Archives For Great Books

mayanC.S. Lewis offered one of his keen insights into literature when he wrote: “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” (Letters to Malcolm)

The racks of clearance titles at bookstores provide ample evidence of that truth. It’s particularly evident with nonfiction works dealing with technology. Their shelf life can be counted in months (if they are fortunate).

But the short lifespan of modern writing is not restricted to science-driven topics. It also relates to the literary “fads” that come and go like mists dispelled by the afternoon sun.

There appears to be a direct correlation between touting the modernity or timeliness of a book and it imminent obsolescence. Many readers of Mere Inkling vividly recall the deluge of books warning about the dangers posed by Y2K. The new millennium was guaranteed—in the eyes of publishers milking the rare event—to bring momentous change, perhaps including catastrophic disasters.

When that crisis failed to materialize, there was a slightly less voluminous—but equally ominous—discussion of the threat of Armageddon heralded by the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. It was newsworthy enough that NASA posted this message the day after “doomsday.”

News flash: the world didn’t end on Dec. 21, 2012. You’ve probably already figured that out for yourself. Despite reports of an ancient Maya prophecy, a mysterious planet on a collision course with Earth, or a reverse in Earth’s rotation, we’re still here.

The Mayan connection “was a misconception from the very beginning,” says Dr. John Carlson, director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy. “The Maya calendar did not end on Dec. 21, 2012, and there were no Maya prophecies foretelling the end of the world on that date.”*

It is unfair, though, to single out time sensitive publications as doomed to pass quickly into the recycling bin. After all, it wasn’t technological or calendar-focused texts Lewis was referring to.

What Lewis was critiquing is books that consciously attempt to catch the latest wave of popularity . . . without recognizing that only a small fraction of such movements are of lasting value.

He despised books that lacked substance and were utterly transient in their “value.”

Lewis knew from personal experience about the varying quality and potential lifespan of books. The following passage from his autobiography describes vividly how in his childhood he was exposed to books of all sorts, even though some had been purchased only because of his parents’ “transient” interests.

I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.

Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.

Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass. (Surprised by Joy)

Lewis believed that any good book was worth rereading. As a relatively young man he wrote in 1916, “You really lose a lot by never reading books again.” Sixteen years later he would write to Arthur Greeves once again and say, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” And, without belaboring the subject, in 1933 he would once again voice this conviction to his lifelong friend. “Clearly one must read every good book at least once every ten years.”

The “good books,” of course, were those that had proven themselves over the passage of time. They were polar opposites to the shallow, insipid writing Lewis derided.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis elaborates on this notion. He argues that no truly worthwhile text can be fully digested in a single reading.

The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers “I’ve read it already” to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. . . . Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.

It is honest to acknowledge that a book only recently published is not inherently of lesser value than something that has remained of sufficient value to have been preserved over the centuries. After all, every book was at one time new.

Lewis offers a persuasive rationale for his position reading outside one’s own historical context is beneficial.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

It should be noted that Lewis did offer an exception to his rule about revisiting texts. He regarded it as feasible that a volume of facts or “information” could be processed in one reading.

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. (“On Stories”)

Lewis could exclude “books of information” from requiring rereading due to his prodigious memory which made that unnecessary. Lesser minds, such as that of the writer of this column, often benefit from returning to even these books.

Lewis, however, was absolutely convinced that the classics (using the term in a broad sense) were vital to developing the mind. He even proposed a specific ratio for one’s literary consumption.

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

One reason for alternating one’s reading is to ensure we don’t ingest too much mental “junk food.” After all, as Lewis writes in “Learning in War-Time,”

You are not, in fact, going to read nothing . . . if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally.

The Classics as Curricula

Recent years have witnessed a revival of interest in reading what Lewis called “old books,” as the essential foundation for an excellent education. He would certainly have applauded this movement.

Numerous American colleges and universities offer Great Books programs. The Association for Core Texts and Courses tracks them here.

One Roman Catholic university describes theirs in this way:

Our students immerse themselves in the Great Books (the Western Canon), the Good Book (the Bible), and God’s “First Book” (nature)—all of which we consider necessary for a true liberal education. Our humanities curriculum starts our freshmen off in Homeric Greece and brings our seniors through modernity and postmodernity. In a time of cultural amnesia, this deep study in the sweep of Western literature, history, politics, and philosophy cultivates the intellect and the heart.**

The Great Books Foundation is an organization established to provide resources for younger students. It’s never too early, supporters believe, to undertake this approach to grounding one’s education.

The C.S. Lewis Society, which operates the Study Center at the Kilns where Lewis resided, has been attempting to fund C.S. Lewis College in the States. They have a grand dream, inspired by the worldview of their namesake. “C.S. Lewis College will be a college of the Great Books and the Visual and Performing Arts.”

God-willing, in the future, more and more enlightened readers, taught from their youth to value quality literature, will echo Lewis’ words, saying, I too “am a product . . . of endless books.”

_____

* The full article is here and offers an interesting insight in to Mayan religion. According to Carlson,

“If we could time warp a Maya to the present day, they would say that Dec. 21, 2012, is a very important date. Many Maya believed that their gods who created the world 5125 years ago would return. One of them in particular, an enigmatic deity named Bolon Yokte’ K’uh, would conduct old rites of passage, to set space and time in order, and to regenerate the cosmos.” The world would be refreshed, not destroyed.

