Tag Archives: Great Books

Reading Goals

I previously went public with my goal of reading 100 books this year.  I’m not quite ready to say that it won’t happen.  However several factors have intervened.  The first is that my sister Cathy is requiring more care from Amy and me.  This, combined with teaching, has left me in a state of exhaustion for a sizable portion of the last month.  I haven’t missed any days of class.  But I have had a difficult time keeping up with grading.1848-261926

The other issue that tends to cast a doubt on the viability of this goal is that I’m reading some behemoths now, the main one being A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.  Weighing in at 896 pages, Taylor chronicles how the worldview of the West has experienced revolutionary changes from the Middle Ages up until now.  He writes of how the outlook of pre-Enlightenment Europe was profoundly supernaturalistic, a world that was enchanted, in which the Divine broke through, even through inanimate objects (think of the Holy Grail, for example).  Taylor makes the case that over time, a number of developments took place across different areas, such as the Enlightenment, the rise of modern politics, “polite society,” and perhaps most of all, a change in the perception of the interaction of God in this world.  I’m about a third of the way through the book.  For me, it’s timely, it’s educational, it’s interesting, and being a work of philosophy, it’s stretching me.  At this point, I’ve having to trust the author to take me where he’s going.

James K. A. Smith introduced me to this book in his guide to Taylor’s work, How Not To Be Secular.  It’s been long enough that I don’t remember too many specifics about Dr. Smith’s book, except that it made me want to read Taylor.  So, it seems that Dr. Smith achieved his purpose with me.

Another book on the nightstand is Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life. Mr. Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservativeand one of my favorite writers.  He went through a crisis in his life similar to my own in many ways, moving back to the town where he grew up after an absence of over twenty years after the death of his sister, and experiencing an adjustment difficult enough to lead to a physical, emotional, and spiritual breakdown.  The Lord used Dante’s Divine Comedy to lead him out of the dark wood that he experienced midway through his life, with striking parallels to Dante’s own experience.  It’s an enjoyable read, and it has succeeded in motivating me to begin again with the Commedia.  I’ve read Inferno several times before, but have gone no further, so I opened up Purgatorio last night.  I’ve only read through Canto III, but so far, it’s surprising how hopeful and optimistic the beginning of Purgatorio is.

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Reading and Surrender

I’ve fallen woefully short of my publication goal for this week.  I enjoy writing for the blog. However, much of my time has been spent in teaching, getting ready to teach, or lately, running.  So, I haven’t exactly made writing in the strictest sense a priority, although most of the above has been a function of some kind of writing.  But it’s not finished writing — just enough to get the job done to either give my students a thorough lecture or devise good open-ended questions for a discussion-based class period.
In terms of audiobooks, I’ve been listening some to Middlemarch while I drive.  However, it’s kind of difficult on the run, as you really want to participate with all your faculties.  George Eliot demands a kind of surrender that many contemporary authors don’t require, and is difficult to render if a person is trying to listen while doing other tasks, or perhaps even trying to read other books.  The surrender pays rich dividends when the option is available.  This is something that I’ve noticed with other authors such as Tolstoy, Doestoevsky, and Melville.  Perhaps the reason that these works aren’t preferred by students is the necessity to utterly surrender oneself to enjoy a satisfying experience with these texts.  There’s a degree of resistance in the soul to such a surrender that must be overcome.  But this is essential to reading a work charitably, putting oneself under the tutelage of the text, and withholding judgment until understanding of the text is achieved.  I’ve also started listening to Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  However, I’m wondering if he is going to require the same kind of surrender that George Eliot does.
I finished Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.  It was a worthwhile read.  The data he presents quite clearly supports his view that America is becoming more segmented and stratified as a society.  What may be controversial is how one interprets the data, and what conclusions are to be drawn from it.  And morally, is this a good development for American society, or is this something to be lamented?  On balance, it seems that this new stratification is something to be lamented.  However, the aggregation of brain power in what Murray calls ‘the new upper class” has some beneficial effects for all of America.  The downside is that the new upper class has little contact with the rest of America.  It appears that the new lower class does not either.  The only caveat on this book  I have on this one is that some of the later chapters could have been abridged or eliminated. However, I suppose he really wanted to convince the naysayers to his thesis.  I’m pretty sold on his thesis about the distance and America being segmented into demographic “neighborhoods,” but uncertain about what that means for the future or if anything can or should be done about this.
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Caesar, Cicero, and Middlemarch

