Friday, October 29, 2010

The Heart of Volition

I mentioned recently how excited I was about finding out what William James has to say on the diseases of the will.  James has not disappointed!  His view is interesting, helpful, compatible with the Bible, and -- as a result -- inspiring.  This later portion of the chapter on will strikes me as the heart of the whole book.

The will involves the positive and the negative: desires and inhibitions.  A healthy will balances these according to custom and wisdom, whereas a diseased will finds one or the other dominant.  James outlines two main diseases (or categories of disease) of the will: the explosive will and the obstructed will.  The first he sometimes calls "unchecked passion"; the second he once calls "sloth."  The first phrase reminds me of Biblical passages such as this in Titus: "For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world."  Of course,"sloth" carries Christian connotations because of its place as one of the seven deadly sins.

The Bible teaches us that knowing a law raises in us the temptation to break it: the story of the garden teaches it, and Paul's letters repeat the observation.  Our lives confirm this principle, and every episode of I Love Lucy depends on its truth.  James tells the story of a student who had a morbid, irrational temptation to throw himself out a window as a fellow student had done in order to commit suicide.  "Being a Catholic, he told his director, who said, 'All right! if you must, you must,' and added, 'Go ahead and do it,' thereby instantly quenching his desire.  This director," James says, "knew how to minister to a mind diseased."  He also knew, I think, Romans 7:7-8.

The "heart of our inquiry into volition," James says, is the understanding that effort of the will means "to ATTEND to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind."  Reading this reminds me of Paul saying, "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind," and "Remember the gospel by which you are saved, if you hold it fast."  Pay attention, says James, to the right things, even though your mind with its instincts and habits (the flesh, Biblically speaking?) keeps wanting to pay attention to the wrong things.  Very similarly, Paul says, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

James again: "What constitutes the difficulty, for a man laboring under an unwise passion, of acting as if the passion were unwise?  Certainly there is no physical difficulty.  It is as easy physically to avoid a fight as to begin one, to pocket one's money as to squander it on one's cupidities, to walk away from them as towards a coquette's door.  The difficulty is mental."  So, he says, we must make the effort to keep the wise end in mind at the expense of the unwise temptation that constantly begs for attention.  "Set your minds on things that are above," enjoins the Apostle, "not on things that are on earth."

James says that reasonable ideas will win over others ("Come, let us reason together," says the LORD through Isaiah) if we let them take hold, but first we have to give them a hearing.  "Passion's cue is always and everywhere to prevent their still small voice from being heard at all."  His wording invokes one Biblical phrase and makes me think of others -- of Solomon's Wisdom, for instance, crying in the streets and lamenting that no one listens.

Now, I'm not saying that the good Christian life is just a feat of psychology.  For one thing, I know the effort to keep the good, the just, the true, the wise, the beautiful at the center of my mind's attention requires the power of the Holy Spirit.  But I am saying that the old formula I learned as a kid, that Christianity is a matter of the heart and not the head, is a lot like saying that one half of the scissors is the important half.  The heart of the matter may be a matter of the heart, but just as the Son and Holy Spirit agree and work together for good, so must my mind and will.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A New Kind of Used Book

The main character in Annie Dillard's An American Childhood describes an interesting way of enjoying the library.  Before the days of computers, you'll remember, the back of every library book had a pocket that held a sign-out card.  A patron borrowing a book would pull out the card, sign the first open line, and trade it in at the desk for a date-due slip.  Dillard's character (whom I take to be a barely fictionalized version of Dillard herself) likes to pull down every book on some shelf and read the names on the cards.  In this way, she learns a little history of the book's life in her community: she sees how many people have taken the book out, how they write their names, how many times in a year the book gets checked out, and the like.  But she also learns about the people.  Sometimes she sees names of people she knows; sometimes she recognizes a name only from the cards in other books.  Either way she gets an idea of what books a given person likes and how much he reads.  For books that she likes, she contemplates the bond that links her to the other readers whose hands have cradled the book she now holds.

