Archives For Shakespeare

csl introvertLearning about ourselves is a lifelong quest. And the more actively we pursue self-knowledge, the wiser we become.

A well known sixteenth century Christian mystic wrote:

“Self-knowledge is so important that even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it.” (Saint Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle).

This self-knowledge leads to a greater recognition of our dependence on God. She continues, “so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility. . . . As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating on His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”

C.S. Lewis echoes this sentiment.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. (Mere Christianity).

As part of my self-examination, I have recently revisited my “personality type” as assessed by the well known Myers Briggs Personality Indicator (MBTI).

Without over-explaining the MBTI, it measures an individual’s preference related to four ways by which we experience and make sense of the world. (News Flash: Not everyone perceives reality the same way!)

These dichotomies are:

Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I)

Whether your preferred focus is outward or inward.

Sensing (S) or Intuition (N)

How you focus on information and process it.

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)

Primary preference in your decision-making.

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

Your orientation towards making sense of existence.

You can get some additional authoritative information here. There are also numerous “unofficial” websites related to the subject.

Sixteen combinations are possible, and each has its respective strengths. (None are “better” than others, of course, since we’re all created in the image of God.)

Speaking of which, I’ve also been studying the different combinations that are more common to Christian ministers than they are within the general population.

For example, the following types (with their shorthand title) range from two to six times more common for male clergy than the general male American population:

ENFJ (The Teacher)

ENFP (The Provider)

INFP (The Healer)

INFJ (The Counselor)

ENTJ (The Field Marshal)

Which type of pastor do you prefer?

Online Surveys to Visit after you finish this post

There are a number of free MBTI-type tests online. Naturally, they are not as reliable as the official inventory given through a certified provider. Nevertheless, the following sites did render accurate assessments for me, based on my formal scoring.

I have mentioned in the past that I am an *NTJ… with the asterisk representing that my I/E preference is too close to call. A previous post shows how that makes me a blend of Middle Earth’s Elrond and Théoden.

Humanmetrics Jung Typology Test

CelebrityTypes Personality Type Test

So, What Is C.S. Lewis’ Personality Type?

This is a subjective question. The MBTI is a self-reported assessment, so guessing the type of another person is by nature dicey.

In Lewis’ case, however, there is a fair degree of consensus. This is due to his openness about his personal life and his extensive writings. The general agreement does not mean though that there are not minority opinions.

The most common argument is that C.S. Lewis was INTJ. I find the reasons persuasive, and not just because it matches my own type!

One student of the subject says “Check out this quote—how INTJ is this?!”

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them—never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through? (A Grief Observed)

One blogger writes, “There is no doubt in my mind that Lewis was an INTJ. It seeps off all his writing and is blatant in his behavior in all of his biographies.” She continues:

Highly imaginative child who lived in a dream world? Check.

Someone highly emotional/sensitive but that never showed it on the surface? Check.

A prolific writer who blazed through finishing projects at an astounding rate, who was so successful at everything he did, despite never having done it before, that he quickly rose to the top? Check.

Another site considers both C.S. Lewis and his fellow inkling J.R.R. Tolkien to be INFPs. The aptly titled CelebrityTypes.com offers a brief selection of quotations to illustrate the reasons for their identification.

If the site’s identifications are accurate, the two are in good company. Other writers include John Milton, Augustine of Hippo, Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare, Søren Kierkegaard, George Orwell, A.A. Milne, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

A Warning from Lewis Himself

Understanding ourselves better than we already do, is a good thing.

Being overly curious about the personality of someone who is deceased is another matter. Lewis’ point in the passage that follows is that such concerns must never supersede our regard for others, in the spirit of Matthew 8:22.*

There is a reaction at present going on against the excessive love of pet animals. We have been taught to despise the rich, barren woman who loves her lap dog too much and her neighbor too little. It may be that when once the true impulse is inhibited, a dead poet is a nobler substitute than a live Peke, but this is by no means obvious.

You can do something for the Peke, and it can make some response to you. It is at least sentient; but most poetolaters [worshippers of poets] hold that a dead man has no consciousness, and few indeed suppose that he has any which we are likely to modify. Unless you hold beliefs which enable you to obey the colophons of the old books by praying for the authors’ souls, there is nothing that you can do for a dead poet: and certainly he will do nothing for you. He did all he could for you while he lived: nothing more will ever come.

I do not say that a personal emotion towards the author will not sometimes arise spontaneously while we read; but if it does we should let it pass swiftly over the mind like a ripple that leaves no trace. If we retain it we are cosseting with substitutes an emotion whose true object is our neighbour.

