Last night, I stayed up late again trying to catch up with Max’s reading in The Mysterious Benedict Society. The book was so fantastic that I couldn’t sleep until I had consumed all 485 riveting pages. Author Trenton Lee Stewart has created a world so amazing, so impossible and yet so rooted in reality, that I can’t quite seem to return from it. The last time I loved a book so much, I changed my major.
The story begins when four children respond to an ad in the paper for gifted children seeking “special opportunities”. After passing a series of tests-which-are-not-what-they-seem, the children, led by Reynie Muldoon, set off on a mission to infiltrate a special, free school created to solve the problem of human unhappiness and insecurity- the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened.
Apart from affirming clever and eccentric kids, Stewart’s book also affirmed our decision to learn at home in a roundabout yet utterly unavoidable fashion. The incentive process in the school rewards those who obey and follow instructions by making them “Messengers”, an elite group given regular fuzzy, happy feeling infusions by being hooked up to the Whisperer, a machine which removes feelings of discomfort by covering them with propaganda. (I couldn’t decide if the Whisperer reminded me more of television or advertising- either way, mind-numbing relief from all the real things in our heads).
All the lessons were eventually reviewed many times- and the students who learned them best became Messengers. None of this was familiar to the members of the Mysterious Benedict Society. And yet, in certain ways, the Institute did remind them of other schools: Rote memorization of the lessons was discouraged but required; class participation was encouraged but rarely permitted; and although quizzes were given every day, in every class, there was always at least one student who groaned, another who acted surprised, and another who begged the teacher, in vain, not to give it.
Neglected children are kidnapped by “Recruiters” and then their memories are erased. It appears that having your memories erased, including those sad memories that bring you down, is the key to a happiness utopia. Reynie’s ability to empathize with others provides him with insight into why children are marching in lockstep to become “Messengers”:
With nowhere else to turn, no parents or grandparents begging for their returns, they would devote themselves entirely to the Institute. They would rise through the ranks of Messenger, wear their fancy tunics and sashes, and one day, when the time came, they would turn their backs on the outside world to become Executives. It wouldn’t matter how they had come here, or what had come before. That part was already forgotten, or would be forgotten in the pleasurable rush of being important. Of being part of something.
In management terminology, this is called “buy-in”- the extent to which an individual identifies with and internalizes the group’s mission and goals. If you want to “rise up the ranks”, your “buy-in” is not negotiable. You must believe that there is something special about you and something superlative about the mission that makes stepping on others an acceptable part of the process.
Max watercoloring away. What could he be making?
It seems he identified with Constance’s message. I love it! Is that wrong?
Or you must be dominated by fear- the fear of not “fitting in”, the fear of change, the fear of men in turbans and other media-evoked images. Mr. Curtain, the pitiful, frightening head of the school, taps into this propensity to made decisions based on fear:
No one seems to realize how much we are driven by FEAR, the essential component of human personality. Everything else- from ambition to love to despair- derives in some way from this single, powerful emotion. Must find the best way to make use of this.
And so he does. What decisions do we make as individuals based on fear? What atrocities and horrors do we permit based on fear? What does courage in the face of such fear mean? How on earth did Mr. Stewart come up with such an excellent book? There is only one solution to all the excitement whirring around in our heads. It seems that Max and I must go straight to the source- we are writing letters to Trenton Lee Stewart.