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


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.


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