Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Innumerable Decisive Battles of History

During the previous two years of my reading plan, I read in Will Durant's monumental medieval history, The Age of Faith, portions covering the Byzantine Empire, the beginnings and rise of Islam, and medieval Judaism.  What a fascinating parade of characters, events, nations, structures, and ideas!  Belisarius, Harun-al-Rashid, Avicenna, and the Jewish Exilarch should be common knowledge.

Yes, I know that last statement reveals a hopeless idealism.  After looking at some of the entrance exams for our incoming graduate students this week, I'm forced to lament that the Reformation, the French Revolution, and Origin of Species should be common knowledge.  Apparently they are not.  But then the dark ignorance which twentieth-century American education has bequeathed to us all is the whole reason for this reading project.  So let me say it again: these stories should be known, and since they aren't, at least now I know them.

This year, my assignment covered all the rise of organization that Chesterton referred to.  (See my post entitled "Christmas in August" from August 11, 2010.)  The passage includes chapters on the new beginnings of government in the northern countries, the conflicts between Pope and German Emperor and between Latin and Greek churches, feudalism, the Crusades, the economic revolution, late-medieval national governments all around Europe, and pre-Renaissance Italy.

I love every page.  Durant has the historian's sense of story and concern for sources, but he has the poet's eye for the vivid moment.  And while some historical writers get bogged down in strings of facts and forget to make a point, Durant never fails to provide a sweeping, picturesque summary point.  A sampling: The creative, fiery temperament of the Irish survives partly because Rome never conquered the island and imposed its laws.  The Popes' political recognition of the western Emperor (even when at odds) did more to sever the eastern and western churches than points of theology.  The medieval men and women who, generation after generation, cleared forests, dug canals, and built dikes to tame the European wilderness were the greatest heroes of civilization.  ("Perhaps, in proper perspective, this was the greatest campaign, the noblest victory, the most vital achievement of the Age of Faith.")  The biggest result of the Crusades was the establishment of wealthy trade routes with the East that replaced European feudalism with a culture of commerce and industry.  Russia provided costly protection for western Europe against the Mongols.  ("Perhaps the rest of Europe could go forth toward political and mental freedom, toward wealth, luxury, and art, because for over two centuries Russia remained beaten, humbled, stagnant, and poor.")

Our culture, of course, is not wholly ignorant of this history.  I hear periodic references to the Crusades, for instance, usually in service to an argument that Christianity, far from being the true way of life, is actually the source of all the ills of western history.  Durant, not overlooking hospitals, courts of law, universities, and the preservation and application of ancient philosophy, has more sense.   As someone who rejected Christian belief, he nevertheless maintained the very reasonable view expressed this way in his Caesar and Christ: "That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospel. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature of the history of Western man."  Christianity indeed looks pretty bad sometimes during the Middle Ages, yet Durant continues to respect its ideals and best possibilities as he understands them.

In speaking of Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia, he tells us, "He did not cease to be a Christian when he became a ruler.  He fed and clothed the poor, protected orphans and widows, gave hospitality to strangers, and bought freedom for slaves."  I was deeply struck by the criteria by which Durant recognized Wenceslas as a Christian.  I know many Christians who attend and serve their local congregation faithfully.  I know many Christians who believe every line of the Apostles' Creed.  I know several Christians who can quote hundreds of Bible verses from memory.  I know several Christians who work tirelessly among, for instance, high school and college students to make disciples.  And I know a few very brave Christians who work to translate the Bible and bring the Word to traditionally non-Christian cultures around the world.  I admire all these activities and trust that our Lord honors them all.  But would Durant recognize them as Christians?  Or would they just look like people with religious hobbies?  Jesus said He will one day call people like Wenceslas sheep and place them at his right hand.  Would that the American church looked like a thriving sheepfold to the Will Durants of this world.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Finding the Time

Reading this many books on a ten-year schedule involves a huge commitment of time and a great discipline.  How do I actually get all this reading done?  I have four secrets.

First, I take a book (or a Kindle) everywhere.  If I eat lunch alone, I have a book to read.  If I end up in a waiting room, I have a book to read.  Sometimes I only get in a page or two at a time, and it might seem that this strategy would spoil all sense of continuity.  But I figure I can either read this way, lose the train of the argument sometimes, and get more reading done, or else wait for longer continuous stretches of time and ultimately read less.  Being realistic, I remind myself that I'm only going to retain a fraction of all that I read anyway, so I go with the first option.

Second, I often read while I walk.  Almost every day, I take a walk of twenty or thirty minutes, and I take a book with me.  Sometimes I walk around the lakes close to my house; sometimes I walk around the campus or the neighborhoods close by.  I see other geeks like me only every once in a great while.  You'd think you might see more ambulatory walkers in a university town, but I actually meet more people who make funny faces or snide comments.  Oh, well, I'm happy to entertain others.

Third, I divide my reading into books that could be read for hours on end (if I find the time) and books that must be taken slowly.  Some of the books in the second category are philosophical works, some require note-taking, and some are historical works dense with facts.  For these books I make a schedule to read just a few pages a day, five days a week.  For some works, I schedule as few as five pages a day, for others as many as twenty.  Either way, I astonish myself each year at how much I can get through this way during the course of a year.  I just stick to my daily schedule as much as I can and use weekends to catch up if I must.

Finally, in December I prepare a calendar for the upcoming year.  (I posted my calendar for 2010 under a tab you can find at the top of this page.)  I glance at the calendar periodically to keep me on pace, and it usually just works.  Most years, I even get ahead a little and find time to read mysteries, children's literature, recommended books, or simply things that catch my eye. 

Now that I've started a blog, I may have to find a fifth secret of time management in order to keep up with it!  Next time, back to the list with a report on Durant's history of the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Christmas in August

After off-roading for a day with Henry James, I returned to the list to read some essays by Chesterton from the Illustrated London News.  I always find Chesterton's clarity and conviction refreshing and cheering, and this year's selection proved no exception.  I don't always agree with him (for instance, he claimed to believe in democracy to the point of respecting the will of the fist-slinging mob, and he opposed censorship to the point of scolding booksellers for not advertising books they found offensive).  But when the first essay from 1913 declares that a society that no longer believes in Christmas cannot truly understand Dickens, he has me completely hooked.  The Baby in the manger is the scene that makes sense of all the rest of life for me.  I know I should be theologically more correct if I said the empty tomb provided this grounding, but my heart tells me differently.

Bob Cratchit is one of Dickens's great Christian characters.  On his way home from Scrooge's counting house on Christmas Eve, Bob slides down an icy hill with some boys.  Let's say I go sledding on Christmas Eve.  Matching Bob's mere exercise doesn't make me Dickensian any more than eating or counting pennies on that day does.  But now if I were to do it, as Bob does, in honor of the Day, I would be Dickensian.  This kind of insight, which tells us about Dickens, Christ, and society all at once, is a classic Chestertonian distillation of ideas.

Later in the year Chesterton scolds an academic writer for declaring that Europe made no social or political advances during the Middle Ages.  Chesterton reminds this overreaching author that by 1200, medieval Europe had seen the rise of roads, long-distance commerce, cities, trade guilds, parliaments, and universities -- all from virtually nothing.  (I might add that the same period saw the gradual decline of trial by ordeal and the gradual rise of a centralized court system basing decisions on a written code.)

Chesterton always treats several topics in these essays so topical that I don't always understand their significance, but when he criticizes laws making divorce easier to acquire as tools of the rich to keep the poor in their place, the ground feels very familiar.  And when, in 1914, he begins to speak weekly about the outbreak of war, his current news is familiar enough to me as history to keep the observations comprehensible.

If you want to read some Chesterton, the weekly essays may not be the place to start.  I'd recommend Orthodoxy instead.  But if you want to read the essays. the complete collections from Ignatius Press still may not provide the right beginning.  You might check the libraries and used book dealers for the old selective collections such as Tremendous Trifles and Alarums and Excursions.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Suspense in the Hands of Henry James

My first post comes from the sickbed.  My wife, Nancy, had suggested to me that I start this blog, and being laid up for a week gave me an opportunity to find out how to do it.  I wish I could blame any problems on my illness, but I'm afraid I'm thinking about as well as possible -- I think.

I had first read The Turn of the Screw a few years ago on a business trip, supposing by its slender dimensions that it would be a good one-day read on the airplane.  I'm a slow reader.  To my wife, a slender volume might look like a good way to occupy one flight.  But I have to plan according to the pace of the Easily Distracted.  Apparently, though, I didn't read slowly enough; as I finished the book (some time during the second flight), it occurred to me that I had no idea what I had just read.

I know.  I should have started over right then and there.  But of course I had something else in line for the rest of the trip, and whatever it was surely must have looked like fresh air after James.  So I promised myself to get back to it Someday.  And with nothing else to do today, Someday arrived.

This second read brought me some comfort: I know what happened now, and I know that the report of what happened is ambiguous.  Even the title is given two explanations in the text!  So while I'm still confused, I know why this time.  My family can tell you: after a movie, I'm often confused about what I'm supposed to be confused about.  So this feels pretty good right now.

But, really, does James have to be so tedious in his mechanics?  I know that Strunk & White represent and teach a lean twentieth-century style that the Victorian James can't be expected to follow.  (My favorite author doesn't, and I love him for it!)  But surely his prose could have used a good scrubbing with rule 16: "Keep related words together."  Here's a representative sentence: "I found myself, to meet my friend the better, offering it, on the spot, sarcastically."  James is a master of the character who can't come to a conclusion in a decision-making process; perhaps he sympathizes, often finding it troublesome to come to the conclusion of a sentence.  Get rid of the awkward commas and repair the broken main clause, and we have a sentence we can deal with: "To meet my friend the better, I found myself offering it sarcastically on the spot."  Now if I only knew what "it" was.

I'm so glad I reread the book.  Yesterday, all I could have said was "There's two kids and a house."  Today I'm fairly sure that the two children provide the originals for all the creepy kids on Twilight Zone and X-Files, and for that, if for nothing else, I am grateful.