Saturday, December 31, 2016

Dickens in the End

I began this blog after I’d been sick in bed for over a week, eating and drinking nothing but Vitamin Water. I write this last post about my second Ten-Year Reading Plan while in bed, having been sick for over a week, eating and drinking not much more than Powerade. Does having a body several degrees less healthy than that of Myron’s Discus Thrower contribute to one’s being a reader? I think it did in my case. One way or another, here I lie; I can do no other.

Of course, I ended the Plan with Charles Dickens. He’s so good, he’s even good when he’s bad, and The Battle of Life provides the perfect example. Anyone who reads this Christmas novella hoping for anything like the effect of A Christmas Carol will be sorely disappointed. But even the reader generously allowing the story its own space will have to deal with a main plot in which an engaged girl conspires with her aunt and a game wayfarer, leaves her fiancé during their betrothal party, and separates from her immediate family under a cloud of scandalous shame, all because she sees that her sister loves said fiancé. Did nineteenth-century girls actually ever make such sacrifices? OK, nineteenth-century money counters didn’t actually ever get visited by Ghosts of Christmas, either. So let me ask a different question: Were nineteenth-century people actually inspired by the narration of such an outlandish sacrifice? The story is ludicrous!

And yet everything about the way Dickens tells the improbable tale is beautiful. He establishes the scene with the story of an unspecified battle from an unspecified time. Over some untold number of generations, a farming community has risen above the blood and unmarked graves. Various characters construct different philosophies in this context: Dr. Jeddler, for instance, decides all of life is a joke, while Little Britain (so-named to distinguish him from the country!) decides, for a while at least, that morose despondency is the only proper response to such a life. But young Alfred tells us that “there are quiet victories and struggles. great sacrifices of self, and noble acts of heroism . . . done everyday in nooks and corners, and in little households, and in men’s and women’s hearts – any one of which might reconcile the sternest man to such a world.” And there’s Dickens in a nutshell. Yes, the life and culture of mankind have been broken on an anvil of bloodshed and misery, but quiet acts of individual heroism and sacrifice show us a greater reality of love and joy that can make us whole again.

Later in the story, Dickens personifies a fire in the hearth. It laughs, it winks, it makes music. Its benevolent spirit makes a sacrament of every hearth fire in our world: after reading Dickens, the fire in my hearth spreads the warmth and light of Heaven on our home. Little Britain, softened by the influence of a happy woman, becomes a happy man and buys an inn whose every outward feature beckons travelers with promises of comfort. “It’s just the sort of house,” its proprietor says while admiring it, “I should wish to stop at, if I didn’t keep it.” The inviting charm of the inn is strong enough to enchant the public houses of our world, too. After reading Dickens, any private business offering true service becomes an expression of love – a Christmas miracle indeed!

“It is a world,” says a reformed Dr. Jeddler near the end of The Battle of Life,
on which the sun never rises, but it looks upon a thousand bloodless battles that are some set-off against the miseries and wickedness of Battle-Fields, and it is a world we need be careful how we libel, Heaven forgive us, for it is a world of sacred mysteries, and its Creator only knows what lies beneath the surface of His lightest image!
So also should I be careful of criticizing Dickens’s plot too much. For the Dickensian world is one of sacred mysteries, as well, and one of its mysteries is its power to flow from the pages and sacralize our world. And so I close by paraphrasing Scrooge’s nephew in saying:
Though Dickens has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that he has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless him!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Ten-Year Retrospective

On December 21, 2017, I finished my Ten-Year Reading Plan. I can hardly believe I’m saying it, but I read thirty-nine self-selected passages of from 60 to 1600 pages each year for the last ten years right on schedule. I had no right ten years ago to believe that I’d have the time to get through it. But here I am. And as we approach January, it’s appropriate for me to imitate the god of doorways and look backwards over the last ten years even while I look forward to starting my next decade-long reading schedule.

The way the schedule worked out with travel over the decade, I’ll forever associate many books with the places I read them, especially the ones I read while walking. Wordsworth will always mean Norwich, CT, to me. Byron will always make me think of walking around a snow-covered parking lot in Arezzo, Italy. And the thought of Anna Karenina will always remind me of listening to a thirty-hour recording of the monument on flights and trains during a trip to Oxford.

Here are some other highlights of my ten-year journey:

• Watching Plato separate himself from Socrates as he lets the Eleatic Stranger start to lead the discussions, beginning in the Sophist.

• After reading confusing accounts several times, finally (1) learning from Charles Peirce what abduction actually is, (2) discovering that it isn’t a difficult concept at all (and that all those confused scholars citing Peirce must not have actually read Peirce: *sigh*), and then (3) finding that Aristotle talked about the very same thing, under a different name.

• Watching Mallory get more and more profound as the Morte d’Arthur nears the end. I don’t quite understand why this book is virtually never listed on any old-fashioned canon of Great Books.

• Figuring out that Euclid taught geometry in order to deal with irrational relationships. Since they made no sense to him as numbers, he used line lengths.

• Finally finding a way to draw out Aquinas’s Map of the Human Soul.

• Discovering the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Shahnameh.

• Reading The Dark Night of the Soul just as I was going through the very phenomenon John described.

• Finally getting to Orlando Furiosothe work that inspired the whole project – and finding out how wonderful it is.

• William James explaining my issues with attention and showing me why I had learned to read while I walk.

• Teaching a Cowper poem called “Commerce” in Sunday School one week and having one member of the class, a man who works in finance, thank me afterwards for being the first person in his experience ever to say in church that money can bring about good and that God approves of good business.

• Meeting Ronald C. White and getting him to sign my copy of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech.

• Charles Reid demolishing with one paragraph a giant Empiricist problem that had actually plagued my thinking.

• Reading in Wendy’s on the U. of Oklahoma campus, especially reading Boswell there.

I love the leather bookmarks you can find in gift shops in many European cities. Those slick American bookmarks with the cutesy weights fall right out of books, but leather bookmarks keep their place. I have some favorites: a red one, for instance, from the Dickens House Museum in London, and a black one from Canterbury Cathedral celebrating the Funeral Achievements of the Black Prince. I had a nice one from Florence, but I dropped it one morning in Cincinnati and never found it again. A greater mystery involved a green Sherlock Holmes bookmark that I lost in an airport one day – while reading Sherlock Holmes. It was on my lap, and then it just wasn’t. I looked everywhere under my seat and through my things. There was a fellow cleaning up the floor around me, and the only thing I could figure is that he picked it up and decided to keep it. Fortunately, the museum at 221B Baker Street will ship them for a low price, so I ordered a new one for myself. And then the next time I was in London, I bought two more.

Will I finish my third Ten-Year Reading Plan? If I live another ten years and if I can actually retire sometime soon, the chances are good. Barring a crisis of disastrous proportions, the chances are very good. Whether I fulfill my complete plan or not, though, the next ten years are sure to bring their own moments of wonder, surprise, challenge, enlightenment, courage, and fun.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Book Awards – 2016

In their December edition each year, GAMES Magazine used to put out a report of what they judged to be the top 100 games to buy for the holidays. Somewhere in the early 80s or 90s, they got sick of taking up using up slots with Monopoly and Twister! (perhaps for different reasons). So they instituted the GAMES Hall of Fame. Then they got down to the business of ranking what they actually thought were the hundred best games.

Inspired by their example, I decided in my first Book Awards post that Dickens would have to go in a Hall of Fame category.

Best Book by the Man Who Has His Own Category: Edwin Drood
Everything about its deliciously unresolved mystery is wonderful. And it’s certainly better than the other Dickens book I read this year: The Battle of Life.

Best Poetry: Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H. 
Lord Tennyson cheated slightly by nominating himself in a category that didn’t have a lot of competition this year. But especially after reading so many disappointing poems by the Laureate, In Memoriam struck me as powerful, beautiful, and healing.

Best Drama: Euripides, Heracles Mad
When Theseus arrives homo ex machina to make Heracles’ life as tolerable as he can simply by promising to be a good friend, Euripides has done the very best he can with the weird religion he had to work within. And he got to point out how unworthy of worship Hera really is.

Comeback of the Year: Ovid, Metamorphoses
I hated this classic saga of changes the first time I read it. But I put it on my plan just so I could see whether I had missed something the first time. I’m so glad I made myself reread it!

Best Read in Religion: Martin Luther Reader
I didn’t learn any new information about Luther or his theological views. But reading Luther’s own words turned him in my mind from a theologian who cared about his ideas to a pastor who cared, in some way, about me.

Best Nonscientific Science: Lucretius, De rerum natura
Lucretius got as close as he could with his thoughts alone to a modern theory of elements and molecules – a lot closer than the more intelligent Aristotle. I wonder what would have happened if the thirteenth century had had access to Lucretius?

Most Satisfying Detail: Augustine, There is no number that is half of 1.
I’ve asked professors of mathematics and science when in recent history western culture finally accepted the existence of fractions as numbers, and they all tell me that the ancients knew all about fractions. My question makes no sense to them. I try to explain the difference between a fraction-as-a-number and a fraction-as-a-ratio, and they look at me like a nonmathematician trying to explain mathematical concepts to a mathematician. And of course they have good reason to. This year in Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, in a passage on numbers, I started reading about 3 being half of 6, and I thought, “OK, they’re all correct. Augustine knows all about a half as a number.” But then he said that odd numbers cannot be divided in half because there is no number that is half of 1. How much clearer can it get that Augustine used the word “half” as a ratio but not as a number?

Most Recurring Theme: China
From histories to Henry Kissinger’s World Order to current news stories this year, I kept reading over and over about China’s expectation (no matter the political dynasty or system in control) that all other nations will acknowledge their superiority. And I’ve also seen that those who know to say what’s required find the Chinese cooperative. Let's hope "someone" knows what to say.

Most Eye-Opening Surprise: Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
Before Wilhelm, I didn’t understand Goethe; after Wilhelm I did. And it was an enjoyable read, as well.

Biggest Disappointment: Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds
Why, oh! why did Trollope decide to make his central character so unlikeable without making her colorful?

Best Off-roading: Amity Shlaes, Coolidge
Exactly the right person at the right time. Did you know the U. S. ran in the black each of the six years he was president? Remember that time in the 90s when we had a budget surplus and everybody argued about what to do with it? Cal would have known.

Oh! Wait! Actual Biggest Disappointment
Right around the time of that budget surplus, GAMES magazine subtly changed its Games 100 to the top 100 games that had come out that year. OK, I’m sure advertisers were happy with that move. I could no longer think, “This is the year I’ll buy that game they’ve been raving about for three years.” But I still had lots of shiny things to distract me, so I was happy. Then they added 100 video games, and the GAMES 100 became essentially the GAMES 200. I don’t play first-person shooters (which seemed to fill most of the slots), so I didn’t have a lot of use for the expansion, but I still had 100 board games to drool over each holiday season.

This year, however, the newly constituted GAMES, a ghost of its former glorious self, just offered brief blurbs of about ten games. Now that was even more disappointing than Trollope.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol -- 2016

After attending Lessons and Carols at church on Sunday, I remembered that it’s time once more to post about the lyrics that I enjoy and read closely every December. (Here are links to the posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.) “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and thus every poem presents an icon of the Incarnation. No matter how far away the subject matter may be from worship of the God who became Man, the better the poem, the more resplendently the Divine Image shines through it.

All that to justify my weird approach to these perennial favorites. Who else thinks of Christmas as a time to enjoy the beauties of grammar? But I distinctly remember learning lessons about the wonderful and mysterious possibilities of the English language simply in dwelling, sometime in my teen years, on the curious turns of phrases in the two carols I’m writing about today.

“Angels we have heard on high sweetly singing o’er the plain.” I’m willing to wager a cup of hot cider that most Christians feel measurably better when they hear that line. I also feel rather confident that the alliterative h’s in the first half and recurring s’s in the second have something to do with its success, even if most people wouldn’t be able to put a finger on those letters’ soft, sibilant influence. Plus, who doesn’t want to sing “o’er” in something other than a national anthem?

But, as much as I’ve always liked it, I remember, in my otherwise carefree youth, wondering where the verb was. I had always parsed it as “Angels [that] we have heard,” with a structure like that in the sentence “The book I finished yesterday was terrific.” And then it occurred to me one day: I didn’t know what the “angels that we have heard” were doing. “Angels we have heard” just didn’t sound like a complete sentence to me. In normal circumstances, “The book I finished yesterday” doesn’t sound like a complete sentence, either; it’s a noun phrase in search of a verb. But it could be a complete sentence if we read it as starting with the direct object. Think of this little conversation:

     “How did you like these two books?”
     “This one I finished. But that one I gave up on.”

Obviously, the first sentence in the reply inverts, for emphasis, the typical word order of “I finished this book.” Now change it a little, word by word:

     This one I finished.
     This book I finished.
     The book I finished.

“I” is still the subject, “finished” still the main verb. I felt the joy of a Forty-Niner finding a nugget in his pan when I realized that the carol started with a similarly inverted sentence:

     We have heard angels.
     Angels we have heard.

Ever since then, I bristle a bit when I hear a version that replaces “echoing” with “echo back.” I know those editors are looking for a finite verb just as I was forty years ago and think that they have to correct the original poem in order to supply one. But “have heard” is the verb of the whole first verse. We have heard angels, and we have heard the mountains echoing their joyous strains.

OK, too geeky and too long. I’ll finish up with two quickish observations about William Chatterton Dix’s “What Child Is This?” Again, I remember catching my twelve-year-old self wondering, “What did the child lay to rest?” You know: like, What child is this who laid to rest the false rumor? But then I noticed the commas around “laid to rest.” Suddenly and miraculously, the words transformed into something that meant this: What Child is this who is sleeping on Mary’s lap, where, incidentally, He is laid to rest? (If the printed text doesn’t have the commas around “laid to rest,” I insert them mentally.)

This year I noticed something I never had before about this carol. The question of the title now seems to me to be prompted by the doubly strange circumstance of both angels and shepherds worshiping the Baby. We’re used to these two groups playing their parts together in the story, but from a human point of view, the combination makes no sense. If we’re looking at a future local petty tyrant, of course the shepherds would kowtow; but why would the angels bother? If we’re looking at the successor to Alexander and Caesar, on the other hand, maybe the angels would get involved; but why would dirty shepherds be allowed to sully the magnificent presence? Who is this that receives both shepherds and angels? What Child Is This? He is the King of Kings, bringing salvation to all no matter how rich or how poor. And so Dix’s lovely words invite both peasant and king to come own Him. Jesus can make a throne out of the loving heart of a person of any degree or station. Haste! Haste to bring Him laud!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

William James Let Me Down

William James let me down this year. Since this month marks the end of a ten-year reading plan that I drew up and assigned myself, it is no exaggeration to say that I had been waiting ten years to read James’s chapter on hypnotism. Ten years of building anticipation.

In the mean time James has pointed out the difference between the intuition of space I get from sensations on my back and the intuition I get from sensations in my mouth. He has explained the difference between a desperate frog and Romeo and Juliet. This is the William James who taught me how to memorize things again. The William James who explained to me why I teach my students to write. The William James who analyzed attention to me and explained to my ADD-imbued mind why I read so much better when I walk. Over the course of the first nine years of my plan, I learned from James about multiple personalities, the perception of things, the reason behind the word that’s on the tip of your tongue, and even the importance of taking a stream of consciousness to eternity in Heaven. He took everything I had read concerning the mind in Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume, added to it, updated it with clinical research (hey, 1890 is updated compared to 350 B.C.), and made it relevant to my everyday life. James explained such familiar yet intimate aspects of myself that sometimes I felt as if he knew me personally.

Naturally, I was ready for the Foundational Psychologist Who Isn’t Freud to peer through the pages directly into my thoughts and memories and show me how I already have been and once again should be hypnotized. I was almost prepared for him actually to hypnotize me! Instead, he just outlined the general shape of the topic familiar to most people today if only from movies and television: shiny objects, “You’re getting sleepy,” suggestions, the assurance that no one can make you do anything you wouldn’t normally do, the sudden arousal. All the standard fare.

The end of my reading plan doesn’t mean the end of William James for me, though. I have a few chapters of Principles of Psychology left to read, so I decided to take him with me into the Third Decade Plan. (I’m leaving his brother Henry behind.) I’ll be reading a biography of James this coming year and then the remaining chapters in subsequent years as well as his other classic, Varieties of Religious Experience. He’ll have a chance to work his charms on me again, and I’m not worried: he’ll come through.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Wilson and Education

Having just finished the very long Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr., I could write twenty posts about forty things. Wanting to write just one post about just one thing, I decided to cheat and write about “education,” a rubric that covers at least three subtopics.

Wilson, of course, served as the president of Princeton for many years. The institution was actually properly named the College of New Jersey at his time, but his policies pushed it up to the prestigious status it enjoys today and led to the upgraded title of University. His efforts included what we now call “general-education requirements.” (How sad it makes me to note how few universities, supposed Defenders of the Realm of Knowledge, know to hyphenate that phrase!) For what he called “reading subjects” – history, literature, and philosophy, for instance – he instituted tutorials similar to those in Oxford and Cambridge: very small discussion groups led by junior faculty. To encourage research, he founded a graduate college, although he didn’t get his way in positioning the buildings at the heart of campus. I was astonished to learn how much of the rhythms of university life I’m used to apparently go back to Wilson’s leadership. If someone has written a history of policies, structures, curricula, goals, and standards in American universities, I wish I knew of it so I could read it.

It should not have surprised me, although it did a bit, that Wilson saw his role of President of the United States as that of an educator, as well. As much as Cooper clearly adulates Wilson, his fair reporting left me at the end of the book agreeing with opposition Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that Congress rightly rejected Wilson’s pet idea, the League of Nations: it included a provision that member nations would send arms to repel any violation of its balanced edicts, and agreeing to that article would effectively take away Congress’s prerogative to declare war. But the President, with a situational ethic that made me uncomfortable several times during the reading, waved off that concern with the breezy declaration that Europeans would never expect the distant Americans actually to come all that way to fulfill their contractual obligations.

(Oh, yeah! I said I was only going to talk about education, and then I got side-tracked into complaining about Wilson’s casual relationship with promises. Back on track now.)

Seeing that the congressional stream flowed against the direction he wanted to sail, Wilson set out on a massive rail circuit of the States to speak directly to the people. The hectic pace and the stress of prolonged travel probably exacerbated his physical condition, but in any case, the educational tour came to an abrupt halt somewhere around Kansas when Wilson suffered the debilitating stroke that essentially ended his Presidency and his career. Cooper points out that the event represented the end of an era of public oratory, political education, and nuanced debate without electronics. Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Jennings Bryan were the last stars in the sparkling firmament of American political eloquence that included also the constellations of Webster and Clay, Lincoln and Douglas. American politicians used to have ideas. They studied rhetoric. They spoke in complete sentences and made nuanced, multi-tiered arguments that took sometimes up to two hours to lay out. And Americans listened: farmers stood for three hours to hear Lincoln and Douglas in 1858. Three score and one year later, crowds came out to meet Wilson at the train stations in Ohio and Wisconsin and Montana and California. They listened to him expound at length on all Fourteen Points and more. Then came the loudspeaker with its restriction on the expressive qualities of the voice. Then came radio and the soundbyte. Then came television and the picture worth a thousand soundbytes. Then came — ugh, I can’t and won’t say it.

The third subtopic: my education. I didn’t know just how much Americans wanted the U. S. to stay out of World War I. The Germans sank the Lusitania, killing 128 Americans with over 1,000 others, and still we wanted no war. They torpedoed American ships, and still we wanted no war. They came into Newport harbor and sank five merchant vessels visiting from other countries, and still we wanted no war. Can you imagine any organization (or disorganization, for that matter) coming into, say, San Francisco Bay today and conducting its warfare there without raising the vengeful wrath of the American public? I don’t know which response is more correct, but I do know that we are a very different nation from the U. S. of one-hundred years ago.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Boswell, Dr. Johnson, and the Last Latin Quiz

I said in a post a few days ago that I would shed a tear when Dr. Johnson died, and of course I did. James Boswell invented a new type of biography with at once the only notable instance of that new type and history’s greatest masterpiece of the biographical genre. My pastor has started Boswell’s monumental Life of Johnson and, after a hundred pages or so, asked me to explain to him why on earth I liked it so well. I told him to hang on until the point when Boswell meets Johnson: from then on, the biography is told not just from documents (although the Biographer uses documentary evidence galore) but from personal observation. It is not too much to say that Boswell revered Dr. Johnson; through his virtually unique approach – eye-witness accounts and descriptions of personal interactions – he has passed on that reverence to generations of readers so successfully that Samuel Johnson is still normally referred to as “Dr. Johnson.” I certainly refer to him in that way.

The Blogspot stats tell me that my occasional Latin quizzes have consistently drawn a lot of views, so I thought I’d devote the bulk of my final Boswell post to a quiz on a baker’s dozen of expressions from the ancient tongue that I came across in this year’s reading of the book. Match each numbered phrase with a letter-coded translation from the second list. Don’t scroll down too far until you’re ready to see the answers!

Latin from the final 10% of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson

1. Abite curae.
2. Ita enim senectus honesta est, si se ipsa defendit,
     si jus suum retinet, si nemini emancipata est,
     si usque ad extremum vitae spiritum vindicet jus suum.
3. Laetus sum laudari a laudato viro.
4. Melius est sic penituisse quam non errasse.
5. mollia tempora fandi
6. Nocitura petuntur.
7. Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.
8. Praeterea minimus gelido jam in corpore sanguis febre calet sola.
9. Quid te exempta juvat spinis de pluribus una?
10. Spartam quam nactus es orna.
11. Te teneam moriens deficiente manu.
12. vis inertiae
13. vis vitae

Translations

a. (Cicero, slightly misremembered) For old age is honoured
     only on condition that it defends itself, maintains its rights,
     is subservient to no one, and to the last breath rules over
     its own domain.
b. (Cicero) I am happy to be praised by a man whom others praise.
c. (Horace) What does it help to get rid of one thorn among many?
d. (Juvenal) Besides, the little bit of blood now in this cold
     body is only warm because of the fever.
e. (Juvenal) Things hurtful are sought.
f. (Juvenal) You should pray to have a sound mind in a sound body.
g. (Tibullus) While I die, let me hold you with my weakening hand.
h. Appropriate times for speaking
i. Depart, cares!
j. It is better to have repented in this way than not to have erred.
k. Power of idleness
l. Power of life
m. Since you have obtained Sparta, honor her.


DON’T SCROLL FARTHER UNTIL YOU’RE READY FOR ANSWERS


The Answers:

1-i, 2-a, 3-b, 4-j, 5-h, 6-e, 7-f, 8-d, 9-c, 10-m, 11-g, 12-k, 13-l

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Augustine Was Half Right

“Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” With these words in book II of On Christian Doctrine, the great Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, summarized his endorsement of pagan literature in Chirstian education. As the Israelites took jewels from Egypt, he says in an interesting example of his method of interpreting the Old Testament, let us accept the best and most valuable ideas from Greek and Roman writers while carefully rejecting their devotion to a pantheon of false gods.

This tolerant view from the most influential Christian of his time (the most influential Christian, in fact, of any time since the first century) set the curricular tone for higher education in Europe for the next several hundred years. And yet Augustine, throughout On Christian Doctrine, advocates searching for all God’s truth – in Greek philosophy, in the study of nature, in the skills and knowledge of the arts and crafts, and elsewhere – only for the sake of understanding the Scriptures. How are we to understand the timing of the festivals in Deuteronomy, for instance, without some understanding of the motions of the moon? Fair enough.

But, Augustine (I’m conversing with him now), properly understanding the Scriptures entails living out their precepts in mundane life: doing well at work, trading fairly, caring for our families and for our bodies. Doesn’t this mean we should learn as much as we can, for all truth is God’s Truth, in order to live well, to work well, to interact with others well, to teach, to protect, to heal, to judge, to govern, to serve? Everything I learn, when I refer it to God, gives me deeper understanding of God’s wisdom and leads me to love and honor Him more. And if I need to go on, I could remind you that God encouraged and honored the pagan education of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, and these curricula included training in false religions and astrology. I’m grateful that you endorsed the study of science, history, philosophy, and poetry, but I think you’re only half right about the purpose and application of these pursuits.

Augustine (I’m talking to the reader again now) came by his position honestly: in his Confessions, he explains that Plato (or actually probably some neo-Platonists) taught him much that prepared him for the gospel. And as a good Platonist, Augustine had an interest in numbers. Now I’ve written previously in these posts (probably somewhere under Euclid) about whether ancient and medieval mathematicians did or didn’t accept the existence of fractions. I’ve talked with professors of math and science who insist that they did. But all the medieval music theorists I’ve read talk about comparisons of string lenghs as if fractions don’t exist. Ratios, yes; fractions, no. One string may be twice as long as another, but that doesn’t mean they had a conception of a fraction, of a number less than 1.

It’s next-to-impossible, of course, to find a smoking-gun admission on a concept that a culture doesn’t have. I don’t expect any ancient author to prove my position right by saying, “I don’t believe in fractions.” If the concept isn’t there yet, they can’t think about it either to believe or not to believe. Plato never said, “I don’t believe in x-ray machines,” even though he clearly didn’t. But I think I’ve found the clearest passage I’ve ever come across to confirm my historical understanding contra that of my well trained friends who have assured me I’m wrong. In chapter 38 of book II of On Christian Doctrine, he says that nine is one-and-a-half times the number six. So surely, my colleagues would say, he recognizes that one-and-a-half is a number. But before that sentence ends, Augustine adds that nine is “not the double of any number because odd numbers have no half.” Odd numbers have no half. How can he say in one phrase that nine is one-and-a-half times six and in the next that three is not the double of any number? We could point out to him that three is the double of that one-and-a-half that he just mentioned. He might agree at some level and might even recognize some sort of existence for one-and-a-half. But for Augustine, as for other ancients (at least the Platonists) and for my medieval music theorists, one-and-a-half is a relationship; it is not a number. Augustine's sentence just doesn’t make sense any other way.

So now I can confidently say that my friends who have tried to correct me are only half right.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Chesterton, War and After

Sometime back in the early 80s, while I was a graduate student at Baylor University, I started reading G. K. Chesterton’s columns from the London Illustrated News. I found hard-bound collections with editors’ titles such as Tremendous Trifles and Alarms and Discursions in the university library and read all I could. I could see by the rarely stamped log pasted inside the covers that these volumes hadn’t been checked out by anyone in twenty years, so I freely marked the tables of contents, putting one slash by the titles of essays I especially liked and two slashes by the titles that had caused healthy mental upheavals. I figured I might want to go back and reread just the favorites before I graduated: and I did give a second, third, and possibly fourth read to “Sound and Sense in Poetry,” “A Tax on Talking,” and “On Cheese.”

A few years ago, I purchased all the weekly columns – published now by Ignatius Press with no fanciful titles other than the journal’s name and the years – and now finally I’m on a multi-year project to read them all, two published years per reading year. This plan went along pretty well through the 190x’s and the early teens. I started up my old system again and marked the titles I would ideally read again one day: one mark by some and, three to five times a year, two marks by others. But in 1914, World War I broke out, and the Chesterton began to devote every column to the war, to England’s duty, and to Germany’s moral shortcomings. It was so difficult to get through, I decided that for the duration, I’d read in each year of my time one war year and one year from after the war. This year, for instance, I read all the columns from 1917 and 1922.

Now, the war years have become more interesting since the first shock of 1914. In the 1917 set, Chesterton delves into political theory, the Russian Revolution, Wilson and America’s role, whether a League of Nations could work, the nature of war, and more fascinating veins. But still, as with last year and the year before, when I moved ahead to the post-war columns, the variety, insight, and pertinence seemed to explode. Over the last week, I’ve read about dangerous toys, modern poetry, the fascination with royal weddings, popular views of esoteric science, spiritualism, political activity of youth, Thomas Hardy, Edwin Drood, free love, the Fascists, Ireland, laws about beggars, misconceptions about the Middle Ages, prohibition, realism in the theater, cinema, the rules of writing a detective story (or rather the need for a compilation of the rules), King Arthur, Christmas, and much, much more. As I did a couple of years ago, I enjoyed them so much, I marked at least 80% of the titles. If I really intend to reread all those in the future, it will take me twenty years again to go through it all. I could limit myself to the ones I mark with two marks, but I still ended up double-slashing seventeen of the fifty-two weekly titles from 1922: about four times as many as I marked in any year between 1905 and 1914.

So then I start to wonder why I go so crazy with the approval ratings. Am I just so relieved to get away from anti-Prussian rhetoric, everything sounds brilliant by contrast? Or does Chesterton start to talk more frequently about timeless (or at least less topical) issues after Armistice in 1918? Did he feel relieved from the burden of speaking on the national catastrophe every week?

