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“Our Evening Land”

Harold Bloom, "The Western Canon: The Boo...

Harold Bloom, “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.” (Photo credit: nikkorsnapper)

Unfortunately, nothing ever will be the same because the art and passion of reading well and deeply, which was the foundation of our enterprise, depended upon people who were fanatical readers when they were still small children. Even devoted and solitary readers are now necessarily beleaguered, because they cannot be certain that fresh generations will rise up to prefer Shakespeare and Dante to all other writers. The shadows lengthen in our evening land, and we approach the second millennium expecting further shadowing.

- Harold Bloom, from “The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages”

Published seven years after Allan Bloom’s monumental “The Closing of the American Mind,” Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon” sounded yet another alarm about the state of education in our universities, specifically about what is being read and how reading is approached. His opening and closing essays, “An Elegy for the Canon” and “Elegiac Conclusion” are worth the price of the book themselves. Read them and see how the American university is becoming an “evening land.”

What is it about Blooms anyway?

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2013 in Authors, Education, Quotations, Reading, Worries

 

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The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions

Over the past few months I’ve found myself becoming interested in the subject of wisdom. Biblical wisdom in

English: C.S. Lewis Plaque on the Unicorn Inn ...

English: C.S. Lewis Plaque on the Unicorn Inn C.S. Lewis author of the famous Narnia series of children’s books came to school in Malvern. He later returned for hill-walking holidays. The walks frequently ended at the Unicorn Inn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

particular, but also the everyday wisdom of ordinary life. Some might call that “common sense.” Whatever you choose to call it, I think we can agree it’s in short supply these days.

I’ve been thumbing through some of my Bible commentaries and reading about the sources and types of wisdom literature. I’ve also been keeping my eyes open when I go book hunting for works dealing with virtues, values, morals and wisdom. But not ethics. I’ve tried reading books on Christian ethics and they work better than Melatonin on me.

Then just after Christmas I stumbled across a website and an author who had a new book coming out in February 2013. The author is Louis Markos and the book is “On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” (Moody Publishers.) Needless to say, I ordered it.

I’m glad I did. This is one of the most enlightening books I’ve had the pleasure of reading. There was so much to learn in it and I enjoyed every bit. It was obviously written by a natural teacher, someone who knows his material and knows how to share it. Plus, Markos uses the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to illustrate his points; indeed, he immerses us in Middle Earth and Narnia, granting insights into the moral thinking of these two great authors. My copy is proudly dog-eared and underlined. Yours will be too if you follow my advice and purchase this book.

As I wrote in my previous post, this book deserves more than a one-shot review. I believe I used the word “delve” to describe how I’d like to approach this. So let’s get started.

The obvious place to start is with the author, Louis Markos, PhD. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that there are so many brilliant people out there that I’ve never heard of. I mean, who has time to keep up on everything being written today? But once in a while, I come across a writer that just floors me and I wonder, “Why haven’t I heard of this person sooner?” Dr. Markos is one of those. He’s an English professor and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, as well as an expert on C.S. Lewis (one of his heroes), and J.R.R. Tolkien. He’s also well versed in film criticism, which I found out by reading the bibliographical essays at the end of the book. The back cover says he’s also a highly requested speaker. How he found time to write this book, I can’t guess. I encourage you to go to his webpage and read some of his essays and biographical information.

But the main thing that hooked me right from the start is that this man “gets” the importance of Story, as evidenced by the title of the book’s introduction, “Stories to Steer By.” To Markos, “stories provide not only models of virtuous and vicious behavior but a sense of purpose – a sense that our lives and our choices are not arbitrary but that they are ‘going somewhere.’” As a theologian once put it, we humans live our lives swimming in a sea of story.

