- Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life
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.
Just a reading report today. Two books (one of which I finished), that I don't think require full reviews.
The first was another Dick Francis, Straight. Reviewing Francis is kind of a redundancy. The details differ, and provide a lot of interest (don't get me wrong), but in general the things you can say about one apply to all of them. However, Straight did displease me in two minor ways, which I shall elucidate:
First, an extramarital affair (actually two of them) was treated more sympathetically than I like. But hey, we all know I'm a prig.
Second, the hero, a jockey, starts out the story with a broken ankle. And he steadfastly refuses to let a doctor put a cast on it, even though the bad guys keep re-injuring it—often on purpose—throughout the story. If you just tape it up, apparently, you don't lose muscle tone, and you can race again sooner. All I could think about that was, “Hey kid, you're not young forever.” Eventually age will bring pains, and this guy was asking to be crippled at sixty.
The second book is an obscure one, The Geronimo Breach, by Russell Blake. I got it free for Kindle, and thought it might be an amusing light thriller. I think it's meant to be comic, but I couldn't be sure, because We Were Not Amused. The main character is a drunken, slightly corrupt diplomat in Panama, who agrees to help smuggle a Colombian citizen out of the country, not knowing the CIA is after him. I plowed through a lot of scenes of drinking and vomiting, and a fair number of scenes of violence committed by evil American agents, before I gave up on the thing. Not a likeable character in the heap.
I generally feel guilty cutting a book loose before it's done, but knowing I didn't pay for it helps.
When I was a boy, every school child knew about this, but I suspect they don't teach it in schools anymore. In honor of Presidents Day, a snippet from Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years:
Having learned to read Abe read all the books he could lay his hands on. Dennis [Hanks], years later, tried to remember his cousin's reading habits. “I never seen Abe after he was twelve 'at he didn't have a book some'ers 'round. He'd put a book inside his shirt an' fill his pants pockets with corn dodgers, an' go off to plow or hoe. When noon come he'd set down under a tree, an' read an' eat. In the house at night, he'd tilt a cheer by the chimbly, an' set on his backbone an' read. I've seen a feller come in an' look at him, Abe not knowin' anybody was round, an' sneak out agin like a cat, an' say, 'Well, I'll be darned.' It didn't seem natural, nohow, to see a feller read like that. Aunt Sairy's never let the children pester him. She always said Abe was goin' to be a great man some day. An' she wasn't goin' to have him hendered.”
They heard Abe saying, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who'll git me a book I ain't read.”
But you object that at least our current economy of expression cuts out wasted words and clauses, a sort of slimmed-down, electronic communication? Perhaps, but it also turns almost everything into instant bland hot cereal, as if we should gulp down oatmeal at every meal and survive well enough without the bother of salad, main course, and dessert. Each day our vocabulary shrinks, our thought patterns stagnate — if they are not renewed through fresh literature or intelligent conversation. Unfortunately these days, those who read are few and silent; those who don’t, numerous and heard. In this drought, Dante’s Inferno and William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico provide needed storms of new words, complex syntax, and fresh ideas.(via Books, Inq.)
In response, D.G. Myers writes about reading fiction specifically, saying it makes a man full. Not his stomach, we're talking about making the man himself full. Get a snack if you're hungry. (via Dave Lull)
“And so the barriers fell: now nearly everyone in the developed world is literate, there is plenty to read, and reading material is dirt cheap. But still people don’t read. Why? The obvious answer—though one that is difficult for us to admit—is that most people don’t like to read.”
Patrick Kurp agrees with Marshall Poe's conclusion, quoted above, but disagrees with his rationale. He suggests that if we want more people to read, we should share our own joy of reading.
Steve Kettmann recommends a few books about Germany "and the Germans in which neither the word “Third” nor “Reich” figures prominently and one finds nary a reference to that failed artist from Linz, Austria."
The NY Times has an eye-opening overview of Judith Krug's crusade against content filtering in their 2009 obit. She claimed, “Library service in this country should be based on the concept of intellectual freedom, of providing all pertinent information so a reader can make decisions for himself.” She eventually applied that concept to her arguments against filtering internet access for children using library computers and against the federal government looking into a person's library borrowing record (The USA Patriot Act still allows "the Justice Department to conduct searches of library and bookstore records, in the investigation of suspected terrorist activity.")*
Miss Krug credits her parents for inspiring her to stand up for readers of the world. That story comes at the end of the obit. With crusaders for immorality like this in the world, it's no wonder parents want to pull books out of school libraries or pull their kids out of public schools.
How can moral parents raise moral children in an immoral world? Read the rest of this entry . . .
"I believe the novel is a moral form. We turn to novels in pursuit of virtue. Through the tales fashioned by thoughtful writers we discover or reaffirm what we believe to be right and good. Our eternal subject is the nature of the well-lived life. So here’s a theory of what has happened to the middle classes and the novel. A hundred years or so ago the language of idealism changed. As Christianity fractured, the imagination of those who wanted to make a better world was seized by a new idealism: socialism. In this new understanding of society the working class had virtue and was the future; the middle class had power and was the past. Bourgeois values came to be seen as vices. The middle-class consumers of art and literature gradually found themselves cast in negative terms, as exploitative, parasitic and reactionary.
By the last decades of the 20th century, as these perceptions became the orthodoxy of the educated elite, writers and artists found they faced a fork in the road." Read the rest