Book Sale

From now until the New Year, Spence Publishing is having a huge book sale. All hardbacks are only $10. I’m not a paid advertiser for Spence, but I have benefited from a number of their books like J. Budziszewski’s The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man; F. Carolyn Craglia’s Domestic Tranquility:A Brief Against Feminism; and Thomas Hibbs’ Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld. Their books are thoughtful and well-argued from a conservative standpoint. I think I’ll be spending some of my Christmas money…

When Hearing is Reading

Here’s a debate I’m curious about: do you think that listening to an audiobook (book on tape, CD, etc.) can be considered “reading” a book? Usually on long road trips, like the ones we have planned for upcoming holidays, my wife and I like to listen to audiobooks while we drive. I started doing this, skeptically, when my wife was my then girlfriend/fiancee and we lived about 4.5 hours apart. I would drive on the weekends and to keep myself awake and pass the time, I would listen to audiobooks.

When I say I “read” The Fellowship of the Ring, I actually listened to the unabridged version being read to me. I read the print versions of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, and I didn’t feel like I missed a step. So, the question remains; did I read it? What do you think?

Yearning for The Far Side

There’s a film out now called Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which I have not seen, but it reminds me a bit of my favorite cartoon, “The Far Side.” “The Far Side,” by Gary Larson ran in syndication from 1980-1994. Even if you weren’t reading newspapers back then, if you’ve been at all in an American bookstore you’ve undoubtedly seen the various calendars.

It’s amazing how just a single panel with a caption can invoke so much laughter. Larson did this with a skill that is rarely duplicated successfully. I enjoyed the cartoon so much that when I was a freshman in college, I bought a subscription to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, which carried the cartoon daily. I clipped the cartoons out every day and put them on the perimeter of the dormroom ceiling (hey—I never claimed to be an interior decorator). By years’ end, the entire perimeter was covered in “Far Side” cartoons.

I also own a couple of the book collections, my favorite being The Prehistory of The Far Side, which features some cartoons that he wasn’t allowed to print in the newspapers.

Now, there is a new collection that has every single “Far Side” cartoon ever created. The price is steep though, so one would probably have to have a degree from the Midvale School for the Gifted to purchase the collection.

Reading Required

I’ve written briefly on this before, but the importance of the written word to the Christian faith cannot be overstressed. Very helpful in adding stress to this point is a new WORLD magazine feature by Gene Edward Veith. In the article, Veith aptly defends the necessity of reading for Christians—after all, we are a people of “the Book:”

Imagination as a human capacity is extraordinarily important, and greatly neglected. Imagination is not some mystified “creativity” that is the sole province of artsy types. If you can picture the tree in your back yard or recall the new car smell or visualize the finished product while you are still working on it, you have imagination. But those who merely consume visual images by sitting passively in front of a TV screen are absorbing the products of someone else’s imagination. Those who created the TV shows are indeed using their imaginations, just as they are writing and reading, but the viewer’s mind is not left with much to do. Read a novel, though, and your mind, as led by the storyteller, is doing the imagining.

So reading remains indispensable. Even television scripts have to be first written and then read. For the ancient Canaanites, the ability to read was reserved for the priesthood, whose monopoly on knowledge gave them power. The biblical legacy is that everyone should read, with power dispersed. Many people today care less about this power and therefore lose it—but leaders and culture-makers continue to read. Christians too, as “people of the Book,” continue to read. This means that thoughtful, reading Christians can also be leaders and culture-makers, especially if their non-Christian peers just watch television.

There seems to be something special about formulating the image in our mind based on words. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t go so far as to say that television is morally evil—but it does occupy much of our time, and to what end? Rarely can we say that we walk away from a television show having gained any insight into life.

What is it about the television that compels us to sit in front of it regardless of what is flashing across the screen? This may be an oversimplification, but I think laziness is part of it—for me anyway. It’s easier to let the television form the pictures while your brain rests. It’s a struggle sometimes to pick up a book, and use my imagination to connect the dots. It is a struggle, however, that we Christians must face in order to mature in the faith. The Bible, after all, has been given to us not in pictures but in words. And words are significant as we follow the Word that was with God and was God.

UPDATE: Study Links TV Habits to Reading Trouble. Oh, the irony…

Krakauer on the Nature of Faith

Jon Krakauer’s new book, Under the Banner of Heaven, is slightly different fare for the author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, but that doesn’t stop his superb storytelling ability and thorough investigative skills from making this book a very interesting story. My wife and I listened to the audio version of the book recently over a couple of road trips (can you say that you’ve “read” a book if you’ve listened to the audio version? I would argue that you could, but that’s a debate for another day).

The story that Krakauer investigates is the murder of a woman and her baby by her brothers-in-law. The brothers-in-law, both Mormon Fundamentalists, claimed (and still claim) that they received direct revelation from God that they should kill their sister-in-law and niece. In telling the story, Krakauer delves into the sordid world of Mormon Fundamentalism, with its practices of polygamy and belief in individual direct revelation.

The books reads (or listens) very well and it is evident that Krakauer has done his homework. The interviews he had with the murderes are chilling, as well as the antics of the religion he describes. Krakauer’s editorial comments, however, are another story.

