- Emily Dickinson
C. S. Lewis wrote somewhere that for modern souls, the acquisition of new appliances, vehicles, and entertainment devices constituted “the very stages of their pilgrimage.” I bear that in mind as I announce my acquisition of a Kindle HD.
As you know if you’ve been following this blog, I’ve had a Kindle Keyboard (the generous gift of no less a figure than the learned Dr. Hunter Baker) for some years now, and have fallen wholly under its sway. I like its ergonomics, its lightness, and the opportunity, when I need a new book, to satisfy my jones in about a minute. I treasure my Kindle Keyboard, and have no plans to abandon it. In the single day I’ve owned my Fire, I’ve tried reading on it, and it’s fine. I’m sure I could transition to it as a regular reading device without trouble. But the battery on my old Kindle lasts longer, and the essential reading’s equally good.
The Kindle Fire HD is a genuine tablet, albeit a low-end, entry-level one. The first thing that impressed me was the graphics. What I see on my device doesn’t have the definition of the more expensive Kindles, but nevertheless it amazed me. I got a free month of Amazon Prime with my purchase, and I downloaded an episode of “Justified.” I was highly impressed with the speed and picture quality (though downloading YouTube videos can be annoyingly slow and page loading can be poky). Also impressive was the Dolby sound, which is amazingly good for such a small device.
I’m still learning to navigate on the thing, and experiencing the normal old dog’s problems. I like the way you can move around and zoom in on the screen with a finger swipe, and I think the whole thing will become pretty instinctive before long. For someone who’s always worked with Windows, the whole “Mojito” operating system involves a little techno-shock, but like all systems it makes its own kind of sense. The virtual keyboard is OK; it confounded me for a while but I think I'm catching on.
The main reason for the low price of this Kindle is that it doesn’t have either a camera or a microphone, so the buyer should be aware of that. I bought mine because I wanted more flexibility in accessing the web. I think I’ll even be able to do some of my graduate course work through it; at least that is my hope.
This is a preliminary evaluation. I’ll let you know if I change my mind about anything.
Author Neil Gaiman notes that the prison system is big business. How can they predict jail cell growth? "[U]sing a pretty simple algorithm," Gaiman said, "based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't read." Not that all illiterate people are criminals or all literate people are not, but the relationship between being unable to read and crime is strong. Sixty percent of America's prison inmates are illiterate; 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education.
Gaiman said he went to China for the first sci-fi convention ever approved by the Communist establishment. He asked an official why this was finally approved. The official replied that the Chinese had no imagination for invention, so they asked the likes of Google, Apple, and others who were inventing new technology. These people were readers of science fiction and fantasy.
"Fiction can show you a different world," he said. "It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in."
Today, just a snippet from an article in the current issue of Intercollegiate Review – "The Subhumanities: The Reductive Violence of Race, Class, and Gender Theory," by Anthony Esolen:
So much of human life, says [Marilynne] Robinson in her new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, is blessed “nonsense,” not overmuch concerned with survival or whatever else preoccupies the reductivists of our time. It is like the folly of God, as Erasmus reminds us, thinking of the mighty words of Saint Paul, who declares that all the wisdom of the world cannot overcome the foolishness of the Cross, which is of course the foolishness of love.
Our friend Anthony Sacramone is Managing Editor of IC.
Photo credit: Raysonho.
Over at the American Spectator (which seems to have rejected my last submission, but hey, I’m not bitter) Matthew Walther writes about his recent experience at the American Library Association convention in Chicago, where he particularly wanted to talk to people about the increasing trend of libraries dumping perfectly good books because electronic versions are now available.
WHICH REMINDS ME: At this gathering of a few thousand librarians, teachers, writers, publishing types, I saw surprisingly little evidence of reading taking place. With two or three exceptions—elderly women whose badges told me that they are librarians from Indiana—the only printed text I saw anyone interact with was the 308-page full-color conference guide. This also brings me to why I was there. I was trying, am in fact still trying, to understand why, with little or no visible resistance or even comment from patrons, library friends’ societies (local charities that raise funds for libraries and organize things like book signings and reading groups), school boards, members of university faculties, elected officials at the local, state, and federal government level—to say nothing of the national press—thousands of public and academic libraries across the country are all but throwing away millions of books, many of them rare, expensive, or both. Three years ago the Engineering Library at Stanford University was home to more than 80,000 volumes; it now houses fewer than 10,000….
