Thursday, December 31, 2015

Book Awards – 2015

As we prepare once more to greet the two-faced Janus, we mortals also tend to look both backward and forward. Among the good things of this past year, I’m most thankful for my daughter’s move to Tennessee, my successful cancer surgery, and our driving trip to St. John’s Newfoundland. (Driving, mind you!) Coming up next year are a trip to Ireland (we decided not to drive there, though) and full retirement in December 2016. But of course having a Ten-Year Reading Plan prompt me to think back over the last twelve months of books and to anticipate the next twelve. As I’ve done for several years now, I offer my retrospective in the form of awards.

Hall of Fame: Charles Dickens
I used to think that if I didn’t place Dickens in his own honorific category, no one else could ever win the Best Reread. But I found this year that I’m perfectly happy announcing a four-way tie in that category.

Best New Read, Religion: Pascal, The Provincial Letters
Although his Pensées is one of my very favorite books, I had to put down Pascal’s Provincial Letters unfinished when its turn came up in the original ten-year plan that came with my Britannica Great Books set. And I find it very difficult to give up on a book; I’ve probably done it only three or four times in my whole life. But this year as I enjoyed the rest of these public letters, I couldn’t figure out how I lost interest the first time. Maybe it helped that my reading schedule has kept the Reformation on one of the closest back burners for several months. As Pascal exposes “Christian” theological theories that bribery is not sinful, that receiving forgiveness doesn’t require contrition, and that loving God is not necessary for salvation, you’d think he was writing satire except that he offered quotation after quotation from actually published books.

Best New Read, History: Foner, The Fiery Trial
Eric Foner understands that our country’s oldest and most persistent problem can’t be effectively treated in the sound bytes of postmodern politics. Through extensive quotations and careful analysis of historical context, the author does an amazing job setting out and balancing the delicate nuances of Lincoln’s feelings, thoughts, judgments, words, and actions concerning race relations and slavery. While the Great Emancipator didn’t have a twenty-first-century liberal view of race in America, it is a relief to find him consistently and emphatically denouncing American slavery as an unmitigated evil over all the decades of his public life. The high point of the book came when Foner distinguished feeling and belief and then made it clear that Lincoln valued the latter over the former, a point that I don’t normally encounter in any writing after, say, 1800.

Best Payoff for the Wait: Malory
In contrast to my experience with The Provincial Letters, when I put down Morte d’Arthur unfinished years ago, I knew I’d get back to it, and I knew I’d love it. I didn’t know it would take thirty years to get back to it, and I didn’t know I would love the last part as much as I do. The book starts out being really good, and then when Galahad and the story of the Grail shows up, it gets great. When the surprises in that story play out, though, it becomes something even greater than great. I didn’t see Malory’s tale of the knights of the Round Table on any Great Books list when I drew up my schedule ten years ago; I just planned it because I like King Arthur. Now I’m wondering how no one else recognizes this deeply moving classic.

Biggest Disappointment: Bede
I thought that by reading Bede, I’d read an inspiring history of the early Church in England. But in books II and III, Bede reveals an axe that I don’t care to see ground: the monk known as the Venerable wants to make it clear that the Celts, because they calculate the date of Easter differently from the English, are rude and barbaric. Hey, Bede, in the words of Paul, “One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?”

Most Changed Author: Hume
I learned in college about Hume’s far-reaching skepticism. I’ve read about his skepticism. I’ve read Hume himself and thought he was a skeptic, although it seemed clear to me that he was uncomfortable with his skepticism. But after reading Hume this year, I came away convinced that he fully believed that we should trust our senses, believe in God, and pursue science. All he was skeptical of, it seems to me now, is reason as the basis for these assurances.

Most Challenging Nonfiction: Lewis, “Christianity and Culture”
When C. S. Lewis starts wondering what good it does anyone for him to teach culture, the dimmer mind in this lesser professor has to sit up and take notice.

