Sunday, December 31, 2017

Book Awards – 2017

In keeping my tradition of wrapping up the year with a list of awards (and of course the world doesn’t have enough annual awards), I’ve cheated slightly and favored things that I didn’t blog about earlier in this slim year for posts. Without further ado (you won’t catch me spelling the wrong word there), here are my awards from Year 1 of my Third Decade reading plan.

Author Who Is with Me in Spirit at My Elbow: Charles Dickens
I always make a special place for Charles Dickens in my awards and then let someone else win the fiction award. Dickens doesn’t mind it as long as he gets to play Master of Ceremony. I listened to the marvelous Mil Nicholson reading Nicholas Nickleby in the car driving to and from work in the early months of this year, and I read A Christmas Carol yet again in the last week of the year. Needless to say . . . . (I want to use that phrase honestly for once.)

Best Reread: Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers
I remember loving this book the first time I read it, but I had forgotten 99.9% of the details. In a celebration of minds that have breakthrough moments (some of which have shaped our world and some of which have been mostly forgotten), Boorstin tells the story of Su Sung’s twelfth-century astronomical clock, of Santorio Santorio refuting the dichotomy of hot and cold by marking temperature on a continuous scale, of Aldus Manutius numbering the pages of the books he printed, and of the scientifically untrained Christian Thomsen intuiting three anthropological ages by looking at artifacts of stone, bronze, and iron. Amazing! Of course Columbus and Galileo and Gutenberg and William Harvey are there, too.

Weirdest Reread: Tie – Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Verne, Hector Servadac
I didn’t like either of these books as much as I did when I was fourteen. And yet, according to my faulty memory, my adolescent self was smart enough to get the main ideas from each. It’s hard to say whether I truly enjoyed reading them again since I spent so much time asking myself, “Did I understand that? What did I think about that? How was the translation I read forty years ago better? Worse?” And on and on.

Best New Read, Religion: Mark Noll, America’s God
This book may have been about religion in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, but it sure explains a lot of things about today.

Best New Read, Fiction: Galsworthy, A Man of Property
It’s a good thing I liked it, because the other eight novels of The Forsyte Saga are all on my plan. I don’t know what possessed Galsworthy to devote so much time to exposing these eminently flawed people, but I know a Forsyte or two, and clearly he knew whom he was writing about.

Best New Read, History: Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Army of the Heartland
Living in Knoxville now, I found this Southern perspective on the Civil War especially interesting. The western armies fought over this heartland (essentially Tennessee) because of its natural resources and because Confederate loyalty didn’t blanket the state. I live in a section that was Union sympathetic, and I’ve driven several times on the Andrew Johnson highway, named for a southern man who stayed in the U.S. Senate even after secession and toured eastern Tennessee recruiting Union soldiers. Slightly comforting.

Best Off-List Read: Margo Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures
OK, so the movie collapsed calendar time quite a bit: those victories did not all happen during the planning of John Glenn’s mission. Still, everything in the wonderful film was essentially true. But why didn’t it mention the fact that the computer calculations Katherine Johnson double-checked for Glenn came from equations that Johnson had herself developed earlier? And how could it not tell the story of Mary Jackson’s son winning the Soap Box Derby and then telling reporters he wanted to grow up to be an engineer just like his mom?

Read Leading to the Most New Reading: Brown, History of Victorian Literature
I have always thought of nineteenth-century novels as the Real Thing, and the introduction to James Eli Brown’s history explained why: the social forces of the time grew and shaped the middle-class that became both the central subject matter and the new audience for the surging literary form. It also helped that Great Britain finally nixed that Stamp Act that we got so angry about, thus making paper – and novels – cheaper. Now they’re electronic, and, after buying computers and paying for the internet, all those Victorian novels are free. It’s a good thing, because I put at least forty on a list that will form the core of my Fourth Decade.

Most Ludicrous Not-So-Great Book: Burroughs, Pirates of Venus
A lot of my Third Decade list is designed to help me revisit my adolescent reading experience. If Dumas and Verne didn’t write capitalized Great Books, I can at least say that these authors put research and skill into their books. Edgar Rice Burroughs, on the other hand, wrote pure fantasy based on an error-laden misunderstanding of science and geography. But I have fun even thinking about the mistakes. Am I really supposed to believe that Carson Napier is smart enough to build his own rocket for a trip to Mars and yet could forget the gravitational pull of the Moon in his trajectory calculations? And then am I supposed to believe that his mistake would conveniently land him on Venus instead? It would have been a better book if Napier had just aimed for the Planet of Love to begin with, but it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.

Most Comforting-yet-Disturbing Read: Durant, The Reformation
I love Will Durant’s history, as the briefest survey of my past posts will show, and his elegant prose, nose for memorable detail, and flair for inspiring analysis provided five weeks of lunch-time comfort during a frustrating semester of teaching. On the other hand, reading about the political perversions of Christianity that led to so much bloodshed didn’t exactly improve the digestion of those lunches.

Belated Award for Most Satisfying Moment: Will Durant, re: Charles V and Francis I
I’m terrible at memorizing quotations. I often can’t even remember who said them. So when I want to sound learned, I’m left having to say something like, “Someone important once said something along the lines of this . . . .” I’m not even sure I’m quoting myself accurately there. Pathetic. For decades, the most frequent example of this total lack of the skills of scholarship involved me saying, “Somebody, I think it was Napoleon, said that the greatest enemies have to agree on one thing: they have to agree on the value of the thing they’re fighting over.” I even said it once here in this blog. Well, in Year 9, while reading Will Durant, I came across what I’m sure was the original that I had heard many winters ago. It was Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who said, and I quote verbatim, “King Francis and I are in complete agreement; we both want Milan.” Perfect.

