Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Critics of homeschooling need to do their homework

Polls suggest that a slim majority of Americans oppose homeschooling, the method of choice for approximately two percent of the population. Ever since I took this educational route in high school, I have been stunned by the negative reactions it provokes. Though the opposition has declined significantly in the last decade, millions of Americans continue to find fault with this unusual mode of education, eager to offer their opinion on a subject they know nothing about.

It's no wonder that the arguments against homeschooling frequently contradict one another. Some critics allege that parents lack the qualifications to teach their children properly; others suggest that homeschooled children will be so hopelessly ahead they will be unable to relate to other kids their age. Some people imagine the prototypical homeschooled kid as shy and withdrawn; others imagine such a kid as loud and obnoxious. Whatever the argument, the critics base their views on very little if any personal knowledge of homeschooling. They haven't got a clue what homeschoolers actually do during the day, yet they seem to have endless confidence in their ability to guess.

One recent example of this attitude is a piece by blogger Russell Shaw for The Huffington Post. Shaw concedes that "home schooling works in some cases" (a mountain of research would suggest that this is an understatement), but he nonetheless thinks it should be restricted to those with an education degree, teaching children who are unable to attend school for physical reasons such as paralysis. Shaw, who assumes that homeschoolers learn through "rote recitation," worries that too many of the parents "want to keep their students at home in the service of simplicity and protectiveness," a situation that will make them ill-prepared for living in the real world.

Shaw's essay is very typical of anti-homeschooling pieces, not only lacking the slightest factual support for his positions but making provably false assertions of his own, such as the claim that homeschoolers consist primarily of fundamentalist Christians who reject evolution. (See here for the actual demographics.) Had Shaw bothered to look into the history of the movement he opposes, he would have learned that its godfather was a rather secular fellow named John Holt, who advocated homeschooling as an alternative to the "rote recitation" and lack of real-world preparation he observed as an instructor in traditional schools.

It's true that some homeschooling parents, like some private schools, teach creationism. Without explaining what he thinks should happen to private schools, Shaw denounces the situation: "as to the home schooler subjected to beliefs that run counter to scientific inquiry...I say send them to school and let the parents devote some of their off-hours to teaching what they feel their kids should know." Shaw implies here that it is the task of schools to expose kids to what is true, against those parents who will teach them what is false. But who decides what is true and what is false? The government? Shaw's point may resonate with those who envision homeschooling parents as extremists, but his larger implication is, frankly, scary.

If Shaw truly values scientific inquiry, then he should base his conclusions on facts, not hunches. Stephen Colbert coined the word truthiness to describe conservatives who rely on gut feelings as a substitute for evidence. If there is any issue on which some liberals exhibit this quality in abundance, it is this one.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The democracy of encyclopedias

One time when I worked as a college tutor, a student referenced Wikipedia in his paper on plants. I asked him if he knew what Wikipedia was. He said no. I explained that it was a user-created encyclopedia, that anyone can alter the contents at any time, and that I could take my laptop right there and change the article to say, "Plants are little green men secretly plotting to take over Earth." The student looked at me in surprise, but I assured him I was dead serious.

At this point you might be expecting me to launch into an anti-Wikipedia rant. I refuse to jump on that bandwagon, however. Wikipedia is the perfect example of a new development that traditional people just don't "get." Not that these critics are wrong exactly. Wikipedia does often provide inaccurate information and should not be cited in an academic paper. But the critics assume that once they make this observation, the issue is closed: Wikipedia is virtually worthless as a resource. I have had a very hard time talking to people who take this attitude. When I try to defend Wikipedia, I am frequently greeted by a dismissive snort, as if to imply that giving Wikipedia any credit would be to demonstrate massive gullibility. ("What, you actually trust Wikipedia?") This reaction, in my view, reveals a somewhat one-dimensional perspective on what makes something a valuable research tool.

