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Books on Our Nightstand

Below are some of the books that Gutenberg’s tutors read during the last year. Amazon links are included if you would like to learn more about these books.

Post below the books on your nightstand.

 

Dick Booster: The Law by Frederick Bastiat

Written two years after the French Revolution of 1848, The Law appeals to the French people reminding them of the proper sphere of the law and government.

 

David Crabtree: In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

Tells the story of an American ambassador escaping from Nazi Germany with his family. A page turner from the same author as Devil in the White City.

 

Jack Crabtree: The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility by Angelo M. Codevilla.

In this cross-cultural study, Codevilla illustrates that as people shape their governments, they shape themselves. Draws broadly from the depths of history, from the Roman republic to de Tocqueville’s America, as well as from personal and scholarly observations of the world in the twentieth century.

 

Tim McIntosh: Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman.

Friedman’s thesis is that our public problems are not intellectual, but emotional. We live in a time that rejects strong, decisive leadership. Leaders ought to recognize that good leadership demands “differentiation,” the ability to maintain emotional strength despite inevitable sabotage from our “leadership-toxic climate.”


Eliot Grasso: Art in Action  by Nicolas Wolterstorff.

Eliot writes: “This was the best book I read all year because it not only explained clearly many issues I’ve wanted to voice about institutionalized art, but it also offered a better way to think about art in the world using a Christian philosophical framework. In short, Wolterstorff disagrees with the idea that art is defined by the fact that it is a mere object of contemplation. Rather, Wolterstorff argues that art is an instrument by which we achieve other actions.”

 

Charley Dewberry: Principles of Political Economy by John Stuart Mill.

A classic in which Mill discusses the desirability of sustained growth of national wealth and population, the merits of capitalism versus socialism, and the suitable scope of government intervention in the competitive market economy.

 

Literature and Philosophy: Contrary or Complementary?

Literature and philosophy: their goals, methods, and pleasures seem so opposed. Literature tells fictions; philosophy dispels them. Literature loves beauty; philosophy loves truth. “There is an old quarrel,” wrote Plato in 380 B.C., “between philosophy and poetry.” However, even Plato was a master of literary philosophy. Such a marriage of literature and philosophy might give birth to an exceedingly rare experience: feeling ideas. Fyodor Dostoevsky and William Shakespeare achieved this marriage, and the results of their inquiries are not in wordy monologues but fulfilling narratives.

 

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov pits his philosophical convictions against his own conscience. Guilt and law, Raskolnikov asserts, are both simply “prejudices” that society presses on individuals. Some men, supermen, rise above guilt and law and do what they please. Raskolnikov plans to confirm his philosophy by committing a murder. The murder is a consequence of his philosophical belief (“No superman is subject to guilt!”) and an attempt to prove himself a superman.

Likewise, Macbeth’s philosophical convictions push him toward life or death. The whole of Macbeth can be viewed as a debate over the nature of manhood: What is a man? How should a man act? Should sympathy curb a man’s ambition? When Macbeth has second thoughts about assassinating King Duncan, Lady Macbeth challenges him as failing in his manhood:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And [if you did it] you would
Be so much more the man.

Macbeth eventually concedes to Lady Macbeth’s vicious definition of manhood. Both Shakespeare and Dostoevsky shove these philosophical positions to their maximum conclusions.

At the end of the play, Macbeth is a monster. Yet we can still feel sympathy at his lament that life has become a meaningless cycle of days:

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov carries his philosophy to its maximum conclusion. He murders the money-lender and her sister, then crabs into his psyche where guilt pursues him like a hunting hound. For a few days, he hides beneath his stony philosophy. But upon receiving a gentle letter from his mother, Raskolnikov begins to cry. One minute, lethal pride. The next minute, sympathy. Dostoevsky’s readers feel Raskolnikov’s philosophy yanking him back and forth.

Dostoevsky and Shakespeare’s achievement comes, in part, from never forcing their characters to be philosophical mouthpieces. Macbeth and Raskolnikov both become monsters, but they do not cease to be human. These characters resist simplistic philosophizing because, no matter their beliefs, they remain a baffling salad of impulses. They are, in short, us.

Neither Shakespeare’s and Dostoevsky’s characters nor their conclusions are tidy. They wrote narratives, after all, not philosophies. Yet both litterateurs endorse philosophy as a lamplight to understanding. Their marriage of literature and philosophy helped make them masters of both. Their works, like any healthy marriage, use the strengths of each to bolster the weaknesses of the other.

 

[This edited excerpt is from “War between the Bookshelves” by Tim McIntosh. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]

 

Too Much for a Headstone, But…

From time to time, my darlin’ wife finds a book that captivates her so much that she wants everyone to read it. And, as I neatly fit into the category of “everyone,” I try to oblige. The book is often a bit different than what I find on my own reading list, but so far she has never disappointed me with her suggestions.

A few weeks ago she was quite insistent that I read Guernica by Dave Boling. And since it was close to our 35th anniversary and I wanted to do something especially nice for her, I brought the book on a summer vacation trip we had.

I don’t know about you, but it usually takes me at least a couple of dozen pages to get into a new book. For the first few chapters, it is up in the air as to whether the book will languish for months or years on my bedside table or if it will become a constant companion for a few days until I can finish it. Much to my literary embarrassment, I still haven’t gotten to that “constant companion” point with Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I’ve been feeling such guilt about that for years, and now I’m so glad to have gotten that off my chest. But I digress.

Guernica started to captivate me when I ran across an early description of a character that will figure prominently in the rest of the book. She is a sixteen-year-old girl, the daughter of the first character we meet in the book, and she is growing up in a small Basque town in the first half of the twentieth century. Here is the introduction to the author’s description that inspired and motivated me:

Had there been reason for the citizens of Guernica to hold a referendum on the most popular person in the village, Miren Ansotegui would have won without competition. She was only sixteen, but she seemed to encourage people to take part in her youth rather than give them reason to be jealous of it. She reminded them how life looked before it became so complicated.

It was more than the way she floated through the streets of town, so lean and loose limbed, her black braid a pendulum swinging from one hip to the other with each stride. More appealing was her knack for disarming people, for drawing them near, as if initiating them into her own club of the unrelentingly well intended.

There was no trick to it beyond good nature. As she spread warm greetings to everyone she passed, she uncannily inquired about that single portion of their lives that made them most proud. She always opened a gate to somewhere they each wished to go. And then she listened.

The novel then goes on to recount examples of Miren’s interactions with people that allow them to feel loved and encouraged and given the opportunity to pass that on to their own family and neighbors.

I wish that could be said about me and my relationships: “He initiated them into his own club of the unrelentingly well intended. He always opened a gate to somewhere they each wished to go. And then he listened.”

 

Tim’s Top Ten: Modern Plays

I know what you’re thinking. You don’t want to go to the theatre. It’s too risky. The ticket costs three times more than a movie—and ten times more than a rental. To make matters worse, if the performance stinks, you’re stuck until curtain-fall.

But the possibility of greatness makes theatre worth the risk. Watching a great play makes you forget you are watching. Two hours pass and you’ve not breathed once. All this without recourse to a machine-gun fight or a CGI dragon. All this with only actors on wooden boards.

Enough plumping for theatre. On with the list! The following ten plays are, in my opinion, the best since the advent of modern theatre. Twisting stories, vibrant characters, gripping themes. These plays are worth the risk.

—————

10. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley (2004). Father Flynn is suspected of sexually molesting a student. To complicate matters, the boy is the school’s first African-American student. Sister Aloysius investigates him. But she is clouded by her acidic distrust of everything and everyone—students, teachers, parents. Soon you have doubts yourself. Did he really do it? (Winner of the Pulitzer and the Tony in 2005.)

9. The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter (1957). Much great twentieth century literature has been haunted by menacing, faceless bureaucracy. (Think Franz Kafka’s The Trial and George Orwell’s 1984). The Birthday Party is a classic in this theme. The thirty-ish Stanley hides in a non-descript boarding house until two ominous characters, Goldberg and McCann, find him and throw him a birthday party. But it’s not his birthday. And it’s not a party. It’s a terror-filled examination. [Side-note: Pinter was fond of writing long silences into tense moments of his plays. Playgoers have since given a name to these powerful silences: “Pinter Pauses.”]

8. The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill (1940). A brothel of bums, Communists, drunks, and prostitutes play cards, flirt, drink, and dream of tomorrow. But when dawn breaks, nothing has changed. Until the Iceman arrives. He begins to preach his message: Take control of your dreams! A harrowing play about that all-to-human instinct to flee reality for a dream world. [Side note: O’Neill is the most decorated playwright in American history. Unfortunately, his works are rarely performed because of their girth. His monologues are rain-barrels of repetition. The ideas are dense. And the length, nearly impossible. (Long Day’s Journey runs three hours, The Iceman Cometh almost four.) But when performed well, O’Neill’s plays are riveting.]

7. Waiting for Godot, Samuel Becket (1952). You may love it, you may hate it—but you won’t forget it. Early performances of Beckett’s absurdist play elicited howls and hoots from the audience forcing the director to lower the curtain during a monologue. Fifty years later it was voted the most important English-language play of the century.

6. Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen (1891). Hedda is arguably the most famous female character in modern theatre. What an enigma! Is she a proto-feminist heroine who defies rigid social expectations? Or is she a petulant villain? Teaching Hedda at Gutenberg last year, I was surprised by our students’ reaction. Almost all accused her of being a petulant villain! Perhaps their verdict was shaped by our culture’s laissez-faire attitude toward morality. I suspect their views would change if they lived in rigid nineteenth-century Scandanavia.

5. The Crucible, Arthur Miller (1952). In 1952 Miller wrote The Crucible about the Salem witch trials. The play is a thinly veiled allegory about the House Un-American Activities Committee. Four years later Joseph McCarthy summoned him to testify before the committee. He was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify writers believed to hold Communist sympathies. —Does life reflect art or art reflect life?

4. The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov (1904). Is Chekhov’s last play a comedy or a tragedy? Konstantin Stanislavski, its first director, performed it as a tragedy. Since then, every director has had to make a choice: Ought Chekhov’s collapsing Russian family make us laugh or cry?

3. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams (1947). When Blanche visits her sister Stella in New Orleans, she encounters the brutish Stanley (a role made famous by Marlon Brando). A battle is inevitable. Blanche is an ethereal dreamer; Stanley is a violent animal. Their relationship is a mixture of lust and spite that results in tragedy.

2. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller (1949). Miller’s plays are Greek tragedies. His plays cut two ways. First, the hero suffers for his faults. Second, the hero’s faults mirror society’s faults. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman dreams the American dream. When the dream fails, the hero conjures a new fantasy that dooms him and his family. “The chickens,” said Miller, “always come home to roost.”

1. The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen (1884). The iconoclastic Ibsen is best remembered for his proto-feminist Hedda Gabler and idealistic Enemy of the People. But in The Wild Duck, Ibsen reverses course. Instead of the victory of ideals, The Wild Duck tells a story of the violence of ideals. Gregers’s insistence on absolute truth functions as a blunt knife in the soft-tissue of family and love. Which leaves us to wonder, what is this play? Is it Ibsen’s regrets over a life of bashing? Or was he merely telling the truth about the costs of idealism? 

—————

These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?

Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like others who studied the classics—folks like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone…

 

Tim’s Top Ten: Novels

The novel, as a genre, is fairly young. It’s great-grandfather, the play, is older by thirty-six centuries. (The Greeks and Egyptians were staging plays as early as 2,000 B.C.) Not until the sixteenth century did the novel—a long prose narrative focusing on characters—take its present form.

Despite its late arrival, the novel has an extraordinary history. The best novelists have shaped their societies. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin stoked a civil war. Charles Dickens helped alleviate child-labor abuses. George Eliot helped lift women above second-class citizenry.

Prophets of doom have recently complained that the reading public is disappearing. But those reports are greatly exaggerated. Novels are selling today at a very healthy clip (revenues increased 8.8 percent between 2008 and 2010*) and show no signs of diminishing.

Novels are popular and powerful. But their power to readers is not found in their popularity or their social effects. Novels pluck us up from the “real” world and plunge us into a more real world—a concentrated reality, where every shrug, heartbeat, and footfall portend the fate of nations and individuals. Great novels shuttle us into another consciousness without losing our own. As C.S. Lewis said, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.”

Enough chatter. On with the list.

—–

10. Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham (1915). Following the lame Phillip Carey through the pages of Bondage is a lesson in empathy. He is stifled, thwarted, ignored, and rejected. His frustrations are your own, which explains why you will cheer his every effort. A classic bildungsroman.

9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922). A few years before publication, Fitzgerald announced his hope to write “something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” His hopes were fulfilled. Readers adore Gatsby. The elegiac novel about the Jazz Age has generated more critical writing than any other work of American fiction and has inspired several movie adaptations including the forthcoming release with Leonardo DiCaprio.

8. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Mann set his novel in a Swiss sanatorium in 1914. The infirmary serves as a microcosm for Europe’s terminal psychosis. A high-point in the modernist movement in literature.

7. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859). After eighteen years in the Bastille, Doctor Manette is reunited with his daughter, Lucie, in England. Meanwhile, Lucie is being courted by a French aristocrat, Charles Darnay, and a turbulent English lawyer, Sydney Carton. All characters are eventually dragged toward the bloodstained streets of Paris during the Reign of Terror. An unforgettable story begun by an unforgettable opening line.

6. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1869). This book has everything: a thrilling plot (Napoleon’s war on Russia), vibrant characters (Pierre and Natasha), a sprawling vista (the Russian front), and some of the best drawn action scenes in the history of fiction (the fox-hunt is particularly riveting). War and Peace has become, for many, a synonym for the great novel.

5. Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871-1872). Its themes include the status of women, the spirit of marriage, the nature of religion, the trials of political reform, the hope of education. A masterwork of English fiction and probably the English novel of the nineteenth century.

4. Madame Bovary, Gustav Flaubert (1857). Flaubert was a relentless stylist. His prose is clear as glass, sturdy as stone, and delicate as crystal. The ever-craving Emma is among the greatest characters drawn by a novelist; the inspiration for her was found nearby. Flaubert used himself as the model, famously saying, “Madame Bovary c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”).

3. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866). From page one, Raskolikov crawls inside your brain and helps you rationally justify a murder. She’s only a pawnbroker, you think. The world, you think, would be better off without her. Killing her would qualify you as a übermensch, you think. The book chills to the soul until the light shines in. Critics prefer Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, but I prefer Punishment’s tense neurosis. A triumph of psychological insight.

2. Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes (1605, 1630). Don Quixote is widely considered the first modern novel because of its playfulness and literary invention. It’s fertility and power is still unparalleled. What other novel can claim to have generated its own adjective: quixotic? Despite many gray hairs (Quixote is 400 years old), modern novelists still find it inspiring. William Faulkner once said, “I read [Quixote] every year, as some do the Bible.”

1. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1875-1877). The sensual Anna is trapped inside a glum marriage until being spotted by the dashing Count Vronsky. Anna’s affair is contrasted with the searching and spiritual Levin who has fallen for Kitty. The two couples navigate the drawing rooms of Russian high society searching for fulfillment. Anna is unparalleled for its grandeur and insight; you finish the book proud to be human and eager to be a better one.

—–

These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?

Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like others who studied the classics—folks like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone…

—–

*Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, 2010.

 

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