Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reflections: The Great Divorce

C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce is a brilliant little book. Although a work of fiction, which I did not realize originally, the book acts more as a commentary on theological ideas than it does as a narrative. Regardless, the commentary itself is so compelling and illuminating the lacking narrative is easily overlooked.

Latter-day Saints have a belief, based mostly upon a scripture found in The Book of Mormon, which explains what happens to the spirits of men and women after they die. It reads in part:

". . . for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world." (Alma 34:34)

The Great Divorce is the great delineation of that doctrine. Obviously C.S. Lewis was not a Latter-day Saint and didn't write his book with that scripture in mind; however, his insights into the afterlife and the very dilemma posited by The Book of Mormon is supremely striking. The Great Divorce explores not only what the afterlife might look like but what we might be like. What follows is a series of conversations between the ghosts of men and women and the exalted spirits who have obtained a heavenly home. The exalted spirits attempt to use all of their powers of reason, feeling, and pleading to convince the recalcitrant ghosts of what is needed to also obtain that heavenly home, which includes not only the forsaking of the common and egregious sins and errors of mankind but also the corrupted virtues, such as selfish "love" for a husband or child. This is a book and a warning for believersthose presumably seeking to live a gospel-centered life. All the classic justifications are hereprideful intellectualism, self-righteousness, and others.

C.S. Lewis is unparalleled, in my opinion, in making the eternal feel local and personal. Yet, I never feel that Lewis is pandering or treating consequential ideas sloppily. In fact, as approachable as Lewis is, his writing does require attention and effort. Albeit, the subsequent enlightenment of reading Lewis is well worth the mental exercise required to obtain it. The Great Divorce is perfectly readable for most readers but is not childish or without challenge.

As mentioned, The Great Divorce is a brilliant little book. It's lacking narrative can be forgiven because it's not terribly interested in narrative completeness. This book is a platform for Lewis to comment on the state of the souls of men after their death, and it is a brilliant commentary indeed.

Notable Quote:
"Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed in Faith.  Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm.  The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man's mind.  If that's what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours.  But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent."
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mere Christianity
Reflections: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Reflections: Faith Precedes the Miracle

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Reflections: The Third Policeman

To begin with, the author of The Third Policeman—Flann O'Brien, which is a pseudonym for Brian O'Nolan—wrote that "Hell goes round and round.  In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable." It's a poignant statement made all the more so because his book so perfectly captured what hell must feel like. I found reading The Third Policeman to be a particularly unpleasant experience. After discussing it with my wife for a few minutes she posited that maybe that was exactly the point of the book, which I don't dispute. It very well could have been; therefore, I suppose on some levels The Third Policeman is successful as a book, but on so many other levels it's a book I would gladly forget.

The Third Policeman begins off-kilter and gets stranger and stranger with each turn of the page. I want to emphasize that the strangeness of the narrative was not the problem. Rather, the seeming aimlessness of it all definitely was. To quote a line from the book: "Your talk is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand." Or is it? The book is so surreal it feels silly and vapid. Although much of the book is intended to be humorous, I laughed very little and was entertained even less. I recognize any book dabbling in ideas regarding reality and fiction has a difficult storytelling job, and I'm not opposed to surrealism and fantasy on the face of it, but The Third Policeman left me totally annoyed and aggravated.

It's obvious at this point that I don't have much to recommend The Third Policeman. I will admit that some of the humor was effective and the prose was anything but elementary. The metaphysical point is made, I guess, but when the point is pointless, then why should I care? It's not as deeply depressing as an Albert Camus book, but I have as much interest in reading another O'Nolan book as I do a Camus one.

There probably isn't much more for me to say about The Third Policeman. I didn't like it. It could potentially spark some worthy conversation, but those sparks could probably be found from much better sources.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Reflections: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Memorable Moments: The Illustrated Man - 'Make a wish!  Make a wish!'

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reflections: The Radicalism of the American Revolution

No matter how deep, how far, and how much I swim in American History, I always find something of interest and something new that informs my perspective and love for my nation's history. The Radicalism of the American Revolution explores ideas related to the Revolution I had not previously explored. Its subject matter is interesting, but, alas, its writing lumbers and stomps around and makes the overall reading experience less than enjoyable.