The American Library Association is an organization which looms large in my consciousness these days. Everyone in my Library and Information Sciences class talks about it in terms of “us,” though I have no plans or need ever to join, and it’s not a requirement for the program. Mr. Walther makes no comment on the reflexive progressivism which I perceive in it, based on classroom discussions. His concern is simply to question whether libraries without physical books can really be considered libraries at all (I read the other day that a library in Texas has gone precisely that route). He seems a little Luddite about the Kindle, but at least he gave his a fair try. My own devotion to paper and ink survived my first experience by about 20 seconds. (That’s not to say I want to jettison my own personal books, whose name is Legion, or those I husband at work.)
I spoke with a former academic librarian yesterday, and his opinion was more pessimistic even than Walther’s. Once the digitizers solve the problem of copyright for more recent works (he said) libraries will simply cease to exist. They will go away. They will be made redundant. He’s studying Theology now, in order to teach that for a living.
I don’t know if he’s right. I do think the academic library will survive for a while, if only because accreditation agencies love to set requirements for collection size.
My friend suggested that I join The Association of Christian Librarians, instead of the ALA. I heeded his counsel.
I’m pretty sure I’ll need the support. I’m beginning to think I’m working very hard to prepare for the equivalent of a managership at a Barnes & Noble store.
Today in the library I was cataloging a set of books by a friend, Dr. John Eidsmoe – Historical and Theological Foundations of Law. Out of curiosity I checked the second volume to see what he’d written about Viking elements in our English tradition. And behold, he has good things to say. Even better, he mentions me in a footnote.
I’ve joked about being a scholarly citation before, since Prof. Torgrim Titlestad of the University of Stavanger has mentioned my Erling novels in a couple of his books on the Viking Age. But this is a genuine footnote. In a passage about Erling Skjalgsson he inserts the following note:
…Lars Walker, a friend of this author, has recently published an engrossing and well-researched novel that portrays Erling Skjalgson as a Christian ruler who desires his kingdom to be a free republic under God’s law. Lars Walker, West Oversea: A Norse Saga of Mystery, Adventure and Faith (Nordskog, 2009).
He makes a couple small errors, calling Erling a jarl (he seems to think jarl is a generic term like chieftain), and talking about Erling’s “kingdom,” which was the last thing Erling wanted. Nevertheless, it’s nice to be a citation.
I wonder if I can get credit for it in graduate school.
Something tells me the answer is no.
I’ve been reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’ll review it later, as if its reputation depended on me to any extent. But here’s a quote:
It is one of the hundred answers to the fugitive perversion of modern “force” that the promptest and boldest agencies are also the most fragile and full of sensibility. The swiftest things are the softest things. A bird is active, because a bird is soft. A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. The stone must by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness. The bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force. In perfect force there is a kind of frivolity, an airiness that can maintain itself in the air. Modern investigators of miraculous history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great saints is their power of “levitation.” They might go further; a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.
E. Stephen Burnett picks up on the discussion over comments made regarding the stories told by J. Mark Bertrand ("Russell" to his friends), asking an insightful question: "According to the Bible, what is the 'chief end' of story? Is it evangelism? Gritty realism? Entertainment? Or a higher goal?"
I chafe at the idea of everything we do in the world being evangelism or pre-evangelism, though perhaps it's true. I like to think of life being more multifaceted than that. We delight in God our Father. We make disciples of his people. We fight for justice and work in mercy. What are the themes Jesus addressed in his Sermon on the Mount? Who are the blessed of God, being a life witness, the place of the law, the nature of sin (anger, lust, divorce, promises, retribution), loving one's enemies and neighbors, mercy, prayer and more. Is all of this meant to be seen in the colors of evangelism?
