Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Two Lesser-Known Plays

In the last two days, I reread a couple of Shakespeare's less popular plays: Henry VIII and Pericles. They're unknown for a reason, I think. But I like Shakespeare enough, I've read each of them twice now in my lifetime.

I see Henry VIII sometimes ascribed to both the Bard and someone named John Fletcher -- the idea of a collaboration apparently a nineteenth-century theory. Sparknotes says that most present-day scholars don't hold to the idea that Fletcher wrote part of the work, but it wouldn't surprise me to find the old theory confirmed; Henry VIII just doesn't sound much like Shakespeare to me. The play is really more of a pageant, moving through the history and famous characters with all the motivation of a fact-laden schoolbook. Buckingham gets tried. Henry wants to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey's ambition is found out, and he falls from grace. Anne Boleyn (or "Bullen" as its spelled in the play) bears a child who "promises Upon this land a thousand blessings, Which time shall bring to ripeness" (the future Queen Elizabeth, of course). Twice the stage instructions describe an actual pageant: who marches when and wearing what symbol of authority. It all reminds me of the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland.

Because of the play's apparent purpose of merely commemorating famous episodes, neither the plot nor most of the characters have any true arc. Wolsey has something of a tragic arc; he frustrates his own ambitions by inadvertently including the damning evidence in a stack of documents he gives to the king. But his story comes to an end about halfway through, and then the rest of the play's scenes tick off like a string of loosely related codettas. Henry, mostly unanalyzed, just watches things happen and then demotes or kills people when he tires of them. Katherine (as Shakespeare spells it) is in, then she's out, and then she dies. Anne has no wish to be queen, and then she's the queen. The vignettes might as well be introduced by the old newscasters' cliche: "And now this."

The language is as prosaic as the plot. Consider this speech from Katherine's trial:
Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? What cause
Hath my behaviour given to your displeasure
That thus you should proceed to put me off
And take your good grace from me? Heaven witness,
I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will conformable,
Ever in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance--glad or sorry
As I saw it inclin'd. When was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew 
He were mine enemy?
The speech has only a few, weak figures. Compare "to your will conformable" to the famous sonnet's "the marriage of true minds." The enemies have no darkness for Katherine to shine on, no destroying flame for her to quench; she simply strives to love them. The passage has no archaic or newly coined words, not even any memorable combination of familiar words like, for instance, Hamlet's "outrageous fortune." The speech represents the play as a whole: the dialog has none of the wordplay Shakespeare usually offers. There are no clever uses of a word twice in rapid succession, no uses of an adjective as a verb. I started Macbeth this morning and quickly came across "kerns and gallowglasses," "doubly redoubled strokes," "screw your courage to the sticking-place," and "to glad her presence." Because of the dullness of the poetry in Henry VIII, the colorful king gets no arresting epithet that everyone now associates with him. If Mark Antony had been around, would he even have been able to say, "This was a man"?

By contrast, I didn't have to read far in Pericles to come across well-turned phrases like this one: "I leap into the seas, Where's hourly trouble for a minute's ease." This play has the language I expect from Shakespeare, even though scholars (even the current ones) think that he didn't write the first half, so it was much more rewarding to read. The problem is that some of the scenes and characters are distasteful. The play starts with an incestuous relationship between a king and his daughter. The story as a whole gets two things out of this situation: a reason for Pericles to flee (he finds out their secret) and a foil for happy families later in the play. Couldn't a secret adultery have served both purposes? Did it have to be child abuse by a father? Later, Pericles' daughter, poor Marina, gets orphaned, shipwrecked, captured by pirates, sold at auction, and then put into a brothel. This is the stuff of adventure yarns, and Marina shows and builds her virtue through this life of trouble, but do we really need to spend so much time with the thoroughly despicable married couple that runs the brothel?

Despite the problems, I've read both plays twice now and will probably read them a third time in another ten years or so. In any case, I should have more positive things to say about Macbeth in the next post.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

To Thine Own World Be True

Reading George H. Morrison's Christ in Shakespeare felt like breathing the fresh aromas of a bygone era. I read about this book many years ago in Books and Culture (something like the Times Sunday Book Review but aimed at Christians) but couldn't find it until just a few years ago when the internet made shopping for rare books so much easier. (I think it finally turned up at alibris, and I found it using bookfinder.com.) My copy is a new reprint from Kessinger Publishing, so it doesn't literally have the aroma of antique books. But its crisp photocopies of the original edition reproduce all the beautiful imperfections of the moveable type of James Clarke & Co. Limited, 9 Essex Street, Strand, W.C.2, and make it easy to imagine the calendar having been turned back eighty years.

