July 9, 2012

Blurbing the Classics

I love this project that Justin Taylor is undertaking at the Gospel Coalition. He is curating blurbs on theological classics. These books are too old to have been blurbed about on their "original dust jackets," so they are finally getting the short commendations they deserve.

The first book is Augustine's Confessions, which I happen to have read recently. Taylor collected several blurbs and added his own take at the end. Here is Fred Sanders's.
If you took a list of the greatest books of western civilization and whittled it down to the top five, Augustine’s Confessions would still have a secure spot on that list. It might even make the cut and stay on the top three list; it’s that much of a classic. In this carefully-crafted book, Augustine does theology by listening to his life, and then listening even more carefully and passionately to the words of God. We hear him ask all the right questions and most of the wrong ones. We hear him finding the truth and saying it in his own words. Or rather, we overhear him, because from beginning to end the Confessions is one sustained prayer to the God who alone can give the soul what it needs.
Read the rest.

July 7, 2012

14 Characteristics of a Classic

I haven't posted in a while. I've been busy vacationing (saw a bear yesterday!) and finishing up Paradise Lost. An interesting article on Brain Pickings excerpts Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino. Calvino offers 14 characteristics of a classic book, most of which I agree with, some of which seem redundant to me.  Here are a few of my favorites.
5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.
8. A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.
 14. A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.
What do you think of the list?  Was "pulviscular" a new word to you like it was for me?

June 15, 2012

Twice Freed - Excellent Biblical Fiction

Twice Freed, by Patricia St. John, was a recent school assignment for my nine-year-old daughter. She was having a tough time getting into the book because of the tough vocabulary (it's recommended for 12 and up), so I decided to read it aloud with her.

I'm so glad I did. This book follows the life of Onesimus, a slave who is the topic of the book of Philemon in the Bible. My daughter and I enjoyed the story line and the struggles between and within the well-developed characters. I appreciated the accurate portrayal of society in the Roman empire including the institution of slavery, gladiators in training and in the arena, pagan festivals, guilds, shipping and dock work, and family relationships. The traits of the cities that Onesimus finds himself in--Colossae, Laodicea, Ephasus, Athens, Corinth, and Rome--are described without caricature (except maybe for Athens).

Twice Freed made me want to go back to the Bible and read Acts, Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, and the parts of Revelation that deal with the people and places mentioned in the book.

I highly recommend this book for adults and children 11 and up, and as a read-aloud for kids as young as about eight.

May 22, 2012

The Hidden Life of Prayer

Reading Camus's The Stranger with Dr. Ryken at The Gospel Coalition has been such a great experience that I am joining another reading group. This time it's with Tim Challies and the book is David McIntire's The Hidden Life of Prayer. Get your copy of the book (paperback, cheap kindle version, free pdf) and head over to challies.com. The first chapter will be discussed on May 31. See you there!

The Hidden Life of Prayer - David McIntire

May 21, 2012

The Only Christ We Deserve

Albert Camus said that Meursault, the protagonist of his existentialist novel, The Stranger was "the only Christ we deserve." He's right. And I'm glad that God gave a Christ that we didn't deserve.

I'm reading and discussing The Stranger with some fine folks at The Gospel Coalition under the guidance of Professor Leland Ryken. We're discussing chapter 4 now, but it isn't too late to join!

May 20, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces

I read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole on the recommendation of Russell Moore, and must say that I've never met a more despicable protagonist. You would never want to cross paths with Ignatius J. Reilly. He's an over-educated, underachieving, extremely judgmental, scheming, neurotic, physically disgusting, ungrateful mama's boy who billows through life leaving chaos in his wake. The book is funny, laugh-out-loud funny in many parts, and the disparate threads of the zany plot all wind together in a surprising yet oddly fitting way at the end.

Statue of Ignatius J. Reilly in New Orleans

A Confederacy of Dunces has been reviewed all over the place, so I won't spend much time on the story here. I'll just touch on one recurring motiff that made me think--the well-meaning, yet out-of-touch helper who only makes things worse. Myrna Minkoff, Reilly's girlfriend/nemesis is a socially conscious New Yorker who
had stopped throughout the rural South to teach Negroes folk songs she had learned at the Library of Congress. The Negroes, it seems, preferred more contemporary music and turned up their transistor radios loudly and defiantly whenever Myrna began one of her lugubrious dirges.
Mrs. Levy, wife of the owner of Levy Pants, refuses to allow Miss Trixie, an aged senile employee, to retire because she worries that Miss Trixie will fall into despair if she is not contributing to society. Really though, Miss Trixie wants nothing more than to retire, and spends her days at work napping, making bitter remarks, and hoarding bits of paper and foil.

Ignatius engages in this kind of activity more than once. He stages a "Crusade for Moorish Dignity" at the pants factory where he works, and he tries to organize New Orleans's gay community to infiltrate global government and military power structures in movement to "Save the World through Degeneracy."

Potential readers, be warned. A Confederacy of Dunces contains foul language including multiple f-bombs, and treats various sexual topics, though not lasciviously. In my opinion Toole, describes immorality without reveling in it, and the good in the book outweighs the bad. Christians sometimes jump in to "help" too quickly, and this book demonstrates the danger of that behavior with humor and compassion.

You can find A Confederacy of Fools on Amazon. As of this writing, the kindle edition is $3.99, the new paperback edition is $10.20 and you can buy it used for as little as a penny plus shipping. If you've read it, let me know what you think in the comments.

May 11, 2012

The Divine Comedy

A Medieval Journey Through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven

Loved the poetry.
Could have done with less
medieval astronomy.

This was my first reading of The Divine Comedy. I was blown away by some fragments of poetry. The amalgamation of classical and biblical references with modern (for Dante) political and religious intrigue was interesting. On the other hand, I kept losing the flow of the poem because I didn't recognize Dante's contemporary references--I had to either stop and check the notes or continue without understanding

The Divine Comedy takes a lot of its structure from Ptolemaic astronomy which I have very little familiarity with, so again, I depended heavily on the notes. It's kind of hard to know the constellations when you live in Tokyo and can usually see only a few stars at night.

After being totally engrossed by The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, I found The Divine Comedy tough going. If it weren't for some insightful bits of beautiful poetry (like the one below on the inability for humans to fathom God's justice), I might have put the book down. A second reading will surely help, but I'm not interested enough in teh book to tackle it again right away.

"therefore, the vision that your world receives
can penetrate into Eternal Justice
no more than eye can penetrate the sea;
for though, near shore, sight reaches the sea floor,
you cannot reach it in the open sea;
yet it is there, but hidden by the deep."
Divine Comedy, Paradiso XIX, 58-63

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri

May 3, 2012

Why Christians Should Read Literature

Many Christians wonder whether reading fiction is a good use of time. In an interview with Tim Challies, Russell Moore, the Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, discusses the benefits, possible dangers, morality, and responsibility of reading fictional literature.

Here are some of the benefits Moore sees of reading literature:
  • "Fiction helps to shape and hone . . . the moral imagination."
  • "Fiction can sometimes, like Nathan the prophet’s story of the ewe lamb, awaken parts of us that we have calloused over, due to ignorance or laziness or inattention or sin."
  • "Fiction helps the Christian to learn to speak in ways that can navigate between the boring abstract and the irrelevant mundane."
  • Fiction teaches empathy
  • Fiction is "rooted in an endlessly creative God who has chosen to be imaged by human beings who create."
Moore also shares his personal guidelines for whether or not to read a book that might contain objectionable material, and muses on the difference between literature and mere fiction.

Challies asks Moore to recommend a few contemporary novels. Moore's first and highest recommendation is for A Confederacy of Dunces. On his recommendation, and in spite of the hideous cover art, I downloaded it for my kindle. Happy reading!

Read the whole interview here.

