Weekend Update: the Sierra Leaves Me In Stitches

My head is starting to clear enough to at least think about doing some reading and writing. Let’s see if I can get this blog back on track.

A. My dear brother-in-law and his family in San Francisco invited my mother-in-law, who has been living with us over the last 16 months, to spend the weekend. This freed the more ambulatory contingent of the household to do some Nature, in the form of swimming at Clark’s Hole near Auburn, California, near where the American River’s branches conflux (that should be a verb!) on their way out of the Sierra.

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Looking back at the Old Forrest Hill Road from the Lake Clementine Trail. About the last bit of water you can see at the top is the spot where the Middle Fork meets the North Fork of the American River. The South Fork confluxes (It’s a verb, I say!) a little further down in Folsom Lake, a huge reservoir.

About an hour 40 minutes east of Concord, CA, the city of Auburn lies in the Gold Country on the old Gold Rush road called, appropriately, Highway 49. A couple miles south of town, the road descends to near the bottom of the river canyon, where Old Forrest Hill Road splits off. A ranger station sits just west of the bridge pictured above; the Lake Clementine Trail starts on east side.

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Offspring heading down the Lake Clementine Trail (the lake is another reservoir). That bridge, 730′ above the canyon floor, has been seen in many movies when a dramatic car-falling-off-a-bridge scene is called for.

Up the trail, under the impressive bridge, about 3/4 mile in is Clark’s Hole, a deep, slow-moving piece of what is otherwise a white-water river. Who Clark was has been lost to history, but this swimming hole has been in use as such for well over 100 years.

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Looking down at Clark’s Hole from the trail. That little rock cliff overlooks water 25-30′ deep, and is ideal for jumping. A passel of teenagers showed up later, and, after the manner of their kind, spend a couple hours jumping off those rocks. My offspring took a few turns. My beloved and I gave it a pass.
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Down by the water. Clark’s Hole runs quite a ways up the river, but only here near the end are there both easy-ish access and places to sit along the shore.

A good time was had by all, despite the 100F+ temperatures. The water was refreshing, but, thankfully, not the fresh snow melt temperatures these rivers coming out of the Sierra tend to be. About 7 years ago, we camped on the Stanislaus River in July, farther in and higher up, to be sure – the guy at the campsite told us the snow had finally melted off on July 4. The water was COLD. Here at Clark’s Hole, the water has been melted off and held in Lake Clementine for a few months now, so it’s not bad at all.

All would have been near perfect, had I not slipped on some mossy rocks and fallen, ending up with a gashed hand (5 stitches between my ring and middle finger on my left hand) and some very sore ribs. But, hey, I’m alive. It only hurts when I laugh. Or cough. Or reach for something. Or get up. Or sit down…. All it cost in the end was a copay at the emergency room and a couple more hours under the tender ministrations of the medical establishment.

(aside: while I have done my best to avoid the medical establishment – people who do so tend to live a lot longer! It’s science! – I’ve had interactions. This is the first time I’ve ever had a medical professional tell me: ‘this is going to hurt quite a bit’ and ‘keep breathing or you’ll pass out.’ What occasioned these comforting words was having painkillers injected into my hand so that she could stitch me up. And – hell, yea. It’s almost like your hands are a collection of highly sensitive nerves designed to enable mankind’s incredible fine motor skills, such that jabbing a needle in there and pumping in stuff HURTS LIKE HELL. Almost exactly like that.)

B. Got a little farther on the brickwork out front.

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Looking north.
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Looking South.

I one sense, this is an exercise in seeing if I can make use of ugly bricks. The back wall farthest from the street is made of those ugly concrete bricks people mostly use as pavers. The front wall will be made of those extra tall construction bricks. It will be double wide, capped in standard clay bricks, and topped with a 3′ wrought iron fence. There will be a 1′ wide planter between the walls. As we scavenged free bricks off Craig’s List, I ended up with many concrete and construction bricks; by building this wall/planter and its twin to the south, hope to use them up in an aesthetically pleasing way.

In the meantime, the fencing arrived.

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All I have to do is finish the planters to get them off our front porch. Sheesh.

C. We’re reading aloud Lord of the World and Lord of the Rings. Probably should start Lord of the Flies to keep the theme going? JK. While Tolkien is a sure crowd pleaser, I’m happy to report that the kids, age 20 & 14, are digging Lord of the World as well. It’s a very early – 1907 – dystopian apocalyptic novel told almost entirely via the internal lives of the main characters, at least over the first third to half. That you can get and hold young people’s attention with such a thing is remarkable, but Benson is a very good writer telling an remarkable story.

