Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Awards – 2014

Happy New Year’s Eve! If I don’t publish the awards for Year 8 today, I’ll be a year late! So let’s get to it.

Hall of Fame: Charles Dickens
I reread my favorite book, this year: A Tale of Two Cities. So, as usual, I just placed Dickens in his own category so no one else has to compete with him.

Best New Read, Philosophy: Thomas Reid
Reid answered a question that had needled me for almost thirty years. Locke and Hume came to doubt many things because of the images we see. Our thought, they said, is thought of a picture, and that picture, in a second relationship, is a picture of a thing; how do we know, they asked, that these images represent things faithfully or that the things exist at all? Reid’s solution: to doubt the existence of the images themselves. My mental activity is not the sight of a mediating image which itself represents (or doesn’t) an object. My mental activity is that image, and that image is the thought of the visible object. Changes of perspective, rather than making us doubt the reliability of our senses as Locke and Hume argued, prove their reliability by following the rules of geometry.

Best New Read, Poetry: G. K. Chesterton, Ballad of the White Horse
I had to read it twice, but the second time was magical. Alfred the Great asks a vision of Mary to show him what will happen on earth, since knowledge of Heaven lies beyond him. You have it all backwards, replies Mary: any schoolgirl can know about Heaven, but God has placed tomorrow’s earthly events outside our reach. We must simply do what’s right without knowing if it will achieve results. Alfred ends up successful, but like the chalk horse, his success will fade to oblivion if people don’t continue to refresh the memory.

Best New Read, Fiction: Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset
As if the first five books in the series weren’t joy enough, the sixth book brings back all the characters and stories and makes them all glow with twice as much warmth of wisdom, wit, and cheer.

Best New Read, Theology: Bonaventure, Journey of the Mind into God
I had once before tried this book and couldn’t make any sense out of it. This time, it all fell into place. Bonaventure outlines a plan for mental activity at six levels, showing how even the most basic daily thought about the most mundane things can reveal God and bring us closer to Him.

Best Comparative Read: Electra x 2
While Sophocles presents some interesting alternatives, he simply accepts the idea that Apollo might rightly tell Orestes to kill his mother. But Euripides, struggling with belief, has Castor and Pollux tell Orestes that Apollo’s command itself was evil. Euripides gets better with every play!

Best Second Visit: Williams, The Greater Trumps
Yes, I already said that Bonaventure greatly improved on rereading. But I only read a few pages of that one the first time. I read all of The Greater Trumps several years ago, but I was feverish, so Williams’s mystical narration was two times as confusing. This time around, he was only obscure, not opaque. And I received wisdom from watching the dance of the figures and smiling with the Fool.

Lowest Wait-to-Payoff Ratio: Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences
After waiting twenty years to try to finish this dense book, I had to wait one-hundred more pages before Husserl finally stated his purpose: his view of philosophical history will provide the ground for solving all philosophical problems. All. Then a few score pages later, he says he can’t solve the problem of the existence of the world. That’s a pretty big exception to “all.” He should have read Thomas Reid.

Best Answer to an Old Question: (Tie) Edward Gibbon, Julian Havil
(1) I’d heard that Gibbon wasn’t kind to Christianity in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Now I see why people have said it, but it seems Gibbon really just wanted to correct some popular notions: the persecutions weren’t continuous and widespread, Constantine wasn’t all good, and Julian the Apostate wasn’t all bad. No argument here. (2) The first chapter of Julian Havil’s The Irrationals explained why Euclid teaches so much algebra with lines and shapes: he couldn’t accept the idea of irrational numbers, but he did acquiesce to the existence of incommensurable lengths.

Best Offroading: Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, Taliessen Through Logres
It’s confusing even knowing what the book is that you’re reading. It’s a book of three books, and the third book has two parts, one by Williams and one by Lewis. And then the editor says in the introduction that you should read Lewis – the last part – first and then read the rest of the volume all out of order. Then you read according to the instructions, and you find yourself immersed in the bewildering world of Charles Williams without the touches of realism that necessarily ground the novels. But Lewis’s guide makes sense of it all, opens the door to exquisitely moving poetry, explains Charles Williams in a way that makes sense of his poems and his novels, and outlines Lewis’s basic method of poetic criticism. Fans of Lewis and Williams: this last part is a must read! Why didn’t anyone tell me before?

And that wraps up the year. Tomorrow Year 9 officially begins (although I’ve already started the first two items on the list). May our New Year be filled with great reading!

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Chimes, Chimes, Chimes, Chimes, Chimes!

I finished year 8 of The Plan yesterday by reading one of Dickens’s less successful Christmas novellas, The Chimes. Even CD himself admitted that, since he wrote the book in Italy, he missed the inspiration of the London streets. It seems that the author of A Christmas Carol attempted to repeat his success without exactly copying the formula. But maybe he should have plagiarized himself even more vigorously. As with Scrooge, in the later tale, a quirky character has a sinful flaw, and spirits show him scenes of the future in order to get him to change. But Trotty Veck shows his despair neither consistently nor spectacularly. Here are no carolers chased away with a ruler. No poor clerk with only a candle to warm himself by. No “Bah, Humbug!” Still, very few characters stand up to Ebeneezer Scrooge, and Trotty’s comparative blandness wouldn’t offend if the plot worked. But I, for one, am not convinced that his daughter’s actual life will improve upon the one the spirits of the Chimes show him just because he gains hope at the end of the story.

In any case, Dickens partly reinvents yet another winter holiday here and offers a good moral in the end. New Year’s is a time to look back and close the books on twelve months of problems and a chance to look forward with hope to twelve months of solutions. Not to see the promise and the potential in the lives of our neighbors and in our own lives is to despise the goodness of the Creator. Trotty finally learns his lesson by seeing that suicide can have selfless reasoning behind it. Dickens’s chimes teach him – and us – that we can help prevent this tragedy only by showing compassion, mercy, sympathy, and hope to the miserable soul headed that way. As the narrator says, with multiple levels of meaning, “Heaven preserve us, sitting snugly around the fire!”

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the . . . I Forget What Comes Next

I read two chapters this month of William James’s Principles of Psychology. “Association” and “Memory” expanded, reinforced, and clarified aspects of his views that I’ve read before rather than adding substantial new ideas, but they still kept a tight hold on my interest. True to Mortimer Adler’s metaphor of a Great Conversation, James spoke in dialog with two other philosophers of the human intellect that I read this year: Thomas Reid and John Locke. The pages confirmed some of my recent thinking, challenged other parts of my thinking, disappointed me at some times, and gave me hope at others.

If I understand James (and I’m not at all positive that I do on this point), he agrees with Thomas Reid in rejecting the notion that the mind sees and thinks of only images or ideas of things. We see actual things, James affirms, and the objects of most of our thoughts are existing things in the world. This view puts Reid and James in opposition to Locke, who believed that we think only about ideas and see only pictures. But like Locke, James posits that our thoughts succeed one another because of their association in our experience. James improves on Locke here, though, by suggesting reasons why thought A sometimes leads to thought B and sometimes to thought C.

He also improves on Locke in giving the thinker some control over the train of thought. Following up on ideas from earlier chapters, especially the chapter on Attention, James locates our control over our thoughts in the will to pay attention to certain thoughts that stream by and to reject others. I thought of Luther saying that although tempting thoughts fly through our heads like birds, we don’t have to make nests for them. According to James, solving a problem means keeping the goal in view, reviewing the ideas that association brings up, and selecting the one that seems right. By his theory, we have no more control over the appearance of the possible solutions than we do over any other stream of thought, although we can influence the stream by holding in mind a system of solutions. This observation certainly fits my experience: if I’m trying to choose a color to paint part of the house with, for instance, I do better if I think my way around the color wheel or look through the sample cards in the store than I do if I just let ideas pop up.

But two problems come to mind. James raises the first one himself when he admits that he can’t explain how we sometimes work at thinking of a solution with no success only to find ourselves spontaneously seeing the answer much later when we aren’t trying. He doesn’t want Freud to be right about subconscious workings of the mind, but it seems to me we have to accept that the mind can stew on a problem “on the back burner,” out of the sight of our present, conscious thought. But I see a second problem with his theory: if we have no control over the stream of thought, how can we decide to pursue a systematic approach to solving a problem? How can we control the appearance of that thought? The answer may lie in the chapter on Memory.

In the second chapter I read this month, James recognizes two factors that contribute to the strength of memory: (1) native ability and (2) the number and strength of associations we have stored with a given memory. Some of us are just born with better heads for memory, he says, so to get better, we just have to work with whatever we’ve been given and improve memory by increasing the number of paths of association. In other words, to increase the likelihood of being able to recall a given idea (and isn’t knowledge just a high likelihood of being able to remember a fact or method? the tests I give students sure suggest it!), we have to think over an object (a thing, a goal, a fact, a name, a statement, a list – whatever it is we’re trying to memorize) in as many different ways as possible. Fit it into a system. Make it relevant. Put it in your hands, your eyes, your ears, and your voice. Yes, James knew all about “learning styles,” but he gratifies me by placing the responsibility for pursuing multiple paths of learning on the students shoulders, where it belongs, not on the teacher’s. The way to memorize is to study long and hard.

Well, this post isn’t as poetic as the account I gave last week of a trip around a Ptolemaic sphere. But it has just as much to do with Christmas. What other season has more to do with memories? What other season has more meaning built on associations? What is A Christmas Carol but a tale of association and memory? In a way, my whole system of thought is based on Christmas, which suggests to me that any time during the good year when I have a problem, I should start the process of finding a solution by thinking of Christmas and then letting the associated thoughts flow. Now if only I can remember to do that!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2014

I live the days of my life inside a great, cosmic wheel – a crystalline sphere, to be more truthful, although the dome above arches too high for my gaze and the curve below lies too deep for my understanding. And so I breathe the air on my tiny ecliptic circumference. Once per year my wheel rotates by the push of its angel, and month by month I pass through scenes on its inner rim, thematic but with yearly variations. I spend the spring months in regions of pastel colors, of budding trees and rain showers. Scholars wearing black robes and wide flat hats march by as the pastels become saturated. Then I often travel through the lazy summer months in a car past landscapes not seen around home. In the autumnal months, new young scholars crowd into view before the spinning wheel takes me through hillsides of trees turned gold through the Sun’s Midas touch and red through the crisp kisses of the chill, dry night air.

Air rises to take the place of the leaves, and the annual cycle next brings on familiar winter scenes. And for one blessed season, past the curls of visible breath, the lights, the bustling shoppers, the aroma of hot cider, the sound of carolers, and a bewhiskered Victorian man surrounded by a ghostly circus of Victorian characters, rises an evergreen forest, and in the dark, hushed wood stands a window in the wheel’s rim, a lens, ground and polished into the crystal by centuries of conciliar theology and homely custom, a precise convexity, solid and smooth and almost invisibly clear. I walk through the living boughs, new snow crackling with every step, and gaze through the lens at the stars of the Outer World, receiving by direct sight what I fathom only abstractly through most of the year. One tiny star shines more brightly than the sun, and its golden beam, piercing my chest with a cheerful pain (the good kind of pain, like the dull sting of a massage on tense shoulders), connects me with my distant Home and fills me with good will and the determination that this time round I will finally honor Christmas all through the year.

I go back to the carolers and hear them sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I smile as I think that all of the aspects of this song that mystified me as a child make me love it now: the minor mode, the ancient cadences without leading tones, the high concentration of multisyllabic words, the roll call of mystical names of Christ, the use of the subjunctive in the phrase “until the Son of God appear.”

In this pass along the sidereal circuit, I have been reading (a reading about) the O Antiphons and their connection with this most solemn of Christmas carols. Listening to the Gregorian chant brings the words to life: the Latin text moves me even more powerfully than the English translations. The metamorphosis of the chants into the carol has brought many adjustments to the words and so many musical changes as to make the two tunes almost completely unlike one another. But the hymn preserves the solemnity of the original plainsong in its exclamation “Rejoice! Rejoice!” by applying somber minor chords to the echo.

And, lo! the wheel spins on. The spruce and pine needles tickle and prick my skin as I walk out for a last look through the glass that clarifies all my vision for a time. O, come, Thou Dayspring! And from my final connection with the Great Star, I receive the nourishment needed to begin another sojourn through the calendar and garner the store of light whose glow, refracted through my rough, angular soul, will yet resolve the figures of the next forty-eight weeks.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Toward Perfection

You’ve seen the bumper stickers. “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” True as that may be, the public posting of the sentiment on the read end of a car has always rubbed me the wrong way. For one thing, I usually suppose that the person proclaiming this message is trying to preemptively ask the following driver to forgive all thoughtlessness and lack of skill. Indulgences for the postmodern age!

But apologies and byte-size theological statements don’t let Christians off the hook. We’re to shine as lights in the dark world. Outsiders should see our good deeds and glorify God. No, Christians aren’t perfect. But we should strive toward perfection.

Having almost finished my plan for the year, I’ve had a lot of time for off-list reading recently, and two of the books I’ve read in the last couple of weeks have a lot to do with Christian behavior. In the first, Susan Howatch’s Ultimate Prizes, Neville Aysgarth drinks heavily, swears, lies, sees his wife as a prize, and falls in love with another woman as soon as he has “won” the first. The problem is, Neville is an Anglican priest. In fact, he uses his ordained status as a rationalizing cover story in speaking to himself and to others. “I’m a clergyman; I don’t drink,” his first-person narration tells his readers as he pours his third whiskey of the evening. “Clergymen don’t commit adultery,” he avers to the man with whose wife he essentially committed adultery.

Neville eventually has to shed the mask and confess, and then he has to come to terms with his family history and upbringing. If these actions had worked quickly and neatly, it would have been very good for Neville, but it would have been very bad for the realism of the story. Without giving too much away, let me just say that I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. I should also mention that Howatch uses this frank story of immorality to present the most interesting, evangelical theological discussions I’ve read so far in her Starbridge series.

The second book is Alister McGrath’s biography of C. S. Lewis. I had read that Lewis fans wouldn’t like the book because it exposes his sins, most notably in suggesting a sexual side to Lewis’s association with Mrs. Moore, his friend’s mother. When I mentioned this aspect to the friend who recommended the book to me, he replied defensively, “Well, but he wasn’t a Christian yet!” The book goes as far as documentary evidence can take it in the direction of seeing some Freudian perversion in the relationship. And it details the undeniable pattern of lies Lewis fed to his father during his college years and beyond. But sure enough, the immorality all clings to Lewis’s preconversion years.

I don’t know about other fans, but this Lewis fan actually liked seeing some of the life that Jesus saved Lewis from. I appreciated the candid look at Lewis’s decades-long situation as housemate of Mrs. Moore; thinking of the C. S. Lewis who authored Mere Christianity, in reading about his life before (as for instance in Lewis’s own Surprised by Joy), I had always interpreted the arrangement innocently, so McGrath showed me a new possibility. But by the end of the book, I wanted a reassessment of this new assessment, because the popular teacher of strict Christian morality continued to live with Mrs. Moore after his conversion, and her daughter never saw anything improper. Lewis had promised his friend Paddy Moore that he would care for his mother if anything happened to her, and then Paddy died in the Great War. Maybe there really was nothing more to it than the faithful fulfillment of a moral promise by a pre-Christian.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boswell and Dr. Johnson on Writing

I wrote a few days ago on what James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson had to say about reading. In the pages I read this month in the Life of Dr. Johnson, I also found a lot of interesting comments on writing. Since this blog essentially consists of these two activities, reading and writing, I can’t pass up the opportunity to pass along some of the wisdom I picked up from two of my favorite historical figures and, again, see how I measure up to their standard.

First, writing, according to these two heroes of Christian letters, must concern a fitting subject. In fact, authors have some collective obligation to publish the true, the good, and the beautiful. “All excellence has a right to be recorded,” says the English language’s first great lexicographer. Of course, Boswell must have taken special joy in transcribing those words of his mentor; they explain his motivation in penning the biography of the Great Man. Boswell loved and admired his friend and wanted the world to know, love, and honor him as well. Using a phrase that should have been placed not in a lowly footnote but on the title page, he describes the notes for his masterpiece as a “record of wisdom and wit, which I keep with so much diligence, to your [i.e. Johnson’s] honour, and the instruction and delight of others.” To the reader, he admits that he tries to “infuse every drop of genuine sweetness into my biographical cup” consistent with veracity and as an antidote to the “false and injurious notions of his character” published by others.

As inspirational as a good subject may be, though, good writing doesn’t flow forth fully formed like Athena. Dr. Johnson advises Boswell and others to write in two stages: “Invent first, and then embellish.” Content before form. Grammar before rhetoric. The physical before the spiritual. Rewriting doesn’t just lead a draft down a straight path toward improvement, though. “Sir,” says Johnson, “you may have remarked, that the making a partial change, without a due regard to the general structure of the sentence, is a very frequent cause of errour in composition.” Oh, I’ve remarked this, sir, many times in rereading my old blog posts. As with reading, Johnson believed parents and teachers should encourage children to start writing at an early age. Today’s American schools, agree as far as that goes. Unlike our schools, though, Dr. Johnson cared about spelling. Of course a writer of a dictionary would! Boswell, too, was wary of change in spelling and hoped that his mentor’s influence would stop the insidious disappearance of k’s from the ends of words like musick and publick. Well, you can’t have everything.

Dr. Johnson says to read Shakespeare and Pascal’s Pensées, and I read them. Goal met. But measuring up to Johnson’s standard of writing is a wee bit harder than it is to mimic his reading patterns. I trust that the books I spend most of my time writing about can be considered worthy subjects. And I can say that I reread and correct and edit and embellish and spell-check everything I write, including my very occasional phone texts. But to what end? Samuel Johnson’s approving contemporaries considered him the most eloquent English writer of their age, perhaps of any age. I’m not even sure how to aim at such a lofty, distant mark. But then, I am my own worst critick.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Hidden Celts

Graham Robb has a theory. He says he’s discovered a geographical scheme devised by ancient druids and hidden from knowledge for two thousand years. All the tribal centers of the western Celts, he says, especially the Gauls, are located on very precisely drawn straight lines covering hundreds of miles and corresponding to the cardinal points of the compass and the direction of the sun at summer and winter solstices. His best evidence comes early on in The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. A straight line run from the Sacred Promontory on the southwestern tip of Iberia (Farol do Cabo de São Vicente on Google maps) to the Matrona Pass in Switzerland, both places highly significant to their version of the myth of Hercules, runs through several ancient Celtic towns, and this line corresponds to the direction of the rising sun at summer solstice. From the Matrona pass, a line turned 90 degrees from the first cuts through another important Celtic center, and a line due north reaches a town where a hundred statues of Hercules have been found.

It’s all extremely interesting, and it’s just the kind of thing that I would like to be true. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the theory is a little crazy; the lines Robb stretches across Europe have started to look like the lines of red yarn that Hollywood conspiracy theorists trace across their bedrooms. My faith was first shaken when Robb explained that the odd geometry of Celtic foundations represents the construction of ellipses and show that the druids knew the sun moved in an ellipse. Sure, thanks to Kepler’s calculations, we now know that celestial orbits trace elliptical paths. But there’s no way anyone on standing on earth simply sees that. The heavens look like a sphere to our eyes, and the sun’s path against the background stars looks like a circle around that sphere. When Robb subsequently pointed out that many natural geographical features fall on the same lines by coincidence, I decided it may all well be a coincidence.

