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

Can You Judge a Book by Its First Line?


You can’t judge a book by its cover, right? How about judging a book by its first line?

In recent weeks I’ve read four novels by different authors, all of them mysteries. In chronological order these books were first published in 1989, 1995, 1999, and 2002.

The Mystery BookshelfIf you were to decide to read just one of these books this year, based on the first line only, which would you pick? Here are the first lines for each, in random order.

#1: “A blizzard raged on the glacier.”

#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.”

#3: “God, I hate air travel.”

#4: “When they ask me to become President of the United States I’m going to say, ‘Except for Washington DC.’”

If you can identify the author and title for all four of these quotations, you deserve a free copy of each. Of course, we don’t always get what we deserve.

Maybe you can match quotations with year of publication?

Or maybe you can guess which of these books I liked most . . .

The irresistible image used here is from a Twitter site called “Mystery Bookshelf,” username @themysteryblog. Check it out.

[In two days, I'll connect the dots.]

Finding the Missing Pieces That Make Sense of Life: A Book Notice


I just read a pre-publication copy of the book A Jigsaw Guide to Making Sense of the World, by Alex McLellan. If you’re looking for a practical but reliable guide to engaging others in the great conversation about truth, I encourage you to pre-order your copy from Amazon here.

Alex draws from his extensive experience making bold forays into the jungles of relativism and the deserts of indifference. Though his aims are broader, I believe this book has especially helpful words for Christian believers dealing with doubt or have deep reservations about talking with others about their faith.

This is not an academic treatise; it is a stimulating guide to building on what you already know so that you might come to know more about the things that matter most—and so that you might act with greater confidence on the basis of what you know.
I know Alex well, and I can recommend him as a speaker for your next event on these topics.

Alex has worked closely with Ravi Zacharias and is now Executive Director of Reason Why International.

New Book Arrival—Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life


The new book edited by Doug Geivett and Michael Austin has arrived from the publisher! Here’s what three noted Christian thinkers are saying about Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life . . . .

“Being Good, with its outstanding contributions by frontline Christian thinkers and scholars, is a major contribution to the intellectual and spiritual needs of our times. Hopefully it will become a part of the practice, teaching, and preaching in today’s most prominent ministries.”

— Dallas Willard, University of Southern California

“Being Good contains eleven well-informed, gracefully written new essays on crucial aspects of Christian character, intentionally crafted to aid the reader in the quest to grow in the Christian virtues.”

— Robert C. Roberts, Baylor University

“Here I found a significantly Christian approach to living virtuously, complete with practical suggestions in every chapter for improving the quality of this life. I found myself finishing a chapter and thinking it was the best I had seen so far, only to find the next one equally or even more stimulating. When that happens, you realize that you are holding a quality text!”

—Gary R. Habermas, Liberty University

For more details about the book, follow this link.

Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life—New Book Announcement


Doug Geivett and Michael Austin have co-edited a new book, to be released by Eerdmans January 2012. Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life discusses eleven vital virtues from a Christian philosophical perspective. Each chapter is devoted to a particular virtue and is written by a Christian philosopher with special interest in that virtue. Contributors include:

  • Paul Moser, on the virtue of Faith
  • Jason Baehr, on the virtue of Open-mindedness
  • Jim Spiegel, on the virtue of Wisdom
  • David Horner and David Turner, on the virtue of Zeal
  • William Mattison, on the virtue of Hope
  • Steve Porter, on the virtue of Contentment
  • Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, on the virtue of Courage
  • Charles Taliaferro, on the virtue of Love
  • Michael Austin, on the virtue of Compassion
  • Doug Geivett, on the virtue of Forgiveness
  • Andrew Pinset, on the virtue of Humility

The book is organized into three parts:

  • Part 1: Faith
  • Part 2: Hope
  • Part 3: Love

Each chapter discusses a particular virtue, with careful description of the virtue, attention to philosophical difficulties related to the virtue, treatment of important Bible passages that deal with the virtue, and practical application of the virtue. Chapters conclude with though-provoking discussion questions to aid in personal reflection or small group discussion.

The book can be ordered now, directly from Eerdmans here.

Sixteen Works of Creative Nonfiction


Here are sixteen works classified as “creative nonfiction” and called “superlatively entertaining and artful” by Michael Dirda, in loose chronological order: Read more of this post

First Lines: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy


9780141439778Laurence Sterne’s ironical work of fiction, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was first published in 1759. It baffled and intrigued Sterne’s contemporaries. You may feel the same way after reading the opening sentence:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Come again? Read more of this post

Speculative Fiction by and for Christians


Twitter led me to a blog called My Friend Amy, where there’s an interesting take on speculative fiction in today’s “Faith ‘n Fiction Saturdays” category. The post addresses several questions:

  1. What is speculative fiction?
  2. What is “Christian speculative fiction”?
  3. What are the standards for high quality Christian speculative fiction?

This short post got me thinking about these and related questions. The result is a longer post sketching some of my thoughts about the general topic.

What Is Speculative about ‘Speculative Fiction’?

My Friend Amy quotes Wikipedia for an answer to this question:

Speculative fiction is a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history. (Click here for the complete Wikipedia entry for “Speculative fiction.)

The term is of relatively recent vintage. It doesn’t appear in any of the three handbooks I consult for such things:

  • Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 4th edition published in 1996. A new edition was published in 2008, and no doubt includes novel entries (no pun intended).
  • The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 2nd edition published in 1984. This edition was updated in 2002. Of the three books listed here, this is the best value—very affordable and reliable, with excellent coverage of authors, titles, literary movements, historical periods, terms and phrases.
  • Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch, From Absurd to Zeitgeist: The Compact Guide to Literary Terms (1997). I believe this book is out of print, but I see that (at the time of this post) one copy is in stock at Powell’s Books.

I once read an essay on speculative fiction that developed a convincing account of the form. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the author or where I came across the item. But I do remember thinking then that “speculative fiction” is an apt label for fiction that explores counterfactuals—ways things might have been but weren’t, or ways things might yet be but won’t. [FN: For more about counterfactuals at this website, "Run Lola Run—A Discussion Guide."]

The interesting examples of counterfactuals are worlds very close to this, the actual world. “What if, instead of X happening at time t, something else that could easily have happened, Y, had happened at t? How would things have turned out then?” (One serious philosophical problem with speculation of this sort is that the sequel to any counterfactual at time t—the succession of events following Y, for example—may itself vary in numerous counterfactual ways. There may be many ways things might have turned out if Y had happened rather than X at t. And it’s puzzling to think that there is just one way things would have turned out in such a counterfactual setup. But I digress.)

The better fictional depictions of counterexamples would be at least minimally ‘literary.’ And they would explore themes of enduring human interest.

Could a Christian author write speculative fiction? Of course. The author at My Friend Amy’s blog alludes to several. The most obvious examples are ones that are most obviously ‘Christian.’ They broadcast a Christian message so overtly that it cannot be missed. For example, as noted in the blog post over at My Friend Amy, much Christian fiction depicts battles in the spirit world between angels and demons and the role of intercessory prayer by humans caught in the conflict. This kind of speculative fiction will appeal mostly to Christian readers, and then only to a certain kind of Christian reader. They don’t appeal to My Friend Amy for example. [FN: Some Christians, you may be surprised to hear, would argue that many such specimens of fiction are not properly Christian.]

C. S. Lewis and Others

It is interesting to me that C. S. Lewis is not mentioned. In addition to his cherished Narnia series of fantasy novels, Lewis wrote a very sophisticated series of three novels in what might be called the category of ‘space fiction.’ These are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote with subtlty and grace. It’s well-known that he wrote from a Christian worldview. But these novels do not ‘preach.’

Lewis also wrote The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. These must surely count as paradigm cases of ‘speculative fiction.’ Next time you read them, consider this question: “What sort of ‘what-if’ question is Lewis endeavoring to answer in this book?”

I think that’s the question to put to any book if you want to be sure it counts as ‘speculative fiction.’ This opens the way for ostensive definition of the term. That is, it facilitates understanding of the term ‘speculative fiction’ by pointing to clear cases of it. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Shikasta, by Doris Lessing (1979), and The Children of Men, by P. D. James (1992).

It’s interesting to consider these examples in connection with questions raised by My Friend Amy. My view is that speculative fiction is a particularly congenial form for writing from a distinctive worldview, be it Christian or otherwise. It is congenial in part because it permits experimentation with the implications of a worldview without wearing that worldview on its sleeve. Doris Lessing and P. D. James both write with religious sensibilities—Lessing with the perspective of Sufism, James with a Christian worldview. [FN: Lessing was once offered the honorific title of "Dame" by Queen  of England. Lessing declined the honor. James was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991.] The guiding perspective in each case, though often discernible, is subtly layered into the narrative. This is akin to what the great authors Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene accomplished in their more ‘realist fiction.’ [FN: See for example, and the short stories of Flannery O'Connor, and The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.]

For many readers of this post, the film adaptation of The Children of Men will be better known than the book. While watching the first few scenes, I thought about how this darkly apocalyptic film might render the religious component of the human condition when humanity is faced with extinction. My guess was that it would represent society as completely secular, and that any portrayal of religious people would characterize them as the kind who stand on street corners warning passersby of imminent divine judgment, in a tone that betrays their conviction that ‘none who hear will convert, and it’s just as well anyway, since they deserve to go to hell.’ That pretty much is how religion was ‘treated’ in the film.

That last statement needs qualification. What I should say is that religion, imagined under the conditions described in the film, is presented a certain way. This may be a commentary on how religion is manifest in the world today. But it’s pretty striking that no one I would call a ‘serious believer’ shows up in the movie. I imagine they don’t exist, or, if they do, they are marginally significant to the storyline. But then what would account for their nonexistence? Or what would explain their insignificance to the unfolding story? It is precisely the apocalyptic character of the story that makes their absence conspicuous. And that is interesting.

So a film or a novel may have something to say about religion even when it makes no direct reference to anything explicitly religious.

Vampires

The Amy post also asks whether fiction featuring vampires might be a venue for developing Christian themes. I’ve thought about this myself. That would be an excellent question for Anne Rice, the bestselling author of vampire fiction, and an adult convert to Christianity. Books in her newer series based on the gospel narratives has not been quite as successful as Interview with the Vampire. They are, to be sure, friendly presentations of the life and influence of Jesus. I suspect they have generated a new set of fans.

Susan Howatch

Another contemporary author known for her Christian worldview is Susan Howatch. Also a bestselling author (and British), Howatch composes stories with a realist cast. They take place in our world, you might say. See, for example, her acclaimed series beginning with the novel Glittering Images. One of her best is The High Flyer, which can be recommended to any reader with a taste for literary fiction set in the contemporary context.

* * *

A blog permits the expression of random thoughts during idle moments. I’ve exploited that opportunity here. As often happens, the flood of thoughts swelled to the point of necessary expression because of a bit of reading. This time I happened to be reading another blogger who reads.

Thank you, Amy my friend—whoever you are.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Paranoid Atheists, Take Note


There are varieties of atheists. Some manifest symptoms of paranoia about the vigor of religion in the Western world. They decry everything about religion and are determined to curb its altogether negative social effects. A good example is Christopher Hitchens, whose book is titled god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Their publications, blogs, speeches, radio and TV appearances are rants against religion, litanies of what is dangerously wrong with religion. The paranoid atheists are not discriminating. And they are loud and vociferous.

Then there are atheists who are reconciled to the fact that religion is here to stay, and even believe that positive goods have been produced by religion—social goods that would not exist but for religion. They see religion as neither good nor bad, as such, but as something capable of extraordinary good and unparalleled evil. They are discriminating. They are willing to cheer what is good about some manifestations of religion. And now they are calmly entering the fray with a distinctively different and refreshing tone.

Excellent examples are the authors John Mickelthwaite and Adrian Wooldridge. Their new book, God Is Back: How the Revival of Religion Is Changing the World, is a kind of protest against the excesses of paranoid atheism. They argue that modernity is a boon to religion, and that more of religion in certain of its forms, especially as it is exhibited in America, should be encouraged. Mickelthwaite and Wooldridge cannot be ignored. They are prominent journalists who write for the prestigious British periodical The Economist. Their message of good news about religion is bad news for scoffers like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher.

God Is Back is a book for your summer reading list. With 400+ pages, it may be the only summer reading you do. But the price is right and the balanced consideration of religion as a social good is timely

Helpful reviews of God Is Back, by John Mickelthwaite and Adrian Wooldridge:

Presidential Leadership


So today is Presidents’ Day. We can’t all be in Washington, DC to visit the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, or the National Museum of American History. But there are interesting and edifying (or not) ways to memorialize the date and celebrate our presidential heritage. Some of these you can spread out over the week, others over a year—until the next Presidents’ Day.

  1. Visit the C-Span site for the Historians Presidential Leadership Survey for pages and pages of interesting facts and rankings. See also The American Presidency Project.
  2. Visit a presidential museum. We have two in southern California, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.
  3. us-constitutionReview U. S. Constitution guidelines for the presidency. Amazon has a nice paperback edition here.
  4. Have some fun. See if you can arrange pictures of the presidents in the chronological order of their administrations, at MIStupid.com. Do a word search puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle of the American presidents. There’s even a People’s Choice Presidential Card Game.
  5. Browse a pictorial reference book on American presidents. I recommend The American President: The Human Drama of Our Nation’s Highest Office.
  6. Select four presidents you’d like to know more about. Determine to read one substantive biography of each before next Presidents’ Day (15 Feburary 2010). Here are some recommendations: John Adams, by David McCullough; Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer; T. R.: The Last Romantic, by H. W. Brands; An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland, by H. Paul Jeffers; and, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Or you might select from The American Presidents Series, a stunning set of easily digested volumes. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the general editor writes, “It is the aim of the American Presidents series to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar. Each volume offers a distillation of character and career.” This is a great series for getting to know those forgotten presidents—James Buchanan, book-coverbenjamin-harrisonBenjamin Harrison, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Chester Alan Arthur, William McKinley, James K. Polk, Martin Van Buren. I have the volume on Chester Alan Arthur, by Zachary Karabell, and the one on William McKinley, who was assassinated, written by Kevin Phillips.
  7. Alternatively, read a book that compares presidents from an interesting vantage point. For this I suggest Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, by Michael R. Beschloss. Beschloss is the fellow you see interviewed so often about presidential history. He has several bestselling books to his credit.
  8. For the biographies of those who ran for the presidency and lost, I recommend They Also Ran, by Irving Stone.
  9. In the category of historical fiction, you might try something like The Shut Mouth Society, by James D. Best; The President’s Lady: A Novel about Rachel and Andrew Jackson, by Irving Stone; or, Never Call Retreat: Lee and Grant—The Final Victory, by Newt Gingrich. In the “alternate history” category, there’s 1901, by Robert Conroy, imaging the transder of power from William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt when Germany invades the United States. For speculative fiction involving presidential decision making during crisis, try Brad Thor’s novel State of the Union, or Absolute Power, by the bestselling thriller novelist David Baldacci.
  10. Identify a favorite non-living president and write down ten things you admire about him. Share these with a friend or family member.
  11. Pick a president you know little about, and see if you can learn ten interesting things about him. Try to identify skills or character traits you admire.
  12. Imagine a conversation with one of our past presidents. Who would you like to spend an hour with? What would you want to talk about? Write down ten questions you would ask? Do this with friends or family, and compare.
  13. Write an imaginary conversation between yourself and one of the presidents, or between three presidents who never knew each other (I did this in a blog post recently).
  14. Read select speeches of various presidents (for example, nomination and convention speeches, inauguration speeches, state of the union speeches, or speeches on important occasions—as when Reagan addressed the nation after space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch).
  15. Rent a movie. Here’s a list of some “presidential” films, of different state-of-the-unionposter1kinds and quality: State of the Union, The American President, Dave, All the President’s Men, Nixon, Jefferson in Paris, Murder at 1600, Absolute Power, Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, JFK, Young Mr. Lincoln, Wilson (1944, with Charles Coburn), Gabriel Over the White House, Air Force One, In the Line of Fire, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, The First Wives Club. Don’t forget about movies from The History Channel: JFK: A Presidency Revealed, FDR: A Presidency Revealed, and Nixon: A Presidency Revealed. Here’s the IMDB site for a listing of Ronald Regan’s movies. For a book on how Hollywood has portrayed presidents and their administration, see Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film and History.
  16. Watch past episodes of 24 and The West Wing.
  17. Write a blog post with your own suggestions.
  18. Post suggestions in the combox for this post!

Related posts:

Faith, Film and Philosophy Book Now on Kindle


ffp-kindle-editionToday, Amazon announced the release of it’s Kindle 2. I’m pleased to announce that my book Faith, Film and Philosophy (co-edited with Jim Spiegel) is now available through Amazon in a Kindle version. Kindle users can now wirelessly download a complete copy here for $16.47, a 45% discount from the retail price of the paper edition.

For the paperback edition of Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen, click here. At $19.77, that’s still a good savings of 34% off retail.

The book is in its second printing, and rights have been purchased for a Spanish language edition.

This is Conjecture, You Understand?


Robert Harris is one of my new favorite authors. His genre? Literary fiction in the thriller/suspense vein. Fatherland is his most celebrated work. But I first read The Ghost.

book-coverthe-ghostThe Ghost is written in the first person by a ghostwriter who is commissioned by his publisher to help a former British prime minister draft his memoirs. The project has to be completed within a few weeks to meet the publisher’s deadline. Our man, the ghostwriter, must scramble to repair an initial and very unsatisfactory draft, because the first ghostwriter has died—under mysterious circumstances, of course.

The Ghost reads well from the start. It’s immediately engrossing, for someone who likes this sort of thing. The plot is intricate and plausible. The finale is realistic but unpredictable. The narrator is the hero, and since it’s narrated in the first person, that means Harris has to be careful how the hero defines himself for his reader. It turns out, the protagonist is pretty human. He writes books that others get credit for. He’s intelligent but self-effacing. He makes dangerous mistakes, but works his way through trouble. His life is transformed by the events he narrates, but we’re not entirely sure what that means as the story comes to an end. One thing we do know—he doesn’t get the girl. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that readers will not forget what they’ve read.

Ditto for Fatherland. But the possibilities turned up here are more disturbing.

I classify this novel as a counterfactual historical novel. What does that mean? First, it’s based on historical events and real people. The setting is 1960s Berlin. The counterfactual conceit is that Hitler is still in power and is about to celebrate his 75th birthday. Harris considers what might have been, had Hitler survived the Allied invasion.

book-coverfatherlandOn the scenario he envisions, the Reich encompasses all of Europe, including England and France. Hitler’s military continues to battle the Russians on the eastern front. He’s negotiated a détente with the United States. President Kennedy—that’s Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kenney—is paying the Fürher a personal visit to commemorate his birthday. Hitler’s solution to “the Jewish problem” has been almost completely successful, and yet the details about what has happened to the Jewish population of Europe are known only to a handful of high-level members of the Nazi regime.

The story begins with an apparently routine crime scene investigation. Xavier March, of the kriminalpolizei, is dispatched to head the investigation. A corpse has been discovered on the forested edge of the river Havel. The deceased may have drowned accidentally. It may, somehow, have been suicide. The trail of clues suggests homicide.

Homicide it is. But by whom and for what reason? March is determined to find out. Soon he’s embroiled in a plot to cover up dangerous truths. Each turn in the investigation leads to further complication, confusion, and risk to Sturmbannfürher March himself.

Harris’s carefully researched novel reveals the Führer’s ghastly strategy to eliminate the Jewish race. It describes the practical difficulties that had to be overcome in order to make it work. And it envisions a horrific post-war outcome that may well have been realized if Hitler had had his way.

An American journalist collaborates with March. She believes that a public revelation of the facts would lead, sooner or later, to the collapse of a regime built “on a mass grave.” She’s confident that human beings, possessed with the knowledge of what had really happened, would not let it stand. The protagonist, Herr March, is skeptical. But he does know how, as a homicide investigator, to “turn suspicion into evidence.” And he’s compelled to do his part to sort out the nasty business. Whether the damning evidence he finds could change history is another matter.

At one point, March is explaining his theory about what the evidence means. He says, “This is conjecture, you understand?” Robert Harris has given us a suspenseful novel of counterfactual history that is filled with plausible conjecture. The last page ends with a fitting quote from Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been.”

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.”

John Updike as Book Reviewer


Encountering John Updike as book reviewer is to witness something akin to the 8th wonder of the world. I calculate that the time it takes for him to write as much as he dupdikedue-considerationsoes (speaking here of volume) leaves no time for reading, much less reviewing, books written by other people. My calculations have to be pretty far off the mark. He reviews like a fiend. (I mean this in the most positive sense of the term.) And reviewing is but one of the many grooves his writing follows. Is there any form he does not indulge?

I might not be so impressed by the monumental volume of his output if it were not for the other, more fundamental impression Updike makes. He is a master writer. People who write better than I, and not nearly as well as Updike (by their own confession), have been saying this about him for decades. With Updike, you need not begin with an interest in any topic he takes up to be delighted with his perspective.

For example, in an essay titled “Groaning Shelves,” he reviews the book The Book on the Bookshelf, by Henry Petroski. A book with a title like that would tempt me. In the scope of five pages—seven paragraphs—by Updike, I experience at least as much pleasure and add every bit as much to my fund of knowledge as I would expect from reading Petroski himself (279 pages). Come to think of it, the relish of reading Petroski firsthand is converted to relish in not having to read it because of the relish of reading Updike on Petroski.

In the first paragraph, Updike describes the publishing niche of this professor of civil engineering and history, mentions two of his previous books, The Pencil (1990) and The Evolution of Useful Things (1992), identifies the primary sources for Petroski’s third work, here under review, and demonstrates that The Book on the Bookshelf (1999) would not have been much of a book without the use of stretching devices, since the territory (“the history of book housing”) has been pretty thoroughly scampered over by others before Petroski.

petroskithe-pencilpetroskibookonthebookshelf

petroskievolution-of-useful-things2What we learn from Updike in this first paragraph is technique in the art of book reviewing that requires having something to say about a book that says little more on its topic than what others have already said in earlier books. We also learn something about Updike—that this is no reason to leave the book alone or end a review having said as much. Something else about Updike: he judges that arranging the books in one’s personal library in accord with the Dewey decimal system is “whimsical” rather than “obvious.” (It seemed obvious to me several years ago when I adopted the system. Ironically, perhaps, this gentle chastening by Updike, for being whimsical when I thought I was being practical, was reinforced the day before reading his review; I learned with mixed emotion that the latest version of bibliographical software I use—namely, Bookends—enters the Library of Congress call number in the designated field for each new book reference. I’m now in engaged in a tedious cost-benefits analysis of switching over to the LC system from this point forward.)

The second paragraph begins with a sentence that must have been a relief to Petroski: “Nevertheless, we need to be reminded that people did not always live surrounded by books arranged on shelves, with their spines outward and stamped with the title, author, and publisher.” On this point, I take issue with Updike. I’m not sure we “need” to be reminded of such things, or even that we ever “needed” to learn such things. This may be Updike’s way of persuading himself that Petroski’s book is worthy of review. He surely needs to convince his readers, given the mediocre assessment implied in Updike’s first paragraph.

The balance of paragraph two re-traces the earliest stage of “book” production (papyrus rolls) and the practical solutions that were devised for the problem of their convenient storage. One sentence, albeit parenthetical, glistens: “In truth, only in certain circles, smaller than academics like Petroski might imagine, could people be said [even today] to be surrounded [by books]; I am frequently struck by how many otherwise handsomely accoutered middle-class American homes have not a book in sight.” I know that experience—the experience of not only seeing this to be the case, but also the experience of being “struck” by the fact. I am, of course, an academic. (Not that being struck by the absence of books in the homes of other people is a sufficient condition for being an academic, except in that “special” sense of being eccentric.)

The next four paragraphs carry on the exposition, in chronological sequence, of book production and storage adjustments, leading up to the present, when the volume of books at institutional libraries, it is estimated, doubles about every sixteen years. Updike boils down, in five paragraphs, the history of this transmigration of the souls of books. Even to the layman, it is an interesting history, if told well and in no more than five paragraphs.

I knew nothing before of “chained libraries.” I’m not sure I quite have an adequate picture in mind of this invention that served for several centuries. The most interesting fact I learned is that “even after books came to rest on shelves, their spines were unlabelled and faced inward.” Updike surmises that “when books were few, they did not need to be labelled, any more than do familiar people.” I’m not about to experiment with this technique of book arranging with my several thousand volumes (although the storage of many hundreds in boxes is hardly more satisfactory).

pepys1The eighteenth-century member of Parliament, Samuel Pepys (pronounced “Peeps”), most famous for his Diary, was apparently compelled (by his wife?) to constant winnowing of his own book collection, so that it never exceeded the manageable limit of 3000 volumes. He ensured efficient use of space for his books by arranging them in two rows, tall books in front, shorter books behind on raised shelves, a strategy that is “impressively harmonious, though somewhat forbidding to a would-be browser.” You can see this for yourself at Magdalen College in Cambridge, where twelve cases of the Pepys collection are preserved.

As always, after reading Updike, my vocabulary is much improved. I now know how to identify the “fore edges” (not “four edges”) of a book. I’ve got a sprinkling of new Latin terms under my belt, which should come in handy next time I cross paths with Seneca: volumina, capsae, armarium commune. Speaking of Seneca, he opined that those who ostentatiously surround themselves with books as mere ornamentations of their digs make themselves ridiculous, or something to that effect.

“Groaning Shelves” appears in a 700-page collection of John Updike’s writings over a period of eight years, third in a series of such collections. This volume is called Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism (2007). It contains nearly 150 brief essays. Since yesterday, I’ve read eight of them, including: “On Literary Biography”; “A Case for Books”; “Looking Back to Now” (not unlike Jorge Luis Borges); “Against Angelolatry”; a tribute to Eudora Welty; Updike’s Introduction to Seven Men, by Max Beerbohm; “Groaning Shelves”; and one other whose title I’ll withhold, lest you infer something disagreeable and false about my (or Updike’s) character.

I purchased my copy yesterday, after browsing the entry on “The Future of Faith” (pp. 27-41). I excluded this from my count in the previous paragraph because I haven’t yet read it closely. But I know that I will, and soon.

updikedue-considerations1

Amazon Paperback

Lead-Up to “The Unnecessary War”


I was in Boston last week, hanging out with a friend and fellow-philosopher. He gave me two book recommendations:

and

I’ve read the first four chapters of Dubay, but that isn’t enough to have a firm opinion about it yet. I’m halfway through Buchanan and I’m prepared to recommend it for its carefully documented but iconoclastic interpretation of the lead-up to World War 2.

buchanan-unnecessary-warThe verdict on Hitler is pretty well-established, I’d say. Buchanan doesn’t veer from that. But Winston Churchill may have been a more dangerous war-monger than most would think. The evidence of Churchill’s predilections for military engagement, and for shifting blame for the war’s outcome, casts a pall over the received view of his leadership through “inevitable crisis.” David Lloyd George has become a person of interest to me. And I now know more about Chamberlain than before. Lord Balfour is a puzzle to me. These are achievements of the author. They reflect his success in stirring my interest and leaving clues to follow for further study.

Buchanan is not a professional historian; but he is a provocative interpreter. His thesis is controversial and has already been challenged by aficionados. He could get to the point more quickly. But he’s determined to support his claims with statements made by the players themselves and by sharp historians of the period. He quotes someone on virtually every page, sometimes at length. In every case, however, his choice of quotes is a valuable contribution. Each remark helps to capture the mood of the figures who made the critical decisions and altered the course of history.

Buchanan’s chief objective is to explain how World War 2 might have been averted, if it hadn’t been for vanity, or incompetence, or misinformation at numerous turns and among numerous parties. This story has no doubt been told before. But only here is it told in Buchanan’s style, and with his perspective on current events.

My thoughts about the war, its lead-up, its aftermath, and its present significance have been enriched:

  • I can now entertain the possibility that the Kaiser’s war (i.e., World War 1) was a war of German survival without imperialist ambitions.
  • I think I understand better how Hitler managed his coup and led a demoralized people into unwelcome conflict with the European powers.
  • I hadn’t known of Mussolini’s disgust toward Hitler and of Hitler’s almost obsequious admiration for Mussolini.
  • The hypnotic effect of Hitler on Western leaders who knew of his diabolical behavior (who were even, at times, on the receiving end of it) never ceases to astonish. This mystery is compounded by Buchanan’s telling of the story.
  • Ever since my visit to the Brenner Pass in the majestic Italian alps I’ve wondered how it came about that this region, formerly a precinct of Austria, had been handed over.
  • The roles played by Czechoslovakia and Poland impress me as much more significant now.

I could go on. Instead, I’ll read on, and probably learn more about how America came to abandon its protectionism and make war on the continent (I suspect it has something to do with the Japanese, who had been disenfranchised by the British), the mystery of alliance with Stalin’s regime, and much more. I expect—I hope—I’ll have more questions when I’m done reading. But before the book is closed, I feel comfortable already recommending it to others.

Note: There’s a Kindle version of Buchanan’s book. If there wasn’t, I might never have gotten round to reading it. Learn about Kindle here.

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