Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great BooksOn Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior

This post might amount to virtue signaling. It is not intended to be, but Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well is too good to keep to one’s self. And the word virtue is hard to escape in any discussion of this book, which applies literary criticism to ten books and three short stories as it pursues its goal.

As the subtitle indicates, On Reading Well is about “finding the good life through great books.” By good life, the author means a virtuous life, but not a holy, pious, or sanctified life. While each chapter opens with a brief Bible passage, and Karen Swallow Prior is a practicing Christian (see below), On Reading Well does not attempt to set a standard for virtuous living. Its goal is to encouraging a habit of reading that will enable the reader to see virtues being modeled by the characters in classic literature. In a few of the selections the virtue being discussed is not modeled by the central character, but it is dismissed or trampled upon by that person. Even that behavior is instructive, though.

The brief biography on the publisher’s website will tell you about Karen Swallow Prior’s credentials and career. If you want to know where she stands in relation to the Evangelical Christianity that you read or hear about in the news, an article about her in The New Yorker should satisfy that desire.

Before reading this book I had little hope of getting to all of the books on my to-read list in my lifetime. Between the six books and stories that On Reading Well discusses that I haven’t already read on my own and the books mentioned in the 600+ endnotes, that hope is now completely gone. Here, in the order in which they are discussed, are the books and stories that Karen Swallow Prior chose to discuss in this volume. The virtue associated with each is in parentheses after the title.

In the summer of 2018 I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Karen Swallow Prior cites Jacobs’ book in her introduction: “Practice makes perfect, but pleasure makes practice more likely, so read something enjoyable. If a book is so agonizing that you avoid reading it, put it down and pick up one that brings you pleasure. Life is too short and books are too plentiful not to. Besides, one can’t read well without enjoying reading.” (pp. 16–17) Alan Jacob’s book and Karen Swallow Prior’s book together make a great contribution at a time when reading is popular but it is often challenging to decide what to read.

Finally, On Reading Well includes several discussion questions for each chapter. Book clubs and teachers of literature will appreciate this feature. For that reason I also want to mention C. Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish as a third book to consider if you are looking for your next read.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

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Book Read: The Making of an Ordinary Saint

The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual DisciplinesThe Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines by Nathan Foster

What at first seems to be a recasting of Richard J. Foster’s twelve spiritual disciplines for late Gen-Xers and Millennials is actually a memoir. In The Making of an Ordinary Saint Nathan Foster traces his attempts through the course of year not only to put the spiritual disciplines into practice but to confront the struggles and failures of his past, which have included substance abuse among other destructive practices. Having read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth recently, I was surprised to learn that the elder Foster has a son who has struggled so greatly with human frailty.

Having also read Florence Williams’s The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative recently, I was encouraged to read Nathan Foster’s discussion of the therapeutic value of spending time in nature in his chapter on meditation. The Making of an Ordinary Saint is filled with connections like that, simple everyday connections that can help us frail humans find the spiritual resources we need to overcome some of that frailty.

When I read Celebration of Discipline I thought of an acquaintance who attended a private Christian elementary and high school, then went on to an elite Christian college, graduate school, and a career that reflects his own discipline and intelligence. He is comfortable worshiping in churches that draw their members from Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Reading The Making of an Ordinary Saint, I can’t help but think of the people who might feel comfortable in Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints.

If you’re like me, your reading list has gotten filled recently with books and articles analyzing America’s polarized religious and political cultures. If, like me, you’re also looking for some reading that will help you put all of that aside for a moment and figure out how to deal with your own personal baggage and get back in touch with the God who made you, then consider The Making of an Ordinary Saint.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: Reason for Hope

Reason for Hope: A Spiritual JourneyReason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall is arguably the world’s leading authority on chimpanzees. She has been studying them for almost sixty years as of this writing. Through the Jane Goodall Institute she continues her work of seeking to protect chimpanzees and their habitat, advocating globally for humane treatment of all animals, and mobilizing resources for conservation of the natural world.

Reason for Hope, written in the late 1990s, is a memoir. As the subtitle indicates, it traces Goodall’s exploration of her own spirituality and her relationship with spiritual forces or entities. It does so by relating events in her life and career to spiritual principles or concepts. She ends many chapters, early chapters in particular, with a reflection on a spiritual concept that arises in the narrative of that chapter. She uses the word “God” to describe a universal spiritual force or entity, but her theology draws from many spiritual traditions, and is not limited to a monotheistic or trinitarian understanding of God.

