Category Archives: Books

The Continued Appeal of Jane Austen

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 9.15.02 AM.png

Dwight Longenecker writes about why he thinks Jane Austen continues to appeal to readers today.

Beneath Austen’s humor is humility. She satirizes the vain, silly, pompous, proud, and prejudiced, but she does so with good nature and an underlying kindness. She is often cutting, but never cruel. She laughs, but she doesn’t mock. She understands that humor and humility are rooted in humus—the earth. She knows that we are but dust and to dust we shall return—and that knowledge makes her kind.

Like all great writers, she has an innate understanding of human psychology, and she teaches that the more one knows, the more one can forgive.

….  If humility and humor are linked with humus, then it follows that the humble are down to earth. They are full of common sense. Her heroines (like Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot) either see through the vanity, foolishness, and pride of their family and friends, or (like Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood, and Elizabeth Bennet) they grow up through their trials, see through the vanity, and learn the virtue of humility.

The humility Austen displays is not the false obsequiousness of the social climber or the false piety of the self-consciously religious. Instead true humility is linked with a clear vision of reality. Austen’s heroes are the men and women who see and accept themselves and others with clarity and charity. They accept that good manners and good morals dictate the way to behave towards others, and that such manners and morals must always be genuine and from the heart—not simply a display of outward artifice or the result of social accomplishment.

The continued appeal of Austen’s work is therefore not simply in the comic moments and the enjoyable sighs of a love story well told. Instead the audience is intrigued and inspired by the discovery of true simplicity and humility hidden within the complex, deceitful web of human pride and prejudice.

 

A Rational Explanation of the Universe

It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.  It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.  It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.  And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practise it.  The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.

                   Dorothy L. Sayers in Creed or Chaos, 1949       

On Picture Books

G. K. Chesterton wrote this poem in the front of a Caldecott picture book he presented to a young friend:

This is the sort of book we like
     (For you and I are very small),
With pictures stuck in anyhow,
     And hardly any words at all.
You will not understand a word
     Of all the words, including mine;
Never you trouble, you can see,
     And all directness is divine—
Stand up and keep your childishness:
     Read all the pedant’s screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
     That can’t be told in colored pictures.

The first Caldecott Medal winner (1937). I’m guessing this is probably not the book Chesterton gave, as the illustrations are all black and white.

Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 6.32.51 AM

 

The Melancholy Mississippi

I’ve been reading Early Days on the Western Slope of Colorado and came across this reference to the Mississippi River, which reminded me of a new Alison Krauss recording, River in the Rain, also about the Mississippi.

From the book:

…[E]ventually, we reached that broad expanse at the outlet of the Ohio and were rocking on the broad bosom of the Father of Waters, the Mississippi.  Melancholy has marked the Mississippi for her own.  Visit its shores anywhere and a weird mournful atmosphere mellows the scene.  One thinks of the myriads of mound builders and Indians who are dead, and of the many white people who ought to be.  For scores and scores of miles the unending low shores, just mere nothing covered with willows.  Soft maples so thick that none ever becomes a tree make monotonous mounds of foliage behind the willows.

I’ve seen the Mississippi and it is impressive, powerful, and almost epic in our American lore.  At the very least, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn come to mind, as well as gay steamboats, and loggers.  Although I wouldn’t have thought to portray the river that way, I agree, one does get a sense of melancholy when experiencing it, or at least I have.

Early Days On The Western Slope of Colorado (1913), is a first person account of the experiences of Sidney Jocknick between 1870 and 1883 when he migrated from Washington D.C. to Colorado.  It is the kind of history I like to read.

Hearty Medicine for the Suffering Soul

Trevin Wax, a Christian blogger at the Gospel Coalition, has written a personal account of the comfort of trusting God’s providence and presence in his family’s present crisis, the illness of his wife’s mother in far away Romania.

Wax:

For two days I was unable to pray. How strange it felt, as someone who is used to praying at specific times and off and on throughout the day, to be unable to spiritually breathe. It was as if the wind had been knocked out of me. No words could come. My inability to pray did not stem from anger toward God or faithlessness in his purposes, but from the shock that paralyzed my heart. I felt him, but I couldn’t talk to him….

And then this:

Through this time, I began reading a little book from my favorite Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, called All Things for GoodWatson calls Romans 8:28 the Christian’s “cordial,” hearty medicine for the suffering soul. He connects the pain of the present moment to the joy that comes from being assured of God’s providence.

“To know that nothing hurts the godly, is a matter of comfort; but to be assured that ALL things which fall out shall co-operate for their good, that their crosses shall be turned into blessings, that showers of affliction water the withering root of their grace and make it flourish more; this may fill their hearts with joy till they run over.”

This line ministered to me more than anything else in the book. Here, Watson is speaking of the times of trouble that the Lord leads us through:

“He is their strength in the time of trouble” (Psalm 37:39). God will be the strength of our hearts; he will join his forces with us. Either he will make his hand lighter, or our faith stronger.”

