Sunday, December 31, 2017

Book Awards – 2017

In keeping my tradition of wrapping up the year with a list of awards (and of course the world doesn’t have enough annual awards), I’ve cheated slightly and favored things that I didn’t blog about earlier in this slim year for posts. Without further ado (you won’t catch me spelling the wrong word there), here are my awards from Year 1 of my Third Decade reading plan.

Author Who Is with Me in Spirit at My Elbow: Charles Dickens
I always make a special place for Charles Dickens in my awards and then let someone else win the fiction award. Dickens doesn’t mind it as long as he gets to play Master of Ceremony. I listened to the marvelous Mil Nicholson reading Nicholas Nickleby in the car driving to and from work in the early months of this year, and I read A Christmas Carol yet again in the last week of the year. Needless to say . . . . (I want to use that phrase honestly for once.)

Best Reread: Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers
I remember loving this book the first time I read it, but I had forgotten 99.9% of the details. In a celebration of minds that have breakthrough moments (some of which have shaped our world and some of which have been mostly forgotten), Boorstin tells the story of Su Sung’s twelfth-century astronomical clock, of Santorio Santorio refuting the dichotomy of hot and cold by marking temperature on a continuous scale, of Aldus Manutius numbering the pages of the books he printed, and of the scientifically untrained Christian Thomsen intuiting three anthropological ages by looking at artifacts of stone, bronze, and iron. Amazing! Of course Columbus and Galileo and Gutenberg and William Harvey are there, too.

Weirdest Reread: Tie – Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Verne, Hector Servadac
I didn’t like either of these books as much as I did when I was fourteen. And yet, according to my faulty memory, my adolescent self was smart enough to get the main ideas from each. It’s hard to say whether I truly enjoyed reading them again since I spent so much time asking myself, “Did I understand that? What did I think about that? How was the translation I read forty years ago better? Worse?” And on and on.

Best New Read, Religion: Mark Noll, America’s God
This book may have been about religion in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, but it sure explains a lot of things about today.

Best New Read, Fiction: Galsworthy, A Man of Property
It’s a good thing I liked it, because the other eight novels of The Forsyte Saga are all on my plan. I don’t know what possessed Galsworthy to devote so much time to exposing these eminently flawed people, but I know a Forsyte or two, and clearly he knew whom he was writing about.

Best New Read, History: Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Army of the Heartland
Living in Knoxville now, I found this Southern perspective on the Civil War especially interesting. The western armies fought over this heartland (essentially Tennessee) because of its natural resources and because Confederate loyalty didn’t blanket the state. I live in a section that was Union sympathetic, and I’ve driven several times on the Andrew Johnson highway, named for a southern man who stayed in the U.S. Senate even after secession and toured eastern Tennessee recruiting Union soldiers. Slightly comforting.

Best Off-List Read: Margo Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures
OK, so the movie collapsed calendar time quite a bit: those victories did not all happen during the planning of John Glenn’s mission. Still, everything in the wonderful film was essentially true. But why didn’t it mention the fact that the computer calculations Katherine Johnson double-checked for Glenn came from equations that Johnson had herself developed earlier? And how could it not tell the story of Mary Jackson’s son winning the Soap Box Derby and then telling reporters he wanted to grow up to be an engineer just like his mom?

Read Leading to the Most New Reading: Brown, History of Victorian Literature
I have always thought of nineteenth-century novels as the Real Thing, and the introduction to James Eli Brown’s history explained why: the social forces of the time grew and shaped the middle-class that became both the central subject matter and the new audience for the surging literary form. It also helped that Great Britain finally nixed that Stamp Act that we got so angry about, thus making paper – and novels – cheaper. Now they’re electronic, and, after buying computers and paying for the internet, all those Victorian novels are free. It’s a good thing, because I put at least forty on a list that will form the core of my Fourth Decade.

Most Ludicrous Not-So-Great Book: Burroughs, Pirates of Venus
A lot of my Third Decade list is designed to help me revisit my adolescent reading experience. If Dumas and Verne didn’t write capitalized Great Books, I can at least say that these authors put research and skill into their books. Edgar Rice Burroughs, on the other hand, wrote pure fantasy based on an error-laden misunderstanding of science and geography. But I have fun even thinking about the mistakes. Am I really supposed to believe that Carson Napier is smart enough to build his own rocket for a trip to Mars and yet could forget the gravitational pull of the Moon in his trajectory calculations? And then am I supposed to believe that his mistake would conveniently land him on Venus instead? It would have been a better book if Napier had just aimed for the Planet of Love to begin with, but it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.