So there you have it: all the awards for 2017 and even one from 2016. I promise nothing about the coming year, but I might find myself putting up the list for my Third Decade of planned reading. And I may end up publishing awards for Year 2 next December. In any case, that’s it for 2017, so without further adieu (wink), may your 2018 be filled with entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring reading! Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The High of Reading

When I first learned music history, way back in a previous millennium, my teachers and books essentially taught me about the pieces that still get sung and played in symphony orchestras and university recital halls today. Since that time, musicologists have begun to approach music history from a different angle: as a study of what musical life was like at a given time and place. One thing this change means is that students now learn about people that have mostly been forgotten. I learned nothing about Meyerbeer in my classes, for instance, and yet he was the most popular composer in Europe in the 1830s. The old method taught the 1830s by talking about what we like from the 1830s; the new approach teaches the 1830s by examining what people in the 1830s liked. The second result of this shift in perspective is that composers are no longer the only interesting figures in music history. Now we study – among others –  performers, publishers, instrument makers, concert audiences, middle-class families who bought pianos for their teenage daughters, and “waits”: medieval wind bands who roamed the streets at night ready to play a rousing tune any time they saw criminal activity. The new way is so much better!

The first book I read that follows this new approach was a book from the Music & Society series on the early Romantic era. I got excited when I read stories such as the account of how the London Philharmonic decided to have a conductor. (A guest composer conducted a rehearsal and had the orchestra stop and redo difficult passages. The group agreed that they sounded better when someone actually made them correct their mistakes. Go figure.) So I put all the the volumes of the series on my Third Decade plan, one book per year, hoping for enlightening and entertaining reading.

Sadly, though, the volume on ancient times and the Middle Ages mostly just describes the surviving music. I guess we don’t know a lot about the invisible slaves who played music at Roman parties. I was hoping to hear more about what music instruction in cathedral schools was like, but again, I suppose there isn’t much documentary evidence. The waits at least got mentioned once. Disappointing, yeah. But maybe the installment on the Renaissance, on my list for 2018, will be better.

Also disappointing this year was Sandburg’s Lincoln. My dad told me when I was, maybe, twelve that I would need to read this mammoth biography someday. Dad, I’m sorry it took 45 years for “someday” to come. But I’m not sorry I chose to read Sandburg’s one-volume abridgement of his four-volume original: even the one book was too long and not as good as other Lincoln biographies. The story read like a medieval chronicle: it told what happened without much analysis of the reasons for what happened, the rejected alternatives, or the reactions to what happened. The book got much better near the end, though; the poet found his inspiration in the death of the great President. And he found special joy in poking fun at all the bad poets across the country (thousands of them!) who sent in dismayingly similar elegaic verses to their local newspapers. Come to think of it, I wish thousands of poets sent works to local papers today. Even the bad ones might be worth the occasional gems.

For people like me, reading is an addiction – a wholesome addiction, I have to believe. But like some drug addictions, it starts when the user tries to recapture an experience of euphoria. As a youngster, I experienced the high in reading aloud the delicious rhymes of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, in finding out how different Baum’s Wizard of Oz was from the movie, in finally finding myself old enough to read all of Lanier’s King Arthur, and in discovering the complex depths of power and beauty in A Tale of Two Cities. As an adult with a ten-year reading plan, I’m partly just trying constantly to recover that high. It definitely happens sometimes, as when at last I started reading Orlando Furioso. But of course I’ll have some disappointments, as I did with the music history and Sandburg’s Lincoln.

But my other major reading for November brought no disappointment. I first read Helen Hooven Santmyer’s . . . And Ladies of the Club (how does one format this to show that the ellipses actually start the title?) when I had a fever – or at least I started the gargantuan novel in my delirium. I loved the book but felt very hazy about some of its details. So on this clear-headed reread, I enjoyed the book even more than I had before. The social forces that criss-cross through four generations of inhabitants of Waynesboro, Ohio, fascinate me: social class, economic class, religious denomination, political affiliation, intellectual level, interest in art and drama, and relative love for or suspicion of books all combine in surprising ways. The book reminds me that a human being isn’t simple or predictable even if some overt personal characteristic is, and it challenges me to find common ground with people who seem incompatible with me on the surface.

Ladies of the Club
actually mirrors and comments on my reading for November and my thoughts about it today. (It’s just too weird to start a paragraph with ellipses and a conjunction.) Some of the women in the Waynesboro Ladies Club share my addiction to books; others meet every other Wednesday afternoon mostly for the socializing. Some meet occasional disappointment in the readings assigned by the groups vice president; one or two find their lives drastically challenged and altered by books given to them by a friend or passed down by a parent. One character even writes a rather bad poem and submits it to the town newspaper.

As I think about it, Santmyer wrote the kind of history I was hoping to find in the Music & Society Series. I know the books from the late nineteenth century that our college classes like to teach and our bookstores tend to sell. But Santmyer tells me what books they liked in the nineteenth century, who was reading them, and what they thought of them. Santmyer’s picture of the time and the bookstore’s picture of the time are quite different.

Except for Dickens. Of course, they liked Dickens.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From One Line to Five Hundred

As much as I tried to make my reading list for the Third Decade shorter and lighter than the schedule for the Second, of course it ballooned almost out of control. Part of the problem is that I thought I’d be spending the horological abundance of the retired on this new project, when in fact I took on, for my last nine months of labor on this Earth, a job busier and more tiring than any I’ve had since I was a peppy whippersnapper. But many years ago, I learned to take at least an hour at lunch to forget about work and read a book, and I still do it. If I feel rushed to get through lunch these days, at least the reading has been good this fall.

Part of my bloated reading list for the Third Decade includes rereading my notes from ten years ago, and I was amazed to recall that I had taken only one line of notes about Will Durant’s Story of Civilization in 2007. This year I wrote over 500 lines of information I’d love to remember. His march through the annals of western history has become one of my favorite assignments each year, which is why I schedule it in the fall as a reward for some of the tougher reading of the earlier months.

Durant goes back and forth smoothly and logically between giant personalities (Mary Queen of Scots, for instance), political movements (e.g., the English Civil War), cultural descriptions (this year it was the morals and manners of France during the religious wars of the sixteenth century), and criticism of art and literature (Shakespeare, Montaigne, Cervantes, Velázquez, and Bernini). Of course his historical prose gets bogged down in a density of detail at times, but he rarely repeats himself and only occasionally explains things out of order: not bad for a monument of 6000+ pages. But every page presents something new, something striking, something to change the habitual perception of a reader doomed to live in his own era.

