Category Archives: Reading

Don’t Read That Fantasy

Here are twenty reasons you may want to put down that fantasy novel before you are disappointed by a lame story (according to the writer). One reason: “characters repeatedly ‘respond,’ ‘demand,’ ‘deny’ or ‘wonder’ their dialogue. You get ONE of these per chapter, and even that’s pushing it, buddy. They can ‘say’ things. They can occasionally ‘ask.’ And, since I’m an Anne of Green Gables fan, they can ‘ejaculate’ if they must. But THAT’S IT.” [by way of The View]

Elvis, Hauge and fear

Everyone’s talking about Elvis today, the 30th anniversary of his death.

I have nothing particular against Elvis, except that his stuff never did much for me.

I never got Rock ‘n Roll. Rock ‘n Roll is for adolescents, and I never really was one. I was a kid forced to act like a grownup before he was ready. I didn’t actually become a grownup, I just got stuck at the “kid playing adult” stage for the rest of my life, which is how it works when you do that. So I think I lacked some emotional components necessary to appreciate the genre.

Also, of course, R&R is about sex. Teenagers are excited about maturing, and their music expresses that. Me, I was terrified of what was going on in my body. I was pretty certain that I’d never get a lawful outlet for it (I was right), and I tried to deny the whole thing as long as I could.

I liked soaring, symphonic music that raised my spirit to eternal things, and causes worth dying for. “The Theme from Exodus” was my favorite song.

I think Mel Brooks is overrated, but I appreciated one running gag in his “2,000 Year Old Man” act. Carl Reiner would ask him where something—pretty much anything—got started, and Brooks would say, “Fear!”

Fear controls us more than we like to admit (even I, who admit it all the time). Writing a story? Want to know how to motivate your characters?

Ask two questions—“What does he want?” and “What is he afraid of?”

The answer to the first question will tell you what the character will do. The answer to the second question will tell you how he will do it.

Another thing that impressed me in my reading of Hans Nielsen Hauge’s autobiography (see yesterday’s post) was the fearless way he went about his ministry, doing stuff that nobody in his country had ever dared to do before.

It’s a measure of the depth of his Christian conversion that he became a man almost without fear—or at least a man whose faith conquered his fear.

Hauge was the first man in Norwegian history—one of the first in Europe—to decide that he wasn’t obligated to obey his rulers all the time. The principle that “we must obey God rather than men” is a biblical one, but it was taken for granted in those days that the king ruled by God’s authority, and so there could be no conflict. The law (a very sensible one in many ways) said that all religious preaching and instruction had to come from an authorized representative of the state church. Otherwise, you’ll get nuts running around preaching heresy and nature worship and reincarnation and witchcraft and a lot of other nonsense. Which did, in fact, happen in the end, so you can’t say their concern was unreasonable.

Hauge harkened back to a principle of Luther’s—that a plowboy with his Bible had more authority than all the popes and councils that ever met. Convinced of this authority, Hauge went out to do whatever good he could—spiritual or material—for his neighbors.

He was warned. He was arrested. He was beaten. He was thrown out of towns. But the conviction of his heart and his study of the Bible weighed more in his eyes than any intimidation or violence.

There was a Danish/Norwegian author named Axel Sandemo who invented what he called “janteloven,” the Law of Jante (which is a fictional city, based on his Danish birthplace, in his stories). It’s a series of rules that would be familiar to many people, Scandinavian or not. It’s sort of a Lake Woebegone thing. Some of the janteloven rules are:

You shall not think you are anybody.

You shall not think you are as good as we.

You shall not do anything to give the impression that you are better than we.

You shall not think you are worth anything.

You shall not think you can teach us anything.

Hauge fell to the janteloven in the end. They put him in a cell, where it was dark and cold, and they gave him nothing to do, and nothing to read (except the works of Voltaire), and they kept him from his friends. Year after year. Finally they let him go, sick and old before his time, but not before they’d gotten him to confess that he’d gone too far. He’d taken things to extremes. He’d been a bad Lutheran and a bad citizen.

He never recanted his faith (they didn’t want him to), but he recanted a part of his vocation. He wanted to walk under the sun again, to see things growing in the soil, to talk with fellow believers.

But the thing that really broke his heart, according to what I’ve read, was that they convinced him (it was hard, but they did it at last) that the king was against him.

It’s hard for us to understand today what the king meant to the peasants through most of European history. The king was not an oppressor. The king was their friend. The common people loved the king. Every man who suffered injustice knew in his heart, “If I could just get to the king’s ear, I’d get justice.”

“If the king thinks I was wrong, then I must be wrong,” Hauge thought.

