Living with sin, living with others

current reading 2Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans 130 (W. Pauck, trans.) (Westminster John Knox Press 1961):

small quotes blue[T]his life is a life of cure from sin; it is not a life of sinlessness, as if the cure were finished and health had been recovered. The church is an inn and an infirmary for the sick and for convalescents. Heaven, however, is the palace where the whole and the righteous live.


Justin Lee, “In The Age Of #MeToo, Men Must Read More Literary Fiction,” ARC (Nov. 6, 2018) [link]. Lee argues that fiction reading impacts the reader’s ability to place themselves in another’s shoes:

small quotes blueReading fiction requires a sustained act of imagination: you inhabit a world of others, identify with their joys and travails, even learn the texture of their minds. Serious readers know that reading great fiction enhances their ability to empathize. And habitual reading helps sustain that empathy, makes it reflexive.

This (not surprisingly) makes me think of a well-known quotation from another Lee:

small quotes blue“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) (Atticus speaking to his daughter, Scout).

I believe both Lees are correct.

Syllabi

A couple of syllabi* from two well-known instructors.

From 1941:

Auden-1941 Syllabus

From 1994:

Wallace_Syllabus_001_large

More discussion at Dan Piepenbring, “W. H. Auden’s Potent Syllabus, and Other News” The Paris Review (Jan. 29, 2015) [link]; “W.H. Auden’s 1941 Literature Syllabus Asks Students to Read 32 Great Works, Covering 6000 Pages,” Open Culture (Feb. 28, 2013) [link]; Alan Jacobs, “Auden’s Syllabus,” Snakes and Ladders (Oct. 1, 2012) [link]; and “David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books,” Open Culture (Feb. 25, 2013) [link].

I particularly enjoy Wallace’s caution to his students not to think “this will be a blow-off-type class.” Auden does not seem to think any of his students will make that mistake.

*Apparently not with two “i”s.

Recent book reviews

The Brain Defense

Two recent book reviews I have written:

Book Review: Kevin Davis, The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America’s Courtrooms (Penguin Press 2017) in The Champion (June 2018) [link].

CASCADE_Template

Book Review: Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro, eds., Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William (Front Porch Republic 2018) in The Englewood Review of Books (Sept. 20, 2018) [link].

Always nice to get an interesting book for free, even if you need to do a little work for it.

New book

Jacobs 1943Today I received The Year of Our Lord 1943 by Alan Jacobs (one of my favorite thinkers). Jacobs, a prolific writer on the Web (see, e.g., Snakes & Ladders, microblog, Text Patterns, etc.) seems to manage to produce a physical book every year or two (sometimes on fairly esoteric topics) as well as fulfilling his University teaching duties.

This one looks at five Christian thinkers who, separately and in deeply personal ways, considered what the war meant and would mean for Christianity and the West:

The war raised for each of the thinkers . . . a pressing set of questions about the relationship between Christianity and the Western democratic social order, and especially about whether Christianity was uniquely suited to the moral underpinning of that order. These questions led in turn to others: How might an increasingly secularized and religiously indifferent populace be educated and formed in Christian beliefs and practices? And what role might people like them—poets, novelists, philosophers, thinkers, but not professional theologians or pastors—play in the education of their fellow citizens of the West?

p. xvii.

The five are Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and Simone Weil. I am in the throes of anticipation and will report back when I have finished it.

In Code

Life in CodeEllen Ullman, has compiled a series of seventeen mostly witty, sometimes snarky,* often insightful essays about the intersection of technology and life. Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (2017) [link].

I particularly liked the earlier essays about “The Programming Life” in the 1990s, in which she explains tech and illuminates the social realities which programmers (particularly female programmers) faced, and probably still face.

Her social critique of the internet is also spot on, as she describes the searcher’s hopeless search, “adrift in a sea of empty, illusory, misery-inducing choice.” p. 89.

She sounds almost prescient as she writes (in 1998!):

Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses. Physical reality—the discomfort and difficulty of abandoning one’s normal life—put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches, and extreme political parties.

Id.

One point she circles back to from time to time is the way the internet removes the intermediaries from our decisions, stripping out those who “traditionally had been involved in [] transactions—even librarians and journalists—[but who were now seen as] incompetents, out for themselves, dishonest, the next thing to snake-oil salesmen and mustache twirlers.  The intermediaries were useless; you could trust only websites; go directly to the internet.” p. 297. This “disintermediation” has brought us closer to a kind of freedom which often just leaves us adrift. GOTO p. 89.

Recommended.

*”Microsoft, as ever, was last in invention but first in its ability to out-market its rivals.”

A gentleman and a novelist

Walter_Sullivan_FSWI just had the experience of reading a novel written by one of my professors at Vanderbilt University.

Walter Sullivan (1924-2006) introduced me to many of my favorite books, including Brideshead Revisited, The End of the Affair, War in Heaven, and “The Four Quartets” in a class he called “Angelic and Demonic Themes in 20th Century Literature.”  We also read The Spire and, I feel certain, some Flannery O’Connor. He was a marvelous teacher who started by teaching the basics of the Bible so that the class had a common language to discuss the modern works.  I have often wished I had spent more time working on “The Four Quartets” while I had opportunity to draw on his wisdom.*

Long Long Love

It turns out he wrote three novels and last night I read The Long, Long Love [link].**

It is the story of Horatio Adams, a man strangely incapable of accepting what happiness comes his way because of the pain and fear which distracts him.

It is a moving and lyrical book:

“I wondered about that, Horatio. What happened to us? Why did things work out the way they did?”

“Why?” I said. “Nobody ever really knows why. There are a thousand reasons for every turn of every day.” I pondered this a while, knowing it was true. Thinking that not only did God know about the fall of the sparrow, but that only the mind of God could know all the reasons why the sparrow fell.

Recommended (don’t expect any tank battles).

*Thomas Howard’s The Dove Descending (2006) [link] is the best substitute I know of.

**Sullivan had written it about twenty years before I met him.  How sad that I did not read it until more than twenty years after he died.  It is still in print.

Reading, 2017

This was a full year of reading for me, 38 volumes of (more-or-less straight) fiction, another 28 science fiction novels, and 28 volumes of non-fiction. Some could slide from one category to another, I suppose (is Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology science fiction?).

InterpreterofmaladiescoverI read three books by Adam Roberts (The Real-Town Murders, Bethany, Jack Glass); three by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, The Weight of Glory); three by Neil Gaiman (Norse Mythology, The View from the Cheap Seats, and with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens); three by Peter Heller (The Dog Stars, Hell or High Water, Celine), and four by William Gibson (The Peripheral, Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties).

The best new finds in fiction I read this year included Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (The Last 1956 Cessna 182); Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders, (R!-town) and Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (a marvelous series of short stories).

Undoing ProjectTwo excellent new non-fiction offerings were Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project and Philip Allen Green, Trauma Room Two.

TraumaRoomTwoI think that Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, and Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem should be required reading, but I had read neither of them before 2017 (see Jerusalem and Birmingham).

In 2018, I am hoping for some new fiction from Donna Tartt and Neil Gaiman (no novels since 2013); William Gibson, Emily St. John Mandel and Stephen Carter (no novels since 2014); and Mary Doria Russell and David Mitchell (no novels since 2015).* Indeed I have Agency, Gibson’s next, on pre-order from Amazon.

But there are lots of great books out there already.

*David Mitchell wrote From Me Flows What You Call Time, but that won’t be published until 2116, so I need something in the interim, I think.

Artemis

Artemis-Book-Cover-Andy-WeirAs you may have already read, Artemis is not The Martian.

This is not entirely bad, but I think that most who loved Andy Weir’s first novel will be at least a little disappointed in his second.  Remember how you felt when you read The Pelican Brief after you read The Firm?  Or Red Storm Rising after The Hunt for Red October?  Or The Burden of Proof after Presumed Innocent?  Or The Hotel New Hampshire after The World According to Garp?  Or Dune Messiah after Dune?

When an author has done something truly surprising with a first novel, then I suppose we have to expect a little bit of reversion to the mean* on the second.**

Artemis still has some of The Martian‘s engineering geekiness (not as much); and a good bit of Mark Watney’s snark (in a young female voice); but it entirely loses the grand heroic aspect of the earlier book.  The Martian showed the spunk and resilience of the engineer-hero placed in initial conditions beyond his control.   Artemis‘ heroine, Jazz Bashara, creates most of her own trouble and so the effect is very different.  Add to that the difficulty of writing a female lead, far more (and more diverse) characters, a more elaborate plot, and balancing new economic and social themes, and, well . . . okay, a little reversion to the mean is to be expected.

Still a fun book, and I enjoyed it.

It should be easier to follow than The Martian, too.

*”Reversion to the mean, also called regression to the mean, is the statistical phenomenon stating that the greater the deviation of a random variate from its mean, the greater the probability that the next measured variate will deviate less far. In other words, an extreme event is likely to be followed by a less extreme event.” Wolfram MathWorld, “Reversion to the Mean” [link].

**Actually The Firm was Grisham’s second book, coming as it did after A Time to Kill which was wonderful (after the horrifying first chapter), but not genre breaking, and not well known before The Firm. Frank Herbert had publications before Dune, but nothing even close in stature.  Garp was John Irving’s fourth book. It is not always first and second books.

Listening, not arguing

current reading 2Recommended to me by my brother-in-law (the polymath), an old* piece from Nick Carr on the values of reading:

In our day-to-day routines, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or tapping a button on a smartphone. But when we open a book, our expectations and attitudes change. Because we understand that “we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions,” we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence can “disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions.” That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work.

Nicholas Carr, “The Dreams of Readers” Rough Type (Jan. 9, 2014) [link] (Carr is quoting Norman Holland in the internal quotations.)

That seems to me to be exactly right.  If we read properly, we are not immediately arguing with everything. We can listen to an author in a way that we too seldom listen to the people in the room with us.  This is easier with novels than with history and easier with either than with newspaper editorials, but (I think) always easier with the written than the spoken word.

utopia is creepy*Obviously, if I am just now reading blog posts from 2014, I am never going to catch up.  Fortunately, this piece seems to be included in Carr’s new book, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations (2017) [link]. That can be my next book of essays after The View from the Cheap Seats, which I continue to dip into when I am between books.

On “book lust”

ScreenShot164David Bentley Hart writes a nice piece on “book lust” (that’s what my wife and I have always called it) in First Things: “From a Vanished Library” (April 2017) [link].*  In this piece Hart reminds us that

I learned from the experience [of losing my library], in the end, that all vanity is vanity, all lust is lust, and all excess is excess, no matter what the objects of one’s desire. The aesthetics of bound volumes is unique and exquisite; but there are more important things.

In the end the article was somewhat deflating as I have not read a single one of the books in his “catalogue of suggestions.”  But it is good to remember that books, marvelous as they are, can be distractions from the common purpose of every human.


*Coming across this piece was particularly poignant (and ironic) as my church gave me two first editions as a (sabbatical? retirement?) gift after teaching Genesis, ExodusLeviticusNumbers, DeuteronomyJoshuaJudgesRuthSamuelKingsDanielEzra- Nehemiah, and Matthew (with some help, and a few detours) 2003-2017.