‘Objectivity and Impartiality: Epistemic Virtues in the Humanities’, Lorraine Daston (2015)

A lifetime of unfinished projects has taught me one good thing: how to start enthusiastically. Four days after arriving in St Andrews for my master’s degree, I sat down in the library with Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia and began making my way through its five hundred and thirty-four pages.* (This process was hindered by authors Briggs and Calder’s alphabetical arrangement of their fifty subjects and my determination to read through the biographies in more or less chronological order; needless to say, the plans of Briggs and Calder were foiled by my compulsive tendencies.) An account of the lives and passions of fifty classicists was exactly what I needed to orient myself in the discipline, and the understanding I gained of the history of classics has proved highly useful since; I am thankful for the coincidence that I found that book on that day.

I wasn’t looking for a history of how some of those very classicists shaped contemporary views of objectivity when I searched the Durham library website this morning for “Ancient Greek textual criticism”, but I have once again found exactly what I was looking for by not looking for it. Daston and Galison’s Objectivity was cited frequently in some of the early chapters of Values of Precision, enough that I thought I might want to get around to reading it someday; after running across Daston’s chapter in the unenticingly named The Making of the Humanities, Volume III today, I am eager to track down a copy. More importantly, I am newly affirmed in the importance of my new discipline, which appears to be something called ‘history of science’.

In St Andrews, my nearly-new discipline was Classics–Ancient Greek literature, specifically. I’d squeezed a classical lit major out of my final three semesters at UNC-Chapel Hill (not at all recommended, but pleasant times were nevertheless had). Classical Scholarship had helped me see what kind of research could be done in Classics and what kind of training you needed to do it. Similarly, Lorraine Gaston’s chapter of The Making of the Humanities is exactly the kind of thing I want to read, and exactly the kind of thing I think–even after millennia of historical research–needs writing. I am surprised to find myself technically occupying the Ancient History side of the Durham department, rather than the Classics side; it is nice to be reassured that I am possibly in the right spot after all. That would mean that I need to learn how to become a historian, however, which sounds like a lot of work at the moment.

Key concepts that I need to keep tracing from Daston 2015:

  • Objectivity–or as Daston frames it in this chapter, objectivity versus impartiality. Does impartiality overlap exactly with the concept of ‘disinterestedness’, so important in the eighteenth century and vanishing in the next? Daston doesn’t say; perhaps she and Galison discuss this in the longer book.
  • ‘Epistemic virtues’–these came up fairly often in Berrey’s Hellenistic Science at Court, which I found fascinating; they seem highly relevant to my project. Need to read more about the history of this term and its significant uses.
  • Thucydides I.22–I knew that {akribeia}** came up in Thucydides, I think (thanks TLG!), but I hadn’t thought about that fact in quite a while. I’m still trying to figure out where exactly Ancient Greek historical writing fits into my dissertation outline–a section on ‘rhetorical uses of accuracy & precision’ keeps not quite fitting in where I want it to–but maybe there’s a closer link than I had realized between Greek historiography and Alexandrian textual criticism (the latter of which is what I had intended to read up on this morning). Maybe {akribeia} in writing history & Homer is what I need; maybe this is finally the connection that will turn my pages and pages of notes into a coherent whole…
  • ‘Big Science’, to use Daston’s term–absolutely fascinating the way she traced the origins of highly collaborative and highly methodical research projects in, say, nuclear physics to 19th century historiographical projects like Mommsen’s Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. I’ve been reading up on 20th century science megaprojects (the Manhattan Project, the Apollo missions, et al.) for an idea that I had last week for a novel. I absolutely have not started to write the novel (well, except for a few paragraphs), and of course my dissertation takes priority, so it doesn’t even matter if I see connections between the novel and what I’m reading for my PhD–but the synergy is exhilarating. I may start a new Scrivener file, just so I can take notes for the novel as well….
  • Networks–fascinating also the way she stresses the importance of apprenticeship-like research seminar groups in establishing historical methodologies. This features connects both with a number of chapters in Values of Precision, which emphasized how standards are negotiated by networks (cf. especially M. Norton Wise’s ‘traveling numbers’ concept), and with the image of a mathematical network described in Netz’s 2002 chapter (and elsewhere in Netz’s writing, I think). I’m sure this broader topic has connections with Steven Johnstone’s A History of Trust in Ancient Greece, but at the moment I can’t think what they are.
  • Daston’s conclusion–a fascinatingly negative take on objectivity as a whole–not just in its potential for facilitating distortion of history, or the posing of wrong-headed questions, but for its social effects. I don’t know exactly the extent to which I agree with that negativity, but I love so much being forced to reevaluate. What a marvelous idea, this ‘history of science’. How relevant. How important. How interesting. Someone should write a novel about a science historian time-traveling to 1940….

The soundtrack for today’s work has been 1940’s instrumentals: if I can’t let myself work on the fiction project, I can at least listen to the characters’ music and pretend that I’m working in a coffee shop, rather than my sister’s childhood bedroom.

*Thank goodness my 879,453-word journal has a search function. I finished Classical Scholarship four days later, in case you were wondering. In case you weren’t–well, all I’ll say is that future generations were grateful for Samuel Pepys.

**I systematically use braces {} to denote a word which has been transliterated. You should, too, because a) it reduces ambiguity; b) nobody is using braces for anything else; c) braces are a standard feature of keyboards, whereas italicizing can be a pain; d) it reduces the ugliness of transliterated words like {‘istorih}; and e) I wouldn’t have to keep writing this footnote.

Clearing the Shelves, Part II: January’s Fiction

I felt justified in listing writing under “Skills” on my recently refurbished résumé.  After all, I exercise my ability to put words on a page most mornings by churning out seven hundred and fifty words of uncensored thought, as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and facilitated by www.750words.com; I’ve written a few short stories and drafted a few (admittedly terrible) novels; occasionally I even write about what I read and post it on the Internet.  I recently realized, however, that there exists a dire discrepancy between the time I spend writing and the time I spend editing.  On this blog, for example, the total published posts are outnumbered by the rough drafts which will never see the light.  (This is the third post to be labeled “Clearing the Shelves, Part II”, so perhaps sequential titling isn’t a good strategy for me.)  As effective as my “morning pages” have been in combating writer’s block, I sometimes feel a little chagrin at the stylistic sloppiness such a habit has left unchecked.

In misfortune there is opportunity, no?  After the beginning of the knee pain that followed two weeks of slightly overenthusiastic running (I’ll start with interval training next time, I promise), I began reading as though that was my best ticket out of life-transition-induced depression.  Consequently, I got through about at least foot of books in January.  In trying to keep this post to a manageable length, I’ve gotten even more practice in editing than I expected: first this review was of all of the books I finished in January, then of just the fiction, and then of all the fiction that didn’t raise deep questions about the nature and functions of fantasy as a genre.  While it may take me some days to post it all, I’ve gotten even more editing practice than I expected.  (Success.  Sort of.)  These five fiction books all came from my crate of unread books; all but one ended up in the canvas tote bag bound for Mr. K’s Used Books.

  • Last Song before Night, Ilana C. Meyer
  • Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett
  • The Truth, Terry Pratchett
  • The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, John le Carré
  • The Promise, Chaim Potok

Last Song before Night, which I added to an Amazon wish list after reading some enthusiastic reviews, was easy to part with.  It’s a fantasy story in which magic and music are mingled, and I was hoping for something as compelling as Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind or the YA Seraphina series by Rachel Hartman; however, a comparison between Meyer and Rothfuss highlights the shortcomings of Last Song.  Meyer’s characterization is, like Rothfuss’s, a little patchy.  A few characters stick in my mind almost a month after closing the book (one of them a disturbing sadist whom I’d prefer to forget), but scattered among the crowd are some seriously Mary Sue-ish talents and some stereotypes whose primary function is to allow Meyer to make some kind of point about contemporary society.  I’m all for fiction that leads readers to assess their own assumptions or their culture’s dominant narratives, but Last Song doesn’t do that subtly or skillfully.  Meyer’s invented world isn’t a particularly compelling take on fourteenth-century alt-Europe with magic added.  Her writing has uneven pacing, some predictable beats, and a contemporary casual style without much either clarity or poetry (Rothfuss’s style, for comparison, is loaded with enough lyricism for a twenty-first century Thomas Wolfe doing swords, spells, and adventure).  In short: don’t buy the reviews, and don’t buy the book either.  Do yourself a favor and go read The Name of the Wind if you’re looking for contemporary fantasy about musicians–then help me crowdfund an editor for Rothfuss who will make him trim his books properly.

Ilana C. Meyer was too recent a writer for me to be able to predict the quality of her writing from her reputation; Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, is legendary as the Wodehouse of modern fantasy.  I’m glad I finally got around to reading the two Pratchett novels a friend passed on to me a few summers ago, although working through my feelings about the vampire pastiche Carpe Jugulum proved surprisingly involved and long-winded; I’ll post those reflections on good and evil in fantasy as soon as I figure out just what I think about Granny Weatherwax.*  I have less to say about The Truth, but perhaps the strongest recommendation I can give is that it’s the only one of the books I read in January that I plan to keep.

That’s not just because I enjoyed Pratchett’s endless news- and word-related puns on William de Worde, founder of Discworld’s first newspaper; nor is it just because I liked the humorous, Raymond Chandler-esque, magical gritty city better than Carpe Jugulum‘s mountainous Kingdom of Lancre.  Pratchett’s characterization in this book, of both heroes and villains, is excellent, nowhere more so than with William.  At first he seems like a pretty generic version of Aimless Young Male Protagonist, Just Starting His Hero’s Journey.  The Truth certainly is William’s hero’s journey, and he certainly grows up over the course of the novel.  But the way Pratchett gradually reveals (mostly through the thoughts and dialogue of William’s friends) that William’s inexperience with the world extends beyond knowledge of how to run a newspaper, into both ignorance of injustice and insensitivity in handling it–all of this is very well executed.  By the end of the novel, William has grown in courage and competence but still doesn’t know who he is.  The reader does, and that’s part of what makes William an interesting character.  I replaced The Truth on the shelf so that I can enjoy all the newspaper quips again sometime, and so that I can sit down and study just how Pratchett illustrates different characters so well.

I turned from Terry Pratchett to John le Carré with some trepidation.  The first le Carré book I read was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a laborious read which involved at least three false starts and a great deal of confusion.  The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is, despite also being a story about Cold War espionage, quite a different book.  Where Tinker, Tailor felt like an impossible maze of characters, identified more often by physical characteristics than by name, the narration in Spy Who Came In sticks closely to just two characters.  The game those characters are playing is also more straightforward than Smiley’s dilemma in Tinker, Tailor; consequently, the reader can spend less time unraveling the plot and more time paying attention to Alec and Liz.  Le Carré’s writing is lean and understated rather than flowery, and highly effective in capturing the grim atmosphere of East Germany and in giving the reader an occasionally ironic distance from his characters’ opinions.  (In his memoire, he credits the clarity of his style to a supervisor from his early days as a spy–not a profession that came up when my high school English teacher extolled the practical applications of good writing.)  It’s not a happy or romanticized story of the Cold War, but it is a gripping one.  A quick read and an unforgettable conclusion; highly recommended.

Although Chaim Potok’s The Promise was written within a few years of Spy Who Came In, it is a world away from the thrills of espionage.  The Promise is primarily a story about being Jewish in twentieth-century America, and much of its tension involves textual criticism and interpretation of ancient religious writings. As a Christian who has lately been spending some quality time with the Greek New Testament, I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s scholars getting into heated debates about the validity of textual emendations to the Torah.  What makes The Promise an interesting book even for those indifferent to stemmatics and manuscript traditions, however, is the way that Potok interweaves an apparently abstract, impersonal question (“how ought we to wrestle with the difficult aspects of our sacred texts?”) with the book’s very personal family dramas.  As in The Chosen, an earlier book with the same protagonists, Potok is rather more enamored of Freud than later psychologists are (or than I am, for that matter); the reliance on Freud is occasionally irritating, given that one of the subplots involves a psychologically troubled teenager.  Nevertheless it’s a fascinating story of sons and scholars that comes together in the last few chapters in an emotionally satisfying conclusion.  To paraphrase one of the characters in The Promise: you can “hear the Song of Songs”, the author’s love of the Torah, in the way he writes.  Whatever your religion, it’s a beautiful and somewhat unusual theme to encounter in a novel.


*Hypothesis: If a story is not to be a tragedy, then the fate of its characters who embrace evil must be either defeat or redemption.  All the stories I can think of in which the villains/monsters don’t meet one of these fates (or potentially some weird combination thereof?) are tragedies–if you can come up with an exception to this rule, please share it in the comments!  Otherwise I’m going to forge ahead with the somewhat bizarre argument that Carpe Jugulum is actually a tragedy in disguise….

Beach Reading

Prior to this summer, I can’t remember spending a week at the beach in July. I arrived on the South Carolina coast during the second week of July expecting sweltering misery and sunburns. I was disappointed on both counts: I had a wonderful time lounging on the beach and returned melanoma-free. I brought a small library of things I’d been meaning to read, however, and I finished four books with my feet in the sand.

The most fun book from my giveaway pile was definitely P.G. Wodehouse’s The Brinksmanship of Galahad Threepwood. I enjoy Wodehouse very much (and the Blandings books in particular), but I still plan to let this one find a new home at Mr. K’s or the next Skyland library book sale. Wodehouse novels generally contain the same elements as a Shakespearean comedy: mistaken identity, mayhem, mixing of classes, and at least two or three weddings at the conclusion. Brinksmanship was entertaining, well-written, and immaculately choreographed in plot (Wodehouse supposedly wrote detailed plot outlines for all his novels before writing the first word.) There are some familiar faces here, with slight variations and new names: a few feckless young men who quite innocently end up on the wrong side of the law, a competent and unassumingly pretty young woman, a writer forced to pay rent by banging out pulp fiction or children’s books, and an Responsible Agent of Order (in this case Beach and a policeman ally rather than the Efficient Baxter). Gally was a new character to me, and a pleasant variation on the theme of Bertie Wooster; in the end, however, most of the members of this book’s cast were a little less charming and a little more frustrating that those of, say, Leave it to Psmith.  Recommended if you find yourself holding this book and needing a good laugh–but not recommended as heartily as what I consider the perfect Blandings book, Something Fresh.

The shortest book I read at the beach was easily Zitkála-Šá’s  American Indian Stories, less than a hundred pages long. What fascinated me about this collection of loosely connected essays, anecdotes, and stories was its melding of styles. The author’s prose tends towards the Edwardian: long sentences, ornate diction, poetic descriptions of natural beauty.  The stories, however, are something else.  The author starts off by describing her childhood and transition to a Quaker boarding school in Indiana, then some of her career as a teacher and writer.  This impressionistic autobiography comprises maybe two thirds of the book.  The rest of it is what you might call fiction, both traditional stories and original ones, but is presented with no announced transitions and no familiar signposts that the author is leaving the story of her life and turning to someone else’s.  Occasionally I would realize, a page or two into a new section, that the narrator was no longer Zitkála-Šá but the nameless protagonist of a new story.  I can’t say I have a deep familiarity with Sioux storytelling conventions after finishing this book, but I enjoyed its different perspectives on narrative, history, and tradition.  I won’t be holding on to it for a re-read, but I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about Native American stories and experiences.

There’s an old inside joke in my family: What is the capital of Yugoslavia?  That’s it.  That’s the whole joke.  It’s not much funnier when you know the backstory, which relies on one party being repeatedly annoyed by other parties in the same way for eleven or twelve years.  I picked up The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War as a sort of trump card for one of the annoyers; unfortunately, they didn’t want it at the time and I couldn’t get rid of it without reading it. (Have I mentioned that I have trouble letting go of knowledge?) I finally got through all two hundred and ninety-eight pages of Serbian names I can’t pronounce and political intrigue and endless acronyms for paramilitary organizations, and I’m glad I did. The Balkan conflicts of the 90’s are a little too old for me to remember, a little too recent for history books, and a little too localized for the rest of the world to understand, or to care much anymore. Journalist Misha Glenny’s narrative is fascinating: he starts the story with the debate over whether Knin properly belonged to the new people of Croatia or Serbia, and continues through the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the various attempts by external and internal parties to stop the bloodshed in the region. In addition to tracing the ethnic conflict back to its various historical roots–Serbian prominence under communism, atrocities committed by Croatians during World War II, the conversion of Bosnians to Islam under the Ottoman Empire, and more–Glenny points out the two major failings of the international response to the Balkan wars.

First, interest–Glenny highlights Slovenia’s entirely peaceful secession from Yugoslavia as the trigger of the conflict, not because of any ethnic tension there, but because it forced the other republics to dissolve their political ties sooner, and with less forethought and negotiation than they required. Also, Germany had a historic economic interest in Croatia, and German diplomats therefore pushed other countries to recognize Croatian independence. Which seems like a good idea, but there was still active conflict in Croatia at the time between the army and its large Serbian minority, who were concerned about the discrimination they were beginning to face under the new regime. . .and Macedonia wanted independence too and was politically stable, but Greece has long been concerned about Macedonia as a political and cultural threat, and Greece had pull with Germany, so Germany more or less badgered what would soon become the EU into recognizing Croatia and Slovenia but not Macedonia. . .but of course Macedonia has a small Albanian minority with some opinions of their own, and so on and so on.

The second major issue–ignorance. I accepted Glenny’s arguments because he knows the region extremely well, speaks the languages, won various journalism awards, and had substantial friends and connections in various parts of Yugoslavia, not to mention some excellent contacts in the US State Department. Twenty-five years ago, I might have read about the latest slaughter of innocent Bosnians and been outraged. Yet atrocities were committed often and everywhere throughout Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina; after reading about atrocity after retributive atrocity committed by various paramilitary groups, you start to realize that no people were unaffected by destruction, and that not many people were innocent. Some of them were just much savvier in manipulating the visiting camera crews.

The Fall of Yugoslavia was rather depressing but well written, insightful, and shows the futility and tragedy of trying to establish ethnically “pure” states in the Balkans or anywhere else. I still planned on letting it find a new home, but I spent enough time talking about Croatia during World War II that at least two more Flemings will have finished it within a couple of months. Recommended for anyone interested in the Balkans, geography, political science, or twentieth-century history.

I started reading Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There in high school but only made it halfway. When I pulled it off my shelf this summer and turned to my bookmark, I was utterly lost. So I started back at the beginning and pulled out a notebook for thinking, copying, and generally slowing myself down. My reading style is usually fast and careless, but I have never been particularly successful in speed-reading philosophy.

And that’s what The God Who Is There is: Christian philosophy. Meant as a discourse on apologetics in the postmodern era, the book delves into big questions of art and culture, epistemology, ontology, semantics, faith, and existentialism. Schaeffer launches early in the book into Hegelian dialectic, of which I remember the textbook summary and little else. Schaeffer isn’t very keen on Hegel’s thesis/antithesis/synthesis model: to him, it interferes with man’s ability to establish truth and non-truth, Aristotle-style. The further I read, the less sure I was that I really understood Hegel’s philosophy. (Do innovative ideas, wrong or right, perhaps take more than a sentence to summarize?) I think I’ll need to read some Hegelian philosophy to understand why Schaeffer was so opposed to dialectical thinking.

Once I got through that part of the book, however, I could only appreciate Schaeffer’s insight. Fifty years ago, he wrote about the perceived chasm–the “line of despair,” in his words–between the things we can know can know (e.g. that the earth is round, or that public parking here in downtown Charlotte is overpriced) and the “philosophic other” we can believe in (that God exists, or that someone loves you). Schaeffer’s primary argument is that, while our knowledge of the universe is limited and some things are easier to recognize than others, the leap of faith in God is “over a brook rather than into a chasm”: He is sufficiently (though not exhaustively) evident in our world and in our lives. Schaeffer traces the development of that chasm as it traveled from philosophy to art to music to general culture, and finally theology.

That main thesis took me some serious time and mental energy to work through; my grandmother cheered me up by telling me that she used to read Schaeffer with encyclopedias and dictionaries open on the table. The latter part of the book was easier to read and full of insights. I was especially interested when he got started on words and their meanings. He cites a number of instances of writers and artists (Dali, for instance) using the connotations of Christian symbols (a cross, a church, an image of Jesus) in their art, without intending meaningful correlation to what they represent. Schaeffer is right: religious symbols are part of the wider culture, whether or not you believe in them, and are therefore free game in a way for any artist, regardless of their beliefs. I can like, accept, or be interested in Dali’s art as art or his art for what it communicates–but I shouldn’t stop thinking about what art or music means just because Jesus is in it. The same goes for art produced by confessing Christians, too.

In a book about creativity I’ve been working through (The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron), the author encourages the reader to keep an open mind–not necessarily so that they will change their beliefs, but so that they will examine them.  I greatly appreciate the ways that Schaeffer encouraged me to examine my beliefs in The God Who Is There, and recommend the book for anyone else who wants to think through their answers to life’s big questions.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Lithuania as part of Yugoslavia.  Thanks to my grandfather for pointing it out–don’t write posts late at night, folks.

Clearing the Shelves, Part I

I introduced this blog with a post on last year’s books, and–until I find a topic of interest that forces me to explain the title of my blog–I suppose I might as well keep the monthly reading going.  If you see something on the list and either like it or decide to read it, let me know!

  • This Is Awkward: How Life’s Uncomfortable Moments Open the Door to Intimacy and Connection, Sammy Rhodes
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fred Waitzkin
  • In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
  • Jinx, Sage Blackwood (re-read)
  • Jinx’s Magic, Sage Blackwood (re-read)
  • Jinx’s Fire, Sage Blackwood (re-read)
  • Chance Fortune Out of Time, Shane Berryhill (re-read)
  • The Unicorn Hunt, Dorothy Dunnett
  • National Velvet, Enid Bagnold
  • Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud

If you know me, you might know I have an occasional compulsive, collector’s streak.  One of my problems (not the most serious, but the most visible when perusing my shelves) is that I have difficulty resisting the lure of cheap books, regardless of their nature.  A Farsi course, complete with audio CD’s?  Of course!  Anthology of Oscar Wilde?  I’ve always meant to get around to more Wilde.  A lay reader’s introduction to the human genome?  Sounds fascinating!  A paperback copy of Ella Enchanted minus the front cover?  I could make it a beautiful new cover!

I could list dozens more examples (with even more exclamation points!), but you should understand that the enthusiasm is sincere: I really like books, and I really will read pretty much anything.  Unfortunately, my good intentions don’t always last long after my return from the library book sale, and I end up with shelves full of books I haven’t read yet, and will likely never need to read.  Major categories of unread books I own include books about foreign languages, books in foreign languages (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in five languages, for example), classic literature I’ve been a little lazy about, and general nonfiction.

One of my missions upon returning home from college was to start clearing out some of these books–at least the ones that I didn’t really need.  As titles such as Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai and Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection migrated from the shelf to the discard pile and back to the shelf, I was forced to think about why it is hard for me to get rid of books I haven’t read.  Why do I collect so many books in the first place?

One of the reasons homeschooling was such a pleasure for me is that I deeply love both knowledge and stories.  There’s no such thing as useless information! was my creed for a few years.  Someday I might find myself writing a murder mystery, and need to know more about crime science.  I might visit Japan and want to know more about Japanese folklore.  Giving away Introductory Analysis: The Theory of Calculus feels like giving up on my dreams of learning more about math.  I find it hard to give up knowledge, and owning a book is a marvelous vehicle for gaining more knowledge.  I also still nourish the dream of expanding and revising ideas for stories, to which end nearly all stories are useful.  I can hardly become a better writer without reading, right?

I should be able to accept that I can just check these books out from the public library when they’re more relevant to my life.  That worked, for a few books.  I don’t know Spanish and I’m working on German and Greek right now: El mago de Oz can go.  With books like The Fall of Yugoslavia, though, I know I’ll never seek it out (unless of course I am moving to a former Yugoslav republic–unlikely to occur).  My best chance at reading most of these books is now, and some part of me will be disappointed if I don’t read them.

The compromise I reached was therefore that I would get rid of these books I didn’t love, but I would read them first.  I haven’t read that many of the books earmarked for the Mr. K’s pile, however, because it can be hard to make myself read something I don’t care much about instead of something I do.  That being said, I started cracking down on these semi-wanted books last month, and I have knocked out four.  Only a few dozen to go. . . .

Now that the introduction’s out of the way, on to the books!

I picked up In a Sunburned Country a few years ago because I didn’t know anything much about Australia.  I know a little more, thanks to Bill Bryson’s tour.  Bryson’s gift as an author is anecdotes.  Little stories about the people he met at Uluru, about the punishing adventures of explorers in the Outback, about the nice Australian lady he corresponded with for decades, about stopping by various big things along the roadside because there’s nothing but rabbits for two hundred miles.  (It would be fascinating to see the Big Prawn…also hard to imagine one wouldn’t be a bit disappointed.)  I was more interested in, say, Bryson’s visit to a radio school than his account of getting drunk in a middle-of-nowhere pub and setting up a timeshare in Thailand.  His accounts of the flora and fauna are delightful: did you know that Australia is home to twenty-foot worms?  Or that kangaroos are sort of pests?  The history of European settlement was interesting, but often not as much fun.  I knew going into the book that white Australia’s treatment of its Aboriginal people was shameful, but it was still horrifying to read stories of native people occasionally being hunted more or less for sport a few centuries ago.  I suppose most countries have ugliness in their past, however nice and sensible the people generally are.  Recommended if, like me, you’ll probably never see Australia but wish you could.  Still passing the book on to a new home.

Searching for Bobby Fischer was a lot of fun as a former chess club member, even though I couldn’t tell you the King’s Indian Gambit if my life depended on it.  Since Fred Waitzkin was a journalist, I expected the writing to be clear and effective, and it was.  What I didn’t realize is that being a journalist afforded him certain interesting experiences when he took his young son, Josh, to watch a tournament in Russia.  The movie of the same name focuses on Josh, naturally, and streamlines Waitzkin’s account of national championships, victory and defeat, tangents on famous chess players.  There’s a lot more about Fischer himself in the book, as well as other chess greats.  I knew some of them (Susan Polgar is only more famous now than she was in the late eighties), but there were lots of wonderful stories about other prodigies on the rise, the characters in Washington Square Park, and the casualties of Russian politics in the chess world.  Recommended for anyone curious about the strange world of chess.  Still not keeping it.

I nearly gave up on National Velvet.  Horse books aren’t really my thing, and I have no special nostalgia for the Elizabeth Taylor film.  What kept me going was a) the book’s shortness; b) the insight into working-class England of the 1930’s; and c) the strange interactions of the Brown family.  The main plot is a sort of wish fulfillment for both readers and characters (look what happens when you pray, “Oh God, give me horses!”), but the family interactions are surprisingly unromanticized.  Both Velvet and her mother are singled out as unattractive, and not in a YA, “I feel like I’m so ordinary but this hunk can’t take his eyes off me” way.  Just ordinary plainness, with extraordinary passion underneath.  Donald, the baby brother, is another fascinating minor character: is he a psychopath, or just a weird kid?  It doesn’t really matter, but the story is a little richer (and weirder) because of his beautiful face and fascination with death.  The pacing is a little weird, and the writing style is not one I would ever desire to emulate, but I don’t regret finishing the story, which has its moments of fun.  Not really recommended except for horse lovers and people with nothing much to do.  Not keeping it.

