Category Archives: Reading

Why I don’t read science fiction.

Early on in his column about the books he reads every month (in Ten Years in the Tub), Nick Hornby decided that he would read something he would ordinarily never read. He chose something in the science fiction genre. He would quickly realize his mistake. One of the books he chose to read was one by Iain M. Banks called Excession. Hornby had this to say about the experience:

…nothing in the twenty-odd pages I managed of Excession was in any waybad; it’s just that I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t even understand the blurb on the back of the book…

…The urge to weep tears of frustration was already upon me even before I read the short prologue…By the time I got to the first chapter, which is entitled “Outside Context Problem” and begins “(CGU Grey Area signal sequence file #n428857/119),” I was crying so hard I could no longer see the page in front of my face, at which point I abandoned the entire ill-conceived experiment altogether. (148)

This was hilarious, because this has been my own experience with science fiction as well. I liked The Chrysalids in high school. I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed  in university for a utopian literature class (though it was an example of the opposite) and enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Ender’s Game. I managed to read little more than a chapter or two of Dune, which, from what I can tell, is to science fiction what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Buy my sci-fi reading ended there and the reason is exactly like what Hornby says of the science fiction he tried to read: I don’t understand it.

I’ve had a copy of Ursula K. Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for a decade or more. I enjoyed The Dispossessed enough to think about reading more LeGuin. (Plus I think Bruce Cockburn may have mentioned it as an influence on some song or other of his.) But every time I open it up to give it a go, I am stopped by this, the beginning of chapter 1:

From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-9342-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97.

How am I supposed to read beyond that? Is there an explanatory prequel I’m unaware of which I should read first? Is this any way to start a novel? Tolkien is filled with names and history we know nothing about, but at least he does us the courtesy of starting The Lord of the Rings with a prologue about some creatures we can at least identify with.

And what’s with the numbers? As Hornby’s experience shows, this seems to be normal sci-fi stuff. Are we to believe that these numbers are not just random sequences meant to look futurey and sciencey—that they actually mean something? Because I don’t buy it.

I assume that all will be explained as I read the novel, but I’m not sure I’m interested.

Reading for the sake of writing.

My in-laws are here for the weekend. My mother-in-law surprised me with a book: Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great BooksNick Hornby’s collection of 10 years worth of columns from Believer about the books he has read. (My mother-in-law is clearly paying attention, as I only came across this book at a bookstore in Banff a couple of weeks ago and added it to my Amazon wishlist.)

I’m only 65 pages in, with 400 to go, so I may yet lose interest (at any time, really), but so far the book has been delightful. Hornby is insightful and witty in the Bill Bryson and P.G. Wodehouse kind of way, which is the best kind of witty.

This book once again proves that what makes a book great and delightful is not necessarily what it says but how it says it. Or perhaps it’s more a matter of language and peripheral matters redeeming what would otherwise be an ordinary and possibly boring book. You might think that I like this book because it’s a book about books and reading. This does help, and it is what initially caught my attention, but I’m reading it now because I love Hornby’s voice.

It might just be that he’s one of those writers who is such a pleasure to read that it doesn’t matter what the subject; you just want to keep reading. It’s what keeps me buying and immediately reading books by Bill Bryson even when they’re about the evolution of the house or a one particular early 20th century summer. It’s what brings me back to Roy MacGreggor, reading his book on Tom Thomson’s death, even though my interest in art is purely about visual and emotional pleasure, or the biography he wrote about his decidedly not-famous father. (Or maybe it’s what Hornby says in one of his early columns: “Sometimes, in the hands of the right person, biographies of relatively minor figures…are especially compelling: they seem to have their times and cultural environments written through them like a stick of rock in a way that sui generis major figures sometimes don’t.” Yes, I had to look up “sui generis,” too. It means “unique.”) It’s what brings me back to P.G. Wodehouse, even though every one of his novel’s I’ve read has essentially the same plot. It’s what will keep me reading this Hornby book, even though I won’t care about 95% of the books he mentioned.

They are all writers who make me want to write again. I don’t know what this says about their work, because I’m essentially saying, “I don’t care what you’re writing about, but I like how you write about it.” When I read other authors—glancing at the shelf: Tolkien, Kent Haruf, Alistair McLeod—it’s the bigger picture that draws me in: the scenes they paint and feelings they create with their words, the “what” they create. Obviously, they way they create those things—that is, their language—makes all the difference, but their language is hidden or embedded in the work. I don’t know which is better. But Bryson, Wodehouse, to a lesser extent MacGreggor, and now apparently Hornby please me in a way the others don’t.

As a bonus (isn’t the term “added bonus” redundant?), Hornby promises to help me feel okay about abandoning books, even if they’re classics. At least that’s what the introduction, written by someone else, tells me. Let’s hope he does, because The Brothers Karamazov and The Grapes of Wrath are gathering dust, bookmarks firmly in place.

C. S. Lewis anticipates Buzzfeed and Facebook, but not in a good way.

I’m reading J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey at the moment. I bought (or received) this book 10 years ago or more, I’m sure. Just getting to it now. Such is my way. The current chapter is on concepts of evil in The Lord of the Rings. As part of Shippey’s argument, he quotes C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (which I read almost 20 years ago). The quote gave me a bit of a knock upside the head.

Context: Screwtape is a senior demon who writes letters to a junior demon (Wormwood?) about the different ways they can lead Christians astray (in fact, the book is comprised only of his letters). Shippey gives a bit more context before quoting the book directly:

One of the striking and convincing assertions made by [Lewis’] imagined devil, Screwtape, is that nowadays the strongest temptations are not to the old human vices of lust and gluttony and wrath, but to new ones of tedium and solitude… Screwtape remarks that Christians describe God as the One ‘without whom Nothing is strong’, and they speak truer than they know, he goes on, for [he now quotes Screwtape Letters]:

Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambitions to give them relish. (p. 127, emphasis mine)

Keep in mind that The Screwtape Letters was published in 1942. When I read the portion from the book my mind went immediately to much of what we look at on the internet. I’m thinking of pages like Buzzfeed or Clickhole or the Fail Blog or any number of mindless gathering of entertainment “news” or endless lists. In many ways, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like also fit the bill: “a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.” Precisely how I find myself some days. “Tedium and solitude.” Precisely how I think of the millions of us sitting in offices and cubicles and at hoe computers around the world for hours every day.

It’s remarkable that Lewis’ comments are so true in our day and age. Possibly more true than they were in 1942. But one thing has changed and is no longer true: lust, gluttony, and wrath have been wrapped up into the tedium and solitude. Lust can be gratified in so many and easy ways online, whether is it pornography or shopping. Gluttony in our binge-watching on Netflix and hours on social media. Wrath in trolling and shaming and endless online arguments and hatred.

It made me think, both about how I use my own time. And that I should read The Screwtape Letters again.

Reading the book after watching the movie. [UPDATED]

I still remember watching the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries on TV in the mid-1980s. My parents let me stay up past my bed time to watch a couple of episodes, although when it got violent I was no longer allowed to watch. I saw enough to be moved emotionally and in my imagination. I was hooked on that story. “Lonesome Dove” follows the story of a handful of old Texas Rangers who decide to drive several thousand head of cattle and horses from south Texas up to Montana, as yet unsettled.

I’ve watched the series a number of times since, having bought it on VHS in university (and since then the DVD version and recently a remastered wide-screen version). About two weeks ago, I picked up the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry on which the miniseries was based. I’ve owned the book for years, but at more than 900 pages, it’s quite intimidating to start. This time I was immediately hooked and managed to read through the whole thing in less than two weeks. It’s a wonderful novel, with well-rounded characters. A great tale of the trials and tribulation of this motley cattle crew. 

What struck me was that the miniseries—at least, as it exists in my memory, since it has been about a decade since I watched it last—was incredibly faithful to the book. So much so, in fact, that right from the beginning, in my mind the characters in the book looked and sounded liked depicted by their respective actors (Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in particular). In some cases, a book is spoiled by watching the film version first, but I can think of a number of cases where I’ve read the book after its film version and thoroughly enjoyed the book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if the film was one I particularly enjoyed, my experience of the book is enhanced by the viewing.

Lonesome Dove. As I read I began to realize that both Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones played their roles perfectly, but I don’t know if I can say that retrospectively. I might think this simply because I’m reading their performances into the novel.
– Pride and Prejudice. I don’t know if I would have read this one if I hadn’t seen the A&E miniseries (the Colin Firth one) first.
A Prairie Home Companion. There is no novel version. But there is a screenplay published in book form. I read it after watching the movie and loved it.
True Grit. I’m about a third of the way through this one. The recent Coen Brothers’ version is what’s in my mind as I read (in fact, my copy of the book is the movie tie-in version). I’ve read that the Coen Brothers’ version is more faithful to the book than the 1969 John Wayne version.
– No Country for Old Men. Another Coen Brothers film, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. Also a very faithful adaptation.

I used to insist that it was better to read the book before watching the film version. But looking at the above examples, I’m inclined to say that reading a book after watching its movie version is a much better experience than watching the movie version after reading the book.