Almost finished that r/K is politics book. Will have stuff to say about it. It’s – something else.

Then, as energy and attention allow, back to the massive to be read stack.

D. Spent much of the first month of my involuntary unemployment dealing with health issues. Boring stuff, nothing life-threatening except in the way that mere health is life threatening if you let it go on long enough. Say, an additional 20-30 years, in my case. If I’m lucky.

My main complaint is tiredness, weakness and muddleheadedness. Adjusting the blood pressure meds did seem to deal with the sleepy part, however I’m still weak and have a very hard time focusing for very long. Been spending inordinate amounts of time on Twitter (I follow a bunch of SciFi writers, Catholics, Catholic SciFi writers, friends of Catholic SciFi writers, and so on) – 240 characters is about the limit of my focus. Match made in Hell.

But according to medical Science! my heart is good, a relief since at my age, my father had already had a massive heart attack resulting in quadruple bypass surgery and early retirement. So thank goodness. (Of course, he then lived to 88. I should be so lucky.)

Anyway, if my head clears up and I’m not feeling so weak all the time, should be able to return to reading and blogging. Let us hope.

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Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 1

It has been the great tragedy of our time that people were taught to read and not taught to reason.

– Chesterton, of course

A fascinating comment on an old post that’s been getting some attention lately (by the lowly standards of this blog, anyway) got me to thinking about textbooks.

Three questions:

  1. What are textbooks
  2. Who gets to say what’s in them
  3. Why do we need them

After some preliminaries, we’ll treat each of these questions in turn over two or three posts.

Background musings: When reading a book, one is almost always forced, alas, to rely on some intermediary person’s understanding of the materials. Most works I read and want to read are compilations from other sources (almost all history) or are translated into English, or both. Works of fiction and the occasional first hand account written in a language you read are exceptions – in novels and front line stories, the writer is free, more or less, to tell it as he sees it, and you get to interact, as it were, directly with the writer.

Translations are perhaps the obvious challenge. I read a lot of books written in other languages, and am often acutely aware of being at the mercy of the translator’s understanding and biases. The couple years I spent studying German in high school left no trace; the 2 years of Greek and one of French in college (1) had the benefit of making me aware of how difficult the translator’s job is even with the best of intentions. Read any two translations of Dante, let alone Homer, and you will in places wonder if the translators are working from the same sources. I today read very, very little French and less Greek. And effectively no German. Sigh.

The intermediary in this case is the translator, who has a whole passel of challenges and temptations to deal with, not least of which is to simplify and gloss over stuff he may or may not understand. Some of the more intense discussions at St. John’s were occasioned by why Hippocrates G. Apostle (a well known and fabulously-named translator of Aristotle) had translated the same Greek word into more than one English word according to context, whether his assumptions about context were correct, and whether it was ever OK to read into a text in that manner. Many different translations were dragged out for comparison. “Sheer fantasy” was a comment made by one of the more linguistically skilled professors.

St. John’s College is weird. It also should be pointed out that reading anything like a literal translation of Aristotle is nearly as difficult to understand as it is for somebody with two years of Greek to try to read him in Greek. So, we were all sympathetic to Apostle, but I think we, in the end, didn’t much approve.

I tell the above story merely to illustrate how challenging translation can be, and how one must always exercise some degree of caution when reading translated works. In some cases, the translator’s introduction and footnotes can be very helpful in explaining his approach and sometimes biases, and in helping explain tricky words and passages. But sometimes not.

The other main intermediary is the compilers/re-tellers. When reading history especially, the reader is unpacking a Russian doll – there are the original sources which may or may not be brought to the fore, and all the other historians who have looked at the same materials whose influence may or may not be acknowledged. Exactly what you’re getting, particularly in popular histories where the writer is unlikely to let facts get in the way of the story, is difficult if not impossible for the lay person to grasp.

History is a challenging task, where the broad strokes may not be too controversial, but everything else is up for grabs. The trick is trying to capture both the telling details – and upon what criteria is this detail or that deemed telling? – while at the same time providing some context and overarching analysis without simply steamrolling those details.

Not easy – and that’s assuming you’re honest. Some are not, or at least their criteria for selecting and recounting details are biased to the point of lying. Gibbons and Wells spring to mind, the first applying the principle that anything the Catholic Church was involved in was by that fact alone evil, and the second deciding in advance that, according to Marxist principles, everything is marching forward in a completely non-religious way under the guidance of the totally not-God History toward a totally not a paradise myth Worker’s Paradise. In either case, any detail or even higher level events that failed to confirm their narrative, as the kids call it these days, was ignored or mangled until it did. (2)

Again, introductions and notes are often helpful or at least telling. When I read A History of Private Life a few years ago (well, most of it anyway) I had to deal with both translation – it was written in French – and marked biases among the various scholars who contributed. Some were openly Marxist, which means inclined to lie and ignore stuff the moment it becomes inconvenient to their pathology, while others had an Germanic, nearly obsessive fascination with details (I liked those guys – go figure). And some had no obvious agendas. Good series. It helped me at least to have a little heads up as provided by the introduction and notes.

That said, one’s main tool or defense in understanding and getting something positive from reading is having read and tried to understand lots of different kinds of books, particulary old books that introduce one to truly different cultures. (3) That’s what the exercise of a University education used to largely consist of – the reading and struggling with the ideas in books widely recognized as important. In no particular order, you learn or should learn:

  • Many old stories are beautiful. Our ancestors really knew a good story when they heard one, and how to tell it;
  • There are very, very few really new ideas;
  • Most of the really important ideas are thousands of years old, and never go away;
  • The smartest people today are not smarter than the smartest people of the past;
  • Using big words and plenty of them, and having good things to say are not the same thing.

There is a more complicated thing one might learn, about how an educated person sees the world. This is much harder to put into words. The effect is that one becomes aware of perspective, about how the world will look a certain way to someone who has had certain experiences and accepted certain premises. Crucially, one sees the interaction between beliefs, character and action. In many ways, great novels make this more clear than other types of books, although it’s a critical part of Homer and even of Aristotle. I suppose this is what is meant by being broadminded.

What are textbooks?

Simply put, and with notable exceptions, textbooks are meant to prevent learning any of the lessons a student might learn from good books.

Exceptions include attempts to condense and to some extent predigest the fundamentals of highly technical topics. Grammars, and some math and science texts fall into this class.  Textbooks of this type are sometimes highly original and creative in themselves. Euclid, for example, is sometimes considered a textbook on Greek mathematics, but the gradus ad Parnassum structure of the Elements, leading the student logically from simpler to more complex concepts and proofs, was at least perfected by Euclid, and is his greatest lesson.

Most modern textbooks are not exceptions. Consider the fundamental difference between modern textbooks versus the earliest textbooks use in America, say, McGuffey’s Readers. The Readers were literally textbooks, collections of texts written by what the compilers thought were great writers, typically expressing thoughts characteristic of the highest aspirations of the people whose children were to read them.  The readers are hard, at least much harder than the texts we expect children of similar age today to read.

Modern textbooks are not, as a rule, collections of challenging texts. Instead, the materials in them are fresh wrought. These materials tend to be very simple. This is one aspect of Pestalozzi’s methods (such as they are) that Fichte loved: all learning is to be broken down into atoms, and no student is permitted to move on to atom B until the teacher has determined that he has mastered atom A.

A child with the slightest interest in learning to read will get past the ‘See Spot run” level in at most a couple weeks. This step – giving kids simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words – seems to have, historically, been skipped. In America, large numbers of children learned to read from the King James Bible, which no one will ever accuse of being a collection of simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words.

The other feature of modern textbooks that must be noted: the answers are in the back or in the teacher’s edition. The answers are known, even in subjects such as ‘literature’ or history, where the meaning of any text or event is certainly not reducible to a single statement if it has any meaning at all. Even in math, people with any instinctual understanding of math recognize that while there may be one or one set of correct answers, there are usually many ways to get there. Yet the textbook will mark you wrong if you do not take the route described in the textbook. Even being correct isn’t good enough. Thus another defining feature of modern textbooks: by putting the acceptable answers in the teacher’s hands, textbooks place the teacher between the student and the materials, such that the materials to be learned are not allowed to speak to the student except as approved by the teacher

In general, excepting those textbooks that serve the purpose of collecting and organizing complex basics such as grammar and math, modern textbooks are collections of newly created materials, generally fragmented and simplified to some imagined lowest common denominator. They contain the often increasingly arbitrary acceptable answers to a set of predefined acceptable questions. These questions and answers are under the control of the teacher alone.

Next, we’ll discuss who gets to say what’s in them.

  1. Contrary to all expectation, including mine, I did pass the junior year French reading exam at St. John’s, so there was a brief period where I was a *certified* reader of French. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of St. Joseph of Cupertino? A man considered by his peers to be hopelessly stupid? Where, the story goes, in order to advance toward ordination, he needed to give a brief exposition on some scripture passage, and the examiner asked him about the Nativity narrative – the one point in Scripture upon which any of his religious brothers had ever heard him expound with any coherence. He passed, and ended being ordained a priest. Well, the St John’s College French test happened to be on a passage from de Tocqueville with which I just happened to be very familiar. (de Tocqueville also happens to be very easy French). As soon as I started trying to read it, I was all ‘oh, that passage!’ Luck? Divine Providence? You decide!
  2. Confession: it is unlikely I will live long enough to read Gibbons or Wells all the way through. I’m judging them here based on the snippets I have read and their reputations among people whose views on the matter I respect – e.g., Chesterton.
  3. I’ve long said that trying to understand the ancient Greeks and Hebrews is a greater and more fruitful cultural reach than trying to understand any current culture. The Greeks and Hebrews as deep beyond deep, and as alien in many ways as Martians. And yet, they are us!

Currently Reading:

Polanyi, The Great Transformation. According to a friend, this book figures into Deenan’s Why Liberalism Failed, and, since it is available free online, I started there. Will get to Deenan later, I hope.

50 pages of 375 in snapshot: after reading the forward by Joseph Stiglitz and the introduction by Fred Block, and the first chapter or so, had to google who this Karl Polanyi and these dudes were. Stiglitz is a New Keynesian economist with all the awards and sheepskins; Block is a prominent sociologist.

Keynes was the official economist of the Fabian movement – he was General-Secretary and later president of the Royal Economic Society, which was founded by Fabians to promote their communist views. As a New Keynesian, Stiglitz is one of a long line of Fabian economists, and part of the effort to salvage Keynes from the unfortunate (in the eyes of Marxists) success of the modern world in reducing violence and poverty to previously unimaginable levels. More people live safer, more secure and affluent lives now than ever before in history, and the trends are all good – so, who needs socialism, let alone communism? So New Keynesians focus on what, in the big picture, are blips in the overall trends, and ignore the overall story of success. (1)

Reminder: this is the original Fabian Society coat of arm: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Fabians are nothing other than Communists, except even more devoted to lies and deception, if that’s possible.

Keep in mind that while Marx was infatuated with economics and legendarily whiled away several years doing research in the British Museum Reading Room, he’s also notorious for his extraordinarily weak grasp of the actual economic activity of the world he lived in, as well as for his use of nonsensical footnotes and references. (2) He established a tradition, in other words.

Block is a Critical Theorist, as are all prominent Sociologists, although it is customary to portray their devotion to Marx as merely one influence among others and a prompt to acting as gadflies against other, more ossified and less Progressive theories. (See: my theory of filters – once the heirs of the Fabians get control of a university department, they can then filter out the non pliable, let alone any outright opponents. After a couple generations, harmony is achieved. This harmony is achieved at the cost of honesty and academic freedom, which, following Gobels and Alansky, is what those enforcing that harmony claim their opponents are attacking. This would be amusing if it weren’t true.) Critical Theory is Marxism as manifested in academia. Take a gander at the home page of the American Sociological Association, and judge for yourself what they’re up to.

Stiglitz and Block are of course effusive in their praise of Polanyi.

Polanyi was also a Fabian, but is said to have a ‘complex’ relationship with Marxism, which, translated into English, means he did not find it expedient to tout his Marxism always and everywhere. His wife Ilona Duczynska worked in the propaganda department of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and she was a member of the Budapest Central Revolutionary Worker and Soldier Council. So I think we can assume Polanyi had a high degree of sympathy, at least, with revolutionary ideas.

Anticipating a completely predictable read in at least this sense: anything bad or less than perfect that happens where free markets reign will be presented as proof of the conceptual failure of Capitalism; any failures under socialism, up to and including mass murder, will, if acknowledged at all, be attributed to human failings of one sort of another. Further, ‘democratic’ will be used to mean ‘rule by the enlightened few who, as communists, believe they have the right and duty to do whatever they want to the demos in the name of achieving the glorious future.’ This is the sense in which Stalin and Che were men of the people, not despite, but especially when murdering unarmed men, women and children. (3)  History proves socialism correct provided you assume your conclusion as the sole acceptable lens through which history may be viewed.

In the first 50 pages, that’s what I got. Also, there’s the heartfelt sympathy for those poor little people who suffer under the vagaries of free markets that is somehow not present at all for those who suffer under socialism. The theory is pure and correct, after all, so such suffering under socialism cannot be caused by it, while free markets are evil, so that any suffering, no matter how temporal or complicated it causes, no matter how much a blip on an otherwise very hopeful trend, proves that free markets must be snuffed out (along with, as history has shown, any *people* who do not sufficiently hate them. But that’s the small ‘h’ history where people do and suffer things, not the capital ‘H’ History that drives Progress.)

