Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Urgent Message

What is the proper response to an envelope marked "Urgent"?  When I ask my classes this, they always answer correctly and immediately: "Throw it away."  What effect then, I ask them, does a reader get from a sentence that begins "Obviously," or "Surely," or "The important thing to note is"?  Obviously, the important thing to note is that these sentences end up sounding distinctly unimportant.  Any attempts by a student writer or a mass-marketeer to convince the audience of the importance of her message always backfire.

What should I think, then, of a recent novel whose group study questions (already a bad sign) include the pronouncement that the book is en epic along the lines of Shakespeare or ancient Greek drama?  You think such blatant self-aggrandizement is too far-fetched to be true?  That I made up this scenario?  Alas, this is exactly what you may read at the back of Gregory Maguire's Wicked, and I'm sorry to say, having finished the book (maybe there's a reason they put the study questions in the back), that the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West are about as Shakespearean as the contents of the junk envelope are urgent.

I suppose the right topics are present; they just aren't dealt with in a sophisticated way.  People simply have sex with whomever they "love."  Although religions play a large role in the plot, none of the religions of Oz seems to have any explanation for talking Animals (let alone scarecrows).  Killing seems to be wrong until someone gets mad.  The deepest "discussion" of evil takes the form of a two-page series of disconnected pronouncements by characters at a party, none of which play out their opinions for the reader -- or indeed take any part in the novel outside these two pages.

The cover of the book promises a probing examination of our assumptions about the nature of evil.  And then Elphaba is born green.  The publishers must think that no one in the United States has ever thought about whether skin color makes a person evil.  I suspected the worst at this point in the book, and my fears were confirmed when I made it to Elphaba's school days.  There we meet Doctor Dillamond, a talking Goat who is trying to prove that underneath it all, people and Animals (with a capital A -- it makes a difference in the book) are just the same.  Once he proves this, he plans to move on and do the same for men and women.  Maguire's sentimental ideas are so vague, he can only express them in these ridiculous terms.  Of course people and Animals are not just the same: one creature is a human and the other is a Goat.  If they were just the same, there would be nothing to investigate.  Where is this sameness that Maguire wants Doctor Dillamond to find with his newly invented microscope?  Every cell of any man has a Y chromosome, and every cell of any woman has two X's.  So far, we're still different.  Perhaps the Doctor has to look at the level of the atom and find that there's no such thing as human carbon and Goat carbon -- just carbon.  Congratulations!  You've not only discovered there's no difference between humans and Animals; you've just proven there's no difference between a human and a piece of coal.

If only Maguire had learned his Aristotle.  Any thing is defined by locating its genus and then its species.  The genus puts the thing in a category with other things that are just like it at this level, while the species indicates the differences that distinguish this thing from all the other members of the genus.  The Bible, because it talks common sense, recognizes that men and women are different at one level (contrary to popular belief, people in Bible times knew how babies were made; otherwise the virgin birth is no miracle) and the same at another level (for instance, "there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus").

Surely you will note the urgent message: Wicked and David Copperfield are alike in that they are novels.  They are different in that one is good.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Word on Plays, and Plays on Words

In 1987, Nancy and I stood atop the Acropolis in Athens and looked down, not knowing the visual history lesson we were about to see.  We received one of the most pleasant surprises of the whole trip.  Below us lay two ancient theaters: the one on the right with most of its seats and much of its superstructure of thick walls intact, the one on the left basically level with the ground.  The sturdy theater stands as a monument to the Romans' efficiency and brute-strength engineering; but the ruin on the left marks the beginning of western drama.  The chorus and the acted dialogue were invented here.  Sophocles and Euripides won prizes here.  The worship that once went on in the Parthenon just behind us is lost, for better or for worse, but many of the plays performed in that ruined theater below remain to instruct and delight.

My ten-year reading plan covers all forty-three extant plays from ancient Greece.  Earlier this year I read five: Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and four comedies by Aristophanes.  I highly recommend A. E. Haigh's Tragic Drama of the Greeks as a guide through these plays.  This year, Haigh's most helpful comment for me concerned Prometheus, about the god who stole fire from Zeus to give to men and was chained to a cliff in punishment.  Haigh suggests that the play is still popular (hey, in certain, very small circles, it's still popular; and after all Haigh wrote this a hundred years ago, when high school graduates were still literate) because it can be taken in several ways.  Some see Prometheus as a noble hero, taking his punishment for the greater good of mankind; not surprisingly some even see him as similar to Christ.  On the other hand, he is proud to a fault, and some see Aeschylus' Prometheus primarily as a warning against stubborn pride.  For the Christian, the options depend partly on how we view Zeus.  Does he represent God here, or is Zeus merely Zeus?  If we take him as God, then Prometheus comes out looking bad; all his fine talk about personal liberty really just boils down to rebellion against the One Who is both our Source and our End.  But if Zeus is just a selfish power who took charge by tossing his father off the heavenly throne, Prometheus suddenly becomes a model for life, teaching us to endure unjust suffering with patience.