The book consists of ten addresses delivered by the Rev. Dr. Morrison at Wellington Church, Glasgow in 1928. The "very large" audience he mentions in his preface must have enjoyed and benefited from the lectures, but I wonder if they could have appreciated them as much as I did, since this brand of intellectual criticism of literature, even from a pastor, was surely more common in their time, whereas for me it is a rare treat. For Morrison, Shakespeare is not the unwitting tool of an oppressive culture whose power structures lie encoded in the language the poet uses. No, it is Shakespeare who uses the language and not the other way around. But then neither, according to Morrison, is he a theologian or an overtly Christian writer who manipulates his characters and scenes so as to deliver a sermon in the form of a drama. "He does not set himself to prove anything, or to justify the ways of God to man. Shakespeare, for all the glory of his imagination, has the truly scientific temper in his perfect fidelity to fact." He observes the world, and he transmits his findings.

That foundation laid, Morrison proceeds to build a theology from the world Shakespeare depicts. Its ghosts, witches, and fairies tell us it is a world surrounded by a mysterious greater power. And yet no power, no fate, other than a man's own character determines his life. This combination indicates a world ruled by a God. External circumstances don't always bring about justice or happy endings, but evil consistently destroys, and judgment comforts or plagues the human soul internally according to its deserts. This dynamic indicates an absolute standard of goodness and a God who cares most of all about people.

I highly recommend the book, so I shouldn't give too much away, but it ends with a finger pointed to the Cross. This isn't the kind of analysis that attempts to prove anything -- either that Christianity is right or that Shakespeare was personally orthodox in his beliefs. It simply shows that Shakespeare and Christianity fit together like hand and glove. "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," but if it does fit you need not do anything more than admit a correspondence and a possibility.

While the main points depend on a broad view of several plays at once and their general atmosphere and conditions, Morrison fills many of the addresses with detailed character analysis, as well. Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Iago, Macbeth and his Lady, Lear, Cleopatra, Portia, and Hamlet all get some close attention, and I'll want to reread these passages when I get to the corresponding plays. I'll reread the Macbeth chapter, for instance, in just a few day before I go through the Scottish play again.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Do Not Feed the Animals

I read Animal Farm in a couple of sittings (actually a couple of walkings) this week and thoroughly enjoyed it. Afterwards, I read a little bit about it and found, as I expected, explanations that said the story was meant as an allegory for Stalin's totalitarian regime. One source (Sparknotes, perhaps?) even said that to understand the story better, we need to understand the history of the Soviet Union. These views seem totally backwards to me. Surely Orwell meant for his story to say something about the Soviet Union and not the other way around.

Sure, it adds depth to my experience of the novel to find that Napoleon corresponds to Stalin. But the pig clearly also has a connection with Napoleon Buonaparte, and the allusion to the Corsican dictator of France who attacked Russia points out things about Stalin: that he claimed to stand for populist revolution but really wanted an emperor's crown, that he had no qualms about killing, that he thought of Russia as land to rule and not as a great people, and so on. The use of Napoleon's name also tells me something about Orwell: that he saw dictators as all cut from the same mildewed cloth. But all these thoughts go from (or through) the fairy tale to the real world, not the other way around.

For in order to work, an allegory has to make sense as a story first without any specific reference outside its world. What do you think of this story?
A wise, kind man once had two daughters. The younger daughter had a doll, but the older daughter believed having dolls was immoral. So one day the two sisters got into a terrible fistfight. Nothing their father could do stopped the fighting, so he announced that he would declare the doll a real girl. Then he called in some cousins to help his firstborn win the fight, after which he took the doll away from the defeated girl. The older daughter said the doll should be her sister, and then a friend of the younger daughter killed the girls' father.
I think my story is pretty bad. Why would any girl consider having dolls immoral? Childish, maybe; immoral, no. How is it that their father can't get between them and stop the pummeling? What wise man would declare a doll a real girl? What kind man would ask people to beat up his daughter? And where does the murder come from? The story doesn't make sense. And it still doesn't make sense if I tell you that it is an allegory of the American Civil War. Oh, you can attach references now to the characters and events of my story, but this knowledge doesn't make it a good story. Specific real-world correspondences do not explain allegory. Q.E.D.

Animal Farm works, and it works because it makes sense on its own. Or not actually on its own, to be precise. It works because it rings true to life -- all of life, not just in the twentieth-century Soviet Union. Its dictator reminds us of all dictators (including the dictator each of us can be at times). Squealer works because he reminds me of every shameless toady I've ever known. I don't care what Soviet officer he represents; knowing would only give me a name. Everything I would know about the man, I would know from what I have read of Squealer. If, on the other hand, I became more interested in that history and read about Stalin's administration and learned more about this propogandist, I'm sure I'd shake my head sometimes while reading and mutter "Squealer" in disgust. In either case, history doesn't help me understand Orwell; Orwell helps me understand history.

