Friday, March 31, 2017

Things Start to Get Good Right About Now

In the previous post, I explained that I worried through most of February that my new ten-year reading plan needed to be pared down, my ambitions tamed, my expectations leveled. By the end of March, though, the book list had started to do what it was supposed to do and felt exactly right.

What was it supposed to do? Make me eager to pick up my books every day without thinking that I’d have to make myself get through a certain number of pages in order to keep up. And the books of March did exactly that.

We’ll start with C. S. Lewis: as Sister Maria says, “A very good place to start.” Obviously, a book called Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature will only feel fun to someone who enjoys medieval and Renaissance literature. As it happens, I do. I first read The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy only prompted by a drive to check boxes on a mental list. But self-imposed duty quickly turned into externally prompted devotion. I love every one of these classics and have read some parts three and four and five times. And now the wise professor tells me how to understand and enjoy them even more. Check this sample of nifty points from Lewis:

• How far do you go in studying background to understand old literature? It's up to you. Just as there are two ways to visit a foreign country – staying at the British hotels or immersion into local culture – there are two ways of enjoying an old book.

• It doesn't help, however, to learn about some prior myth that supposedly shapes the story. The only way of understanding the myth is to get inside what it feels like to believe it, and that means reading the poetry. “The poem is illuminating the myth; the myth is not illuminating the poem.”

• A medieval book is the product of several people, rather like a cathedral.

• Medieval scholars loved and revered books, sacred or profane, and accepted the contradictions, assuming that there was some truth in every stated view.

• The interweaving of stories in Faerie Queene is a “polyphonic narrative.” Such a convoluted structure may not be to modern taste and may make it hard to remember who’s where doing what with whom (what a relief to find that Lewis couldn’t always keep track of everything, either!), but (1) this way of writing stories lasted longer than our narrative style has, so a lot of readers over the centuries have found it completely suiting, and (2) no one complained about it then, so they must have had superior powers of memory that our technologies have impaired.

Yeah, I didn’t have to keep checking the calendar and doing math in order to turn enough pages every day to keep on track with this one.

While I read these and other fascinating and helpful lessons about medieval and Renaissance literature, I also enjoyed rereading my adolescent self’s favorite Jules Verne novel: Hector Servadac. As a teen, I knew it as Off on a Comet. (It’s the only title I know of that includes two opposite prepositions in a row!) That American title change is the tip of an iceberg of weird problems caused by translators trying to make Verne acceptable to English readers’ expectations. According to certain Verne fans with internet presence (such as this guy), all those wonderful science-fiction novels that have inspired generations of Doc Browns have come to us in bad translations that actually cut a lot of the scientific descriptions! To read the most complete translation, I had to stitch together two documents (the Wikipedia article explains it) and suffer through the ham-fisted work of translators who believe that good renditions copy every French turn of phrase word for word. (For example, the Gallic propensity for inserting ce after a perfectly good subject has already been stated makes sonic sense in French but just adds a weird redundancy in English. “This spheroid we are on, it is a comet.” C'est une comète.)

Still, with all its stilted language and absurd plot (a comet grazes the Earth and picks up some of the land formations, buildings, and living creatures without harming them?!), I ate up every last crumb of Verne’s hearty meal of bizarre metallic cliffs, British soldiers who will never abandon their post even though that post be sailing through the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and cavern-apartments inside a volcano complete with central heating provided by streams of lava.

And then there’s Arundel, which occupied a prominent place on my dad’s bookshelf as I was growing up. I looked at that spine practically every day for eighteen years and then fairly often for another twelve, all that while believing it held something really good before discovering that I could indeed, in this case at least, judge a book by its cover. Kenneth Roberts dared to suggest in his historical fiction that the Sons of Liberty were mostly unruly hotheads and that Benedict Arnold had many virtues – and won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for doing it. He has unjustly been forgotten, but I can’t imagine a resurgence of interest in anything so subversive in today’s America. Americans would have to know accepted 1750s history in order to appreciate the subversion of it.