I read recently an article about Dorothy Sayer’s education in Latin.  She assess various teaching techniques, pronunciation methods, why Latin is essential for one’s education, and what content to include.  For much of the article, I found myself in agreement with Miss Sayers.  However, I disagree with Dorothy Sayers about Cicero, when she said something like “throw that old fool out the window.”  I felt that way about reading Caesar when our Latin III class was reading from the Gallic Wars.  We found out that Caesar was extremely selective in the battle reports that he presented and that he liked himself a lot.    Although Cicero is way over my head and has a number of idioms, I’m enjoying him more because of his facility with language.
middlemarchI started Middlemarch this weekend. Some bill it as “the greatest novel in the English language.”  I had begun reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, an interesting enough memoir about how reading Middlemarch at different stages of life has shaped her as a person.   About halfway through this book, I decided that Middlemarch itself may be more interesting than Ms. Mead’s experience of the novel.    I’m only to chapter six, but so far, I haven’t seen any reason why Middlemarch can’t live up to this billing.  Moby Dick and a couple of other novels, maybe Bleak House, compete with MIddlemarch for this but it’s absolutely top drawer.  I love reading books in which it appears that the author has read everything that you have and the book is a conversation between the author and you.  That’s what I enjoyed so much about both Moby Dick and am enjoying about Middlemarch.  
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Of Books and Such

I finished The Handmaid’s Tale last night.  It continued to be absolutely gripping to the very end.  I’m not a big fan of ending —there’s no resolution to anything.  But I suppose with the setting and the plot of the novel, it’s an appropriate ending.  In the alternative world that Margaret Atwood creates, the nature of life is that there really isn’t much change.  Still, Ofwarren is a sympathetic enough character that the reader is rooting for her to “overcome the odds” and to find a rich and meaningful life.
1848-261926Woke up clear headed and rested for the first time in a long time.  Went for a four mile run yesterday.  Although it was really slow, it felt good to get out, and it appears that it helped me sleep last night and put some pep in my step for today.  I woke up at 5:30 for the second day in a row.  Yesterday, it was so I could do some Latin translation to prep for Latin III.  Today, it’s to be selfish with my time.  To take time to think, to pray, to write, time that no one is asking or expecting anything of me.
Hopefully today, I’ll feel a bit more connected with my classes than yesterday.  For the entire day, I felt like Robo Teacher.  I went over the material scheduled for the day and made appropriate disciplinary interactions, but for some reason, felt no connection with my students.  Hopefully, it was the lingering effects of the sickness and the cold medicine and today, I’ll do a better job in connecting with them.  I really dislike feeling that way, and more so when it’s for all my classes.
I completed eight books in the month of January, which is abut three more than I had planned for.  I’m on pace to complete 96 for the year.  With summer and breaks in the mix, I should be able to finish 100 if I continue with my present efforts.  A shoutout to Book Oblivion for the 100 books per year suggestion.  I thought I was doing well to aim for 52 — a book per week, but it may be possible to double that.  Challenge accepted!
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It Takes A Long Time To Learn To Do Something Well

I’m planning on finishing up Paradise Lost tonight.  It’s quite a challenging read.  Even having been to seminary and having taught Homer, Virgil, Plato, and Augustine for the past eight years and even having taught Dante before, I still feel like I’m missing so much.  It’s going to need more than one reread before I think I can do a good job of teaching it.41Ux+jGSkCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

However, I keep telling myself I have to start somewhere.  The good part of this is that I can sympathize with my students as they struggle with the text.  Also, most of my students have a degree of familiarity with the Scripture, so we can all follow the basic plot.  But thinking about this made me consider how long it takes and how much effort it takes to become really proficient in a craft.  It’s taking me eight years of teaching Plato’s Republic to get me to a place where I can read it both sympathetically and critically, and engage the students in a reading that’s both sympathetic and critical, and to really be able to enjoy this process.  It’s taken me six years as a Latin teacher (starting out literally one lesson ahead of my students) to be able to enjoy the rhetoric and the rhythms, the timing and the pacing of Cicero, and to take pleasure in reading an author who makes a language sing.

It’s rather ironic that I’m closer to having this experience with Cicero in Latin than I am with Milton in English.  But Paradise Lost is so rich that the time invested in it will be repaid a hundredfold.  Maybe after I teach it eight years, I’ll have a greater degree of confidence in engaging students with the text, rather than us all sharing ignorance.  Diligence.  Industriousness.  Making the most of my time.  Applying myself.  These were virtues that were largely absent from my misspent youth and young adulthood.  So I’m making up for lost time, and enjoying the journey.  I’m getting to read all the books that I’ve wanted to all of these year, and getting paid to understand them and to share them with others.  It’s a great life. But I have not been able to get around just how long it takes to get good at something.

