It's time for my annual compilation of books read during the past year.

  • Total books: 85
  • Fiction: 57
  • Non-fiction: 28
  • Month with most books: February (15)
  • Month with fewest books: December (1; not surprising, with the Stücklins visiting for a very active month)
  • Most frequent authors: Arthur Ransome (14), C. S. Lewis (11), S. D. Smith (11), Tony Hillerman (10). Ransome scored so high because of my habit of periodically re-reading good books—it was his turn. This year concluded my C. S. Lewis retrospective. Smith came out with two new books this year and I like to re-read the series before indulging in the latest. Hillerman is a prolific author whose prominence was the result of my introduction to his work via a Christmas gift from last year.

Here's the alphabetical list; links are to reviews. The different colors only reflect whether or not you've followed a hyperlink. This chronological list has ratings and warnings as well.

  1. The Alto Wore Tweed by Mark Schweizer
  2. The Archer's Cup by S. D. Smith
  3. The Art of Construction by Mario Salvadori
  4. The Bible (Revised Standard Version)
  5. The Big Six by Arthur Ransome
  6. The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity by Matthew Kelly
  7. The Black Star of Kingston by S. D. Smith
  8. The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
  9. The Books of the Apocrypha (Revised Standard Version)
  10. Brother Cadfael's Penance (Brother Cadfael #20) by Ellis Peters
  11. C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide by Walter Hooper
  12. The Child's Book of the Seasons by Arthur Ransome
  13. Christian Reflections by C. S. Lewis
  14. Coot Club by Arthur Ransome
  15. Coots in the North and Other Stories by Arthur Ransome
  16. Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman
  17. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
  18. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper
  19. Ember Falls by S. D. Smith
  20. Ember Rising by S. D. Smith (March)
  21. Ember Rising by S. D. Smith (November)
  22. Ember's End by S. D. Smith (March)
  23. Ember's End by S. D. Smith (November)
  24. An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis
  25. The Fallen Man by Tony Hillerman
  26. The First Eagle by Tony Hillerman
  27. The First Fowler by S. D. Smith
  28. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney
  29. The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis
  30. G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis: The Riddle of Joy by edited by Michael H. Macdonald and Andrew A. Tadie
  31. Gertie's Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley
  32. God in the Dock by C. S. Lewis
  33. Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome
  34. The Green Ember by S. D. Smith
  35. A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis
  36. The Heretic's Apprentice (Brother Cadfael #16) by Ellis Peters
  37. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  38. The Holy Thief (Brother Cadfael #19) by Ellis Peters
  39. Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
  40. Killing Kennedy by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
  41. Killing Reagan by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
  42. The Last Archer by S. D. Smith
  43. Lead Yourself First by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin
  44. Legion by Brandon Sanderson
  45. Legion: Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson
  46. Letters to an American Lady by C. S. Lewis, edited by Clyde S. Kilby
  47. Letters to Children by C. S. Lewis
  48. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C. S. Lewis
  49. Lies of the Beholder by Brandon Sanderson
  50. Listening Woman by Tony Hillerman
  51. Lord Darcy Investigates by Randall Garrett
  52. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  53. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien
  54. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
  55. The Lost Family by Libby Copeland
  56. Missee Lee by Arthur Ransome
  57. Murder and Magic by Randall Garrett
  58. The New Testament (English Standard Version)
  59. Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel by George Orwell
  60. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C. S. Lewis
  61. The Omega Document by J. Alexander McKenzie
  62. Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome
  63. The Picts and the Martyrs by Arthur Ransome
  64. Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome
  65. The Potter's Field (Brother Cadfael #17) by Ellis Peters
  66. The Psalter by Coverdale translation
  67. The Quotable Lewis edited by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root
  68. Secret Water by Arthur Ransome
  69. The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman
  70. The Sinister Pig by Tony Hillerman
  71. Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman
  72. Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein
  73. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
  74. The Summer of the Danes (Brother Cadfael #18) by Ellis Peters
  75. Surprised Laughter: The Comic World of C. S. Lewis by Terry Lindvall
  76. Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome
  77. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  78. Talking God by Tony Hillerman
  79. A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman
  80. Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett
  81. We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome
  82. Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
  83. The World's Last Night and other Essays by C. S. Lewis
  84. The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner by S. D. Smith
  85. Your Blue Flame: Drop the Guilt and Do What Makes You Come Alive by Jennifer Fulwiler
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, January 3, 2021 at 8:42 am | Edit
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This is not my own, but the person I learned it from can't remember where she first found it.  And it's not a direct quotation, because I've modified it to sound better in my own ears.  But the sentiment is exactly the same.

 "A writer is a writer not because he has amazing talent. A writer is a writer because, even when nothing he does shows any sign of promise, he keeps on writing anyway."

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, December 21, 2020 at 10:19 am | Edit
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altDigital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport (Portfolio/Penguin 2019)

Janet recommended this one to me, and after checking out Newport's TED talk, "Why You Should Quit Social Media," I decided to reserve it at the library. I had to wait in line; maybe more than a few people are rethinking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.

Digital Minimalism is divided into two parts: Foundations, and Practices. I read through Foundations easily, able to enjoy the book without pasting sticky tabs all over it. For me, this is like going somewhere and not taking pictures. Those sticky notes represent text that I will later laboriously transcribe for my reviews. As with the photos, something is gained but something is lost. I was enjoying the book and anticipating an easy review.

Then I hit Practices. Or Practices hit me.

The first chapter of that section, "Spend Time Alone," is about solitude deprivation. I could have sticky-noted the whole chapter. Here is me, restraining myself:

Everyone benefits from regular doses of solitude, and, equally important, anyone who avoids this state for an extended period of time will ... suffer. ... Regardless of how you decide to shape your digital ecosystem, you should give your brain the regular doses of quiet it requires to support a monumental life. (pp. 91-92).

[Raymond] Kethledge is a respected judge serving on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and [Michael] Erwin is a former army officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. ... [Their book on the topic of solitude], Lead Yourself First ... summarizes, with the tight logic you expect from a federal judge and former military officer, [their] case for the importance of being alone with your thoughts. Before outlining their case, however, the authors start with what is arguably one of their most valuable contributions, a precise definition of solitude. Many people mistakenly associate this term with physical separation—requiring, perhaps, that you hike to a remote cabin miles from another human being. This flawed definition introduces a standard of isolation that can be impractical for most to satisfy on any sort of a regular basis. As Kethledge and Erwin explain, however, solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds. (pp. 92-93)

You can enjoy solitude in a crowded coffee shop, on a subway car, or, as President Lincoln discovered at his cottage, while sharing your lawn with two companies of Union soldiers, so long as your mind is left to grapple only with its own thoughts. On the other hand, solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude. In addition to direct conversation with another person, these inputs can also take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV, or performing just about any activity that might draw your attention to a smartphone screen. Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be. (pp. 93-94). 

Regular doses of solitude, mixed in with our default mode of sociality, are necessary to flourish as a human being. It’s more urgent now than ever that we recognize this fact, because ... for the first time in human history solitude is starting to fade away altogether. (p. 99)

The concern that modernity is at odds with solitude is not new. ... The question before us, then, is whether our current moment offers a new threat to solitude that is somehow more pressing than those that commentators have bemoaned for decades. ... To understand my concern, the right place to start is the iPod revolution that occurred in the first years of the twenty-first century. We had portable music before the iPod ... but these devices played only a restricted role in most people’s lives—something you used to entertain yourself while exercising, or in the back seat of a car on a long family road trip. If you stood on a busy city street corner in the early 1990s, you would not see too many people sporting black foam Sony earphones on their way to work. By the early 2000s, however, if you stood on that same street corner, white earbuds would be near ubiquitous. The iPod succeeded not just by selling lots of units, but also by changing the culture surrounding portable music. It became common, especially among younger generations, to allow your iPod to provide a musical backdrop to your entire day—putting the earbuds in as you walk out the door and taking them off only when you couldn’t avoid having to talk to another human. (pp. 99-100).

This transformation started by the iPod, however, didn’t reach its full potential until the release of its successor, the iPhone.... Even though iPods became ubiquitous, there were still moments in which it was either too much trouble to slip in the earbuds (think: waiting to be called into a meeting), or it might be socially awkward to do so (think: sitting bored during a slow hymn at a church service). The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. (p. 101) 

When you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. (p. 104) 

Eliminating solitude also introduces new negative repercussions that we’re only now beginning to understand. A good way to investigate a behavior’s effect is to study a population that pushes the behavior to an extreme. When it comes to constant connectivity, these extremes are readily apparent among young people born after 1995—the first group to enter their preteen years with access to smartphones, tablets, and persistent internet connectivity. ... If persistent solitude deprivation causes problems, we should see them show up here first. ...

The head of mental health services at a well-known university ... told me that she had begun seeing major shifts in student mental health. ... Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety. ... The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. ...

[San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge observed that] young people born between 1995 and 2012 are ... on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. ... [She] made it clear that she didn’t set out to implicate the smartphone: “It seemed like too easy an explanation for negative mental-health outcomes in teens,” but it ended up the only explanation that fit the timing. Lots of potential culprits, from stressful current events to increased academic pressure, existed before the spike in anxiety.... The only factor that dramatically increased right around the same time as teenage anxiety was the number of young people owning their own smartphones. ...

When journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis investigated this teen anxiety epidemic in the New York Times Magazine, he also discovered that the smartphone kept emerging as a persistent signal among the noise of plausible hypotheses. “Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram,” he writes, “but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits—round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers—were partly to blame for their children’s struggles.” Denizet-Lewis assumed that the teenagers themselves would dismiss this theory as standard parental grumbling, but this is not what happened. “To my surprise, anxious teenagers tended to agree.” A college student he interviewed at a residential anxiety treatment center put it well: “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without that’s making us crazy.” (pp. 104-107)

The pianist Glenn Gould once proposed a mathematical formula for this cycle, telling a journalist: “I’ve always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone. Now what that X represents I don’t really know . . . but it’s a substantial ratio.” (p. 111)

The past two decades ... are characterized by the rapid spread of digital communication tools—my name for apps, services, or sites that enable people to interact through digital networks—which have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and much less local, while encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks that are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect. ... Much in the same way that the “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools—a sort of social fast food—are proving to be similarly worrisome.(p. 136).

After winning me over with the chapter on solitude deprivation, Newport lost me somewhat with his approach to taming the beasts. The basic problem is that, for a guy who has written several books and has his own blog, he seems to have very little respect for the written word.

Many people think about conversation and connection as two different strategies for accomplishing the same goal of maintaining their social life. This mind-set believes that there are many different ways to tend important relationships in your life, and in our current modern moment, you should use all tools available—spanning from old-fashioned face-to-face talking, to tapping the heart icon on a friend’s Instagram post.

The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, or it can be a video chat or a phone call—so long as it matches Sherry Turkle’s criteria of involving nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice or facial expressions. Anything textual or non-interactive—basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging—doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection. (p. 147)

I heartily disagree with his lumping e-mail in with "all social media, text, and instant messaging." I will grant that most social media, texts, WhatsApp, IM, and the like are severely limited by the difficulty of creating the message. Phones simply are not designed for high-speed typing, and I don't know about other people's experiences, but for me voice-to-text makes so many errors I spend almost as much time correcting as I would have laboriously pecking out a message on the tiny keyboard. (That's why I much prefer WhatsApp, where I can type my messages on the computer keyboard, to texting, where I can't.) So messages tend to be short, of restricted vocabulary and complexity, and full of nasty abbreviations. But e-mails are simply typed letters that get delivered with much more speed than the mail can achieve. I will grant that you miss the tone-of-voice cues that can be heard over the phone, but I think that's often more than made up for by the ability to both speak and listen without interruption. On the phone, if I turn all my attention to what the other person is saying, there's a long silence when it's my turn to talk while I think of how I want to respond. But if I try to figure that out while the other person is speaking, I'm likely to miss, or mis-interpret what is said. And when I'm speaking, it's more than likely that I will get interrupted before getting out my entire thought, and the conversation will veer off in another direction, leaving my response incomplete and likely mis-understood. E-mail leaves plenty of time for listening, thinking, and responding. 

Newport has serious problems with Facebook's "Like" button. I can see his point in some respects.

The “Like” feature evolved to become the foundation on which Facebook rebuilt itself from a fun amusement that people occasionally checked, to a digital slot machine that began to dominate its users’ time and attention. This button introduced a rich new stream of social approval indicators that arrive in an unpredictable fashion—creating an almost impossibly appealing impulse to keep checking your account. It also provided Facebook much more detailed information on your preferences, allowing their machine-learning algorithms to digest your humanity into statistical slivers that could then be mined to push you toward targeted ads and stickier content. (p. 192)

I do get the slot-machine analogy. We all crave (positive) feedback for whatever of ourselves we have put "out there." And the temptation to keep checking is real. It reminds me of the joke from 'way back in the America Online days, in which the person sitting at the computer (no smart phones back then) checks his mail, sees that there is none waiting for him—and immediately checks again. It was funny because that's what so many people did. But I think Newport misunderstands how many of us use the Like button.

In the context of this chapter, however, I don’t want to focus on the boon the “Like” button proved to be for social media companies. I want to instead focus on the harm it inflicted to our human need for real conversation. To click “Like,” within the precise definitions of information theory, is literally the least informative type of nontrivial communication, providing only a minimal one bit of information about the state of the sender (the person clicking the icon on a post) to the receiver (the person who published the post). Earlier, I cited extensive research that supports the claim that the human brain has evolved to process the flood of information generated by face-to-face interactions. To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery. (p. 153)

But here's the thing. I don't know anyone who pretends that clicking "Like" or "Love" or "I care" is conversation. However, it is the digital equivalent of one part of a successful conversation: the nod, the smile, the grunt, the frown, the short interjection, which in face-to-face conversation we used as an important lubricant to keep a conversation running smoothly. It hardly communicates any more information than the Facebook buttons; maybe it's little more than a bit—but it's an important bit. It says, "I'm listening, I hear you, I agree, keep talking," or "Wait, what you said confuses me, or angers me," or "I'm sorry, I sympathize."

As soon as easier communication technologies were introduced—text messages, emails—people seemed eager to abandon this time-tested method of conversation for lower-quality connections (Sherry Turkle calls this effect “phone phobia”). (p. 160)

Guilty as charged, but there's no need for Newport (or Turkle) to be snarky about it. I'm hardly alone, and there's ample evidence that phone phobia is attached to the same set of genes that makes me like mathematics. I love the (true) story a colleague told of a bunch of math grad students who decided to order pizza. Every one of them hemmed and hawed and delayed making the order, until the wife of one of the mathematicians, herself a grad student in philosophy, sighed, "For Pete's sake!" and called the restaurant. Text-based communication is a real boon to people like us. Call it a disability if you like—and then remember that you shouldn't mock or discriminate against people with disabilities.

Fortunately, there’s a simple practice that can help you sidestep these inconveniences and make it much easier to regularly enjoy rich phone conversations. I learned it from a technology executive in Silicon Valley who innovated a novel strategy for supporting high-quality interaction with friends and family: he tells them that he’s always available to talk on the phone at 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. There’s no need to schedule a conversation or let him know when you plan to call—just dial him up. As it turns out, 5:30 is when he begins his traffic-clogged commute home in the Bay Area. He decided at some point that he wanted to put this daily period of car confinement to good use, so he invented the 5:30 rule. The logistical simplicity of this system enables this executive to easily shift time-consuming, low-quality connections into higher-quality conversation. If you write him with a somewhat complicated question, he can reply, “I’d love to get into that. Call me at 5:30 any day you want.” Similarly, when I was visiting San Francisco a few years back and wanted to arrange a get-together, he replied that I could catch him on the phone any day at 5:30, and we could work out a plan. When he wants to catch up with someone he hasn’t spoken to in a while, he can send them a quick note saying, “I’d love to get up to speed on what’s going on in your life, call me at 5:30 sometime.” ... He hacked his schedule in such a way that eliminated most of the overhead related to conversation and therefore allowed him to easily serve his human need for rich interaction. (pp. 161-162)

I have to say, that strikes me as more selfish than clever. It's saying to everyone else that he will only communicate with them through his own preferred medium. Granted, it's his right to do so, and maybe he's learned that that's the best way he can get the most accomplished. But I'd have to be pretty desperate to call someone who I knew was going to be driving while he is talking with me. Either he's not going to be giving me his full attention, or he's not going to be giving the other cars on the road his full attention, neither one of which strikes me as ideal. And if I have a complicated question, I definitely want the response to be by written word, where there's a record of what was said, and more chance of getting a well thought out response.

I’ve seen several variations of this practice work well. Using a commute for phone conversations, like the executive introduced above, is a good idea if you follow a regular commuting schedule. It also transforms a potentially wasted part of your day into something meaningful. Coffee shop hours are also popular. In this variation, you pick some time each week during which you settle into a table at your favorite coffee shop with the newspaper or a good book. The reading, however, is just the backup activity. You spread the word among people you know that you’re always at the shop during these hours with the hope that you soon cultivate a rotating group of regulars that come hang out. ... You can also consider running these office hours once a week during happy hour at a favored bar. (pp. 162-163)

<Shudder> Really? I'm supposed to go to the expense, inconvenience, and annoyance of sitting around at a coffee shop or bar on spec, just hoping a friend shows up? And expect my friends to be willing to pay an insane amount for a cup of coffee just to talk with me?  Here, and in many other places in Digital Minimalism, you can tell that Newport is an extrovert—with plenty of spare cash—and friends who are the same.

And anyway, whatever happened to visiting people in their homes? One friend of ours decided to quit Facebook, and in her final message invited anyone in town to drop by her house for tea. I could get into that. If you're willing to get out and drive to a restaurant, come instead and knock at our door. You'll be more than welcome and none one of us will have to buy an expensive drink. (This pandemic won't last forever.)

[In the early 20th century, Arnold Bennett, author of How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, speaking of leisure activities] argues that these hours should instead be put to use for demanding and virtuous leisure activities. Bennett, being an early twentieth-century British snob, suggests activities that center on reading difficult literature and rigorous self-reflection. In a representative passage, Bennett dismisses novels because they “never demand any appreciable mental application.” A good leisure pursuit, in Bennett’s calculus, should require more “mental strain” to enjoy (he recommends difficult poetry). (p. 175)

Newport approves of the idea that "the value you receive from a pursuit is often proportional to the energy invested." But then he adds,

For our twenty-first-century purposes, we can ignore the specific activities Bennett suggests. (p. 175)

And what, pray tell, is snobbish or unreasonable about literature and poetry?

Newport has a lot to say about the value of craft: of woodworking, or renovating a bathroom, or repairing a motorcycle, or knitting a sweater. He includes musical performances as well. But—and I find this odd for an author—he seems to have little respect for creating books. Would it be a more noble activity if they were typed on an old Remington, or handwritten? He similarly discounts composing music using a computer as less worthwhile than playing a guitar. I don't buy it.

The following story is for our two oldest grandsons, who have a way of picking up and enjoying construction skills.

[Pete's] welding odyssey began in 2005. At the time, he was building a custom home. ... The house was modern so Pete integrated some custom metalwork into his design plan, including a beautiful custom steel railing on the stairs.

The design seemed like a great idea until Pete received a quote from his metal contractor for the work: it was for $15,800, and Pete had budgeted only $4,000. “If this guy is billing out his metalworking time at $75.00 an hour, that’s a sign that I need to finally learn the craft myself,” Pete recalls thinking at the time. “How hard can it be?” In Pete’s hands, the answer turned out to be: not that hard.

Pete bought a grinder, a metal chop saw, a visor, heavy-duty gloves, and a 120-volt wire-feed flux core welder—which, as Pete explains, is by far the easiest welding device to learn. He then picked some simple projects, loaded up some YouTube videos, and got to work. Before long, Pete became a competent welder—not a master craftsman, but skilled enough to save himself tens of thousands of dollars in labor and parts. (As Pete explains it, he can’t craft a “curvaceous supercar,” but he could certainly weld up a “nice Mad-Max-style dune buggy.”) In addition to completing the railing for his custom home project (for much less than the $15,800 he was quoted), Pete went on to build a similar railing for a rooftop patio on a nearby home. He then started creating steel garden gates and unusual plant holders. He built a custom lumber rack for his pickup truck and fabricated a series of structural parts for straightening up old foundations and floors in the historic homes in his neighborhood. As Pete was writing his post on welding, a metal attachment bracket for his garage door opener broke. He easily fixed it. (pp. 194-195)

If you're wondering where to learn skills needed for simple projects ... the answer is easy. Almost every modern-day handyperson I've spoken to recommends the exact same source for quick how-to lessons: YouTube. (pp. 197-198, emphasis mine)

In the middle of a busy workday, or after a particularly trying morning of childcare, it’s tempting to crave the release of having nothing to do—whole blocks of time with no schedule, no expectations, and no activity beyond whatever seems to catch your attention in the moment. These decompression sessions have their place, but their rewards are muted, as they tend to devolve toward low-quality activities like mindless phone swiping and half-hearted binge-watching. ... Investing energy into something hard but worthwhile almost always returns much richer rewards. (p. 212)

Finally, I can't resist his description of former Kickstarter project called the Light Phone.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you have a Light Phone, which is an elegant slab of white plastic about the size of two or three stacked credit cards. This phone has a keypad and a small number display. And that’s it. All it can do is receive and make telephone calls—about as far as you can get from a modern smartphone while still technically counting as a communication device.

Assume you’re leaving the house to run some errands, and you want freedom from constant attacks on your attention. You activate your Light Phone through a few taps on your normal smartphone. At this point, any calls to your normal phone number will be forwarded to your Light Phone. If you call someone from it, the call will show up as coming from your normal smartphone number as well. When you’re ready to put the Light Phone away, a few more taps turns off the forwarding. This is not a replacement for your smartphone, but instead an escape hatch that allows you to take long breaks from it. (p. 245).

Despite our areas of disagreement, there's only one really, really annoying section of the book. He spends seven pages on the ideas of someone named Jennifer who "prefers the pronoun 'they/their' to 'she/her'." The ideas are not worth the ensuing confusion between singular and plural. I found myself constantly re-reading trying to figure out who was being referenced in the text.

But I do recommend reading Digital Minimalism. The concept of solitude deprivation alone would make it worthwhile, and the rest of the book is pretty good, too—especially if you're not a phone-phobic, introverted author.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, October 8, 2020 at 5:39 am | Edit
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Recently I stumbled upon The Conservative Student's Survival Guide. It's a five-minute video offering advice to—you guessed it—conservative students who find themselves a despised minority on liberal college campuses. That's no joke: for all the talk you'll hear from academia about tolerance, liberal values, and minority rights, it's a jungle out there if your particular minority isn't currently in favor, and it seems the only status more dangerous than "conservative student" on most American campuses is "conservative faculty." It was true when we were in college, it was true when our children were in college—and everything I see leads me to believe the situation is far, far worse now.

What's surprising about this video is that, unlike much that comes from both Left and Right these days, it is calm, well-reasoned, and respectful. What's more, even though it's aimed at conservative students, any thoughtful person who wants to make the most of his college experience would do well to consider this advice.

The speaker is Matthew Woessner, a Penn State political science professor. All of his seven suggestions make sense, but my top three are these:

  • Avoid pointless ideological battles. It's not your job to convert your professors or your fellow students. Discuss and debate, but don't push too hard.
  • Choose [your classes and your major] wisely. I was a liberal atheist in college, but much on campus was too far Left even for me. Being a student of the hard sciences saved me from a great deal of the insanity that was going on in the humanities and social sciences departments. A quarter-century later, one of our daughters found some of the same relief as an engineering major. Our other daughter, however, discovered that life at a music conservatory was quite difficult—despite the name, conservative values were not welcome.
  • Work hard—college faculty value hard-working, enthusiastic students. I'd say this is the most valuable of all his points. Excellence and enthusiasm are attractive. A student who participates respectfully in class, does the work, and learns the material will gain the respect and appreciation of most of his professors. Teachers are like that.
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 3, 2020 at 2:32 pm | Edit
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C. S. Lewis wrote the Preface to a book by B. G. Sandhurst entitled How Heathen is Britain? This essay has been republished as the thirteenth chapter of Lewis's book, God in the Dock, which I recently finished re-reading. I deemed the excerpts below too extensive for my review of that book, so here they are in their own post.

The essay, written in the mid-1940's, deals largely with the effect of state education on students' beliefs and attitudes about the Christian faith. A few quotes can't do justice to the logic of the argument, but should suffice to give the flavor. All bold emphasis is my own.

The content of, and the case for, Christianity, are not put before most schoolboys under the present system; ... when they are so put a majority find them acceptable. ... [These two facts] blow away a whole fog of "reasons for the decline of religion" which are often advanced and often believed. If we had noticed that the young men of the present day found it harder and harder to get the right answers to sums, we should consider that this had been adequately explained the moment we discovered that schools had for some years ceased to teach arithmetic. (p. 115)

The sources of unbelief among young people today do not lie in those young people. The outlook which they have—until they are taught better—is a backwash from an earlier period. It is nothing intrinsic to themselves which holds them back from the Faith. This very obvious fact—that each generation is taught by an earlier generation—must be kept very firmly in mind. (p. 116)

No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. You may frame the syllabus as you please. But when you have planned and reported ad nauseam, if we are skeptical we shall teach only skepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. ... Nothing which was not in the teachers can flow from them into the pupils. (p. 116)

A society which is predominantly Christian will propagate Christianity through its schools: one which is not, will not. All the ministries of education in the world cannot alter this law. We have, in the long run, little either to hope or fear from government.

The State may take education more and more firmly under its wing. I do not doubt that by so doing it can foster conformity, perhaps even servility, up to a point; the power of the State to deliberalize a profession is undoubtedly very great. But all the teaching must still be done by concrete human individuals. The State has to use the men who exist. Nay, as long as we remain a democracy, it is men who give the State its powers. And over these men, until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow. Their minds are formed by influences which government cannot control. And as they come to be, so will they teach. ... Let the abstract scheme of education be what it will: its actual operation will be what the men make it. ... Your "reform" may incommode and overwork them, but it will not radically alter the total effect of their teaching. (pp. 116-117)

Where the tide flows towards increasing State control, Christianity, with its claims in one way personal and in the other way ecumenical and both ways antithetical to omnicompetent government, must always in fact (though not for a long time yet in words) be treated as an enemy. Like learning, like the family, like any ancient and liberal profession, like the common law, it gives the individual a standing ground against the State. Hence Rousseau, the father of the totalitarians, said wisely enough, from his own point of view, of Christianity, Je ne connais rien de plus contraire à l'esprit social ("I know nothing more opposed to the social spirit"). ... Even if we were permitted to force a Christian curriculum on the existing schools with the existing teachers we should only be making masters hypocrites and hardening thereby the pupils' hearts. (p. 118)

I am speaking, of course, of large schools on which a secular character is already stamped. If any man, in some little corner out of the reach of the omnicompetent, can make, or preserve a really Christian school, that is another matter. His duty is plain. (p. 119)

What a society has, that, be sure, and nothing else, it will hand on to its young. The work is urgent, for men perish around us. But there is no need to be uneasy about the ultimate event. As long as Christians have children and non-Christians do not, one need have no anxiety for the next century. (p. 119)

Clearly Lewis did not anticipate that Christians would embrace the radical move to very small families nearly as much as secular society did. I'm thankful for those who are now reversing that trend. The idea is mocked today ("evangelism by procreation"), but Lewis—though he had a difficult home life and no biological children of his own—clearly recognized the life- and faith-affirming value of begetting and bearing children in Christian families.

As for the rest of the quotations: it is still true that democratic governments have much less control over what children think and learn than they would like. But the same is now also true of teachers. Lewis was thinking of the influence of teachers when he wrote,

Planning has no magic whereby it can elicit figs from thistles or choke-pears from vines. The rich, sappy, fruit-laden tree will bear sweetness and strength and spiritual health; the dry, prickly, withered tree will teach hate, jealousy, suspicion, and inferiority ... [no matter what] you tell it to teach. (pp. 117-118)

This is even more true, now, of the movies, music, and other media that are the very air our young people breathe (and rarely think about), and of the peer-oriented society we have bequeathed them. As I wrote in my review of Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté's book Hold On to Your Kids (a book I strongly recommend to all parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors, and anyone else who cares about children),

It is essential to the survival of a civilization that its culture be passed on from one generation to another. Today's children are not receiving culture, they are inventing it as they go along. We are into the third generation of this problem, and appear to be reaching a tipping point. If the idea of peer culture being more important to children than their family culture doesn't seem strange and wrong to us, it's because that's how we grew up, too.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, June 29, 2020 at 10:46 am | Edit
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I've never liked William Golding's book, The Lord of the Flies. Why high school English teachers think it helpful to assault students' spirits with the distressing imaginations of disturbed minds, I cannot imagine. My daughter hated it even more than I did, and although she finished reading the book weeks before the school exam, she steadfastly refused to reread or study it in any way. She'd rather fail, she insisted. (Actually, she aced the test. Having a good memory is both a curse and a blessing.)

The Lord of the Flies certainly hit a chord with popular society, and like it or not has become part of our culture. Say to someone, "it's a Lord of the Flies situation there," and he knows exactly what you mean. It has also contributed to a good deal of negative and cynical thinking.

My sister-in-law, who knows my feelings on the matter, sent me this marvellous story about a real-life event that illustrates just the opposite about human behavior. (Warning: if you read the article, you may have to ignore some incidental, intense political ranting; I don't know what extras might be showing when you get there, but the last time I saw it I almost decided not to include the link. But credit must go where credit it due.) Here are some excerpts with the bare bones of the story:

This story [of the degradation and brutal behavior of castaway English schoolboys] never happened. An English schoolmaster, William Golding, made up this story in 1951—his novel Lord of the Flies would sell tens of millions of copies, be translated into more than 30 languages and hailed as one of the classics of the 20th century. In hindsight, the secret to the book’s success is clear. Golding had a masterful ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind. Of course, he had the zeitgeist of the 1960s on his side. (emphasis mine)

Years later when I began delving into the author’s life. I learned what an unhappy individual he had been: an alcoholic, prone to depression. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding confessed, “because I am of that sort by nature.” And it was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge” that he wrote Lord of the Flies.

I began to wonder: had anyone ever studied what real children would do if they found themselves alone on a deserted island? I wrote an article on the subject, in which I compared Lord of the Flies to modern scientific insights and concluded that, in all probability, kids would act very differently. Readers responded sceptically. All my examples concerned kids at home, at school, or at summer camp. Thus began my quest for a real-life Lord of the Flies. After trawling the web for a while, I came across an obscure blog that told an arresting story: “One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip ... Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.”

It took some work to uncover the source of the story, as the date given was incorrect; the real year was 1966.

The real Lord of the Flies ... began in June 1965. The protagonists were six boys—Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano—all pupils at a strict Catholic boarding school in Nuku‘alofa [the capital of Tonga]. The oldest was 16, the youngest 13, and they had one main thing in common: they were bored witless. So they came up with a plan to escape: to Fiji, some 500 miles away, or even all the way to New Zealand.

The boys "borrowed" a small sailing boat, and their voyage started out fine, with fair skies and a mild breeze.

But that night the boys made a grave error. They fell asleep. A few hours later they awoke to water crashing down over their heads. It was dark. They hoisted the sail, which the wind promptly tore to shreds. Next to break was the rudder. “We drifted for eight days,” Mano told me. “Without food. Without water.” The boys tried catching fish. They managed to collect some rainwater in hollowed-out coconut shells and shared it equally between them, each taking a sip in the morning and another in the evening. Then, on the eighth day, they spied a miracle on the horizon. A small island, to be precise. Not a tropical paradise with waving palm trees and sandy beaches, but a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than a thousand feet out of the ocean.

These days, the island is considered uninhabitable. But by the time the boys were rescued, 15 months later,

[They] had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.” While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat ... and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

They were finally rescued on Sunday 11 September 1966. The local physician later expressed astonishment at their muscled physiques and Stephen’s perfectly healed leg.

The article has much more of the story, including how the rescued boys were immediately clapped into jail for having stolen the boat. (It ends well.)

This is a much better story than The Lord of the Flies, and it's true. Sadly, it's unlikely to have the social impact of Golding's book. But I hope all English teachers who insist on teaching Golding will be inspired to include the real story in their discussions. At the very least, parents now have an antidote to offer their distressed children.

And we all have an antidote to the evening news and social media.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 at 9:33 am | Edit
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It's time for my annual compilation of books read during the past year. A few patterns stand out: my current C. S. Lewis retrospective; the discovery of several new Rick Brant Science-Adventure books, necessitating a re-read of the whole series; the release of a new Green Ember book, ditto; and the discovery in July of the Brother Cadfael books. Mystery and adventure were heavily represented this year; hence so was fiction. Here are a few statistics:

  • Total books: 92, not up to last year's 108, but more than any other year since I started keeping track in 2010
  • Fiction 61, non-fiction 22, other 9 
  • Months with most books: February and December, tied at 15
  • Months with fewest books: September, not a one; June had only two; travel is another way of expanding one's horizons
  • Most frequent authors: John Blaine (Harold L. Goodwin) 24; C. S. Lewis 23; Ellis Peters 16

Here's the alphabetical list; links are to reviews. Titles in bold are ones I found particularly worthwhile, but the different colors only reflect whether or not you've followed a hyperlink. This chronological list has ratings and warnings as well.

  1. 100 Fathoms Under: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #4 by John Blaine
  2. 3000 Quotations from the Writings of George MacDonald by Harry Verploegh (ed.)
  3. The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis
  4. The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life by Steven E. Landsburg
  5. The Bible (The Message paraphrase)
  6. The Black Star of Kingston by S. D. Smith
  7. The Blue Ghost Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #15 by John Blaine
  8. A Book of Narnians: The Lion, the Witch and the Others by C. S. Lewis, James Riordan, Pauline Baynes
  9. The Books of the Apocrypha
  10. The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings from C. S. Lewis by Walter Hooper (ed.)
  11. C. S. Lewis on Scripture by Michael J. Christensen
  12. The Caves of Fear: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #8 by John Blaine
  13. The Chronicles of Narnia 1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  14. The Chronicles of Narnia 2: Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis
  15. The Chronicles of Narnia 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
  16. The Chronicles of Narnia 4: The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis
  17. The Chronicles of Narnia 5: The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis
  18. The Chronicles of Narnia 6: The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis
  19. The Chronicles of Narnia 7: The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis
  20. The Confession of Brother Haluin (Brother Cadfael #15) by Ellis Peters
  21. The Crusades Controversy: Setting the Record Straight by Thomas F. Madden
  22. Danger Below!: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #23 by John Blaine
  23. Dead Man's Ransom (Brother Cadfael #9) by Ellis Peters
  24. The Deadly Dutchman: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #22 by John Blaine
  25. Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
  26. The Devil's Novice (Brother Cadfael #8) by Ellis Peters
  27. The Egyptian Cat Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #16 by John Blaine
  28. The Electronic Mind Reader: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #12 by John Blaine
  29. Ember Falls by S. D. Smith
  30. An Excellent Mystery (Brother Cadfael #11) by Ellis Peters
  31. The First Fowler by S. D. Smith
  32. The Flaming Mountain: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #17 by John Blaine
  33. The Flying Stingaree: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #18 by John Blaine
  34. Go Wild by John Ratey and Richard Manning
  35. The Golden Skull: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #10 by John Blaine
  36. The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  37. The Green Ember by S.D. Smith
  38. The Hermit of Eyton Forest (Brother Cadfael #14) by Ellis Peters
  39. Innovation on Tap by Eric B. Schultz
  40. The Last Archer by S. D. Smith
  41. The Leper of Saint Giles (Brother Cadfael #5) by Ellis Peters
  42. The Lost City: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #2 by John Blaine
  43. Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder
  44. The Magic Talisman: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #24 by John Blaine
  45. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  46. Miracles by C. S. Lewis
  47. The Misadventured Summer of Tumbleweed Thompson by Glenn McCarty
  48. Monk's Hood (Brother Cadfael #3) by Ellis Peters
  49. A Morbid Taste for Bones (Brother Cadfael #1) by Ellis Peters
  50. More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven E. Landsburg
  51. Ocean-Born Mary by Lois Lenski
  52. On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature by C. S. Lewis
  53. One Corpse Too Many (Brother Cadfael #2) by Ellis Peters
  54. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
  55. Past Watchful Dragons: The Narnian Chronicles of C. S. Lewis by Walter Hooper
  56. Perelandra (space trilogy part 2) by C. S. Lewis
  57. The Phantom Shark: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #6 by John Blaine
  58. The Pilgrim of Hate (Brother Cadfael #10) by Ellis Peters
  59. The Pirates of Shan: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #14 by John Blaine
  60. Poems by C. S. Lewis
  61. A Preface to "Paradise Lost" by C. S. Lewis
  62. A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael (Brother Cadfael #16) by Ellis Peters
  63. The Raven in the Foregate (Brother Cadfael #12) by Ellis Peters
  64. Recasting the Past: The Middle Ages in Young Adult Literature by Rebecca Barnhouse
  65. Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis
  66. The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
  67. Rocket Jumper: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #21 by John Blaine
  68. The Rocket's Shadow: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #1 by John Blaine
  69. The Rose Rent (Brother Cadfael #13) by Ellis Peters
  70. The Ruby Ray Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #19 by John Blaine
  71. Saint Peter's Fair (Brother Cadfael #4) by Ellis Peters
  72. The Sanctuary Sparrow (Brother Cadfael #7) by Ellis Peters
  73. The Scarlet Lake Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #13 by John Blaine
  74. The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast by C. S. Lewis
  75. Sea Gold: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #3 by John Blaine
  76. Smoke on the Mountain by Joy Davidman
  77. Smugglers' Reef: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #7 by John Blaine
  78. Son of Charlemagne by Barbara Willard
  79. Stairway to Danger: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #9 by John Blaine
  80. The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church To The Dawn Of The Reformation by Justo L. Gonzalez
  81. The Story of Christianity, Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day by Justo L. Gonzalez
  82. Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle
  83. Studies in Words by C. S. Lewis
  84. Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis
  85. That Hideous Strength (space trilogy part 3) by C. S. Lewis
  86. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
  87. The Veiled Raiders: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #20 by John Blaine
  88. The Virgin in the Ice (Brother Cadfael #6) by Ellis Peters
  89. The Wailing Octopus: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #11 by John Blaine
  90. The Weight of Glory and other Addresses by C. S. Lewis
  91. The Whispering Box Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #5 by John Blaine
  92. The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner by S. D. Smith
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 7, 2020 at 11:30 am | Edit
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The following quotation is from C. S. Lewis's Studies in Words. It's not a book aimed at the hoi polloi—those of us without a strong background in classical literature, Latin, Greek, French, and whatever else scholars were supposed to know in his day. So do not even try to understand it all, stripped as it is of its context and what has been said on previous pages. It's not hard to follow the point of the sentence I have bolded, however.

Distinct from this, so far as I can see, is the use of communis sensus as the name of a social virtue. Communis (open, unbarred, to be shared) can mean friendly, affable, sympathetic. Hence communis sensus is the quality of the "good mixer," courtesy, clubbableness, even fellow-feeling. Quintilian says it is better to send a boy to school than to have a private tutor for him at home; for if he is kept away from the herd (congressus) how will he ever learn that sensus which we call Communis? (p. 146)

If you want to poke the bear at any gathering of homeschoolers, ask the question, "But what about socialization?"

We have to be careful because this can be an innocent, serious inquiry that deserves a serious answer. The above is not suggested as the best way to respond, no matter how tempting. But we get so very, very tired of the question, perhaps in the same way that parents of large families get tired of being asked, "Haven't you figured out what causes that?" Large families who homeschool get both, of course.

I'll spare you the numerous studies and writings—and comics—that make the point that homeschooling is an excellent vehicle for helping children learn to get along well with others and to engage wisely with society in general. You can Google that for yourself.

But Quintilian (c. 35 - c. 100 AD) proves that the question is nearly as old as the Roman hills. Then again, he was a teacher with his own public school, and a lawyer as well, so perhaps he was a bit biased.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 6, 2019 at 9:42 am | Edit
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Our Church History class has resumed: we have moved on to Volume 2 of Justo L. Gonzales' The Story of Christianity. The books are interesting and the class even better—it's helpful to have our well-educated pastor's insights to affirm/debunk/clarify/expand the author's views. I wish there were more discussion—but the class is already an hour and a half long.

I recently rediscovered this cartoon, which I first came upon in 2012. Sometimes it feels like a good summary of church history. Or the history of science, for that matter. Or the human condition in general! (Click image to enlarge.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, October 17, 2019 at 7:00 am | Edit
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altRecasting the Past: The Middle Ages in Young Adult Literature by Rebecca Barnhouse (Boynton/Cook, 2000)

This was another book from my son-in-law's wish list that I found intriguing. It turned out to be both disappointing and enlightening.

The disappointment was my own fault: The stated purpose of the book is "to provide teachers, librarians, and scholars of adolescent literature with a discussion of fiction set in the Middle Ages," so I should not have been surprised that the author talks like an educationist. Neither should I have been surprised (though I was) that the books she analyzes are all very modern. It reminds me of the fifth grade teacher who required that during their "free reading time," her students read only books from the Sunshine State Young Readers Awards list. This, she assured me, was because she wanted to make sure the children were reading quality books. Once I discovered that even to be nominated for that list a book had to be fiction and published withing the last three years, I knew why I was far less than impressed with the selection. I suppose modern authors need some support, but inflicting their works—to the exclusion of all others—on helpless students is even more unfair than forcing the students to eat school lunches.

This teacher-orientation and modern-author bias of Recasting the Past got my reading off on the wrong foot, but I was able to get over it because there really is some good information here. I've long known that much historical fiction, particularly for some reason that favored by schools (and popular movies), plays fast and loose with the facts. I figured the blame mainly fell on lazy authors, who had a story to tell and liked the idea of fitting it into an historical time period, but preferred to make the time fit the story rather than the other way around. Barnhouse opened my eyes to an entirely different source for the problem.

Although the author does not acknowledge this, I'm convinced that the base culprit is that there is such as thing as "young adult fiction." Why there should be is beyond my ken. Anyone who is mature enough to handle the subjects dealt with in these books—which include torture, religious doubts, and sexual activity—should be offended by dumbed-down reading levels and the assumption that everyone of a certain age must be interested in the same things.

Be that as it may, these are aimed at a young adult audience, and it shows. First and worst, the authors are apparently viewing their stories primarily as vehicles for teaching, and teaching 21st century values more than teaching history.

One such value is literacy. Barnhouse notes that much historical fiction aimed at schoolchildren is anachronistic in its attitude towards reading, writing, and book learning. No doubt they want to encourage the same in their modern readers, but it is wrong to give the impression that back then books were considered the key to knowledge, ignoring the practical ways knowledge was passed on in those times.

Modern authors also seem uncomfortable with allowing their young readers to experience attitudes not in line with 21st century standards. The young protagonists must be models of tolerance and diversity as defined by modern educationists; if anything negative is said about Jews, for example, it must come from the mouth of a character that the readers are not likely to like or respect. In a similarly unrealistic approach, Jews, Muslims, and generally anyone-but-Christians are treated by authors of much young adult fiction as paragons of virtue, instead of as human beings.

Barnhouse touches on other subjects, including stories that appear to be set in medieval times but actually belong in the Fantasy genre.

The primary use of his short book is for developing some tools for recognizing anachronism in so-called young adult fiction. Perhaps the most important of these tools is simply being aware of the problem.

Just two short quotes this time, emphasis mine:

The words "Middle Ages" imply a time between two eras, the Roman Empire and the rebirth of Roman culture in the Italian Renaissance. However, tell a twelfth-century Parisian scholar like Peter Abelard that Roman learning is dead and you'll get a surprised look—that is, if you can pry him away from his study of Greek and Roman historians and philosophers. Abelard and his contemporaries used the word modern to describe themselves. The big lie perpetrated by the Renaissance Italians, who said everything was dark and barbaric until they reinvented Rome, shows how little they knew about the transmission of thought, culture, and learning in the medieval period. While it's true that the vast majority of people didn't participate in all of this learning, neither did the majority of Romans. (Introduction, p xiii)

Well-told modern tales of the Middle Ages abound. ... The writers who research carefully enough to understand the differences between medieval and modern attitudes, between different medieval settings, and between fantasy and history, can help their readers understand a strange and distant culture: the Middle Ages. Writers who create memorable, sympathetic characters who retain authentically medieval values teach their audience more than those who condescend to readers by sanitizing the past. Trusting readers to comprehend cultural differences, presenting the Middle Ages accurately, and telling a good story results in compelling historical fiction, fiction that, like medieval literature in its ideal form, teaches as it delights. (p 86)


UPDATE 11/5/19 Here's a table from Stephan, summarizing the book's evaluations.  Click to enlarge.

Stephan says, What might be confusing about the table is the multiple use of the comments column. The first books with a fidelity rating > 0 come with comments that summarize very briefly Mrs Barnhouse‘s critique; those with a rating = 0 with a „fantasy level“ comment; and the rest with a summary.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, September 10, 2019 at 2:07 pm | Edit
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The school lunchbox is dead in Italy.

The Italian Supreme Court has ruled against parents who want to send lunch to school with their children. Their logic? Not eating the school-provided lunch is "a possible violation of the principles of equality and non-discrimination based on economic circumstances."

Even the United States isn't that crazy—yet—despite pushes in that direction by busybodies experts who worry that food from home might not be "good enough," and school-lunch providers who have a deep financial stake in forcing parents to buy their product.

Parents, naturally, are not happy.

Lorenza, who has two children at a Turin school, told a local TV station she spent more than €2,000 (£1,823) on school meals, more than her monthly salary. "My older daughter was not happy because the quality of the food didn't justify the cost, and also because of the hygiene issues with the canteen. "She would often complain that the cutlery was dirty, that the glasses were not particularly clean, or that there would be hairs on the plates," she said.

As with many news reports, this paragraph does not give enough information for us to know just how outraged we should be. Over what time period did this mother spend $2200 dollars? One month, as implied by the comment that the cost was "more than her monthly salary"? Annually per child? Over the entire school experience of all of her (possibly, though not likely, many) children?

Never mind. It doesn't matter. Even if the meals were totally free (where by "free" we mean paid for by other people, of course), it would still be an outrage.

School lunches may be a necessity for some children, who would otherwise not eat—though I've never been able to answer satisfactorily a friend's question, "Isn't that what SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) and WIC programs are all about? Why do we also need free school lunches?"

School lunches are certainly a convenience for busy parents—though there is no reason why a child of school age shouldn't be able to pack his own lunch.

But there was never any doubt in my mind that my own packed lunch was vastly superior to what was offered in the school cafeteria, and apparently our children thought so, too. Even if they often traded their carrot sticks to other children for cookies—at least some child was eating healthful food. I'm reminded of one family I know who qualified for free meals for their children. The children gave it a try, determined that the food at home was better tasting, more nutritious, and even more plentiful—and wisely opted out. At least here they had that option.

More to the point: whatever the Italian Supreme Court may say, being able to feed our children as we think best is a basic, human, family right—right up there with being able to birth, educate, and otherwise rear our children as we think best. As all totalitarian governments know, once you come between parents and their children, most other freedoms become meaningless.

For those families who cannot or will not handle these responsibilities on their own, we rightly make assistance available. That's called charity. But forcing that "assistance" on those who do not want it? That's called tyranny.

And the "principles of equality" the court found so important? Should we make everyone feed their babies formula because some mothers can't or won't breastfeed? Dumb down the school curriculum to the lowest common denominator? Put every child in daycare because some families need that service? Force every child into public school because some parents can't or won't provide private or home education? Make every woman give birth in a hospital because some babies need a doctor's care? Ban unpasteurized milk, orange juice, and cider because not everyone has access to safe sources of these delicious drinks? Forbid handmade clothing because not every mother can sew? Put handicapping weights on the feet of the best dancers to eliminate their advantage over the klutzes?

Oh, wait. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 20, 2019 at 5:23 am | Edit
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People on Facebook and elsewhere have been wishing Florida students "happy first day of school." Leaving aside that I agree with C. S. Lewis that "the putting on of the school clothes was, I well knew, the assumption of a prison uniform," and that I am so glad to be past that part of our lives, I just have to say that August 12—the start date for many here—is a ridiculous day for the school year to commence.

Here in Florida it's not so bad, as all the buildings are air conditioned, and summer isn't the nicest season of the year anyway. But when our kids were in school and the district flirted with starting mid-summer, our kids had to choose between skipping some wonderful summer educational programs elsewhere in the country and skipping the beginning of school. (We chose the latter, but would rather not have had to do that.) Perhaps I shouldn't complain too much about that, however, or someone will suggest that school schedules should be set nationally, and I'm highly in favor of local control of schools. If people are going to wear chains, at least let those chains be of different colors.

Someone pointed out that we make up for starting early by getting out at the end of May, which is true. There's something to be said for that, though I'm not sure why one would cut off days at one end of summer just to sew them back on to the other end. The weather in June is sometimes nicer than in August, but you sure can't count on it. Still, shifting the calendar is at least better than the other thing schools have been doing: shrinking summer vacation and adding vacation days here and there throughout the year. I'm of two minds there. Granted, it's lovely to have days off in the middle of the school year, especially when the weather is nicer.

But nothing beats the traditional long, idyllic stretch of the summer, where the days are free for reading, exploring, playing pick-up games with the neighbors, or just stretching out on the ground (or up in the treehouse) and watching the sky. The summer mindset doesn't come quickly. I noticed with our own children that a week's vacation from school wasn't nearly enough, because the beginning of the week was filled with what we called detoxification—as the children re-learned to order their own days—and the end with anticipation of the return to school. Summer was long enough for freedom to take hold in our hearts. I suspect teachers feel much the same way: after each return to school, it takes students time to settle back in, and as an anticipated vacation approaches, their focus is broken. Time is wasted when durations are too short.

All that aside: Be you student, teacher, or parent, if you've chosen (or had chosen for you) the life of being tied to the School Year—I do wish you the best: a happy first day of school and all the rest of them as well.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 14, 2019 at 7:48 am | Edit
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I never fail to get a kick out of the way my mind has a mind of its own. There are things I know that I don't know I know, tucked away in the depths of those "little grey cells," waiting to be called forth, or more likely, to bubble up at random times, unbidden.

For example, there was the time I saw an interesting-looking butterfly flitting around the garden, and into my mind popped, "It's a gulf fritillary." I had no idea I knew what a gulf fritillary butterfly was, but I know I'd seen the identification before, having quite long ago made a book about butterflies for our grandchildren. It was there in my mind, somewhere, even though I could not have voluntarily recalled that information.

Then there was this, quite recently: I had just finished reading C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, and when my eyes passed over the title of the book on our kitchen counter, my mind filled in, "Impatient as the wind." After a moment's wonder, I realized that I was quoting a poem, and my next thought—again unbidden—was, "It's probably Wordsworth." Which, I later confirmed, it is. I have no idea from what depths that knowledge was dredged, nor why, at this particular time and place, it came to me.

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

I had been looking at the book and its title multiple times a day for several days, yet never once in those previous days had the poem come to mind.

I'm reminded, also, of the time early in her mathematical education, when our younger daughter cried out in frustration when I—dutiful teacher!—asked her to show her work, instead of just writing down the answer to the problem. "I can't show my work!" she exclaimed, "There is no 'work'—there is just the answer!"

I think we all know a lot more than we think we do—not everything we learned went in one ear and out the other. The problem is not so much knowledge as retrieval. It's all the more interesting to me because one of our grandchildren appears to have this undependable retrieval system under much better control than most of us: When he learns something, he knows it and he remembers it—at least a lot better than most of us do. How does that work?

And what other fascinating facts are there, sleeping in the recesses of my brain, that I know but don't know I know until they choose to reveal themselves?

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 1, 2019 at 7:24 am | Edit
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altOcean-Born Mary by Lois Lenski (J. B. Lippincott, 1939)

I grew up with Lois Lenski's Indian Captive, a fictionalized version of the story of Mary Jemison, captured by Indians during the French and Indian War. She remained with the Senecas all her life, and I have seen her grave in Letchworth State Park, one of our favorite spots in Western New York. It remains one of my favorite stories.

Many years later, after moving to Florida, I discovered the Newberry Award-winning Strawberry Girl, Lenski's novel about rural Florida in the early 20th century, and liked it also.

I wish Lenski's books weren't so hard to find. Recently I discovered a new one, in little Hillsboro, New Hampshire's tiny library: Ocean-Born Mary—and it's as good as the other two.

There's a reason this book is in a New Hampshire library: it is the fictionalized story of Mary Wilson Wallace, who was born on a ship that was part of the 18th century Scots-Irish immigration to New England. She grew up in New Hampshire, and her grave is in Henniker, the next town over from Hillsboro. Our New Hampshire grandchildren will want to be sure to read the Afterward, where they will find such familiar names as The Isles of Shoals and Star Island.

Warning: some spoilers below, but important for parents to read.

I loved Ocean-Born Mary. This is the world many of my ancestors lived in. Lenski has fictionalized the story and softened some of the harsh details for the juvenile audience, but there is great historical detail and it rings true. