Friday, March 16, 2018

2018 - A Year of Slower Reading

They say that chewing slowly is better for your digestion. I'm beginning to understand that it's better for my literary diet as well. Last week I reviewed Arnold Bennet's How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. His basic premise was that self-improvement will bring fulfillment to your life, but it was one of his side points about reading that really struck me.

I know people who take to reading as men take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how many books they have read in a year. [But] unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing reflection upon what you are reading, your ninety minutes of night are chiefly wasted. This means that your pace will be slow. Never mind. Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find yourself in a lovely town on a hill.

As I read this, I knew he was talking about me. But this is not who I was when I started blogging nine years ago. Then I was reading a book a week. Although I am a fast reader, I read substantial books that required a certain amount of pondering. Books available to me in Brazil were limited and I carefully chose the ones that I would carry with me in my suitcase. Conscientious choices resulted in pleasurable encounters with many of the western world's best authors.

A couple of years later the Kindle came out and suddenly I had a surplus of options. Then I started joining reading challenges to help chip away at my unending TBR lists. Last year my library began offering a gazillion digital options for book downloads. I no longer read one book a week. I read 3 to 4. This year I added 30 minutes a day of audio books every morning. And yet I've noticed the law of diminishing returns: more books, less pleasure. This frenzy has not brought the literary contentment that I used to sense on a regular basis.

As I was reading Bennett's book, I kept saying to myself, "Next year I'm going to read less books, read more slowly, and revisit old favorites." Then it suddenly occurred to me that I don't have to wait till next year. My tentative reading plans for the year (100 books at Goodreads) are a guideline, not a mandate. I can stop the frenetic reading NOW. Whew!

 But, I worried, what if that means I won't have as many books to blog about? So be it. On second thought, I don't think that will be an issue. I'll read less junk and have more time to devote to books that are worth my time (and hence, yours). So I'm off to a slower pace and looking forward to savoring rather than wolfing down my books. I'll let you know how it goes.


Friday, March 9, 2018

How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett

This small, unassuming little book hit me right between the eyes. Interestingly, it wasn't the main premise that affected me, but one of its secondary points. In How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, Bennett argues that most of us are just existing and should start using our time more wisely for self-development.  It was written in 1910 and aimed at men who worked 8 hour days and then wasted the rest of their time "recovering" by doing nothing strenuous. He challenged them to separate 90 minutes three nights a week for cultivating their minds. These 7 and half hours would be life-changing according to Bennett. They will quicken the whole life of the week, add zest to it, and increase the interest which you feel in even the most banal occupations. He goes on to emphasize the importance of developing your powers of concentration, the necessity of starting small so as to avoid failure, and the value of frequent self-examination.

Some of his assertions are reasonable: Begin small. I'm all for the petty success. A glorious failure leads to nothing; a petty success may lead to a success that is not petty. Some are laughable: Without the power to concentrate - that is to say, without the power to dictate to the brain its task and to ensure obedience - true life is impossible. Mind control is the first element of full existence.

I read quite a few books about self-development last year and each one had its "secret" for how to live a full life, but self-development for its own sake is a shallow goal. I agree with life coach, Edie Wadsworth, that we keep our hearts, minds and bodies in shape for the greater purpose of serving God and serving others. I have nothing against improving your mind, but I see improving the heart as a much bigger priority.

My take-aways from the book had more to do with Bennett's view of time as a miraculous gift, and his assertion that if we read to improve our characters, we must do it slowly. (That was my epiphany, which I'll describe in detail in my next post.)

While I don't fully agree with his basic premise - that self-development is the key to a fulfilled life, I loved his sly humor and pithy quotes: The most important preliminary to the task of arranging one's life so that one may live fully and comfortably within one's daily budget of 24 hours is the calm realization of the extreme difficulty of the task, of the sacrifices and the endless effort which it demands... If you will not be content with a small effort, then do not begin. Lie down again and resume the uneasy doze which you call existence. This bracing of the will before doing anything worth doing is the chief thing that differentiates me from the cat by the fire.

This short book is well read by Mark Smith at Librivox.


Friday, March 2, 2018

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Not since Emma, have I read a story that begins with such an unlikable heroine. But I knew there was hope, and pressed on. Ten year old Mary Lennox has been orphaned by a cholera epidemic and sent to live with an unknown uncle. The truth is that she was an orphan long before the disease took her parents because her socialite mother had ignored her for most of her life. Neglected by her family and spoiled by her servants, she has become surly and selfish. At her uncle's house she meets a sickly, self-centered young boy and the novel describes their redemption. The discovery of a locked-up garden plays an integral part in their transformation; as the garden comes back to life, so do they.

