You should visit Alan Jacob’s blog regularly or have Snakes and Ladders (blog.ayjay.org) on your newsfeed. You know this, because I write it all the time. Of course you will not find everything he writes (or reads) interesting, but many things are quite striking. Four recent examples:
In “hubris” (Aug. 26, 2021) [link], Jacobs revisits the question of whether it might just be better to opt out of social media.
On August 25 [link], Jacobs points us to his January 6, 2021 piece “School for Scale” in The Hedgehog Review [link] and reminds us why it is really, really important to understand decimals.
Jacobs refers us to something Oliver Burkeman wrote long ago in the Guardian: “Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time” (May 21, 2014) [link]. Eerily reminiscent of observed reality!
“Tolkien and Auden” (Aug. 16, 2021) [link] concerns the two famous writers who were good, though unlikely, friends. Jacobs wrote a delightful short play (“Sandfield Road”) about the two men. You can read it in 15 minutes, here [link].
Jacobs has twenty eight posts since August 15, so you have some catching up to do.
My review of Alan Jacob’s Breaking Bread with the Dead (Penguin Press, 2020) is online at Englewood Review of Books and is reproduced below:
Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind (Penguin Press, 2020).
To read with intelligent charity.
Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (2001).
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.
C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” God in the Dock 217 (2014).
As a society we are reconsidering our relationship to the past.
We wonder whether statues, schools and flags should be removed, renamed or redesigned because of their association with causes, people and history which we now find evil, embarrassing or repugnant. We wonder about the past.
In mathematics, Cromwell’s Rule represents the important concept that prior probabilities may be set arbitrarily close to zero or one, but should not be exactly so. In politics, theology and other life pursuits, a recognition of the possibility that we may be mistaken is what allows each of us to listen to others with respect.
As believers, we know well that we fall short of perfect truth in what we believe (as surely as we fall short of perfect obedience in what we do).
Let us rejoice that God does not grant his grace on the basis of our theological perfection.
It has been a while since I gave a this-is-worth-reading post. You will not be surprised to find many of “the usual suspects”:
Alan Jacobs, “Teachers at the margins,” Snakes and Ladders (Oct. 23, 2019) [link] expresses some dismay about “the pathologizing of perfectly ordinary experiences” in the classroom and beyond. Honestly, this stuff worries me more than wedding cakes and Washington Twitter spats.
Sarah Condon, “We All Get to Go Home with Beth Moore (and Jesus),” Mockingbird (Oct. 23, 2019) [link] which has an interesting take on the John MacArthur-Beth Moore discussion.
Sarah Willard, “The Hard Fought For Four-hundred,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 16, 2019) [link].
William Barr, “Prepared Remarks” (Oct. 11, 2019) [link] is the Attorney General’s rather frightening speech at Notre Dame on the topic of religious liberty. Afterwards, Alan Jacobs [link] and Rod Dreher [link] both commented thoughtfully (though somewhat divergently).
Matthew Butterick, “Drowning the Crystal Goblet,” Practical Typography (Feb. 8, 2016) [link] examining the common suggestion that “typography should be invisible.” Well, no, it shouldn’t, as that would rather defeat the point, wouldn’t it?
It goes without saying that these are just a few items, and no, I don’t agree with everything written.
James Boswell attributes this near quotation of William Camden (originally “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found.”) to Samuel Johnson, and goes on to report that Johnson said “Sir, we are not to judge [with certainty] the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted of God.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson 543 (1830) [link].*
We can never know the depth of God’s grace or the end of his persistent pursuit of each human heart. Let us resolve to speak the gospel of grace whenever we can.
*In the novel Brighton Rock (1938), Graham Greene has his character Pinkie rely on this quotation as a basis for rejecting grace on the assumption that he will be able to repent at the last moment. But in a moment in which his death seems imminent, he finds that he has hardened himself against repentance.
This poor author proves that fact-checking old language (what would you guess “death recorded” means?) is really pretty critical. Yelena Dzhanova, “Here’s an Actual Nightmare: Naomi Wolf Learning On-Air That Her Book Is Wrong,” New York: Intelligencer” (May 2019) [link]. Alan Jacobs comments with compassion and a very appropriate pair of C.S. Lewis references. Alan Jacobs, “death recorded,” Snakes and Ladders (May 24, 2019) [link].
Matthew Butterick, “Typography 2020: A special listicle for America,” Practical Typography [link] delightfully describes the font choices and errors of the 2020 candidates (comparing them to those of the past):
For those who think it trivializes our political process to judge candidates by their typography—what would you prefer we scrutinize? Qualifications? Ground into dust during the last election. Issues? Be my guest. Whether a candidate will ever fulfill a certain campaign promise about a certain issue is conjectural.
But typography—that’s a real decision candidates have to make today, with real money and real consequences. And if I can’t trust you to pick some reasonable fonts and colors, then why should I trust you with the nuclear codes?
Alan Jacobs, “choice”, Snakes and Ladders (Feb. 9, 2018) [link]:
You can’t understand the place and time you’re in by immersion; the opposite’s true. You have to step out and away and back and forward, through books and art and music, and you have to do it regularly. Then you come back to the Here and Now, and say: Ah. That’s how it is.
But maybe 2% of the people you encounter will do this. The other 98% are wholly creatures of this particular intersection in spacetime, and can’t be made to care about anything else.
You can, then, have understanding or attention. Pick.
In 2018 I read an old book of miscellaneous addresses and essays by my favorite Canadian curmudgeon Robertson Davies called The Merry Heart (1998 [amazon]), and in previous years enjoyed similar compilations of material from Neil Gaiman (The View from the Cheap Seats, 2016 [amazon]); and Neal Stephenson (Some Remarks, 2012 [amazon]).
This year’s delight is certainly going to be Scalia Speaks (2017 [amazon]), a compilation of speeches by the late justice known for his staggering erudition, his biting wit, and his personal warmth. One of his sons (Christopher J. Scalia) and one of his former law clerks (Edward Whelen) have chosen and introduced a number of addresses given on many occasions. They are marvelous! Scalia’s good friend and fellow justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Notorious RBG herself) wrote the forward.
I originally read about Luca Turin about 10 years ago in Chandler Burr’s book The Emperor of Scent [link]. In trying to find a copy for one of my daughters, I picked up a book of Turin’s columns from a Swiss magazine called NZZ Folio.
The first columns are (mainly) about perfume, but the editors of the magazine seemed to realize that Turin’s cleverness should not be restricted to the sense of scent, and he is entirely unleashed in the later columns. The columns are very short, wildly allusive, and quite stimulating. Here are some more excerpts:
Even if you try not to pay attention to it, a messy place is a nagging worry, a moral stain, which I assume is why ‘scruple’ originally meant a small stone in your shoe.
This leads me to propose the Law of Optimum Waste: only too much is barely good enough. Great things in teaching, in science, in the arts often happen when exceptional people are forced to look for jobs below their station. A revolution is currently taking place in science because defense budgets are cut, physicists cannot get the job they wanted, and are forced to slum it in biology. The great Italian design boom of the sixties was largely the result of a surfeit of architects who wanted to design skyscrapers and ended up doing ashtrays. Note that in literature—Shakespeare’s villains are a good example—and in life, much evil comes from those who are ambitious beyond their means. Conversely, it seems that enormous good comes from those who are modest beyond their rights. This is not a moral principle, but a practical one. Greed repels, generosity inspires.
You learn a lot about a country’s public space by driving, a wordless game for high stakes that you play with complete strangers. Roads and cars are the same the world over, and local color shows up nicely against an asphalt grey background. Most countries play a game of cops and drivers. In the US, the cops are fierce and the drivers dopey. In France both cops and drivers are fierce. In Italy they are both petulant. In Greece there are no cops.
Very entertaining, and currently available as a Kindle Unlimited book (though with an oddly uninspiring cover): Luca Turin, Folio Columns 2003-2014 (2015) [link].
Cremains, pl. n., the ashes of a cremated body (either a portmanteau or shortened form of “cremated” and “remains”)
The “Yes, exactly!” moment came when a friend gave me Lydia Davis’ short piece “Letter to a Funeral Parlor”:
I am writing to you to object to the word cremains, which was used by your representative when he met with my mother and me two days after my father’s death.
* * *
Then we were sitting there in our chairs in the living room trying not to weep in front of your representative, who was opposite us on the sofa, and we were very tired first from sitting up with my father, and then from worrying about whether he was comfortable as he was dying, and then from worrying about where he might be now that he was dead, and your representative referred to him as “the cremains.”
At first we did not even know what he meant. Then, when we realized, we were frankly upset. Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate. Or it sounds like some kind of a chipped beef dish.
Lydia Davis, “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009).
The full piece is reproduced on the NPR website [link].