And Durant has a flair for witty observation. (I suspect that these moments actually come from the mind of his wife, Ariel, whom he eventually made co-author of the last few volumes.) In saying that people like the way Shakespeare says things as well as his stories, he quips, “Shakespeare’s audience came for his plumage as well as for his tale.” About the artist Domenichino, he says, “He . . . learned his art in Bologna and then sought the fauna and florins of Rome.”

That kind of educated pun is a lost art, I’m afraid. And of course, my notes are all dry lists of mere facts. But at least ten years from now, when I read my files from this first year of my third ten-year reading plan during Year 1 of the Fourth Decade, I’ll have plenty to remind me of the epic tale Will Durant sang for me in 2017.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Like and Unlike Tolkien

Year 1 of Decade 3 was a year of letters: Lewis letters, Dickens letters, Tolkien letters. In reading a collection of correspondence from the man who created Sam and Frodo and Legolas and Eowyn, I noticed many striking parallels between him and myself. I remembered from reading Tolkien’s biography several years ago that I saw myself in his habits of getting to class late and reading to his children. But the parallels run even farther.

SNL’s Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey used to play a couple of friends who sat in the basement watching television and talked about huge projects they had in mind. After the description of every castle in the air, they’d look at each other, laugh, and say, “Aw! There’s another thing I’ll never do!” I had to laugh at myself in these characters, although I gave myself the consolation that I at least often began the novels and the game designs and the businesses that I only dreamt of completing. But Tolkien described my own desultory ways in calling himself a “notorious beginner of enterprises.” It took him twelve years to finish The Lord of the Rings; the book he worked on for fifty years, The Silmarillion, he left for his son Christopher to finish. How many other great projects did he merely begin?

• Tolkien complained sometimes of proofs and other extra bits of work coming at the worst time: when some large amount of grading was due. “Evil fate has plumped a doctorate thesis on me,” he once complained, and I sympathize.

• After one of these intense periods of task upon task, Tolkien said, “I have been chasing lost days ever since.” For years, without exactly knowing it, I had been searching for this phrase to describe a feeling of dyssynchrony with the world. I once dealt with a family crisis the week before a school year began and felt one week out of step the entire semester. Now I know: I was chasing lost days. (I found them again at Christmastide.)

• Tolkien believed that no commercialism can defile Christmas unless one lets it.

• Tolkien wanted to teach young people elevated vocabulary by simply using words like (and this was his example) argent, which has a beauty of sound all its own and so does not mean the same thing as silver. See the last paragraph from my June post this year on the effect of such writing on me in my childhood.

• Tolkien loved quoting one of his old professors in characterizing Oxford University not as an institution of learning but as a factory that makes fees. Amen! But at least “Oxford U.” isn’t routinely taken to mean a football team. (Hmm, I wonder if any Oxonian has ever referred to that academy as OU.)

• Hoping to find the Church a place of solace in times of trouble, Tolkien instead had to admit it was  “just another arena of strife and change.”

• Tolkien loved Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

Of course, I also noted some differences. I, for instance, did not create the Misty Mountains from my impression of Lauterbrunnen and then include my mental creation in an influential, best-selling, genre-creating novel. Also, I actually like Dorothy Sayers’s mystery stories. And I love The Chronicles of Narnia. But I’ll let Tolkien have his odd quirks.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Keeping Up Appearances

No, this post isn’t about one of my favorite TV shows. It’s just that most of my reading for August involved plots that turned on appearances and especially the difference between appearance and reality.

Phineas Redux is the fourth book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, a group of six novels centering on characters with positions in Parliament and the Ministry. Its constant inspection of the tension between duty to party, duty to truth, and duty to country ceratinly read like a commentary on current news. But what stood out to me even more was a theme of the appearance of faithlessness. Phineas appears to be faithless to his party near the beginning of the book. A few chapters in, Adelaide Palliser and Gerard Maule appear to abandon their love for one another. And about halfway through, Phineas appears to have murdered Mr. Bonteen.

Yes, he only appears to have killed the president of the Trade Board. I’m not giving anything away in saying he didn’t actually commit the deed. Like Hitchcock in Dial M for Murder, Trollope has a talent for revealing endings at the beginning of a story and then filling the path to those endings with suspense. I suppose I could say that Trollope himself gives an appearance of faithlessness to his readers by showing his hand. But (and here’s another almost certainly original analogy) as Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent showed, sometimes a joke is funnier when the punchline comes first.

In a year of reading Arthurian sources, I caught up on Chrétien de Troyes just about the time Phineas was standing trial. Among Chrétien’s late twelfth-century contributions to the legends were Camelot, the Holy Grail (which he identified merely as a “holy object”), and Lancelot: in other words, about half of what immediately springs to mind at the mention of everyone’s favorite King of all Britain. (In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, Arthur comes into the world with Merlin and Excalibur at his side. Wace added the Round Table to the recipe in 1155.)

Lancelot enters the world in a wonderful story in which he is known as the Knight of the Cart. The tale begins with Lancelot, having lost his mount, accepting a ride on a cart. Today’s reader learns two things very quickly: (1) riding a cart is the most shameful act any knight could ever commit, and (2) news of cart-riding travels very fast in Chrétien’s chivalric Britain. Everywhere he goes, everyone sees Lancelot as a disgrace to all that is good and decent, and yet he’s just doing whatever it takes to track down the kidnapped Guenevere. Appearances can be so deceiving!

When Lancelot finds his queen, he tears out the bars to her cell with his bare hands. Because the battle of appearance and reality is the theme of the story, he later restores the bars and leaves her in the cell in order to performs some deeds that will make the rescue perfect. But he has left the blood of his raw hands on the bed clothes, which doesn’t look so good for Guenevere.

