What’s At a Man’s Fingertips

In this blog post, Alan Jacobs casually quotes Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, Robert Conquest, W. B. Yeats, and Christopher Hitchens, and makes several references to George Orwell. I have benefited from Dr. Jacobs’s writing over the years primarily, I think, because of his incredible range of reading and the ease with which he can tie together disparate threads of thought. It’s a skill to aspire to.

A Man’s Gone Serial

Lunch with NDW: Hello, Ninja on the tube, Ashtown on the rag

Nate Wilson taught me writing and rhetoric back in the day. For a long time, he was the only published author of fiction I knew, so I’ve always followed his doings with interest. With an output that includes ten novels, two non-fiction books, a feature film, two nature documentaries, and a Netflix show, he’s a tough guy to keep up with.

His latest endeavor is The Silent Bells, a young adult fantasy novel published on a monthly basis. Each chapter is mailed to subscribers in newspaper form (complete with funnies page and fake adverts). I’ve read most of Nate’s books, and I think this may be my favorite way to read them. His novels have lots of action and lush description that can be exhausting when you try to read a hundred pages at a go. At this new pace, the story is like drinking a Red Bull every four weeks. Not only that, his pacing shines even more, since you can’t just move on to the next chapter when you hit a (literal) cliffhanger. Gotta wait an entire month to find out how (if??) Cyrus will survive…

What a Man Read in 2020, Pt. 1

Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

I don’t know how I made it to thirty years old without reading this book. I saw the movie many years ago, so I’ve known the story. The book is almost perfect. Certain scenes, like Atticus shooting the dog, had me grafted to my seat. Who could wish for a better character than Atticus?

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

I went into this expecting six hundred pages on the depravity of man. Who would’ve imagined a 20th century writer so full of life! Anybody who could write a character like Sam Hamilton had at least part of his head on straight. (Part of his head…? Like the nose?) If the whole book had just been an extended conversation with Sam Hamilton and Lee, I would’ve still loved it. The story didn’t stick with me much, and Catherine/Cathy/Kate is just plain silly, but Steinbeck’s Bradbury-like verve won me over. I’ll read more.

New Kid, Jerry Craft

The first graphic novel to win the Newbery. Graphic novels are great at some things, bad at others. Sensations, impressions, and feelings are in the first category. This book was fun there. Subtlety is in the second category. But who cares? You’re reading a graphic novel!

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Because these aren’t real book reviews, I don’t have to talk about everything in this book. There’s a lot. One thing that stuck out to me is how often Raskolnikov gets tangled up with other people’s affairs despite his attempts to separate himself from humanity. But the scene that I will carry with me is the one in which Raskolnikov prays on the bridge. The minute he finishes praying, he realizes that he will carry out his gruesome plan. How often this happens! The very moment we ask for God’s help in fighting temptation is the moment in which we give ourselves over to it.

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield

For a book that was supposed to be silly and disposable, this one has remained with me. I can’t call my daughter without thinking of Hester the governess, who is strictly committed to her policy of never chasing down her charges. They will come to her eventually, she says. And they do.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

My friends told me this book made them weep. That’s usually a guarantee that I will finish the last page with a clear countenance and dry eyes. Well, I cried. Tommy and Kathy bemoan the shortness of their time together, but how much longer do the rest of us really have? One of the great joys of the resurrection will be the reunion of soul and body, not only for each of us ourselves, but for those who love us. More than beating Death is the knowledge that Death will no more take away those whom we love.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

I get something new out of this every time I read it. This time around, I was struck by Hamlet’s wit. He’s fairly lightning. “‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” Also, thanks to the Ignatius Press edition I was teaching from, I recognized more Christian imagery than I have before. Specifically, I am convinced that the story takes place during Lent, and that Hamlet is a type of reluctant Christ.

Creative Non-Fiction

Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn

Not sure what I was expecting. I picked it up because Kirn apparently spoke at a Wordsmithy a few years ago. It’s the story of Kirn’s friendship with a man who called himself Clark Rockefeller, but who turned out to be a psychopath named Christian Gerhartsreiter. The “reveal” was old news when Kirn wrote the book, so he doesn’t expend any effort setting it up or dramatically pulling back the curtain. It’s mostly about Kirn, actually, asking himself whether writers and shape-shifting con-artists really are so different after all. There’s a disconcerting thought.

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald

Began this ages ago on audio, finished it in print. Print helped me appreciate the writing more. It is, as Alan Jacobs said, “magnificent.” One oddity of MacDonald’s style is that her descriptions come in great blocks of prose. You’d expect more white space for such a dynamic subject as goshawks. But the formatting lends her words a weight and inevitability (dareisay, naturalness?) that really fits her story.

Girl at the End of the World, Elizabeth Esther

As my wife said, it’s amazing that this woman is still a Christian. A testament to the grace of God.

Christianity

Miracles, C. S. Lewis

I had begun this book years ago and never made it past the first few chapters. For Lewis, it’s dense. Finally got through it this time, stumbling over a few complicated logical blocks. Definitely worth reading closely. May do a blog-through of it someday (ha, as if!).

Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh

Another one that needs more in-depth analysis. Check the tag at the bottom of the post.

Heretics, G. K. Chesterton

Reading Chesterton is an ongoing habit for me, one I pray I never drop. Here’s a quote to tide you over: “Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.”

Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp

Read this again for an online book club I’m doing with David and Jon, a couple of high school friends who are also dads to young kids. Recommended.

Writing

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

Half whisky, half hogwash.

Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon

Austin’s book makes me want to be messier in my art. Which, I think, is a good thing.

Show Your Work, Austin Kleon

Ditto above.

Other Non-Fiction

Long Live Latin, Nicola Gardini

I heard about this book through Prufrock News and thought, as a Latin teacher and a lifelong language votarient, I should give it a shot. It was effusive. My favorite thing about it was Gardini’s attention to detail. He exults in Latin’s very vowels.

A Man Knows How to Covet

Late summer, 2018. My friend Dave and I are cataloguing Jim Jordan’s books in the Theopolis library. I come across a few books by a guy named Pink. I snicker and show Dave, who says, “That guy’s great.” I file away the comment and the book.

A few months later, I’m browsing the shelf at TPC where our pastor puts books he’s done with and I find a couple of books by this guy Pink, one called Practical Christianity and one called The Letters of A. W. Pink. I want to know what he has to say about Christianity before I start reading his letters, so I open that one first.

It’s been slow going. Pink writes densely, and I have to work to follow his arguments. But this one comment jumped out to me. Pink is explaining what Paul means in Romans 7 when he says, “I was alive once without the law.” Pink’s take is that Paul is referring to his life as a Pharisee. He knew the letter of the law, but it hadn’t taken hold of his heart. When it did, sin revived in him, and he died. The law, which was to bring life, had to kill him first.

Pink comments: “verse seven informs us that it was the tenth commandment which the Holy Spirit used as the arrow of conviction.” I imagine Paul reading or reciting the law, getting to “thou shalt not covet,” and going white in the face. I’d always assumed Paul was using covetousness as a synecdoche of the whole law. It’s number ten, after all, so it captures everything that came before. This is how John Piper takes it in this sermon. Pink, on the other hand, suggests that Paul mentions coveting because he was particularly convicted of this sin.

What on earth would Paul have to covet? He doesn’t seem to be particularly attracted to worldly objects, spending most of his ministry freeloading. (In Acts 20, he straight up says he hasn’t coveted silver or gold from anyone.) He writes a lot about money, but he’s always collecting it for the church in Jerusalem, not waxing eloquent on its evils. He’s a realist about money. Similarly, his writing on lust is very short and to the point.

The only thing I can think of that Paul would be tempted to covet is status. The praise of men. When we first meet Paul, he’s participating in the execution of Stephen, perhaps even as a prosecutor. The very next chapter opens with a description of his zeal for persecuting Christians. As a student of one of the most highly respected Pharisees, Paul was probably eager for a chance to prove himself and went the extra mile to show it.

How often does God call us to circumstances that test us at the very points where we’re most weak. The rest of Paul’s ministry is a constant reminder of his own weakness. He depends on help from others. He is beaten, mocked, and thrown out of town. When he and Barnabas go to Lystra and the citizens mistake them for gods, Barnabas, not Paul, is the one they call Jupiter.

I haven’t had a chance to dig up any hard evidence, apart from the conjectures above, but it does put a little bit of a different spin on God’s words to Paul at end of 2 Corinthians: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

A Man is Separated and Therefore Loved

This is taken from an old tweet thread by Susannah Black on the movie version of A Wrinkle in Time in which she explains the particular menace of “It,” the brainy baddy in L’Engle’s story. Essentially, “It” wants sameness, which was terrifying enough to me as a child, but Black explains here that absolute sameness is not just a lack of creativity or personality. Absolute sameness destroys love.

How does this work? Love means laying down your life for another. That’s only possible when an other exists. Where there is no distinction, there can be no love. (It’s worthwhile to note that, where there is no distinction, there can be no pain, either.) In order for love to exist, things must have distinct natures: Creator, creature; man, woman; one individual and another. Erasing these natures – these distinctions – is an attack on love itself.

