Pen pictures and qwerty keyboards

I was sitting at the reference desk one day last week when a man—one of our regular patrons—approached the desk and asked if I knew what a “pen picture” is. He had seen the phrase in two unrelated places recently and was confused about the meaning of the term. He had googled the term for a definition, and he got the result: “Archaic (19th century): 1. A drawing done in pen; 2: a written account that creates a mental image.” He was not sure how that applied to the two cases he had seen labeled pen pictures, as one of them was a poem, and the other was a recollection of past events.

I helped him to understand how both the poem and the recollection fit the second definition of “a written account that creates a mental image.” We also agreed that the phrase “pen picture” no longer applies, since written documents in the 21st century are created at keyboards. The conversation brought back memories of the way I used to write as compared to the way I write today.

When I was in high school and college, I would always write a first draft of a paper for school—or of a story—in pen. I would note all my corrections and additions, and then I would type the final draft with an electric typewriter. Even when I got my first desktop computer, I continued to handwrite the first drafts of my work. Only after several years of using a computer did I begin drafting my first drafts at the keyboard, editing them while I wrote them, and then printing a final copy on paper. Of course now I often publish my writing electronically and never have a paper copy of what I have written.

Paper can be destroyed quickly in a fire or a storm. Paper can disintegrate or fade slowly because of light, heat, humidity, mold, insects, rodents, and other hazards. Electronic records are also subject to loss. Computers crash. Storage devices fail. Technology changes, making older storage devices unusable. Even “the Cloud” can lose electronic documents and pictures. The best policy for preserving an electronic file is to save it three different places. Some writers email copies of their work to themselves as back-up copies.

In many cases, when a researcher visits a research library to view a digitally-created document—a string of emails, for example—the library staff prints the document on paper for the researcher. When the researcher is done with the document, the library staff saves the paper copy in case another researcher wants to see the same document later; they will not have to go through the trouble of finding and printing a second copy for the second researcher. The digital age was expected to reduce our reliance on paper, but often paper is still the best way to observe and preserve a digitally-created document or picture.

“Pen picture” may be an archaic term that has fallen out of use, but bloggers and other writers today continue to produce pen pictures of sorts. We still “dial” our cellular phones and still type with “Qwerty” keyboards that were designed to reduce the jamming of typewriter keys. Our digital pen pictures continue to produce mental images in the minds of others. As much as our technology changes, people are still people; we don’t change all that much from generation to generation. J.

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Early medieval Christian writers

Pseudo-Dionysius; John Scotus Eriugena; John Climacus: the names may be unfamiliar, but the writings of these men have shaped the course of Christianity from the earlier Middle Ages to the present.

Western civilization in general and Protestant Christianity in particular perpetuate an image of Europe’s Dark Ages—the Roman Empire fell, and until the Renaissance a thousand years later, Europe stagnated in a miasma of superstition and barbarianism. This myth was encouraged by thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment (a label they chose for themselves); following the religious wars of the Reformation, Europe was allegedly ready to abandon the blind prejudices of religion and emerge into the light of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy. Because of this attitude, many of the treasures of the Middle Ages were buried in libraries and museums. Condemned with labels like “Gothic,” the advances of European civilization during these centuries were all set aside as a bypath to oblivion, barbarism from which the fragile flame of the Renaissance and the more robust furnace of the Enlightenment rescued western civilization.

Even the Great Books of the Western World series acknowledges only three writers from the Middle Ages—Chaucer, Aquinas, and Dante. All three are undeniably great, but they could anchor a new set of books that might be called Great Books of the Western Middle Ages. That set would also include Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and John Climacus.

Pseudo-Dionysius is an anonymous writer of the fifth or sixth century who represented himself as the man named Dionysius who heard Paul preach in Athens and became a Christian (Acts 17:34). His surviving writings include “The Divine Names,” “The Mystical Theology,” “The Celestial Hierarchy,” and “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.” As these titles suggest, the writer organizes the known universe into levels of power and authority, reaching from the lowest forms of created being to the one Uncreated Being, God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for organizing the angels of heaven into nine levels—three sets of three—and also for describing the levels of church leadership that existed in his time and place. More important, Pseudo-Dionysius recommended humility in the believer who would approach God. The Lord of the universe is far beyond human understanding, and we know him only through what He has told us about himself in the Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Let us hold on to the scriptural rule ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the power granted by the Holy Spirit’ (I Corinthians 2:4) to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from that the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor.”