Oh, but I can point out my own blind spots, too. Let’s just say that this second reading of the novel showed me that at the time of my first trip through its pages, I was just as stupid about the women in the book as protagonist Steven Nason was. Every time I tried to shout at him, “Why can’t you see what she’s doing?” I ended up scolding myself as well: “Why didn’t I see what she was doing?”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Shortest Month (updated)

The shortest month – and some of the longest readings. I spent most of February thinking I had overstuffed this new ten-year plan and would never make it through it all. Looking back at the time now from July, I can see the problem: some of the first books on the schedule were surprisingly long, and I had three jobs at the time. But my goal is to have zero jobs sometime in just the next year or two, which should leave me plenty of time to pursue my weird OCD-driven geekdom. And anyway, with a little extra effort, I made it through February: three jobs and all. At this point, it feels like I have a viable plan and that I have a fine chance of once more getting through a decade-long reading list.

The enormous length of The History of Victorian Literature stunned me when I opened it (you can’t tell the size of a Kindle book just by looking at the cover). But every page was interesting and helpful, starting right from the introduction, which showed the liberal politics of even the most heart-warming domestic novel: to show that middle-class, working-class, and rural people had dignity, interesting problems, and interior lives came as a shock to the old guard, and the characters’ counterparts in the real world took advantage of new educational opportunities partly just so they could read all this new literature. I learned a lot about things I’d read alredy, and I got a great start on a list of books for a fourth decade of planned reading starting in 2027!

Much, much shorter was the Greek Epic Fragments from the Loeb Classical Library. I was hoping to enjoy an ancient account of the Trojan War leading up to the events in the Iliad. But I hadn’t realized just how fragmentary the fragments were. I’d read it all in Apollodorus anyway.

One of my three jobs happened once a week at a home-school co-op an hour away. Part of my method for getting through the reading I had assigned myself during this busy time was listening to books on the drive there and back, and my favorite during those busiest weeks was Charles Dickens’s third novel, Nicholas Nickleby. I can’t recommend highly enough Mil Nicholson’s readings of Dickens. A professional actress who donates her skills to Librivox, Ms. Nicholson reads it all with a proper British cadence and lots of love. She gives every character a distinct voice, and when she reads the lines, modulating her pitch, rhythm, and accent, the characters appear in my mind with bright colors and crisp edges, like the ghosts David Copperfield envisions as he writes his memoir. Wackford Squeers, Kate Nickleby, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Mr. and Mrs. Crummles, Smike, Mr. Mantalini, Newman Noggs, Peg Sliderskew – these and all the other unforgettable creations of the Great Novelist’s mind become three-dimensional, palpable, living humans under the care of this talented performer.

The History of Victorian Literature points out a problem with Nicholas that Dickens himself seems to acknowledge in his narration: the good people that fill the pages have such uniformly pure thoughts, only the villains can become truly interesting, novelistic characters. But Dickens figures it out soon enough in his career and gives us David and Pip and Bella Wilfer. In the meantime, Nicholas Nickleby offers adventure to thrill at, scoundrels to hiss at, and lots and lots of laughs. If you want to try one chapter of Dickens, read chapter 2, regarding the foundation of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company. Try not to laugh! Or if you want something shorter, read Fanny Squeers’s letter; Douglas McGrath, director of the 2002 screen adaptation, calls it one of the funniest pages in all literature. I may have packed too many pages into this short month, but when they’re as good as that page, the extra effort makes me very happy.

But above all this, Nicholas Nickleby inspires me. Dickens wrote at a time when a hero in a novel could be taken seriously. And a good thing it was; that era needed heroes. Not that Nicholas is some kind of Aristotelian ideal of character: his heroism comes from youthful impetuosity as much as it does from courage. But whatever the fillip of emotion or inclination, Nicholas’s heroism finds its foundation in knowledge – knowledge that public schools need to be cleansed of their ignorant, anti-educational masters, knowledge that riches do not give their possessor the right to assault women or to brag about it, knowledge that those privileged with health and strength have a duty to care for the poor, the feeble, the aged, and the sick.
Squeers caught the boy firmly in his grip; one desperate cut had fallen on his body—he was wincing from the lash and uttering a scream of pain—it was raised again, and again about to fall—when Nicholas Nickleby, suddenly starting up, cried ‘Stop!’ in a voice that made the rafters ring.