As a kid, I always thought the end of A Wrinkle in Time was weak. Meg shouts, “I love you, Charles Wallace,” a million times and somehow that rescues him and saves the universe. The connection Black makes here between love and individuality has helped me understand how fitting Meg’s actions are. “It” pushes for sameness, thereby destroying love. Meg loves, thereby reinforcing distinction. Like all good fantasy, its a story about the true nature (and natures) of things.

A Man Works Smarter and Harder

I just finished read a book called Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder, which is about the recovery of the SS Central America, a sidewheel steamer that wrecked in the 1850s about two hundred miles off the coast of South Carolina. At the time, the shipwreck was one of the deadliest disasters in American history, claiming almost five hundred lives – at least one from every state in the union. Over the decades, people remembered the wreck for another reason: when it sank, the Central America was carrying several tons of gold.

The book flips back and forth between an account of the shipwreck, pieced together with incredible detail from the accounts of survivors, and the story of a young scientist named Tommy Thompson, who decided that he was going to locate the wreck on the ocean floor, send a submersible eight thousand feet below the surface, and recover the gold without damaging a single historic artifact. Needless to say, Thompson succeeds, but there are so many setbacks, so many false alarms, and so many twists along the way, that the story is worth reading even when you know the ending. The story of the shipwreck, too, is worth reading for its glimpses of the highs and lows of humanity.

Tommy Thompson appears to have come to an ignominious end, running from US Marshals, living under an assumed name, and paying his rent with moldy cash. But reading Kinder’s book, I was struck by Tommy’s methodical approach to the problem of working in the deep ocean. I bet you could take the core of Tommy’s approach and apply it to any seemingly impossible endeavor. Here’s a rough list of what I took away:

  • Prioritize – carefully consider what you have to do. Not all tasks are created equal. Choose the one that, when accomplished, will make all the others easier.
  • Ration your time – give yourself a certain amount of time to get something done, and then get it done in that time. If it’s impossible, increase the time slightly, but keep parameters on it.
  • Amass, assimilate, integrate, produce – always be researching. You can always get in touch with an expert by phone (or email). Keep calling until you find someone who will help you. Pepper them with questions. Put things together that don’t seem to go together. Keep attempting connections until something connects. Create and finish.
  • Simplicity of the quest – state the end goal as simply as possible. Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Establish a working presence at the bottom of the deep ocean. The simpler the quest, the easier it will be to recognize wrong turns, distractions, redundancies, irrelevancies.
  • When you meet with investors, know your stuff. Demonstrate that you’ve thought this through before you ask someone to join you.
  • Distinguish between what is impossible and what is merely considered impossible.
  • Prepare for failure – Even when success seems inevitable, something may happen. Prepare for every contingency. Think through every outcome. Don’t be outsmarted by failure.

A Green Man

[Edit – I’ve actually finished this book now. I found this short post sitting in my drafts folder, so I’m Frankensteining it.]

I’m partway through Roger Deakin’s (not the cinematographer) book Wildwood, and I’m finding it almost exactly what I hoped: meditations on trees that vary from detailed (a whole chapter on ash) to general (living in houses made entirely from wood).

Random thoughts:

  • Wood is a bridge between man and metal. Knives have wooden handles. Guns have wooden stocks. The once-living connects the living and the dead.
  • David Nash, sculptor: three-dimensional art (sculpture, for instance) is experienced in relation to the human body, two-dimensional art is experienced more in the imagination. Also, objects increase in size when put indoors and decrease in size when put outdoors by a factor of about one-third.
  • Lots of interesting thoughts from Barthes and Ruskin on architecture and technology. Barthes: cars are the modern-day Gothic cathedral. They are almost mystical in their summation of our culture.
  • A bunch of crazy words: juglone, thwmps, bothy.

A Man Visits Sick Heart River

On Sunday, my father preached a wonderful sermon at TPC. One of his best, I think. He spoke of Christ’s loneliness on the cross, and afterward, a parishioner asked him if he knew of any artistic representations of that kind of loneliness. We have gory images in art, so we can imagine Jesus’s pain. But do we anything that communicates his abandonment?

Some suggestions were thrown out: Harry entering the forest at the end of Deathly Hallows; the film version of Endo’s Silence; part of The Power and the Glory. I mentioned Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, which is a real bummer of a book. My dad brought up a John Buchan novel called Sick Heart River, which he had read years ago. It’s about a man who goes out into the Canadian wilderness to die. Google didn’t give us much information, until I discovered that the book was published in the US under a different name: Mountain Meadow.

I’ve been collecting books that have been released from Samford’s library. They put them on a little red roller shelf that sits in the lobby with a sign taped to it that says “FREE BOOKS.” One of the many volumes I’ve schlepped back to my office over the past few months is Mountain Meadow. When I picked it up, I knew nothing about it except that it was written by John Buchan. Now I know it is good enough for my father to remember it after twenty years.

Here are some photos of the object of my good fortune.

A Man is a List of Books to Read

Megan Whalen Turner, author of the excellent Queen’s Thief series, included a list of recommended books at the end of one of her novels. It’s easy, she says, to find lists of new books for young readers, harder to find lists of old. Her recommendations address that imbalance. I’m a sucker for recommendations and for lists of books, so I’ve reproduced MWT’s work here:

  1. The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff
  2. Warrior Scarlet, Rosemary Sutcliff
  3. Blood Feud, Rosemary Sutcliff
  4. Knight’s Fee, Rosemary Sutcliff
  5. Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling
  6. The Enchanted Castle, E. Nesbit
  7. The Story of the Treasure Seekers, E. Nesbit
  8. The Railway Children, E. Nesbit
  9. Half Magic, Edward Eager (a favorite)
  10. Magic By the Lake, Edward Eager
  11. Seven Day Magic, Edward Eager
  12. Knight’s Castle,Β Edward Eager
  13. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken (another favorite)
  14. Black Hearts in Battersea,Β Joan Aiken
  15. Midnight is a Place, Joan Aiken
  16. Go Saddle the Sea, Joan Aiken
  17. The Green Knowe series, L. M. Boston
  18. The Return of the Twelves, Pauline Clarke
  19. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Time, Jane Louise Curry
  20. The Perilous Guard, Elizabeth Marie Pope
  21. The Sherwood Ring, Elizabeth Marie Pope
  22. The Changes trilogy, Peter Dickinson
  23. The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald
  24. The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald
  25. Moccasin Trail, Eloise Jarvis McGraw
  26. Little Britches, Ralph Moody
  27. Minnow on the Say, Philippa Pearce
  28. Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce
  29. The Ides of April, Mary Ray
  30. The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
  31. Three on the Run, Nina Bawden
  32. Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne
  33. Playing Beatrice Bow, Ruth Park
  34. The Crime of Martin Coverly, Leonard Wibberly
  35. A Chance Child, Jill Patton Walsh

A Man Read About Business

Here are short reviews of two books I read recently about Christian business.

Business for the Glory of God, Wayne Grudem

To his credit, Grudem argues that business, possessions, money, profit, competition, and all the rest are not evil or even morally neutral, but fundamentally good. As in, blessed by God. (Exempli gratia: the commandment against stealing implies private ownership; the Proverbs 31 woman is commended for earning profit.) Grudem admits that all created goods can be used for evil, but he goes to bat for them, which is commendable.

I part ways with him in two places. First, he says that the free market produces love of one’s neighbor because you have to get along in order to do business. I don’t think so. Quashing your hatred of the local mechanic so that he’ll fix your car is not a good thing. Your hatred needs to be dealt with. I do think that business and trade are good things that will flourish in a place full of confessing Christians. I just don’t think the causation works the other direction.

Second, Grudem has far too much faith in the free market to solve the world’s ills. He tells a story of firing a painter who botched the job of painting the Grudems’ living room. Don’t worry, he says, I did that man a favor. Eventually, market forces will tell him that he’s a terrible painter and he’ll find something else to do, something he’s good at. Listen to the market and the market will reward you. It will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.

Now, a businessman should not feel guilty for firing a bad employee. In some situations, it is a favor to everyone. But the way Grudem explains it here makes it sound like the best thing you can do for someone who’s struggling financially is tell them they need to work harder. That’s not always true. The market is not kind to everyone. People do get caught in the riptides and go under.

Works of mercy require more than telling someone what they’ve done isn’t good enough. Sometimes you have to step in and show them how to do better next time. And, sometimes, you just pay the man and repaint the living room yourself.

Acres of Diamonds, Russell H. Conwell

I read these books because I do not have a head for business. This one was useful in encouraging me to look for talents hidden in my own backyard, so to speak. He’s so positive about the fact that anyone (everyone!) can make themselves rich that you almost believe him.

On the negative side, I discovered an upstream tributary of Wayne Grudem’s book. Conwell (a Baptist minister) has this bizarre blind faith in the free market. Don’t leave an inheritance to your children, he says. They won’t experience the benefit of amassing wealth for themselves. Don’t give money to the poor. It will just make them lazier than they already are. Yeesh.

One last thing: he notes that ninety-eight out of one hundred rich men are honest. Being honest is what made them rich. I think he’s probably right about that. But that doesn’t mean that honesty and riches always go together. God’s world isn’t that cut and dry.