The Secret Garden is a delightful story with lovely descriptions of nature. As a read-aloud, it would be a perfect way to introduce younger children to the glories of springtime with phrases such as this: They drew the chair under the plum tree, which was snow-white with blossoms and musical with bees. It also has a charming array of characters from the crotchety gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, to the no-nonsense servant Martha Sowersby to her wise and loving mother, Susan.

Magic is mentioned throughout the story. Mary believes in it because she's seen snake charmers in India. Dickon is considered magical because he knows all about nurturing plants and animals. Sometimes the magic is the lavish grace of spring. Sometimes it's a mother's love. Sometimes it's will power. Sometimes it's the power of positive thinking. This dizzying array of explanations for anything that appears to be supernatural was okay with me until Chapter 23 when Colin loudly declares that he can do anything because "the magic is in me," which seemed a little too New-Age-y. BUT the author redeemed herself by having the children respond to the "magic" in the only way they can think of - by singing the doxology. Again, as a read-aloud, this book would offer a great opportunity to talk with your children about how God is behind all of these miraculous events: springtime, love, healing, etc.

My enjoyment of this book was greatly enhanced by the version I downloaded from because the author pronounced the Yorkshire accents beautifully.

(Barbara at Stray Thoughts discusses the magic theme more thoroughly in her post here.)


Friday, February 23, 2018

Poems of Faith by Bob Blaisdell

I am always in pursuit of good Christian poetry. Not the sing-song-y drivel that is often passed off as "inspirational," but the meatier stuff that is theologically sound and painfully honest. Here is an example of the fluffy kind:

The priceless gift of life is love,
For with the help of God above
Love can change the human race
And make this world a better place
For love dissolves all hate and fear
And makes our vision bright and clear
So we can see and rise above
Our pettiness on wings of love.

You'll find nothing of that kind in Poems of Faith, edited by Bob Blaisdell. He has deftly chosen solid poems about faith by the best authors of the last 400 years. Some were familiar to me (Robert Herrick, Francis Quarles, George Herbert) and others were discoveries (Christopher Harvey, John Day, etc.) Most of them reveal a deep longing for God in their writings.

Quarles (1592-1644) beautifully describes his heart as Like to An Arctic Needle, concluding that Christ is his true North.  Christina Rossetti affirms her helplessness apart from Christ in None Other Lamb. And John Newton reminds us of the irony of the cross when he writes:

Thus, while his death my sin displays
In all it's blackest hue
(Such is the mystery of grace),
It seals my pardon too.

A few poems go on for several pages and will be off-putting to our present (attention span-deficient) generation. The old-fashioned language may be a struggle unless, like me, you had the privilege of hearing King James English as a child. Nevertheless, Blaisdell's book is a good introduction to some of the best devotional poetry in the English language. If you enjoy it, you may want to go to the next level with these lengthier, even meatier tomes: The Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1940 version) and The One Year Book of Poetry. (The latter is surprisingly cheap for a used copy.)


Friday, February 16, 2018

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

I rarely read modern fiction, so I'm not quite sure how this book landed on my radar. But I'm glad it did.

Seventy-one year old Captain Jefferson Kidd is travelling through Texas, carrying "the news of the world" to small towns where folks will pay a dime to hear him read the papers. It's just after the Civil War and, in many ways, Texas is the wild west. Kidd had hoped that sharing stories from all over the world would help bring unity to divided people: If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and then the world would be a more peaceful place. He had been perfectly serious. That illusion had lasted from age forty-nine to age sixty-five.

In one city where he stops, his offered $50 to deliver an orphan to her people who are 400 miles away. The girl had been kidnapped four years earlier by a band of Kiowa Indians and had recently been rescued by the U.S. Army.  Kidd names the ten-year old Johanna and promises to take her safely home. As they travel together, warding off bandits and busybodies, they learn to communicate and to build a friendship that brings healing to both of them.

Kidd had become indifferent to humanity. Now it was different. He was drawn back into the stream of being because there was once again a life in his hands. Things mattered. The strange depression and spiritual chill he had felt were gone. . . . Joy and liveliness had come back to his readings now. His voice had its old vibrancy again and he smiled as he read; . . . . [he] recalled how dull his life had seemed before he had come upon her in Wichita Falls.

The exquisite writing was balm to my soul. Jiles helped me to see and hear the settings and the people when she wrote that someone was as "freckled as a guinea hen" or that "His pen nib scratched across the newsprint with a noise like avaricious mice." Some turns of phrase were so apt and lovely that I laughed out loud with sheer joy.

She also does a wonderful job establishing the historical context, adding details about post Civil War conflicts, the economy, the laws (or lack of them), Kiowa Indian customs, and more. But it was never an overwhelming amount of details. The clash between the Kiowa and the white man's cultures is handled with skill and without pat answers.

The denouement in the final chapter was spot on. The reader learns that it isn't the big "world" news that changes people, but the daily sacrificial offering of one's life to another.

In spite of the occasional profanity (none of it felt gratuitous), this is a beautiful story of grace in the midst of brokenness. The narrator at Audible, Grover Gardner, had the perfect gravelly voice for this book. I look forward to revisiting this novel in the future.


Friday, February 9, 2018

The Overcoming Life by D.L. Moody

Dwight L. Moody wrote The Overcoming Life in 1886 to encourage Christians in their spiritual warfare against sin, self and the world. He lays the groundwork for the book with several statements: It is folly for any man to attempt to fight in his own strength. The world, the flesh, and the devil are too much for any man. But if we are linked to Christ by faith, then we shall get the victory over every enemy. (p.5) And, My friend, you and I have got a terrible enemy to contend with. Don't let Satan deceive you. Unless you are spiritually dead, it means warfare.  (p. 9)

First he addresses internal foes (pride, uncontrolled appetites, envy, etc.) because an enemy inside the fort is far more dangerous than one outside. Then he talks about outer enemies such as persecution and worldly pleasures. Sprinkled throughout are homespun illustrations. I especially enjoyed this one: Perhaps you say, "I hope Mr. Moody is not going to preach on that old text." Yes, I am. When I take up an album, it does not interest me if all the photographs are new; but if I know any of the faces, I stop at once. So with these old, well-worn texts. They have quenched our thirst before, but the water is still bubbling up - we cannot drink it dry. (p. 62)

The last chapter was on the seven "I Wills" of Christ. I have heard of the "I Ams" of Christ, but these were new to me. The first was "He that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out." Another was, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Each of these, said Moody, are promises for all believers. It was a fitting ending to the 83-page booklet.

I am used to the eloquent writings of A.W. Tozer and Andrew Murray, but really enjoyed D.L. Moody's more down-to-earth prose and his solid biblical teaching.


Friday, February 2, 2018

Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens by G.K. Chesterton

Even though the title is a mouthful, this book isn't as hard to understand as many of Chesterton's other works. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens is simply a compilation of introductions that G.K. Chesterton wrote for each of Dickens' novels. He reviews the books in chronological order and shows how Dickens developed as a writer. He praises Dickens' genius while at the same time commenting on some of the weaknesses of his works.

There are occasional Chesteronian phrases like: It is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of Little Nell, that I object to. and You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. (p. 23) But for the most part, Dickens, and not G.K., is on center stage.

Some samples of his commentary:

Pickwick Papers will always be remembered as the best example of everything that made Dickens great; of the solemn conviviality of great friendships, of the erratic adventures of old English roads, of the hospitality of old English inns, of the great fundamental kindliness and honor of old English manners. First of all, however, it will always be remembered for its laughter. (p. 24)

Oliver Twist is by far the most depressing of all his books; it is in some ways the most irritating; yet its ugliness gives the last touch of honesty to all Dickens' spontaneous and splendid output. Without this one discordant note, all his merriment might have seemed like levity. (p. 39)

What I loved the most was this observation: All of Dickens' books are Christmas books. All of them have the element of drama, of waiting anxiously for something to happen, "a crisis of happiness" (advent). Secondly, they all take place in the "winter" of hardships where characters manage to celebrate in spite of the cold. And thirdly, is the element of the grotesque. Poets and painters have striven to express happiness by means of beautiful figures. Dickens understood that happiness is best expressed by ugly figures: the corpulence of Tony Weller and the red nose of Mr. Stiggins.

He goes on to describe The Christmas Carol as the best of the Christmas books because it has those three elements in spades: the sudden conversion of Scrooge, the winter scenes, and the undignified rejoicing of Scrooge's final happiness. The turkey that Scrooge bought was so fat, says Dickens, that it could never have stood upright. That top-heavy and monstrous bird is a good symbol of the top heavy happiness of the stories. (p. 112)

If you are not already a Dickens fan, you might find the book dry. But it made me want to read the whole canon. Also, each chapter contains spoilers so it's probably best to read the novels first and then see what Chesterton thought about them.