Percy Bysshe Shelley
The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.
A brighter Hellas rears its mountains
From waves serener far;
A new Peneus rolls his fountains
Against the morning star.
Where fairer Tempes bloom, there sleep
Young Cyclads on a sunnier deep.
A loftier Argo cleaves the main,
Fraught with a later prize;
Another Orpheus sings again,
And loves, and weeps, and dies.
A new Ulysses leaves once more
Calypso for his native shore.
Oh, write no more the tale of Troy,
If earth Death’s scroll must be!
Nor mix with Laian rage the joy
Which dawns upon the free:
Although a subtler Sphinx renew
Riddles of death Thebes never knew.
Another Athens shall arise,
And to remoter time
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
The splendour of its prime;
And leave, if nought so bright may live,
All earth can take or Heaven can give.
Saturn and Love their long repose
Shall burst, more bright and good
Than all who fell, than One who rose,
Than many unsubdu’d:
Not gold, not blood, their altar dowers,
But votive tears and symbol flowers.
Oh cease! must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die?
Cease! drain not to its dregs the urn
Of bitter prophecy.
The world is weary of the past,
Oh might it die or rest at last!
As a change of pace, some selections from Traditional Japanese Poetry trans. Steven D. Carter
A poem written by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro when Prince Karu took lodging in the fields of Aki
Off to the eastward,
the first shimmer of daylight
rises on the fields–
and when I turn round to see,
the moon is sinking away
Another by the same author
of dusk on the Omi Sea–
each time you cry out
my heart withers within me,
set on things of long ago
By Sami Mansei, one of my favorites in the whole collection:
Our life in this world–
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.
The Country Faith
Here in the country’s heart
Where the grass is green,
Life is the same sweet life
As it e’er hath been.
Trust in a God still lives,
And the bell at morn
Floats with a thought of God
O’er the rising corn.
God comes down in the rain,
And the crop grows tall—
This is the country faith,
And the best of all!
Sheep and Lambs
All in the April morning,
April airs were abroad;
The sheep with their little lambs
Pass’d me by on the road.
The sheep with their little lambs
Pass’d me by on the road;
All in an April evening
I thought on the Lamb of God.
The lambs were weary, and crying
With a weak human cry;
I thought on the Lamb of God
Going meekly to die.
Up in the blue, blue mountains
Dewy pastures are sweet:
Rest for the little bodies,
Rest for the little feet.
Rest for the Lamb of God
Up on the hill-top green;
Only a cross of shame
Two stark crosses between.
All in the April evening,
April airs were abroad;
I saw the sheep with their lambs,
And thought on the Lamb of God.
An annual tradition. This year, I continuously told myself that I wouldn’t buy new books until I’d dramatically reduced my to-read list. I half-listened, getting the list to under a hundred for the first time in living memory. It (coupled with me figuring out how to check out books digitally from the Chicago Public Library) also resulted in me reading a lot more Kindle books than normal, fully 37% of the 162 books I read this year were on the Kindle. In all, I read considerably more than I’d expected. Not having the weight of a dissertation looming over me at every instant turned out to have a salutary effect, who would have guessed?
Science Fiction absolutely dominated the genre count, with more than double the entries of any other genre. Action-packed, easy Sci-Fi tends to be my go-to when I’m in need of a brain break, and this year I apparently required a couple (plus discovered a few enjoyable new series). In second was Academic books. I read 20. Fiction, with 18, then Crime (I don’t know why I differentiated this from fiction more broadly, probably because I read a lot of Elmore Leonard) and Poetry, both 10, round out the top 5.
E.C. Tubb, who led the list in both 2016 and 2017 thanks to his Dumarest series, falls to 5th this year, as I get closer to the end of said series. I probably should have just powered through and finished the last few books, but I’m drawing them out in lieu of having a replacement. Elmore Leonard was, somewhat inexplicably (given that I often find him oddly unsatisfying), the author I read the most last year, with 10 books. He’s followed by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach, authors of a military sci-fi series I enjoyed, with 9, then Gene Wolfe (8), and Jack Campbell (6).
