Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Another Bookish Year in Review

Whew! This was officially my busiest reading year ever. By my/Firefly's fantabulous spreadsheet's count, I have read 75 new books this year and reread 3 books. By Goodreads' count, I have read 85 new books. Why 2 counts? It comes down to a difference in how we count books I gave up on and... you know what. This is getting too geeky and nuanced even for me. Bottom line? I read about 80 books this year.

Yahoo! Most of these were for school, but I completed/exceeded my goal to read at least 10 books for pleasure and I met my overall books read goal a few months ago. And now that I have another year of data, I can take a look at how my reading patterns have changed year over year. And there are graphs again. Maria and my other stats peeps, you are welcome.

So how did 2013 compare to 2012 as far as bookishness goes? Well, it was actually a pretty different year. To recap, 2012 was the year of the library for me, both because of grad school and in my pleasure reading. Consequently, it was definitely not a year of getting books out of my TBR. My ratings weren't as high in 2012 as they were in 2011 or 2013, and I was reading newer books... again, this was because I was reading more books that I hadn't paid for and therefore took more chances in trying new books. Not just new books, but new authors... in 2012, 93% of the books I read were by authors I hadn't tried before (compare 2011: 72% and 2013: 82%). 

As for 2013? Well, on paper, it was a better year of reading for me. My ratings were slightly higher for the books I read (2013: average of 4.38; 2012: average of 4.23*).

I certainly read books that I adored (see Gilead) and books that have opened up new intellectual and spiritual vistas (like Jesus Through the Centuries, The New Testament and the People of God, and Without God, Without Creed). But as I look back on the year, I can't say that I feel like it was a very good year of reading. A lot of that has to do with the constraining aspect of being in school and having a lot of my reading list dictated to me. You can definitely see that in my genre breakdown:

I read way more Christian non-fiction that I normally do, and though I liked a lot of it, few of those titles made me enjoy the reading process itself. It also way skewed my male/female author ratio to the most out of balance that it has ever been (63% male authors this year) which makes me grouchy. Ladies! Write some theology!

I also did not finish a single mystery this year (though I'm in the middle of 2 great ones right now)- that is highly unusual for me. Mysteries are my comfort reads... maybe that is part of why I have been feeling so adrift. I always have a reading agenda- a plan, a vision for where I'm heading with my reading, and a clear idea of how I'm going to get there. Lately? Not so much. I think a lot of that has to do with the constraint of school reading, and, since I'm going to be in school (hopefully) for about 5 more years, I need to figure out how to keep my own reading "voice" amidst the noise of reading for work. *End tangent*

Anyways, a few more points of interest... I read a lot more from my TBR pile this year! You can see that both in the book source (still a lot of library, but not as much) and in the pile break down:

It makes sense that I have been reading more owned books, as I try to buy the assigned books for school. That being said, my TBR grew a lot more than I would have liked. I started the year with 225 books to be read and I end it with 251. Ouch. I swear I have been culling a lot! My overall books owned ratio is going down and I'm moving a lot of them to digital. But I have been buying books for my thesis research and I haven't gotten through all of them yet. Hopefully, I'll be back down to around 200 by the end of 2014.

Also, a word on eReading - it has been slowly growing for me (2 in 2011, 12 in 2012, 15 in 2013). I have an early generation Kindle that I'm perfectly happy with and I don't mind reading for pleasure on it. However, I have found it to be very frustrating when it comes to reading for research - page citations are a nightmare and it is hard to find something unless I marked it at the time. I have an iPad now, so it will be interesting to see if/how that changes my opinion of eReading for work. 

Anyways, it has been a mixed year of reading for me. On the one hand, I read books that I now can't imagine not having read, if that makes any sense. Game changer books. On the other hand, I'm only now getting out of a 5 month reading slump in my personal life, so it's hard to feel too rosy about the year as a whole.

Tomorrow is a new year - and that means a fresh slate on the bookish front. Thank God for that!

How was your reading year in 2013?