Hence it is not surprising that those who most amuse themselves with personality after this ghostly fashion often show little respect for it in their parents, their servants, or their wives. (The Personal Heresy: A Controversy).

Reflecting on our own nature, and pondering the personalities of those we respect, are worthwhile activities. However, it’s best to remember that all we can see are mere glimpses into the depths of who we truly are.**

_____

* Matthew 8:22 quotes Jesus’ response to a disciple who demurred that he could not follow the Lord until after he attended to his father’s burial. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’”

** As Paul words in Romans 8:27 are paraphrased in The Message Bible: God “knows us far better than we know ourselves . . .”

shakespeareSometimes authors are not quite so brilliant as we think them to be.

It is possible to read into someone’s work ideas, and even profundity, that was not present when they were originally composed.

That’s an odd thought, I will admit. But the truth is that each of us as readers carry with us our own knowledge and personalities.

Imposing those upon a text is a subconscious reality, and it may even be unavoidable. Minimizing our presuppositions is one of the key elements of honest literary criticism.

This is one of the reasons that it is insanity to impose contemporary “political correctness” on writers who lived before such constraints were imposed. Intelligent people recognize that we must read Twain as an iconoclastic nineteenth century author, and Bunyan as a Baptist preacher of the seventeenth.

I just read a letter in which C.S. Lewis describes how this works. He wrote to a Roman Catholic correspondent, a priest, on Christmas Day 1959. In the letter he responds to his friend’s reference to something he had not consciously included in a particular book.

It is a fascinating letter, and even though it is the final portion that pertains to the subject I’ve been discussing, I will share it in whole.

The Kilns, Headington Quarry, Oxford   Christmas Day 1959

I hope my last letter to you did not sound chilling: still less (heaven help us!) as if I were offended by criticism. I think the chief reason why I am less disposed than you for large-scale discussion by letter is the difference of our ages. In youth we conduct (at least I did) long and deep disputations through the post. It is indeed a most valuable part of our education. We put into it quite as much thought and labour as would go to writing a book. But later, when one has become a writer of books, it is hard to keep it up. One can’t fill one’s leisure with the v. same activity which is one’s main work. And in my case not only the mind but the hand needs rest. Penmanship is increasingly laborious, and the results (as you see) increasingly illegible!

If you sometimes read into my books what I did not know I had put there, neither of us need be surprised, for greater readers have doubtless done the same to far greater authors. Shakespeare would, I suspect, read with astonishment what Goethe, Coleridge, Bradley and Wilson Knight have found in him! Perhaps a book ought to have more meanings than the writer intends? But then the writer will not necessarily be the best person with whom to discuss them.

You are in my daily prayers. Will you pray much for me at present? The cancer from which my wife was (as I believe, miraculously) delivered 2½ years ago, when death in a few weeks was predicted, is returning. Can one without presumption ever ask for a second miracle? The prophet turned back the shadow for Hezekiah once: not twice. Lazarus, raised from the dead, presently died again.

Yours

C.S. Lewis

P.S. I never thought of it before, but how Lazarus was sacrificed. To have it all to do over again–bis Stygios innare lacus!

_____

Father Peter Milward, SJ, taught English Literature at Sophia University in Tokyo. He has extensively published on his major subject, and A Challenge to C.S. Lewis (1995), which I just now ordered for my library. A curious title, however, for a student and “fan” of Lewis.

As a Shakespeare scholar, he has persuasively argued that the bard was Roman Catholic. “When the archbishop of Canterbury recently broke his church’s long silence and acknowledged that William Shakespeare was probably a Catholic, it was a moment of quiet satisfaction for Father Peter Milward, the author who began researching this subject a half century ago.” Read the article here.

Navy Nerds

May 19, 2014 — 7 Comments

nerdEvery once in a while, the military has a good idea. Sure, they have a knack for technological breakthroughs in warfare . . . but what about other fields? The NAVY NeRD answers that question in the affirmative.

NeRD stands for Navy eReader Device.

Well-informed readers of Mere Inkling are already aware of the growing intensity of international cyberwarfare. It is no joke, and lives are at stake.

Draconian policies are in place to avoid the contamination of the military computer system by innocently transferred viruses. Since virtually all digital platforms allow for the transfer of data, they are potentially dangerous.

Because of that, even ereaders have been off limits in certain environments. Now, however, someone has thought outside the proverbial box and come up with a solution to that problem.

The United States Navy has devised a novel ereader that comes loaded with 300 titles, but has no ports or wireless connectivity to allow for inadvertent viral transfers.

The selection of books sounds pretty well rounded. Some public domain classics, and a number of contemporary best sellers like A Game of Thrones. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien will be delighted to know the readers also include The Lord of the Rings.

Reading is a productive way to spend one’s free time during a lengthy period at sea. Even for those not prone to opting for it when faced with all the distractions ashore.

During WWII, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a former student who was serving in the Navy, “out of reach of libraries.” It acknowledges the perennial problem of sailors—lack of space for personal property. The letter was written in response to a request from Michael Rayner Thwaites for reading recommendations. Thwaites was an Australian poet and military intelligence officer.

A man who has already your linguistic training might well, I think, begin the Anglo Saxon on his own. You will need E. Wardale Old English Grammar. . . . For texts, the ordinary beginning is first Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer and then his Old English Reader. But you, being a classic might well, after a dip in the Primer go on to King Alfred’s trans. of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae . . .

Whether you can begin O.E. poetry on your own I don’t know. But try getting . . . Beowulf: and with it Clark Hall’s trans. ed. by Wrenn with preface by Tolkien . . . This edition is essential for it is Tolkien’s part of metre wh. is essential. (O.E. verse uses both quality and accent, and your ear is prob. ruined, as mine was, by the false way they teach Latin metre at schools–drastic re-education is required. . . .

As to modern literature. You must not start out to study it ‘as it reveals man’s hesitant advance to the idea of a God-created world’. Don’t you see you are laying down in advance what a phenomenon is to reveal before you have examined the phenomenon? It may reveal that: it may not. You have to find out. I don’t think I can lay down any v. definite course of reading.

All I can point out is that while you are in the navy and out of reach of libraries and new publications, this is the proper time for solid reading through the big (i.e. long) authors, critical works and histories of lit. can come later. Now is the time for Chaucer, Malory, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Fielding, Richardson, Cowper, Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, Dickens etc etc.

If you usually keep two books of widely different period and type going together (e.g. Faerie Queene & Tom Jones) you won’t get bored. I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas.

All this reading, tho’ dedicated ad Dei gloriam in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.

Back to the NeRD

The Navy is making 385 devices at first, with more to follow, with five being sent to each submarine in the Navy to be shared among the crew.

That’s only the start, of course. One would anticipate that even for a military crew (for example, 155 personnel on a Trident sub), a mere five mini-libraries would prove insufficient. (No offense intended; yours truly is a veteran himself.)

Vampire Poetry

February 19, 2014 — 13 Comments

vpoetryI was afraid to read it. I had just listened to the poem during an online newscast, and it included it so many jarring and disturbing images that I thought I must have misheard it.

Then again, it was written by a successful Hollywood star, so it certainly must be worthy of publication.

So, motivated by two impulses, I sought out the text. My first reason was that I did not wish to misjudge the writer, based on my shallow initial impression. The second was that I really did want to discover if it was as odd as I perceived it to be.

It is from the heart and pen of Kristen Stewart, who played the leading role in the Twilight series. It is described as a “love poem,” which is helpful to know in advance . . . since that might not be how one might inadvisably approach it.

I reared digital moonlight

You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black

Kismetly . . . ubiquitously crest fallen

Thrown down to strafe your foothills

. . . I’ll suck the bones pretty.

Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps

Spray painted everything known to man,

Stream rushed through and all out into

Something Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck

Through our windows boarded up

He hit your flint face and it sparked.

And I bellowed and you parked

We reached Marfa.

One honest day up on this freedom pole

Devils not done digging

He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle

And this pining erosion is getting dust in

My eyes

And I’m drunk on your morsels

And so I look down the line

Your every twitch hand drum salute

Salutes mine . . .

Overwhelming. I was actually tempted to use the word “pretentious,” until I read the following note about the magazine interview during which she shared the verse.

Before reading the poem, Kristen told the mag, “I don’t want to sound so f—ing utterly pretentious…but after I write something, I go, ‘Holy f—, that’s crazy.’ It’s the same thing with acting: If I do a good scene, I’m always like, ‘Whoa, that’s really dope.’”

After seeing that comment, with its sadly limited vocabulary, I can picture her composing her poetry dictionary and thesaurus in hand.

The poem’s significance takes a moment to sink into one’s mind . . . even if our brains are not clouded by being drunk on someone’s morsels. The poem is, in fact, so rich in meaning that it required two distinct titles: “Freedom Pole” and “My Heart is a Wiffle Ball.”

I dabble in poetry, but don’t consider myself a poet. So, I’m probably not the one to judge.

I would be curious to know what the newest addition to the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey would think of Stewart’s work. C.S. Lewis wrote poetry himself, of course, although he is much better known for his other literary contributions.

In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis describes the poetry of Samuel Daniel. “Though Daniel’s poetry is often uninspired, sometimes obscure, and not seldom simply bad, he has two strong claims on our respect.” I wonder if Lewis’ gracious nature might lead him to discern two strengths in Stewart’s poetic corpus.

In contrast to the previous evaluation, Lewis considered the poetry of Dante Alighieri to be masterful. In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis writes:

I think Dante’s poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read: yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do. . . . I draw the conclusion that the highest reach of the whole poetic art turns out to be a kind of abdication, and is attained when the whole image of the world the poet sees has entered so deeply into his mind that henceforth he has only to get himself out of the way, to let the seas roll and the mountains shake their leaves or the light shine and the spheres revolve, and all this will be poetry, not things you write poetry about.

Dare I confess that after Dante even Shakespeare seems to me a little factitious? It almost sounds as if he were “just making it up.” But one cannot feel that about Dante even when one has stopped reading him.

That’s the sort of verse that poets should always strive for—“the highest reach of the whole poetic art [which] turns out to be a kind of abdication.” Word dabblers such as myself are unlikely to ever attain such a lofty goal.

It may be that Stewart has kismetly attained these heights. But then again, perhaps she still has a little farther to travel before she reaches Marfa.

Powerful Names

September 30, 2013 — 13 Comments

missilesIt’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming (or labeling) something wields great power.

Whether it be a concrete object, or an idea, the power to name carries the power to shape perceptions.

Philosophically, we might agree that:

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Juliet, Romeo and Juliet).

But, if we are perfectly honest, calling it “skunk cabbage” might affect our perception of its aroma.

A classic example of the power of naming comes from the era of Norse exploration. In the ninth century, Vikings began settling in the inhospitably named “Iceland.” The island was majestic, and its spectacular glaciers and volcanoes still allowed room for extremely fertile farmsteads.

Less than a century and a half later, Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland. He sailed west and established the first colony on a much larger island that he enticingly named Greenland. Erik’s brilliant advertising ploy was quite effective, and hundreds of settlers joined him in the much harsher climes to Iceland’s west.

The specific appellations which led me to ponder the power that resides in naming once again,* actually came from a much more modern source—weaponry.

Military leaders have a knack for generating striking names. Often they are brilliant; occasionally they completely miss the mark. In either case, it’s curious to note the message their choice of nomenclature seeks to emphasize. Consider for a moment two different American missiles.

The AGM-114 Hellfire and the LGM-118A Peacekeeper

The reader naturally assumes the purpose of the former is to rain sulfur and brimstone down on the enemy, while the mission of the latter is to benignly maintain peace. One suspects, however, that being at the epicenter of either explosive device would be equally disastrous.

Another example we might consider is a bit more controversial, but fascinating nonetheless. Consider these labels for movements involved in the abortion debate.

Self-Preferred  ||  Used by Opponents  ||  Used by the Media

Pro-Choice  ||  Pro-Abortion  ||  Pro-Choice

Pro-Life  ||  Anti-Choice  ||  Anti-Abortion

It doesn’t require a brilliant intellect to comprehend the tone each of these labels evokes. Nor should it come as a surprise how the mainstream media tends to line up in the debate.

It’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming something wields great power.

C.S. Lewis was a master of language. He knew names exercise significant influence on how things are perceived. In the following passage from “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” he describes how a powerful word—in this case “mercy”—can be dangerously misleading when applied to something inimical to itself.

Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.

In another essay, “‘Bulverism:’ or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” Lewis actually coins a word which has found favor with a literate subculture. The peculiar word he created conveys a sense of obtuse, opinionated self-smugness. (Yes, I may be reading just a little bit into “Bulverism,” but I really don’t think so. The aristocratic or remote sounding surname “Bulver,” the “ism” suffix and, of course, the “Bul” prefix all combine to engender an odd and unappealing impression.)

The subject Lewis addresses in this work is the unwillingness of disagreeing parties to honestly debate the merits of an issue. Instead, they rush to employ the invalid (and terribly effective) ad hominem approaches that characterize so much of modern politics.

C.S. Lewis is so talented (and ingenious) that he provides us with a biographical note on the fictional creator of the deficient form of “debate” prevalent in the modern era. “The modern method [of argument],” Lewis begins, “is to assume without discussion [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.”