The days of the sign-out card are over.  But I enjoy owning and reading used books for a reason similar to Annie Dillard's.  I suppose the dearest object in my house is a copy of A Tale of Two Cities once owned by my dad.  It is my favorite book, but that copy of it is particularly special.  When I hold it and read it, I sense my dad as a teen-ager sitting beside me -- or actually inside me, reading with my eyes.  The flyleaf bears a diagonal stamp:

Board of Education

I like to think about how Dad got the book.  Did the school give it to him?  Did he borrow it and forget to bring it back (or "forget" to bring it back)?  Did he ever compare his time in school to Dr. Manette's stay in the Bastille?  (Why didn't I ask him these questions?!)

I also have an old volume of Tennyson with a hand-written inscription:

Flora H. Wanier
Carthage, Ill.
Merry Christmas

Flora fascinates me.  Did she write "Merry Christmas"?  Did she receive the book or give the book?  I know the owner must have enjoyed the book or at least respected its contents: inside the volume when I bought it was a clipped newspaper column defending Tennyson as worthy of enrollment with the very greatest of the English poets: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser.  The column includes a recommended list of poems to read in three successive sittings, and I like to think that Flora took three evenings to read the three poems.  The column bears the signature "Prof. J. H. Gilmore."  I think this is Joseph Henry Gilmore (1834-1918), who taught logic and English at the University of Rochester and wrote the hymn "He Leadeth Me."  I like to think of Tennyson inspiring Gilmore, who inspired Flora, who inspires me.  But I couldn't think of this grand path of influence without the used book, the palpable thing that once lay in the hands of another and now lies in my hands.  That kind of human connection doesn't arise with a new book.  And it could never, ever happen with an electronic copy of a book.

Or so I thought.

Last week I read a Kindle edition of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines.  It was a bit of fluff to read while walking, but it came with the recommendation of no less than C. S. Lewis.  Imagine my surprise when I reached the 3% mark and found an underlined passage marked "5 highlighters."  I think it means that five other readers of the Kindle edition decided to underline that passage.  Do my highlights also get stored and counted by the master Kindle computer?  Will they show up on other people's Kindles if a few other readers also decide to highlight the same passage I did?  Who are the people who highlighted King Solomon's Mines?  When did they read the book?  I want to know so much more!  But for now, I only know that five readers responded to an urge to highlight this sentence.  Speaking admiringly of Royal Navy officers, Haggard's Allen Quatermain says, "I fancy it is just the wide seas and the breath of God's winds that wash their hearts and blow the bitterness out of their minds and make them what men ought to be."  Were they sailors who marked the passage?  Sailors' wives?  Non-sailing men who wished they were real men and now knew why they weren't?  Or were they just deconstructionists finding evidence to indict the language for preserving and promoting sexism?  (I'm hoping for option 3.)  I feel almost connected and definitely intrigued by the potential.

Two follow-ups on the previous post:
(1) I thoroughly enjoyed today's reading in James about diseases of the will.  A favorite passage involved the conflict between the impulse to serve a good cause and the caution that prevents us from doing something dangerous.  Both urges are strong, and either urge might win out, but our evaluations of the two possible outcomes are far from evenly balanced.  No coward, explains James, ever says, "After a difficult struggle, I finally overcame my heroism."
(2) I finished the post with a trilemma.  I had three desires and wondered which I would fulfill.  As it turns out, none of the three.  I got up and washed dishes.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Want" Is Such a Tricky Word

Two magnets rush toward each other only to hit a wall that lies between; they remain pressing against the wall.  Romeo and Juliet rush toward each other only to meet a wall that lies between; they soon look for a way around the wall.  The latter pair have demonstrated the presence of minds, entities capable of holding an end in view while seeking indirect ways of reaching that end.  That vivid illustration comes up early in chapter 1 of William James's masterpiece, The Principles of Psychology, and typifies his knack for accessible analogies and examples. 

As it happens, William James and his talent for writing came up in something else I was reading the other day.  This other author in fact pointed out how much better a writer William was than his more famous brother Henry.  I couldn't agree more; while I revisit Henry only every decade or so, I enjoy a yearly meeting with William.  (My very first post, Suspense in the Hands of Henry James, says a little about obscurity in the more famous James's writing.)

Mortimer Adler, the driving force behind the Britannica Great Books set, pointed out once that the foundational books by the greatest minds tend to be accessible since they were generally addressed, by necessity, to laymen.  Lavoisier's book on chemistry comes readily to mind as an example.  The man who discovered hydrogen couldn't share his accomplishment with other experts in chemistry; there were no other experts.  His discovery changed the understanding of the elements and made every expert alchemist a novice in a totally new field.  While James's contributions weren't so revolutionary as Lavoisier's, his work speaks to the same audience: generally but not specially knowledgeable people willing to do a little work to educate themselves by means of a book.

So in chapter 26, "Will," James, making himself clear to the layman, locates human will in the familiar problem of the cold morning.  We want to get up, and we don't want to get up.  We think about getting out of bed, but our legs don't move.  Normally we think about what we want, and we do what's necessary, without any apparent effort of will.  I want food, for instance, and a fork with a piece of meat ends up in my mouth.  But waking up in bed on a cold morning presents a more complex situation--a situation with two conflicting ends in view: stay in bed and be warm, or be cold and start the day.  We have a myriad guiding principles, James tells us, some from instinct and some from acquired habit.  Some of these principles impel us toward goals (hunger, understanding the benefits of going to work, duty, etc.), and some inhibit us (ethical boundaries, knowledge of the pain touching the stove will cause, etc).  Several times a day two or more of these many principles come into conflict, and then we have to recognize, wrestle with, balance, set aside, or otherwise deal with the conflicts.  People with diseases of the will, he explains, have either impulsive desires that are unusually strong or inhibitors that are too weak and don't ever come to terms with conflict of the will.

I get excited when I read an explanation like this one of the will as a complex thing.  People sometimes ask me what I want, as if the question is simple, but I often answer, " 'Want' is such a tricky word."   At one level, I want several things.  But which option represents the lesser of two evils, or which is the greater of two goods?  The Christian has to recognize the complexity of the will.  We are told that a war is going on in our minds, that our will is being conformed to God's, that we do what we do not want, that we must control our desires and passions, and so on.  And this complexity seems obvious to me.  But apparently it's not obvious to everyone.  Plato, who was, shall we say, smarter than I, said that we always want the good, and that if we only know the right action, we will do it.  (So much of current educational theory is Platonic: just tell kids about the dangers of drugs, and they won't use them!)  He says it over and over, but I just can't see how it can be right.

One night in the '90s, I turned on a show I had never seen before: The Wonder Years.  About five minutes in, a junior-high English teacher (looking curiously a lot like my seventh-grade English teacher) asks young Kevin Arnold if he would like to be in the play.  While young Kevin twitches nervously and looks around the room, his adult self, twenty years older and remembering the story, tells the audience all the reasons he had for not being in the play.  Yet after this explanation, young Kevin looks at his teacher and says, "Sure."  I was so excited!  The show became one of my very favorites, partly because it shows an understanding of the will as a complex proposition.  The writers of The Wonder Years were smarter than Plato!

So William James also sees the complexity of the will, and again I'm excited.  After a slow start with this chapter last week (see the previous post), it has come alive to me.  I'm eager to read more tomorrow about diseases of the will.  When is the last time you talked with someone who could take that phrase seriously?  And yet we must if we understand that knowing the good doesn't mean that our will points directly to it without any competing desires or inhibitions.

I want to write more, and I want to return to my family, and I want to get ready for bed.  Which will I do?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Six Pages a Day

It still amazes me how much I can read just covering six pages a day.  Several years ago, I decided that I needed to pace myself on the denser, more difficult material, especially philosophy.  So I started a practice of always having two books going at once: one to read in as much as I could or wanted to every day (a novel, for instance), and one to read slowly at a steady pace.  In the Britannica Great Books set, with its tiny print, I found that six pages a day works best for most things.  In paperback editions, it might be twelve.

This practice has several benefits.  Turning just a few pages a day, for instance, certainly helps me get through material I don't enjoy as well as the rest.  I suppose the first book I read this way was Darwin's The Descent of Man.  I had given up on Origin of Species a few years earlier, and I didn't want to let myself down again.  But reading Darwin again quickly became really unpleasant.  It's not what you may think.  I've greatly enjoyed reading Lucretius, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and other writers sometimes considered inimical to Christianity.  But Darwin just doesn't measure up.  I mean, he can't even keep his directions straight.  He talks about man rising through the evolutionary process, and then he names his book The Descent of Man.  But six pages a day got me through that assignment, just as it gets me through difficult parts of otherwise enjoyable books.  While I generally love William James's Psychology, this week's passage about afferent and efferent feelings of innervation (can't tell you) didn't excite me.  But six pages a day got me through that part and to a more typical Jamesian passage about what the struggle to get out of bed on a cold morning tells us about human will.

