“How to Stump Anti-Abortionists”—BlogLogic from Daniel Florien


At the Unreasonable Faith blog, Daniel Florien has posted advice on “How to Stump an Anti-Abortionist with One Simple Question.” Here we have another example of that unfortunate syndrome I call BlogLogic. By his own reasoning he paints himself into a corner. Go here to see his post. Here’s my brief reply:

You’re kidding, right? No, I suppose not. But you should know better than to engage in such hasty generalization. (I believe I know you do know better.) Thoughtful pro-lifers have thought about this and won’t be stumped if you ask them.

Here’s one for you: Suppose abortion IS the murder of an innocent and defenseless human person; what do YOU think should be done about it? It’s silly to say that because nothing should be done about it, it isn’t murder. You’ve got the reductio ad absurdum turned inside out.

Copyright © 2009 by R. Douglas Geivett

Michael Dirda on “The Knowledge Most Worth Having”


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 dirdabook-by-bookDirda’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

  • The Bible (Old and New Testaments)

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:

  • Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (tales of King Arthur and his knights)

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

and

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:

and

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:

How to Blog Better


Do you blog? Do you wistfully imagine the celebrity status of being a blogger? Do you shudder with painful tics when you consider that your blogging might not be panachy* enough? Then you need help. And Merlin Mann is just the help you need. For Merlin’s answer to the querulous question of the current age, follow this link to nine measurements of a good blog.

Take great care to check your blog posts against the Mannly criteria. Apply his standards with relentless zeal. But please, have mercy on me; don’t judge this blog by his standards.

On second thought, I welcome your evaluation. How does this blog measure up, in light of Merlin’s standards, according to you?

____________________

* As in “full of panache”

“Batman and Friends”: A Discussion Guide


morrissuperheroes-and-philosophyTom Morris and Matt Morris are the editors of a a book called Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way (Open Court 2005). Matt’s own chapter (pages 102-117) is titled “Batman and Friends: Aristotle and the Dark Knight’s Inner Circle.” I created this discussion guide, based on Matt’s chapter, for my course on Faith, Film and Philosophy.

Read pages 102-105 and answer questions (1) through (4):

  1. What explains the main title of this essay, “Batman and Friends”?
  2. Morris writes that “Batman is often thought of as the most solitary superhero.” Do you agree with this assessment? How does this set things up for the main theme of Morris’s chapter?
  3. The chapter sketches Aristotle’s three-fold analysis of friendship as developed in the Nichomachean Ethics. What three types of friendship does Aristotle describe? What is your assessment of Aristotle’s analysis? Is it plausible? Is it comprehensive? Do you have friendships of each kind?
  4. Morris uses the Aristotelian analysis of friendship as a template for studying Batman’s closest relationships. Before reading Morris’s discussion of Batman’s relationships, write down your own thoughts about Batman’s relationships. What are his primary relationships? How would you describe each relationship in terms of Aristotle’s three-fold analysis of friendship?

aristotleRead pages 105-115 and answer these questions:

  1. Which of Batman’s relationships does Morris consider in terms of the Aristotelian account of friendship? How does Morris classify each relationship? Do you agree with his classification? If you disagree, explain.
  2. Is there anyone else who is closely related to Batman who is not considered by Morris in this essay? If so, identify the person or people you’re thinking of. What does Aristotle’s analysis of friendship imply about the relationship(s) you have in mind?
  3. What is Morris’s primary thesis in this essay? What is your evaluation of Morris’s thesis?

Now read pages 115-117 and answer the following questions:

  1. In this section of his essay, Morris writes about the “elusiveness” of a certain kind of friendship. How does he explain this elusiveness in Batman’s case? Do you agree that Batman is incapable of this kind of friendship? Explain your answer.
  2. If you’ve seen one or both of the most recent Batman movies, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), what features of these films support or conflict with Morris’s analysis of Batman’s friendships?posterbatman-beginsthe_dark_knight_poster
  3. Who has more or less authentic relationships with others, Batman or Bruce Wayne? Explain your answer.
  4. Would it ever be possible for Batman to have the kind of friendship that Aristotle admires most? Explain your answer.
  5. Morris identifies three things that can happen when we “philosophically address art, whether it’s a novel, a comic, a painting, or a film” (see pp. 116-17). What are these three things? What does Morris say is the most important contribution philosophical analysis of art can make? Do you believe that philosophy can play this role? In his use of philosophy to analyze Batman’s character and relationships, does Morris succeed in showing that philosophy can make this kind of contribution?
  6. Morris concludes with an admonition. Think about your own ambitions and sense of calling. If you were to follow Morris’s admonition, what would it mean for you? Be as specific as possible. Does Morris’s counsel seem like good advice to you? Explain your answer.

Copyright © 2009 by R. Douglas Geivett

Doubt (Film): A Discussion Guide


doubtposter081

Doubt (USA, 2008)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep put in great performances in the new film Doubt, based on a play of the same title written by John Patrick Shanley. Shanley wrote the screenplay for and directed the film. Here are some discussion questions for the film. (These are based on an assignment I’ve developed for my course Faith, Film and Philosophy.)

  1. Why is Doubt a suitable title for this film? There may be several reasons.
  2. This film is an adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt. Have you read the play? Have you seen the play performed? If you’ve read or seen the play, what is your evaluation of the film as an adaptation?
  3. What is the opening scene of the film? Having seen the whole film, what makes this a fitting start?
  4. Where does Father Flynn get his ideas for his sermons? What is the theme of his first sermon? His second sermon? His farewell sermon? What is the source of each of these sermons?
  5. Sister James asks Father Flynn if the sermon about gossip was directed at anyone in particular? He replies with a question, “What do you think?” Neither question is answered directly. So, what do you think?
  6. doubt-hoffmanWhat do you think of Father Flynn’s description of gossip and his method of illustrating this vice? Is it effective? Does it give you greater insight into the nature of this common but malicious practice? Have you ever been the victim of gossip? Did it have an unfair effect on your reputation? How did you respond? Did you do something about it? What should a person do when someone with influence has spread rumors about him or her to others?
  7. What does Sister Aloysius think Father Flynn has done wrong? Does she have a specific allegation of wrongdoing? What is it? If Sister Aloysius candidly agrees that she has no evidence and cannot prove her allegations against Father Flynn, why is she so certain that he has done something wrong? Is it true that she has no evidence? Are there moments when you suspect that Sister Aloysius is right to suspect Father Flynn? If so, when, during the film, do you feel this way?
  8. Sister Aloysius walks with Mrs. Miller in the cold weather toward the place where Mrs. Miller works as a cleaning lady. What do we learn about Mrs. Miller’s son, James, from their conversation? What effect does this have on the Sister’s suspicions about Father Flynn?
  9. Immediately following the conversation between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller, there’s a gust of wind that vehemently lifts and swirls the fall leaves around the Sister. There is something unnatural about this. Perhaps it is symbolic. Can you relate this occurrence to any other features of the film that explain it significance?
  10. While coaching the boys in basketball, Father Flynn notices that some of the boys have dirty fingernails. He stresses the importance of having clean nails and shows them his own, saying, “I like mine a little long.” What’s significant about this moment in the film? Recall that Sister Aloysius later orders Father Flynn to cut his nails. What does this business about Father Flynn’s nails have to do with the themes of the film?
  11. Father Flynn thinks things should be a little more relaxed and friendly at the school. You might suspect that his theological views are also more lax and progressive. Is this accurate? Are there indications that Father Flynn’s theological beliefs are traditional or more progressive (i.e., liberal)?
  12. Ultimately, Father Flynn leaves the parish to become pastor of another congregation. Why does he leave? Does his departure mean that he is guilty of wrongdoing? Sister Aloysius remarks that his resignation is proof of his guilt. Do you think she might be right? Suppose Father Flynn has done nothing wrong in his relationship with the boy named James. And suppose he’s done nothing wrong with other boys at other parishes.
  13. How does Sister Aloysius justify her lie about speaking with a nun about Father Flynn’s behavior at his previous parish? Could a lie of this sort ever be justified for a person in her position? Why hasn’t Sister Aloysius made the phone call she claims she has made?
  14. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “innuendo” as “an oblique hint, indirect suggestion; an allusive remark concerning a person or thing, especially one of a depreciatory kind.” Consider the role of innuendo in this film. The accusations of Sister Aloysius are indirect and yet pointed and insistent. Father Flynn’s response is often diffident and cautious. Sister James is coy. Why are the themes of the film handled in this way, rather than more directly?
  15. How does the film end? Are you surprised by the confession made by Sister Aloysius? Is this a satisfying ending? Is there any sense in which Sister Aloysius, stern as she is, is a sympathetic character? Explain.
  16. What does this film say about doubt? What else is this film about? What lessons does this film have for the viewer?
  17. Are there people you know who would enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would enjoy it? Are there people you know who would not enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would not enjoy it?
  18. doubt-streepList other films you’ve seen starring Meryl Streep in a lead role. Compare Streep’s performance in Doubt with her performance in these other films. On a scale of 1 to 100, how would you rate her performance in Doubt in comparison with her performance in other films? Alternatively, rank her performance in this and other films by placing them in order, starting with the best and working down the scale.
  19. Do the same for Philip Seymour Hoffman that you did for Streep in the previous question.

For the highly-touted play from Amazon, click here.

Copyright © 2009 by R. Douglas Geivett

Mudflats Is at It Again


The obsession with Sarah Palin continues over at Mudflats. This time the news is “Palin is Back at Work.” I guess that means she has started caring about health care for children and pregnant women. First evidence of this is that she is suddenly prepared to write more into the state budget for this purpose. Notice the  word “more,” which is not emphasized by the Mudflats Maven. The source she quotes, The Anchorage Daily News, does explicitly acknowledge that this is an “increase” in coverage.

What miffs Mudflats is that it’s too little too late, more or less. You see, there was an oil-related windfall a year ago that could have been applied to the problem. It wasn’t. Now there’s the possibility of a near-term shortfall, because of the plummeting price of oil these days. So the coverage will be hard to pay for. You understand, don’t you, that whether children and pregnant women get the health care coverage that’s just right depends on the price of oil.

I don’t know what “just right” is. Neither does the Maven. But once an expenditure is in place for anything the government pays for, it’s unusual for that expenditure to be wratcheted down later on, even if there’s no money for it. Imagine, in this case, what that would mean. “Mean” would indeed be the operative term. To take coverage away from children and pregnant women, because the state could no longer afford it—because the price of oil was down—would be mean, plain and simple.

Of course, the Mavin speculates about Palin’s reasons for the unexpected about-face. Palin’s VP candidacy brought national attention to Palin’s neglect of this sector of the Alaskan population, so now she has, under penalty of chagrin, to do something about it. And “she has plans for 2012, after all.” The Mudflats Maven knows. Maybe she does. That is, maybe she knows Palin has plans for 2012; hence, maybe Palin has plans for 2012. (I have plans for 2012, too, just for the record.)

Reading Owen Wister


wisterowen1Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) — I started reading this novel January 8, 2009. I was hooked by the first paragraph. I suppose some ‘hawsses’ really are giddy pranksters. Wister’s book is a classic, the first in the western genre, and unexcelled. Humor I can appreciate appears on every page. Bits are stories in their own right, and fun to read aloud. You can hear how the Virginian sounds from the way the author crafts his dialogue. Wister and Theodore Roosevelt were close friends. The complete text of the novel is available online at Project Gutenberg. You could have a look there, then decide whether to get a hard copy. It can be ordered at Amazon here.

Excerpt from Chapter 5—”Enter the Woman”

“We are taking steps,” said Mr. Taylor. “Bear Creek isn’t going to be hasty about a schoolmarm.”

“Sure,” assented the Virginian. “The children wouldn’t want yu’ to hurry.”

But Mr. Taylor was, as I’ve indicated, a serious family man. The problem of educating his children could appear to him in no light except a sober one.

“Bear Creek,” he said, “don’t want the experience they had over at Calef. We must not hire an ignoramus.”

“Sure!” assented the Virginian again.

“Nor we don’t want no gad-a-way flirt,” said Mr. Taylor.

“She must keep her eyes on the blackboa’d,” said the Virginian, gently.

“Well, we can wait till we get a guaranteed article,” said Mr. Taylor.

. . . . The Virginian was now looking over the letter musingly, and with awakened attention.

“‘Your very sincere spinster,'” he read aloud and slowly.

“I guess that means she’s forty,” said Mr. Taylor.

“I reckon she is about twenty,” said the Virginian. And again he fell to musing over the paper that he held.

“Her handwriting ain’t like any I’ve saw,” pursued Mr. Taylor. “But Bear Creek would not object to that, provided she knows ‘rithmetic and George Washington, and them kind of things.”

“I expect she is not an awful sincere spinster,” surmised the Virginian, still looking at the letter, still holding it as if it were some token.”

Living too Fast with Books


This post-holiday season I pored over the offerings of a major bookseller advertizing deep discounts on books. I found much to interest me and placed my order. Shipping was FREE, so I even saved on the cost of fuel driving to the nearest big box book store.

swiftmapping-the-worldThe parcel arrived today. Here’s what came in the box:

Mapping the World, by Michael Swift. This is truly a handsome book. It can’t help make an impression at 17 inches wide and a foot tall—the perfect size to support my MacbookPro on my lap (the thing does get hot). This book, by a writer/publisher that specializes in cartography, lavishly features some 200 beautiful maps. The panoramic layout and size are perfect. This was easily the heaviest book in the box, ensuring that the free shipping really counted for something.

Next out of the box, a book of normal physique by Peter Walsh called It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff. What could be more timely than a book to shame me for acquiring so many more books in one day? And in the same box! Whether this is a book I can do without for my soon to be “richer life” I’ll know when I read what Peter has to say.

pipherwriting-to-change-worldOh, here’s Author 101, by Rick Frishman—first of the batch related to writing and reading. This batch includes Michael Dirda, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life; Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World (who isn’t tantalized by that prospect?); Karen E. Peterson, Write. 10 Days to Overcome Writer’s Block. Period. (ordered on the basis of Kurt Vonnegut’s ringing endorsement—Wait. Did he ever have the block?); and, Good Fiction Guide, edited by Jane Rogers and boasting an annotated list of “4000 Great Books to Read” (a classified fiction guide from Oxford University Press).

What have we here? Italian language CDs from Berlitz? Indeed. Also in the “CD category,” Peter Kreeft’s lecture series Questions of Faith: The Philosophy of Religion. I know Peter, professor of philosophy at Boston College, and I expect great audio presentations on atheism, the problem of evil, arguments for God’s existence, religion and science, immortality, heaven, hell, religious experience, and an answer to the question . . . “What would Socrates think?” Hmm.

There’s financial guidance to be had from Ben Stein (the Expelled guy) and Phil DeMuth, in their book Yes, You Can Get a Financial Life! The exclamation point at the end of the title is reassuring. But I wonder, “Is it too late.” Have to see about that. Published in 2007, it does pre-date the fine mess that was made in October by our genius Congress.

Two items for the kitchen, so to speak. Kitchens: Design Is in the Details, by Brad Mee, and the Black & Decker Complete Guide to Kitchens, with everything you need to know to “Design, Plan & Install a Dream Kitchen.” (My idea of a dream kitchen is a kitchen that installs itself. But I couldn’t find a book on that.) Have you seen these Black & Decker guides? They’re the best for the do-it-yourselfer. If you DIY, you may already know that.

Getting back to the simpler life theme, there’s an suitably thin book called The Declutter Workbook: 101 Feng Shui Steps to Transform Your Life, by Mary Lambert. Come on, Mary, we both know that my life isn’t going to be “transformed” by applying feng shui to all our stuff. But for a guy who lives with three women, who have plenty of stuff, it’s a start. And maybe I’ll finally figure out what feng shui is.

I’m not done yet.

You know that book You—The Owner’s Manual? Well now I own one.

In the category of “most exotic cover” is Top 10 of Everything 2009, by Russell Ash. I can’t tell you anything about it because it’s shrink wrapped. But I’m sure it’s good. I bought it, right?

The most diminutive, but maybe the most overall helpful, is Raymond Chandler’s book (or “book-ie”) Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life. The pages measure 4 x 6 inches, and there’s a profile sketch of a handgun on the front cover. I’m starting with this book tonight.

Finally, in the “not-books-after-all” category, there are three wall calendars for 2009, “The Ultimate Motorcycle,” “Just Australian Shepherds” (I think that’s my dog on the front cover), and “On Broadway Theater Posters” (a gift for one of my daughters). I don’t aussie-wall-calendar-cover-2009know yet whether Aussies or Triumphs will adorn the wall in my university office. Either way, I’ll be inspired to get less done.

So there you have it. A forecast of my reading activities for some snatches of 2009.

I got a good deal, but probably spent more money more frivolously than Ben Stein and Phil DeMuth would approve. I hogged up books I don’t have room to shelve, compounding the clutter problem. So Peter Walsh and Mary Lambert will be tisking me. There’s a chance our kitchen remodel won’t be started before this time next year, even with the inspiring ideas book and the step-by-step guide. I do now have a beautiful book of maps—almost a piece of furniture in its own right—for the coffee table we don’t have.

You may not make for inspiring reading, but when you’ve owned a human body long enough, a manual for maintenance and repairs is a valuable reference work. I can work on my Italian, not because I plan to go there again, but because it adds some spice when you can sprinkle your conversation with fancy words like ciao and feel like you mean it. Since I spend little time in my car, the eight CDs of Peter Kreeft should last me for a couple years.

marloweguideI can at least pretend to be changing the world with my writing, and get some help with the effort when I’m stuck, or when I forget that world-changing potential is literally at my fingertips. Jane Rogers will save me the trouble of reading hundreds of books I really ought to read, though she probably can’t do much for the guilt I’m going to feel for cheating. One book I know I’ll read, keep, and re-read is Book by Book. Michael Dirda is, as it says on the book’s cover, “a cultural treasure.”

I have to admit, though, I’ve got to watch this binge book-buying and the dangerous speed reading it leads to. As Philip Marlowe once said, “I got up and went to the built-in wardrobe and looked at my face in the flawed mirror. It was me all right. I had a strained look. I’d been living too fast.”

Adam Sandler Rides Again


bedtime_storiesHe rides a red horse, a motorcycle, a chariot, and (almost) drives a red Ferrari. Adam Sandler is in fine form with his usual lack of finesse as comic hero Skeeter Bronson in Bedtime Stories (distributed by Walt Disney Pictures). Sandler’s basic costume is a handyman uniform. But the actor is kept busy changing in and out of cowboy chaps and gladiator garb for period performances of his imagination.

As children, Skeeter and his sister, Wendy, had helped their father run a splendidly modest motel. Marty Bronson had been a wonderful father, indicated especially by his storytelling powers. But, as fate would have it, he was a lousy businessman. Of economic necessity, Marty signed his cherished family business over to a charmer named Barry Nottingham. Young Skeeter was witness to this unfortunate transaction, and the insincere promise from Nottingham that the boy would run the place, if he chose to, once he was old enough.

The story gets going some years later, when Nottingham emerges as an unscrupulous tycoon with an odd aversion to ordinary germs and a bad-girl daughter who is inexplicably chased about by admiring paparazzi. (Think Paris Hilton.) Nottingham retains Skeeter, not to run the company as promised, but as chief fix-it man. Responsibility for managing the firm is left to a conniving fellow named Kendall, who courts Nottingham’s daughter, Violet, in a scheme to succeed the aging tycoon.

Just when old man Nottingham has announced that Kendall is to be promoted, and Skeeter concludes that life’s true stories have no good endings, Wendy, now single mother of two, has a favor to ask. She needs Skeeter to be night-time sitter for the children while she’s away for several days to interview for a job. Skeeter has no natural affinity for Bobbi and Patrick, and no idea how he’s supposed to keep them entertained when they’ve lived in a protective bubble—without television, camping experiences, and the like.

One of the best scenes of the film captures the first night Skeeter has charge of the children. They ship off to bed happily enough. But Skeeter, they tell him, must read them a bedtime story. He samples the titles of books in their bedroom collection. The titles humorously reveal the uptight habits of their mother, obviously stricken with politically correct inhibitions about the environment and personal safety. To avoid rehearsing this “communist” propaganda with niece and nephew, Skeeter proposes that he make up a story, like his old man did when he was a kid.

Naturally, the movie revolves around these bedtime stories. Instantly warming to the idea, the children insist on modified endings to Skeeter’s tales, which are told with gusto and feature himself as the conspicuous hero. Amazingly (and this we know already from the previews for the film), events during the next day parallel the story line, conclusion and all, of the previous night’s tale.

It’s never sorted out how these daily coincidences are fated to occur. The family guinea pig, a recurring presence in the film, has something to do with it, apparently. What that is, you might say, is a lacuna in the story. At any rate, the coincidence is plain, and once he catches on, Skeeter takes pains to arrange for a day that will turn to his advantage with the lovely Violet Nottingham and the graces of her doddering dad. Adventures ensue, but never with the blessed results eagerly anticipated by Skeeter.

Meanwhile, the children are tended during the day by a wholesome female friend of Wendy’s. Jill harbors understandable misgivings about Skeeter, whose sensibilities tend toward the reckless and irresponsible. The moderate tension that defines their relationship is one of several plot twists that must be resolved for the movie to come to a complete and satisfying ending. (This probably makes the movie sound more subtle and sophisticated than it is.)

While watching this movie, you may be reminded, as I was, of two other fabulous movies (by “fabulous” I mean having no basis in reality)—The Princess Bride and Night at the Museum. For one scene in particular, and a good one at that, you may recall the classic film Ben Hur (which was loosely based on a true story of some significance).

With two exceptions, the characters are interesting enough. There’s Violet Nottingham—nice on the eyes, but not nice—and Jill—easy on the eyes, and very nice. Violet is played by Teresa Palmer, 22-year-old Australian starlet with the possibility of a future in film. Kerry Russell, who plays Jill, will be recognized as the more experienced actress with significant roles in more substantial movies: as Lyla Novacek in August Rush (2007), the waitress, Jenna Hunterson, in Waitress (2007), and lead character Katie Armstrong in Rohtenburg (also known as Grimm Love) (2006)—recognized, that is, if you’ve seen any of these films. Russell is probably best known as the empathetic victim of a horrible explosion early in the film Mission: Impossible III (2006). Her performance in that role was brief, but very compelling.

British actor Richard Griffiths (b. 1947) is pleasing as Barry Nottingham. The comic lilt of his performance was, I’m sure, enhanced for me by my acquaintance with someone who is rather Nottingham-esque. Griffiths’ claim to fame is as Uncle Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter series. (An interesting fact about Griffiths is that his parents were both deaf; but in Bedtime Stories there’s no obvious evidence that this contributed to his acting repertoire.)

The children, Bobbi and Patrick, are played by Laura Ann Kesling and Jonathan Morgan Heit, respectively. Both do a swell job. Kesling, for whom this is her film debut, I believe, is better than swell and doubtless has a future in acting. Her apparently spontaneous peels of bemused laughter are endearing. They may well be truly spontaneous, which would be a credit to Adam Sandler as a demonstrated laugh-maker by nature.

adam_sandlerSandler has more movies to his credit than I’ve seen. But of those I’ve seen, he’s at his best in Bedtime Stories. (It should be noted that he is also producer of this film, which may account for much of its comic genius.) Here, Sandler isn’t slapstick funny. He isn’t funny for funny’s sake. Funny seems to come naturally to his character as a means of dealing with the pain of loneliness and ignominy. But the almost incessant playfulness has understated moments, and in general it doesn’t betray the deep bitterness many would feel in his situation. There are worse ways of dealing with disappointments in life than to make light of their occurrence. I like this complexity about the character, even if the effect was utterly serendipitous.

The two fiends in the film are Guy Pearce as Kendall, the scheming hotel general manager, and Lucy Lawless as Aspen, co-conspirator and manager on duty. Pearce and Lawless (how apropos is that pair of names?) have the look of simpleton villains who are utterly unsympathetic. The name “Aspen” speaks with loud innuendo; I haven’t the foggiest association to make with “Kendall.”

Guy Pearce starred in the very dark film Memento (2000), and was cast as a drag queen in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994). So he is, you might say, “versatile.” In Bedtime Stories, he looks and acts pathetic, as I imagine he’s supposed to. But during screenwriting I would have suggested a different permutation of pathetic. He looks, sounds, and acts silly in a way that loses the scent of funny most dominant in the movie.

Lucy Lawless’s liability is her casting alongside Pearce qua Kendall-permutation-of-pathetic. I want to say that the inane visual and verbal exchanges between Aspen and Kendall insult the capacity of today’s audience to take the bad guys a little more seriously. But this isn’t a serious film, so that, in itself, isn’t a serious criticism. Still, something’s not quite right about the style of humor attempted in the portions of the script assigned to these unfortunate actors. I do think it’s a problem with the script. (Note: Lucy Lawless played D’Anna Biers, Number 3 in Battlestar Gallactica.)

On the whole, though, the script is a good specimen of its type. Audiences still appreciate the kind of humor executed here. And what they like best, from the response I heard in the theater, is comic acting and dialogue that presupposes a reasonably intelligent audience—that is to say, an audience that can discern the referents of subtle allusions and modulate their laugh response to the shifting characteristics of comedic elements in a film.

This film has something else going for it in the comedic category: plot twist and artistic conceit. Nah, forget plot twist. That refers to the threads of the story and their connections. Artistic conceit is something else. It has to do with the vehicle used for conveying the plot and its various twists. Here the conceit is creative and naturally conducive to comedic rendition—the fulfillment in real life of stories told on the eve of their occurrence. The technique sometimes buys two laughs for the price of one, as when Skeeter resuscitates the “big harry guy on the beach.” Eavesdropping on Skeeter’s bedtime stories, you try to imagine how their fulfillment will play out, and usually you’re mistaken about some relevant detail. For someone with an uncanny ability to see what’s coming, for almost any genre of film, that’s a plus.

Bedtime Stories gets off to a promising start by cutting quickly to the grownup stage of Skeeter’s life and establishing his character with a three-way conversation at the hotel registration desk—between Skeeter, Aspen, and an aging alcoholic guest who swears that the mini bar in her room was raided by a Leprechaun. Here we’re introduced to the primary tension, the predominant tone of humor, and Skeeter’s affability despite painful exploitation.

There are quirky moments and unaccountable details to be noted. I’ve already mentioned the metaphysically curious causal function of the family guinea pig. The narrative emphasis given to the creature’s bulging eyes is a bit peculiar, too. The timetable for events is highly compressed; events it would take months, if not years, to unfold transpire in the span of a few days. This may be necessary to ensure that Wendy hasn’t abandoned her children indefinitely. But this sort of fabulosity is out of sync with the central conceit of the movie.

Some of the dialogue is a little offbeat. When Skeeter asks Jill, during what is supposed to be a magical moment, and as if in a trance, “Are you the fairest maiden of the land?” she replies with self-effacing candor, “Do you mean, like, the fairest in checkers?” (or something to that effect). Huh?

Another oddment of the film: it begins and ends with a narrator, who happens to be Skeeter’s father, Marty (played and voiced by Jonathan Pryce). But Marty has gone to his reward, so how is this possible? This, too, is fabulous. But, again, it’s fabulosity is of a different cut than is realized fairly effectively with the bedtime story “fulfillments.” If Marty Bronson’s narrative role makes intentional sense on some subtle level, it’s lost on me.

More important to the story line, but not high profile, is the part played by Courtney Cox. It’s nice to see Ms. Cox in a wholesome role, as Wendy, the politically correct single mom. In the end, Wendy has a private moment with Skeeter, when she’s repentant about her stiffness as the older sister who couldn’t let her hair down. I suppose it’s a fantasy, but I like to think there’s a latent message here that the whole  politically-correct-environmentalist-zeal-and-health-craze-thing is a tad overdone these days.

I almost forgot to mention Mickey, played by Russell Brand. This good-natured good buddy of Skeeter’s is exotically inept. He suffers from “sleep panic disorder”—among other things, apparently. But his “translation skills” come in handy at a crucial moment when Skeeter must impress Mr. Nottingham with a superior plan to take the dynasty to the next level of success. And Russell Brands’ costumes are among the most interesting.

Adam Shankman directed. This is one talented guy. He directed and choreographed Hairspray (2007), and is doing the same for a sequel. Box Office Mojo lists Hairspray fourth in gross receipts (nearly $120 million) among live action musicals produced since 1974. He’s said to be working up a Sarah Palin inspired TV series about the female mayor of a small town (in development at Fox and tentatively titled “Cadillac Ranch”).

dont-stop-believingI have no recollection of the musical score, which is film-speak that seems a little highbrow for this kind of movie. I did pay attention to the music that accompanies the closing credits. It’s the 80s hit song by rock band Journey, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

As for the editing, it’s critical to what I’ve been calling the conceit of the film, and it’s handled pretty well. Bicyclists decked in racing gear are smoothly morphed into cowboys galloping on stallions, for example, while our hero and his girl race the opposite direction, alternately on motorcycle and horseback. The composite sequence that completes “the arc of the story” (something that would have been appreciated by Mickey, the brainless buddy) is a clever resumé of the bedtime stories. It moves toward a predictable but fitting victory for the good guys.

Bottom Line:

On the downside, the villains lack that special je-ne-sais-quoi, the narrator has inexplicable talents for telling stories from the grave, and events happen in fast-forward. The end of the movie is very nearly ruined by a reprise of the Kendall-Aspen theme that overstates their humiliation. But there’s more upside than downside to Bedtime Stories. It’s hard for a movie to be this kind of funny today. If memory serves, Night at the Museum (2006) scampered after the same funny bone, but I think with less success. Movies in this genre (some would say “of this ilk”) don’t generally fare well with critics. But if you laugh pretty consistently and groan only occasionally for one hour and thirty-five minutes, the movie fulfills its objective.

“You’ve Got Friends”—Looking Back on Facebook, 2008


First there was MySpace, appealing to the junior high and high school crowd, and eventually appalling to many parents. Then came Facebook. More mature, and yet somehow safer, Facebook instantly became the venue of preference for college and university students. Until we reach a certain age, we are all fated to assimilate to some degree the technologies of the present. I haven’t reached that age yet, and I candidly acknowledge that my penchant for accommodation is pretty healthy. Still, I have to be convinced of the value of the latest “technological advance” before adding it to my repertoire, which, ironically, becomes more cumbersome with each “improvement.”

In 2008, I succumbed once again to the blandishments of technoverture (i.e., overtures perpetrated by novel technologies). Among them, Facebook. How did this happen?

First, I attended a Web 2.0 faculty workshop at my university. Facebook aficionados extolled its virtues. The single greatest revelation of the occasion was that our students are off email and on Facebook. Why? Because Facebook is better. It turns out that email served the primary value of social networking, until Facebook came along. Then it was bye, bye email. Facebook is a much more powerful tool for social networking. Students knew, of course, that few of their profs were in the loop. It didn’t concern them that by migrating to Facebook, they were effectively unreachable for academic purposes.

This may cause teaching faculty mild consternation. But it shouldn’t. I discovered that my students, and especially my most recent former students, welcomed my presence on Facebook—as opposed to thinking I had invaded their space. My policy on this is evolving, along with the general acceptation and utility of Facebook, but for the time being I don’t initiate Facebook invites to students. I don’t want them ever feeling obligated to regard me, even in the increasingly benign Facebook sense, as a “Friend.” As it happens, the largest constituency of my Friends List is students and former students who have sent me invites.

Second, my older daughter, who is a university student, made a convincing appeal to go on Facebook. She was, I’m proud to say, the first to send me a Facebook Friend Invite.

Once signing on to Facebook, a large question remained: What do I do with it (or on it)? My first impulse was to search for family members, especially my younger sisters (24 years younger) who were most likely to have accounts, and see if they would have me as friends. This initial act was rewarded in a most unexpected way. I found another “Geivett” with a familiar first name, the name of a cousin I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. With moderate trepidation (how could I be sure?), I posted her a note to confirm my suspicion that this was in fact my cousin. She replied instantly and enthusiastically (this is Facebook, after all). Yes, one and the same. We arranged to have lunch on my next visit to Seattle, only a few weeks hence. Since then we’ve seen each other twice. Within a few weeks she’ll be visiting us in southern California.

Facebook is a powerful tool for reconnecting people who otherwise would not be able to find each other. For me, this alone is worth the cost of Facebook. And Facebook does exact a cost. Here are three areas where the cost is especially dramatic:

  1. Time. Facebook, for its true enthusiasts, is a time-sucker. The distinctive sucking sound can be heard at its most voluminous on college and university campuses, where Facebook addiction is more rampant than alcohol addiction—which, come to think of it, is good news.
  2. Fantasy. Facebook fuels fantasies of certain kinds. Possibly greatest is the fantasy of intimacy with one’s Friends. I’m a firm believer that “being there” is till better than “the next best thing to being there.” And while Facebook beats out the telephone as “the next best thing,” it ain’t the same thing. Whatever it’s supposed to mean for Facebook to be “bookish,” one thing is certain, the interpersonal contact Facebook mediates isn’t “face-to-face.” Following hard on the heals of this fantasy is another—the fantasy of finding and fanning old flames. This form of intimacy-chasing is encouraged by Facebook. How many users have punched the search engine with names of former lovers and crushes hoping, with vanity, to reconnect? Our emotional lives are suggestible, susceptible, and, yes, sordid enough without the support of new social networking tools. On the other hand, the positive potential of Facebook, even in the arena of quiet desperation, isn’t completely negligible.
  3. Information Management. Maybe “life management” is more apt here. Facebook has a growing inventory of applications. Some of these promise to put vital, or at least interesting, information in your hands, and with greater convenience. This is one of the advertised  advantages of “Groups,” for example. “Information overload,” a phrase of relatively recent vintage, has already long been clichéd. Clichéd or not, the burden it names is very real and is here to stay. Do we really need more information and information sources? Maybe what we need is less information. But that’s because of the burden information management imposes on general life management. Facebook doesn’t perform all the tricks a techno-society requires to remain organized, and, more to the point, hip. So it actually adds to the burden of keeping up. I already had three email accounts before Facebook. In effect, Facebook brings the tally to four. (OK, honesty requires that I mention my LinkedIn account, as well. But this adds proof to my point.) Maybe someday we’ll learn that the proper telos of technology is human flourishing, and discover that no technology is the best technology.

Yes, there’s a price to be paid for the Facebook frenzy. Used in moderation, however, it serves us well who cling to fantasies of intimacy in the midst of an information hurricane . . . as long as there’s enough time for other things that matter.

Copyright © 2008 by Doug Geivett

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Related Post: Geivett’s Glossary

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