Later in the story, the tables have turned: Guenevere is in Camelot and Lancelot is a prisoner. Lance hears of a tournament back home and convinces a serving girl who brings his daily food to let him out of his cell just long enough to compete. The poor girl points out that if he fights under his own colors and escutcheon, everyone will know that she has betrayed her master. So to protect her, Lancelot leaves for the weekend and jousts in disguise. Guenevere susses him out, though. As the Lady of the Tournament, she secretly bids the mysterious stranger to do his worst one day, and, honor bound to obey, he loses every match. The next day she instructs him to do his best, and sure enough, he wins every match. Only Lancelot could have the prowess to control his success so exactly.

By the date of this post, it appears as if I wrote and published it in August. But it is actually December as I type. The semester is almost over, and I’ll have more time to catch up on blogging in the next three weeks. So now it’s beginning to appear as if I will finish my minimal plan of one post for each month of 2017.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The World Expands

I have loved reading about American history for almost as long as I can remember – and I can remember my third birthday. I was reading biographies of Lincoln and Edison and history articles in the World Book long before fifth grade. Then on the first day of fifth grade I brought home a large textbook called, creatively enough, American History. I was so excited, I read many, many pages of it that first night.

I may have skipped the first part about the explorers, though. It didn’t seem so interesting to me simply to learn a list of names to associate with certain places on the maps. In my school district, we studied American history again in eighth grade and then in eleventh grade. Each time it was the same: I knew that I would enjoy the text and the class as soon as we got past the explorers.

By my third year of college, something had changed. I don’t remember if I had developed a new interest in Cabot and Cartier or if I just thought I needed to get over my aversion. But in 1978, I took as a history elective a course on the age of European exploration and colonization. My hopes to enjoy the textbook were dashed early, though. The professor announced on the first day of class that the best book on the subject, by Samuel Eliot Morison, had sadly just gone out of print. One day three or four years ago, as I was putting together the list for my third (now current) ten-year reading plan, I remembered that first day of class in college and feeling cheated by the publishing industry, and, finding that the book had made its way back into the marketplace, I made sure to put Morison’s The Great Explorers on my plan for the first year. No reason to wait longer than thirty-nine years to right a Great Wrong.

The excellent book was worth the wait. Morison sailed to many of the places he wrote about and could explain from personal experience the conditions of particular harbors and the intricacies of the maneuvers Magellan & Co. made in their travels of discovery. He drew not just dissociated names but living characters from journals, financial logs, and contemporary histories, and he presented a story that far transcended the mere placement of names on familiar shorelines.

But the part that interested me most was, ironically, the story of those shorelines. Eliot presented them in what for me was a new way. And because of this fresh approach, I am now prepared to announce What’s Wrong with the Way American History Has Been Taught – at least in fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades in Hazelwood School District in the 1960s and 70s. The problem is that my school books showed me those names on maps whose outlines were familiar to me. By contrast, Eliot showed me the maps drawn by contemporaries of the explorers themselves, and they looked quite different from what I’m used to seeing. John Cabot thought that Newfoundland was a peninsula of Asia, and a map drawn from his notes shows it as a large promontory projecting southward from the eastern end of Asia. Maps incorporating Columbus’s discoveries showed the islands he reported as parts of the Japanese archipelago. To put these sailors’ names on maps drawn from our position in time misrepresents their thinking and purposes and, most importantly of all, the way their adventures shaped the advancement of knowledge. We see two continents and then draw explorers’ names on shorelines. They saw shorelines and eventually had to learn to draw continents behind them.

To my mind, the most amazing discovery – the most monumental and yet frustratingly short-sighted – was that of Verrazano. His trek up the eastern coast from what are now the Carolinas to Canada proved that the lands Columbus and Cabot and Cartier and Frobisher investigated were not peninsulas and islands of Asia but parts of a New World, a new continent between Europe’s western reaches and Asia’s eastern bourne. But, amazingly, all along the Outer Banks, Verrazano believed he had discovered a very narrow continent. He never once sailed through the breaks to see if any land lay beyond but simply assumed that he was seeing a new ocean, what we would call the Pacific, just over the dunes.

What I would like to see is a computer animation of the changing view of the global map from 1492 to, say, 1592. I’d like to see Asia sprouting peninsulas like an amoeba extending pseudopods that break off to form new amoebas. To see islands popping up in the ocean like quantum particles appearing from nothing. To see the ocean divided as Verrazano’s journey extends a few scattered islands into a continent. To see the Earth grow larger as America extends south and west to meet the discoveries of Magellan and Drake. I’d like to see it, so I may have to draw it and program it myself. Maybe by the time my grandchildren are in fifth grade, they can learn about this era the right way.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Shapes Us

In June, I read a variety of things, none of which offers a main point around which to build a blog post. But all touch upon the structures, relationships, and forces that shape the individual. They even talk about forces that act upon us to make us free agents, a process that sounds like a contradiction at first but appears on closer inspection not to be.

According to his introduction, Augustine wrote On Grace and Free Will not, as a casual student of the history of theology might suppose, to emphasize grace in the persisting relationship of the two, but to defend free will against, as he says, those who take grace too far. Some religious thinkers at the time apparently wanted to place the immediate cause of every action in God’s Being, but Augustine points out that the Scripture speaks commandments as if to people who have the free power to obey or to disobey those commandments. The intention stated at the beginning of the book notwithstanding, as soon as Augustine mentions the Pelagians, he shifts to defending grace. He concludes that grace and free will work together: God shapes our wills, and we act freely to obtain what we will.

A biography of William James, William James in the Modern Maelstrom, is harder for me to summarize because it was harder for me to follow. I think I have a grasp on James’s psychological view after reading parts of his Principles of Psychology every year for many years. But to watch the ideas form, change, blend, crystallize, strengthen, and weaken over his life reminds me that even the most careful, insightful thinker is human after all. James’s work often addresses the forces that shape us, and forces indeed shaped his views of just how this works. His narcissistic father, the death of a girl he loved, other writers (Peirce and Emerson notably), experiences with his patients – all these experiences played roles in the development of his mature philosophical system. And that system in turn partly said that all thought and belief is grounded in experience. Late in his life, James turned to philosophy of religion and said that, since religious thought, too, should be grounded in personal experience, “earnest” religion must eschew institutions and dogmas. But what if my experience (including my experience of having read about James’s changing ideas) tells me that I should honor Church and dogma? Credo ut intelligam.

One quick note from some letters of C. S. Lewis: While America’s favorite Anglican held, as I do, reverence for the Christian Church and its ancient creeds, he held suspect a different kind of dogma. Lewis said he disapproved of lists of “greatest books” since, he complained, any such list handed people their tastes ready-made.

As with William James, reading Lewis, learning from him, and agreeing with him is exactly what makes me want to argue with him here. Was Lewis’s profession as a literature teacher not a matter of shaping his students’ tastes? Lewis’s interests have certainly shaped mine. His reading lists have influenced mine. His analysis of various Renaissance books has increased my understanding of them. I started my entire program in reading Great Books because of something Lewis said about Orlando Furioso. Maybe there are other books out there somewhere that I haven’t heard of that I would like better. It seems unlikely, but it’s theoretically possible. In my ignorance, though, I’m happy with my tastes and grateful that Lewis handed them to me ready-made.

But grace and free will are in tension. I wouldn’t accept and enjoy the gift of taste from Lewis if it didn’t resonate with what I already want. For Christmas when I was eight years old, my dad gave me an edition of Sidney Lanier’s boys’ version of King Arthur. I opened it up that December morning eager to enjoy it and read, “It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon.” I immediately closed the book, realizing that if I couldn’t understand the first line, I wouldn’t be able to get through 300 pages. Not yet, at least! If I knew I wasn’t up to the task at eight, I also knew that I would be one day, and that I wanted that day to come. My dad and Sidney Lanier were trying to shape my tastes, and I knew that I wanted what they had to offer even when I was too young to understand it. I knew it was in me to like a book that began “It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon.” And now I do like that book (and Malory’s “original”), partly because it presents a story in which God’s grace and the knights’ free will interact and cooperate to shape the story.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dickens the Character

I looked back at some previous posts the other day trying to find something I had said about Augustine’s views of skill and education. (I finally found what I was looking for in a post about Jane Austen, whose last name, as I think of it, is a variation on the name “Augustine.” ) I fairly amazed myself, frankly. The posts, all from several years ago, were generally written well, with good form and a somewhat pleasingly varied rhetoric. And more importantly, it seemed that I actually had things to say: ideas I felt strongly and that I conveyed clearly. I felt at moments while reading as if I were learning things from another person. How did that all that meaningful writing happen, and why isn’t it happening now? Where once I wrote a hundred posts a year, I’m now (in November!) struggling to get out just my fifth post for 2017, a look back at May’s reading. Did this blog suddenly slow down (a blog clog?) because I only have ten years’ worth of things to say in my soul? Did I just get tired of posting? Or did I get spooked by the Russian bots that troll my site after the potential mischief of Russian bots has hovered near the top of the news for over a year?

My favorite writer had much more than a ten years’ supply of words and ideas and never tired of sharing them. In May of this year, I finally got around to reading the (selected) letters of Charles Dickens. I had read two biographies of Dickens before and numerous articles about him, but in his letters I sensed that I was meeting the man himself. Or perhaps I should say that I discovered that the narrative voice in Dickens’s books was the Great Man all along: that the glowing face of Oz (or Boz in this case) is the man behind the curtain. In many ways, Dickens’s life was a novel and he was the hero of the tale. (He had no reason to have Copperfieldian doubts on that score. Hmmm. Or is that Copperfieldesque?) Dickens the man was Dickens the character, and the collection of his letters presents his story.

The first kind of connection between the letters and the novels is the most direct one: Dickens wrote from life, so events in the books came from events in life. Dickens’s description in an early letter of a snowy ride to Greta Bridge, for instance, reminded me very much of Nicholas Nickleby’s first ride to Yorkshire. The grief he expressed over the death of Mary, his teen-aged sister-in-law, hangs over the whole volume and presents a tragic story in itself deeply moving. But that watershed event in the author’s life also explains a lot of things in his books, most notably his penchant for including dying children (and the Tiny cripple who did NOT die). On virtually every page, I could have ticked a box on a list: yeah, there’s the thing from that book, and there’s that funny fellow from that book . . . . 

The manner of presentation corresponds as well. Dickens the novelist could write 800 pages of serious drama (Bleak House), of comedy (Nicholas Nickleby), of satire (Pickwick), of social lecturing (Hard Times), or of heartwarming homey stuff (David Copperfield). His tone changed with the needs of the story. Which of these voices was the voice of the real Dickens? All of them. Like Robin Williams, Charles Dickens was the amalgam of all of his personas. He wrote funny, ironic letters to his friends when the occasion allowed it and scolded forcibly when the occasion demanded it. He could be tender, indignant, facetious, or magniloquent. And he could be more than one of these things at a time: many a poor writer sent in a manuscript asking for advice, and Dickens regularly returned a kind but detailed rationale for why the correspondent needed to pursue a career outside the field of letters. (Had I been alive then, I would hope I would have better sense than to try.)

If the content and the style are both novelistic, then Dickens is indeed his own hero. No, literally: a hero. As his life and career progressed and he became the second most admired person in the British Empire (always second, of course, to the Queen who gave the era her name), Dickens recognized and accepted the responsibility of celebrity (a lesson that only Spider-Man seems to understand these days), several times exhibiting needed moral and emotional leadership in a crisis. Once during one of his public readings, a gas lamp fell in the theatre. Knowing that the fear of fire among a closely packed audience could cause more harm than the easily contained fire itself, Dickens stood his ground on stage and told the crowd to remain seated while officials took care of the problem, saving trouble, damage, and perhaps even life. But the most astonishing example came late in Dickens’s life when a bridge collapsed under a train he was riding. The engine plummeted off the rails ahead of his car, and the other carriages went off behind him. Dickens’s carriage alone teetered precariously on what was left of the trestle, yet he calmed the others on the car and asked a railway official to help him get the people out, then spent two hours helping and comforting the wounded and dying in the wreckage. (Note: the paid employee of the rail service responded to instructions from the author. He knew who was in charge.)

Every story needs a good ending, and the end of Dickens’s life reads like the crisis in a Sophoclean drama. Dickens takes on public readings and then gets weak from overexertion. He starts Edwin Drood, the novel death will interrupt, leaving its murder mystery tantalizingly unsolved. Dickens then decides to add the emotionally taxing scene of Nancy’s murder (from Oliver Twist) to his reading routine. Like a good Christian in a sentimental novel, he expresses his faith before departing. His letter to Rev. Macrae reminds that reader (as well as this one) that every last one of his morally good characters expresses faith in the Savior and that each Christmas book is meant as a sermon on a given Scriptural text. And then in his final letter, on the day before he died (critics have vilified him for including coincidences less outrageous in his stories), he tells John Makeham, “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour.”

Then the letters cease. Dickens’s first stroke occurred on stage during a public reading of Nancy’s murder a year earlier. His last stroke occurred on June 8, 1870, the day of the letter to John Makeham, and he died the next day.

I will now shock the world by announcing that I am not Charles Dickens. I don’t have much to say and certainly nothing original: I can only pass on the contents of books I have read. And I don’t have an ending. If I were to die before finishing this very sentence, the post would at least end with a flair if not a period.

Nope. Didn’t happen.

So I’ll go back to Augustine and Jane Austen. What they said, according to my blogpost anyway, is that any skill requires ability, education, and practice in order to be actualized. I have some ability and supposedly some education. So maybe my problem with writing this year stems from a lack of practice. Maybe it isn’t that I wrote all those previous posts because I had something to say: maybe I had so much to say because I wrote frequent posts. Well, only about six weeks remain in this year (again, I’m writing May’s piece in November), and if I’m to fulfill my vague determination to complete a month-by-month review of my reading for 2017, I’ll have to increase the frequency of these posts. So we’ll see.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Quest for the Holy Grail

One of the main purposes of a multi-year reading list is to assure getting to those things “that I need to read Someday.” My plan is a way of making sure Someday comes. April showers brought with them a couple of long books that had been waiting for Someday a long time indeed.

The first “biography” of King Arthur appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth, ca. 1136. Not much of the familiar legend is there: Geoffrey puts Arthur in his list of regum Brittaniæ, but he concentrates in this section of his chronicle on a long prophecy by Merlin. A fellow named Wace added the Round Table to the picture around 1155. Between 1170 and 1190, Chrétien de Troyes added the Grail (which he called simply a “holy object”), Camelot, and Lancelot. Robert de Boron made the Grail a vessel of the Last Supper and put it in the hands of Joseph of Arimathea. In the early thirteenth century, the lengthy Lancelot-Grail cycle, a collection of stories in the French language by multiple writers, first puts everything together. In April, I read the Lancelot-Grail Reader, a collection (and translation) of the main stories from this collection.

I’ve been on my own quest the last few years: to read the Arthurian sources written before Malory and try to find some missing information. The biggest question in my mind is this: What is the purpose of the Grail Quest? The Grail appears above the Round Table one Pentecost, and Arthur and all the knights accept the apparition as an invitation to a quest. So how do they know the event announces a quest? All vow to “achieve” the quest. What does that mean? How do they intend to do it? What is their goal? It can’t be that they simply want to see the actual Grail: several knights have been to the castle of Corbenic and seen it before this time, so the fellowship of knights doesn’t need a vision to know what to see and where to go. We have to assume that God has brought this quest; what is his purpose? To get Galahad to Corbenic so that he can heal the Fisher King? Apparently the knights don’t understand this since every last one of them wants to try. Talk about your riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas! (Poor Arthur. He knows that the Grail is the best and most holy object in the world, yet he also knows that the unavoidable quest means the end of the Round Table. Don’t let it be forgot that there was once a spot . . . .)

Sadly, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle doesn’t explain any of this conundrum. At some point in history – possibly in the history of French religious thought in the thirteenth century or possibly even in what little of actual history makes its way into the Arthurian legend – a connection existed that made sense to people. If the Holy Grail appeared to me and filled my plate with food, I would be amazed and grateful and frightened and suspicious and a hundred other things, but I don’t think it would ever spontaneously occur to me that the phenomenon was an invitation to get up from my table and look for the original of the shadow I’d just seen. So my quest continues.

Almost a thousand years and a full thousand figurative miles separate the medieval tales of King Arthur and the science-fiction tales of Isaac Asimov. But both represent quests. The Complete Robot collects all of Asimov’s stories about robots (rather obvious, no?) and sets the reader off on a journey into a future that Asimov spins out over more than a dozen novels in three interwoven series. The robot collection has few weak members and no duds. My favorite involves a computer programmed to search (Asimov’s prescient view of) the internet for the programmer’s perfect woman. The crafty machine, though, made to think like its maker after all, naturally sees the woman it locates as perfect for itself, gets its programmer fired, and then waits for the arrival of its new mistress. Oh, the stroke of her fingers on my keyboard!

Here we find a third quest: the Quest for the Future. And I have as many questions about this quest as I do about the Grail. What is the future that Asimov, readers, tech gurus, and computer users are seeking? It now seems that Asimov was exactly right in predicting that it has something to do with computers and robots. But who will use them and to what end? And what are we to think of the ultimate potential of computers and robots? Will they be beneficent aids to a world of progressing happiness? Will they simply take away (and help tyrants take away) our freedom to pursue happiness? Or is the digital future like the Grail: something so good it will break society apart forever?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Things Start to Get Good Right About Now

In the previous post, I explained that I worried through most of February that my new ten-year reading plan needed to be pared down, my ambitions tamed, my expectations leveled. By the end of March, though, the book list had started to do what it was supposed to do and felt exactly right.

What was it supposed to do? Make me eager to pick up my books every day without thinking that I’d have to make myself get through a certain number of pages in order to keep up. And the books of March did exactly that.

We’ll start with C. S. Lewis: as Sister Maria says, “A very good place to start.” Obviously, a book called Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature will only feel fun to someone who enjoys medieval and Renaissance literature. As it happens, I do. I first read The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy only prompted by a drive to check boxes on a mental list. But self-imposed duty quickly turned into externally prompted devotion. I love every one of these classics and have read some parts three and four and five times. And now the wise professor tells me how to understand and enjoy them even more. Check this sample of nifty points from Lewis:

• How far do you go in studying background to understand old literature? It's up to you. Just as there are two ways to visit a foreign country – staying at the British hotels or immersion into local culture – there are two ways of enjoying an old book.

