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!

Wednesday, December 24, 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.