And yet he won in the end. That bent, white-haired, toothless old man of fifty was nevertheless the future of the country.

Kind of like Elvis, I guess.

A Christ-like man

A lot of people think we’re behind the times at the seminary/Bible school where I work, and right now they’re right, at least technologically. Our computer network has been down since Monday. The timing couldn’t have been much worse for me. This is the week I’d planned to order textbooks for the fall, and I use the net extensively for that job. I can do most of it the old-fashioned way, I guess, with catalogs and phone calls, but I expect the network will be back up before I get far into that process, so I’m… delaying.

I’ve been looking at a book in the archive, a selection from the writings of the Norwegian lay evangelist Hans Nielsen Hauge. I’ve written about him before, and will probably write about him again. He was an important historical figure in a fairly unimportant country, so he’s not very famous except among Norwegian Lutherans. But he was a remarkable man, a true original and a Christian to his toes, and reading his story in his own words only reinforces that opinion in my mind.

[Short overview, for those of you who don’t want to read the Wikipedia entry: Hauge was a farmer’s son with a minimal education. In the 1790s he began traveling as a lay evangelist, urging people to repent, be converted, and live lives worthy of Christ. He also wrote books of edification, which he got printed and mostly gave away. His activities were illegal, and Hauge was arrested repeatedly, finally being sent to prison from 1804 to 1811. This broke his health and shortened his life. His movement, however, proved to be revolutionary. Under his teaching, the common people began to improve their education and to get involved in business, industry and politics.]

The first thing that impressed me was that he was an essentially cheerful man (remarkable in a Norwegian, but there it is). The stereotype of the Haugeans, built up over generations (and generally true), is of extremely dour people who frown on all pleasure and love to find opportunities for dressing their neighbors down. Hauge was definitely a Type A, obsessive about using every moment profitably (he even learned to knit so he could make stockings as he traveled on foot from place to place. I’ve seen a pair of his stockings in the Folk Museum in Oslo), but he was an optimistic Type A. When faced with a challenge, he assumed things would go well. When he met people, he assumed they would treat him well. He never feared the law, because he was convinced his good king would never oppose God’s work. He was a genuinely charming personality.

In a famous incident, during one of his early, temporary arrests, he was confined in a bailiff’s house. A girl was sent in. Hauge says she was sent to “mock him.” I have to assume the idea was seduction, to get evidence of hypocrisy against him. Most of the Haugeans I grew up with would have had a fit at that point. But Hauge didn’t lecture the girl. He spoke to her quietly, and in a few minutes she was weeping.

Then they sent in a crowd of people, led by the bailiff’s wife and a fiddler. The fiddler struck up a dance tune, and the rest of the people started dancing. The bailiff’s wife took Hauge’s hand and invited him to dance.

Hauge said, “I’ll join you if you’ll have the fiddler play this song—” and he began to sing an old hymn (he’s said to have had a beautiful voice). The dancing stopped immediately, and Hauge began to talk to the people. He doesn’t say that he converted any of them, but he says they began to take pity on him, and some said they wished they were like him.

I have found no incident in the story, so far, where Hauge “dresses anybody down.” He had a spirit of gentleness, always seeing Christ in people, even the crudest and most depraved. And it was that vision of Christ in others that made him bold to speak the gospel to them.

Emergency Reading in the Trunk

This is hilarious. Brian Doyle asked several people what books they keep in the trunks of their cars, just in case they find themselves unprepared for a reading opportunity. He reports, “A woman in Alaska had every single book she owned because she was moving from one apartment to another. . . . A friend in California had books on alcoholism and Lutheranism.”

Amy points this out, saying it may be a good way to her to read James Joyce. I don’t live by my car enough to make this work for me. The only times I’ve had a strong need for reading material is while stuck at a car shop waiting for my car to be returned. (via Books, Inq.)

Beowulf, suffering servant

“Thus Beowulf showed himself brave, a man known in battles, of good deeds, bore himself according to discretion. Drunk, he slew no hearth-companions.”

I re-read Beowulf over the weekend, in response to our discussion about the movie trailer for the upcoming film.

My conclusion is that I enjoyed it, and I’m reasonably certain that no movie based on the poem (I believe yet another is in the works after this one) will get to the heart of the thing.

Beowulf is often described as a heathen tale overlaid with a thin veneer of Christianity (it’s a Dark Age story, probably based on events that happened [if they happened] in Denmark and Sweden sometime around 500 AD. But the poem as we have it was clearly re-worked by Christian scribes, based on an oral original). And that’s essentially true.

