Saturday, August 13, 2005

More Book Tag

It seems to be part of the form for these things to complain about how much work you have and how this is such an imposition, and so on. But I’ve got to be honest, I’m vain enough that getting tagged here tickles me pink; I’m just flattered anyone cares about my opinion. My only problem is, I’m having a hard time deciding who to tag, since it seems I was tagged rather late in the game, long after everyone else in the Lutheran blogosphere. Almost everyone I would have tagged has already been tagged. So I’m just going to tag one person, Chris Jones, with this and say whichever two other people want to take up this particular tag game after that is OK with me.The particular version I got tagged with is this:

Imagine that a local philanthropist is hosting an event for local high school students and has asked you to pick out five to ten books to hand out as door prizes. At least one book should be funny and at least one book should provide some history of Western Civilization and at least one book should have some regional connection. The philanthropist doesn’t like foul language (but will allow some four-letter words in context, such as expressed during battle by soldiers). Otherwise things are pretty wide open. What do you pick? Other conditions were added by Bunnie as part of her "living tag" doctrine, but I as a proud originalist will follow Justice Thomas and reject them with scorn. :)

Now, in the spirit of the question, I’m trying to offer things that graduating college kids might actually read. There are a number of books I really think would be great that I simply can’t convince myself that teenagers would read (Herodotus, History of the World Conqueror, Reflections on Things at Hand). I have also decided to eliminate any book which I have already seen recommended (that knocked out C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.) I’m also going to assume an excessive load up on religious books would lead our philanthropist into all sorts of church-state issues, so I’ve chosen only those religious works that could be easily slotted under a "Western Civ" rubric. I have also regretfully dropped some books which I love, but which most students already encounter in high school: for example, The Federalist Papers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or Willa Cather’s My Antonía. I have also tried to supply a balance of girl and guy interest.

1. Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, ed. by Andrew Louth.

C.S. Lewis once said that the contemporary person thinks that cave men are certain, because it’s science, and so is World War II, because it’s journalism (when he was writing), but everything in between is history, which no sensible person believes. A great force of skepticism today is the idea (exploited to the hilt by this savvy operator) that a deep conspiracy has hidden the "true" story of Christianity from us. This book is the best antidote to that, better than any polemical debunking of the Da Vinci hoax. I also chose it, because in the back it will have an advertisement for Eusebius.

2. Luther’s Meditations on the Gospels, ed. and trans. By Roland Bainton

This is, without question, the best brief sample of Luther’s writings, complete with nice wood-cuts. The translations are superb. Plus, the commentary format allows the reader to see how Luther responded to the Scripture texts, and gives him a sense of how Christian doctrine grows out of Scripture. Too bad it’s out of print, I’m assuming our philanthropist is rich enough to buy copyrights and get something back into print if he has to. If the philanthropist balks then I’d have to suggest this: Large Catechism. And if he says, "sorry, no proselytizing," then I’d suggest this as an example of a "great debate" in "Western Civ."

3. In Search of History, by Teddy White

This book is a story that mixes entertainment and instruction in equal measure. A Jewish kid from Roxbury (two towns over from Newton where I grew up), Teddy White became a reporter covering China in World War II, then the reconstruction in Europe and the beginnings of the European Union, before returning home to Eisenhower’s America and finally the Kennedy election of 1960 and ensuing assassination. The theme is the growth, development, and ultimate crack-up of American power in service of "progressive" ideals. I am not surprised that has a laudatory review by a twelve year old: it's that entertaining and yet a piece that will have adults thinking for years.

4. Gulag Archipelago, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in the authorized abridgement by Edward Ericson.

Everyone’s heard of this big three volume work, but no one’s read it, right? Edward Ericson’s abridgement expertly selects the valuable chapters. The chapter "The Ascent" has got to be one of the most moving and memorable passages in world literature. This is not just a denunciation of Communism, but like War and Peace is a literary/historical investigation of how the individual conscience fits into the power of the state. If Solzhenitsyn's conclusions are much more overtly political than those of Tolstoy's quietism, it's only because the weight of the totlitarian state was so much greater on him than on Tolstoy.

5. Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy

I wanted to chose War and Peace, which is also a precursor for the Gulag Archipelago as a "an experiment in literary investigation" of an historical catastrophe (the infinitely high blue sky, for example, in "The Ascent" is same as that seen by Prince Andrei wounded in the battle of Austerlitz). But this collection is more likely to actually get read, and contains quite enough unforgettable images. Particular favorites are "The Kreutzer Sonata" and "Father Sergius." "Hajji Murad" is rather topical today as well.


6. The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

Only Tom Wolfe could make chimps sent up in space capsules into comic heroes. In making this list, I found a curious similarity between Wolf and Solzhenitsyn in their use of exclamatory sentences addressing the reader. Probably has more profanity than the philanthropist really wanted, but I’m going to include it anyway. His picture of journalist as a cross between a colonial animal and a proper Victorian gent is dead on.

Western Civilization

7. The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny, by Victor Davis Hanson.

One of Hanson’s several books arguing for a "Western way of warfare" that grows out of egalitarian democracy and an instrumental, secular view of government. Davis illustrates this through the campaigns of Epaminondas of Boeotia against Sparta, William Tecumseh Sherman against the Confederate South, and George Patton against Nazi Germany. He sees them all as parallel: generals commanding an army of citizen soldiers, whose aim was not just to defeat but to tear up by the roots the whole racial caste system of the societies they opposed, who all hated above all else the idea of a battle of attrition, who were controversial at home for the radicalism of their war-making, and who after the war fell into disgrace, before being recognized posthumously as architects of victory. The story of Epaminondas is particularly interesting, as Hanson makes a good case that this Theban general was central to Greek history, yet almost unknown compared to mad tyrants like Alexander the Great. I'd maybe be a little more ambivalent about these guys' legacy than Hanson is, but this is a superb bit of military history, that really shows you the continuity of Western civilization.

8. William the Silent : William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, 1533-1584, by C.V. Wedgewood.

Another unfortunately out of print item, this is one of the most moving biographies I have ever read. William the Silent is a charming, easy-going, and soft-hearted Catholic ladies man of Lutheran background, who is gradually drawn into the defense of the defenseless Protestants of the Netherlands against the pitiless Inquisition of Phillip II and his agent Alva. Written in World War II you can see where C.V. (Cicely Veronica) Wedgewood’s sympathies lie: Phillip and his Catholic persecutors are the Nazis, the ultimate enemy, the Calvinists are the Communists, obnoxious, close-minded, doctrinaire, but the core of the underground resistance, while William the Silent and the Lutherans are like the British, a bit slow to react, not very disciplined, more concerned with humanity than abstract doctrines, but in the end the hope of civilization. Well, not exactly confessional, but in William the Silent C.V. Wedgewood paints a powerful, believable portrait of what a national leader should be.

Regional Connection (where I live now and where I grew up):

9. The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather.

Willa Cather is a great test of pretentious, pseudo-intellectualism. If you read My Antonía in high school and somehow thought her a little too "young adult," "heartwarming," and provincial to take seriously as "great writer," then that’s a pretty good sign that you are a pretentious pseudo-intellectual. This novel is a regional two-fer, containing both the story of history professor in a university along the southern shores of Lake Michigan (probably Indiana, but might be southwest Michigan state) and that of a young orphan who discovers a mesa in New Mexico. New Mexico is of course the site of another Cather masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop. I’m not sure teenagers would be quite ready for this novel (read some of the reviews on, which is about living with disappointment, and written in Cather’s usual limpid, spare style, that offers no concessions to readers looking for easy "significance." Still they've got to be challenged some time; readers who pass the "litmus test for philistines" will be meditating on this one for years.

10. The Minister’s Wooing, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

This novel by the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is one of her three New England novels that explore the lives of Puritans in post-revolutionary America. "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" was her first novel and she had learned a lot about writing when she picked up the pen for this one. Mrs. Stowe was a much more profound theologian than she is usually given credit for; don't hold it against her that she was not born into a community in which Lutheranism was a real choice. How theology influences people’s daily lives is the real center here. Historical characters like Aaron Burr make cameo appearances. Poganuc People: Their Loves and Lives is also wonderful; the conversion of Zeph Higgins never fails to bring me to tears.

Originally posted at Here We Stand