But then it’s hard to say what I think since the evidence is presented in such a strange, disorganized manner. Robb seems torn between following the order in which he came to his conclusions and following historical order. Every thirty pages or so, his Celts are migrating again, but the order in which he presents these migrations is so jumbled, I can’t get a coherent timeline out of it. Or consider the Mabinogion. About two-thirds of the way through the main text of the book, Robb identifies this title as a collection of Welsh tales first written down in the eleventh century, and yet he refers to it twice earlier, as if the reader should know the book. (I didn’t.) At least, I thought he mentioned it twice, although I can’t find the references now. Now Robb has me searching his book for lines connecting the disjointed material. Maybe if I looked hard enough I’d find a hidden pattern.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Against All Odds

I first got interested in King Alfred the Great from reading vol. 1 of Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. Like Jesus, King Arthur, and Aragorn, Alfred spends his youth mostly hiding his royalty from the world: Churchill writes of him working as a kitchen boy for many years. But when the time comes, the kitchen boy becomes a strong, good, and wise monarch, praying when it’s time to pray and fighting when it’s time to fight. After defeating the Danes who have invaded England, instead of killing or enslaving the survivors, he has them baptized so everyone can get along. Among the projects I’ll never get to in my life is an opera based on these dramatic tableaus.

When I learned recently that Chesterton had written a poem about Alfred, I had to add it to my list for this year. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Chesterton would have nothing to say about scrubbing pots or baptizing berserkers; the points he has to make are more Chestertonian. A little disappointed and quite confused at first, I ended up deeply moved by “The Ballad of the White Horse.”

As the epiclet opens (is there such a thing as a small epic?), Alfred is already King of Angle-land and has already been dealing with marauding Danes. One day in the forest, he sees the Virgin Mary, and says that though knowledge of Heaven is closed to him, he would like to know what's going to happen with the Danes in the near future. The Mother of Christ replies that Alfred has it backwards: the simplest school girl can have knowledge of heavenly things, but what will happen tomorrow must remain a mystery to all who live on earth. We just have to do what is right, she says, even if that means dangerous fighting, and we have to keep doing the right thing under the knowledge that the world may only get worse in spite of our valiant efforts.

Alfred then calls on some allies to help in the coming war but warns them that Mary herself has told him that “the sky grows darker yet / And the sea rises higher.” Now, Mary has told him no such thing. In fact, she has told Alfred that he cannot know what will happen tomorrow: the sky may indeed grow darker, but it might instead grow lighter. In any case, Alfred passes along his hopeless interpretation of the message: It’s better to die fighting, he says, than to live as a slave, and if we fight we will certainly die. It seems that the dour prognosis is just what it takes to convince his neighbors to take a stand with him. Ironically, this willingness to stand up courageously in the face of certain doom I associate more with Alfred’s enemies than with either the Christians or the Celts. All through this part of the poem, I thought of Lewis's admiration for Norse legend and the heroes who fight knowing that Ragnarök is coming. (See for instance "First and Second Things" in God in the Dock: "The point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end.")

In the end, in spite of the hopeless odds, Alfred wins: he takes London from the Danes. After he brings peace to the island of Britannia, though, Chesterton doesn’t have Alfred baptize anyone. Instead, the king ponders a Chertertonian paradox: Alfred says he wishes he could just rule Athelney, but he must admit that he is only wise enough to rule a large island, not wise enough to rule a small one.

The White Horse, a chalk outline supposedly first scraped on an English hillside in prehistoric times, silently looks on while all this commotion stirs. But he is a work of man, and works of man must be kept up; each generation must preserve his outline, or else he disappears as the green growth of the hillside stealthily reclaims its lost ground. All human deeds require constant preservation; even great battles will eventually be forgotten and their effects wiped out by forgetfulness and nature, Chesterton points out near the end of the poem. So I’m left wondering what lesson Chesterton wanted me to take from “The Ballad of the White Horse,” what lesson I should take, and whether the two are the same. If all the works of man fade to green, is the taking of London significant after all? Is it actually better to die fighting?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Looking Forward to 2015

Some time in the late ‘90s, I found out about a new sin. This sin didn’t exist before, but now it did. And I was committing it. “Don’t you check your email?” my friend from the Economics Department asked me. It was the first thing he said to me that day. Not “hi.” Not “Hey, what a pleasant surprise. I don’t get to see you every day.” Not even “I tried writing you, but since you’re right here, I’ll just go ahead and say face-to-face what I had to say.” Nope. It’s easier to accuse first and forget to ask forgiveness later.

“I sent you an email, and you didn’t answer it.” “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t have email.” “Yes, you do.” “No, I don’t.” “Yeah, you do. You work for OU, right?” “You know I work for OU. So do you.” “Everybody at OU has email. So you do, too.” “No, I really don’t have email.” “You do, and you just don’t know it.”

It wasn’t that long ago. So it hardly seems possible, but I didn’t know what the internet was. The web was especially confusing. Are they the same thing? Different? Is one the subset of the other? I knew that people surfed the net (that’s what the television commercials said), but I wondered what people did to the web. (Turns out we surf that, too, when we even bother with verbs anymore.)

I could never have predicted then that just fifteen years later, the internet would permeate my reading plan. I order all my books online now. I do half my reading on an electronic device I hold in one hand. Half of those books I download for free right from the web. I search guides and quotations using Google. And I blog about my experience. I couldn’t even have understood it if someone from 2014 could have told my 1998 self what my future reading program would consist of.

Yesterday I posted my calendar for 2015. (You can see it by clicking the tab marked – you guessed it – “2015 calendar” in the row just below the title bar above.) Year 9 of my Ten-Year Reading Plan. Amazing. Every year at this time I get the calendar for the new year drawn up, I look at it, and I bask in the thought of how much I’m going to enjoy it. But I think I’m even more excited this year than I have been since year 1. For one thing, I’m looking forward to pursuing my demanding self-imposed commitment of time over the course of a year that won’t include searching for jobs, interviewing, selling a house, packing, buying a house, moving, and starting a new job.

But the particular details of next year’s schedule have me especially eager to begin. First, of course, there’s the continuation of so many favorites that I pursue bit-by-bit each year: Durant’s Story of Civilization, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, James’s Principles of Psychology, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Then there’s King Arthur. Not only do I get to finish Malory after thirty years of looking at it sitting on my shelf, but I finally get to read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. My rereading includes Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, Great Expectations, and The Lord of the Rings, all truly Great Books and all near the top of the list of my very favorite novels. Each one paints a rich picture of this complex world with all of its sweet pain, presenting its characters with all the missteps, bumbling, and downright evil of the human heart and yet acting in the light of a magnificent, splendid joy just as real as the set sun whose refracted rays dazzle the sky with their royal colors – and just as out of reach. The Rig Veda forever changed the way I read the Psalms; I wonder how the Bhagavad Gita will affect me. I’m even excited about reading Calvin’s Institutes, if only because this year will see me to the end of a book that has exasperated me so. I have only one slog I’m concerned about, but I’ll get through Heidegger, partly by reading Dickens and Ariosto at the same time.

I eventually read that first email. I had to call IT (or whatever IT was called back then) to hook up my office computer. When the technicians arrived and looked at it, they just laughed. So I bought a new one. Then they had to wire my 1908 building for internet; they got to my office by drilling through the 1908 wall – filled with 1908 asbestos – and draping a yellow cord across the room. I hooked up the computer and read and reread my instructions on how to FTP my email files. I waited for only about five minutes for the long-anticipated message to download. Eventually. after a process of some couple of months, I was sinning no more: I was reading the note from my colleague. Oh, yes, my digital reading experience has definitely improved since then. The email he was so anxious about was an invitation to lunch. He wanted to get together and talk.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Boswell and Dr. Johnson on Reading

To open up Boswell’s Life of Johnson and read any given 10% of it (as I do every year in this ten-year reading plan) is to read a manual of life. All right, to be more precise, history’s quintessential biography provides lessons on a Christian, intellectual life. But I wish everyone could live such a life, so I’ll just stick with the phrase “manual of life.” I got my welcome (and needed) instruction on social and emotional health. I benefitted from pious observations and moral injunctions. I gained inspiration from transcripts of good conversation and remarks on travel and politics. And a robust intellectual life naturally requires encounters with lots of books, so I reveled in the numerous comments by both Boswell and his exemplary friend on reading.

I’ve recommended elsewhere in these pages letting children read anything (of appropriate content, of course) that interests them. I hedged my suggestion with the admission that I can only vouch for its success in four cases: the lives of myself, my wife, and my two kids. But Boswell gladdened my heart when he offered Johnson’s endorsement of the policy not just once but twice. Let a boy read any book, Johnson says, in order to learn the joy of reading. He can get better books later. A few days later, I read that Johnson said he wished every boy could be let loose in a library; if he takes on something beyond his capacity to understand, either he will give it up on his own, or he will learn to understand it. (I should note that Johnson limits his suggestions to the male half of the human race only in deference to social norms at the time; he greatly admired intelligent, well-read women.)

A man with decade-long reading reading plans and the determination to give himself a liberal education has to ask what in particular his hero, the great Samuel Johnson, read. In this year’s selection he mentioned Homer – no great surprise. But he also mentioned Greek grammars and annotated translations of Homer, as well as grammars of other languages, especially “Persian” (which I assume means Farsi). I also read about the publication of his Lives of the Poets, naturally pointing to a regular regimen of poetry reading. How well do I measure up to my paragon? Sadly, I don’t know much Greek at all. I should follow Johnson’s advice, get out my basic grammar, and just start going through the first book of the Iliad and portions of the New Testament. I know nothing about Farsi, but I did try to learn some Japanese this year. (I think my mind at fifteen could have mastered hiragana.) And I read more poetry all the time, but I wish I had had someone like Johnson to teach me how to read it early in my life so I didn’t always feel like I was reading in a second language.