No. A story may witness the glory of God to an unbeliever without having evangelism as its goal, and perhaps that's the answer. Glory. I want to write to magnify God's glory, to color myself and everything I see with it.
Robert Bruce talks about five complaints he has heard about reading over the years, complaints like you can't learn from fiction, reading certain genres aren't really reading, no time to read, and others.
Apparently, schools are not challenging or helping students read at their grade level or better. NPR reports: "Anita Silvey, author of 500 Great Books for Teens, teaches graduate students in a children's literature program, and at the beginning of the class, she asked her students — who grew up in the age of Harry Potter — about the books they like.
'Every single person in the class said, "I don't like realism, I don't like historical fiction. What I like is fantasy, science fiction, horror and fairy tales." '
... But in 1989, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton."
That's what my kids will be reading. I plan to help my 9th grader through the Epic of Gilgamesh next fall, for starters.
In related news, young adult novels are finding a lot of adult readers, because they find it interesting and sophisticated. One author says, “Teenagers are more willing to let you genre bend. For them, it’s all about telling an honest story. You’re writing for really smart, really savvy readers.”
And who doesn't love an honest story?
Sometimes good literature can make your life better, in more than the pleasure-giving sense.
Take Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow, which I reviewed the other day.
Harry, the hero, is haunted by his experiences as an airborne ranger in World War II. There’s a particular scene where he tells his fiancée about one incident he can’t get out of his head. “There was nothing I could do,” he says. “But I feel responsible.”
That, friends, is The Song of My People – my people being trauma victims of various sorts. Due to circumstances of a very different kind, I too am haunted – bedeviled – by memories. Memories of bad things that happened – often things I did that I’m ashamed of – that just won’t lie down and die.
It’s comforting to me to tell myself, “Think about Harry, and people like him. Whatever you’ve done, it didn’t involve anybody dying.”’
This doesn’t mean my flashbacks are going to disappear. My Complex PTSD (not actually a disorder currently recognized by the professionals) is, I know very well, capable of infinite adaptation.
But for now it helps. Thank you, Mark Helprin.
Five books recommended by artist Makoto Fujimura. "Literature that reveals what art and beauty ought to be."
Roberto Estreitinho writes about reading. "If by page 30 of a book I’m not hooked, I stop reading," he says, and if it's a long book he begins to have doubts about, he skips to the end. "If it’s worthy of understanding how the author got there, read it all. If not, congratulations. You just avoided wasting time." (via 99u)
On that note, The Unofficial #TGC13 Discount E-Book Store is open with many discounted eBooks from the authors at The Gospel Coalition Conference in Orlando this week.
I’m feeling a bit better now, thanks for asking, having seen a doctor last week and gotten antibiotics and a steroid for my lungs. But a day at work still wipes me out, and I’ve got stuff I need to get done tonight. So, in lieu of the hard work of thinking out a blog post, I’ll just post another short excerpt from Williams’ Through Norway With a Knapsack, last night’s subject.
In this episode, our hero has gotten lost and spent a long day on the mountains, finally finding a guest house late at night, exhausted.
On awakening, I found a stout gentleman sitting at my bedside. He was the pastor of Lom. A Norwegian pastor is not merely a preacher; he is clergy-man, physician, magistrate, arbitrator, and general friend and father, to whom all his scattered parishioners appeal. In a country where there are none but peasant farmers – no aristocracy, no gentry, no towns and villages, no shopkeepers, no professional class – a highly educated man must be strangely isolated, and, unless endowed with the true spirit of Christian benevolence, must be one of the most miserable of men; but, if suited to his work, he may be one of the happiest, for his opportunities of doing unmistakable good, and of witnessing the full fruits of his good deeds, are almost unlimited. Most of these Norwegian pastors are, I believe, excellent men, and render great services to the people around.
In the present instance, the paternal relations of the good pastor of Lom were illustrated in my case, for he sat at my bedside, where he had evidently been watching for some time, as though he feared that some fever or other ailment might result from the over-exertion, excitement and fasting….
