July 30, 2010 4 Comments
This is my first podcast or audio post. It’s kind of an experiment—a discussion of four novels that I read the past week during a refreshing vacation in Washington and Idaho.
Here are the books with links to Amazon:
Are you good at believing the things you believe? Does it show in the way you live?
July 30, 2010 4 Comments
This is my first podcast or audio post. It’s kind of an experiment—a discussion of four novels that I read the past week during a refreshing vacation in Washington and Idaho.
Here are the books with links to Amazon:
February 23, 2010 18 Comments
A few days ago I unexpectedly came across a book that I believe may be one of the most important books I’ve read—Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hale (2006).
This is not your standard self-help book that panders to readers needing yet another pop-psychology fix. It is a serious but readable treatise on how the psycho-dynamics of predatory behavior manifests in the workplace, the damage that results when this happens, and how co-workers and superiors can and must respond with greater wisdom. Read more of this post
December 4, 2009 3 Comments
What would Jesus do if he was alive on the earth now and facing the skeptics of our day? The same thing he did in the first century. And what was that?
This question is answered with great clarity in the new book by Norman Geisler and Patrick Zukeran—The Apologetics of Jesus: A Caring Approach to Dealing with Doubters.
I want to recommend this book for several reasons: Read more of this post
November 1, 2009 Leave a comment
Laurence Sterne’s ironical work of fiction, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was first published in 1759. It baffled and intrigued Sterne’s contemporaries. You may feel the same way after reading the opening sentence:
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.
Come again? Read more of this post
June 13, 2009 10 Comments
This short post got me thinking about these and related questions. The result is a longer post sketching some of my thoughts about the general topic.
What Is Speculative about ‘Speculative Fiction’?
My Friend Amy quotes Wikipedia for an answer to this question:
Speculative fiction is a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history. (Click here for the complete Wikipedia entry for “Speculative fiction.)
The term is of relatively recent vintage. It doesn’t appear in any of the three handbooks I consult for such things:
I once read an essay on speculative fiction that developed a convincing account of the form. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the author or where I came across the item. But I do remember thinking then that “speculative fiction” is an apt label for fiction that explores counterfactuals—ways things might have been but weren’t, or ways things might yet be but won’t. [FN: For more about counterfactuals at this website, "Run Lola Run—A Discussion Guide."]
The interesting examples of counterfactuals are worlds very close to this, the actual world. “What if, instead of X happening at time t, something else that could easily have happened, Y, had happened at t? How would things have turned out then?” (One serious philosophical problem with speculation of this sort is that the sequel to any counterfactual at time t—the succession of events following Y, for example—may itself vary in numerous counterfactual ways. There may be many ways things might have turned out if Y had happened rather than X at t. And it’s puzzling to think that there is just one way things would have turned out in such a counterfactual setup. But I digress.)
The better fictional depictions of counterexamples would be at least minimally ‘literary.’ And they would explore themes of enduring human interest.
Could a Christian author write speculative fiction? Of course. The author at My Friend Amy’s blog alludes to several. The most obvious examples are ones that are most obviously ‘Christian.’ They broadcast a Christian message so overtly that it cannot be missed. For example, as noted in the blog post over at My Friend Amy, much Christian fiction depicts battles in the spirit world between angels and demons and the role of intercessory prayer by humans caught in the conflict. This kind of speculative fiction will appeal mostly to Christian readers, and then only to a certain kind of Christian reader. They don’t appeal to My Friend Amy for example. [FN: Some Christians, you may be surprised to hear, would argue that many such specimens of fiction are not properly Christian.]
C. S. Lewis and Others
It is interesting to me that C. S. Lewis is not mentioned. In addition to his cherished Narnia series of fantasy novels, Lewis wrote a very sophisticated series of three novels in what might be called the category of ‘space fiction.’ These are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote with subtlty and grace. It’s well-known that he wrote from a Christian worldview. But these novels do not ‘preach.’
Lewis also wrote The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. These must surely count as paradigm cases of ‘speculative fiction.’ Next time you read them, consider this question: “What sort of ‘what-if’ question is Lewis endeavoring to answer in this book?”
I think that’s the question to put to any book if you want to be sure it counts as ‘speculative fiction.’ This opens the way for ostensive definition of the term. That is, it facilitates understanding of the term ‘speculative fiction’ by pointing to clear cases of it. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Shikasta, by Doris Lessing (1979), and The Children of Men, by P. D. James (1992).
