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.