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.


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  2. Another choice to access some of Gilbert's writings is through Google Books. You won't be able read entire books, but the previews available are hopefully extensive enough for a reader to decide whether to buy the book. Here is a link to the book recommended by the gentle author of this blog post: