Moonlight

Henri Bosco’s book The Boy and the River is short and sensual. The descriptions of the river and its flora and fauna are so luxuriant they border on suffocating. I couldn’t help wondering if the touch is lighter in French.

I could pick any number of passages to illustrate his style, but I chose this one about the moon because it reminded me of a similar poetic passage in Watership Down:

The moon was a great help to me. Its brilliance lit my way, and its spreading softness calmed me not a little, as though by enchantment. For, more effectively than any other of the heavenly bodies the moon touches the human heart with magic. Its light is close. We feel that it is filled with concern and love for us, and, in the season of spring, its friendship is so tender that all the countryside grows tender, too. At those times, for children waking in the night, there is no more charming counsellor. Through the open window it shines into their rooms, and, when they fall asleep again, brings to them the loveliest of dreams.

Here’s the passage from Watership Down:

We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight. Water is necessary to us, but a waterfall is not. Where it is to be found it is something extra, a beautiful ornament. We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech woods at night. In moonlight, two acres of coarse, bent grass, undulant and ankle deep, tumbled and rough as a horse’s mane, appear like a bay of waves, all shadowy troughs and hollows. The growth is so thick and matted that even the wind does not move it, but it is the moonlight that seems to confer stillness upon it. We do not take moonlight for granted. It is like snow, or like the dew on a July morning. it does not reveal but changes what it covers. And its low intensity—so much lower than that of daylight—makes us conscious that it is something added to the down, to give it, for only a little time, a singular and marvelous quality that we should admire while we can, for soon it will be gone.

Lewis on English Majors

[English Literature as an academic discipline] directs to the study of literature a great many talented, ingenious, and diligent people whose real interests are not specifically literary at all. Forced to talk incessantly about books, what can they do but try to make books into the sort of things they can talk about? Hence literature becomes for them a religion, a philosophy, a school of ethics, a psychotherapy, a sociology—anything rather than a collection of works of art.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Last fall I gave a talk on literary theory and in my research I discovered (or rather, I confirmed) that English Departments are an utter and complete sham. When I was in school, some of my professors and fellow graduate students loved stories and poetry—and at least one of my professors tried to bring that love into the classroom—but when it came to “serious” literary discussion (the kind that gets published in respectable journals), the conversation turned from the stories themselves to the religion, philosophy, sociology, history, or sex embedded within the story. I met a PhD student whose dissertation was not about literature but about the history of a particular book—the physical object, not the content. Nothing wrong with that, but doesn’t it seem like a task more suited to a budding historian than a lover of literature?

English majors pick projects like that because literature does not lend itself to the kind of scientific analysis required in the modern university. At some level, English departments are aware of this and it keeps the chair of the department up at night. Will his budget be assured come the morn? In his book on literary theory, Terry Eagleton describes the shaky identity of English departments when they first came into being in the 1920s:

The definition of an academic subject was what could be examined, and since English was no more than idle gossip about literary taste it was difficult to know how to make it unpleasant enough to qualify as a proper academic pursuit.

Eagleton goes on to say that English departments survived thanks to the rise of nationalism in the 1930s. When your nation goes toe-to-toe with another, you’re much less likely to dismiss even the least significant aspect of your culture. English people suddenly became much more loyal to their own literature than they were before and its place in the university was assured.

Still, the problem of how to make reading for fun an “unpleasant” academic subject persisted. Lewis says it was solved by literary criticism.

Everyone who sees the work of Honours students in English at a university has noticed with distress their increasing tendency to see books wholly through the spectacle of other books. On every play, poem, or novel, they produce the view of some eminent critic. An amazing knowledge of Chaucerian or Shakespearian criticism sometimes co-exists with a very inadequate knowledge of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Less and less do we meet the individual response. The all important conjunction (Reader Meets Text) never seems to have been allowed to occur of itself and develop spontaneously. Here, plainly, are young people drenched, dizzied, and bedevilled by criticism to a point at which primary literary experience is no longer possible. This state of affairs seems to me a far greater threat to our culture than any of those from which the Vigilants would protect us.

Academics love it when an eminent professor writes a new book about Shakespeare because it gives them something new to focus on and they can debate the accuracy of his judgment. It’s much easier to analyze someone’s claims about a book than to analyze the book itself. None of this nonsense about the “literary experience.” No more reading for “enjoyment” or “beauty,” whatever that is. Swaddled in criticism, the English major is free from such messy topics.

Lewis’s solution to this sorry state of affairs:

I suggest that a ten or twenty years’ abstinence both from the reading and from the writing of evaluative criticism might do us all a great deal of good.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Peet

Bill Peet was a children’s author and illustrator who was also heavily involved in Disney’s early animated features. I found a copy of his autobiography at a library book sale yesterday and heartily commend it to you. His life story isn’t all that interesting, but I loved his anecdotes (some unpleasant) about working at Disney in its infancy. And the illustrations are delightful.

Bill liked to paint the ugly and gruesome…
…especially when it shocked ladies at art exhibitions.
Bill works as an inbetweener — a thankless job.
Walt at a pitch meeting

What I Read in 2021

Plays (7)

  • The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare – Feels like Shakespeare fan-fiction. A lot of his other stories woven into one, convoluted plot.
  • The Tempest, William Shakespeare – One of Will’s last plays. The self-assessment is on full display and surprisingly honest.
  • Antigone, Sophocles (trans. ?)
  • The Burial at Thebes, Sophocles (trans. Seamus Heaney)
  • High School Musical,
  • Pride and Prejudice, Helen Jerome
  • Pride and Prejudice, Janet Munsil

Children’s Fiction (15)

  • Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis
  • Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Patterson – I told myself I wouldn’t cry. By now you know what a softie I am.
  • Dangerous Journey, László Hámori – One of my favorite books from childhood. It’s basically an Eastern European Hardy Boys story.
  • The Green Ember, S. D. Smith
  • Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Gary D. Schmidt – Disappointing.
  • A Month of Sundays, Ruth White – I enjoyed Belle Prater’s Boy, but this one was unremarkable.
  • Anna Hibiscus, Atinuke – Simple, delightful.
  • Circus Mirandus, Cassie Beasley – I loved the whole idea of the circus and the Man Who Bends Light is a great character.
  • Boys of Blur, N. D. Wilson – Liked it even more this time around.
  • Wise Words, Peter J. Leithart – C. S. Lewis described a myth as a story that is so solid and real that it doesn’t matter what form it takes. The story of Daedalus and Icarus, for example, can be told as a poem, a play, a movie, or a novel without losing its power. Several of the stories in Wise Words have that mythic status, I think — The Three Princes, The Magical Walnut. Besides that, I’ve been surprised, this time through the book, at the stories that really affect me — The Bleeding Tree, A Reluctant Rescue. The best stories, it seems, grow with us.
  • They Were Strong and Good, Robert Lawson
  • Frindle, Andrew Clements

Theology and the Christian Life (7)

  • The Crook in the Lot, Thomas Boston – Full of wisdom.
  • Christianity and the Constitution, John Eidsmoe – Very useful.
  • Good & Angry, David Powlison – Read for men’s group at church. Powlison makes his most valuable point a few pages in: not all anger is sinful.
  • Future Men, Douglas Wilson – Useful.
  • Worldly Saints, Leland Ryken – This book would probably be filed under history in a library, but it contains so many great Puritan quotes that reading it is almost like reading a devotional.
  • Vindicae Contra Tyrannos, Stephen Junius Brutus – Intensely practical in this day and age, which may not be a good thing.
  • Reforming Marriage, Douglas Wilson – Some useful advice. Many of the applications seem outdated—for example, in the last twenty-five years, and especially since COVID, men and women have both started to spend more time at home with their kids.

Non-Fiction (11)

  • Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford – I wrote a couple of newsletters about this book.
  • Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert T. Kiyosaki – As is the case with all “get rich!” books, you have to pick and choose what to follow and what to ignore.
  • Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America, Crawford Gribben – My main thought reading this book was, “So I’m not unique.” Growing up in Moscow, it was tempting to see our community as the last hope of Christian culture. Not only was that wrong-headed, it was also, apparently, a mindset that was shared by many other people in Idaho, most of whom were not connected with Christ Church at all. Weird. This book also showed me just how much my worldview has been shaped by R. J. Rushdoony, for better or for worse. That’s a topic worth exploring in another post.
  • The Read-Aloud Family, Sarah MacKenzie – Some good tips on reading together. The main one I’ll take away is be consistent. The kids should assume every family does this. Lots of book recommendations, too, though I don’t agree with all (Wonder, for example, is a terrible book).
  • The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat – Douthat starts an intriguing conversation, muddles his way through the middle of it, and ends with a call to repentance and… space travel? He’s simultaneously provoking his readers and playing it safe, exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from a newspaper columnist.
  • King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, Robert L. Moore and Douglas Gillette
  • Walt Disney: An American Original, Bob Thomas
  • An Autobiography, Bill Peet – Continuing my Disney kick. Peet designed many of Disney’s most memorable characters. It really is a shame that so many great animators are completely unknown. They’re the real movie stars.
  • House, Tracy Kidder – A journalistic novel about building a house.
  • The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl R. Trueman – A worthwhile read, but also useful as a reference book in case you need a quick summary of modern literary figures. It would be interesting to explore how CS Lewis fits into all this. To say so may be heresy in my circles, but is it possible that Lewis’s emphasis on the purity of Nature falls into the same problem that Trueman describes in the section on the Romantics?
  • Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin – Some very good advice on leadership based on the authors’ experience as Navy SEALs. Though it’s written for business, the principles can just as easily be applied to parenting and education.

Adult Fiction (19)

  • Cannery Row, John Steinbeck – Very good in a Steinbeck-y way: sumptuous description, tenderness toward society’s outcasts, amusement at the oddities of life. He has a wonderful eye.
  • Starbridge: Absolute Truths, Mystical Paths, Susan Howatch – Recommended by my wife. From my newsletter: “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.”
  • The Siege of Troy, Theodor Kallifatides – Reviewed for Forma. Subscribe here to read it.
  • Evangellyfish, Douglas Wilson – A good start that meandered and finished too quickly. Mega-church satire is so familiar to me not many of the jokes were new.
  • Behind Closed Doors, B. A. Paris – A forgettable thriller about a woman who unwittingly marries a psychopath. One of the few books I’ve read in which a main character has Down’s Syndrome.
  • The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts – Alan Jacobs speaks highly of the book here. I jotted down some thoughts in my newsletter.
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Maria Semple – Recommended by my wife.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke – An impressive book. After listening, I bought myself a copy so I can re-read it at my leisure.
  • We Run the Tides, Vendela Vida – Josh Gibbs mentioned this in passing. Not my favorite.
  • I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith – If I had gone in knowing this was not a children’s book, I would have enjoyed it more.
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh – Another one I got from Gibbs. I wasn’t impressed at first, but it’s grown on me since.
  • The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis – Fiction, I know, but Lewis perceives so much about human nature, it’s easy to imagine this is a realistic picture of what awaits our souls after death.
  • The Children of Men, P. D. James – Really good.
  • Favorite Father Brown Stories, G. K. Chesterton – Not my favorite Father Brown stories, but still good.
  • Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout – Interwoven tales about a tiny town in Maine. Perhaps the most impressive thing is how Olive, who is a pretty unpleasant person, becomes a lifeline for the reader amidst the turmoil of other people’s lives.
  • Very Good, Jeeves! P. G. Wodehouse – Great. Reading Wodehouse is kind of like watching good TV: you know exactly what you’re going to get and it’s always satisfying.
  • Leave it to Psmith, P. G. Wodehouse – Great.
  • Ride, Sally, Ride, Douglas Wilson – All over the place.

Teaching (5)

  • Teacher in America, Jacques Barzun – Once in a while, you pick up a random book that turns out to be a gem.
  • The Amazing Dr. Ransom’s Bestiary of Adorable Fallacies, Douglas Wilson and N. D. Wilson – More fun as a read-through than a textbook.
  • The Golden Fleece, Padraic Colum – A bunch of Ovidian myths woven into the story of Jason and the Argonauts. It’s a good way to introduce the kids to a bunch of stories all at once, and Colum captures the tone of the ancient stories.
  • Gilgamesh the Hero, Geraldine McCaughrean – If you’re looking for a children’s version of the Gilgamesh story, this is a good choice.
  • The Odyssey, translated by Stanley Lombardo – Not my favorite translation, but accessible to seventh-graders.

Poetry (4)

  • Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney – Wonderful.
  • Adam, David Langstone Bolt – Thoughts here.
  • The Life of Merlin, Geoffrey of Monmouth (trans. by Basil Clarke) – Mysterious.
  • Piers Plowman, William Langland – Tough sledding.

Essay Collections (1)

  • Both Flesh and Not, David Foster Wallace

Graphic Novels (14)

  • Amulet (1-8), Kazu Kibuishi
  • Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  • The Odyssey, Tim Mucci, Ben Caldwell, Rick Lacy
  • Cardboard, Doug TenNapel
  • Nnewts (1-3), Doug TenNapel

DNF

Books I read a significant part of, but did not finish:

  • The Well at the World’s End, William Morris
  • Duet, Kitty Burns Florey
  • Birds of America, Lorrie Moore
  • The History of the Ancient World, Susan Wise Bauer
  • Eothen, A. W. Kinglake
  • Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, Lardner Gibbon and William S. Herndon
  • The Eternal Pity, Richard John Neuhaus
  • Codependent No More, Melody Beattie
  • Birthing from Within, Pam England
  • The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe
  • Letters of C. S. Lewis

A Few Titles

That I’ve been reading lately.

  • Eothen by A. W. Kinglake – Once upon a time, travel narratives were all the rage, perhaps because, as someone (I forget who) guessed, tourism wasn’t viable for most people. Kinglake traveled to “the Orient,” by which he meant Turkey and Arabia. I came across this book in one of C. S. Lewis’s letters, where he speaks highly of Kinglake’s descriptions of the landscape. To my ear, the descriptions are fine enough, but nothing compared to, say, Mary Austin or John Muir. Maybe the comparison isn’t fair, though, since they were describing different landscapes. Lewis also praised Kinglake’s sense of humor, which I have enjoyed. Some sample quotes:
    • “…as grim as an army of giants with a thousand years’ pay in arrears.”
    • Describing Turkish: “The structure of the language, especially in its more lengthy sentences, is very like to the Latin: the subject matters are slowly and patiently enumerated, without disclosing the purpose of the speaker until he reaches the end of his sentence, and then at last there comes the clenching word, which gives a meaning and connection to all that has gone before. If you listen at all to speaking of this kind your attention, rather than be suffered to flag, must grow more and more lively as the phrase marches on.”
    • On the curmudgeonliness of the Greeks during their fasts: “The number of murders committed during Lent is greater, I am told, than at any other time of their year. A man under the influence of a bean dietary (for this is the principal food of the Greeks during their fasts) will be in an apt humor for enriching the shrine of his saint, and passing a knife through his next-door neighbor.”
  • Leave It to Psmith, P. G. Wodehouse – I realized partway through this book that I may have only ever seen the play. The book more than lived up to it. Psmith is the kind of character who should annoy you, but somehow does not, rather like Innocent Smith from Manalive. Incidentally, Wodehouse said that Psmith was his only character who was drawn from real life—apparently from Richard D’Oyly Carte, the man who brought Gilbert and Sullivan to the admiring masses. [Edit: Psmith was actually based on Richard’s son Rupert.]
  • House, Tracy Kidder – I bought this for my wife thinking a) it was by a woman and b) it was a collection of essays meditating on the significance of different rooms in a house. That would be a great book, but that’s not what this is. For one thing, it was written by a man. It is not a collection of essays. It is, however, about a house. It’s a non-fiction novel (think Capote’s In Cold Blood) chronicling the construction of a large home in New England. Though it’s not what I was expecting, it has been great so far.

Book Covers I Like

A few years ago I was cataloguing the library of an eminent theologian, and I started to take pictures of the most interesting book covers. Here you are.

It wasn’t so much the cover of this one as the note inside.