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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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You Animal, You!

I read an interesting article this weekend in The Wall Street Journal by Frans de Waal, primatologist at Emory

The Elephant Fiasco

The Elephant Fiasco (Photo credit: locket479)

University in Atlanta. Titled “The Brains of the Animal Kingdom,” it offered many interesting examples of the intelligence of such animals as chimps, elephants and octopuses, some of them pretty amazing. The point? Nothing new really. As de Waal puts it, “science keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals.” The implication being that humans are nothing special, just another animal.

Sigh.

This just gets so tiring, but it offers an example of why it is good to read books and not just the newspapers. I take you back to 1967 and a book written by the late, great Mortimer J. Adler. “The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes” (Holt, Rinehart & Winston) explores the many areas in which humans are not “just another animal.” Adler even quotes evolutionists such as George Gaylord Simpson, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Julian Huxley as referring to man’s uniqueness. As Dobzhansky put it, ” Human intellectual abilities seem to be not only quantitatively but also qualitatively different from those of animals other than men.”

In one of his Frankenstein novels, author Dean Koontz has a character state that “to fight bad ideas is a life’s work.” Well, the idea that humans are nothing but animals needs a good butt-kicking.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2013 in Ideas, Quotations, Worries

 

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Holy Chip!

The rear LCD display on a Flip Video camrea

The rear LCD display on a Flip Video camrea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I was reading an article in the Wall Street two weekends ago about yet another technological revolution heading our way. Titled “Is Smart Making Us Dumb?” it explored the new wave of “smart” technology we’ll be seeing soon. There’s a trash bin that analyzes your recycling efficiency and posts the results on Facebook if you’re not “green” enough. There’s a fork that monitors how fast you’re eating and signals you to slow down if needed. Computer scientists are even working on a “smart kitchen” where you’ll be surrounded by video cameras and computers guiding your every move. It’s like Disney’s Tomorrow Land on steroids.

Fortunately, the article’s author, Evgeny Morozov, approaches the subject from a skeptical, critical viewpoint. He’s not all pie-eyed at the new shiny things. In fact, he calls attention to a frightening trend in the futurist, technology camp: fixing things like us.

Morozov quotes Google CFO, Patrick Pichette, as telling an Australian news program that his company’s computer scientists “see the world as a completely broken place” that can be fixed by technology. He also points out that Jane McGonigal, a game designer and futurist, often talks about how “reality is broken.” Finally, Morozov makes it clear that the word “smart” is “Silicon Valley’s shorthand for transforming present-day social reality and the hapless souls who inhabit it.” The religious overtones are hard to miss.

“The serpent said to the woman . . . ‘you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen. 3:5, ESV)

Over a half century ago, scientist and visionary Loren Eiseley, wrote in his book, “The Firmament of Time,” that technology will change man, and not for the better. “The rise of a science whose powers and creations seem awe-inspiringly remote . . . has come dangerously close to bringing into existence a type of man who is not human. He no longer thinks in the old terms; he has ceased to have a conscience. He is an instrument of power.”

We’d best open our eyes.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2013 in Ideas, In The News

 

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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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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

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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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Monday Musings

I’ve been having pretty good luck with the book hunting lately, but I was exceptionally fortunate this past Saturday at my local library’s ongoing book sale. I found a beautiful copy, in excellent condition, of “Ivanhoe,” by  Sir Walter Scott. This hardbound edition put out by the The Heritage Club (The Heritage Press, 1950) includes the original slipcase and a copy of the Heritage Club newsletter, “Sandglass,” which goes over some of the more interesting historical notes about the novel.

“Ivanhoe” was published in 1819 and became Scott’s crowning success. I haven’t read it before, but according to the “Sandglass” insert, it’s a true swashbuckler and includes two of my all-time favorite characters: Locksley (AKA Robin Hood) and Friar Tuck. How they got in there I have no idea, but I’ll let you know when I find out. I don’t remember any Ivanhoe being in “The Adventures of Robin Hood!”

