The Unexamined Life and the Fate of Serious Reading


A serious book about serious reading. By “serious” I mean a book that takes comparatively serious effort. But Bound to Please is also a pleasing book, for those who make the effort. You’ll know what I mean by “serious” and “pleasing” when you read the following selection. Author Michael Dirda comments on a report issued by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—called “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” The preface to that report is by Dana Gioia, a distinguished poet and critic.

“’Reading at Risk’ is right to lament the decline of what I will forthrightly call bookishness. As the report implies, the Internet seems to have delivered a possibly knockout punch. Our children now can scarcely use a library and instead look to the Web when they need to learn just about anything. We all just click away with the mouse and remote control, speeding through a blur of links, messages, images, data of all sorts. Is this reading? As Gioia reminds us, ‘print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability—and the many sorts of human continuity it allows—would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.’

 

“Yes, the Internet has allowed fans of Finnegans Wake and Dorothy Sayers and the English ghost story to gather and share their knowledge. Web sites and chat rooms do encourage people from around the world to form digital communities. But the computer must seem a far more ambiguous gift to anyone who has ever faced screenfuls of spam, or discovered that hours are eaten up just answering email, or found their colleagues drooling over pixellated lovelies, or noticed that their children had stopped going outside because they were unable to tear themselves away from bloody, digitized battles, or simply realized that they themselves felt incomplete when not online every minute of the day—and half the night. In other words, virtually all of us recognize that that flat-screen monitor before our eyes casts an insidious spell, and all too often it seems that the best minds of the next generation—and more than a few of our own—are being lost to its insidious, relentless ensorcellments. Who now among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly edgy’?

 

“Americans can still be smart and creative, but the pressure of the times is oriented toward quickness—we want instant messaging, live news breaks, fast food, mobile phoning, and snap judgments. As a result, we are growing into a shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere speed and spectacle in all aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that just maybe we’ve shortchanged our better selves, that we might have listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art, read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because it was time to tune into Law and Order reruns, or jack into a WarCraft game on our home computer, or get back to the latest made-for-TV best seller. Sometimes nonetheless, late at night or when faced with one of life’s true crises, we will surprise in ourselves what poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.”

MDirda-Book Cover-Bound to Please

Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education—Essays on Great Writers and Their Books
Author: Michael Dirda
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Copyright 2005 by Michael Dirda
Pages xxv-xxvi

Questions to Consider:
1. Dirda compares serious reading with the Internet, to draw attention to the special value of reading real books. What values are compromised when the print-culture gives way to the Web-culture?
2. What is Dirda’s basic thesis? What do you find most convincing about his thesis?
3. How do these few paragraphs make you feel about your own reading practices?
4. What does the word ensorcellment mean? Why would Dirda use an unfamiliar word like this here?

Building a Case for Architecture—Part 2 in a Series


My first entry in this series was about my experiences reading science fiction. Readers would naturally have expected a continuation of the series with more on SF. So what’s up with architecture?

Here’s what’s up. I got the idea to reflect on my past and present experiences, with thoughts tossed in about what I’d still like to read (or read again) and why. But I want to zero in on the best of my experiences in categories. These categories may be broad, or they may be very focused.

Image.Book Cover.Alain de Botton.Architecture of HappinessWith this in mind, feel free to read the following interview with myself:

Alias: How did you come by this lame idea?

Doug: To begin, I read a lot. Too much for other people’s good. Most of the books I’ve read I own, and the best ones are a valuable part of my library. Among my treasured books are books about books. One of these is a book called The Reader’s Companion: A Book Lover’s Guide to the Most Important Books in Every Field of Knowledge, as Chosen by the Experts. Now, I’m not expert about very many things, but books have been great companions for me for as long as I can remember.

Alias: What are some books you remember from your youth?

Doug: I may get to that in a separate contribution to this series. But the other day I was reminded of a whole series of books that I read cover-to-cover. I was riding on the Coaster—a train that runs from Oceanside to San Diego—with my extended family. There were about 25 of us. I got to chatting with one of my young nephews and I asked him what books he liked. He said he likes the Sugar Creek books. So bam! out of the blue comes this memory of all The Sugar Creek Gang books. I was reading those about 35 years ago! So my nephew and I have a lot in common. See what happens when you talk about books?

Alias: So this series is about books that have been important to you?

Doug: Important to me in a way that might be of interest to others who care about the things I care about. I’ve spent a lifetime asking people for book suggestions. I want to write about the choices I’ve made along the way, why they mattered then and whether they matter now, and reasons I might recommend them to others. It would be tough to list the most important books in my own field, and impossible for any other field. But I can list books of value, and that’s what matters. If I’m interested in a genre of literature new to me, like science fiction or epic poetry, I want to select from choice offerings. I poke around and ask people for suggestions. Then I jump in. I get a feel for things, and then I move on. Maybe I come back.

Alias: Why don’t you have a classy name for this series?

Doug: Good question. What would you suggest?

Alias: How about “Books of Value”?

Doug: I like it. Maybe my readers will have some great ideas, too. I can go back and change titles to earlier entries in the series to reflect the name of the series. But a series name should be catchy, and it should reveal something about what to expect.

Alias: This entry is called “Building a Case for Architecture”? Why is that if all we’re doing here is conducting an interview?

