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An Open Letter to Meghan Cox Gurdon

Dear Ms. Gurdon,

Every Saturday I cruise down to the local market to get the weekend Wall Street Journal. It is one of my weekly pleasures to come home from church Sunday morning, enjoy a nice brunch and open the pages of a good newspaper. In particular I enjoy the Review section, mainly for the books. I have to say I’m surprised, but extremely happy, that you have a regular column on children’s books in the Wall Street Journal. After reading reviews of books about the history of mahogany and a travelogue based on the origins of noodles (really, WSJ?) your weekly exploration of children’s and young adult books is a welcome oasis.

Last week I received the July/August issue of Imprimis (a bit late) and was pleased to see your picture and byline on the front. Your topic, “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books,” was immediately appealing, with the added bonus of referring me to an article you wrote for WSJ in 2011 titled “Darkness Too Visible.” I knew that the young adult category was growing increasingly dark, but I was thinking of all the titles with vampires and zombies and such. I didn’t realize you were writing about human monsters. They’re even worse.

What I don’t understand is how books with such things as abductions, rape, self-mutilation, parental molestation, and oral sex can be labeled as “young adult.” Even less understandable is how writers, librarians and others see your reasoned and intelligent critiques as a threat to freedom of expression. Encouraging taste and discrimination in choosing and producing juvenile literature is a bad thing? Who knew?

While we’re on the subject of darkness in today’s books, have you seen the novels your colleague, Sam Sacks, has been reviewing in his “Fiction Chronicle” column? Granted that these are for adults, but the books he reviews contain debilitating grief, depression, misery, addiction, isolation, loneliness, breakdowns and family tensions. His words. From this weekend’s column. I can’t wait to walk past those books at Border’s. Does Mr. Sacks actively seek these novels? Are they sent to him? Does he see his therapist once or twice a week?

But wait, there’s more! Forget the books. There’s another kind of darkness lurking around the Review pages, the kind that sneaks into people’s subconscious, burrows in and sends roots all through their world view. In the “Mind & Matter” column, written by Robert Sapolsky and Alison Gopnik, human life is observed through the lens of materialist science. Biology, neurology, anthropology, psychology, chemistry and, of course, evolution, pretty much explain all our behaviors. Which basically means we are merely meat machines marching to orders we have no control over. Puts a smile on my face.

OK. I know. This wasn’t much of a letter. More of a rant, actually. But I really did mean what I said about your “Children’s Books” column. And your piece in Imprimis gives me hope that there are people still fighting to let some light into this ever darkening world. Keep up the good fight, Ms. Gurdon, and know there are lots of us out here cheering you on.

I’ll do what I can in my small corner, too.

All the Best,

Rob

P.S. -  Could you slip Mr. Sacks a copy of “The Wind in the Willows” or “The Hobbit” maybe? Thanks.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Children's Books, Ideas

 

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Do You Read “Young?”

Pan depicted on the cover of The Wind in the W...

Pan depicted on the cover of The Wind in the Willows (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several weeks back I read an article in the Reading Matters section of one of my favorite websites, MercatorNet. Titled “Books of Innocence and Experience,” it was about how more adults these days seem to be reading books intended for the young adult market, books like the “Harry Potter” series, or “Hunger Games.” I would go so far as to say that some adults are even reading what might be classified as children’s books. I know that within the past year I’ve read both. From “The Wind in the Willows” to “The Hobbit” to “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” I find these “young” books to be more engaging, interesting and with more intriguing ideas than a large number of so-called “adult contemporary” fiction.

The author of the article, Clare Cannon, points out that “contemporary adults’ novels offer weird and wonderful stories that try to make up for a lack of hope and ideals with bizarre twists and extreme experiences, or with the smashing of taboos and guilt which they blame for killing the happiness that their ‘liberal’ experiences should have given them.

“That is why so much of it is just plain depressing, even if many people find it addictive.”

I found evidence of this in last weekend’s book review section of the Wall Street Journal, which reviewed two new novels which “ponder the courtship habits of neurotic millenials in Brooklyn and Silicon Valley.” No thrill going up my leg over those. According to Ms Cannon there are many books on the market today that are “just plain depressing.”

So why are people reading these kinds of books? If anyone out there has any ideas, I’d love to hear them. Personally, I have no clue. But if they’re leading more people to read young adult and children’s books, maybe they’re serving a purpose after all.
 