John Scotus Eriugena was a theologian, philosopher, and scientist of the early ninth century who lived in the British Isles. He preserved and commented upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and also wrote a  profound commentary on the Gospel according to John. As a scientist, Eriugena continued the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman science, bridging the time between ancient civilization and the scientists of the High Middle Ages such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa. The work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their heirs would have been impossible without the contributions of men like Eriugena and Roger Bacon. Yet medieval European science was always grounded in the truth of God’s Word, finding meaning and purpose for all creation in the messages from God which communicate the thoughts he wants known by human beings.

Commenting on the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, Eriugena wrote, “When humanity abandoned God, the light of divine knowledge receded from the world. Since then, the eternal light reveals itself in a two-fold manner through Scripture and through creation. Divine knowledge may be renewed in us no other way, but through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature. Learn, therefore, to understand these divine modes of expression and to conceive their meanings in your soul, for therein you will know the Word.”

John Climacus was a monk who lived in a monastery near Mount Sinai at the beginning of the seventh century. His last name refers to his most famous writing, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which describes the Christian life in terms of gaining virtues and dispelling vices. One of the virtues recommended by Climacus is apathy or dispassion, detachment from the things of this world. This may reflect a Buddhist influence upon Christian monasticism in west Asia, unsurprising in the centuries before the rise of Islam in that part of the world. John’s description of the ladder, based loosely on Jacob’s dream, was a deep influence on the writings of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, lasting until the present. John was himself deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt and the surrounding area, extending back in time to Saint Anthony. While John’s writings appear to tilt toward legalism, he was more interested in prescribing rules for life in a monastery than he was in speaking of the grace of God and the unearned redemption that belongs to all Christians.

John wrote, “We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, pleas from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance…. In this world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse, through laziness or inertia, the call to heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods…. Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living among public cares aspire to the monastic life?’ I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’”

Far from being mired in any dark ages, these writers show themselves to be as intelligent and as relevant as any of our contemporary Christian authors. J.

The Consolation of Philosophy

Within the space of a few days, one of my close relatives turned eighteen, another turned fifty-five, and a third turned ninety. The last celebration in particular brought the extended family together around the close of the Christmas season, having a Christmas gift exchange one evening followed by a lavish meal, then assembling in a restaurant the following night, culminated by an open house the next afternoon for friends from the neighborhood and the congregation.

This, then, was how I spent my Christmas vacation, sleeping in the house of a relative and eating food cooked by that same relative. Vacation schedules are always out of step with regular life—especially at this relative’s house, where breakfast is served late in the morning, lunch is served well after noon, and dinner might not reach the table until nine o’clock at night. (At home I usually eat breakfast around seven a.m., lunch at 11:30 or noon, and dinner at 5:30 or 6 p.m.) My reading pattern adjusts to fit the new schedule. When I wake up at this relative’s house, I get dressed and grab a cup of coffee, then start the day reading from the Bible and from some devotional book. (At home I often don’t do that reading until after dinner.)

My devotional reading for 2018 is selected portions from the Christian writers of medieval Europe. Many Christians today neglect the medieval writers, skipping from Augustine to Luther, with perhaps a nod toward secular writers like Chaucer. I delight in the literature of the Middle Ages, from the Authurian legends to the songs of the Niebelung (the source material for Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle operas), Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The theologian/philosophers of that time are equally awesome, from the mystics to the scholastics, with many beneficial teachings about the Bible and about Christian living.

So it happened one morning that I was sipping coffee and reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (written in the year 524) while my host studied the morning paper and my hostess was at work in her kitchen. The coming open house was intended to be a stunning display of her home itself, but also of her culinary skills. She was preparing more than a dozen finger foods, from fruit skewered on a stick to fancy hors d’oeuvres like her mother used to make. I had already sifted through family photographs to select dozens of images of the birthday guest at various stages of life, and these were also scattered around the house. Various family members were enlisted at various times to help prepare the food and the house. Furniture had to be rearranged to accommodate the guests and to hold all the food that would be served.

Here is a sample of what I was reading that morning: “Wealth cannot give a man everything and make him entirely self-sufficient, even though this is what money seems to promise. But I think it most important to observe that there is nothing in the nature of wealth to prevent it being taken from those who have it…Therefore, a man needs the help of others to protect his money…But he wouldn’t need it, if he had no money to lose… The situation is upside down, for riches, which are supposed to make men self-sufficient, actually make them dependent on the help of others… Don’t the wealthy become hungry and thirsty; don’t they feel cold in the winter? You may argue that they have the means to satisfy their hunger and thirst and to protect themselves against the cold. Nevertheless, the needs remain, and riches can only minimize them. For if needs are always present and making demands that must be met by spending money, clearly there will always be some need which is unsatisfied… Though the rich man has a flowing torrent of gold, his avarice can never be fully satisfied. He may decorate his neck with oriental pearls and plow his fertile lands with a hundred oxen, but biting care will not leave him during life, and when he dies his wealth cannot go with him.”

A call from the kitchen reminded us that help was needed, certain tasks still needed to be accomplished. My host sighed, set down his Wall Street Journal, and left the room to pull a serving table out of storage. I also set aside my reading for a more opportune time and checked to see how I could be of service. J.

Eros and Psyche and Ted and Alice

Beauty and the Beast. The Phantom of the Opera. My Fair Lady.  The story is told repeatedly: a mature man becomes some sort of mentor to a young woman; over time an awkward romance blossoms out of the relationship. Sometimes the awkward romance involves a love triangle (Phantom-Christine-Raoul, or Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle-Freddie). This seems to be the more modern approach. For Beauty and the Beast, her love and loyalty to her father forms the triangle rather than any romance with a peer. The central figure, though, is always the mature male who is molding some portion of the young woman’s life to meet his standards and who then comes to view her entirely as his.

Henry Higgins wants Eliza to talk and act as a woman of high society. The Phantom wants Christine to sing as a well-trained soprano. The Beast wants Beauty to look beyond appearances and to have compassion, even affection, toward the misshapen.

The oldest version of this story, so far as I know, is the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. Psyche is a beautiful young woman—so beautiful that men admire her from afar but are too frightened of her beauty to woo her. Eros sets out to fix her problem, but he falls in love with her himself. Even though he marries her, she is never allowed to see him; he comes to her only in the darkness of night. When her sisters (There’s the completion of the triangle.) tell her that her situation is too weird, she lights a candle to view him while he sleeps. She feared that he would be a monster, but he turns out to be achingly handsome. After all, he is a god. A drop from the candle falls and awakens him, and he flees from her; she must accomplish various impossible tasks before the couple can be reunited.

From a god to a hideous beast—or a deformed man living in the cellar and pretending to be a ghost—or a misanthropic linguist. Somehow this man is transformed by the presence of a vulnerable and shapeable young woman, and he learns that he needs her to make his life complete. Is this not a common male fantasy? And what does the young woman receive in exchange? She seeks a mentor, a teacher, or merely a host to take care of her. The last thing she wants is a lover, at least not one who is far older than she is and rather unattractive in other ways to boot.

Though much of the story remains the same, the ending varies. Beauty and the Beast find true love. Eliza spurns Freddie and returns to Henry Higgins (but only after he confesses to himself that he has “grown accustomed to her face”). Christine escapes the Phantom, who either disappears or dies, depending upon which version of the story you are following. At least Christine has Raoul, and Beauty still has her father. One wonders what will happen to Eliza; after a long diatribe on equal rights for women, the story ends with Henry Higgins demanding that she find his slippers in a tone reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

This male fantasy, this cautionary tale for young women, has its roots in a culture in which women became wives while still in their teens, but men had to show that they could earn a living and support a family before they married, often in their late twenties or early thirties. Marriages were arranged, and romance generally was not a factor in the arrangement. The blossoming of romantic tales took place in medieval France, tales in which a woman typically garners romantic love from a man who is not her husband. (Think of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot.) Beauty and the Beast is not as old a story; it was written in the 1700s, and its usual form is known from the Blue Fairy Book of 1889. Perhaps that explains why that version of Eros and Psyche could include a marriage based on love, in which husband and wife live happily ever after. J.

Vladimir Nabokov

Earlier this month a woman told me that her mother’s writings are as good as Nabokov’s. In a situation like that, one can only smile and nod, even while one’s mind is silently screaming, “No! No one writes as well as Nabokov!”

The Mount Rushmore of twentieth-century American writers consists of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Of the four, only Faulkner even approaches Nabokov’s ability to paint with the English language, and Faulkner tended to stray a bit too often into stream of consciousness writing and other tricks. Nabokov was a master of written communication. The most amazing fact about Nabokov’s skill with English is that English was not his first or second language. He was born and grew up in Russia, learning to speak and to write in Russian and French. He learned English later, after his family had fled Russia. Yet his later novels are written in English, and his earlier novels were translated from Russian to English under his supervision. Both sets of novels sing in a lyrical manner unapproached by any other writer of the last hundred years and more.