Any shortcuts out there for becoming competent and proficient to a high degree in something that you are passionate about?

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Catechism of the Catholic Church

catechism-of-the-catholic-church-200I woke up thinking through Plato’s view of the human body today.  This will come up next week when I teach Books IV and V of the Republic.  Expecting some associations with and attempted slanders of the Roman Catholic view of marriage and physical relations in marriage, I read up in The Catechism of the Catholic Church  on marriage and the expression of marital love to confirm that the Roman Church is not Neo-Platonic in her conception of the physical body.  The degree in which the Catechism is not Neo-Platonic in its view of the human body, marital love, and the gift of children is rather astonishing. Plus, I experienced the added bonus of reaching the beautifully written and theologically informative document that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is.   If only we had something like this as Protestants!
We do have the Westminster Larger Catechism, Baxter’s A Christian Directory, and the 1559 edition of Calvin’s Institutes that are somewhat comparable in scope.  However, the Reformers wrote catechisms for every generation and even sometimes the faithful in their own churches.  Alas, I think it was David Wells who said, “our is not a creed-making age”.  If this is an accurate observation it makes the Catechism of the Catholic Church an even more amazing achievement. It seems to me that this is the one theological work of the 20th century that future generations will see as a “classic.”
The Catechism covers not only issues of personal belief and conduct, but also social issues such as just war, birth control, abortion, etc.  and is so beautifully written.  I probably should put it on the reading list for this summer.
The structure of the Catechism is the same as most Reformation era catechisms.  The first part contains “what we are to believe concerning God.”  The second part contains “what duties God requires of us.”  Another way to summarize the Catechism is that it has three sections:  The Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.  All of the Reformation catechisms except the Westminster are organized around these three symbols of the faith:  what to believe, how to live, and how to pray.
I haven’t been able to read much in it.  But from what I’ve read, I highly recommend it for both Protestants and Catholics.  Protestants will find much more common ground with our separated brethren than many would expect, and where there are differences, It behooves both Protestants and Catholics to be informed about what those differences are and be able to accurately understand and express those differences.
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Desert Island Books

Desert_Island_(8685053723)This idea is not new to me.  I find, though, that you can learn alot about a person by finding out about the books that they would take if they knew that they would be stranded on a desert island.  Here’s my top ten:

1.  Hamlet by William Shakespeare.  Quite simply the greatest artistic creation in the history of the universe.  I billed it this way to my eleventh grade English students and it managed to live up to this billing.  Ol’ Will really hit one out of the park with this one!  Can’t say enough great things about it.  My favorite book to teach, by far!

2.  Homer’s Iliad.  Still possibly the greatest epic in human history.  Homer is especially unsurpassed for his descriptive powers of blood, guts, and the reality of the battlefield.  This always makes me wonder if he is glorying in the heroic ideal, or showing us the futility of the heroic ideal.

3.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  At least I’d have time to finish the darn thing.  On several occasions, I’ve gotten about 400 pages into it and found it to be a great story, well written.  It’s reputation for being more useful as a doorstop than a book is thoroughly undeserved.  I’ve always gotten distracted and never kept the momentum going to finish it.

4.  The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis.  My favorite book by Lewis.  I reread it probably once a year to remind myself of why I’m a teacher and what my core values as a teacher are.

5.  Summa Theologica  by St. Thomas Aquinas.  Lest I become conceited or no longer think that I need to be challenged in doctrine and devotion, learning and piety.  Possibly the greatest mind who has ever lived, and surely one of the most holy.  I’m counting the Summa as one book.  You may not think that’s fair, but it’s my post.  Again, I’d at least have time to read the whole thing.

6.  Calvin’s Institutes. Gotta have at least one book from my own tradition.  Same criteria as the Summa.

7.  The Book of Common Prayer.  Beautiful, well composed, Scripture-saturated prayers.  A great resource to remind me of both the transcendence and the immanence of God.  Thomas Cranmer makes the English language sing in the service of worship and prayer to our Lord.  Wouldn’t want to be without this one.

8.  Something by Charles Dickens but I can’t decide which one  Maybe Hard Times, Bleak House, or Tale of Two Cities.

9.  Bible.  I’m a convinced Protestant so this might seem like an odd edition.  If I was going away for a while, I’d want to read the Apocrypha.  The RSV is not a bad translation either.  I’d either go with that, the ESV (which is descended from the RSV), or the Authorized Version.

10.  Can I take my Kindle?

What books would you want to take if you were going to be stranded somewhere?

