Friday, January 12, 2007

How do you eat an elephant?

Many moons ago, before I was was a stay-at-home mom, or had children, or even was married, I worked in a college office. There were tight schedules and deadlines for everything, and as my experience increased, so did my responsibilities. Sometimes the time pressure and the size of my workload would push me to the edge of frantic, futile panic. My supervisor, a wise, godly older woman, would ask me, "How do you eat an elephant?"

The answer, of course, is "one bite at a time." No matter how big the project is or how soon it must be finished, it must still be accomplished in single-step increments. A similar well-known aphorism is, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

It all sounds rather fine and grandiose, and I should be introducing some really fantastic project instead of the simple task of reading a book. But that's all I'm doing--reading Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. I think this is the kind of book that would put a lot of people off, even if they were mildly interested in reading it. It's so long--about 800 pages. Its scope is massive--500 years of history. Its title contains a shade of negativity--decadence? I don't think this book can be read like a novel, and so I'm giving myself the whole year to read it. I only need to cover 60-65 pages per month to finish in that time frame, and that breaks the elephant into small enough bites for me.

I started this week, and so far I've read the whole first chapter. Jacques Barzun got my attention from the very first page, because he is obviously unafraid to voice opinions, be they politically correct or not. He writes: "Europe is the peninsula that juts out from the great mass of Asia without a break and is ridiculously called a continent."

What??? And this is coming from someone born in France! I like him already. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to admit he's got style and flair. I don't think this is going to be a boring book.

The first chapter begins with a focus on the Reformation. I was little surprised that a secular author would choose that first, over the Renaissance, but he does. He mentions a score of different individuals who were a part of the Reformation, but the spotlight is primarily on Martin Luther, with Erasmus as a foil, so that Luther may be contrasted with him. Luther's Reformation embodies what Barzun considers to be one of the primary ideas of our culture: primitivism, or "back to basics." The simple, the pure, the unadulterated is most highly prized.

I've only added one recommended book from the first chapter to my "to be read" list. I think that's pretty back to basic, don't you?


At 12:47 AM , Blogger Poiema said...

I took an entire summer reading this book. (I do not read as fast as you do!) It was a crash course in history for me; I was just keeping one step ahead of my children in their studies. I found it insightful and highly readable. Makes me want to go ahead and read his book on teaching. Maybe next summer.....


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