Nevertheless, I think I may understand why monks would have considered it worth preserving. Because they understood the poem in a way that moviemakers today never will. They understood that Beowulf’s actions are not based only on personal pride, on showing off, on “macho.” They are based, at bottom, on sacrifice.

It has often been noted how boastful Beowulf is, and how there is no hint of humility or reserve in his account of his great deeds at Hrothgar’s feast.

But the editor of the edition I read (an adaptation of F. Klaeber’s translation, in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature) notes, “…his boast becomes a vow; the hero has put himself in a position from which he cannot withdraw.”

When you’re living in terror, when you’re afraid that not only your prosperity but your very life and the lives of your children will soon be lost, there’s nothing you want more than somebody big and strong and competent who’ll swagger in and say, “Trolls? I eat trolls for breakfast! I’ll moider da bum.”

You can sense Hrothgar’s blood pressure dropping as he listens to Beowulf’s self-promotion.

For all his braggadocio, there really isn’t much in the whole business for Beowulf personally. He risks his life with Grendel, then has to repeat the performance with Grendel’s mother. He receives honor and gifts, which are nice, but he almost always fights alone. His is essentially a lonely fate.

There’s an elegiac quality to the poem, too. If Beowulf ever married or had children, we aren’t told of it. After he becomes the king of his own people, the Geats, he rules successfully, but essentially leaves nothing behind, not even an heir. It’s hinted plainly that his people will be conquered and driven from their homes after his death. This, I suspect, is why the poem ended up in England. It probably crossed the sea with the refugees.

So Beowulf is essentially the story of a warrior who gives up his own life for his people, and for his allies. His is the story of every soldier, even in our own time, to a lesser or greater degree. In return for the sense of duty fulfilled, and fleeting glory, they give up their very lives. They become servants, and their pay is never enough.

Davy Crockett and the corruption of children

The mawn is lone. I mean, the lawn is mown (Sorry. It just came out like that). The clothes are in the washer. I am on schedule to be packed up and out of here tomorrow morning. I’ll be going down to Iowa for family stuff over the weekend, and I won’t be back till Monday night, so I probably won’t post again till Tuesday evening.

Be strong. I know you can endure that long.

Got my Davy Crockett book in the mail today. It’s the same one as this one, except that close examination reveals it to be the Australian edition. I kind of wondered about that when I noticed the seller was from there (or New Zealand. I forget). But as far as I can tell it’s essentially the same. A quick perusal doesn’t even reveal any Britishisms like “colour.”

It was somewhat startling to page through it for the first time in decades. I thought I remembered the book clearly, but although every page is immediately familiar, I’d completely forgotten most of them, as far as being able to summon them up from memory on my own was concerned.

I puzzle over memory a lot. I’m convinced (and experience confirms it) that most of what we call “memory” is a construct, a movie we’ve produced for ourselves. The first time we remember an event, we remember the thing itself. The next time, we remember the event plus our experience of remembering it. That little addition compounds over the years, so that eventually there isn’t much of the original memory left.

That doesn’t mean memory is worthless. But it’s unfocused and palimpsested. It’s not entirely to be relied on.

Which is good and bad, I think.

Another thing that came to mind as I examined the book was the prominence of guns in the thing. No publisher would get away with so much shooting in a kids’ book nowadays, I’m pretty sure. Like all Baby Boomers, I grew up surrounded by the images of heroes (Crockett, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, etc.) who carried and used guns.

Yet—amazingly—we confounded the grownups who worried about the effects of all this “violence on TV.” We grew up to be the most pacifist, anti-gun generation this country had ever seen.

This gives me hope.

Because if it’s a principle that kids will grow up to reject the heroic images they were raised with, we can look forward to the next generation being the pickup-drivingest, huntingest, jingoistest, moral absolutistest generation that ever waged a war of aggression.


Bird of The Thinklings asks a couple reading questions. “When you read a book, do you EVER skip any pages or whole sections? If you do skip pages/sections, and you get to the end of the book, do you count the book as “read”?”

Commenter Sara raises a good point in her response.

What if you plow through every word of a book (as I did with Moby Dick at age 16) but miss half the point of what’s going on. Have you read it? After I finished Moby, I told my delighted uncle about it–it’s his favorite book ever. (Seriously, his copy is held together with duct tape and has a hand drawn whale on the cover / top page.) Anyway, he gave me copies of some of his favorite literary theorists on the thing, who made a very convincing argument that Melville was doing something very specifically literary with those whale sex organ chapters, and others of that sort. I not only hadn’t caught it when I read the book–I didn’t even have the concept that such a thing could be going on. Reminds me of one of my favorite authors talking about picking up her father’s copy of Animal Farm when she was ten because she liked animal stories and there was a horse on the cover . . .

