Friday, January 27, 2012

Reading Barzun...

As part of a sincere effort on my part to insure that in 2012 I do read some of the serious books on my "to be read" list, I've been working my way through the essays in Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning by one of my favorite contemporary heroes in the realm of education: Jacques Barzun.

There are 15 essays in this book under three headings: First Things, Curriculum, and Advanced Work. I've finished the first section, and as is usual for me when I read this sort of thing, there are copious amounts of underlining and comments penciled into the margins.

Perhaps when I've finished I'll be able to articulate the primary message of the book; but for now, I'll just share a few quotes.

Teaching is an art, and an art, though it has a variety of practical devices to choose from, cannot be reduced to a science.

Again like governing, teaching is telling somebody else how to think and behave; it is an imposition, an invasion of privacy. That it is presumably for another's good does not change the unhappy fact of going against another's desire--to play, whistle, or talk instead of listening and learning: teaching is a blessing thoroughly disguised.

The computer, moreover, does not teach, does not show a human being thinking and meeting intellectual difficulties; it does not impart knowledge but turns up information pre-arranged and pre-cooked.

Knowing something--really knowing it--means being able to summon it up out of the blue; the facts must be produced in their right relations and with their correct significance. When you know something, you can tell it to somebody else.

For my readers who know who Charlotte Mason is--narration, yes?

There is more, about the hazards of fragmented knowledge, and importance of understand the relations that exist between subjects, but that should be enough to whet the appetite of anyone who has an appetite for this sort of reading in the first place.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Q's Legacy by Helene Hanff

Q's Legacy by Helene Hanff is one of those little books that you can pick up and begin enjoying instantly. No "read 50 pages to see if the story captures your attention" needed. I was laughing out loud by page two.

Helene Hanff is better known for 84 Charing Cross Road, which I have also read and enjoyed. In this book, she traces her life from her early ventures in autodidactism (I may have made that word up--spellchecker doesn't recognize it--but I give spellchecker a withering glance, and use it anyway) to her late-in-life success as an author, after years of financial leanness.

"Q" in this case is Arther Quiller-Couch, author of many books, including lectures on writing and literature.

I love the story of how Hanff, at age 18, selected Quiller-Couch's books from among other similar works. She was working through the authors alphabetically at the library, and must have looked at quite a few of them before she made it to "Q." She eventually purchased all his books, and they planted the seeds of her desire to own and read still other books--many of which she ordered from Marks&Co at 84, Charing Cross Road. As her relationship with the book-shop employees became the foundation of her first truly successful work, and opened many doors of friendship, travel, and opportunity for her, she realized that she ultimately owed "Q" a great deal, on many levels. Thus the title: "Q's Legacy."

This is a short book--I read it through in a day or two, as a light change from Anna Karenina--and I think most enthusiastic life-long readers would enjoy this additional peek into Helene's life, and all that 84 Charing Cross Road meant to her.

I acquired my little paperback copy of this book via a generous giver at Bookmooch, and penned inside the front cover is the brief notation "London, Foyles, 1991." On my brief trip to London in 2009, I spent an evening in Foyles--a truly wonderful memory--and I'm pleased to know this book about Helene Hanff comes from a place I've visited, on Charing Cross Road itself!

Friday, January 13, 2012

More Books for 2012

I enjoy crocheting...with thread. Tiny hooks and size 30 thread make me happy. Sometimes I use sewing thread (the color selection is wonderful). Everything I make is essentially useless, but I like to think I'm adding something beautiful to the world when I do it. But my real reason for crocheting is that I find it relaxing--nothing so peaceful and mesmerizing as making round upon round of perfect stitches and seeing a lovely pattern emerge. Love it.

But although I like to thus occupy my hands, the pleasure is increased many-fold if I have a good book to listen to while I work. Librivox is one of the nicest things that ever happened to me. I really love them, and I hope, someday, I'll have time and resources to record something for them, as a small repayment for the many, many hours of enjoyment I've had from them.

I have a number of interesting books on my "to listen" list for the upcoming year. I might have another go with Eleanor Porter and listen to The Road to Understanding. I'm interested in continuing my acquaintance with Edith Wharton, and I have my eye on The Bunner Sisters. Or perhaps The Glimpses of the Moon.

The Return of Alfred by Cecil George Jenkins sounds like it might be fun. It's a case of mistaken identity, and that's usually fertile ground for good comedy. I'll probably choose another Wilkie Collins, either Basil or The Law and The Lady. If I listen to both, that would be nearly 24 hours of crochet time!

I really like good stories for my crochet-reading. I can't follow non-fiction or arguments or essays, but engrossing stories are what I usually choose. I probably "read" books this way that I would otherwise never get to in the ordinary course of reading. Along those lines, I've also bookmarked Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell and Shirley by Charlotte Bronte.

Sometimes I like to listen to vintage mysteries or humor, and I've marked The Confession by Mary Roberts Rinehart and The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse. Sometimes I really just want something light for this book-listening, so if you have suggestions for this category, toss them my way.

I have a couple of other authors I might try this year, if I'm feeling ambitious. I've got my eye on In the Year of Jubilee by George Gissing and The Grey Mills of Farley by Sarah Orne Jewett.

The photos I've shared here are just a small part of my crocheting from last year. Books and doesn't get much better than that. Anyone else listen to a great Librivox title? Share it with me...I'll queue it up!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Well, this is embarrassing.

After organizing (sort of) my Kindle books and lining up things for 2012 (I've added several more things to that "To Be Read in 2012" folder since my last post), I cast my eyes toward my paper-and-ink books. I have a lot of unread books that I've purchased or acquired through Bookmooch, and I want to read them all. That's not embarrassing. The embarrassment stems from discovering that I have a rather large stack of books that I've some cases, my bookmark is at the half-way point...but not finished. One or two such books is understandable, but I have eight.