The comedies by Aristophanes are wonderful.  Like any good comedies, they are full of topical humor, and much of their two-and-a-half-millennia-old news is lost on me.  But he delivers the humor so well, I like even what I don't understand.  Benjamin Bickley Rogers's brilliant translation helps a lot in this regard.  It's simply fun to read a play full of lines like these:
"Wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-where may he be
"that was calling for me?  In what locality
"pastureth he?"
No matter who "he" is, why he was calling, or where he is, the rhythmic lines bring smiles to my face.

Here's another example, reminiscent of Zeus' namesake, Dr. Seuss:
"A servant's a bird, and an ass is a bird.
"It must therefore assuredly follow
"That the Birds are to you (I protest it is true)
"Your prophetic divining Apollo."
While some of the play's newsy references are no longer familiar, the plot makes as much sense today as it ever did.  The birds, convinced that they were the original gods (they know the seasons, man sees various birds as symbols of both birth and death, etc.), try to found a new utopia: a city without lawyers or debts.  But as soon as they build their city, false priests and government officials appear and sponge off the citizens.  Similarly relevant, The Acharnians and The Knights poke merciless fun at warmongers and their terrible justifications for fighting.  It's a wonder no American in the past nine years has rediscovered them and turned one into a Bush-bashing musical.

Speaking of anti-war arguments, I've heard that the Parthenon survived beautifully until just about a century ago, when the Greeks used it as a munitions depot and the Turks hit it.  Who uses an ancient work of art as a munitions depot?!  (I guess we know the answer to that one.)  And I just read last month in Durant that many more of these ancient plays survived in Constantinople until 1204, when the Venetians set off on the "Fourth Crusade," totally ignoring the Muslims and sacking their Christian commercial rival instead.  Let us enjoy the plays we have before another war -- or illiteracy -- destroys them all.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Knowing One's Place

A friend has asked me a question after reading my post called Hell and the University. There, I said that in That Hideous Strength, Lewis makes the point that we cannot truly serve ourselves, but always ultimately serve someone greater than ourselves, of whom only two options exist: one good, one evil.  She asked me about the idea that Satan or any evil spirit might be greater than we.  Did I say the right thing?

In one way I certainly did not word this statement correctly: "greater" means too many things, some of which apply and some of which don't.  Clearly, for instance, Satan is not morally greater than any saint.  Neither will Satan surpass the saints in eternal glory.  (See the end of Lewis's great sermon "The Weight of Glory" for a gripping thought experiment on the comparative future glory of some of God's creatures.)

Soon after talking with my friend, I started reading my yearly dose of Augustine (books XI to XIV in The City of God) and found there some ideas that helped me think about my wording.  In discussing first simply whether a thing is good or bad, the great saint reminds us that the answer often depends on perspective.  Fire is beautiful and noble in itself, but harmful if it touches our frail bodies.  Some poisons can be medicinal when used "in conformity with their qualities and design."  Food is pleasant only when taken in moderation.  And so on.  The problem is that we usually judge a thing by its utility for us rather than according to its nature.  Naturally, we judge what we experience from human perspective; but, while we can't see through God's eyes, we can by faith believe that all created natures are good in his view.  After all, "God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good."  In referring specifically to the fallen angels, Augustine reminds us that while they are evil in will, they are still great in nature because they are angels.  If they were not so great in nature, their rebellion would not have been so tragic.

But how great are they?  By nature, Augustine says (and I agree with him), the angels are greater than humans.  In fact, Augustine sees everything in creation as arranged in ranks of greatness, every level filled in a way that expresses the wondrous glory of God in the greatest possible variety.  In our days of political correctness, we're not used to seeing anything hierarchically and probably feel offense at any talk of superiority.  But we are the oddballs of history here.  The notion of hierarchy runs all through the first letter to the Corinthians, for instance: some parts of the human body are superior to others, some offices are superior, some spiritual gifts, and on and on.

