On Stories and Other Essays on Literature by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982; originally written between the mid-1940's and the early 1960's)
This is a surprisingly delightful, eclectic collection of essays. They are less informal than Mere Christianity, which was originally a series of radio broadcasts, but more accessible than his deeper, more philosophical works, like Miracles: A Preliminary Study. Not that these are any less intellectually honest, but the shorter lengths and the variety of subjects make On Stories a joy to read, with relatively little effort.
Table of Contents
From "On Stories"
Lewis is speaking of a film version of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, but he captures much of my complain about the film version of The Lord of the Rings.
At the end of Haggard's book ... the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not "cinematic" and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined.
It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one’s adult enjoyment of what are called "children’s books." I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.
[N]othing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.
It is very difficult to tell in any given case whether a story is piercing to the unliterary reader's deeper imagination or only exciting his emotions. ... The nearest we can come to a test is by asking whether he often re-reads the same story.
It is, of course, a good test of every reader of every kind of book. An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare's Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he "has read" them, meaning he as read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter?
From "The Novels of Charles Williams"
Good characters in fiction are the very devil. Not only because most authors have too little material to make them of, but because we as readers have a strong subconscious wish to find them incredible.
From "On Three Ways of Writing for Children"
A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last.
Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. ... I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel.
The question "What do modern children need" will not lead you to a good moral. If we ask that question we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask "What moral do I need?" for I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age. But it is better not to ask the questions at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don't show you any moral, don't put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children's story without a moral, had better do so: that is, if he is going to write children's stories at all. The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author's mind.
The child as a reader is neither to be patronised nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man. But the worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle. We must of course try to do them no harm: we may, under the Omnipotence, sometimes dare to hope that we may do them good. But only such good as involves treating them with respect. We must not imagine that we are Providence or Destiny. I will not say that a good story for children could never be written by someone in the Ministry of Education, for all things are possible. But I should lay very long odds against it.
From "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said"
In the Author's mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. ... This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author's impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It's like being in love.
From "On Science Fiction"
Speaking of the charge of "escapism" in some literature:
I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple questions, "What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?" and gave the obvious answer: jailers.
From "A Reply to Professor Haldane"
I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong, he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality.
From "Different Tastes in Literature"
In literature the characteristics of the "consumer" of bad art are [easy] to define. He (or she) may want her weekly ration of fiction very badly indeed, may be miserable if denied it. But he never re-reads. There is no clearer distinction between the literary and the unliterary. It is infallible. The literary man re-reads, other men simply read. A novel once read is to them like yesterday's newspaper. One may have some hopes of a man who has never read the Odyssey, or Malory, or Boswell, or Pickwick: but none (as regards literature) of the man who tells you he has read them, and thinks that settles the matter. It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk.
From "Unreal Estates"
A book's no good to me until I've read it two or three times.
I saw this posted by someone in a nearby neighborhood:
I'm very thankful that I have good neighbors. I have a neighbor who just put up security cameras at her house, she lives behind me and her cameras pick up any activity in my back yard! Great neighbor in more than just one way.
Great neighbor, if you are actually comfortable with your neighbors recording everything that goes on in your backyard!
I see the advantage in the case of nefarious activity, and I've accepted that privacy is not what it used to be, but surely this is going too far. A 24-hour Peeping Tom? And I'm supposed to be grateful?
Come to think of it, I actually have no idea what our neighbors are recording. If you see us on YouTube, let me know.
Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (Macmillan, 1978; originally published 1944)
Mere Christianity grew out of a series of radio talks Lewis gave in the 1940's. Consequently, although he reworked them slightly to be more suitable for the print medium, they still retain an informal, easy-to-read flavor. I don't want to say Lewis dumbed down his talks for the sake of the average BBC listener (and me) but ... he did. There's none of the head-spinning intricacies of philosophy and literary criticism found in some of his other books. As with the others, there are some allusions that made more sense to a mid-20th-century Englishman than to a 21st-century American, but they're minor and easily puzzled out—or ignored. There's nothing dated about the content of this very worthwhile book. [Emphasis in the quotes below is mine.]
Table of Contents
- The Law of Human Nature
- Some Objections
- The Reality of the Law
- What Lies Behind the Law
- We Have Cause to Be Uneasy
- The Rival Conceptions of God
- The Invasion
- The Shocking Alternative
- The Perfect Penitent
- The Practical Conclusions
- The Three Parts of Morality
- The "Cardinal Virtues"
- Social Morality
- Morality and Psychoanalysis
- Sexual Morality
- Christian Marriage
- The Great Sin
- Making and Begetting
- The Three-Personal God
- Time and Beyond Time
- Good Infection
- The Obstinate Toy Soldiers
- Two Notes
- Let's Pretend
- Is Christianity Hard or Easy?
- Counting the Cost
- Nice People or New Men
- The New Men
From the Preface
[This book] did at least succeed in presenting an agreed, or common, or central, or "mere" Christianity. In that way it may possibly be of some help in silencing the view that, if we omit the disputed points, we shall have left only a vague and bloodless H.C.F. [Highest Common Factor, for those who have left elementary mathematics far behind]. The H.C.F. turns out to be something not only positive but pungent; divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all. If I have not directly helped the cause of reunion, I have perhaps made it clear why we ought to be reunited. Certainly I have met with little of the fabled odium theologicum from convinced members of communions different from my own. Hostility has come more from borderline people whether within the Church of England or without it: men not exactly obedient to any communion. This I find curiously consoling. It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.
We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning [of "Christian"]. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to "the disciples," to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were "far closer to the spirit of Christ" than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological, or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.
I hope no reader will suppose that "mere" Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.
It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait....
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.
From Book 2, Chapter 5: The Practical Conclusion
Do not think I am setting up baptism and belief and the Holy Communion as things that will do instead of your own attempts to copy Christ. Your natural life is derived from your parents; that does not mean it will stay there if you do nothing about it. You can lose it by neglect, or you can drive it away by committing suicide. You have to feed it and look after it: but always remember you are not making it, you are only keeping up a life you got from someone else. In the same way a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it. But even the best Christian that ever lived is not acting on his own steam—he is only nourishing or protecting a life he could never have acquired by his own efforts. And that has practical consequences. As long as the natural life is in your body, it will do a lot towards repairing that body. Cut it, and up to a point it will heal, as a dead body would not, A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble - because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.
From Book 3, Chapter 2: The "Cardinal Virtues"
Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it. Nowadays most people hardly think of Prudence as one of the "virtues." In fact, because Christ said we could only get into His world by being like children, many Christians have the idea that, provided you are "good," it does not matter being a fool. But that is a misunderstanding. In the first place, most children show plenty of "prudence" about doing the things they are really interested in, and think them out quite sensibly. In the second place, as St, Paul points out, Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence: on the contrary, He told us to be not only "as harmless as doves," but also "as wise as serpents." He wants a child's heart, but a grown-up's head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim. The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not. The fact that what you are thinking about is God Himself (for example, when you are praying) does not mean that you can be content with the same babyish ideas which you had when you were a five-year-old. It is, of course, quite true that God will not love you any the less, or have less use for you, if you happen to have been born with a very second-rate brain. He has room for people with very little sense, but He wants every one to use what sense they have. ... God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.
Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened "Temperance," it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he wants to give the money to the poor, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.
From Book 3, Chapter 3: Social Morality
The first thing to get clear about Christian morality between man and man is that in this department Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality. The Golden Rule of the New Testament (Do as you would be done by) is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right. Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that.
From Book 3, Chapter 5: Sexual Morality
The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of "modesty" (in one sense of that word); i.e. propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally "modest," proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste). Some of the language which chaste women used in Shakespeare's time would have been used in the nineteenth century only by a woman completely abandoned. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable: for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable. I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, or old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or "emancipated" people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems.
Reading this out of context might lead one to think that Lewis would approve of the relaxations of the rule of chastity itself that have taken place since his time; I think it's clear that he would not. He remains firm on chastity—it's modesty or propriety he considers flexible. What struck me was the part I highlighted, with regard to language, and it works both ways. I should think better than I do of young people who use casually (and frequently!) language that not that long ago marked one as scum of the earth, and I wish they would think more kindly of their elders who grew up in a time when certain racial terms, now only used by the "scum of the earth," were in many circles considered normal and not improper. "A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems" would do the job well.
You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?
...There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips. I do not say you and I are individually responsible for the present situation. Our ancestors have handed over to us organisms which are warped in this respect: and we grow up surrounded by propaganda in favour of unchastity. There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us. Because, of course, a man with an obsession is a man who has very little sales-resistance. God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.
I've heard before the comparison of our appetite for sex and our appetite for food; what I note now is how much the latter is now veering off course as well. We may not actually have food stripteases, but I've seen cooking shows and food videos and bizarre recipes that could almost be called food pornography. There's more to food than nutrition, just as there's more to sex than reproduction, but when the basic purpose of an appetite is almost forgotten, and when any instinct is kept inflamed for profit—it's a sure sign we're on the wrong track.
A repressed desire or thought is one which has been thrust into the subconscious (usually at a very early age) and can now come before the mind only in a disguised and unrecognisable form. Repressed sexuality does not appear to the patient to be sexuality at all. When an adolescent or an adult is engaged in resisting a conscious desire, he is not dealing with a repression nor is he in the least danger of creating a repression. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires as Wellington knew Napoleon, or as Sherlock Holmes knew Moriarty; as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.
From Book 3, Chapter 6: Christian Marriage
Before we consider this modern view [of marriage and divorce] in its relation to chastity, we must not forget to consider it in relation to another virtue, namely justice. Justice, as I said before, includes the keeping of promises. Now everyone who has been married in a church has made a public, solemn promise to stick to his (or her) partner till death. The duty of keeping that promise has no special connection with sexual morality: it is in the same position as any other promise. ...
To this someone may reply that he regarded the promise made in church as a mere formality and never intended to keep it. Whom, then, was he trying to deceive when he made it? God? That was really very unwise. Himself? That was not very much wiser. The bride, or bridegroom, or the "in-laws"? That was treacherous. Most often, I think, the couple (or one of them) hoped to deceive the public. They wanted the respectability that is attached to marriage without intending to pay the price: that is, they were imposters, they cheated. If they are still contented cheats, I have nothing to say to them: who would urge the high and hard duty of chastity on people who have not yet wished to be merely honest? If they have now come to their senses and want to be honest, their promise, already made, constrains them. And this, you will see, comes under the heading of justice, not that of chastity. If people do not believe in permanent marriage, it is perhaps better that they should live together unmarried than that they should make vows they do not mean to keep. It is true that by living together without marriage they will be guilty (in Christian eyes) of fornication. But one fault is not mended by adding another: unchastity is not improved by adding perjury.
From Book 3, Chapter 7: Christian Forgiveness
I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner. For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself.
Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. ... But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again. ...
The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, "Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that," or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.
From Book 3, Chapter 9: Charity
Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.
From Book 4, Chapter 8: Is Christianity Hard or Easy?
When [Jesus] said, "Be perfect," He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. ... This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else.
It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects—education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.
From Book 4, Chapter 11: The New Men
No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
Florida supposedly makes it easy to renew my driver's license. I can renew in person (cost $54.25), online (cost $50.00) or by mail (cost $48.00 plus one stamp). You read that right—it's cheapest to renew by mail, and they charge extra for online renewal, which ought to be easiest and cheapest. No problem. We need to write a check now and then to keep in practice.
The DMV kindly mails me a reminder letter, well before the expiration date, letting me know that my license is expiring but that I don't have to worry bout REAL ID compliance because I already am. They give me my renewal options (see above), and a place where I can change my address. Perfect.
But then they include a whole page about REAL ID compliance, which they have just stated is unnecessary. And a third of a page where I can check off any of 20 charities to which I can contribute the whopping sum of $1 if I increase my payment by the same amount. REALLY? On my driver's license renewal? Since when is the DMV in the business of distributing charitable contributions? And what makes them believe I think any one of their 20 organizations would use my money better than my own list of preferred charities?
But what's even stranger is the next page, an entire page dedicated to something else that's none of the DMV's business: voter registration. Yes indeed, you can use your driver's license renewal form to register to vote, or to change your registration. Most of it is conveniently filled in for you. And there's a place at the bottom to sign. That's for the voter registration, I'm sure, since you are agreeing to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Florida," and last I knew that wasn't a requirement for being able to drive legally. In fact, I don't even remember that being part of registering to vote, as if I were being sworn in as President, but I registered a long time ago. Be all that as it may, I'm certain that many people simply sign in the box, assuming it's part of the license renewal, leaving themselves open to fraud or even identity theft.
What should have been a one-page application or less—instructions, place to change address, what more do you need?—has become four pages of small and confusing print.
Plus, these four pages are labelled Page 1, Page 2, Page 5, and one without any page number, with no hint as to where or what might be pages 3 and 4.
One more thing. The instructions clearly state where to mail your application form and check—though it's less clear which part of the four pages must be returned. They even include a handy pre-addressed envelope for the return. The catch? The address on the envelope is not the same as the address in the instructions. Not to mention that the back of the envelope specifies a way to make out the check that also differs from the instructions.
Finally, there's this confusing and disturbing statement: Your completion of a driver license or identification card application will constitute notification of consent for voter registration purposes. Huh? What exactly am I consenting to?
I'm going to take a chance and send in my form (hopefully the right pages) and my check (hopefully to the right address), as best I can figure out—with the additional hope that I have not in the process consented to something I shouldn't have.
It's a good thing there's plenty of time before my current license expires.
As I said to a choir friend, on revealing that I had no idea who or what the Blues Brothers were, there is no limit to the depths of my ignorance when it comes to pop culture. Today I experienced Exhibit B, in a way strange enough to be worth reporting.
The first thing I saw on my Facebook feed this morning was a short post by a friend. It said, simply,
JFK blown away what else do I have to say?
The next thing I did was run to Google News, more than half expecting to read about a new terror attack on New York City.
I found nothing of the sort. And no one else on Facebook was talking about it, so I concluded it was a joke or a comment meant for other eyes than mine, and forgot about it.
Then this afternoon, I got a haircut.
One thing that annoys me about Supercuts (but it's true almost anywhere) is the incessant music in the background: music I don't know with a pounding drumbeat I can't stand and incomprehensible words. I view it as part of the expense of a haircut. At least the volume is acceptable.
But today, as I was sitting in the chair getting trimmed, they played a song with kind of a catchy melody, and I managed to make out a few words, notably a refrain of "we didn't start the fire." That was intriguing, and that line sounded familiar even if the music did not.
If you know me, you know it's hard for me to let a mystery rest, so as soon as I was back in the car and before turning the key, I pulled out my phone and queried on that phrase. Then I knew what nearly all the rest of you know: That's the title of a song by Billy Joel. (For the record, I have heard of Billy Joel. I couldn't tell you anything about his music, but I have heard of him.)
And then it got weird. I started reading the lyrics, noting that they actually made some sense of the apparently garbled words I had heard. And somewhere in the middle I read this:
JFK blown away what else do I have to say?
I still don't know what Don was trying to say on Facebook, but now I know where it came from. What were the odds against solving that problem, on the same day, at Supercuts?
Past Watchful Dragons: The Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis by Walter Hooper (Macmillan, 1971)
No other analysis of the Narnia books stands a chance with me now that I've read Planet Narnia. And both books are best read only by those who have already absorbed and fallen in love with the Chronicles. But for such people there is value. I didn't find Past Watchful Dragons nearly as interesting this time as when I first read it—several decades ago, I believe—possibly because through my "C. S. Lewis Restrospective" I've already absorbed much of what Hooper says here, sometimes several times over.
For me, the best part of the book—the reason I recommend it—is Hooper's inclusion in Chapter 5, "Inspiration and Invention," of a long fragment of the only substantial Narnian manuscript that survived Lewis's decluttering fervor. The story never saw publication, though many elements show up in other Narnian tales, most notably The Magician's Nephew. But in this case the boy Digory has a special gift: the ability to talk with animals and trees in our own world—until he tragically loses it. I would really like to have seen what Lewis would have made of that part of the story had it continued. Of course it made me think immediately of my friend Diane, who talks with trees and would probably approve of the reason Digory lost his gift.
Reading it also made me appreciate how much work must go into getting a book from the initial idea to the final version, as this fragment, despite the good story line, sounds amateurish, clearly lacking the beauty and polish of the other tales of Narnia.
I'll end with one of my favorite quotations. I had no idea it was from C. S. Lewis until I found it here, quoted a couple of pages before the story fragment.
There are only two times at which you can stop a thing. One is before everyone is tired of it—and the other is after!
Thinking of my own mother on Mother's Day.
- Four children
- Seven grandchildren
- Eleven great-grandchildren...and counting
Every one of them a credit to their heritage.
I have the best siblings, children, nephews, and grandchildren imaginable.
Now that's a legacy.
Happy Mother's Day to all the wonderful mothers in our family!
I've written a little about face blindness (prosopagnosia) before. It's something I didn't realize I was afflicted with until late in life, though once I learned what it is, I realized that I've had it as far back as I can remember. I had just thought that I was particularly incompetent at recognizing people. When I was a teenager, I think I irretrievably insulted one of my best friends by failing to recognize her when I passed her in the street. This wasn't after a hiatus of 40 years and lots of changes—we'd last seen each other maybe a year before. But I had moved to another state, and did not expect to see her when I did.
Life for me was filled with little traumas like that. It was especially difficult when our children were young and I spent a lot of time volunteering in their activities: whether it was a church choir or a school group, people expected me to be able to recognize my students, and I often could not. That's tough when you're a field trip chaperon trying not to lose anyone!
Just last night at church I "passed the peace" to one person twice, not realizing that we had already greeted one another.
We prosopagnosics develop all sorts of compensatory tricks. My voice-recognition is particularly strong. When we're watching a movie, Porter amazes me with his ability to recognize actors who have played in other movies or shows—and he's still amazed that I can't. But let me hear the actor's voice, and I usually make the connection before he does. I have one friend I run into every year or two at the grocery store. Fortunately, she's a talkative person, either on her phone or conversing with a fellow shopper; hearing her voice before she spots me has saved me great embarrassment.
Other strategies involve recognizing people's hair, glasses, way of walking—anything but the face. That works well ... most of the time.
This past Maundy Thursday, our rector, who had for months sported a fairly long hairstyle with loose curls, walked into church having been shorn like a sheep. I truly had no idea who he was. This was before the service, and he was working up in the altar area. I thought maybe he was a new altar server, or perhaps a member of the Vestry whom I didn't know.
Then he spoke.
It still blows my mind that other people get the same instantaneous recognition from a face as I do from a voice.
I really hope I never have to give testimony as a witness to a crime. But if you plan to do something stupid, be sure to change your appearance, and don't talk. You'll be safe with me.
Almond butter. I should have asked this question before I bought it: Does anyone here use almond butter? Tell me about it.
I like almonds and really, really like marzipan. Almond paste is an ingredient I like to keep in pantry, even though it's not inexpensive. It's essential for making almond raisin bread, one of my favorites.
Thus the idea of almond butter intrigued me. I was envisioning something that looked like peanut butter but tasted like almond paste. Sort of like Biscoff (Speculoos), perhaps, but with a marzipan flavor. That would have been awesome.
I'd been put off by the price of almond butter, so when Publix offered this on a buy-one-get-one-free sale, I jumped at the chance. Now I'm stuck with two jars of something that tastes rather like bad peanut butter. Don't get me wrong; I like peanut butter. But when one is expecting almond, peanut doesn't cut it—especially not at an almond price.
The ingredients don't seem unreasonable: dry roasted almonds, organic evaporated cane sugar, palm oil, sea salt. I'm going to try it in some recopies to see if it tastes better than by the spoonful, but I'm not particularly hopeful.
My take? If you're allergic to peanuts (but not almonds), and really want a substitute for peanut butter, this would work well. Otherwise, forget it.
What's your experience? Did I get a bad jar? A bad brand? Or just make a bad assumption about what almond butter should taste like?
The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life by Steven E. Landsburg (Free Press, 2012)
More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven E. Landsburg (Free Press, 2007)
Steve Landsburg was a classmate of mine at the University of Rochester who, like my friend and roommate Kathy, went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago. He always was bright, and what I remember most about him is his ability to think outside the box. Kathy graduated after four years with simultaneous bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics; Steve did essentially the same thing, but took the master's degree alone, thus avoiding the foreign language and physical education classes that were at that time required for an undergraduate degree.
Eventually, he returned to his roots and became a professor of economics at the same University of Rochester, perhaps because economics gives him so many opportunities to demonstrate (1) how economically illiterate most ordinary people, media commentators, and political leaders are, and (2) how often careful economic analysis leads to results that are unexpected and contrary to what we might like to believe.
Both of these books are filled with examples. They are illuminating, witty, and fun to read. They are also proof that no one in his right mind would make decisions solely on economic principles. At the same time, those economic principles, even when applied in grossly simplified situations, shed invaluable light and provide ways of thinking about problems that are otherwise hopelessly fuzzy.
I enjoyed The Armchair Economist so much I immediately bought a copy for our 15-year-old grandson. I enjoyed More Sex Is Safer Sex as well, but (1) the former is more basic and has been more recently updated; although the principles of the latter are still sound, the technological examples from only 12 years ago positively creak with age; and (2) I have to answer to his parents. He can get it (and/or others of Mr. Landsburg's books) out of the library if he wants more.
The Armchair Economist
Table of Contents
I. What Life Is All About
- The Power of Incentives: How Seat Belts Kill
- Rational Riddles: Why U2 Concerts Sell Out
- Truth or Consequences: How to Split a Check or Choose a Movie
- The Indifference Principle: Who Cares If the Air Is Clean?
- The Computer Game of Life: Learning What It’s All About
II. Good and Evil
- Telling Right from Wrong: The Pitfalls of Democracy
- Why Taxes Are Bad: The Logic of Efficiency
- Why Prices Are Good: Smith versus Darwin
- Of Medicine and Candy, Trains and Sparks: Economics in the Courtroom
III. How to Read the News
- Choosing Sides in the Drug War: How the Atlantic Monthly Got It Wrong
- The Mythology of Deficits
- Unsound and Furious: Spurious Wisdom from the Media
- How Statistics Lie: Unemployment Can Be Good for You
- The Policy Vice: Do We Need More Illiterates?
- Some Modest Proposals: The End of Bipartisanship
IV. How Markets Work
- Why Popcorn Costs More at the Movies: And Why the Obvious Answer Is Wrong
- Courtship and Collusion: The Mating Game
- Cursed Winners and Glum Losers: Why Life Is Full of Disappointments
- Random Walks and Stock Market Prices: A Primer for Investors
- Ideas of Interest: Armchair Forecasting
- The Iowa Car Crop
V. The Pitfalls of Science
- Was Einstein Credible? The Economics of the Scientific Method
- New Improved Football: How Economists Go Wrong
VI. The Pitfalls of Religion
- Why I Am Not an Environmentalist: The Science of Economics versus the Religion of Ecology
From "The Power of Incentives"
Occasionally people are tempted to respond that nothing ... is worth any risk of death. Economists find this objection particularly frustrating, because neither those who raise it nor anybody else actually believes it. All people risk death every day for relatively trivial rewards. Driving to Starbucks for a Mocha Frappuccino involves a clear risk that could be avoided by staying home, but people still drive to Starbucks. We need not ask whether small pleasures are worth any risk; the answer is obviously yes. The right question is how much risk those small pleasures are worth.
From "Truth of Consequences"
Smoking habits are a quick and easy indicator of general health consciousness. They reveal your type in a publicly observable way. Insurance companies use that information by offering lower premiums to nonsmokers. If you take advantage of such an offer, your discount reflects more than just the health benefits of not smoking. It reflects also that, as a nonsmoker, you are more likely than average to be watching your cholesterol.
Insurance companies know that people cheat, and they account for that when they set the nonsmoking premiums. If you are truly a nonsmoker, you pay a little more because some "nonsmokers" are sneaking cigarettes where the insurance company can't see them. But do not jump to the conclusion that if cigarettes were banned, your insurance rates would fall. As a voluntary nonsmoker, you implicitly notify you insurance company that you are probably cautious in a lot of ways they can't observe. As a nonsmoker in a world without cigarettes, you might be indistinguishable from everybody else, and be charged accordingly.
From "The Indifference Principle"
Call it the Indifference Principle: Unless you're unusual in some way, nothing can ever make you happier than the next best alternative. You might prefer cheddar cheese to provolone, but if all your neighbors share your preference, then the price of cheddar cheese must rise to the point where you're just as happy to buy the provolone. Fortunately most of us are unusual in a great variety of ways, which is what allows us to benefit from choosing one activity over another. The Indifference Principle calls our attention to the fact that the greatest gains in life come in the areas where we're most unusual. [my emphasis]
From "Telling Right from Wrong"
During his years in the White House, President George Bush occasionally wished out loud for lower interest rates to ease the burden on young home buyers. For heaven's sake, everybody already knows that lower interest rates ease the burden on home buyers. Everybody also knows that lower interest rates can devastate people who are saving for their retirement. To call attention to one side of the cost-benefit ledger while ignoring the other is plain dishonest. If a politician wants to argue legitimately for lower interest rates, he needs to explain not why it is good to help borrowers, but why it is good to simultaneously help borrowers and hurt lenders.
From "Choosing Sides in the Drug War"
Our insistence on counting all individuals equally has some striking implications. One implication is that a change in price is never either good or bad. Whatever buyers gain, sellers lose. Price changes often result from changes in technology or in the legal environment, which can simultaneously affect production costs or consumption levels in ways that can be good or bad. But a price change in and of itself is neither a good nor a bad thing.
From "How Statistics Lie"
In a world of many prices that fluctuate independently, there is no way to construct a single meaningful index that is not biased in one way or another. The U. S. government actually reports several different measure of inflation, each with its own built-in biases, and economists try to be careful about selecting the right index for the right purpose. Particularly in times of high inflation, the media tend to focus on the [Consumer Price Index], perhaps because it serves their purpose of making things look bleak. Journalism is the dismal art. [My emphasis. This is a play on economics frequently being referred to as "the dismal science."]
For three decades in the United States of America, the income gap between the rich and the poor appears to have been widening. If you looked just at a snapshot of the numbers, you might be forced to conclude that while the rich have gotten richer, the poor have done nothing but stagnate. But there are several reasons to take those numbers with a grain of salt.
Landsburg goes on to explain that in detail; I'll include just two of his reasons—because I'm getting tired of typing.
Second, income tax rates were cut dramatically in the 1980s and again in the 2000s under Presidents Reagan and Bush. Those tax cuts had important real effects, but they had important illusory effects also. When tax rates fall, people devote less effort to hiding their incomes. For that reason alone, reported incomes go up, especially at the high end. ... Any tax cut tends to create an exaggerated appearance of a growing income gap.
Third, family breakups create statistical illusions of falling income. When a household has two $50,000 wage earners, it gets counted as one $100,000 household. When the family breaks up, suddenly there are two $50,000 households, even though no individual's income has changed.
This matters a lot. For example, between the years 1996 and 2005, according to U. S. census data, the median household income (after adjusting for inflation) rose only 5.3 percent. But if you correct for changing household sizes, the increase was a far more substantial 24.4 percent.
The gross domestic product, or GDP, is the most frequently reported measure of general economic well-being. As such, it has some obvious deficiencies. It counts the value of all goods and services produced in the economy, but not the value of time spent relaxing on the beach.
It also has some less obvious deficiencies. First, it really doesn't count the value of all goods and services produced in the economy. Many goods and services are produced within the household. Whether you wash your own dishes or pay a maid to wash them, the net benefit is a cabinet full of clean dishes. If you pay the maid, the GDP reflects this benefit; if you wash them yourself, it doesn't. ...
This observation is particularly important when GDP is compared across countries. In less developed countries there is usually more household production and consequently a greater discrepancy between reported GDP and actual output. When you read that per capita GDP in the United States is over 100 times as great as it is in Liberia, remember that people in Liberia grow their own food and make their own clothes and get no credit for it in the national income accounts. They are much poorer than we are but not as much poorer as the statistics seem to indicate.
Another deficiency is that increased output of goods and services can be either a good or a bad thing. A construction boom that creates thousands of desirable new houses is a good thing; a construction boom that replaces thousands of old houses destroyed by a hurricane consists of running as fast as possible just to stay in one place. The GDP counts them equally.
From "Cursed Winners and Glum Losers"
It is a fair assumption that people who run auctions for a living know what they are doing, and that if there is some discrepancy between their behavior and the prescriptions of the economic theorist, then it is the theorist who is missing something. Our job as economists is not to tell auctioneers how to run their business. It is to assume that they know how to run their business and to figure out why their strategies are the right ones. [emphasis mine]
Amen! I'd say that applies to more professions than auctioneering, and more experts than economists. Think teachers/educational theorists, or parents/child psychologists, for example.
More Sex Is Safer Sex
Table of Contents
Preface: Unconventional Wisdom
PART I: The Communal Stream
- More Sex Is Safer Sex
- Be Fruitful and Multiply
- What I Like about Scrooge
- Who's the Fairest of Them All?
- Children at Work
PART II: How to Fix Everything
- How to Fix Politics
- How to Fix the Justice System
- How to Fix Everything Else
How to Fight Fires
How to Fight Crime
How to Prevent Accidents
How to Fight Pollution
How to Solve the Kidney Shortage
How to Fight Grade Inflation
How to Shorten Waiting Lines
PART III: Everyday Economics
- Go Figure
- Oh No! It's a Girl!
- The High Price of Motherhood
PART IV: The Big Questions
- Giving Your All
A Defense of Pure Reason
- The Central Banker of the Soul
- How to Read the News
The Sack of Baghdad
Global Warming, Local Crowding
An Outsourcing Fable
The New Racism
- Matters of Life and Death
- Things That Make Me Squirm
From "Be Fruitful and Multiply"
For many of the comforts we enjoy today, we can be grateful to the inventors of cable television, video recorders, and the personal computer—and to the stroke of good fortune that prevented their parents from joining Zero Population Growth.
The engine of prosperity is technological progress, and the engine of technological progress is people. The more people, the more ideas. The more ideas, the more we prosper.
Some families prefer to have wealthy descendants; others prefer to have lots of descendants. But as long as our choices don't impinge on each other, that's not a policy issue; it's an opportunity to celebrate diversity.
In the 1930s, we had a Great Depression, when income levels fell back to where they’d been about twenty years earlier. For a few years, people had to live the way their parents had always lived—and they considered it almost intolerable. The underlying expectation—that the present is supposed to be better than the past—is a new phenomenon in history. ...
Not only are we richer than ever before, we also work less and have better-quality products. One hundred years ago, the average American workweek was over sixty hours, today it’s thirty-five. One hundred years ago, only 6 percent of manufacturing workers took vacation; today it’s 90 percent. One hundred years ago, men entered the full-time labor-force in the early teens; today labor-force participation by young teenagers is essentially zero. One hundred years ago, only 26 percent of male workers retired by age 65; today over 80 percent of 65-year-old males have retired. One hundred years ago, the average housekeeper spent twelve hours a day on laundry, cooking, cleaning, and sewing; today it’s about three hours. ...
Today in the United States of America among the very poorest of the poor—those with household incomes under $15,000 a year—99 percent have refrigerators (83 percent of them frost-free); 64 percent have air-conditioning; 97 percent have color TVs and over two-thirds have cable; 60 percent have washers and dryers. ...
The probability that a 20-year-old has a living grandmother today is higher than the probability that a 20-year-old had a living mother a hundred years ago.
The moral is that increases in measured income—even the phenomenal increases of the past two centuries—don't accurately reflect improvements in our economic condition. The average middle-class American might have a smaller measured income than the European monarchs of the Middle Ages, but that does not prevent the American from leading a more luxurious life. I suspect that Henry VIII would have traded half his kingdom for modern plumbing, a lifetime supply of penicillin, and access to the Internet.
From "Children at Work"
Dr. David Livingstone, the African explorer, medical missionary, and hero of the Victorian Age, began his career at age ten, working 84-hour weeks at the local cotton mill. In other words, his was a rather typical upbringing for a British child in the 1820s.
Dr. Livingstone, we may presume, would have been rather bemused by modern American college students, with PDAs in their pockets, iPods on their hips, and $20,000-a-year educations [feel free to substitute your own updated examples] on their résumés, gathered on campus to share a keg, toss a few Frisbees, and raise their voices in the annual spring ritual of protest against third-world child labor.
The student protesters' message to African children on the edge of starvation comes down to this: kick back, relax, and take life a little easier. That, after all, is the content of the protesters' call for trade agreements that "protect" third-world children by limiting the number of hours they can work and the environmental conditions they can work in. David Livingstone, whose childhood labor financed his medical education, and who genuinely cared about the welfare of Africans, might have advised them differently. ...
People in the third world are poor; they're about as poor as the English and Americans of the mid-nineteenth century. Being poor means making hard choices, such as whether to work more or to eat less. Neither alternative is terribly palatable, but it requires more than a bit of hubris to suggest that middle-class American and European demonstrators can choose more wisely than the African and Asian families who have to live with the consequences. ...
The question, then, is whether third-world parents really do have their children's best interests at heart. The answer seems to be yes. Multiple studies have shown that in developing countries, most parents take their children out of the labor force as soon as they can afford to. ... When decisions are made by people—in this case loving parents—who have to endure the consequences, there's rarely any basis to override them. This is particularly so when those who would override have exactly zero experience with similarly dire conditions. [my emphasis]
From "How to Fix Everything"
When were you last bumped from an overbooked airplane? It used to happen all the time—until an economist named Julian Simon came up with the crazy idea of bribing passengers to give up their seats. Gone are the days when you relied on the luck of the draw to make it to your daughter's wedding.
In those same bad old days, African elephants were hunted almost to extinction. Hunting bans never had much effect against determined poachers—until Zimbabwean officials came up with the crazy idea of giving the elephants to rural villagers. Unlike the poachers, who would poach and then move on, the villagers know that the elephants they preserve today will still be theirs tomorrow. So unlike the poachers, the villagers harvest at a sustainable rate—and make it their business to drive the poachers away. The result? Villagers have prospered and the elephant population has soared.
From "Giving Your All"
American corporations are essentially immune to charitable impulses. This is for the good and sufficient reason that stockholders don't want corporate executives to choose their charities for them. You hire a tailor to make your clothes, you hire a carpenter to fix your roof, and, if you're a stockholder, you hire executives to run your company. Your tailor, your carpenter, and your executives might be very good at what they do, but it doesn't follow that they'd also be good at figuring out how to give away your money.
So, for the most part, corporations eschew charity completely. Instead, they truckle to the public-relations circus known as the United Way.
Nothing could be less charitable than giving to the United Way. Among the several dozen agencies that receive United Way handouts, surely you can identify—with essentially zero effort—at least one that, according to your own beliefs and values, will make better than average use of an extra dollar. ... Allowing the United Way to split your contribution among thousands of less-worthy causes is the very opposite of charity. Your employer's public-relations department might love you for it, but you purchase that esteem by diverting resources away from the worthiest recipients, a complete perversion of what charity is supposed to be about.
From "Things that Make Me Squirm"
Most of the time, we're not forced to choose between prosperity and economic freedom, because the two go hand in hand. Canada's Fraser Institute, in cooperation with several dozen think tanks around the world, assigns each country an economic freedom rating from 1 to 10. High ratings go to countries with limited government, low taxes, well-enforced property rights, functioning markets, and free trade. Currently, Hong Kong ranks first, followed by Singapore, and then we have a three-way tie among New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States. Myanmar brings up the rear. ...
The general upward trend [of a scatter plot of economic freedom versus per capita income, with each dot representing a country] is obvious. Of course, that doesn't prove anything about causation, but it's awfully suggestive—and we have plenty of theory to support that suggestion.
Incidentally, if you carry out the same experiment with political freedom—including scheduled elections, robust opposition parties, freedom of speech and religion, and so forth—on the horizontal axis, the dots look almost completely random. Political freedom is, in my opinion, a good thing, but unlike economic freedom it seems to have almost no link to prosperity.
A friend posted this exchange with her son, and it's too beautiful not to share. I've edited it a bit, and left out all the identifying details, but it's her own true story.
The little boy, having already experienced a busy and exciting Easter even before the church service began, was weary, and rested in his mother's arms. His attention wandered to one of the Stations of the Cross pictures on the nearby wall.
"What's that picture? Is that Jesus? Who's holding him?"
"That's Mary, his mama. She held him after he died on the cross."
"Mamas always hold their little boys."