Today I was reminded, for some reason, of my first introduction to The Lord of the Rings. The image above is the same edition I got, back around 1966 (the publication page says that was the year of the printing). I would have been about 16 years old at the time. The trilogy was offered by Scholastic Books, a major force in my life in those days. There was no bookstore within practical distance of my home. I had never been in a bookstore in my life – bookstores were distant Rivendell to me. So those periodic (Monthly? Quarterly? I don’t remember) Scholastic catalogs were to me what the wandering peddler was to my ancestors.
I’d never heard of The Lord of the Rings or Tolkien in my life (I knew C. S. Lewis, but had no “inkling” of his friendship with Tolkien). The catalog descriptions were intriguing. But the books cost ninety-five cents apiece – more than three bucks for the trilogy with postage figured in. That was not the kind of money I spent casually in those days. Fortunately I mentioned the books to my brother, and he was interested too. So we went in together. The only drawback was that he demanded first dibs. I had to wait for him to finish The Fellowship of the Ring before I got my chance at it. I chafed as he worked through the long book, saying things like, “This is really good. You’ll like this a lot.”
At last I got my turn and opened the pages onto a whole new world. It was better than I hoped (Lewis himself described it as “good beyond hope”) and gave me satisfactions I’d never known a book could offer.
I still have all three books in those original editions. They’re not actually falling apart (I’ve always been pretty gentle with my books), but they’re so battered that I replaced them with a new set a few years back, for actual reading. These copies are personal relics. When I touch them as I do now (the Fellowship is at my elbow as I write) it brings me back to a moment in my life when new possibilities opened up. And believe me, I needed new possibilities just then.
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recalls a turning point in his youthful imaginative life:
…I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drapa and read
I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead ---
I knew nothing about Balder, but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) ….
This would seem to be the passage that Saga Bok Publishers (the discerning Norwegian firm which has hired me to translate one of its books) references on the back cover notes of Angrvađil when it says (my translation), “Artists, politicians, and others have been inspired by the stories in this book – from C.S. Lewis who was ‘uplifted’ by the magical atmosphere of the stories – to our own Roald Amundson….” I’m not sure that statement is strictly accurate, since Tegner’s Drapa as such doesn’t appear in the book, but there’s some association if only in that the Swedish poet Esaias Tegner’s translation would have been the basis for the English version Lewis read (assuming he read Fridtjof’s Saga and not just Longfellow).
The good people at Saga Bok sent me a copy of their new translation of Fridjtof’s Saga, along with preliminary material, entitled Angrvađil: Sagaene om Torstein Vikingsson & Fridtjov den Frøkne (Angrvađil: The Sagas of Torstein Vikingsson and Fridtjov the Bold).
These sagas are part of what are known as the Fornalder Sagas. The Fornalder Sagas are very old stories, preserved in Iceland not as reports of actual events, but purely for their legendary interest. Prof. Titlestad, whose book I’m translating, makes serious claims for the value of the sagas as historical sources, saying that useful information can be preserved in folk memory for about 300 years. The Fornalder sagas were much more than 300 years old at the time of writing, though. One reads them for the pleasures of the stories in themselves. Read the rest of this entry . . .
One change owning a Kindle has made in my reading habits is that I’m now a whole lot more likely than I used to be to dump a book that fails to please me.
When I was younger, it was kind of a point of honor to finish any book I started. (This sprang in part from the fact that books were copied by hand on calfskin in those days.) But as I got older, and especially as I crystallized my political and social views, I became more willing to ashcan a book whose author (as I imagined him/her) obviously wouldn’t want a person like me for a reader.
The Kindle makes this easier because I’ve been getting a lot more free books, especially from the Free Kindle Books and Tips blog. Easy come, easy go. A lot of these books are fully worth their price of nothing, and I feel no guilt (OK, not much guilt) in showing them the virtual door.
I dumped one book yesterday, and another today, which I think is a new record.
One was a mystery/thriller, pretty competently written. The characters were mostly good, and the writing slipped only rarely. But around half way through I discovered that the evil District Attorney, whom we had been schooled to hate (the one-dimensionality of his character was one of the book’s weaknesses from the start) was a political conservative, getting money from those evil conservative political action committees.