• It doesn't help, however, to learn about some prior myth that supposedly shapes the story. The only way of understanding the myth is to get inside what it feels like to believe it, and that means reading the poetry. “The poem is illuminating the myth; the myth is not illuminating the poem.”

• A medieval book is the product of several people, rather like a cathedral.

• Medieval scholars loved and revered books, sacred or profane, and accepted the contradictions, assuming that there was some truth in every stated view.

• The interweaving of stories in Faerie Queene is a “polyphonic narrative.” Such a convoluted structure may not be to modern taste and may make it hard to remember who’s where doing what with whom (what a relief to find that Lewis couldn’t always keep track of everything, either!), but (1) this way of writing stories lasted longer than our narrative style has, so a lot of readers over the centuries have found it completely suiting, and (2) no one complained about it then, so they must have had superior powers of memory that our technologies have impaired.

Yeah, I didn’t have to keep checking the calendar and doing math in order to turn enough pages every day to keep on track with this one.

While I read these and other fascinating and helpful lessons about medieval and Renaissance literature, I also enjoyed rereading my adolescent self’s favorite Jules Verne novel: Hector Servadac. As a teen, I knew it as Off on a Comet. (It’s the only title I know of that includes two opposite prepositions in a row!) That American title change is the tip of an iceberg of weird problems caused by translators trying to make Verne acceptable to English readers’ expectations. According to certain Verne fans with internet presence (such as this guy), all those wonderful science-fiction novels that have inspired generations of Doc Browns have come to us in bad translations that actually cut a lot of the scientific descriptions! To read the most complete translation, I had to stitch together two documents (the Wikipedia article explains it) and suffer through the ham-fisted work of translators who believe that good renditions copy every French turn of phrase word for word. (For example, the Gallic propensity for inserting ce after a perfectly good subject has already been stated makes sonic sense in French but just adds a weird redundancy in English. “This spheroid we are on, it is a comet.” C'est une comète.)

Still, with all its stilted language and absurd plot (a comet grazes the Earth and picks up some of the land formations, buildings, and living creatures without harming them?!), I ate up every last crumb of Verne’s hearty meal of bizarre metallic cliffs, British soldiers who will never abandon their post even though that post be sailing through the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and cavern-apartments inside a volcano complete with central heating provided by streams of lava.

And then there’s Arundel, which occupied a prominent place on my dad’s bookshelf as I was growing up. I looked at that spine practically every day for eighteen years and then fairly often for another twelve, all that while believing it held something really good before discovering that I could indeed, in this case at least, judge a book by its cover. Kenneth Roberts dared to suggest in his historical fiction that the Sons of Liberty were mostly unruly hotheads and that Benedict Arnold had many virtues – and won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for doing it. He has unjustly been forgotten, but I can’t imagine a resurgence of interest in anything so subversive in today’s America. Americans would have to know accepted 1750s history in order to appreciate the subversion of it.

Oh, but I can point out my own blind spots, too. Let’s just say that this second reading of the novel showed me that at the time of my first trip through its pages, I was just as stupid about the women in the book as protagonist Steven Nason was. Every time I tried to shout at him, “Why can’t you see what she’s doing?” I ended up scolding myself as well: “Why didn’t I see what she was doing?”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Shortest Month

The shortest month – and some of the longest readings. I spent most of February thinking I had overstuffed this new ten-year plan and would never make it through it all. Looking back at the time now from July, I can see the problem: some of the first books on the schedule were surprisingly long, and I had three jobs at the time. But my goal is to have zero jobs sometime in just the next year or two, which should leave me plenty of time to pursue my weird OCD-driven geekdom. And anyway, with a little extra effort, I made it through February: three jobs and all. At this point, it feels like I have a viable plan and that I have a fine chance of once more getting through a decade-long reading list.

The enormous length of The History of Victorian Literature stunned me when I opened it (you can’t tell the size of a Kindle book just by looking at the cover). But every page was interesting and helpful, starting right from the introduction, which showed the liberal politics of even the most heart-warming domestic novel: to show that middle-class, working-class, and rural people had dignity, interesting problems, and interior lives came as a shock to the old guard, and the characters’ counterparts in the real world took advantage of new educational opportunities partly just so they could read all this new literature. I learned a lot about things I’d read alredy, and I got a great start on a list of books for a fourth decade of planned reading starting in 2027!

Much, much shorter was the Greek Epic Fragments from the Loeb Classical Library. I was hoping to enjoy an ancient account of the Trojan War leading up to the events in the Iliad. But I hadn’t realized just how fragmentary the fragments were. I’d read it all in Apollodorus anyway.

One of my three jobs happened once a week at a home-school co-op an hour away. Part of my method for getting through the reading I had assigned myself during this busy time was listening to books on the drive there and back, and my favorite during those busiest weeks was Charles Dickens’s third novel, Nicholas Nickleby. I can’t recommend highly enough Mil Nicholson’s readings of Dickens. A professional actress who donates her skills to Librivox, Ms. Nicholson reads it all with a proper British cadence and lots of love. She gives every character a distinct voice, and when she reads the lines, modulating her pitch, rhythm, and accent, the characters appear in my mind with bright colors and crisp edges, like the ghosts David Copperfield envisions as he writes his memoir. Wackford Squeers, Kate Nickleby, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Mr. and Mrs. Crummles, Smike, Mr. Mantalini, Newman Noggs, Peg Sliderskew – these and all the other unforgettable creations of the Great Novelist’s mind become three-dimensional, palpable, living humans under the care of this talented performer.

