What We’re Reading (Summer 2016)
C. S. Lewis once observed that a scholar’s professional and pleasure reading are often indistinguishable. I hope to profit from that synergy while perusing the following titles. John Henry Newman: A Portrait in Letters, ed. Roderick Strange (Oxford) is a distillation of the complete thirty-two volumes of Newman’s correspondence, and is hence meant to provide a capsule portrait of the preeminent Victorian Christian intellectual. Its contents cover Newman’s entire life and reveal the development of his thought, his painstaking and poignant conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845, and his often difficult relationships with his sisters and associates such as Frederick William Faber and Henry Edward Manning. This rounded selection appears designed to vindicate Newman’s own claim that “the true life of a man is in his letters.”
Jean Gartlen seems to be guided by this maxim as well in Barbara Ward: Her Life and Letters (Bloomsbury Academic). Drawing extensively on Ward’s previously unpublished correspondence, and on their friendship, Gartlen offers the first full-length biography of an unjustly neglected twentieth-century social critic. Acclaimed in her day for her pioneering work in the alternative economics and ecological movements, Ward’s blend of orthodox Roman Catholicism and social radicalism echoes that of predecessors like G. K. Chesterton and mentors like Christopher Dawson; it is thus a timely reminder of the persistent, rebellious vitality of Roman Catholic social thought.
I was browsing the gift shop at the Cloisters when I found a book to fill the summer days of kids and parents alike. Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village is a short book of monologues and dialogues, set in an English village in 1255, which children can perform as miniature plays. The material gets beyond lutes-and-ladies fantasy fluff: There’s a Jewish boy who is forced to wear a yellow badge, a hunchbacked girl on pilgrimage to a healing shrine, a shepherdess who turns a song for the Virgin Mary into a lullaby for her ailing sheep, a “sniggler” or eel-catcher, and a girl praying desperately that her stepmother will not die in childbirth. There are farms and fleas, fear and hunger; begging, praying, and singing. The monologues and dialogues have their own rhythms, as well as brief, kid-friendly explanatory notes. This book is gritty, but not cynical. I wish I’d had it as a kid.
This is going to be a Marilynne Robinson summer for me. I’m starting with the novels Home, Housekeeping, Gilead, and Lila (all from Picador), and I’ll also explore the essay collections. Robinson feels to me like an American Virginia Woolf, our own genius of modern women’s literature. I have tended to think of even prestigious “women’s” books (Robinson is lavishly awarded) in the U.S. as making up something of a ghetto, in a literal sense: about forceful exclusion and oppression of predictable kinds, and full of longing for the larger, “real” world. Robinson’s characters, in contrast, are fully and intricately occupied with their surroundings and other people and the pressing unseen. There is nothing theoretical or provisional here, but rather the devastating imagery of irreplaceable time. It takes a giddy level of rhetorical and poetic skill to pull this off. In Housekeeping, there is “merely” a railroad accident and flooding. Children “merely” skip school and spend bored, cold days on a lake shore. Two spinster sisters “merely” chant in long, banal exchanges their terror of life outside a shabby but quiet hotel. But word by word, the scenes assert their lasting authority.
A. M. Juster
This summer don’t even think about bringing trashy paperbacks on your vacation. Bring instead Caroline Alexander’s Iliad (Ecco Press 2016), which represents a welcome return to classical translation that is enjoyable as poetry and faithful to the original text. You should keep your copy of Richmond Lattimore’s venerable but now eclipsed version of Homer’s classic, but it is time that we donate to local charities our copies of the loose and self-indulgent (albeit popular) translations of Robert Fagles and Christopher Logue.
Next to your Iliad, pack a copy of Kay Ryan’s most recent book, Erratic Facts (Grove Press 2015). Ryan writes brief, accessible poems that possess a quiet dignity and a subtle depth; she is our generation’s answer to Emily Dickinson. Confrontations with mortality caused Ryan to be little less exuberant in Erratic Facts than in her earlier books, but her slightly modulated vision still produces some of the finest verse being written today.
In your beach bag between your new copies of these two books and your picnic lunch, be sure to wedge in Erica Dawson’s The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press 2013), which won the 2016 Poets’ Prize. Her gorgeous language explodes with passion while still being thoughtful and well-crafted.
Just don’t become so mesmerized that you forget about your sunscreen!
Jeffrey O. Nelson
The first of my two summer reads is by Fareed Zakaria, who has written a love letter to liberal education that is at once personal, theoretical, historical, and practical. In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education hits all the right notes in exploring the deepest and most transformative aspects of the liberal arts tradition along with its real world benefits. It is short and accessible, conveying how both students and society are impoverished by its decline. The second summer suggestion is a new edition of a lost classic novel by Myles Connolly entitled Mr. Blue. Published by a promising new publisher which has come out of the gate with some strong titles wonderfully edited, Cluny Media, this recovered novel is perfect summer reading. Connolly was an early Hollywood writer among other talents. His story unfolds with movie ease wearing its depth lightly. The title figure is enigmatic while incarnational, something of an urban St. Francis. Impressively edited by Stephen Mirarchi, Mr. Blue is poised for new life.
