Much to My Chagrin

…Oprah Winfrey, the queen of sappy, “you go girl” spirituality, has picked one of my favorite books for the ubiquitous Oprah’s Book Club. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been chosen by the talk-show host as this summer’s selection for her club. The book promptly rose to number one on the bestsellers list.

I guess this is good overall. Oprah is at least going to read it:

Winfrey vowed to “finish every page” of Anna Karenina. “And I’ll be sending e-mails all summer long to keep you posted on how I’m doing and hopefully give you encouragement, because I believe we can do this.

“We can read the real literature of the world.”

Just remember folks, the book made TruePravda’s “Books that Haunt” list first.

Summer Reading

I know summer is officially a month away, but in order to get the amount of reading I have planned completed (I never actually do), I thought I would get a head start. So, here’s what’s on the shelf…

Currently opened and past the first chapter are Jackson Lears’ Something for Nothing: Luck in America, Brad Miner’s The Compleat Gentleman, and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1. The Lears book, which I’ve been picking at for a long time is a pretty facsinating look at how Americans view luck, and how Providence and grace differ from the culture of chance in which America now finds itself. Miner’s book I got a couple of weeks ago and will finish quickly—it’s a smart book that is heads above any other “masculinity” book I’ve ever read. Calvin’s work, of course, is a classic that displays both genius and a pastoral nature simultaneously.

Sitting on the shelf waiting to be read are: David McCullough’s John Adams (my biography selection for the summer), Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (I’ve never read any Roth, but I feel I need to be familiar with this American icon of letters), Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (which I know will be splendid), and James Herrick’s The Making of the New Spirituality (which Ken Myers says should be required reading for any seminarian or pastor).

If I get through these, I still have Carl Henry’s six-volume God, Revelation, and Authority awating me, along with John S. Feinberg’s No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. As usual there are a few others waiting in the wings as well.

Will I finish all of these by summers end? Probably not. I’m a slow reader and I tend to read several books at a time, thereby making it take an eternity to finish one volume. I will probably even pick up something that’s not on the list (like Walker Percy’s The Second Coming, for instance).

In other words, I need to quit writing now and go read. So I will.

A Mighty Fortress

I finished (finally) Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. The book was written in 1955, yet remains one of the most noteworthy English biographies of Luther. It is very readable, and is accessible even to someone without prior experience or knowledge of the 16th century reformer. I highly recommend the book.

Though I have a few theological differences with Martin Luther (baptism, church-state relationship, etc.), I find in him someone I can relate to on many levels. His courage is something we all can aspire to, letting our conscience be held captive only to the word of God.

Well Read? Well, Maybe Not

Here’s a list that’s floating around the internet. It’s a list of works considered to be classics. While all such lists are invariably lacking, they’re usually helpful in pointing us new and important works. The ones I’ve read are in bold typeface. As you can see, I have a good way to go on this list (though I have read other books by the authors listed). [hat tip: Collected Miscellany]

Achebe, Chinua — Things Fall Apart
Agee, James — A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane — Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James — Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel — Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul — The Adventures of Augie March
Bronte, Charlotte — Jane Eyre
Bronte, Emily — Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert — The Stranger
Cather, Willa — Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey — The Canterbury Tales
Continue reading “Well Read? Well, Maybe Not”

The Problem of Good

Normally, when we study theodicy, we think of the problem of evil. “How can a good and loving God permit evil?” we ask. What we often fail to realize is that theodicy has to deal with the problem of good just the same.

Walker Percy has his slightly deranged lead character offer forth this in Lancelot, which I am currently reading:

In times like these when everyone is wonderful, what is needed is a quest for evil.

You should be interested! Such a quest serves God’s cause! How? Because the Good proves nothing. When everyone is wonderful, nobody bothers with God. If you had ten thousand Albert Schweitzers giving their lives for their fellow men, do you think anyone would have a second thought about God?

Indeed, contentment often does make us stray from God more than when we are in despair. The rest of the passage is similarly great (I’ll give a more detailed review of the book after I finish).

Percy has the uncanny ability of posing serious philosophical themes in his novels without making them feel artificial to the storyline. Almost, dare I say it, Dostoevsky-like.

Books as Periodicals

I’m not one to read many of the political books that are floating around out there, liberal or conservative. I’m not referring to books about political theory so much as I am to the ones that pepper the current events shelves at the bookstores. There are the usual lopsided titles by Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Bill O’Reilly and the like, and there are also the “insider’s view” books like the ones by Richard Clarke, Paul O’ Neill, Hillary Clinton. Books like Bob Woodward’s recent analysis of the events surrounding 9/11 fit in this genre as well.

David Kirkpatrick examines the phenomena of such rapidly-appearing books in a recent New York Times article:

Some in the literary world say the trend is debasing serious nonfiction.

“These books are just stupendously enlarged newspaper stories,” said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who argued that all of the books lacked the thoughtfulness, interpretative insight or literary quality that should distinguish books from newspapers or magazines.

“They represent the degradation of political writing to purely journalistic writing,” he said. “The author in these works has been reduced to a transcriber or stenographer. There is no strenuous mental labor here. It is all technical skill. Books about urgent subjects used to have greater ambitions for themselves, but not these books. But this genre is something that passes, masquerading as something that lasts. Present history doesn’t have to be quite this fleeting.”

Part of the reason I keep the genre at a distance from my reading is that such books often have little lasting value. A year from now they all will be on the remainder table at a clearance price. There’s nothing morally wrong with a book being timely, but it does blur the line that once stood between the periodical and the hardback. Kirkpatrick cites Bob Woodward:

For his part, Mr. Woodward, an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post whose book was excerpted by the newspaper, said he did not have enough time for extensive analysis. “I could take the information in this book and work another year or two years and analyze it,” he said, “but my feeling and the opinion of my editor at The Washington Post, Len Downie, was that it was important that this come out before the election.”

Deadlines have always existed for authors of books, but the pressure of time noted by Woodward has more of a periodical feel to it. Did you notice the trade-off of extensive analysis for timeliness?

What all this means is that nonfiction books are increasingly becoming more market-driven as opposed to being analysis-driven. All of us who read nonfiction should be ever more watchful for details in these volumes that may have been sloughed off in lieu of hitting the market just right.

But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.” [Ecclesiastes 12:12]

Truth and Justice are Afoot!

Bill Wallo has good post on the sometimes conflicting virtues of truth and justice in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Wallo touches on how sometimes Holmes would sacrifice justice for getting to the truth, showing how this compares with our modern day conflicts of the virtues in things like illegal seraches and seizures.

I began reading them in seventh grade, and I still think the Sherlock Holmes stories are heads above anything else in the detective genre. Where else will you find a reclusive intellectual chasing a goulish dog across the moor?

Bits and Pieces

Much to my chagrin, I’m always finding out that I’m more influenced by our culture than I thought. Here’s a case in point—last night while reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, I kept getting distracted by length of all the paragraphs—some spanning more than a page.

We’re conditioned by a number of influences to partake of content in short bits. Perhaps this tendency starts with our parents cutting up our food into little bits during childhood, but I suspect that electronic media has much to do with it as anything. Thirty minute sitcoms are interrupted at least four times with commercial breaks. The longest segments on television news last only a couple of minutes. Even between commerical breaks, television shows adopting the MTV style of rapid cuts rarely have any sustained dialog.

Consider that responses in Presidential debates are only a couple of minutes each. Consider the fact that when USA Today was introduced, it touted its brevity along with the fact that its front page story both began and ended on the front page. Add in the emergence of the cell phone as a standard item (which of course includes call-waiting), and even a long, uninterrupted conversation with anyone is rare.

Contrast this with virtually any book written in the 19th century. The paragraphs tend to be long, and the thoughts contained within them are often complex. There are exceptions—some writers simply were too long-winded. Whether complex or not, ultra-long paragraphs confound today’s readers, the present writer included.

This should give us all pause to ponder something often taken for granted. Are we, with all our technological advances, really smarter than our forbearers or are we simply the beneficiaries of technological advancement who indeed may be able to comprehend even less than our ancestors of a century ago?

The Vanishing Word: A Review

“In the beginning was the image, and the image was with God, and the image was God.” Of course, that’s not how it John 1:1 goes exactly, but considering how the visual image has replaced the written word it doesn’t sound so peculiar when aligned with today’s culture.

This veneration of the visual image is the subject of Arthur W. Hunt III’s book, The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World. I found the book to be very convicting both of the culture at large and myself. The thesis of the book is that Western Civilization has devolved from a word-based culture to an image based culture, now resembling many aspects of ancient pagan idolatry.

Hunt makes his case well, first giving a history how both word and image-based cultures developed. He highlights the medieval period’s “Dark Ages,” where literacy was held only by a select few and the general populace was more focused on imagery than words. Hunt contrasts this with the Reformation’s efforts to make the people literate once again by putting the Bible in the hands of the laity as well as setting up schools to be sure that people could read it.

The author goes on to illustrate how show business, among other things, has aided a gradual return to an image-centric culture. Postmodernism, which Hunt defines as “a rejection of rationality and an embrace of spectacle,” has set the scene for an image-based culture to gain even greater influence—and vice versa. While it’s not the most comprehensive definition of postmodernism (after all, “definition” is the chagrin of postmodernism), I do think that it is an accurate one. People who do not read are less likely to be able think rationally, and words lose their meaning. What is left for communication if not the image?

This book really hits home when Hunt speaks of some of the consequences of image-making. Citing Daniel Boorstin’s 1961 book, The Image, Hunt tells us:

“Americans not only confused the copy with the original, but that we actually preferred the copy to the original. News was no longer gathered, it was made. Gone were the days of the traveler, a word derived from travail. Instead we use the word tourist, a mere pleasure-seeker in a sea of fabricated attractions. We no longer have heroes, people known for their achievements. Instead, we have celebrities, persons known for their well-knownness.

The celebrity is, of course, the uber image of the day. Hunt’s thesis is difficult to dispute in light of the popularity of television shows like American Idol.

The Vanishing Word is not a “kill your television” manifesto, but it is an enlightening and convicting book that warns us to be wary of our devotion to images and to cling to the ultimate, written Word of God. Read it.