Man, woman, birth, death, infinity?


Tom Wolfe








Many of you chronologically gifted readers will realize that the title of this blog invokes the memory of the classic TV show,  Ben Casey.

The old doctor on the show, Dr. Zorba I think was his name, at the introduction of each episode would walk to the chalk board and draw the symbols for man, woman, birth, death and infinity.


As a kid when I saw this, I was never really sure what it meant or why it would be the lead sequence in a TV show.

I understand it somewhat better now.

Or more accurately, I understand that I don’t understand any of those things.

It seems to me that these words are really what every piece of great art is about.  It is the totality of the human experience in a nutshell.

To look at it from the other side, if these subjects are missing from a book, the book fails to touch the reader in that deep spot of reflection and self-examination.  Words that don’t attempt to mine the mysteries of life are just that, empty black marks on paper or flashes on the screen of an ereading device.

Salman Rushdie

I came across a recent blog by Michael Levin that he included in his newsletter from Business Ghost, Inc.  In the post entitled Are Writers Finishing Great Novels, or Are Great Novels Finished?, Levin comments on the recent new releases of Tom Wolfe and John Grisham.  To put it mildly, Levin was not enamored with the books. He used these two novels as a jumping off point to discus the state of novel-writing today and its future.

These misfires [the Wolfe and Grisham books] raise the larger question of whether the novel itself is a dying form. It’s not scientific to globalize from two examples, but the larger question is this: fifty years from now, if people are still reading long form fiction (say, anything longer than a Twitter feed), what contemporary authors’ works will survive?….

Tellingly, the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, includes only two books published after 1980. Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children ranked a lowly 90th, and William Kennedy’s Ironweed, published in 1983, merited a dismal 92nd place. After them, crickets.

Maybe Solomon was right: there’s nothing new under the sun. Or at least there’s nothing new for novelists to notice and describe. Novel means new, and we’re seeing next to nothing that’s new in novels.

Anybody know a good Twitter feed I can follow?

I feel Levin’s pain, but I don’t share his pessimism about the state of novels.  However, I believe his post addresses bedrock issues that should concern readers and writers alike.

Those issues are perennial and universal.  It is impossible to exhaust them and deadly to ignore them.

Man, woman, birth, death, infinity.

(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author of legal thrillers. He watched every episode of Ben Casey.)


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