Reading at this slow, regular pace also works especially well for philosophy that I take notes on.  I make an outline of every dialog of Plato that I read, every book of Aristotle, every question of Aquinas, and every theorem of Euclid.  I review the outline to help me find my place again the next day, I review it again at the end of the year as I contemplate what I've covered, and I review it again the following year to provide the context for the new year's reading.

For these rhythms take place on a larger scale, as well.  Every winter I warm up again with Dickens.  Every spring I plunge into Aquinas.  Shakespeare shines on long summer days, and Durant teaches me history near the beginning of the new school year.  As our lives progress we constantly turn pages: pages on calendars, pages in bank ledgers, pages in grade books, pages in instruction manuals, pages in concert programs, and on and on.  Some we turn each day, some once a month, and some at regular times in the year.  Life has ups and downs, ebbs and flows, races of hope and sloughs of despair, and yet time marches on, and daily, monthly, and yearly events tap out their faithful beats.  My discipline of six pages a day simply adds to this counterpoint another melodic layer of comfort and accomplishment.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Joys of Rereading

In his essay "On Stories," C. S. Lewis outlines two ways of enjoying a novel and argues that people who enjoy a book in only one way miss out on something.  His first type of enjoyment comes from reading for the plot: wondering what happens and experiencing "the tension and appeasement of imagined anxiety."  For this kind of reading (and for readers who enjoy books only in this way), the more danger, the better.  Keep the pace up.  Take the hero right from one harrowing near-disaster right into another.

The problem with reading only for this purpose, he says, is that desire for excitement doesn't care what kind of danger the hero is in.  Lewis claims to have failed once in explaining this to a fan of James Fennimore Cooper.  This fellow said that he read only for the excitement, and Lewis tried to teach him something about himself.  Surely, he said, it's more than that: without the wigwams and the forests and the Indian names, these books wouldn't differ from any other thrillers.  His friend astonished him, though, by claiming he didn't care at all about the setting and atmosphere of the books.

While Lewis discovered that not everyone reads for atmosphere, he still advocated doing so, even if we also read for the thrill of the plot.  And he provided a simple test.  Do you like to reread books?  If so, you can't be reading for the suspense and must be reading to reimmerse yourself in the atmosphere.  A person reading correctly reads a book again not for the surprise, since we already know the outcome, but for the surprisingness.  Let me just say that if C. S. Lewis offers a test, I want very much to pass it.  And I did.  Just barely.

Until about six years ago, I had reread only a handful of books (other than short children's books):  A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings, Charles Williams's Many Dimensions, and a very few others.  I've had reading lists, physical or mental, for almost as long as I can remember.  I went to the public library once when I was about six and sat down with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, determined to get through a chapter or so and then take it home.  After finding out that I couldn't make it through the first page, I made a note: read this book when you get older, and then all the other Jules Verne novels.  (I fulfilled this pact with myself in my teen years.)  My temperament tells me to read these things, to keep making the list longer and keep checking off the items.  So it was a big moment for me to start a systematic program of rereading.  It seemed to me a marker of midlife, an admission that I could not lengthen the list forever and must prepare to die satisfied that I had read a finite number of books.  (Pathetic, I know.  Some guys get red cars. Some guys get girlfriends.  I reread Vanity Fair.)

A large portion of the Plan includes books to reread: Dickens, Paradise Lost, and Pascal, for instance, as well as Lewis's space trilogy and Boswell's Life of Johnson.  I'm certainly not reading Boswell again for the plot.  There are no dangers or unexpected twists, no trajectory such as you find in, for instance, Lincoln's life.  Johnson's life just dances through conversations, dinner parties, and letters, and I read to be there with him, to sit at an old, rough deal table with round stains from countless mugs of beer, and to listen in on lofty conversation.