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

Read Camus with a Wheaton Professor

Professor Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College is leading a discussion of Albert Camus's The Stranger. It's a great opportunity to read and discuss a classic under the guidance of an eminent Christian man of letters. He s going through a chapter a week, with his comments on chapter 2 just being posted today. I found a copy at my local library and caught up with the reading and discussion today. I'm commenting there as Jeremy. Here are links to what's going on so far.
See you there!

Albert Camus - The Stranger

April 25, 2012

Reason for Difficulties

"Everything difficult indicates something more than our theory of life yet embraces, checks some tendency to abandon the straight path, leaving open only the way ahead. But there is a reality of being in which all things are easy and plain--oneness, that is, with the Lord of Life; to pray for this is the first thing; and to the point of this prayer every difficulty hedges and directs us." -George MacDonald

Edited by C. S. Lewis, this book contains 365 short excerpts from George MacDonald's writings. The above quote is one I've been rereading and pondering for a couple weeks.

George MacDonald's work is in the public domain. You can learn all about him and get links to his writings on the George MacDonald Informational Web.

George MacDonald - Anthology

April 21, 2012

A Praying Life

Let go of guilt about prayer and live connected to God as he intended.

Prayer is part of life,
Not just for some holy few.
Talk to the Father.

Paul Miller, in A Praying Life, addresses all the normal obstacles to prayer--from short attention spans to honest doubt about what good prayer does--and encourages us not to give up. He reminds us of the relationship we have with God and urges us to make that relationship a natural part of our everyday lives. Miller's theology is rich and practical. He refers often to struggles that he and his wife face with their adult daughter who is autistic. I've read several books about prayer, and this is the one that has benefited me most so far. Just writing this makes me want to go back and read it again!

A Praying Life - Paul Miller

New Testament History

Revitalize your reading of the New Testament

Knowing the background
Brings God's holy word to life,
So read history.

Besides the epic poems, I'm reading books that help me with my life of faith. F. F. Bruce's New Testament History has been on my shelf for a long time. I'd used it for reference before, but read it cover-to-cover for the first time this January. It helped me understand, among many other things, the complicated status of Judea; who the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes were; and why Paul's preaching to God-fearing gentiles in the synagogues was so successful and controversial. My daily devotions have been enhanced by what I learned in this book.

New Testament History by F. F. Bruce

The Iliad of Homer

Where Western literature began

Unquenchable rage,
Even when it's justified,
Leads only to hurt. 

So begins my mission to read good books well. This was my third reading of the Iliad, but my first time as a father. Two scenes that touched me in new ways are when Hector returns to Troy and meets his wife and baby son, and when Priam goes to the Greek camp to beg Achilles for his son's body.

Iliad of Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

How to Read a Book

The book that inspired the mission

Pretentious title?
Maybe. But it does the job
It sets out to do.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

Mission: Read Good Books Well

This is the year I regain my attention span through reading.

photo credit
I've always been a reader--I even earned a degree in literature two decades ago. Over the past several years, I noticed a change in my reading habits. I began reading more blogs, news, and light "tricks and tips" related to my profession, and less fiction, poetry, and challenging nonfiction. As my reading habits changed, I observed troubling changes in my thinking patterns and attention span too. Deep analysis and divergent thinking became tedious. I found myself thinking in terms of quick fixes and bullet lists,
  • which
  • isn't
  • necessarily
  • good.
The catalyst for change came during winter break last year. We planned a family trip to visit the in-laws. Knowing that I'd have plenty of time to read (and that the internet connection would be flaky), I threw Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book into my backpack. I devoured that book in a week. The message was simple and challenging:

Read good books well.

That's my mantra this year. I determined to read challenging books and to read them rigorously.

But what to read? I set a goal to read five epic poems: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. (Links are to the translations I'm reading, except for Paradise Lost which was written in a language I happen to know.) To keep from burning out on the genre, I decided to take a month or two for each book and intersperse some other edifying books among them for variety.

This blog is the book-by-book record of my reading. I'll post what I'm reading, some general impressions, and a very brief review (maybe a haiku). I welcome your reading suggestions, questions, and encouragement. Feel free to leave comments, subscribe, and share on your social networks. Just don't let it take you away from your reading!