Also interesting is the fact that Scott raised some eyebrows by including Jews as prominent characters in his novel, which at that time was considered “startling, exotic.” The character of Rebecca was based on a real Jewish American Tory named Rebecca Franks who lived in Philadelphia during the Revolution. Being a Tory, after the rebels won America’s independence, Rebecca and her family were evacuated to England where she eventually met Scott. The rest, as they say.

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The Wall Street Journal had an excellent Books section this past weekend. I was particularly interested in two reviews.

First off, the Library of America has just published a two-volume set, “The Little House Books” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The set puts together all nine of the Little House books plus special supplemental texts for a total of 1,490 pages. The timing on this review was perfect, considering I had just done a brief spotlight post on Wilder’s “Writings to Young Women” about a week back. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a wonderful writer and a real American icon, who wrote these books for children so that they would understand “what it is that made America as they know it.”

Something that all too many people today seem to have forgotten.

The other review of interest was about Jonathan Sacks’ new book, “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning,” (Schocken, 370 pages, $28.95). Sacks, the chief rabbi of the Untied Kingdom, has a go at the currently flaring battle between science and religion. I find this topic fascinating, though I expect neither side will win a final victory. I know where I stand, and I’m sure that Richard Dawkins knows where he stands, but I don’t see either of us changing our minds any time soon. But it is fun to watch the volleys each side lofts at the other. Ah, the bombs bursting in air!

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Finally, I received the advance copy of “The Core of Johnny Appleseed” a few days back. This is the book I wrote the Foreword to. It’s beautiful, if I say so myself.

It’s scheduled to be released on November 1st. Here’s the link to the Amazon listing for those who are interested.

Thanks and have a great week all!

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Book Hunting, History, Old Books, Uncategorized

 

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Book Hunt Results and Some Thoughts

Book Hunt Results and Some Thoughts

Thank goodness for my local library. When the Old Book Junkie needs a fix, he knows where he can go. It paid off nicely this past Saturday.

I found something I’ve been looking for for quite a while; a volume of the collected stories of Edgar Allan Poe. “Edgar Allan Poe Stories: Twenty-seven Thrilling Tales by the Master of Suspense” (Platt & Munk, 1961) has what most Poe fans would expect like The Telltale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But it also has a story called Metzengerstein, about the transmigration of souls (brownie points for those who know the difference between transmigration and reincarnation!) The volume ends with a nice selection of his poetry.

I also snagged a copy of “Tozer on the Holy Spirit” (Christian Publications, Inc., 2000). It’s “a 366-Day Devotional” which includes a daily scripture reading, extended passages from A.W. Tozer‘s best books as well as quotes from other authors. This will be a welcome addition to my mornings!

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One of my favorite Sunday activities is going over the book reviews in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. This weekend, however, reminded me of why I prefer older books.

Some of the books reviewed included books about small behaviors such as yawning and sneezing, books about natural versus technological navigation and books about the future of cities. Now I’m sure these are all fine books, but there wasn’t a big idea to be found anywhere. Our culture seems to become more self-absorbed with each passing year. We’re fascinated with our smallest of behaviors, with how we do this or do that, how we created our technological wonders, where we live and how we’ll live in that great promised-land called the “Future.”

It all seems a bit superficial to me somehow. Maybe it was just a slow publishing week.

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It wasn’t a totally negative WSJ Weekend, however. There was a great piece in the Off Duty section of the paper called “E-Books, A Breakup” by Joshua Fruhlinger. Well written and funny, Joshua cuts to the heart of the matter with one succinct sentence: “I realized then: E-readers are needy, but a paperback will always be there for you.”

Right on, Joshua!

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A while back I wrote about my experience writing the foreword to “The Core of Johnny Appleseed”. For those of you interested, here’s a link to the book as it appears in the Christian Bookstore. Go check it out!

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2012 in Authors, Book Hunting, E-Readers, Ideas, Old Books

 

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