Category: Books and Reading Page 2 of 16

Wodehouse the Genius

This is either a remarkably critical celebration or a remarkably appreciative critique of P.G. Wodehouse.

P.G. Wodehouse and the Idea of Genius (at Front Porch Republic)

“Readers who love Wodehouse know perfectly well that he’s no moral compass, towering intellect, or incisive commentator on his times. His genius resides in one simple fact: he had a wondrous way with a sentence. He subdued English grammar like a lion tamer, working himself into seemingly fatal complications before extricating himself with a flourish. He could turn a proverb inside out, cap an epic simile with a preposterous slangy coda, extend a metaphor to the breaking point and fold it neatly for another day—all while displaying a matchless ear for prose rhythm. Brief quotations don’t capture the full effect of Wodehouse’s style. One of his greatest set pieces, for example, involves a jealous young man trashing a London nightclub and runs on for several pages. A few shorter samples will at least hint at the Wodehouse experience.

Here is Bertie reminiscing in The Code of the Woosters:

The whole situation recalled irresistibly to my mind something that had happened to me once up at Oxford, when the heart was young. It was during Eights Week, and I was sauntering on the river-bank with a girl named something that has slipped my mind, when there was a sound of barking and a large, hefty dog came galloping up, full of beans and buck and obviously intent on mayhem. And I was just commending my soul to God, and feeling that this was where the old flannel trousers got about thirty bob’s worth of value bitten out of them, when the girl, waiting till she saw the whites of its eyes, with extraordinary presence of mind suddenly opened a colored Japanese umbrella in the animal’s face. Upon which, it did three back somersaults and retired into private life.”

Classic Novel Merch

A Genealogy of Love: Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead

Breaking bread with the dead is not a scholarly task to be completed but a permanent banquet, to which all who hunger are invited.

Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead

One of the ongoing debates that picks up steam every now and then is whether we should have high school students read old books in school (this WSJ opinion piece was everywhere recently and the #DisruptTexts tag on Twitter is on fire). Of course, a lot of the impetus behind this is to replace the canon of old dead white guys with a more diverse set of authors and subjects, but I can’t help but think another reason is because adults don’t really read old books anymore either. I mean, do adults even read anymore?

Alan Jacobs thinks we should, and thinks we should also read old books. “Breaking bread with the dead” is provocative phrasing that sounds much weirder than it actually is. Breaking bread is a common term, maybe especially in Christian circles (though this is not an explicitly Christian book) for sharing table fellowship – for sharing a meal and conversation with someone. Jacobs suggests we should see reading old books as an opportunity to join their authors for table fellowship.

Why would we do this? Jacobs actually has a fairly compelling argument, more convincing, probably, than my usual “because it’s good for you and also fun!!” reasoning. Taking an idea from Thomas Pynchon, he argues that expanding our temporal bandwidth increases our personal density – in other words, increasing our understanding of humanity over time (temporal bandwidth) increases our own weightiness, our own ability to stand up to every breeze that blows in our accelerated and windblown culture. For the Christians in the room, this of course brings to mind Ephesians 4:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

Ephesians 4:11-16, NKJV

Paul is speaking specifically of staying grounded in the Word of God to avoid heresy, but I do believe that the idea is broadly applicable to life in general. It’s very easy, especially on social media, to get swept up with whatever the topic of outrage du jour is, and sometimes outrage is justified, but how quickly do we get swept on to the next one at a moment’s notice. And how often are we so buried in our own bubbles that we can barely see outside them, much less understand how different viewpoints have shifted throughout history rather than just since last week. Jacobs argues that it is precisely encounters with difference that give us more perspective and more focus for the present.

Jacobs takes up several objections – notably how to deal with the fact that we honestly and in many cases appropriately have major issues with viewpoints common to the past. Like racism and sexism to name two huge ones. His response won’t be enough, likely, for the #DisruptText crowds, but as an already-committed old book apologist, I found it quite useful – don’t discount our objections, but also don’t use those objections to dismiss an entire book/author. They’re complex human beings, just like we are, and because we rightfully denounce their racism doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them in some other way.

Besides increasing our personal density, Jacobs also recommends approaching this table fellowship thinking of the old writers as our neighbors. We don’t always agree with our neighbors. Sometimes we may vehemently disagree with them. Jacobs suggests that learning to engage strange and even sometimes repugnant ideas in books, where we have control over the encounter, is a relatively safe and stress-free way to “practice” engaging our actual real-life neighbors. Ultimately, he hopes we can treat our ancestors as well as our contemporaries and descendents with a spirit of generosity and love – a genealogy of love continuing throughout the generations.

One pushback I can make on the book is he doesn’t really address the value of reading cross-culturally among modern writers rather than reading cross-temporally. This question was actually asked of him during a podcast I listened to, and his response was basically that yes, reading cross-culturally is a great idea and definitely contributes to our personal density, but that reading old books still probably does it more just because our modern world is so globally oriented that even though there are plenty of cultural differences, they aren’t actually as great as the difference between modern culture and, say, Ancient Greek culture, or even Medieval European culture. I would’ve liked to have seen that idea explored in more detail in the actual book. Especially since we inherit our current dominant white culture from these cultures – maybe they’re more different than they are similar, but I can easily see a #DisruptTexts advocate finding this a hard proposition to swallow. Maybe a sequel!

As someone who doesn’t need to be convinced to read old books, I appreciated metaphors like the one I quoted at the top, which took my thinking slightly off his topic, but still relevant to reading widely. The idea of good books and culture in general being a feast echoes Charlotte Mason’s philosophy about spreading a feast for students in terms of offering them lots of great literature, music and art, letting them play in nature, etc. Not everyone will like everything, but everyone’s invited to the feast to browse and enjoy. If we can see and present old books like this, as a feast to enjoy rather than an assignment to dread or a checklist to complete, perhaps breaking bread with the dead would be more enticing for more people.

Like many books about reading, I do suspect this one will largely end up preaching to the choir. Most people who aren’t interested in reading at all, or reading old books in particular, are unlikely to pick this up. Those of us who are interested are likely nodding along in agreement all the way through, not needing to be convinced of his thesis. But I think his arguments on every point give those of us who think the value of reading old books should be self-evident do give us some good arguments for the challengers we run into ourselves, and for that I am very grateful.

Book 2 of 2021 for me. I won’t review everything, and not necessarily in order.

About the book

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind
by Alan Jacobs
Published September 8, 2020, by Penguin Press
Hardcover is 192 pages

Purchase a copy:
Amazon Hardcover (affiliate link)
Amazon Kindle (affiliate link)
Audible (affiliate link)

Moviegoing Children in the 1920s (according to the book Half Magic)

I’m spending a good portion of my time lately reading elementary and middle-school books as I think about and plan for homeschooling my daughter, and I picked up one this week that’s about fifth-grade level called Half Magic, by Edward Eager. I hadn’t heard of this before, but the cover illustration looks like the ones on Eleanor Estes’ family comedy books for about the same age range, but this one has a bit of magic in it and name checks fantasy books like E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Cottage. Anyway, that’s by the by.

Today I came across a couple of pages where the four children (ages about six to thirteen or so) head to the movies. The book was written in 1954, but set 30 years earlier, which makes it take place in the mid-1920s. I just found this humorous depiction of kids going to the movies in around 1924 to be pretty hilarious and also probably fairly accurate. For reference, Jane is the oldest, Mark is second at age 11 (if the other ages are given, I’ve overlooked them), then Katharine, and Martha is the youngest. The story takes place in Toledo, Ohio, which is middle America at its most middle American.

After lunch, it was time to choose what movie to see.

The children did this by first making a tour of all the movie theatres in town and looking at the pictures on the outside. A time of argument followed. Mark liked Westerns and thrilling escapes, but Martha wouldn’t go inside any theatre that had pictures of fighting.

Jane and Katharine liked ladies with long hair and big eyes and tragic stories. They wanted to see a movie called Barbara LaMarr in Sandra. Mark finally agreed, because there were a lot of pictures outside of a man who wore a moustache, and that meant he was the villain, and that meant that somebody would hit him sooner or later. Martha agreed because all the other theatres had either pictures with fighting or Charlie Chaplin.


All of the four children hated Charlie Chaplin, because he was the only thing grown-ups would ever take them to.

When they came into the theatre Barbara LaMarr in Sandra had already reached its middle, and the children couldn’t figure out exactly what was happening. But then neither could the rest of the audience.

“But, George, I do not seem to grasp it all!” the woman behind the four children kept saying to her husband.

The four children did not grasp any of it, but Barbara LaMarr had lots of hair and great big eyes, and when strong men wanted to kiss her and she pushed them away and made suffering faces at the audience with her eyebrows, Jane and Katharine thought it was thrilling, and probably quite like the way life was, when you were grown-up.

Mark didn’t think much of the love blah, but he watched the villain getting more villainous, and the hero getting more heroic, and patiently waited for them to slug it out.

Martha hated it.

That was always the way with Martha. She wanted to go to the movies like anything until she got there, and then she hated it. Now she kept pestering the others to read her the words and tell her what was happening (for in those days movies did not talk).

Book Notes: Divergent by Veronica Roth

I‘ve seen a few reviews (online and from friends as well) that Divergent has lackluster worldbuilding, with not enough back story to explain why the world is the way it is. Now, I’m a total sucker for worldbuilding, so that had me worried, but I was intrigued enough by the concept that I plowed into it anyway.

That concept is that the society is divided into five factions based basically on personality – the brave and bold are Dauntless, the honest are Candor, the peaceful are Amity, the scholarly are Erudite, and the selfless are Abnegation. Every child chooses at the age of 16 whether they want to stay with the faction they were born into, or change into a new one, based on aptitude tests that supposedly show which one they naturally fall into. Our heroine Beatrice, born into Abnegation but uncomfortable there, turns out to be equally suited for multiple factions, making her Divergent, which is dangerous to the status quo. She keeps quite about her divergence and joins Dauntless; much of the book is taken up with the brutal training she and other initiates must go through to become full Dauntless members. Of course, things must come to a head, and it turns out that there’s an insidious conspiracy by one faction to take control of the others and Tris is the one to stop it.

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