I didn't stop reading any of these intentionally. I just stopped. Probably my mood changed, or I was side-tracked with other activities, and when I got back to reading, I wanted to read something else, and...well, I'm sure it's happened to everyone.

The problem is that these books have lain dormant so long I must go back to the beginning and start again. Considering that most of these are formidable in either length or scope (with only one exception), it's daunting. In fact, I refuse to commit to finishing all of these in 2012. That just isn't going to happen (remember, I have to start over). So I'm going to share the titles and ask for suggestions--which ones should I finish?

Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom--This one causes me weeping and gnashing of teeth, because I read to page 436 of 538. Why did I stop? Is it worth starting over (and I must--it's been too long to pick up the thread of the story)?

Habits of the Mind by James Sire--Another book of a type that I like to read, but I didn't get through this one. I appreciate a Christian perspective on intellectual pursuits, though, and that's why I started this. (I've read The Universe Next Door and How to Read Slowly by the same author.)

Sophie's Choice by William Styron--I think you really have to be in the right mood for this story, but feel free to recommend it and convince me that I should give it another try. (I read to page 124 of over 600 pages.)

A History of Education in Antiquity
by H.I. Marrou--This reads like a textbook, but it contains some extremely valuable information that cannot be found anywhere else. (David Hicks, for example, most likely got his information about Isocrates from this book.) Is this the year I should make myself finish? With this one, I could possibly forgo the "starting over" requirement and continue from where I am (page 122 of 465 pages of extremely fine, dense text).

Life of Pi by Yann Martel--This is the shortest book I started and abandoned, and maybe in this case, that means it wasn't for me? But maybe I should try again? It would be the easiest book on my list to finish, as it is a normal-length novel of some 300 pages or so.

I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb--I've long wanted to read something by Wally Lamb. Everyone who has read him seems to find his work compelling. I made it to page 100 of this 800+ page book. Should I try again?

Edith Wharton
by Hermione Lee--I really didn't get that far into this 750+ page biography, but I bought it because I really wanted to read it. Edith Wharton is one my "new" favorite authors, and I've always enjoyed author biographies.

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun--This is probably the most embarrassing of all the books I didn't finish, as I am a huge fan of Jacques Barzun. Did you know he's still alive at age 104? If you are as impressed as I am, you should listen to this interesting discussion with him. I will finish this book sometime...and perhaps I could forgo starting over with this one, too. Is this a book for 2012?

I'm thinking of committing to finishing just two from this list. I might potentially read more, but I am being realistic. I'm going to pick two to focus on. Help me out--which ones? At the moment, I don't have strong feelings about any of them.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

The Wheel Spins ended up in my "must read" pile via Danielle at A Work in Progress. I downloaded it to my Kindle, and, true to form, I read the first part rather slowly, then finished with a mad dash. The book is extremely atmospheric. Iris Carr is trapped in a nightmare, and you are there with her. Alfred Hitchcock used this story as the basis of his film The Lady Vanishes, if that gives some insight into the mood of the story.
Iris has been vacationing in a quite remote location with a group of noisy friends. When it's time to go home, she lets them go on without her in order to enjoy a day or two of solitude and quiet. She gets lost during a walk and loses her sense of direction. When she can't find her way back to her hotel, and realizes that no one can help her because she doesn't speak their language, it gives her a fright. Then, already feeling unsettled, she loses consciousness on the train platform (sunstroke?) and nearly misses her train.

A rather annoying spinster-governess in her compartment latches onto her, and fills her ears with bits of gossip about the other passengers, stories of her home and family, and half-dropped hints about her highly-placed, secretive employer. Iris is bored by her, although she recognizes her fundamental kindness and goodwill, and after spending a few hours in company with her, she drops off to sleep for some peace. When she awakes, the lady is gone--not only from the compartment, but also, apparently, from the train, as well as from the memories and knowledge of every other passenger. No one will admit to seeing her with Iris.

Iris's recent unsettling experiences make her doubt herself. Did she imagine or dream the whole thing? But the growing conviction that Miss Froy (the spinster) both existed and is in trouble pushes Iris to put aside her selfishness and discover a way to rescue her, even at the risk of being suspected of madness.

Not a long story, but engrossing. It reminded me of that newer Jodie Foster movie, Flightplan (2005) , in which a mother dozes off on an airplane and awakens to find her child missing--a child no one will admit to seeing.

My Kindle copy of this book is lendable, and I will lend it to the first person who asks me. Just bear in mind that you'll have just two weeks in which to finish, so please ask only if you plan to read it for certain, as I can only lend it once.

Saturday, January 07, 2012


Don't you just love it when you start reading a book, and you are arrested by something unexpected that confirms that this book is the book that you are meant to be reading right now? Synchronicity. Serendipity. Synthesis. I've run across those words somewhere, and I love it when that happens.

I just finished reading a book which was a dialogue on the nature of man--material only or is there a spiritual nature as well?

Moving right along, and (since it's still January) focusing on my planned reading for 2012, I decided to dip into Anna Karenina to see if that was the right book to read next. Within the first couple of chapters, I was drawn right into Tolstoy's world. His writing is so vivid. But within a few chapters, I stumbled over another discussion on the material vs. spiritual nature of man, accompanied by the identical question addressed by Jostein Gaarder: Is death the end of existence or not?
With him there was a well-known professor of philosophy, who had come from Harkov expressly to clear up a difference that had arisen between them on a very important philosophical question. The professor was carrying on a hot crusade against materialists. Sergey Kosnishev had been following this crusade with interest, and after reading the professor's last article, he had written him a letter stating his objections. He accused the professor of making too great concessions to the materialists. And the professor had promptly appeared to argue the matter out.
The main character at this point, Levin, is listening to the discussion and feels that they are arguing around the main question at hand, so he cuts to the chase.
But here it seemed to Levin that just as they were close upon the real point of the matter, they were again retreating, and he made up his mind to put a question to the professor.
"According to that, if my senses are annihilated, if my body is dead, I can have no existence of any sort?" he queried.
I nearly laughed out loud at the best answer the professor was able to make: We can't answer that because we don't have enough data.

