Advent Reading

Here comes the winter night. If we were our oldest ancestors, tucked into draughty recesses of caves with blue hands hugged around us as we slept, we’d be dreaming of summer: we’d be using our human freedom to step away from circumstances to wish that all mornings were June mornings, all noons burned yellow in the sky, all days ended in easy heat under green trees. But for us the night laps comfortably around warm houses. From within our walls the cold seems something to relish. The sharp air outdoors drives the blood from the surface of our fingers only so the soft air inside can return it, tingling. The darkness beyond the window glass gives us the black outer frame for winter comforts like a still-life. Red curtains, green leeks chopped for soup, oranges in a bowl. All glow more because they stand out from a border of shadow.

The opening of “Winter Night”  in Francis Spufford’s essay collection, True Stories & Other Essays (which is as good as one might expect). I don’t have any new recommendations to add to my previous Advent reading ideas (which I still think aren’t too bad). It’s not that there isn’t other stuff out there, I just haven’t really had time to search out new texts for the season.

A lot of my reading this time of year is now taken over with toddlers’ picture books about Christmas and Advent, and I have to say that most of them are pretty bad (ranging from the foolishly sentimental to what can only be described as crass money-grab schemes by publishers trying to cash in on Christmas consumerism). A notable exception is Song of the Stars, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Alison Jay (and I’m sure there are others out there that I’m forgetting or haven’t found yet) which captures the links between the doctrines of creation and incarnation. The book illustrates well the idea that in the incarnation the Creator has come to his own creation – as Athanasius … or Irenaeus … or Gregory Nazianzen (one of those old, bearded guys, anyway) says – and they’re really just echoing John 1 – which should get more Advent season airplay in our contemporary moment. So there you go, I’ve given you an Advent reading recommendation after all.


Oliver O’Donovan on Pride

But when we are simply ‘proud,’ we have not kept our satisfaction focused on the concrete object, just one accomplishment among many accomplishments, but have taken it into our moral self-consciousness. The achievement drops out of sight; what remains is the standing that it leaves us with. This halts in its tracks the dynamic progress of practical reason from one provisional end to the next, from faith to love to hope and back to love again, keeping faith and hope in play until the final end is reached. Pride thus makes absolute the sins against self, world, and time. Agency is re-founded on what we have made of ourselves, instead of being received afresh in faith as God’s gift. The social world becomes our prey, raw material for our self-valuation. Time is seized and over-mastered, since it cannot be endured. The proud individual, people, or civilization no longer learns or does, for it is always having to maintain its position, scanning the world of appearances for proof of its power, technique, or wealth. At the root of its impotence is a moral vacuum, an intolerable doubt as to the point of existence, an inability to live without a surrogate for the meaning it has lost sight of.

Oliver O’Donovan, Entering into Rest

Ellen Ullman in 1998

I fear for the world the Internet is creating. Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses. Physical reality—the discomfort and difficulty of abandoning one’s normal life—put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches, and extreme political parties.

But now, without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes “truth.” Each person can live in a private thought bubble, reading only those websites that reinforce his or her desired beliefs, joining only those online groups that give sustenance when the believer’s courage flags.

Ellen Ullman, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, in an essay from 1998 titled “Museum of Me.”

Life will not conform

The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.

Penelope Fitzgerald, at the end of her life, quoted in Hermione Lee’s biography. “Life will not conform” summarizes Fitzgerald’s own struggles in many ways, and is a fundamental theme of her fiction (“life makes its own corrections” as a sledge driver says in The Beginning of Spring). They should probably just stamp it on the back of the books, I’m sure it would boost sales.

(As an aside: Lee is very good at arranging her material. She places this quote just prior to Fitzgerald starting to write and publish, in her late 50s. In another wise decision she discusses the books not in order of publication, but in relation to the parts of Fitzgerald’s life to which they seem most connected – although something like this was inevitable, I suppose, given how late in life Fitzgerald started writing/publishing).

The Present Moment

Ok, I said. As long as I’ve got you here, we’re going to use and appreciate this present moment. Because I wish, and I’ve wished a thousand times since you went, that we’d known it was the present, and that we were living in it.

Ali Smith, Artful

Penelope Fitzgerald (Almost) Writes an Inklings Novel

In old age, Penelope began to sketch out notes for a novel called “Why (or ‘How’) We Were Very Young.” The setting is Oxford in the 1930s, and the main characters are to be J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Tolkien lectured to her on Anglo-Saxon and “Middle English,” with occasional readings from The Hobbit (published in 1937). She disliked him for his misogyny and used to refer to the “odious Tolkien.” C. S. Lewis was “darkly red-faced and black-gowned,” talking from the minute he entered the room, “the indispensable teacher, about whom all we personally knew was that he was pipe- and beer-loving, lived outside Oxford, and made a ‘thing’ of disliking the twentieth century. When T. S. Eliot came to read ‘The Waste Land’ to the Poetry Society, Lewis was not there.” Yet her notes sympathetically and comically reconstruct what their lives must have been like.

From Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which deserves all the accolades it has received. Partly because Lee is just a good biographer, and partly because Fitzgerald’s life is better material for a biography than the back-of-the-book notes on her life (or her self-curated public persona) would indicate.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s potential “Inklings novel” (which obviously could have gone a number of directions) really would have been fantastic though. We got The Gate of Angels instead, which is not a bad consolation prize, but … I mean, come on. Both Lewis and Tolkien are, in a number of ways, the sorts of can’t-quite-cope-with-the-world male characters that appear so frequently in Fitzgerald’s novels. It gets me thinking about a contemporary author I could imagine writing an Inklings novel I might actually like to read. A.S. Byatt had Lewis as a tutor as well, I think, but she wouldn’t do a great job with this. Francis Spufford maybe, or Sarah Perry, but their books would be very different than Fitzgerald’s.

The Difficulty of Thinking

For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?

So says Alan Jacobs early in his engaging and helpful book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.  Ah yes, I thought, this seems like a good place to start. Very wise. Thinking is hard, and we don’t want to do it, preferring instead to wallow in comfortable error. And by “we,” I really mean “they” – those others who don’t share my convictions and need to read this book but probably won’t (Jacobs discusses using the “false we” in a later chapter). You know, those people, the ones who really need to learn “how to think.”

Jacobs’ book is a slightly uncomfortable experience in this way. Reading the passage above I had an immediate image of the sorts of people who “suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking” and the first person who came to mind was not, in fact, me. Part of the point of Jacobs’ book is that it probably should be (at least some of the time). To praise the arguments of How to Think and accept its diagnosis is to admit that I am sometimes wrong. And not wrong only about trivial, minor things, but wrong about big, consequential things, things worth arguing about.

It is not really a blinding lightning bolt of insight that I sometimes get things wrong. But, while it’s obvious, it’s really hard for me to admit, especially when what is being challenged is something important to me. Jacobs’ book is an attempt at “making an accurate diagnosis” of “the forces that act on us to prevent genuine reflection.” Yet, while reading I frequently found my initial response to the good doctor’s notes regarding what ails us was to try and diagnose others, rather than myself. Which, I guess, means that I have some work to do (and I’m not alone in this, I suspect).

Jacobs makes it easier to recognize my own failings by the way in which he models his commitments in the writing of the book (to state the rhetorical problem Jacobs faces: how do you advise people “how to think” without sounding like a pompous jerk?). At one point in the book, Jacobs discusses “in-other-wordsing” (basically, restating a person’s argument in a way that misrepresents the person’s actual position). Discussing this particular issue he starts into a personal example connected to various debates surrounding sexuality that have occurred in the Anglican church. I don’t have access to Jacobs’ inbox, but if you’re familiar at all with his comments online regarding some of these debates, I am sure that he could have selected any number of examples where an angry correspondent or Twitter follower has “in-other-wordsed” his own views on sexuality and faith, and I thought I knew where this anecdote was going. But, the example Jacobs uses is one where he was the person hammering out an angry blog comment and had to pause “because my hands were shaking so violently I couldn’t type accurately.” This is a small moment of vulnerability, easy to overlook in some ways, but one of the main takeaways from the book is that humility is fundamental to genuine thinking and this sort of example enriches that argument. Jacobs’ personal examples most often reveal his mistakes and shortcomings – his own failures to think – rather than describing his various victories over (or victimization at the hands of) an unthinking other. It would have been tempting, for me at least, to use at least a few of the illustrations in the book as a chance to point out the failings of my opponents and accusers (names changed to protect identities, of course). This might have been illustrative in a technical/formal way, but less powerful in contributing to Jacobs’ overall argument that to become good at thinking one must become a “certain kind of person” rather than simply master certain rules or techniques.

It is a good book, and has been widely reviewed and discussed, and I can only hope that is widely read, and taken to heart. The challenge is that it is much more difficult to become a particular kind of person than master a set of techniques. Thinking is difficult, and since it is difficult: “What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are. And I think we’ve seen, in the course of this book, the benefits that come to people who have the courage and determination to do the hard work of thinking. We have good cause for hope.”

Some random notes:

  • Jacobs comments on the ways his years teaching undergraduates and his participation in multiple (often conflicting) communities have contributed towards his “thinking about thinking.” I wish that he commented more on the relation between writing and thinking. Jacobs is a skilled writer, able to switch comfortably among different audiences (this book being an exemplary example of a lifelong academic writing for a general audience, and writing well). He’s mentioned “writing to think” in a blog post, but I thought there might have been some more room in the book for him to explore this connection (and I think he’d be an interesting guide).
  • I think I’m more pessimistic than Jacobs about the possibility of genuine “membership” (as described by C.S. Lewis) via social media (and to be clear, it’s not like Jacobs is a big booster of social media in this book). Regardless of a user’s intent, I think the architecture of most platforms actively works against it (part of the point of the architecture is to reduce the users to standardized bits of data that can be harvested for advertisers etc.). Jacobs describes how he has gotten some sense of genuine membership/community out of a private Twitter account, but I wonder if the key is that he “confine[d] the group almost completely to people I’ve met in person.”
  • While the book is not about mastering techniques, Jacobs does include a helpful “Thinking Person’s Checklist” at the back. Final item: “Be brave.”
  • I thought this was the best review of the book I’ve seen so far