Our August 16 issue is now live. Among the highlights: Frank J. Matera on the future of Catholic biblical scholarship, Paul J. Schaefer on how funerals have changed, and Sarah Ruden on the concept of luxuria -- and how our selfishness threatens our compassion. Plus, Celia Wren reviews the new series Broadchurch, and George Scialaba reviews the essays of Lezek Kolakowski collected in Is God Happy? See the full table of contents for the new issue here.
Also now featured on our website: E.J. Dionne Jr. on the challenges that both progressives and conservatives face when it comes to religion.
Leave it to the Wall Street Journal to take the fun out of the busy world of Richard Scarry.
This weekend’s WSJ Books section features an essay by Meghan Cox Gurdon on the work of the children’s-book author and illustrator Richard Scarry, prompted by the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever (and a new anniversary edition of same). There are moments in the essay where Gurdon captures some of what makes Scarry’s work so charming and appealing all these years later. But for the most part, the world I know well from Scarry’s books – having studied them diligently as a child, and now again as a parent – is not recognizable from Gurdon’s culture-warrish, politicized perspective.Read more
When temperatures climb and editorial energy wanes, up pop the reading lists. Sparing you the need to search for what others are compiling/recommending/typing into their smartphones as they get the grill going, here’s a brief rundown of some of the reading lists now making the rounds.
The Millions asks nine “experts” to identify which books might qualify as “the Great American Novel.” In addition to the predictable (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), the inevitable (The Ambassadors), the clearly estimable (Invisible Man), and the obligatory obscurity (Corregidora?), Mario Puzo’s The Godfather also makes the cut. Nominator Tom Ferraro notes that it’s the most read adult novel in history, but more importantly that it remains as relevant as when it first appeared:
The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming.
It’s been up for a couple of weeks now, but the list of ten worst American prize-winning novels of all time assembled by D.G. Myers probably won’t wilt for a while. The good thing about this compilation is the background Myers provides on just why judging panels may have seen fit to reward works like Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Pulitzer, 2010), Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song (Pulitzer, 1980), and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (National Book Award, 1997). Plus there’s this about William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own (National Book Award, 1997):
Once again the novelist declines to punctuate speech or identify speakers, which might be effective in a story or short novel (although I am still trying to figure out the artistic purpose of making things hard for the reader), but is wearying in such a long novel. Supposedly a satire on the law, the novel also includes tortuously reasoned legal decisions, in full tortuous detail, which are longer than most Supreme Court decisions, including the dissents. A Frolic of His Own is a great unmovable monument to tedium. What a thing to be remembered for!
At the New York Times Room for Debate page, nine novelists reveal what they like to read in the summer—Sandra Cisneros opts for biography and memoir, Nathaniel Rich for noir—but Colum McCann cops to “year-round snobbery”:
In relation to reading, I have absolutely no guilty pleasures at all. No graphic novels. No murder mysteries. No "milky-white thigh" stories. No fifty shades of anything….
So, my guilty pleasures are my original pleasures. I read Ulysses, or at least a part of it, every summer for Bloomsday. It's hardly a beach read, and I understand that Molly Bloom might not be very content with me, as a reader, carting sand into her bed, but that's life. The great thing is that she has no say about it. Sorry, Molly, but you are in with the suntan lotion.
Yes, but would McCann be willing to go tome-to-tome with R. R. Reno? At First Things, Reno claims a fondness for both gin and Beowulf even if, disappointingly, he doesn’t detail how one may have led to engagement with, or necessitated use of, the other. (Maybe nothing says summer to Reno like “Nowell Codex,” but Woody Allen had it about right when he said, and I paraphrase, never take a trip where you have to read Beowulf.) Reno also includes Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in his beach tote (no room for Pope’s Essay on Criticism apparently) plus some of Henry James’s later, denser novels and, of course, Piers Plowman. But you probably could have guessed that.
Pass the Hendricks, please!
Somewhat overshadowed by events was the release of a statement from the USCCB on the Supreme Court decision overturning Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity, said:
The recent Supreme Court decision necessitates that Congress act swiftly to assure that the right to vote be protected and afforded to all eligible citizens. We urge policymakers to quickly come together to reaffirm the bipartisan consensus that has long supported the Voting Rights Act and to move forward new legislation that assures modern and effective protections for all voters so that they may exercise their right and moral obligation to participate in political life.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Health Association says today that the current combination of exemptions and accommodations within the HHS’s contraception mandate are sufficient.
Campaign-ish notes: Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor of Texas (I didn’t know either), won’t run for that office again, but is reflecting and, yes, praying, about his plans for the future.Read more
The John Williams novel Stoner is (back?) in the news, now that it’s a best-seller in the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere. How this “overlooked work” about a Midwestern professor of literature, published in 1965, has managed to gain generations of new fans and now a global audience is the topic of a recent essay in The Millions. It notes the importance not only of critical advocacy but also of devoted and innovative publishers—and in chronicling the cycles of its disappearance and re-emergence suggests the book maybe hasn’t been overlooked so much as it has, from an industry standpoint, underachieved.
Writers seem especially to like Stoner, but so do (I suspect) certain types of readers, the kind who relish “restraint and clarity” (qualities that Anthony Domestico rightly cited when writing on our Verdicts blog last September) and who like to let ordinary but expertly dispensed details accrue force and meaning. Then there’s the title character himself, about whom Morris Dickstein in 2007 wrote:
[Stoner] is neither a great teacher nor a noted scholar but applies himself to both with an intensity born of love. In literature he senses a depth of human understanding beyond his power to express, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” Williams writes about this with an almost Roman gravity. “It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.” … The one book Stoner produces is soon forgotten. His distrust of glib brilliance, his concern with ancient theories of grammar and rhetoric, make him look pedantic. Stoner’s cast of mind is monastic, unworldly. He is reduced to teaching menial courses to students who only dimly sense the warmth and conviction he brings to them.
Stoner “demonstrates that the real drama of human experience is in the daily refusal to escape, the uninterrupted renunciation of extreme situations, the muted decision to stay and do some good,” D.G. Myers wrote in Commentary a couple of years ago. The distrust of glib brilliance, the monastic cast of mind, the muted decision to stay and do some good—maybe these are the things that each new wave of Stoner readers finds so compelling. I find it interesting that Myers, in recently making the case that the 1960s may have been the best decade for American fiction, took up Stoner again, positioning the novel alongside, among others, O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away, Percy’s The Moviegoer—and J.F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban: “[B]oth it and Stoner … are one of a kind. Nothing else like them—not even their authors’ later books—was ever written again.”
While The Millions essay necessarily spends time on the practical aspects of bringing Stoner to new audiences (its current publisher has eschewed the word “classic” and uses social media to accomplish what it otherwise might were the author alive to help sell the novel), it at least acknowledges that “tweeting does not make a best seller.… This quiet book has instilled something” in its supporters on the business end—like it has in every reader who’s gone on to recommend it to someone else over the past forty-eight years.
When politicians claim that there is an education crisis, they generally mean that there is a science, technology, engineering, and math crisis. If we want to remain competitive in a global economy, we're told, we need more chemists and biologists, more doctors and engineers, more inventors and innovators.
But what of the humanities? Who is coming to their defense? Who is arguing that life isn't just about inventing the next smart phone but about understanding the self, that philosophical introspection, aesthetic contemplation, and historical examination are goods that can't simply be replaced by a faster computer?
Leon Wieseltier is, for one. Here is his full-throated defense of the humanities, given at Brandeis's commencement ceremonies last week. I've included his opening below:
Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more? I am genuinely honored to be addressing you this morning, because in recent years I have come to regard a commitment to the humanities as nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.
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