Reading and weeping

current reading 2Andrew Peterson gave the (virtual?) commencement address at his daughter’s (virtual?) graduation. “The Certainty of Time in Uncertain Times,” The Rabbit Room (June 8, 2020) [link]:

small quotes blueSix months ago things (for me, at least) were kind of chugging along, and no one had ever heard of COVID-19. But in a flash, everything changed. Now our history has a new dividing line: before Coronavirus and after Coronavirus, kind of like 9/11. I used to have a pretty good idea what was coming, but now I haven’t a clue, from one day to the next. I watch the news with a desperate hope that they’ll tell us this pandemic is going to be over in a week, that systemic racism is finally banished from our hearts and our nation, that the world, at last, is at peace. I long for it. Everything feels so crazy that I just want to make some soup and get a blankie and let John Krasinski to tell me some good news.

But to say that these times are uncertain implies that the time before was certain. Graduates, these times aren’t any less certain than a year ago or 100 or 1,000 years ago. The times have always been uncertain.

This is, of course reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in War-Time,” from The Weight of Glory (1949) (“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”).


Capture
Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7 years old

Adrian Brandon has done a series of portraits in which the subject is sketched in pencil, but the portrait is only partially finished in color:

 

small quotes blueThis series is dedicated to the many black people that were robbed of their lives at the hands of the police. In addition to using markers and pencil, I use time as a medium to define how long each portrait is colored in. 1 year of life = 1 minute of color. Tamir Rice was 12 when he was murdered, so I colored his portrait for 12 minutes. . . .

“Stolen,” adrianbrandon.com [link]. The artist helps us see these subjects as lives cut short. (The short video of the coloring of Marzues Scott is fascinating as an art lesson as well.)


Gary Sheffield describes two encounters with the police in “Do You Believe Me Now?” The Player’s Tribune (June 12, 2020) [link]. It is important, I think, for us to hear these stories from people we know personally, but many of us we “know” and have “relationships with” athletes and actors whom we have followed for years. Their experiences are worth listening to, and are all too consistent with what we hear from our friends. Sheffield writes:

small quotes blueThe unfortunate reality is that my stories aren’t unique. They’re not special or extraordinary, and neither am I. What happened to George Floyd could have easily — and far too often — happened to me or others.

What has made George Floyd’s death a defining moment in this country — what distinguishes it from countless others who were murdered and remain anonymous — was that this otherwise desensitized country actually saw it happen.

Listen, weep, wait to respond.

A right to one’s opinion

Surprised_By_Joy_C.S._Lewis_First_Edition

I was reminded today of a wonderful anecdote told by C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. Unsatisfied by the progress of his son’s education, Lewis’ father transferred him into the care of a private tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick (“Kirk” or “The Great Knock”) to prepare Lewis for university. Kirk walks Lewis from the train station to his house, and Lewis recalls:

small quotesI began to “make conversation” in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties and indeed found increasingly necessary to use with my father. I said I was surprised at the “scenery” of Surrey; it was much “wilder” than I had expected.

“Stop!” shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?”

I replied I don’t know what, still “making conversation.” As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word “wildness,” and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, “wildness” was a singularly inept word.

“Do you not see, then,” concluded the Great Knock, “that your remark was meaningless?” I prepared to sulk a little, assuming that the subject would now be dropped. Never was I more mistaken in my life. Having analyzed my terms, Kirk was proceeding to deal with my proposition as a whole. On what had I based . . . my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none. It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called my thoughts need to be [based] on anything. Kirk once more drew a conclusion—without the slightest sign of emotion, but equally without the slightest concession to what I thought good manners: “Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”

By this time our acquaintance had lasted about three and a half minutes; but the tone set by this first conversation was preserved without a single break during all the years I spent at Bookham.

Perhaps it is all too clear how this anecdote struck me on April 27, 2020. We are now surrounded by a myriad of opinions justified by nearly nothing at all. In the age of too much “information,” we consider it a useful skill to discern which opinions to ignore, but it has been a long time since I remembered that a person might actually be held to account for expressing an irrational opinion.

Jesus said (admittedly in a different context) “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” and this is worth remembering and taking to hear—may we be intentional in our speech and take great care with our opinions.

Returning to reality

O'connor TSOMI have been reading about Flannery O’Connor in Jonathan Rogers, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor (2012), which is excellent.1

During her life O’Connor was often rebuked for the violence in her fiction, but she explained how it was not at all inconsistent with her Christian faith:

small quotes blueI suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.2

I was struck by this, I think, because it seems particularly apropos to our current situation in which our lives have been violently reduced, and much that was extraneous has been torn away from us.

It seems to me that O’Connor echoes C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (p. 81: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”) and in “Learning in War-Time” (The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”).

O’Connor, as diligent “sub-creator,” looked for ways that her character might be brought to grace — our creator (and hers) is now doing the same.


1Isn’t that a perfect title? The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a great place to start a study of O’Connor. [Ed. note: It turns out that “the terrible speed of mercy” is a phrase of Flannery O’Connor’s.]

2Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (1961) (emphasis added).

Old & new

current reading 2This 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):

small quotesFor 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]:

small quotesYou 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.

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.

“Son of God”

As we come to Matthew 14:15-36, we see two crucial miracles which have been much pondered.  The first, of course, is the feeding of the five thousand; and the second is Jesus walking on the water.

C.S. Lewis considered these miracles to be (in one sense) very different from each other.

Walker Feeding of the 5000
Dirk A. Walker, “Feeding of the 5000” [link].
The feeding of the five thousand was a miracle which repeated, at a specific time and a specific place, what God does everywhere, all the time:

[T]he two instances of miraculous feeding . . . . involve the multiplication of a little bread and a little fish into much bread and much fish. . . .  Every year God makes a little corn into much corn: the seed is sown and there is an increase. . . .

Look down into every bay and almost every river.  The swarming, undulating fecundity shows he is still at work “thronging the seas with spawn innumerable” . . . .  And now, that day, at the feeding of the thousands, incarnate God does the same: does close and small, under his human hands, a workman’s hands, what He has always been doing in the seas, the lakes and the little brooks.

C.S.Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study 164-65 (MacMillan 1947).

In the multiplication of the bread and the fishes, Jesus shows himself to be doing what God does all the time.  Lewis calls this a “Miracle of the Old Creation.”

Continue reading “Son of God”

No safe investment

There ifour lovess no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves 121-122 (1960).

Reflection on a Year’s Reading

One nice thing about this site is that it gives me a place to keep track of the books I am reading. It has allowed me to be a little more introspective about what I read. (I seem to require a couple of books a week to maintain my sanity.) About a third of my reading is re-reading, which makes sense to me, anyhow. Wouldn’t you want to go back and visit old friends in addition to meeting new ones?*

station elevenMy favorite newly-discovered author of the last year is probably Emily St. John Mandel. I read Station Eleven, then picked up Last Night in Montreal, and The Lola Quartet, and enjoyed all three. Yes, they are quirky and have some repetitive elements, but I liked Ms. Mandel’s writing and will continue to follow her.

indexThe best new** fiction I read this year includes (in no particular order) Andy Weir, The Martian (2014), Stephen L. Carter, Back Channel (2014), Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014), William Gibson, The Peripheral (2014), Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (2014), David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014), and Neal Stephenson, seveneves (2015).  All were well-crafted and enjoyable, but I will let you look elsewhere for reviews.  I usually pre-order anything by Gibson, Carter and Stevenson, and will probably add Mandel and Weir to that list.

51Qm5bXG9NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I read two excellent new** nonfiction books: Margaret Lazarus Dean, Leaving Orbit (2015); and Jeff Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison (2015). Mr. Smith was the most horrifying book I read recently,*** as it was an account of a politician who was sent to prison for a year for lying about a fairly minor campaign violation.

Rickey&RobinsonEric Metaxas’ Miracles (2014) was strikingly different from C.S. Lewis’ book of the same name. Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor (2014) was an encouragement about the significance of work.  Roger Kahn’s Rickey and Robinson (2014) was a great story about baseball and society by someone who lived through those important years when baseball was being integrated.

And how did I miss this one when it first came out: Cheryl Strayed, Wild (2012), a fascinating account of a troubled woman who walks the Pacific Crest Trail? Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light (2013) (last part of WWII in Europe) was well worth the 900-page investment.

Caveat Lector.  It should go without saying that some of these will be uninteresting, unedifying, or even upsetting for some readers.  What I think I can assure you is that none of these books are poorly written.   Let me know if you have any thoughts about these or others on my sidebar.

*My favorite old friend this year was probably Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996), though I did love (again) the Sword of Honor Trilogy, Pattern Recognition, LoTR, and That Hideous Strength.

**Published since January 2014.

***This is saying a lot since I also read Michael Faber, Under the Skin (2000) and Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1998), two astoundingly creepy books.

Learning to learn

“Another fantasy of liberal education is that the student who advances to the university should take up the study that interests him most. For a small number of students this is in the main right. Even at a very early stage of school life, we can identify a few individuals with a definite inclination towards one group of studies or another. The danger for these unfortunate ones is that if left to themselves they will overspecialize, they will be wholly ignorant of the general interests of human beings. We are all in one way or another naturally lazy, and it is much easier to confine ourselves to the study of subjects in which we excel. But the great majority of the people who are to be educated have no very strong inclination to specialize, because they have no definite gifts or tastes. Those who have more lively and curious minds will tend to smatter. No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest – for it is a part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.

— T. S. Eliot (1932) reblogged from Alan Jacobs, More than 95 Theses (http://ayjay.tumblr.com/).

If you aren’t already watching out for anything Alan Jacobs writes, you should be.  (This quotation of Eliot’s reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote about the test of being well read being whether you could find something to interest you on the discount table at any used bookshop.)

Science and magic

The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve.  But they were twins.  They were born of the same impulse. . . .  There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages.  For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.  For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man 48 (1947).  Lewis, of course, does not so condemn all scientists, or even all technique, but points out (as have many others since) that the parallels between magic and science are striking and perhaps more striking than their differences.  The alchemists did experiments, too.