I was going to give away Civilization and Its Discontents without opening it–I know I read at least parts of it for a Comparative Literature course–but I couldn’t remember what it was about.  Also a short read.  Freud lays out across eight chapters the what and why of modern man’s general, chronic unhappiness.  He theorizes (at least, I think he does) that it comes down to our guilt (largely sublimated) at experiencing desires perfectly able to be satisfied in an amoral primitive world but incongruous with civilization’s continued existence.  I don’t fully buy into all of his theory; also, if he set forth a remedy for this guilt, I missed it.  So are we supposed to just tell ourselves not to feel guilty for wanting to have four different women as wives?  Not exactly a life-changing book to have read, but interesting for the way it lays out problems.  It is true that we accept compromises to our desires, knowingly or not, in choosing to follow laws and show up for work on time and live like other people do.  I’ve been thinking through my particular discontent with civilization more often in the past couple of months, as I was until recently planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  I think, though, that I’ll look elsewhere than Freud for my solutions.  Recommended only if you like philosophy and have about two hours to kill on a Wednesday night.  Not keeping it; sorry, UNC.

This Is Awkward does not belong to me in the first place, and I therefore do not have to decide whether to keep it.  I think I would, if I had that choice.  It’s a highly relevant take on awkwardness and other life problems, written by an RUF pastor whom I was privileged to hear speak at Fall Conference during college.  Be warned: Rhodes is truly honest about the awkward aspects of his life, from insecurity about writing a book to struggles with depression, from his parents’ divorce to his own problems with physical intimacy.  His honesty and his humor are what make This Is Awkward a worthwhile read.  It’s encouraging, to read it and realize that God’s grace extends even to bad Christians, even to those of us who keep screwing up in the same ways again and again.  It’s also a great call for authenticity: stories like his, which require some true humility in the telling, are the ones that make an impact, and allow other people to be real, too.  Something for us all to try.  Recommended.

As I mentioned last post, I’m a chronic re-reader, and no, that hasn’t changed in the last few weeks.  I picked up my Kindle while sort-of cleaning my bedroom, and went through a few of the books I own only in a virtual form.  No need to worry about shelf space with these–huzzah!  Sage Blackwood’s Jinx trilogy, which I think I owe to an Amazon sale and an aunt’s recommendation, is quirky: there are some serious fantasy stereotypes (orphan with mysterious powers, trio of adventurous children, various quests through a magical forest), but there’s also some original charm.  Blackwood succeeds in not only in building some quirks into her Brothers Grimm-type forest, the Urwald, but also in connecting it with a distant university and a totally different type of magic.   Interesting thematic questions arise, especially in the second and third books: how do you persuade individuals to band together?  What should you do when there’s serious disagreement over natural resources?  When should access to knowledge be limited?  The depth of characterization varies, but I appreciated that the title character has some unusual limitations.  Sure, he has great power, like every other middle-grade fantasy protagonist, but he comes to realize that he’s actually not a born leader.  Not on his own, anyway–he has to rely on other people’s gifts as well as his own.  Isn’t that true to life?  Recommended for other secret lovers of middle-grade fantasy.

When I first read Chance Fortune Out of Time, I was a little disappointed.  It’s an interesting setup: Chance Fortune, together with various friends and enemies, is cast through time and space trying to fix something that went badly awry while the Outlaws were busy in the Shadow Zone (see Chance Fortune #2).  Certain characters are forced to get along, or at least work together, and this should create some great tension.  Somehow, though, the tension doesn’t run very deep for either of the two groups wandering through the space-time continuum.  Chance and his companion work through their history real quick, it seems, and all we really get out of it are some not-so-subtle allusions to other superheroes.  I guess Berryhill must be a DC fan, and a fan of Doctor Who, judging by some more references, and he clearly enjoys tales of the Old West, which is all great–I just wish he would go back to telling his own stories.  The first two Chance Fortune and the Outlaws books are just as packed with allusions to the world of comics and pulp fiction (well, really any fiction in the case of Chance Fortune and the Shadow Zone) but they work because the characters and story have real heart.  This book doesn’t match the emotional depth of its predecessors.  On the other hand, there are two great twists, which I will not spoil (more out of principle than because I expect readers of this blog to flock to the CF series).  Well played, Berryhill: the Boogeyman’s backstory was awesome.  The real reason to read (or re-read) this book is the ending: totally out of left field for me, but in a way that resonates with what these books are about.  “God makes us strong so that we may protect the weak.”  Recommended for those who have enjoyed the previous Chance Fortune books.

And that just leaves Dorothy Dunnett, whose books I felt compelled to return to after being accepted to a master’s program the University of St Andrews in Scotland.  I would feel utterly unprepared to spend a year in Scotland without a decent understanding of the court of James III, so back to the machinations of Nicholas van der Poele I go.

Last Year’s Books

For the first time in my life, I’ve kept a reasonably complete list of the books I’ve read.  This has been a goal for years–it’s quite common to open an old, partly-filled notebook and find a page or two listing some of the books I read over the course of a day, or a week, or a month.  (See, for example, my primary high school notebook: Tarzan of the Apes, finished 2/10/10; The Return of Tarzan, finished 2/10/10; and An Education for Our Time, finished 7/19/10.)  From May 2017 to March 2018, however, I managed to keep this list going in the back of my planner.*  I can’t imagine a better introduction to this blog than a long list of books.

  • The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, John Le Carre
  • Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman
  • Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Avi
  • On the Trail: the History of American Hiking, Silas Chamberlain
  • Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell
  • Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen (re-read)
  • Queens’ Play, Dorothy Dunnett (re-read)
  • The Disorderly Knights, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Crispin: At the Edge of the World, Avi
  • Pawn in Frankincense, Dorothy Dunnett
  • The Ringed Castle, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Checkmate, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Crispin: The End of Time, Avi
  • Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
  • The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  • My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George (re-read)
  • Music Education in the Christian Home, Mary Ann Froehlich
  • The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, Jessica Fellows & Matthew Sturgis
  • The Power of Babel, John McWhorter
  • Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • The First Days of School, Harry K. & Rosemary T. Wong
  • Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard A. Swenson
  • Perelandra, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp
  • Extravagant Grace, Barbara Duguid
  • The Tolkien Reader, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner (re-read)
  • The Queen of Attolia, Megan Whalen Turner (re-read)
  • The King of Attolia, Megan Whalen Turner (re-read)
  • A Conspiracy of Kings, Megan Whalen Turner (re-read)
  • Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner
  • Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Spring of the Ram, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Race of Scorpions, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Scales of Gold, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Lies Women Believe: And the Truth That Sets Them Free, Nancy Leigh DeMoss
  • A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle (re-read)
  • A Wind in the Door, Madeleine L’Engle (re-read)
  • Iron Man: The Gauntlet, Eoin Colfer
  • Many Waters, Madeleine L’Engle
  • Holes, Louis Sacchar (re-read)
  • The View from Saturday, E. L. Konigsberg (re-read)
  • A Swiftly Tilting Planet, E.L. Konigsberg

A few notes on the list:

First, who is Dorothy Dunnett, the most featured author on the list?  Dunnett was a Scottish painter and author, mostly of historical fiction set during the Renaissance and Reformation (though the Reformation doesn’t play much of a role in the books).  Her books are probably the most dense fiction I’ve read: dense with imagery, detail, names, untranslated period poetry, chess metaphors, and plot.  So much plotting in those books.  The first series, the Lymond Chronicles, provided marvelous distraction during a period of time when I was desperate for an escape; I highly recommend the first book, The Game of Kings, to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.  The main character of the second series, House of Niccolo, is harder for me to like…and likability matters in a series much longer and denser than A Song of Ice and Fire.

Second, even a casual peruser can see that I am a chronic re-reader.  Sometimes age brings out new aspects of a book.  Sense and Sensibility is different from when I left it at nineteen: I have more sympathy for Edward Ferrars this time, and Elinor’s trials are even more painful.  Same story with Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Till We Have Faces.  As a teenager I didn’t understand everything happening with Jane and Mark or with Orual, and I knew it.  I’d planned on coming back to these stories for a long time, and the journey back was beautiful.  The Tree, the river, and the mask speak to me more clearly than they did in seventh grade, and I’m glad to have returned to Lewis’s greatest work.

Sometimes I re-read to remember.  Upon finding out that the fifth book in Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series had been released under my radar, I began pulling her books off the shelves right away and dropping heavy hints about Christmas gift ideas to my mother.  I read the series freshman year of college, during my inaugural Book Binge week (an unhelpful coping mechanism for the stress of the last week before exams), and a refresher seemed in order.  The Thief remains an excellent book for children, well-written enough for an adult to enjoy, and superbly put together in its surprise ending.  As the characters mature in the later books, Turner maintains the depth of her world and its characters.  (Highly recommended series for teenagers…and anyone else, really.)

If I’m honest, though, the main reason I read and re-read is for comfort, just as I did before my freshman year exams.  Life is stressful and discouraging, and a good story reminds us of what is good and what is true and what is beautiful.  Whether that tale is the familiar, well-crafted story of Holes during the long third quarter or the fresh joy of “Farmer Giles of Ham” during an exhausting night at Heathrow, a good story is a source of hope in the dark.


*I have some consistency issues (as should already be clear from this first post) and therefore have resorted to using an undated planner wherein I fill in the months I’m using it and feel no guilt about missing say, February, October, and November.  My planning year is therefore somewhat offset from the norm.  Also, I’m pretty sure I didn’t finish any books in the entire month of April this year.  Mono is hard.