I should mention that C. S. Lewis, my twentieth-century hero, modeled the same reading strategy. I’ve been enjoying Alister McGrath’s recent biography of Lewis over the last few days, and he reminds me (1) that young Jack learned to love reading by growing up in a house full of books, (2) that he learned Greek by simply going through Homer with his tutor, Kirkpatrick (the “Great Knock”), and (3) that he learned to enjoy the rhythms and melodies of poetry at an early age. I’ll keep working at all these things, but as a 55-year-old (what the universities politely call a “non-traditional student”), new languages and poetry will continue to sink in slowly for me. I did take quick action on one specific point this morning, though. In going through aspects of his mentor’s Lives of the Poets, Boswell emphasized his opinion that Night Thoughts by Edward Young offered the best Christian poetry in the English language. So I incorporated that volume into the plan for my third decade of scheduled reading, a plan which will go into action in 2016.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Persevering with Gower

Four years ago I posted a piece on perseverance in reading. I thought about that essay a lot during my first three days with John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. The theme wasn’t grabbing me, and Gower’s Middle English seemed surprisingly opaque, even though I don’t have trouble understanding Chaucer or Malory. In spite of these roadblocks, I reminded myself of all the reasons to keep making my way through a book that I wasn’t enjoying. I remembered my pact with myself and fought the temptation to give up. I thought about the calendar and reminded myself that if I read only 5% of the book every day (just about right for one good, hefty walk), I’d be done in just twenty days. I asked myself several times why I had put Gower on my list in the first place (maybe a mention by C. S. Lewis? Maybe Gower’s appearance as a character in Shakespeare’s Pericles?) I kept up the task partly by dint of will and partly because once I was out on a fifty-minute walk with nothing else to read, I figured I might as well. And then something funny happened on the fourth day: I started enjoying it.

The Confession of a Lover is an long poem in a prologue and eight books relating a conversation between a young man in love and a priest of Venus. The priest tells the lover he must confess his sin and leads him through a systematic examination of the Seven Big Ones: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. He illustrates each sin with stories from the Bible and from pagan mythology and then asks his protégé to confess his misdeeds. It might surprise many of my contemporaries to find a medieval author using a priest of Venus and stories of Greek gods to teach Christian virtue, but this is the medieval way. As Lewis explains in The Discarded Image, the medieval mind saw all the universe of material objects, spiritual substances, ethics, literature, science, mathematics, history, and religion as a unified system. The priest of the pagan goddess of love teaching Christianity? Why not? An outline of Christian ethics that includes a description of alchemy? Of course! A systematic exploration of sin that takes a long diversion to recount the teachings of Aristotle? For a medieval writer, how could it be any other way? Once Gower got started on an epic poem, he couldn’t stop until he had found a place for everything in the universe. Lewis again: “There was nothing medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up. Of all our modern inventions I suspect that they would most have admired the card index.”

So now the theme makes sense to me: that structure on which Gower builds his particular encyclopedia  of stories, descriptions of the planets, correspondences between elements and temperaments, the history of the Catiline conspiracy, and all the other parts of a complete medieval education. And the language has become almost crystal clear. (Milky quartz is a crystal, right?) Here’s a sample:
For whan the welle of pité is
Thurgh coveitise of worldes good
Defouled with schedinge of blod,
The remenant of folk aboute
Unethe stonden eny doute
To werre ech other and to slee.
So is it al noght worth a stree,
The charité wherof we prechen,
For we do nothing as we techen.
And thus the blinde conscience
Of pes hath lost thilke evidence
Which Crist upon this erthe tawhte.
Once reimmersed in the cadences of Middle English, I remember again the patterns of changes – the changes of vocabulary (unethe = scarcely or hardly), changes of spelling (tawhte = taught), changes of pronunciation (stree = straw) and changes of grammar (werre ech other = war upon each other). Now I’m almost through, and I’ll be glad I stuck with it. The next time I read some casual remark by Lewis about Gower, I’ll think, “Oh, yeah. I’ve read him.” The next time I read Pericles, I’ll recognize that the tetrameter of Gower’s lines comes right from his most respected work. And the next time I read The Lord of the Rings, I’ll remember that Tolkien drew the name of Middle Earth right from the pages of Confessio Amantis.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Very Superstitious

It’s my intention on these pages to celebrate good books. So I tend to gush enthusiastic approval in my reviews and reports. The last thing I want to do – OK, it’s actually about the fifth-to-last thing I want to do. To start again: nearly the last thing I want to do is complain about Thomas Hardy or Lord Byron or Jane Austen so much that someone might decide, based on my inept babbling, never to read the deep sentiments of such great writers expressed in their beautifully chosen words. So before I pick on Will Durant a little, let me aver that I look forward to my yearly encounter with this historian more than I do almost any other item on my plan. After virtually every page of Durant’s 10,000-page monument, I could think, “I wouldn’t want not to have read that page in my life.” Among the other authors on my list, I could probably say that only about Dickens and Boswell.

Durant isn’t perfect, though. I’m still glad I read pages 232-234 of volume VI of The Story of Civilization, but I wish I could talk with him about them. The author’s subject is the context of superstition in which late-medieval science grew, and I think for once he missed the mark. I could wish that he had acknowledged, for instance, that alchemy wasn’t just an absurd belief in nonsense contrary to all evidence, that it involved analysis and experimentation and actually helped lead to the modern understanding of chemistry. But that isn’t what bothers me the most. After all, maybe he tells that alchemical story on one of the other 9,997 pages. What irks me is Durant’s failure to distinguish two distinct rationales for opposition to alchemy, sorcery, astrology, and the like.

Neither Durant nor medieval Church prelates wanted people to believe what isn’t true. (Granted, I can align their thinking only at this generic level, since Durant and medieval Church prelates didn’t agree on the details as to what is true.) But Durant writes for a few pages as if defense of truth were the only reason to combat what we now call superstition. Surely any member of the Christian Church who believes in the Devil can reasonably oppose Satan worship on the grounds of it being an evil practice. Of course Durant must have seen this obvious notion. But he doesn’t acknowledge it in this passage, so I came away disappointed in his recounting of this story.

The trouble begins for me where Durant praises a handful of medievals for rejecting the legitimacy of sorcery. “The Dark Ages had been comparatively enlightened in this respect: Saints Boniface and Agobard denounced the belief in sorcery as sinful and ridiculous.” The “belief in,” not the “practice of.” On the next page he complains of inconsistency in authors he must have considered less enlightened. For instance,
Pope John XXII issued powerful blasts against alchemy (1317) and magic (1327); he mourned what he thought was the increasing prevalence of sacrifices to demons, pacts with the Devil, and the making of images, rings, and potions for magical purposes; . . . but even he implied a belief in their possible efficacy.
It seems not to have occurred to Durant while writing this passage that John XXII very likely blasted alchemy and magic precisely because he believed in their efficacy.

I believe that a lot of charlatans existed in the fourteenth century and that they exist now. I believe that the intentional practice of duping people to believe that a natural occurrence is supernatural is an evil practice. And I believe that blind credulity in supernatural explanations is also an evil. I don’t know that any medieval sorcerer ever brought about an event (say, the arrangement of certain numbers in a magic square) that brought about another event (say, the recovery of another person’s health) through something other than a natural causational connection. But I know that all the succeeding centuries of study of natural causation could never disprove that it did happen. How can the examination of X ever disprove the existence of an independent Y? The study of ornithology doesn’t disprove the existence of Bigfoot; neither does the practice of natural science disprove the legitimacy of sorcery. And Durant’s seeming belief that it does disprove sorcery is itself a kind of superstition.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

All Truth Is God’s Truth

I think I’ve used that title in these posts before. The idea lies deep within me, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it rose up (at least) twice in the last four years. The notion has brought me a lot of comfort ever since I learned that Augustine’s acknowledgement of it made the study of non-Christian literature acceptable in the medieval Christian world. In fact, I act on this understanding virtually very day of my life; my reading project wouldn’t be possible if Augustine hadn’t taught that all truth is God’s truth.

The Bishop of Hippo spells out the proposition in On Christian Doctrine. But in his Confessions, he lives it out. “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master,” he says in bk. II of On Christian Doctrine. In his spiritual autobiography, he restates the idea with a figure involving food:
But Thou, O my God, hadst already taught me by wonderful and secret ways, and therefore I believe that Thou taughtest me, because it is truth, nor is there besides Thee any teacher of truth, where or whencesoever it may shine upon us. Of Thyself therefore had I now learned, that neither ought any thing to seem to be spoken truly, because eloquently; nor therefore falsely, because the utterance of the lips is inharmonious; nor, again, therefore true, because rudely delivered; nor therefore false, because the language is rich; but that wisdom and folly are as wholesome and unwholesome food; and adorned or unadorned phrases as courtly or country vessels; either kind of meats may be served up in either kind of dishes.
And he goes on with concrete examples. Cicero, he explains in book III of the Confessions, taught him to love wisdom – not the wisdom of this philosophy or that, but Wisdom itself (or as Augustine would have put it later, Himself). Later in the book, he explains that the Platonists taught him that God is incorporeal and even taught him to revere the Word. These lessons provided stepping stones on Augustine’s path to Christian faith, so how could he not later approve of Christians studying the pagan classics?

I’m sure some Christians then (as do many Christians now) didn’t see how people without the enlightenment of God come upon truths that would benefit believers, much less help lead a sinner like Augustine to Christ. Augustine’s explanation is that all the faculties of knowledge come from God; how could those who seek truth using God’s given tools not find some? But also, not all truth is spiritual truth, even though it might all be applied to spiritual understading. The Platonists Augustine learned so much from could never, he points out, have discovered that the Word humbly left his divine station and came to earth to die. But that doesn’t mean that pagan astronomers can’t learn about the movements of the planets.

This last particular point played a significant role in Augustine’s conversion away from the Manichean religion. Natural philosophers had learned astronomical motions well enough to predict eclipses, so their outlook must be essentially correct, he reasoned. But Mani, the founder of the gnostic heresy that both charmed and troubled Augustine for so long, taught propositions about the planets in conflict with those of the scientists. If he’s wrong about the skies, and his religious doctrine rests on his planetary system, Augustine concluded, Mani’s religious doctrine must be wrong. (Isn’t it interesting that astronomy would cause another significant religious debate a mellennium later!)

