Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Why Our Kids Need Great Literature

July 19, 2010

Surprise!  I am alive, but I’ve been playing hookey from regular blogging here since Pascha.  That’s not to say I haven’t been busy, but I’m a little obsessive about my interests.  Orthodox blogging has taken a backseat to my birding, birdwatching, blogging about birds, feeding birds and planning field trips to see more birds.  

My other great passion is reading and I’ve had the pleasure of immersing myself in books for the last 6 months or so.   I tend towards classics, natural history, hard sci-fi and anything food or food culture, but I’ve also recently gotten hooked on Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.   In the past few weeks I’ve finished To Kill a Mockingbird, The Remains of the Day, Julia Child’s My Life in France, Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef, Robinson Crusoe, and I’m slowly slogging my way through Don Quixote (though why it takes 900 pages to convey idiocy and self-delusion is beyond me; I have a feeling the deep metaphysical meaning of the story is going to be completely lost on me.)

Surprisingly, of all these books,  the one that has been the most overtly Christian, I’d even say Orthodox in its message of human sinfulness, spiritual awakening, and redemption through a monastic or hermit-like isolation, is Robinson Crusoe.  It’s an early 18th century Protestant Christian morality story through and through, but why should we look at these kinds of literary works as peculiar to their time with no modern message.  If any age needed some lessons in morality mixed with a good dose of Christianity, it’s our present 21st century.   Is a work with this strong a Christian message still taught in high schools?   Daily Bible study, fasting, prayer, scripture quotations, all things alien and forbidden in public schools.  I’m sure it’d be a much more PC curricula if Crusoe explored his frustrated sexual longings in this book, rather than his thankfulness to God for isolating him from those temptations.  (If you need a more substantial literary reason for including this book on a list of required reading for kids, consider that it is first truly English novel, setting the stage for all subsequent English literature.)

Could there be any kind of literature more appropriate for teenagers to read than the account of someone lost and alone, and trying to understand their place in the world?  After suffering a nearly fatal illness that finally shakes his conscience free, Crusoe has a sincere conversion of heart, and begins a life of repentance and spritual revelation.

…reading the Scripture, I came to these Words, He is exalted a Prince and a Saviour, to give Repentance and to give Remission”.   I threw down the Book, and with my Heart as well as my Hands lifted up to Heaven, in a kind of Extasy (sic) of Joy, I cry’d out aloud, ‘Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance’!

Illumined Heart Interview With Metropolitan Jonah Part 1

December 27, 2008


In anticipation of Metropolitan Jonah’s consecration tomorrow, Ancient Faith Radio has posted a new Illumined Heart podcast.   Host Kevin Allen asked many background questions the average layperson has probably been wishing he could ask, particularly about his Beatitude’s  conversion to the Orthodox Faith.  It’s a voyeuristic curiosity among converts that we never get tired of listening to these stories.  Not to compare our faith with another believer, but as a reminder of where we came from.  I think it’s a way of renewing our zeal for the faith.

I loved the questions about Metropolitan Jonah’s favorite movies and books.  I think you can tell a lot about a person by what they read (Met. Jonah cites Edward Abbey among others), the movies they like and their childhood hobbies and interests.   For the record, my 8 year old thinks our new Metropolitan is officially cool.  Anyone, even a hierarch, who lists Star Wars among his favorite films is ok with him.

During the early 80’s as a college student studying wildlife science and parks and recreation, I think reading Edward Abbey, particularly Desert Solitaire, was as close to a spiritual experience as I’d ever had at that point.  To this day, a hike through the desert Southwest can feel like a second baptism.   It wasn’t until I became Orthodox years later that I got the same “religious” feelings from any other writer.  Some people think of Abbey as an eco-terrorist, a liberal radical, an anarchist.  Well, he might have been all that but he was also a philosopher.  The man who could say “Love implies anger. The man who is angered by nothing cares about nothing”, can’t be totally without a spiritual core.

Two things really struck me about Metropolitan Jonah’s interview – one,  just how calm,  easy-going and sensible he sounds.  This is someone who knows people and how to deal with them; that is the strength that made him a good abbot and also what being an abbot taught him about dealing with people.

The second was how the Holy Spirit was working in his life even as a college student and Orthodox newcomer.   In the Orthodox college fellowship  that he founded, at least eight persons went on to become  priests, priest-monks, a nun, deacon and matushka.   That is a remarkable number considering most average parishes can count on one hand the number of priests, deacons or monastics ever produced during the community’s entire history.

I’ll post Part 2 as soon as it’s out on Ancient Faith Radio.  In the meantime, please keep praying for our Metropolitan.

Whod’da Thunk I’d Be Stupider Than When I Was 17

October 22, 2008

I had a recent computer crash that just about convinced me I’m an Internet addict.  Two whole days without my fix and I started to get restless and anxious.  I thought I’d been dropped into an information desert.   The Internet has become my instant connection to world news, family, my faith.   I’ve been amazed at the power it’s given to smaller faith and political groups to promote their beliefs, for good or for evil, and disproportionate to the actual size of their membership.   Media advertising always could skew results in this way, but ads cost money – you can’t be a lone nut job and spend big money on advertising. 

But back to the point.  The power of the Internet has made growth in one’s personal and cultural potential far beyond anything seen in recent human history.   Somebody at Time Warner probably makes these decisions, but in my opinion, it has been the most culturally transformative technology since the printing press.    Personally, it’s changed the way I write and the structure and style of the stories I present.  Without it, I would simply never be able to put together the articles for this blog.   I’d like to think my writing is better, more precise, more relevant.  It’s certainly faster, but it is different.

This isn’t a novel idea, but two recent articles by Nicholas Carr at The Atlantic and James Bowman at The New Atlantis point out research and impressions both scientists and serious writers have begun to take notice of.  The premise is that overwhelming and almost instantaneous amounts of compact, bulleted, and organized on-line information is decreasing our reading ability, concentration levels and overall mental capacity.   The Internet is actually changing the way we think and the way we think about things we read – we are becoming “high-speed data-processing machines” more useful at pulling out bits and pieces of information than actually making meaningful and deep connections with the printed word.  (You still with me here?  Only three more paragraphs and you can jump back to E-Bay or Yahoo.)

I still love my books and consistently buy more each month than I can finish in three, but I know I’m not speaking for the declining readership of great literature and trash novels alike.  I’m sure the Internet hasn’t been the sole cause of this decline, but works in combination with other modern time-killers.  The leisure time to read must compete with mindless TV watching, video gaming, extended work hours, family commitments, commuting and general busy-ness.  I went for a long time when my kids were both under the age of four reading no more than poetry, very short stories and baby/parenting mags.  Whatever I could fit into a five minute bathroom break before someone started banging on the door.  And weird as it sounds, you can take a pee, read a magazine and nurse a baby all at the same time.  You just can’t multi-task in the same way reading Dostyevsky.

It’s very sad to see the decline of reading in my own family.  My sons, six and eight, are not avid readers.  Fortunately they do not use the Internet much, the Disney Channel or National Geographic are about it, and I’m not encouraging them for now.  Book reading is limited to bedtime stories and the tortuous practice of teacher-imposed reading calendars.  Thirty minutes of daily homework reading is not a happy time.  It’s usually interrupted by frequent shouts from upstairs about how many minutes are left on the timer or trips to get a drink of water.  I must be a dinosaur – a relic of times before cable TV and video games (though I was about 11 when we got a primitive Pong game and hooked it up to our big console TV).  Books could not have been any more important to me than breathing air.   My kids suck that air from video games and The Cartoon Channel. 

Carr’s article ironically points out that our daily amount of reading has actually increased – it’s the quality of the reading that has gone down.  On-line screen reading bombards us with just as many words, just in tiny screen-sized chunks and headers.   I hope both these authors are wrong and the doom and gloom about reading is not going to come true in the futuristic way they’ve presented it.  People have been saying books are a dying medium for a long time.  There isn’t any denying the fact that reading and cultural literacy have declined.  However, I don’t think that books will ever be obsolete.  To hold a book is a visual and tactile experience you can never get from on-line texts, a Kindle, an E-book or any hand-held device.  Maybe a buckyball kind of paper might be used one day to download “books” onto, but it will have flexible, bound pages in a book format.  The format is not going to go away.  We just have to keep exercising our minds long enough.  Maybe I’ll try and write a blog piece using the old-fashioned way – I’ll go to the library and search the stacks.  You should be seeing that piece hot off my notepad in about two months. 


Halloween Fun

October 10, 2008


Since I became Orthodox I’ve had a real conflict each year about celebrating Halloween.  I know there are some strong objections to a Christian’s participation in a holiday that has it’s roots in paganism, but I’ll admit I just love Halloween.   I have no intention of practicing Wicca, lighting black candles or making potions.  I have fun at Halloween for the same reason I adore Renaissance festivals.  It’s fun, it’s nostalgic, it’s magical make-believe. 

One of the things I’ve done with my kids is to read Halloween stories during the weeks before October 31st.  The books have become well worn, and I’m sad to think that as my kids get older, they won’t want to continue this ritual.  My eight year old was already giving me grief last night when I pulled the books down from the shelf to read before bed.   He whined that he was too old to read baby books.  Thank goodness my six year old still gets the fun of sharing books together.   Below are some of our all time favorites.

We’ve read “The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything” a million times.  This is one of the most fun to read because my kids and I can act out all the scary sounds and movements:  clomp-clomp, wiggle-wiggle, shake-shake, clap-clap, boo-boo.   It’s a real workout right before bedtime.

“The Big Pumpkin” is just adorable.  A witch, a vampire, a ghost and a mummy try and pull off a big pumpkin from a vine to make a pie.   It takes a little bat to help them work together.  


“Scary, Scary Halloween” is beautifully illustrated and not scary at all.

 I’ll be going to the bookstore in the next day or two to add a couple more new books to the reading list.  One October night years from now, the kids will be grown and out of the house.  I’ll be an old lady sitting in a rocker, getting all teary-eyed with memories as I read these books to myself and reminisce about long-ago October nights when we celebrated the fun of Halloween.

This Is America Isn’t It – Part 2

October 9, 2008

Four days ago, a clandestine operation took place in bookstores across America.  Cloaked in secrecy, operatives salespeople hurriedly rushed the release of the single most dangerous symbol of the Western world onto shelves and received last minute instructions on security awareness and safety protocols.  The target – an historical novel. 

Yes, apparently history is a very dangerous thing to speculate on, at least for Sherry Jones and her new novel “The Jewel of Medina“.  Amazon’s reviews run the gamut about its literary worth, but there aren’t as many outright slams as I thought there would be.    The U.S. publisher, Beaufort Books, not one to necessarily flinch from publishing crappy or controversial books (if you go by their willingness to publish O.J. Simpson’s confessional tome, “If I Did It”), decided to take on the Jewel project for the cause of free speech, but they’ve also received lots of free, pre-publication publicity.   The increased sales should help to defray the costs of added security.

The issue regarding this book is not whether it’s worthwhile reading, historically accurate or just takes huge swats at the religious feelings of Muslims (yeah, yeah, I know, most Muslims are peace-loving practitioners of a peaceful religion – I saw that on Oprah too).  It’s a contrast between two very different ideologies here. 

Ideology A– if something is offensive and distubing to your faith or beliefs, you write letters of protest, you preach a sermon, you boycott the product or distributor, you exercise your constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech.  And likewise, others have the right to exercise their right to free speech by reading it.  (Look what we had to put up with when the Da Vinci Code came out.)

Ideology B – given the same situation, you cause people to fear for their lives,  you act on that fear and torch or blow-up things to prove your point, and you do everything possible to reinforce people’s “misconceptions” about your faith.  

 Sounds very reasonable to me.  So when I have to go through a metal-detector at Barnes & Noble, I will feel reassured that those people who practice Ideology B have only threatened or done violent acts out of a big misunderstanding.