Winston stopped reading for a moment. Somewhere in remote distance a rocket bomb thundered. The blissful feeling of being alone with the forbidden book, in a room with no telescreen, had not worn off. Solitude and safety were physical sensations, mixed up somehow with the tiredness of his body, the softness of the chair, the touch of the faint breeze from the window that played upon his cheek. The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.
–George Orwell, 1984, Part II, chapter 9
In relationships, never give up on people. Stick it out, make it work.
In reading…just the opposite. A book should always be a perfect ten. If your connection to a book ever cools off, feel free to kick it to the curb and find another one. Plenty of fish in the sea, plenty of books in the library. Life is short and you deserve the best.
Just don’t get these two ideas confused. Your life will be fun for others to watch, but frustrating for you.
I recently started reading Les Miserables. I’m up to Part III and–no surprise–it’s amazing so far.
It had a rocky start, though. I researched translations and couldn’t find one that stood out, so I figured I’d just try the old original standard translation from the 19th century, the Wilbour translation.
I only got a few pages in before getting tired of the pretentious contortion of it all. I decided to find a copy of Denny’s translation from the 70’s. My local library district actually didn’t have that one, but do you know who did? The library at the school where I work! How great is that?
And from page one I loved it. I don’t know how well it reflects the French, but this English version hums and sings for me with pitch-perfect tone.
Here are two passages I really like so far, compared between three popular versions: Wilbour’s, Denny’s, and the recent Julie Rose translation.
This is the end of Part II, chapter 8:
TFW the library card on your key chain is so badly split at the end that you have to staple it back together.
One of the best things I get to be part of as a teacher is introducing young people to great books they love. Granted, 99% of what I do in this department falls on deaf ears, but those glorious moments of success–few and far between though they are–really do make it all worth it.
Here are a few recent ones:
Last semester for a book project, one girl chose to read The Handmaid’s Tale from a list of options I gave. She loved it and, when they all had to do presentations on their books, she was overjoyed to learn that it’s being made into a series on Hulu.
Cormac McCarthy is always a safe bet. I often recommend his books to students, and they tend to love him. So many kids read his various books last semester that some classes had spontaneous compare/contrast discussions where they picked up on stylistic and thematic trends across his works. They did this on their own.
Earlier this month I had classes take notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. At the end of class when they turned their notes in, one girl was so excited about it that she had already put the ebook on her phone and said that she’d start reading it that weekend. This wasn’t assigned–she just wanted to read Moby Dick on her own. For fun.
I finished 37 books in 2016. For variety and quality, it was one of my best years for reading: nine “A plusses” this year, more than ever before!
1. Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh (1/12, music, religion)–A+
3. Pity the Beautiful, Dana Gioia (2/9, poetry)–B
4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (2/28, self-improvement)–F
5. Buried Alive, Gloria Skurzynski (3/1, young adult)–C
6. Thomas Cole, Earl A. Powell (3/1, art, biography)–B
7. The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (3/9, classics, Watts trans.)–C
8. Albert Bierstadt, Tom Robotham (3/12, art, biography)–C
9. Redshirts, John Scalzi, (3/19, science fiction, comedy)–B
10. Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (3/26, science fiction)–A
11. The Fifth Gospel, Ian Caldwell (4/30, mystery)–A
12. Browsings, Michael Dirda (5/10, memoir, reading)–A+
13. The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright (5/12, religion)–A
14. The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley (5/14, mystery)–B
15. The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader (5/19, historical fiction)–C
16. The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope (5/26, adventure)–B
17. The World’s Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne (5/28, memoir, humor, reading)–A+
18. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (6/13, science fiction)–B
19. We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride (6/17, literature)–A+
20. Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Rick Wormeli (6/28, education)–D
21. Mockingbird, Walter Tevis (6/30, science fiction)–A+
22. The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus (7/1, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)–C
23. Never Go Back, Lee Child (7/12, mystery)–B
24. Death in Venice, Thomas Mann (7/15, literature, Lowe-Porter trans.)–C
25. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris (7/20, sociology)–F
26. The Taking, Dean Koontz (7/28, horror)–A
27. Fluent in 3 Months, Benny Lewis (8/3, language/self-improvement)–A
28. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (8/4, fantasy)–A
29. How to Be Perfect, Daniel Harrell (8/9, scripture study, religion)—B
30. The Eumenides, Aeschylus (8/9, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)—C
31. Zion: The Long Road to Sanctification, Larry Barkdull (8/17, religion)—B
32. Inferno, Dante (8/26, poetry, classics, Anthony Esolen trans.)—A+
33. Submission, Michel Houellebecq (9/3, fiction, translated from French)—C
34. The Aeneid, Virgil (10/28, classics, Robert Fagles trans.)—A+
35. A Winter Haunting, Dan Simmons (11/1, suspense)—B
36. To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, Heidi Swinton (11/13, religion, biography)—A+
37. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (12/29, literature, Maude trans.)—A
I’m in book 10 of The Aeneid–a major battle scene–and I just came across this lovely bit:
Ha! “There were these two identical twins…at least, they were identical twins until one got his hand cut off and the other got decapitated. NOW we can tell them apart just fine!”
In President Monson’s brief remarks at this month’s General Conference, perhaps the thing that struck me most was in the priesthood session when he said, “Recently I read the true account of a dramatic manifestation concerning these promises.” Most of the talk, in fact, is a summary of a story from the book. That right there is already pretty high praise for a book, to have a prophet mention it and cite from it as the core of an address to the world.
It’s great to know what the prophet has been reading. He’s still working full time as CEO of a global organization, he’s several years a widower now, and his strength is starting to decline, but he still reads, and this is what he reads: a book about the inspiring experiences of Latter-day Saints during World War II. As far as I know, there isn’t a team of research interns doing any behind-the-scenes lifting in preparing anybody’s conference talks; when the prophet says he’s been reading this book lately, it’s really something he chose to pick up and spend time with.
Maybe we would do well to follow the prophet in his priorities, his habits, and even in his specific choices in reading. The book he mentions, Saints at War: Experiences of Latter-Day Saints in World War II, isn’t on Google Books, but it’s on sale at Amazon for as low as 14 cents a copy.
14 cents, to do what the prophet does.
You know what would be great? A “Prophets Book Club,” where people read books mentioned by prophets and apostles in General Conference.
At the end of the citation for this book in the published version of President Monson’s talk, a note says, “used by permission.” That’s wonderful: the prophet (or maybe his secretary) reached out to the author to ask if it was OK to refer to the book in General Conference. What a sweet conversation I bet that was.
Be ye warned, Constant Reader: here there be spoilers.
5. The Dark Tower VII: “The Thing Under the Castle”
This is the most recent entry on this list; the only one from the 21st century, but it works because it so strongly harkens back to classic King style: that combination of simple, elemental storytelling with detailed, psychological exposition.
Roland and Susanna are, as the chapter title implies, fleeing some unknown thing in the winding, dark passages under a ruined, ancient castle. At first, there’s just a slight noise in the distance, but then, over the course of several pages, the noises get clearer and closer, and that primitive instinct we all have warns of an approaching predator.
The pace increases to one of sheer panic as they first jog, then run, then sprint with terror-fueled energy away from the mysterious thing. Susanna, whose wheelchair has been lost, rides on Roland’s back and can see behind them into the darkness at what’s coming. As it finally comes within biting distance…
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.