The most heartwarming detail concerning pagan philosophy I came across in my meeting with Augustine this year didn’t have to do with a particular teaching, but rather with a particular teacher. When Augustine started asking skeptical questions about Manicheism, his friends all told him that Faustus would have the answers that would satisfy him. But Faustus couldn’t answer the questions either.
When I proposed [these questions] to be considered and discussed, he, so far modestly, shrunk from the burthen. For he knew that he knew not these things, and was not ashamed to confess it. For he was not one of those talking persons, many of whom I had endured, who undertook to teach me these things, and said nothing. But this man had a heart, though not right towards Thee, yet neither altogether treacherous to himself. For he was not altogether ignorant of his own ignorance, nor would he rashly be entangled in a dispute, whence he could neither retreat nor extricate himself fairly. Even for this I liked him the better.
Instead of laughing or railing, Augustine admired Faustus’s humility. At that moment, Augustine held people as more important than answers, a priority we all need reminding of.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Whose Stuff?

Americans are addicted to things. All kinds of things. Especially big things, big tech-y things. And especially if they keep us from having to interact with other people. We love our cars, for instance, for all these reasons. We want (at least the commercials tell us we want it) plenty of room in our cars. But we want don’t want to spend too much on the gas for that giant thing; that’s where our faith in tech comes in. The advances of engineering also give us power windows that block out the noise of the world, so we can pretend that no one else matters. We only roll these windows down at fast-food restaurants, but we don’t really want to look at or interact with that college student taking our credit card (tech again) and handing us the super-sized value meal (and there’s size again).

If Christians have had an audible response to this addiction (other than “Woo hoo! Where can I get me some of that?”), it’s often been to deny the value of material possessions. Medieval Europe had monks who took vows of poverty and bishops who lived in palaces and ate on silver plates handed to them by the servants who kissed their gold rings. But what if material things were to be enjoyed without being craved? What if God wanted us to treat the goods of the world somewhat the way He wants us to treat other people, neither renouncing their value nor obsessing about controlling them?

Augustine sets out a very healthy philosophy of stuff in the Confessions. In the last post, I mentioned the importance of “turning” in the Bishop of Hippo’s autobiographical journey. Augustine says people basically live in one of two attitudes: turned toward God and turned away from God. But people don’t just turn away from God without turning toward something else; we need love and comfort and affirmation, so we have to look for them in something. If we don’t look for our meaning in the Creator, we look for it in the creation. But the things of the created world will ultimately disappoint: how could they possibly live up to the promise of substituting for God? “Turn us, O God of Hosts, show us Thy countenance, and we shall be whole. For whithersoever the soul of man turns itself, unless toward Thee, it is riveted upon sorrows, yea though it is riveted on things beautiful.” (Confessions, IV.15)

But notice that Augustine says that the things of the world may be beautiful. We cannot reasonably deny the value of the goods of this world. They’re “goods,” after all. Our only sane choice is to recognize their value and purpose while acknowledging the surpassing value of their Maker. God wants us to “have all things” and to “think on whatever is lovely,” just not at the expense of knowing Him.
For there is an attractiveness in beautiful bodies, in gold and silver, and all things; and in bodily touch, sympathy hath much influence, and each other sense hath his proper object answerably tempered. Worldly honour hath also its grace, and the power of overcoming, and of mastery; whence springs also the thirst of revenge. But yet, to obtain all these, we may not depart from Thee, O Lord, nor decline from Thy law. (Confessions, II.10)
We have to interact with the world, but in doing so, we have to love, not the things, but God through the things.
If bodies please thee, praise God on occasion of them, and turn back thy love upon their Maker; lest in these things which please thee, thou displease. . . . Him let us love, Him let us love: He made these, nor is He far off. For He did not make them, and so depart, but they are of Him, and in Him. See there He is, where truth is loved. . . . The good that you love is from Him; but it is good and pleasant through reference to Him, and justly shall it be embittered, because unjustly is any thing loved which is from Him, if He be forsaken for it. (Confessions, IV.18)
The best example of this via media – loving God through a proper appreciation of things rather than either denying the value of the created world or bowing down to it – comes from the life of Augustine himself. Trained as a master of rhetoric, the author of the Confessions gave up his career as a courtroom advocate, renouncing his worldly training and denying the power of language. “They’re just words,” he says. But then didn’t he turn right around and use his gift for words to teach the next sixteen centuries of Christians this very lesson – and many others besides? He who would find rhetoric must lose it.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

When a non-Answer Is an Answer

When St. Augustine wrote his Confessions, he had a lot of questions. He can’t even start confessing without asking whether he needs to confess guilt for being self-centered when he was a baby. So, after a brief prayer, the books begins with questions. As another example, later in the book, he ponders time. What is now? he asks. By the time we say the word, now has become the past and so no longer is now.

Questions about life, questions about matter and substance, about friendship, about relationship to God, about the senses. Augustine almost systematically sets out the problems of each branch of philosophy and theology. He opens up the book of aesthetics by asking, Why do we enjoy sad plays? We usually avoid the feeling of being miserable, so why do we seek it and even pay for it by going to a show? We can’t really explain the strange habit by saying that we feel bad not for ourselves but for the characters on stage, because characters don’t actually suffer and we don’t get up out of our seats to help them. (Although I did hear a story once of a many at an opera who yelled out during the performance, “Somebody help! The soprano is murdering the baritone!”)

Questions and more questions. Joining theology and ontology (which happens when you believe in the Creation), Augustine asks how God can come into him when he cannot contain God. And aren’t you already in me, he asks, since you made me? The last realization reveals a whole new line of questioning. When I went away from you, where exactly did I go? I have existence only because You created me and sustain me, so You are always present with me. How then can I have left You? I turned to other things in my futile search for joy, but You made all those things as well. So how is it that I was apart from You?

Augustine has an answer to this conundrum about departing from God in a world which God fills with his sustaining power. He doesn’t say this explicitly, but it seems to me that he explains moving away from God by exchanging the notion of moving place to place with the notion of turning in place. I can say that the word turn occurs frequently in the Confessions. Those who abandon God, he says, “turn their back to Thee, and not their face.” He confesses to turning toward created things for satisfaction and describes the situation as having “my back to the light, and my face to the things enlightened.”

Another answer comes in Augustine’s exploration of his motive for stealing some peaches when he was a teenager. The philosophers say people do evil things for some perceived good. But what good did I get out of stealing those peaches? he asks. I didn’t want the peaches and threw them away after a couple of bites. Did I really enjoy this misdeed because it was evil? Although he seems to break with traditional philosophy for a moment and say that he indeed was perverse enough to love evil and not good, he eventually succeeds in finding an illusory good in the theft: the boys with him approved of the act, and the shared experience gave him companionship and affirmation. This insight about the communal rewards of sin may have led him to describe unbelievers as citizens of the City of Man in his other most famous book, a book named for a rival city.

But the great teacher (the most influential Christian teacher since the Apostles?) didn’t always have answers to all of his questions. “What is time? . . . If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.” But even without all the answers – in fact because he lacked the answers – the act of questioning itself led him to a conclusion. In asking all these questions in order to find out what he needs to confess, Augustine finds that he needs to confess that he is a man who cannot answer every question.

So ultimately, the book is not about confessing guilt. Whatever may have been Augustine’s first intention in writing, the Confessions ends up an admission of frailty and an acknowledgement of God’s grace. It can’t be about confessing guilt: Augustine even “confesses” all the sins he hasn’t committed. “To Thy grace I ascribe also whatsoever I have not done of evil; for what might I not have done, who even loved a sin for its own sake? Yea, all I confess to have been forgiven me; both what evils I committed by my own wilfulness, and what by Thy guidance I committed not.” Have I confessed that? I’ll leave that question unanswered.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Mute Inglorious Miltons, Arise!

Thursday I began my third reading of Augustine’s Confessions. Among the many trains of thought the magnificent spiritual autobiography elicited in me, longing for Christian eloquence held a prominent position. “Where are the Augustines of today?” I asked, not for the first time in my life. “Where are the Miltons? The Johnsons? The Lewises? Where is Christian eloquence?”

I woke up to find that today marks the 340th anniversary of Milton’s death, and the question arose again. It’s not an entirely fair question, of course. No period other than Milton’s had a Milton. But I’d love to have a Christian culture that values poetry and strives to rise to Milton’s level even if it only reaches halfway. Shoot for the stars; you might reach the moon.

No physical reason precludes a broad river of eloquent Christian authors or an ocean of literate, thoughtful Christians to receive them; the aptitude runs latent in our DNA. Thomas Gray wondered if some “mute inglorious Milton” lay in his churchyard; if so, only demographic conditions kept him silenced. I have to look for a sociological cause for the dearth, and consequently I have to conclude that today’s Christians aren’t known for producing great writers because today’s Church doesn’t value writing. Asked where the C. S. Lewises of today are, Lewis scholar Alister McGrath replied that the Church had to start training children to grow up to be the Lewises of tomorrow. The State sure won’t do it. American public schools no longer expect young people to spell correctly because they don’t want to stifle the kiddos’ creativity. (The plural of kiddo has no e. I looked it up. After all, I didn’t want to pull a Quayle in the middle of a diatribe on orthography. Oh, and by the way, while I’m already in a parenthesis, I’ll extend it to say that if you’re a Christian and don’t know who Thomas Gray is or that he had some thoughts in a churchyard or why he chose Milton as his exemplar, your situation proves my point. The government and, much more importantly, the Church failed you.)