Most Comforting-yet-Disturbing Read: Durant, The Reformation
I love Will Durant’s history, as the briefest survey of my past posts will show, and his elegant prose, nose for memorable detail, and flair for inspiring analysis provided five weeks of lunch-time comfort during a frustrating semester of teaching. On the other hand, reading about the political perversions of Christianity that led to so much bloodshed didn’t exactly improve the digestion of those lunches.

Belated Award for Most Satisfying Moment: Will Durant, re: Charles V and Francis I
I’m terrible at memorizing quotations. I often can’t even remember who said them. So when I want to sound learned, I’m left having to say something like, “Someone important once said something along the lines of this . . . .” I’m not even sure I’m quoting myself accurately there. Pathetic. For decades, the most frequent example of this total lack of the skills of scholarship involved me saying, “Somebody, I think it was Napoleon, said that the greatest enemies have to agree on one thing: they have to agree on the value of the thing they’re fighting over.” I even said it once here in this blog. Well, in Year 9, while reading Will Durant, I came across what I’m sure was the original that I had heard many winters ago. It was Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who said, and I quote verbatim, “King Francis and I are in complete agreement; we both want Milan.” Perfect.

So there you have it: all the awards for 2017 and even one from 2016. I promise nothing about the coming year, but I might find myself putting up the list for my Third Decade of planned reading. And I may end up publishing awards for Year 2 next December. In any case, that’s it for 2017, so without further adieu (wink), may your 2018 be filled with entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring reading! Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The High of Reading

When I first learned music history, way back in a previous millennium, my teachers and books essentially taught me about the pieces that still get sung and played in symphony orchestras and university recital halls today. Since that time, musicologists have begun to approach music history from a different angle: as a study of what musical life was like at a given time and place. One thing this change means is that students now learn about people that have mostly been forgotten. I learned nothing about Meyerbeer in my classes, for instance, and yet he was the most popular composer in Europe in the 1830s. The old method taught the 1830s by talking about what we like from the 1830s; the new approach teaches the 1830s by examining what people in the 1830s liked. The second result of this shift in perspective is that composers are no longer the only interesting figures in music history. Now we study – among others –  performers, publishers, instrument makers, concert audiences, middle-class families who bought pianos for their teenage daughters, and “waits”: medieval wind bands who roamed the streets at night ready to play a rousing tune any time they saw criminal activity. The new way is so much better!

The first book I read that follows this new approach was a book from the Music & Society series on the early Romantic era. I got excited when I read stories such as the account of how the London Philharmonic decided to have a conductor. (A guest composer conducted a rehearsal and had the orchestra stop and redo difficult passages. The group agreed that they sounded better when someone actually made them correct their mistakes. Go figure.) So I put all the the volumes of the series on my Third Decade plan, one book per year, hoping for enlightening and entertaining reading.

Sadly, though, the volume on ancient times and the Middle Ages mostly just describes the surviving music. I guess we don’t know a lot about the invisible slaves who played music at Roman parties. I was hoping to hear more about what music instruction in cathedral schools was like, but again, I suppose there isn’t much documentary evidence. The waits at least got mentioned once. Disappointing, yeah. But maybe the installment on the Renaissance, on my list for 2018, will be better.

Also disappointing this year was Sandburg’s Lincoln. My dad told me when I was, maybe, twelve that I would need to read this mammoth biography someday. Dad, I’m sorry it took 45 years for “someday” to come. But I’m not sorry I chose to read Sandburg’s one-volume abridgement of his four-volume original: even the one book was too long and not as good as other Lincoln biographies. The story read like a medieval chronicle: it told what happened without much analysis of the reasons for what happened, the rejected alternatives, or the reactions to what happened. The book got much better near the end, though; the poet found his inspiration in the death of the great President. And he found special joy in poking fun at all the bad poets across the country (thousands of them!) who sent in dismayingly similar elegaic verses to their local newspapers. Come to think of it, I wish thousands of poets sent works to local papers today. Even the bad ones might be worth the occasional gems.