Best Return Visit: (tie) Lord of the Rings, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, Orthodoxy
Why did I plan four of my very favorite books for the same year? Maybe, when I drew up my ten-year plan a decade ago, I put them all in year 9 thinking of each them (at four different times spread over several weeks, no doubt) that I should read new things and difficult things before I indulge myself – and then couldn’t bear to put any of them off all the way to year 10. If books were food and chocolate were completely nourishing, these four books would be chocolate to me.

Best Offroading: A History of the World in 6 Glasses
I learned something new and fascinating in almost every paragraph. I didn’t know that beer had so much to do with the beginnings of writing. I didn’t know that Enlightenment philosophers considered coffee vital to their discussions and thinking. I didn’t know that Coca-Cola is so closely associated with the U.S. that Pepsi often finds ready foreign markets in countries that don’t like us.

Tomorrow I begin the last year of my ten-year reading plan. It’s the weirdest, most extensive self-educating plan I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve reached the 90% mark right on schedule. Oh, wait. I remember now reading that Thomas Edison vowed as a boy to read every book in his library. Oh! And there’s the classic Twilight Zone episode where the avid reader finds himself the only survivor of the holocaust. I watched that episode recently, and I couldn’t believe how much I resembled Burgess Meredith’s character. Not only does he love Dickens; he lays out stacks of books on the steps of the library and arranges them according to the year he plans to read them. If I want to finish my plan next December, I guess I’d better not break my glasses!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2015

I’ve written a post about lyrics to favorite Christmas carols every December for several years now. (Here are links to the posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.) And it’s hard to believe I haven’t said anything yet about “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” since it’s one of my very favorite hymns from the Season. First of all, when else in life do you have the chance to sing the word “natal”? (If one former pastor had had his way, we wouldn’t have sung the word at all: he wanted to nix the song from the church services that year because, he thought, no one understood that word. I pointed out to him that everyone who had every been involved with prenatal care understood the word just fine. So he relented, but as he did he gave me a look as if he had just fallen for a trick but couldn’t quite put his finger on it.)

Far more important to me than the word “natal,” though, are the single words that begin verses 2, 3, and 4: “shepherds,” “sages,” and “saints.” Here we have the three types of people (connected by a handy alliteration) who, according to the accounts of Matthew and Luke, recognized the King of Creation in the Baby. But it occurred to me several years ago that these groups also represent a trifold division of all humanity: people in industry, farming, or the military (shepherds); people in education, politics, or law (sages); and clergy (saints). Everyone gets a verse!

I can even apply each of the monikers to myself at different times: when I’m working with my hands, when I’m working with my mind, and when I’m worshiping. Each of these activities can and does bring me closer to God in its own way. But James Montgomery’s hymn alerts us that God may interrupt any of these human activities that we devote to Him from time to time, breaking in to reveal Himself in a more magnificent way. Sometimes shepherds hear about a Baby who will tend them the way they tend their sheep. Sometimes sages see a star that shines through their studies more gloriously than any of their own brightest ideas. And sometimes worshipers who go to church to serve God are reminded that it’s really God’s Church, and that service only truly happens when He attends.

I want to say a little something about “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted,” even though airs from Handel’s Messiah aren’t actually carols. Messiah isn’t even actually a Christmas piece: the German who wrote Italian operas for the English composed this work to perform for the Irish during Lent. But the first part of the oratorio rehearses prophecies of the Messiah’s advent, so we do rightly associate this section with the nativity season, and I listen to it every December.