*See ratings scale

Monday, December 30, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Favorites)

To finish off my year in books, I want to talk about the best book I read in the last 12 months, the book that filled me with renewed faith in the written word, the book that reminded me of the warmth of human kindness...

by Marilynne Robinson

Procured from my all time favorite used book store, McKay's

Procured in July 2012

Finished in April 8, 2013

Format: Trade paperback with the iconic white-washed door cover

Why I gave it a try:  I'd been meaning to get to Marilynne for ages and then it was assigned for class - two birds, one stone.

Summary: In mid-century Iowa, John Ames is 76 and dying. In addition to the normal process of preparing oneself to depart this world, he is trying to prepare his wife and seven year old son for his imminent death. Realizing that his son will never really know his father, John starts keeping a diary reflecting on his own life, as well as the lives of his father and grandfather. As the third in three generations of preachers in the nascent American West, Ames' stories of the American Civil War weave in and out of his present day reality, where the prodigal son of his best friend has returned to Gilead and is complicating all of their lives.

Thoughts: Considering that Marilynne got the Pulitzer for this, it's not a huge surprise that this is a great book. A beautiful book. A book that makes me despair of ever being able to write sentences half as perfect as the ones that she seems to effortlessly toss out. A book that renders me mute in the face of my own incompetence and reminds me that I will never write a book this good.

Whatever. I need to get over my feelings of smallness that Marilynne's prose kindles within me, because this is a perfectly written novel. 

I should say, I do know people who don't like this book at all. I get it. It is purely driven by the writing and the characters, so if you don't like the voice, you're not going to like the book at all. I mean, you'll be wrong, but that's okay. 

But all kidding aside, this book is wonderful because it does manage to be so compelling with so little going on. I wouldn't call it stream of consciousness, per se, but because it is written as a diary, there is a wonderful fluidity of time that allows memories from the narrator's childhood to exist with the real time action in a way that illuminates both the memory and the present. Marilynne excels at the old writing moniker, "show don't tell," especially when it comes to the fractious relationships between the men of the Ames family.  

Even more than the technical skill of Marilynne that shines through every word of Gilead, what has stuck with me is her ability to articulate the thoughts and feelings that drift shapelessly at the fringes of your consciousness. She shapes these nebulous ideas that you weren't fully aware were there into these delicate scenes and by the end of them, you find yourself crying and filled with the joy of clarity that Marilynne has brought into your emotional life. 

This is a book that I know I will return to throughout the years - it's the kind of book that can age with you. And it has made me dip into the rest of her oeuvre, though it is sadly not that big. I started gulping it down, realized the supply was limited, and am now sipping her essays very slowly. 

Get this! Read this! Love this! Please - you're only hurting yourself if you don't. 


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Holiday Shopping Guide 2013

Canadian Thanksgiving - check. Halloween - check. American Thanksgiving - check. That means...

It must be Christmas!

For those of you who have a book worm on your list, or, more likely based on statistics, you are buying someone their one or two books for the next year, I have some suggestions to help get you started. (I've linked to reviews where I have them, to give you more info)

For Movie-Lovers:

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: Yep, this was on here last year. Yep, it will be here again in 2014. God bless you, Peter Jackson, and your trilogy-ing ways.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: People flipped their shit for Gatsby this year, what with the Baz Luhrmannification and all. Just make sure that you don't miss the original!

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins: I read all three of these books in roughly 48 hours. It messed up my life. It was also an amazing reading experience. Before you see the (surprisingly) great adaptations, read the books. 

World War Z by Max Brooks: The author is Mel Brooks' son and there are zombies. Do you really need any more info?