The History of Victorian Literature points out a problem with Nicholas that Dickens himself seems to acknowledge in his narration: the good people that fill the pages have such uniformly pure thoughts, only the villains can become truly interesting, novelistic characters. But Dickens figures it out soon enough in his career and gives us David and Pip and Bella Wilfer. In the meantime, Nicholas Nickleby offers adventure to thrill at, scoundrels to hiss at, and lots and lots of laughs. If you want to try one chapter of Dickens, read chapter 2, regarding the foundation of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company. Try not to laugh! Or if you want something shorter, read Fanny Squeers’s letter; Douglas McGrath, director of the 2002 screen adaptation, calls it one of the funniest pages in all literature. I may have packed too many pages into this short month, but when they’re as good as that page, the extra effort makes me very happy.

But above all this, Nicholas Nickleby inspires me. Dickens wrote at a time when a hero in a novel could be taken seriously. And a good thing it was; that era needed heroes. Not that Nicholas is some kind of Aristotelian ideal of character: his heroism comes from youthful impetuosity as much as it does from courage. But whatever the fillip of emotion or inclination, Nicholas’s heroism finds its foundation in knowledge – knowledge that public schools need to be cleansed of their ignorant, anti-educational masters, knowledge that riches do not give their possessor the right to assault women or to brag about it, knowledge that those privileged with health and strength have a duty to care for the poor, the feeble, the aged, and the sick.
Squeers caught the boy firmly in his grip; one desperate cut had fallen on his body—he was wincing from the lash and uttering a scream of pain—it was raised again, and again about to fall—when Nicholas Nickleby, suddenly starting up, cried ‘Stop!’ in a voice that made the rafters ring.

‘Who cried stop?’ said Squeers, turning savagely round.

‘I,’ said Nicholas, stepping forward. ‘This must not go on.’
Dickens’s era was not the only time in need of heroes like Nicholas Nickleby.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Every Book Tells a Story

I cannot tell a lie. It’s actually July as I write this. After composing a mini-essay more than once a week for about six years, I took a long break from blogging. But I wanted to start out 2017’s entries with a word about some reading I did in January, so I’m retrodating this post to that month.

Every book tells a story. Of course, each one has a story inside, whether it’s a fictional arc, an historical narrative, or a descriptive and analytical thread. But I’m talking about the story of my relationship with each book. My Plan for the Third Decade (in my interior life, these entities cast imaginational shadows large enough to deserve capital letters) includes a lot less mental exercise than my previous book lists and a lot more fun, less philosophy and more adventure. I’m reverting from a self-created graduate school to junior high. Many of the books on my schedule, in fact, I first read in junior high. Others I’ve been meaning to read ever since that formative age but have just never gotten around to it.

The Count of Monte Cristo sits in that first group: I first read it when I was about sixteen. I had seen a couple of made-for-TV movie adaptations (one did such things in the ’70s) and liked them enough to read the original. And I loved it! Very few books start with a setup as exciting as Edmond Dantès being falsely accused and imprisoned, meeting a man with a treasure when he mistakenly tunnels into Dantès’s cell, escaping by sewing himself into a shroud and being tossed over a cliff into the sea, and then becoming the richest man in the world. One bit at the end bothered me: Dantès seemed to me to arrogate divine powers when he tells a young woman to trust him even if she wakes up in a coffin buried alive. But my adolescence clung to every thrilling episode Dumas created.

Or apparently not every episode, as I found out soon afterwards. Cut to 1976, when I enter the University of Illinois as a matriculating freshman. Before classes even start, I head to the library, assuming it will be my favorite hang-out spot on campus. I walk up and down the aisles of the undergraduate library. (Awe, ambition, and frustration commingle in my soul as I ponder the existence of a graduate library unavailable to me. Rumor is it’s actually underground where the riffraff can’t even see it.) I consider which books I’ll check out first. My eye lands on a title very interesting to a guy who makes lists of books to read: My 100 Favorite Books. I pull the volume silently and carefully from its shelf and turn to the table of contents. No. 46: The Count of Monte Cristo! What has this obviously wise compiler of titles said about one of my favorite novels? Little, as it turns out. After a sentence or two of praise, he moves straight to an excerpt, chosen to demonstrate the virtues of Dumas’s great adventure. And I proceed to read . . . an incident I am sure I have never seen before.

Of course I turned to the back cover of My 100 Favorite Books to see if there had been some mistake. Maybe the author had rewritten his hundred favorites. Or maybe there was a switch to flip that would make the thing work right. But no. There it was. Somehow, this fellow’s Count of Monte Cristo was not my Count of Monte Cristo.

So I returned to my paperback copy of The Count and found a note on the title page I had not seen before: Abridged. I recovered from a long illness bought on by the appearance of this outrageous word. Determined to set right a wrong that had been perpetrated on my universe, I then went to the B. Dalton bookstore at the mall (another quaint thing we did in the ‘70s) and looked on the shelf. No luck. I asked the clerk. No luck. At last I perused Books in Print. (I’ll stop pointing out every weird ritual of the previous millennium now.) And in the end I had to admit the horrifying truth: in 1976 America, there existed no unabridged English-language translation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Well, friends, now there is. The sun has risen. Justice has prevailed. And in January of this year, unable to wait a day longer than forty years and four months, I started off my third ten-year reading plan taking in every word on each one of the 1243 pages of the unabridged translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. And, yes, I definitely read the excerpt I found out about that day in Champaign: 14,730 days though it may have been, I had not forgotten that in the actual classic previously denied to me by a vicious publishing industry, Edmond Dantès bribes a signalman at a telegraph office to change a message, and I won’t forget it until my mind goes senile.

So what did I finally think? To tell the truth, I thought the book was too long: the first version I read, about 700 pages shorter, kept the plot moving in a straight line without allowing for any tedium. As for Dantès, he’s even more sacrilegious than I remember, although now I think his bit about resurrecting the girl was just meant as a way of passing on his own experience of rising from a grave. Did Dumas know how crazy Dantès sounds claiming to be God’s only instrument of justice and revenge? Did he approve? I couldn’t tell.

So I have some disappointments and some nagging questions. But now a story has come to a close. And although this year, Year One in Decade Three, is obviously a year of beginnings, it is also a year of endings. As I’ve scripted the plot, resolution will come to many more stories this year.

In fact, it already has: after all, I’m writing this in July.