The Dangerous Book for Boys

The Dangerous Book for Boys

A visit to Borders bookstore over the weekend found me unable to resist picking up a copy of Conn and Hal Iggulden’s new book The Dangerous Book for Boys. I first learned of the book a week or so ago when one of its authors, Conn Iggulden, gave an interview to The Colbert Report (you gotta watch the fake news to the real scoop on the world these days…). The interview intrigued me, but when I actually handled the book in the bookstore, I was hooked.

It’s a book that teaches boys everything from how to choose a proper Swiss Army Knife, the essential works of Shakespeare, the greatest battles of history, how to make an electromagnet, to how to play chess. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The […] book for every boy from eight to eighty, covering essential boyhood skills such as building tree houses, learning how to fish, finding true north, and even answering the age old question of what the big deal with girls is.

In this digital age there is still a place for knots, skimming stones and stories of incredible courage. This book recaptures Sunday afternoons, stimulates curiosity, and makes for great father-son activities. The brothers Conn and Hal have put together a wonderful collection of all things that make being young or young at heart fun—building go-carts and electromagnets, identifying insects and spiders, and flying the world’s best paper airplanes.

It is indeed a cornucopia of items that are ample food for a growing boy’s curiosity.

Even the written style of The Dangerous Book for Boys is confident, and lacking in the wishy-washy tone of modern emasculated literature. For example, in the article on “Making a Bow and Arrow,” the authors begin with these sentences:

At some point, you may consider making a bow and arrow. Firing an arrow can be immensely satisfying — not to hit anything, even, but just to see it fly and then pace out the yards.

The book’s graphic design carries an old-fashioned feel that gives boys a sense of belonging to something older than themselves. It’s a rugged clothbound that is conspicuously missing a dust jacket — this book is meant to be used.

I’ve already had a great deal of fun reading it, and I can’t wait for my son to learn to read so he can take in the danger.

There’s even a video promoting the book:

Romney the Reader

You can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but you can judge a reader by the books he or she reads, right? Well, my logic may be faulty, but this all but disqualifies Mitt Romney in my book (no pun intended):

When asked his favorite novel in an interview shown yesterday on the Fox News Channel, Mitt Romney pointed to “Battlefield Earth,” a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. That book was turned into a film by John Travolta, a Scientologist.

Battlefield Earth? All the great works in the world and he chooses the Left Behind of Scientology?

Lots of redeeming to do, Mitt. Lots. Here are some good places to start.

People notice very little indeed

One of the reasons I love Walker Percy is because he writes into his novels gems like this:

In his strange new mood he made the following observation: people notice very little indeed, ghost-ridden as they are by themselves. You have to be bleeding from the mouth or throwing a fit for them to take notice. Otherwise, anything you do is no more or no less than another part of the world they have to deal with, poor souls.

You worry about what you are supposed to do. The funny thing is, no matter what you do, people believe it is no more or no less than what you are supposed to do. [The Second Coming, pp. 173-174]

Though the novel is nearly 30 years old, the fact that people notice very little is a stark reality today in our celebrity-driven, sensationalist culture. Percy’s grasp of the internal observation is unparalleled. If you’ve never read him, you should.

Games of Tag

My good friend Charles Halton likes to play tag, and apparently I’m “it,” or one of a few “its” al least. It’s summertime, so I’ll play along the recent TV personality’s little book meme. Here goes:

1. One book that changed your life.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

2. One book that you have read more than once.

The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

3. One book you would want on a desert island.

How To Build Seaworthy Vessels With Your Bare Hands (forthcoming)

4. One book that made you laugh.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole — without a doubt the funniest book I’ve ever read.

5. One book that made you cry.

John Adams, by David McCullough. I’ll have to admit I teared up a bit there at the end.

6. One book that you wish had been written.

The follow-up that Dostoevsky reportedly had in mind to The Brothers Karamazov.

7. One book that you wish had never been written.

The Communist Manifesto

8. One book you are currently reading.

The Foreign Correspondent, by Alan Furst. There’s no time like the dog days of summer to read good spy novel.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read.

The Chronicles of Wasted Time: An Autobiography, by Malcolm Muggeridge

10. Tag five other people.

I tagged my wife — she just rolled her eyes. My son ran and hid when I tried to tag him. My neighbors punched me when I tagged them, and the responding officer didn’t take too kindly to being tagged, either. I recommend extreme caution when tagging.

The Cat In The Hat, Twice Removed

The Cat In The Hat -- Movie Book

I’ve never been a big fan of Cliffs Notes. Though the publisher calls their product “trustworthy study guides,” we all know what they’re used for 99 percent of the time. They encourage laziness, illiteracy, and all the other bad things your high school English teacher warned you about.

There was one occasion, however, that I used such a “tool” to cover for academic inadequacies. Once, in college, I was required to write a 2-page essay on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. At the time, there were several other papers upon which I was procrastinating, so the 2-page essay — along with reading the book — fell by the wayside.

The night before it was due, I swallowed my pride and went to the library to check out the movie. Unfortunately, the library’s only copy was broken. On to Plan B — Cliffs Notes. Once again, the library came up short. What they did have, however, was a Cliffs Notes–type one page summary not of the novel, but the movie. By that time, I was grasping at straws, so I read it, and wrote my essay. I won’t reveal my grade, except to say that it wasn’t a B,C,D, or F.

All this came to mind last weekend when I noticed a peculiar book in the childrens’ book section of a major bookstore. It was one of those “Little Golden Books” and bore the title, The Cat In The Hat: The Movie.

Make no mistake, this was a book, not a movie. I opened the book and saw that it was adapted by Jesse Leon McCann, illustrated by Christopher Moroney, based on the 2003 movie, which was inspired by the 1957 book by Dr. Seuss. A book, based upon a movie, based upon an original book — a book that is still in print. I’m not making this up.

I did pretty well with my essay based on a twice-removed account of a work of literature, but I’m sure the only people doing well with nonsense like this are the publishers who “extend the brand” of the late Dr. Seuss just a little bit further. Unfortunately these guys are missing the boat. I’m waiting for the DaVinci Code Movie book. That’s where the money is.

On and Off the Shelf

Part of the trouble with reading six or seven books at a time is that some really good works get set aside as I “sneak a peek” at other volumes, which in turn get cast aside in favor of other titles, and so on — it’s quite the vicious cycle. Call it attention deficit disorder, call it boredom, call it sheer neglect. Whatever it is, I’m often guilty of leaving well deserving books to the wayside.

Right now, however, I’m playing catch-up and I’m loving it. David Wells’ No Place for Truth is a dead-on account of evangelicalism’s theological decline in the face of modernity. As I read the book I have to be conscious of not constantly expressing vocal agreement.

One book that has indeed caused me to speak up as I read is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s the funniest novel I’ve ever read and has sent me laughing out loud (LOL) on more than one occasion. Toole’s Ignatius Reilly is unlike any character I’ve ever experienced in literature before — quite singular.

I’ve had Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, … America (or at least the Republican Party) for about a month now, but it remains unread. I’m intrigued by Dreher’s argument for non-materialistic conservatism, though Jonah Goldberg’s contra argument is equally compelling.

Also in the queue is Mark Bowden’s, Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle In America’s War With Milliant Islam. Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, chronicles the 1979-1980 U.S. Embassy hostage situation in Iran. If you haven’t yet read the excerpt in The Atlantic dealing with the failed Delta Force rescue mission, you’re missing out. I had to practice true restraint to keep from diving into this one when it came in the mail last week. I have to finish the other books first, right?

When I get through these — and only when I get through these, I can then allow myself to move on to the coveted summer reading list

So Bad The Novel of Brown

It’s not often that a novel undergoes such scrutiny as has Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Debunking the wildly popular thriller has become a virtual industry unto itself, and not without warrant. Brown’s fictional account of a “search for truth” was designed to push the buttons and step on the toes of the faithful. Controversy is good for business, and business is good.

Having recently finished The DaVinci Code, I’m left a bit mystified — and not at whether or not Jesus married Mary Magdalene. I’m just wondering how such a mediocre novel has gone so far in the first place. All heresies aside, it’s just not that good of a book.

To begin with, the 454 page book has 105 chapters. That’s right, one-hundred five — an average of 4.32 pages per chapter. To put this in perspective, try to see if you can find another single-volume book in your home with anything approaching that number. I’ll bet you can’t. I own a lot of books, and the closest thing I could come up with is Tom Clancy’s 1028-page The Bear and the Dragon, which boasts 61 chapters (16.85 pages per chapter).

The fact that nearly every chapter ends with its own cliffhanger doesn’t help the situation. Good novelists build tension. Dan Brown bursts the readers’ balloon again and again before it has even had time to be refilled. At regular intervals during his choppy dialogue, Brown somehow sees the need to teach us the “real reason” behind what seems like everything we do in the modern world. While the reader may often feel like he is smarter than Brown’s cardboard characters, Brown incessantly reminds us that he is smarter than his readers.

The only things I found remotely interesting while reading the novel (aside from snickering at the frequent historical gaffes), were the codes themselves. I will give Brown credit for creating a few catchy code-laden rhymes. I suspect that this element, coupled with the book’s controversial claims, accounts for the novel’s success.

Conspiracy theories are not new to the landscape of folklore. The UFO folks have been at the game for decades, and the Illuminati go back even further. Apparently, Dan Brown thought that the vast right-wing conspiracy was insufficient to satiate the paranoid, so he offers us a novel in which he finds the “sacred feminine” and Knights Templar under every stone within Western civilization.

With regard to “debunking” the novel’s claims, others (both Christian and non-Christian) have more than adequately done the job. Brown’s claims of authority lie in the mouths of his fictional scholars, Robert Langdon and Leigh Teabing. Even outside the fictional world of the book, Brown cites real-world scholars as his basis for believing that “Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.” The truth is, however, one can find a scholar who believes just about anything. Truth is not so indiscriminate.

The Gnostic “sacred feminine” that is Brown’s deity is elusive and unattainable, much like the secret society that protects it. Brown’s Christ is unknowable, locked up in a code that cannot be cracked. He is an elusive Christ that doesn’t have to be dealt with. A Christ that is revealed must be faced. A Christ that is revealed is decidedly uncoded — not a code to be solved by man, rather one who solves the man.

A Few Thoughts on Reading

Those of you with children are probably aware that one’s habits of personal study tend to be affected upon the arrival of the little one(s). In my case, the birth of our son caused my rate of reading to take a drastic downturn, especially in the first month. Now that things are beginning to settle down a little (he’s almost 5 months old now), I’m reevaluating my reading habits in hopes of making them more effective.

Speed. In general, when it comes to books I’m a painfully slow reader. There are only a few genres in which I can speed-read with good comprehension. Technical works, theology, philosophy, and light fiction I can speed-read with much effort. When it comes to biography, history, serious fiction, and most monographs, I am a literary turtle.

Volume. For many years, I’ve had the habit of reading five to six books concurrently, thereby extending the time it takes to completely read a book by a factor of, well, five to six. No matter how many times I’ve tried to break this somewhat annoying habit, I always seem to pick up another book and start it in the midst of reading another. Case in point: the “Books I’m Reading” list on the sidebar of this blog currently lists two books—in reality there are at least four that I’m working on.

Perseverance. I find it very hard to put a book away once I’ve started it—no matter how bad, boring, or tedious the book may be. There’s just something in me that says I must finish. For the most part, this has been helpful, as it has forced me to look at things in which I wouldn’t ordinarily be interested. On the other hand, such a mentality could lead to great wastes of time.

Questions for the blogosphere. What are your reading habits? Do you read quickly, or turtle-esqe? How many books do you read at a time? Should you always finish a book you don’t like, or should you let it die its proper death on the shelf? Your thoughts are appreciated.

Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons

One book that’s been in the news lately, aside from The DaVinci Code, is Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons—a novel about the culture and activities of campus life at an elite American university. The book has been reviewed widely in conservative circles, and even caused a mild media tizzy recently when it was discovered that President Bush had read the book, though it was not on his published reading list:

What the official list omits is Tom Wolfe’s racy new beer- and sex-soaked novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” The president, a Wolfe fan, has not only read the book but is enthusiastically recommending it to friends.

Indeed, the novel is not for the faint of heart, but racy is hardly an appropriate term (Wolfe was awarded the “Bad Sex Writing” award for the book). The content of the novel, while frank, does not titillate as much as it sheds light upon the culture that is many an American college campus. Wolfe introduces us to a world where roommates are “sexiled”—banished from their dorm rooms while their roommates copulate with their “hookups.” Star athletes are surrounded by sexually–willing groupies, and have their homework done for them by their tutors while they play the latest video games. The few students concerned with learning are concerned only as far as what it will take to play the politics of academia in order to obtain a Rhodes scholarship or the prestige of a graduate degree.

Wolfe’s protagonist is Charlotte Simmons, a freshman from rural North Carolina who arrives at the fictional elite university to find a world far removed from her small, close-nit community where religion and family values reigned. The poor Appalachian country girl clashes with the snobbery of her wealthy blue-state classmates in morality, intellectual vigor (ironically it is Charlotte who thinks that the others are dunces), and priorities.

At first, when faced with adversity, Charlotte clings to the mantra given her by her mother: “I am Charlotte Simmons.” By reminding herself who she was and from whence she came, Charlotte hopes to ward off the encroaching evils.

It’s not long before Charlotte discovers that this vapid self-assertion does little to guard her moral innocence. Buttressed by a subplot that deals with biological determinism, the novel finds Charlotte unable to resist becoming the very type of person she detests. She falls fast and hard—her self-concept crashing down with her.

With Charlotte and three other main characters, the subplot of determinism gradually becomes the driving motif of the novel. The Jojo Johannsen, the proverbial “dumb jock,” realizes that his overly–tutored athletic education program has been a sham—is he capable of learning anything substantive? The frat-boy Hoyt Thorpe has glided through his college career, establishing an enormous reputation, along with an enormous academic deficit. Is there a way for him to “rig the system” so that he lands a comfortable job?

While certainly displaying the futility and dangers of modern campus mores, Wolfe is not preachy, and leaves judgment up to the reader. In fact, any adequate means of Charlotte’s holding to the morality of her upbringing are largely unexplored. As Ken Masugi of the Claremont Review of Books aptly notes:

For all his brilliance at portraying contemporary life, Wolfe approaches and then veers away from confronting the most important human questions, explored most profoundly by the Bible and Greek philosophy. May his next novel take the mean between Socrates and Stoicism and discover Aristotle. And may that be his opening to the Bible and an even greater flourishing of his mind.

While his exploration of life’s “ultimate questions” falls short, Wolfe does raise some piercing questions regarding our modern incarnation of the university. Just what, one wonders after reading the book, is the chief purpose of higher education today? Wolfe seems to propose that entertainment and reckless self-indulgence are at the very least part of the answer. Students lacking well-grounded beliefs and behavior risk having the prevailing campus zeitgeist dictate belief and behavior to them.

It’s not been that long since my own undergraduate days—eight or so years. I didn’t attend an elite private university like Wolfe’s fictional Dupont, but much of the behavior Wolfe reflects was present. People who relied solely upon their upbringing to combat moral chaos often fell, and when they fell, they fell hard. Only those who found their identities outside themelves (most notably in Christ) could withstand the tempest.

For a 74 year-old, Tom Wolfe has an exceptional grasp of the language, behavior, and mannerisms of the college set. I Am Charlotte Simmons is an engagingly written novel. If you’re sending a child or other loved one to college soon, you should read this book with trepidation. I will, however, warn the reader of the graphic dialogue and behavior in the novel would offend all but the most forlorn sailor. The tragedy is that such language is the current lingua franca of almost any university campus. Like I said, I Am Charlotte Simmons is not for the faint at heart, but perhaps its warning can help us in some way to strengthen the hearts of our youth.