What is Wikipedia? It's an online encyclopedia in which anyone with Internet access may write an article or modify existing ones. You can make grammatical corrections, contribute a sentence, provide a citation, or add a new section. Of course, you can also put in something ridiculous or offensive. Many users do just that, but the site keeps a back log of all previous versions of every article, and so as soon as anyone changes anything, people check. Outlandish changes usually get quickly reverted--but they still occur quite often. I once visited an article on John Ritter only to be informed that the late actor had risen from the grave. Editors may temporarily close off articles that get swamped by "vandals."

Wikipedia has many standards that users are expected to uphold. Articles must have citations, "no original research," and a "neutral point of view." Every article has a discussion page in which users can work out conflicts or disagreements. Articles that fail to meet these standards will receive a tag pointing out this fact.

Forget about the accuracy question for a moment. I want to make a point that often gets overlooked in these discussions: Wikipedia is quite possibly the most extensive enyclopedia ever compiled. It is for sure one of the largest. (See here for comparisons.) I'm not sure the term "encyclopedia" does the site justice. The sheer amount of topics covered is mind-boggling. To wit, you will find lengthy articles on all of the following:

1. Books, movies, TV shows (even individual episodes!), and music groups (even individual songs!). This includes not just classics, but also numerous obscure modern works. The selection is constantly expanding; I contributed the article on the novel Somewhere in Time just a couple of weeks ago.

2. In-depth information about small, specialized subjects that get only the most cursory treatment in standard encyclopedias. What are your hobbies? One of mine is juggling. On Wikipedia, not only are there articles on Enrico Rastelli, Francis Brunn, and other names not well-known outside the juggling community, there is also an extensive history of juggling, a thorough examination of each piece of equipment, and a detailed look at a wide range of techniques and tricks.

3. Obscure concepts from technical fields, like evolutionary biology's "population bottleneck" or computer science's "self-balancing binary search tree."

4. Almanac-like lists of the major events in any particular year.

5. Huge information about cities. Not only is there a lengthy article about Baltimore, there are individual articles devoted to all the local universities, libraries, cemeteries, and even major streets! (My brother contributed an article about the local bus routes, which some editors considered deleting for being "unencyclopedic.")

At this point, you might be asking, "What's the point of all this information if it isn't reliable?" Now hold on just one second. Is Wikipedia unreliable? A controversial and hotly contested 2005 study in the journal Nature compared Wikipedia's scientific articles with those in Encyclopedia Britannica and found that Wikipedia on average has four errors per article, whereas Britannica has on average three. This fact becomes especially astonishing when you consider that Wikipedia's articles are typically much longer than Britannica's.

How can that be? How can an encyclopedia in which any twelve-year-old may contribute even begin to approach the accuracy of one compiled by a panel of experts? There lies the paradox of Wikipedia: even though it has an endless capacity for error, it doesn't necessarily have a much greater tendency toward error than traditional encyclopedias. It's true that any idiot can write an article, but it will then be subject to what amounts to a gigantic peer-review process.

There are some advantages to this format. The information tends to stay very up to date. (I have found their pages on celebrities updated within hours of a celebrity's death.) And they seem to be very good at staying on top of urban legends. My 1993 edition of Compton's, in contrast, under the topic of "Language" repeats the old urban legend that Eskimos have many words for snow. That kind of nonsense would never last long in Wikipedia, where there may be a lot more ignoramuses, but there are also a lot more fact-checkers.

Still, the errors are there. They might be even worse in the foreign-language editions, which I've noticed are often simply amateur translations of the English edition. I corrected an Israeli-edition article that identified Connecticut as a city in Maryland. (I later figured out the cause of the error: the translator misunderstood a sentence in which the two states were listed one after the other, separated by a comma.)

Thus, Wikipedia should not be viewed as authoritative. Any information you get from it needs to be corroborated. That, however, is very different from saying Wikipedia lacks value as a resource. I will mention one example from my experience to illustrate my point.

When I was doing a school paper on Silence of the Lambs (the basis for this post), I looked up the term "psychopath" on Wikipedia, because a character in the film had applied the term to Hannibal Lecter. Wikipedia brought me to the page on "anti-social personality disorder," the clinical term, and listed the seven symptoms associated with the disorder, which I subsequently mentioned in my paper.

