Sunday, August 30, 2015

Five Years Ago

In August of 2010, I had an illness that kept me in bed for three weeks. After about a week, I felt energetic, but I still couldn’t leave bed. (You don’t want to know.) So I got bored. Really bored. My wife and I had just seen Julie & Julia, and so she told me I should start a blog. That’s what I did, and the last two weeks of that illness went much more quickly. But I didn’t stop when I got better: five years later, I’m still at it, today publishing post no. 524.

But my blog on reading hasn’t taken off like Julie Powell’s blog: I’ll ignore the possibility that my literary skills may not be up to snuff and just point out that musty philosophy and medieval poetry aren’t as popular as cooking. I see that one year ago, I reported that exlibrismagnis received about 1000 hits per month then; it’s averaged about 1300 a month lately, but Russian spambots seem to have found me, so I don’t know how many of those increased hits represent human readers. But for those of you who are human (and you know who you are!), thanks!

These last twelve months have made up the first full year in our new Tennessee home. I’ve had new time schedules to work out. I had to find the closest Wendy’s to my new campus for lunchtime reading. And I’ve had to find new places to walk both at work and around home so I can keep up my habit of exercising body and mind at the same time. During this first year in Tennessee, I’ve taken a tour of Renaissance Europe with Will Durant, watched the sun set in Trollope’s Barsetshire, followed the friendship of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt through a world war, witnessed Christianity gaining an unsteady footing in Gibbon’s declining and falling Roman Empire, finished Malory’s epic tale of the greatest knights in the world, and reread Cervantes’s moving account of the ridiculous modern man who tried to mimic them. These wonderful books traveled with me through my first year in a new job, on a long road trip to Newfoundland, and during a ten-month ordeal of discovering, fighting, and getting cured of cancer.

Here are links to a handful of my favorite posts from this last year:
A Bird’s Eye View
Serenity in Barsetshire
The Song
One Small Corner of Earth
Whose Stuff?
Mute Inglorious Miltons, Arise!
Looking Forward to 2015
Grim Expectations
Here I Can Grovel

About a year from now, my ten-year reading plan and my blog will be nearing their close. But keep with me until then, human readers. Russian spambots, on the other hand, please go away! I’m interested in old books, not whatever it is that you’re trying to lure me into.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Is Don Quixote Mad?

The thing about a Ten-Year Reading Plan is that the fellow doing the planning and reading looks forward to some books for years. And I waited with eager anticipation to reread Don Quixote for eight-and-a-half years. Then, as I began a year ago to put the calendar together for this twelvemonth of reading, I also started to look forward to blogging about the books on the schedule for 2015. And of all the blogging of the year, I looked forward most to writing this post.

Is Don Quixote mad? I’m not totally sure, but I’m pretty confident he isn’t. Yes, he says he’s a knight errant several hundred years after such characters supposedly existed. Yes, he attacks windmills while claiming that they are giants. Yes, he chooses a frumpy, unibrowed farm girl named Aldonza, rechristens her Dulcinea del Toboso, and then insists that everyone he meets declare her the most beautiful woman alive. But none of these facts makes me think that Don Quixote is insane. (1) He admits that he knows perfectly well who he is, that the books about knights depict them not as they actually were but as heroes ought to be, and that he simply wants to pattern his own life after the most virtuous models he can find, all of this making him idealistic, but not mad. (2) He doesn’t actually see giants when he attacks the windmills but instead claims that a sorcerer has changed the appearance of giants to that of windmills, making him gullible, but not mad. (3) He admits that no woman in a ballad is as lovely as the poet makes her out to be and that Dulcinea simply deserves to be called beautiful, making him extremely gallant and romantic, but not mad. No the detail that most tempts me to think him insane is his explicit deathbed confession that his days of knight-errantry were days of madness. But couldn’t this just be a figure of speech?

Sancho on the other hand truly believes (after a while) everything Don Quixote says. Who’s more mad: the madman or the fool who follows him?

Hmm. Was that brief exposition worth all the wait? Maybe not. But the great Spanish treasure, the book worth more than all the gold in all the conquistadors’ ships, was certainly worth the wait of a few paltry years.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the intolerance of many fourth-century Christians. It occurred to me after I pressed “Publish” that in using the word intolerant, I used a word that has recently acquired a meaning different from the one I normally use. I can quite easily and realistically imagine some people I know saying, “Well, duh! Of course Christians are intolerant: they believe something and think I’m wrong for disagreeing.” These days, some people find it difficult to draw a line between intolerance and disagreement. I hear people say strange, silly things like “That’s okay if that’s true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Wanting so much not to disagree – because disagreement seems today to smack of intolerance, and intolerance is not to be tolerated – many people have decided that truth is all relative.

I disagree with that sentiment. But my disagreeing with you doesn’t mean that I’m intolerant of you. It doesn’t mean I want to insult you. Disagreement is actually a great honor compared with the “your-truth-and-my-truth” attitude; at least disagreeing with you means that I care what you think and want to think it with you, at least long enough to find out what’s wrong with it. Or who knows? Maybe I’ll think about it long enough to come around to your way of thinking.

