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!

In the Opinion of the Intelligent Readers Club…

Alright, well Cassandra is taking a break for a while, but I have a great sub for her! This is the first of several posts that you’ll be seeing from Canaan Suitt:

Machiavelli’s most famous work, and arguably his most influential. The Prince is one of the few books that I’ve read multiple times. It’s magnificent.

“The Divine Comedy,” said my professor, visibly irritated, “a work which everyone likes to talk about but which no one has read.” He could have substituted the Iliad, the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Republic, Plutarch’s Lives, The City of God, Beowulf, The Prince, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, The Federalist Papers, Moby Dick and many other renowned pieces of literature and the same censure would hold true. Just today I had a discussion with a friend who expressed disapproval of Machiavelli’s “wretchedness,” but when I asked him if he had actually read The Prince, he responded that, of course, he had not. Or there was the pompous interlocutor who attempted to discredit Alexander Hamilton’s “big government” stance but had not even glanced at The Federalist Papers to discover what Hamilton actually said (besides, Jay and Madison wrote most of the section on the Senate which my friend was bashing). Anyone who actually reads books can only express dismay at such foolishness.

Some of the classics are wonderful, but honestly I think that some of them are over-rated… Everyone is going to have his/her own tastes in literature, don’t be ashamed of yours.

Perhaps we can forgive my friends’ vanity when we realize that the impression that we must read certain books (the “classics”) to be considered intelligent is inculcated in students throughout their education. For instance, I’ll never forget my high school English teacher who used to harp on the books that were “vitally important” to read before going into college or the condescension I sometimes received and at times gave to others when a certain book hadn’t been read. I was frowned upon for not having read 1984 in my senior year of high school; I frowned upon someone else because they hadn’t read The Screwtape Letters. First of all, this impression in and of itself is skewed. The purpose of reading “classics” is not so one can brag about one’s intelligence. It seems to me that the only valid reason for reading classics or anything else is to gain knowledge and understanding, not to obtain a membership card into the Intelligent Reader Club. But secondly, this impression isn’t even enforced by reading the books, which, it is insisted, must be read. My English teacher failed to enlighten me a great deal. Homer, Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Milton, and Shakespeare, are met far more frequently, and perhaps exclusively, through textbooks and other secondary sources than through what the actual authors bequeathed to the world. Like my friends in the foregoing examples, some people will feign knowledge of the primary works based on such superficial acquaintance in order to seem knowledgeable. Some people don’t read them (don’t even read the textbooks!) and don’t care, either. In both cases, the ignorance is disturbing.

Modern politics… Sophism at it’s best… or worst, as the case may be.

More generally, many people have the impression that they ought to have an opinion, and so they express it when, in fact, they don’t have one. In America, this is especially true in politics, a fact that has been proven to a superfluous degree this election year. What most people call their political opinions are the parrot-like recapitulations of their preferred pundit. Not only have people not actually read the books that would have greatly assisted them in forming their opinions, they haven’t even thought for themselves. In consequence of this uncritical mindset, peoples’ tempers flare and they become ludicrously defensive when their political opinions are assailed. For instance, I often wondered why voters become as emotionally involved as the actual candidates during an election when their preferred candidate is criticized–and not even with a good criticism! Someone gives an insipid criticism of a Romney gaffe and the Romney supporter goes nuclear with ominous prophecies of the future if Obama is reelected. It seems to me that unthoughtfulness accounts for this phenomenon. People would rather become polemical about sound bites and birth certificates and falsely pride themselves on having an opinion rather than confront real issues as well as the candidates’ stances on those issues and thereby possess an opinion worth verbalizing. I wonder if we are the most insecure people in the history of the world!

Plato’s allegory of the cave is presented in the Republic as an example of his theory of ideal forms. An example with great depth and breadth that has managed to successfully impact cultures from Plato’s own time to today because it strikes at the basis of human nature.

One thing my English instructor did teach me is that I ought to conclude my writings with a rousing plea, a challenge for readers to take up. Unfortunately, I will not meet that guideline here. All I can do is express my wish that more people would read and read deeply. All I can do is express my wish that more people would think and think carefully. In his essay On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis wrote that the only palliative to a narrow, uncritical mindset is to read broadly and deeply. He said reading old books help dispel the misconceptions of the current age like a fresh sea breeze. On the other hand, reading current books help dispel the misconceptions of the past and expose the tacitly accepted mindset of the present time. Reading a three-paragraph textbook summary of Plato’s Theory of Ideals, for example, will not reveal what Plato really meant in all his nuance and complexity–only Plato can do that, and he does a far better job of it than Editor et al. That goes for any of the works I listed before and many, many more. We must read carefully and then think deeply and then repeat. That is, we must do this if we really want to understand and be thoughtfully engaged in the world. The opinions which we love to have and express will follow naturally if we do this–and they will be worth hearing!