The Lord of the Rings films were good adaptations of the books, though as the years pass I think less and less of the performances (with the exception of Saruman and Denethor). That’s because they don’t live up to my mental vision of those characters. The Hobbit films are terrible adaptations of a childhood favourite, but are otherwise well done and for the most part entertaining (although I can’t stand all the battles). The Da Vinci Code is a unique instance of me being neutral on the film vs. book question. I could say that the film wins by a hair because the writing in the book is terrible. But then the book was an incredible page-turner, which the movie didn’t match with engagement/tension.

And then there’s Simon Birch, the atrocious “adaptation” of John Irving’s wonderful A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Although, reading up on the film a bit more now, I realize that the film doesn’t bear the title of the book because Irving thought it was too unfaithful an adaptation, but because Irving didn’t think the book could be successfully adapted to the screen and therefore sold the rights with conditions about the name. In which case, perhaps I should take it a little easier on the film.)

UPDATE: As it turns out, reading the book has in a small way ruined the “Lonesome Dove” TV miniseries. In an unexpected turn of events, my fond memories of the miniseries which were revived and relived through the reading of the book took some of the “magic” away from the miniseries.

In favour of simple and direct prayer (we don’t need to be heroes).

Dallas Willard on simple prayer, which I found very helpful:

“Prayer, like all of the practices into which Jesus leads by word and example, will be self-validating to all who will simply pray as he says [that is, the Lord’s Prayer] and not give up. It is much harder to learn if we succumb to the temptation to engage in “heroic” efforts in prayer. This is important. Heroism, generally, is totally out of place in the spiritual life, until we grow to the point at which it would never be thought of as heroism anyway.

“There are, of course, people who pray heroically, and they are to be respected for what God has called them to… But that is a special calling and is for very few of us. To look to this calling as the ideal for our prayer life is only to assume a burden of uncalled-for guilt, and, quite surely, it is to choose an approach that will lead to abandoning prayer as a realistic…aspect of life in the kingdom. There will be heroic periods as they may be called for, but with no intention to be heroic. Always, we are simply children walking and talking with our Father at hand.

“…Prayer is never just asking, nor is it merely a matter of asking for what I want. God is not a cosmic butler or a fix-it man, and the aim of the universe is not to fulfill my desires and needs. On the other hand, I am to pray for what concerns me, and many people have found prayer impossible because they thought they should only pray for wonderful but remote needs they actually had little or no interest in or even knowledge of. 

“Prayer simply dies from efforts to pray about “good things” that honestly do not matter to us. The way to get to meaningful prayer for those good things is to start by praying for what we are truly interested in. The circle of our interests will inevitably grow in the largeness of God’s love.

“What prayer as asking presupposes is simply a personal…relationship between us and God, just as with a request of child to parent or friend to friend. It assumes that our natural concerns will be naturally expressed, and that God will hear our prayers for ourselves as well as for others. Once again, this is clear from the biblical practice of prayer. It is seen at its best in that greatest of all prayer books, Psalms.

Accordingly, I believe the most adequate description of prayer is simply, “Talking to God about what we are doing together.”

~ Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, pp. 241, 242, 243.

Three questions ‘ere I go.

Leaving for a two week holiday tomorrow in which I plan to spend a significant amount of time on the beach. I’m in between books and in the middle of a bunch of others and I can’t decide what I should bring along. “I’m just going to bring a box of books,” I told Dixie. I can’t seem to just pick a book and go with it. I need time to browse, flip through a couple of books, and let settle on settle on me, but I don’t have time for that now.

I’m actively reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, so that one will come along for sure. But I suspect that bringing a book about the Sermon on the Mount to the beach is something I will regret. I’ve got stacks next to my bed and indecision weighs heavy.

What about some of the books I’ve started but put aside for the time being: The Brothers Karamazov; Bury My Heart at Wounded KneeA Brief History of TeaA Thousand Splendid SunsBeyond Belfast: A 560-Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet; The Grapes of Wrath; Wolf Willow (started it ages ago, couldn’t get past the fiction bits but want to get to the non-fiction); Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology.

Or maybe some new fiction or non-theology/Bible non-fiction, something to take my mind off the things that need doing: A Confederacy of DuncesLonesome DoveSuch is My BelovedRumpole for the DefenceAbout a BoyInto Thin AirQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop TalkingThe Neverending Story (which I started today to see if it would stick); perhaps another Wodehouse novel; perhaps I should start reading The Lord of the Rings again.

Or maybe it’s okay to walk that fuzzy line between work and play and read one of those theological/spiritual books I’ve been wanting to get into: Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us; A Thomas Merton ReaderChrist Plays in Ten Thousand PlacesIncarnation.

