Friday, July 27, 2012

More G. K. Chesterton quotes

While tying up loose ends before our move I finally finished The Truest Fairy Tale, an anthology of the religious writings of G. K. Chesterton. Here are the quotes I culled from the last half of the book:

Alone of all creatures, man is not self-sufficient, even while he is supreme. . . .  Why the lord of creation is a cripple is an open question; but some maintain it is because he once had a bad fall.

Charity means one of two things - pardoning unpardonable acts or loving unlovable people.... Christianity divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all. It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger and partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before.... Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; anyone might discover mercy.... But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe - that is to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven a big sin as if it were a little one. (Orthodoxy)

I do not believe that a baby gets his best physical food by sucking his thumb; nor that a man gets his best moral food by sucking his own soul, and denying its dependence on God or other good things.  I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré

We live in a culture that travels at breakneck speed.  Books about the benefits of slowing down are a dime a dozen.  Ironically, we don’t have time to read them.  But there are two reasons why I’m particularly attracted to them.  First, as a believer, I am intrigued by the “down times” woven into the fabric of creation: nighttime, wintertime, Sabbath days.  God  made rest an integral part of His plan, and we ignore it to our detriment.  Second, we had several years of enforced rest from our busy missionary lives as a result of burnout. 

Canadian journalist Carl Honoré was in an airport and his attention was arrested by a book called The One-Minute Bedtime Story.  It sounds almost too good to be true.  Rattle off six or seven “stories,” and still finish inside ten minutes – what could be better?  Then, as I begin to wonder how quickly Amazon can ship me the full set, redemption comes in the shape of a counter-question:  Have I gone completely insane?  As the departure lineup snakes towards the final ticket check, I put away the newspaper and begin to think.  My whole life has turned into an exercise in hurry, in packing more and more into every hour.  I am Scrooge with a stopwatch, obsessed with saving every last scrap of time, a minute here, a few seconds there.  And I am not alone.  Everyone around me – colleagues, friends, family – is caught in the same vortex. (p. 3)

In In Praise of Slowness, Honore goes on to describe the Slow movement and how it is making inroads in busy cities around the world.  Despite what some critics say, the Slow movement is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace.  Nor is it a Luddite attempt to drag the whole planet back to some pre-industrial utopia.  On the contrary, the movement is made up of people like you and me, people who want to live better in a fast-paced, modern world.  That is why the Slow philosophy can be summed up in a single world:  balance.  Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for.  Seek to live … at the right speed. (15)  The central tenet of the Slow philosophy is taking the time to do things properly, and thereby enjoy them more.  

Inevitably, a life of hurry can become superficial.  When we rush, we skim the surface, and fail to make real connections with the world or other people… All the things that bind us together and make life worth living – community, family, friendship – thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time. (p. 9)

The chapter that I found most helpful was on fast vs. slow thinking.   In the high speed work place, where data and deadlines come thick and fast, we are all under pressure to think quickly.  Reaction rather than reflection is the order of the day.  Fast Thinking is rational, analytical, linear, logical.  It is what we do under pressure, when the clock is ticking; it is the way computers think and the way the modern workplace operates; it delivers clear solutions to well-defined problems to well-defined problems.  Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative.  It is what we do when the pressure is off, and we have the time to let ideas simmer at their own pace on the back burner.  It yields rich and subtle insights. (p. 120)

I skimmed some chapters (I’ve already read enough books on raising unhurried children) and skipped others (the ones on sex and religion, both with an emphasis on yoga).  Ironically, our car died the day after I finished this book.  Fortunately we live in a small town and can walk or bike everywhere and could borrow my mom’s car for a couple of doctor’s appointments.  But for a few days we were given the gift of slowness.  Unable to rush around, I took long walks, wrote letters, took naps, read books and had long conversations with my kids.    

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Books that Made the Cut

I had set a goal of 20 books in my limited luggage space.  Since 1) I think I'll be able to find books in the Brasília American School library, and 2) since I have many books on my Kindle, and 3) since we'll be returning to the U.S. periodically to visit our adult children, I didn't have as much angst as I expected about having to decide which books to take along.  One suitcase is already full of teaching materials (including books about theology and the Bible) so this stack is more for leisure reading.

The chosen books ended up being only a dozen: My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, 52 Sermons by John Wesley, Portuguese Bible, To Kill a Mockingbird, Return of the King by Tolkien, Life Together by Bonhoeffer, Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, Gold by Moonlight by Amy Carmichael, Cotillion by Georgette Heyer, and Elizabeth Goudge's Damerosehay trilogy.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Like Eliot’s Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda has two storylines. The first half of the book is about beautiful Gwendolen Harleth who cares for nothing but her own pleasure. Daniel Deronda makes a few appearances, but the gist of his story starts about halfway through the book.  The two characters’ lives intersect, however, more often than those of the main characters in Middlemarch.

Initially, I had little patience with Gwendolen’s selfishness and pettiness.  In chapter seven she is having one of her snits and Eliot writes (sarcastically), “It was not that she was out of temper, but that the world was not equal to the demands of her fine organism.”  To Gwendolyn life is a bore and men are hateful.  And her love of ease causes her to make a disastrous marriage.

Young, handsome Daniel Deronda is the ward of Sir Hugo Mallinger.  His parentage has been kept a secret from him and he assumes that Sir Hugo is his father.  Because of his insecurities about his position, he has a humble spirit and is sensitive to the needs of others.  His tender-heartedness is in stark contrast to Gwendolen’s petulance. At first Gwendolen views Deronda as odious and self-righteous, but after her marriage, she begins to repent her ways and looks to Deronda for advice on how to improve her situation.

I can’t write anymore without spoiling the story.  This one is long (31 hours at Librivox) and has a few tedious passages, but, as usual, I loved Eliot’s good writing and her insights into human nature.

It’s a credit to Eliot’s great prose and memorable characters that even though I listened to this book over a period of four months I never forgot what was happening or who was who.  

It is also interesting to note that this novel was one of the first to deal with Judaism in a positive light.  Most of the British gentry in the book, reflecting the popular opinions of the times,  look down on the Jews.  But Eliot obviously did not share their sentiments.

(Daniel Deronda is also available free for Kindle)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

The subtitle of this book is “The Science of Remembering Everything” and I was hoping it would give me tips on how to memorize poetry and scripture.  It turned out to be the story of a journalist who spent a year training to participate in the U. S. Memory Championship, an Olympics-style event for mental athletes.  The book is not a training manual as much as it is a memoir. 

So why am I recommending Moonwalking with Einstein? Because if you are mildly interested in the history of language or of education, you’ll find this book fascinating.  Have you ever wondered why the Bible was originally written down without punctuation?  Foer explains that early manuscripts were transcribed by men who had memorized their contents.  The words were not separated by spaces or punctuation because they were not meant to be read for understanding.  They were to be skimmed to remind the reader of what he already knew.

Since sight-reading scriptio continua was difficult, reciting a text aloud with fluency required a reader to have a degree of familiarity with it. . . . He had to prepare with it, punctuate it in his mind, memorize it - in part, if not in full – because turning a string of sounds into meaning was not something you could do easily on the fly.  The text had to be learned before it could be performed. (p. 224)

Interestingly, when the Bible was later published with chapter divisions and punctuation (and soon after with concordances), it assumed that the reader would be able to access certain passages WITHOUT having memorized them previously.   We gained accessibility at the loss of total absorption.

As books became easier and easier to consult, the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing information internally to knowing where to find information in the labyrinthine world of external memory. (p. 231)

Now we put a premium on reading quickly and widely, and that breeds a kind of superficiality in our reading, and in what we seek to get out of books. . . .[Yet] if something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated. (p. 233)

People used to read intensively.  They had only a few books – the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two – and they read they over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.  (p. 234) But now with the profusion of printed material, they read extensively, and with very little retention.

Although, Moonwalking with Einstein did not meet my need for memorization tips, it did encourage me to pursue my goal of more focused concentration on poetic and biblical passages.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Quote on "Slow Reading" by Susan Hill

Susan Hill on the advantages of slow reading:

A strange competitiveness has emerged among some readers in the last few years.  I have known book-bloggers boast of getting through twenty books a week, as if they were trying for a place in The Guinness Book of Records.  Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?  The best books deserve better.  Everything I am reading has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect by reading it slowly.  

Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot.  It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings.  It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depths of emotion and observation, multi-layered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers.  Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language.  It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious.  It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings.  It will not develop our awareness or add to the sumo of our knowledge and intelligence.

Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopedia entry, or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort, by seeing how fast you can dispose of it.

(Gleaned from Howards End Is on the Landing, pages 171-173)