It’s interesting to consider these examples in connection with questions raised by My Friend Amy. My view is that speculative fiction is a particularly congenial form for writing from a distinctive worldview, be it Christian or otherwise. It is congenial in part because it permits experimentation with the implications of a worldview without wearing that worldview on its sleeve. Doris Lessing and P. D. James both write with religious sensibilities—Lessing with the perspective of Sufism, James with a Christian worldview. [FN: Lessing was once offered the honorific title of "Dame" by Queen of England. Lessing declined the honor. James was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991.] The guiding perspective in each case, though often discernible, is subtly layered into the narrative. This is akin to what the great authors Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene accomplished in their more ‘realist fiction.’ [FN: See for example, and the short stories of Flannery O'Connor, and The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.]
For many readers of this post, the film adaptation of The Children of Men will be better known than the book. While watching the first few scenes, I thought about how this darkly apocalyptic film might render the religious component of the human condition when humanity is faced with extinction. My guess was that it would represent society as completely secular, and that any portrayal of religious people would characterize them as the kind who stand on street corners warning passersby of imminent divine judgment, in a tone that betrays their conviction that ‘none who hear will convert, and it’s just as well anyway, since they deserve to go to hell.’ That pretty much is how religion was ‘treated’ in the film.
That last statement needs qualification. What I should say is that religion, imagined under the conditions described in the film, is presented a certain way. This may be a commentary on how religion is manifest in the world today. But it’s pretty striking that no one I would call a ‘serious believer’ shows up in the movie. I imagine they don’t exist, or, if they do, they are marginally significant to the storyline. But then what would account for their nonexistence? Or what would explain their insignificance to the unfolding story? It is precisely the apocalyptic character of the story that makes their absence conspicuous. And that is interesting.
So a film or a novel may have something to say about religion even when it makes no direct reference to anything explicitly religious.
The Amy post also asks whether fiction featuring vampires might be a venue for developing Christian themes. I’ve thought about this myself. That would be an excellent question for Anne Rice, the bestselling author of vampire fiction, and an adult convert to Christianity. Books in her newer series based on the gospel narratives has not been quite as successful as Interview with the Vampire. They are, to be sure, friendly presentations of the life and influence of Jesus. I suspect they have generated a new set of fans.
Another contemporary author known for her Christian worldview is Susan Howatch. Also a bestselling author (and British), Howatch composes stories with a realist cast. They take place in our world, you might say. See, for example, her acclaimed series beginning with the novel Glittering Images. One of her best is The High Flyer, which can be recommended to any reader with a taste for literary fiction set in the contemporary context.
* * *
A blog permits the expression of random thoughts during idle moments. I’ve exploited that opportunity here. As often happens, the flood of thoughts swelled to the point of necessary expression because of a bit of reading. This time I happened to be reading another blogger who reads.
Thank you, Amy my friend—whoever you are.
Related Posts by Doug Geivett:
June 1, 2009 3 Comments
The American President that most fascinates and inspires me is Theodore Roosevelt. I’ve read several biographies, the best of which is by Texas A & M historian H. W. Brands. I also enjoy collections of TR’s essays and letters.
In a letter to his son Kermit, written from the White House February 3, 1906, the President reveals something of the way he viewed fiction:
I agree pretty well with your views of David Copperfield. Dora was very cunning and attractive, but I am not sure that the husband would retain enough respect for her to make life quite what it ought to be with her. This is a harsh criticism and I have known plenty of women of the Dora type whom I have felt were a good deal better than the men they married, and I have seen them sometimes make very happy homes. I also feel as you do that if a man had to struggle on and make his way it would be a great deal better to have someone like Sophie. Do you recollect the dinner at which David Copperfield and Traddles were, where they are described as seated at the dinner, one “in the glare of the red velvet lady’ and the other “gloom of Hamlet’s aunt”? I am so glad you like Thackeray. “Pendennis” and “The Newcomes” and “Vanity Fair” I can read over and over again.
If TR felt he could read such titles by Thackery over and over again, it is because he did. Thackery is mentioned in many of his letters. Here the father takes pleasure in a shared enthusiasm with his son. And why is he so pleased with the boy’s reading predilections? Apparently because of the power fiction has to form character, to provoke thought about values and truth, and to encourage wise decisions in life.
Evidence for this dominates the quotation. Notice that TR is, in effect, counseling his son about choices in marriage. He is very subtle in this.
It’s pleasing to see that this accomplished public figure had such a relationship with his children that he would write about such things in his letters from the White House.
From the quoted portion of Roosevelt’s letter to Kermit, there is much of positive value to glean:
It’s enough to make you want to go back and read David Copperfield, and check out the works he cites by William Thackeray.
Works mentioned in this post:
Kindle users should know that there is a Kindle collection of over 100 of Thackery’s publications (including the three mentioned in this post) that you can get with a single purchase (cost: $4.79 at the time of this post). Click here. I like the Kindle!
The quotation is from page 80 in The Letters and Lessons of Theodore Roosevelt for His Sons, edited and compiled by Doug Phillips.
January 20, 2009 Leave a comment
My education in the value of the personal essay probably began in a time and space I don’t recall. But I was compelled to appreciate this specialized form of literature most memorably during my reading of Philip Lopate’s collection The Art of the Personal Essay. The enthusiasm inspired by his anthology resulted in a welcome appetite for more of the same. Lopate’s genius for selecting the best of the breed was proven by the difficulty I experienced during my search for collections of comparable value. The annual publication of books in The Best American Essays series, edited by Robert Atwan, sometimes approximates the Lopate standard. And there are other worthy collections. Thankfully, my quest for the best has put me in touch with individual authors, contemporary essayists of the first rank, whose writing is consistently creative, wise, and ennobling.
My favorite contemporary essayists include Michael Dirda, Joseph Epstein, John Updike, and many others. This post loiters in one section of one essay from Michael Dirda’s book Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. The essay is titled “The Pleasures of Learning,” and the section I’ve isolated for consideration here is called “The Knowledge Most Worth Having.” This section consists of seven sentences, followed by a list of sixteen items, and a concluding sentence that reads:
Know these well, and nearly all of world literature will be an open book to you.
Clearly, Dirda’s reference to “the knowledge most worth having” is circumscribed by a specific purpose. He doesn’t mean to catalog all that it is most important to know. More precisely, he asks, “What should a person know of the world’s literature?” This question presupposes that some works are more worthy of our time and meditation than others, and that if we are to have a “structured reading program” we must have a criterion for determining which works are most deserving. Dirda gives us a criterion and then “a roughly chronological short list of those that the diligent might read in a year or two.” Both the criterion and the list are interesting.
Dirda’s criterion—the test he uses in deciding which authors and which works are most rewarding for the reader who would attain a knowledge of the world’s literature—is simple. Devote yourself to those works “that later authors regularly build on, allude to, work against.” Dirda does not elaborate on the principle, except to bestow a name on works that meet this condition; they are “the great patterning works.”
For further insight into the principle, we might consider Dirda’s list. He does not claim that it’s exhaustive. Actually, he implies that it is not. It’s a place to begin. Still, it’s a comfort to hear that “there aren’t many of these key books,” and it’s enticing to be told that “they aren’t all obvious classics.” One might spend a year or two in the company of these books, and then move on to others.
Before I reveal the list, I want to ask, again, what is the point of the list? It is to commend works with the potential to crack open the world of great literature. These works have this power because other authors have built on them, alluded to them, and worked against them. They are, in other words, touchstones for so much great literature that our capacity to appreciate and know the greatness of other works is unlocked by our acquaintance with these.
Now to the list. It is no surprise that it begins with
Dirda recommends the Authorized, or King James, Version because it’s “the one that has most influenced the diction and imagery of English prose.” As a kid, I attended a Baptist Sunday School that used the King James Bible in Bible lessons, Scripture memory, and “sword drills.” (Incidentally, I never heard anyone seriously proffer a defense of the KJV on the grounds that “if it was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for me.” My Sunday school teachers were far more sophisticated than that.) In the third grade, taught by my mother, we children were awarded Bibles of our own—the King James Version, of course. Shortly after that, the production of new English translations began in earnest, and today the original KJV of 1611 is little known, even by those who know the Bible. I’m a proponent of the multiple versions doctrine, that individual versions or translations have their distinctive virtues, and that more than one should be consulted in the serious study of the Bible. But Dirda is hardly alone in proclaiming the incomparable linguistic beauty and legendary influence of the KJV, and I do not disagree. (For those interested in the translation debate, I recommend D. A. Carson’s book The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism.)
Next on the list:
The items listed by Dirda are not annotated. He doesn’t say why an entry meets the criterion he’s adopted. But some source containing the ancient myths of Greek, Roman, and Norse provenance is a no-brainer, and Bulfinch’s is the industry standard. Oddly, my copy of the generally reliable Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (mine is the 3rd edition) has no entry for this classic collection. But then, neither does my handy paperback copy of The Reader’s Companion to World Literature. No matter. The important thing is that allusions to mythologies abound in acknowledged “great literature.” The reason for this is worthy of contemplation, but beyond the scope of this post.
Fine. If ancient mythologies must be known on the grounds that they are sources for innumerable allusions, then Homer’s influence is no less significant. The Ionian poet as a man is a mystery. Even his actual existence is doubted. The story of the composition, preservation, and function of “Homer” among the ancient Greeks is interesting in its own right, and is told with clarity uncompromised by brevity in . . . Benét’s.
We begin to suspect that the influence of the ancients runs deep in our literature. Plutarch, who lived in the first century of the Common Era, is best known as a biographer. It’s an irony of history and of literature that little is known about Plutarch himself—no biographer for the biographer. Shakespeare made use of Plutarch in two of his great plays. (Plutarch was, by the way, a master of the personal essay, and his compendium, the Moralia, has survived to please readers to this day.)
So far, Dirda’s choices are obvious. Of course Dante. But why the Inferno and not the whole the the Divine Comedy? Dirda doesn’t declare. So let’s speculate. The Inferno is the first part of the Divine Comedy. So maybe you read the first part and can’t put it down. Or you do put it down, but you’ve had enough Dante for the purposes envisioned by Dirda. Imaginative writing about hell does make for scintillating writing. For some, heaven is boring in comparison, and a proffered reason for indifference about the soul’s destiny. Strange logic.
Next in line:
I confess that I was initially surprised by this entry from the early Middle Ages. But I shouldn’t have been. This is our source for Ali Baba, Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, Sinbad the Sailor, and the phrase “Open Sesame” (which appeals to our get-rich-quick aspirations). The story of Sultan Shahriar and his clever wife Shaharazad is endlessly intriguing. But a guide to The Arabian Nights would be useful, if only because of its length.
The Middle Ages brings to mind the next fairly obvious choice:
Seeing the Monty Python movie is no substitute for reading the book. Take my word for it. But it does give a sense of the book that is somewhat surprising. (Take that with a grain of salt.) The written tales were probably composed in prison by a chap who commended the ideals of chivalry and was notorious for violating those same ideals. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was very much taken with these tales, and transcribed them into epic poetry in his Idylls of the King. Here is a clear case where one legendary author, the Victorian poet Tennyson, is understood better against background knowledge of a 15th century author of legend.
You knew he had to show up on the list eventually, and if you’ve been following the chronology, you may have suspected his appearance at any moment—William Shakespeare.
Some of these have been quite respectably adapted for film. Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson (1990) finally made sense of “words, words, words” to me. The Orson Welles film Chimes at Midnight (1965), featuring Welles as Falstaff and John Gielgud as Henry IV, was a favorite of Welles and is generally thought to be one of his greatest movies.
There have been a dozen or more adaptations of King Lear. Most celebrated is the 1983 version starring Laurence Olivier and Dianna Rigg. Another cinematic reprise is planned. How would you like to see Naomi Watts, Keira Knightley, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the three daughters of King Lear, played by Anthony Hopkins? It’s in the works. So now is an especially auspicious time to have a read of the original King Lear.
Film or television adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were released in 1935, 1968, 1996, 1999, 2002, and 2005. Enough said.
An adaptation of The Tempest is said to be in production. It won’t be the first. The Tempest was first “screened” in 1905, in a two-and-a-half minute production. The play enjoyed a science fiction adaptation in 1956 in the film The Forbidden Planet. Other adaptations were screened in 1982, 1991, 1992 (in animation that is faithful to Shakespeare).
These works by Shakespeare are immortal. The enjoyment of a worthy film adaptation is enriched by a reading of Shakepeare himself.
Michael Dirda’s list continues. But here the entries shade into the controversial.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra introduced his dubious but endearing hero, the Man of La Mancha, in two volumes (1605 and 1616). Cervantes is credited by many as the first modern novelist. Since he died in 1616, that’s quite a distinction. The only thing controversial about including Don Quixote on Dirda’s short list is that the list is so short. Some would argue that the inclusion of Don Quixote obliges the inclusion of some other great work not on the list. But the fact is, this grand novel supremely fits Dirda’s criterion. If you disagree, you’re tilting at windmills.
A shade more controversial are
Defoe wrote something like 250 works. They call that prolific. Businessman, journalist, government representative, spy, possibly even double agent, but best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, or The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner. Through this depiction of a solitary figure stranded on an island, we learn how noble men might conduct themselves under such conditions. Crusoe is an admirable figure, with lessons to teach us all. Who hasn’t imagined what it would be like, what we would do, what we would become, if we were to live in such forced seclusion?
Swift was a genius. As evidence for this, I take the liberty of quoting:
Gulliver’s Travels is perhaps the sole major work in all English literature that has continuously led a double life: it has been at once one of the most glamorous of children’s adventure stories and one of the most pungent critiques of humanity addressed to the mature imagination. This almost incredible marriage of opposites is possible because in the main the disturbing satire for adults lurks inconspicuously behind the pleasantly exciting façade of the explorer’s tale; the child can rarely see behind the façade, and the adult can never cease seeing behind it or trying to pierce through it. Further, there are times when Swift is entirely concerned with the façade—of the elaboration of the details of the story for its own sake . . . and the presence of such passages assists the young reader—or the unperceptive reader generally—to take the whole story at the simplest level of meaning. . . . Swift’s obvious enjoyment of playing the game—of unusual sizes, mysterious phenomena, and strangely shaped creatures—gives zest to his narrative without in any way impeding him when he chooses to make the game philosophical. (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 226)
Dirda’s inclusion of Gulliver’s Travels is vindicted by the suggestion that this satire “draws upon at least five traditions of world literature,” and the claim that “the use of fantasy for serious statement, virtually eliminated by two centuries of emphasis upon realism, is reappearing in our own day” (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 229).
Dirda goes on to add items undeniably suited to his premise. But these, I confess, lie at the periphery of my own reading interests:
Fairy tales and folk tales. Their influence has been great. My interest is negligible. For the record, the noted study of folklore and human society is James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
The final three works are perhaps the most controversial choices. Again, one could argue that some other work is more worthy of inclusion on such a list.
I believe a rationale may be built for each of these entries. Notice, Jane Austin is the only woman to be valorized on the basis of Dirda’s criterion. Some readers might object to this. I know some writers would have filled in with other great female authors just to avoid the appearance of impropriety and escape censure by enforcers of political correctness. But this is Dirda’s list.
There should be considerable pride in and no prejudice against the admission of Jane Austin to the august company of writers of seminal importance. (I hope that doesn’t sound like a bad pun or a contradiction in terms.) In 2003, the BBC sponsored a program called The Big Read, in quest of “the nation’s best-loved novel.” Pride and Prejudice was voted #2, after Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I suspect many titles voted onto the Top 100 list for The Big Read found their way there with the help of recent cinematic adaptations. But Dirda’s basis for including Jane Austin’s novel isn’t current popularity but lasting influence in the field of literature.
Lewis Carroll has to be acknowledged, even by someone without predilections for his plotting and style. Alice in Wonderland falls into that class of fairy tales and folklore that have little appeal for me.
As for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I’m completely sympathetic with ranking it high on a list of entertaining and well-crafted fiction. I would even consider bringing Holmes along for my island exile. I’m less sure of the application of Michael Dirda’s criterion for educating ourselves in preparation for mastery of the world’s great literature. Doyle’s imagination, plotting, and writing style are both creditable and inimitable. But there are others. Agatha Christie has sold better—much better, in fact. Edgar Allen Poe is the acknowledged inventor of the mystery story, and is the namesake for the Edgar Award in mystery fiction. I suppose that Doyle gets the nod because Sherlock Holmes is the paradigmatic sleuth, the one who comes to mind first when that special expertise is needed. Fair enough.
So there you have it. A criterion and a list. I’ve tried to make sense of Dirda’s choices. Using his criterion, and limited to sixteen items, I think he succeeds.
Related Posts by Doug Geivett: