- Blaise Pascal, Pensees
“(And whatever is placed in active and direct Oppugnancy to the Good is, ipso facto, positive Evil.)” Patrick Kurp ties this line by Coleridge to this line by Waugh: “Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within."
J. Mark Bertrand echoes another reader of the ESV Reader's Bible in finding he reads more in this edition than in other editions. Readability, he says, is a thing, and it influences how we read. "Yet, like Steve, I’ve found myself getting sucked into the reader, coming up for air much later than expected."
Last month, I linked to a story on a 9-year-old boy who had his "little free library" taken down by his city government. Yesterday he appealed to the Leawood, Kansas, city council and won a temporary moratorium on these structures. The council will take up a permanent resolution this fall.
But all was not good in the hood, according to The Daily Signal. “Why do we pay taxes for libraries and have those boxes on the street?” asked one attendee. Another member claimed the little libraries were eyesores and argued, “You will destroy Leawood if you destroy our codes and bylaws.”
One must ask how many towns across America will be destroyed before the freedom to read will be abolished. One can only hope that citizen will vandalize the boy's little library in the name of John Adams, George Washington, and all of our great forefathers who looked upon their children with books in hand and said, "Not today, son. That's not what this country is about."
Author Sarah Perry was "raised by Strict Baptists" in Essex and not allowed to watch movies or read contemporary books. The result? "I turned my back on modernity and lost myself to Hardy and Dickens, Brontë and Austen, Shakespeare, Eliot and Bunyan. I memorised Tennyson, and read Homer in prose and Dante in verse; I shed half my childhood tears at The Mill on the Floss. I slept with Sherlock Holmes beside my pillow, and lay behind the sofa reading Roget. It was as though publication a century before made a book suitable – never was I told I ought not to read this or that until I was older. To my teacher's horror my father gave me Tess of the D'Urbervilles when I was still at primary school, and I was simply left to wander from Thornfield to Agincourt to the tent of sulking Achilles, making my own way."
And she soaked in the King James Bible. Her debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, is reviewed here. (via Prufrock)
Philip Christman has ranked and encapsulated (sort of) 22 works by Muriel Spark. He says, The Hothouse by the East River comes off like overripe fruit. For Robinson and The Bachelors, he says "Spark was pretty much kicking ass right out of the gate; these are 'the worst' of her early novels, and yet they would have represented a quite respectable peak for anyone else."
The Girls of Slender Means Christman considers Spark's best. Have you read any of these works? What do you think of them? (via John Wilson)
"Francis Schaeffer was asked what he'd do if he had an hour to share the gospel with someone. He responded by saying he'd listen for 55 minutes and then, in the last 5 minutes, have something meaningful to say. In other words, he listened in order to speak the gospel.
Our evangelism is often unbelievable because we don't listen at all. All too often the gospel we share is an information download, not a loving articulation of how the good news fits into the needs, fears, hopes, and dreams of others' lives."
-- Jonathan Dodson, Unbelievable Gospel: How to Share a Gospel Worth Believing.
Austin Kleon writes, "We all love things that other people think are garbage. You have to have the courage to keep loving your garbage..." He says this because someone out there is telling us we should be embarrassed to read certain things. Kleon points to Alan Jacobs' twitter feed for some good points on reading what you like. There's also this.
John Piper has a new plan to teach people to understand the Bible on their own. He's calling it "Look at the Book," and at first blush it looks to be inductive Bible study, something Precept Ministries and Bryan College have done for years. Not that it isn't worth doing again by other people. I'm just making the connection.
N.D. Wilson writes about "dark-tinted, truth-filled reading" for children: "I would understand if hard-bitten secularists were the ones feeding narrative meringue to their children with false enthusiasm. They believe their kids will eventually grow up and realize how terrible, grinding, and meaningless reality really is. Oh, well—might as well swaddle children in Santa Clausian delusions while they're still dumb enough to believe them. But a Christian parent should always be looking to serve up truth. The question is one of dosage."
He says Christians should be protecting their children, but not over-sheltering them from the real painful world. Christian kids need "stories in which murderers are blinded on donkeys and become heroes. Stories with dens of lions and fiery furnaces and lone prophets laughing at kings and priests and demons. Stories with heads on platters. Stories with courage and crosses and redemption. Stories with resurrections. And resurrections require deaths."
Julie Silander has begun a list of such reading on StoryWarren.
“If men read fewer books on manhood and more really good stories they’d be much better for it,” Barnabas Piper tweeted sometime last year. He fleshes out his reasoning in this post, saying stories make you want to be better, show you role models and anti-heroes, and get under the surface. If it's true, he says, that we learn more by what we catch than what we are taught, then good stories are the places where we will catch what we want to learn.
One of our friends, Nick Harrison of Harvest House, asks on his Facebook wall:
"What can we all do to boost men's fiction? What authors do the men you know read? What are their complaints about the state of men's fiction (if they have any complaints)? I'd especially like to hear from male readers, but all who can offer some insight are welcome to respond."
So what do you think? Don't confine your answer to Christian books. What fiction do you or the men you know read? Answers from the original post include Dale Cramer, Athol Dickson, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, David Baldacci, Vince Flynn, John Hart, John Lescroart, and Lee Child. I mentioned names you've seen here, like Bertrand, N.D. Wilson, and Andrew Peterson.
BIG UPDATE in the comments below.
Last year, Digital Book World asked its Twitter crowd, "Do you read on your smartphone? Do you read on other devices, too?" They got 30 answers. About half said they read on multiple devices; the other half said they don't read long works on their phones.
Now, 56% of Americans have smartphones, which are also called pocket reading devices. Some companies are marketing ebooks only to their pocket readers, like the Samsung Galaxy S4.
With some many mobile devices like this, publishers should consider them first when designing ebooks and ebook marketplaces.
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.