Tolstoy is good stuff. When it comes to weaving together story and philosophy, he is the master.

This is definitely the right book for me, right now.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Castle in the Pyrenees by Jostein Gaarder

The Castle in the Pyrenees by Jostein Gaarder is the latest to be translated into English from the author of Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (FSG Classics). Most people have heard of Sophie's World, and some have even read it. I am fascinated by Jostein Gaarder's work (in spite of the fact that we have some fundamental differences of belief) and I have read everything he's written that has been translated into English. Even Maya.

So, I must begin by saying that I enjoyed this book. The premise is intriguing. Two young lovers experience a life-changing event. For one, the experience is a prelude to a life of faith. For the other, the same event confirms a dis-belief in anything supernatural. Their differences lead to a parting of ways, and they do not meet again for 30 years. Suddenly, in the same location as their long-ago crisis, they meet unexpectedly. Both have married other people and have families, but they embark on an email exchange (the novel should be considered epistolary) in which they explore their common experience (which was confusing and unsettling) and their different beliefs.

When I realized that the book was essentially a discourse on the existence of the supernatural versus a purely material world, I was further engrossed. I consider the question of no small importance, and I am unabashedly on the side of the spiritual, and reject statements such as:
There is no inherent intent, purpose or essence to the universe, and this is generally held to be a self-evident assumption.

How convenient, no? You call it self-evident, and thus side-step the necessity of supporting it, but it's absurd in light of the order and intent we see in our world, from the smallest microorganism to the cosmos itself. If you were walking through a jungle, and you suddenly emerged into a cleared space, in which the trees grew in orderly rows (a row of nuts, a row of fruit trees, another row of a different fruit, and so on) and if, between the evenly-spaced trees, you found clipped grass and beds of flowers also growing in homogenous groups and grows, you would know that someone had planned that space, cleared it and cultivated it, cared for it, and kept it separate from the wild disorder of the nearby jungle. Not for one, tiny, instant would you imagine that the clearing was an accidental, natural occurrence in the midst of the jungle.

So, feel free to tell me that it is "self-evident" that the universe reveals no intent if you want to, but I will only believe you if you can tell me that you would also believe that a child could pour a bucket of Legos onto the floor, and that they could fall into a model of the Eiffel Tower. Order is order, and it reveals intelligent intent, not chance. If you saw the model of the Eiffel Tower, you would know, instinctively, that someone had planned and executed it, and you would not be foolish enough to suggest otherwise.

So Gaarder sets up this dialog between the materialist scientist (and I'll just mention here that there is a lot of gratuitous propaganda about global warming in this book as well) and the vibrant, convinced believer in the supernatural. At the halfway point in the book, I was fascinated to see how it was going to play out--who was going to convince whom?

But this is Gaarder, and if you read him, you know that he isn't about black-and-white, clear-cut answers. I applaud him for facing the questions and hashing it out in story form. I love that sort of thing. But if you are looking for resolution or final answers, you won't find them here. The ending is ambiguous, and both parties walk away from their encounter with their convictions shaken, less certain than they had been before. Yes, the person with faith wavers, and wonders if the materialist might have a rational, scientific explanation after all. But that is not the end. The end of the story is shaped in such a way (and I really can't give that away, in spite of the fact that very few people are likely to read this book) that the materialist cannot continue to disbelieve in the supernatural. He knows--he cannot longer doubt--that death is not the end of existence, and that there are yet many, many questions about the universe which science is in no position to answer.

This is one of those books in which nothing really happens--we have only the letters, which do tell us some of the events which have occurred, but mostly the story is about ideas. Both characters are sympathetic, although they are not developed in great depth. What we know about them, we know through their letters. He drinks too much. She is carrying on the correspondence with her husband's knowledge, but he begrudges her time thus spent, and so she placates him. Neither has forgotten their former love and relationship.

It was an interesting book--an interesting story. I really wish I could share the crux of the ending, the paradox that brings the past and present together, and leaves the future in question, but that would spoil it. I hope Gaarder keeps writing. Mostly, I hope he finds some real answers, and then keeps on asking good questions. There aren't many people who weave philosophy and story together as skillfully as he can.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Some books to read in 2012

I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to be more disciplined about my reading, because I ended up squandering a lot of reading time on a lot of worthless twaddle last year. I would like to blame Amazon and Kindle for this, but although the Kindle *enables* the reading of twaddle, it's not really to blame for how I spend my time, is it?


I have a number of goals and plans for 2012 (blogging more isn't one of them, but if that happens, okay, fine). I spent a bit of time yesterday and today working on organization. I had nine pages of unclassified items on my Kindle! It's not quite as bad as it sounds--I have two pages of collections alone....

I created a new folder called "To Read 2012", and shuffled 15 books (so far) into there, cleaning up my loose items and my laughable "In Progress" folder. This is what's there so far:

Think: The Life of the Mind and Love of God by John Piper and Mark A. Noll

...because I want to read a bit of Piper and the topic is of interest to me.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

...because what Eva of A Striped Armchair says about it makes it sound like a book I'd enjoy.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

...because I want to watch the film, and I can't until I read the book.

done: What most religions don't tell you about the Bible
by Cary Schmidt

...because I read the beginning and was completely intrigued.