There was no problem of verification here: the article had a direct link to DSM-IV-TR, the diagnostic manual from which this information came. You might now ask why I needed Wikipedia--why didn't I just go directly to the manual? But how would I, a layperson who hasn't studied psychiatry, know in advance to go there? That's the beauty of Wikipedia. It gathers together an enormous amount of resources that might otherwise be hard to locate.

As it stands, corroborating Wikipedia's information is not difficult, because the good articles provide links and citations. Some of the less developed articles do not, but so what? You are free to dismiss any unverified information you find. It's true that some folks, like the student I tutored, may fall prey to the misinformation. But that's their problem. If not for Wikipedia, these same people would be getting their information from "Bob's Webpage." Wikipedia is very open about its process and should not be blamed if some people misuse the site.

Not only can misinformation be found in respected encylopedias like Britannica, it can be found even in very scholarly texts. In other words, no resource should be viewed as 100% reliable. Corroboration is a standard procedure of research, and the proper use of Wikipedia is really no different than the way we approach any other source.

Certainly, Wikipedia is both imperfect and incomplete. That's a given that not even Wikipedia's staunchest defenders will deny. The site is a massive organic entity, constantly being tinkered, constantly being updated, and much work remains to be done. In a way, I feel bad for the critics. They're in a Catch-22 situation, since the more they complain about Wikipedia's faults, the better Wikipedia becomes.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Even though profanity is commonplace in the movies, I've never quite gotten the hang of hearing it in music. Though I rarely swear myself, I'm not intrinsically opposed to hearing others do it. After all, one of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction, and one of my favorite comedians is Chris Rock. But whenever I hear it in songs, it almost invariably seems coarse to me. Why the double standard?

It may have something to do with my age and generation. Much of the music I heard growing up came through the radio and MTV, both of which censor offensive language. Movies, on the other hand, I was most likely to see through theaters, video, and premium cable stations, none of which are known to edit for content. In any case, before the 1990s swearing was not remotely as commonplace in popular music as it was in movies. When Ozzy Osbourne reinvented himself as a reality TV star in 2002, he quickly gained a reputation as a foul mouth. Yet I cannot recall ever hearing profanity in any of his songs, from Black Sabbath to his present solo records. He came from a generation of musicians where swearing was rare in any music that got wide radio play. That tendency continued well into the '80s, despite the prevalence of strong language even in family movies like Back to the Future.

Having never followed hip hop, I first noticed the change during the alternative rock boom of the early '90s. Pearl Jam used the f-word in two early hits, "Even Flow" and "Jeremy," though it was so mumbled it often got past the censors. In the mid-'90s, Alanis Morissette brought profanity into the mainstream with songs like "You Oughta Know" and "Hand in My Pocket." Bleeped out words became increasingly common on adult contemporary stations.

Although I am a fan of certain artists who use profanity in their music, I have rarely found that the practice adds anything of value to a song. In Johnny Cash's wonderful cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt," for example, the line "I wear this crown of shit" is changed to "I wear this crown of thorns." Now doesn't the altered version sound so much nicer? Hey, I know it's a dark song, but that doesn't mean I want to be reminded of poop.

I realize that what I'm saying might just be a cultural prejudice. Swearing itself is a curious phenomenon, if you stop to think about it. There's nothing intrinsic to the meaning of swear words that makes people take offense at them. The way we designate them as out-of-bounds, while tolerating other words with the same meanings, is almost superstitious. Sociolinguists, in fact, liken both profanity and racial epithets to the magical words deemed unutterable in certain tribal societies.

There are times when it would almost be perverse not to swear. Even the normally wholesome Bill Cosby couldn't help indulging himself one time during his classic performance Bill Cosby Himself:
I said to a guy, "Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?" and he said, "Because it intensifies your personality." I said, "Yes, but what if you're an asshole?"
If you replaced the word "asshole" with a more polite alternative, the joke would simply not work. This suggests that swear words occasionally convey nuances that milder language cannot achieve. Most of the time, however, people resort to swearing as a way of avoiding more descriptive language. In that sense, the real problem with swear words is not so much that they're crude as that they're clich├ęd. When overused, they begin to take on the quality of the word "smurf" in those old Smurf cartoons, just all-purpose expressions that make the language less varied.

