”


I wish I could read a book a day like super-bookworms Liberty Hardy and Eva at A Striped Armchair, but I can’t. Those women are in their twenties. There were a couple phases in my life when I read a book a day, but reading was about all I did. Now, that I’m 63 and retired, I have plenty of time to read, yet I find I can only read so much before my brain gets mushy. Don’t get me wrong, I can still read all day long and finish a book in a day, but I must tune into a reading mode where words flash by mind like a ticker tape—I’m entertained but I remember little. Imagine a diet of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for every meal and snack. Such fare will keep you filled up but will it give you any lasting nutritional value?

I’ve read 49 books so far this year. I was on a two books a week pace until July. If I hustled, I could speed back up and finish 102 books in 2015 if I wanted. I still have the vitality to do that, but something has changed. Knocking back book after book just doesn’t feel right. I can’t imagine reading 300-400 books a year like Liberty Hardy. Here’s the rub, now that I’m starting to age, what I want from books is changing. The thrill of quantity is flagging. When you’re young, you want to do it all, and you’re sure you can. Now I’m starting to understand bucket lists. I don’t think I’ll be kicking a bucket anytime soon, but who knows? Youth is full of infinities, I’m learning getting old is all about finite mathematics.

When I go to bookstores, or the library, or read book reviews and book blogs, I encounter hundreds of books I want to read. I ache to be immortal and read them all. I’m giving up my New Year’s goal to read 100 books this year. Just reading a book is no longer enough. It’s like watching television, seeing one show after another in the evening, and realizing the next morning you’ve already forgotten what they were. Realizing that I’m forgetting more and more inspires me to hang on harder and harder. Learning what’s important involves the mathematics of limitations.

Don’t think I’m depressed, or let these thoughts depress you. It’s just a new game, with new rules to make life interesting. Limits have their own pleasures.

Instead of rushing to page one of the next book after reading “The End” of the last book, I want time to think about what I’ve read, to put my impressions into writing, and chat up the book with my bookworm friends. Slowing down my reading pace helps remember. I’m tired of reading only to forget. If reading slower with fewer books means I can retain more, then that’s my new reading plan.

Remember the ending to Fahrenheit 451? Where all the book people are living in the forest. Each person has chosen a book to memorize. I don’t picture myself doing that, but I can picture myself learning to know a finite number of books very well. I expect my sixties to be a decade where I define a set of my favorite books I want to study. Sure, I’ll keep reading new ones, but because of my memory problems I feel compelled to gather books I want to remember. I’m sure as my memories fade, this list will dwindle. It will become a tontine, and one book will be the last to leave my thoughts.

I’ve been a bookworm all my life, and proud of the vast number of books I’ve read, but I now question that sense of pride. It’s probably great to be a voracious reader in the first half of life, but in my waning years becoming a selective reader is becoming necessary. I won’t stop reading new books, because discovering a great new book is one of the better thrills of life. However, my willingness to give them the hook is going to seem downright cruel.

Back in 2002 I had a reading renaissance when I discovered audio books. Reading books with my ears was much slower than reading with my eyes, and I learned to appreciate savoring words rather than speeding past them. It’s time for another reading revolution. I need to change things up again. Here’s the thing, my mind is still pretty sharp, but I can tell it’s in decline. My short term memory is beginning to flake out, and my long term memory feels overstuffed—like I have to erase memories to make room for a new ones.

Reading just to be reading means most of what I take in leaks out of my short term memory before I can use it. And I worry reading new books might be erasing memories of old books. It’s time I defrag my brain and run a disk cleanup. One way I’ve found to preserve old memories is to reread books. Another way is by making lists, writing blogs, talking to friends.

The first stage of my reading plan is to review my books read log and create a list of books I want to get to know intimately. I want stay with these books so they stay in my memory. I’m still anxious to read new books, especially nonfiction, but I’m going to be more selective. It distresses me that I spend so much time taking in new information only to forget it.

Where learning to read slower was the key to my first reading renaissance, learning to take notes will be essential to my second. If a book isn’t worth studying like one in a college course then it isn’t worth my reading time. If the book isn’t a 9 or 10 on a ten point scale, it won’t be reading worthy. Now this might sound too monkish, but there’s a method in my madness. I’m a book junky, an old and jaded one, and if my fix doesn’t have the purity of Walter White’s blue meth, then the high I get won’t feel worthy of the brain cells I sacrifice. After a lifetime of reading, I crave intensity.