To begin with, I don't want to diminish the additional insight Gordon S. Wood's book brings to the overall conversation and exploration of the American Revolution. There is a lot here which was new, fresh, and valuable. Above all, I loved the exploration of ideas and how they impacted American society before, during, and after the Revolution. How did America slough off the old sentiments of aristocracy? What did the idea of equality do for American society generally? How did it diffuse throughout the population, eventually illuminating not only white male property holders but also women, African slaves, and others? What was the impact of individualism and the establishment of American's republic of commerce? These and a host of other fascinating questions are the book's reason for existing. In the end, The Radicalism of the American Revolution is worth reading, but it will take some extra work and dedication to do so. I'm fine with reading hard books, but I don't love reading bland writing.

When I started reading the book I was a little concerned because it reminded me a bit too much of Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America. That book suggest and attempts to show that most of the founders acted wholly out of self-interest in relation to their wealth and property. No doubt the founders were wise enough to be comprehensively concerned about a great many interests, but I found Beard's arguments unpersuasive. For a certain duration Wood appears to be taking a similar approach with the monumental changes which occurred leading up to and causing the Revolution. Wood presents a great preponderance of economic evidence suggesting why societal feelings and trends moved in the way they did; however, this focus misses some of the mark. Ideas matter, as The Radicalism of the American Revolution shows, and economic factors can never, in my opinion, fully explain the course of nations and societies. I admit the explanatory difficulty becomes somewhat of a chicken or the egg dilemma, and the truth is probably found somewhere in the middle. Regardless, the book doesn't fully embrace an economic explanation in the same way Beard's book does, and I think the book was much better for it.

Having attested to its usefulness and value, I have to point out the grind reading the book is. Historians are not wordsmiths in most cases and Wood proves the point. The prose of the book is so utilitarian it can feel downright sterile. By far the most interesting passages in the book don't belong to Wood but to the historical personalities he quotes; unfortunately, far too many of their quotes were sliced and diced by Wood's commentaries and interpretations, but the reader may have been better served by reading the direct passage. By reading The Radicalism of the American Revolution the reader can expect an incredible and unique education—albeit not for beginners—on the American Revolution, but they can't expect anything but the most practical writing.

I liked The Radicalism of the American Revolution for what it is. There is plenty to be learned and gained from the book, but the authorship lacks the necessary style to make the history as unforgettable as it probably should be. It's nice to have in my collection, but reading it wasn't a particularly nice experience.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: 1776
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Reflections on the Revolution in France

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best Books of 2016

2016 was a great year for reading.  Most of my non-fiction selections were excellent and well worth my time but more encouraging and exciting were the fiction books I read in 2016.  Although my selection for my favorite fiction book was mostly undisputed in my mind, that did not mean there wasn't a wonderful selection of fiction I read this year.  In too many years past I have struggled to find works of fiction which inspire and enlighten.  Happily, 2016 was not one of those years.  Therefore, since this year was such a wonderful year for my fiction reading, I'll start with my favorite fiction book of 2016.

Fiction: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I read Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop early in the year.  It's sometimes easy to forget about books which you read earlier in the year because so much can come after it, not just in terms of reading but also in terms of life.  Death Comes for the Archbishop has stuck with me from the moment I turned the last page.  Its evocative setting, its endearing characters, its hopeful message—it all stuck with me and continued to affect my thinking.  Even though I read several great works of fiction this year, there was never any doubt that Death Comes for the Archbishop would be my favorite this year.

I found Death Comes for the Archbishop deeply personal.  Its a story about believing souls trying to change the world, slowly but ever so surely.  At one point Cather writes "...it was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history."  What a powerful statement!  Having served as a religious missionary it's difficult for me to articulate how much that statement moves me.  Furthermore, the myriad of simple but incredible insights from the book, such as "[m]an was lost and saved in a garden," elevate its prose from mere plot plodding to literary lessons indelibly impressed upon me.  Death Comes for the Archbishop isn't exactly a well-known masterpiece of literature; yet, for me, it's exactly that—a masterpiece.