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

...because...because...I can't remember why but I'm pretty sure this author and this particular book sounded like something I wanted to try.

The Faith of Ashish
by Kay Marshall Strom

...because I want to read more books set in India and also by Indian authors.

On Gold Mountain by Lisa See

...because I am very interested in reading about China and Chinese families.

Your Child's Growing Mind by Jane Healy

...because I need to finish this book and see if I can use it to help my youngest daughter.

American Childhood by Annie Dillard

...because I've never read anything by Annie Dillard, and I need to!

A Passage to India
by E.M. Forster

...because it's totally time for me to read another book by Forster, and then something by Edith Wharton.

The Intellectual Life by Philip Gilbert Hamerton

...because...because...again, I can't remember why. Probably the title interested me. This book bears the distinction of "most likely to be dropped from this list."

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

...because....can you believe I haven't read this yet?

The Napoleon Of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton

...because I assigned this to one of my homeschool students, and now I need to read it, too. And because I haven't enough Chesterton.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

...because Tolstoy is amazing and I haven't read this yet.

The Crown of Wild Olives by John Ruskin

...because Charlotte Mason thought it was a good book to read for young people "coming of age" intellectually, and I want to see why she thought so.

Now, these are just the books on my Kindle that I want to get to in 2012. I have paper-and-ink books crying, pleading, begging for attention--practically falling off the shelves when I walk by, and increasing in pitch if I so much as glance in their direction. More about those another day.

And if you think it's beyond insane to have Anna Karenina and Les Miserables on the same "to read this year" list, you don't have to tell me. I already know.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Highlights from 2011 (Books, of course)

I am a most unfaithful blogger. Thank goodness nobody gives you little award buttons that say so. Not that it would matter if they did. Bloggers like me aren’t exactly sure how to make cute buttons and linky-things appear in the sidebar. If we did, we wouldn’t be such bad bloggers, and it takes all kinds to make a blogosphere, don’t you think? Bloggers like me allow you to appreciate those good bloggers all the more, I’m sure.

Nevertheless, I can’t resist popping in here to share my “most interesting books of 2011” and linking up to Semicolon’s year-end wrap-up. There is no special number here--I’m not limiting myself to 10 or 12 or 25. I’m not going to tell you how many books I read, or how they fall out into categories. That’s a secret. No, really, it is. Even I don’t know.

These are the books that, as I think back over 2011, have stuck with me. These are the ones that made a difference for me in 2011, or held my attention, or made me laugh. You really don’t want to know how many books I read that didn’t make a difference at all (and neither do I). I don’t remember most of them, because they aren’t worth remembering! This is a list of the good stuff, the books I’d offer a friend.

The Island of the World
by Michael D. O’Brien--This was one of the first books I read in 2011--a wonderful gift--and something I blogged about at the time.

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True
by Brigid Pasulka --This book was of particular interest to me, because it takes place not only here in Poland, but mostly in Krakow. It spans several lifetimes, from World War II to the early 1990s--those first years after Poland shrugged off communism and was struggling to find her feet. I caught the very end of that era in 1997. Things have changed a great deal in the nearly 15 years I’ve lived here. This book is a family saga--full of the love and struggles that make for a good family story--and the background history of Poland is a bonus.

Lawendowy Pyl by Danuta Marcinkowska, Ewa Marcinkowska-Schmidt and Klaudyna Schmidt.
This is another family story, spanning the exact same era. However, this book is written in Polish (and I’m actually not finished with it yet). It is also “essentially true,” but is written as fiction, with altered names, because some of the people in the story are still living and were not consulted. Nevertheless, it is the real story of a real family, told by three generations of women, and they’ve included lots of family photographs. The war...the Stalin years...the shortages...Martial’s all there. I hesitate to mention it, because I don’t think it will be translated, but it fits the criteria for this list--it’s a wonderful book that has made a difference for me.

Shades of Grey: A Novel
by Jasper Fforde--I must say that I am not a huge fan of Fforde. The weird existentialism overwhelmed me when I read “Thursday Next,” and until this book (recommended by Stephanie) I wasn’t willing to give him a try. But I am a glutton for a good dystopia story, and this one is intriguing and unique--a world in which “progress” is measured by backward steps (old spoons are shockingly precious), and society is highly stratified based upon an individual’s ability to see color. There will be sequels. I will read them.

This Perfect Day
by Ira Levin--This is an older dystopian story, rather well known. It isn’t quite as classic as 1984 or Brave New World, but it does have its own wikipedia page. I read this story through, and immediately started over and read it again. Then I read it two more times. I find it very difficult to articulate why it fascinated me so, but it did. One of the most poignant parts of the story, to me, is the great lengths two characters go through in order to learn a foreign language--for them, an unknown language--in order to be able to read books. Some of the technological elements in the story are dated--we’d never need bracelets to identify us to computers today, in this age of microchips and near-field scanners--but the extreme control of every aspect of life looms too close for comfort.


by Rena Kornreich Gelissen with Heather Dune Macadam--One of my non-fiction reads, touching two areas of interest for me--biography and holocaust literature. This is a newer memoir (the author has since passed away), telling the story of Rena and her sister. Rena was a rare long-term survivor. She was on the first women’s transport into Auschwitz, and she survived the death march to Ravensbruck at the end of the war. Her story was as compelling as every survivor story I’ve ever read, but this memoir seems remarkable to me as much for what it does not include as what it does. Rena shared her story with Heather Macadam so it would not be lost, but I am convinced she left out a great deal. The truth is, you could only survive that long in Auschwitz by being ruthless. Rena chose not to tell that part of her story, but the parts that she does share are a tribute to her endurance, ingenuity, and determination.