Hemingway in particular is credited with crisp, succinct writing which has influenced thousands of composition and journalism classes. Gone are the long Dickensian descriptions found in nineteenth century English literature. Yet Nabokov accomplished something in English that Hemingway and Steinbeck never approached. Nabokov had a profound sense of the sound and rhythm of language. As a master he toyed with language. His mind was capable of creating descriptions of people and events that are multi-textured, complex without becoming verbose. When I read a Hemingway story, I might think, “I never imagined that character or setting or plot, but if I had, I could have written this story.” When I read a Nabokov story, I ask, “How did he do that? And why is it that I cannot do that?”

I just happen to be reading the short stories and novels of Nabokov this month. Currently I am savoring The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. I saw one brief example of Nabokov’s mastery of expression last night, as the title character describes his social awkwardness by calling himself a “colorblind chameleon.” Who but Nabokov could have expressed so much with but two English words?

Tragically, Nabokov is best-known for Lolita, a novel about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a “nymphet,” a prepubescent girl to whom he is drawn emotionally and physically. The subject is uncomfortable; and, because he writes from the man’s point of view, Nabokov does not directly condemn his character’s thoughts and his actions. Notoriously, the book is frequently banned. Two movies have been made from the book, the first directed by genius Stanley Kubrick and starring genius Peter Sellers–not as the main character, but as his nemesis, Clare Quilty. (The name itself is a beautiful visual pun.) While Lolita contains as much of Nabokov’s skillful writing as any other novel he wrote, the subject matter tends to guide people into the false assumption that Nabokov himself must be perverted. Nabokov makes his characters so convincing, so real, that a reader almost expects each of them to be somehow an autobiographical image of the author.

My favorite Nabokov novel is Pale Fire. The heart of the book is a poem of 999 lines–the thousandth line is missing–but the bulk of the book consists of a preface and annotations by a second character, the poet being the first character. The relationship between the poem and poet on the one hand, and the interpreter on the other hand, is displayed astoundingly throughout the book. While it contains a wealth of literary tidbits of the highest quality (such as “Chapman’s Homer” referring simultaneously to a particular translation of an ancient Greek poet and to a more recent success on the baseball diamond), the entire novel contains levels of meaning and significance that can hardly be described, certainly not without spoiling the charm of the book.

Aside from writing, Nabokov’s passions included chess, butterflies, and opposition to totalitarian governments. A little awareness of these topics assists a reader of Nabokov. (For example, Sebastian Knight has a close associate named Clare Bishop.) Lack of awareness of these matters does not keep any reader from enjoying Nabokov’s work. Many of his clever jokes are discovered only during a second or third reading, when the reader can set aside plot and character and instead swim in the flow of Nabokov’s unequalled prose. J.

Augustine of Hippo

August 28 is the day Augustine of Hippo is remembered, since he died on that date in the year 430. Augustine was a pastor in North Africa who was also a prolific writer. His literary production helped to guide the thinking and history of Christianity during and after his lifetime.

Augustine’s mother was Christian, but first he did not follow her example of faith. He learned Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, and then he toyed with the religion called Manichaeism, a blend of Christian concepts and Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. Augustine wavered at the edge of Christian faith for several years, being encouraged by other Christian writers such as Ambrose to put his trust in Christ. When he finally did become a Christian, Augustine brought his learning from Latin philosophy and culture into the service of Christianity. His writings helped to shape medieval church thinking as well as later generations—both Martin Luther and John Calvin were heavily influenced by Augustine’s works.

In his Confessions, Augustine not only admits to his youthful indiscretions (among them, that he fathered a child without being married), but he also confesses his faith in God and in the teachings of the Christian Church. Instead of writing an autobiography, Augustine uses the events of his past life as an outline to proclaim the doctrines of Christianity and to celebrate the greatness of God. In his The City of God, Augustine discusses the dual citizenship held by every Christian. We are citizens of an earthly country, subject to an earthly government which we obey out of reverence for Christ, since that early authority represents his ultimate authority. At the same time, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. If we truly honor our heavenly citizenship, we will not despair over the troubles of our earthly city. (This was written at a time when German tribes were entering the Roman Empire and threatening even its strongest western cities.) God hears our prayers about earthly things and answers those prayers according to his good will. He is more concerned, though, about preserving our faith, which is our guarantee to a home in his eternal city.

Many of Augustine’s sermons, Bible commentaries, and letters have been preserved. Augustine firmly defended the inerrancy and reliability of the Bible. He clearly and repeatedly stressed the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ. He spent much of his time defending Christian truth against the attacks of Manicheans, Donatists, and Pelagians. (Spellcheck thinks those last two ought to be dentists and pelicans, but Augustine had no trouble with either of those.) We know more about these heresies from Augustine’s replies to them than from their own writings. This is true, not because of any conspiracy of church leaders to destroy all evidence of alternate forms of Christianity. It is true because Christians saw no need to copy and preserve documents whose errors had already been rejected through the application of Scripture by writers such as Augustine.