That’s all for now. Next time I’ll begin to explore the actual subject matter of On the Shoulders of Hobbits. I hope you’ll join me for the trip.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2013 in Authors, Book Review, Education, Favorite Books

 

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The Amoral Virtues

In our public schools today, there are only three virtues taught: tolerance,

Virtue

Virtue (Photo credit: Leonard John Matthews)

multiculturalism and environmentalism. Really, there is only one: inclusivism or, better, egalitarianism – all people and ideas should be treated the same; all cultures are equally valid; man is not distinct from nature but merely another species. . . When all other virtues are reduced to a bland egalitarianism, our humanity is likewise reduced to a colorless, passionless, amoral existence.

- Louis Markos, from his book “On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis” (Moody Publishers, 2012)

I have nearly finished reading this wonderful, and important, book. You can bet that I will have much more to write about this soon. Markos writes so many important things in such a clear and engaging style, the pages just slip by. Plus he illuminates many important passages from The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and includes some nice background information on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

This isn’t a book to be reviewed. It is a book to be delved into. I’ll try to do that in future posts. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and get this book.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in Authors, Quotations

 

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Don’t Get Too Close!

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film)

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sorry I’ve been away from the old keyboard for a bit. About two weeks ago I came down with something like a head cold on steroids. Headache, sinus pressure, a small cough and the usual “Yuck!” By the time my wife and I would get home from work in the afternoons the only thing I would be good for was the couch. It hurt to think much less actually put thoughts to paper (or screen, as the case may be!)

But even when I’m sick, there is one thing I still can do. Read. So here’s a brief recap of what I’ve been reading since the last time I put fingers to plastic.

I finished the fourth book in Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series, “Lost Souls,” in which we meet the third incarnation of Victor Frankenstein, Victor Immaculate. By far the worst of the three, he is even scarier because his views are the same as certain groups of very radical environmentalists today. You might think that there couldn’t be anything funny about this book, but you’d be wrong. Koontz’s pairing of characters and the situations he places them in bring forth some of the best dialog you’ll ever read. Trust me on this. The fifth and final book in the series, ” The Dead Town,” is ready and waiting for me to finish two other books I’m now reading.

One of which is Eugene Peterson”s “Eat This Book.” My Christian friends will recognize Peterson as the author of “The Message.” Some think “The Message” is another paraphrase of the Bible but it describes itself as a “contemporary rendering of the Bible from the original languages, crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and ideas in everyday language.” Now, in “Eat This Book,” Peterson discusses the best ways to read this amazing book called the Bible. He stresses that we should try to avoid “atomizing” it, chopping it down into little factoids or proof texts for our pet positions. He spends a lot of words exploring a type of spiritual reading called “lectio divina” which has come down to us from ancient Christians. It’s a wonderful, encouraging read.

Finally, I’m reading the second in Thomas Cahill’s “The Hinges of History” series, titled “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.” I read his first volume “How the Irish Saved Civilization” last year and was completely charmed by it. This volume is equally well-written and fascinating. Even if you’re not a person of faith, you owe much to this bunch of desert dwellers. Without their beliefs and ideas, the way we view ourselves and our world would not be possible.

Well, that’s it for now. There are plenty of other books lined up for this year as well. I need to put together some sort of reading plan, but since organization has never been one of my strong suits I won’t promise anything. But I will promise to try to be better about getting to the keyboard. Once I’m feeling better.

Better spray your screen with Lysol for now.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Authors, Book Review, History, What I'm Reading

 

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C.S. Lewis, Dean Koontz, Mad Scientists: Happy New Year!

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece ...

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hello again.

Yes, I’ve been away for a while. As most of you probably know, the holidays can be a hectic time. Not only was our business crazy-busy the two weeks before Christmas, but my wife and I then traveled to California after Christmas to visit my mother and some dear friends. When we arrived home this past week, our small business still demanded we run around like crazy people. Don’t get me wrong. That’s a good thing in this economy. But it kept me from being able to post until now. Which is not a good thing.

I hope and trust that you all had a wonderful holiday season and made it through safely. I also hope you all got the books you truly wanted. I did. I got copies of Eugene Peterson’s “Eat This Book,” Richard A. Burridge’s “Imitating Jesus,” and Dean Koontz’s “Frankenstein, Book Three: Dead and Alive.” That last one I tore through while we were in California. What a book!