‘Who cried stop?’ said Squeers, turning savagely round.

‘I,’ said Nicholas, stepping forward. ‘This must not go on.’
Dickens’s era was not the only time in need of heroes like Nicholas Nickleby.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Every Book Tells a Story

I cannot tell a lie. It’s actually July as I write this. After composing a mini-essay more than once a week for about six years, I took a long break from blogging. But I wanted to start out 2017’s entries with a word about some reading I did in January, so I’m retrodating this post to that month.

Every book tells a story. Of course, each one has a story inside, whether it’s a fictional arc, an historical narrative, or a descriptive and analytical thread. But I’m talking about the story of my relationship with each book. My Plan for the Third Decade (in my interior life, these entities cast imaginational shadows large enough to deserve capital letters) includes a lot less mental exercise than my previous book lists and a lot more fun, less philosophy and more adventure. I’m reverting from a self-created graduate school to junior high. Many of the books on my schedule, in fact, I first read in junior high. Others I’ve been meaning to read ever since that formative age but have just never gotten around to it.

The Count of Monte Cristo sits in that first group: I first read it when I was about sixteen. I had seen a couple of made-for-TV movie adaptations (one did such things in the ’70s) and liked them enough to read the original. And I loved it! Very few books start with a setup as exciting as Edmond Dantès being falsely accused and imprisoned, meeting a man with a treasure when he mistakenly tunnels into Dantès’s cell, escaping by sewing himself into a shroud and being tossed over a cliff into the sea, and then becoming the richest man in the world. One bit at the end bothered me: Dantès seemed to me to arrogate divine powers when he tells a young woman to trust him even if she wakes up in a coffin buried alive. But my adolescence clung to every thrilling episode Dumas created.

Or apparently not every episode, as I found out soon afterwards. Cut to 1976, when I enter the University of Illinois as a matriculating freshman. Before classes even start, I head to the library, assuming it will be my favorite hang-out spot on campus. I walk up and down the aisles of the undergraduate library. (Awe, ambition, and frustration commingle in my soul as I ponder the existence of a graduate library unavailable to me. Rumor is it’s actually underground where the riffraff can’t even see it.) I consider which books I’ll check out first. My eye lands on a title very interesting to a guy who makes lists of books to read: My 100 Favorite Books. I pull the volume silently and carefully from its shelf and turn to the table of contents. No. 46: The Count of Monte Cristo! What has this obviously wise compiler of titles said about one of my favorite novels? Little, as it turns out. After a sentence or two of praise, he moves straight to an excerpt, chosen to demonstrate the virtues of Dumas’s great adventure. And I proceed to read . . . an incident I am sure I have never seen before.

Of course I turned to the back cover of My 100 Favorite Books to see if there had been some mistake. Maybe the author had rewritten his hundred favorites. Or maybe there was a switch to flip that would make the thing work right. But no. There it was. Somehow, this fellow’s Count of Monte Cristo was not my Count of Monte Cristo.

So I returned to my paperback copy of The Count and found a note on the title page I had not seen before: Abridged. I recovered from a long illness bought on by the appearance of this outrageous word. Determined to set right a wrong that had been perpetrated on my universe, I then went to the B. Dalton bookstore at the mall (another quaint thing we did in the ‘70s) and looked on the shelf. No luck. I asked the clerk. No luck. At last I perused Books in Print. (I’ll stop pointing out every weird ritual of the previous millennium now.) And in the end I had to admit the horrifying truth: in 1976 America, there existed no unabridged English-language translation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Well, friends, now there is. The sun has risen. Justice has prevailed. And in January of this year, unable to wait a day longer than forty years and four months, I started off my third ten-year reading plan taking in every word on each one of the 1243 pages of the unabridged translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. And, yes, I definitely read the excerpt I found out about that day in Champaign: 14,730 days though it may have been, I had not forgotten that in the actual classic previously denied to me by a vicious publishing industry, Edmond Dantès bribes a signalman at a telegraph office to change a message, and I won’t forget it until my mind goes senile.

So what did I finally think? To tell the truth, I thought the book was too long: the first version I read, about 700 pages shorter, kept the plot moving in a straight line without allowing for any tedium. As for Dantès, he’s even more sacrilegious than I remember, although now I think his bit about resurrecting the girl was just meant as a way of passing on his own experience of rising from a grave. Did Dumas know how crazy Dantès sounds claiming to be God’s only instrument of justice and revenge? Did he approve? I couldn’t tell.

So I have some disappointments and some nagging questions. But now a story has come to a close. And although this year, Year One in Decade Three, is obviously a year of beginnings, it is also a year of endings. As I’ve scripted the plot, resolution will come to many more stories this year.

In fact, it already has: after all, I’m writing this in July.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Dickens in the End

I began this blog after I’d been sick in bed for over a week, eating and drinking nothing but Vitamin Water. I write this last post about my second Ten-Year Reading Plan while in bed, having been sick for over a week, eating and drinking not much more than Powerade. Does having a body several degrees less healthy than that of Myron’s Discus Thrower contribute to one’s being a reader? I think it did in my case. One way or another, here I lie; I can do no other.

Of course, I ended the Plan with Charles Dickens. He’s so good, he’s even good when he’s bad, and The Battle of Life provides the perfect example. Anyone who reads this Christmas novella hoping for anything like the effect of A Christmas Carol will be sorely disappointed. But even the reader generously allowing the story its own space will have to deal with a main plot in which an engaged girl conspires with her aunt and a game wayfarer, leaves her fiancé during their betrothal party, and separates from her immediate family under a cloud of scandalous shame, all because she sees that her sister loves said fiancé. Did nineteenth-century girls actually ever make such sacrifices? OK, nineteenth-century money counters didn’t actually ever get visited by Ghosts of Christmas, either. So let me ask a different question: Were nineteenth-century people actually inspired by the narration of such an outlandish sacrifice? The story is ludicrous!

And yet everything about the way Dickens tells the improbable tale is beautiful. He establishes the scene with the story of an unspecified battle from an unspecified time. Over some untold number of generations, a farming community has risen above the blood and unmarked graves. Various characters construct different philosophies in this context: Dr. Jeddler, for instance, decides all of life is a joke, while Little Britain (so-named to distinguish him from the country!) decides, for a while at least, that morose despondency is the only proper response to such a life. But young Alfred tells us that “there are quiet victories and struggles. great sacrifices of self, and noble acts of heroism . . . done everyday in nooks and corners, and in little households, and in men’s and women’s hearts – any one of which might reconcile the sternest man to such a world.” And there’s Dickens in a nutshell. Yes, the life and culture of mankind have been broken on an anvil of bloodshed and misery, but quiet acts of individual heroism and sacrifice show us a greater reality of love and joy that can make us whole again.

Later in the story, Dickens personifies a fire in the hearth. It laughs, it winks, it makes music. Its benevolent spirit makes a sacrament of every hearth fire in our world: after reading Dickens, the fire in my hearth spreads the warmth and light of Heaven on our home. Little Britain, softened by the influence of a happy woman, becomes a happy man and buys an inn whose every outward feature beckons travelers with promises of comfort. “It’s just the sort of house,” its proprietor says while admiring it, “I should wish to stop at, if I didn’t keep it.” The inviting charm of the inn is strong enough to enchant the public houses of our world, too. After reading Dickens, any private business offering true service becomes an expression of love – a Christmas miracle indeed!

