Words to Live By

Last night T and I attended the funeral of a good friend’s mother. The young pastor gave a wonderful homily, and the words he said that hit me with the greatest impact were these, spoken to him many years ago by the woman who had died:

“You don’t have to compromise because you don’t have to survive.”

Every Christian business, every Christian college, every Christian school, every Christian non-profit, every Christian artist, every Christian church, and every Christian home needs to engrave these words on a plaque and hang it on the most prominent wall available.

The Unmanageable Self

For the quantified, self-Taylorized self, there is no one to blame when something goes wrong, when productivity and perfectibility grind to a halt — no one, that is, except oneself. For the man who is his own manager is blamed twice-over for a weak growth rate: first, for mismanaging, and second, for being unmanageable. Rather than unionizing, we feel disappointed with our own poor performance.

Source

What I Learned From Susan Howatch

No one can teach you to read like a writer. It can happen, of course. Once you’ve slaved over thousands and thousands of sentences, trying to get words to click, you develop an eye for quality, the same way a cinematographer recognizes good filmmaking and a contractor good craftsmanship. Ask a writer how to write a good sentence and the odds are he’ll rattle off a half-dozen that amaze him. (Francine Prose turned this into an entire book called Reading Like a Writer. You’ll notice it’s not called “How To Read Like a Writer.”)

I’m starting a new non-sequential series of newsletter issues called “What I Learned From…” I’m cross-posting them here so I can file them more easily. These will not be book reviews. I rarely put down a book these days ready to pass judgment on it (unless I’ve been asked to, of course). I usually jot a few notes to myself, mark the book as read, and move on. But every so often, I notice something a writer did well, something I want to remember. That’s what these issues are for.

Susan Howatch wrote a series of novels about the Church of England in the 20th century. My wife put the first one (Glittering Images) in my hands and promised me that the last one (Book 6) was more than worth reading all four thousand pages of the series. My wife’s taste in books is excellent, as you may know, so I read them all. She was right. The tangled threads of six books ultimately weave together into a satisfying final picture. (That was a very Howatchian sentence, by the way.)

Before you treat this as a recommendation, please note the following. These books are cheesy. If they had a soundtrack, it would be a cross between a 1940s Hollywood romance and the radio drama Suspense! They are scandalous. Sex is a major theme, especially the recurring question of how on earth an unmarried clergyman is supposed to remain celibate. They are also, at times, surprisingly insightful. I saw reflections of myself in more than one character, and I don’t just mean a passing characteristic. I mean the kind of characteristic that you’d need a bone-saw to remove. Oh, did I mention the books are theologically literate, at least in the Anglican tradition? Every chapter opens with a quote from a C of E luminary like Rowan Williams or Austin Farrer.

Alright, on to the writing. Howatch isn’t a great writer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from her. From Howatch, I learned that sometimes it’s more accurate to tell rather than show, especially when writing in the first person. This sounds bizarre to those of us who are used to hearing the opposite. I’ve always thought “show, don’t tell” meant that you should describe physical sensations and movements instead of thoughts and emotions. A scene written like that might go something like this:

“Where you were last night?” my mother asked without looking up from her knitting.
My fingers tightened around my car keys. “Out with some friends,” I said.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked and clicked.
“Yep, we did.” The keys dug into my palm. “Good night, Mom.”


If Susan Howatch were to tackle this scene, it would look something like this:

“Where were you last night?” my mother asked innocently, never looking up from her knitting. I recognized the half-finished project in her lap. It was the same pattern as the blanket she had knitted for me when I was a child. This blanket was for my new niece, of course, but the significance of her choosing to work on this particular project at this particular time was not lost on me.
My fingers tightened around my car keys as I said carefully, “Out with some friends.” With any luck, she would believe the lie and ask no further questions. My heart sank as I saw that my words had merely confirmed her suspicions.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked reproachfully. They continued to click, like a miniature clock urging me to confess, confess! before it was too late. I longed to tell her everything, to absolve myself of the awful guilt which followed me everywhere and even now hung like a black cloud over the house. But something held me back. Grasping in my mind, I discovered it was the constant and unceasing danger that the truth presented to Cecilia. I could never tell. Never.
It was in that moment I knew I loved her.
I realized I hadn’t replied to my mother’s comment. I adopted my most casual tone and consciously relaxed my grip around the keys. “Yep, we did. Good night, Mom.”


Does the second attempt add anything to the scene that’s missing from the first attempt? Of course. We know that the mother has chosen her knitting carefully. We know that the narrator believes telling the truth would be dangerous. We meet someone named Cecilia. And we are much, much closer to the protagonist’s point of view. Attempt #2 may be overwritten (so many adverbs!), but it’s not unrealistic. We actually do observe, evaluate, and make choices when we’re in the middle of having a conversation with someone. We just do it instantaneously. Teasing out all of those thoughts and judgments can take pages and pages, but it can be very effective if done well. Attempt #1, on the other hand, tries to mimic real time, but that doesn’t make Attempt #2 less real.

So, the lesson: it’s sometimes good to tell, not show, especially if you’re writing in the first person, and commentary can slow scenes down to help you focus on the protagonist’s interior life.

How Children Ought to Treat Books

One of the earliest and strictest lessons to the children of the house being how to turn the pages of their own literary possessions lightly and deliberately, with no chance of tearing or dog’s ears.

Ruskin, preface to Sesames and Lilies

And my ambition now is (is it a vain one?) to be read by Children aged from Nought to Five. To be read? Nay, not so! Say rather to be thumbed, to be cooed over, to be dogs’-eared, to be rumpled, to be kissed, by the illiterate, ungrammatical, dimpled Darlings, that fill your Nursery with merry uproar, and your inmost heart of hearts with a restful gladness!

Lewis Carroll, preface to The Nursery Alice

Child! do not throw this book about;
Refrain from the unholy pleasure
of cutting all the pictures out!
Preserve it as your chiefest treasure.

Hilaire Belloc, dedication of A Bad Child’s Book of Beasts

The first two quotes are from this article. The last I found in my copy of Barlett’s Familiar Quotations.

Until recently, I’ve sided with Ruskin and Belloc, but I’m starting to see the wisdom of Carroll’s ambition.

A Few Great Families

Well, I finished Season Two of The Mandalorian last night. The show is creative, especially when it comes to random side characters. I was interested in the expanded Star Wars universe for the first time since before I watched The Phantom Menace. The practical effects of baby Yoda and other random side characters made up for the fact that the main character literally does not change expression the entire time.

Apart from overly loud action sequences and a constant barrage of “strong female characters,” I enjoyed the show. But, as usual, I can think of a couple ways it could have been improved.

Here be spoilers.

First, the series’s most powerful mystery isn’t the Child or the presence of the Empire or why Bo-Katan doesn’t have helmet hair. It’s the Mandalorian himself. His invisible identity makes the story hum even in its action-less moments. When are we going to see the vulnerable human being underneath the suit of armor? The reveal was wasted in a three-second shot in Season One that literally served no purpose. If the nurse droid must remove the Mandalorian’s helmet in order to save his life, why not show it happening from behind Mando’s head to keep his face hidden and the mystery alive? I found that moment quite bizarre, actually. After Mando says that no person has seen his face since he put on the helmet, the droid responds, “I am not a person,” and takes it off. Ok, fine. Nice loophole. But then the audience sees his face, implying that… the audience isn’t made up of persons? We’re all droids? It shows that the creators aren’t really thinking about how movies work.

The second time Mando removes his helmet turns out to be completely useless in terms of plot. The guy he’s with can’t use the facial scanner in the officer’s mess because he thinks an officer might recognize him. Mando volunteers to go instead, and has a moment of agony as he weighs the importance of getting the information against the importance of keeping his vow. In the end, he decides to go for it, but gets into trouble with the officer. The other character rescues him and – ta-dah! – the officer does not, in fact, recognize him at all. That was nice. You made the Mandalorian break his vow for nothing.

The third time he removes his helmet (to say goodbye to Baby Yoda) should have been the first time was saw his face. What a powerful moment that would have been—our two main characters face to face for the first time.

Speaking of powerful moments, the ending was extremely lame. I liked The Mandalorian because it showed that there’s room in the Star Wars universe for heroic stories that aren’t centered around the Skywalker family. Silly me. Just when I started to get excited about meeting a new, powerful Jedi (and another interesting male character, too!), he pulled back his hood and revealed his true identity: the Madame Tussaud’s version of Mark Hamill.

In W. H. Auden’s poem For the Time Being, Simeon sings about the birth of Christ, declaring that it has redeemed even the lowly because it has elevated the conflict everyone experiences in his own soul. Each humble one of us now fights the good fight.

The tragic conflict of Virtue with Necessity is no longer confined to the Exceptional Hero; for disaster is not the impact of a curse upon a few great families, but issues continually from the hubris of every tainted will. Every invalid is Roland defending the narrow pass against hopeless odds, every stenographer Brünnhilde refusing to renounce her lover’s ring which came into existence through the renunciation of love.

The Star Wars saga has tried to tell stories about characters other than the Skywalkers before (e.g., Rogue One), but the centripetal force (Force?) always proves too strong. The culmination of every story turns out to be about Luke or Leia or Emperor Palpatine or whomever. It’s getting old, frankly. Rian Johnson beautifully wrapped up Luke’s story in the Last Jedi and made many, many efforts to show that Star Wars is about more than just one bloodline, but all of his efforts were utterly quashed by the creators of the Rise of Skywalker. No every day heroes allowed in Star Wars. This is and always will be a story confined to the Exceptional Hero, the saga of a few great families.

Since I’m trying not to use Goodreads anymore, I downloaded my To-Read list as a CSV file and am going through the titles one by one, deleting anything I’ve already read (about one out of every ten). I’m amazed by how many of the books I remember putting on the list—who told me about them, in which footnote I tracked them down, where on a library shelf I stumbled across the title. It’s like a reading diary in itself.

The Lost Diary of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Balliol College, Monday.—Read aloud my Essay on Equality to the Master. It began: “Treat all men as your equals, especially the rich.” The Master commented on this sentence. He said, “Very ribald, Prince Hamlet, very ribald.”

In training for the annual fencing match between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Doing my utmost to reduce my flesh which is far too solid.

The poet Maurice Baring wrote a collection of the “lost diaries” of historical and fictional characters, which is available on Project Gutenberg.

From the diary of Emperor Titus:

Rome, Monday.—The eruption at Vesuvius does not after all appear to have been greatly exaggerated, as I at first had thought on receiving Pliny’s graphic letter. One never can quite trust literary men when facts are in question. It is clear that I missed a very fine and interesting spectacle. In fact I have lost a day. Good phrase, that. Must try and bring it in some time or other.

From the diary of Sherlock Holmes:

January 12.—Found a carbuncle of unusual size in the plum-pudding. Suspected the makings of an interesting case. But luckily, before I had stated any hypothesis to Watson—who was greatly excited—Mrs Turner came in and noticed it and said her naughty nephew Bill had been at his tricks again, and that the red stone had come from a Christmas tree. Of course, I had not examined the stone with my lens.

From the diary of Oedipus Rex:

Wednesday.—Saw the Sphinx. Guessed the riddle first shot. It asked what was that which runs on two legs, has feathers and a beak, and barks like a dog. I said “pheasant,” and I added, “You put that in about the barking to make it more difficult.” The Sphinx was very angry and went off in a huff, for good.

What I Read in 2020

Below is a list of the books I finished this year. Back in April, I posted a list of what I’d read up to that point, along with some comments. No comments today, alas.

I also keep a running list of what I’m reading, watching, and listening to in my Media Diary (which I haven’t updated in some time).

(Thanks to my wife, whose yearly run-downs inspired me to do this.)

Theology & Christianity

  • The Reason for God, Tim Keller
  • Partakers of Grace, Douglas Wilson
  • From Silence to Song, Peter J. Leithart
  • Defending Constantine, Peter J. Leithart
  • Fruit of Lips, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
  • Selections from the Table-Talk of Martin Luther, Henry Bell
  • The Pursuit of God, A. W. Tozer
  • Job Through New Eyes: A Son for Glory, Toby Sumpter
  • Joy at the End of the Tether, Douglas Wilson
  • A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody, Isaac Watts
  • Practical Christianity, A. W. Pink
  • Studies in Deuteronomy, Donald F. Ackland
  • The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis
  • Miracles, C. S. Lewis
  • Heretics, G. K. Chesterton
  • Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh
  • Born Again, Charles W. Colson
  • Bruchko, Bruce Olson

Parenting & Teaching

  • Positive Discipline, Jane Nelsen
  • Parenting, Paul David Tripp
  • Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp
  • Something They Will Not Forget, Joshua Gibbs

Adult Fiction

  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  • Empire of Bones, N. D. Wilson
  • The Starbridge Series, Susan Howatch (Books 1-4)
  • Descent Into Hell, Charles Williams
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
  • Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  • Beau Geste, P. C. Wren
  • The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope
  • Earthfasts, William Mayne
  • The Unique Miranda Trilogy, H. W. Taylor (Books 1-2)
  • Kill Ship, H. W. Taylor
  • Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank
  • The River, Peter Heller
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Children’s Fiction

  • New Kid, Jerry Craft
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
  • Afternoon of the Elves, Janet Taylor Lisle

Creative Non-Fiction

  • Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn
  • H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
  • Girl at the End of the World, Elizabeth Esther

Poetry

  • Motherland, Sally Thomas

Plays

  • Deathtrap, Ira Levin
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Writing

  • Ploductivity, Douglas Wilson
  • The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
  • Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
  • Show Your Work, Austin Kleon
  • Keep Going, Austin Kleon

Other Non-Fiction

  • Long Live Latin, Nicola Gardini

Total: 58