Wednesday, October 24, 2007

BookNook: Christian Science, by Mark Twain

Can I review a book if I didn't finish it? Cause I think I'm going to stop where I am with Christian Science but I do want to talk about it a little. I want thank everyone who voted in the poll; I appreciate that there are actually a few people out there who read my blog!

I came across Mark Twain's screed against the Christian Science religion and its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, one day while I was doing some volunteer cataloging at the Congregational Library in Boston. The Congregational Library is a small research library run by the headquarters of the Congregationalist Church; it's located in a beautiful space in a historic neighborhood, steps away from the Massachusetts State House. So I was cataloging some books in their small collection on the Christian Science religion when I took the next book in my stack, opened it up and saw that Mark Twain was the author. Huh? Mark Twain? Naturally I was intrigued.

I read the first couple of chapters and laughed so much my supervisor came out of her office to ask me if I was okay. Yeah, I'm okay, just enjoying my job way more than I should! Later on I found a used paperback copy and picked up again after you all voted for the book. The beginning of the book tells a fictional first person account of a man injured in a bizarre accident in Europe, who is ministered to by a visiting Christian Science lady. She tells him that his injuries and his pain are imaginary and that he will be cured as soon as he can accept that fact. The narrator tries to take her advice but finds his outwardly jutting bones do not oblige. And so begins a very strong, biting, sarcastic and angry invective.

In his day Twain was very threatened by the rise of the Christian Science church. H felt that it was a sinister force, growing at an exponential rate and would inevitably take over the country. He therefore takes care to attack everything he can about the religion and especially its founder and her writings, which he finds amateurish, contradictory and puzzling. Obviously, the big takeover he predicted didn't happen, so with over a hundred years of hindsight his book seems not just dated but almost silly. For this reason I found myself getting bored, and I decided not to finish it. I thought, okay, Mark Twain has lots of material with which to attack Mary Baker Eddy. Got it.

So what then? Is the book merely a curiousity or does it have something to teach us? I started writing this review thinking I would palm it off as a historical artifact but that's the interesting thing about writing- sometimes it takes you somewhere you didn't expect. In a sense the book is just an artifact and curiousity, an example of Mark Twain's pithy prose, if you're into that kind of thing. And on that level it's interesting enough.

I think it's something more. It's also a reminder to always scrutinize, always question, always look beneath the surface. Maybe Christian Science didn't turn out to be the threat to American society that Twain feared, but maybe there's something going out there now, today, and we all need to remember to ask questions and never take anything for granted. Maybe we should be out there, finding what scares us and sounding the alarm. Couldn't hurt to try. Okay, so not very deep. But still a good point.