I could say it all again with regard to art, architecture, and music composition. Oh, sure, today’s American churches all have music. But popular-style Christian composers are supported by record sales, not by the offering plate. And creativity is most definitely frowned upon in the American Church as a whole. I love some contemporary Christian worship music (I’m actually listening to some as I type), but I know too much Christian music from the last two millennia to be fooled into thinking that future music historians will see the last thirty years of CCM as – I can’t finish the sentence. Future music historians won’t even be aware of today’s Christian music. It will flit through the lives of hundreds of millions of people and yet leave no mark on history deeper than that of a feather brushed against a stone. I like Matt Redman’s songs just fine. But Dan Quayle is no John Kennedy, and Matt Redman is no J. S. Bach.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Faith Matters

In 1946, Evelyn Waugh wrote:
I believe that you can only leave God out [of a novel] by making your characters pure abstractions. . . . The failure of modern novelists since and including James Joyce is one of presumption and exorbitance. They are not content with the artificial figures which hitherto passed so gracefully as men and women. They try to represent the whole human mind and soul and yet omit its determining character – that of being God’s creature with a defined purpose.
The same can be said for biography. I’ve read many a book about a real person – not a character, not an abstraction – that shies away not only from spiritual assessment of its subject but even from outlining the spiritual beliefs, opinions, or outlook of the historical personage in question. Modern and postmodern public discourse, in the United States anyway, generally avoids religious talk, originally perhaps out of polite recognition that arguments on the topic tend to cause more rancor than enlightenment, but ultimately, it seems, from the mistaken belief that religion just isn’t worth talking about.

What a relief and delight to have found a biographer who knows that faith matters. Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston traces the course of the relationship between the two great leaders of twentieth-century English-speaking democracy, revealing several fascinating aspects of each man’s character through comparison and the details of their interaction concerning World War II. Who knew (not I) that Churchill lacked self-confidence? But the trait is made clear when, like Dickens’s Mr Twemlow, the Prime Minister constantly worries about whether his hero thinks of him as a friend. On the other side of the duo, Roosevelt’s penchant for cold political maneuvering comes to the fore when, in their first meeting with Joseph Stalin, the American President begins to criticize Churchill in his presence just to crack an ice-breaking smile from the Soviet dictator.

But these three- (or more) dimensional, very concrete personages also had religious views and acted based on or informed by those views, and Meacham is not embarrassed to talk about it. Not that either historical figure shared Meacham’s faith. Jon Meacham is, I believe, a Catholic Christian, while Roosevelt was an Episcopalian (although he didn’t mind occasionally singing hymns with the “Methodys”), and Churchill was, in the author’s words, an “optimistic agnostic.” With deep respect for faith, the author respects faiths different from his own and in turn shows much more respect for the men who held them than would an author who hides religious matters behind an arbitrary screen with the thought that they’re simply irrelevant.

Along with the general descriptions of religious view and practice come many details that might well be kept out of a similar book by a different historian. Roosevelt, for instance, always wanted to conduct a church service and late in life got one opportunity to do so on board a ship. At the first meeting between the two, he and Churchill actually planned a Christian worship service together, the PM choosing the hymns. Both stories get extended treatment. Faith shows up in many other tiny details in the book, from a quotation by C. S. Lewis on friendship to many moments of, offers of, and requests for prayer. The most surprising mention of spiritual matters? Joseph Stalin telling his two counterparts that God would be with the Allied invasion of North Africa.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Transcontinental Sidetrack

Having gained some time in the main line of my reading schedule, I took the opportunity over the last couple of weeks to take a sidetrack with Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World. This book gave me everything I expected from Stephen Ambrose and the story of the transcontinental railroad: both the good and the bad.

First, the bad. Ambrose’s writing mechanics could stand some work in the roundhouse. I read too many sentences (one would have been too many for me) starting with “This was because.” Why create a whole new sentence only to begin it with the vague and grammatically imprecise “this” and the dull “was”? What’s wrong with a simple “because” joining a new clause at the end of the previous sentence? Or why not use a participial construction? I suppose I could have started today’s post this way:
I took the opportunity over the last couple of weeks to take a sidetrack. This was because I had gained some time in the main line of my reading schedule.
But I wouldn’t have been happy with myself.

I know Ambrose needs to keep things a little folksy to reach a broader audience. And maybe reaching that goal means keeping his sentences fairly short and simple. I don’t even mind the colloquialisms he tosses into his commentary now and then. But I rolled my eyes when I had to read “Good luck with that” twice within two pages.

Come to think of it, Ambrose repeats himself a lot. Maybe he wrote the book in little chunks as he researched the various topics and then put it all in order at the end. Doing things that way, he might easily forget what he’s already mentioned in other places. But of all Ambrose’s faults, this is the most forgivable. If Stephen Ambrose wants to repeat stories, he should repeat them, because Stephen Ambrose tells great stories. Nothing Like It in the World has the story of Hell on Wheels, the portable city of vice that followed the end of the Union Pacific line as it progressed across Nebraska and Wyoming. There’s the story of the Chinese immigrants who worked tirelessly on the Central Pacific without skipping to Nevada after their first paycheck to mine silver. There’s the story of Doc Durant and his crooked scheme for siphoning the profits of the Union Pacific to his own pocket.

The best story in this book is one that Ambrose repeated, and I’m glad he did: the second telling is much better. The story centers on a competition between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific to lay the most track in a single day. The UP laid four miles one day, so the CP came back with six. When the UP laid eight, thinking the achievement untoppable, the CP came up with a scheme to assure victory. Waiting until the Union Pacific came within about eight miles of the designated meeting place at Promontory Point, the Central Pacific workers laid ten miles of track in one day. The rival company couldn’t even try to beat the mark since they didn’t have ten miles left to lay.

In spite of all the stylistic clunkiness, Ambrose’s histories instruct and entertain. He celebrates hard work, ingenuity, honesty, bravery, the multicultural roots of the United States, and other ideals I celebrate with him – at least in the books of his that I've read: Nothing Like It in the World, Into the Wild Blue, and Undaunted Courage. (I don’t know what he does in his books about Nixon.) So I’ll probably take another sidetrack with him somewhere a couple years down the line.

And that wraps up the review of my recent ride on (warning: silly pun in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . ) the Reading Railroad.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fourth Grade’s Tail and Will Durant’s Dog

When I was in the fourth grade, I didn’t have to walk five miles to school, uphill both ways. But I did have to study geography and write reports occasionally on a state or region of the U.S., listing the capital, size, population, chief geographic features, chief industry, and chief agricultural export. It seemed tedious at the time; I didn’t even know what the word industry meant and barely had an idea about export only because it had the handy antonym import. But I remember learning that Florida grew oranges, that Texas had cattle, and that Ohio made tires.

Was that pittance of knowledge worth all the tax money allocated to the schools? Well, keep in mind that this wasn’t the sum total of my fourth-grade education. I also learned the multiplication table (although I still have to think about 6x7); I learned that when asked to spell post office in a spelling bee, one must say “space” in between “tee” and “oh”; and I learned that I could not do more than three push-ups total or even more than one without calling forth peals of laughter from the other fourth graders. In any case, these geography lessons converted tax dollars more productively than our current day's exercises to clarify personal beliefs regarding whether states should be part of the United States.

Fast forward twelve years. As a young adult trying to build a library (I’m now an aging adult trying to dismantle a library so the next move isn’t so hard!), I purchased an antique history of the United States from 1907. As I sat down to read it, I opened to the first page thinking I would read about explorers, since Columbus and Hudson and their pals started out every general American history book I’d ever read. To my surprise, I found this instead:
In the present chapter will be found a brief description of the great natural resources which a kind Providence has placed at the disposal of the inhabitants of the United States. Without this knowledge, the student will seek in vain to understand the history of the American people.
First of all, a kind Providence? Yes, if public education has changed in the fifty years since my fourth-grade experience, it also changed in the sixty years prior. No less shocking to me, though, than the allusion to the Deity was the statement that geography affected history. I’ve tried to be honest in these posts about how ignorant I am and about how long it takes me to learn some things. So I have to be honest again and say that it was a total revelation – although it seemed obvious immediately afterwards – to discover that the mountains in Colorado, the timber in Oregon, the fish in Maine, and the grain in Kansas might have shaped history. Maybe those fourth-grade reports weren’t so pointless after all. I just hadn’t learned to put things together. History as my schools presented it to me consisted of lists of political movements and events, inventions, and wars. But I didn’t get any narrative sweep with causes and effects. (A possible exception: I think one teacher in elementary school tried to teach us that the cotton gin caused the Civil War. Hmm.) For the first time as I read this antique history volume, I started to think of one event in history causing another down the road.

OK, that intro ended up longer than I thought it would be; I’d better move on now to the dog so the tail can wag it. And the tiny dog is just this: Will Durant does a marvelous job moving back and forth between detailed stories and descriptions on the one hand and grand visions and explanations on the other. The other day, I read that the Papacy’s move to Avignon helped lead to the Hundred Years War and paved the way for Wyclif. Why should we, reasoned the English, send all our church taxes to France where they’ll only fatten the purses of the Dukes across the Channel? And why should we, reasoned Wyclif, give lip service to theology we can’t conscionably accept for fear of the recriminations of a mere pawn of the fat-pursed French Dukes? Simplistic? Yes. But the connections definitely do have a basis in fact and certainly help me remember that these were all events of the fourteenth century.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

World War Which?

Germany develops a plan for war and cultural domination. German leadership speaks of needing more room for the people whose glorious reign will extend far into the future. The German assault begins as a quick thrust through Belgium with the hopes of subjugating France before dealing with Russia. German soldiers, forgoing individuality, fight with the efficiency of a machine. And backed by purported science, the whole endeavor is proclaimed as serving the purpose of freeing the blonde-haired Teutonic race throughout Europe from the oppression of inferior races. The story sounds extremely familiar. But the date of the story may be surprising. It certainly was to me. I’ve been reading about this war in essays by G. K. Chesterton dated 1916. That’s right: from the time of the Great War, Double-You Double-You Single-Aye.

Now I’ve read (and I think I heard this in a college history class as well) that nobody wanted this war, that WWI slipped in almost accidentally. The avalanche, so the simplified story goes, started as a snowball of an assassination rolling inexorably down a snowy slope of innocent treaties. But if Germany didn’t want this war, why did they have an attack plan? If the Kaiser commandeered Belgium only to get to France, which was the ally of Russia, which was the ally of Serbia, whose national killed an archduke of Austria, which was the ally of Germany – if the elimination of the sovereign government of the free state of Belgium was really only an unfortunate knot in a diplomatic tangle, then why all the talk of freeing the Teutonic Flemish “race”?

