Only 51 Years To Go!

Word nerd alert: yesterday it dawned on me that I’ll probably still be alive in 2066, when the world will mark the 1000th anniversary of the Norman invasion of England, which began the transition from Old English to Middle English.

It’s a big date in language history, and I’m genuinely excited to help celebrate it. I’ll only be 89 (and my daughter will have become president just 14 years before).

I’ll commit now to reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that year, in his original Middle English. Who else is in?

When Did Mormon Give the Sermon in Moroni ch. 7?

Spoiler: I’m going to propose that this amazing, majestic sermon was probably written and delivered by Mormon when he was just a teenager.


I read Moroni chapter 7 this last weekend. That’s where Moroni records his father’s great sermon about faith, hope, and charity. The rhetorical background of this text intrigues me.

First of all, we know to whom it was delivered; Mormon says quite clearly at the beginning that it’s for “you that are of the church, that are the peaceable followers of Christ, and that have obtained a sufficient hope by which ye can enter into the rest of the Lord, from this time henceforth until ye shall rest with him in heaven” (v. 3).

We can infer from the text, and what we know of that period of history, why it was given: surely, this was during a period of societal decline, and these faithful church members–no doubt a beleaguered minority–needed encouragement and guidance for dealing with their troubled times.

The text does a great job of achieving that goal. Here’s how: Mormon counsels them to, first and foremost, maintain righteous desires in their hearts (vv. 5-11), then proceeds to remind them of how to discern between good and evil (vv. 12-19–note that here he also stresses that everyone originally has the light of Christ in them [v. 16], which would be a striking teaching as they were surrounded by an increasingly wicked, crumbling society).

Mormon goes on to comfort and motivate them by preaching of the blessings of having faith (vv. 20-39), which leads to the blessings of enjoying hope (vv. 40-43), which leads to the blessings of exercising charity (vv. 44-48).


But my big question here is when it was given. Mormon’s most typical teaching mode–extrapolating morals from historical narratives (i.e. all of his famous “and thus we see” statements)–is completely absent here. Indeed, even the many contextual details that he drops in his second letter to his son in Moroni ch. 9 about the imminent doom of their ruined society has no corollary in ch. 7. In fact, the odd absence of that facet of Mormon’s modus operandi leads me to the theory I propose here.

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You Don’t Really Like Edgar Allan Poe

76652-004-60D7B595You think you do, but you don’t.

You think you do because you remember some of his stories from school: the one where the guy cuts up and buries his neighbor, the one where the guy buries the other guy alive in his cellar, the one where death ruins a party. Maybe you remember “The Raven” and thought it sounded cool.

But here’s the thing: those are probably the only pieces you know and, frankly, they’re not very representative of his body of work. They’re the greatest hits. They’re the ones we know kids might like.

Have you ever read much more of his stuff? It gets pretty dense. After the pieces mentioned above, textbooks tend to have “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The former is universally thought to be boring, what with a narrator who is constantly terrified and fainting at nothing, and the latter bores even the most ardent honors student to tears. I love the florid, Gothic prose of “Usher,” but students can’t stand a story so heavy on atmosphere and so light on action.

And the rest of his oeuvre gets worse from there. Try slogging your way through “Descent into the Maelstrom” some time. Took me a few tries to even finish that one.

This isn’t to say that Poe’s a bad writer who only wrote boring stuff. Far from it! Many of his other pieces are hidden gems (and this one is actually quite funny!).

But he is, frankly, overrated, and the pop culture adoration of him is rooted in naive nostalgia for a tiny fraction of his work. If more people read more of his work, rest assured the honeymoon would be over pretty quickly.

Now me, I’m more of a Lovecraft man.

Time and Poetry

I need more poetry in my life. This occurred to me not long ago when I noticed on my shelf Bill Brown‘s book, The Gods of Little Pleasures. I had bought this in a tiny craft store in Virginia on my honeymoon 12 years ago, and had still not finished it. This week, I finally did.

And loved it. Brown’s poetry is exactly the kind of thing I like. His themes include reverence for age and a domestic life enhanced by appreciation for the natural world. I wish I could share more of this wonderful collection, but here are two items.

First, Brown reading the last poem in the book, from which the title comes:

“Worship” appears to be the end of a little trilogy that concludes The Gods of Little Pleasures. The other two–“Backwoods Vespers” and “Prayer”–are also excellent.