Non-fiction: The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman

Neal A. Maxwell is no slouch when it comes to selecting the "best books" (D&C 88:118) and I always pay attention to any author, article, or book Maxwell quotes from.  The March of Folly is a book I more than likely never would have found except by listening to and paying close attention to a talk by Maxwell.  And I'm so glad I found it.

The March of Folly is a dense book—detailed and challenging.  Although many non-fiction books attempt to document several events or chronicle a personality's life, Tuchman's book is an exploration of a historical theory; to wit, that governments and leaders often act against their own self-interest and engage in demonstrably poor policy decisions which eventually leads to their losing power and influence.  The book explores the mythical story of Troy—which I loved because I believe myth and story can teach us a great deal—the American Revolution from the perspective of the British, the Popes shortly before the Reformation, and the Vietnam War.  In all cases, I was enthralled by Tuchman's commentaries and insights.  Whereas a book like The Lessons of History by the Durants attempts to look at history at 50,000 feet, The March of Folly looks at history under a microscope.  Both are valuable, of course, and The March of Folly is a truly effective microscope.

Like most years, I read a lot of very good non-fiction books in 2016, but the one that really stuck with me and continues to actively influence my thinking was The March of Folly.  It should not be overlooked.

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2015
Best Books of 2014
Thousander Must-Reads

Monday, December 12, 2016

Reading Goals for 2016: A Review

2016 was a great year of reading—both for non-fiction and fiction. Too often fiction lags behind in quality year over year, but that was absolutely not the case in 2016. When I look at the non-fiction and fiction books I read this past year, it is an excellent lineup of excellent writing.

Starting with fiction, I finally got around to completing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I read The Fellowship of the Ring in 2015 and liked it fine, but it wasn't until I read The Two Towers that I finally saw and felt the vision of those books. In fact, after reading The Two Towers, I read a non-fiction book—as is my pattern—and then immediately went back to Tolkien to read The Return of the King. I rarely read books in a series back to back. I usually like to take a breath and a break from a series so when I return to the series it can feel fresh. I didn't need any break between The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Furthermore, I had a few wonderful surprises in my fiction reading this year as well. World War Z was far better than it probably should have been being a book about zombies. Also, Good Omens was funny and entertaining, and a great diversion away from some of the more cerebral books I'm prone to read. The Once and Future King was another epic book that shocked me, surprised me, entertained me, and moved me. It should not be missed. Finally, though, I can't help but mention what will more than likely be my favorite fiction book I read in 2016—Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. It is a truly lovely book—genuinely emotional, personal, and, for me, unforgettable.

And what of non-fiction? As with most years, I read an incredible assortment of non-fiction books this year.  The first which comes to mind is probably The March of Folly.  It was a detailed and challenging work of historical commentary that I have returned to on many occasions over the last year for insight.  Although not the best of biographies, Bonhoeffer was a book about a heroic man during a terrifying time.  It reminded me that even when evil appears to be taking hold and madness is taking over there are always good men and women doing what they can to push back against it.  I finally got around to reading The Tragedy of American Compassion, which has been on my reading list literally for years.  I have to mention as well Daniel Kahneman's fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Although it became a bit of a slog and a little distended by the end, the book compels the reader to re-evaluate their ability to think clearly and objectively.  It reinforced my skepticism but also gave me more reasons to be humble, and that's a good thing.

A big development for my reading habits this year was a new commitment to read more business and management oriented books.  I have started to write blog posts and articles related to the professional world, and I, therefore, committed myself to dive deeper into that world by reading what others have to say about it.  Some were decent, such as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  Others not so much, such as The One Minute Manager.  I admit I struggle to find books of interest in the professional world, but I know they're out there, and I think I can become a more capable and well-rounded professional by learning from others who have more knowledge and experience than myself.  In addition, this new commitment will lead me to some unexpected but fascinating books like The Marshmallow Test.  I look forward to continuing this new area of learning.

2016 was a really good year for my reading.  Not everything impressed me, but the good and great books far outnumbered the mediocre and lousy books.  2017 is looking like a great year as well, and I look forward to reaching 400 books (I'm so, so close!), and moving ever closer to 500, 750, and 1,000.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reading Goals for 2015: A Review
Thousander Guidelines
Thousander Must-Reads