I realize that, of these authors, the only one who I’d consider a true favorite is Wolfe and that I only sort of liked the Campbell and Leonard books. This seems to be a deficiency in my reading habits, or maybe just a comment on the quality of breezy books that I can consume in a weekend.
On to the real meat of the post, books that I found especially memorable and would recommend to others. As always, a blend of newly encountered works and re-reads, though less of the latter than in past years.
Looking over my list this year, I realize I need to make some changes to how I record these books. Typically, I mark a book as notable in the immediate aftermath of finishing it. This method leads to some obvious problems, namely books whose quality is only apparent after a certain amount of digestion, the ones that I find coming to mind over and over months after I’ve finished them, and books that touched me in the moment but which I can barely remember when I find them in this list. There is also the category of books that I found particularly useful but did not touch me in the manner of those marked as notable. Good academic books, useful guides, etc. typically fall into this category. Finally, there are clusters of books that affected me deeply during the year, but contain no single book that I thought particularly excellent (for example, Lewis-Stempel’s Running Hare and Logsdon’s Contrary Farmer [among others] shaped how I thought this year, but neither book makes the final list). Perhaps this is just a call to write more about these books as they come, rather than endlessly promising myself I will write and failing to do so.
Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald – One of my all-time favorites, which also made the list in 2016. Here’s what I wrote then:
A wonderful, melancholy rumination on memory and loss. Whenever I read it, I have a sense that there’s something momentous looming just behind the words, something that I just can’t grasp. One day, I’ll be able to say more, but I’ll probably have to reread it another three times before that day comes.
Only two more reads to go. I’ll add that if I ever wrote seriously, I would like to write like Sebald. I’ve posted about him at least twice.
The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges – Another favorite, which made the list in 2016 and 2015. Again I’ll quote from past entries:
Years ago, I read a blog post about “Companion Books”, books that truly count, that nourish your inner being and shape you. I’ve come to realize I have a number of these, perhaps too many, and Sertillanges’s masterpiece is one of them. His portrait of the intellectual life is what I aspire to and yet fall short of far too often.
If I were to recommend a single book to anyone pursuing intellectual pursuits, it would be this one (given the course of my academic career, perhaps this is a mark against the book). Posts on Sertillanges.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor – I taught this book in a class on faith during the Fall and realized with joy as I re-read it just how excellent it was. A grotesque (one is contractually obligated to use this word to describe O’Connor’s writing), comic, terrifying, and wonderful exploration of religious faith and grace in a world that all too often seems denuded of the same. Two years ago I posted my favorite quote, here.
Also, since we’re speaking of books I taught and which you ought to read, Augustine’s Confessions and the Iliad are two of the most wonderful things ever written. Read them.
Shadow and Claw, Sword and Citadel, and the Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe – I’ve long cited these books, and Gene Wolfe more generally, as the best that science fiction has to offer, and this summer I re-read the whole of his 10 book Solar Cycle. If anything, this read has convinced me that I’ve underplayed just how excellent these books actually are. The story of a torturer who becomes a king and, more importantly, the savior and destroyer of the world, it is endlessly profound and contains some of the greatest world-building in literature. The whole (loosely-connected) cycle is worth reading. I’ve come to like the Long Sun portion less and gained much greater appreciation for the three Short Sun books this time around. Though none of these were my favorite book of the year (see below), I do think that Gene Wolfe takes home the coveted Author of the Year award (title previously held by Patrick Fermor, Solzhenitsyn, and Jane Austen).
John Muir: Spirtual Writings – I had no idea that John Muir was such a deeply religious thinker, and I found this selection of his writings that directly touched on the subject invigorating, a spur to future reading (as yet, sadly, not completed). I’m guessing that, upon doing that reading, I will recommend reading those actual books, rather than this collection, but in the interim, it will do. I’ve also posted some selections here.
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway – A few years ago, I got it into my head that I really enjoyed short stories, and this conviction led me to purchase the complete short stories of 4 authors that I particularly enjoyed at the time: Flanney O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Hemingway. These purchases were quickly followed by the realization that I’m not that into short stories, particularly in collections of 80 or so. Thus, to date, I’ve only finished the O’Connor and Hemingway.
That said, Hemingway is one of the greatest short story writers in history, and this collection contains any number of truly excellent pieces, well worth your time and better, I think, than any of his novels.
Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi – A book that I didn’t find especially excellent at the time, but which has stuck with me. It chronicles Teffi’s escape from the ever rising Bolshevik tide alongside a cast of creative types, all struggling, often comically, their mode of living amidst the chaos. I think what I most appreciated was her tone. She’s a very good writer and conveys a indelible impression of her experiences.
Religio Medici & Urne Buriall by Thomas Browne – Two curious little books, that I wrote about at greater length in February. Originally recommended to me by Sebald, Browne writes on memory and history, nature and God, all subjects close to my heart. As I mention in the linked post, I hope to read his entire corpus and perhaps undertake a project on the man sometime in the vague future.
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas – A classic of rip-roaring revenge and adventure, I’m not sure what I can say beyond the fact that there’s a reason why it’s been designated as such.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold – A landmark work of environmental literature describing Leopold’s life and work on a farm in Wisconsin. I wrote about it’s strengths and weaknesses in an earlier post. If you’re interested in the environment at all, it really behooves you to read this, Muir, and so on, the founders. Modern writings in the field are often mere shadows of these originals.
The Art of Living Well by Dietrich von Hildebrand – One of the best treatises on virtue I’ve ever read and a concise introduction to a legitimate claimant to the title of greatest theologian of the 20th century. A good companion book to Josef Pieper’s writings, which I have written about quite a bit and recommended a number of times. Like many on this list, I’ve written on/quoted the book already .
Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by François-René de Chateaubriand – My favorite book of 2018, the memoirs of the French writer, politician, diplomat, and historian who is probably most famous today for having a cut of steak named after him (also, for being one of the founders of Romanticism). This volume covers the years up to 1800, thus we see
Chateaubriand’s childhood, the turmoils of revolution, and his trip to America. It’s really excellent. He’s a beautiful writer and a fascinating individual, completely engrossing. A shame that the remaining thirty books of his memoirs are far more difficult to find. If my praise doesn’t convince you, perhaps some selections from his writings will?
Emma and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Rounding out the catalog of my favorite author of last year (who is now firmly established among my all time favorites), I read these two early in the year. Emma is, after Pride and Prejudice, my favorite of Austen’s books, a true delight. I’ll quote my praise from last year:
Austen is wonderful, hilarious, and brilliant. Her books fly by, the characters are marvelous, and I cannot stress enough how fantastically humorous, while at the same time profound (Austen is a terrific moral philosopher) they are…. I cannot rave enough about how much I loved these books.
Also, I’ll plug Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues by Sarah Emsley, which very nicely distills the fantastic moral reasoning of Austen’s novels. A great companion to a serious read-through.
The Oxford Book of English Verse – In my never-ending quest to appreciate poetry at greater length, I picked up this collection (on the indirect recommendation of Patrick Fermor) and waded through it in scraps of time for much of 2017 and 2018. The majority of the poems that I’ve been posting on Mondays for the past few months have come from this book, and it strikes my fairly uncultured eye as an excellent compilation and introduction to the world of poetry.
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr – I struggle to write about this book. What makes it special is not the plot, which is slight, or the characters I barely remember, but an impression it creates, an evocation of times and love lost, of fragile happiness fading into memory, that marked me deeply in a way I didn’t expect at all in the immediate wake of finishing the novel. It’s a beautiful little book. I need to read it again very soon.
In Parenthesis by David Jones – I’ve written before of my distaste for modern poetry, yet T.S. Eliot made my list in 2017 and this shattering work chronicling Jones’s experiences in World War I makes this list this year. Bizarre and jarring, his words convey the visceral feel the violence and fragmentation of war.
Roman Lives by Plutarch – I always feel a little silly recommending books that have been widely considered classics for centuries, but this was my first exposure to Plutarch and it immediately inspired me to pick up the complete set of parallel lives. If you’re interested at all in biography, history, literature, or just being barely educated by the standards of previous generations, you should read some Plutarch.
The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz – A chilling and perceptive exploration of the effects of totalitarianism on the artistic and intellectual mind. I found it deeply insightful (not to mention relevant) and wrote a number of posts drawing out Milosz’s ideas. In these, I barely scratched the surface, so it’s worth picking up the book if they piqued your interest at all.
The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovannino Guareschi – I think I expressed why I enjoyed this collection so much well in a previous post:
Giovannino Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories are delightful little tales set in the “little world” of an Italian town in the Po valley in the years immediately after World War II. What makes them wonderful is their pure humanity, the sheer warmth of the oft-contentious between Don Camillo, his eternal rival, the communist mayor Peppone, and the surprisingly loquacious crucifix which hangs in Don Camillo’s church. I very much recommend the stories.
Reading brings us many things, one of the most important of these is joy. Each of these books, in their own way, brought me joy and I hope that they can bring you the same. Read more!
Is It Nothing to You?
WE were playing on the green together,
My sweetheart and I—
Oh! so heedless in the gay June weather,
When the word went forth that we must die.
Oh! so merrily the balls of amber
And of ivory tossed we to the sky,
While the word went forth in the King’s chamber,
That we both must die.
Oh! so idly, straying through the pleasaunce,
Plucked we here and there
Fruit and bud, while in the royal presence
The King’s son was casting from his hair
Glory of the wreathen gold that crowned it,
And, ungirdling all his garments fair,
Flinging by the jewelled clasp that bound it,
With his feet made bare,
Down the myrtled stairway of the palace,
Ashes on his head,
Came he, through the rose and citron alleys,
In rough sark of sackcloth habited,
And in a hempen halter—oh! we jested,
Lightly, and we laughed as he was led
To the torture, while the bloom we breasted
Where the grapes grew red.
Oh! so sweet the birds, when he was dying,
Piped to her and me—
Is no room this glad June day for sighing—
He is dead, and she and I go free!
When the sun shall set on all our pleasure
We will mourn him— What, so you decree
We are heartless— Nay, but in what measure
Do you more than we?
The Burning Babe
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
Not content to offer mere diagnosis, Schumacher dedicates considerable space in Small is Beautiful to concrete proposals for reform. Recognize the importance of education, technology, and social organization (here, he is primarily thinking of large scale organizations, corporations, government, etc.) to modern society, he focuses on those areas. We therefore begin with education:
If Western civilization is in a state of permanent crisis, it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education. No civilization, I am sure, has ever devoted more energy and resources to organized education, and if we believe in nothing else, we certainly believe that education is, or should be, the key to everything. In fact, the belief in education is so strong that we treat it as the residual legatee of all our problems. If the nuclear age brings new dangers; if the advance of genetic engineering opens the doors to new abuses; if commercialism brings new temptations–the answer must be more and better education.
Small is Beautiful , 84
I don’t think you need to be a particularly sophisticated reader to note the subtle critique here, but whether the modern fixation on education is ridiculous or not, serious reform is necessary. In another work, Christopher Dawson sums up the problem in terms I believe Schumacher would agree with:
In the modern world the average man can go through his whole education without becoming aware of the existence of this elementary and essential spiritual factor either in the individual psyche or in the life of civilization.. Whether he studies the liberal arts or science and technology he is given no inkling of the existence of any higher principle which can be known and which can influence individual behavior or social culture. Yet, as I have said, all the great historical civilizations of the past recognize the existence of some spiritual principles or ends of this kind and made them the key of their interpretation of reality and their concepts of moral order. Hence a system of education like that of the modern secular state which almost totally ignores the spiritual component in human culture and in the human psyche is a blunder so enormous that no advance in scientific method or educational technique is sufficient to compensate for it.
Small is Beautiful, 203
That final line is an important one and hearkens back to a point made by Schumacher and noted in the second post of this series. Namely, that one of the characteristic mistakes of our age is expecting a technical solution to solve a problem rooted in the illegitimate predominance of techne. In concrete terms, this means that reforms that propose to solve the problem of education by adding computers to the classroom or developing some innovative teaching method not only will not help the situation, but are in fact concrete manifestations of what’s gone wrong in the first place. It is precisely the idea that we need only to stumble upon the right method, some neutral set of processes, and then allocate the proper resources to it that is the problem. Endlessly tweaking the method is a waste of time at best and quite often an active harm as this tweaking saps the momentum of centuries in favor of novelty.
What education needs instead is a re-orientation toward what actually matters, namely how to live:
To do so, the task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives. There is not doubt also the need to transmit know-how but this must take second place, for it is obviously somewhat foolhardy to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them….More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.
Small is Beautiful, 86 (my emphasis)
It’s remarkable how purposeless education is today. Think, what is the point of an education? To make it simpler, let’s restrict our focus to the university, what is the purpose of a college education? If it is to prepare you for a job, then it is a horribly constructed institution, imparting almost no practical skills and compartmentalizing career services into an optionally (and rarely) explored corner of campus. Those exalting the utility of the liberal arts for work conveniently ignore that this utility is entirely accidental. You might end up using some insight from Dante in your job at a fancy non-profit, but your study of Dante was certainly not directed toward that end.
Thus, education cannot be directed toward work (and if it is, ought to be wholly reconfigured and begun again), nor, thanks to the denial of spiritual ends noted by Dawson, can it be directed towards some moral or metaphysical purpose.1 A university education cannot be aimed at making you a better person (as in the classical conception of the liberal arts), because the possibility of moral truth is denied by virtually everyone. That this denial is contradictory nonsense, leading not to a neutral, tolerant system that facilitates the glorious free-flow of ideas, untrammeled by illogical prejudice, but rather a schizophrenic mush of objectively asserted and practiced moral claims that refuse to subject themselves to rationality under the guise of not being claims at all (and thus becoming far less tolerant and more totalitarian than anywhere that dogma is explicitly pronounced) is simply ignored.
So what’s the point? “Critical thinking”? What does that phrase, so often bandied about, even mean? And, come to think of it, how often are “thinking” skills actually taught? How often is a student required to read Aristotle on logic, Cicero on rhetoric, or any book that’s actually about how to persuade and argue rationally? Instead, students are expected to discern how to think critically by (best case) analyzing history and literature and writing papers about them. I confess, this doesn’t make much sense to me. To bring about any real reform, we need to actually articulate a purpose for education and work coherently toward that purpose, which, of course, requires rejecting the abandonment of metaphysics and attendant denial of human nature.
Examined from a different angle: There is no such thing as a neutral space of ideas, no education without some metaphysical grounding. Any assertion to the contrary is a flat lie that utterly destroys any possibility for true education (again, people today are generally only educated by accident and momentum). Moreover, since we are, at our very root, metaphysical beings, education without a coherent metaphysical grounding is profoundly anti-human. It is worse than pointless:
Whether the subjects taught are subjects of science or of the humanities, if the teaching does not lead to a clarification of metaphysics, that is to say, of our fundamental convictions, it cannot educate a man and, consequently, cannot be of real value to society.
Small is Beautiful , 98
Thus, we must, to reform education, abandon the pretense of neutrality, abandon the anti-human ideologies of the modern era, and re-orient education towards the metaphysical, recovering the true purpose of an education: to make us better.
Our reason has become beclouded by an extraordinary, blind and unreasonable faith in a set of fantastic and life-destroying ideas inherited from the nineteenth century. It is the foremost task of our reason to recover a truer faith than that.
Small is Beautiful , 98
- “The most powerful ideas of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, have denied or at least obscured the whole concept of “levels of being” and the idea that some things are higher than others. This, of course, has meant the destruction of ethics, which is based on the distinction of good and evil, claiming that good is higher than evil.” (Small is Beautiful, 105)
Since Schumacher is worried a great deal about environmental degradation, recall that I’ve previously argued that any coherent environmental ethic must be predicated on a hierarchy of being.
On the Death of a particular Friend
AS those we love decay, we die in part,
String after string is sever’d from the heart;
Till loosen’d life, at last but breathing clay,
Without one pang is glad to fall away.
Unhappy he who latest feels the blow!
Whose eyes have wept o’er every friend laid low,
Dragg’d ling’ring on from partial death to death,
Till, dying, all he can resign is—breath.