Trinitarians and Arians disagreed. Given the premises each held, they were right to disagree with each other. The theory Arius proposed needed to be talked out, and the Church needed an Athanasius to show what was wrong with the Arian theory. I don’t complain about any of that. But when the Christians in power kill the Christians who disagree (and it went both ways at various times), they have become intolerant to the ultimate degree, and I can’t approve. Now, my not approving doesn’t mean that if I lived then I would want to kill everyone who was so intolerant of others that they killed them. I just mean that I disagree with them and that I would hope I could have tried to be the Lord’s servant Paul describes in his second letter to Timothy: “kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth.”

Realizing that I still haven’t said much about what I read over the course of five weeks in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, I’d better move on. Gibbon continually moves and amazes me with a picture of a world without clearly defined edges. (We might say that the boundaries had tolerances!) Who was emperor of Rome? Well, when the dying emperor nominates one person but British legions declare someone else, the answer isn’t entirely clear cut. Was Rome the capital of the Roman Empire? Constantinople was clearly a capital. And the western emperors sometimes resided at Milan. But a Senate still sat in the ancient city. Was Rome Christian after Theodosius? The answer depends partly on how many believers in Jupiter were left and partly on whether Arians are to be considered Christian. Were the Visigoths the enemies of Rome? Thousands of them crossed the Danube to get away from the Huns; they assimilated themselves into Roman society and served in the army. From time to time, they rebelled. But at those times, were they Romans in protest or traitors or enemies of the state? The fuzzy boundaries on all these categories fascinate to me.

But that doesn’t mean that I believe that the truth of the categories is relative. It means that I think it is definitely true that they have fluid edges. The boundaries are fuzzy, not the truth.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Who Is Cervantes Making Fun Of?

Or for those who don’t know the wonderful witticism that may or may not have originated with Winston Churchill: “Of Whom Is Cervantes Making Fun?” Actually, I think he may be making fun of pedants, maybe even pedants who cite overly fastidious grammatical rules. (And as a pedant who cites only moderately fastidious grammatical rules, I have the right to laugh with Cervantes.) But more on the satire in a moment.

First I have to say a word on the difference between book I and book II. While I’ve been rereading Don Quixote, I’ve noticed that I remember a lot from book I and almost none from the second half. I was puzzled about the stark difference for a while, but I think I now know why it is. Despite Cervantes’s efforts to improve his writing for the conclusion of the novel (he says right in the narration that he’s trying to satisfy the critics who found fault with book I), I just don’t find book II nearly as entertaining. The efforts of Don Quixote’s family and neighbors to keep him from going out again are fun. But soon after he sets forth on his final quest for new adventures, he falls in with a Duke and Duchess who take up at least 25% of the whole work playing tricks on poor Don Quixote. I can laugh at the Knight of the Sad Countenance when he mistakes windmills for enchanted giants, but I can’t laugh with the supposed nobles who tell Don Quixote that a particular bearded man is an enchanted woman just to see what he’ll do. If I can’t laugh with the Duke and Duchess, I’m not laughing at Don Quixote. And if I’m not laughing at Don Quixote, I’m not having as much fun. I must have thought the same thing the last time I read the great Spanish treasure, and that would explain my remembering so much more of the first part.

Still, if Quixote’s delusions aren’t funny in the second part, at least he has interesting things to say. And Sancho is still funny – maybe even funnier than he is in book I. And I’m still more than happy about including every word of this most wonderful classic on my ten-year reading plan. So I’ve been thinking: who is Cervantes making fun of in this book? On the surface level, he’s making fun of Don Quixote (at least when he’s not making sport of him). And of course he succeeds famously: history’s last knight errant is such a hilariously great character that everyone, even people who haven’t read the book, knows about Don Quixote and his mad attempt to tilt at windmills (an episode found in book I, naturally).

But the satire runs deeper. Don Quixote himself says that he wants to style his life after the knights he reads about in books. So apparently Cervantes is poking some fun at Spanish heroic romances written at and just before his time. If Cervantes primarily aimed his barbs at these knightly tales, the wonder is that Don Quixote is still funny for us today, since virtually no one now knows the originals.

I think, though, that Cervantes goes after even larger game. Many times in the book, people marvel that someone who talks so intelligently and even wisely could behave in such a barmy way. This oft-mentioned view of Don Quixote has me thinking that he represents scholars, authors, and (perhaps especially) critics: people who live off of the words they spout out but don’t necessarily live as wisely as they speak. Come to think of it, though, isn’t that all of us? We all talk a good game, and we all fall short of the glory of God. So ultimately perhaps Cervantes is making fun of the whole human race. And maybe that’s why we all love Don Quixote so much and are so ready to forgive him.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bring It On

Before I started reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a couple of years ago, I had heard that author Edward Gibbon offended many Christians of his time and afterwards because of some less than respectful treatment of the Christians in his history. Reading only 150 pages a year (albeit 150 long pages), I didn’t get to any Christians until my second year with the book: last year. There, the only thing I could see that might have troubled people is that he took a long time to show that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, wasn’t always such a good guy, and that Julian, who left the Church and declared himself a believer in the Roman pantheon, was a wise and virtuous ruler. Those two points seemed true to me, and Gibbon didn’t offend me with either one.