Handel lived at a time when composers used special techniques to make their music express their words more clearly, elicit the proper emotions in the listeners, or even draw pictures of things mentioned in the text. This last technique, identified as “text painting” in every undergraduate survey of music history, pervades the melody “Ev’ry Valley.” As you listen to it, notice how the melody climbs gradually up and up during the long melisma on the second syllable of the word “exalted” (on that word’s second and fourth appearances anyway). You won’t be surprised then when the tenor reaches the bottom of his range as every mountain and hill are made “low.” You might want to trace the shape of the next part of the melody with your finger to better experience the picture drawn during the phrase “the crooked straight”: / \ / \ ______. Pretty nifty, huh? The word “crooked” is sung with a crooked melody, and the word [absurdly obvious end of sentence deleted]. Now that you’ve learned all about text painting, you might want to try out your new analytical skills on “The People that Walked in Darkness” (probably track 11 on your recording of Messiah). What shape are the paths in the land of darkness?

Here’s wishing us all happy listening and reading during the Holiday!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Lord, Keep My Memory Green

It is logically certain that since Charles Dickens befriended all mankind, he also became my friend, myself being a part of mankind and providing the minor premise in the syllogism. Dickens’s visits to our home are always momentous occasions. Joyous anticipation surrounds all the preparations and mounts until the moment the Great Man knocks on the door. He enters dramatically, of course, swinging off his cape and starting a story before anyone has a chance to utter greetings. Friends of the friend of all mankind become accustomed to the whirlwind of his presence. His personality has far too much intensity for intimate conversation, just as the sun shines too brightly to allow a direct glimpse. It is enough to know that Scrooge’s master is at my elbow in spirit throughout the rest of the year.

I hope I’m not alone in wishing that the bounteous grace furnished by A Christmas Carol could be multiplied by finding it in other Dickens Christmas books. I know that hundreds of thousands of readers from the 1840s shared my hopeful longing. But any who read the rest of the Christmas novellas must admit in the end that none of the other four even come close. The Chimes is to A Christmas Carol as a turkey sandwich is to Christmas dinner: one follows naturally from the other but, tasty as it is, comes with none of the magical glow of the original feast.

Still, I vaguely remember thinking, after reading all five sometime in the 1980s, that The Haunted Man claimed second place and could delight, teach, and move any reader who could sequester the thought that it didn’t hold up next to its predecessor. And now thirty years later, I’ve confirmed that assessment. I don’t know how much I could have appreciated The Haunted Man’s virtues in my twenties, but today I can sympathize with the melancholy Mr. Redlaw, whose own brooding self haunts him, hovering darkly over his shoulder and urging him to rehearse his sorrowful memories. If only Redlaw could be released from his obsession with the past!

The utterance of the wish launches the main story. The ghostly doppelgänger, playing Clarence to Redlaw’s George Bailey, grants his wish: Redlaw’s memories will no longer plague him. But the spirit goes one step further than Capra’s good-hearted angel: Redlaw will pass on this apparent blessing to anyone he touches. But the still-haunted man watches in horror as good people around him turn on each other and as fallen people lose all regret for their sinful ways. Those who lose their memories of sadness lose also their appreciation for the good, lose sympathy for fellow beings in distress, and experience no awe, mystery, or consolation when looking at graves or stars or while listening to music. Remembrance of sorrow, Redlaw learns, makes forgiveness possible and links us to Christ on the Cross. And so I repeat the words that close Dickens’s second-best Christmas book: Lord, Keep My Memory Green.

Friday, December 11, 2015

William James Knows Me So Well

Once again this year, William James is looking inside my head and showing me everyday phenomena I hadn’t understood or even noticed before. I’m reading two chapters from Principles of Psychology this year. In the first, on imagination, James distinguishes “images” from each of the five external senses. Pausing between words as I type, I can virtually see Stonehenge, virtually hear the sound of my high-school music teacher’s voice, virtually feel the touch of velvet on my fingers, virtually smell hot apple cider, and virtually taste chocolate. These are all memories that I can call up in such a way that I have some hint, some degree of actual experience: as opposed to simply remembering that I have seen Stonehenge, the arrangement of stones comes into my field of vision in a ghostly way difficult to describe except by saying that I almost actually see it.