For TV-Lovers:
A few books that are in the same spirit as some of the tube's biggest hits:

Life is Meals by James & Kay Salter: For the Food Network lovers on your list

The Passage by Justin Cronin: It's not zombies, but this post-apocalyptic opus (part one of three) is a sure winner for fans of The Walking Dead

Gulp by Mary Roach: This intimate exploration of the digestive tract, described with Mary Roach's trademark humor, is a great gross-out read for people who watch any number of the forensic crime shows on TV

Tampa by Alyssa Nutting: Whew - this book is not for everyone. Depicting pedophilia from the prospective of a woman on the hunt for her next victim, Tampa will shed new light on icky-ness for those who love Law & Order SVU or Criminal Minds

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran: A smart and funny memoir for ladies who dig The Mindy Project

For Dad:
It seems like dear ol' Dad is always one of the hardest people to buy for. You ask him what he wants and he says... nothing. Thank you very much. So here's a few reads that will get the job done:

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr: For the foodie Dad

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach: For the science nerd Dad

Walking With Jack by Don J. Snyder: For the golfing Dad

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes: For the 'Nam Dad

For History Nerds:
There are just so many of us history geeks out there (me, your uncle Sal, your great aunt Sissy...) that I thought I'd call out some options for that contingent...

Without God, Without Creed by James Turner: An intellectual history that explores how non-belief became a viable option for Americans... from the Reformation and to the peak of naturalism in the 19th century, Turner demonstrates how our objective epistemology was surgically removed from our subjective epistemology. Fascinating!

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich: Norwich dives into the nitty-gritty of papal politics. As you might expect, things get complicated real quick... 

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum: An exploration of the Cold War years from the other side of the curtain

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: My favorite novel of all time is also an incredible example of the historical novel. Set in a rural English estate in the 1930s through the 1950s, Ishiguro explores class dynamics, German sympathizers, and the ethics of our working life in a one beautiful, perfect narrative. 

For Jesus People:

Since I'm studying theology, it would be wrong if I didn't include a few of these...

Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: READ THIS BOOK. Seriously. Go. I'll wait. 

Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan: A fantastic (and very devotional) look at church history. Pelikan organizes the chapters by various aspects of Jesus that Christians have emphasized at different historical moments (i.e. Jesus the Liberator, Jesus the Monk Who Ruled the World, etc.)

Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis: My favorite book and a wonderful guide to prayer

The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright: One of the most important works on the nascent church and the Palestinian Jewish culture that birthed it

Wellsprings by Anthony de Mello: A great collection of spiritual exercises from a Jesuit- I've found myself whipping this out a lot for devotionals that I've led this term

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor: This is a new book that's on my Christmas list - it is O'Connor's personal prayer journal from when she was in university. 

For Book People:
I'm a book person. You may have other book people in your life. And there's nothing that book people love more than books about books.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe: For the book person who wants a good cry over the power of the written word to bring people together

An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis: For the book person who's wrestling with the question of what Good Literature even is

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: For the book person who loves beautiful prose

The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor: For the book person who wants to spend some time with a funny, smart author through their correspondence 

Books by Charlie Hill: For the book person who wants to snigger at the state of publishing (another on my Christmas list)

For Classics People:
Because I've had classics on the brain lately, I thought I would pass some classics love around and remind you that a book doesn't have to be from the last few years to be a great gift

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: For the classics lover who likes their villains mustache-twirling and their heroines spunky

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins: For the classics lover who likes a good caper (I'm in the middle of this now and it is great!)

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: For the classics lover who loves big, fancy Russian novels

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh: For the classics lover who loves big, fancy English estates

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym: For the classics lover who has gone through all their Jane Austen and wants more

For Funsies:
If you're just looking for a fun, well written fiction book, here are a few titles that I think have pretty broad appeal across taste, age, and gender...

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling: rural England + local politics + sudden death

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: messy marriage + sudden disappearance + twisty twists

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones: upper crusty Brits + early 20th century + sudden nearby train crash

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy: existential angst + New Orleans + beautiful prose

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: Nazis + reincarnation + early 20th century Brits

Tenth of December by George Saunders: short stories + offbeat settings + beautiful prose

For White Elephant:
Or Yankee Swap, or Dirty Santa, or whatever you call it...

Since last year we went with Fifty Shades of Grey, how about:

Ravished by the Triceratops by Christie Sims (there is a whole new romance genre about women and dinosaurs... what in the #$%*!? But I think you can safely bet you will win for craziest gift with any of these titles)


Those are my Christmas picks- happy present buying!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Where to Start with C.S. Lewis?

Whew- it has been a great week o' Lewis! I have loved dusting off the old bookshelf and revisiting some of my favorite books - not just favorite Lewis books, but favorite books full stop. My modest dream is that someone who has not read any or much of C.S. Lewis may have been encountering my posts and be intrigued to start reading some of his work. How would I feel if I convinced someone to start reading Jack?

Just a little excited.

Anyways, I wanted to give some parting guidance as to where one could go from here. First, if you are interested in hearing more about C.S. Lewis' life and thought, Regent College Audio has a number of lectures available (for free until November 26, 2013). 

As for where to start with the Lewis oeuvre...

I think the best place for anyone to start with C.S. Lewis is The Screwtape Letters. It is where I started, as a matter of fact, I am very thankful that I did. It represents most of what is great about Lewis: humor, satire, his mastery of the epistolary form, philosophical musings, and religious insights. I firmly believe this is the place to start with C.S. Lewis.

There are a few different streams to follow from here...

If you are interested in Lewis' literary and philosophical writing:

1) An Experiment in Criticism
2) The Discarded Image 
3) God in the Docks: Essays on Theology and Ethics
4) On Stories
5) Of Other Worlds
6) A Grief Observed
7) The Four Loves

If you are interested in Lewis' fiction:

1) The Chronicles of Narnia (starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then going back through chronologically with The Magician's Nephew and so on)
2) Til We Have Faces
3) The Great Divorce
4) The Space Trilogy (starting with Out of the Silent Planet)
5) The Pilgrim's Regress

If you are interested in Lewis' religious and apologetic writing:

1) Mere Christianity
2) Letters to Malcolm
3) The Great Divorce
4) The Four Loves
5) The Weight of Glory
6) The Abolition of Man
7) The Problem of Pain
8) God in the Docks: Essays on Theology and Ethics

If you are interested in Lewis' own life:

1) Surprised by Joy
2) A Grief Observed
3) The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (Vols. 1-3)
4) Letters to Malcolm
5) All My Road Before Me: A Diary

These are my recommendations, though of course there are other books that I turn to for different moods. 

Thus endeth the week of Lewis... For those of you who also love Jacks' work, where would you tell people to start?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis (Jesus Corner)

Finally, we wrap up the week with my favorite C.S. Lewis book:

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1964.

We've reached the zenith of our week and of my feelings about the Lewis oeuvre: today is the 50th anniversary of Jack's death and today's book is my favorite work by him.

Letters to Malcolm isn't one of the "marquee" books that people associate with Lewis. It's small, quiet, and on a topic that is very specifically aimed at religious people (i.e. prayer). It was one of the very last things he wrote before he died, so it didn't have time to build notoriety in his lifetime. And it doesn't have a sexy premise like in The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce

Nevertheless, this book is teeming with wisdom, humor, and insight into the human condition. It is Jack at his most pastoral and practical- I think there are few places where his personal warmth and spirit come through more clearly, save his personal letters. For those who pray, it is also a tremendously helpful volume to cultivate and deepen your prayer life, or at least to understand it better. 

The excerpt I chose for today has Jack describing the "festoons" that he has placed around the Lord's Prayer - the explanatory framework that he uses to think through each element of the prayer. This passage was when I fell in love with the book on my first read:

"Thy kingdom come. That is, may your reign be realized here, as it is realized there. But I tend to take there on three levels. First, as in the sinless world beyond the horrors of animal and human life; in the behavior of stars and trees and water, in sunrise and wind. May there be here (in my heart) the beginning of a like beauty. Secondly, as in the best human lives I have known: in all the people who really bear the burdens and ring true, and in the quiet, busy, ordered life of really good families and really good religious houses. May that too be 'here.' Finally, of course, in the usual sense: as in Heaven, as among the blessed dead.

And here can of course be taken not only as 'in my heart,' but as 'in this college' - in England- in the world in general. But prayer is not the time for pressing our own favorite social or political panacea...