I could have finished it. I’ve finished worse. But I wasn’t in the mood. Maybe it’s the election season.
The second book was more congenial in viewpoint, being a sort of contemporary Christian fantasy. And the writing was pretty good for Christian literature. But then the main character, a non-Christian, got into a conversation with his Christian neighbor at one point, and it all went south as far as I was concerned.
I have strong views about how conversations about matters faith in novels ought to go. I like to think I do it pretty well in my books, but maybe other people find my approach as offputting as I find so many that I see.
Here’s how I think such conversations should be handled—generally.
1. Avoid easy victories. Christians love anecdotes about how some Christian silenced an atheist through a single pithy, incisive remark. In my experience this never happens in real life. In real life the atheist has a good laugh, and the Christian trickles away humiliated (this isn’t necessarily bad. I know of instances when such conversations have resulted, eventually, in the conversion of the atheist). You gain realism points if you allow your Christian character to lose at least the initial skirmish.
2. Remember that the point of the exercise is not winning the debate, but winning the person. The action of the story is where the non-believer will have his world-view truly challenged. A story where he gets converted merely by an argument is by nature a weak story. Use the rising tension of the story’s action to make him doubt his preconceptions. This is both good storytelling and true to life.
3. Eschew Triumphalism. This really summarizes the two points above. James Bond is not a Christian. The smooth character who always makes the right choices and is always in control of the situation is not realistic, and would be a poor example in any case, since none of us live that way. The Christian conquers through bowing, through dying, through the way of humility.
And no, I’m not going to tell you the names of the books I dumped. I deleted them from my Kindle, and I don’t think I remember the titles. I’m sure I don’t remember the authors’ names.
A reader of The Paris Review asks for recommendations to him through depression: "books that will show me why to live and how, and books that will allow me to escape my present torture. Both need to be pretty easy to follow." This post suggests many titles, and blog reader recommend many more. I don't know if any of the readers recommend the Bible (Oh, I see someone does), but I think the poetry suggestion is very good: old sonnets, Wordsworth (even his silly stuff), Robert Frost, Billy Collins. I also wonder if painting, cooking, or gardening would help this person.
A reader in the United Kingdom talks about problems with Amazon's Kindle e-book samples, for example, finding books with far stronger writing on the sample pages than throughout the book.
Over at I Saw Lightning Fall, our friend Loren Eaton links to a Wall Street Journal article by Joshua Fruhlinger, in which he explains why he gave up on e-book readers and went back to dead tree tomes.
I BROKE UP WITH E-BOOKS last year after a flight from Los Angeles to New York. My first-generation Kindle and I had been together for five years, but I knew we'd have to go our separate ways when, an hour into the journey, it completely shut me out. Or rather, it shut down. I'd forgotten to charge the device before I left.
Upon arrival in New York, I coolly walked into a bookstore and bought a paperback version of the book my Kindle wouldn't let me read in the air. It felt good to be back on paper, turning real pages. I realized then: E-readers are needy, but a paperback will always be there for you.
Here I find myself in the awkward and almost existentially self-contradictory position of being on the side of progress as over against tradition. Before I owned a Kindle I had all the standard Luddite objections—I loved the smell and feel of books¹, I did not want to be dependent on an electronic device that might fail or get damaged at any time, and by thunder, paper books were good enough for my grandmother, and they’re good enough for me!
But as you know if you’ve been following this blog, those objections evaporated as soon as Hunter Baker (author of Political Thought: A Student's Guide) gave me a Kindle 3 in a random act of kindness. I very shortly made some surprising discoveries.
The most surprising was that I don’t love the feel and smell of paper books nearly as much as I thought I did. In fact I’m able now to admit my secret shame for many years—that I’ve always had trouble holding books open (I’m not a breaker of spines), and had found it somewhat tiring, in long reading sessions, to hold a book open at a convenient angle. An e-book doesn’t have a facing page to curl back, and its lightness makes it ideal for reading in comfortable situations, like when I’m stretched out on the couch. For ease of use, the Kindle has paper books beat in almost every situation. Read the rest of this entry . . .
