I’ve read 100-page books which had 99 wasted pages of meandering bloat, and I’ve also read 1000-page epics that raced by in such a passionate flash that I wished they were ten times longer.
It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.
What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.
What is worth dying for is barely noticed.
–Laura McBride, We Are Called to Rise
I’ve been reading a great collection of writings by Christian leaders from just after New Testament times. I’ve largely enjoyed it, but as I get into the second half, I’m stalling out–my enthusiasm for this one is just winding down, so I’m putting it back on the shelf for now (sorry, Justin Martyr).
The Ensign had a great article about these writings in the August 1976 issue.
Of the documents I’ve read so far, all were at least good, and some were really great. The four marked with an A+ I highly recommend to everybody. Here are my notes and quotes:
This one comes from a bishop who knew and was mentored by the Apostles, and his letter is amazing. It’s actually from within the first century, making it contemporary with the New Testament, and was even included in some early versions of the New Testament. It isn’t canonized scripture for us, but it isn’t far off…the Spirit is there in this one.
35 How blessed and amazing are God’s gifts, dear friends! 2Life with immortality, splendor with righteousness, truth with confidence, faith with assurance, self-control with holiness! And all these things are within our comprehension. 3What, then, is being prepared for those who wait for him? The Creator and Father of eternity, the all-holy, himself knows how great and wonderful it is. 4We, then, should make every effort to be found in the number of those who are patiently looking for him, so that we may share in the gifts he has promised. 5And how shall this be, dear friends? If our mind is faithfully fixed on God; if we seek out what pleases and delights him; if we do what is in accord with his pure will, and follow in the way of truth. If we rid ourselves of all wickedness, evil, avarice, contentiousness, malice, fraud, gossip, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, pretension, conceit, and inhospitality.
There are seven of these letters–as a whole, I give them an A-, but his letters to the Romans and to the Philadelphians each get a solid A, and my favorite, to the Ephesians, gets an A+. A quote:
9 I have heard that some strangers came your way with a wicked teaching. But you did not let them sow it among you. You stopped up your ears to prevent admitting what they disseminated. Like stones of God’s Temple, ready for a building of God the Father, you are being hoisted up by Jesus Christ, as with a crane (that’s the cross!), while the rope you use is the Holy Spirit. Your faith is what lifts you up, while love is the way you ascend to God.
You are all taking part in a religious procession,185 carrying along with you your God, shrine, Christ, and your holy objects, and decked out from tip to toe in the commandments of Jesus Christ. I too am enjoying it all, because I can talk with you in a letter, and congratulate you on changing your old way of life and setting your love on God alone.
There’s a popular trope among students (and many teachers) that the things people read should be “relatable,” meaning that stories should reflect the ideas, cultures, and even ethnicities of the readers. That, we are told, is what gets people interested, and helps them to enjoy and benefit from reading.
Hogwash. Balderdash. Baloney.
If the point of reading–of education in general–is only to wallow in a celebration of ourselves as we are, then what’s the point?
Some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had–and certainly the ones that have mattered the most and stuck with me the most–are those that challenged me by presenting things that were not relatable. (I still remember sitting in some waiting room about a dozen years ago and passing the time by perusing a copy of Latina Businesswoman Magazine; it was a joyous glimpse into another world.)
There might even be an almost inverse relationship between the power of a text and the degree to which it resembles the life of the reader.
The pandering instinct behind the push to present more relatable texts to students is only going to stunt their minds further. After all, even for the selfie generation, staring at themselves eventually becomes boring.
That’s what TBT stands for, right?
- I read any number of Cliff’s Notes when I was young, and the summaries never stuck with me for long. However, putting in the dozens of hours to actually read a big, dense novel always burns many aspects into my long term memory. There’s nothing else like this experience for non-readers to relate to, and it’s sad to me that so many students may never know the thrill of remembering the favorite minor details of a weeks-long reading project years or decades later. It’s one of life’s special pleasures.
- Over the last two weeks, I’ve picked up a dozen books that I’ve been meaning to read from the library. I’ll never be able to read them all before they’re due, but carrying the stack around and feeling them all together is pleasant. Hopefully seeing them on the table will motivate me to read the ones I’m in the middle of now faster. Man, I love the library.
- Another great joy of being an aging reader: seeing the covers of new editions of cherished books and remembering how much better the old ones were. I don’t keep as many books at home as I used to, but I still have some from my youth 20-30 years ago and seeing those old covers is always a treat. For some reason, the illustrations on older editions of horror novels are scarier, fantasy and sci-fi novels are more creative and clever, and literary novels are more earnest. Nostalgia, I suppose. Something else we miss out on if the young don’t read. Life with books is grand.
My post a couple of weeks ago about the Just For Boys book club reminded me of something else I loved in Boys’ Life as a kid–the Pool of Fire comic.
I wasn’t old enough to have read the serial adaptations of the first two books in the trilogy, which ran earlier, but I came into the story during the run of this third book in the mid 80s. It was one of the first comics I ever read, and I loved it: action, adventure, Big Ideas!
Today I’m most impressed that a science fiction series was broken down and doled out in such small parts over the course of several years. Where does anything like that happen anymore? And do any kids still get introduced to great stuff like this in comic form? I know I only ended up reading the original books in this series because of the comics.
Some swell fella has collected all of the original comics here.
Apparently, all the old issues of the magazine itself are on Google. Perhaps it’s not too late to build the robot from the February 1987 issue?
My favorite scene from the 2002 documentary Stone Reader. The combination here of the elemental score, the slow and colorful visuals, and the simultaneously awakening and valedictory narration make this a truly beautiful bit of the filmmaking art.
I copied and posted this clip online because nobody has much from this great movie anywhere, and I want to spread awareness of it. I encourage anyone seeing this to appreciate this celebration of literacy and to purchase the complete documentary–it’s really a wonderful film.
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)
Steve 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)
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.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey
- As You Like It, William Shakespeare
- A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe
- The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham
- Doctrinal New Testament Commentary vol.1-3, Bruce R. McConkie
- Raising Up A Family to the Lord, Gene R. Cook
- Charles Kuralt’s America, Charles Kuralt
- The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs
- Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
- Beowulf, Seamus Heaney, trans.
- The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
- Heroes of History, Will Durant
- The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde
- The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
- Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
- How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton
- The Stranger, Albert Camus
- Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
- America Alone, Mark Steyn
- The Tetherballs of Bougainville, Mark Leyner
- On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
- A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
- Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse
- A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
- Reading the OED, Ammon Shea
- An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
- Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
- The Westing Game, Ellen Rankin
- The Road, Cormac McCarthy
- Rise To Rebellion, Jeff Shaara
- Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces, Wendy Beckett
- The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert
- The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
- The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay
- Dune, Frank Herbert
- No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
- World War Z, Max Brooks
- Richard II, William Shakespeare
- Bleak House, Charles Dickens
- Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
- Henry IV, Part I, William Shakespeare
- A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
- Carry On, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
- The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet
- Noble House, James Clavell
- Flatland, Edwin Abbott
- Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
- Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
- Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
- Paradise Lost, John Milton
- Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock
- One For the Books, Joe Queenan
- Dubliners, James Joyce
- Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
- Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
- Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
- His Excellency: George Washington, Joseph J. Ellis
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?
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:
- 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.
“This is the function of books — we learn how to live even if we weren’t there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.”
Great truth from the movie Good Will Hunting. A bit of language at the very beginning and end, but from 3:26-3:32 in this clip, there’s a ton of wisdom.
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.
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.