Thy will be done. My festoons on this have been added gradually. At first I took it exclusively as an act of submission, attempting to do with it what Our Lord did in Gethsemane. I thought of God's will purely as something that would come upon me, something of which I should be the patient. And I also thought of it as a will which would be embodied in pains and disappointments. Not, to be sure, that I supposed God's will for me to consist entirely of disagreeables. But I thought it was only the disagreeables that called for this preliminary submission - the agreeables could look after themselves for the present. When they turned up, one could give thanks...

But at other times other meanings could be added. So I add one more. The peg for it is, I admit, much more obvious in the English version than in the Greek or Latin. No matter: this is where the liberty of festooning comes in. 'Thy will be done.' But a great deal of it is to be done by God's creatures; including me. The petition, then, is not merely that I may patiently suffer God's will but also that I may vigorously do it. I must be an agent as well as a patient. I am asking that I may be enabled to do it. In the long run I am asking to be given 'the same mind which was also in Christ.' 

Taken this way, I find the words have a more regular daily application. For there isn't always - or we don't always have reason to suspect that there is - some great affliction looming in the near future, but there are always duties to be done; usually for me, neglected duties to be caught up with. 'Thy will be done - by me- now' brings one back to brass tacks...

I am beginning to feel that we need a preliminary act of submission not only towards possible future afflictions but also towards possible future blessings... It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good...These occasions, I now suspect, are often full of their own new blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of the glory, and we refuse to look at it because we're still looking for the old one. And of course we don't get that. You can't, at the twentieth reading, get again the experience of reading Lycidas for the first time. But what you do get can be in its own way as good.

This applies especially to the devotional life. Many religious people lament that the first fervors of their conversion have died away. They think - sometimes rightly, but not, I believe, always- that their sins account for this. They may even try by pitiful efforts of will to revive what now seem to have been the golden days. But were those fervors - the operative word is those- ever intended to last?

I would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. and how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once. 

And the joke, or tragedy, of it all is that these golden moments in the past, which are so tormenting if we erect them into a norm, are entirely nourishing, wholesome, and enchanting if we are content to accept them for what they are, for memories. Properly bedded down in a past which we do not miserably try to conjure back, they will send up exquisite growths...

I expect we all do much the same with the prayer for our daily bread. It means, doesn't it, all we need for the day - 'things requisite and necessary as well for the body as for the soul.' I should hate to make this clause 'purely religious' by thinking of 'spiritual' needs alone. One of its uses, to me, is to remind us daily that what Burnaby calls the naif view of prayer is firmly built into Our Lord's teaching. 

Forgive us... as we forgive. Unfortunately there's no need to do any festooning here. To forgive for the moment is not difficult. But to go on forgiving, to forgive the same offense again every time it recurs to the memory - there's the real tussle. My resource is to look for some action of my own which is open to the same charge as the one I'm resenting. If I still smart to remember how A let me down, I must still remember how I let B down. If I find it difficult to forgive those who bullied me at school, let me, at that very moment, remember, and pray for, those I bullied...

I was never worried myself by the words lead us not into temptation, but a great many of my correspondents are... So that the petition essentially is, 'Make straight our paths. Spare us, where possible, from all crises, whether of temptation or affliction.'... It adds a sort of reservation to all our preceding prayers. As if we said, 'In my ignorance I have asked for A, B, and C. But don't give me them if you foresee that they would in reality be to me either snares or sorrows.'...If God had granted all the silly prayers I've made in my life, where should I be now?

I don't often use the kingdom, the power, and the glory. When I do, I have an idea of the kingdom as sovereignty de jure; God, as good, would have a claim on my obedience even if He had no power. The power is the sovereignty de facto - He is omnipotent. And the glory is - well, the glory; the 'beauty so old and new,' and 'light from behind the sun.'" - pp.24-28

C.S. Lewis is my favorite author and this is my favorite book by him. So I guess this is the best answer I have to the question, "what's your favorite book?"... And I am quite content to have this wonderful little tome as my answer.

That wraps up my countdown of favorite Lewis books... I'll finish off our week o' Jack tomorrow with recommendations on where to start for Lewis newbies.