Perhaps surprisingly, Soviet history is not on my reading plan, and I don't know enough about it already to catch all the allusions in Orwell's "fairy tale." So, if the book is about anything for me other than talking animals who take over a farm, it's about the social structures I'm familiar with. Since the story works as a story, it points to all of them: the United States government, the news media, my university. Animal Farm tells of rules that change at the whim of leaders, leaders who don't follow the rules even after they change them, sincere but gullible workers who have faith in leaders because faith is a good thing, slogans too simple to mean anything, spin doctors, grand visions that invoke a devotion great enough to make people justify acts they know are wrong, and endless awards that do more for the granter than for the grantee. This is not a story from half a century and half a world away. It is the story of life under the sun.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Progress with Hegel

In Plato's Apology, Socrates tells the story of the origins of his philosophical mission. The oracle at Delphi, he says, once announced that no one was wiser than Socrates. Socrates didn't think himself wise at all, so, bewildered by the prophecy, he set out to interrogate people who had reputations of wisdom. But he found that none were wise, although they all thought themselves so. Since everyone proved unwise, Socrates' conclusion was that the only difference between himself and these others -- his only superiority in wisdom -- lay in knowing that he was not wise.

I'm a fan of intellectual humility. All the evidence points to it as the proper attitude. Intellectual pride causes problems and makes people obnoxious. Our daily routine of mistakes and forgetfulness indicates mental weakness in humans. And faith tells us that God is beyond our comprehension, indicating a constitutional limit to our intellectual capacity. So it's with great trepidation that I set out to comment on something as complex as Hegel's philosophy, a system that causes many experts to admit their befuddlement. But here's a report of my limited view of Hegel.

His system begins with an interesting observation about being and identity. Psychologists tell us that a baby doesn't begin with a concept of self but develops it only when he figures out that these other characters running around are other selves. Hegel may have been the first to suggest such a process of discovery, although he described it not in relation to a single human's intellectual development but in relation to the whole universe. Whether anyone understands it yet or not, Person A can't be a person without the existence of Person B to establish the boundaries of what is and isn't Person A. Even more fundamentally, a thing called Being has no identity without a thing called Nothing. In fact, pure Being -- Being that doesn't serve as a quality of some existing thing -- is therefore not the Being of anything; it is Nothing. And since we can think of Nothing, Nothing is something that can be thought; Nothing has Being. The two have equal status and are reconciled by a constant process of Becoming.

Hegel bases his philosophy on these observations, and everything he discusses, he describes as existing in a perpetual flow of Becoming, as having both a history and a destiny. Importantly, this change, says Hegel, is overall one of progress. Humans become more wise, governments become more just, society becomes more free over time, and this progress is simply the inevitable way of the world. Peter Singer, the author of the extremely helpful Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, says that of all philosophers, Hegel would be the most disappointed to see how later generations adapted his ideas. Many totalitarian states (all of the Marxist states) drew justification directly or indirectly from Hegel's tenet that countries develop and change according to a fixed pattern. Surely Hegel, the great proponent of progress, wouldn't see Hitler's Germany as an improvement over the Fatherland he knew in the nineteenth century.

But progress in political history forms only one part of Hegel's theory of Becoming. According to Hegel, the fundamental truth of the universe is something he calls Spirit. This Spirit, like everything in Hegel's view, develops over the eons to a state of perfection. The appearance of humans and the psychological development of our race play parts in the progress of Spirit. Every advance we make, we make on behalf of universal Spirit. Art gets us closer to our destiny, but religion surpasses art, and philosophy even surpasses religion. And philosophy itself follows a determined path toward perfection. Every new idea, every discovery of the hidden truths of existence lends to the progress of the universe toward Absolute Spirit, a state in which the totality of existence (which our minds represent and serve) knows itself truly and knows that knowing itself is the only true knowledge. There is no distinction between an object and the perception of that object, no distinction between the knower and the known. As soon as humanity has discovered this truth, the purpose of all of history will have been met, the goal of the universe reached.

Considering this fuller picture of Hegel's system, should one be surprised at how people received and used the philosophy? As Singer points out, Hegel claims to have found the perspective that serves as the destination of the history of the world. Although Hegel doesn't say so directly, the amazing message is clearly implied: Hegel is the goal of history. The fundamental force of the universe has been operating for all of existence in order to prepare the way for Hegel, to produce him, and to have him discover the truth. His ideas complete the search undertaken by philosophy. His thoughts have reached the resting place that all art, all religion have longed for. In some ways I'm surprised that no one has started a Hegelian cult. (I was going to say "Hegelian religion," but that would be a contradiction, since Hegel claims that his philosophy surpasses religion.) A philosophy propounded by a man with such astonishing confidence in his unique importance can only have two consequences: either many people of many temperaments and levels of intelligence will find him a holy man and find his words spiritually nourishing, or else the masses will find the system lacking and the powermongers will adopt it as a tool.