I’m starting to think that my enthusiasm doesn’t just come from the contrast with the war columns. I think Chesterton hit his mature stride around 1919 and I’m just now, thirty-five years after I started, rediscovering what I fell in love with from the beginning: the inimitable turns of phrase, the clinical splaying of nonsense in the words of others, the courageous stances for Christianity as sanity in a world gone mad. Maybe I should just start looking forward to rereading hundreds of these essays yet again. If I’m still around to finish them all in ten years, I guess I’ll find out. In the mean time, though, if I ever pass through Waco again, I’m thinking I should find the old books in the school library and see just how many marks I made.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Top 100 – Part VI

In May of 2015, I said I might not make it before December 2016. But I have written exactly 599 blog posts before today, and that makes this one . . . that’s right: no. 600. (Ooh, give me a moment to imagine belonging to a different 600 Club along with Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, A-Rod, The Babe, Hank Aaron, and— eh, Barry Bonds broke the spell.) I originally thought that on every hundredth post, I’d write on my favorite one-hundred books. I ended up just recounting favorite moments from not necessarily favorite books, but the title stuck. You can see the one-hundredth, two-hundredth, three-hundredth, and four-hundredth posts at these links, and the five-hundredth at the link in the first sentence of this paragraph.

My task today is to share seven moments – they could be ideas, details, or scenes – from my reading that I think about often. Since I’ve taken up listening to books in the car again recently, I’ll begin with a few lasting impressions from audiobooks I’ve enjoyed.

• Conrad Anker, The Lost Explorer. Because I listened to this book about the search for the body of George Mallory seventy-five years after his disappearance on Mount Everest, I didn’t have access to the pictures. But I didn’t really need pictures. Anker’s description of the position of Mallory’s preserved, frozen body – on a slope above a precipice, fingers clutching the scree – blasted an image to my mind’s eye that has haunted me on numerous occasions in the last years.

• Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods. When Bryson decided to tackle the Appalachian Trail, he called up his old friend Katz and asked him to be his hiking buddy. Agreeing, Katz showed up to begin the 2,200-mile adventure with a backpack full of Snickers. The image of him flinging scores of chocolate bars across the mountain side an hour or so later, when he had tired of the weight, is hilarious but also emblematic of exactly twenty-nine interlocking problems, vices, and flaws plaguing Americans today.

• Cal Ripken, Jr., The Only Way I Know. I love baseball. (While we’re on the topic, I find it hard to assimilate the fact that the Cubs actually won. I find it hard to believe a certain someone won something else, too; but that’s really beside the point.) This isn’t the first reference to America’s Pastime (oh! how I wish it actually were the National Pastime; baseball is good for America), and it won’t be the last. I think often about the great Oriole playing professional, minor-league games in parks so poor they couldn’t pay anyone to mow the two-foot weeds. But the anecdote that crops up in my random stream of consciousness the most, oddly, has nothing to do with baseball per se. No, what settled in my mental play list is the passage in which Ripken explains how hard it was to teach his kids not to talk to strangers when he, the ultra-recognizable baseball star, couldn’t eat a meal out without greetings and handshakes from a few happy, well-meaning strangers.

• Jonathan Eig, Luckiest Man. Wouldn’t it have been great if Eig could have named his biography of my favorite Yankee Luckiest Man . . . man . . . an? Again, an obscure point far from the center lodged into my memory. Hollywood actually courted Lou Gehrig for the role of Tarzan, but when the producers saw the test photos, they decided his powerful thighs were actually too muscular. Weird.

I listened to the next book as well, but not from a recording. My sixth-grade teacher (who features in two blog posts found under the tag “Mrs. Brandenburg”) read it to the class.

• Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. Walking around the campus of the University of Illinois in 1976, I had an epiphany: every kid my age had been tricked by advertising into thinking that wearing blue jeans was a sign of individualism. And so, to show that we were each totally unlike anyone else in the world, every last one of us wore jeans. That insight didn’t come from nowhere; I’m sure it sprang from the soil prepared by Madeleine L’Engle’s streetful of bizarre children all repeatedly bouncing a ball at the same time.

And now, since my blogging plan comes to an end in about eight weeks, long before I’d ever reach a seven-hundredth post, I have to finish with some favorite Dickens moments.

• Charles Dickens, David Copperfield. It is almost impossible for me to handle a wooden ruler without thinking of Wilkins Micawber thrusting his measuring stick and yelling, “HEEP!”

A Tale of Two Cities. My favorite scene from my favorite book takes place in an unidentified pub off of Fleet Street. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, favorite hangout of Dickens, Dr. Johnson, and numerous other stars of London’s literary firmament, justifiably claims to be the restaurant in question. In a case in the front dining room, they display a copy of A Tale of Two Cities open to the chapter. Next time you’re in London, you should go read it.

So it’s back to the normal routine now. The next couple of posts should feature reports on my current reading in Chesterton and Augustine. Until then, Read More Books. Someone in the U.S. needs to.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Sundry Pieces of Reading Material I Wouldn’t Normally Blog About

I've played games with forty-page rule books before. So I don't know if Virgin Queen is harder than the others, or if I'm just dealing with a mind four decades older than the teenage sponge I used to soak up wargames with in the 70s. But after studying the arcane code of laws for a month now, I’m still finding hidden truths in it. This game of religious wars in the Elizabethan era has persnickety rules such as this: “France may ally with Spain or the Protestant but not with both these powers on the same turn.” (Presumably, the Holy Roman Empire or Ottomans may ally with any combination of powers on the same turn, so remembering this detail is a special burden that only the French player must bear.) And that’s just one line on one page out of forty 8½” x 11” pages. So maybe I should quit worrying so much about diminishing mental capacities.

I've played a friend's copy of VQ several times over the years, and reading Will and Ariel Durant's history of the sixteenth century this fall got me thinking about the game enough to buy it, set it up, and start playing through it on my own. (I was an only child, so I grew up playing games in this solitary way. It may explain why I’m not a competitive player today; I conditioned myself to be philosophical about losing every game.) But when I made it to the chapter on Elizabeth, the Durants’ account actually read like a commentary on my game. Suppose I need help understanding the Edmund Campion card; I could look through the rules, or I could just consult page 21 of volume VII of Durant. Then I draw the Douai College card; I could read the text on the card to find out what happens, or I could just recall what the Durants had to say about the Jesuit school.

My title cites “sundry pieces of reading material” off the rosy path of Great Books. Besides the rules to a game, I also had in mind three articles I came across one glorious day earlier this week. I did (completely imaginary) cartwheels when I read words pulverizing three pieces of stomach-churning rot I used to get fed repeatedly in graduate exams at a certain School of Music of an unnamed University: (1) that a multicultural society is a melting pot, (2) that learning styles are the same as multiple intelligences, and (3) that learning styles are worth talking about at all.

The Los Angeles Times dropped the first bomb. Multiculturalism celebrates every color in the box of crayons. The image of a melting pot, on the other hand, is one that takes all the crayon colors of the cultures that feed into a population and blends them together into a drab brownish-gray. I wish I could go back in time and tell those graduate students about Henry Ford’s parade of nations, Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans walking into the stage prop in their nations’ traditional garb and then walking out again in identical business suits waving American flags. Those would-be grade-school music teachers would be horrified.

The second article, from the Washington Post, quoted Howard Gardner, daddy of the model of multiple intelligences, as he “set the record straight” about the difference between multiple intelligences and learning styles. They are as different as a room and a door – more different, since I can at least walk through a room, although I cannot stand inside a door. One is a means of access to knowledge or a skill, while the other is the possession of the knowledge or skill itself (or possibly the aptitude toward its possession). Some people take the elevator to the second floor, and some take the stairs, but only a crazy person – or a graduate student in music education – would confuse the stairs and the elevator for the nice woman who works in the second-floor office.

But Gardner didn’t even have to establish the difference if the third article is true. I first read that the common theory of learning styles is a myth on qz.com. That institution of the noble Fourth Estate doesn’t have quite the reputation that the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times enjoy. But googling “learning styles myth” reveals a whole choir of angelic messengers singing the good news, including PBS and the Association for Psychological Science. I no longer have to think that by lecturing in college classes, I failed in my duty to teach Johnny, who can only learn through dance interpretations, and Susie, who can only learn by means of manipulables. I used to defend myself (under a cloud of guilt) by noting that students hearing my lecture, reading the board, and writing notes engaged aural, visual, verbal, symbolic, and kinesthetic modes of learning. I’ll still defend my old methods (which have, after all, produced a well-educated person or two over the last 2500 years), but the cloud above my head now glows with the saffron hues of a rising sun.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Great Conversations, part 2

In the ’60s, my grandparents saved on their phone bill each month by paying for a party line. Imagine the disappointment of my six-year-old self when I found out that their telephone contract had nothing to do with cakes and balloons! The situation fascinated me, though, and every once in a while on a visit to their house, I would gently and noiselessly lift the handset off the cradle just to see what I could hear. The sneaking was intended to avoid my parents’ attention as much as that of the strangers sharing of the line. Still, I never listened long; the novelty provided reward enough without having to eavesdrop on business I had no interest in anyway.

In reading, on the other hand, I get to listen in on conversations for as long as I want. A few days ago, I blogged about some conversations between Will Durant, C. S. Lewis, and Miguel de Cervantes I had been enjoying. The next day in the car, another conversation of sorts came to my mind. At the opening ceremonies of the Rio Summer Olympic Games, we found that the Brazilians think that their Alberto Santos-Dumont invented the airplane. The announcers just laughed about it and said something to the order of, “What’s up with that? I thought the Wright Brothers invented the airplane.” Sadly, it didn’t occur to any of these “journalists” to look up the man after learning about him during the dress rehearsal in order to interpret the events for the viewing public. Historian David McCullough, however, has quite a lot to say about Santos-Dumont in his biography of the Wright Brothers, which I’ve been listening to in the car lately, and his detailed exposition, coming to my ears just a few weeks after the Rio Games, sounded very much like a direct conversational response. The simple story is that Santos-Dumont made the first flight certified by the French-based International Federation of Aeronautics. The Brazilians claim that the Wrights must have kept their work “secret” in order to hide lack of success, when in reality, Kitty Hawk just has a much smaller press corps than Paris. McCullough leaves me wondering, though, whether Brazil’s “father of aviation” shouldn’t receive proper credit as an inventor of the airplane just as Leibniz and Newton share the honors for the invention of calculus.

I finished Durant’s volume on the Reformation last week. Once again he proved himself instructive and pictorial by putting large movements into comprehensible frames. He achieves the task at hand, summing up the early sixteenth century in Europe, with, of all things, a conversation: this one an imagined conversation between Catholicism, Protestantism, and Enlightenment. The Catholic Church speaks up first, pointing out that in the period in question, it went from being the most corrupt institution on Earth to what was, in Durant's day, the model of morality (cue Bing Crosby singing “Going My Way”), accomplishing this remarkable feat in just a few decades with reforms that touched every level from the Vatican itself to the village priest. Protestantism in the mean time, says Durant’s Catholic interlocutor, broke up European unity, squashed art, and saw decreases in morality and charity. Protestantism speaks up for itself then with a two-pronged defense: first that its rise led to the very reforms the Catholic Church boasts of and, second, that eventually, its lands became wealthier, more moral, more charitable, and more hard-working than the Catholic countries of Italy, Spain, and France. Durant closes with the Enlightenment’s remarks, left until last perhaps because a history book fittingly puts movements in chronological order but also probably because Durant wanted to give the last word to the view with which his sympathies most lay. The personification of late-sixteenth and seventeenth-century humanism tells both wings of western Christianity that it took advantage of the breaking of dogmas and trust in authority that the Protestant movement brought about but challenged both religious views by declaring Reason the new authority, one within the reach of every thinking person. I can hear twenty-first-century America now, adding its voice to the dialog: “That’s right! Everyone is their own authority. [Twenty-first-century America doesn’t care much for grammar.] So forget tradition, religious authority, and reasoned argument. Just say what you feel, and call the other person a liar.” *sigh*

Later this year I will finish for the second time Boswell's Life of Johnson, the great monument to good conversation. Dr. Johnson and his biographer blended all Durant’s debating factions – tradition, authority, reason, and Christian charity – and spoke about the healthy combination (or recombination) in eloquent language most of our self-authorized society can’t follow. I will weep for more than one reason when I turn the last page.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Great Conversations, part 1

My poor literature students! Some high-school world-lit classes read a couple of novels, a couple of short stories, and a play by Shakespeare, and call it a year. In my class at a local homeschool co-op, we’re dipping our noses into The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities, stories by Tolstoy, Hesse, and Doyle, plays by Shakespeare and Ibsen, poetry by Donne, Gray, Wordsworth, and Keats, and much more. So, yeah: “poor” students now, but they’ll be loaded with riches when I’m through with them!

This Tuesday we started Don Quixote, and I told the students truthfully that that very morning during my walk I had read in C. S. Lewis's Miracles that certain theologians had been “quixotic.” (Lewis meant that these particular thinkers pursued a noble end but had gone too far; the details don’t concern my topic today.)  Cross-references like this happen all the time in my reading. Mortimer Adler says that the Great Books take the form of a Great Conversation because they constantly refer to the same Great Ideas and treat them in counterpoint. Concerning the same fact, Lewis says, “Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else.”

This week I've experienced several conversations in print. One example involves the history of the understanding of the universe. In a chapter called “Science in the Age of Copernicus,” Will Durant says the Copernican Revolution posed the greatest challenge to religion in all of history. “When men stopped to ponder the implications of the new system they must have wondered at the assumption that the Creator of this immense and orderly cosmos had sent His Son to die on this middling planet. All the lovely poetry of Christianity seemed to ‘go up in smoke’ (as Goethe was to put it) at the touch of the Polish clergyman.”

But, again in Lewis, I read a response to this idea just a couple of days later. He may have been (at the end of his career) a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, but his Discarded Image finds its way onto required-reading lists in History of Science classes. So I believe him when he tells me who believed what when about the shape of the heavens. Lewis says that the ancients knew the Earth was tiny. Some even knew that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, that Ptolemy placed it there. So, contrary to Durant’s observation, the science of the modern era didn’t discover the astronomical unimportance of the Earth; Christians in the Middle Ages believed both in God and the tininess of Earth. Says Lewis, “The real question is why the spatial insignificance of Earth, after being asserted by Christian philosophers, sung by Christian poets, and commented on by Christian moralists for some fifteen centuries, without the slightest suspicion that it conflicted with their theology, should suddenly in quite modern times have been set up as a stock argument against Christianity and enjoyed, in that capacity, a brilliant career.”

A friend has asked me to read and discuss with him a book called Chance or Dance by Union University professors Jimmy Davis and Harry Poe. Reading in that book this week, I came across yet a third reference to the argument: a further contribution to the conversation about the theological views of the unfathomable size of space. Here the authors address statements by Carl Sagan and others to the effect that if humanity had some central significance in God’s eye, we’d have to admit that He wasted a lot of space and stellar material. Lewis also addresses this outlook (it sometimes seems difficult to find something he didn’t think about) when he points out that Nature has a predilection for overkill. Think of the extravagance in the number of spermatozoa that venture forth in search of an ovum when it only takes one to do the job. I doubt that that answer would give many nonbelievers a moment’s hesitation, but Lewis offers another a much more significant response to the thought that a minuscule race in a cosmological backwater doesn’t merit God’s attention, and I’m left wondering why Christians don’t generally have this central understanding at the ready: we never claimed to merit the attention we receive from Him. In fact, the better we understand how contemptible our position is, the more we love Him.

Update, Nov. 11: I just read in Augustine a couple of days ago an indication that he understood quite well, way back in the fifth century, the vastness of the heavens in comparison with the tiny earth. The conversation continues.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Declaration

The other day I found an article by Mortimer Adler lying around in my office. I must have printed it out at some time and forgotten about it. How it ended up lying on a table with some games and a stack of mail, I don’t know. In any case, I enjoyed reading it . . . again? In the article, Adler lays out some of the thinking behind the editorial committee’s decisions for changes of content in the second edition of the Britannica Great Books. I certainly didn’t always like what I read; some of their particular decisions rubbed me the wrong way. For instance, whatever and wherever hackles may be, the editors’ unceremonious abandonment of Tristram Shandy raised mine.

Much more useful and less ire-exciting was Adler’s explanation of the three criteria by which the board selected the books for inclusion: (1) relevance to people of all times, (2) reference to a wide variety of ideas, and (3) rereadability. About a book with the third characteristic, Adler says, “It cannot be fully understood on one, two, or three readings. More is to be found on all subsequent readings.” Those lines certainly apply to one of the two books I’m immersed in right now: C. S. Lewis’s Miracles.

When I first read Miracles (as a teen), it was the most difficult book I had ever attempted. Just as with A Tale of Two Cities (the holder of my “Hardest Book” record for the previous six years or so), I loved it for challenging me as well as for other aspects. I had never read or thought about determinism or self-existence or theories of thought and consciousness, at least not to the extent Lewis’s arguments demanded. I had never read Plato or Aristotle or Descartes or Locke or Hume or Kant or Darwin. Lewis’s synthesis of the issues provided me my first exposure to all this grand edifice. So you could say that he started my tour of the house by an inspection of the roof. The situation seemed reasonable to me until I learned enough to lean over the edge of the eaves and find that I couldn’t see any walls or foundation holding things up. I knew the supports had to be there (roofs not normally in the habit of just floating about), but they were made of a fine quintessence too subtle for my gross eyes.

Now on this, my third time through what I still consider Lewis’s most daunting book, I find it difficult because I’ve read Plato and Aristotle and Descartes and Locke and Hume and Kant and Darwin. I find myself slowing down to examine the good professor’s arguments in the light of what his predecessors have said. To continue my image from before, I’m taking the time to inspect a few of the places where the roof attaches to the frame. And of course it costs me some effort sometimes to remember just what Locke or Kant said.

In any case, the book continues to grow. But it has the other characteristics Adler’s editors looked for, as well. Its main topics of God, nature, and reason concern humans of all periods of history, and it touches on many more of what Adler calls the Great Ideas: being, truth, beauty, democracy, progress, definition, change, cause, eternity, world, knowledge, physics, and more. Since it fulfills all three criteria, I, editorial committee of one, hereby declare Miracles a Great Book.

Friday, October 7, 2016

A Plan for the Third Decade

I’ve certainly put the electrons through their paces. My mini-ministers have performed their digital jumping jacks for me hundreds of times during the past few journeys around the sun as I’ve added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided novels, poems, dramas, stories, treatises, and collections into a set of organized lists for a third decade of planned reading. And now, finally, in less than three months, I’ll embark on my new ten-year odyssey.