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—“Oh, you say that because you are a man.”

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

. . . Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason.

Sadly, Bulver’s disciples continue to increase, rather than diminish.

Since it was military missiles that initially got me thinking about the subject of the power of naming, it might be fitting to end with a few more evocative labels. They certainly elicit a wide range of impressions.

Condor: Argentina’s avian contribution

Piranha: Tiny but vicious and straight from Brazil’s Amazon

Velvet Glove: Canada’s mixed message

Sky Sword: China’s blending of the ancient and modern

Apache: French, which confuses this American veteran**

Meteor: A European offering sure to land hard if it doesn’t disappear in the atmosphere

Martel: Anglo-French venture they surely don’t want Islamists to think is a tribute to Charles Martel, Hero of the Battle of Tours***

V-1 Flying Bomb: Got to Hand it to the Germans for straight-forward labeling.

Rhinemaidens (Rheintöchter): There’s apparently Teutonic Poetry as well

Fateh: Iran’s “Conqueror”

Zelzal: Iran’s “Earthquake”

Sejjil: Iran’s “Baked Clay” (well we can’t expect all the Persian names to be winners)

Jericho: From Israel where we know whose walls tumbled down

Spike: Israeli and probably not a reference to Jael and the Book of Judges****

Hatf: Pakistani “Vengeance” (derived from the gentle sword of Muhammad)

Hyunmoo: Korea’s mythical “Guardian of the Northern Sky” (mayhap a reference to their aggressive northern neighbor)

Penguin: Those Norwegians really know how to frighten their enemies

Malakhit (Малахит): Just one of Russia’s curiously named explosives in their “mineral missile series”

Umkhonto: South African “Spear” from the Zulu tongue

The Brits are uniquely creative when it comes to naming missiles. They include: Blowpipe, Brimstone, Green Cheese, Rapier, Sea Skua and, of course, Fairey Fireflash and it’s less intimidating companion Fairey Stooge.

For some reason, I find a missile named “Green Cheese” particularly disconcerting. Whoever named that specific weapon was devilishly clever. If I were a world leader, I’d surrender immediately, rather than face a foe confident enough in their military prowess to use that sort of twisted culinary nomenclature for their armaments.

______

* I have written on the subject of personal names in the past.

** It just may translate as “Ruffian,” but I don’t think I want to go there, since it hints at political incorrectness.

*** It’s actually a combination of the missile’s guidance options: Missile, Anti-Radiation, Television. I’m sure the parallel with the Frankish defender of the Christian Church is a mere coincidence.

**** The fourth chapter of the Book of Judges.

reading awardsMost readers recognize significant differences exist between British and American literature.

Not only do our literary tastes often differ, there are more than a few differences in the English we use . . . for example, whether we include our punctuation inside, or outside, of “quotation marks.”

With that caveat, it’s interesting to ponder the 2008 list of favorite books in the United Kingdom, as reported in The Telegraph. I’m unsure right now whether there’s a more recent list, but it would probably remain fairly stable a lustrum later. (It would, however, be interesting to see how Rowling’s works rank in fifty or seventy years. Not to mention Pullman’s Gnostic series.)

In their balanced compendium of passages from C.S. Lewis’ works, Martindale and Root point out the transitory nature of literary fads.

A book that is number one on the New York Times Best-seller List for several weeks may be all but forgotten a decade later. Popularity in a moment of history does not guarantee that a book will endure beyond its own time. C. S. Lewis once observed that, like fashions, the more up-to-date a book is, the sooner it is out of date.

One of the peculiarities of the list is that only a single book by any particular author was allowed in the top twenty-one titles.

I read somewhere that the average reader had only read an “average” of six of the books. I’m not sure how that is calculated, since I know a fair number who have not read—if they’re being honest—a single book in the survey (those assigned for coursework included).

And, now that I’ve made that seemingly judgmental statement, I need to be particularly truthful in my own list. That means I can’t check off a title because I saw the movie or read the Classics Illustrated edition . . . even though I think it would be fair to get partial credit for either of those options.*

I’ll reproduce the entire British classics canon in a moment, but since everyone will get distracted while they read it (assessing which titles they themselves have read), I’ll share my brief list first.

I’m not too embarrassed by its brevity, since 80% of my reading is nonfiction, and the list is decidedly not that. Also, I can honestly say that there are another ten or so titles here that I have begun to read, without being sufficiently interested to finish.

The truth is that just as less than a quarter of my reading is devoted to fiction, most of that focuses on my favorite genre, alternative history. And, for some reason unknown to me, none of those titles made the list!

Here is my humble account of British must-reads that I have actually finished.

 1) The Lord of the Rings (Ranked #2).

 2) The Bible** (#6)

 3) Nineteen Eighty-Four (#8).

 4) Catch 22 (#13).

 5) The Hobbit (#16).

 6) The Great Gatsby (#22).

 7) The Chronicles of Narnia (#33).

 8) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (#36)

 — Isn’t that a tad redundant (in the American, not the British, sense)?

 9) Winnie the Pooh (#40).

10) Animal Farm (#41).

11) Lord of the Flies (#49).

12) Dune (#52).

13) Brave New World (#58).

14) Moby Dick (#70).

15) Dracula (#72).

16) A Christmas Carol (#81).

17) Charlotte’s Web (#87).

18) Heart of Darkness (#91).

Interesting—I thought it would be shorter. Their presence on this short list, by the way, doesn’t indicate my recommendation of all of these. Some were assigned reading. I’ve also read some of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, of course, but neither in their entirety.***

The full list follows. Enjoy going through it yourself to see how you stack up. And, don’t be intimidated if the books you favor keep you too busy to read what others deem the most significant.

_____

* Just joking. I would never consider seeing a movie as the equivalent of reading a book; some of them bear little resemblance to their source. That acknowledged, sometimes the cinematic adaptations are better than the books.

** I know it only has a single Author, but shouldn’t this count as 66 books?

*** My lovely wife, who I sometimes compel to proofread for me, could not resist mentioning that she was able to check off many more titles on this list than I did. I chalk that up to her sharp intelligence (valedictorian, 4.0 in college and grad school, etc.), general perfectionism, speed-reading skills, tolerance for boring literature, and “compulsive” personality. All of that, plus her consuming love of reading.

Here’s the British list.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal – Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Alborn

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Vivacious Vocabularies

October 24, 2012 — 19 Comments

One reason I love reading C.S. Lewis arises from his adroit use of the English language. His vocabulary is immense. It is pleasant to run into words one seldom encounters on the drab byways of modern journalism and tangled thoroughfares of contemporary “social media.”

Consider the following example. I was exploring The Allegory of Love when I read this: “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.”

What a delightful verb! It evokes for me recollections of my youth when my parents would refer to our coffee pot as the percolator. Simultaneously, it reminds me of more recent—less happy—usages: “I’m sorry, but inadequate soil percolation means you’ll have to install a far more expensive septic system than normally required.”

It’s discouraging when you consider the sad state of modern vocabularies. I read somewhere that people typically only use about 10% of the words they know. So a common vocabulary of 5,000 spoken words would mean they know (i.e. can recognize written or audible forms of) about 50,000 words. Shakespeare used 29,000 words in his plays and sonnets, suggesting an expansive vocabulary. Likewise, brilliant authors like C.S. Lewis would boast a praiseworthy mental dictionary.

I am sometimes curious about my own vocabulary. I consciously attempt—in conversation as well as writing—to utilize at least 15% of the words I know. After all, the English language is so rich, it’s criminal to limit ourselves to pedestrian words. It’s like having all the ingredients for a delicious feast available to us and settling for slapping together a peanut butter sandwich.

I also love the precision that comes from using the exact word that suits the occasion. For example, in a thriller it matters greatly how the hero’s nemesis inflicts injury. A skilled writer would never say “Professor Moriarty cut Holmes.” Instead, we would learn that he slashed . . . stabbed . . . sliced . . . scarred . . . carved . . . or perhaps he merely nicked the detective. Likewise, we would probably know the type of weapon he was using. It would not be a mere “knife.” It might be a saber . . . a dagger . . . a pocketknife . . . scalpel . . . carving knife . . . or perhaps even a bayonet.

Lewis addressed this richness in vocabulary in an essay on “Transposition” which appears in The Weight of Glory.

If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning. The transposition of the richer into the poorer must, so to speak, be algebraical, not arithmetical. If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense. If you are to write a language with twenty-two vowel sounds in an alphabet with only five vowel characters than you must be allowed to give each of those five characters more than one value. If you are making a piano version of a piece originally scored for an orchestra, then the same piano notes which represent flutes in one passage must also represent violins in another.

It is wonderful to be fortunate enough to speak a language with a diverse vocabulary. English is such a tongue. Now, if we could just simplify its complexities and purge its irregularities, we would enjoy the best of all linguistic worlds.