A Farewell Booklist

Well, with the New Year comes a new list of books I want to read. Also with the New Year comes the expiration of my stint on this estimable blog. I’ve enjoyed trying my hand at writing these weekly posts and I hope you, the reader, have enjoyed reading my (occasionally curmudgeonly) cogitations. Anyhow, it seemed most fitting to leave you with the list of books I hope to read in the upcoming months. My thought, you see, is that you may find one of them interesting also. I think it fitting because I started these posts of mine by writing about reading. So, some of the books on this list I received as presents for Christmas. Others I will have to procure some way or other… selling blood, menial odd jobs, who knows? As Erasmus said, whenever I have money, I buy books.

This is hands down one of the best books I've ever read.
This is hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read.

The first book on the list is one I’m actually reading now, To Change the World – The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter. This book was on the top of my Christmas wish list. Comprised of three interconnected essays touching on how culture is changed (with satisfyingly extensive historical examples), the relationship of Christianity to the broader culture and politics (Hunter says Christianity’s primary witness is a political witness), and the author’s alternative suggestion for Christian cultural engagement dubbed “faithful presence,” this book by Hunter, a sociologist stationed at the University of Virginia, is thus far the best book I’ve read on the immensely interesting topic of Christians and cultural involvement. It is one of those books that  has articulated vague ideas that have been circulating in my head for some time, and by articulating them it has developed, altered and more fully delineated those ideas. I would just highly recommend it to anyone whose curiosity touches on this subject – along with another favorite of mine, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, by Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This book is called by one of its reviewers a “[Christian] pilgrim’s pogrom against political pabulum.” It is certainly great fun to read and intellectually worthwhile. In fact, it’s something of a lesson in logic in and of itself.

The second book I can’t wait to read is The Republic and The Laws by Cicero. I was acquainted with the former work by St. Augustine in The City of God. Augustine gives a fairly detailed summary of a certain passage in The Republic wherein the interlocutors are considering the nature of  republic – what it is, what makes it so. I’ve long since forgotten the point Augustine was driving towards by quoting Cicero; I only remember thinking to myself, “I’ve got to read The Republic!” The last great work of political thought I read was The Federalist Papers, this past summer (that is, in entirety–I started Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy in the fall and stopped, deciding I’d better go back and read Livy!). So it’ll be good to delve into this.

Washington Irving
Washington Irving, AKA Dietrich Knickerbocker.

Thirdly, A History of New York by Washington Irving. Known mainly for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving is considered the Father of American letters, and he’s one of my personal favorites. A History of New York is a satirical history of Dutch colonial rule of what was then New Amsterdam. Irving – ahem, Dietrich Knickerbocker – would have you know that the history is, of course, wholly factual. But it is also delightfully satirical. I have fairly ugly orange tome of Irving’s works that contains excerpts from the History and it is one of those rare, delightful books that doubles me over with laughter. I got the full work for Christmas and can’t wait to romp through it.

Well, these are but three of the books I will be reading in the upcoming weeks. Perhaps you will find one of these useful for your own reading. Of course, I know everyone says they have their own books to read and can’t find the time. However, it seems most people actually have plenty of time to watch tasteless “reality” TV shows and sitcoms mistakenly called “comedic” and “entertaining.” Read one of these books instead and be thankful I told you about them. If you don’t, “You will be most ungrateful and the angels will weep for you.” I love that line, from Pygmalion, I think. Cheers!

Long Days, Short Years

I found this Left Behind-worthy picture here...
I found this Left Behind-worthy picture here…Credit to where it’s due.

Since the world didn’t end yesterday, I have the privilege of writing to all of you again. Indeed, with the end of the world behind us, Christmas is just a few days away. New Year’s is a week after that. Where has the time gone? I had an uncle who used to say that you know you’re getting older when days are long and years are short. At first I didn’t understand what my uncle meant, but time has revealed the truth of his saying. With increasing responsibilities and cares, individual days become long and heavy. But looking back over months from the vantage point of a holiday like Christmas or New Year’s, everything seems to have passed by so quickly.

Long days, short years – I think we tend to shrug off sayings like these because we don’t think they have any meaning or relevance. “For goodness’ sakes, they’re just sayings!” Ironically, we think they have no meaning not because they don’t, but because we can’t see their meaning at the moment. Words of advice like this are borne out of years of experience and reflection, and though my uncle wasn’t an academic or trained philosopher, he knew a great deal about life from having lived it.

This saying encapsulates a basic tension in life – a paradox: the tension between the urgent and the important, between the dull and the quickening, between the necessary and the interesting, between the mediocre and the beautiful. All of the foregoing adjectives describe the things that make individual days long and heavy. But all of the latter adjectives describe those things that we celebrate on holidays or commemorative occasions. The great bulk of time is occupied with the mundane, the unpleasant, the humdrum – such as chores around the house, work, school, errands, meetings, driving, riding the bus or subway, and the list goes on (everyone can make their own list, I’m sure). Only occasionally, and oftentimes at the least expected moment, do we experience the beautiful, good moments when life seems to be as it ought to be, when we catch a glimpse of the truth and there is rest – at least for a little while – for our weariness and striving.

One of the all-time best Christmas shows!
One of the all-time best Christmas shows!

Perhaps the goal of life is about finding that rest, permanently. It seems everyone is searching for that same rest in every way imaginable. St. Augustine famously said that we are restless until we find rest in God through Jesus Christ. At this time of the year, I simply affirm Charlie Brown’s complaints against commercialism and hope that this Christmas and New Year’s is more than presents and food and superficial, passing happiness. I hope it’s a time that helps us reflect on life’s goal and purpose; that will reorient our minds on what really matters. Just as Christmas is more than material presents, life is more than the routine and necessity of everyday. On this, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and hope we attain the rest we seek.

Ready for Change

I found this lovely picture here.
I found this lovely picture here.

Just this week while idly browsing the radio channels I heard through the static Auld Land Syne. When one hears this song on the radio, one can take it for a clear sign (however staticky the signal) that the holidays and that change are upon us. As the plaintive chorus sounded out, I was pierced with the familiar but shocking bittersweet longing. My hand remained fixed to the tuning dial while my eyes glazed over and I was oblivious to everything around me, sunk in thought–until the fellow I was picking up briskly opened and shut the door of the car (in case you’re wandering why I was idly listening to the radio).

Certainly this season, culminating in the New Year, helps us think more deliberately about our lives–where we’ve come from, where we are, and where it is we at least hope to pursue (if not reach–like twenty-five pounds lighter). Indeed, plans for the future are borne out of realizing our past and present. For our lives are never in equilibrium and we never attain, at least not permanently, the state of being we desire, wherein we can say, “I am perfectly fulfilled and contented. My life is as it ought to be.” In reflecting upon the past and present, or by merely living in an imperfect state, our hearts are at tension, propelling us onward. We yearn for perfection, or at least greater proximity to it, in our imperfection. This is as it should be.

New Year's resolutions for change and improvement often involve exercising. In January, the gyms are packed. March comes and they aren't.
New Year’s resolutions  often involve exercising. In January, gyms are packed. March comes and they aren’t.

Life is change. It is in essence giving up what we’ve known to know that which is greater. At least it is hoped that what comes next will be greater–a step forward on the path, up the hill, in pursuance of the resting place, the summit. Or perhaps the desire is actually to feel like one is getting better. In other words, perhaps the desire is to feel good and is not to actually get better in any real sense.  I say this because in my experience the times during which we are agonized by problems and under great strain result in actual improvement and progress, and none of us really want to be agonized or stressed. Perhaps what we really want is not improvement but happiness, not goodness but comfort.

Tennyson Book of Poetry

At this time of the year, when it is good to reflect on life–its blessings, absurdities, frustrations and joys–and where we are and where we’re headed, I’d like to offer an excerpt from one of my favorite poems, Ulysses by Tennyson. Familiar to many, this poem expresses in the most evocative terms the desire to press on, to seek, to know. When life blocks from our memories what this journey of life we’re on is all about, poetry helps reorient our minds on what really matters. This poem helps its readers who may be weary of life rediscover the drive to go on – to once again see and relish life.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this grey spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.