“It is a world,” says a reformed Dr. Jeddler near the end of The Battle of Life,
on which the sun never rises, but it looks upon a thousand bloodless battles that are some set-off against the miseries and wickedness of Battle-Fields, and it is a world we need be careful how we libel, Heaven forgive us, for it is a world of sacred mysteries, and its Creator only knows what lies beneath the surface of His lightest image!
So also should I be careful of criticizing Dickens’s plot too much. For the Dickensian world is one of sacred mysteries, as well, and one of its mysteries is its power to flow from the pages and sacralize our world. And so I close by paraphrasing Scrooge’s nephew in saying:
Though Dickens has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that he has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless him!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Ten-Year Retrospective

On December 21, 2017, I finished my Ten-Year Reading Plan. I can hardly believe I’m saying it, but I read thirty-nine self-selected passages of from 60 to 1600 pages each year for the last ten years right on schedule. I had no right ten years ago to believe that I’d have the time to get through it. But here I am. And as we approach January, it’s appropriate for me to imitate the god of doorways and look backwards over the last ten years even while I look forward to starting my next decade-long reading schedule.

The way the schedule worked out with travel over the decade, I’ll forever associate many books with the places I read them, especially the ones I read while walking. Wordsworth will always mean Norwich, CT, to me. Byron will always make me think of walking around a snow-covered parking lot in Arezzo, Italy. And the thought of Anna Karenina will always remind me of listening to a thirty-hour recording of the monument on flights and trains during a trip to Oxford.

Here are some other highlights of my ten-year journey:

• Watching Plato separate himself from Socrates as he lets the Eleatic Stranger start to lead the discussions, beginning in the Sophist.

• After reading confusing accounts several times, finally (1) learning from Charles Peirce what abduction actually is, (2) discovering that it isn’t a difficult concept at all (and that all those confused scholars citing Peirce must not have actually read Peirce: *sigh*), and then (3) finding that Aristotle talked about the very same thing, under a different name.

• Watching Mallory get more and more profound as the Morte d’Arthur nears the end. I don’t quite understand why this book is virtually never listed on any old-fashioned canon of Great Books.

• Figuring out that Euclid taught geometry in order to deal with irrational relationships. Since they made no sense to him as numbers, he used line lengths.

• Finally finding a way to draw out Aquinas’s Map of the Human Soul.

• Discovering the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Shahnameh.

• Reading The Dark Night of the Soul just as I was going through the very phenomenon John described.

• Finally getting to Orlando Furiosothe work that inspired the whole project – and finding out how wonderful it is.

• William James explaining my issues with attention and showing me why I had learned to read while I walk.

• Teaching a Cowper poem called “Commerce” in Sunday School one week and having one member of the class, a man who works in finance, thank me afterwards for being the first person in his experience ever to say in church that money can bring about good and that God approves of good business.

• Meeting Ronald C. White and getting him to sign my copy of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech.

• Charles Reid demolishing with one paragraph a giant Empiricist problem that had actually plagued my thinking.

• Reading in Wendy’s on the U. of Oklahoma campus, especially reading Boswell there.

I love the leather bookmarks you can find in gift shops in many European cities. Those slick American bookmarks with the cutesy weights fall right out of books, but leather bookmarks keep their place. I have some favorites: a red one, for instance, from the Dickens House Museum in London, and a black one from Canterbury Cathedral celebrating the Funeral Achievements of the Black Prince. I had a nice one from Florence, but I dropped it one morning in Cincinnati and never found it again. A greater mystery involved a green Sherlock Holmes bookmark that I lost in an airport one day – while reading Sherlock Holmes. It was on my lap, and then it just wasn’t. I looked everywhere under my seat and through my things. There was a fellow cleaning up the floor around me, and the only thing I could figure is that he picked it up and decided to keep it. Fortunately, the museum at 221B Baker Street will ship them for a low price, so I ordered a new one for myself. And then the next time I was in London, I bought two more.

