What We're Reading: NAS Goes to the Beach 2014

National Association of Scholars

June is slipping away, but there are still two months to catch up on summer reading. Here is what the NAS staff is reading.

 
Peter Wood, President

   

“All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate cause. The strength of a belief, when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it.” – Charles Brockden Brown, Somnambulism and Other Stories

One thing I am doing is chipping away at the Library of America. It runs 256 volumes (and counting) and I own most of them, having started buying them in 1982 when the series started.  I can’t possibly keep up with reading the volumes as fast as they come out but I trail along as best I can. I want to read the LOA’s volume of Charles Brockden Brown’s early American gothic novels, and I intend to take on the LOA volumes of the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  

That’s for fun. Maybe also for fun is Andrew Isenberg’s 2013 biography, Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.  It is just one of those books I picked up at a street stall, read a few pages, and got hooked. What fascinates me about Earp is his matter-of-fact American life, where he was both a hero and a scoundrel, and seemingly indifferent as to which.

I have three rather daunting books lined up for careful study. John Thelin’s edited, Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education; Olivier Zunz’s Philanthropy in America: A History; and Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States.

Lastly, I am not entirely scanting my discipline, anthropology.  What I am reading at the moment is Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Thinking.

 
Ashley Thorne, Executive Director

   

“Captain Willoughby searched their faces, as though trying to figure out the joke. ‘You mean you have a man who can work lunars?’ Captain Hudson laughed. ‘One man? They have a crew that can work lunars! The cabin boy just explained it to me! I tell you, Captain Willoughby, there's more knowledge of navigation on this American ship than there has ever been before in the whole of Manila Bay!’" – Jean Lee Latham, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

I’ve recently started two books. One is John Chadwick's The Decipherment of Linear B, a history of the decryption of an ancient Mycenaean language; I ordered it both because it is one of the 50 books that NAS recommends for college common reading, and because it coincides with my own curiosity about languages and code-breaking. The other is Paul E. Miller's A Praying Life, which a friend left in my mailbox last week.

Soon I’ll dive into a tome (550 pages!) sitting on my desk waiting to be reviewed for NAS: Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities by James Turner. Philology—the love of words—is not a word we hear much today. A Polish professor pronounced the term in my college ethics class and met with blank stares. Now that I am part of an organization that honors traditional liberal arts education, I think this book will prove important in developing a wide-lens picture of how Western civilization has approached language and its study through the centuries.

If after these I’m not too sated on lexical books, at some point I’d like to try one my colleague Rachelle DeJong mentioned in her list last summer, C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. Maybe she’ll lend it to me.

My fiction fix this summer may come in the form of nautical literature. I’m thinking of picking up Jean Lee Latham's Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, the fictionalized biography of a young man gifted in astronomy-based navigation which I read as a child. Or if I’m feeling more ambitious, I could embark on the great tale that brought in the most submissions in NAS’s trigger warning contest: Moby Dick. I already own the Cozy Classics version, so that’s a head start.

Michael Toscano, Director of Research Projects

   

“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely-ordered variety on the chords of emotion--a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch

I’ve been on a tear lately (and scattered in my attention), having recently completed George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Evelyn Waugh’s The Sword of Honour, Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, Hayao Miyazaki’s Turning Point, and a few books on Catholic spirituality and dogma, such as Mark P. Shea’s By What Authority? and David Scott’s The Love that Made Mother Teresa. Big thumbs up for Eliot, Bulgakov, and Waugh.

I’m in the midst of three books. Charles Taylor’s magisterial A Secular Age, David Bentley Hart’s clarifying The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, and Charles Dickens’ hilarious and heartwrenching Hard Times

After these three, I’m going to be diving into a few classics. Friedrich Engels’ The Conditions of the Working Class in England, a collection of John Ruskin’s essays titled Unto this Last and Other Writings, and realist film theorist Andre Bazin’s What is Cinema? I’m going to weave in some of George MacDonald’s fairy tales with The Complete Fairy Tales.

 
Glenn Ricketts, Public Affairs Director

   

 

"A Spacious Hive well stock'd with Bees,
That lived in Luxury and Ease;
And yet as fam'd for Laws and Arms,
As yielding large and early Swarms;
Was counted the great Nursery 
Of Sciences and Industry." - Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees

Plato’s Republic – this title is first on my list every summer, since I re-read it annually during our family sojourn at the seashore. I always do that in conjunction with listening to the entire "Well Tempered Clavier," by J.S. Bach, which seems an apt complement. Two timeless, transcendent monuments that never fail to uplift and instruct, far beyond the accidents of time, place or culture.

Music of the Baroque Era, by Manfred Bukofzer – much has been written about music of the period extending roughly from 1600-1750 since this book first appeared in 1947.  But it’s still a fine introduction to the principal forms, composers and national styles of this major genre of classical music.  Especially good on the seminal role of the Florentine Camerata, the small group of humanists, musicians and poets who literally created the new style ex nihilo in the late 16th century.

The Last European War: September, 1939 – December, 1941 a close examination of the early phases of the titanic conflict by Hungarian-American John Lukacs (1924- ), who learned English as his fourth or fifth language. He represents a type of scholar now nearly vanished: required to master the classical languages, able to navigate easily in the principal modern ones, and possessed of a profound sense of the “big picture” through a lifetime of accumulated erudition.

The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits – an Augustan age satire which examines the moral basis for modern capitalism, written by Bernard Mandeville, a transplanted Dutchman for whom English was an acquired language. The first part, a poem titled "The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn’d Honest," appeared in 1705; the second, a longer prose commentary, followed in 1714 as "An Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue."  Many familiar economic terms, such as the “division of labor” so famously elaborated by Adam Smith, were first coined here by Mandeville.

Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action, from Augustus to Augustine, by Charles Norris Cochrane (1889-1945), an Oxford-trained historian at the University of Toronto. First published in 1940, the book covers the four centuries during which imperial Rome gradually declined and Christianity replaced it, having absorbed the Greco-Roman intellectual and cultural heritage along the way. I first read this work back in the day as an undergraduate, but it’s another of those seminal tomes that should be revisited from time to time. The author really knew his stuff, and died much too young. Thankfully, he was able to leave us this masterpiece.

 
Rachelle Dejong, Research Associate

   

“Eomer said, 'How is a man to judge what to do in such times?' As he has ever judged,' said Aragorn. 'Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear, nor are they one thing among Elves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.” - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

I’m in the midst of several books currently. Three—The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller, and Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones—I’m reading along with my fiancé. Who said books don’t make for great dates? I’m also working my way methodically through England: A Concise History by F.E. Halliday to review in preparation for a trip there next month. The book is cleverly written and beautifully illustrated (so I feel, at least theoretically, equipped to identify the various styles of art and architecture when I see them in a few weeks). Nevertheless, with only 225 pages to cover six thousand years, it succeeds only as a refresher course. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introductory text.

A couple others on my list for the summer include Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing because it is on stage at the Public Theatre in Central Park, and After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, a book I eagerly snatched up at a used book store two years ago but haven’t read yet.

 
Marilee Turscak, Communications Intern

   

“The virtuous, law-abiding, stay-at-home Englishman wonders why the Russians cannot argue out their differences like sensible people. One might just as well expect the elephant to enter into friendly confab which is to be boss. One or other is to be boss, and the supremacy is only secured by bloodshed.” - John Foster Fraser, Red Russia

I just finished reading Red Russia by John Foster Fraser. It is a treasure of a book written by a quick-witted English journalist in 1907 who travels to Russia and records his experiences. Less than a thousand copies of the book exist. The descriptions are so vibrant that it is hard to believe that it was written over a century ago.

I also recently finished The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, Paper Towns by John Green, Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.

Over the remainder of summer, I hope to read Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, On Free Choice of the Will by St. Augustine, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens.

Recommended reading:

The Devil and Pierre Gernet by David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart’s first foray into fiction is a set of five short stories that present rational critiques of theological ideas. Similar to the Screwtape Letters, the titular story is about a man who meets with the devil for postprandial drinks and conversation. Hart is particularly delightful for his wittiness and use of opulent language.


Image: Public Domain

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