Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Remains of the Day

As most of my friends know, I love reading. Of course, a large part of my reading is academic, but I also read a lot of books. The books that I mostly read will be categorized as non-fiction. I rarely pick up a fiction, and only if it is strongly recommended by a person whose taste and judgment of books I value. You might wonder why I do not read as many fictions as I read non-fictions. I have thought about that question myself and have come to the conclusion that I value ideas more than stories. This is not to deny the power of stories. In fact, some of the best non-fictions that I have read had very strong narratives. However, to me, reading fictions just for pleasure seems like an indulgence that I cannot afford given the limited time that one is left with after devoting oneself to life’s other passions. That said, when I do come across a great work of fiction, I have to admit that the ideas embedded in the book, tend to make a very deep connection.

This summer I have read many books, again many more non-fictions than fictions, but the fiction that I finished this weekend, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, is the best work of fiction that I have read so far on my break. For those who value award winning books, Ishiguro won the 1989 Booker prize winner for The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro, a Japanese born British novelist, has written many other highly praised novels though this is the first time I read his work. Written in first-person narrative, The Remains of the Day is the story of an English butler named Stevens who is a thorough professional and has dedicated his entire life to becoming a “great” butler.

Stevens' reflection on what makes for a great butler—or for that matter a great professional in any other field—is truly inspiring. He observes that great butlers are not necessarily the most reputed ones. Stevens seems to be acutely aware of the ephemerality of fame: “How often have you known it for the butler who is on everyone’s lips one day as the greatest of his generation to be proved demonstrably within a few years to have been nothing of the sort? And yet those very same employees who once heaped praise on him will be too busy eulogizing some new figure to stop and examine their sense of judgement.” According to Stevens, the factor that distinguishes the truly ‘great’ butlers from the ‘merely extremely competent’ ones is best summarized by the word ‘dignity’. To avoid revealing too much about the book, I will not elaborate on what Stevens exactly means by dignity. However, you will appreciate that his views are not shallow when he disagrees with the view taken by another butler that “‘dignity’ was something like a woman’s beauty and it was thus pointless to attempt to analyse it." Stevens thinks such a view of dignity is demeaning. He argues that comparing dignity with a woman’s beauty meant that “‘dignity’ was something one possessed or did not by fluke of nature; and if one did not self-evidently have it, to strive after it would be as futile as an ugly woman trying to make herself beautiful. …I believe strongly that this ‘dignity’ is something one can meaningfully strive for throughout one’s career.”

The view taken here by Stevens is what we researchers call the ‘incremental’ view of abilities, according to which our abilities are malleable and can be developed with practice. People who hold such an ‘incremental’—as opposed to the ‘entity’ view where people believe that abilities are fixed and you either have it or you don’t—tend to be much more happy and successful in the long run. In the end, it is this ‘incremental’ view or ‘learning' orientation to life that ultimately helps Stevens cope with the challenges that he encounters later in his life without getting sucked into a life of regret and despair.

I personally am a very different person than the character of Stevens in The Remains of the Day. For example, my level of Conscientiousness is nowhere as close to the extreme levels that Stevens possessed, and I will score many times higher than Stevens on the dimension of Openness to Experience. Nonetheless, there were many valuable lessons that I learnt from the protagonist’s actions and reflections in The Remains of the Day; that ultimately makes for a great fiction, in my view.

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