Will I finish my third Ten-Year Reading Plan? If I live another ten years and if I can actually retire sometime soon, the chances are good. Barring a crisis of disastrous proportions, the chances are very good. Whether I fulfill my complete plan or not, though, the next ten years are sure to bring their own moments of wonder, surprise, challenge, enlightenment, courage, and fun.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Book Awards – 2016

In their December edition each year, GAMES Magazine used to put out a report of what they judged to be the top 100 games to buy for the holidays. Somewhere in the early 80s or 90s, they got sick of taking up using up slots with Monopoly and Twister! (perhaps for different reasons). So they instituted the GAMES Hall of Fame. Then they got down to the business of ranking what they actually thought were the hundred best games.

Inspired by their example, I decided in my first Book Awards post that Dickens would have to go in a Hall of Fame category.

Best Book by the Man Who Has His Own Category: Edwin Drood
Everything about its deliciously unresolved mystery is wonderful. And it’s certainly better than the other Dickens book I read this year: The Battle of Life.

Best Poetry: Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H. 
Lord Tennyson cheated slightly by nominating himself in a category that didn’t have a lot of competition this year. But especially after reading so many disappointing poems by the Laureate, In Memoriam struck me as powerful, beautiful, and healing.

Best Drama: Euripides, Heracles Mad
When Theseus arrives homo ex machina to make Heracles’ life as tolerable as he can simply by promising to be a good friend, Euripides has done the very best he can with the weird religion he had to work within. And he got to point out how unworthy of worship Hera really is.

Comeback of the Year: Ovid, Metamorphoses
I hated this classic saga of changes the first time I read it. But I put it on my plan just so I could see whether I had missed something the first time. I’m so glad I made myself reread it!

Best Read in Religion: Martin Luther Reader
I didn’t learn any new information about Luther or his theological views. But reading Luther’s own words turned him in my mind from a theologian who cared about his ideas to a pastor who cared, in some way, about me.

Best Nonscientific Science: Lucretius, De rerum natura
Lucretius got as close as he could with his thoughts alone to a modern theory of elements and molecules – a lot closer than the more intelligent Aristotle. I wonder what would have happened if the thirteenth century had had access to Lucretius?

Most Satisfying Detail: Augustine, There is no number that is half of 1.
I’ve asked professors of mathematics and science when in recent history western culture finally accepted the existence of fractions as numbers, and they all tell me that the ancients knew all about fractions. My question makes no sense to them. I try to explain the difference between a fraction-as-a-number and a fraction-as-a-ratio, and they look at me like a nonmathematician trying to explain mathematical concepts to a mathematician. And of course they have good reason to. This year in Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, in a passage on numbers, I started reading about 3 being half of 6, and I thought, “OK, they’re all correct. Augustine knows all about a half as a number.” But then he said that odd numbers cannot be divided in half because there is no number that is half of 1. How much clearer can it get that Augustine used the word “half” as a ratio but not as a number?

Most Recurring Theme: China
From histories to Henry Kissinger’s World Order to current news stories this year, I kept reading over and over about China’s expectation (no matter the political dynasty or system in control) that all other nations will acknowledge their superiority. And I’ve also seen that those who know to say what’s required find the Chinese cooperative. Let's hope "someone" knows what to say.

Most Eye-Opening Surprise: Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
Before Wilhelm, I didn’t understand Goethe; after Wilhelm I did. And it was an enjoyable read, as well.

Biggest Disappointment: Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds
Why, oh! why did Trollope decide to make his central character so unlikeable without making her colorful?

Best Off-roading: Amity Shlaes, Coolidge
Exactly the right person at the right time. Did you know the U. S. ran in the black each of the six years he was president? Remember that time in the 90s when we had a budget surplus and everybody argued about what to do with it? Cal would have known.

Oh! Wait! Actual Biggest Disappointment
Right around the time of that budget surplus, GAMES magazine subtly changed its Games 100 to the top 100 games that had come out that year. OK, I’m sure advertisers were happy with that move. I could no longer think, “This is the year I’ll buy that game they’ve been raving about for three years.” But I still had lots of shiny things to distract me, so I was happy. Then they added 100 video games, and the GAMES 100 became essentially the GAMES 200. I don’t play first-person shooters (which seemed to fill most of the slots), so I didn’t have a lot of use for the expansion, but I still had 100 board games to drool over each holiday season.