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Posted by on July 19, 2013 in Children's Books, Ideas, Worries

 

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Old School Book Report

Jr High Literature Book TwoLast week my wife and I happened by an estate sale near our house, Now really, who can resist those? We sure didn’t. Unfortunately, it was the last day of the sale and much of the really good stuff (as far as my wife was concerned) was already gone or paid for. Luckily for Old Book Junkies like me, a lot of treasures are overlooked by the non-book lovers. And I thank them for their ignorance!

I snapped up two books this time, neither of which is particularly valuable except for the interest I have in their subjects. The first is an old literature textbook called, fittingly enough, “Junior High School Literature, Book Two,” (Scott, Foresman and Company, 1928.) I love thumbing through old textbooks to get a feel for what was being taught in our past and how. This literature book offered a nice view into what was being taught in our public schools 85 years ago.

The book was divided into four parts: The World of Nature, The World of Adventure, Freedom and Democracy and Literature and Life in the Homeland. Four parts, and two of them dedicated to the life and philosophy of the United States. How many of today’s textbooks could claim that?

Selections include “The American Boy” by Theodore Roosevelt, an explanation of the American experiment by Daniel Webster, an excerpt from George Washington’s farewell address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry W. Longfellow and Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”

The other volume was Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography, “Out of My Life and Thought,” (Henry Holt and Schweitzer BiographyCompany, 1949.) One of the last century’s most brilliant men, Schweitzer was a theologian, philosopher, musician and doctor. He was well known for his book “Quest of the Historical Jesus” and other volumes on theology. At 274 pages, it should be a crisp read.

That’s all for now, folks. Have a great week!

 
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Posted by on May 5, 2013 in Book Hunting

 

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The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions: Part 2

Reading a book on the virtues would not be most people’s idea of a good time. Who would want to read a 220

English: Map of Narnian world as described in ...

English: Map of Narnian world as described in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

page book about how you should behave and why? I’ve done that. “The Practice of Godliness,” by Jerry Bridges was over 260 pages of enlightening but somewhat tedious reading. I read it willingly because I wanted to learn more about the subject, but I can’t imagine that it’s a big bestseller.

“On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” by Louis Markos, is nothing like that book. Trust me. This book deserves to be a big bestseller, both in the secular market and, especially, the Christian market. Markos joins such writers as C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright and Richard Foster in arguing that being a Christian means more than holding a belief. His path to illustrating this truth is not theological, however. Being an English professor, he takes us down the Story road.

“On the Shoulders of Hobbits” is divided into four parts: The Road, The Classical Virtues, The Theological Virtues, and Evil. After a nice foreword by philosopher Peter Kreeft on how people become good or evil, Markos explains his purpose in an introduction titled “Stories to Steer By.” Being an educator, he is very aware of the rampant secular humanism that has saturated our school systems and culture in America today. This secular worldview is not much concerned with creating good human beings. It wants to produce career-ready people who fit into a secular society with a minimum of friction. The increasing emphasis in our schools today on science, math and technology testifies to this. Pretty much the only “virtues” taught to our children are environmentalism, multiculturalism and, of course, tolerance, which these days means (incorrectly) that anybody’s lifestyle is just as good as anybody else’s. This is a form of egalitarianism: all people, all ideas, all cultures are the same. According to Markos, this trinity of postmodern virtues will produce “a colorless, passionless, amoral existence.”

So how can we avoid this dreary, utilitarian future that the secularists are trying to force on us? Markos’ answer is simple: we need stories. Not the politically correct drivel that is dished out to our children (and us) daily in television and movies, but the grand heroic narratives Western civilization has long cherished and passed on to countless generations. Epics such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Divine Comedy. Epics like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And stories bearing eternal truths like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Markos likens Tolkien and Lewis to knights of old, carrying on the old understandings of good and evil, right and wrong, through their stories. Thus The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are the tales used in this book to examine the virtues our culture so needs in these times.

Throughout my delving into this wonderful book in future posts, I’m going to have to resist the impulse to quote Markos too often. He makes it difficult, however, because of his plentiful insights and observations. Thus I will give in to temptation and finish this post with a quote that, to me, makes clear the great need for the ideas in this book:

Our modern (and now postmodern) age has cast off – sometimes deliberately, but most often unthinkingly – many of the beliefs and virtues and disciplines that are necessary to the continuation of civilized life and the preservation of individual dignity and purpose.

To that I can only add, “Amen!”

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in Book Review

 

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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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Wonderful Find !

Christian Ed Books for KidsSo I stopped by my local library today and checked in the children’s section. They have a box by the children’s librarian’s door with free books and magazines they will eventually throw-away if no one grabs them. I’m all for giving unwanted children’s books a home!

Today I found 11 short paperback books published by The Westminster Press as part of their “Christian Faith and Life” series which is billed as a “program for church and home.” All of them appear to be from the 1950s and 60s and are illustrated in that classic 60s style art. I’m guessing the books are aimed at children in the 8 to 12 year-old age range. On top of everything else, they’re all in very good condition!

I have to say, after a brief skimming of a few of them, the theological concepts I found are clear and very well presented for children. Today’s churches could use these books!

I’ll try to share more of the contents with you as I have the chance to go through them.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2013 in Book Hunting

 

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More Educational Folly

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few days back I posted on a textbook I found. “The Garden in the Wilderness”  explored the themes found in the first few books of the Bible and how they have influenced the literature of Western civilization. It was from the 70s, and I wondered if schools would even use such a text today.

Well, it turns out our schools are going to be using even less literature now. If this article in The Telegraph is correct, our children will be exposed to fewer works of fiction. It seems such works as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Catcher in the Rye” (which I am not a particular fan of, by the way) will be replaced by what are being called “informational texts.” These new texts could explore such things as proper insulation levels and invasive plant species. Wow.

The change will supposedly happen by the 2014 school year. The reason for the change is that schools want to better prepare students for the work force.

Is that what we as a culture view education as being about?. If so, we are in worse trouble than I thought.

Any thoughts out there?

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2012 in Education, Reading, Worries

 

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The Word in the Wilderness

The Garden and the WildernessI’ve had a very successful week or so as far as finding some great books at thrift stores and library sales. Fortunately I’ve had the means to purchase the ones I really wanted. Not that any of these were particularly expensive, but times are a bit tight, after all. I’ll be doing another post soon to share these finds, but I wanted to do this post on one book that really started me thinking.

Now, this book isn’t anything rare or expensive. Nothing like that at all. But it is somewhat unique in that I doubt you would find anything like it being published today. Or used, for that matter. The book is titled “The Garden and the Wilderness,” and it was published in 1973 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. It was a high school textbook in a series from HBJ called “Literature: Uses of the Imagination.”

What this textbook does is take excerpts from the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (from The New English Bible, one of my favorite translations) and arranges them with writings from such authors as Carl Sandburg, Edwin Muir, Dylan Thomas, Loren Eiseley and William Blake, among others. The selections include essays, poetry, plays, short stories and folk songs. As the book’s introduction explains:

The Bible has enormous importance historically and as a sacred book. but it is also literature, with a central place in any serious study of the works of the human imagination. We hope that in years to come you will be stimulated to move from this volume and its companions to the Bible itself, and that some of you will even study the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek as paths to the rich absorbing writings found there.

Amazing.

Nearly 40 years ago, this textbook was used in some school, I can’t say for sure if it was a public or parochial school, though my hunch is that it was a public school. Here’s my question: Do you think such a book would find a place in any public school today? Would studying the rich themes of the “book of books” be considered too religious for our children? Despite the role these words played in the founding of our civilization?

In our increasingly secular American society, faith themes and ideas are increasingly marginalized, pushed aside, forgotten and ignored. The “war” isn’t on Christmas, but on religion in general.

The Word is, indeed, in the wilderness.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2012 in Education, Ideas, Old Books

 

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A Quotation and a Recommendation

First American edition, 1906

First American edition, 1906 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

London was a trove of the magic of childhood, for anyone who had read as obsessively as Winnie had done before the age of twelve. Pull back just a bit, and more of England became implicated: a bit of river out toward Oxford, on which a rat and a mole were busy messing about in a boat. Peter Rabbit stealing under some stile in the Lake District. Somewhere on this island, was it in Kent, the Hundred Aker Wood, with those figures who have yet to learn that sawdusty toys die deaths as certainly as children do. The irrepressible Camelot, always bursting forth out of some hummock or other. Robin Hood in his green jerkin, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill . . .

The person who would become a lifelong reader should stumble upon very rich stuff first, early, and often. It lived within, a most agreeable kind of haunting.

From “Lost” by Gregory Maguire

__________

This weekend, The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from Joe Queenan’s new book, “One for the Books,” which will be published this Thursday, October 25. They titled the excerpt, “My 6,128 Favorite Books.” If you absolutely LOVE books (I mean real books!) and reading, you must read this. Really, honestly, truly. I can’t remember the last time an article put such a huge smile on my face. Do yourself a favor and follow the link above to read this marvelous piece.

This what the love of books is all about.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2012 in Ideas, In The News, Quotations

 

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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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