One evening we dine at the house of the brothers Dilly, bookseller friends.  The subject of bird migration arises, a new subject about which much doubt still prevails.  One of the company, perhaps the Reverend Mr. Toplady (I assume this is the author of "Rock of Ages"), points out against the theory of bird migration that some woodcocks have been seen in Essex in the summer.  Johnson replies: "Sir, that strengthens our argument.  Exceptio probat regulam.  Some being found shews, that, if all remained, many would be found."  Oh, to be in the company of writers interested in current scientific controversy, of friends that call each other "sir," of educated people who know Latin, of thinkers who understand how an exception proves a rule, of speakers who can draw the argument so quickly and so eloquently!  Rereading fulfills my wish.

"The literary man re-reads," says Lewis, "other men simply read.  A novel once read is to them like yesterday's newspaper.  One may have some hopes of a man who has never read the Odyssey, or Malory, or Boswell, or Pickwick: but none (as regards literature) of the man who tells you he has read them, and thinks that settles the matter.  It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk."  I've already reread The Pickwick Papers, and the other three are on my list.  So, as I said, I pass the test.

But before I feel too good about myself, I have a confession to make: Lewis's test was based on a false assumption.  I read novels again not just for the setting but for the surprises, too.  Maybe I concentrate too much on atmosphere, but I forget plot pretty quickly.  I can even reread mysteries, because I never, ever remember who done it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Parties for Introverts

A friend recently explained to me introversion and extroversion in a way that finally made sense to me: an introvert gets energy in solitude and is drained by crowds, while an extrovert gets energy from crowds and is drained by solitude.  Reading about it a little more the other day, I find that while introverts understand extroverts, extroverts can virtually never understand introverts.  That explains the confusing definitions I have come across before: they must have been written by extroverts.

I've been thinking about this distinction often recently as I sit alone at lunch reading.  At least, other people must think I'm alone.  Actually I have a book, and I've said for many years, "I'm having lunch with Spenser" -- or Homer, or Kierkegaard, etc.  They make great lunch partners.  They have a lot to say, yet they never get tired of being interrupted.  They're actually surprisingly responsive: besides waiting for me when I want to think about what they just said (or when I need a refill of Diet Coke), they actually quite often answer my questions within a couple of pages.  They are in fact the perfect conversation partners for an introvert.

The Life of Johnson seems especially suited for the introvert.  When I go to a party, I usually look for one person to talk to -- preferably a person under twelve.  I often like every person present at a party, but I go home exhausted and longing for a string of quiet evenings at home.

Reading Boswell, on the other hand, I am invited to every party, yet I can deal with each one on my own terms and end up energized by the experience.  I enter the Crown and Anchor, sit between David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith, listen to the Great Man, enjoy the steak and kidney pie, and go home satisfied.  I even offer up an opinion or two without any embarrassing consequences.

I suspect that anyone reading this post understands perfectly well and has never written a confusing definition of introversion.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What's Dr. Johnson up to Today?

In some movie version of Little Women (maybe Katherine Hepburn's?), Jo is at her Aunt March's house getting ready to read to her, pulls a book off the shelf, and says, "Let's see what Dr. Johnson is up to today."  Jo's line might convey a little cynicism and lack of enthusiasm: her literary sympathies lie less with Aunt March's classical preferences and more with romance and adventure stories.  But I think the line actually perfectly expresses the best way to read Boswell's Life of Johnson: just drop in on him and read a bit at a time.

The Boswell volume was the first I tried to read when I bought the Great Books set in 1995.  I devoured it night after night for over a month and made it through about two-hundred of the large, fine-print pages (a third of the biography) before stopping.  I knew I would come back, though; by this time Boswell had made me love the man.  He lays out all he knows about Johnson: his fervent Christian faith, his prejudice against the Scots, his brilliant fluency with the language, his tics and weird mannerisms, and above all his quick-witted readiness to speak clearly and thoughtfully on any subject.  A few years later I started reading a hundred pages a year until I finished the book.  Now I'm reading it for the second time, sixty pages a year for each of the ten years of my plan.