The Old Manor House
by Charlotte Turner Smith--Written in 1793, this is a strange Gothic story, by a nearly-forgotten author of the Romantic era. (She was known by authors such as Wordsworth and Southey.) It is most interesting to me for the picture it paints of a long-gone era of English life. This is Jane Austen’s world. Money and family govern the choice of marriage partners, not personal feelings. But what happens when real love does spring up? The main character goes to America to fight on behalf of the British, and Charlotte Turner Smith uses the setting of the American revolution to show her sympathy with the French revolution. I listened to this at Librivox, and thus gained, over some time, 24 hours of crocheting time!

Oh, Money! Money! by Eleanor H. Porter--This is no Pollyanna! A wealthy bachelor needs to decide on an heir, so he gives a little money to his distant relatives to see which one will use it most wisely. But he can’t resist watching what happens from nearby, and as he gets to know them, he realizes what a dilemma he has created for himself. Besides the (rather predictable, but fun) main plot, there is a great deal of commentary here about the proper role of money in life, showing that both overspending and miserliness are poor substitutes for good stewardship.

Vice Versa by F. Anstey--Remember the movie "Freaky Friday?" This is a Victorian-era version of the same tale. An unhappy son is miserably contemplating his return to boarding school, when fate steps in and he and his father change places. He remains comfortably at home, while his father is packed off to school with the meager allowance he made his son all the money he has in his pocket. Naturally, they come to understand each other better, but the naughty son doesn’t really want to change back, and so Dad needs all his ingenuity to effect the switch (courtesy of a charmed stone brought from India by a relative).

No Name, by Wilkie Collins---I really love these Victorian-era tales that sprawl across chapters and months, drawing widely-flung threads together in a satisfying end. For a wonder, I blogged about this one, too, if you want a closer look at the plot and characters.

A Way of Seeing
by Edith Schaeffer--This is a non-fiction collection of short essays, most of which were originally published as columns in Christianity Today (in the 1970s). I love the way Edith describes them: “This is what I was thinking about while I was washing dishes...” I liked most of them, but what was astonishing was how very, very apropos they are to today, in spite of some dated references. Some of the essays were written while Francis was filming his “How Shall We Then Live” series, and there are a few interesting references to that. I received permission to translate some of these into Polish, and that will be a project for 2012.

Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon--This is my second book by Braddon, after reading the better-known Lady Audley’s Secret some time ago. Aurora is a spoiled, willful girl who does some very, very foolish things before she is out of her teens. Her whole life might have been spoiled, but it seems a fortuitous chance has given her an opportunity for something better, and she marries happily. When the dark shadow of her past re-emerges, she despairs. But would she commit murder to secure her safety? Someone certainly has committed murder, and suspicion falls upon Aurora from the beginning. I almost felt as if I were reading another Wilkie Collins during this story!

Can you handle a couple more?

Olive Kitteridge: Fiction
by Elizabeth Strout--Probably the only "prize winner" I read this year (I think I read a lot of junk--something I plan to rectify in the immediate future), and wrote about at the time. I love a good character-driven story.

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home
by Susan Hill. This is a book about books and reading--I gleaned many potential titles and authors that I wanted to pursue while I read it. Maybe I'll get to one or two of them in 2012!

And that's it--the best of 2011, gleaned from dozens of titles, most of which were forgotten as soon as I finished them. I admit to being somewhat disgusted with myself, and I hope to do better next year. That is, I intend to plan my reading time more carefully, and read more purposefully. There will be moments of light reading when I just want to escape, but I hope that will be the smaller part of the list next year. I hope.

Sneak Preview: I'm currently reading the newest Jostein Gaarder!!! Castle in the Pyrenees....stay tuned. I might even blog about it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Further thoughts on Poetic Knowledge, chapter two, part two

This is my contribution to the on-going book discussion of Poetic Knowledge by James Taylor. Although this week's discussion is supposed to cover only half of chapter two, there is so much in there, that I thought about writing more than one post for this section. Then I had to chastise myself for acting in direct opposition to what I think is the most fundamental point I want to make, which concerns the importance of integration and wholeness of knowledge. Therefore, I will say what I want to say in one post, no matter how difficult.

The title of this chapter is "The Philosophical Foundations," and Taylor delves pretty deeply into the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and others. He is tracing the historical "conversation" on the validity of poetic knowledge from its known roots to the present. It isn't easy to read or to follow, and I'm not going to attempt to summarize. For me, the topic crystallizes in a few key ways. First of all, as I mentioned in my last post, poetic knowledge is closely allied with love. Education is concerned with "ordering the affections"--teaching us to know and love that which is beautiful and good. I liked this quote from Augustine:
Because love is a movement [of the soul] and every movement is always toward something, when we ask what ought to be loved, we are therefore asking what it is that we ought to be moving toward....It is the thing in regard to which possession and knowing are one and the same.

This is not a thing that can be accomplished by systems, lesson plans, or direct command. You can make a child memorize the multiplication table, but you cannot force him to see the relationships that exist within it, and thrill with appreciation for the patterns and wholeness and orderliness of it. For that relationship to occur, you have to give him a chance to know it and "discover" for himself some of the possibilities. Poetic knowledge cannot be forced, and my personal feeling is that it is unlikely that everyone will develop a poetic relationship with every area of knowledge. We can but try, which is why Charlotte Mason urges us that it is not "how much" a scholar knows that is the measure of his progress, but "how much he cares," and about how many things has he learned to care?

Caring about something...loving it...requires that a person be allowed to interact with the wholeness of the subject at hand--to meet the universal in the particulars, and to interact with it personally. A required unit on insects, for example, which points out the peculiar characteristics of all insects, perhaps requires the identification of a few (via pictures), and finishes with a written test on the subject matter before moving on to reptiles is not likely to produce a roomful of enthusiastic amateur entomologists. Consider the child who has leisure to observe a beehive, an anthill, a ladybug. Perhaps he knows its name already, or perhaps he has to ask (asking shows that he cares a little bit already). Perhaps he wonders what they are doing, or why. Perhaps he is amazed by some insect feat of prowess, or overwhelmed by their numbers, or curious about their ability to fly. Perhaps he is merely amused at the idea of walking on six feet. If he is anything at all besides indifferent, he is experiencing the tiny beginning of a relationship with knowledge about insects, a poetic understanding of their little lives that no factual "knowing about" will ever match. How far his interest in insects will go depends on many things (my own extends primarily to keeping them out of the house), but his knowledge of one kind of insect that he has observed closely is the gateway to the greater, more universal knowledge that could be learned.

A few other examples come to mind, and I fear that many of us, educated in the fragmented, analytic system of education, can be confused about what constitutes "wholes" and "parts." A few examples spring to mind, and I have had...warm discussions...on a few of these topics. "Art" is not a whole thing to be introduced. You cannot know "art" or develop a relationship with "art." You can acquire poetic knowledge about an individual picture or sculpture, and through close association and affection (love) for some pieces of art, develop an understanding about the more universal topic of "art." An apple is not a part of tree--it is a whole thing, complete in itself, both coming from a greater whole (the tree), and containing within it another whole (the seed). The universe is made up of whole things within greater whole things, which work together to make up still greater whole things, and not of discrete things that have no connection to anything else.

In our increasingly fragmented post-modern culture, letting our children experience the wholeness and connectedness of knowledge is probably one of the most important things we can do for them. I marked every instance of words like "whole" and "integrated" in this chapter, because it seems to me to the most vital thing--the one thing that we must see and grasp for ourselves, if we want to have a chance to convey it to those we teach.

Poetic knowledge is important because it recognizes the wholeness of the learner in the first place. We are neither entirely material or entirely spiritual beings--we are both. We perceive the world through our senses, but we also bring emotions and rationality to bear on what we perceive. I really could not begin to articulate the various aspects of sense and intellect that are discussed in this chapter, but my heart resonates with this conclusion:
It is also important to restate that this is all an integrated experience, not occurring in mechanical steps or linked together as a chain...

Wholeness. Oneness. Integration. Unity. A synthetic universe in which all things interlock and move and work together in an organic whole that staggers the mind, and makes the most complex mechanical process look shabby by comparison. We can't grasp that all at once, or perhaps not ever completely. But when we deal with knowledge in terms of wholeness rather than as isolated parts, we are functioning in the poetic mode, and behaving as whole-hearted human beings, and we are experiencing in the minute particulars the greater universal truths.

Having written all that, which sounds so serious, I just have to add that, among my other markings in this chapter, I've made marginal notes about Orson Scott Card. It's because this discussion reminded me that in Ender's Game, Ender understands deeply the fact that he must love his enemy in order to know him well enough to defeat him.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thoughts on Poetic Knowledge, chapter two (part one)

I'm hopelessly late in this week's discussion of the first part of chapter two, but life is what it is. I want to join in this discussion, but finding the time to devote to it is tricky.

I read over the chapter, including my marginal notes, which made reference both to Charlotte Mason (of course), and also to Alfred North Whitehead. It's been several years since I read The Aims of Education by Whitehead, so I had to pull the book out and look over my notes there to recall the similarities. One thing that I think is important to understand about "poetic knowledge," as it is called by Taylor in this book, is called by other names from other authors. Thus, when you read about "romantic knowledge" in Whitehead or "synthetic knowledge" from David Hicks (Norms & Nobility), it's really important to realize that they are talking about the same thing. Taylor borrowed the word "poetic" from some older authors, and it is valid, but it is not the only term to describe what he means--what Charlotte Mason called "the science of relationships."

Poetic knowledge is very much the difference between knowing things, and knowing about them. Our information age has made "knowing about" extremely easy, and it is easy to confuse a second-hand familiarity with real knowledge. We mustn't. The real knowledge is the poetic knowledge of close association, interaction, and ultimately, love.

This poetic knowledge begins with a sense of wonder, and I really like the quote from Dennis Quinn:
Wonder, always considered a passion, was classified by Aquinas and many before him as a species of fear....There are, of course many kinds of fear..[and] it is helpful to distinguish wonder from some passions in its immediate family. When we do so, we see that wonder is the most rational form of fear.

This kind of wonder, that makes us approach some new and unknown with awe and reverence, is, I think, what the Bible means when it tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

It is, of course, closely connected with the sense of ignorance that makes us aware that there is something we do not know, and that we need to know, or want to know--a state of humility without which true education cannot take place.

The one author that springs to mind when I think about this is Jostein Gaarder. I have read everything he has written (that has been translated into English), and I have never encountered anyone better able to articulate this sense of wonder than he does--from The Christmas Mystery to Sophie's World. I don't agree with all of his conclusions, but there is no doubt that understands the right frame of mind for looking at one thing--a flower, an orange, a sheep--and understanding how truly amazing it is--how worthy of our awe, because it is such an amazing thing, "infinitely more than nothing."

Now that I've wondered all over the map, it's probably pretty clear why I didn't get any kind of post done earlier for this chapter. In the end, it was this or nothing. I've avoided reading everyone else's thoughts until I posted my own, so I'm to do that now. You may want to join me.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

I haven't blogged about Poland or Krakow for a long time, although I remain "Krakovianka"--a resident of Krakow (similar to "New Yorker").

But I have something to share that compels me to call up blogger and type away. My family and I visited a new museum recently, and most of this post was written immediately afterward, in great enthusiasm. I've been to any number of museums here in Krakow (not all of them), but this museum is unique in my experience. The Oskar Schindler factory, made well-known via the film Schindler's List, has been converted into a museum about the war years here in Krakow. The exhibits are laid out in a convoluted path which draws you through the museum in chronological order.