At the very least, couldn't we guess that Hegel shouldn't be surprised that humanity might slip downhill after having reached the pinnacle? Claiming to have found the answer to life, the universe, and everything is like carrying a torch in the dynamite shed. It's much safer to follow Socrates and admit ignorance.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hegel and the Ideal in Art

The scene in African Queen where Humphrey Bogart has to get back into the water knowing about the leeches came to mind recently. I saw the picture of his reluctant face the other day when I picked up Hegel again for the second half of my reading assignment. Hegel's prose is often dense and difficult to understand, I don't usually agree with it when I do understand it, and much of it I don't enjoy reading. (No two of those reactions necessarily go together.) But I hold my determination to read to the end because so much of the academic work I read refers to Hegel.

In my last post, I called Potok's The Book of Lights a book about everything. Hegel certainly intended for his philosophical writings to cover everything. In various places, he addresses being and nothingness, God, man, mind and matter, logic, ethics, politics, economics, psychology, world history, art, religion, and philosophy. Stephen Houlgate's Hegel Reader for Blackwell Press admirably brings together pertinent excerpts from each of his works and, as hard as parts of it are to read, shows that Hegel saw his philosophy as a unified system that explained Everything.

I could certainly be wrong about this, but it occurred to me the other day that I don't know of anyone who has adopted Hegelian ethics as a way of life. Marx famously adopted (and adapted) Hegel's view of history as unfolding in a determined order. Houlgate mentions many other famous thinkers who have drawn inspiration from Hegel's logic, theology, psychology, and aesthetics. And from my training as a music theorist, I know that Moritz Hauptman applied Hegel's philosophy of Becoming to musical structure. But I don't know of anyone who has decided to live as a Hegelian, and that lack stands as an indictment against Hegel, because his work is supposed to hang together as one coherent system. Apparently it does not.

So when I say that recently I have read some things in Hegel that I liked, I'm not saying that his system suddenly looks more plausible. An unaimed weapon sometimes hits its mark, and a stopped clock is right twice a day. The first passage that captured my interest concerns the Ideal in art. Art should reveal the Ideal, Hegel says, and the Ideal is serene. The Ideal has no need for change or agitation. The best art then depicts joy and peace. Dissonance, sorrow, and ugliness have their place, but they must be presented in a spirit of "joyful submission." "Shrieking," he says. "whether of grief or of mirth, is not music at all. Even in suffering, the sweet tone of lament must sound through the griefs and alleviate them, so that it seems to us worth while so to suffer as to understand this lament."

This view makes some sense to me. I certainly prefer singing to shrieking, and I find laments the most satisfying or comforting when they convey an element of sweetness and understanding. But sometimes music full of shouting is right for the moment, and sometimes a bitter lesson must be swallowed. I scolded the schools in a recent post for teaching only authors such as Fitzgerald and Crane. I only meant to suggest that curricula balance these books with others of a different outlook. My complaint certainly doesn't extend to these authors themselves or their works. The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, and Death of a Salesman are beautiful works of art for all of their message of despair. They may be about loss, death, and "the horror," yet this literature, too, has its serenity in its form, in its honesty, in its appeal to an audience for sympathy. Schoenberg's unrelieved dissonance reveals a deep truth in its use of music to express the anguished heart.

Now I think that bad art exists. Its fault could come from unskilled mishandling of the artist's original intentions, from an intention to portray a dangerous ethic, from a dishonest misrepresentation of the human condition, or (and we've all been there) simply from a shallow vision not ultimately worth the time of the audience. But can one make art that is entirely ugly? Does bad art -- bad in any of the four ways just suggested -- truly have no value at all? Humans don't make art ex nihilo. Are not the materials beautiful because provided by the Creator? Is not the simplest, most unskilled human action in itself wondrous to behold? We certainly think so in the case of our own children. It seems to me that the Ideal can be found in a poem, song, or painting despite the least skill or the worst of intentions. Perhaps it's just that some art conveys the Ideal without demanding so much charity and searching on the part of the audience.

I have no answers for the flip side of this question, but it intrigues me. Can beautiful art exist without any element of pain? Even art intended to direct its human audience to the contemplation of the Divine must speak to that human audience, and those humans live in pain. They live in need of being directed to the Divine because their lives are far from Ideal. So it seems that even the happiest art, if it is to be good and honest, must have dissonances and conflicts to resolve. The reason Barney the Dinosaur was so hard for me to watch as a parent was that the kids on the show were always happy and kind (and that Barney had no elbows).

And yet what will music be like in Heaven? Will "those wounds" truly be "yet visible above" in the city where God promises no sorrow or pain? Will the music of the Blessed Realm still reflect separation, sorrow, and sin? Will it be beautiful without the element of pain that beauty requires here? Will it be less than beautiful? None of these three scenarios makes sense to me. I ponder such things, but I also know that the physics of the new heaven and earth may be so new that dissonance will be completely different or even impossible.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I'm a little ahead on part of my reading schedule, so I'm taking the opportunity to go off the list for a few days with Chaim Potok's The Book of Lights. A friend saw me reading this book at the food court today, and when he asked me what it was about, I didn't know just what to say at first. After a few moments of hesitation, I said, "It's about a Jewish man who gets ordained as a Rabbi in the 1950s and then goes to Korea as an army chaplain." But that's just a plot.

If I had decided to give a longer and different answer, I could have said the book was about life, death, light, darkness, mysticism, physics, regrets, visions, time, fire, language, sex, sight, vehicles, food, scholarship, disease, travel, and religion -- in short, pretty near everything. Most of these topics take on symbolic meaning early on, a meaning that resonates each time the subject arises later, even in mundane situations. In the first few pages we learn that young Gershon's uncle stokes the furnace in their Brooklyn apartment building, feeding the fire intended to keep the residents warm. The uncle becomes ill, though, from breathing the coal dust, so fire in this book quickly becomes a two-edged flaming sword, bringing both warmth and destruction. Gershon often hears fire engines and knows that people are losing their homes. The army provides fire to Gershon in his Quonset hut in Korea, bringing warmth against the winter cold and light for reading; but it has also used fire, as Potok reminds us, to destroy buildings and human lives in Tokyo.

Elevators provide another example. The reader first encounters an elevator in the seminary. It moves slowly and unpredictably at first and eventually breaks down, but these malfunctions don't disrupt the discussions of mysterious Kaballah passages. The broken elevator, in fact, seems entirely appropriate for a school more interested in mysticism than in modern technology. Potok tells us, though, that the elevators run perfectly smoothly in the all-too-worldly luxury hotel that appears later in the novel. The associations clearly established, every ostensibly casual mention of an elevator's functionality from then on (far too frequent not to be intentional) tells us something important about the worldview of the institution it serves.

All the topics weave in and out of the story continually like colored threads in a tapestry, meeting up and crossing each other seemingly in every possible combination. Scholarship-mysticism: Gershon studies books of Kaballah. Language-regrets: Gershon's uncle, bitter about the disappearance of his son in World War II, can no longer muster full sentences and speaks only in disconnected two-word phrases. Physics-scholarship: Einstein plays a part in the story. The atomic bomb his theories make possible adds another combination, explicitly called once the "death-light." Light-time-travel: the Americans experiencing jet lag from their flights to Korea get days and nights confused. Death-vehicles: Gershon sees a fatal accident caused by a runaway horse. Food-religion-disease: Gershon, attempting to stay Kosher in Korea, loses weight dangerously for lack of nutrition. Darkness-visions-travel-regrets: among the many voices Gershon hears is the voice of chaos challenging him to quit running from questions that can't be answered. Light-scholarship-sight-fire-travel: this voice tells Gershon that the brilliance of the great Jewish scholars of the twentieth century has blinded their successors, made ashes of all the great ideas, and sent the bereaved scholars running around the world seeking truth.

With all the combinations and slow accretions of connotation, the texture of the book eventually suggests that everything points to everything else, that all is connected. Which of course it is. At one point, Gershon's friend Arthur says, "God, he put together everything--matter, energy, space, time." Since Arthur believes he is talking about Einstein, he uses that first word as an interjection. But if we take the word as an appositive identifier of the pronoun "he"--reading the line with a kind of irony found often in C. S. Lewis and Flannery O'Connor, an irony probably partly inspired by John 11:49-52--we find Arthur unwittingly praising the Creator.

Potok, made in that Creator's image, puts everything together in his own artistic fashion. The themes run together like melodic lines in a fugue, always in motion yet always coordinated. Surely it's no accident that Gershon's favorite composer is the master of complex counterpoint, the very Christian J. S. Bach.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Book List for Kids

Yesterday I gave my theory, such as it is, on how to raise young people to be readers: they should grow up in a family that reads individually, that reads together, that enjoys reading, and that interacts with and talks about the books they read. I thought I would follow up with suggestions about books the kids can read, but given my theory that almost any books will do as long as the family talks about what's good and what's bad in them, my "suggestions" won't be much more than reminders and ideas.

For the tyke, no one needs help: Dr. Seuss, Little Critter, or whatever you find at the grocery store. Once they reach the age for chapter books, the school libraries and the bookstores will have plenty of suggestions. Read some of these books -- with the child or separately -- and talk about them. Don't give tests. Talk about what you like in the book, and ask what the child thinks. For instilling a love and habit of reading, you can't say anything much more effective than "Wasn't that cool!" For encouraging a deep engagement with books, the best thing to say might be "I didn't get it." Quote the book during the day. "Funny things are everywhere!"

Any series of books for children or young readers works well (as long as you think it's moral): if the child likes the first one, you'll have plenty of reading hours ahead. Virtually anything will do; my daughter read Mary Kate and Ashley mysteries for a while. A lot of classic series work great: The Wizard of Oz, The Bobbsey Twins, Anne of Green Gables, The Black Stallion, Tarzan, and on and on.