What's Dr. Johnson up to recently?  In the last couple of days, I've joined Boswell and Johnson at the Mitre tavern, where they dined with Oliver Goldsmith and General Oglethorpe (!).  Some of the topics of conversation:

  • The Scottish Isles (beautiful, and on the list of must-see locations)
  • Ghosts (denied only by materialists, even though only suspect anecdotal evidence exists)
  • Dueling (defensible in a polished Christian society but avoidable with a good sense of humor)
  • The degree of difference between Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian theology (necessarily small since the three represent branches of a single religion, and that the true religion)
  • Marriage (a boon of civilization, since man in a state of nature would be more tempted to move on to any new attractive mate that comes his way)
  • Literacy (conducive to class tensions when only some have it, conducive to peace and equality when all possess it)
  • Gambling (bad partly because it effects a transfer of property without the production of any trade good or service)
  • Methodists at Oxford (undesirable because they disagree with the principle of the institution)
Sometimes I sympathize with Johnson (I'm open to ghost stories).  Sometimes I disagree with him (dueling is defensible?!).  Sometimes I admire his courage (neither Catholics, Anglicans, nor Presbyterians would likely agree with his observation on theology).  And sometimes I simply learn (I tend to think of a different set of problems with gambling).  But I always enjoy.

Books take us farther and faster than any airplane does.  They introduce us to new friends better than facebook does.  They teach us more efficiently than any classroom lecture does.  They stand ready to serve at a moment's notice and may be set aside abruptly without any chance of offense.

And they instill desire.  I want to travel to the Scottish Isles.  I wish I could converse with Johnson and Boswell at the Mitre.  (By which I mean, I wish I could be there with them, and I wish I had the skills to enter the conversation.)  And I wish I could share my reading list with both Jo and Aunt March; they would each have found something on it to talk about.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Rewards of Spenser

Like the calm after a storm, like the victory celebration after the battle, like Saturday after a week of grading papers, Spenser's The Faerie Queene came up on my list after a disappointment (see the previous two posts).  Even though Spenser stopped only halfway through his plan of writing a British, Christian, epic poem in twelve books, the result is still monumental.  Each book centers on a single virtue: holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy.  The plot covers the adventurous meanderings of knights (including a certain Prince Arthur, who is destined to become king) in the service of Gloriana (a barely disguised Elizabeth I) as they fight for these virtues.  To read The Faerie Queene is to wander with these knights through magical forests, through beautiful poetry, and through inspiring lessons, and I love everything about the journey.

Consider this stanza from early in book VI:

But mongst them all was none more courteous Knight,
    Then Calidore, beloued ouer all,
    In whom it seemes, that gentlenesse of spright
    And manners mylde were planted naturall;
    To which he adding comely guize withall,
    And gracious speach, did steale mens hearts away.
    Nathlesse thereto he was full stout and tall,
    And well approu'd in batteilous affray,
That him did much renowme, and far his fame display.

I love the Elizabethan spelling: the extra e's (becoming silent at this time), the surprising vowels, the u's in place of v's (elsewhere, he uses v's in place of our u's!).  I love the slightly different vocabulary: mongst, spright, guize, nathlesse.  I love the ababbcbcc rhyme scheme and the six-foot line at the end of each stanza.  I love the way Spenser italicizes characters' names to help us through his dense wood of crisscrossing stories.  And I love the lesson: a courteous person can have bodily virtues of strength and comeliness but must add to them the mental and emotional virtues of gentle manners and gracious speech.

A note by the editor of the Penguin edition points out that scholars debate whether Spenser saw courtesy as aristocratic or democratic: does blood make a person courteous, or can anyone learn courteous manners?  This editor raises an interesting point but asks, I think, the wrong question.  Modern scholarship cares too much about who said what in the past and cares too little about whether what they said was true.  Of course, modernism would have to make this mistake once it adopted the premise that only concrete things can be true.  It seems to me Spenser tries to say both things.  The Salvage Man ("salvage" as in "savage" or "uncivilized"; he's not a junk collector), even without the aid of oral language, recognizes the nobility in Arthur and acts with all courtesy; yet Spenser must say that his family was of noble blood.  (Sadly, Spenser left this thread hanging in his incomplete work, and we never find out the Salvage Man's backstory.)  Later, though, the rustic Melibee shows hospitality and other courteous virtues, and a Hermit admits to leaving civilization and its recognition of nobility.  Here Spenser tells us that blood does not matter.  We can count on him to show every possible variation: civilized knights who act rudely and savage cannibals who act distinctly uncourteously also make their appearances.  He even has a baby saved from a bear and given to a gentle country man named Bruin: a fellow built like an animal can be courteous.  What did Spenser believe?  I think he believed it was a tricky question and wanted to show us all sides of the issue and learn the truth with him.  In other words, the contrasts that cause problems for the critics stand out as great strengths to me.

Despite this one problem, the Penguin edition has excellent notes and a glossary.  I have also found help in Mark Morton's plot summary (available online).  Rosemary Freeman's book on The Faerie Queene has proven the best detailed guide through the structure, historical references, etc.

The Faerie Queene is one of the classics that no one reads and one of the very best finds I have made in my search through great literature.  Get lost in Spenser's enchanted forest, and let him show you the Way.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Lectionary Pertinacity

The last post requires some context, some explanation, and some answers to questions.  To begin with, I should apologize to anyone who likes Gregory Maguire's Wicked.  The book offers a lot that a reasonable person could enjoy.  For instance, it presents an interesting world -- derivative, but interesting.  Its principle addition to Baum's world, the idea that the Witches of the West and North were once fellow students, is a terrific idea.  Even if the Shiz Academy loses to Hogwarts like a snail to a gazelle in the race of imagination, it allows us to see an intelligently offbeat young Elphaba pitted against a preppy, too-pretty-for-her-own-good Glinda.  And even if the best new character, Boq, mostly disappears halfway through, at least he's there to entertain for a while, oblivious to the deep kinship he has with Elphaba because all his conversations with her center around his shallow infatuation for Glinda.  There's plenty here to like.  For me, the weaknesses simply far outweighed these strengths.

But then, if it's not a great book, why read it?  The first answer is that I've run out of light reading for the year -- literally light, I mean, books that I can carry around and read while walking.  I'd seen this book in the bookstores for years, and the idea of a Fractured Fairy Tale (remember this from Bullwinkle?) for adults intrigued me.  I'm also fascinated by the whole postmodern nexus of derivative works speaking to each other (true postmodernists say "texts," not "works"): the original book spawned a great cinematic musical, and a century or so later, a reworking of original book and movie spawned another (so my daughter and others tell me) great musical.  Reading Wicked makes me want to experience the original book and movie again and to see the new musical.

But the experience quickly turned dreary.  Once I found out I didn't like the book, why continue reading?  For one thing, endings can make a huge difference.  The last page of A Farewell to Arms, for instance, retroactively sets the tone for the whole book.  If we find out that the events in the book lead to understanding or some other reward, we are inspired.  Instead we learn that all is purposeless, and suddenly the book becomes dark enough to help explain its author's end.  Hoping for a reverse effect, I kept reading Wicked.  (I did not get my wish.)

For another thing, I want to keep reading just for the mental discipline.  If I stop reading any book I don't enjoy, I'll never get through my list.  The plan is a pact I've made with myself, and I don't want to let myself down.  Besides, it's very difficult for me to leave a book unfinished.  Some people would call it OCD, but I don't see why OC always has to be a D.

But then I know I won't enjoy everything on the list, and I put some particular things on the list that I'm fairly certain I won't enjoy.  Why should I do this to myself?  I have to admit that I sometimes read things I don't enjoy because I think they're good for me, like bitter medicine or exercise.  Aristotle's Logic, for example, is hard to read but has helped to focus and discipline my thinking.

Sorry to say, however, Wicked has provided neither hope, enlightenment, nor strength.  At least not directly.  Bad examples always teach, though, and less-than-great books help us appreciate great books by comparison, just as encountering the villains in great books (Uriah Heap, for instance) helps us to understand the virtues of the heroes (David Copperfield, in this instance).  Boq's disappearance in Wicked provides a foil for Dickens's care in recalling even tertiary characters near the ends of his books, and gives me greater appreciation for his artistry.  So I kept reading.

But there's also the road-accident effect.  People look because they want to see something out of the ordinary and perhaps tragic.  They want a story to tell.  I keep reading books I don't like partly for the satisfaction of being able to say, "You've got to be kidding!"  And if the book is bad in a fascinating way, it gives me something interesting to say.  I hope the reader finds it so, for -- to mention a final reward -- I just got two blog posts out of it.