I want to read books where the names of the characters stick with me like the names of old friends. I want to read books where writers explore themes with the insight of great philosophers. I want to read books where the prose inspires me to write. I want to read books where the settings feels as vivid as my memories of all the places I lived. I want to read books where the characters struggle to map uncharted reality so well I could follow their trail. I want to read books that show me how other people think and feel that’s both different from the way I feel and think. I want to read books that make me feel I’m seeing more of the world than even the most hardened world travelers. I want to read books that take me up and down the centuries just like I had a time machine. I want to read books that make me feel overwhelming emotions like my favorite music. I want to read books that let me know what it’s like to be people not like me.

And I want to remember those books…

Fifty Novels To Remember

I’ve probably read more than two thousand books, but this short list are the ones that haunt me. I’ve read hundreds more that wowed me at the time, but I’m not sure how well they will linger in my memories. This is my tentative list to work with at the moment. If I reread one book a month, I could reread a list of sixty books every five years. I will need to rethink this list because I only have six women writers—but I have ten slots to fill if I stretch it to sixty books. And I cheated with the Robert J. Sawyer books, which were published as a trilogy, but I consider them one story.

I think these books have stuck with me for philosophical reasons. For some reason they resonate with my unconscious mind.

  1. 1719 – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  2. 1813 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. 1861 – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  4. 1868 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  5. 1871 – Middlemarch by George Elliot
  6. 1875 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  7. 1877 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  8. 1883 – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  9. 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  10. 1900 – Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  11. 1902 – The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  12. 1905 – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  13. 1912 – Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
  14. 1913 – The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  15. 1920 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  16. 1926 – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. 1928 – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
  18. 1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
  19. 1945 – High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
  20. 1949 – Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  21. 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  22. 1949 – The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
  23. 1951 – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  24. 1952 – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  25. 1953 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  26. 1955 – Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  27. 1956 – Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
  28. 1957 – On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  29. 1958 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  30. 1958 – Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  31. 1959 – Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  32. 1960 – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  33. 1961 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  34. 1962 – Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
  35. 1962 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  36. 1966 – Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
  37. 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  38. 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  39. 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  40. 1974 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  41. 1980 – Timescape by Gregory Benford
  42. 1986 – Replay by Ken Grimwood
  43. 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  44. 1996 – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  45. 2001 – The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  46. 2009 – Wake/Watch/Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
  47. 2009 – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  48. 2011 – The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
  49. 2012 – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  50. 2013 – The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By the way, I cheated with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is a memoir, but it feels like a novel to me.


My LDL Drop to 92 on a Plant Based Diet

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Back in May when visiting my doctor for my quarterly cholesterol checkup and she was writing out another prescription to fight my cholesterol, I asked her if there wasn’t a way to lower cholesterol without drugs. She told me to lose weight. She’s told me that for years and I never have. But I was sick of trying new drugs. It’s taken me years to learn I can only handle 10mg of a statin, but no more, without getting side-effects.

I drove home seriously thinking about how to fight cholesterol. I got on Amazon and ordered the book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., and I also discovered that night on Netflix, Forks Over Knives, a documentary that featured Dr. Esselstyn.


I followed this plant based diet for three months and it worked. My August check-up showed I had dropped from 232 pounds to 211. My overall cholesterol went from 187 to 152, my LDL from 130 to 92, but sadly my good cholesterol dropped from 40 to 38.

The plant base diet is hard, but not that hard. No animal products of any kind, and no oils, not even olive oil, which everyone believes is good for your heart. I did cheat a little bit though. I ate peanut butter. I found if I could have one peanut butter sandwich a day I didn’t crave all my other favorite foods. I eat healthy cereal and almond milk for breakfast, and then a lot of salads, veggies, fruits, soups, and especially various rice and bean dishes. The worst thing about the diet was the gas, but over time my gut got better at processing so much roughage.

Now that I know this diet works I’m going to stick to it. Getting below 100 with my LDL amazed my doctor. She was so happy for me, and I don’t want to let her down. This is the first time in decades I’ve been below 230 pounds. I began 2015 at 242, and struggled for five months to lose 10 pounds. Then went on the plant based diet and lost 20 more in three months. The speed of losing weight has tapered off, but I’m going to struggle to lose more.


Another documentary, The Widowmaker, which I recently found on Netflix, also inspires me to keep on the plant based diet. That show claims heart disease is preventable. Forks Over Knives claims a plant based diet is the key to stopping heart disease. I guess I’m one statistic proving it works.