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Philosophical Method, Plato, and St. Thomas Aquinas

I introduced my tenth graders to Plato’s Republic on Monday.  The Republic dives right into a demonstration of philosophical method that can be hard to follow for the uninitiated.  So today, we did a class exercise in philosophical method and attempted to define justice, attempting to give them the experience of engaging in and experiencing a philosophical discussion.  Our exercise was a success in both Western Thought classes today.  I have two more sections of that class tomorrow, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.
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Plato (or Socrates) tends to ask questions and not arrive at a final answer.  So in preparation for this exercise, I read just a  tiny bit of St. Thomas Aquinas on justice in Summa Theologica, II:II, Q. 58, A. 1.  My daughter gave me Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa for Christmas last year, and over this past summer, I was able to make some headway in it.
 St. Thomas makes me remember that  “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).  The Summa is an intellectual tour de force.  From what I can tell, the Summa may be the high water mark of the Christian church in both philosophy and theology.  I feel a little bit of a guilty pleasure in writing this, because I’m a convinced Protestant.
The reason why I find St. Thomas so beautiful and edifying is his philosophical method.  St. Thomas begins to form a definition of a concept by assembling the best points of the arguments of his ideological opponents, interprets theses arguments in the most charitable and best light toward his opponents to build an ideological fortress that looks unassailable.  And in every article that I’ve read of the Summa, he demolishes the ideological fortress of the ideas of his opponents to build his definition
 The style, the majesty, the meticulous thinking of St. Thomas, and his humility shine through to make the Summa a beautiful thing.  I’ll have to read Lombard’s Sentences, which was Thomas’ model, to see how much they are alike.  But talk about “copyrighting your faults”!  Here is this ponderous, methodical style that Thomas has, which many people would believe to be a great liability (I’m not sure about back in his day, but it certainly is in ours!).  Yet, Thomas trademarked it, and became the “Dr. Angelicus” of the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed, in many ways, of all of Christendom.  
The Summa is theological manual, a catechetical tool, to instruct people in the faith.  But above all, I see its beauty.  The beauty of expressing complex ideas in methodical way, of closing off all of the possible doors and windows that Thomas’ ideological opponents may be able to escape through, and doing this so modestly, without a hint of pompousness or unctuousness.  The beauty of breaking down complex ideas and making them simple is the gift of the teacher.  Every time I read in the Summa, I marvel at what a gifted teacher God has given the Church in St. Thomas, and how much can be learned from him.  
What have you read lately that has given you a new appreciation for the beauty of words aptly spoken?  I’d love to hear from you!
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Plato, Politics, and Families

This is a follow-up on my previous post on Plato’s Republic and his proposal to redefine the family.  I’ve already argued my view that this is an ironic proposal rather than a straightforward proposal.  In reflecting on this, though, I thought about the influence of families on American politics.  Consider this — our Constitution is designed to make political office as free of ancestral or titled constraints as possible.  The idea behind this, even if it has not been consistently carried out, is that the people most suitable to govern will be placed in positions to govern.  However, even with this structure in place, in periods of American history, a few families have exercised enormous influence.  This is not a conspiracy theory, but a statement of fact on the undeniable influence of families in government, even in a republic which has been designed to remove barriers of ancestry.

Think of the following.  Since 1988, the office of President of the United States has been occupied by three families:  Bush, Clinton, and Obama.  According to current wisdom, the front runners for the presidential nomination for 2016 for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, are Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush, making it likely that we will have another President from either the Bush or the Clinton families.  However, this is nothing new.

If we look further back at American history, other families have been elected to high office and exercised extraordinary influence.  The Kennedys the Roosevelts, the Tafts (with William Howard as President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Robert Taft as Senate Majority Leader), the Gores (Albert Gore Sr. as longtime Tennessee senator and Al Gore as Senator and Vice -President), and John and John Quincy Adams who both occupied the White House.  More obscurely, both John Marshall Harlan and John Marshall Harlan II served on the US Supreme Court.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.  In the providence of God, families will arise who have unique abilities, opportunities, and resources.  Families will arise who have a heritage of relationships, connections, and experience in governing will be entrusted with the task of governing.  The difficulty here is not with this process, but with the corruptibility of the persons holding high office, and the temptation to enrich their personal circumstances through governing.

Plato attempts to insulate the philosopher-king from corruptibility, yet seems to believe in corruptibility of human nature and illustrates this reality in Book VIII of the Republic, when he writes of the inevitable degeneration of good government.

Does the historical pre-eminence of a few families exercising enormous power and influence detract from the Constitutional design protecting individual liberties?  Does this reality hinder what would be the best possible government that America would be able to have?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Learning

“We learn how to do things by doing the things we are learning how to do” (Aristotle.  Ethics ii.1).

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