Jane Goodall was raised in the Anglican tradition, which gives her some of the language she uses to describe her spiritual experiences. She experiences awe, for example, in natural settings both in her homeland of England and in her adopted homes in East Africa. That awe leads her to conclude that a force either outside of or permeating the natural world is responsible for the wonders and beauties one sees in that world.

Early in the narrative, on pages 50–51, Goodall argues that science and faith are not incompatible. Through her relationship with Louis Leakey she was schooled in the principles of human evolution. Honoring her Anglican upbringing, she concludes that God set humans apart at a certain point in evolution by sending the Holy Ghost on them.

In spite of this special relationship with God, humans are prone to great evil. Having lived in England through Second World War, Goodall has seen that evil at close range. She also describes a visit to Auschwitz and visits to laboratories where primates and other creatures lived in unbelievably cruel conditions. She cites further stories she has read or heard that demonstrate human beings’ cruelty to fellow humans. Finally, she cites example after example of humanity’s despoiling of the natural world.

Despite humans’ seeming inability to act responsibly toward one another or toward the natural world, Jane Goodall sees human intelligence and ingenuity as reasons for hope. She sees the natural world as being highly resilient. As do many who hold out hope for humanity and the environment, she also sees the passions, energy, and idealism of young people as providing the greatest source of hope. It has been over twenty years since the writing of Reason for Hope. Is Jane Goodall still optimistic about humanity’s chances for reversing some of the evils we have inflicted on the natural world? The publication of Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants in 2013 would seem to suggest that she is still optimistic. I hope that’s true.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: The Nature Fix

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More CreativeThe Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams

If reading more books is one of your goals for 2019, consider adding The Nature Fix to the list of books that will be part of that goal. Read it early in the year, because it may affect your other goals and pursuits for the year. At just under 260 pages, it could easily be read in one snowbound day.

A blurb on the back cover calls Florence Williams a deft writer, and it would be hard to improve on that description. Williams is a journalist and a contributing editor to Outside magazine. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times and National Geographic.

The Nature Fix is all about how increasing our exposure to the natural world, even by small amounts, benefits us physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Florence Williams describes these benefits through engaging accounts of her investigations of scientific experiments and social and educational programs. These experiments and programs attempt to measure the benefits and apply them to specific populations. The populations include city dwellers in Japan and South Korea, military veteran women who are suffering from PTSD, and teenagers whose ADHD puts them at a severe disadvantage in a traditional classroom.

An especially good chapter is chapter 3, entitled “The Smell of Survival,” which discusses so-called healing forests, and the programs that make use of them, in South Korea. Quoting Park Hyun-Soo, who Williams says is “more of a ranger-slash-shaman,” Williams writes “‘The soil is also good for healing. It is antiviral and the geosmin is good for cancer.’ Geosmin, I learned, causes the funky-great smell of earth after a rain.” Looking back at some recent books on soil, Courtney White’s Grass, Soil, and Hope and Ragan Sutterfield’s Cultivating Reality, it looks like the soil can help us in many ways, including some that are much less obvious.

Who would benefit from reading The Nature Fix? Parents and grandparents, educators, health-care professionals, counselors and other mental-health professionals, city planners, retirees and soon-to-be retirees, and just about any other persons who are themselves stressed by urban or suburban life or who want to help people in that situation.

Thank you as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Read: The Good Neighbor

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred RogersThe Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

At the time of this writing, George H.W. Bush, the forty-first president of the United States, has just been laid to rest. News coverage of his passing began, fittingly, with tributes, interviews, and video and audio clips that shed a positive light on his career and presidency. As the days of mourning passed, even before Mr. Bush’s remains were brought to his final resting place, news outlets began to air stories and commentary that shed light on some of the more questionable aspects of his career, especially his presidency. Being close to finishing The Good Neighbor, Maxwell King’s biography of Fred Rogers, I found myself comparing Mr. King’s treatment of his subject and the news coverage of George H.W. Bush’s memorial events.

Fred Rogers is a national hero. A third generation of American children now has access to his original programs and to new programs based on the characters he created. My children watched “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” in the 1980s; I watched it with them more than a few times. The older child married a distant relative of Fred Rogers, so two of my grandchildren are also distant relatives. One of the few television programs my four-year-old granddaughter watches is “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

Maxwell King’s biography, The Good Neighbor, does justice to the person, personality, and legacy of Fred Rogers. It borders on hagiography, but does not cross the frontier. As Fred Rogers himself would acknowledge, he was a complex, imperfect individual. Like George H.W. Bush, Fred Rogers has his detractors, and The Good Neighbor discusses some of the features of Fred Rogers’s work that his detractors find troubling. It doesn’t minimize or gloss over those features, but it doesn’t dwell on them.

The Good Neighbor is rich with stories that explore the private life of Fred Rogers, beginning with his childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The amount of detail in those stories is substantial but not overwhelming. Some of those details are surprising, but I will leave it to readers to discover those surprises for themselves. Maxwell King describes Fred Rogers’s family, friends, and associates, and his relationships with them, with candor, grace, and generosity.

Given the time of year in which I am writing this, The Good Neighbor would be a good gift for anyone who enjoys biographies and who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century. It is an enjoyable read and well worth the time invested in that effort.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Read: Titans

TitansTitans by Armond Boudreaux

Andy Walsh’s book Faith Across the Multiverse carries this dedication: “To Ronnie Simon, who introduced me to X-Men comics in the 7th grade and changed my life.” Unlike Andy’s, my life is largely untouched by comics. I knew about comics when I was growing up, but I didn’t read or collect them. I can’t explain why except that I don’t recall seeing them in the stores I was likely to visit as a child. As I grew into into adulthood I probably adopted the attitude that comic books are for children. Andy’s book, and now Armond Boudreaux’s Titans, suggest that attitude might be shortsighted.

Knowing as little as I do about comic books I can’t really review Titans. It is an engaging book, but readers will benefit from a knowledge of superhero stories. Some chapters, especially the chapters on Marvel’s Civil War, are dense with references to characters and their actions. Others focus more on the conflicts that the characters face and the parallels in contemporary America. What is clear in all chapters is that superheroes are complex and often conflicted characters. What’s also clear in Boudreaux’s consideration of these characters is that these complexities and conflicts have parallels in real people in our time.

Even for someone who is comics- and superhero-illiterate, getting to the afterword on page 151 is worth the effort. With its subtitle “Where Do We Go from Here,” and section headings such as “What It Means to Be Reasonable,” it deserves to be read more than once. Karl Popper’s definition of rationalism, presented on page 151, is an important contribution to the discussion.

Titans is published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in Eugene, Oregon under their Cascade Books imprint. Wipf and Stock publishes a diverse list of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and academic titles. I have enjoyed Daniel Taylor’s Death Comes for the Deconstructionist (Slant Books) and Ragan Sutterfield’s Cultivating Reality (Cascade Books) from Wipf and Stock. Cultivating Reality in particular strikes me as a book that mainstream publishers might overlook.

If you dabble in comics, or if you are the first in line when a new Marvel Comics print issue or movie is released, consider reading Titans.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

Why Is The Catcher in the Rye a Classic?

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was recently ranked thirtieth out of one hundred books featured in the PBS series “The Great American Read.” It is one of the many books included in the PBS list that I had not read prior to the airing of the series, so I added it to my list. It wasn’t long before I began to understand why it was controversial and even banned by some authorities when it was first published, but in a world where a book entitled Swearing Is Good for You exists, the language and sexual references of Catcher in the Rye seem tame.

catcher_in_the_rye_cover

Having satisfied my curiosity about why The Catcher in the Rye was controversial, I wonder why it is considered a classic and why it would make it onto the PBS list. I have my thoughts, but rather than share them (read: bore readers with them), I thought I would ask anyone who happens to stumble on this post. What makes The Catcher in the Rye a classic?

You would make my day, my week, and possibly my month if you would take two minutes to leave a brief comment here with your thoughts.

Thank you for stopping by!

Pat

Cleaning Up Halloween

Is there a Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge character associated with Halloween? If there is, I am about to channel that character.

Halloween is a low-risk holiday that can be fun for so many people and for so many reasons. Creativity in costume design is the rule of the day. Kids get to dress up, pretend to be someone or something else, and ask perfect strangers for treats. Adults sometimes get in on the act, too. There are parties, games, parades, contests, and less of the sense associated with other holidays that everything has to be perfect.