Will review when completed.

 

  1. Marx is said to have been revolutionary in his insistence on viewing economic activity as a whole, taking, one might say, a macro view of microeconomics. History is marching forward – what the little people actually do can only be understood as results or even side effects of this march of Progress. New Keynesians are, according to Wikipedia, involved in using microeconomics to prop up Keynes against the persistent claim that his analysis and policies make no sense, and, specifically, that history over the last 50 years or so has shown doesn’t, you know, work. The irony amuses me.
  2. I’ve heard this ‘Marx’s footnote and references are nonsense’ comment from a couple of sources that I now cannot of course find; I myself will never live long enough to actually look up the copious footnotes in Capital. I long for someone to write a book on Marx’s footnotes – that, I’d try to read.
  3. It’s no accident Fabians were huge proponents of eugenics. especially via the sterilization of the less fit (and one guess who would be defined as ‘less fit’ if they ever gained power).

Why (almost) Nobody Can Read

In a comment somewhere, I opined that if we consider literacy to mean not the mere mechanics of reading, but both actually reading and understanding what you have read, the percentage of people who are literate in America has got to be under 10%. I’m thinking probably well under. If you can’t read, in the sense of rendering those symbols on the page or screen into English, then of course you’re classically illiterate (and so of course aren’t reading this). But even if you can read in that sense, if you don’t read, it clearly makes no difference. The label ‘functionally illiterate’ should apply to people who don’t read as as much as those who can’t read.

Image result for readingThe bigger issue is understanding what you read. Recent reading and discussion, for example, show an almost complete misunderstanding of what the Constitution *is*.  That men wrote a document in order to establish and limit a national government seems almost entirely missed, as is the understanding that an unlimited government is by definition a tyranny.  Even the Bill of Rights is seen as somehow magically granting gifts to the People, rather than stating areas where the government shall not tread.

Recently tried to explain the Electoral College to a coworker, how it protects minorities – those who live in less populous states – from getting bullied by the majority, and how the Constitution very probably would not have gotten state approval without it – and he simply refused to understand, but continued to relish his anger at having the majority denied their will. I even added that revolts tend to come from the provinces, that the Founders knew this, and instituted the Electoral College as a way to mitigate this risk. Nope.

This accusatory finger here is pointed squarely at the mirror: hardly a day goes by when I don’t read something and realize I lack the context to understand it. What I do have, in addition to curiosity, is a liberal education – Great Books, some math and music, a little science and art and history. What that gives me is a skeleton like the girders that hold up a skyscraper that can be filled in, here and there, with more detail. That no man, let alone a poser like me, could ever fill it all in is beside the point. At least I have some context for the context, as it were.

Perhaps the most important part of a liberal education is a profound appreciation of how ignorant we all are. There is an effectively infinite set of things it would be good to know, and we most definitely have a finite amount of time and capacity. Further, no one with a functioning mind could come away from an encounter with Plato or Aristotle (or a host of others!) and still believe we moderns are way smarter than those stupid ancient people. No one (1) could look at the works of art – architecture, sculpting, painting, literature, music – and imagine we moderns are just way more sophisticated and smart than those old geezers. In fact, the feeling we’ve fallen far is hard to shake, that we couldn’t hold a candle next to truly great minds. Now, objectively, I believe there are any number of truly brilliant people around today in a thousand fields, as brilliant as anyone ever, but the image that springs to mind is of Dawkins and Musk with their hubris and gadgets trying to talk with, oh, Charlamagne and St. Thomas or Plato and Archimedes or even Jefferson and Newton. Always worth a giggle.

A liberally educated man will therefore be at least a little timid about his conclusions no matter how vigorous in his principles – and know the difference. The typical miseducated college grad is vigorous in his conclusions and vague about his principles – or would be, if he could tell the difference.

When I’m being careful and honest with myself (I try, but I’m only human), I’m somewhere between suspicious to pretty confident about what I’ve deduced from reading education history. I’m very confident about much of the framework items, such as Fichte’s role, the role of the Prussian models of universal and university education, and how compulsory graded classroom schooling spread in America – mostly because no one I’ve come across, critic or supporter, seriously disputes it. I’m a little uncomfortable with the contention that the Irish immigrants were the proximate cause of Mann getting Prussian style schooling approved in Massachusetts. I’ve seen this in 2 or 3 sources, and the timing matches, and the attitudes of Americans about the Irish certainly support it, but it’s not clear these sources aren’t really one source passed through time.

And so on, down to my complete lack of sources for the when and why the graded classroom model became the Catholic schooling model. It happened, that’s for sure, but I’d like some names, dates and arguments.

This is just an example, a place in the framework where I’ve managed to fill in some of the detail. I’m painfully aware of the effectively infinite number of empty spaces for every space I’ve filled in even a little. I’m aware I could be wrong. But I’m also aware that the enemies of truth and reason don’t feel (can’t say ‘think’) the same way about their positions, and don’t care. Can’t let legitimate minor doubts silence you in the face of irrational hatred.

In conclusion: I flatter myself imagining I read with some context and care. I fear, and unfortunately, the world seems hellbent to confirm it, that the number of people who can claim even this much is as a drop in a bucket. I hope I’m wrong.

  1. No one except Hegel. But boy, was he committed to getting the square peg of Reality into the round hole of his Theory.

Update: Reading, Writing, Life

I must have half a dozen books/magazines going right now, may be some kind of record for me. Plus a bunch of things I’ve finished that I ought to review. So, of course, started another book last night – I admit, a blurb yanked from a review did me in:

“It’s sort of like what might happen if one of Heinlein’s juvenile heroes (say Kip from Have Spacesuit Will Travel) was thrust into the modern era and was forced to use “SJWs Always Lie” as his freshman orientation guide while battling the Black Hats.”

I mean, c’mon. So I’m about 50% into The Hidden Truth: A Science Fiction Techno-Thriller by Hans G. Schantz, which is book 1 in the series book 2 of which earned the above comment. So far, yep. Dude is very good and inventive writer. If he keeps it up, I’m up for the series. Plus, it not too long.

About 25% into Okla Hannali by Lafferty. It started getting sad, and there are times I can’t read a lot of sad. This is one of those times. Brigg’s Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics got to the point where I needed to reread the opening chapters to sure I was getting it – and so, almost to the end, I started over. Good book. Needs more attention than I’ve been able to give it so far.

And a pile of books on mythology that I tend to read when nothing else appeals to me at the moment. Greek, Roman, Polynesian.

And the Phenomenology of Spirit, where I stopped half-way through the main text after having read Hegel’s interminable introduction. Read it in college, need to finish up the reread.

Read a bunch of superversive/pulp rev magazines that I’ve yet to review. Have a pile I haven’t started yet. Also, looking sternly down at me from the shelves, are some Flynn, Wright and Wolfe. *gulp* In addition, I have maybe half a dozen books and stories from the Essential Sci Fi Reading List I’ve yet to get to. There’s maybe 20 more I haven’t tracked down a copy of yet.

Aaaand – there’s the longer term projects. Half way through some education history and biographies of the major players, but set all that aside as I need to be sitting up at a desk taking notes, not drifting off to sleep, to read these. I want to write a book or two about my findings one of these years.

So much for the reading side. On the writing side, seems I’ve done nothing since about August of last year. This is not merely inertia or laziness – life got complicated. I have maybe 3 out of 4 Friday and 2 out of 4 Monday evenings free – weekdays all booked up otherwise; weekends are a crapshoot. I get up by 6:00, so pulling 10:30 – midnight writing jags really isn’t in the cards, at least not regularly. And, for spiritual/emotional reason (fancy way of saying it calms me down) I’ve taken to playing piano an hour or two a day. About halfway through learning Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, as well as continuing to plow through the Well Tempered Clavier (have about 6 down pretty well, and a few more sorta kinda). Also throwing in a little jazz and improv.

That said, for some reason I reread a bit of the Novel That Shall Not Be Named (except here’s a sample that has since been revised and may not even end up in the book) the other day, and started getting excited again, and wrote another few pages, and – I need more time, but I also need a job.

Very sad last few days at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, where my charming and beautiful younger daughter is a junior. The little brother, 11, of one of the students fell into a coma out of the blue, and died. No one knows why, totally unexpected. Please say a prayer for the repose of his soul and comfort for his family and for the College, which, being tiny, is taking this very hard. A number of other sad things have happened there as well – when there are only 125 students and everybody knows everybody, problems and tragedies are communal things. Tough Lent for them.

Me? Feeling better, love, love, love being involved in RCIA, the First Communion Parent’s class and my Feasts and Faith class at the local parish, even when it does burn up a huge chunk of time – but then, that’s what life is for. So that’s all good. Have almost completed the transition from worrying about raising our kids right to worrying about what they will do with their lives. Youngest just turned 14, the three others are in their early 20s. And worrying about how they take care of themselves. Fortunately, we were blessed with truly wonderful kids, so we don’t worry too much over things most modern parents worry about. But, still.

Enough.

 

Books I Loved But No Longer Do

Partial list off the top of my head:

The Metaphysical Club, by Menand. The first couple times I read this, missed or glossed over the nihilism and relativism (if those can be said to be substantially different) peeking out from every page. The stories told are so fascinating, the turnings of culture pivoting on the sins and limitations of so few minds while we many sleep – gripping stuff. And this book pointed out trailheads to a number of topics I’ve read more about since, I owe it thanks for that.

But, ultimately, Menand is a nihilist. His heart seems to wish there were meaning, even the sort of meaning that boils down to a raw exercise of personal power. He’s too smart to actually believe it, however, so I’m left only with his slick, beautifully written evasiness whenever he might wander near anything like an ultimate ‘why’.

Other writings reveal him as a Marxist apologist. Like Agent Smith defending himself to the Cookie Girl, old Karl, Menand claims, is not that bad! An avuncular adulterer, maybe! And who isn’t, these days? Not, as one reading Marx himself would conclude, the purveyor of a world view within which slaughtering 100 million or so unarmed children, women and men is not *necessarily* a bad thing, in, fact, could be required, if it moves the ball forward on the right side of History. Nihilism dressed as Relativism lurking behind the will to power masquerading as concern for the Masses.

In a similar way, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind is like a drug for a Great Books guy – the stories he tells, the points he makes, are blood-boilingly true – that, ultimately runs aground on the same question of ‘why’. Sure, these idiots are shoving everything that makes America and the West unique, wonderful and loveable down the memory hole – and? That’s a bad thing because? Just as people don’t describe our culture as Christendom anymore, Bloom wants us to love and defend results, it seems, without being making a stand for the cause of those results. It’s ultimately turtles all the way down.

Very fun read many years ago, but deeply unsatisfying today.

A bunch of old SciFi. It’s a little tragic to think how many of the books I just LOVED as a kid/young adult that largely appall me now. A few, such a Slan and Stranger in a Strange Land I read when I was older, and so realized I’d need to ignore a lot of fundamental looniness to enjoy them. Same old same old – some elect will come to save/exterminate all us peons for our own not too well defined good. Innocents dying? Omelette/eggs. Even if you don’t share a belief in a Divine Savior, that plotline is just old. Can we stop with stories that beat the drum for one’s own puffed-up self opinion (of *course* you’re among the elect! Who could doubt it? All that purges and guillotines stuff is in the past!) or for people who imagine they’d be doing you a favor if they just cut to the chase and killed you and yours?

Here are a couple I loved when I read them as a youngster, then later had ‘wait a minute!’ moments on. I still sort of like them with a childish affection, mostly, but, man, are they silly:

devil
The Good Guys! Or, at least, the sympathetic indifferent guys who feel noble regret at humanity’s horrible fate. 

Clarke’s Childhood’s End. See comments above. In this story, Clarke goes with the saviors who, you know, kill us all. Well, stand by with their ever so noble and sympathetic feelings while we all – except for the elect! – die like animals at an evaporated watering hole. It’s all for the best!

Clarke’s 2001. This time, the Chosen One come back to save us puny humans from ourselves by snuffing out our silly nukes. Who hasn’t wished our silly nukes would get snuffed out, so that we could return to the good old days before nukes when everyone treated each other as brothers and treaded lightly upon Mother Gaia? (Not loving MAD, but nukes aren’t really the fundamental problem.)

Wow, picking on Clarke here, but there are others suffering from the same shortcomings, although generally in a less hippy-dippy fashion than Clarke.  A lot of Asimov, including the much-loved (by me, at least) Foundation series kind of loses it at the intersection of story and philosophy. But I’ll stop here for today.  Maybe more later.

Then, will need to do the reverse: books I didn’t like when I first read them, but now love. Preview: really didn’t see what the fuss about Lord of the Rings was when I first read it in high school. My future wife set me straight on that. Probably why she’s my wife.

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

Semi-random thoughts on what I enjoy reading. Less coherent, perhaps, than usual around here:

Dante famously ratchets his storytelling up through the course of his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven by how he shows things. In Hell (and I’m not going to Google the exact quotes, nope, not going to do it!) he starts his description of the horrors of the damned by saying: O Memory! Here thy shall show thy worth! or something like that. In other words, he is relying on his merely earthy and human mental faculties as the sources of his vision. However fantastic the tortures and dooms of the damned may be, they remain within the grasp – and experiences, poetically understood – of anyone, really. Reason in the person of Virgil is perfectly competent to see and explain the poetic justice that is at the core of Hell.

Once in Purgatory, among the saved who have been judged by a judgement they willingly embrace to be unready to endure the full glory of the Face of God, Dante can’t rely on his merely human faculties to describe and understand what he sees. Virgil seeks guidance and instruction from the souls whose understanding has been expanded by the Light of Christ denied simple human reason by the Fall. There is a lovely medieval symmetry in climbing through various stages of purgation to get back to the state of original human innocence at the Garden of Eden atop a mountain. Yet the penances here, and the Mercy and Justice of God that have degreed them, are not something Virgil can completely grasp unaided.

Dante the poet invokes the aide of the Muses in order to be able to describe what he sees, and points frequently to the substantial mystery of salvation that falls outside their ken. As a reader, in Hell you are having terrifying things pointed out to you, a terrible justice, and told to see. It is in your power, you know, your reason can work it out, that the punishments of the damned are chosen by them, and are just. The tone changes radically in Purgatory, where grace is asked for to aid our understanding. For we are walking on sacred ground.

Finally, in Heaven, we leave mere human reason behind. Virgil is left standing in Paradise. The message here is not that reason is wrong and that we should abandon it in favor of some murky idea of God’s direct infusion of divine grace. Instead, we use the grace of reason – the blessing of being made in the image of God – to seek His guidance. With His help, delivered through a hierarchy of secondary causes – other penitents, the prayers of the faithful, the teachings of the Church, the very penances assigned to the particular sins, the whole world around us – we can climb back to a state of innocence.

Which is not enough.

In Heaven, Dante the poet seeks the aid of highest Heaven, and acknowledges his inadequacy. While Hell is described via definite statements – here I saw, there they lay – Heaven’s glories are couched in doubt – I think I saw, it appeared to me. It works. The reader gets the awe and wonder through sharing Dante’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of the Divine. By not describing anything in Heaven with definite certainty, he manages, paradoxically, to describe Heaven in its awe and wonder and love. The Lover is compelled to praise the Beloved, and words fail, and in that failure succeed.

In this sense, Dante succeeds by neither showing nor telling.

From the sublime to the not as sublime: in The Night Land,  Hodgson gives evocative names to the horrors of the Night Land and consistently resist any temptation to describe them in any detail – you get gigantic, imperceptibly slow-moving, cold, eerily lit – but that’s about it. They’re just Out There, full of malice and inhumanly patient.

Way scarier than any detailed description could ever render them.

As a counterpoint, was thinking of Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth. In this classic story, Vance creates with a few deft strokes an incredibly vivid and alien world, and fills it with amazing cultural detail. One the one hand, he, like Dante and Hodgson in their very different ways, leaves a lot to the imagination. Yet he also dumps a huge amount of information on the reader, which is critical to the satisfactory resolution of the protagonist’s problems.

As a reader, I never even noticed the info dumps at the time. Only in retrospect are the fairly frequent passages of explanation in Vance’s short stories apparent. Part of the trick, I think, is spooning it out over time so the individual chunks aren’t too big, and leaving plenty of mystery. In Moon Moth, it is only in the last couple paragraphs that all the pieces come together, and only after you’ve reached the point where the protagonist is surely doomed – by the same social conventions that end up saving him! In The Dragon Masters, he pulls a related trick, where only at the end are you able to piece together the large number of clues he’s left lying about to reach the shocking conclusion.

Asking how he does this – how he manages on the one hand to be very spare in his descriptions while on the other packing the exposition with what often seem like asides but turn out to be critical information – and yet writes as gripping a story as just about anyone, is, I suppose, where the genius lies.

Now somebody who writes tell me it’s just planning and hard work.

Finally, there’s Cordwainer Smith, who, even more than Vance, drops you in the middle of the action and only gradually throws you a lifeline but never quite gets you feet back on solid ground. It feels like he never explains anything, although a moment’s reflection – thinking of Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons (I spelled that wrong in the right way, before looking it up! And I can’t spell ‘amatuer’ right 9 times out of 10.) shows that he, indeed, does. It’s a weird morality play, where Smith breaks the wall to talk to the reader on a number of occasions, yet still maintains an air of mystery, surprise, and inevitable horror.

Most of his stories leave me a bit awed and scratching my head – what was THAT? Where did that come from?

Thus ends the brain dump for today.