All posts by Phil W

Turning Freetime into Books

[First posted May 24, 2003] The Boston Globe reported on Massachusetts resident Francis McInerney, who is Amazon.com’s #7 reviewer [Now he is #36]. He began writing reviews a few years ago in his free time and has become influential among some editors. At least, I assume he has some influence with those editors who send him advance reader copies and galleys.

Quoted in the article, Elizabeth Taylor, literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, said, “I tell reviewers that a review should be a letter to a very smart friend. It should be rigorous, intellectually enterprising, artfully written, persuasive, and the reviewer should be clear about any conflicts and about point of view.” That reminded me of something George Grant said about the books he reviews. He said that after he had read a few chapters, he could usually tell whether the whole book would be worthwhile and if it was, he usually praised its merits. If it wasn’t, he stopped reading. That’s why, he said, most of his reviews were positive. He didn’t want to waste his time or his readers’ by reading and reviewing an avoidable book. World Magazine Editor Marvin Olasky made a similar comment regarding the books he reads while on his treadmill.

That’s as it should be, isn’t it? What purpose is served by negative reviews in general? Steve Almond, who had a short story collection published in 2002, wrote an article on the pain of negative reviews in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. It supports my notion that book reviews in general ought to be positive. The existence of the review draws attention to the book being review, and some believe that no publicity is bad; so why do some books warrant a special warning for the hapless reader? I think I understand negative reviews of bestsellers. Books on the Top 10 lists attract attention, and if a particularly bad book makes it there, professional reviewers may feel obligated to warn their trusted readership against it, as does David Prather of The Huntsville Times in his review of the best-selling The Da Vinci Code. He wrote, “How much dreadful writing can [readers] accept to follow an interesting plot?” But of course, a bestseller must have something going for it or it wouldn’t be a bestseller—or maybe, it wouldn’t be a bestseller for weeks on end. But for those books which receive a lot of hype, like Mrs. Clinton’s upcoming, deserve honest reviews from a professional. (first seen on MobyLives.com)

Speaking of reviews, The Mobile Press-Register reviewed a biography of the great Southern writer Peter Taylor. Reviewer Thomas Uskali summaries the book by Hubert McAlexander by writing, “McAlexander covers every year of Taylor’s life, but in a manner that bogs down in details gleaned from interviews, letters and other research. Taylor himself told McAlexander that he didn’t consider his own life worthy of a biography, and while it is absolutely certain that Taylor’s life warrants one, it is also clear that there is much richness that gets overlooked in the barrage of minutiae.”

The Ruined Soul

We should be very sure that the ruined soul is not one who has missed a few more or less important theological points and will flunk a theological examination at the end of life. Hell is not an ‘oops!’ or a slip. One does not miss heaven by a hair, but by constant effort to avoid and escape God. ‘Outer darkness’ is for one who, everything said, wants it, whose entire orientation has slowly and firmly set itself against God and therefore against how the universe actually is. It is for those who are disastrously in error about their own life and their place before God and man. The ruined soul must be willing to hear of and recognize its own ruin before it can find how to enter a different path, the path of eternal life that naturally leads into spiritual formation in Christlikeness.

— Dallas Willard (1935- ), The Renovation of the Heart

Reading Literature for Life and Freedom

[Originally posted May 24, 2003] The Atlantic has published a great interview this month (available by subscription) called, “The Fiction of Life: Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, on the dangers of using religion as an ideology, and the freedoms that literature can bring.” It’s about how the Western Canon of literature educated and provided emotional release for many Islamic women in Tehran. I was drawn to it by part of the subtitle, “the dangers of using religion as an ideology.” As I understand the words of that phrase, I could reword it like this, the dangers of using a system of beliefs about God as a system of beliefs about life. Shouldn’t our religion form the basis of our ideology, if they aren’t the same thing? Conversely, if our beliefs about God have nothing to do with our beliefs about life, then as St. James said, how can we prove that we really hold those beliefs about God?

But that’s not how the article uses “ideology.” It means the Iranian government’s way of shunning opposing ideas and demanding outward conformity. What Author Nafisi describes as ideology is a set of Islamistic political rules which aren’t open for debate, rules which are based in Islam or worded in religious language, but are not the natural outworking of the faith. It’s tyranny wrapped in the Islamic language. As such, her comments on freedom and the life-giving qualities of fiction apply to any tyrannical society, those cloaked in religious language and those opposed to it. (But then, even secular tyrannies define themselves in religious terms. God is not non-existent; the state has just taken his place.) Nafisi praises the freedom of ideas, saying that Western literature, such as Austen and Nabokov, exposes readers under oppression to inconceivable stories of freedom and hope.

Welcome to the New Brandywine Books

Brandywine Books sealI’m having a hard time blogging in present due to a loud recording of me reading an abridged Alice in Wonderland to my sweet children. They have left the room now, but the recording still plays. But enough on the personal life.

Welcome to the new Brandywine Books. In case you are brand, spanking new to this blog, let me explain that we are not affliated in any way with the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania and Delaware or the rare and used bookseller by the same name in Winter Park, Florida. Brandywine Books is a blog name of my own creation, inspired by the river in east Hobbiton where Meriadoc Brandybuck’s family makes their home.

This is the second home of this blog. The first is on the blogspot servers, where I hope it will stay for a while in order to maintain the integrity of the Internet (or something). I will repost some of the old posts, if they are still interesting, and soon a list of popular posts will appear in the sidebar.

Let us know what you think of the new blog. Have a good weekend.

Jonathan Edwards

Today, October 5, 1703, the great Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut. He became one of the great preachers and thinkers of the Christian church, ranking up there with Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, Martin Luther, and St. Augustine. He is probably the best Christian minister America has ever nurtured. In an article for World Magazine, Cultural Editor Gene Edward Veith writes,

“Edwards’ influence went beyond theology. His understanding of the beauty of nature and its connection to its Creator bore fruit in the magnificent landscape paintings of the Hudson River artists. His awareness of the limits and the sinfulness of human nature is evident in the fiction of Hawthorne and Melville, with its awareness of the darkness that dwells in the human heart. His rehabilitation of Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers made them palatable to the American Founders, who used them, in a Christian way, to forge the constitutional republic.”

This fact may be what has endeared me to Edwards since I was in high school. I’ve often thought that I would be blessed if I understood little more than Edwards’ life and teaching. I’m not sure that I’ve thought this for more than a few minutes at a time, especially since I’ve done nothing to back it up. Similarly, I’ve admired Nathaniel Hawthorne for years without a fully developed reason, that is, without a reason I can articulate. I guess I’m just a poser, a pseudo-intellectual, a plebian.

Doubtless, the sermon included in many American literature anthologies, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is beautiful. “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at [the unbeliever’s] heart and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with [the unbeliever’s] blood.” Goodness! Edwards’ delivered that kind of language in an even, quiet tone.

But that certainly wasn’t his only message. In my barely readable anthology (I don’t think the publishers of my two-volume set seriously believed buyers would read them; encyclopedias are more readable than this), the sermon prior to the one above is “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” which is, as I understand Edwards, the essential message of his ministry. John Piper said it this way, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.”

Ah, that is refreshing. Not politically correct, not egocentric, totally unacceptable in today’s colleges, but wonderfully relevant and fulfilling.