Cleaning up after Halloween can be stress free, unless you spend lots of money and hours decorating your house. Yes, there may be some leftover candy if your neighborhood doesn’t see many trick-or-treaters—ours doesn’t—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We bought three bags of candy and we gave out about twelve pieces, so we have lots of leftovers. But we may need to give more thought to cleaning up Halloween.

pumpkin_november_2018

The morning after Halloween I had an errand to run on foot and what I saw in my travels got me thinking about the holiday in a different way. It started when I saw some neighbors putting their pumpkins into a plastic garbage bag. The pumpkins probably weighed several pounds each. Multiply that by the number of households in our neighborhood that had pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns on their front steps, and that’s a lot of organic matter that will end up in a landfill and that will have little chance of nourishing the soil. That’s not to mention the fuel that will be spent collecting them and hauling them to the landfill. In another neighborhood there might be enough squirrels and other pumpkin-eating creatures to provide a more environmentally friendly solution. If I had been less preoccupied I might also have taken the pumpkins to my compost pile. Shame on me for not thinking of that.

candy_wrapper_November_2018

Along my brief walk I also spotted plastic candy wrappers. Our neighborhood is pretty clean and litter free, so an occasional piece of trash doesn’t send me into a rage. But plastic is the demon substance of 2018, with good reason. Single-use plastic items, such as candy wrappers, the bags in which the candy is sold, and the bigger bags in which the bags of candy are hauled home from the store, account for so much waste that the state of New Jersey is looking to ban some of them. I picked up a few candy wrappers, but they will end up in the landfill with the pumpkins. Others will end up in municipal compost piles with the leaves and lawn clippings. Some may get washed into the storm drains and end up in the Passaic River and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean, where they may become hazards for sea creatures. The wrappers and bags can probably be recycled but the value of the resources required to clean them and gather them for recycling is probably several times greater than the value of the recycled plastic itself. That’s when there are markets for recyclable plastic, and some of those markets don’t exist or have shrunk dramatically.

lawn_decorations_November_2018

Finally there are decorations. Unless your house and several of your neighbors’ houses are decorated and lit up for Halloween, trick-or-treaters tend to skip your block. Durable decorations like these inflatable characters can be used year after year. (They do require electricity to stay inflated.) Much of what is sold for Halloween decoration consists of cheaply made plastic items that are designed to be used once or a few times then discarded. Think of the spider webs, skeletons, and gravestones that you see in the yards in your neighborhood. How many of them will end up in a landfill in a few days?

Where is this discussion headed? Not toward a proposal for a ban on Halloween. If Halloween celebrations were to cease, there would be a significant economic impact involving candy manufacturers and retailers, manufacturers and retailers of costumes and decorations, and the transport and logistics companies that get all of it from the manufacturers to the retailers and on to the consumers. The benefit for the environment might be negligible; little would arise from such a ban to improve the chances of avoiding a major climate catastrophe. The same might be said for a ban on plastic drinking straws, plastic grocery bags, and polystyrene foam take-out food containers when examined as a single isolated measure.

Still, if individuals are to have any positive impact on the environment and the climate, we need to pay closer attention to the complete life cycle of each product that we purchase and consume. What resources are used to make the product? What resources are used to get the product to us? What happens to the product when we’re done with it? What waste is generated along the way, and where does that waste go?

You may do some of your most creative thinking around Halloween. What ways can you think of to clean up the holiday, make less use of stuff that we send to the landfill a few days afterward, and still keep the fun in?

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Swearing Is Good for You

Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad LanguageSwearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language by Emma Byrne

Some months ago I borrowed a copy of a contemporary novel from the local library. The story had been made into a movie, but by the time I decided it might be worth seeing it had already ended its run in the theaters. I decided to read the book. I couldn’t get past the first page. I didn’t really make it past the first sentence. It contained a word that is still censored in broadcast media and print news sources but that is common in social media. So I closed the book and returned it to the library.

I could have gotten past the profanity, and in hindsight it might have been a good book to read in spite of that feature. I have recently read many other things that are laced with profanity, including The Hate U Give. The next book up in my to-read list is The Catcher in the Rye.

About the same time as I decided not to read the novel mentioned in the first paragraph, I became aware of Emma Byrne’s Swearing Is Good for You. It is quite readable and enjoyable. I have no grounds on which to question the validity of the research cited therein and I won’t attempt to do so, but I have concerns and Byrne gets to them early on.

On page 5 she writes, “Is this book simply an attempt to justify rudeness and aggression? Not at all. I certainly wouldn’t want profanity to become commonplace; swearing needs to maintain its emotional impact in order to be effective.” Profanity is already commonplace in social media, in subscription-based entertainment, and in everyday conversation in some circles. That ship has sailed, and in some respects this book shovels coal into the boiler.