Sherry has a long list of reading lists from various sites, plenty of material to inspire, ignore, or distain. If I was anywhere near a decent blogger, I would pick out titles I knew nothing about and mock whoever it is recommending them. But, no. I must move on.
And since we're on the subject of Patrick Henry College, Marvin Olasky at the World Magazine blog quotes from a recent interview with Dr. Ben Carson, who answered the question of a Patrick Henry student about whether any teacher had especially helped him to attain success.
He tells a story that resonates with me, because I had a similar experience. He thought he was the dumbest guy in the class until one day when a teacher asked a question and an amazing thing happened:
Everybody was staring at me. They could not believe all this geological information spewing forth from the mouth of a dummy. But I was probably the most amazed person because it dawned on me at that moment that I wasn’t stupid.
I realized the reason I know all that information is because I was reading books. I said to myself, “Aren’t you tired of being called a dummy?” I said, “What if you read books about all your subjects? Can you imagine what the effect would be?” And from that point on, no book was safe from my grasp.
I know scientists of all stripes choose to study things that may seem obvious to us in order to thoroughly understand why they happen, but somehow this one seems like a high school science fair project. A researcher "suspects novels can sometimes be life-changing." Yes. Yes, they can be.
In other research news, people will judge a body by his facial hair. An online poll shows the soul patch and chinstrap beard are the most offensive.
The Art of Manliness recommends that men read fiction for cognitive development. They say most men stick to non-fiction.
While many men have stacks of books accumulating on their “to-read” pile, chances are that pile is composed primarily of non-fiction tomes. For the past 20 years or so, the publishing industry has noted a precipitous decline in the number of men reading fiction. Some reports show that men make up only 20% of fiction readers in America today.They list a few reasons for men sticking to non-fiction, but not the one I'm most familiar with. I've heard most often that men want to read something true or that which they perceive as productive. Fiction, they would say, is just escapism.
But fiction reading, AoM reports, will improve your creativity, empathy, and theory of mind among other things.
An editor talks about how J.K. Rowling's books opened up the world of children lit, and he strays into how nice he thinks it would be to have fewer books printed.
Roger Sutton says we're pressed to believe children don't want to read, but they are "reluctant to read what? If you put down that novel and look around, you will see that lots of so-called reluctant readers are reading plenty; they just aren’t reading fiction, which in this age constitutes 'real reading' as defined by 'real readers'—mainly teachers and librarians."
On the future of print publishing, he says, "Every author in this room is going to disagree with me on this, but there are too many copies of too many books being published. A little curation would be a good thing." So if libraries were the place to go for holding a book in your hand, then we would have a sane publishing world. Is he ignoring home libraries, or does the future have room for that?
Is there a literary canon of books everyone who considers himself educated or maybe civilized should read? I mean, everyone reads Pookie and the Moonlight Vularoo, but what about the stuff teachers put on assigned reading lists?
D.G. Myers talks about personal Best Of lists here, saying the idea of books everyone should read is a quaint throwback to the 20th century. "If literature is no longer a part of every civilized American’s cultural inheritance, you can thank your English teachers, who gladly coughed up their authority over it," he writes.
Myers also culls together a list of top authors according to how much has been written about them by scholars. Henry James and William Faulkner top the list.
Al Mohler laments the passing of the printed Britannica. "My guess is that, all things being equal, a boy my age riding along in the family's Prius this summer is more likely to be playing Angry Birds on his iPad. Left behind is the unexpected serendipity of reading about the mating habits of aardvarks. Is this progress?"
Heh, he has a point, though it would be better served by another example, don't you think?
John Plotz describes what's in a database called What Middletown Read, "the borrowing records of the Muncie Public Library between 1891 and 1902."
"It’s possible to read the Bible, study the Bible, and memorize large portions of the Bible, while missing the whole point of the Bible. It’s entirely possible, in other words, to read the stories and miss the Story," writes Tullian Tchividjian.