Since movies aim to capture the dialogue of real people, swearing has a well-established place in the movies, even though it can be overdone--and often is. I have more trouble justifying the practice in music, because song lyrics, much more than dialogue, thrive on indirectness. That's one of the reasons that "Blowin' in the Wind" is such a better antiwar song than, say, "Eve of Destruction." In music, it seems, the last thing you want to do is get to the point. Or it could be that I'm just getting old.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A paranormal romance

I recently discussed my love of the Richard Matheson novel What Dreams May Come. Now I'm going to talk about another Matheson novel, Somewhere in Time (originally titled Bid Time Return but later changed to fit the movie). I cannot exactly recommend this novel. In fact, I thought the 1980 film version improved on it considerably. Matheson, however, considers this book and What Dreams May Come to be his two greatest novels. He may even have conceived them as one book. The similarities between the two are striking. The protagonists in both books are blond 6'2" screenwriters who live in Hidden Hills, California and love classical music. They each have a brother named Robert who acquires the protagonist's memoirs but cannot bring himself to accept the otherworldly events described in them. Both books are paranormal love stories, but they emphasize different phenomena.

In Somewhere in Time, a 30-something man named Richard Collier has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and has decided, upon a coin flip, to spend his last days hanging around the Hotel del Coronado, a famous California hotel. There he grows obsessed with the photograph of a nineteenth-century stage actress, Elise McKenna, who once performed there. Through research, he learns that she never married, that she had an overprotective manager, and that she may have had a brief affair with a mysterious man while staying at the hotel. The more Richard learns, the more convinced he becomes that it is his destiny to travel back in time and become that mysterious man.

This is an interesting setup. But the execution is shaky. I barely could get through the first fifty pages, which consist of Richard's rambling journal entries as nothing happens. I realize that Matheson was attempting realism, but I don't consider that a good excuse. A novel must involve the reader or it isn't worth our time. The book's deepest flaw, however, is the love story itself. I simply did not like the character of Elise. The development of her relationship with Richard feels artificial and forced. It's definitely a case of the journey being more interesting than the destination.

The novel's most striking feature is its depiction of time travel. It's probably the only novel I've ever encountered that proposes a step-by-step method that does not require any futuristic accessories or special abilities. The method is presented in such detail that it almost tempts readers to try it themselves. I bet that some have, though I have my doubts that any have succeeded.

Richard bases his method on the theories of a real book, J.B. Priestley's Man and Time. The basic idea is that he uses self-hypnosis to convince his mind that he's in the past. He listens over and over to a tape recording of his own voice declaring that the year is 1896 and listing many details of how his surroundings would look in that year. After discovering that his voice is distracting him, he writes the hypnotic suggestions out on paper, over and over and over. The historical roots of the hotel help reinforce his purpose, as does an 1890s suit he buys for himself.

Of course, skeptical readers may suspect that the time-traveling experience occurs only in Richard's mind. Matheson leaves open that possibility. So if you think the love story is unconvincing and seems more like a lonely man's pathetic fantasy, that may be just what Matheson intended.

The movie does a better job of handling these themes. The plot is clearer and more focused. There's no mention of Richard having a brain tumor, and there seems to be external evidence that his journey really took place, such as in an early scene where an old woman goes up to him in a crowd and hands him a pocket watch and says, "Come back to me." He later takes the watch with him into the past, where he gives it to the woman when she's young. This generates one of the most famous time-travel paradoxes in the movies, the watch that seems to have no point of origin, just eternally existing in an endless loop. The book contains other paradoxes of this kind, but more subtly.