For people like me, reading is an addiction – a wholesome addiction, I have to believe. But like some drug addictions, it starts when the user tries to recapture an experience of euphoria. As a youngster, I experienced the high in reading aloud the delicious rhymes of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, in finding out how different Baum’s Wizard of Oz was from the movie, in finally finding myself old enough to read all of Lanier’s King Arthur, and in discovering the complex depths of power and beauty in A Tale of Two Cities. As an adult with a ten-year reading plan, I’m partly just trying constantly to recover that high. It definitely happens sometimes, as when at last I started reading Orlando Furioso. But of course I’ll have some disappointments, as I did with the music history and Sandburg’s Lincoln.

But my other major reading for November brought no disappointment. I first read Helen Hooven Santmyer’s . . . And Ladies of the Club (how does one format this to show that the ellipses actually start the title?) when I had a fever – or at least I started the gargantuan novel in my delirium. I loved the book but felt very hazy about some of its details. So on this clear-headed reread, I enjoyed the book even more than I had before. The social forces that criss-cross through four generations of inhabitants of Waynesboro, Ohio, fascinate me: social class, economic class, religious denomination, political affiliation, intellectual level, interest in art and drama, and relative love for or suspicion of books all combine in surprising ways. The book reminds me that a human being isn’t simple or predictable even if some overt personal characteristic is, and it challenges me to find common ground with people who seem incompatible with me on the surface.

Ladies of the Club
actually mirrors and comments on my reading for November and my thoughts about it today. (It’s just too weird to start a paragraph with ellipses and a conjunction.) Some of the women in the Waynesboro Ladies Club share my addiction to books; others meet every other Wednesday afternoon mostly for the socializing. Some meet occasional disappointment in the readings assigned by the groups vice president; one or two find their lives drastically challenged and altered by books given to them by a friend or passed down by a parent. One character even writes a rather bad poem and submits it to the town newspaper.

As I think about it, Santmyer wrote the kind of history I was hoping to find in the Music & Society Series. I know the books from the late nineteenth century that our college classes like to teach and our bookstores tend to sell. But Santmyer tells me what books they liked in the nineteenth century, who was reading them, and what they thought of them. Santmyer’s picture of the time and the bookstore’s picture of the time are quite different.

Except for Dickens. Of course, they liked Dickens.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From One Line to Five Hundred

As much as I tried to make my reading list for the Third Decade shorter and lighter than the schedule for the Second, of course it ballooned almost out of control. Part of the problem is that I thought I’d be spending the horological abundance of the retired on this new project, when in fact I took on, for my last nine months of labor on this Earth, a job busier and more tiring than any I’ve had since I was a peppy whippersnapper. But many years ago, I learned to take at least an hour at lunch to forget about work and read a book, and I still do it. If I feel rushed to get through lunch these days, at least the reading has been good this fall.

Part of my bloated reading list for the Third Decade includes rereading my notes from ten years ago, and I was amazed to recall that I had taken only one line of notes about Will Durant’s Story of Civilization in 2007. This year I wrote over 500 lines of information I’d love to remember. His march through the annals of western history has become one of my favorite assignments each year, which is why I schedule it in the fall as a reward for some of the tougher reading of the earlier months.

Durant goes back and forth smoothly and logically between giant personalities (Mary Queen of Scots, for instance), political movements (e.g., the English Civil War), cultural descriptions (this year it was the morals and manners of France during the religious wars of the sixteenth century), and criticism of art and literature (Shakespeare, Montaigne, Cervantes, Velázquez, and Bernini). Of course his historical prose gets bogged down in a density of detail at times, but he rarely repeats himself and only occasionally explains things out of order: not bad for a monument of 6000+ pages. But every page presents something new, something striking, something to change the habitual perception of a reader doomed to live in his own era.

And Durant has a flair for witty observation. (I suspect that these moments actually come from the mind of his wife, Ariel, whom he eventually made co-author of the last few volumes.) In saying that people like the way Shakespeare says things as well as his stories, he quips, “Shakespeare’s audience came for his plumage as well as for his tale.” About the artist Domenichino, he says, “He . . . learned his art in Bologna and then sought the fauna and florins of Rome.”

That kind of educated pun is a lost art, I’m afraid. And of course, my notes are all dry lists of mere facts. But at least ten years from now, when I read my files from this first year of my third ten-year reading plan during Year 1 of the Fourth Decade, I’ll have plenty to remind me of the epic tale Will Durant sang for me in 2017.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Like and Unlike Tolkien

Year 1 of Decade 3 was a year of letters: Lewis letters, Dickens letters, Tolkien letters. In reading a collection of correspondence from the man who created Sam and Frodo and Legolas and Eowyn, I noticed many striking parallels between him and myself. I remembered from reading Tolkien’s biography several years ago that I saw myself in his habits of getting to class late and reading to his children. But the parallels run even farther.