It begins in the pre-war era, with period photographs of entertainers and people living ordinary lives. It was the end of summer--people were just finishing up their vacations--when Nazi Germany invaded. It's really not possible to use words to explain the way the museum makes this an experience, not just an exhibit. There are areas of light and darkness. There are video clips that you view through the window of a home, or a tram. There are prison cell-like cubicles (complete with barred windows on the doors) where you can read about the arrests, and listen to first-hand accounts (in Polish, with English subtitles). Period furniture, clothing, accessories, weapons, and posters are used throughout the exhibits. The section on the ghetto is experienced between authentic walls that resemble those that surrounded that area. When you read about the labor camps, you are are behind barbed wire and walking on very rough gravel. You can duck into a basement where some Jews were hidden in the dark and damp for years to save their lives. You can walk through the main square of Krakow (the way it is evoked is truly amazing), where Nazi flags are flying, and learn with horror that on the first anniversary of the invasion, the main square was renamed "Adolf Hitler Plaza." I was shocked to see a picture of a small indoor market where I've shopped for years with swastika-blazoned banners on the front!! The exhibits lead you through the museum and through the course of the years from 1939 to 1945 in Krakow, until the liberation.

The exhibit ends in a brightly-lit circular room called the Room of Choices. Written all over the walls, in many languages, are brief comments from those who tell how they helped, or were helped by others, during the difficult years. Set within the walls are rotating pillars (each in a different language). On the rotating pillars are the words and testimony of those who did not help when they could have. The thing that struck me about all of them was that the help they were asked to give, or considered giving, was of the smallest kind. One person planned to share some food with another, but by the time they reached the person, they had eaten it all. Another saw that clothing was being collected to give to Polish prisoners, and she packed up her dead brother's clothing to donate...but left the bundle at home, and missed the opportunity. Those folks had little to share, but they could have shared...even meant to share...but they didn't. The small amount of food or the warm sweater wouldn't have fixed the evil situation they were all in, but it would have provided comfort to one person, for a little while. The excuses were tinged with regret...the remembrance that they could have helped, but failed to do so.

As I thought about it later, it seemed so easy to say, "I'd have done this or that" if I'd been living in Krakow in 1941, was those small regrets that really struck me. We don't have the power to fix, for example, the dreadful results of a tsunami in Japan, but is there something that it is in our power to do? Some small service, or sacrifice, or helping hand. Those little things count.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Thoughts on Poetic Knowledge by James Taylor, ch. 1

I decided to reread this book along with those who are are reading and discussing it in book-club format. I first read it several years, ago, so my copy is already well-marked with my original comments and thoughts.

Being practically a disciple of Charlotte Mason in the realm of education, I was most forcefully struck by the fact that poetic knowledge is precisely what Miss Mason is aiming to achieve with her young learners, and therefore her methods are most efficacious is achieving what is essentially somewhat elusive and spontaneous.

James Taylor takes up the whole first chapter to convey what he means by poetic knowledge, and tells us
So whatever poetic knowledge is, it is not strictly speaking a knowledge of poems, but a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning. It is, according to a tradition from Homer to Robert Frost, from Socrates to Maritain, a natural human act, synthetic and penetrating, that gets us inside the thing experienced.

For my friends who are familiar with Charlotte Mason, don't you immediately see this as virtually identical to her "science of relations," wherein she urges us to allow children to form their own relationships with every branch of knowledge.

The concept of synthetic and analytic knowledge could have been lifted right from her own writing. In Formation of Character, she explains:
There is also a time for sowing the seed of this knowledge, an intellectual as well as a natural springtime; and it would be interesting to examine the question, how far it is possible to prosecute any branch of knowledge, the sowing and germination of which has not taken place in early youth. It follows that the first three lustres* belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end.

I could say much more on the subject, but this is a blog post, and not the book I ought to write. The most important point for me is taking careful note of that world "whole." Studying the wholeness of things, and their place within greater wholes, is the key to opening the door to synthetic/poetic knowledge, and avoiding the analytic knowledge trap. This is most important because those of us who grew up in institutional schools have experienced only an analytical approach to knowledge, and we need to be very, very careful to avoid the tendency to break everything down into small parts. None of us would give our children a vitamin tablet, a bit of sugar, and a dose of fiber and imagine that it was the equivalent of giving him an apple. The whole apple is much better for him, and so is the wholeness of poetic knowledge. It goes without saying that it tastes better, too.

*Let me save you the trouble I went through to figure out what she means. Lustre can apparently be understood, in French, as a span of 5 years. It is thus used in a poem by Victor Hugo, and should be understood in this case to mean up to the age of 15 or so.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

No Name by Wilkie Collins

Ah, the poor neglected blog. It's a little like those books I have on my shelf that I want to read so badly. I need to get around to them soon, but when I do, it's usually only to dust.

I've been meaning for weeks to write about No Name by Wilkie Collins. I've read the obligatory The Moonstone and The Woman in White, as well as two others, Armadale and The Haunted Hotel. Collins was as prolific as Dickens, and is at least as wordy, but there is something different about his books. He is a master of suspense. The tension builds and builds, and you know something terrible is going to happen. And then it does. Because he is a Victorian author, you sort of know how things are going to come out in the end, to a point. Virtuous behavior will be rewarded, and evil behavior will either be repented of or duly recompensed.

In No Name, we meet a quiet country family (genteel and wealthy, of course) consisting of father, mother, two grown daughters, and their faithful governess/companion. The eldest daughter, Nora, is quiet and old enough to be well and truly in danger of being considered an "old maid." The younger daughter, Magdalen, is just reaching maturity. She is impetuous and spoiled, and falls unfortunately in love at the first opportunity. However, her indulgent father plans to do what is necessary to make her marriage possible, which basically involves giving her a large sum of money, as her chosen partner has shown himself unable to succeed at any profession.

However, before this marriage can take place, a shocking series of events leaves the girls orphaned and penniless, without even a legal right to their father's name. This seems like enough to be a whole story in itself, but this is a Victorian novel, so it is just the very first section, laying the scene for the rest of the story.

Nora, assisted by her former governess and friend, quietly makes plans to support herself as a governess. Magdalen, willful and angry, vows revenge against the uncle who has behaved so cruelly to her and prevented her marriage. She runs away from her sister and friend, and embarks on a course of action that would have been shocking to Victorian sensibilities, but tends not to horrify me in the same way. (She begins by going on stage.)

Magdalen must fight all her better instincts and finer principles as she pursues her course of revenge and her attempt to recover her father's fortune. Nora never stops believing in her sister, and hoping and praying for her recovery and redemption. How far does Magdalen go? Does she succeed in the end? Will it be in her own best interests if and when she does? Well, that would be spoiling it, wouldn't it? I can't imagine that anyone is going to line up to read this book, and if you haven't read any Wilkie Collins, you certainly want to start with The Moonstone or The Woman in White. I'd probably suggest Armadale before this one, too. But if you already have a taste for Wilkie Collins, and you enjoy having suspense built to a fever pitch in long, long chapters before the conclusion is reached in a credibility-stretching series of coincidences (it was all I could do not to roll my eyes), this story will repay the effort to read it. Magdalen is a well-drawn, complex character, and I enjoyed the story very much. Most of Wilkie Collins characters are caricatures (Dickens-like), but they are fun to watch. There is a whole company of them in this book, aiding or thwarting Magdalen in her ventures.

If you have a large crochet project (or other handiwork) to work on, this will occupy 29 hours of time if you listen to at Librivox, as I did. It took about two months to complete, and I suppose it's only fair to say that I have several other Wilkie Collins titles on my to-be-read list (I do enjoy them), but I'm not in a hurry to start another one.

By way of a teaser, though, I'm listening to another book at Librivox right now--Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

Monday, February 28, 2011

On books and hats...

I quoted in my last post from The Joys of Reading: Life's Greatest Pleasure by Burton Rascoe. That is because I am reading this slim little book (185 pages, cloth-bound, falling apart) right now, and enjoying it very much. I think I'm going to blog my way through the book so you can enjoy it, too. It's the sort of book that readers enjoy reading--a book about books and reading, and why reading is worthwhile, and different kinds of reading, and so forth. At the same time, I am most emphatically NOT recommending that anyone search out a copy to buy and read. Some of it is too specific to its time and era to be universally interesting (it's never been reprinted, so far as I can tell).

The book is recent enough that the expressions and sentiments ring very true and sound modern, while it also old enough that the author writes enthusiastically of then-living authors such as Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It makes for fun reading, and gives rise to all sorts of interesting reflections.
Books may fall into neglect. Fashions may shift in that demand for the "continuous slight novelty" we all require to escape monotony or satiety. And good books, even the best books, may be obscured for a while, unread for months, for years, even for centuries.
Literature does not die. It is the self-perpetuating product of an ever-flowering process like life itself; and it is the articulate spirit of life, voicing the hopes, aspirations, the conflicts, the experience, of people, of time and of place--and the best of literature, the literature that endures, is the literature which arouses in the breasts of all literate peoples at all times the emotion of recognition that this book, this poem or this play is something they know, they feel, they have observed, they acknowledge to be true, they have felt or observed, expressed in a language that is clearer, more exact, more comprehensive, or more subtle than is within the average man's power of articulation.

I appreciate the fact that he encourages readers not only to read those books which are classic and worthy, but not to be ashamed to read current literature that is worthy. He also encourages readers to actually read those worthy books, and not just skim them to be able to say "I've read that," as we might buy the latest fashion (or not) in order to make "groupthink" a veritable reality.
It is quite true that a great many people make no further use of books than as a means of keeping up with the fashion. That is to say that, when a book becomes a best seller, they want to get hold of it and perhaps only to skip through it, not out of a love of literature, not out of curiosity even, but merely to be in the swim.

When nearly everybody else seems to have read the book, and to be talking about it, they feel as uncomfortable as if they had on clothes that are last year's and, there out of date. When the Empress Eugenie hats were so much the rage in 1931 that Queen Mary was probably the only living woman who didn't wear one, it was also so much the fashion to read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck that it took more courage than most can muster to resist a desire to buy or borrow it.
Now, with the plethora of book bloggers out there, there is this tendency to want to read what everyone else is reading and talking about. There are challenges that tempt us to read the same kinds of books everyone else is reading. When half-a-dozen of my favorite book bloggers have waxed enthusiastic about a new book, I want to read it too. Sometimes I don't like the books that are enjoying the wave of popularity. I have read a few books that I could have easily dispensed with. But. I have read some wonderful, wonderful books that I would not have known about if I hadn't picked up the chatter about them and hopped on the bandwagon, to mix a few metaphors. I would not willingly have missed The Book Thief, The Thirteenth Tale, or Jayber Crow. If I have to read something like The DaVinci Code once in a while, that's not too high a price to pay for the sake of reading truly great books written by the better authors still living among us.

Burton Rascoe agrees.
The sneer [at those who read currently popular books] is both stupid and vulgar. For the undeniable fact is that the Empress Eugenie hat was so beautifully designed that no woman could but add to her appearance by wearing one, and The Good Earth was so good a novel that no one could help deriving some pleasure, some good, out of even a very superficial skimming of it.