While the movie did poorly in theaters and receieved mostly negative reviews, it went on to become a cult classic, with an actual fan club. Being less than enamored by the love story, I was only able to admire the film's craft. It felt to me like an episode of The Twilight Zone, a show to which Matheson contributed heavily. But neither the book nor the film enthralled me the way the novel What Dreams May Come did, perhaps because this time I wasn't truly permitted entry into a new world.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The science of fruits, nuts, and flakes

Some years ago, not long after reading parts of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, a book about the remarkable persistence of superstitions among educated people, I discovered that a highly intelligent woman I know, who has a science degree and has always seemed rationalist in her outlook, believes in astrology. She described the traits of my sign, Aquarius, and they did seem to fit me fairly well. I don't remember her description now, so instead I'll post what Wikipedia says about the sign:
Individuals born under this sign are thought to have a modest, creative, challenging, inquisitive, entertaining, progressive, stimulating, nocturnal, and independent character, but one which is also prone to rebelliousness, coldness, erraticism, indecisiveness, and impracticality.
I have to admit that that does kind of sound like me. I like to think of myself as creative, challenging, and independent. I know I am impractical and indecisive, and unquestionably I am nocturnal. On the other hand, the article also claims that male Aquarians "are often said to tend to be effeminate in appearance." Hey, I may not be the most macho of sorts, but I sure as hell ain't effeminate looking.

But there lies the problem. One of the most obvious features of pseudoscience is allowing subjectivity to influence the testing of predictions. Having people examine their own personalities is notoriously unreliable, since people tend not to have accurate perceptions of themselves. What exactly would constitute a "bad" astrological reading? If you didn't feel the description sounded like you? If your friends didn't think so? And how close does the description have to match your personality in order to prove that its alleged accuracy isn't merely coincidental? (For example, I suspect that there are many creative and independent types not born under Aquarius.) Astrologers never set up any quantifiable boundaries by which their "predictions" can succeed or fail. It's all left up to the whim of the person reading the horoscope.

Still, I can imagine ways in which the claims of astrologers might be tested. Gather a group of people together, and give only some of them their true astrological readings. Give the others a deliberately false reading. For example, the Gemini gets the Scorpio's reading. None of the people know whether they are receiving a correct reading or not. Perhaps none of them know there even are any incorrect readings. Even the person doing the testing doesn't know which ones are correct and which ones aren't. The subjects are then asked to rate their readings, on a scale of one to ten, by how closely they feel it describes them.

Now comes the fun part: compare the reactions of the people who got false readings and the people who got true readings. If the claims of astrology are valid, then the people who got true readings should be substantially more likely to think the readings accurately describe them. If, on the other hand, there isn't much difference between the reactions of the two groups, then the claims of astrology would seem to be bogus.

Has anyone ever tried such an experiment? Do believers in astrology even care? Hey, I know that even this test probably wouldn't pass muster with the scientific community. It still has the problem that people are examining their own personalities, rather than being objectively evaluated by a disinterested outsider.

Of course, many scientists will dismiss astrology out of hand simply because of its premise that celestial bodies many light years away can have a perceptible effect on human behavior. But I'm willing to entertain this premise for the sake of argument, because astrology in principle does make real predictions about observable facts. If those predictions were scientifically confirmed, we'd have to concede that there's something to the system, no matter how absurd its philosophical underpinnings may sound. Skeptics can take comfort from the fact that we're a long way from ever having to confront that possibility.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Those other Jews

I will now quote an anecdote from Alan Dershowitz's wonderful book Chutzpah, because I think it provides considerable insight into the way a bigot's mind works:

"I related the story of a slightly eccentric Brahmin woman from Boston who came to see me about a legal problem. I concluded that her problem was not within the area of my expertise, so I recommended another lawyer. She asked whether he was Jewish, and I responded, 'What difference does that make?' She said that she didn't 'get along very well with Jews' and didn't know whether she could 'trust them.' I asked her why she had come to me, since I was obviously Jewish. I'll never forget her answer: 'The Jews I know are all fine. I have a Jewish doctor and a Jewish pharmacist whom I trust with my life. It's those other Jews--the money-grubbing ones, the dishonest ones--that I'm not comfortable with.'

"I pressed the Brahmin woman about whether she had actually ever encountered one of 'those' Jews, and she responded, 'Heavens, no. I would never allow myself to have any contact with such a person.' The lawyer I recommended happened to be Jewish, and the two of them got along famously." (p. 99)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The most overlooked novel

We generally expect books to be better than their film adaptations. The most extreme example from my experience may be What Dreams May Come. I strongly disliked the 1998 film, and I probably would have quickly forgotten about it, except that I noticed it was based on a 1978 novel by Richard Matheson, whose fiction I had enjoyed previously. So I picked up a copy from the library. It has since become one of my favorite books.

I am not alone in this reaction, but I am in a minority. Most people haven't read the book, and most people won't even try. There are just too many preconceptions standing in their way. And, unfortunately, the movie has helped further those preconceptions. People assume it isn't the type of book they'd like to read. They think it is too "New Agey" for their tastes, or too sentimental. On the first point, they are probably correct; on the second, they couldn't be more wrong.

Why do I like the book so much? Put simply, it is the most vivid, complex, and surprisingly convincing depiction of afterlife I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. Nothing else I have seen on the subject, in literature or in film, comes close--certainly not the movie version of the book. Before I read the novel, I had no idea that a story about Heaven and Hell could have such a profound effect on me. I have always believed in afterlife as a matter of faith, but I would never before have thought it could be convincingly described in human terms.

The story involves a middle-aged man named Chris who dies and goes to Heaven, and who ultimately descends into Hell to rescue his wife. It's basically a modern-day variation on The Divine Comedy, as a man gets a tour of the afterlife. In the metaphysics of the film and the book, dying involves shedding your physical body and entering a mental environment shaped by thoughts. Your fate in such an environment is largely self-imposed. If you're a decent, pleasant person, your afterlife experience will be pleasant; if you're someone with moral problems, you'll naturally have a more difficult experience. As the novel puts it, "People are not punished for their deeds but by them" (p. 265).

That much of the movie intrigued me, the first time I saw it. The problem was the schmaltz. I mean real schmaltz, piled on in large mounds, in place of strong narrative. The beginning gives us scene after scene of two lovers (Robin Williams and Anabella Sciorra) doing little more than stare at each other and giggle, with solemn music in the background. The film is so inept at fleshing out their lives that it shows their wedding, the tragic death of their children, and fifteen years passing before it reveals out of the blue that Chris is a doctor! The performances by Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr. are surprisingly atrocious, maybe because they could scarcely believe their own lines.

For those who have only seen the movie, it's hard for me to convey just how very different the novel is. Of course there are major differences in the plot. One such difference is the ending. (Even Roger Ebert, who heaped high praise on the film, was disappointed by the ending.) Another is the beginning, where the film has Chris's children also die and go to Heaven. In doing this, the movie (1) makes the early scenes so depressing they become surreal (2) needlessly clutters the story with extra characters (3) introduces a silly and confusing subplot about Chris's attempts to find his children, who are in disguise.

In the book, Chris's children are adults, not youngsters, and they're minor characters. The details of Chris's life on Earth differ so greatly between the book and the film that it's like reading about a completely different person. Even though I saw the movie first, the image of Robin Williams completely vanished from my mind as I read, because he was so unlike the character described in the book.

The entire feel of the book is different, telling a touching love story that uses real characterization, not cheap manipulation, to move the audience. And Matheson's vision of the afterlife truly comes alive on the page. The Hell scenes are actually terrifying, reminding us, as the movie does not, why Matheson is primarily famous as a horror writer.

I won't overlook the movie's gorgeous visual effects, which earned the film a well-deserved Academy Award. They just aren't put to good purpose. The movie's vision of the afterlife as like being inside giant paintings fails to evoke a sense of reality. The book, in contrast, bases its afterlife imagery (vividly brought to life by Matheson's skillful prose) much more on Earth-like scenery. This approach ironically leads to far more exotic ideas, such as architects who build things using their minds, and a library containing history books more objective than those on Earth. Matheson puts the reader right inside this setting, as the following passage illustrates:
I noticed, then, there were no shadows on the ground. I sat beneath a tree yet not in shade. I didn't understand that, and looked for the sun.

There wasn't any.... There was light without a sun. I looked around in confusion. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the light, I saw further into the countryside. I had never seen such scenery: a stunning vista of green-clad meadows, flowers, and trees. Ann would love this, I thought.

I remembered then. Ann was still alive. And I? I stood and pressed both palms against the solid tree trunk. Stamped on solid ground with my shoe. I was dead; there could be no question about it any longer. Yet here I was, possessed of a body that felt the same and looked the same, was even dressed the same. Standing on this very real ground in this most tangible of landscapes....

I turned my hands over and noticed that their skin and nails were pink. There was blood inside me. I had to shake myself to make certain I wasn't dreaming. I held my right hand over my nose and mouth and felt breath pulsing warmly from my lungs.... (p. 55-6)
And here is a passage from one of the book's Hell scenes: "Now I saw that, interspersed throughout the area we crossed, were pools of dark and filthy-looking liquid; I hesitate to call it water. A loathsome stench beyond that which I had ever been exposed to rose from these pools. And I was horrified to see movement in them as though unfortunates had slipped beneath the surface and were unable to rise" (p. 183).

Matheson, as I mentioned, is a famous horror writer. One of his unique qualities is his almost scientific approach to the supernatural. As Roger Ebert explains in his review of the Matheson-penned Legend of Hell House:
Matheson labored for years in the elusive territory between straight science fiction and the supernatural horror genre, developing a kind of novel in which vampires, ghouls, and the occult are treated as if they came under ordinary scientific classifications.

There was, for example, the Matheson classic I Am Legend.... In that one, a single normal man held hundreds of bay by figuring out the scientific reasons for old medieval antivampire measures like mirrors, crucifixes, and garlic. The Matheson novels of the 1950s and early 1960s anticipated pseudorealistic fantasy novels like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist.
In What Dreams May Come, Matheson makes Heaven and Hell seem like a scientific, natural process, and one of the joys of the book is discerning all the intricate "rules" of how everything works. (That's another area where the movie falls short.) What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that Matheson doesn't do this just for entertainment purposes. In the novel's introduction, he tells his readers that the characters are the only fictional component of the novel, and that almost everything else is based on research. The book even includes a lengthy bibliography. Thus, the afterlife that Matheson describes isn't some fantasy world he concocted from his own head, but something he believes to be an accurate description of reality.

Some people may wonder, at this point, about Matheson's religious background. He was raised a Christian Scientist, but gradually developed what he calls his own religion, taking elements from many sources. One of the book's main influences, I believe, is eighteenth-century Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

The book avoids seeming "religious" in any way other than its setting. There are no deities, no mention of Christ or anything specific to the theology of a particular religion. The characters occasionally talk about God, but it is left up to the reader to decide whether the Creator in charge of this system is at all like the Judeo-Christian God or like something more pantheistic. The book even implies that no single religion has the whole truth:
"For instance, you'll find, in the hereafter, the particular heaven of each theology."

"Which is right then?" I asked, completely baffled now.

"All of them," he said, "and none. Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, Christian, Jew--each has an after-life experience which reflects his own beliefs. The Viking had his Valhalla, the American Indian his Happy Hunting Ground, the zealot his City of Gold. All are real. Each is a portion of the overall reality.

"You'll even find, here, those who claim that survival is nonsense," he said. "They bang their nonmaterial tables with their nonmaterial fists and sneer at any suggestion of a life beyond matter. It's the ultimate irony of delusion." (pp. 90-1)
From what I've seen, people react negatively to this book based on how far it departs from their personal beliefs. Christians complain about the absence of Jesus, while those who don't believe in any afterlife consider the story too nonsensical to accept. Most readers, it seems, are put off by the New Age terminology and concepts scattered throughout the book.

These reactions are puzzling, if you stop to think about it. Books about elves, fairies, dragons, and wizards remain popular even though nobody believes in any of those things. Why should people be bothered by a fiction book portraying a Heaven and Hell that conflicts with what they believe? The book is perfectly enjoyable whether or not you accept Matheson's metaphysics.

Of course, I personally do think Matheson provides insight into the subject--though I admit I'm a little wary of his acceptance of paranormal phenomena. But it amazes me how so many people refuse to even touch the book, thinking that any story with such a plot must automatically be hokey. In most cases, they'd be right. What Dreams May Come is a big exception. It suggests the endless possibilities in a subject that normally is dead weight for fiction. And it really makes you think.