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

Archive for October, 2011

Day 30: Your favorite book of all time

When I was in college and graduate school I ploughed through many hundreds of books spanning fiction and non-fiction, and nearly any genre contained within either category.  I was certain that books were humanity’s greatest source of knowledge and that I could acquire that knowledge if I read the right ones.  I made my way through classics and moderns, science fiction and fantasy, history and philosophy, but for the first few years it would never have occurred to me to read the most popular book of all time.

At age 24, after I had started taking Christianity seriously, I did read it.  My life has never been the same.  Some people dislike the Bible intensely.  Others take the position, exemplified by what Queen Elizabeth II was told at here corronation, that it is “the most prescious thing that this world affords.”  As you might guess I fall into the later group.  I have found in this book wisdom beyond what I could find anywhere else.  Not only beautiful language, not only tremendous insight, not only phrases and images that are still referenced today by millions, sometimes without knowing it.  In this book is the wisdom that speaks to me about how life should be lead.

When I was young I believed that all books were in the same category.  Not all the same, obviously, but to be approached the same way.  It would not have occurred to me that there is one book that stands apart from all the rest: greater, better known, and more influential to the extent that it should be studied daily, every day of my life.  Now I have found such a book.

Day 25: A character who you can relate to

If you’ve been following my progress through the thirty-day book project, you may be asking an obvious question: what the &$%# happened to day 25?  Well, what happened to day 25 is this.  I typed up a nice post for day 25, then either I never hit the “publish button” or else some bug in the software stopped it from actually appearing on my blog.  So, in the ‘better late than never’ category, here is day 25.

My choice for this category is The Catcher in the Rye.  The character, of course, is Holden Caulfield.  Most people are required to read this book while in high school.  I was not.  I may be the only person who read The Catcher in the Rye voluntarily around age 18.  Holden Caulfield immediately got my attention and stuck with me.  He is one of only two characters who I could possibly put in this category.  (The other one would be Yossarian from Catch 22.)

When I say that I relate to Holden Caulfield, I don’t mean that I am like him or that I ever was.  I have never attended a fancy east-coast prep school.  I have never run away from such a school.  I have never spent several days wandering aimlessly around New York City on my own.  I’ve never suffered a total mental breakdown.  That is not the point, though.

We encounter Holden Caulfied as a teenager, in a place surrounded by other teenagers.  All are white, all from decently well-off families, all nearing the end of high school.  They are not stupid, but they’re completely unable to communicate with each other.  They have no sense of purpose.  They haven’t been given any vision by which to guide their lives.

Holden Caulfield runs away from school and lives on his own in New York City for several days.  While there, he wanders around and gets into various types of trouble.  He is badly confused: about himself, about his future, about love, about sex, about money and many other things.  He has various visions about what he might do to get away from the crazy society he lives in, but they shift rapidly and he doesn’t actually take action towards any of them.  He knows deep down that he needs real love and companionship but doesn’t have any clue where to look for it.

There’s a sharply divided reaction to this character.  Some people understand him immediately and view him as one of the great characters in American literature.  Others find him completely unlikable and off-putting.  I would venture that in some cases, at least, young readers find that this book hits a little bit too close for comfort.

Chesterton on What is Wrong with the World

I’ve been slacking off on posting Chesterton quotes over the past couple weeks, partially because I’m doing the thirty-day book project, but mostly because slacking off is what I do best.  To atone for it, I here offer the first paragraph of Chesterton’s Introduction to What is Wrong with the World, which was my entry in day 26 of the project.

To C. F G. Masterman, M. P.
My Dear Charles,
I originally called this book “What is Wrong,” and it would have satisfied your sardonic temper to note the number of social misunderstandings that arose from the use of the title. Many a mild lady visitor opened her eyes when I remarked casually, “I have been doing ‘What is Wrong’ all this morning.” And one minister of religion moved quite sharply in his chair when I told him (as he understood it) that I had to run upstairs and do what was wrong, but should be down again in a minute. Exactly of what occult vice they silently accused me I cannot conjecture, but I know of what I accuse myself; and that is, of having written a very shapeless and inadequate book, and one quite unworthy to be dedicated to you. As far as literature goes, this book is what is  wrong and no mistake.

Day 29: A book that everyone hated but you liked.

For the first twenty-seven days of this project, I didn’t mention Philip K. Dick.  Now I’ve mentioned him twice in three days.  He is not my favorite author nor even my favorite science fiction author, but he comes close.  Besides which, Galactic Pot-Healer is the perfect entry in this category.  Dick is very much a cult author.  Even among cult members, this novel is not terribly popular, and even the author himself wasn’t too enthusiastic about it.  But I love it.

Members of my generation often say “that’s crazy” or “that was random” when reacting to some bit of nonsense.  Galactic Pot-Healer is certainly crazy and random, more so than even the author’s other science fiction novels.  However, craziness and randomness aren’t good things in themselves.  Anyone can throw together a lot of nonsense, but it takes a supreme talent to achieve the uplifting, forward-charging type of nonsense that we might call zaniness, the nonsense that is actually fun and entertaining and then makes you think when you’re least prepared for it.

The book is about Joe Fernwright, a mender of broken ceramics.  (Or pot-healer, if you will.)  Joe lives in the United States after it falls under communist rule, when unemployment is high, work is scarce, and the government pumps propagandist dreams into people’s heads while they sleep.  One day he gets a message in his toilet.  The Glimmung needs his help to raise a cathedral from the depths of the ocean on Plowman’s Planet.  What is a Glimmung?  Well, it is certainly not a giant, one-eyed squid like the one on the cover above.  I’ve no idea where they got that image from.  A Glimmung is more like an ocean, or little girl, or a couple of concentric hoops.  That sort of thing.  There’s lots more that takes place in this book, though I’m not quite sure what, exactly.

Day 28: Favorite Title

This one is kind of an oddball, since it’s not actually asking me to talk about what’s in a book.  I often see titles that I think are clever, usually on books that I haven’t read.  For some reason this one comes to mind:

The title is Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.  I like it because of the way that it combines a lot of the annoying trends in book titles to fire back at the exact type of mediocrity that creates those trends in the first place.  It’s got the very long title with a catchy first phrase and then an explanation, the words “positive thinking”, and the promise that the author will expose a nefarious trend that’s destroying America, all rolled into one.

The book itself is about the self-esteem movement, trends in medicine and business and education that try to paper over everything with uplifting terminology, and so-called prosperity theology.  It also looks at the philosophical roots of all this gibberish.  Perhaps I’ll read it someday, since I do feel that Ehrenreich is right to dislike all this stuff.

Day 27: The most surprising plot twist or ending

When I think about surprise endings, I usually think about short stories.  I’m willing to put up with ten or twenty pages of writing just to be delighted with a silly twist or surprise at the end.  Novels with twist endings are a lot harder to pull off, for several reasons.  First of all, few readers would put up with 200 pages just to get a clever ending.  The beginning and middle have to be clever too.  At the same time, the twist ending can’t contradict anything that happens earlier in the story, nor can it be a radical departure from the style and tone of the beginning and middle sections.  Few authors can accomplish so much.

Philip K. Dick is one author who could, and The Game Players of Titan is one novel in which he does.  The surprise ending is that…well, obviously I’m not going to tell you that, am I?  I can at least tell you the set-up for the ending.  It goes like this.

The Game Players of Titan is set on a future earth that’s been devastated by war and conquered by malicious aliens known as Vugs.  The Vugs have the ability to shape-shift, read minds, and tell the future.  At their command, earth is split into zones of property owned by a handful of human beings, who must compete for property and status in a game of Bluff.  (The game itself is quite hilarious and would be mroe than enough to fill a much larger novel by a less talented author.)  Mysterious goings-on are afoot, whilethe Vugs have an unknown agenda of their own.  In the grand finale, the fate of the entire world rests on a single game of Bluff between the Vugs and humans.  Now Bluff, as you would guess, is all about bluffing, so it might seem difficult for the humans to win when, as already mentioned, the Vugs can read minds and tell the future.  But, wonder of wonders, the humans do manage to compete, and it’s all done in a logical manner that’s entirely consistent with everything we’ve seen in this science fiction world.  And with that, I can say no more.

Day 26: A book that changed your opinion about something

Near the end of my second year of graduate school, Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy converted me to Christianity.  I was naturally eager to read more Chesterton.  What’s Wrong with the World was among the next Chesterton books that I read.  (It’s also, incidentally, the first book that I read entirely online.)  Of all the books I’ve ever read, this one has the clearest and most self-explanatory title.  It is, indeed, about what is wrong with the world.

Fundamentally there are two fields in human experience: the individual field and the social field.  Many great observers of humanity have one well-known book in each field.  Augustine covered the individual field in the Confessions and the social field in The City of God.  Aristotle had the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.  Chesterton covered individual issues in OrthodoxyWhat’s Wrong with the World covers social issues.

Bluntly what’s wrong with the world is that people these days care about institutions rather than humans.  Capitalists have decided that we must have big businesses.  They judge all policies, programs, and ideas by whether or not those things benefit big business.  Socialists care about big government, and likewise judge all things by their relation to big government.  Neither side puts human beings first.  In the century since Chesterton wrote these books, both sides have fiddled with the details but the underlying message that we must have either big business or big government remains the same, and still drives almost all punditry and political campaigns.

A right and reasonable approach would put human beings first.  It would begin with ordinary, individual human beings.  It would have a strong awareness of their wants and needs, the characteristics, their strengths, and their weaknesses.  It would then build a set of philosophical, political, and economic thought based on what is good for humanity.  It would not try to change humanity to meet the needs of any dogma, but would instead craft the dogma around the needs of the humans.  This book explains how we might do that.  As always, the best introduction is a sample:

A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called “The Remedy.” It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that “The Remedy” is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology.  It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure.  But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease .

The fallacy is one of the fifty fallacies that come from the modern madness for biological or bodily metaphors. It is convenient to speak of the Social Organism, just as it is convenient to speak of the British Lion. But Britain is no more an organism than Britain is a lion. The moment we begin to give a nation the unity and simplicity of an animal, we begin to think wildly.  Because every man is a biped, fifty men are not a centipede.  This has produced, for instance, the gaping absurdity of perpetually talking about “young nations” and “dying nations,” as if a nation had a fixed and physical span of life.  Thus people will say that Spain has entered a final senility; they might as well say that Spain is losing all her teeth.  Or people will say that Canada should soon produce a literature; which is like saying that Canada must soon grow a new moustache.  Nations consist of people; the first generation may be decrepit, or the ten thousandth may be vigorous.  Similar applications of the fallacy are made by those who see in the increasing size of national possessions, a simple increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.  These people, indeed, even fall short in subtlety of the parallel of a human body. They do not even ask whether an empire is growing taller in its youth, or only growing fatter in its old age.  But of all the instances of error arising from this physical fancy, the worst is that we have before us: the habit of exhaustively describing a social sickness, and then propounding a social drug.

Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs.  The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.

But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal.  The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache.  Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles.  Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.

This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes cut.  We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing.  We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one.  Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong.  The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case.  We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health.  On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health . Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity.  We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them.  Mr. Cadbury and I would agree about the bad public house.  It would be precisely in front of the good public-house that our painful personal fracas would occur.

I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal.  We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity?  I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated.  What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

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