Category: Of Books and Beer

Not a squeak of light

November 14th, 2014 — 1:04pm

For unknown reasons, the gust of energy that had swept me up and fizzed me around all summer had dropped me hard, mid-October, into a drizzle of sadness that stretched endlessly in every direction: with a very few exceptions . . . I hated being around people, couldn’t pay attention to what anyone was saying, couldn’t talk to clients, couldn’t tag my pieces, couldn’t ride the subway, all human activity seemed pointless, incomprehensible, some blackly swarming ant hill in the wilderness, there was not a squeak of light anywhere I looked, the antidepressants I’d been dutifully swallowing for eight weeks hadn’t helped a bit, nor had the ones before that (but then, I’d tried them all; apparently I was among the twenty percent of unfortunates who didn’t get the daisy fields and the butterflies but the Severe Headaches and the Suicidal Thoughts); and though the darkness sometimes lifted just enough so I could construe my surroundings, familiar shapes solidifying like bedroom furniture at dawn, my relief was never more than temporary because somehow the full morning never came, things always went black before I could orient myself and there I was again with ink poured in my eyes, guttering around in the dark. (Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 512)

A taste, perhaps, of why she won the fiction Pulitzer this year.

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Out of the self

May 22nd, 2014 — 9:12am

What then is the good of – what is even the defence for – occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist – on Dante’s earthly paradise, Thetis rising from the sea to comfort Achilles, Chaucer’s or Spenser’s Lady Nature, or the Mariner’s skeleton ship? . . .

The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level – in other words, not to discount perspective – would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels, too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature . . . is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.

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 particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise 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’.

(C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, pp. 137–38)

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A reading recommendation

May 28th, 2013 — 10:46am

The blogosphere is a noisy place, filled with clamoring voices who believe they deserve an audience. A few voices (usually the quieter ones) are consistently worth hearing;  one such voice belongs to my friend Alastair Roberts. He blogs at, and I urge you to read anything he writes. He is a rarity: careful, judicious, precise, thorough, and (perhaps most remarkable in the modern climate) courteous.

For a sample of his work, start with “The New Purity Ethic” posted recently.

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Irrigate deserts

April 23rd, 2013 — 6:22pm

For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head. (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 24)

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God’s drama

March 5th, 2013 — 1:59pm

Would God give us a drama? He makes a Shakespeare. Or would he construct a drama more immediately his own? He begins with the building of the stage itself, and that stage is a world – a universe of worlds. He makes the actors, and they do not act, – they are their part. He utters them into the visible to work out their life – his drama. When he would have an epic, he sends a thinking hero into his drama, and the epic is the soliloquy of his Hamlet. Instead of writing his lyrics, he sets his birds and his maidens a-singing. All the processes of the ages are God’s science; all the flow of history is his poetry. His sculpture is not in marble, but in living and speech-giving forms, which pass away, not to yield place to those that come after, but to be perfected in a nobler studio. What he has done remains, although it vanishes; and he never either forgets what he has once done, or does it even once again. As the thoughts move in the mind of a man, so move the worlds of men and women in the mind of God, and make no confusion there, for there they had their birth, the offspring of his imagination. Man is but a thought of God. (MacDonald, “The Imagination”)

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The end of education

March 5th, 2013 — 1:46pm

Repose is not the end of education; its end is a noble unrest, an ever renewed awaking from the dead, a ceaseless questioning of the past for the interpretation of the future, an urging on of the motions of life, which had better far be accelerated into fever, than retarded into lethargy. (George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture”)

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Ensouled by learning

November 8th, 2012 — 9:50am

There is no wisdom (and thus no holiness) without education; indeed, this is precisely what education is. Education is spiritual formation precisely because it is formation in wisdom. One of the urgent needs of our day is to recover an appreciation of the power of education and learning for the Christian life. Education is an inherently deeply Christian act, and few things are so empowering to life as learning; the church by its nature is a teaching-learning community. Learning opens the mind, frees the heart, encourages the disheartened. We are animated (ensouled) by learning. Though education surely includes classrooms and libraries, the wise are deeply attuned to the rhythms of God’s creation: they understand, from the inside out, what it means to see and live in the truth (thus work in the library is complemented by work in the garden). (Gordon T. Smith, Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation, p. 98)

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Bridge over

September 7th, 2012 — 9:33am

Every man’s work, pursued steadily, tends . . . to become an end in itself, and so to bridge over the loveless chasms of his life. (George Eliot, Silas Marner, chapter 2)

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East of Eden

August 14th, 2012 — 1:34pm

It’s been a long time since I finished a novel and felt as satisfied as I recently did after reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Among the things I liked about it are the one-liners that stop you in your tracks. For example:

“An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There’s a punishment for it, and it’s usually crucifixion.” (p. 262)

“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.” (p. 266)

“The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is. Maybe there would be fewer crazy people. I am sure in myself there would not be many jails.” (p. 268)

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What happens to readers

May 9th, 2012 — 1:43pm

“Consider what happens to people whose night skies are spangled with constellations like The Master of Hestviken, or Moby-Dick, or The Brothers Karamazov. These people are hard to fool. They are also hard to enlist in pursuit of the trivial and ephemeral. It is as if we had given them a powerful telescope atop a high mountain, and shown them how to use it, and directed their attention to the Orion nebula, and once they had learned to do so and to love the beauty they found there, expected them to look at light bulbs on a marquee. Or, if not a telescope, a magical device for seeing deep into the human heart; and then expected them to watch American Idol, or to be impressed by the maunderings of the latest political hack.” (Esolen, Ten Ways, p. 100)

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