Originally intended to be a cable television event, then a trilogy co-written by Koontz and another author, “Frankenstein” has finally been fulfilled as a five-volume series exploring and expanding the themes begun by Mary Shelley in her original novel. Why Dean Koontz agreed to co-author the first two books is somewhat of a mystery, given that he writes novels the way bunnies . . . well, you know.

Anyway, it would be a bit unfair to do a detailed review of “Dead and Alive,” given it’s the middle book in the series and I don’t want to spoil too much in case anyone out there decides to read the whole arc. I will say that it contains the usual sharply drawn characters (including the original Frankenstein’s monster as a hero this time), off-beat humor and the unnerving situations that Koontz is famous for. What he is also famous for is his exploration of important themes, in this case what happens when man tries to play God. (It’s also the theme of one of my favorite television series, “Fringe”) The fact that in today’s world we have genetic engineering going on and biotech companies patenting new bacteria lends a certain immediacy to this story.

Koontz actually dedicates the first three books, the original Frankenstein trilogy, to C.S. Lewis, opening “Dead and Alive” with a quote from Lewis’ book “The Abolition of Man”:

I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.

In his dedication, Koontz credits Lewis for realizing “that science was being politicized, that it’s primary goal was changing from knowledge to power, that it was also becoming scientism, and that in the ism is the end of humanity.” So true. Lewis was well ahead of the curve in seeing that.

Not to start off the new year on a down note, but there really are mad scientists in the world today. I can point you to some blogs and websites where they are quite active. We need to approach the future with our eyes open. And a Dean Koontz novel.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2013 in Authors, Book Review, Ideas, Quotations, What I'm Reading

 

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Good-Bye, Jacques

Good-Bye, Jacques

This weekend I read of the passing of Jacques Barzun. It made me more than a little sad. Not because I was his biggest fan or have read all of his books (I’ve read one.) What made me sad was that another great mind and insightful thinker has passed from our world at a time when we can ill afford the loss.

Jacques Barzun was a historian but his interests were broad ranging. Music, art, teaching, the intellectual life, even detective fiction were the subjects of his writing. However, his observations and commentary on Western culture was where, to me in my limited exposure, he truly shone. He strongly believed that ideas greatly influence civilization. Take this example from “Darwin, Marx, Wagner,” which I read several years ago:

The Evolution which triumphed with Darwin, Marx, and Wagner . . . was something that existed by itself. It was an absolute. Behind all changes and all actual things it operated as a cause. Darwinism yielded its basic law, and viewed historically, its name was Progress. All events had physical origins; physical origins were discoverable by science; and the method of science alone could, by revealing the nature of things, make the mechanical sequences of the universe beneficent to man. Fatalism and progress were as closely linked as the Heavenly Twins and like them invincible.

Their victory, however, implied the banishment of all anthropomorphic ideas, and since mind was the most anthropomorphic thing in man, it must be driven from the field, first in the form of God or Teleology, then in the form of consciousness or purpose. These were explained away as illusions; those were condemned as superstition or metaphysics.

There, in eight easily understandable sentences, was Barzun’s analysis of the idea of Darwinism. That he wrote so clearly was another of his talents. He was an intellectual who wrote so that everyone could understand. He was a public intellectual in the best sense of the word.

His magnum opus, “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present,” was published when he was 93 years old. Amazing. I hope merely to be breathing by then.

Joseph Epstein shared his memories of Jacques Barzun in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal. I can do no better than to leave you with his closing sentences:

He lived to 104, and his death scarcely comes as a surprise. Chiefly it is a reminder that a great model of the life of the mind has departed the planet. Not many such models left, if any.

Amen.

 
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Posted by on October 30, 2012 in Authors, History, Ideas, In The News

 

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Were You Educated By A Loose Canon?

The Great Books of the Western World is an att...

The Great Books of the Western World is an attempt to present the western canon in a single package of 60 volumes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I asked “What kind of reader are you?” Now I want to know, “What books did you read when you were in school?” I’m not talking about elementary school here. More like middle or high school. What books did your teachers expose you to?

I’m curious about this because I’ve been perusing Harold Bloom’s wonderfully eye-opening book, “The Western Canon,” (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994). Most of us these days think of the Bible when we hear the word canon, but it does have a broader application. A canon is basically an authoritative list. Thus Bloom:

Originally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions, and despite the recent politics of multiculturalism, the Canon’s true question remains: What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?

What Bloom is getting at here is that there are far too many books for people to read, even in several lifetimes. Choices need to be made. There are certain books that are definitive of our Western culture, the core if you will. We’re talking about such authors as Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dickens, Goethe, Milton and, Lord, I’m barely scratching the surface here. Are we, or our teachers, choosing the books we really need to truly understand our culture?

How many of these seminal writers were you exposed to during your high school years? Or even college? The odds of today’s students having the opportunity to read these great minds grows ever slimmer due to what Bloom describes as “the academic-journalistic network I have dubbed the School of Resentment, who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change.”

I’ll attempt to grapple with more of the details later, but for now please ruminate on this: Can a person understand Western civilization, or even be a part of it, without some minimum knowledge of its greatest writers and thinkers? How would one choose the Canon?

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Authors, Education, History, Ideas, Old Books, Worries

 

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What Kind of Reader Are You?

What Kind of Reader Are You?

We book lovers and readers tend to take reading for granted. It is an activity we engage in everyday, for greater or lesser periods of time. Some of us read fiction, some of us prefer nonfiction and some of us enjoy mixing the two together. Some readers like to be challenged with complex plots, ideas or subjects. Others enjoy the escape of the paperback equivalent of a comic book. Reading is wonderfully diverse in its offerings to devotees.

No matter what type of reader you may be, you would benefit from exposure to “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Adler was one of America’s leading public intellectuals during the middle of the last century and this book, originally published in 1940, is still considered by many to be a classic. To Adler and Van Doren reading was, and is, a complex activity involving much more than recognizing and mentally linking words on a page.

They have identified four levels of reading here. First is Elementary Level, basically what a person is capable of after graduating from elementary school. Next is Inspectional Reading, or the art of systematic skimming of a book to get the necessary information needed within a limited amount of time. Third there is Analytical Reading, which is a deep and thorough reading when one has as no time limits to worry about. Finally they identify Syntopical Reading, describing it as a kind of comparative reading. In their words, “It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all.”

While the book explores and explains these levels of reading, it also goes into other areas, including how to read different types of books and how to use a dictionary properly. The key is that Adler and Van Doren take reading seriously. Adler was one of the driving forces behind the Great Books of the Western World, a 54- volume set published by Encyclopaedia Britannica. He helped set up a great books program at the University of Chicago. For Adler, effective reading was truly the key to learning, so important that advanced reading skills should be one of the teaching goals of high schools and colleges:

A good liberal arts high school, if it does nothing else, ought to produce graduates who are competent analytical readers. A good college, if it does nothing else, ought to produce competent syntopical readers.

So, what kind of reader are you? Are you a casual reader, or someone who really digs-in to a book to get at what the author offers there? Or does it depend on what type of book you’re reading? Do you feel your high school or college trained you to read effectively? And do you think e-readers will influence how people read in the future?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2012 in Authors, Education, Old Books, Reading

 

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Laura Ingalls Wilder, Advice Columnist?

Author Laura Ingalls Wilder used her experienc...

Author Laura Ingalls Wilder used her experiences growing up near De Smet as the basis for four of her novels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the pleasures of book hunting at yard sales, thrift stores and library sales is finding that unknown book or author. Or even, as in this case, an unknown book by a well-known author.

I came across “Writings to Young Women From Laura Ingalls Wilder, Volume One: On Wisdom and Virtues,” at a Salvation Army Thrift Store a few weeks back. Everyone who’s been near a television in the past several decades has heard of the series, “Little House on the Prairie,” based on her books of the same name.She and her family were true pioneers and her accounts of her years on the American frontier are not just great stories for young people but are also considered valuable historical records of that time. So I admit to be being more than a little surprised by this title from her.

It turns out that Laura Ingalls Wilder was also a newspaper columnist for The Missouri Ruralist, a small publication reportedly still in business. She didn’t start her career in journalism until she was in her forties, according to the book’s introduction. She wrote for the Ruralist for about fifteen years before beginning her Little House stories. So take heart, late bloomers: Laura began her career as a book author in her sixties!

Edited by Stephen W. Hines, this book is a compilation of some of her columns from the Ruralist about the use of wisdom in this life. Her writing here is clear, direct and somehow touching. As editor Hines puts it in his introduction, ” . . . nothing of real importance ever changes. Her concerns are not so different from the ones we have today, though they take different form.” Here are a few samples,

The habit of saying disagreeable things or of being careless about how what we say affects others grows on us so easily and so surely if we indulge it.

__________

I am sure we will all agree that these laws of ours should be as wise and as few as possible.

__________

Our hearts are mostly in the right place, but we seem weak in the head.

The book is a delight to read, filled with stories and anecdotes and lessons learned from years of living. It is, indeed, a book of wisdom of which there are way too few in these days. Our children and grandchildren should be exposed to these types of books at every opportunity. We should read them and talk about them together.

One last observation. Laura Ingalls Wilder died in 1957. Born in 1867, she lived nearly a century. It gives me a chill and a deep sense of our connected history to think that I was three years old when she passed.

Thank you and God bless you, Laura.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2012 in Authors, Book Hunting, History

 

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The Immense Journey

The Immense Journey

That is the title of one of my all-time favorite books. Written by the eminent anthropologist, Loren Eiseley, and published in 1957, it is the story of life, from its unknown origins in the dim past to its present state. Being an anthropologist, Eiseley focuses most of his attention on the evolution of Man.

I first read this book almost 20 years ago, and was riveted by Eiseley’s writing. I’m not normally a science geek, although I do find it interesting. But reading “The Immense Journey” was a revelation. He was that rarity, a poet-scientist, who could explain the path of life and evolution without making it tedious and mechanical. Indeed, he mainly rejected the easy, mechanistic explanations of how Man evolved to become what he is today.

Too many of today’s scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists, see everything concerning life as mechanism. Completely absent from their worldview are any purpose or meaning. Many times, the soulless prose of these scientists reflects their vision. Not so Loren Eiseley. He saw mystery not just in Man, but in all of life, and that sense of “owl-eyed wonder” (his words) illuminated his writing.

I quoted one of my favorite passages from this book a couple of Sundays back, but I want to share another of this author’s marvelous descriptions of wonder:

. . . but more delicate, elusive, quicker than the fins in water, is that mysterious principle known as “organization,” which leaves all other mysteries concerned with life stale and insignificant by comparison. For that without organization life does not persist is obvious. Yet this organization itself is not strictly the product of life, nor of selection. Like some dark and passing shadow within matter, it cups out the eyes’ small windows or spaces the notes of a meadow lark’s song in the interior of a  mottled egg. That principle – I am beginning to suspect – was there before the living in the deeps of water.

By all accounts Eiseley was a not a religious man in any traditional sense of the word. Yet he was no enemy of religion either. He was comfortable using religious imagery when it was called for, as in this quote from the editors’ preface to this edition of the book:

 . . . whether we speak of a God come down to earth or a man inspired toward God and betrayed upon a cross, the dream was great, and shook the world like a storm. I believe in Christ in every man who dies to contribute to a life beyond his life. I believe in Christ in all who defend the individual from the iron boot of the extending collective state . . .

Do yourself a favor. Read this book.

 

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Authors, Favorite Books, Ideas

 

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