Hi all:

I have not perused every thread in this site, but I have not seen any mention yet of a little-known book that every atheist should get to know, The Mysterious Stranger. Below is a short book review I wrote for Goodreads a while back.

A number of Mark Twain’s lesser-known stories remain virtually unheard of – not because they aren’t good – but because they’d offend too many people.

His short novel The Mysterious Stranger, published posthumously in 1916, certainly qualifies in this regard. It’s not going to be on any of the official reading lists of the various public schools named after him. And it’s an absolutely hilarious and caustic little paperback that you need to get familiar with.

This book will be of interest to anyone suspicious of religion in general. For non-theists that have grown accustomed to the standard academic treatments of the reasons for rejecting belief, as well-written as many have been of late, this book provides a fresh perspective and change of pace. The force of the satire that this irreverent, scathing genius brings down upon the entire Christian conception of God and Moral Sense is really something to behold.

In late sixteenth century Austria, a group of boys meet an angel that has appeared one day. The angel’s name is Satan (no, not the Satan, merely his cousin, hence the same family name). Satan gives them an education, both through words and deeds, about some Ultimate Truths. Here’s a brief excerpt from his examination of God Himself:

" … a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell – mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy time seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!"

In this 120-page work you can feel a lifetime of the great man’s anger, frustration, and contempt for so much baloney (baloney that was taken even more seriously in Twain’s day than it is in ours) on every page. It isn't a happy story, but if your sense of humor runs to the dark side, you'll be laughing often. This story belongs in the same class as Voltaire’s Candide and Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan as the best of that rare breed: atheist-themed fiction.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks for this good review. I've come across this title many times, but never had the time to read it. I'll have to make time for it. If anyone is interested, you can read it online here.

There are also some very good DVD documentaries out there on his life, as well.
I have seen the Ken Burns film. What else is there?
Well, I've seen two from the library, but I can't recall their titles, though I'm sure one was just called Mark Twain and was put out with a bunch of other bios on authors. I'd have to look them up, to be honest. I was really speaking more in general terms, as his life was so interesting. Perhaps that is what I should have said: Any doc on him would be interesting because of who he was.

I've not seen the Ken Burns film, I don't think. Unless it was one of the ones I watched, and I can't remember it. Just ran across a film he did on I.M. Pei this week, so I recognize the name.
Ok - I shall google on this matter further.

*Here I will have to put in a plug for Ken Burns in general.* What a great filmmaker.
Ken Burns is a goddamn hypnotist. I was only mildly interested in the Civil War when his series came out. My local PBS station was repeating the whole series over a weekend straight through (as a pledge break), so I thought I'd tape it while doing other chores and watch it later when I had time. I couldn't take my eyes off the damn thing, and the chores didn't get done.
The Ken Burns film was, I believe, a 2-parter on PBS a year or 2 back. And, for sheer entertainment value, I believe Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight is currently available on DVD. I've been lucky enough to see him do it live on 4 separate occasions throughout my life. Incredible showman, marvelous performance. And the material he has available to work with ain't bad, either.
I have requested this on audiobook from the library. I can get through books/stories faster if I can listen to them, as I can listen at work.
I'll be very interested to see how you like the audio version. I hope it is unabridged.
You must also read Twain's Letters from the Earth, usually bundled with related writings. This is one of most hilariously devastating attacks on religion ever. Twain's book What Is Man?, his argument for determinism and against free will, is also of interest.
Oh yes. Letters From Earth is the next book by Twain I was planning to write a review for. It is scandalous just how little known it is, even among the nontheist crowd.

Some of the related writings that come bundled with it often include the Diaries of Adam (and Eve) which are hilarious.
Okay, I finally got the audiobook on this from the library. Honestly, it does not resonate with me that much. Twain is clever, of course, and has a sharp and accurate tongue when critiquing mankind, but the writing style just does not appeal to me that much. Not sure if I can say why though. It's been years since I've read Letters from the Earth, but I can vaguely recall how his writing style did not thrill me.

Plus, this is read by a man named Jonathan Kent, and he is kind of boring. He reads outloud like he believes he is supposed to read outloud. Know what I mean?
Jonathan Kent--Clark's stepfather?


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