In this year’s passage, Gibbon has a lot of good things to say about Christians and a lot of bad things to say about them. The negative criticisms pertain mostly to the intolerance of Trinitarians for Arians and vice versa. How is this offensive? There aren’t any Arians around anymore (unless the Unitarians want to claim that pedigree), so I think the purported libel must apply to the Trinitarians. But many of them were intolerant (Gibbon carefully points out a couple of notable exceptions), and they did abuse their political privilege. If I’m offended, I’m offended by the fourth-century Christians for leaving a legacy of exiling and executing those who didn’t agree with them. Christianity stayed purer and when Christians had no political power, which is why I’m not overly upset by the increasing secularism of our society.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Robber Barons and Luther’s Stew

When my wife and I go on road trips, I spend much of the time reading out loud while my wife drives. It makes the miles go by faster, and we get educated and entertained. She knows that when we have a long trip, she’s going to have hear some things from my list: I can take a break from The Plan for a weekend jaunt, but not for a three-week trek to Newfoundland. We always read some C. S. Lewis, and often we enjoy some G. K. Chesterton; this year we read Christian Reflections and Orthodoxy. We also watched Emma nearly ruin everyone’s lives, including her own, by her meddling. And we followed Agatha Christie to Baghdad. These are all things she would normally read on her own. But I also read a long chapter from something she hasn’t, to my knowledge, ever picked up and probably never will: Will Durant’s magisterial The Story of Civilization.

I’m well into the Reformation volume this year. Last year, I read the first 250 pages, which trace the events of several European countries through the years of the Italian Renaissance, the subject of the previous volume. But now, after the game of catch-up, Durant is just about ready to discuss the actual Reformation. In the car last month, we read a chapter about conditions in Germany just before Luther’s stand.

As we read the first few pages, concerning the financial transformation of fifteenth-century Germany, I kept thinking about the robber barons I had read about earlier this year in Edward Rutherfurd’s New York. Did you know J. P. Morgan once stopped a nationwide financial crisis with his personal funds? His personal funds! I couldn’t help making the comparison when we read about Jakob Fugger making private loans to several troubled European states. One person bailing out an entire country – or even several. Now that’s rich. I don’t think Bill Gates could make more than a tiny dent in a national crisis if, say, our creditors decided to call in their debts.

Coincidentally (I hesitate to say “ironically” since no one can use that word these days without being told that they don’t understand irony), after I had the term “robber barons” swimming around in my head for a couple of days, Durant explained the origin of the term – and it wasn’t Fugger and the other financiers. The term came from actual barons, the German knights who seemed to make up the only class that didn’t benefit from the move from feudalism. Their wealth lay in land and traditional obligations for service, none of which went far in a society that wanted thalers for everything. So the German knights declared private wars and attacked tax wagons moving through their domains. It wasn’t exactly stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It was more a matter of stealing from the moneyed to give to the landed, which happened to be themselves.

The ultimate point Durant makes in this section is that the new portable wealth enjoyed throughout the region we think of as Germany led a sizable new class of people both to scorn the old system of feudalism and to resent having to part with so much of their new-found cash in the form of tithes to Rome. After all, they reasoned, the church in Rome is extremely corrupt (we just won’t mention the lax morals in our part of Europe); so why should we enable their debauchery? And thus the pot was heated for Luther’s stew.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Another Foil for Don Quixote

Last time, I wrote about a comparison between Don Quixote and some insipid shepherds that Cervantes included in a subplot. Don Quixote certainly comes out on top in this comparison. But if the Knight of the Sad Countenance hangs on one side of a balance scale, shepherds who die of broken hearts aren’t the only characters we’re invited to place in the other pan. The whole book, of course, compares Don Quixote with the heroes of chivalric romances popular at the time. But right at the beginning of the book, I noticed a connection between one other personage and La Mancha’s most famous resident: Cervantes himself.

The preface to Don Quixote is all about writing a preface. Cervantes (at least the Cervantes that the author named Cervantes presents to the world) says that he despaired of ever writing a suitable introduction that could match the style of the many beautifully penned prefaces he’s read in other books. But then he claims that a friend came to him one day with a solution: steal parts from each of the prefaces he likes, and then just make the rest of it up. Now isn’t the Cervantes of the preface just like Don Quixote in trying to live up to the flowery books he's read? Come to think of it, isn’t his friend just like Sancho with his slightly immoral realism? The parallel is so striking, I wonder if this friend inspired more than just the preface.