SNL’s Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey used to play a couple of friends who sat in the basement watching television and talked about huge projects they had in mind. After the description of every castle in the air, they’d look at each other, laugh, and say, “Aw! There’s another thing I’ll never do!” I had to laugh at myself in these characters, although I gave myself the consolation that I at least often began the novels and the game designs and the businesses that I only dreamt of completing. But Tolkien described my own desultory ways in calling himself a “notorious beginner of enterprises.” It took him twelve years to finish The Lord of the Rings; the book he worked on for fifty years, The Silmarillion, he left for his son Christopher to finish. How many other great projects did he merely begin?

• Tolkien complained sometimes of proofs and other extra bits of work coming at the worst time: when some large amount of grading was due. “Evil fate has plumped a doctorate thesis on me,” he once complained, and I sympathize.

• After one of these intense periods of task upon task, Tolkien said, “I have been chasing lost days ever since.” For years, without exactly knowing it, I had been searching for this phrase to describe a feeling of dyssynchrony with the world. I once dealt with a family crisis the week before a school year began and felt one week out of step the entire semester. Now I know: I was chasing lost days. (I found them again at Christmastide.)

• Tolkien believed that no commercialism can defile Christmas unless one lets it.

• Tolkien wanted to teach young people elevated vocabulary by simply using words like (and this was his example) argent, which has a beauty of sound all its own and so does not mean the same thing as silver. See the last paragraph from my June post this year on the effect of such writing on me in my childhood.

• Tolkien loved quoting one of his old professors in characterizing Oxford University not as an institution of learning but as a factory that makes fees. Amen! But at least “Oxford U.” isn’t routinely taken to mean a football team. (Hmm, I wonder if any Oxonian has ever referred to that academy as OU.)

• Hoping to find the Church a place of solace in times of trouble, Tolkien instead had to admit it was  “just another arena of strife and change.”

• Tolkien loved Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

Of course, I also noted some differences. I, for instance, did not create the Misty Mountains from my impression of Lauterbrunnen and then include my mental creation in an influential, best-selling, genre-creating novel. Also, I actually like Dorothy Sayers’s mystery stories. And I love The Chronicles of Narnia. But I’ll let Tolkien have his odd quirks.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Keeping Up Appearances

No, this post isn’t about one of my favorite TV shows. It’s just that most of my reading for August involved plots that turned on appearances and especially the difference between appearance and reality.

Phineas Redux is the fourth book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, a group of six novels centering on characters with positions in Parliament and the Ministry. Its constant inspection of the tension between duty to party, duty to truth, and duty to country ceratinly read like a commentary on current news. But what stood out to me even more was a theme of the appearance of faithlessness. Phineas appears to be faithless to his party near the beginning of the book. A few chapters in, Adelaide Palliser and Gerard Maule appear to abandon their love for one another. And about halfway through, Phineas appears to have murdered Mr. Bonteen.

Yes, he only appears to have killed the president of the Trade Board. I’m not giving anything away in saying he didn’t actually commit the deed. Like Hitchcock in Dial M for Murder, Trollope has a talent for revealing endings at the beginning of a story and then filling the path to those endings with suspense. I suppose I could say that Trollope himself gives an appearance of faithlessness to his readers by showing his hand. But (and here’s another almost certainly original analogy) as Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent showed, sometimes a joke is funnier when the punchline comes first.

In a year of reading Arthurian sources, I caught up on Chrétien de Troyes just about the time Phineas was standing trial. Among Chrétien’s late twelfth-century contributions to the legends were Camelot, the Holy Grail (which he identified merely as a “holy object”), and Lancelot: in other words, about half of what immediately springs to mind at the mention of everyone’s favorite King of all Britain. (In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, Arthur comes into the world with Merlin and Excalibur at his side. Wace added the Round Table to the recipe in 1155.)

Lancelot enters the world in a wonderful story in which he is known as the Knight of the Cart. The tale begins with Lancelot, having lost his mount, accepting a ride on a cart. Today’s reader learns two things very quickly: (1) riding a cart is the most shameful act any knight could ever commit, and (2) news of cart-riding travels very fast in Chrétien’s chivalric Britain. Everywhere he goes, everyone sees Lancelot as a disgrace to all that is good and decent, and yet he’s just doing whatever it takes to track down the kidnapped Guenevere. Appearances can be so deceiving!

When Lancelot finds his queen, he tears out the bars to her cell with his bare hands. Because the battle of appearance and reality is the theme of the story, he later restores the bars and leaves her in the cell in order to performs some deeds that will make the rescue perfect. But he has left the blood of his raw hands on the bed clothes, which doesn’t look so good for Guenevere.

Later in the story, the tables have turned: Guenevere is in Camelot and Lancelot is a prisoner. Lance hears of a tournament back home and convinces a serving girl who brings his daily food to let him out of his cell just long enough to compete. The poor girl points out that if he fights under his own colors and escutcheon, everyone will know that she has betrayed her master. So to protect her, Lancelot leaves for the weekend and jousts in disguise. Guenevere susses him out, though. As the Lady of the Tournament, she secretly bids the mysterious stranger to do his worst one day, and, honor bound to obey, he loses every match. The next day she instructs him to do his best, and sure enough, he wins every match. Only Lancelot could have the prowess to control his success so exactly.

By the date of this post, it appears as if I wrote and published it in August. But it is actually December as I type. The semester is almost over, and I’ll have more time to catch up on blogging in the next three weeks. So now it’s beginning to appear as if I will finish my minimal plan of one post for each month of 2017.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The World Expands

I have loved reading about American history for almost as long as I can remember – and I can remember my third birthday. I was reading biographies of Lincoln and Edison and history articles in the World Book long before fifth grade. Then on the first day of fifth grade I brought home a large textbook called, creatively enough, American History. I was so excited, I read many, many pages of it that first night.

I may have skipped the first part about the explorers, though. It didn’t seem so interesting to me simply to learn a list of names to associate with certain places on the maps. In my school district, we studied American history again in eighth grade and then in eleventh grade. Each time it was the same: I knew that I would enjoy the text and the class as soon as we got past the explorers.

By my third year of college, something had changed. I don’t remember if I had developed a new interest in Cabot and Cartier or if I just thought I needed to get over my aversion. But in 1978, I took as a history elective a course on the age of European exploration and colonization. My hopes to enjoy the textbook were dashed early, though. The professor announced on the first day of class that the best book on the subject, by Samuel Eliot Morison, had sadly just gone out of print. One day three or four years ago, as I was putting together the list for my third (now current) ten-year reading plan, I remembered that first day of class in college and feeling cheated by the publishing industry, and, finding that the book had made its way back into the marketplace, I made sure to put Morison’s The Great Explorers on my plan for the first year. No reason to wait longer than thirty-nine years to right a Great Wrong.

The excellent book was worth the wait. Morison sailed to many of the places he wrote about and could explain from personal experience the conditions of particular harbors and the intricacies of the maneuvers Magellan & Co. made in their travels of discovery. He drew not just dissociated names but living characters from journals, financial logs, and contemporary histories, and he presented a story that far transcended the mere placement of names on familiar shorelines.

But the part that interested me most was, ironically, the story of those shorelines. Eliot presented them in what for me was a new way. And because of this fresh approach, I am now prepared to announce What’s Wrong with the Way American History Has Been Taught – at least in fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades in Hazelwood School District in the 1960s and 70s. The problem is that my school books showed me those names on maps whose outlines were familiar to me. By contrast, Eliot showed me the maps drawn by contemporaries of the explorers themselves, and they looked quite different from what I’m used to seeing. John Cabot thought that Newfoundland was a peninsula of Asia, and a map drawn from his notes shows it as a large promontory projecting southward from the eastern end of Asia. Maps incorporating Columbus’s discoveries showed the islands he reported as parts of the Japanese archipelago. To put these sailors’ names on maps drawn from our position in time misrepresents their thinking and purposes and, most importantly of all, the way their adventures shaped the advancement of knowledge. We see two continents and then draw explorers’ names on shorelines. They saw shorelines and eventually had to learn to draw continents behind them.

To my mind, the most amazing discovery – the most monumental and yet frustratingly short-sighted – was that of Verrazano. His trek up the eastern coast from what are now the Carolinas to Canada proved that the lands Columbus and Cabot and Cartier and Frobisher investigated were not peninsulas and islands of Asia but parts of a New World, a new continent between Europe’s western reaches and Asia’s eastern bourne. But, amazingly, all along the Outer Banks, Verrazano believed he had discovered a very narrow continent. He never once sailed through the breaks to see if any land lay beyond but simply assumed that he was seeing a new ocean, what we would call the Pacific, just over the dunes.

What I would like to see is a computer animation of the changing view of the global map from 1492 to, say, 1592. I’d like to see Asia sprouting peninsulas like an amoeba extending pseudopods that break off to form new amoebas. To see islands popping up in the ocean like quantum particles appearing from nothing. To see the ocean divided as Verrazano’s journey extends a few scattered islands into a continent. To see the Earth grow larger as America extends south and west to meet the discoveries of Magellan and Drake. I’d like to see it, so I may have to draw it and program it myself. Maybe by the time my grandchildren are in fifth grade, they can learn about this era the right way.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Shapes Us

In June, I read a variety of things, none of which offers a main point around which to build a blog post. But all touch upon the structures, relationships, and forces that shape the individual. They even talk about forces that act upon us to make us free agents, a process that sounds like a contradiction at first but appears on closer inspection not to be.

According to his introduction, Augustine wrote On Grace and Free Will not, as a casual student of the history of theology might suppose, to emphasize grace in the persisting relationship of the two, but to defend free will against, as he says, those who take grace too far. Some religious thinkers at the time apparently wanted to place the immediate cause of every action in God’s Being, but Augustine points out that the Scripture speaks commandments as if to people who have the free power to obey or to disobey those commandments. The intention stated at the beginning of the book notwithstanding, as soon as Augustine mentions the Pelagians, he shifts to defending grace. He concludes that grace and free will work together: God shapes our wills, and we act freely to obtain what we will.

A biography of William James, William James in the Modern Maelstrom, is harder for me to summarize because it was harder for me to follow. I think I have a grasp on James’s psychological view after reading parts of his Principles of Psychology every year for many years. But to watch the ideas form, change, blend, crystallize, strengthen, and weaken over his life reminds me that even the most careful, insightful thinker is human after all. James’s work often addresses the forces that shape us, and forces indeed shaped his views of just how this works. His narcissistic father, the death of a girl he loved, other writers (Peirce and Emerson notably), experiences with his patients – all these experiences played roles in the development of his mature philosophical system. And that system in turn partly said that all thought and belief is grounded in experience. Late in his life, James turned to philosophy of religion and said that, since religious thought, too, should be grounded in personal experience, “earnest” religion must eschew institutions and dogmas. But what if my experience (including my experience of having read about James’s changing ideas) tells me that I should honor Church and dogma? Credo ut intelligam.

One quick note from some letters of C. S. Lewis: While America’s favorite Anglican held, as I do, reverence for the Christian Church and its ancient creeds, he held suspect a different kind of dogma. Lewis said he disapproved of lists of “greatest books” since, he complained, any such list handed people their tastes ready-made.

As with William James, reading Lewis, learning from him, and agreeing with him is exactly what makes me want to argue with him here. Was Lewis’s profession as a literature teacher not a matter of shaping his students’ tastes? Lewis’s interests have certainly shaped mine. His reading lists have influenced mine. His analysis of various Renaissance books has increased my understanding of them. I started my entire program in reading Great Books because of something Lewis said about Orlando Furioso. Maybe there are other books out there somewhere that I haven’t heard of that I would like better. It seems unlikely, but it’s theoretically possible. In my ignorance, though, I’m happy with my tastes and grateful that Lewis handed them to me ready-made.

But grace and free will are in tension. I wouldn’t accept and enjoy the gift of taste from Lewis if it didn’t resonate with what I already want. For Christmas when I was eight years old, my dad gave me an edition of Sidney Lanier’s boys’ version of King Arthur. I opened it up that December morning eager to enjoy it and read, “It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon.” I immediately closed the book, realizing that if I couldn’t understand the first line, I wouldn’t be able to get through 300 pages. Not yet, at least! If I knew I wasn’t up to the task at eight, I also knew that I would be one day, and that I wanted that day to come. My dad and Sidney Lanier were trying to shape my tastes, and I knew that I wanted what they had to offer even when I was too young to understand it. I knew it was in me to like a book that began “It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon.” And now I do like that book (and Malory’s “original”), partly because it presents a story in which God’s grace and the knights’ free will interact and cooperate to shape the story.