Pedro Blas González
The Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (Herbert Mason’s translation) is one of history’s most astute works of wisdom literature. Gilgamesh was a young king who lived in the third millennium B.C. He chastised the village elders for their conformism. Gilgamesh attempted to solve the riddle of immortality. The beauty of this epic is the king’s impetuous inquietude. The existential motifs that inform this most ancient text set a lofty standard for wisdom literature. Postmodernity’s infatuation with reality-slandering can learn much from this timeless work, for eventually restive youth must pay the piper. Postmodern man can benefit from Gilgamesh’s brush with evil. Gilgamesh demands that reality conform to human whim; his redemptive lesson is to respect the essence of transcendence and to honor forces that man cannot change.
The Time It Never Rained is Elmer Kelton’s poignant 1972 novel of West Texas’s seven-year drought during the 1950s, a condition that was exacerbated by suffocating government regulations. This literate novel is conversant with cattle ranching and that region’s unforgiving weather. Kelton employs fundamental themes of natural law and classical liberalism. Charlie Flagg, the protagonist, is a sympathetic rugged individualist. Charlie is a repository of self-knowledge and dignified respect for work—and what this means to human liberty. This is Kelton’s seminal work; it belongs on the list of the top hundred novels of the twentieth century.
Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN is known as the man who first flew over the North and South Pole. He is perhaps best remembered as an explorer of Antarctica, during that continent’s stage of mechanized exploration: 1923–1940. Alone is Byrd’s harrowing account of the five months that he spent alone in a tiny weather station, during the winter of 1934, on his second Antarctic expedition. Byrd’s account makes the reader want to pace up and down the room in order to escape his arresting, claustrophobic narrative. Byrd’s other books about Antarctic exploration, Little America and Discovery, are alluringly descriptive and factual regarding technical aspects of exploration. Alone is an existential saga. By the end of the book, Byrd is facing imminent death, what French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, calls an ultimate existential situation. Byrd’s lyrical heroism successfully answers the question: Why must a life worth living consummate difficult tasks?
These days, putting aside day-to-day concerns and reflecting instead on “philosophical matters” can easily be seen as an effete luxury. Fortunately, some contemporary philosophers are able to write in a lively and engaging way that makes it an easy, guiltless pleasure to read them—whether on a morning commute or on a lazy summer afternoon. Ireland’s Mark Dooley is one such philosopher. His 2015 work, Moral Matters: A Philosophy of Homecoming, published by Bloomsbury Academic, is a sensitively written and highly readable reflection on culture and identity, permanence, and the idea of “home”—all matters worth thinking about today, during what Russell Kirk called the “reign of King Whirl.”
Readers will also be enchanted by the next recommendation for quick summer reading in philosophy. For as prolific and insightful as he is across a broad range of genres, British philosopher Roger Scruton is at his very best as an essayist. In Confessions of a Heretic, a beautifully produced 2016 collection from Notting Hill Editions, Scruton stimulates, provokes, and inspires us with what he calls his “confessions.” Taking up themes he has tackled previously in other, longer works—such as animal rights, architecture, classical music, the environment, and the West—Scruton writes elegantly about the excesses of modern liberalism. Though some of the essays have previously been published elsewhere, some appear here for the first time—and provide important, new considerations of some of the most vexing issues of our time.
Stephen B. Presser
My summer reading this year is only one book, The Penguin History of the World (sixth edition) by J. M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad (2013). This remarkable volume is, simply stated, all of human history—politics, culture, war, technology, art, and literature, in almost 1200 pages. It fills in gaps in knowledge and lets the reader see the entire sweep of the progress of civilization, not just in the West, but across the entire globe. It is, of course, impossible to retain everything, but does wonders for one’s perspective.
This summer I’m working my way through The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves from Curt Thompson, an illuminating mix of neuroscience, biblical studies, and spiritual formation addressing a debilitating universal condition. I was pleased to see the recent release of James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, a popular-level treatment of themes from his two seminal works on cultural liturgies, addressing the formation of our affections and the way worship always works to shape them (Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom). Finally, I’m looking forward to Ruth Sanderson’s newly illustrated edition of George MacDonald’s classic fairy tale, The Golden Key, coming from Eerdmans this September.
Perhaps because the United States has pivoted to Asia and the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly at the forefront of global geopolitics, three new books about General Douglas MacArthur will make interesting and important summer reading.
First is Walter Borneman’s MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific, a book that focuses on MacArthur’s campaigns in the Southwest Pacific, especially the struggles for New Guinea and the Philippines. These battles have often been overshadowed by the Navy’s central Pacific campaign.
Second is Arthur Herman’s Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior, a 960-page biography of the general that is likely to become the standard one-volume biography of the great and controversial general.
Finally, due out in late summer-early fall is H. W. Brands’s The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, which, hopefully, will present the whole story of the Truman-MacArthur clash during the Korean War. For far too long, conventional histories have portrayed Truman as saint and MacArthur as sinner; the truth is much more complex.
The revival of interest in MacArthur is a welcome reminder of the importance of individuals in history. MacArthur was a great general who showed brilliant statesmanship in administering postwar Japan, and who foresaw the rising importance of the Asia-Pacific region in world politics. He, arguably, was the greatest American of the twentieth century.
Gerald J. Russello
As I usually do in summer, I will be alternating between fiction and non-fiction. Over the last several years, I have become enamored of the detective fiction of Andrea Camilleri, whose depictions of Sicily are almost as engrossing as the mysteries his police-detective protagonist, Montalbano, needs to solve. This summer his The Terra-cotta Dog and August Heat are on the list. For non-fiction, I have George Hawley’s Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism and Pieter Judson’s The Habsburg Empire.
Posted: May 30, 2016 in Symposia.