Dr. Byrne makes the point that swearing can act as a pressure-release valve, helping the user avoid violence in circumstances where anger and frustration have created the urge to act out. That is a worthy goal for any ethically sound behavior, but I wonder if swearing is still up to the task given how freely it is used. Efforts to restore civility to public speech and private conversation might be just as effective in this age of extreme polarization and aggression.

Dr. Byrne also argues that swearing can help new employees fit in, especially where in situations where they might struggle for acceptance by their coworkers because of gender bias. I can’t argue with this. In my industry gender equality is well established; no new employee should ever struggle for acceptance because of gender bias. My industry may be exceptional in that regard.

Neither can I argue against Dr. Byrne’s point that swearing can help alleviate physical or emotional pain. More on this in a bit.

With regard to gender and swearing, Dr. Byrne confronts efforts by one James V. O’Connor, a writer and motivational speaker who went on a crusade to rid the workplace of foul language. Mr. O’Connor observed this about women entering the workforce in greater numbers in the 1950s and 1960s: “[T]hey had to be one of the guys; they had to act like men, dress like men, wear suits and everything else, and try to talk tough, and they thought this had to include swearing.” (p. 100) Dr. Byrne responds with this question: “Is this what the fight against swearing comes down to? A nostalgia for a simpler, happier time? There are so many questions that I want to ask him about the points he’s just made, but his courteous certainty makes me lose my nerve. I thank him, wish him all the best, and scurry back to the twenty-first century, where language might be casual but at least I get to wear trousers if I want to.” That’s an interesting notion, and it’s not difficult to find people who yearn for simpler, happier times. But it’s not necessarily what an objection to swearing is about.

I question the need for swearing on the merits. Why do we need to swear? Why can’t we control the urge to swear as we would control the urge to hit other people when we are angry, or the urge to get in a car when we’re drunk and our reasoning faculties are compromised? We control the urge to steal from others, to cheat on our taxes, and to cheat on our spouses. Can’t we exercise some restraint in our speech as well, even when swearing might relieve momentary pain or anger?

Consider, also, what great resources we have to use in the place of foul language. The English language is so rich in vocabulary, borrowed from many other languages. Metaphors for expressing anger, frustration, sorrow, and pain have filled our literature for centuries. Surely we can find and make use of them with a little effort.

I challenge readers to think, too, of the countless hours of thoughtful broadcast-medium programming that are filled with content that cannot, because of government regulations, include certain words. We’ve created mechanisms for keeping swearing out of that environment. Even sports broadcasting must be free from foul language. Why must it be a large and growing part of everyday speech in other environments, especially social media, where it seems to be a means of establishing or maintaining credibility with certain audiences? I would submit that it does not need to be.

This is not an argument for greater censorship of speech, except perhaps for self-censorship. Free speech is a pillar of a free society. Nor is this an attempt to denigrate Dr. Byrne or run down her thoughtful, well-researched book. It is an attempt to say that we for whom English is a first language have adopted swearing as a normal and even normative part of our communication. To our harm. We can do better than simply accepting that.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Faith Across the Multiverse

Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern ScienceFaith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science by Andrew S Walsh

In the early 1980s my wife and I were living in dairy farm country in upstate New York. One evening in late winter my wife and I were driving home from an engagement when a bright, fiery object streaked across the sky in front of us and landed in a nearby field. We stopped to investigate, and despite our trepidation we left the safety of our car and ventured into the field. The object turned out to be a twelve-foot-long, cigar-shaped metal craft of some sort. The ground and winter-killed vegetation around it were scorched, but the craft was intact and undamaged. A small hatch had opened, revealing a compartment that held a small child. The child was visibly upset, and smelled of a diaper that needed changing, but was not injured in any way.

We took the child to the local hospital where we learned the child was a boy. The police were summoned, and they investigated as well as they could given the astonishing circumstances of the child’s arrival. Unsurprisingly, no parents came forward to claim the child. We asked if it would be possible for us to adopt him, as we had already been considering starting a family prior to this incident. The adoption was arranged, and we raised the boy as our son, giving him the name Andy.

Andy Walsh can leap tall concepts in a single bound as he fights for truth, justice, and better communication between the sciences in which he was educated and the faith in which he was raised. I am astonished at his knowledge of so many disciplines, of popular culture, and of Scripture.

Because it is written by my son, you shouldn’t take my word for the quality of this book. Read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (you don’t need to read this review twice, though). Visit the Web page or Facebook page for more reviews and related information, including news about a discussion group. Then buy this book, and ask your local library to acquire it, and rave about it to your family and friends. You won’t be disappointed.

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat