I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Month: December 2016

Books I read in 1389

For the beginning part of this year I was still reading books that I had started and not completed before I adopted the discipline of finishing every book I started. I believe that Homilies on the Gospel of John is the last book I had started but not finished.

  • The Bookseller of Kabul—this book is worth reading as an illustration of how not to engage with foreign cultures. It is ridiculously bad; the author doesn’t even make an effort to see things from Afghans’ point of view. Quite typical of the period.
  • Conceptual Foundations of Teaching Reading—I remember this was really excellent and data-driven. The best part of the book comes at the end, where the author reproduces the results of national standardized reading tests that show that—believe it or not!—none of the changes in reading pedagogy has really moved the needle on reading ability. Frankly,  I think that this is because “literacy” is described in such expansive terms about processing, comparing, and synthesizing information, that it’s basically become redundant with terms such as “intelligence” or “cultivation.”
  • Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach—This was valuable; and the first edition was much better than the second.
  • Developing Adult Literacy
  • Homilies on the Gospel of John—This was Chrysostom, but (perhaps because I was sort of anxious to read through it and get on to something else) I don’t recall taking much away from it.
  • Hexameron—The science and even the understanding of the natural world is… dated. But the exultation with which Basil glories in the wonders of Creation can’t be gainsaid.
  • Second Treatise of Government—This fell apart for me when Locke remarked, almost as an aside, that if someone stole his property, then he (Locke) would be justified in killing that man, but not in taking his property back. It’s like one of those moments in math when you come up with 2 = 0, and you know that something has gone wrong somewhere, even if you don’t know exactly where.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  • Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales
  • My Grandfather’s Son—What struck me about Clarence Thomas’s autobiography was that race forms so much of his personal experience, however much he tries to keep race out of his jurisprudence.
  • Bright Against the Storm—This book and the one following were written by my friend Ari Heinze. I enjoyed them, and I don’t think they’ve be received as they might be.
  • Ashes of Our Joy
  • The Turkish Jester—I enjoy a good Mullah Nasruddeen story, but I don’t think I understood a single one of these jokes.
  • Dracula—This is such a terrible book. It was so painful to read I was angry most of the time that I was reading. What kind of person writes out an entire chapter in German-accented dialect, because zat’s ze vay ze character speaks? It was so difficult to get through this book I can’t even say.
  • Stones to Schools—Of course this now needs to be read in concert with Jon Krakauer’s book.
  • A world without poverty—There’s probably a honeymoon period after winning a Nobel Prize where it seems like you can really make a diffference.  I think Muhammad Yunus was going through some of that here. A great man, though.
  • Working together for literacy
  • Handbook of the International Phonetic Association
  • The New Testament and the People of God
  • Persian Grammar
  • A Man For All Seasons—Of course I heard Paul Scofield’s voice as I read the play.
  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
  • Jane Eyre
  • First on the Moon—This was a lot of fun. I was getting into space stuff again with the kids.
  • Henry VIII
  • A Preface to Paradise Lost—Helpful on many levels.
  • A Student’s Guide to Literature
  • The Canterbury Tales—In the original. I need to write some blog posts about these.
  • The Well-Trained Mind
  • The Remains of the Day—Probably not as good a book as the movie was a movie.
  • Notes from the Underground—For all the hype, I didn’t get much out of this. I probably need to read it again.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles
  • A Journal of the Plague Year—Very interesting and engaging. Defoe paints a vivid picture. (It was hard to believe he hadn’t actually witnessed the events.)
  • The Jungle Book—I enjoyed this a lot.  “I will remember what I was” is one of the great lines in English literature, in my opinion.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel—Lots of swashbuckling fun, but…
  • I Will Repay— …why would you write a sequel without the main character from the original. I expected to read the series but six years later this book was disappointing enough that I haven’t read the third.
  • Biko—Biko the man was admirable. Biko the book was somewhat less so. It was too journalistic and conspiratorial for me (especially at the end). For me, the melodrama detracted from the seriousness of the events.

Books I read in 1388

Midway through the solar Persian year of 1388, I started keeping tracks of the books that I read (in connection with this discipline).  Motivated party by nostalgia, partly by a desire to see what stuck with me, and partly by pretentiousness, I’ve decided to go over my lists. This list begins in alphabetical order, because I only started keeping track midway through 1388, so I listed all the books I had read up to that point.

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • A Child’s History of England—My first voluntary Dickens book. Charming; probably whiggish.
  • Diggers in the Earth—surprisingly fascinating.
  • Frankenstein—Great literature; so much more than a monster story.
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Ivanhoe—Very good.
  • Little Women—Sweet… treacly sweet.
  • Orthodoxy
  • Peter and Wendy
  • Phastastes—My first foray into George MacDonald. I reread it recently because I couldn’t remember the plot. But there is no plot, just George MacDonald’s fertile imagination.
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress—Heavy-handed moralizing, terrible fiction. My first intimation that C.S. Lewis and I have different taste.
  • Pride and Prejudice—Not as good as the 1996 BBC original. 😉
  • Robinson Crusoe—Great story; difficult prose.
  • The Sign of the Four—Holmes! So I was in my late 20s before I got into this.
  • Sketch of Handel and Beethoven
  • A Study in Scarlet
  • Thomas Wingfold, Curate—Really wonderful moral novel.
  • The Time Machine
  • On the Incarnation—I know I had read this before, so this was a (fully justified!) re-reading.
  • The Resurrection of the Son of God—Intellectually formative. I read about a hundred pages and ordered the earlier two books in the series.
  • Kingdom and Promise
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?—Great popular-level discussion of philosophical questions.
  • Language documentation
  • Henry VI, Part 2—This is when I decided to finish up Shakespeare’s histories. There’s a reason you don’t hear much about Henry VI.
  • Henry VI, Part 3
  • Life of Anthony
  • Tricks of the Trade—Provides wonderful intuition about qualitative research.
  • The Spirit of the Disciplines—Easily my favorite Willard book; far better than The Divine Conspiracy.
  • Cultures & Organizations—Principal component analysis of cultural variables; what’s not to love?
  • A Practical View—This book, written by William Wilberforce, sounds like one I’d like to read. I can’t remember a thing about it.
  • Descent into hell—My first Charles Williams book. Mind-bender! I’d like to re-read it.
  • Richard III—My reward for making it through the Henry VI’s.
  • Please Understand Me II—I don’t recall the merits of the book; I’m a big fan of Meyers-Briggs in general. (I’m a textbook INTJ.)
  • Now, Discover Your Strengths
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns—If his first wasn’t exploitative enough for you….
  • A Manual of Literacy for Preliterate Peoples
  • Descent into Chaos—Interesting subject matter, horrible analysis.
  • Emma
  • Silmarillion—Very difficult to care about.

A People’s History of the United States

I am a quarter of the way through A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.  It’s a thought-provoking book. Here are some thoughts it’s provoked in me recently:

  • Surely there is a less intellectually painful way to expose myself to perspectives different to my own.
  • Why isn’t the Kindle book progress meter moving? (I believe I have celebrated each and every change in percentage.)
  • How could this book have received a second reading, let alone a second edition?
  • Can I get through it more quickly if I jot off a quick review now, rather than waiting till I finish it?

Here’s what I like about the book: it uncovers the dirty laundry; it puts a spotlight on communities that weren’t in control of the political process. It is a good reminder that there was no golden age. The battle between good and evil has always raged; there has always been a need for a prophetic voice; men and women have always needed to take sides.

What I don’t like about the book is the hamfisted historical and political analysis. Zinn imputes malevolent motives to historical actors as consistently as if it were a methodological imperative. His narrative becomes ridiculous. One reviewer puts it well, “The ironic effect of such portraits of rulers is to rob ‘the people’ of cultural richness and variety, characteristics that might gain the respect and not just the sympathy of contemporary readers. For Zinn, ordinary Americans seem to live only to fight the rich and haughty and, inevitably, to be fooled by them.” (Michael Kazin; as quoted in the Wikipedia page.) Lack of depth isn’t the least of the book’s problems. He suggests that the Founding Fathers insisted on strong property rights so that they could force the poor to pay their debts. Anyone who’s spent time in a place where rule of law is weak will confirm: the rich and powerful don’t need laws to oppress the poor.

And the tragedy, of course, is that there is actual injustice in American history. There really isn’t a shortage of material. But instead a painstaking and careful examination of the facts, we have these ridiculous conspiratorial assertions, which would make Oliver Stone blush. The net effect—for me, anyway—is to cast doubt on the historical facts. And it’s just agony to read. It’s like being forced to listen to two unintelligent people who share identical views talk about politics.

So, 25%.

January 4, 2017: And I’m done!

I read the Kindle version, but I see from Amazon that the print book is 700-odd pages. And I felt every page. I was able to read much faster when I realized that this is not an academic book, or even a decent piece of journalism, where you would attend to the way the argument is presented, looking for logical fallacies, and paying special attention to what sorts of claims are made or not made. No. You just get through it—and, if you’re so politically inclined, be enraged by the Establishment.

I stand by the above statement: “It’s like being forced to listen to two unintelligent people who share identical views talk about politics.”

Zinn is comically biased. Just about every white male in the Establishment is either a frothing racist, or at best a good-natured coward. Union leaders receive a somewhat gentler treatment:

Black workers at this time found the National Labor Union reluctant to organize them.

Naturally, his perspective does not lend itself to subtle analyses:

One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.

If you’re not part of the top 1%, that’s you. (Readers of this blog with undoubtedly be familiar with my antipathy for property-holding, black, foreign-born, uneducated/unskilled people.) But don’t worry, because at the same time, the mass of Americans are good-hearted people who want there to be real change, and are right on the cusp of moving into hippie communes, if there were only someone to organize them.

There’s so much to say. But I’m confine it to this: it’s not even a good moral analysis. The most evil capitalist doesn’t expend any energy loathing the less-fortunate. The sin is one of neglect. Truly, I harbor no antipathy for any group of people on the planet. Good for me! But the question on Judgment Day will be whether I ever noticed their plight, and lifted a finger to help.

I’m not competent to assess many of the historical claims that Zinn makes. One stood out simply because I happen to know something about the timeline of antiballistic missile technology.

[George W. Bush] moved to increase the military budget, and to pursue the “Star Wars” program though the consensus of scientific opinion was that antiballistic missiles in space could not work, and that even if the plan worked, it would only trigger a more furious arms race throughout the world.

In fact, the system had been tested successfully in the late 90s, before Bush took office.

There’s no such thing as unbiased history, because all of history involves creating an narrative arc, which cannot be read directly from a sequence of historical facts. But one can do better or worse, and frank discussions about historical methodology go a long way to keeping things on the level. Zinn approaches none of this, of course. His aim is merely to provide a counterweight, a book biased in the opposite direction from how he perceives other books to be biased.

[Blah blah blah] That makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.

It’s not that we’re trying to uncover the correct facts, or (granted a set of assumptions) come to the correct conclusions. It’s not even that previous histories suppressed facts, which we will now get out in the open. We’re just trying to get a book out there that will move the average of all history books slightly to the left. This reminded me of my critique of postmodern decision making from early last year.

Some years back I was forced to listen to some right-wing propaganda, which I described at the time as “intellectual waterboarding.” The term applies to reading this book as well. Reader beware: if you’re going to try to read a book from the other side of the political spectrum, choose carefully!

Contemporary Christian Music Industry Attains Incarnational Presence in Nation’s Elevators After Decades-Long Effort

Nashville, TN—The leading trade association for contemporary Christian music announced today that, after decades of relentless effort, they have finally succeeded in developing musical style appropriate to the elevator context.

Spokesperson Randall Jennings spoke from the headquarters of the recently renamed Christian Muzak Trade Association.

“The church has always had an incarnational presence in the world of music,” Jennings noted. “But times have changed. If you look at where the lost actually are, they’re not in music halls, or in cathedrals, [or in venues that assign the least importance to artistic merit]. They’re in elevators.”

“People are in elevators every day,” Jennings observes. “We’re using that cultural space to expose people to the Gospel at every level of society—literally.”

Contemporary Christian musicians have struggled for decades to produce the simple and inoffensive jingles that could gain them access to the exclusive world of elevator music. They view that presence as a key to Christian witness.

“Time was, you could rely on the church organist to reach people,” said Jennings, in apparent reference to such predecessors in cultural engagement as Johann Sebastian Bach. “These days, people don’t go for it. They want the least offensive and innovative music possible. They want the record executives to go out there and find the easy music for them. [And then they need it to be simplified again before it’s played on the radio.]”

The industry’s efforts have not been without criticism, however. “Some people have a real problem with Christian music being played alongside of [stripped down instrumental versions of] Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, or even Adele,” Jennings admits. “But isn’t that exactly where we need to be reaching people?”

A commitment to the elevator music genre has also meant that not everyone has found a place in the industry. That’s something that Seattle-based recording artist Josh Michaels has learned the hard way. Following a promising debut, his career faltered several years ago, after he included a fourth chord in his sophomore album.

“I guess it was a lesson in understanding what [recording executives say] audiences really want,” Michaels now says. “In my new album, I’m definitely sticking to just three chords. It’s actually mostly just pentatonic now.”

It’s too soon to tell whether Michaels can achieve his sought-after redemption in the industry, but optimistic observers have noted with approval his recent embrace of the synthesizer.

At CMTA headquarters, Jennings made clear that they won’t be resting on their laurels. “We’re not solidly established in elevators, but we’re not stopping there. We’ve hopes to make it into dentist’s waiting rooms. And one day, you might even hear Christian music when you’re on hold with the cable company. Onward and upward.”

The idea for this if-not-outright-meanspirited-then-certainly-close article came to me as I was enjoying Josh Garrel‘s wonderful new Christmas album, The Light Came Down (especially tracks 13 and 14), wondering how such a talented musician could not have a wider following. Best of luck to Josh and all the others out there pursuing music and discipleship to Christ in parallel!

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