A Report in September

Esther Meek once made an offhand comment I have always remembered. She said, “You can’t look into a human face and not be changed.” I think of this remark whenever I step through the door of the school where I work and simultaneously tug my mask up over my nose and mouth. Everything I believe about teaching leads me to say that a teacher’s face is his most important tool. A shift in expression can inspire, challenge, encourage, confront, or change a student. With half of my face covered, connecting with my students requires exponentially more effort. They can’t read my expression and I can’t gauge their reactions.

I have to remind myself that, even without masks, students rarely reveal what they’re thinking. In some ways, that’s the whole challenge of teaching: startling the student out of “I don’t care” into “But what about…?” I’d rather see a thicket of outraged faces than rows of listless blanks. The masks only make it more difficult. On the other hand, I’ve found that, in certain situations, I can use the anonymity my own mask provides to my advantage. Discipline, for example, is much easier when the offender can’t read your expression and projects his own guilt onto the judge. I may as well wear a mirror to reflect the student’s own conscience-stricken face back to him. But discipline is only one part of what a teacher does. The kind of change that goes down to the bones needs face-to-face interaction.

The other anti-COVID steps taken by schools in my area have revealed the arbitrariness of all scholastic practices. For example, the administration at my school has encouraged us to take the students outside occasionally to give them some fresh air and a break from their face coverings. This being Alabama, the weather isn’t always pleasant, but when it is, I catch myself thinking, “Why don’t we do this more often? Why teach seven subjects back to back with every student sitting at a desk?” I know that there are other schooling systems that are way ahead of me in this area (Charlotte Mason, Montessori, homeschooling). I simply mean that the pandemic has put up for discussion many things that were previously off the table.

It’s amazing to see how cleverly the students have adapted. Since the water fountains have been turned off to reduce the spread of germs, every student brings a water bottle. Students are not allowed to play games that involve physical contact, so they play kickball, using discarded masks as bases. I have noted before the level of creativity inspired by the coronavirus. In some ways, responding to such a bizarre September is an education in itself.

The Value of E-Books

In Monday’s issue of Time’s Corner, I asked my readers this question: What are ebooks worth to you? What are your ebook reading practices? The replies not only included a broad spectrum of reading practices, they also contained a variety of opinions on the value of ebooks. I decided to focus on the former category in today’s Thursday Thread. The latter is included here.

In my mind, ebooks should always be cheaper than a new hard copy — there is no iterative cost to an ebook, and they have the drawback of being not only a non-transferrable purchase but also being technically only licensed to me and not owned by me. In practice, I’m usually willing to pay about 10% of the print price for an ebook. I started to say I would pay up to $5, but if the book is only $10 in print, I wouldn’t pay more than maybe $1 or $2 before I just bit the bullet and bought a new or used copy. But if I see an ebook listed for more than $5, I almost immediately dismiss it; it would have to be a very expensive book, like Frisardi’s translation of the Convivio which cannot be had for less than $125, before I would consider paying a double-digit price for the ebook.  


Regarding value: publishers are going to charge whatever is the most they can get without losing significant sales numbers, not listen to this logic, but [ebooks] should cost the hard cover price, minus whatever percent of that price represents the physical production of the book.


ebooks are worth a lot, depending on the content. ebooks are products, just like books. they’re digital, which is (i think) the crux of this discussion, and people are still deciding if they like paying for digital things. however, placing worth on something because you can touch it is the wrong way to think about worth.

worth has to do with output compared to input. you pay for spotify because the enjoyment you get from listening to music is worth $10/mo to you; you pay for a car because the usefulness of a car is worth $10K or $200/mo. cost ultimately comes down to how much people will pay for the product, so the question of worth comes down to whether or not the output justifies the (cost and time) input.

books (e- or not) have two potential outputs: enjoyment and ideas. if you’ll get $500 worth of ideas out of a book, then it should be worth up to $499. if you get 8 hours of enjoyment out of a book, the amount you’re willing to pay for it should depend on how much you value your leisure time. it’s important to keep in mind that a book’s output isn’t binary: you’ll get ideas and enjoyment, and you should factor in both.

i suppose this stance begs a few questions, so i’ll try to address some counter-arguments at a high level:

1. yes, there are counter examples. some books shouldn’t be ebooks, and i suppose some people shouldn’t buy ebooks.

2. maybe different people should pay different amounts for the same book. maybe there should be a variable cost, or a pay-what-you-want model for books. some people will get more value out of a book than others, and maybe those people should be able to recognize the value and compensate the author for it.

3. no, i probably wouldn’t pay $500 for a book, but i have paid that much for what is essentially an ebook because i believe i will get at least that much value out of it over the next several years.


To me, one of the main reasons why ebooks are worth less is because they tend to have copy-protection software, so there’s no guarantee that they’ll even work in 5 or 10 years. My physical books will be good for the rest of my life, and in some cases probably my kids’ lives.

The “they don’t use paper” argument doesn’t make much sense to me. My willingness to pay for a book is determined by how much value I get out of it, not how much it cost to produce. If you printed Pride and Prejudice with one word per page, I wouldn’t suddenly be willing to pay $500 for it because it used so much paper. Conversely, I am sometimes willing to pay more for an audio book than a physical book, because I have much more time in my day for listening than for reading. An audiobook download also doesn’t require paper, but since it’s more useful to me, I’m willing to pay more for it (though if I can get it for free via Hoopla or Libby, I will definitely take that!).


A Man’s First Newsletter

The first issue of my newsletter went out this morning, including a short essay I called “Writing in War-Time.” You can read it below, and, if you so desire, you can subscribe to the real deal here.

In 1939, almost two months after England declared war on Germany, C. S. Lewis gave a lecture about the importance of studying the humanities during a World War. Why waste time with such “placid occupations” as philosophy and literature, he asked, when men are dying in battle and the threat of invasion hangs over the nation?

We’re not in the middle of a World War, thankfully. But many of the same conditions that Lewis was concerned with exist today. A lot of people around the world are in very real danger, if not from the mysterious plague known as COVID-19, then from riots and civil unrest. It’s hard to read the headlines without dread. In such an environment, we may ask the same question Lewis poses: why spend time doing anything but the most essential activities?

Of course, what activities qualify as “essential” changes depending on who you ask (shopping? protest? worship?), but the question remains the same. In extreme circumstances, how do we justify wasting time on non-essentials? In Lewis’s lecture, “non-essentials” include studying the humanities. For me, they include writing children’s fiction and mulling over poetry while staring at the wall.

In his typical fashion, Lewis reframes the whole conversation. It’s wrong to ask whether studying (or writing) is the right thing to do in the middle of a war, he says, because the question assumes that war presents an unusual danger that must be met with an unusual response. The reality is that we are always in danger of our lives. None of us can be sure that he will be alive tomorrow. A better question, then, is whether studying or writing is ever the right thing to do. Why spend time reading Aristotle when you could be protesting? Why spend time writing poems when you could be saving souls? Why not do things that matter?

Lewis answers the question from many angles, but part of his answer is this: we waste time on “non-essentials” because we can’t help it. It’s human nature to play cards on the eve of battle. When city workers tore down a Confederate memorial in Birmingham in the middle of the night last week, they stopped for a pizza break. Even SWAT teams crack jokes on duty.

In the direst circumstances, people stubbornly remain people. They keep on humming, snickering, debating, reading, reciting, and contemplating. This means that they need good songs to hum, good jokes to laugh at, good ideas to debate, good books to read, good poetry to recite, and good art to contemplate. As Lewis says, “You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the [battle] line: if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. if you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”

Writing in the midst of pandemics and protests is, from the vantage point of eternity, not that different from writing at any other time. The only difference is that it’s much easier to get distracted. But the importance of the work remains unchanged. The world will have stories, and those of us who are blessed with the opportunity to write them must give the world good ones.

The world is calling us to action. But what should the artist do? Should artists set aside our pens and paintbrushes and pick up swords? The answer is far simpler and far more difficult. In times like these, the artist ought to stick to his work. Are you a chef? Make delicious food. Are you a musician? Play beautiful music. Are you a filmmaker? Capture moments in time. This present moment needs good works of art no more or less than any other, which means that it needs them vitally.

News from a Man

For manifold reasons, I’ve decided to start a newsletter. I’m calling it Time’s Corner, after a phrase the Green Lady says to Ransom in Perelandra.

Do not wonder, O Piebald Man, that your world should have been chosen for time’s corner. You live looking out always on heaven itself, and as if this were not enough Maledil takes you all thither in the end. You are favoured beyond all worlds.

[Quote cribbed from here]

What the Green Lady is refering to is the time and place at which all of reality bends: the death of Christ on a cross in Jerusalem. I don’t pretend that this newsletter will be anywhere near as significant as that Event of Events, of course. But I do want the things I write about here to direct the attention of whoever reads them to that most crucial point. After Jesus died, rose, and ascended, nothing was the same, and that includes writing, art, and email newsletters. We’re still figuring out its ramifications. Consider this another teeny push in that direction.

Here’s the plan. On Mondays, I’ll send out a mid-length essay about writing, literature, or art. At the end of the Monday issue, I’ll ask my readers a question, like, “What’s a non-biblical quote or poem that never fails to encourage you?” On Thursdays, I’ll send out my favorite responses to the question, along with some comments.

If that sounds like a jolly old time to you, sign up here.