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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

I’ve been on a J.R.R. Tolkien kick recently.  I often read the Lord of the Rings over the holidays; it’s sort of a wintery thing to do.  And once I’ve spent that amount of time in Middle-Earth I don’t want to leave.  I usually end up reading more and more.  I’ll read the Silmarillion and the Hobbit, but for Christmas I hit pay dirt: my wife gave me five Tolkien books.  So I began with relish.

The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, England

Recently, I was reading Tales from the Perilous Realm, a collection of stories that were published in various places in the 30’s and 40’s, and I came upon an interesting passage.  It is well-known that Tolkien was friends with C.S. Lewis.  They were a part of a group of friends and intellectuals who called themselves the Inklings.  For many years they met weekly at a pub in Oxford called the Eagle and Child, or by those who frequent it regularly, the Bird and Baby.  It’s a pretty cool little place (the food is fantastic and the beer quite good!), and these friends would meet to talk, but also to bring their writing projects and talk about them.  They would workshop and criticize each other’s work.  It truly was a case of iron sharpening iron.

Anyway, I was reading a story called “Leaf by Niggle,” found in the book I’m finishing up.  It’s a very interesting story which was apparently a dream that Tolkien had, and when he woke up, he wrote it all down, then went back and edited it up.  He writes, “It really added a considerable attraction to walking in the country, because, as you walked, new distances opened out; so that you now had double, treble, and quadruple distances, doubly, trebly, and quadruply enchanting.  You could go on and on, and have a whole country in a garden, or in a picture (if you preferred to call it that)” (304).

The thing I find fascinating is that I think that here I have found a place where Tolkien’s ideas overlapped with Lewis’s.  Tolkien wrote this story sometime between 1939 and 1942, and it is just the sort of thing that he would bring to the pub for comments and/or criticism, or just to let his friends read it.  I think that these images of a garden that is bigger inside than outside, and a country inside a painting were things the two talked about, perhaps extensively, because they seem to have worked in to the writings of Tolkien here in “Leaf by Niggle” and into Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, written between 1949 and 1954.  In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace are drawn into Narnia through a picture of a ship.  They are sucked into the painting which grows and becomes larger and larger until they are in another world.  In the Last Battle, the entourage walks west and arrives at the garden on the green hill, surrounded by a hedge.  When they go inside, they find that it is bigger inside than outside, and a conversation ensues to that effect.  They talk about the fact that many things are like that: that the further in one goes, the bigger and more real things are.  They call to one another, “Farther up and further in!” and seek the center of the garden only to find Aslan himself.

I like to imagine Tolkien and Lewis sitting together, sipping their beer, reading papers, and arguing about a point of description or discussing these things in a spirited manner.  I think that that pub with those men is one of the top 5 places I would want to visit if I ever was given a time machine.  Ah, how I love ideas!

Isn’t literature grand?

At the Eagle and Child, tossing back a pint.

 

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Every now and then I read an article in the news that is so disturbing to me that I find I can’t speak.  Let me preface this post by saying that I am extremely interested in technology.  I am completing a graduate degree in media studies.  I just finished an article on video gaming.  But I also am an unapologetic bibliophile.  I love books.  I love that they are filled with ideas of all kinds.  I love the way they smell and the feel of a heavy book in my hand. I like having them around me–on the shelves in my house and in my study.

It seems that a certain prep school called Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, has decided that books are simply outdated and therefore, they have given away their 20,000 volume collection and are replacing it with a cafe, computer lab, and flat screen TVs.

I’m aghast and honestly, I can’t really communicate what I feel–sadness, outrage, and incredulity, are all there in varied proportions.  I’ll leave you the link to the full article  here and finally leave you with the very germane introduction to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I highly recommend).  I’ve included his entire introduction below:

hollow

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
— Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business)

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The Sublime and the Page

There are sublime moments of my life that stand out in my memory: sitting all alone on the beach in Florida watching the sun rise over the sea; standing on top of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park watching an electrical storm rumble up the canyon toward me; sitting on an old bench outside in a small cloister in Westminster Abbey, breathing in the heart of Britain while sharing a half hour of silence with a small bird perched a foot and a half away; holding a hummingbird and straightening its wings out, brushing it off, and petting its head while it simply looked up at me for five full minutes before it flew away; standing  in the Greek Theatre at the University of Redlands, silently talking to God and feeling His presence pressing on the place, filling the huge bowl of earth to the brim; driving a small zodiak boat in the Bahamas with my best friend beside me at dusk in water so shallow I could get out and walk; listening to and smelling the fresh clean rain falling outside through an open window as I sat inside next to a cheerful fire; worshipping God on an open air rooftop in the metropolis of Bangkok as the sun set and shone its last light down on me and the two dozen other Christians whom I could not understand, but who were nonetheless one with me in spirit and purpose.

 

The beach in Florida at sunset

The beach in Florida at sunrise, very similar to the one I sat on--Satellite Beach, just south of here.

 

 

All of these things are real events; they happened to me, and I lived them.  But there are also many memories I have of intense beauty that never really happened to me, at least not in the same way as the above memories.  I have intense memories of things that only existed in my mind, brought there by symbols slopped on pressed wood pulp.  Experiences that I share with no one else, because no one else imagined them the same way that I did.  These experiences I lived through the pages of books and the countless hours spent devouring ideas and stories, descriptions of evil and good, ugliness and beauty, the commonplace and the royal.  And anyone who has a passion for stories and books knows exactly what I mean. 


 

cover-the-lord-of-the-rings1I just finished reading the Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, and although they are codices of pages of symbols, they have affected me deeply.  I experienced more beauty in them than I have perhaps in my lifetime outside of the world of books.  Books and stories can take us far away, and I wonder what it is in our imaginations that is apparently so well-suited to telling stories.  We tell stories our whole lives, every day.  The function of stories is fascinating to me, but right now I’m just interested in seeing and feeling the sublime again.  And that is why picking one’s next book is such an important thing.  And if you haven’t had a beautiful moment recently, you need to pick up a well-written book and find a quiet spot, preferably with rain outside and fire inside, and a warm drink, and explore the realms of beauty that can only exist in the mind.  The joy of the experience and the after-ache of longing is the reward, and can never be diminished by the sudden jerk back into the shadow land of reality.

 

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Memory is a funny thing.  I can remember the backyard of my childhood home and feel nostalgic, a sort of sweet memory that hurts.  I can also read and immerse myself in the history of World War II (as anyone who knows me well can attest to) and feel a tragic sweetness for that time.  I might wish that I could have seen those days, but those who live through them would tell me that this wish is ridiculous, and they would be right.  It was not nostalgic to live through it.  It would not satisfy my nostaligic ache to live through those days or to visit my childhood home again.  In fact, this often makes things worse—and everyone knows what it is like to not want to see something from our childhood because we know it will not feel the same.  We choose to simply keep the thing in our memory, sweet but not actualized. 

wwii-v-day-kiss

I was sitting in a coffee shop yesterday talking about this with my wife Melody, who is studying to be an archivist.  I told her that I believe that somehow there is an almost ineffable quality or feeling that we experience when dealing with archives and with memory.  I wondered what it is that we want when we long for something that is long past–something that we never experienced but have read about or heard about (like WWII), or some memory of our own that we have not visited in a long time (like an old childhood house or the feel and the memories of the neighborhood we grew up in).  We get a pang of longing, and even if the stuff we’re looking at is not our own, we often are overcome with wistful, nostalgic feelings.  Then I started wondering, what is it exactly that we’re longing for?  Because I do not long to see my childhood neighborhood again.  I know it will be different, and there have been times when I have specifically avoided going back and looking because I know it will not satisfy this desire; it will only make me sad; I will feel that the thing I wanted to see or experience is lost even more, is further away than it was before I went there.  

 

Our front yards are, painfully, never the same as we remember them if we go back to visit.

Our childhoods are, painfully, never the same as we remember them if we venture back to visit them.

 

I think that this ineffable thing that we long for is somehow related to our desire for something that is permanent, something that is outside the effects of time.  I think that this longing comes out of the human desire for transcendence.  This urge to archive or record our lives comes from a desire for immortality, or for a desire to escape our own mortality—almost the same thing, but not quite.  And our desire to know and get back permanently that which we know only in an archive (my great great grandparents, for example) is the other side of the coin; it is the desire to know permanence, to know the ineffable beauty beyond us, but it is always thwarted and turned to a bittersweet longing by the reality of our own mortality. 

C.S. Lewis wrote about this very longing, and he pointed out rightly that the longings of this kind (of which the longing related to permanence and memory is only one form) are times when our desire for God, our desire for home, our desire for transcendence is pricked by some small ray of light spilling from that Realm to our dusty, tired, and shadowed land.  The pang of sweet and terrible desire that fills our hearts when we hear a beautiful line of music, or a beautiful moment in a forest: any sublime moment is a spilling over from There to here.  Even the moment of wanting something that is not immediately attainable—the desire we feel to go back and experience life in 30’s and 40’s America, to see our ancestors and talk with them, even to see and talk with our own first father and mother before the fall—those things are real losses and will never happen, yet they point to a larger and greater Fulfillment of our desire.

It is in this poetic moment that we find ourselves taken out of time–one of the reasons why we create archives, I think.  We are able to experience a shadow of the thing we desire: to know outside of time, to always be, to be solid and unmoving, and to intimately know (experientially) things that will always be.  In the sweetness of a memory a person can linger in this twilight between the mutable and the immutable, between the temporal and the edge of the universe, between the cold hard granite reality of our own mortality and the frighteningly vast but warm infinity of the heavens: the unveiled realm of the Real, Living I Am. 

 

Who knew that something as lofty as a desire for the Immutable God could be found in a dusty archive?  Amazing.

 

Deus ex tabulinum

Deus ex tabulinum

 

 

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