** “Mother Church or Uncle Sam” by Kevin Roberts (unfortunately not available in full online).

 

Shut Up He Explained

August 27, 2013 — 14 Comments

LardnerMy wife and I love that phrase, and we often recall it when we encounter particularly over-strained (or “broken”) grammar. When I encountered it as the title of a book, I was unaware of its original source.

This is where I reveal that I wasn’t an American Lit major in college. (Well, regular readers probably figured that out long ago.)

I had never heard of Ring Lardner until today. (If you don’t recognize his name either, you needn’t feel embarrassed . . . he died eighty years ago.)

Lardner was a well regarded humorist who considered himself a sports writer. One of his satires was entitled The Young Immigrunts. It was a parody of a popular English book, The Young Visitors, which was allegedly written by a young girl.

The Young Immigrunts is fictitiously ascribed to Lardner’s son, Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, Jr. His son was only four, at the time. Later he would become a successful screenwriter, winning an Academy Award for the film M*A*S*H. He also wrote prolifically for the television series.

Perhaps Lardner Junior is best remembered as one of the Communist writers blacklisted in Hollywood. But we need not go into that, since his father was merely using his young son as a surrogate author for the work.

The book takes the form of the ramblings of a child, and its quaintness will appeal to many readers. You can download a copy of it here.

It’s not my own preferred genre, so I won’t be reading it in its entirety, but in small doses, I find it rather entertaining.

A little later who should come out on the porch and set themselfs ner us but the bride and glum [pictured above].

Oh I said to myself I hope they will talk so as I can hear them as I have always wandered what newlyweds talk about on their way to Niagara Falls and soon my wishs was realized.

Some night said the young glum are you warm enough.

I am perfectly comfertible replid the fare bride tho her looks belid her words what time do we arrive in Buffalo.

9 oclock said the lordly glum are you warm enough.

I am perfectly comfertible replid the fare bride what time do we arive in Buffalo.

9 oclock said the lordly glum I am afrade it is too cold for you out here.

Well maybe it is replid the fare bride and without farther adieu they went in the spacius parlers.

I wander will he be arsking her 8 years from now is she warm enough said my mother with a faint grimace.

The weather may change before then replid my father.

Are you warm enough said my father after a slite pause.

No was my mothers catchy reply.

And now the phrase that always makes me smile.

The lease said about my and my fathers trip from the Bureau of Manhattan to our new home the soonest mended. In some way ether I or he got balled up on the grand concorpse and next thing you know we was thretning to swoop down on Pittsfield.

Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.

Shut up he explained.

I am curious as to whether or not C.S. Lewis was acquainted with Lardner’s work. It doesn’t quite conform to his literary tastes, but Lewis was so widely read that I think it’s possible he was at least acquainted with who he was.

My research on the matter did produce an interesting juxtaposition between the two authors. I discovered it in a book by Sherwood Wirt, perhaps the last reporter to interview C.S. Lewis (for Decision magazine, of which he was editor). I was privileged to know “Woody,” so I enjoyed finding that he mentioned both men in his book I Don’t Know what Old is, But Old is Older than Me.

With twentieth century fiction we have to be quite selective. In limiting my comments to the American scene, I will pass by many of the great names of fiction — Henry James, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote.

While most of these are excellent writers, I doubt whether they have much to say to today’s older readers that would make life more pleasant, more interesting, or more fruitful in the closing stretches of life’s journey. Nor do I think that these authors have anything worthwhile to say about what lies beyond death. We might better spend our reading hours riding off into the sunset with Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey, rather than punish ourselves with a ghastly tale like In Cold Blood.

We old boys and girls have been around a long time. We know what the world is like. We know sleaze when we see it, and we don’t need contemporary authors to embellish it or explain it to us.

The reading tastes of the American public have been corrupted almost beyond redemption by blasphemy, vulgarity, and scatology, all for the sake of increased book sales to prurient minds. There are, however, many twentieth-century American novels worth reading, such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, the Savannah quartet of Eugenia Price, and the Sebastian series of James L. Johnson, to name only a few.

Earlier in the century the Christian novels of Lloyd C. Douglas—The Magnificent Obsession, The Robe, and The Big Fisherman—inspired thousands of readers young and old, but no American has since matched his popular appeal.

The demand for detective fiction continues unabated, and no one needs my advice to read Agatha Christie. I would, therefore, limit my remarks to a reference to two British creations, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, since both are written from Christian backgrounds. My two favorite Wimsey stories are Busman’s Honeymoon and The Nine Tailors.

In contrast there is a wealth of devotional literature that makes wonderful reading for older people. One can start with the sermons of D.L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Samuel P. Jones, Joseph Parker, and T. DeWitt Talmage of the nineteenth century. The early twentieth century gave us Andrew Murray, Ole Hallesby, P.T. Forsyth, and Oswald Chambers, whose writings are hard to surpass. Amy Carmichael’s poetry and prose written in India, have blessed millions of readers. More contemporary are the writings of C.S. Lewis and A.W. Tozer, which carry seeds of greatness.

The passage above comes from the book’s chapter on “Reading.” If you would like to see more, the entire book (although published as recently as 1992) is legally available for your review online.

“Shut up he explained” may not be proper English, but literature doesn’t need to be proper to be entertaining. And even though Lardner is no longer a familiar name, perhaps his writings are worth visiting.

For the moment, knowing the context of this delightful phrase makes the words all the more entertaining to me. After all, like many others, my dad often “explained” the same thing to me!