Augustine adopts Aristotle's hierarchical view of kinds of life: the lifeless stone is lower by nature than the nonsentient but living plants, which are lower than the sentient animals, which are lower than the rational humans.  The Bible seems to support this view; Peter, for instance, says that the unrighteous act like irrational animals but points out that the angels, "greater in might and power" than they, don't revile them (II Peter 2:12).  Back in I Corinthians again, a study of the original Greek of chapter 3 shows that Paul compares fleshly life, mental life, and spiritual life.  And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that at the incarnation Jesus was made a little lower than the angels.  By nature -- that is, in view of the original purpose of their design -- angels, even fallen angels, are greater than humans.

But my friend reminded me that Satan is a defeated power and as such is not greater than I.  Agreed.  Sadly, though, humans can debase themselves.  Some creatures -- the stars, for instance, and the irrational animals (see Ps. 19:1-6 and Jer. 8:7) -- stay in their place and serve God by fulfilling the purpose for which they were designed.  But creatures with a moral will do not always serve God and can descend morally lower than they stand by nature; again, the tragedy of this rebellion lies in the lasting distance between what they desire and Who they were designed to desire.  In the letter to the Romans, Paul tells us ominously that if a person yields obedience to anyone or anything else, he becomes the slave of that person or thing.  And this, I think, is what Lewis's story tells: when one tries to serve himself, he turns his will away from God (Who is his natural end), and ultimately yields obedience to the kingdom of sin, becoming its slave, and making himself in an additional way inferior to that kingdom and to its king.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lessons from Anthony Trollope

Sadly, Anthony Trollope's star has waned since the nineteenth century, when his books sold right next to Dickens's and Thackeray's.  But that waning star's light still strikes my eye with delight.  I save one Trollope novel to read each fall, just as the school year starts getting busy and hectic and maddening.  (This happens somewhere around week 1.)  His attention for detail, his warm humor, his quiet faith, his love for his characters, and his interesting personal intrusions into the narration bring me comfort, encouragement, joy, and understanding.  Every novel seems to end with a girl (affectionately referred to in the narration as "our heroine") and a boy getting married, but these are not simple romances; Trollope has something to teach us about life, as well.  Here are some lessons I learned recently (or received a refresher course on) from Barchester Towers, the second in a series about the fictional cathedral town of Barchester.

Villains are not necessary to drama.  Every character in Trollope shows a mixture of good and bad qualities, and the bad qualities never involve murder, grand larceny, or riotmongering.  Even Slope, the worst character in this novel, finagles and manipulates others only to get a position in the church with a comfortable salary--a commendable goal.  One supposes that having landed such a post, he would have been faithful to giving sermons he sincerely believed, as offensive as they might be to the rest of the congregation.  The other characters are flawed in equally mundane ways.  Mr. Harding is weak in the face of public opinion.  Bishop Proudie is henpecked.  The beautiful but crippled Madame Neroni enjoys the flattery she evokes from men she plans to ignore.  All these problems the reader might find in himself or in his friends.  We could be the subjects of great novels.  Which brings us to the second lesson:

The best drama is that of the normal person trying to do the right thing in everyday situations.  Do I break the confidence to tell a third person of potential harm?  Do I take the job when someone less qualified but far more needy also hopes for it?  Do I take the job when someone far less needy but more qualified also hopes for it?  How do I treat the distasteful person my child (or sibling) has chosen to marry?  What do I do when a new clergyman at the church to which I am devoted says things from the pulpit that I don't agree with?  These situations are terribly dramatic because they form the tense drama of our own real lives.  Trollope the narrator even assures us at one point that Eleanor will not marry Mr. Slope (whom he calls his least favorite character), and yet the outcome of all the intertwined stories still keeps us enthralled.

Musical worship wars have been around for a long time.  In this novel the conflict has to do with chanting vs. intoning.  I don't understand the difference, but I recognize the confusion when one of the characters finally admits to himself that he is arguing only about a musical style, not the content of the prayer being sung.

Church politics has been around for a long time.  As much as we wish the Church, of all institutions, would choose its servants through wisdom and for wisdom, it simply does not.  We must find a way to deal with the fact and worship anyway.

Having an established church is strange. When politics in the Church and the politics of the nation become entangled, things get very weird.  Our country has not dealt with the relation of Church and State in any consistent or logical way that I can discern.  But when I read of Parliament making appointments of clergy, and doing so in deals involving party politics, I become very glad we banned Congress from establishing any religion.

It is possible to criticize the church while still loving it. Trollope hangs out all the Church's dirty laundry -- petty attacks from the pulpit, well-paid clergy who hire curates to do all the work for them, decisions made in order to elicit a favorable story in the press -- and yet maintains his respect.  "It would not be becoming were I to travestie a sermon . . . .  I trust that I shall not be thought to scoff at the pulpit, though some may imagine that I do not feel all the reverence that is due to the cloth.  I may question the infallibility of the teachers, but I hope that I shall not therefore be accused of doubt as to the thing to be taught."  (Ch. 6)

People in the right never win fights.  Briefly, a person in the wrong must find fault with the other party and so is always ready with an attack; people in the right are never ready for that attack.  Read chapter 37 for Trollope's much more eloquent explanation, and then ponder the many lessons to be drawn from this observation.

Writing a novel must be fun.  Trollope was a Post Office worker.  In order to write novels, he woke up before dawn, wrote during his train ride to work, kept notebooks and word quotas.  But in spite of this mechanical method, when he tells the reader about his growing up with the characters, when he begs the reader not to judge a character too harshly for a bad decision, and when he fills a couple of pages near the end with an explanation of the difficulty of making a novel come out the right length, we see how much fun it all must have been for him.

I like to draw lessons from books, even from novels.  You, of course, may enjoy this novel in any way you wish -- even by ignoring it.  And you're certainly free to read it as a light romance, wondering who Eleanor is going to marry.  But don't worry; it's not Mr. Slope.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Importance of a Good Motto

Near the end of the movie The Wizard of Oz, the wizard tells the Cowardly Lion that many heroes parade their fortitude once a year with no more courage than the Lion has.  "But," he says, "they have one thing you haven't got: a medal."  Similarly, he tells the Tin Man that many people do good deeds all day with no more heart than the Tin Man has.  "But," he says, "they have one thing you haven't got: a testimonial."  And in the same vein, he tells the Scarecrow that many people go to universities and come out of them and think great thoughts with no more brains than the Scarecrow has.  "But," he says, "they have one thing that you haven't got: a diploma."  (Poor Dorothy!  "Oh, I don't think there's anything in that black bag for me!")

I've been thinking about the fame of the Scarecrow and other great thinkers.  It occurs to me that while many people think great thoughts and aren't remembered for them, others become famous for the very same thoughts because they have one thing the first haven't got: a motto.  I was happily amazed the other day when I read the following in Augustine's City of God: "I am most certain that I am and that I know and delight in this. . . .  I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, 'What if you are deceived?'  For if I am deceived, I am.  For he who is not, cannot be deceived."  I did not know that Augustine said anything like this.

I did, however, know that 1200 years later, Descartes said something astonishingly similar.  In the Meditations, we read, "I assuredly existed, since I was persuaded. But [suppose] there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived."  Why is Descartes remembered for this same thought and sometimes even credited for discovering it?  It must be because he had a good motto.  Covering the same ground in the Discourse on Method, he summarizes the argument, famously, "I think, therefore I am."  Everyone knows it.  Descartes's line works so well for us, we know it in two languages: "Cogito, ergo sum."

What power lies in the great motto!  You know the person and what our culture expects you to think of that person when you hear his motto.  "I came.  I saw.  I conquered."  "I cannot tell a lie."  "Bully!"  To reflect current technological trends, we now call these quotations sound bytes.  But the effect is the same.  We know Jim Lovell's cool-headed courage from his famous words, "Houston, we have a problem."  All the fatherly reassurance and inspiration of FDR's fireside chats resounds in his reminder, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." 

Augustine, of course, had his own memorable, quotable lines.  "As we are, such are the times."  "Make me chaste, but not yet."  Perhaps his greatest motto comes near the beginning of the Confessions: "Thou madest us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."  If all we knew of Augustine were these three statements, we would know of a man of faith and humility, a man willing to confess his weakness publicly before strangers around the world and for centuries to come.  Such a person is certainly happy not being known for the response to extreme skepticism.  Leave that for Descartes.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The First Blogger

In 1580, a Gascon named Michel de Montaigne published a book of essays, a new literary form, each instance of which expresses one person's thoughts about one topic.  Although the titles announce a range of subjects from coaches to cannibals, Montaigne says in his preface, "It is myself I paint. . . .  Myself am the matter of my book."

The preceding one-hundred volatile years had witnessed the discovery of new continents and the split of the European church.  In the upheaval, the notion of authority naturally lost ground to the idea that a man's opinion might be interesting or useful apart from any question of proving its validity.  "These are my own particular opinions and fancies," says the essayist in "On the Education of Children," "and I deliver them as only what I myself believe, and not for what I myself believe, and not for what is to be believed by others.  I have no other end in this writing, but only to discover myself, who, also, shall, peradventure, be another thing tomorrow, if I chance to meet any new instruction to change me.  I have no authority to be believed, neither do I desire it, being too conscious of my own inerudition to be able to instruct others."  Four-hundred thirty years later, this new attitude reigns in tweeting, the texter's admonition to "Rule the Air," and, yes, blogs such as this one.

But Montaigne's modesty goes a little too far.  He allows the possibility of being instructed himself; why not admit that he might instruct others?  The claims of inerudition are misleading as well; he could speak Latin fluently when he was six, and his essays contain frequent quotations from and allusions to classical authors.  Michel de Montaigne was definitely smarter than a fifth grader, which twenty-first century Americans apparently are not.  If any comment with an eighth of the eloquence and learning shown by Montaigne showed up on facebook, on a political ad, or in the university newspaper (not to mention official university documents), I would acknowledge a degree of authority in what I read and would consider allowing myself to be instructed.

True to the purpose of the form, though, Montaigne often wanders through seemingly random thoughts about each topic, frequently dropping a gem for the reader to stop and consider from different angles.  He finds, for instance, that while we talk of people smelling good or bad, we mostly want others to smell like nothing.  (Yes, I know, this from a sixteenth-century European.)  Elsewhere he notes that at a time of victory we often experience sorrow for the various costs of battle, that seemingly blind fortune often gives us something better than we would have chosen for ourselves, and that using the words of an intelligent person makes the speaker no more wise than wearing the other's clothes would.

In Essay 19, Montaigne defends the classic notion that to study philosophy is to learn to die.  By the exercise of the mind, he points out, we rehearse for the breakdown and eventual loss of the body.  Philosophy also teaches us the uselessness of fearing death: "To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago."  He adds to these classical arguments, though, by noting that the Christian religion, which he professes, teaches us to despise death because it is but a gateway to our reward.  Montaigne's Christian stoicism on this issue is inspiring.  But surely neither servile fear nor disdain can alone be the proper response to death.  While the Christian looks forward to the new life in the Divine Presence, is death not still an enemy?  The last enemy, according to Paul.  Did not Jesus weep at the grave of Lazarus, knowing full well that He was about to raise him back to life?  Does not every death of a Christian, now enjoying the face of Jesus, still remind us of the corruption that our race brought on this world by our sin?  Our response to death must surely be one of mixed emotions: joy and hope in the future reward, yet discomfort and penitence in the face of the curse.

In "Of Pedantry," Montaigne says that reading is useless if it only results in the ability to quote; any parrot can do that.  Only that reading benefits that reaches inside a person and changes him for the better.  Has my reading plan changed me inside for the better?  I pray so.  Has your reading of this blog made you better, dear reader?  I would like to say, "I have no authority to be believed, neither do I desire it, being too conscious of my own inerudition to be able to instruct others."  But then I would only be quoting.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hell and the University

The Biblical prophets told stories of spiritual death and destruction that flow from the palace, from the temple, from the high places, or from foreign lands.  In That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis offers an apocalyptic tale of destructive evil that spreads from the local college.

Lewis's Bracton College sounds so familiar: more talk of power than of curriculum, the marriage of education and business, faculty meetings in which "discussions" consist of various opinions serially stated, the young professor who wants to be an insider no matter what he is inside of, and the denial of the old values of goodness, beauty, and above all truth.  Did Lewis just write about an annoying quirk of his time, or did he really see this coming?  Either way, this third part of his space trilogy stands as a warning for our time.

The one aspect of the scenario that doesn't ring true in my experience is the justification the innovators give for the changes they want for the college: we must serve Humanity rather than humans.  I know this kind of talk goes on in the modern university, but I don't hear it much in the College of Fine Arts.  Once we find, though, that this justification is only a front, things become sadly much more familiar.  As readers follow Mark Studdock circle by circle into the heart of N.I.C.E., we peel through layers of justifications.  Later Mark discovers that Humanity is merely a goal that the public will accept.  The real purpose is the rule of the elite.  Behind this justification, however, lies naked, selfish power grabbing.  Further in, though, we discover the reality that self-serving people cannot exist as such: in the larger scheme, we all serve someone greater than ourselves, and in the spiritual realm there are only two choices.

The book is usually categorized as science fiction and will probably disappoint the reader expecting space travel or imaginative technology.  Lewis does show us a machine that provides nourishment to a moving severed head that may or may not be alive, but that small bit isn't sufficient for the classification.  The book certainly fits in with the first two installments of the trilogy, both of which involve space travel, and perhaps that connection makes it a science-fiction yarn.  But I want to suggest that in this novel, Lewis has redefined "science fiction" with an interesting twist.  The genre usually explores a society and technology different from our own but made possible by imagined innovations in science.  In That Hideous Strength, Lewis imagines a twentieth-century world in which an outmoded scientific view proves to be true.  Here, the ancient cosmology, as Lewis so helpfully depicts it in his The Discarded Image, reigns.  The palpable Heavens are full of light.  The moon's orbit stands as a border between corruptible earthly existence and the unfallen remnant of the universe.  The planets are moved by angels, each with a unique character and each influential on earthly life.

This rich book is mystifying at first and definitely rewards rereading.  But its basic story is very clear.  If N.I.C.E. is the best we can do, our culture will end in panic, frustration, and death.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Wholesome Addiction

I've been ill.  We've been car shopping (and buying).  Classes started two weeks ago, and I always forget how many students need help, even in the second week, determining what class they should be in.  I've been busy, and I've had no time to blog.  More importantly, I've had little time to read.

Not reading takes a toll on me.  I need it.  I've been reading for as long as I remember.  I have a picture of me reading with my dad when I was three years old, and I haven't really stopped since then.  I read books, comics, newspapers, cereal boxes, milk cartons, road signs, billboards, and shop windows.  I read the history of the restaurant on the back of the menu.  I read emails at work -- and live to regret it.  I read the forms people tell me to sign.  (A fellow at the car dealer was a little annoyed with me for doing that the other day.)  I read the credits at the end of movies.  I once spent an entire vacation in the Smoky Mountains reading a trash can.  (It was full of tables of facts from American History.  Judge me.)  To the mystification of young people everywhere, I even read instruction manuals, including the line that says, "Read all instructions before beginning to assemble your new patio grill."  I'll admit it: I'm addicted to reading.

I remember once sitting with my two-year-old son in the Target parking lot staring at the giant red letters above the store.  He asked me what I was so fascinated with, so I pointed out the letters to him and gave him a little quiz.  He knew A, B, and C when he was eighteen months old, so, while I don't remember definitely, I'm fairly sure he knew all the letters on this sign.  But he didn't know yet that it was a word.  And it occurred to me that when I looked at the giant red shapes above the store, I saw a word without any effort or decision, where he saw only giant red shapes.

I read once (of course I did) about a study done with U.S. and Canadian teen-agers to see how seriously they took the health warning on a package of cigarettes.  Each was given a package and told to study it for two minutes.  Afterwards the researchers asked them what they remembered and what they thought about what they had seen.  The surprising twist in the results was that, while the Canadian kids had various reactions to the warnings, the U.S. kids generally did not even remember a warning; it seems that the words on the package simply didn't register on their consciousness.  I can't imagine living that life.

So, of course, I've been reading a little during this busy period.  Besides the street signs and the ingredients lists, I've read from the Prayer Book and the Bible each morning.  And I've tried to stay faithful to The Plan.  Between lack of time, fatigue, and mental distraction, though, it hasn't been much, and it hasn't made as much sense as I would have wished.

But then just two days ago, in rereading some essays by Montaigne, I came across a passage that leaped from the page and seized my full attention.  In this passage, the essayist confessed to using pedantic quotations of classical sources in an argument denouncing this very kind of pedantry.  At that moment I experienced the delicious feeling of recall of a thought that had not crossed my mind in many years -- fourteen years in this case.  I remembered reading this line the first time and immediately beginning to like Montaigne, suddenly to think of him as a person I would love to have known and to have engaged in conversation.  The first time reading the passage introduced me to a new friend.  The recent reading -- by which I mean the very act of reading, the sensation of the pleasant memory, and the content -- came to me like a pearl of water on a leaf in a desert of enrollment lists and Transfer Substitution Forms.

The early Puritan settlements around Massachusetts Bay had the highest literacy rate of any civilization in history.  Now the children of the nation that sprang from those Pilgrims don't even recognize words as words when they see them.  I thank God for placing me outside this frightening trend, for the gift of reading, and for the comfort, joy, and healing it brings.