Manicheans, as stated earlier, tried to blend Christianity with Zoroastrianism. Both religions were monotheistic, believing in only one God. Both called for members to lead a moral and upright life. Both promised heavenly rewards for those who were good and a punishment of eternal fire for those who were evil. Yet, as Augustine showed, the Manicheans erred by depicting good and evil as roughly equal in power. They erred by teaching that each individual determined his own eternal destiny by good works or by evil works. Their errors limited the power of God, who is stronger than all evil, and who works the miracle of faith in the hearts of his people, calling him to them and moving them by his power rather than making them earn salvation through their own good works.

Donatists claimed to be the only true Christians, even though their movement only existed in parts of Africa. They rebaptized any Christian who joined them from another congregation. Augustine affirmed that the true Church is found wherever Christians gather around God’s Word, trusting in Christ for salvation. No splinter group can claim for itself the label of the only true Church on earth. He recognized that Baptism is valid even if performed by a heretic or unbeliever. The power of Baptism is not in the identity of the person performing the act, but in the promises of Christ himself.

Pelagians said that all human beings are basically good at heart, and that the goodness within us draws us to Christ and his salvation. They taught that even non-believers could please God by performing good works. Augustine used the Bible to show that no one can please God in any way other than salvation through Jesus Christ. No work is acceptable to God if it is not done through faith in Christ. Rather than trusting some internal goodness to draw one to God, a Christian celebrates the gift of God which grants saving faith and keeps him or her in that saving faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Augustine is a saint worth remembering and celebrating. His writing shaped Christianity, not by changing it into something new, but by preserving the message of the Bible and the historic teachings of the Church. On this day that commemorates Augustine, Christians thank God for his leadership and his wisdom. J.

Goethe’s Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is a pivotal figure in European literary history. Coming at the end of the Baroque Period (also described as the Enlightenment), he was one of the writers who introduced Romanticism into European literature. Goethe was a poet, playwright, novelist, travelogue-writer, scientist, lawyer, and government advisor. He attempted (unsuccessfully) to improve upon Isaac Newton’s theories regarding light; he also studied the shapes of rock crystals and tried to make parallel studies of living creatures.

Of his many writings, two stand out as highlights of his long career. One is his verse interpretation of the legend of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and wisdom. Goethe worked on this project for most of his professional life. The other is his early novel, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, translated as the Sorrows (or the Suffering) of Young Werther. Based very loosely upon some of Goethe’s own experiences as a young man, along with accounts he heard about other young men, the novel explores issues about mental and emotional health in a way deeply profound for the early nineteenth century.

Werther, the title character, is highly intelligent but deplorably lacking in social skills. He is impulsive, obsessive, anxious, and given to bouts of deep depression. That the other characters in the novel are unable to perceive or comprehend the depths of Werther’s emotional struggles is a key to the plot. That inability is still widespread today in spite of a century of psychological studies.

A previous crisis, only vaguely mentioned in the novel, causes Werther to relocate into a small German town where he meets and becomes enamored of Charlotte (Lotte), the eldest daughter of the local magistrate. Lotte and her fiancé Albert willingly befriend Werther, unaware of his obsessive tendencies or the damage those tendencies will wreak. When Werther tries to share the emotional storms in his mind and heart, Albert and Lotte respond casually. Werther defends the act of suicide, which Albert scorns as unimaginable for any person of intelligence. As his obsession with Lotte deepens, Werther realizes he must leave the area. He does so, and in his absence Lotte and Albert are married. Werther’s lack of social skills brings him into another crisis, which sends him careening back into Lotte’s hometown. His deepening gloom leads to a suicidal depression; none of his friends and associates understand what is happening to Werther or know how to help him.

Most of the novel is presented as letters and diary entries written by Werther, although at times Goethe must add some third-person paragraphs to fill gaps in the story. That Goethe closely associated himself with Werther is revealed in several details, including the fact that the author and character share their birthday (August 28).

Werther was a bestseller and established Goethe’s reputation as a great author. For the rest of his life, he was a celebrity, as famous as contemporaries such as Napoleon and Beethoven. Young men in Europe imitated Werther’s clothing and even his suicide. Werther remains a powerful description of mental illness, one which can be read with profit by anyone seeking to understand obsession and depression. J.

Obsessive and compulsive reading

I am an obsessive and compulsive reader. Notice that I did not use the word “disorder.” There is nothing disordered about my reading. It does not interfere with my life, but in fact it enriches my life. All the same, I use my library in a way many people would find unnatural.

On any given day, I generally read from four or five books. (This does not include my daily Bible reading or any work-related reading.) In college, when I was taking four different classes and reading different kinds of material for each class, I was quite content. Now that I’m no longer in school, I continue my education, reading from an assortment of books that cover history, philosophy, theology, science, and literature. My mean average of books finished in a year is 120. (Yes, I keep track. My range since 2001 has been 91 to 176.)

As I start a book, I check how many pages it contains, and I calculate how many days I will be reading that book. A difficult book might hold me to twenty pages a day, an average book thirty pages a day, and an easy book forty or fifty pages a day. One of my coworkers has a husband who has the same habit. She has commented that she does not understand that habit—she reads to enjoy reading, and counting pages (in her opinion) lessens the enjoyment. Neither of us is able to explain to her why we count the number of pages we read in a day. We just do it.

In 2009 I arranged all my fiction books alphabetically by author and chronologically within the work of each author. I then started with Douglas Adams and began reading each book from beginning to end. Sometimes the jump from one author to the next is jarring—switching from Henry Miller to John Milton was recently quite a jolt. When I am finished with Milton, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is next. I’m looking forward to that book—I picked it up at a used book sale years ago and still haven’t gotten around to reading it. I’ve seen the movie more than once, and some of my daughters own copies of the book. One of them reads Gone with the Wind every year or so. This will be my first time.

If I like an author, I try to acquire all of his or her books. In my collection I have most of the books written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. I also have impressive collections of books by Dave Barry, Soren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and Walker Percy. I have a copy of every book written by Richard Nixon, and I have about fifty books about Nixon, his presidency, and Watergate.

I have a shelf of books devoted to poetry and another devoted to drama. I have a shelf of books about King Arthur, ranging from fantasy works to historic investigations into the original Camelot.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he tried meditation, but every benefit promised by meditation, he gained from reading a book. I quite agree. After a stressful day at work, nothing is more relaxing than time to read. I might be obsessive and compulsive about my books, but that’s OK—they keep me sane. J.

Field of Dreams

Spring begins this weekend, and a young man’s thoughts turn to… baseball. Spring training is underway, and the regular season approaches quickly. With that, the time has come for me to review my favorite movie involving baseball. Warning: spoilers abound in the following paragraphs.

Field of Dreams, made in 1989, is about baseball and about much more. It is about pursing one’s dreams. It is about reality and how poorly we notice what is truly real. It is about the relationship of parents and children. It is about two hours long.

Ray Kinsella and his wife, Annie, own a farm in Iowa. With their daughter Karen they live in a farmhouse next to the cornfields. One day, as Ray is inspecting his corn, a voice tells him several times, “If you build it, they will come.” Ray has visions of a ballfield and of the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball because of his association with gamblers. In spite of his doubts, Ray plows under some of his corn and invests the family’s savings to build a baseball field. He installs a small set of bleachers behind the first base foul line. There is no outfield wall; the corn begins where the ballfield ends.

Many months pass before the ballfield receives its first mystical visitor. One evening Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. Ray hits a few fly balls to the outfielder and then throws some batting practice. Joe reminds Ray that seven other White Sox players were banned from the game. Ray assures Joe that they are all welcome.

Meanwhile, Ray and Annie are facing financial hardship. Annie’s brother Mark offers to help them by buying the farm from them. Annie was willing to consider his help until Joe appears. Ray and Annie discover that Mark is unable to see the baseball players; neither can Mark and Annie’s mother. Ray is delighted being able to hang out with the baseball players, but then he receives a second message: “Ease his pain.”

A meeting is held at the school. Some parents are demanding that certain books be removed from the curriculum, particularly books written by Terence Mann. Annie defends Terence Mann, one of her favorite authors from the 1960s. Ray concludes that he is supposed to ease Terence Mann’s pain by driving to Boston and taking Mann to a baseball game. When he does so, Mann is skeptical and even hostile toward Ray. Reluctantly he attends the game with Ray, where Ray receives a third message: “Go the distance.” On the scoreboard, statistics are given about a former ballplayer, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning of one major-league game in 1905. Ray decides to drive to Chisholm, Minnesota, to meet Graham. Surprisingly, Mann decides to accompany him.