This year, however, the newly constituted GAMES, a ghost of its former glorious self, just offered brief blurbs of about ten games. Now that was even more disappointing than Trollope.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol -- 2016

After attending Lessons and Carols at church on Sunday, I remembered that it’s time once more to post about the lyrics that I enjoy and read closely every December. (Here are links to the posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.) “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and thus every poem presents an icon of the Incarnation. No matter how far away the subject matter may be from worship of the God who became Man, the better the poem, the more resplendently the Divine Image shines through it.

All that to justify my weird approach to these perennial favorites. Who else thinks of Christmas as a time to enjoy the beauties of grammar? But I distinctly remember learning lessons about the wonderful and mysterious possibilities of the English language simply in dwelling, sometime in my teen years, on the curious turns of phrases in the two carols I’m writing about today.

“Angels we have heard on high sweetly singing o’er the plain.” I’m willing to wager a cup of hot cider that most Christians feel measurably better when they hear that line. I also feel rather confident that the alliterative h’s in the first half and recurring s’s in the second have something to do with its success, even if most people wouldn’t be able to put a finger on those letters’ soft, sibilant influence. Plus, who doesn’t want to sing “o’er” in something other than a national anthem?

But, as much as I’ve always liked it, I remember, in my otherwise carefree youth, wondering where the verb was. I had always parsed it as “Angels [that] we have heard,” with a structure like that in the sentence “The book I finished yesterday was terrific.” And then it occurred to me one day: I didn’t know what the “angels that we have heard” were doing. “Angels we have heard” just didn’t sound like a complete sentence to me. In normal circumstances, “The book I finished yesterday” doesn’t sound like a complete sentence, either; it’s a noun phrase in search of a verb. But it could be a complete sentence if we read it as starting with the direct object. Think of this little conversation:

     “How did you like these two books?”
     “This one I finished. But that one I gave up on.”

Obviously, the first sentence in the reply inverts, for emphasis, the typical word order of “I finished this book.” Now change it a little, word by word:

     This one I finished.
     This book I finished.
     The book I finished.

“I” is still the subject, “finished” still the main verb. I felt the joy of a Forty-Niner finding a nugget in his pan when I realized that the carol started with a similarly inverted sentence:

     We have heard angels.
     Angels we have heard.

Ever since then, I bristle a bit when I hear a version that replaces “echoing” with “echo back.” I know those editors are looking for a finite verb just as I was forty years ago and think that they have to correct the original poem in order to supply one. But “have heard” is the verb of the whole first verse. We have heard angels, and we have heard the mountains echoing their joyous strains.

OK, too geeky and too long. I’ll finish up with two quickish observations about William Chatterton Dix’s “What Child Is This?” Again, I remember catching my twelve-year-old self wondering, “What did the child lay to rest?” You know: like, What child is this who laid to rest the false rumor? But then I noticed the commas around “laid to rest.” Suddenly and miraculously, the words transformed into something that meant this: What Child is this who is sleeping on Mary’s lap, where, incidentally, He is laid to rest? (If the printed text doesn’t have the commas around “laid to rest,” I insert them mentally.)

This year I noticed something I never had before about this carol. The question of the title now seems to me to be prompted by the doubly strange circumstance of both angels and shepherds worshiping the Baby. We’re used to these two groups playing their parts together in the story, but from a human point of view, the combination makes no sense. If we’re looking at a future local petty tyrant, of course the shepherds would kowtow; but why would the angels bother? If we’re looking at the successor to Alexander and Caesar, on the other hand, maybe the angels would get involved; but why would dirty shepherds be allowed to sully the magnificent presence? Who is this that receives both shepherds and angels? What Child Is This? He is the King of Kings, bringing salvation to all no matter how rich or how poor. And so Dix’s lovely words invite both peasant and king to come own Him. Jesus can make a throne out of the loving heart of a person of any degree or station. Haste! Haste to bring Him laud!