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

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Chesterton on The Atlantic on Chesterton

My buddy G. K. Chesterton recently got a nice write-up from The Atlantic.  This isn’t the first time, either.  That illustrious magazine has commented on the fellow before.  The current article, by James Parker, is a delight to read dribbles out quotes from the man himself, mainly from well-known works but also from a few obscure ones.  It offers an introduction and celebration of the enormous variety of Chesterton’s work, and tries to communicate the unique way that Chesterton pulls our spirits up into the heavens with succinct but magical wordsmithing.

That said, Parker does stumble at one point by describing Chesterton with the phrase “live wire”, and that brings us to today’s quote from St. Thomas Aquinas:

St. Francis was the son of a shopkeeper, or middle class trader; and while his whole life was a revolt against the mercantile life of his father, he retained none the less, something of the quickness and social adaptability which makes the market hum like a hive. In the common phrase, fond as he was of green fields, he did not let the grass grow under his feet. He was what American millionaires and gangsters call a live wire. It is typical of the mechanistic moderns that, even when they try to imagine a live thing, they can only think of a mechanical metaphor from a dead thing. There is such a thing as a live worm; but there is no such thing as a live wire. St. Francis would have heartily agreed that he was a worm; but he was a very live worm. Greatest of all foes to the go-getting ideal, he had certainly abandoned getting, but he was still going.

(No, I did not make a mistake here.  That’s a comment about St. Francis of Assisi from Chesterton’s book about St. Thomas.)

How Terry Pratchett changed my life

When I first began this blog, oh so many years ago, I wrote two sarcastic posts about two authors that I don’t admire all that much: How Ayn Rand Changed My Life and How George R. R. Martin Did not Change My Life.  Since that time I’ve written about many authors, Chesterton the most prominent among them.  There are authors besides Chesterton who changed my life.  One of them died today.  His name was Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett’s books have sold somewhere around fifty million copies.  His fan following is enormous.  Yet there are many avid readers, especially among the serious set, who have never cracked open a Pratchett book.  What they would find inside is very difficult to explain or describe.  If you haven’t read any Pratchett you should start doing so now, rather than reading my humble attempt at explanation.

Pratchett is most famous for the Discworld books, a series of more than thirty fantasy novels set on a flat world that rests on the back of four elephants which stand on a turtle.  (No word on what the turtle stands on.)  In the earlier Discworld novels, the elephants and the turtles were mentioned a lot, as were magic and dragons and other fantasy elements.  It was a straight-up parody of formulaic writing in the genre.  As time went on, things changed.  The magical elements gradually vanished and the Discworld novels became social satires, poking fun at all kinds of things.  Pratchett trained his satirical sight on government, business, academia, religion, the press, sports, Hollywood, and much more.

He also wrote many other books that aren’t set in/on Discworld; these are much lesser known, even among his fans.  Yet works such as Strata and the Bromeliad Trilogy offer rich rewards to anyone who takes time to buy a copy.

Some helpful trigger warnings

Perhaps you have heard of trigger warnings, the new fads that’s swept parts of the internet over the past couple years and is no emerging into real life.  The idea is that there are certain topics which may provoke, or “trigger”, a particularly strong reaction among certain readers.  In some locales it’s become customary to place a trigger warning at the top of an article if it deals with something such as sexual violence, eating disorders, racism, or so forth.  Not surprisingly, colleges and universities are among the places where this type of thinking spread next.  Schools such as UC Stanta Barbara and Oberlin have announced policies requiring professors to offer warnings when a text may be “triggering”.

As one who is always will to assist in the promotion of great literature and education, I’ve decided to write the trigger warnings for some well-known reads:

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What I’m Reading: The First Betrayal, by Patricia Bray

When I was younger, I slogged through quite a lot of mediocre fantasy novels.  Like many young folks, I had somehow picked up the idea that I should always finish a book once I’d started it.  Except for a few of the most truly atrocious ones, I reached the end of every single book.

The First Betrayal, by Patricia Bray, is the quintessence of mediocrity.  We have two main characters.  Josan is a monk who’s assigned to keep a lighthouse on a lonely island.  Ysobel is a diplomat assigned to ferment a rebellion against the Empress in the city of Karystos.  The two meet briefly at the start of the book and then separate.  Josan remains at his lighthouse.  He has a mysterious past and only fragmentary memories from childhood.  Then an assassin shows up and Josan is forced to flee for his life.  Meanwhile, Ysobel manages the intrigues of life among rebellious nobles.

Everything in the book follows a predictable, paint-by-numbers scheme.  Characters, plot, and world-building all proceed along a dull, monotonous path towards a destination that’s just not worth caring about.  The high point, or perhaps low point, is around the two thirds mark of the book, where we finally learn the secret of Josan’s mysterious past.  The only problem is, any intelligent reader will have guessed the secret hundreds of pages earlier, making the whole thing anti-climactic.

