When I started this blog in August of 2010, I had no thought of making it through 300 posts. I didnt know if it would be easy or difficult, fun or tedious. I didn’t even know if I could figure out how to start a blog. But here we are, two-and-a-half years later, and today’s post is in fact the 300th in exlibrismagnis history. As I did on the 100th and 200th posts (here and here), today I’m sharing details of seven books – details that I think about often. Some of the books would be considered among the Great Books by anyone who cares for such a concept at all; others may be great only in my eyes. But they all find a place among my favorites, and these glimpses reveal just part of the reason why.
• Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln’s Army. You’ll find several posts on this website about Bruce Catton, all of which, I hope, convey some idea of the power with which his poetic historical writing moves me. I love the whole trilogy on the Army of the Potomac, but the passage I think about most often describes a typical evening of song in Civil War camps. In the winter of 1863, the opposing armies in Virginia were encamped for months facing each other on opposite banks of the Rappahannock. They traded coffee, cards, tobacco, jokes, potshots, and music. On the evening Catton describes, the armies’ bands compete for a while and then good-naturedly play each other’s songs, the band in blue playing “Dixie” and the band in gray playing “Yankee Doodle.” But then both bands play together “Home Sweet Home.” “150,000 fighting men tried to sing it and choked up and just sat there, silent, staring off into the darkness; and at last the music died away and the bandsmen put up their instruments and both armies went to bed. A few weeks later they were tearing each other apart in the lonely thickets around Chancellorsville.”
• C. S. Lewis, Perelandra. I had to take a break to recover after writing that last paragraph. Thanks for waiting. I’m sneaking two favorite moments in on this one. First, when Ransom says to God that it seems a bit ridiculous that he should play an instrumental role in ransoming a whole planet just because his name is Ransom, the Savior answers (I’m paraphrasing), “Do you know how long I worked to make sure that you got that name?” Second, the Stephenson household occasionally laughs when one of us unintentionally copies the Unman’s hideously annoying nonconversation: “Ransom?” “Yes?” “Oh, never mind.”
• Anthony Trollope, The Warden. Mr. Harding conducts and leads music at his church, but he gets caught up in a horrific and ethically challenging political tangle involving the clergy. It sounds, oh, so familiar. But I sometimes take solace in thinking of the good warden sitting on a bench along a dirt path silently fingering his air cello.
• Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. I don’t adhere to the Great Man theory of history, but I don’t dismiss the importance of the Great Man, either, as Tolstoy did. Still, I love Tolstoy’s summary example of his position: Napoleon would never have been able to march a million men across Europe if a million men hadn’t wanted to march across Europe. Now what I want to know is, how do you get a million men (or eighty freshmen) to want to do what they don’t want to do?
• Homer, The Odyssey. I often use Homer’s epic (and the rest of the story leading up to it) as the perfect example of the most essential plot:
Things are good at home.
Then they’re not good at home.
Hero leaves home to make things right.
Hero meets many adventures on his way to making things right.
Hero meets many adventures on his way back home.
When he gets home, hero finds still more problems.
Hero achieves final resolution.
This plot also happens to correspond neatly to the basic shape of sonata form, so it really makes sense to teach it in music class.
• Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Atheistic philosophers, by being great minds, prove the existence of God, says Hugo in one of his frequent “asides.” I just looked this passage up on Project Gutenberg, and it doesn’t exactly say what I remembered it saying. I thought Hugo said that the better their proofs against God were, the more they showed the greatness of the mind and of logic and thus proved God’s existence. The difference could be due to either embellishment on the part of my translator or abridgement on the part of Isabel F. Hapgood, the translator of the Gutenberg text. Or it could be due to loose translation in my loose memory. (While I’m on the topic, wouldn’t the musical and the recent movie be much, much better if they ended immediately with the death scene, without then going to the crowd of revolutionaries singing “Hear the song of angry men” on barricades in Heaven?)
• Stephen Ambrose, The Wild Blue. Ambrose’s history of B-24 bombers and their crews ends with one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. It would take too many words to tell it all, and the result wouldn’t be even 14% as good as the original. But I encourage you to get a copy of the book, turn to the back, and look for a story involving George McGovern, the birth of a baby, a failed bombing run, a fifty-year wait, and a farmer who hated Hitler.
I believe now that there will one day be a 400th post. It should appear sometime in December or January, I should say. At that time, I’ll write about seven more snippets from the list of my favorite books. In the meantime, the next post should be about Schopenhauer, who will not, I think, ever make it to that list.