I fell in love with Chesterton’s essays from the Illustrated London News back in the 80s. In the 90s, I bought the whole run: all thirty of years of weekly essays. In the 00s (I call them the “Oaties”), I compiled a multi-year reading plan and determined then that if I was ever going to read them all, I just had to start going through them systematically from front to back. But in the 10s (the “Teenies,” of course), when I first discovered that Chesterton’s ILN essays would never stray from the war for the whole period from August 1914 to November 1918, I was disappointed. After the novelty of the first few weekly numbers waned, the series got very tedious. As much as Chesterton rails against jingoism in several numbers, his war analysis sure sounded jingoist to me: Germany could do no right, England could do no wrong. So I decided to leave the strict chronological plan, reading one year of essays from after the war in between each year of essays from during the war.

But in the last week, after thinking I’d just have to force myself through 1916 in order to reward myself with 1921, I found that Chesterton’s war-time journalism suddenly got really good. Instead of just railing generically about the evil Germans, he quotes German press and propaganda about racial superiority and destiny to dominate and other hideous nonsense. Instead of just praising England’s righteous ways, he outlines (and deplores) specific English faults, and then compares specific statements by the English government and press about English mistakes to statements by the German government and press regarding German mistakes (which they don’t admit to). Sure enough, the comparison makes the Germany of 1916 look self-righteous, irrational, inhumane, and evil. And sadly, the knowledge of what would happen in Germany over the next quarter century tells me that Chesterton wasn’t just finding weird misstatements by irrelevant persons to display and deplore.

Speaking of the succeeding years, hindsight is apparently not the only way to see the inevitable repeat of the European conflict. Chesterton sounds a chilling, prophetic tocsin several times through the essays from 1916: the Allies must secure an absolutely devastating victory over Germany, because without one, the way Germany’s leaders talk, they’re bound to attempt the domination of Europe all over again. Chesterton calls the conflict in 1916 the Great War and a World War, but this observant, prescient man never calls it The War to End All Wars.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Plots

Already read The Chronicles of Narnia, the Out of the Silent Planet space trilogy, and Til We Have Faces? The Dark Tower and Other Stories, says editor and one-time Lewis secretary Roger Lancelyn Green, will complete your experience with all the known fiction of C. S. Lewis. The collection may complete the catalog of Lewis’s fiction, but the items in the collection are not themselves complete: two of the “stories” are unfinished novels. In fact, all of the entries seem unfinished in a way, like first drafts. Now granted, C. S. Lewis writes a pretty fine first draft. But the short stories in the set as well as the chapters of the second novel are all unusually brief; they lack the depth of detail and character we know Lewis could provide. The conversations mostly provide exposition, and the narration mainly supplies plot. But then all these items seem experiments based on an idea or plot twist, so perhaps history and Lewis's fireplace left us only the bare minimum necessary to get the main idea across.

The theme and tone of some of these experiments might seem a little surprising to someone expecting more of Lewis’s apologetic, allegorical, or moralistic writing. In “Ministering Angels,” for instance, he explores the idea that the only women who would want to go to Mars for the astronauts’ – er – social needs would be failed prostitutes. (Interestingly, Lewis seems oblivious to the idea that the astronauts of his future might themselves be women.) This story, however, is the only one in the set to reach an explicitly Christian theme, as one of the astronauts begins to imitate Jesus’ merciful dealings with practitioners of the world’s oldest profession.

“The Shoddy Lands,” very interesting but perhaps a little cruel, explores a jump into the mind of a vapid girl who sees trees only as green blobs and other women only as moving blocks with fine clothes. If the story has a spiritual theme, it is the latent message that we none of us appreciate the fulness of the wonder of creation. “The Man Born Blind” again barely hints at Lewis’s theological ideas only if we accept Green’s helpful suggestion that the story goes with the essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” and its discussion of seeing light vs. seeing by means of light.

“The Dark Tower” – what is the proper way to format the title of an unfinished fragment of a novel, by the way: italics or quotation marks? – which takes up the bulk of the slender volume, is a weird tale that starts out like a Wells novel, with the great scientist revealing to his colleagues a machine proving a strange new theory. Or so he thinks! Dr. Orfieu believes that human memory and visions result, not from stored impressions or from imagination, but from actual, direct perception of the past and future. All he need do is locate the area of the brain that does the sensing of other times, reproduce its material, shine a light through his artificial organ, and start watching the past – or maybe it’s the future – unfold on a screen. But what he and his circle observe involves a society led by pallid men with stingers on their foreheads who turn the stingerless folk one by one into automatons by piercing their spines. How could this be either the past or the future of the human race? Mysteries! The plot thickens when one of the characters, Scudamour, sees on the screen, first, his own double and then his girlfriend’s. He runs toward the flickering image and finds himself, his consciousness that is, in a stinger-headed body in the other world.

Soon afterwards, the draft breaks off. Green hypothesizes that Lewis eventually would have had Scudamour (1) decide that Otherworld Girlfriend is a better person than the one he knows and supposedly loves, (2) find a way to bring her back to his original world, and then (3) discover that she is actually a person from this world who, as a small child, found herself strangely transferred to the parallel world, while the real Otherworld Girlfriend took over the body in this world, grew up in it, and eventually developed a relationship with Scudamour.

Does that make any sense? I’m afraid it doesn’t. But I had to explain that much in order to say what I wanted to say about the other unfinished novel, “After Ten Years.” In this yarn, Menelaus climbs out of the Trojan Horse and locates Helen, the woman for whom the Greeks have fought for ten long years, only to discover that she is not the most beautiful woman in the world anymore, but instead a somewhat overweight, less-than-lustrous, middle-aged woman. The passage of ten years, after all, does sometimes do such a thing to human bodies. We don’t know exactly how the Spartan lord’s disappointment plays out because the draft suddenly jumps to a later time and to the land of Egypt, where the now-victorious Menelaus hears (Lewis takes up a twist of Euripides here) that the gods didn’t really let Paris take Helen to Troy. They made a copy, an eidolon, of Menelaus’ wife and sent the fake over to Asia with the Trojan prince. The real Helen, the beautiful Helen, Menelaus is told, has been hanging out in Egypt all this time. The Greeks have fought for a decade over an illusion.

Lewis’s efforts stopped here. With no more to go on, Green theorizes that his famous friend, had he finished this book, would have put a twist on Euripides’ twist, revealing that the beautiful Egyptian woman was in reality the eidolon, and that the frumpy version was the real thing after all. It surprises me that Green didn’t notice the link between his two theories. Isn’t this really the same as the proposed plot of “The Dark Tower”? Boy loves Girl. Boy sees Girl in distant place. Boy goes to distant place to get Girl. Boy finds out Girl is not Girl. Then Boy discovers that Girl is actually Girl after all. It makes perfect sense for C. S. Lewis. It’s even essentially the same as the plot of yet another Lewis book, The Pilgrim’s Regress. (Why didn’t Green include this in his supposedly exhaustive list of Lewis’s fictional work?) The Pilgrim, if I remember correctly, sets out from home to find Truth only to discover, like Dorothy Gale, that what he truly sought was the home he had rejected in the first place. Seen in this light (or should I say, by means of this light?), the two unfinished novels become Christian tales, since the journey of rediscovery Lewis retells several times is a spiritual journey ending in Christ.

Now that I think about it clearly enough to write about it, I guess I’ve recreated the plot myself. I picked up The Dark Tower and Other Stories thinking I would read some little-known Christian fiction by one of my favorite authors. Then I found myself surprised and slightly disappointed with space-traveling trollops, stinger-headed tyrants, and faceless fashionistas. But in the end, I decided I had found what I was looking for to begin with.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Roller Coaster of a Read

I’ve been looking forward to revisiting Charles Williams’s The Greater Trumps for many years now. If so especially eager for this one, why did I place it as late as year 8 when I first drew up The Plan? I can only answer myself by saying that I look at the Tolkien/Williams category of my list and wonder what else I would have delayed to make room for it.

But I did have a special anticipation for this one. I first read it while I was in bed with the flu one time in the 90s. Now the problem is – well, it’s a beauty and a wonder if you’re in good health and a problem only if you have the mental diffuseness that comes with a fever – the problem is that Charles Williams covers his prose with a layer of mysticism. And three or four times in each book, that mystical patina digs deep down into the body of the drama where one or more characters undergo a transcendent encounter with the weird. These passages, usually five to twenty pages long, are hard to follow in the best of conditions. I generally treat them the way I treat the giant drops on a roller coaster: I tense up, realize I’m going to lose control to an overpowering force, and hang on while I enjoy the free fall knowing it will be over soon. In the semi-delirium of 102 degrees, though, I lost my grip on the lapbar of The Greater Trumps and ended up getting thrown out into the trees.

But this time, fifteen or more years later, I climbed onto the ride much better prepared to follow its track all the way to the end. Not only did I enjoy my full faculties, but just last year GAMES magazine ran a story on the history of the Tarot cards, the main prop, if you will, of this Williams fantasy. It turns out that the stories about the cards’ origin in ancient Egypt were fabricated in the nineteenth century. Their medieval or early-modern Christian provenance is actually quite clear. The Hierophant wears a Pope’s mitre and sits over the keys of Peter. The Ace of Cups is the chalice of the Lord’s Table. The Judgment involves an angel with a trumpet and bodies rising from the grave, right out of I Corinthians. The Priestess sits between two pillars marked J and B, the Jachin and Boaz of I Kings. The World is surrounded by the traditional symbols for the four gospel writers. And on and on. This knowledge made it much easier for me to buy Williams’s fictional conceit that the cards represented the eternal dance of the biblical God’s creation, that their figures were symbols or types of objects and attributes from the eternal world.