I would mention one other problem.  Bray’s prose isn’t terrible.  It’s pretty much the definition of ‘workmanlike’.  But it’s boring for a clear reason: there’s no humor.  None.  I don’t expect every book to be comedy gold, but has there ever been a decent book that didn’t include at least a little bit of humor?

So there’s some kind of movie opening today

Today would have been a great day in my life if it was twelve years earlier, or if I were twelve years younger.

Let me explain.

I had the privilege of being in college when the original Lord of the Rings movies were released.  Fellowship was released in December of 2001, when I was a sophomore.  The Two Towers arrived my junior year, and The Return of the King during my senior year.

And it was a big deal, let me tell you.

Back then, I knew the names of all nine members of the fellowship.  I could pronounce Maedhros correctly.  I could discuss the merits of Book 4 relative to Book 3.  This made me a moderate LotR fan.  (The serious LotR fans were able to name Thorin’s ancestors for seventeen generations and conjugate Elvish verbs.)

Back then, at college, the movies were big events.  I’d guess that on the night each one was released, about two thirds of the student body showed up at the nearest theater for the midnight screening.  It was the social event of the season.

Why?  Can’t really say.  When I was nineteen or twenty years old, there was something immeasurably cool about watching vast armies chopping each other to pieces.  The fact that the armies were entirely digital, with no physical existence to speak, did not reduce the coolness of it.  It was cool.  It was awesome.  It was amazing.

Thirteen years later, it’s no longer cool or awesome or amazing to me.  I would venture to say that if someone rounded up those hundreds of Harvey Mudd students who sat is lines outside the theater for six hours in December of 2002, most of the them would express similar feelings.  Hence I’ve not bothered to see any of the Hobbit movies.

Why is a particular movie–or anything, for that matter–cool at one stage of life and uninspiring at a later stage?  I don’t know.  Somebody should investigate that question.

Chesterton on False Accusations

False reports have been a bit on my mind lately for obvious reasons (hey, there was another major hoax exposed in the press today), false reports of crimes doubly so.  As it happens, Chesterton was kind of big into that topic.  He wrote almost a hundred detective stories, most of which followed the standard outline.  A crime is committed, the facts appear to point to either a clear suspect or one of several, but then the detective cleverly unravels the mystery and puts the blame squarely on someone who was never suspected.  In that category, my favorite would probably be The Mirror of the Magistrate.

But not all of his stories follow that outline.  In some we begin with evidence or detailed accounts of a crime, and end up learning that there is no crime at all.  One of the best Father Brown stories fits that pattern: The Absence of Mr. Glass.  Also in that category: The Tremendous Adventures of Major BrownThe Awful Reason of the Vicar’s Visit, and of course the entire novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

But if we’re going to talk about instances where everyone’s sure that there’s a crime, and then it turns out there isn’t, the most relevant work is surely Four Faultless Felons. The title is direct enough: four stories about men who did something terrible, only it turns out that they didn’t.  Here’s how it starts:

Mr. Asa Lee Pinion, of the Chicago Comet had crossed half of America, the whole of the Atlantic, and eventually even Piccadilly Circus, in pursuit of the notable, if not notorious figure of Count Raoul de Marillac. Mr. Pinion wanted to get what is called “a story”; a story to put in his paper. He did get a story, but he did not put it in his paper. It was too tall a story, even for the Comet.  Perhaps the metaphor is true in more ways than one, and the fable was tall like a church-spire or a tower among the stars: beyond comprehension as well as belief. Anyhow, Mr. Pinion decided not to risk his readers’ comments. But that is no reason why the present writer, writing for more exalted, spiritual and divinely credulous readers, should imitate his silence.

A bit later we get this:

“Well, we are four men with a common bond at least. We have all had occasion, like Marillac, to look rather worse than we were.”

“Yes,” grunted the large man rather sourly, “we’ve all been Misunderstood. Like Mrs. Prague.”

“The Club of Men Misunderstood is rather more cheerful than that, however,” continued his friend. “We are all pretty jolly here, considering that our reputations have been blasted by black and revolting crimes. The truth is we have devoted ourselves to a new sort of detective story–or detective service if you like. We do not hunt for crimes but for concealed virtues. Sometimes, as in Marillac’s case, they are very artfully concealed. As you will doubtless be justified in retorting, we conceal our own virtues with brilliant success.”

The journalist’s head began to go round a little, though he thought himself pretty well accustomed both to crazy and criminal surroundings. “But I thought you said,” he objected, “that your reputations were blasted with crime. What sort of crime?”

“Well, mine was murder,” said the man next to him. “The people who blasted me did it because they disapproved of murder, apparently. It’s true I was rather a failure at murder, as at everything else.”

Pinion’s gaze wandered in some bewilderment to the next man who answered cheerfully:

“Mine was only a common fraud. A professional fraud, too, the sort that gets you kicked out of your profession sometimes. Rather like Dr. Cook’s sham discovery of the North Pole.”

“What does all this mean?” asked Pinion; and he looked inquiringly at the man opposite, who had done so much of the explaining so far.

“Oh, theft,” said the man opposite, indifferently; “the charge on which I was actually arrested was petty larceny.”

There was a profound silence, which seemed to settle in a mysterious manner, like a gathering cloud, on the figure of the fourth member, who had not spoken so far a single word. He sat erect in his rather stiff, foreign fashion; his wooden, handsome face was unchanged and his lips had never moved even for so much as a murmur. But now, when the sudden and deep silence seemed to challenge him, his face seemed to harden from wood to stone and when he spoke at last, his foreign accent seemed something more than alien, as if it were almost inhuman.

“I have committed the Unpardonable Sin,” he said. “For what sin did Dante reserve the last and lowest hell; the Circle of Ice?”

Still no one spoke; and he answered his own question in the same hollow tone:

“Treason. I betrayed the four companions of my party, and gave them up to the Government for a bribe.”

Something turned cold inside the sensitive stranger, and for the first time he really felt the air around him sinister and strange. The stillness continued for another half minute, and then all the four men burst out into a great uproar of laughter.

I highly recommend reading and enjoying the whole thing.

More on The Portrait of the Artist

(continued from my first post on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

Great literature should take us away to wild and strange places.  A Portrait of the Artist takes us inside the human mind, arguably the strangest place there is.  Joyce teaches us about the strange, unpredictable, decidedly non-linear workings of the human mind.  That, in itself, makes the novel memorable, but it would hardly be worthy of greatness if that’s all it did.

Another goal of literature is to show a character with total honesty.  It’s impossible for any one human being to have direct access to the mind of any other human being.  Experiencing a character through literature is about as close as we can come to fully encountering another human mind.  Stephen Dedalus is among the most total and realistic characters in literature.  In A Portrait of the Artist, we get to know what it’s like to be him.

Stephen is a young man, as the title says.  Like all young men, he cycles rapidly through many different outlooks on life.  He is deeply into literature, then drama.  He gets religion, then loses it.  He is committed to his family, then he isn’t.  He’s an ascetic, then a free spirit.  At each stage of his mental development, he thinks he has found the thing, the one and only approach to life that is correct and which commands his total attention.  He doesn’t even seem to be aware of the fact that he’s constantly making big changes in his outlook on life.

At the same time, reality keeps intruding on Stephen’s life in so many ways.  His family’s financial situation, academic rules, the behavior of friends, and his own sexuality–all are constantly playing tricks on him and preventing him from taking a linear path through the world.  Stephen tries to be a serious intellectual, but his fellow students are more interested in crude humor and other distractions.  He beats against their indifference without any success.  In this respect as well, Stephen’s experience is something we can all relate to, particularly those of us who were once budding young intellectuals in a largely non-intellectual world.

I can’t conclude without mentioning religion.  Joyce is not a big fan, particularly not of the conservative Catholicism that dominated Ireland when he was young.  Since the novel is set largely at Catholic schools and colleges, Catholicism plays a large role throughout the novel.  It’s most important in chapter three, the novel’s central chapter.  At this point in the novel, Stephen, at the tender age of 16, is routinely visiting prostitutes in Dublin.  One of the priests at his college takes the students on a retreat, during which he gives them a lecture on the torments of Hell.  (Ironically, this same priest was kind to Stephen during childhood.)  The lectures go into excruciating details, describing the physical pain, horrendous sights and sounds and odors, burning heat, and so forth that are present in Hell for all eternity.  No mention is made of how the priest knows these facts, nor is there much attention paid to the love and saving grace of Jesus Christ.  It’s just Hell, Hell, Hell for sermon after sermon.  The experience leaves Stephen fearing for his soul to the extent that be becomes physically ill and barely able to move or function.

It’s not a pleasant scene, but it is a powerful one.  One advantage to reading A Portrait of the Artist is that it puts the religious experience of past eras in terms that moderns can understand.  These days we find it hard to comprehend how people of centuries past thought about sin, death, and judgment.  Chapter three of Portrait gives us a look at a character writhing in the throes of sin and fearing for his eternal destiny.  It lets us understand that, for those who truly believed as Stephen believed, sin took on an overwhelming, almost physical presence if it wasn’t dealt with via confession and penance.

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