Second, here’s another one I loved, appropriate for this time of year:

“October Poem”

The cat on the porch cocks an eye

as I tote wood for October’s fire. Perhaps she

remembers naps beside the hearth.

“First frost, first fire,” my father said;

and this morning’s yard is ashimmer.

Lost in the push of my life, the one

to earn bread and shelter, it’s good

to recognize an order both immediate

and beyond my plans. Hope, like desert rain,

is always welcome. That’s the danger.

This morning hope comes in little rituals

lost to summer: splitting wood, gathering

kindling from oak branches at the fence.

Building the first fall fire is like lighting

a prayer candle to some space lost

among the daily rhythms of the heart.

One can stop time only in dreams,

but at the edge of a season, I sense

a slowing of the blood; something resolute

and fleeting is remembered for an hour,

then forgotten. I take my coffee to the porch,

sit by the cat, and watch the first smoke rise

in unknown messages toward heaven.

“In the loveliest town of all”

Last week I finished reading Stuart Little to two of my youngest children. There was much that I enjoyed about it, but particularly near the end I was surprised by joy with this passage: the first paragraph of chapter 13:


How wonderful! A lovely little line about a lovely little town in Stuart Little. This whole charming paragraph is really just one big sentence. There are four big clauses in the middle here, stacked like an inverted pyramid, and that last long clause does go gorgeously on and on (itself in four stacked chunks, the last of which goes gorgeously on and on).

I also like how all of that meandering meat in the middle of the sentence is tied together: we start off with “In the loveliest town of all” and after our quick guided tour of paradise we’re pulled back in for the main idea by a neat reordering of that initial introduction: “in this loveliest of all towns.” Delightful!

It’s a nearly-pastoral appreciation of bygone Americana that all leads up to a great and irrepressibly cute detail: Stuart got a sarsaparilla.

Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a more perfect picture than E.B. White did here.

Sherlock Holmes Meets Cthulhu

Sherlock_holmes_vs_cthulhuSo Neil Gaiman, the great author of dark fantasy, apparently wrote a short story about Sherlock Holmes meeting Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft’s giant ancient alien monster.

Last week I had a few minutes between classes on different campuses, so I swung by the library. The start of a school year always puts me in the mood for easy genre fiction, and right now I’m hankering for Lovecraft. Browsing the shelves I saw a recent anthology, an homage to the master.

Picked it up, flipped through it, found this one.

It was just as excellent as any Gaiman fan might hope.

I was extra delighted to find my own name in it, in a reference to “Huston, the acid-bath man,” some sort of thoroughly homicidal type, it seems.

It’s available in a few places online, most attractively here.  Highly recommended.

Fahrenheit 451 is a Conservative Classic

9781451673319_p0_v7_s456x700And I don’t mean “conservative” here just in the sense that Bradbury is arguing for preserving an established way of life, though his most famous work certainly does that.

No, despite its perennial status as a staple in the counterculture, Fahrenheit 451 defends the ideas of the right far more than the those of the left.

It’s always fun to track the many items in our modern world that Bradbury basically predicted here: earphone radios, massive flat screen televisions, reality TV, etc.  Far more prescient, though, are the modern issues of the Puritanical, tyrannical left that he saw ascending to dangerous heights.

Consider these passages from Beatty’s exposition in the first third of the book.  I’ve labeled them with contemporary problems that Bradbury described perfectly.

Censorship comes from aggrieved special interests who don’t want to be challenged.  This narrowing of acceptable ideas helps dumb down the culture and focuses it on lurid media that stimulates the body and pacifies the mind. 

“All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag.”

A sprawling government bureaucracy can infantilize society through a shallow, technical education system and a coarse, hedonistic media culture.

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, what do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”

“If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.  Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it.  So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”

9 Blue Jokes in Shakespeare That Made Me Laugh

I admit, these juvenile gags gave me a giggle, and I kept track of them in my notes.  In chronological order:

#9. Guys get teased about someone sleeping with their mother.

Shakespeare is full of practical life advice. Like this: let’s say you’ve been secretly sleeping with some powerful female executive, which would really cause a scandal if revealed, because you’re black.

But then she gets pregnant and the baby comes out black, so the cat’s pretty much out of the bag on that one. Then, her two spoiled brat sons start whining to you that your little scandal has ruined mom’s career. What’s a guy to do?

Don’t worry, Shakespeare’s got you covered:

Demetrius. Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron. That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron. Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron. Villain, I have done thy mother.

–Titus Andronicus, Act IV, Scene 2, emphasis added

That’s right: tease the jerks about it. When Chiron says, “Thou hast undone out mother,” he means that Aaron has spoiled their mother’s reputation. Perhaps Titus Andronicus is set in Mississippi. But Aaron replies with one of those clever plays on words that Shakespeare is so famous for. Aaron’s response also uses the word “done,” but here it means…something more literal.

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Leo Tolstoy on Naive Liberals

Today I read chapter 10 in Part V of War and Peace.  Our hero, Pierre, having recently become enlightened, has set out to reform his estates accordingly.  He enacts some progressive ideas and then tours the area to see the results:


The southern spring, the comfortable rapid traveling in a Vienna carriage, and the solitude of the road, all had a gladdening effect on Pierre. The estates he had not before visited were each more picturesque than the other; the serfs everywhere seemed thriving and touchingly grateful for the benefits conferred on them. Everywhere were receptions, which though they embarrassed Pierre awakened a joyful feeling in the depth of his heart. In one place the peasants presented him with bread and salt and an icon of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, asking permission, as a mark of their gratitude for the benefits he had conferred on them, to build a new chantry to the church at their own expense in honor of Peter and Paul, his patron saints. In another place the women with infants in arms met him to thank him for releasing them from hard work. On a third estate the priest, bearing a cross, came to meet him surrounded by children whom, by the count’s generosity, he was instructing in reading, writing, and religion. On all his estates Pierre saw with his own eyes brick buildings erected or in course of erection, all on one plan, for hospitals, schools, and almshouses, which were soon to be opened. Everywhere he saw the stewards’ accounts, according to which the serfs’ manorial labor had been diminished, and heard the touching thanks of deputations of serfs in their full-skirted blue coats.

What Pierre did not know was that the place where they presented him with bread and salt and wished to build a chantry in honor of Peter and Paul was a market village where a fair was held on St. Peter’s day, and that the richest peasants (who formed the deputation) had begun the chantry long before, but that nine tenths of the peasants in that villages were in a state of the greatest poverty. He did not know that since the nursing mothers were no longer sent to work on his land, they did still harder work on their own land. He did not know that the priest who met him with the cross oppressed the peasants by his exactions, and that the pupils’ parents wept at having to let him take their children and secured their release by heavy payments. He did not know that the brick buildings, built to plan, were being built by serfs whose manorial labor was thus increased, though lessened on paper. He did not know that where the steward had shown him in the accounts that the serfs’ payments had been diminished by a third, their obligatory manorial work had been increased by a half. And so Pierre was delighted with his visit to his estates and quite recovered the philanthropic mood in which he had left Petersburg, and wrote enthusiastic letters to his “brother-instructor” as he called the Grand Master.

“How easy it is, how little effort it needs, to do so much good,” thought Pierre, “and how little attention we pay to it!”

He was pleased at the gratitude he received, but felt abashed at receiving it. This gratitude reminded him of how much more he might do for these simple, kindly people.

Heh.  And thus we see that human nature will conspire to constipate civic charity.  I also like Tolstoy’s clear message that one of the monkey wrenches in Pierre’s plan is the corruption of bureaucratic middle managers, who exist to perpetuate their own comfort.  It was ever thus, and thus always shall be.

Yet again, the Law of Unintended Consequences in action.  Truly, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

“Primary Education of the Camiroi”

XTRTRRSTRB1988One of my favorite science fiction stories is R.A. Lafferty’s “Primary Education of the Camiroi.”  I remember reading it in the Issac Asimov-edited anthology Extraterrestrials at the old Charleston Heights library in the late 1980’s.  I loved how weird and silly it was–I’d never read anything quite like it.

Reading it again now on Google Books, I see it as a pretty biting satire of an American education system that even by the late 60’s, when the story was first published, was already showing cracks.  I especially loved the schema for the alien curriculum near the end, which I’ve copied below.  In fact, I think this story helped influence young me in my decision to become a teacher.

I really think we should consider some of the “modest proposals” in this story.  I would have loved having a class in “laser religion” as a high school freshmen.

My grade for this story now, nearly 30 years after first reading it?


Lafferty 1 Lafferty 2 Lafferty 3 Lafferty 4 Lafferty 5

12 Required Readings For the Human Race

Last month I mentioned on Facebook that I’d feel satisfied with my life if, in the future, there’s a library named after me.  This prompted someone to ask what books would be the first on the shelves, which would be the books I’d recommend reading most.

I’ve been thinking about it: what would the core of that collection be?  Not my own desert island books, necessarily, but the ones I think that all other people would enjoy the most and derive the most value from.

I decided to pick the twelve categories most important to me, and pick one for each.  They are all absolutely wonderful, and I think they would meet that criteria above: they are important, accessible, and worthwhile.  Here they are. in alphabetical order by category:

Children’s: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo

A masterful allegory that delights and inspires.  Fun, short, cute, and genuinely powerful.

History: Heroes of History, Will Durant

Durant’s choices for figures to honor is amazing enough, but the way he tells their life stories is one of a kind in its sheer beauty and power.  An amazing classic.

Humor: Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse

There are so many funny books I’d want people to read, but the Jeeves and Wooster stories have a special place, and everyone should try them.  There’s just nothing else out there like these.  Truly, a singular joy.  Really, anything by Wodehouse would be good here.

Literature (classic): Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

And there are so many more classics than humorous titles I’d love to share!  But this one has to take the cake.  From the profoundly brooding tone, which no one else has touched in terms of sheer stark glory, to the generational saga of ruin and redemption, to the narrative ingenuity of it all (at one point, there’s a story within a story within a story, all told in distinct and vividly arresting voices), Wuthering Heights has the best of it all.

I don’t care it if supposedly inspires Twilight.  It’s still awesome, and I still love it.

Literature (contemporary): Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I don’t think any work of the last generation has impressed me or touched me as truly as this one did.  It can only be recommended in breathless tropes: a soaring, searing paen to the human spirit, majestic in its earthy, folk tradition.

Mystery: An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears

A long, detailed historical murder mystery that deftly weaves fact and fiction.  So mysterious that for much of the time, you don’t even know it’s a mystery, until the threads all start coming together.  One of those very long books that you’ll wish was ten times longer.

Politics: The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet

Mamet’s explication of his political conversion and the subsequent re-evaluation of the various values underpinning our current ideologies is perfect.  Nobody has explained it all better.

Religion (LDS): The Book of Mormon

Nothing better shares the vitality and depth of this faith than its foundational text itself.  Often plain and prosaic on the surface, it nonetheless offers a unique epic narrative, with revolutionary (and surprisingly humanistic) theology.  Its constant, frankly moving calls to charitable reformation are couched in rhetoric that frequently evolves its approach, and thus repeatedly registers deep in the universal psyche.  A journey not to be missed, or taken casually.

Religion (non-LDS): Essential Writings, Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and one of the most wonderful personalities I’ve ever met on paper.  I’ve read plenty of metaphysical shysters, but this man knows it and means it.  His words are soothing and moving in the best and most lovely of ways.  A treat for the soul–pure joy.

Science Fiction/Fantasy: Dune, Frank Herbert

Yes, everyone knows of this one, but I think fewer have actually read it than should.  Its achievement is so different from what we’re already used to just two generations later: a sweeping, immersive creation that never panders to stale conventions.  Indeed, there are no robots or explicit space travel in its hundreds of pages of gorgeously sprawling sci-fi spectacle.  Everybody really should read this.

Self-Improvement: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey

I still read a lot of this genre–I’ve found a lot to like in Laura Vanderkam and Gretchen Rubin in recent years–but just as every action movie in the last quarter century or so seems to be a copy of Die Hard, every self-help manual is derivative of The 7 Habits.  It might be too this or too that, but it does have the virtue of working.  You want to actually live without regrets and do that whole bucket list?  Start here.

Travel: Charles Kurault’s America, Charles Kurault

A homely work by a calm old man, this is still the best thing I’ve read about the people and places all around our amazing land.  Kurault has a gift for taking you with him and making you experience all five senses’ worth of the trip.  I’d love to follow his footsteps on this one someday.

William Faulkner and the Book of Mormon

I recently shared with some classes the acceptance speeches of great American authors who had won the Nobel Prize in literature.  I’m always struck by William Faulkner‘s declaration that:

The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.

It reminds me so precisely of this statement from Moroni at the end of the Book of Mormon:

give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.

Another reminder that the greatest literary achievements tend to admit the inherent darkness of existence, because only then can we actually rise above it.

Every Play By Shakespeare, Ranked And Graded

Last year I read everything Shakespeare wrote. Here now are my final notes on the plays.  The grades only represent how much I enjoyed reading each work; they are not meant to be an objective measure of quality:



38. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Almost a total loss. There are a few cute parts and clever lines, but this juvenile, obvious mess of a play is clearly the work of someone still getting the hang of playwriting.  I’m not one to judge past works by present standards, but the casual misogyny of the conclusion is jaw-droppingly awful.

37. Pericles

Nearly as bad as Two Gentlemen. Yes, the last act has some very nice stuff, and I actually liked Act IV, but the first three acts are so wretched they almost seem purposely bad. At one point, a character remarks on how poor his speaking is.  A meta joke?

36. The Two Noble Kinsmen

This late work is far more complexly plotted and artfully written than the two plays above, but while those areas are much more competent, this play suffers from an identity crisis. Too light to be tragic and too violent to be comedy, this one also has little to say about human nature, an unforgivable sin for Shakespeare.

35. The Merry Wives of Windsor

A star vehicle for a great but minor character from other plays—Sir John Falstaff—this play is no different from a thousand other vanity project spinoffs: it loses the original charm completely.  Still, there are quite a few funny, if lowbrow, jokes here.

34. The Taming of the Shrew

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My New Article on Temples and Families in the Bible

The Integration of Temples and Families: A Latter-day Saint Structure for the Jacob Cycle” was published on Friday.  This is my first peer-reviewed, academic article, so I’m pretty excited.  Anyone with an interest in Biblical literature, or its temple and family themes, would likely enjoy it.

David Grayson’s Under My Elm

elm 1#1162 in Life’s Little Instruction Book says: “Try to find a copy of the book Under My Elm by David Grayson (Doubleday, 1942). You might have to order it.

I did have to order it.  Here are the passages I marked:

I don’t know what it is, but there is something about steady manual labor like this, alone in the fields, that gives one a curious deep satisfaction. I like the sense of doing hard work that is also useful work. One’s mind at first drops asleep, except for the narrow margin relating to this or that repetitive process. One lets go, calms down. For hours, sometimes, while at such work, I came near the point of complete mental vacuity. The mind sets itself the minute task it has to do and goes off somewhere to its own high pastures, serene uplands, to rest and play. The hours pass magically: the sun that was low when the work began rides high in the heavens—and suddenly the mind comes home again. It comes home refreshed stimulated, happy. I always know the exact moment of its arrival. Yesterday it did not return until I had nearly finished my work in the field. It seemed to cry out: “What, asleep! Listen to the bobolinks.”
I straightened up quickly and realized that I had been working for several hours without hearing or seeing much of anything—this literally. The whole world now became flooded with delightful sounds, not only the bobolinks, but a hundred other voices both of nature and human nature, so that I had a deep and indescribably friendly feeling towards all things. I thought it good and beautiful to be there and to be alive. Even the grass clinging wetly to my legs as I walked seemed consciously holding me close to the earth; and the shovel held warmly, even painfully in my blistered hands, was proof that I had at last become part of a universal process. These sensations, even as I set them down, seem difficult to express, but they were there, and they were true and sound. (11-12)


elm 2Steve had been working all day, harrowing and fertilizing his tobacco land, and should, I suppose, be properly tired. But the weeds in the onions are growing! Down on his knees he went and began weeding. A moment later his wife was at his side. The children cried a little, for they were tired and hungry and wanted to go home, but soon whimpered down. I wondered what an American family I know of, which keeps a nurse for each of their weakling children and a second girl to help the nurses, would say to this way of “raising” children! These two little Poles are magnificent physical specimens, and the boy, when clean, is really beautiful. At eight-thirty when it was too dark to see, the family trailed homeward, Steve carrying the little boy in his arms. Can these people be beaten? (86-87)

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