Or maybe I should just take Willard and find something else at that wonderful used bookstore in Penticton. I’ll probably do less reading than I think I will. Here it is 11:20. I’m fighting a cold and I should be sleeping, but these are important decisions.

Dixie loves packing, bless her heart. So my worries prior to our trips, outside of the cleaning and organizing that needs doing, are: do I have a book to read? do I have several changes of underwear? is my deodorant packed?

One way or another, I’ll have all three ‘ere we go.

Doubt, unbelief and the community of believers.

“…two of the monks remarked in different ways that although Thomas did not believe in the resurrection of the Lord, he kept faithful to the community of the apostles. In that community the Lord appeared to him and strengthened his faith. I find this a very profound and consoling thought. In times of doubt or unbelief, the community can ‘carry you along,’ so to speak; it can even offer on your behalf what you yourself overlook, and can be the context in which you may recognize the Lord again.

“[the Abbot] remarked that Dydimus, the name of Thomas, means ‘twin,’ as the Gospel says, and that the fathers had commented that all of us are ‘two people,’ a doubting one and a believing one. We need the support and love of our brothers and sisters to prevent our doubting person from becoming dominant and destroying our capacity for belief.” (Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary, 56-7)

More from Tolkien’s letters.

Some more fun and interesting tid-bits from Tolkien’s letters:

From 1959, in response to a request from cat breeder to register a litter of Siamese kittens under names taken from The Lord of the RIngs:

I fear that to me Siamese cats belong to the fauna of Mordor, but you need not tell the cat breeder that. (300)

An example of something that has become quite clear in reading Tolkien’s letters. The man had a sense of humour.

On writing fiction specifically for children (including “appropriate” vocabulary, etc.), which Tolkien did not like (he regretted much of how he’d written at least the first half of The Hobbit):

I am not interested in the ‘child’ as such, modern or otherwise, and certainly have no intention of meeting him/her halfway, or a quarter of the way. It is a mistaken thing to do anyway, either useless (when applied to the stupid) or pernicious (when inflicted on the gifted). I have only once made the mistake of trying to do it, to my lasting regret, and (I am glad to say) with the disapproval of intelligent children: in the earlier part of The Hobbit. But I had not then given any serious thought to the matter: I had not freed myself from the contemporary delusions about ‘fairy-stories’ and children.

… I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies—and alas! little desire left (even when they had the gift which has been stultified) to refine or enlarge them. (309-10, 310-11)

Tolkien on a film adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

I picked up The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien again last night (the blurb on the back says, “J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific letter writers.” How could they possibly know this?) and came across some interesting stuff regarding an American film adaptation that was in the works in the late 1950s. Tolkien was given a treatment of the film to read. His comments are scathing and more or less completely disapproving.

A few simple words stood out to me: “He [the film writer] has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights…”(271). As good as Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings were, I’ve always thought that they included far too much fighting, too many battle scenes. As I recall, in the books the details of battle are generally limited and implied. The films focus quite a bit on battle heroics (and in The Hobbit Jackson went to far as to make warrior-heroes out of character who had no business being such), but as I suspected, Tolkien would likely not have approved. (And on a personal note, I’ve always found those portions of the films to be the most dull.) I believe in The Hobbit we don’t really see any of the battle up close at all, but see everything from Bilbo’s vantage point away from the fray. I suspect we won’t get that from Jackson’s third Hobbit instalment. “Showing a preference for fights,” indeed.

Something else of note: the Black Riders’ signature ‘screams’ as heard in the films, are unnecessary. From the same letter: “The Black Riders do not scream but keep a more terrifying silence” (273).

Fans were miffed when they discovered that there would be no Scouring of the Shire in Jackson’s adaptation. It seems that was omitted from the 1950s proposal, too, but Jackson may have followed Tolkien’s advice in this case (I assume Jackson and his team would have read at least those letters that were relevant to making a film version):

[The writer] has cut out the end of the book, including Saruman’s proper death.In that case I can see no good reason for making him die. Saruman would never have committed suicide: to cling to life to its basest dregs is the way of the sort of person he had become. If [the writer] wants Saruman tidied up…Gandalf should say something to this effect: as Saruman collapses under the excommunication: “Since you will not come out and aid us, here in Orthanc you shall stay till you rot, Saruman. Let the Ents look to it!” (277)

This is, if memory serves, more or less what Jackson did.

Worship and the Psalms

“Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate emoting session, however ‘Christian,’ but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. (That’s what those great chapters, Revelation 4 and 5, are all about.) The Psalms offer us a way of joining a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent non-psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.”

~ N. T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential, 6.