Doug: Well, we got a little off track. But architecture is an interest of mine. I mean, I’m interested in certain things about architecture—what buildings mean, why one building is beautiful and another isn’t, whether a particular building fits its surroundings or whether it’s poorly located. How long a building has been where it stands, and what the surrounding area was like when construction was completed. There’s no way that Christopher Wren could have imagine how the city of London would eventually gobble up the ornate churches he designed for the city. There are so many angles on architecture. I guess there was a pun in that.

Alias: What are some other interesting issues?

Doug: Whether the purpose of a building has changed over time. For example, this seems to be the case with so many churches in New England, all painted white and adorned with a simple steeple. What are they there for now? What happened there? That question, “What are they there for now?” sort of grabs me. These buildings have been “re-purposed,” as if that purpose they now serve is the purpose they were designed to serve. “They’re so cute. Perfect for a boutique shop, or a tea room.”

I’m interested in changes in architecture over time, and why some forms of ancient architecture have been borrowed many times since their invention. For example, do you know the architectural basis for this nation’s capitol building? Why was this chosen? Who made the decisions? What was this new adoption of classical architecture supposed to mean to a young nation?

Ot this . . . how does a building make you feel when you stand next to it, or when you’re inside? Is it better to view it from a distance? Is it even possible to view it from a distance, or is it too crowded by other buildings? When I see a photo of aerial view of New York City, what do I see? Buildings. I don’t see one building; I see many buildings. But I may not focus on any one of them. My attention may be on the whole that somehow is NYC. How is that possible? What does it say about NY? What does it say about me? Am I different than most people in the ways my attention is attracted when I see a skyline?

What’s more impressive, the Golden Gate Bridge as such or the terrific human accomplishment it represents? Does it really “represent” human achievement? Is it supposed to? Or try this one. How is the Golden Gate Bridge different in kind than the “carvings” of Mount Rushmore? What does Mount Rushmore “mean”? Are there any buildings that mean the same thing? Could there be? What is the limit to what a building can mean? And what may be a related question, what were the great monarchs or the papacy thinking when they commissioned the design and erection of certain buildings?

Many old buildings get bull-dozed, but others are preserved at great expense? What makes the difference? Who decides? Have there been any major regrets about decisions past? And how, exactly, is a building preserved? You can’t tuck them away in an art museum somewhere.

Alias: And there are books that explore such things?

Doug: Yes! My first suggestion is the book The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton. Start here. If you aren’t turned on about buildings after that, then move on. Read about crocodiles instead. If you’re hooked, then learn a little about types of architecture. For this I suggest the morsel Architecture: A Very Short Introduction, by Andrew Ballantyne. It’s not beautifully crafted, like de Botton’s, but it’s short and it’s educational. There are guidebooks for specific buildings or neighborhoods. There are books with sketches of buildings old and new. And don’t forget about biographies of great or celebrated architects: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. And then are biographies, as it were, of buildings themselves, accounts of how they were designed and built, the purposes they served or serve, and so on. Think of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Taj Mahal.

Alias: Are there books on architecture that you hope to get to eventually?

Doug: Yes. Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Architecture, by John Summerson; Lewis Mumford’s From the Ground Up, another book of essays. These authors are good at their craft. They are wordsmiths, which makes reading about architecture (or anything, for that matter) more enjoyable. I like the essay style because you can dip into a work at your leisure and take something away in short order. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space looks interesting to me from this distance. But the style of French philosophy may not be to my liking. We’ll see.

Other Sources for Reading about Architecture (for non-architects):

Readers, do you have suggestions for non-architects reading to understand and appreciate architecture? Leave your suggestions for the rest of us in the comments box.

Robert Heinlein and the Novelty of Science Fiction—Part 1 in a Series


I have no special expertise in science fiction. I’ve read little of it. But what I’ve read I’ve selected carefully and most of it has been a joy to read. The league of SF enthusiasts is intense if not immense. Though the SF genre has attracted a hefty percentage of readers, this result has been hard-won. This is my impression from the sidelines, as it were.

My limited direct experiences with science fiction may be of interest to those fiction readers who have long wondered what all the fuss is about, and to those enthusiasts who care to know what a neophyte like myself might say about what he’s found worthwhile.

So here is the first installment in my recounting of those experiences . . .

Image.Book Cover.Job Comedy of Justice.Robert HeinleinI think the first author I read was Robert A. Heinlein. An excellent choice, I’m sure the experts would agree. (You may know him through some of the films inspired by his work.) The trouble is remembering which book came first—and whether there were others. I’m pretty sure it was Job: A Comedy of Justice. I like sustained, serious comedy, and I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament book of Job. Putting the two together would be quite a feat. Those who subscribe to my webpages will likely find this novel a tempting entry point for reasons that resemble my own. (Others, who do judge a book by its cover, may be drawn first to his book Friday.)

As a philosopher, I can appreciate Heinlein’s talent as an observer of the human condition and what a future society might look like, if we continue on our present course, or if dramatic changes happen to us (notably through the development of technology). Heinlein had metaphysical and epistemological interests, as well, but his sensibilities were quite different than my own. This is no reason to pass over his ouvre. I’m an advocate for reading outside your comfort zone and conversing with diverse perspectives. It’s an aid to understanding your own worldview, and accepting it more responsibly. And fiction is among the best ways to access alternative perspectives on reality and human experience. Literate science fiction can do that for you. (I think, also, of Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not SF, but imaginative and contemplative, a far distance from where I stand intellectually, but by a clever fellow-traveler—on a motorcycle, to boot!)

Heinlein lived to be 80 years old, but his output was comparatively meagre for one with so great a reputation and influence. It shows that quantity is no match for quality. His total cast of significant characters, on the other hand, is almost ridiculously extensive. And you know an author’s influence is substantial when there’s a thriving online society dedicated to his legacy.

So that’s how it all started for me, and for that, I suppose, I’m in debt to Heinlein. But deep as my appreciation goes, I will never be considered a “Heinleiner.”

Note: For an exposition of worldview analysis within literature, I recommend James Sire, the book among his many that had the greatest influence on me. When I read it in the late 1970s, the book was called How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind. It’s now been adjusted to How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, which doesn’t quite get at the essence of the book, I feel. It’s a book I wish I had written. But I couldn’t have done so when I was 18. Probably still couldn’t.

Judging Mystery Novels by Their Opening Lines


1st edition (Alfred A. Knopf)

1st edition (Alfred A. Knopf) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two days ago I invited readers to choose one of four mystery novels based on its first line alone. I also challenged readers to identify author and title for each of the opening sentences of the four books. Click here for details.

Here are the opening lines, with title, author and year of publication:

#1: “A blizzard raged on the glacier.” From Operation Napolean, by Arnaldur Indridason (St. Martin’s, 1999).

#2: “Three days before her death, my mother told me—these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.” From God for Good, by Harlan Coben (2002).

#3: “God, I hate air travel.” Call No Man Father, by William X. Kienzle (1995).

#4: “When they ask me to become President of the United States I’m going to say, ‘Except for Washington DC.'” Spy Hook, by Len Deighton (1989).

I read these books in the following order:

  • Spy Hook
  • Gone for Good
  • Operation Napolean
  • Call No Man Father

Each has its virtues, but ranking them is easy for me. In descending order of preference, this is my ranking:

  1. Call No Man Father
  2. Operation Napolean
  3. Gone for Good
  4. Spy Hook

Next challenge: match book titles with the main characters in each.

  1. Will Klein
  2. Father Koesler
  3. Kristin
  4. Bernard Samson

Teaching Logic & Critical Thinking to Your Kids


Cover of

Cover of Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking

It’s pleasing to know that parents are taking a more proactive role in the education of their children, whether or not they are homeschooling. I’ve been asked if I can recommend tools that could be used to teach children the elements of logic and critical thinking.

  1. My first suggestion is that the best way to teach children how to think critically is to be a visible model of critical thinking. Children have a far greater aptitude for critical thinking than adults credit them for. They tend to be good at inferential reasoning. Their powers are limited in part by their limited storehouse of information from which to make inferences.
  2. Modeling excellence in critical thinking presupposes skill in critical thinking. So parents need to be students of logic and critical thinking themselves. Unfortunately, most have not had the opportunity for formal education in these skills. But there are accessible books to consider. I’ll add a list of recommendations at the end of this post.
  3. If your children see you making the attempt to sharpen your skills in reasoning, this will itself be a good example to them. You can tell them what you’re learning.
  4. Learn the names of basic inferential moves (for example modus ponens, modus tollens) and use these labels with your children when they demonstrate their own ability to make such moves. This should reinforce their awareness of the significance of their mental powers, and affirm them in the use of their powers.
  5. Encourage your children to think about the implications of something they have said or heard. You’ll have to be alert to opportunities for this. But once you’ve been at it for awhile, you’ll get into a natural groove. It will eventually become a part of your routine interaction with your kids. How to do this? I’ll save that for another post sometime.
  6. Get your children reading at their grade level (or above!) books that exemplify and encourage critical thinking. Mystery and suspense novels, carefully selected for their sophistication and interest, can be useful. I read the Hardy Boys as a kid. I also liked the stories of the Sugar Creek Gang.
  7. If you’re home schooling (or not), you can include in the curriculum some materials that teach critical thinking. The Fallacy Detective is a good source for this. (See below.)

Recommendations:

So, here are a few of the many resources available. I’m recommending those that provide a good place to start. Each title is linked to its Amazon page.

Books that inspire parents and other educators to teach children these skills:

Books for self-education in logic and critical thinking:

With adequate preparation in the early years, children in junior high and high school may be ready to work through these books themselves. They don’t provide a complete education in logic, but they are satisfactory for pre-college preparation. For more rigorous study in high school, I recommend using one of two textbooks:

Like most textbooks, Copi and Hurley are pricey. So you may want to settle for a second-hand copy. The illustrations and exposition of old editions will be dated, but the logic will be the same! I shop for second-hand books at AbeBooks.com.

For grade school and up:

Fiction classics for youth:

This post is cross-referenced in an interesting post here.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Page Numbers in Kindle


Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

This week I ordered the new Kindle, upgrading from the original Kindle that I bought a few years ago. My new Kindle arrived in the mail today. I’ve already enjoyed its improved features.

Amazon has recently created a new firmware version that includes several new features. The most welcome feature is the possibility of determining the page numbers in hard copy for the Kindle ebook version of a book you happen to be reading. This is critical to readers like me who write and lecture and need to be able to document references to the reading we site.

There are things to know about this new feature and its availability:

  1. Even my brand new Kindle came with version 3.0.2 of the firmware. This was superseded by 3.0.3. Why my new Kindle is loaded with the older firmware is unclear to me. But more important, my new Kindle should have the very latest firmware—3.1. Why doesn’t it?
  2. Amazon provides a page of instructions about how to upgrade your Kindle firmware to version 3.1. But I found today that the link for downloading the software is not working. So for the time being, I’m not able to upgrade to 3.1. (This may have something to do with the browser I’m using, which is Firefox. I’ll try this download with a different browser later.)
  3. Not every book purchased for Kindle makes use of the page numbers feature.
  4. When you use the page numbers feature with your Kindle, the way to be sure which physical copy it corresponds with is to go to the product detail page for that book at Amazon and scroll down to find a line that gives the “Page Numbers Source ISBN” under the “Product Details” section of the page.

For Amazon’s own information about the page numbers feature on the Kindle, go here and here.

 

“My Daddy Killed Pluto”


 

Buy on Amazon

A year or so ago, I was lecturing in my graduate seminar in epistemology. To illustrate a point, I brought up the recent fate of the ninth planet—Pluto. This was spontaneous. I hadn’t thought about the example before. But I knew that astronomers/astrophysicists had determined that Pluto was not, after all, a planet.

“How was it decided that Pluto was not a planet?” I wondered out loud. One possibility is that our scientists, working with a definite conception of what makes a planet a planet, had discovered that the stellar object we call “Pluto” does not satisfy the conditions for being a planet. Hence, it had to be demoted from planetary status to something else—an “ice ball,” perhaps.

Alternatively, our scientists may have known of Pluto’s properties and recently decided that the concept of a planet should be refined. With a refined conception of planethood, it would turn out that Pluto could no longer be considered a planet.

Which of these is the actual story? Did scientists discover something about Pluto that violated the standard conception of planethood, or did scientists revise their concept of planethood, knowing that Pluto’s claim to planethood would thereby be precluded?

I didn’t know the answer to the question at the time, my knowledge of the demoted status of Pluto being embarrassingly anecdotal. I was less embarrassed, though, when I asked a physicist acquaintance if he knew the answer. He didn’t.

So what is the answer?

Mike Brown, astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, narrates the answer in his recent book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. The Amazon page for this book includes “A Letter from Author Mike Brown” that recounts the author’s PR problem with his own daughter. “Daddy,” she said to him, “I know you had to kill Pluto, but will you promise me one thing?” He told her that he would. To find out what she asked him to promise, visit this page.

Related:

 

Order from Amazon

 

 

Perfecting Your Prose—Part 1: Richard Lanham and the Paramedic Method


Prose writing is no less an art than any other kind of writing. Getting it right requires a mastery of grammar and punctuation, syntax and diction, paragraph arrangement and style. Some elements of writing can be learned from a book. Grammar and punctuation, for example. Syntax concerns the proper arrangement of words to make coherent phrases, and the organization of phrases to make legitimate sentences, or sentence fragments that work. Diction is all about choosing the best words for the job.

Some of these elements shade into more subjective dimensions having to do with style. Style is person-relative. Individual style is desirable. But there is a bottom floor that any stylist should start with. And this is about the most difficult thing to explain to prose writers intent on improving their work.

I don’t teach composition—at least not officially. Most of my students are graduate students majoring in philosophy. They understand that writing effective prose is crucial to their development as professional philosophers. Their prospects for further graduate research, full-time employment, and publication depend on their writing prowess. For my courses, I’ve developed a sequence of writing exercises that lead ultimately to a term paper that might eventually be worked into something publishable. I emphasize the craft of writing no less than the organization of ideas. I return papers to students pretty thoroughly marked up, with suggestions of every kind. Most of my students appreciate this.

Still, I’ve wished for a book to complement these efforts. With the right resource on hand, students could experiment with alternative techniques and practice good habits of stylization while writing their papers and before submitting them for my evaluation. I’ve despaired, though, thinking that the the steps involved simply cannot be reduced to a formula that could be learned and followed. I was wrong.

Well, mostly wrong. Style is idiosyncratic and evolves, often mysteriously, with much practice writing and re-writing. But there is a blueprint for the bottom floor, and it can be found in Richard A. Lanham’s book Revising Prose. For all the pains I’ve taken to build a library of writing resources, I have no idea how I could have overlooked this gem for so many years. The first edition was issued in 1979, when I was halfway through my college education. I could have used this book then, and I find that I can use it now.

Lanham calls his basic procedure for revision the “Paramedic Method.” This because it serves in emergency situations. This parallels my metaphor of “the ground floor” of writing style. In the first chapter, Lanham addresses the lard factor, and demonstrates how so much writing that looks innocent nearly collapses of its own weight. Whereas I’ve shown students in my mark-ups of their papers that nearly every sentence they write can be paired down without loss of information and with improved effect, Lanham explains how a writer can do this himself. There’s a recipe for this sort of thing.

Here is my adaptation of Lanham’s method of minimal revision, with tasks listed in step-wise fashion:

  1. Circle all prepositions in all of your sentences.
  2. Circle all instances of the infinitive verb “to be” (i.e., “is,”are,” “was,” “were”).
  3. Using the prepositional phrases as clues, ask, “Who is performing whatever action is implied in each sentence?”
  4. Convert this action into a simple active verb and substitute it for the verbs you’ve circled, making whatever additional changes that are required by this substitution.
  5. Collapse compound verbs into simple verbs.
  6. Eliminate mindless introductions to sentences.
  7. Read each sentence aloud with emphasis and feeling.
  8. Re-shape your prose so that it can be read aloud with the expressive emphasis you intend.
  9. Mark the basic rhythmic units of each sentence with a “/”.
  10. Mark off sentence lengths.
  11. Vary the lengths of your sentences to improve cadence, rhythm, and “sound.”

Lanham calls this process “translating into plain English.” It sucks out the “prose sludge” that plagues customary writing. Every step is explained in detail and thoroughly illustrated in Revising Prose. Practice exercises are provided along the way. The result should be about a 50% reduction of lard in ordinary prose writing and more energetic sentences throughout.

Related links:

The Christian Introvert


Adam S. McHugh has written a wise book of guidance for the Christian introvert. I’m convinced by his argument that the Christian church in the West is, by and large, an “extrovert church,” and that this has stifled and confused many members of the church and enervated the church’s influence in the world.

Here’s my chapter-by-chapter review of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh.

Chapter 1, “The Extroverted Church,” documents the extroverted tone of the Christian church today. The author’s citation from Eugene Peterson gets right to the point: “American religion is conspicuous for its messianically pretentious energy, its embarrassingly banal prose, and its impatiently hustling ambition.”  Such “hustling ambition” is part of the legacy of the first and second Great Awakenings. I would add that it is also a capitulation to modern western culture. Approximately half of the church’s demographic is temperamentally introverted, and so a large sector of the church is made to feel alienated and inadequate to the call of God in their lives.

Chapter 2, “The Introverted Difference,” helpfully describes the differences between two temperaments, the extrovert and the introvert. Any Christian reader will probably know whether she is an extrovert believer or an introvert believer after reading this chapter. And if she is an introvert, she will probably feel considerable relief that someone understands her. McHugh’s affirmation of the introvert temperament begets inspiration to own your introvert temperament and re-engage with the church and the culture in ways that draw on your strengths as an introvert.

The fundamental difference concerns the direction of energy flow in the life of the individual, especially in relation to social interaction. The extrovert, of course, seeks out and is energized by interaction with others. The introvert, though capable of participation, feels the energy drain away as a result too much interaction. This affects her perception of herself as a member of an extroverted culture. And it can be misunderstood by the extroverts who set the tone for this culture of extroversion.

Note: Being an introvert doesn’t make you shy, or inhibited, or anti-social. And being an introvert is no better or worse than being an extrovert.

Chapter 3, “Finding Healing,” addresses the need of so many introverts for healing from the wounds inflicted by the exclusivity of our extroverted culture. Often lonely and confused about the role they should play within the church and the world leads, introverts are vulnerable to depression, isolation, and despondency. McHugh distinguishes between introversion and shyness, and helps the introvert reader understand how participation in communal life is possible and why it is necessary.

The next few chapters explore ways the Christian introvert may thrive as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 4, “Introverted Spirituality,” introduces ways that Christian introverts may deepen their relationship with God. These ways complement the introverted temperament. McHugh describes contemplative spirituality. His outline of the examen on page 74, though concise, is practical. And his counsel to adopt a “rule of life” is especially good. He speaks several times of learning to discern the voice of God. Though I would gloss this differently, what he says is consistent with my own take on divine guidance.

Chapter 5, “Introverted Community and Relationships,” admonishes the introvert to re-engage in communal life and offers practical suggestions for doing this, consistent with the introvert temperament. McHugh speaks as an introvert who has practiced what he preaches. He attests to the refreshment that becomes possible for the introvert in community, and to the joy that accompanies meaningful participation.

Chapter 6, “The Ability to Lead,” speaks to me. On the Myers-Briggs personality evaluation, I’m an INTJ. Translated, this means I have stronger tendencies to probe below the surface for what is important, rather than seek out concrete experiences, to make decisions based on deliberation, and to prefer structure over spontaneity in many (though certainly not all) areas of my life. For all of my adult life I’ve had a leadership role of some kind within the church and within society. Leadership feels and looks different for the introvert. But the introvert leader brings important skills to the table. Models of introverted leadership include Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jonathan Edwards. Old Testament saints Moses and Jacob probably were introverts. The young pastor Timothy, so important to the ministry of St. Paul, may have been an introvert (see 2 Timothy 1:7). Then there’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary, who was Martha’s sister (see Luke 10:38-42). I suppose Esther, the Old Testament figure who changed the course of history for Israel, was an introvert. Not bad company, really.

(Diane Hamilton offers a sample list of celebrities, showing some famous extroverts and some famous introverts.)

Chapter 7, “Leading as Ourselves,” is one of the longest and most valuable chapters. McHugh extends his treatment of leadership and gets into specific details of preaching as an introvert, functioning as a spiritual director, the differences in leading extroverts and leading other introverts. He writes very candidly on this subject.

A consistent critique of my ministry has been a lack of communication. What people sometimes consider to be my flaws betrays their extroverted expectations for communication.

Speaking from experience, I can say that there is real lived wisdom in that statement. University students, for example, expect—and often prefer—extrovert communication. This is reinforced in countless ways. At the graduate level, many of them aspire to be the kind of teacher that they expect their teachers to be. Which is to say: extroverts (in the Jungian sense). But they are not all extroverts themselves, and they never will be. So they need models of introvert leadership in teaching and mentoring. Also, they might benefit from considering what an introvert teacher offers that most extrovert teachers do not, because of how they’re wired. (This topic deserves several posts at another time!)

Chapter 8, “Introverted Evangelism,” begins, “An introverted evangelist? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Very little has been written about personal evangelism that doesn’t assume a extrovert personality. This chapter is an exception. McHugh stresses that evangelism is needed and occurs in different contexts. Many contexts—some of them very natural and routine—are overlooked. And these often are contexts where introverts thrive. Here’s one tidbit that may interest you in this aspect of evangelism:

My evangelistic conversations these days resemble spiritual direction more than they do preaching. . . . Because introverts process internally, we can offer a nonjudgmental posture and others will be comfortable opening up their lives to us.

I’m a big fan of “conversational evangelism.” But many extroverts are clumsy in their use of this approach.

Note: McHugh and I differ about how rational argumentation and lifestyle persuasion relate to each other. Whereas he places them in tension with each other, I see them as complementary, no matter who we happen to be conversing with.

Suggestion: For more on conversational and lifestyle evangelism, I recommend the book Lifestyle Evangelism: Learning to Open Your Life to Those Around You, by Joe Aldrich, and Conversational Evangelism: How to Listen and Speak So You Can Be Heard, by Norman Geisler and David Geisler.

Chapter 9, “Introverts in Church,” surveys the diverse ways that Christians do church, and relates each of these to the interaction styles of introverts, who may or may not be Christians. McHugh describes some wonderfully creative ways to energize the worship experience and communal life for the many introverts who are otherwise neglected by standard protocols. I know of Christians who have never felt at home in churches they’ve attended. After awhile, many of them begin to feel that something is wrong with them. Some even begin looking beyond Christianity for spiritual sustenance. It is a grievous error of the church to miss what’s being done to these dear believers.

Introverts in the Church includes “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” for each chapter. How fitting it is, in a book for and about the Christian introvert’s discipleship, to place reflection and discussion in that order! These are not perfunctory questions. They probe and delve deeply in ways that will help the introvert understand herself more fully and will inspire new ways of being in community with and leadership among other believers.

There pages of “Further Reading” include categorized lists of other resources. On evangelism, McHugh recommends Mike Bechtle, Rebecca Manley Pippert, and Rick Richardson. He lists three memoirs by “introverted authors,” Anne Lamont, Donald Miller, and Lauren Winner. For more detailed study of introversion, he suggests Susan Cain, Laurie A. Helgoe, and Marti Olsen Laney. There are other recommendations for “Community and Relationships,” “General Personality Type,” “Leadership,” “Spiritual Direction,” and “Spirituality.”

The book I’ve found most useful for delineating personality theory and personality types is Please Understand Me II: Character, Temperament, Intelligence, by David Keirsey. Basic to the theory is Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type. McHugh also recommends and frequently cites Type-Talk: The 16 Personality Types That Determine How We Live, by Otto Kroeger and Jane M. Theusen.

Two books I would add to McHugh’s list are:

Other links:

Get a Grip on Greek


In the 1970s and 1980s I took several courses on New Testament Greek, at both grad and undergrad levels. I don’t need reminding how long ago that was! Like so many others, I “let my Greek go.” So my proficiency dropped dramatically. Call it my own personal “Greek tragedy.”

After investing the effort in studying Greek, I hated to see it go to waste. I’ve made good use of my knowledge at times, but I haven’t been very deliberate about sustaining and improving my grip on Greek. Now I’ve come across a little book that addresses this very typical reality—Keep Your Greek: Strategies for Busy People, by Constantine R. Campbell.

Campbell’s book of 90 pages is organized into ten mini-chapters.

  1. Read Every Day
  2. Burn Your Interlinear
  3. Use Software Tools Wisely
  4. Make Vocabulary Your Friend
  5. Practice Your Parsing
  6. Read Fast
  7. Read Slow
  8. Use Your Senses
  9. Get Your Greek Back
  10. Putting It All Together

There’s advice in an appendix on getting it right the first time, for those who are just now beginning to learn NT Greek. The book ends with a list of resources truly useful to the person who would follow the practical advice that Campbell gives.

There are no stunning new revelations here about how to stay on top of a language you’ve learned. It’s mostly common sense—but it’s wise and inspiring common sense.

The author maintains a blog—Read Better, Preach Better—where he offers practical advice on biblical study and Bible-based preaching. The chapters of his book are adapted from a series of blog posts about keeping your Greek skills intact. Each chapter concludes with a few comments or “blog responses” from his readers. It’s a clever idea whose potential, I think, is never fully exploited. The value of including these responses depends, of course, on the value of the responses themselves.

Campbell uses Accordance software in his own regimen of Greek review and New Testament study. I’ve used this tool myself. It is powerful and convenient.

Two resources especially recommended by Campbell are:

I concur with these recommendations.

If you need brushing up, or you have the inclination to teach yourself New Testament Greek, I strongly recommend the published work of my friend Bill Mounce:

Mounce provides a wealth of additional tools, including his FlashWorks vocabulary drilling program, at his Teknia website.

For audio assistance with Greek study and review, these tools will prove useful:

Cover of "Sing and Learn New Testament Gr...

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Finally, you must poke around at the Institute of Biblical Greek website.

At least twice monthly, I teach an adult Bible study. Lately I’ve been introducing group members to the benefits of Greek study. We are currently studying 1 John, with an emphasis on Bible study technique. If you happen to live in North Orange County, California, you’re welcome to join us!

The Adventurous Reader


What is an “adventurous reader”? I’m two chapters into a novel by Jedediah Berry, titled The Manual of Detection. The CIP data on the copyright page indicate that subjects for this work of fiction include (1) private investigators, (2) femmes fatales, and (3) criminals.

Inside the front cover are three pages of accolades, many of them praising the book for its departure from conventions and its playful spirit. The Wall Street Journal says that the author “defies mystery novel conventions, but adventurous readers who stay with his strange and fabulous debut work will be handsomely rewarded.”

I wonder, what is an “adventurous reader”?

Here are some possibilities. An “adventurous reader” is someone who:

  1. reads literature in any genre that contains adventure: fantasy, science fiction, the detective procedural, etc.;
  2. steps outside his normal reading habits or patterns to read beyond “other stuff”;
  3. lives more fully within the pages of books he reads;
  4. reads what others in his field, or in his peer group, or in his circle of friends do not read;
  5. takes on authors who are challenging, difficult, mind-stretching;
  6. devotes much of his reading time to authors with whom he disagrees
  7. reads backwards, starting with the last word on the last page;
  8. reads only every other page.

There must be other possibilities. Is the adventure to be found in the act of reading—its how—or in the object read? Both?

I guess I consider myself an adventurous reader—though I think “adventuresome” might be the better word. But why? I read “broadly.” I’m patient about finding “just the right book.” But I will sometimes take a chance on something with little to go on.

Does the adventuresome reader read slowly, or quickly? Is speed irrelevant? Or has speed got to do with being one kind of adventuresome reader? Wouldn’t it be an adventure to read five novels in a day, allowing only thirty minutes for each? Or to pick slowly through a complex text, in an effort to notice everything worthwhile—what is written, how it is composed, the contribution it makes to our knowledge or a fulfilled life?

Adventure is a pretty pliable concept. Applied to the reader, it has interesting possibilities.

Are you an “adventurous reader”? Why would you say so? Do you know someone how is more adventurous than yourself?

How to Write a Lot—A Review


Cover of "How to Write a Lot: A Practical...

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Maybe you’d like to write a lot. Maybe you have to write a lot. Here’s a book you may like a lot.

The book is published by the American Psychological Association. Silvia, a relatively young scholar, teaches and writes about psychology. In this book, he applies his own eclectic method in  psychology to the ordeal of writing as an academic.

I say eclectic because Silvia expects his counsel to be congenial to psychologists of various stripes:

  • developmental psychologists
  • cognitive psychologists
  • clinical psychologists
  • emotion psychologists
  • psychologists with interdisciplinary interests

What he writes is for all academics who wish to be more productive writers. But he does advise his peers in psychology a little more directly on occasion. When he says, “Our academic journals radiate bad writing,” he means journals in his discipline. But scholars across the disciplines will recognize the sort.

Silvia pokes fun in good humor. He notes that “psychologists love bad words,” then points out that “they call them deficient or suboptimal instead of bad.” He means, of course, that words like “deficient” and “suboptimal” are often needlessly “erudite,” and therefore bad for good writing.

“Psychologists like writing about the existing literature. Is there a nonexistent literature that I should be reading and referencing?” It’s nice to hear a psychologist asking such a philosophical question. (I’m afraid that some philosophers, in response, will get caught up in analyzing “should” and explaining the scope of relevant research literature in terms of counterfactuals and alternative worlds.)

There are chapters here on:

  • Writing articles—”Your paper might be rejected once or twice before it finds a good home, but a good paper will always find a home.”
  • Writing books—”If you have something to say, write a book.”
  • Writing with style—”Your first drafts should sound like they were hastily translated from Icelandic by a nonnative speaker.”

But the crucial chapters are two, three, and four (pp. 11-57):

  • Chapter 2: “Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot”
  • Chapter 3: “Motivational Tools”
  • Chapter 4: “Starting Your Own Agraphia Group”

Silvia’s aim is to introduce the reader to “a practical system for becoming a productive academic writer.” He acknowledges the irony of writing such a short book on how to write a lot. But, he says, “there isn’t much to say. The system is simple.”

The “system” is indeed simple. It comes down to this. Create a manageable writing routine and stick to it. Specifics include:

  • Follow a schedule (a little writing every weekday, if possible).
  • Set long-term goals for completing writing projects.
  • Set concrete goals for each scheduled writing session.
  • Prioritize your writing.
  • Avoid binge writing.
  • Monitor your progress.
  • Permit yourself a measure of “windfall writing” when it comes naturally.
  • Always engage in some writing-related task during the scheduled writing session.
  • Settle for the simplest of writing implements to be sure you’re always able to write on schedule.
  • Be content with whatever writing environment you’re permitted by your circumstances.
  • Expect a flood of quality writing ideas as a result of regular writing.
  • Join an “agraphia” group.

All of this is excellent advice. Much of it is common sense, often repeated in “the literature” on writing. But such common sense is seldom practiced.

Here are three areas where Silvia’s book might have been stronger:

  1. His comments on writer’s block are slight and mildly dismissive. He’s onto something when he says that “scheduled writers don’t get writer’s block.” But even scheduled writers can be unproductive. This relates to my next point.
  2. He could say more about how to plan scheduled work so that it is completed on schedule. It isn’t enough to (a) decide on a project to be completed, (b) sit down to write regularly about that topic, and (c) set concrete goals for each writing session. Even if every concrete goal is mission critical, regular writing will not ensure project completion. A disciplined writer doesn’t just write daily (or whatever “regularly” means in his case). He writes towards completion of a project.
  3. He understates the value of style in academic writing. This is a bit surprising. Silvia himself writes with engaging style. And he devotes a chapter to style. But oddly, the chapter dedicated to the topic is preoccupied with aids to writing strong, clear sentences. This is a minimalist approach to style. It derives from the notion that “as academics, we’re not creating high literature” (p. 26). This outlook may enable the blocked academic writer. But I’m a strong advocate for writing that engages as it informs.

Most scholars, even the most-published ones I imagine, would like to be more productive writers. Paul Silvia presents a method that works. The book moves chapter by chapter through the standard barriers to productive, anxiety-free academic writing. It’s a quick read with much practical advice, some of it on points not mentioned here.

Dodgy Ruminations about an Afterlife


“God bless non-scientific narratives,” writes Jacques Belinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University. Of course, this is with tongue in cheek, since, though he’s Jewish, Berlinerblau is an atheist.

He speaks sincerely, however, about a hopefulness grounded in certain non-scientific narratives, for he’d like to believe that there’s an afterlife. Actually, he finds it hard to believe that there is not an afterlife of some kind.

So he believes that God does not exist, and sorta-kinda believes that there is an afterlife.

This lede sets the context for Berlinerblau’s review, titled “You’re Dead. Now What?” of four books on the topic:

Berlinblau is a touch dismissive of D’Souza. But Berlinblau, I believe, is right that there really isn’t good strictly scientific evidence for an afterlife.

If Berlinerblau’s review of Frohock is rooted in a reliable summary of the book, I’d say it’s worth a look. But it sounds like Frohock is working from some sort of pantheist or neo-pagan metaphysics (or worldview). I wish Berlinerblau had said more about this.

This reviewer makes Casey’s book sounds especially dull. But he has positive things to say about it. And I must say that the pages of this book are cloaked in the most impressive cover of the bunch.

Johnston appears to be one of those philosophers who has to be brilliant simply because it’s frequently impossible to understand what he’s saying. I suspect he’s of the “continental” variety. Berlinerblau’s sample quote from the book is almost a dead give-away.

I probably will read Frohock, eventually. He’s supposed to be ambivalent about whether science could yield evidence for an afterlife. And yet, says Berlinerblau, he’s a materialist. Like Berlinerblau, I find this confusing. If an individual person is completely constituted by material stuff and its physical organization, and this stuff dissolves—or its structure breaks down—following death, then what is the nature of the life beyond death?

The review is published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, of all places. This indicates re-entry of the possibility of an afterlife into academic surmise. Until recently, most scholars would rather die than enter a conversation about such things. Possibly, most scholars still have this preference. (It has not always been so.)

It’s equally fascinating that the traditional Christian doctrine of the afterlife is waved off with an almost pious flick of the wrist. (Check out the review and see if you agree.)

Berlinerblau’s book review enters a general conversation that is cautiously making its way back into serious discourse. But this discourse is dominated by a distinctly secular hope for a pleasant afterlife. Does this sound to anyone else like whistling past the graveyard?

Afternotes:

1. Berlinerblau adorns his essay with a choice literary quote:

The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop.

—Saul Bellow, Ravelstei

2. Christopher Benson reviews the Casey book, together with A Very Brief History of Eternity, by Carlos Eire, for the Christian periodical Books and Culture. Benson titles his review “Without End—Changing conceptions of the afterlife.” Indeed.

***

What do you think?

  1. What is the best evidence for an afterlife?
  2. If you believe in an afterlife, what will it be like?
  3. What is the best argument that there is no afterlife?
  4. Would there have to be a God for there to be an afterlife?
  5. Are you hoping for an afterlife?
  6. Are you expecting an afterlife?

Mysterious Opening Lines: Le Carré, Ludlum, and Others


GIGA Quotes, an online source for quotations, has listed 43 pages of first lines from books, beginning with Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This amounts to more than 2300 first-line excerpts from “classical, notable and bestselling books” (here).

First lines interest me. They interest me as an author, and as a reader. Read more of this post

Audio Post: A Commentary on Four Novels


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:

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