At the end of the book, Krakauer comments on the nature of faith, and how all faith that had strong beliefs were dangerous. I’m paraphrasing here (a downside of only listening to the book), but Krakauer says something like this, “If someone can receive direct revelation from God, that trumps all other authorities. The Lafferty brothers believe that they have done nothing wrong because God told them to do this.”

Krakauer, an admitted agnostic who calls faith “irrational,” concludes from this that faith (he hints at evangelical Christianity) have the potential for such dangerous outcomes as these murders. While I agree on some of these points (if people believe that God is telling them to kill someone, and that is their ultimate authority, this is dangerous!), Krakauer leaves out much when reaching his conclusions.

Take evangelical Christianity, for example. We do believe that we can talk to God and that he providentially directs our everyday lives. A Christian, however, should have a problem if they sense that God is telling them to kill someone. Why? Because Scripture forbids it. God trumps man, and God’s written word trumps man’s senses.

If God had not provided us with an infallible, inerrant written word, Christianity like Mormonism (I do consider them two different religions) would be open to continuing revelation that could supercede anything that was revealed before.

Krakauer calls “faith” what he should be calling “some faiths.” If only Krakauer would have put as much thought into his editorial comments as he did his research for the book…

“The Book Was Better”

A recent USA Today article explores the astonishingly large number of films which are based on books (there are reportedly 20 such films debuting this fall). It’s easy to make these films because the story is already there, and often the prestige of the book is there as well. In my 20+ years of watching movies and reading books, I’ve seen many movies based on books, and nine times out of ten, the book is always better.

A few movies do well, and give at least a hint of the grandeur of the book. A couple of examples I can think of are The Lord of The Rings trilogy and To Kill a Mockingbird, with the late Gregory Peck’s unparalleled performance as Atticus Finch. Both films were excellent, but even these still did not capture the depth of the book.

Why do films rarely, if ever, outdo the books upon which they were based? Part of the problem is the nature of the medium itself. The old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The saying is well-known, but is it really true?

In All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture, author Ken Myers delineates the differences between words and images:

…Images communicate immediately and intuitively. Images are scanned in a subjective pattern. They are a splendid form to use to communicate concrete quantitative information or narratives.

Words, on the other hand, communicate through abstraction and analysis. Words communicate in linear, logical form; something communicated in words can thus be judged to be true or false. But an image cannot be true or false.

So, images (and thus film) cannot give us the depth that the written word can. While, with some effort a good writer can conjure up images from his or her words, it is very difficult for an image to produce what can be done with the written word.

Lit. 101

Literature is vastly underappreciated in our day. This doesn’t mean people have forsaken reading—a mere look at the number of stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders shows that people must be reading something.

Sadly, much of the reading that passes across our eyes doesn’t fall into the category of literature. Books like Tom Clancy’s The Teeth of the Tiger need not apply. There is nothing wrong with a book like this—I myself read Clancy and a few others on occasion. They’re good for entertainment value and stimulate one’s mind much more than watching a movie like Twister, which I affectionately rank as one of the worst movies of all time.

After all is said and done, however, one is not challenged intellectually or even emotionally by “entertainment-style” books. I define a work of literature as one which invites the reader into another mind, world, or situation which causes the reader to extend his or her imagination to come to terms with what is being discussed in the literature. Literature makes us leap out with our imaginations and often teaches us.

Myron Magnet writes in this excellent article about the value that literature has for our culture [link found via]:

Literature is a conversation across the ages about our experience and our nature, a conversation in which, while there isn’t unanimity, there is a surprising breadth of agreement. Literature amounts, in these matters, to the accumulated wisdom of the race, the sum of our reflections on our own existence. It begins with observation, with reporting, rendering the facts of our inner and outer reality with acuity sharpened by imagination. At its greatest, it goes on to show how these facts have coherence and, finally, meaning. As it dramatizes what actually happens to concrete individuals trying to shape their lives at the confluence of so many imperatives, it presents us with concrete and particular manifestations of universal truths. For as the greatest authors know, the universal has to be embodied in the particular—where, as it is enmeshed in the complexity and contradictoriness of real experience, it loses the clarity and lucidity that only abstractions can possess.

One of the examples Magnet mentions briefly is Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. This novel is #2 on my all time favorite list (perhaps I’ll give my #1 later). Though it is an engaging and even entertaining work of fiction, I would easily rank it more valuable than any non-fiction self-help book on relationships. Anna Karenina explores nearly every type of relationship known to mankind. What makes a novel like Anna Karenina great is that it not only explores these relationships, it gives a scenario for them being lived out.

The Tiger’s Tale

I skipped NBC’s airing of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy last night to finish reading Tom Clancy’s The Teeth of the Tiger. Sorry NBC, it’s rather queer how I always seem to miss that show.

Anyway, the book was OK, but definitely not one of Clancy’s best. It was quite predictable in places, even where there was no foreshadowing. It seems since Rainbow Six, Clancy has developed an uncanny penchant for even more uncanny coincidences in his books. I won’t spoil the plot here, but Clancy makes the reader take some giant leaps to get the book where he wants it to go.

I think Clancy’s best works are Clear and Present Danger and Without Remorse. Both of these books grapple quite well with some serious moral questions as well as laying out some more plausible storylines.

Still, if you’re a Clancy reader like me (I’ve read all of his novels), you’ll definitely not want to miss this one. The book is entertaining, although I fear that sheer entertainment may be all Clancy is writing for these days.