Throughout these occurrences, Ray reveals to Annie and to Terence Mann that he regrets being alienated from his father, who has since died. In Minnesota, Ray and Terence Mann learn that Graham became a doctor, a pillar of the community of Chisholm, but he has also been dead for years. When Mann learns from a newspaper that his father has reported his disappearance to the police, Mann telephones his father, and Ray goes for a walk. He finds himself walking the streets of Chisholm in the year 1974, where he encounters an elderly Doctor Graham. Graham invites Ray to his office and reminisces with him about his brief baseball career. Ray comments that some people would consider coming that near to their dream and having the experience end as a tragedy. Graham replies that if he had only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, that would be a tragedy. He declines Ray’s offer to visit the ballpark on Ray’s farm.

The next morning, on their way out of Chisholm, Ray and Mann pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a youthful Archie Graham looking for a place to play baseball. He accompanies Ray and Mann to the farm, where the three of them discover that Joe Jackson has invited other deceased players to join him on the field so they can play ball. Graham is welcomed to join the other players.

The next day Ray, Annie, Karen, and Terence Mann are watching the players on the field. Archie Graham takes a turn at the plate. Shortly thereafter Mark arrives. He tells Ray and Annie that they are delinquent on their mortgage and are about to lose the farm. Terence Mann gives a moving soliloquy about the importance of baseball and promises Ray that “people will come” to his magical baseball field. In his exasperation at Ray’s seeming lack of concern about his financial predicament, Mark accidently knocks Karen off the bleachers. She lies on the ground, not breathing. Annie is ready to phone for an ambulance, but Ray’s eyes turn to the field. Young Archie Graham rushes to help. An instant later, the elderly Doctor Graham is tending to Karen. She was choking on a piece of hot dog, but the doctor revives her. Only then does Ray realize that Archie will not be able to play baseball again, but the doctor assures him that he doesn’t mind. He then walks off, disappearing into the corn.

Terence Mann is invited to explore the unknown with the baseball players through whatever spectral gate exists in the cornfield. Ray objects, but he is reminded that his family needs him. With the help of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ray learns that the man catching in the ballgame is his father, now young and living his dream of playing baseball. Ray introduces his father to Annie and Karen. The two men are seen playing catch as a line of cars is revealed approaching the field, carrying those people that Terence Mann promised would come.

The movie succeeds on many levels. The themes of baseball, finding one’s dreams, accepting alternate realities, and loving one’s family are skillfully intertwined. The movie is filled with memorable scenes: a debate between Annie and another mother about Terence Mann’s writings, Mann’s initial refusal to let Ray take him to a baseball game, Doctor Graham’s conversation with Ray in the doctor’s office, baseball players emerging from the corn and disappearing into it again, and Mark striding across the field oblivious to the baseball game happening around him. The script, the scenery, and the soundtrack are all superb. Many of the exchanges of dialogue are classic lines: Shoeless Joe asks Ray, “Is this heaven?” and Ray responds, “No, it’s Iowa.” Mann says to Ray, “You’re seeing a whole team of psychologists, aren’t you?” Ray, watching to find the gate in his cornfield protests that he has taken so many risks and done so much work to provide the ballfield, “and I’ve never once asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’” “What are you saying, Ray?” Joe asks him, and Ray shouts back, “I’m saying” (pause) “’What’s in it for me?’”

Even the casting is superb. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella. Costner also played a minor league catcher in 1988 in Bull Durham, and he would go on to play a major league pitcher in 1999 in For the Love of the Game. Amy Madigan plays Annie, and Gaby Hoffmann plays Karen, one of several little-girl roles she portrayed around that time. Ray Liotta is Shoeless Joe Jackson, Timothy Busfield is Mark (Annie’s brother), James Earl Jones is Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster is Doctor Graham.

Field of Dreams is based on a book, Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The book is good, but the movie is excellent. The book includes several additional characters: Ray has a twin brother named Richard, whose location has been unknown for years until he appears at Ray and Annie’s door. Ed Scissons is the farmer who sold Ray and Annie the farm; he claims to have pitched for the Chicago Cubs and to be the oldest surviving member of the ballclub. Instead of Terence Mann, the writer whose pain Ray seeks to ease is J. D. Salinger. By replacing Salinger with a fictitious writer, the moviemakers managed to avoid a lawsuit and also were able to have some of W. P. Kinsella’s best lines in his book written or spoken by Terence Mann in the movie.

The book explains why Mark is eager to buy the farm from Ray and Annie. It is not merely that he wants to help his sister and her family; Mark and another investor want to take several small farms and make one large agricultural establishment, streamlining production by removing all the fences and farmhouses, and mechanizing farming. This sort of thing was happening at the time in Iowa and other states. The book also makes clear that Ray and Annie’s financial difficulties were not caused merely by an acre or so of corn being used for a baseball field—the real problem is that Ray used all the family’s money to buy supplies and equipment to build the field, and now they cannot pay their debts. In the book, Ray visits other ballparks on his way to Boston, and he and Terence Mann and Archie Graham also break into the ballpark in Minneapolis to frolic on the field late at night.

More significantly, in the book much time passes between the return to the farm and ballpark and the key events involving Mark, Terence Mann, Karen, and Doctor Graham. The movie condenses those events into a single day, which is important for a reason I am just about to explain.

Before I do, however, I must again marvel over the many little touches with give the movie depth and authenticity. In a store Ray asks another farmer if he has ever heard voices in the field; that farmer and the others in the store stare silently at Ray while the overhead radio plays Beverly D’Angelo singing “Crazy.” While Ray is fretting over hearing voices and wondering what it means, Karen is watching the movie Harvey on television—when he recognizes the movie, Ray quickly clicks off the television. As Terence Mann rides in Ray’s van at night after the ballgame, the neon sign with the word “Books” is briefly reflected off the windshield in front of the writer. From all these details, I know that the moviemakers did on purpose what I am about to describe.

In Chisholm, Doctor Graham tells Ray that he mildly regrets never getting to bat in the major leagues. He reflects that as the pitcher went into his windup, he would wink at the pitcher as if he knew something the pitcher did not know. In Iowa, when Archie Graham gets to bat, he winks at the pitcher, Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte. In response, Knuckles’ first two pitches are aimed at the vicinity of Archie’s head. Shoeless Joe gives some friendly advice to Graham, who swings at the next pitch, flying out to right field. His teammate at third base then scores, beating the right fielder’s throw to the plate.

In baseball, when the ball is hit in the air, the runner must then touch the base where he was when the ball was hit before advancing to the next base; otherwise, the fielding team can throw the ball to the fielder where he was, and the runner will be called out. Once he has touched the base after the catch, though, the runner can advance, hoping to make it to the next base before the ball can be thrown to the fielder at that base, who would otherwise tag the runner out. When a fly ball is hit and caught and the runner advances, the batter is not charged with an official at bat. In other words, Archie Graham still does not have an official at-bat although he has helped his team to score a run. This play is called a sacrifice—signaling what the good doctor will do shortly to save Karen’s life. J.

About last weekend–reading and writing

Reading and writing were two goals I had for this long weekend. On Tuesday morning, I look back at the past three days, and I see a glass half-full and half-empty. I did some good reading and some acceptable writing, but a lot of other tasks went undone.

Over the weekend I composed a two-part essay on post-modernism and Christian faith. The second part is not finished, and the whole essay needs more polishing. I might not ever post or publish what I wrote this weekend, but at least it has helped me to focus a bit more on these issues.

Among the things I read this weekend were portions of a writer’s notebook I created when I was younger (so much younger than today…). Back then I kept track of my short story ideas by swirling them together in a longer work in which they occasionally became entangled with each other. Part of the inspiration for this style came from Arthur Hailey (Airport and Hotel) and Allen Drury (Advise and Consent and its sequels), but a stronger influence was Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions), with his minimalist approach to description. Friends who read portions of this notebook compared it favorably to Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), whose work I had not read when I started that notebook. This weekend I’m reading through this older writing to see if anything can be culled from the various plots and characters to stand alone as a short story. If I find anything I like, I will share it.

Last month I created a new WordPress blog containing a book I wrote a few years ago for a class I was teaching. The blog is not quite complete—I’ve not had time to read every post to make sure that I didn’t drop or repeat sections when uploading it, and I’ve not selected tags and categories for it yet. If you’re interested, though, you can find it here. The class was for church workers and was called Principles of Bible Interpretation. Technically, the subject was hermeneutics, but I tried to avoid technical terms in the book. (Exegesis is reading the Bible to learn its message—the “what” of Bible reading—and hermeneutics is the rules by which we read—the “how” of Bible reading.) Of the books selected by the program directors for teaching this course, one book was meant for graduate students, and the others (though more readable) disagreed with key teachings of my denomination of Christianity. Hence I wrote and used this book, trying to make it both approachable and doctrinally correct. It has since been used by another teacher of the same course. I thought I would make it available as a free online book. At first I called it “How to Read the Bible,” but the proper title of this book is “It’s All About Jesus: A Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Bible.” I hope you will take a look. J.