All posts by Phil W

“As Individuals, We Can Never Be Happy”

To label [novelist Marilynne] Robinson a postmodern conservative or a conservative postmodernist seems to invite boundary policing and accusations of claiming the novelist for a political agenda she does not share. Perhaps a turn away from the language of modern politics can allow us to state what Robinson and [Peter Augustine] Lawler hold in common. Their respective postmodernisms represent, above all, returns to humanism. Specifically, the recognition of the human as a created being is found both in Robinson’s “radical anthropocentricity” and in Lawler’s “whole human being.” The intellectual terrain they share might be called a postmodern humanism (or a humanist postmodernism), joined in the understanding, in Lawler’s words, that “to the extent we understand ourselves as individuals we can never be happy.”

J. L. Wall writes about the big ideas behind Robinson’s stories and essays and how she and Lawler both believe we have lost the language to communicate our deepest longings. We can still ask the right questions, but our attempts at answers fall short.

Also on this subject: “So why are humans in the secular age so unhappy? Calasso says it is because they find something ominous in the insubstantiality they feel both within themselves and in the world around them.” From a review of The Unnamable Present by Roberto Calasso.

Willing to Fail: Adorning the Dark

Author and musician Andrew Peterson has written a book on artistic creativity for everyone, called Adorning the Dark. It will be released in four days. (Already Amazon’s #1 seller in Music Encyclopedias. What?)

On his promotional site (from which I pulled this graphic above), Peterson describes the book.

This isn’t a technical “this is how you write a song” kind of book. There are plenty of those, and I don’t happen to think they do much good. I wanted to write something that would be helpful to all manner of disciplines: songwriters, novelists, poets, painters and pastors—but also parents and teachers and accountants and carpenters. One of my soapboxes in the book is that everyone’s creative. Everyone. And my hope is that the principles I cover in “Adorning the Dark” can be helpful no matter what field you’re in.

We Can Read Anything, But Do We Read Well?

Imagine there’re no novels
No books for us to buy
No bargain basement deals
Just notes to apply
Imagine no one reading more than daily tweets

Sings the would-be profound poet in the corner coffeeshop.

Has the virtually infinite access to written resources improved or inhibited our reading? To put it another way, are we wiser as a society for having so much more information? Author Sven Birkerts doesn’t think we are, and he’s written a book that celebrates reading and warns us against forgetting how much fun it is.

We know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. . . . [But] inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture. Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information. . . .

Access may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.

from The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

Photo by Perfecto Capucine from Pexels

Brief Review of History Books

SOME TRADITIONAL Christian publishers don’t do much in history. After years of reading overstatements from both left and right concerning America’s founding, I enjoyed the calm and thorough analysis of Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? (Thomas Nelson, 2019). Those who read minds and extrapolate diaries may still fight over questions of sincerity and personal faithfulness, but Hall clearly shows what’s most important: that Christian ideas profoundly influenced the Founders, and through them all of us.

World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky offers many quick evaluations of new history books in this week’s issue, pointing out trends from select publishers like the above. He notes Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn, which we highlighted earlier this year.

Walking Back, Never to Return

Poet Jessica Hornik says she remembers January in her poem “Recuerdo, January,” but they sound like October words nonetheless.

Walking back to the ferry in the evening chill,

they knew they’d never have reason enough
to return to this place, which made the leaving
as sad as a paradise gained and lost

in the space of two hours.

This year has been one to remember. No paradise gained, only loss. I feel I’m reluctantly slipping into the autumn of my life; I don’t know if I can turn around somewhere.

Photo by Jairph on Unsplash

Motel, Miracles May Be Likely to Occur

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a new documentary on the making and lasting influence of Fiddler on the Roof. It first appeared on Broadway in 1964, was released as a movie in 1971, and has been on stages around the world ever since.

Through cast, crew and luminaries’ commentary, [Max] Lewkowicz examines the play’s time-transcending magic as he wonders why “mainstream America is interested in a bunch of Jews living in a pale of Russia of 1905.”