My plan has thirty-eight (mostly) defined categories with ten entries in each, one for each year of the schedule:

1. Drama: Plautus, Marlowe, Stoppard, Mamet, etc.
2. Adventure novels (aka reliving my teen years): Dumas, Scott, Verne, etc.
3. Asimov: rereading all the robot novels, empire novels, and foundation novels
4. Histories of countries: France, Japan, etc.
5. William James: finishing Principles of Psychology, then reading Varieties of Rel. Exp.
6. Civil War history: Shelby Foote, Thomas Connelly
7. Civil War biographies: Lincoln, Grant, Lee, etc.
8. Poetry: Browning, Longfellow, Frost, etc.
9. Modern Christian literature: Waugh, Barfield, Wangerin, etc.
10. George MacDonald: mostly novels (unabridged!), also some sermons
11. Galsworthy: The Forsyte Saga
12. Augustine: On Grace and Free Will, Homilies on the Gospel of John, etc.
13. Medieval theology: Aquinas, Abelard, Peter Lombard
14. This and That: a disorganized list including Truman Capote, Sidney’s Arcadia and more
15. Plato and Aristotle: just reviewing my hundreds of pages of notes
16. Ancient literature: Horace, Cicero, etc.
17. Durant: I should finish volume XI, Age of Napoleon, just about ten years from today.
18. Church Fathers: Justin Martyr, Cyprian, etc.
19. Early modern epic: Tasso, Spenser, Ariosto
20. Shakespeare: rereading all my favorites twice each
21. Other novels: rereading War and Peace, Karamazov, etc. and attempting Finnegan’s Wake
22. Dickens: of course
23. Dickens and Austen: because one list isn’t enough for all of Dickens
24. Trollope: ten more of his amazing displays of the complexities of life and society
25. Lewis: rereading Narnia and more, reading some of his professional work for the first time
26. Chesterton: Illustrated London News columns, Everlasting Man
27. Tolkien and Williams: uncomfortable friends in life, side by side on my plan
28. Patrick O’Brian: Aubrey and Maturin can’t be enjoyed just once!
29. The Golden Legend: approximately eighty of these medieval, legendary accounts of the saints
30. Burroughs, Grey, Haggard: More reliving of teen years. Tarzan, I’ve missed you!
31. Mystery: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers
32. England: rereading Churchill and Rutherford, plus some Arthuriana
33. Large Things: “. . . And Ladies of the Club,” “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” etc.
34. Miscellany: completely different from no. 14, “This and That”!
35. Samuel Johnson: Prayers and Meditations, highlights from Boswell
36. American History: mostly volumes of the Oxford History of the United States
37. Music and Society: ten volumes from a series by that name
38. More Arthuriana: Malory, Stewart, Lawhead

Some of these Books are decidedly less than Great. Almost all will feel like pure fun to me. No more German philosophy. No more Calvin. (I’m not sure which one felt less like fun.) St. Paul may not approve of the idea, but to a large extent I’m setting aside the life of a man and taking up childish ways again. But I haven’t tossed aside medieval theology, serious history, or heavy Russian novels; I just happen to think they’re fun. And I anticipate, as Handel said of the audience at the first performance of his Messiah, that in addition to being entertained, I will be made better.

Friday, September 30, 2016

A Congeries, an Olio, a Farrago, and a Gallimaufry

I’ve been working lately on increasing my active vocabulary. Just because I recognize words doesn’t mean that I use them, and I’m the kind of guy who enjoys using a variety of vocabulary, especially unusual locutions. So I’m working on a list of terms I’ve culled from my reading; I consult it from time to time and look for opportunities to use one or two of the entries. I’ve presented some recent acquisitions in the title today: a hodgepodge of words that all mean potpourri. And today I have a grab bag of observations from recent reading.

1) I recently reread Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization aloud to my wife in the car on the way to my 40-year high-school reunion (one of the reasons I’m behind in posting this month and reduced to presenting a crazy quilt of brief, disconnected comments). I can’t recommend the book enough for people who love history, books, ancient languages, or education, of for people who have Irish heritage or who have visited Ireland. Since I fall into all these categories, I naturally love the book. We had a wonderful time with it, breezing through some passages with a smile and stopping at others to gaze in awe at the wondrous sweep of western history.

But Cahill gave us each an abrupt start by saying that Will Durant was an unoriginal thinker with a flair for writing. I love Will Durant, and Nancy knows it. I’m in the process right now of finishing his volume on the Reformation, and I thrill at what I learn on every page. His observations are, to my inexperienced eye anyway, often quite original. But Cahill’s comment came in a passage on philosophy, so maybe he meant to critique Durant only on his work in the Science of Wisdom. And at least he acknowledged Durant’s way with the pen.

2) Will Durant sure does have a flair for writing! In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read that Timur “dreamed of empire with his mother’s milk,” that Persian rugs employ “a contrapuntal harmony of lines more intricate than Palestrina’s madrigals, more graceful than Godiva’s hair,” that “the names of even the ‘immortals’ are writ in water,” and that Orlando di Lasso died “triumphant and insane.” The cool weather has arrived, and I’m going out on my deck in just a few minutes to read some more.

3) Way ahead of schedule in 2016, I’ve been off-roading recently with George Eliot’s Adam Bede. Eliot, authorities have assured me, rejected the beliefs of the Christianity of her youth and retained only the love of its forms. Critics sometimes characterize her as a humanist or an atheist, and I’ve read that a common theme of her books is the belief that we should look to our human nature for moral guidance, not to God. Since a Methodist preacher plays prominently in the story, the reader of Adam Bede finds out quite a bit about Eliot’s religious outlook. Given her lack of faith in the redemptive power of the death and resurrection of Christ, she finds the best she can find in her preacher. A not-too-careful reader might even see orthodox Christian devotion in the multiplicity of words given to sermons, Bible quotations, and theological talk in the novel.

Still, Eliot boils down the Christian message to one of developing the proper emotions (not a surprise in a nineteenth-century book) and does indeed say that we must find the promptings for these emotions in our natures. But she does not say that God has nothing to do with the path to this good life of cultured feeling. Instead, she makes a point that I wish more believing Christians understood: that God created us and our nature and can use that nature as his instrument. A mother’s love for her baby may be a natural phenomenon, but God is the Master of natural phenomena, so the mother’s love is no less a spiritual grace for arising “naturally,” even in mothers who reject certain elements of Christian dogma.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Skewering the Flaccid Calf

I read a few more short stories by Evelyn Waugh this week and loved them. I wasn’t sure I would: I have to admit that the first story in the volume was almost incomprehensible to me, and as I stumbled my way through it earlier this summer, I started to think I’d regret having used up a slot in my reading schedule in this way. But beginning with the second title, I found exactly what I had hoped for when I planned ten years ago to read Waugh’s short stories in year 10.

This week’s stories began with “On Guard,” an excellent comedy about a dog who deliberately interferes with his owner's love affairs. You see, Hector has bought the dog (whom he has eponymously named Hector) to give to his “fiancée,” Millicent, while he goes away to start his career, and has given little Hector careful instructions to guard his (the elder Hector’s) interests while he is away. Millicent abandons her attachment to her soul-mate after two brief letters and sees many eligible men, so her new pet has quite a lot of work to do. Even though Millicent feeds him, the canine Hector works against her flirtatious ways per the instructions of the man who purchased him because, as Waugh’s narration tells us, the dog respected money.

Yes, Waugh is the kind to make us ask: What do the paterfamilias of a crumbling earldom and a dog have in common? The author loves to ridicule upper-class values by putting them into the minds of animals, neurotics, and lunatics. In “Mr. Loveday's Little Outing,” Lady Moping sees nothing odd or distasteful about her husband going to the asylum (except that he has made his suicide attempt in front of the guests): the asylum serves quite suitably as a new home for her beloved because it separates the accommodations according to social station. And in any case, the situation puts the annoyance of a husband aside for a few years. Conversely, Lady Moping’s daughter sees nothing to fear from an inmate who acts every inch the gentleman – until she succeeds in getting him a day’s outing and he plays the psychopath again. But not to worry about the corpse left behind: Mr. Loveday will go back to the asylum, where he can enjoy the lovely garden that only the patients with true blood are allowed to visit. The tale’s breezy tone makes its caustic message all the more pointed.

Waugh’s upper-class characters live in a world of hollow traditions and act according to established forms void of any interpersonal sentiments. Engagements are amusements that last a week or so. Correspondence between separated friends, fiancés, and spouses always tapers off; their early assurances of devotion are all lies anyway and usually go unread. The image is one not of meaningless chaos but rather one of faded glory, of the flaccid skin of a once-fatted calf now starving, of a good world gone bad. But Waugh has a grander tragedy to tell as well. His effete lords of society serve as both symptom and symbol of a Christian world that has lost its Way. Sometimes when I read Waugh I laugh. Sometimes I cry. And sometimes I just stand powerless, like ancient philosophy’s horse attracted evenly by two equidistant piles of hay.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Like and Unlike

Okay, so I didn’t like The Eustace Diamonds so well. I’ve enjoyed all thirteen of the other Trollope novels I’ve read. So, since I’m weeks ahead of my 2016 plan, I have taken the opportunity to insert Anthony Trollope’s autobiography into the schedule, an extremely pleasant extracurricular that I’ve put off for far too long.

In the Facebook era, today’s title sounds as though it might indicate my judgment on various Trollope books. (Even Facebook has finally faced the fact that “to like or not to like” is not the only question.) But it actually refers to ways in which I’ve found myself like Trollope and other ways in which I see myself as unlike him. Like Trollope, I look back on my school days with disappointment. My chief frustration, again like Trollope’s, lies in my school’s total neglect of Latin. Sadly for my fellow scholar, his school’s stated mission actually centered on instruction in Greek and Latin, so he carried the extra injury of having been lied to. Like Trollope, I taught myself Latin as an adult. Like Trollope, I spent many years working for the government: he as a clerk for the Royal Post Office, I as a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Like him, I tried to infuse clarity and eloquence into every mundane memorandum I had to write. Like him, I view my writing skills as moderate. And like him, I have tried to use those writing skills in the attempt to earn some extra money.

Unlike Anthony Trollope, though, my writing skills actually are only moderate. And unlike him, my income from the pen has not come close to tripling my annual salary. Most surprisingly, in reading the autobiography I found myself unlike Trollope in my opinions regarding some of his novels, especially what is perhaps his most famous these days: The Warden. Trollope says that when an author takes on a controversy, he has to take a side, and claims that he should either have made the warden (a clergyman in charge of a hospice for the elderly in this case, not a prison overseer) a bumbling, lazy fool or have portrayed the newspaper editor who complained about the sinecure as a thundering misanthrope. But one of the things I like best about the novel is that it shows deep interpersonal conflict while naming no villain. Septimus Harding never intended to make money undeservedly and gladly gave up the position once the story came out. And the newspaper didn’t set out to ruin a good man’s life, only to right a public wrong.

Did Trollope really see things this way? Or did he offer his self-critique all with tongue in cheek? Perhaps the passage refers elliptically to Dickens, who took on public controversies with a good amount of satire and through the portrayal of decided villains. Curiously, I love both authors, as different as they may be. In fact, I think they attract the same part of me by being honest, perceptive, caring, comic, tragic, morally minded, and articulate: authors who found the rainbow in the dusty backyard, the transcendence in the human clay.

I’ll close with an observation on one similarity I have to G. K. Chesterton: he also admired both Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Call Not Plutarch Happy Until You’ve Read to the End

All year I’ve been finishing volumes of my beloved Britannica Great Books set. Greek drama. Plato. Volume I of Gibbon. This month I’m finishing up Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. I enjoyed the ancient biographer’s account of Brutus immensely when I read it last week. It might have helped that I knew something about Brutus already – and had known for quite a while. But here he isn’t just the side character who delivers the most unkindest cut in someone else’s story. Here Brutus is the main attraction. And in Plutarch’s hands, his story just builds and builds in a most compelling way.

Plutarch gives Brutus the best possible treatment. During the scrap between Julius Caesar and Pompey, Brutus changes sides but finds favor with Caesar after Pompey’s death because Caesar knows he had the purest motive for siding with the enemy. But then the people start calling for a descendant of Junius Brutus, the kingslayer, to free them from a return of royalty. If the reader wonders, even after learning of this tremendous social pressure, how Brutus can participate in the assassination of the man who has forgiven him so generously, Plutarch answers with a positive spin: Brutus loved his country and hated tyranny so much, he even consented to killing a man he personally admired. The country seems grateful at first until Marc Antony turns them against Brutus with his funeral oration the next day. (Are we surprised that Shakespeare altered the documented chronology in order to suit his dramatic purposes?) So poor Brutus, a victim to mob opinion once more, flees Italy. What’s more, he now finds that “young Caesar” (i.e. Octavius Caesar, soon to be Caesar Augustus) may be just as bad as his predecessor, so he gathers an army in the East and approaches the capital. When captured, he falls on his own sword. All these actions Plutarch commends as most virtuous. In his eye, Brutus is indeed “an honourable man.”

Not everyone agrees, though. I’m preparing my first lesson on The Divine Comedy for the world-lit class I’m teaching to home-schoolers. Just after finishing Plutarch’s account, I opened up Inferno to a random page, and my eyes fell immediately on a passage reminding me that Dante placed Brutus and co-conspirator Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell: the place devoted to sinners who broke faith and betrayed others.

As good as Plutarch’s story of Brutus is, I find my mind wandering as I read the next life in the book, that of Achaian League champion Aratus. Why do I care about finishing this book? I asked myself. In one nostalgic fit of wool-gathering, I held my place with my finger and turned the pages back to the first few biographies, just to see what notes I had written in the margins nine years ago. There I found exactly the kind of story that led me to read all of Plutarch: the account of Croesus and Solon. I first learned of King Croesus of Lydia in Herodotus’ wonderful Histories. But I’ve seen his name invoked many times since, especially in novels. I think he must have been much more commonly known in the past; I’m sure one of the Austen girls describes some local gentleman as “rich as Croesus.” Croesus was rich indeed and proud of his riches. When meeting Solon the lawgiver, he took offense that the philosophical Solon refused to praise him on account of his amassed wealth. Did this petty man not know greatness when he sees it?

But, as Plutarch points out, all the king’s riches did nothing to stop Cyrus’s Persian tide from rolling westward. As Cyrus prepares to kill Croesus, the captive king shouts out Solon’s name three times. Curious, Cyrus halts the proceedings and asks who or what this Solon might be. Croesus identifies him as a teacher who once tried to warn him not to take pride in uncertainties nor to think himself happy until he came to the end of his life. Wondering at such great wisdom made manifest before his eyes, Cyrus releases his captive and showers him with honors the rest of his life. Thus, concludes Plutarch, “Solon had the glory, by the same saying, to save one king and instruct another.”

Monday, September 5, 2016

Demisemiretired

For a couple of years, I called myself “semiretired.” I had retirement income coming from one state university and a three-day-a-week adjunct instructor position at another. Now I’m working even less, and some musicians (including, I would hope, those who took my first-semester theory course) as well as some cruciverbalists will get the joke when I say that I’m now “demisemiretired.” I hope I may never have to call myself “hemidemisemiretired.” At some point I want to be rocking-chair-and-vacationing-whenever-I-want retired.

Among my demisemiretirement activities, I have the wonderful privilege of teaching a World Literature class at a local home-school co-op. The kids are smart and willing to talk and, truth be told, make the class more fun for me than one in which I teach what a hemidemisemiquaver is. A few days ago, in preparation for the class’s assignment next week, I read two short stories with some interesting parallels: Tolstoy’s “Where Love Is, God Is” and Hesse’s “Augustus.”

Tolstoy’s story essentially shows an old man living out Jesus’ statement that those who have served the least of his brethren have served Him. It all seems a rather straightforward, simple, pious tale of a man who consciously decides to obey Jesus’ words. And yet when I think of what it would mean to live this way every second instead of just looking back at some scattered shining incidents, the story becomes radical and extremely convicting.

Hesse called his story of Augustus a fairy tale, and indeed it does involve a couple of magic wishes. But Augustus lives a life with all the twentieth-century angst, dissociation, and unsatisfying immorality of a Jay Gatsby or a Rabbit Angstrom or a Sebastian Flyte. Hardly the stuff of Cinderella and Prince Charming. The problem is that Augustus’s mother, given one wish, wished that everyone would love him. The troubles he then develops in living a life with no checks brings into question the meaning of the “love” everyone shows him.

I think I did a good job pairing these two stories for my class. As different as they are, they share much on common. Each story finds its main character losing everyone in his family, making the lessons of love all the more powerful. Both stories have winter scenes, which to my mind help bring out the spiritual dimensions of crises. Winter scenes sure work for Dickens. And both stories involve apparitions and help from beyond the grave, another characteristic they have in common with Dickens’s most famous winter story. My wife and my children are all alive, it’s hot outside, and I haven’t seen any ghosts lately (that I know of). Can I apply these lessons of love today without having to experience the deprivation my fictional friends did? In other words, can I honour Christmas in my heart and keep it all the year?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Quiet Battles

I’ve read about several battles in the last couple of weeks. While I finished this year’s assignment in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Clovis and the Franks battled the Burgundians, Theodoric the Ostrogoth defeated Odoacer in Italy, and Justinian’s forces subdued Isaurian raiders near Constantinople. And this morning, while reading Plutarch’s life of Dion, I witnessed a coup in Syracuse.

These battles came with lots of fanfare – literal fanfare – and other noise. But I’ve also been reading about a number of quiet battles in many ways more dangerous and tense than those of the military type. In Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (a rare example of a Trollope novel that I don’t entirely enjoy), poor, feckless Lord Fawn gets himself engaged to the widow Lady Eustace before discovering what a scoundrel she is and then watches as the battle between wisdom and socially approved behavior rages on in his mind. Can he marry a woman who claims a £10,000 diamond necklace as her own when legal experts say otherwise? Having made an offer of marriage and received acceptance, though, can he honorably withdraw from the engagement?

Another internal battle begins when Lord Fawn announces at the dinner table that Frank Greystock is no gentleman. Lucy Morris, dining with the family because she serves as governess to the two youngest Fawn daughters, is engaged to said Frank and tells Lord Fawn that what he says is untrue. Now, Lucy knows that accusing a gentleman of telling an untruth is, socially speaking, a worse sin than telling an untruth to begin with; but can she see her beloved’s reputation suffer abuse and let the incident go by unnoticed? The battle then spills over into Lady Fawn’s mind. Is she to defend her son and dismiss Lucy or honor Lucy’s devotion to her future husband and counsel her son to overlook the scene?

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I recently slipped in between planned books, is about almost nothing but internal battles. How does dying pastor John Ames pass on wisdom to his seven-year-old son? What wisdom should he include in the extensive letter he writes? And is it even wisdom? How should he represent his feuding father and grandfather in the memoir? How does he speak to his brother, who has departed from the faith? And perhaps most importantly, how much should he warn his wife and son about Jack Boughton, a man with a troubled past who hovers around the soon-to-be-fatherless family like one of Penelope’s suitors? All these dilemmas, each with its own transcendent, eternal consequences, duke it out in Ames’s mind while the quiet life of Gilead, Iowa goes on around him.

Considering that minds all around Gilead are engaged in their own battles, though, is that life really so quiet?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Christian Modernism

I have a regrettable habit of assimilating striking ideas without remembering where I read them. I very clearly remember reading a few years ago that Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and J. R. R. Tolkien had come to various conclusions about the way to merge Catholic faith with writing in the modernist era: Tolkien chose to avoid the problematic aspects of the style by writing in the genre of fantasy, while Greene and Waugh decided to embrace the disillusioned, broken characters of the modernist style but openly to attribute their empty chests to spiritual sickness. The author whom I can’t recall made these choices sound deliberate and even suggested that Waugh and Greene discussed the decision explicitly. I would love to read this analysis again to see if I remember it correctly, but I can’t because I don’t remember at all where I read it.

The picture certainly appears plausible to me, though. Greene, for instance, often portrays modern life as a tragic choice whose salutary alternative, if rejected, will forever lie out of reach, save by an act of grace. His short stories consistently feature characters faced with binary choices, with characters living on heavily guarded borders (figurative or literal), characters with dilemmas that, like the riddle of the apple of Eden, each force a decision with lifelong consequences. If asked, Greene probably would have said he hated allegory just as much as Tolkien. So let’s just say that his tiger-or-lady situations symbolize spiritual dichotomies.

Waugh, on the other hand, usually presents his characters as well embedded in secular lives of self-constructed meaning and morality. I take it that he puts the choice of life and death in the reader’s hands. He achieves his goal often by reducing the cultural emptiness of his fictional creations to the absurd, eliciting dark fits of wry laughter. If he succeeds in making us laugh at a married couple’s bizarrely casual conversation about the wife’s lover, then he has made us recognize the standard by which to judge the characters’ actions, has made us admit that a sacred alternative exists in which we could live should we, by the grace of God, choose to do so.

I’ve been sporadically gaining ground in Waugh’s collected short stories all year rather than saving them all for one steady October blitz. Yesterday I read a story, a version of which I had already encountered in his novel A Handful of Dust. I like Waugh, and I love Dickens, so I was bound to enjoy Waugh’s “The Man Who Liked Dickens.” The story involves a Mr McMaster, who has grown up in the Amazon jungle and who, although illiterate himself, loves to listen to the novels of Charles Dickens being read to him. One day an explorer named Henty comes by, exhausted and in need of medical attention, and, to boil the plot down to its essence, McMaster tricks him in various ways into reading Dickens’s books to him over and over for the rest of his enslaved life. Henty has no more power over his insane situation than Kafka’s beleaguered K. McMaster blithely goes on with empty, immoral life and calls it happiness because he recognizes no authority he must answer to. But all the time, the two read words of life and sanity in Dickens, who, as McMaster admits, believes in God and shows it in his works. McMaster acknowledges and approves of the narrator’s judgments of the characters in his favorite books, but he never applies the judgments to his own life. Apparently Dickens’s world of light is for both the men as old and lifeless as Brideshead or any other of the decayed institutions that fill the stage in the theater of Waugh, but only because they themselves have chosen to douse the light. But, of course, they can’t fully hide the holy flame. By mercy, the darkness can no more overcome the light than can Scrooge permanently extinguish the glow of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ups and Downs

In one particularly dreary subplot of Gilmore Girls, Richard Gilmore moves into his pool house with not a lot to do. In one episode, he reports to his granddaughter that he has finally finished The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For a show that loves books as much as this one does, the tone was surprisingly negative, as if spending the time to complete Gibbon’s monumental history showed Richard to have hit rock bottom in life. On the contrary, it sounded like a good use of his quiet hours to me and made me momentarily reconsider my decision to stop at the end of volume 1, at least for a few years.

But maybe the Gilmore’s writers just used the book for the emotions suggested in its name. Here at the end of my ten-year plan, I’ve reached the focal point of the book. (I almost said “the climax,” but of course it would have to be a nadir, wouldn’t it?) The Empire has fallen. And the calamity definitely raises emotions. (Or does it lower them? I feel like Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure. “Down is up!”) In any case, it moved me to a meager sadness, a resigned regret like the sag you feel when you see kitchen mess the morning after a big party. You know the thing happened, but you feel the emptiness in your gut when faced with the evidence.

The story brought many surprises. I didn’t realize, for instance, how quickly the Visigoths and Burgundians became Christian. I didn’t realize how chummy they got with Rome and the Church, even allying with them against other intruders from time to time. I suppose those historical relationships make themselves apparent in France’s use of a language derived from Latin. If the barbarians who conquered Gaul hadn’t been willing to adopt Roman ways and Roman religion, the French would be speaking something more like Dutch or German today.

The biggest surprise came at the official moment of dissolution. I knew as a memorized fact that Romulus Augustulus was the last Emperor of the West and that his reign ended in 476. But I had assumed that he stepped down unwillingly at the point of an Ostrogothic sword. Actually, he resigned willingly, uninterested himself in ruling and satisfied that the Gothic king Odoacer would run the Italian peninsula just fine. The Roman Senate actually wrote to the Eastern Emperor and told him they were happy with the new arrangement. I couldn’t help but think of Eliot’s lines: This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Six Years Ago

Another year already? Six years ago this month, I was laid up for several weeks with not much to do, and my wife told me to start a blog. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know if I would like it. I certainly didn’t know if I would stick with it. But, at her suggestion (and after quickly discovering how easy it was to do), I started to write on my self-assigned ten-year reading plan in classic literature, and I’ve kept it up all the way until year 10. (I started the blog in year 4.)

It’s been an event-filled six years. My reading plan and blog have gone to Italy, Canada, and Ireland with me. I’ve written during illness and after surgery. I’ve written in times of stress and in times of joy. I’ve written about books I loved, and I’ve written about books I hated. This site has had over 50,000 hits (although I don’t know how many of those came from Russian spambots), and at least two friends have received inspiration to write up their own multi-year reading plans.

Here are just a few of my favorite posts from the last twelve months:

The Conclusion of Hume’s Book
Tolkien’s Historical Perspective
A Reasonable Man
William James Knows Me So Well
The Seventeen Stages of Grief
Monuments of Literature, Literature of Monuments
Oh, What Could Have Been!
Ariosto Speaks and I Hear Violins: It’s Ma - a - gi - ic!
Austen and Role-Playing
The Fortituous End of Kant
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me

I probably won’t add to the blog much or at all once 2016 goes into the books. I have a new decade-long reading plan drawn up that I’ll be starting on in January. (I’ll actually probably cheat and begin a few days early, during the Christmas break in December.) But it includes a lot of literature that’s less than “great”: Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and so on. It contains little in the way of difficult reading and absolutely no German philosophy. So I don’t know how well it would fit with what comes before. I certainly don’t feel any special need to share with the anonymous world my thoughts while reliving my adolescence. But I’ll keep it up until the last week of December. Until then, keep checking back, and happy reading!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Word by Word by Word x 106

Latin is a dense language. As in good poetry, every word tells. Sometimes a single Latin word expresses what would be an entire relative clause in English. Take the famous announcement of the Roman gladiators: Ave, Caesar. Morituri te salutamus. Even the seemingly straightforward “Hail, Caesar” actually means “May good health be to you, Caesar.” The next word, morituri, packs in just as much. The -tur- element in a Latin verb indicates something that is going to happen or about to happen; the future is a thing that is going to be. So morituri are people who are about to die. Now this word might have sounded like the subject of the sentence to Augustus, but the -mus at the end of the whole thing forces its way into that role in English. We have to translate the phrase “We salute you.” And so morituri has to become a relative clause: “We who are about to die salute you.”

Edward Gibbon read a lot of Latin in order to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A lot of Latin. And he followed his extensive sources closely. I know he did (1) because of the voluminous footnotes and (2) because so much of his English prose carries the echoes of Latin sensibility. Since Gibbon represents his sources so thoroughly, reading his work is for the English-speaking reader almost like reading one ancient historical account after another in translation. That’s a good situation if you want to read a detailed history of Rome without having to track down translations of Eubanius and Eunapius and Sozomenus and scores of other ancient historians I hadn’t even heard of before reading The D and F.

But to gain this advantage, you have to pay some prices. Oh, I can put up with eighteenth-century historical method and biases; while our method has improved over the centuries, we’ve only swept away the old biases to let in seven new ones of our own. The much higher price comes in the form of having to read learned eighteenth-century prose at its most eloquent – eighteenth-century prose informed by Latin prose and its high density. You have to pay attention to every word. I can pay attention to every word in a sonnet by Wordsworth. But there are about a million-and-a-half words in Gibbon's literary monument. And it takes every bit of self-training and discipline and recalled advice from my dad for me to keep up with it. (My public-school education certainly never taught me to read at this level.)

Consider this example from book XXXV:
His rich gifts and pressing solicitations inflamed the ambition of Attila; and the designs of Aëtius and Theodoric were prevented by the invasion of Gaul.
It’s a relatively long sentence with many multi-syllable words. Based on those features alone, the sentence comes out at 25.796 on the Flesch Readability Scale: “Very difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.” But the density of information makes it even more challenging. The gifts and solicitations come from Genseric, King of the Vandals. But all Gibbon has said before this point about Genseric and Attila is that the former “armed” the latter. Instead of next saying, as a twenty-first-century writer probably would, that Genseric offered Attila rich gifts and pressed solicitations, each action luxuriating in its own verb, Gibbon compresses those two actions into a single subject-phrase and with his predicate indicates Attila’s response; his ambition became inflamed. And note: Gibbon never describes the gifts Genseric offers and only identifies his solicitations after the semicolon. Fully understanding that postsemicolonic (hey, I can push my Flesch-Kincaid score with the best of them) second half of the sentence requires the reader to keep track of the ever-shifting relationships between Aëtius, Theodoric, Genseric, and Attila. I admit that I don’t fully understand; I don’t actually remember what “designs” these two Romans entertained at this stage or even whether their respective designs were complementary or conflicting.

But the real kicker comes at the end of it all. The point, the weightiest fact of the sentence sneaks in on the breeze of that last, verbless prepositional phrase: “by the invasion of Gaul.” Gibbon doesn’t say bluntly, “Attila invaded Gaul.” In fact, he doesn’t even say here that it was Attila’s invasion; the reader merely has to infer it from context. And I must confess that I totally missed the significance the first time I read the page. The news comes at the end of a long, detail-ridden paragraph, and I flew past the words, assuming them the final, dispensable, prepositional nuance of an episode I thought I was done with. If the sentence had read “After Genseric’s gifts and solicitations, Attila decided to invade Gaul,” I definitely would have caught it: the main point occupies the main clause of the sentence. I would even have been OK with “In order to distract Aëtius and Theodoric from their plan of invading Vandal territory [if that was indeed their plan], Genseric bribed Attila and solicited him to invade Gaul”: at least the key information gets an infinitive verb. But I live in an age of subtitles: Attila Decides to Invade Gaul. I live in an age of voiceovers and helpful musical scores: “The designs of A and T were prevented by – Dut-dut-DUUH – [turn up reverb] the invasion of Gaul.” By contrast, Gibbon lived at a time when trained readers routinely exercised close attention and constant inference, so he could expect their exercise. He could expect it for a million-and-a-half words. And from certain passages in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I know that Gibbon got his wish in some cases.