How I was corrupted early by degenerate literature

It occurs to me that this is a book blog, and I ought to post about books occasionally.

I’ve already told you pretty much everything I know about writing. I’ll probably be recycling that stuff again after a while, but not quite yet.

So I’ll write about books.

You want to know about books that were important to me growing up, don’t you? Sure you do.

The first book I recall vividly is one of those Golden Books that were so popular back then (do they still have those? Not that I actually care.) It was about Davy Crockett, with pictures based on scenes from the Disney series. I think the Davy Crockett craze happened simultaneously with the arrival of sentience in my life, so I imprinted on Davy Crockett with great intensity. I don’t actually recall seeing the programs on their first showing, but I remember very vividly the Crockett stuff I had. Aside from the book, my brother Moloch and I both had Crockett caps and tee-shirts. I also remember some kind of jigsaw puzzle or board game.

There’s a family legend that I was able to read the Davy Crockett book at a very young age. This was an illusion. The truth was that I had memorized the entire text, and I could recite it by page.

I still have a soft spot for Congressman Crockett, whatever kind of hat he actually wore.

Strangely, I don’t have much clear memory of my other kids’ books, although I’m confident we had a fair number. The next book that really caught my interest (helped by the fact that I could actually read by the time it showed up) was a book called What Cheer?, an anthology of light verse edited by David McCord and published by The New American Library.

The book was actually a Christmas gift to my mother, as I recall, but I was the one in the family who seized on it and spent hours and hours in its pages. Bear in mind that this was grown-up, pretty sophisticated poetry, originally published in journals like The New Yorker or Punch, a lot of which was definitely unsuited to my age. But I escaped corruption through my inability to understand more than maybe an eighth of what I was reading. It didn’t matter to me. I loved the play of words. I loved the jokes, when I got them, or thought I did. I loved the rhythm of the stuff, and the challenge of big words I didn’t know yet. We didn’t have a lot of books in our house, but I think that one was what made me a writer. I still have a copy (though not that particular one, as it happens).

The other published work I’d have to count was The Universal Standard Encyclopedia, published by Funk & Wagnall. My folks bought it one volume at a time, at Nelson’s Super Valu grocery store in Faribault, Minnesota. It was not a premier reference work, but it was what we had, and I took advantage of it. I did not read the books through. I took down volumes at random, and high-graded them for stuff that interested me. I picked up a lot of odd facts that came in handy from time to time throughout the years of my education.

That’s enough for tonight. Have a good weekend.

Turn Off the News and Don’t Slug Your Barber

If you find yourself frustrated with politics or elections this year or next, I have two recommendations for you. First, turn off the news for a week. Sure the earth will probably burn at the poles because you aren’t staying informed, but that’s a risk you should take for your peace of mind. Turning off the news, especially TV news, will help you get your mind off bothersome things you can’t control and allow you to worry about personal things you can’t control. That’s called relaxation.

Second, read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Barber.” It’s a humorous little tale about a professor who feels compelled to argue politics with his thick-headed barber. Though the professor calls himself a liberal, I think the story will appeal to anyone who believes he has good reasons on his side and the opposition is all cliché.

I should say upfront I’m not sure of O’Connor’s main point in this story. You could easily take away the idea that arguing politics with anyone is worthless, as one character recommends, but I’m not willing to stop there. The professor’s passion and humiliation seem to better address the idea that it’s worthless to argue with some people. The barber is clearly a fool, and I’m sure O’Connor was familiar with the Proverbs on fools.

A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain,

but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding.

Leave the presence of a fool,

for there you do not meet words of knowledge.

The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way,

but the folly of fools is deceiving. (Proverbs 14:6-8 ESV)

It may be just the story to entertain you when you’re frustrated with candidates and commenters, but whatever your position on the issues this year and no matter what your barber says to you, don’t sock him in the face, okay? As a great politician once said, it wouldn’t be prudent.

Gooseflesh and a Clenched Stomach

I was scared and had gooseflesh, and my stomach clenched, and the hair on my arms stood on end, and I tucked my feet beneath me so the boogieman under the bed couldn’t grab them, and when Nancy was in the tunnel I could hardly bear to turn the page for fear of what might happen next, and yet I couldn’t help turning the page to see what happened next. Oh, it was wonderful!

— Mystery author Nancy Pickard on reading the original Nancy Drew.

I haven’t read any Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys, but with an original movie coming up, I’m thinking about buying a set of the first six stories for my girls.