God will not allow us to be overcome by our weakness. He is our strength. Either he will lighten the trial or strengthen our faith. In both cases, he is with us. Then I came across this reminder of what Christ does for us in those moments when life’s trials throw us on our faces and make it nearly impossible to pray:

“When a Christian is weak, and can hardly pray for himself, Jesus Christ is praying for him; and he prays for three things: that the saints may be kept from sin, for his people’s progress in holiness, and for their glorification.”

My Antonia

On my drive from Savannah to New Hampshire I listened to an audio book of Willa Cather’s, My Antonia.  I brought it home last year from Mom and Dad’s library.  Somehow I got through school, and seventy years without reading anything by Cather, in spite of my fondness of the mid-western United States and early American history.  I found the story fascinating and  was reminded of many places and people in my own life.  Dad once showed me wagon tracks still visible in the Kansas ground, and I well remember the countless prairie dogs the first time I visited Nebraska.  The book is narrated by a man, who as a young orphan from Virginia, goes to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  It is also the story of Nebraska pioneers who moved to the plains from other countries and cultures, and how they enriched each other’s lives. Antonia Shimerda and her family took the same train into Black Hawk, Nebraska as the boy, Jimmy.  And so began a special friendship.

Cather’s descriptions of the land make it come alive:

I used to love to drift along the pale-yellow cornfields, looking for the damp spots one sometimes found at their edges, where the smartweed soon turned a rich copper colour and the narrow brown leaves hung curled like cocoons about the swollen joints of the stem. Sometimes I went south to visit our German neighbours and to admire their catalpa grove, or to see the big elm tree that grew up out of a deep crack in the earth and had a hawk’s nest in its branches. Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons. It must have been the scarcity of detail in that tawny landscape that made detail so precious.

Sometimes I rode north to the big prairie-dog town to watch the brown earth-owls fly home in the late afternoon and go down to their nests underground with the dogs. Antonia Shimerda liked to go with me, and we used to wonder a great deal about these birds of subterranean habit. We had to be on our guard there, for rattlesnakes were always lurking about. They came to pick up an easy living among the dogs and owls, which were quite defenceless against them; took possession of their comfortable houses and ate the eggs and puppies. We felt sorry for the owls. It was always mournful to see them come flying home at sunset and disappear under the earth. But, after all, we felt, winged things who would live like that must be rather degraded creatures. The dog-town was a long way from any pond or creek. Otto Fuchs said he had seen populous dog-towns in the desert where there was no surface water for fifty miles; he insisted that some of the holes must go down to water—nearly two hundred feet, hereabouts. Antonia said she didn’t believe it; that the dogs probably lapped up the dew in the early morning, like the rabbits.

Here is another beautiful portrayal, this time of a prairie sunset:

We sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the sandbars glittered like glass, and the light trembled in the willow thickets as if little flames were leaping among them. The breeze sank to stillness. In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off in the bushes an owl hooted. The girls sat listless, leaning against each other. The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.

And my favorite sentence in the book:

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”
The book can be downloaded free here.

Only A Watermark

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 6.20.14 PM.png
I’ve been lying around the last couple of days, reading multiple books.  When my brain is fatigued I go back to Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams, an autobiography, written in the third person, and I am enjoying it immensely.  Henry was the great-grandson and grandson of the two Adams presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
I first met Henry Adams when reading  All The Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt, another very good book.
Hearing first hand accounts about Quincy and Boston in the mid-nineteenth century fascinates me, and the commentary on his Harvard education revealed that my notions about Harvard in that century are not at all accurate:
For generation after generation, Adams’s and Browses and Boylstons and Gorhams had gone to Harvard College, and although none of them, as far as known, had ever done any good there, or thought himself the better for it, custom, social ties, convenience, and, above all, economy, kept each generation in the track.  Any other education would have required a serious effort, but no one took Harvard College seriously.  All went there because their friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self-respect.  Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and something of what they wanted to make useful ones.  Leaders of men it never tried to make.  Its ideals were altogether different.  The Unitarian clergy had given to the College a character of moderation, balance, judgment, restraint, what the French called mesure; excellent traits, which the College attained with singular success, so that its graduates could commonly be recognized by the stamp, but such a type of character rarely lent itself to autobiography.  In effect, the school created a type but not a will.  Four years of Harvard College, if successful, resulted in an autobiographical blank, a mind on which only a water-mark had been stamped.
Wow.
I’ve arrived now, in Germany, with Mr. Adams as he continues his “education.”  It surprises me, how small the world seems to be as he frequently comes across  acquaintances from America.  I find myself going to the computer to research places and names he mentions.  Reading this is a wonderful way to learn history, and to visit places vicariously, but I especially enjoy the glimpses into that culture and society.  And I’ve noticed that human nature is a predictable constant.
The book is available for download at Gutenberg Press.