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Books Like Whoa: The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis (Favorites Edition)

Rounding the corner with my favorite Narnia book....

The Magician's Nephew 
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1955.

The Chronicles of Narnia are well-known and beloved. It's no news that they are some of Jack's most lasting literary contributions. Most people focus on the more popular books, particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian. I love all the books, but those aren't my favorites. I've always preferred The Horse and His Boy and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader... but especially The Magician's Nephew. From the first time I read it, I fell in love. The humor, the character sketches, the imagery - I just loved it all. 

There are two parts of this book that particularly speak to me: Aslan singing Narnia into existence and Aslan & Digory talking about the apples...

“A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. It was hardly a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.” 


“Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children's bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: "Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” 


“He thinks great folly, child,' said Aslan. "This world is bursting with life for these few days because the song with which I called it into life still hangs in the air and rumbles in the ground. It will not be so for long. But I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh, Adam's son, how cleverly you defend yourself against all that might do you good!”


“But please, please - won't you - can't you give me something that will cure Mother?' 

Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself. 

'My son, my son,' said Aslan. 'I know. Grief is great. 
Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another. ..."


“But length of days with an evil heart is only length of misery and already she begins to know it. All get what they want; they do not always like it.”... “Child, that is why all the rest are now a horror to her. That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. Oh, the fruit is good, but they loath it ever after.” 


Also, any time Uncle Andrew comes up, that is basically my favorite... especially when he and Jadis go through London together. Love it! I know that The Magician's Nephew is kind of the dorky, unloved younger brother of its series siblings, but I still love it best. Hopefully there will be a decent movie made about it some day...


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Books Like Whoa: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis (Jesus Corner - Favorites Edition)

Next, we turn to my favorite allegory from Jack: 

The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1945.

I didn't realize how greatly this book had impacted my thinking until I got to college and started leading a small group. Nearly every time I was walking through issues with someone, the words, "There's this part in The Great Divorce..." would come out of my mouth. There are so many types represented in this book, which makes it an endless applicable tale.

One scene has always stuck out in particular to me, where a woman explains to her husband why she cannot leave Heaven to go back to Hell:

"'Darling,' said the Lady to the Dwarf, 'there's nothing to face. You don't want me to have been miserable for misery's sake. You only think I must have been if I loved you. But if you'll only wait you'll see that isn't so.'

'Love!' said the Tragedian striking his forehead with his hand: then, a few notes deeper, 'Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?'

'How should I not?' said the Lady. 'I am in love. In love, do you understand? Yes, now I love truly.'

'You mean,' said the Tragedian, 'you mean- you did not love me truly in the old days.'

'Only in a poor sort of way,' she answered. 'I have asked you to forgive me. There was a little real love in it. But what we call love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.'

'And now!' said the Tragedian with a hackneyed gesture of despair. 'Now, you need me no more?'

'But of course not!' said the Lady; and her smile made me wonder how both the phantoms could refrain from crying out with joy. 'What needs could I have,' she said, 'now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. You shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now: we can begin to love truly.' ... 'Listen to reason. Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenseless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? For it was real misery. I know that now. You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do. But you can no longer communicate your wretchedness. Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness; but your darkness cannot now infect our life. No, no, no. Come to us. We will not go to you. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? Did you not know they were stronger than their opposites?"

...'You do not love me,' said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.

'I cannot love a lie,' said the Lady. 'I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.'

(pp.125-26, 132-33)

Whew. I just love that.

I know that allegories aren't everyone's bag, but when they are well-executed, I love me a good allegory. This is a great one. 


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Books Like Whoa: An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

Next, we turn to one of my favorite books from Clive's scholarly life...

An Experiment in Criticism
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1961.

Jack has a number of books that get overlooked by people who want to put him in a box as a children's author or an apologist. Chief among his overlooked books, at least in the mainstream, are his works on literature and the medievalists. The Discarded Image is a particularly wonderful book that helps explain the epistemological basis of medieval society. 