Williams had his own set of types that he drew on in writing his novels. All his stories seem to have a character of a faith so strong that it is almost sight of the Blessed: a character with a Marian acceptance of every adventure of God’s will. In The Greater Trumps, Sybil plays this role, the woman for whom “nothing is certain but everything is safe” because God is in control. They all have the young person entirely ignorant of the ways of the Lord, totally inexperienced in the supernatural, but ready to learn at each new surprise. Such is Nancy in this book. They all have the worldly skeptic with a “rational” explanation for everything (Lothair Coningsby here), the person who believes but only wants to possess the Power (Aaron), and the pagan ready to worship the Power but under the wrong name (Joanna).

Everything fell into place this time, and I felt very comfortable. The characters all seemed familiar according to their types, and the mystical cards worked well as portals to the Other Side. But halfway through, I came across the totally unexpected. The interaction with the uncanny that began around chapter 10 (magic snow storm, glowing mist, a crazy cat, visions of towers made out of hands, a guy who can’t feel his own head – you know, the usual stuff) didn’t last just part of a chapter, not just one whole chapter, not even just two chapters. It went all the way to the end. This plunge of the tracks never let up. I definitely stayed in the car this time, but I was pretty rattled by the time it pulled back into the station. Well, I’ve scheduled the book once more for the next decade, and I’ll be even more prepared for the next ride.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

One Small Corner of Earth

At the end of volume V of The Story of Civilization, Will Durant sums up the Italian Renaissance by first listing charges against it and then presenting a closing argument for the defense. Whatever good came of the Renaissance movement, his indictment begins, was born on the backs of the oppressed. Republican governments generally fell to dictatorships. The Church and its leaders were corrupt and immoral. The painting, beautiful as it might be, was shallow. And the staid neoclassical architecture pinned the imagination to the earth and failed to express either the glory of the ancient past or the exuberance of the contemporary world. In rebuttal, however, Durant points out that the achievements of great cultures always depend on the labor of the masses, that the decadence of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy brought with it an intellectual freedom that we take for granted today, and that the architects at least produced the great domes of Florence and of St. Peter’s and provided space for the sublime work of Michelangelo.

Having lived in Tuscany, the epicenter of the Renaissance, for four months a few years ago, this juror casts his vote in favor of the defendant. I’m not saying the art was worth the moral devastation of the Church or the blood in the streets – much less the spilled blood in the cathedrals. But that highly regrettable side of the past cannot be prevented, no matter how much I swing my head in astonished shame. What I am saying is that the greater part of the legacy is undoubtedly very good.

I remember when I first experienced the Renaissance, not just as a style or as a chapter in a history book, but as a force and as a gift to succeeding ages: we were in a museum room of the Convento San Marco in Florence on a cold day in February. Nancy and I had gone to the Convento to see the frescos of Fra Angelico in the monks’ cells, but little did we know how many paintings by other artists we would see. Picture after stunning picture bore the inscription, “By an unknown brother of the fifteenth century.” And it occurred to me: get one genius into a community, and he can bring out the artist in everyone.

Gather any one hundred clergy in the United States today and ask them to paint or draw a picture, and the chances are overwhelmingly great that the best would look like a child’s scribbling next to the most routine example of one of the unknown brothers of San Marco. But no one in this country expects a Christian shepherd to be able to paint. No one expects him to have skills in mathematics. For that matter, based on my experience in many churches, a very, very few even expect our Christian speakers to use correct grammar. But put one hundred Florentine monks together with Fra Angelico and ask them to paint, and you end up with lasting and moving works of art, because in Fra Angelico’s Italy, everyone with any education at all was expected to be able to paint, and that expectation brought talent and creativity to the surface.

So where did the expectation come from? Was it something in the Tuscan water? Standing in that front room of the convent I started thinking about the torrent of world-changing ideas that came out of this small corner of the earth, especially two cities now just a one-hour train ride apart: Florence and Arezzo. We’ll start in eleventh-century Arezzo, where Guido invents musical notation. A quarter of a millennium later, Petrarch, also from Arezzo, concocts the idea of the Renaissance and even the greater idea of cultural history and change, and begins the wonder of poetry in modern languages. Hop on the train to Florence, and you see Giotto adding human emotion and individuality to painting. A hundred years later, Masaccio perfects the use of perspective. A few years after that, Donatello brings sculpture to vivid life. In the 1430s, Cosimo de’ Medici calls a council of clerics from East and West, and Greek scholarship seizes the Italian imagination. His descendants invent double-column bookkeeping. A century later and back in Arezzo again, Vasari writes a history of art and claims that it has a goal and purpose: Michelangelo. At the end of the sixteenth century, Bardi and his friends of the Florentine Camerata – including one Vincenzo Galileo – invent opera and the new texture of melody and accompaniment. And at the beginning of the next century, just across the Arno, Vincenzo’s son Galileo gives the world the scientific endeavor, guided by controlled experimentation and observation and expressed in numbers and formulas. There’s the modern world of music, art, literature, history, letters, accounting, science, and mathematics, all springing forth over a span of six hundred years in one small corner of the earth.

What was in the water? And how can we get our culture to start drinking from that fountain?

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Great Conversation

I listened in on a conversation the other day – a conversation between books. Mortimer Adler, the guide and patron saint of my reading project (and the pitching coach of my fantasy baseball team), sometimes spoke of the classic works of literature as The Great Conversation. Across time and space, brilliant writers explore the Great Ideas of truth, justice, being, number, cause and chance, government and democracy, form and substance, will and memory, and many others including, yes, the idea of ideas. The best authors respond to ideas expressed before them, add to them or clarify them, and influence thinkers who come after them.

The metaphor of a conversation makes a lot of sense to me; I experience a conversation between books every day. I discovered a few years ago that I read more and assimilate more of what I read if I keep multiple books going at a time. From the beginning of my current ten-year plan, I’ve always planned to read two books at once, and I read a few pages from each one every day. You can see this parallel nature of the plan in any of the calendars tabbed at the top of this page. In general, one of the books (the ones in the left column on my schedules) is heavier, both in terms of content and of physical weight. These works – typically philosophy, history, and theology – I usually read fairly slowly, sitting down, and taking notes. The books in the right column, on the other hand, I take with me on walks. They’re the books I could read for hours on end (and sometimes do).

In just the last few days, I’ve actually started enjoying portions of three books most days. Getting to my new job involves almost an hour of driving each day, something I wasn’t used to. I listened to music on the drive during the first few weeks in the new situation. But earlier this month, I downloaded an audio version of Phantastes from librivox.org and listened to about half of it. This pleasurable experience made the commuting time go by quite quickly. So once I finished the MacDonald book, I thought I’d get another audiobook for the car. But what to choose? Everything on the plan for the rest of the year is copyrighted, and I was hoping for something free. So I looked at next year’s plan and picked Tristram Shandy. One, two, three – three books at once. Friday, as geeky as it sounds, I listened to Tristram on the way to work, took Mann’s Magic Mountain on my daily walk, and read in Durant’s The Renaissance during lunch. (Yes, I did some work in between all that reading!)

And that's where the conversation comes in. The conversation I horned in on last Friday had to do with time. Mann has a lot to say about time from the very beginning of The Magic Mountain, especially the difference between perceived time and objective time. Protagonist Hans Castorp, for instance, experiences time flowing quickly when his day is scheduled, plodding slowly as he waits the seven minutes for his thermometer to register his fever, and disappearing altogether as each day, each week, each month repeats the same patterns over and over. Well, during my walk on Friday, I read Mann’s narrator moving this distinction to a literary level. There’s a difference, he points out, between the real-world time taken reading a narrative and the fictional-world time within the narrative. A few seconds of narrative time might take several minutes to read; the split second of action and thought under the train at the end of Anna Karenina came to my mind as an example. On the other hand, years sometimes rush by in a matter of a few words at the beginning of a chapter.

This distinction between reading time and narrative time stayed in the back of my mind all day after that walk, even until I got in the car at the end of the day and turned Tristram back on. And then it happened. The conversation was so stunning, so vivid, so direct, I could practically see Laurence Sterne and Thomas Mann sitting together at a table talking it over. As soon as the recording started, I heard first-person narrator Tristram apologize for taking so long getting to his birth! He’s announced the day, but before he delivers the details, he has to tell the reader about the midwife and the parson who come to the house, about his parent’s arguments about the midwife, about the parson’s horse, about his mother’s desire to have her lying-in in London, about his father’s theory of names (the Shandian System), and so on.

Having read the book before, I know I have a good forty chapters to go before I experience any narration of Tristram’s actual coming into the world. Today, for instance, I heard a digression about the Jesuits’ theory of baptism before birth, a digression about Uncle Toby, a digression on forms of argument, and even a digression on digressions. And it will go on. Several days will lapse before I hear the end of a sentence uttered by Uncle Toby that I heard begin today. Several weeks will lapse before I witness Tristram’s unlucky arrival.

The reader will remember that I was discussing a conversation and an apology. When I heard his apology, I laughed out loud. It wasn’t the first time I laughed out loud while listening to this audiobook. I’ve done it several times. Now, you may not understand the significance of the statement or the reason for my repeating it unless you know that I usually don’t laugh out loud. I have a well developed sense of humor, and I laugh. Sometimes I laugh hard. I have convulsions as good as anyone’s. I just normally don’t make any sound. Sometimes my family wonder why I’m not enjoying myself watching a funny movie. “Don’t you like it?” they ask. “Of course, I like it. It’s funny.” “Then why aren’t you laughing?” “I am laughing.” “I didn’t hear you laughing.” “Ah, but did you see me laughing?” “No your chair was turned around.” I often sit on a swivel chair when we watch movies together. Or I did. Now that we’ve moved, I have a recliner.

Speaking of the time it takes to read a narrative, might I interrupt my pleasant relaxation on the recliner and stop my silent, merry shaking long enough to tell you that Magic Mountain is too long?