James usually drops a bomb somewhere in each chapter, and this year’s explosion involved the story of a psychologist named Galton who conducted some of the very first psychological studies based on surveys. How else to study the way people imagine things other than to ask them? So Galton put together his survey: How vivid are your visual imaginations? Are they in color? Are they bright or dim? How long can you hold a mental image? And so on. Fearing that nonscientists wouldn’t understand what he was after or know how to take it seriously, Galton asked fellow scientists first and found to his great surprise (and mine) that most scientists said they had no visual imagination at all!

My first response to this shocking news was to think, “How do they even think?” A page later, James announced that most people respond to the news with that very question. But then he proceeds to explain how they think: obviously they do think and must need some type of mental tokens for various ideas, so without visual imagination, they must think through other types of imagination. To the list of five possibilities corresponding to the senses, James also notes muscle memory – another very new concept at the time.

Studies on people with brain injuries discovered that people who lose their dominant mode of imagination lose function. One person who memorized words visually, for instance, lost his ability to read when he lost his visual imagination – lost it, that is, until he started tracing the letters with his finger, invoking kinesthetic memory of writing the words. So here, a hundred years before it became popular to talk about, is a theory of multiple learning styles. James even anticipates my frequent response to current teaching about learning styles: an old-fashioned method like having students rewrite information and then read it aloud works because it engages channels of sight, hearing, and motion simultaneously.

James’s views on imagination raised in my mind another question concerning education. In trying out the different kinds of imagination in my own mind, I found that my aural memories are by far the most vivid and detailed. If some people have no visual imagination at all, is it conceivable that some have no aural imagination? And could student struggles in my musical aural-skills classes arise from this deficiency? If so, I should try to help weak students by exercising memory of single notes. (Oh, don’t be so surprised to find that many music majors have trouble distinguishing one interval or scale from another.)

A last note: I felt a little less strange when James told me that I’m not the only person who hears words as I read. Some people, he notes, have the converse experience: they see words when they hear someone speak. I once had a student who told me she heard the names of pitches as she played her violin. She said she was embarrassed to reveal a quirk that, at least in her fears, might tend to make people doubt her sanity. I wonder if, like me, she wouldn’t feel less strange if she let William James look inside her head.

By the way, Galton eventually found out that nonscientists, especially women and children, love to answer surveys. Magazines at grocery stores would seem to confirm that observation.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Religious and Aesthetic Sense

Many years ago, I participated in a group of Christian faculty who met a couple of times each month for prayer and discussion. Oftentimes we took turns choosing a book for the group to read – a delicate situation since tastes in religious writings can vary widely. I once chose Cardinal Newman's The Idea of a University, and no one else liked it, not even the one Catholic member of the group. When that colleague's turn came around, he selected a book by a more recent Catholic priest. Surprisingly enough, he didn't like that one, either. In fact, once again, I was the only one who cared for the selection.

The book was The Religious Sense, by Luigi Giussani. I enjoyed it mostly because the author used a lot of poetry from around the world to make his case for some universal sentiments about the Nature of Everything. Our faculty group, however, consisted mostly of engineers and economists: not the most poetic people on the planet. The fellow who picked the book was a law professor and similarly prosaic.

It's been about ten years since I read The Religious Sense, and last month I finally got around to reading the sequel to the book that appealed so strongly to both my own religious sense and my aesthetic sense. At the Origin of the Christian Claim started out much like the earlier offering, with quotations from Egyptian odes, a fifteenth-century Indian poet, Homer, the Koran, and other sources from throughout history and from around the world. But I soon realized that this fresh approach would only last during the first couple of chapters of the book, the portion dedicated to recapping the preceding volume. The rest of the book was good, but not especially novel.

But still, there's one more victory for the reading plan. I wanted to read this book for many years but probably wouldn't have if I hadn't scheduled it. And I know now that if I schedule any more Giussani on future reading plans, I should probably just return to The Religious Sense.