"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for September, 2011

Day 18: A book that disappointed you.

As I already explained on day 11, I’ve encountered a lot of books that I don’t like.  This category is somewhat different.  I need to come up with a book that I started with full expectations of liking, but ended up not liking.Almost anyone from my generation has seen the movie and can quote from it liberally (and frequently does), but few have read the book.  I saw the movie multiple times in high school and college.  It is an excellent movie, witty and fast-paced and with a simple, workmanlike visual feel that’s so much better than today’s special effects extravaganzas.  Having seen it, and knowing that William Goldman was the screenwriter for the movie, I figured there was no way the book could go wrong.

Well, it does go wrong, because while the movie focuses on the story, Goldman instead tries to get clever and post-modernist with the book.  Rather than just writing a straightforward narrative, he instead presents it as an abridgement of the great Florin classes by S. Morgenstern; Goldman has supposedly removed the boring socio-political commentary and given us “the good parts”.  In reality both the nation of Florin and Mr. Morgenstern do not exist.  They are simply part of a silly device by which Goldman introduces the story and then interrupts it from time to tell us which parts were left out of the non-existent original.  It’s a device that aims to be clever, but it ends up being merely annoying.

Which is a shame, because some parts of the book are quite good, and even add on things that aren’t in the movie.  We get more background on Fezzik and we learn the sequence of events which launched Inigo Montaya on his famous quest for revenge.  We get additional acts of desperate heroism from both those characters in the Zoo of Death, a location shamefully left out of the movie.  We get a lot more as well, but overall I simply can’t give the book a thumbs up.

(This review covers the book in depth, and I highly recommend it.)

Day 17: Favorite quotes from your favorite books

To follow the instructions literally, I would have to pack the post with Chesterton quotes.  Since I post so many Chesterton quotes already, I’ll instead offer up some from my other favorite authors.  Without further ado, here they are:

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Urbanized men and women experience not life but the abstraction of life, on ever higher levels of refinement and dislocation from reality.  They become professors of ideas, and have evolved such esoteric occupations as the critic, the critic who criticizes criticism, and even the critic who criticizes criticism of criticism.  It is a very sad misuse of human talent and energy.

– Jack Vance, The Book of Dreams

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Of course it is often possible to gain the accolades of Society even while one is arrogantly flouting and demeaning the most sacred dogmas which are its very soul!  In this respect, Society is like a great cringing animal; the more you abuse it, the more affection it lavishes upon you.  Ah well, too late now to worry about these nicities of conduct.

– Jack Vance, Ecce and Old Earth

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We have no maps of Klepsis,” the girl spoke as if I were out of my mind.  “We are on Klepsis.  Are you somehow confused about where you are?  Why would anyone want maps of Klepsis when they are on Klepsis itself.  One original is worth ten thousand imitations, as the proverb says.  A map is only a formalized picture.  Why should you look at a picture of thing, rather than at the thing itself?  If you were out with a girl, would you be looking at the girl herself, or would you rather be looking at a picture of the girl?  Why do you want maps of Klepsis?”

– R. A. Lafferty, The Annals of Klepsis

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The music of the spheres, when analyzed, has proven to be the same sound as the tinkle of ice in a glass, heard faintly and hardly recognized.

– R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead

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For every one tastemaker programmed for pessimism, there are a hundred middle-class suburbanites who could not care less what intellectuals say at the sherry hour.

-Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox

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Human beings have the potential to rise above their baser instincts, while chimpanzees do not.

– Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope

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Mathematicians who are only mathematicians have exact minds, provided all things are explained to them by means of definitions and axioms; otherwise they are inaccurate and insufferable, for they are only right when the principles are quite clear.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

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The greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men.  Ordinary persons find no differences between men.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

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Those who must despise men, and put them on a level with the brutes, yet wish to be admired and believe by men, and contradict themselves by their own feelings; their nature, which is stronger than all, convinces them of the greatness of man more forcibly than reason convinces them of their baseness.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

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The greatness of man is so evident that it is even proved by his wretchedness.  For what in animals is nature, we call in man wretchedness; by which we recognize that, his nature being now like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his.  For who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king?  Was Paulus Emilis unhappy at being no longer consul?  On the contrary, everybody thought him happy in having been consul, because the office could only be held for a time.  But men thought Perseus so unhappy in being no longer king, because the condition of kingship implied his being always king, that they thought it strange that he endured life.  Who is unhappy at only having one mouth?  And who is not unhappy at having only one eye?  Probably no man ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes.  But any one is inconsolable at having none.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

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The saints are not resigned, at least in the sense that the world thinks.  If they suffer in silence those injustices which upset the mediocre, it is in order better to turn against injustice, against its face of brass, all the strength of their great souls.  Angers, daughters of despair, creep and twist like worms.  Prayer is, all things considered, the only form of revolt that stays standing up.

– George Bernanos

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I don’t know how it will be in the years to come.  There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know.  Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good.  It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man.  A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform.  When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking.  In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God.  This in my time is the danger.  There is great tension in the world, tension towards a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.  At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions.  What do I believe in?  What must I fight for and what must I fight against?  Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man.  Nothing was ever created by two men.  There are good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy.  Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything.  The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

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They had a tool or a weapon that is also nearly gone, or perhaps it is only dormant for a while.  It is argued that because they believed thoroughly in a just, moral God they could put their faith there and let the smaller securities take care of themselves.  But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units–because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back.  Such things have disappeared because men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong, sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.

– John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Day 16: Favorite Female Character

This one is going to be a little bit difficult, because, in line with stereotypes, there are virtually no great female characters in my favorite fields of science fiction and fantasy.  Precious few in detective fiction either.  And even the ‘great’ literary fiction has an unfortunate tendency to be male-centered.  So I will look elsewhere for a favorite female character.

Most folks have seen Gone with the Wind.  Fewer folks have read Gone with the Wind, but I’m one of them.  I loved the movie.  I loved the book even more.  I read it in graduate school at the same time as I was dabbling in writing projects of my own.  I was, to say the least, impressed by the fact that this was Margaret Mitchell’s first and last published novel, and the only work of fiction published in her lifetime.

Gone with the Wind has many things in its favor: gorgeous landscapes, sharply drawn minor characters, excellent writing, an almost unique feel for mood, and a strong attachment to history, even if some may question the accuracy of some of the events portrayed.  But it is, first and last, about Scarlett O’Hara.  She enters the stage in the first paragraph:

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin – that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia sun.”

That opening paragraph typifies how Mitchell wrote, mixing together character details, background information, and plot points and putting it all in rich and luxurious language.  The book, however, rests on Scarlett’s character, from her beginning as a genuine teenage girl, obsessed with looks and popularity, to an adult woman sharply focused on survival and thriving in difficult times.  For many people, the historical revisionism and the racial politics in the novel are the most notable thing.  The character development and other literary merits get swept aside.  But if they were actually willing to read it, they’d see a lot more complexity in it than the popular image gives it credit for, and they’d see Scarlett O’Hara as one of the great characters of all times.

Day 14: Favorite Male Character

Wait, Martin Gardner wrote a novel?  That was my reaction too, when I first found an autographed copy of The Flight of Peter Fromm among my grandfather’s book collection.  Gardner is famous for short stories and essays, for writing the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American for many years, and for editing and anthologizing hundreds of other works.  In addition, he did write a novel, and what a novel it is.

Peter Fromm is born in small-town Oklahoma and, as a teenager, moves into the orbit of strict fundamentalist beliefs.  Determined to lead the mother of all revival movements against liberalism, he enrolls in seminary at the University of Chicago.  There, however, his dogma turns out not to be powerful enough.  Rather than him changing the world, the world beings changing him.

The Flight of Peter Fromm is an intense character study, perhaps the most intense that I’ve read.  No other novel plunges in such depth into the inside of the protagonist’s mind, looking at the way a human experiences the world, evaluates information, tackles challenges, and makes compromises.  Most of all, the novel looks at how Peter changes over time, and how he copes with the process of change, how he sees his earlier life in retrospect, how he plans for the future.

There’s lots more in The Flight of Peter Fromm.  Gardner’s knowledge of religious topics is encyclopedic.  He hits on everything from academic theology conferences to political activism to speaking in tongues.  He has a stunning array of minor characters for Peter to bounce off of.  And, in a master stroke, he has the novel narrated by the villain, Homer Wilson, who is a left-wing professor, prig, and utterly dishonest and reprehensible character who sets out to achieve Peter’s destruction.  But through it all, the focus on the main character holds strong and makes this little-known novel one of the best American works of the 20th century.

Day 14: Favorite book by your favorite writer

In April of 2006, near the end of my second year of graduate school, I read G. K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy for the first time.  When I began reading it I was an atheist when I started it.  By the time I finished, I was a Christian.  I can even pinpoint the section at which my conversion occurred: it’s in chapter six.

Obviously this book had tremendous personal meaning for me then and still does.  Given that, I doubt that I could explain, or even begin to explain, why I found it to be so great and why I still do so.  Orthodoxy is many things, including many that don’t seem to make sense: a work of Christian apologetics that barely mentions Jesus Christ or the Bible, a philosophy book that isn’t deathly boring, a series of riotous jokes with a life-changing message, and a rambling trip through scores of different topics that is also a unified whole.

I could try to write more, but will not.  If there is any book in history that speaks for itself and requires no introduction, Orthodoxy is the one.  So with that said, I will simply present a few of my favorite passages.

Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

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It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity as in itself attractive. But a moment’s thought will show that if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else’s disease. A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see the picture. And similarly even the wildest poetry of insanity can only be enjoyed by the sane. To the insane man his insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who thinks himself a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken. A man who thinks he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a bit of glass. It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes him dull, and which makes him mad. It is only because we see the irony of his idea that we think him even amusing; it is only because he does not see the irony of his idea that he is put in Hanwell at all. In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

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And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally true that maniacs are commonly great reasoners. When I was engaged in a controversy with the CLARION on the matter of free will, that able writer Mr. R. B. Suthers said that free will was lunacy, because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic would be causeless. I do not dwell here upon the disastrous lapse in determinist logic. Obviously if any actions, even a lunatic’s, can be causeless, determinism is done for. If the chain of causation can be broken for a madman, it can be broken for a man. But my purpose is to point out something more practical. It was natural, perhaps, that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about free will. But it was certainly remarkable that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about lunatics. Mr. Suthers evidently did not know anything about lunatics. The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

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This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

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In fairyland we avoid the word “law”; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm’s Law. But Grimm’s Law is far less intellectual than Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.

Day 13: Your favorite writers

Okay, this one’s not difficult nor will it come as a surprise to anyone who’s read by blog.

It’s G. K. Chesterton, of course.  As I’ve written a lengthy introduction to him already, I’m not going to repeat it all here, but will instead just offer the links:

Who is G. K. Chesterton?

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 2)

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 3)

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 4)

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 5)

Who is G. K. Chesterton? (Part 6)

Chesterton: The Literature

Chesterton: The Poetry

Banned Books Week, and Why I’m not Celebrating

It must be late September; articles and posts about Banned Books Week are starting to pop up.  Now if you know me or have followed my blog for even a little while, you know that I’m a voracious reader.  You also know that I have a slight leaning towards freedom and against earthly authority.  Therefore you might think that I’d be an eager participant in Banned Books Week, making a sign and heading down to my public library to celebrate the triumph over censorship.

Well guess again.  I dislike Banned Books Week.  I find the idea silly, vapid, and dishonest.  Let me count the reasons.

First of all, the title is false advertising.  The week centers around a list that the ALA publishes each year of the most frequently “challenged” books.  In this case, challenges are when anyone demands that a particular book either not be required reading in the classroom, or not be in a school library, or not be in a public library.  In other words, none of the books in question are actually in any danger of being banned.  Even in the rare instance where someone gets a book removed from a school or library, anyone can easily purchase that same book at the nearest bookstore.  If the nearest bookstore is too far away, amazon.com is as close as your computer.  So there are no banned books in any way associated with Banned Books Week.

My second reason for disliking Banned Books Week is that it’s really just a publicity campaign for successful, popular books from major publishers.  ALA creates its list by counting the books that get the most challenges.  Obviously, a book can only get a large number of challenges if it’s on the shelves in a great many places.  In that way, Banned Books Week only serves to create hype for books that are already extremely popular.  Too popular, in some cases, since many of these books aren’t very good.  (Twilight is on the list, for instance.)  Meanwhile, better books languish on dusty shelves.

Third, Banned Books Week is inherently biased, and in a really immature way.  To see what I mean, try reading this post on a blog with the charming name of “Insatiable Booksluts”.  The basic gist of the post is that when people challenge books, it’s always because the challengers are racist, sexist, or otherwise -ist, and that by picking up that dangerous copy of Their Eyes were Watching God, we’re somehow sticking it to the white, male, rich, non-drug-using power structure.

I find this attitude absurd. Banned Books Week was created and is run by authorities, so it’s ridiculous to think that you’re sticking it to the man by participating.  I’ve no idea who is really challenging books the most–although this map on the official website suggests that the majority of challengers live in the blue states, while the reddest parts of the nation have few flags–but more importantly I disagree with the larger premise.  The premise behind Banned Books Week is that it’s always wrong for anyone to challenge a book, even if the challenge consists of not wanting their children to be required to read it in class.  But that is not wrong.  It is entirely right that parents and others should want to keep a watchful eye over what their children read, as well as watch or listen to.  It would be bad, borderline neglectful parenting to not do so.  I am entirely a supporter of free speech, which is necessary for the preservation of a free nation, but I am an even stronger supporters of good parenting, which is even more necessary for the preservation of a free nation.  So therefore I challenge you to boldly ignore Banned Books Week, to defiantly not bake muffins for your local library staff, and to heroically stick your thumb in the eye of authority by not reading The Hunger Games.

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