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)

Continue reading

About these ads

57 Perfect Tens

I just read these two great posts about rereading favorite books.  I very rarely do that–I’m one of those who have so many new things I want to read that it’s hard to justify making time to go back to books I’ve already finished.

Still, this made me review the notes I’ve kept on my reading–a list of every book I’ve read since 2001.  From that record, I see that I’ve given exactly 57 books a perfect 10, not suggesting that they’re all masterpieces, but that reading them was pure, supreme joy for me.  If I were stranded on a desert island, this would be my library.

  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey
  2. As You Like It, William Shakespeare
  3. A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe
  4. The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham
  5. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary vol.1-3, Bruce R. McConkie
  6. Raising Up A Family to the Lord, Gene R. Cook
  7. Charles Kuralt’s America, Charles Kuralt
  8. The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs
  9. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  10. Beowulf, Seamus Heaney, trans.
  11. The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
  12. Heroes of History, Will Durant
  13. The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde
  14. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
  15. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  16. How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton
  17. The Stranger, Albert Camus
  18. Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
  19. America Alone, Mark Steyn
  20. The Tetherballs of Bougainville, Mark Leyner
  21. On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
  22. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
  23. Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse
  24. A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  25. Reading the OED, Ammon Shea
  26. An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
  27. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  28. The Westing Game, Ellen Rankin
  29. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  30. Rise To Rebellion, Jeff Shaara
  31. Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces, Wendy Beckett
  32. The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert
  33. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
  34. The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay
  35. Dune, Frank Herbert
  36. No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  37. World War Z, Max Brooks
  38. Richard II, William Shakespeare
  39. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  40. Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
  41. Henry IV, Part I, William Shakespeare
  42. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
  43. Carry On, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
  44. The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet
  45. Noble House, James Clavell
  46. Flatland, Edwin Abbott
  47. Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
  48. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  49. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
  50. Paradise Lost, John Milton
  51. Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock
  52. One For the Books, Joe Queenan
  53. Dubliners, James Joyce
  54. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
  55. Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
  56. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  57. His Excellency: George Washington, Joseph J. Ellis

 

John Stuart Mill on Living Well

I’m getting a lot out of Mill’s autobiography. From the end of chapter 3, wise advice:

I learnt how to obtain the best I could, when I could not obtain everything; instead of being indignant or dispirited because I could not have entirely my own way, to be pleased and encouraged when I could have the smallest part of it; and when even that could not be, to bear with complete equanimity the being overruled altogether. I have found, through life, these acquisitions to be of the greatest possible importance for personal happiness, and they are also a very necessary condition for enabling any one, either as theorist or as practical man, to effect the greatest amount of good compatible with his opportunities.

And near the end of chapter 4 Mill details the casual self-improvement programs he and some friends conducted, mostly as a sort of intense book club. They studied languages, read and discussed serious works, and debated issues. Where are such groups today?

Continue reading

Great Education Quotes From John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, Chapter 1

Mill’s story of his unusually successful education is worthy of study for every parent, student, and teacher.  Or any lover of clear, precise prose, for that matter.

The single best quote comes from near the end of the chapter:

 

A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.

 

Here are five others worth pondering:

 

  1. It was at this period that I read, for the first time, some of the most important dialogues of Plato, in particular the Gorgias, the Protagoras, and the Republic. There is no author to whom my father thought himself more indebted for his own mental culture, than Plato, or whom he more frequently recommended to young student. I can bear similar testimony in regard to myself. The Socratic method, of which the Platonic dialogues are the chief example, is unsurpassed as a discipline for correcting the errors, and clearing up the confusions incident to the intellectus sibi permissus, the understanding which has made up all its bundles of associations under the guidance of popular phraseology. The close, searching elenchus by which the man of vague generalities is constrained either to express his meaning to himself in definite terms, or to confess that he does not know what he is talking about; the perpetual testing of all general statements by particular instances; the siege in from which is laid to the meaning of large abstract terms, by fixing upon some still larger class-name which includes that and more, and dividing down to the thing sought—marking out its limits and definition by a series of accurately drawn distinctions between it and each of the cognate objects which are successively parted off from it—all this, as an education for precise thinking, is inestimable, and all this, even at that age, took such hold of me that it became part of my own mind.

Continue reading

Notes on Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End 

childhood'sIn June I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  It was excellent; clearly a precursor to the 2001: A Space Odyssey script.

Some stray thoughts as I was reading:

“There were too many brilliant amateurs, and the changed economic conditions had made the old system obsolete.”  ch. 10.  After superior alien saviors come to Earth and create a paradise, humanity uses its free time to get awesome at everything, thus the changed economy.  Are we seeing something similar now with blog reporting and YouTube videos?  I think we are.

I love prescient science fiction predictions, but Clarke says that humanity’s vastly increased leisure has the dystopian result of us starting to watch TV for up to…wait for it…3 hours a day!  This was written in the 50’s.  Isn’t that cute?

“In this galaxy of ours,” murmured Karellen, “there are eighty-seven thousand million suns.  Even that figure gives only a faint idea of the immensity of space.  In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the desserts of the world.”  ch. 14.  This is why I love good sci-fi.  It intelligently inculcates a healthy, humble reverence for the universe.

It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time.  In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.  ch. 19.  Alas, Clarke’s generation never could have imagined that civilization would voluntarily extinguish itself through epidemic demographic decline, and would celebrate it all the way to the collective nursing home.  Like his naive TV watching warning, reality turned out far scarier than he prophesied.  It’s always sad when tragic speculation turns out to be, if anything, too optimistic.

Reading the Whole Book

Much debate among educators these days revolves around the preference in the Common Core State Standards for reading book-length works in excerpts more than in their entirety.

The argument in favor seems to go that there’s too much to cover, and that the skills we need to inculcate can be adequately covered with bits and pieces of text, rather than by slogging through entire works.  Besides, kids today won’t read a whole book, anyway.

Those with such a view are missing out on a huge, obvious fact about reading.

Reading an excerpt isn’t the same thing as reading the whole thing.

I’ve read summaries of and excerpts from long classics plenty of times, and not long afterwards, I’ve forgotten the themes, allusions, stylistic features, and even much of the plot.  Shallow experiences only bring shallow memories.

Continue reading

Stardust and Ink

A while ago, I found this passage among some notes I jotted in a journal.  I was scribbling some thoughts down about the nature of being a compulsive reader and writer.  Pretty melodramatic stuff, but I like the general sentiment:

You read and write. You have ink in your veins and stardust in your soul. You don’t need to stop and smell the flowers because you’re growing a garden in your heart. Yes, you’re giving up some of the typical twists and turns of life. Don’t care. You have speed. A speed so electric, so immediate and eternal, it’ll pull tears out of your eyes and make an hour feel like being awake for weeks at a time.

This life of outer stillness and inner intoxication will thrill you whenever you think about it and nurture you through the rest. Think about it often. And don’t leave the covers closed for too long.

2012: My Year in Books

2012 was by far the worst year of my adult life for total number of books read: I only finished 17 books the whole year; my next worst year was 2001, when I finished 19.  Clearly, I need to tackle my problem with distraction.

Or, in terms of quality over quantity, it wasn’t bad at all: I gave five books a perfect ten for enjoyment; my worst year for that was 2008, which only had 2 perfect tens.

Below is the list, with dates finished, my 1-10 score for much I liked reading it, and either a brief comment or link to my review.

 

1. Comstock Lode, Louis L’amour (1/18, Western)–7.  Good, but no different from others of his I’ve read.

2. Cloak, James Goff (2/7, fantasy, young adult)–8.

3.  Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (4/6, literature)–10.  I can’t believe I never finished my review of this!  I made some notes: I jotted down my two favorite quotes:

“I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

I also wrote down that I loved her usage of Numbers 6:24-26.

4.  Mozart: His Life and Music, Jeremy Siepmann (4/14, biography)–9.  Innovative biography mixed life story with music appreciation to the benefit of both.

5.  Maphead, Ken Jennings (5/11, memoir, humor)–9.

Continue reading

How to Prune a Library

For years, I’ve subscribed to a pretty Spartan philosophy about buying books.  A few weeks ago, as part of a larger effort to declutter, I decided to apply these rules to my existing library retrospectively.

Thus, I showed up to work one morning with a few cardboard boxes filled with about 150 books, which I gave away to my students.  (God bless the little bookworms where I work; every last book was gone by the end of the day.)

I only buy a book if it meets one of these conditions: Continue reading

Epic LOLs in Milton’s Paradise Lost

I’m reading John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, and what impresses me most (besides how aggressively macho Milton makes every detail—perhaps how Ray Bradbury would write if he were on steroids) is how funny it can often be.  Two scenes in Book 2 will demonstrate:

As the deposed demons discuss what to do about their infernal exile, Moloch (the John Wayne of the underworld) campaigns for another assault on heaven and an open war on God.  The more pragmatic Belial worries that the risks of God’s further wrath outweigh the rewards in that course, and says:

What if the breath that kindl’d those grim fires [ 170 ]

Awak’d should blow them into sevenfold rage

And plunge us in the flames? or from above

Should intermitted vengeance arm again

His red right hand to plague us? what if all

Her stores were open’d, and this Firmament [ 175 ]

Of Hell should spout her Cataracts of Fire,

Impendent horrors, threatning hideous fall

One day upon our heads; while we perhaps

Designing or exhorting glorious warr,

Caught in a fierie Tempest shall be hurl’d [ 180 ]

Each on his rock transfixt, the sport and prey

Of racking whirlwinds, or for ever sunk

Under yon boyling Ocean, wrapt in Chains;

There to converse with everlasting groans,

Unrespited, unpitied, unrepreevd, [ 185 ]

Ages of hopeless end; this would be worse [emphasis added]

That’s great—yes, infinite torture for eternity would be a mite bit worse than exile.  Those last four words strike me as a supreme sort of understatement.

Later, they all agree to Satan’s plan to look into this new  project God’s been working on—creating creatures called “humans” and settling them on a place called “Earth”—and see if there’s some way they can stick it to him by messing it up.  Continue reading

2011: My Year In Books

I only read 26 books in 2011, but on the plus side, this year had the highest overall quality of any year yet–by far the most perfect tens.  And in my own defense, some of these were pretty long.  Mostly, this makes me realize how little I’ve blogged about my reading this year–I used to write more reviews.  I’ll try to do better. 

This year I read in entirety some books I’d only picked away at in part before (Bleak House, Zen), and some that have been on my to-do list for years (Flatland, Neverwhere, Speaker).  Before this year, I’d read Shakespeare’s Henry V, so I wanted to read the rest of the Henriad tetralogy–Richard II, and Henry IV, I and II.  Time well spent. 

As with the movies, there was a sharp drop off at the end of August, when school started.  The last four months have really been quite demanding.  Hopefully this Spring semester will be a little easier. 

1. Richard II, William Shakespeare (2/5, drama, literature)–10  As good as any of the tragedies, a study in self-magnified flaws leading to ruin. 

2. Bleak House, Charles Dickens (3/9, literature)–10  A tour de force of detective mystery, atmosphere and style, four dimensional characters, and withering social commentary (every law school student should be required to read chapter 1, at least).  Also, spontaneous human combution.  Seriously.  I’ve wanted to read this since PBS first aired the Masterpiece Theater serial in 2005 which, now that I’ve finally finished reading the book, I really need to see. 

Continue reading