One of my favorite works in this area is An Experiment in Criticism. It's basically trying to answer the questions "what is good literature?" and "how do we recognize it?" In the course of answering these questions, Jack meanders through many great musings on what literature means and what reading does to us. His thoughts on visual media are particularly prescient. There are so many bon mots throughout... I thought I'd compile a "best of" list:

Impact of Media on Reading

"We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it." p. 19

"In general the parallel between the popular uses of music and of pictures is close enough. Both consist of 'using' rather than 'receiving.' Both rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them." p. 25

"He reads only narrative because only there will he find an Event. He is deaf to the aural side of what he reads because rhythm and melody do not help him to discover who married (rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered) whom. He likes 'strip' narratives and almost wordless films because in them nothing stands between him and the Event. And he likes speed because a very swift story is all events." p. 30 ... "Let us be quite clear that the unliterary are unliterary not because they enjoy stories in these ways, but because they enjoy them in no other." p. 38

On What Makes Good Writing

"When a good writer leads you into a garden he either gives you a precise impression of that particular garden at that particular moment- it need not be long, selection is what counts- or simply says, 'It was in the garden, early.'" p. 34

"[Stylemongers] judge [style or English] neither by its sound nor by its power to communicate but by its conformity to certain arbitrary rules." p. 35

"If it means those things which 'grip' the reader of popular romance- suspense, excitement, and so forth- then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less." pp.91-92

On How to Read Well

"We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can't be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader." p. 116

"Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person's place and thus transcending our own competitive particularly. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; 'he that loseth his life shall save it.'" p. 138

"Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world... Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality." p. 140

"In the course of my inquiry I have rejected the views that literature is to be valued a) for telling us truths about life, b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself. And I have discussed from the Vigilants' belief that nothing can be good as literature which is not good simply."p. 130

Other Words of Wisdom

"The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable." p.43

"Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility." p. 73

"...many young people derive the belief that tragedy is essentially 'truer to life' than comedy. This seems to me wholly unfounded. Each of these forms chooses out of real life just those sorts of events it needs. The raw materials are all around us, mixed anyhow." p. 80

There's also a great section on what healthy day-dreaming looks like. He calls productive exercise of our imagination "normal castle-building," and destructive, all-consuming day-dreaming that keeps us from engaging fully with life "morbid castle-building." Great stuff. 

Anyhoo, this is a wonderful and underrated book that I think any thoughtful consumer of media could benefit from reading. 


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Books Like Whoa: The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis (Jesus Corner)

Let's start with one of Jack's books that has impacted my thinking the most directly:

The Four Loves
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1943. 

Unlike many of Jack's books, I did not read this one in the infancy of my faith. I read it once I well along the road... and I didn't technically read it. I listened to it. As it was narrated. By C.S. Lewis himself. Bam!

The Four Loves has profoundly impacted the way I think about many things: the purpose of parenthood, the nature of family, the beauty of friendship. But the passage that touches me most deeply comes near the end when Lewis describes the risks of love:

"In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him (Confessions IV, 10). Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one's heart to anything but God All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.

Of course this is excellent sense. Don't put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don't spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as 'Careful! This might lead you to suffering.'

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground - because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife of a Friend - if it comes to that, would you choose a dog- in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love himself than this.

I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St. Augustine's Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic 'apathy' or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he 'loved.' St. Paul has a higher authority with us that St. Augustine- St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died (Phil 2:27). 

Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself offer them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say, 'Why hast thou forsaken me?'

There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. 

I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God's will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness. It is like hiding the talent in a napkin and for much the same reason 'I knew thee that thou wert a hard man.' Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it." (pp. 120-22)

This passage pierces my soul, because it speaks to my own condition so pointedly. I want to keep my heart locked up. I don't want to gamble. I don't want to risk my love and sanity for the sake of others. It would be easy to pass off that kind of safety-first approach as holy work of saving my heart for God, but Lewis will not allow that kind of hypocrisy. The life of Christ, if nothing else, is one of reckless love.

This is a beautiful, small book that is a great entry point for Lewis' work, for those who have not yet delved into his oeuvre... it's also one that hold up to rereading. I reread it at least once a year, and I never fail to be touched and challenged by it. 


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite