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

Archive for the ‘Thirty-Day book project’ Category

My current reading: The Seven Storey Mountain

I’ve just completed the Thirty-Day Book Project, which for me turned into a sixty-two day book project.  Now the practice of blogging about books seems to have embedded itself in my bloodstream.  Hence a post about the most recent book I read: The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography by Thomas Merton.

Merton was born in France in 1915 and moved around throughout France, England, and the United States during his lifetime.  His mother died while he was a child and his father died of a brain tumor during his teenage years; after that, his closest family association was with his grandparents.  The start of Merton’s journey through adult life is one that’s remarkably common for young men of the twentieth century.  He attended university, first in England and later at Columbia University in New York.  At the start, he was a rebel, determined to thumb his nose at authority.  He flirted with atheism, with a communism, with all kinds of silly intellectual fads.  He entered a fraternity and spent years partying and drinking at various spots in New York City.

Then, as the end of his education approached, he began to notice how hollow and unsatisfying his life was.  He began searching farther afield and eventually explored works of Catholic philosophy and spirituality.  The more of these he read, the more he found his wisdom and understanding growing, along with his ability to cope with the modern world and all its violence, greed, and contradictions.  This lead him first to conversion and baptism and then, after much pain and many struggles, to enter a Cistercian monastery at Gethsemane in Kentucky.  Though he lived until 1968, The Seven Storey Mountain ends in 1946, concluding with the death of Merton’s brother Paul in WWII and some reflections on the growth of the Cistercian order in America.

(A more thorough timeline of Merton’s life can be found here.)

Because of his tremendous writing skill, his directness, his organization, and his keen insight into the nature of humanity and God, Merton became one of the most popular Christian writers of the twentieth century.  His books are often offered as good introductions to Christian life and thought for those not truly familiar with such things.  In contrast to other introductions such as Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Merton does not try to bend out of his way to make Christian belief fit a modern worldview.  Instead he simply writes with power and beauty from a Christian perspective, and lets that power and beauty carry the meaning across, even to readers who aren’t used to his type of thinking.  Here’s an excerpt from The Seven Storey Mountain.

The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, and in proclaiming the glory of God.  We have been fashioned, in all our perfection, each according to his own nature, and all our natures ordered and harmonized together, that man’s reason and his love might fit in this one last element, this God-given key to the meaning of the whole.

But if Merton is good for beginning Christians, he is good for veteran Christians as well.  While is description of life before entering the monastery is a fascinating picture of a lost soul, his description of life after entering it is an equally fascinating picture a found soul.  He choose the Cistercian Order (also known as Trappists) because of the strictness of their lifestyle.  Among the things that he mentions were the lack of heating and air conditions, the simple (and vegetarian) food, the fasting during Lent, constant prayer including ten recitations of the Psalter during September, and other devotional activity of that sort.  When we read this, most of us will realize how few steps we’ve taken on the path towards union with God, compared to the many that people like Merton and his fellow monks did.

Chesterton on the Bible

Before I post a wrap-up of the Thirty-Day Book Project–which, incidentally, took sixty-two days–I will offer this short but worthy paragraph from the end of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

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.

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