“Tevye is from the shtetl, but his message is universal,” Lewkowicz told The Jerusalem Post from his New York home. “He could be a family man in Honduras, or anywhere in the world for that matter – a father whose children rebel and want to go a different way against his will. He is a man whose tradition is being seriously challenged.”

Motel may have believed marrying Tzeitel to be a miracle of miracles, but many smarter-than-thou philosophers have argued against miracles being a thing (FWIW, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is now playing on my Your Classical stream). Michael J. Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary has a post about a popular view on miracles, that “given how unlikely miracles are, it is always more likely that a miracle did not occur.”

But we must remember the context of every “miraculous” event. If God is living and active in our world, then miracles will occur. They may even be likely.

Everyone Loves Food

“While I was writing The Lost Family, I cooked a lot—to meditate on the day’s writing as well as to kitchen-test all the recipes I then featured on the book’s menu. Some of my favorite lines for the book would bubble up that way, as if from a Magic 8-Ball, and one of them was ‘vegetables have no language.’ I revised this slightly for the novel, but it means that food is universal. The produce and spices will vary from country to country and cuisine to cuisine, but if you love food, you have a vast family out there. We can all communicate about how our beloved dishes are different—and how they are the same.” – Jenna Blum, The Lost Family

Crystal King, whose book about Vatican chef Bartolomeo Scappi, The Chef’s Secret, came out this year, quotes eleven authors on including food in their writing.

“Writing, in a way, is an extension of my cooking, and vice versa. Cooking taught me how to create, that I needed to create.” – Phillip Kazan

Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels

Canticle Holds Up

Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz holds up after sixty years.

“The most miraculous thing about this book, however, is that it offers a profound critique of the extremists at either end of our so-called crisis of liberalism and serves as a stark reminder that these debates are nowhere near as new as some think,” writes Daniel Kennelly for The American Interest. (via Prufrock News)

McCarthy: How to Write a Science Paper

Novelist Cormac McCarthy has edited the work of many scientists at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. A couple of them distilled McCarthy’s advice into a list, published here by Nature. Much of this list is straightforward, so here are a few standouts that may make you say, “But I thought I was writing a science paper.”

  • “Don’t slow the reader down. Avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts and send your eyes darting back and forth while your hands are turning pages or clicking on links. Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language. And don’t use the same word repeatedly — it’s boring.
  • “And don’t worry too much about readers who want to find a way to argue about every tangential point and list all possible qualifications for every statement. Just enjoy writing.
  • “When you think you’re done, read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Find a good editor you can trust and who will spend real time and thought on your work. “

This third point is advice many writers need to consider: give an editor time to work with you. When a writer hires an editor to clean up his work and asks for it returning as soon as possible or a week earlier than normal, he is asking his editor to let things slide or focus on only on essentials. With time an editor can highlight a paragraph as confusing and ask the writer to rework it or point out other things that need work and have no set fixes.

(Link via Karen Swallow Prior; Photo by Jeremy Bishop from Pexels )

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

This has been the longest year of my life, and it’s not yet October. I could tell you the details, but I usually shy away from that; I mean, we’ve never shaken hands, bought each other coffee, or sung a hymn together. We wouldn’t recognize each other if we were in the same room. But I don’t mind talking about books with you, and that brings to this 800-pager.

My hardbound copy is like this but red.

I started reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Suzanna Clarke early in the year, and though I liked the story, I put it down in favor of — I don’t know, maybe I was making money at something (that’s a nice thought). The story progresses slowly, not diverting onto rabbit trails so much as taking time to set new stages and bring in dialogue. There was a chapter toward the end I thought could be cut to a couple sentences, but most of the time I wished the pace would pick up even though I was enjoying the scene before me.

Of course, I’m not like Lars. On Monday he can tell you he’s reading a 3,000 page book that will take him a while to review, and on Friday you’ll have that review. I take eight months to get through 800 pages. That’s not a tweetable goal. Follow me on Goodreads; you won’t be inspired.

The novel begins with Mr. Norrell, who wants to crush the dreams of all would-be magicians and remake English magic after his own image. He is naturally a stuffy academic in his manner of thought and speech, but his passion is to use magic properly and practically, keeping it away from theoretical magicians who do nothing but talk over poorly written books. He opposes people like the president of the York Society of Magicians, who says, “Magicians … study magic which was done long ago. Why should any one expect more [that is, to do magic today]”?

Norrell gains a good reputation and important connections in London before Strange shows up, and in advancing his career he sets the plot of the whole book in motion. This is an laudable point in Clarke’s storytelling. She could have had the rise of Norrell and Strange’s fame in England be the provocation for the villains that come; instead she has Norrell conduct a work of magic he knows to be risky that opens the door to a great deal of trouble.

Continue reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Lucas Doesn’t Like New Star Wars Stories

From what I’ve read about them, George Lucas’s original plan for eps. 7-9 of the Star Wars series would have been more like eps. 1-3. An ancient order of the Whills as a force behind the Force would be explored, likely through a thrilling sequence of talking, chin stroking, talking, and sitting.

Slashfilm has a little of what Lucas liked about plans and artwork for episode 7, but the movie didn’t develop in that direction. According to Disney CEO Bob Iger in his newly released memoir, Lucas didn’t like that direction.

When Disney bought the franchise and Lucas’s outlines for the new episodes, they stated their freedom to develop them as they wished. “George knew we weren’t contractually bound to anything,” Iger wrote, “but he thought that our buying the story treatments was a tacit promise that we’d follow them, and he was disappointed that his story was being discarded.”

Lucas wanted something new with each movie, but Iger and his team wanted something Star Wars, “to not stray too far from what people loved and expected.” He doesn’t directly disagree with Lucas, but I’m glad the sequel films are not more like the prequels.

I remember enjoying The Force Awakens; I reviewed like this.

No photo description available.

That pretty much sums it up without the slightest hint of a spoiler.

Do Celebrity Book Clubs Sell Books?

Reese Whitherspoon has taken up the challenge of recommending books to fans and followers. Vox says it is an extension of her personal image. “Witherspoon’s star image is based on the idea of Witherspoon as smart and driven and bookish — in a funny way, a likable way.”

Some of her selections have sold hundreds of thousands, which is very exciting for those select authors; but this article has a remarkable detail about the book industry as a whole. It says that with 300,000+ new titles published in the US every year and 2,200,000+ published worldwide, readers want to get recommendations from celebrities they trust.

But here’s the shocker. Though sales of selected books soared when Oprah picked them, the overall sale of books that year stayed within expectations. “Exactly as many people bought books as were already going to buy books.” More readers are reading certain books, but apparently more people are not reading. Or at least they are not buying books to read.

In 2018, Pew Research reported that three out of four Americans read one book in any format last month, and that rate has been steady since 2012.

Reviews Are not Strictly Evaluations

John Wilson of Books & Culture, the Christian review of books published bi-monthly 1995-2016, talks about book reviewing with FORMA.

Is it harder to control the “gush” for a book you really like or the harshness for a book you think has major problems?

Wilson: Ha! It’s not so much a matter of “controlling” gush (just say no); it’s rather a matter of finding a way to single out a really good book at a time when people are acclaiming “masterpieces” right and left, cheapening the conversation. I don’t often review books that I think are terrible, or that are entirely uncongenial to me, but a reviewer who’s never critical—sometimes sharply so—is letting the side down.

But having said that, I’m reminded of another widespread misconception: that reviews are all about “evaluation,” the reviewer—from his or her lofty perch—saying “5 stars” or “2 stars” or whatever. There’s so much more to it.

Milton Wrote in Margins of Shakespeare Folio

After Shakespeare’s death his works were collected into a folio and printed. Two hundred thirty-three editions out of the seven hundred fifty originally printed still exist, and some of them have notes and marking from early readers. Now a Cambridge fellow believes he has compiled enough evidence to identify one annotator’s handwriting as belonging to the great John Milton.

Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren made the discovery in response to research conducted by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Naturally he hesitated to suggest this, because it’s too easy to see what you want to see.

But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. “Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,” said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. “Shakespeare is our most famous writer, and the poet John Milton was his most famous younger contemporary. It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived — and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive. This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.”