An important caution, though, if you want to introduce a girl to "classic" Nancy Drew: the most easily available editions present a rewritten version from the 60s that condensed and simplified the stories and took everything lovely out of the original language, the way almost everything educational did in the 60s. Look for the series of actual originals, written in the 1930s. This Amazon list and this fan page can help you find the right edition. I don't have first-hand experience of the differences in the Hardy Boys series, but I imagine they are similar. Here's the Amazon list and here's the fan page.

Three series deserve special mention. Both work for adults just as well as if not better than they do for children;  I suggest reading these out loud together. Madeleine l'Engle filled A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels with unforgettable, unique images and profound lessons, all wrapped up in exciting plots. The Narnia series was written by one of the greatest Christian writers of history and bears rereading every ten years because, with Narnian magic and maybe a little bit of depth in the thinking of the author, they age with the reader. And I honestly think Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are two of the finest books ever written.

My guess is that if any homeschooler actually reads this hoping for advice, they want direction on what literature to have the teen-ager read. If a thirteen-year-old wants to read, he or she can read almost any classic novel, play, or poem. My proposed list:
     • Jane Austen, Persuasion
     • Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
     • Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Comedy of Errors, Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard II (Remember, you have to read them, too. Better yet, act them out! Use No Fear Shakespeare at sparknotes.com if you have to, but only for "translation" of tough spots. Read them in the Bard's own words.)
     • Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend (Hard Times is definitely not the place to begin. Don't be tempted just because it's short. Oliver Twist, the one with the most familiar story, is ridiculous and only for people who have already learned to love the Great Man.)
     • Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer, The Vicar of Wakefield
     • Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd
     • Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
     • Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
     • Robert Sherwood, Abe Lincoln in Illinois
     • Kenneth Roberts, Arundel
     • Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
     • Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," "Silver Blaze"
     • Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
     • Anthony Trollope, The Warden
     • E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
     • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
     • Spenser, book I of The Faerie Queene
     • Chaucer, any part of the Canterbury Tales (Only the Miller's Tale is overly bawdy.)
     • Any poems you might want to choose by Donne, Browning, Yeats, Dickinson, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Cowper
     • Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"
     • Tom Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound
Write to me if you want my reason for including any of these.

Get into the following only when you're ready to discuss great art that hints at (or preaches outright) a bleak world with no meaning:
     • Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (Undermines the traditional view of courage.)
     • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Undermines the traditional view of greatness.)
     • Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
     • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
You get the idea: the things schools assign.

Finally we reach the most appropriate part of the post. Of the "Great Books" in the Britannica set or on my current reading plan, what works could a family read and learn from together? Anything would work, of course. But here's a list of suggestions to start with:
     • The Bible
     • Plato, Theaetetus, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo
     • Homer, The Odyssey
     • Aristophanes, The Frogs
     • Sophocles, Antigone
     • Aristotle, Ethics (Books 1, 2, & 10)
     • Euclid, Elements (Book 1)
     • Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith
     • John Milton, Paradise Lost
     • Antoine Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry (Part I)
     • Michel de Montaigne, "On the Education of Children"
     • Herodotus, The History (books 8 & 9)
     • Cervantes, Don Quixote
     • Epictetus, Discourses
     • Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
     • Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
     • Dante, Paradiso
     • Augustine, Confessions
     • Koran (at least Surah 1)
     • Lao-tzu, Tao te ching
     • Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
     • Mallory, Le Morte d'Arthur (As much or as little as you want)
     • Ralph Waldo Emerson, "History," "Heroism," "The Over-Soul," "The Poet"
     • Peter Kreeft (and Blaise Pascal), Christianity for Modern Pagans
     • Peter Kreeft (and Thomas Aquinas), A Shorter Summa
     • Machiavelli, The Prince
     • Bruce Catton, Army of the Potomac trilogy
     • James Flexner, Washington: The Indispensible Man
     • David McCullough, John Adams
     • Joseph Heller, Catch-22
     • Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
     • C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, "The Weight of Glory"
     • G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, "Science and Religion," "On Cheese"
     • J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings

The list covers ancient times, the middle ages, the Renaissance, and modern times. It has comedy and tragedy, drama and essay, religion and politics, biography and fantasy, philosophy and American history, and proof of the Pythagorean theorem. If I had read a fifth of each of these lists before I went to college, I'd be -- well, I think I'd be happier. But I probably wouldn't have this blog.

Monday, May 9, 2011

How Do Kids Become Readers?

Among other things right now, I'm reading term papers. Yuck. I'm tired enough of the unsophisticated theses, the gross redundancies (say the same thing four times, and call it a paragraph), the wavering back and forth between general statements and specific observation, the pages filled with forms of "to be." I'm even more sickened by the number of times I have to insert a comma before the conjunction in a compound sentence and write, "Turabian 21.2.1." (1: These are graduate students. 2: They should have, study, and know Turabian. 3: I give them a list of my favorite rules at the beginning of the semester -- 21.2.1 among them -- and I tell them to pay special attention to those rules. 4: We all learned that rule in seventh grade.) But why, oh, why do I have to tell university students to use an apostrophe when making a possessive form of a noun? Why must I correct them on the difference between "to" and "too"?

I know the reasons. The first reason prompted my reading program and this blog: the schools quit caring in the 60s. Spelling only counts now on spelling tests. To correct a student's spelling or grammar on an essay would stifle his creativity. At least that's what my son's fourth-grade teacher told me.

The second reason I learned from Mortimer Adler. In his book called How to Read a Book (imagine your own Monty Python routine here), Adler points out that students can't write because students don't read. My university touts a commitment to teaching "writing across the curriculum." Every field must require prose writing. Every Gen-Ed course must require prose writing. Every instructor should teach writing. But, as Adler points out, it doesn't do any good to teach writing to people who don't read. And most university students don't read.

I was thinking of posting ideas for great books that kids could read, maybe the skeleton of a curriculum for homeschoolers (by which I mean parents who want to teach their kids, no matter where the kids go to school). But it occurred to me that a list like that would mislead if not offered in the context of suggestions for how to turn kids into readers.

We all know the way not to do it: assign reading. The schools all assign books (The Great Gatsby, Things Fall Apart, whatever we can think of using to tell a teen-ager that life is pointless) and make students write reports or fill out worksheets. As a result, we have a nation of people who don't and can't read. So clearly we must give up that idea. And yet we won't get kids to read if we never suggest books, either.

What's the solution? I don't have test studies and statistics. I only have anecdotal evidence from four people: the four people in my immediate family, all of whom are readers and all of whom can write a clear, organized, well-spelled, correctly punctuated paragraph. It's only anecdotal evidence, but it all points consistently the same way. Here are the rules:

(1) Parents have to teach reading by modeling it. They have to read, their children have to know they read, and the children have to see their parents enjoying it.

(2) Parents and their kids need to read together. My dad read to me and had me read to him. I read to my kids, and they read to me. Comic books. Kids' books. Tom Sawyer. Whatever you think is appropriate. Even if it's of poor quality, it will work because of no. 3.

(3) Parents have to talk about books. They have to show the kids that books aren't something to go through and get information out of. A good reader interacts with the book, questions it, experiments with it, learns from it, doubts it, quotes it, acts it out, tries to think of better ways to say the same thing, tries to think of worse ways to say the same thing, judges it, and uses it to judge himself. This goes for fiction and nonfiction. As a matter of fact, it goes for TV and movies, too. Just talk about it. Any reaction can start a good conversation. "She shouldn't have done that!" "What a great word!" "This could end up either very good or very bad." "That character reminds me of my uncle." And a common one from me: "I'm completely lost. Would someone please explain what's going on?"

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

In his account of one of the many battles between the Romans and the Samnites, Livy describes the enemy's uniforms. The Samnites, he says, "besides their many preparations for the field, made no little glitter with new decorations of their armour." Items of "glitter" included gold and silver trim on their shields, tunics of various colors, and plumes on their helmets "to add to the appearance of their stature."

Now many countries through the ages have dressed their troops in attractive uniforms. I would venture to say that not a few men from history, wavering in a decision to enlist, have ultimately made the commitment because of the impressive look of a dress uniform. Certainly many a young woman has come to accept her husband's or boyfriend's decision only after seeing him in his new uniform. A sharp uniform builds confidence, commitment, cohesion, and courage. So I'm not surprised to learn that the Samnites favored such decorations or that they matched the decorations with "many preparations for the field" or that they occasionally won a battle against the Romans.

I am a bit surprised, though, to learn that the Romans of the Republican era despised such finery. Perhaps my view of the legionnaire depends too much on Hollywood costume epics. According to Livy, the commanders taught their men that "a soldier ought to be rough; not decorated with gold and silver, but placing his confidence in his sword. That matters of this kind were in reality spoil rather than armour; glittering before action, but soon losing their brilliancy when besmeared with blood. That the brightest ornament of a soldier was valour."

There are two types of people in the world: those who like to divide the world up into two types of people and those who don't. Those in the first group might agree that the world could be divided into people who see decoration as good and people who see decoration as bad. People like Livy's Republican soldiers see decoration as bad because they value only useful things. Some things are useful and necessary, and some things are decorative and superfluous, they would say; keep the goal in mind and (it seems so logical and straightforward!) employ only the useful to reach the goal. The soldier's goal, they would say, is victory, and swords achieve victory -- not plumes.

But people like the Samnites might tell the utilitarian Romans that they aren't looking at the problem the right way. Plumes make a soldier look taller and feel taller, and those psychological effects can make a soldier more confident. Colors help make a soldier committed to his unit, and that commitment keeps him marching into fire when all his mates are. Those dress uniforms help keep the girlfriends and wives proud of their men, and that pride keeps the home front in support. And confidence, commitment, and pride at home help win wars. We agree, the Samnite argues, that the soldier should value the useful. We simply see decorations as useful.

Our culture has lost a taste for glitter, it seems. We no longer see plumes and gold trim as useful, but only as the frivolous decorations of a bygone era. Americans moved to the city in the twentieth century. We embraced the assembly line and the sales pitch. Our favorite decorations are made of plastic: from the chrome-colored trim in our mass-manufactured automobiles to the flowers and trees in our corporate offices, it's all plastic. We have become prosaic. Ken Burns's Civil War includes the reading of many beautiful, eloquent letters written by the farmboys and mechanics who fought that war. If you could find ten current soldiers who would watch an episode, seven of them would likely have trouble understanding these letters, let alone being able to write more like them.

The language of the Shahnameh is full of poetic images. The king is as tall as a cypress. The princess is as beautiful as Canopus. The warrior has the courage of the lion and the claws of the leopard. At the hero's death the moon came down from her sphere to mourn. Such turns of phrase grace every page. But most Americans obliviously walk by cypresses planted by landscapers. Most Americans can't see the stars through the light pollution and chemical pollution. Most Americans think of a lion as a caged animal. Between our schools that no longer teach grammar and literature (my college students prove it) and our devotion to online friending and pharmaceuticals and plastics and everything that's fake, how far are we from any hope of regaining an appreciation for glitter? Unless we learn to view gold trim on a shield in the Samnite way, I fear we can never begin to understand a statement such as this one: "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Epic Proportions

I still can't say if the Shahnameh is greater than the Iliad. I certainly don't feel ready to judge the national epic of a great and storied people. But I can say I'm still enjoying it.

Rather than Homer's tale of heroes and war, Ferdowsi's Persian Book of Kings reminds me more of the Arthurian tales, with glorious kings selecting warriors from an inner circle to send out on adventures, and the Biblical books of Genesis and Samuel, with multigenerational stories and battle accounts that focus on individuals.

Without revealing anything special about God, the work is religious in that both narrator and characters praise God and credit Him with good events. But the book's religious themes raise questions for me. Just how early was Persia monotheistic? Do Ferdowsi's stories reflect the Zoroastrianism of earlier times, or is he projecting Islam on early Iranians? As one would expect of a Persian epic, the tales often involve astrology and horoscopes, as well, and the characters often speak of a fate written in the stars. In the world of this book, do the heavens determine the fate of humans, or do they merely reveal the will of God? After one bad horoscope, Ferdowsi relates that the people involved "take refuge in the will of God." According to a fellow named Piran, "The ever-turning skies bestow now joy, now sorrow, on the world below," but another character calls God "He who rules the sun and moon eternally."

The best parts of the Shahnameh involve an inner conflict of a character whose path in life is not clear. For a while, the narrative stays devoted to a war between the Iranians and a land of demons, and in this portion, the good guys and the bad guys were all clearly defined and fairly boring. But just as I think that the next boy born will grow up to be yet another warrior tall as a cypress, fierce as a lion, and ready to fight all the evil foreigners, along comes Seyavash. This son of the Iranian king Kovus demurs when his father tells him to go have a good time in the harem and further angers the king by diffusing a war with the Turks rather than escalating it. As an exile, Seyavash ends up serving the Turkish king Afrasyab (a name that would be much easier to pronounce spelled in reverse order) but builds a palace with a mural of Kovus as well. At Seyavash's advice, Afrasyab gives up his desires to attack Iran, yet he remains wary of "raising a leopard" in his midst: like wild predators, foreign kings' sons can never be fully tamed. The warrior Garsivaz lies and stirs up discord between Afrasyab and Seyavash, but perhaps only because he wants to protect his nation from the destruction he believes Seyavash will eventually bring. So who's good here and who's bad? I don't know, but Seyavash has had a premonition that he'll die young, and I only have about ten pages left in his tale. So I think I'm about to get some kind of answers.

Most of the other good stories so far involve Rostam, whom the book cover touts as the central hero of the book. Rostam chooses a horse by pressing down on the backs of potential mounts until he finds one whose belly doesn't end up touching the ground. I'm not sure the physics of that story really works, but I like it. Rostam is powerful enough that, while loyal to the king, he can make his own demands and just sit out each crisis until the king has to call on him. He often fights several heroes at once, usually winning by simply lifting the opponents one by one off of their saddles and throwing them to the ground.

But a son he has by a slave girl named Tahmineh has cast a shadow on his glory. Tahmineh raises the boy, Sohrab, by herself (how is a hero supposed to make a happy little home with a slave?!), so when Rostam hears of a new mighty warrior in the north only nine years later, it never enters his mind that the powerful knight could be his son. They end up in a fight, of course, and Rostam delivers a mortal wound. But just before he dies, Sohrab prophesies that his father will take revenge on the one who killed him -- not knowing that the two are one. So at some point, I expect Rostam to bring about his own downfall.