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.

The Last 1956 Cessna 182

dogstars

Just finished Peter Heller,The Dog Stars (2012) which was a very enjoyable apocalyptic novel in the tradition of The Stand, Alas, Babylon, The Road, Station Eleven, or I Am Legend.  The novel is written entirely in internal monologue (not always grammatical, sometimes profane), which is a little confusing at first, but ultimately very satisfying.

Recommended.

Jerusalem and Birmingham

I recently read (more of less at the same time) two historical books which I would highly recommend.  Each is flawed, but each gives a picture of a tragic time of which I knew too little.

eichmannThe first was Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), about Nazi middle-manager Adolph Eichmann, captured in Argentina in 1960, and tried in Jerusalem in 1961. Arendt’s famous account of the trial is idiosyncratic, and oft-criticized, mainly for being thought too soft on Eichmann and too hard on the victims, the prosecutors and David Ben-Gurion, who Arendt portrays as the political choreographer of the trial.

She blames the many Nazis who wielded greater power and had greater capacity for evil, but she does not remotely excuse Eichmann.  Nor does she blame those who died, except in the sense that she is troubled by the unwillingness of some victims to resist totally and violently early enough that they (might?) have made a difference.

As a trial account, the book is fairly weak, in the sense that she is telling the back story as much as she is summarizing the evidence presented.  This may have been due to the length of the trial and her sense that Eichmann was too slender a reed to support the weight of the crimes he facilitated. I would have liked more reporting and less musing.

But her musings are fascinating!*

MLKThe second book, Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King (1998), is equally well-known, a compilation of writings, speeches and sermons stitched together with narrative sections cast in the first person by the historian Claiborne Carson.

If what you know of Dr. King is entirely from the perspective of 2017, or MLK-as-political-signifier for one party or another, then this is a nice opportunity to delve back into primary sources.

In any case, you know Dr. King was a master orator and the audiobook takes advantage of the available recordings — that man could preach!**

Each of these two books is narrow, and it will be necessary to read more to have a well-rounded comprehension of the times and the issues, but both are well worth your investment.


NOTES

*From Eichmann in Jerusalem:

  • “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” p. 47
  • “These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial—less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, and to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar—which he obviously was not. . . .
    Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.” p. 52
  • “The facts of the case, of what Eichmann had done—though not of everything the prosecution wished he had done—were never in dispute; they had been established long before the trial started, and had been confessed to by him over and over again. There was more than enough, as he occasionally pointed out, to hang him. (‘Don’t you have enough on me?’ he objected, when the police examiner tried to ascribe to him powers he never possessed.) p. 88.
  • “And the question of individual guilt or innocence, the act of meting out justice to both the defendant and the victim, are the only things at stake in a criminal court. The Eichmann trial was no exception, even though the court here was confronted with a crime it could not find in the lawbooks and with a criminal whose like was unknown in any court, at least prior to the Nuremberg Trials. The present report deals with nothing but the extent to which the court in Jerusalem succeeded in fulfilling the demands of justice.” p. 296.

**From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King:

  • I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
  • “As a young man with most of my life ahead of me, I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute. Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow. But to God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
  • “I have always felt that ultimately along the way of life an individual must stand up and be counted and be willing to face the consequences whatever they are. And if he is filled with fear he cannot do it. My great prayer is always for God to save me from the paralysis of crippling fear, because I think when a person lives with the fears of the consequences for his personal life he can never do anything in terms of lifting the whole of humanity and solving many of the social problems which we confront in every age and every generation.”
  • “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.”

J.R.R.T.

jrrt “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

     J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

J.R.R. Tolkien (January 3, 1892 – September 2, 1973) was born 125 years ago today.  He has been singing at the throne of God for 40 years.

Brave & Forgiven

ebif A delightful book, full of clever dialogue (“Sorry I’m late.  There were Germans.”) and heartaches, about the beginning of World War II in London and Malta.  Cleave does a marvelous job of conveying a sense of oppression which must have been felt by the British before 1942:

“[Mary] loathed the way the newspapers printed maps with the stark Nazi symbol on a field of plain white, as if Hitler had sent armies of erasers.  Better to crowd the swastikas in, to have them jostle for space.  [For her class, she] drew them deliberately crooked.  Her swastikas were degenerates that leaned at sickly angles and resembled one another vaguely, the offspring of first cousins who had married against the family’s advice.

Finally, she drew Britain, being generous with the width of the English Channel and giving the British Isles three times the area on the blackboard that they merited.  She thought it unfair to expect children to understand that it was possible to resist, from an island the size of her hand, a tyranny that stretched the whole width of the blackboard from Brest to Bialystok.”

It is not really a book about the war, but about friendships, family relations and love affairs in the shadow of great uncertainty and disruption.

Highly recommended.

A Hard and Heavy Thing

26542105Matthew I. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing is the best novel I have read in 2016.

AHAHT is the story of three friends, two men and a woman, who struggle in situations dangerous, terrifying and mundane.  It is written with a gritty wide-eyed realism, but conveys deep compassion for the flawed characters.

No spoilers here, but the narrator (Levi) self-consciously looks back on his history with Nick and Eris, and the choices which led two of them to enlist in the Army.  The story lurches back and forth between third-person narrative and Levi’s direct discourse to the reader, who fills in for Nick.

The back-and-forth is purposely a little clumsy, which works beautifully to further the author’s artistic aims.

Highly recommended.

Silence & Beauty

9780830844593-194x300I am very much looking forward to reading  Makoto Fujimura‘s Silence and Beauty, which is described as using Shusako Endo’s Silence as a starting place for consideration of issues of suffering and faith.  Fujimura is a painter of great power and a believer.  I taught Endo’s book several times in my World Lit class.

I will let you know.

Between Mr. Coates and me

50c0c9d1dLast week I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015). Actually, I listened to it, and found it a powerfully unsettling book.

I had no knowledge of Mr. Coates and no preconception about the book except that in some sense it was about race. The book is (sort of) a long letter to his son about what it is like to be a black man in America. (“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”)

I say “sort of” because you have to put aside even that vague description very quickly. Mr. Coates would remind us that in any society there are those whose aspirations to achieve “the dream” will necessarily involve putting some people — identified by color, ethnicity, gender, language or some other characteristic — at the bottom of the well. I think he would say that in 2016 in America that characteristic is still often race.

Mr. Coates tells his son stories about his experiences and about those of his friends and acquaintances.  Some are touching and some are extraordinarily upsetting. No one could listen to his account of the death of Prince Jones without horror, shame and outrage.

One of the recurring themes is that the fragility of “the black body”:

We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. A year after I watched the boy with the small eyes pull out a gun, my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.

It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.

But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.

I am convinced that Mr. Coates is telling me truths I need to hear.  I am not sure that Mr. Coates tells me what any white American can do to ameliorate the evils he describes. It is better to hear truth than to block it out, of course, but that is not enough.

What is enough?

Mr. Coates declines to believe in any otherworldly justice, though he seems to concede that there have been times when the church has been one of the few refuges for the black body. As I listened to him in the midst of Passion Week, though, I thought that Jesus, certainly, voluntarily offered his body to be destroyed by the system of the world as a sacrifice for all of us.

This is not a “good read,” or an “interesting study.”  It seems to me to be an important book that has challenged my assumptions and beliefs.  I hope and pray that I will allow it to change the way I act and live, and that God will help me to understand what is enough.

 

 

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell, it seems to me, has a gift for conjuring a story-illusion, seducing the reader into the narrative, and then dropping the reader out of the dream abruptly.  I find myself initially frustrated (” . . . but I wanted to know what was going to happen to that character!  I liked her and I want to . . . .”).  Then within 2-3 pages, he has drawn me into the next dream.  He is very, very skilled at this.

Cloud Atlas (2004) wraps back on itself in a chiastic structure which is fun to sketch:

Cloud Atlas

The structures of Ghostwritten, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House are unique, but Mitchell displays his maddening, enthralling, wonderful gift in each of them.

Thank you, Mr. Mitchell.

Dark Corners

Dark CornersDefinitely dark, this little book is well-crafted, if (honestly) ultimately unfulfilling.

Stephen King apparently said “No one surpasses Ruth Rendell when it comes to stories of obsession, instability, and malignant coincidence,” and indeed all the characters (but one) are either obsessive, unstable or malignant (or a combination of all three). Whereas it is common in certain types of fiction to be frustrated with a character’s bad choices, that only happens if we have established some sympathy for the characters.  I’m not sure that happened in this multithreaded plot.

But you may have a different opinion. Ruth Rendell, Dark Corners (2015). [amazon link]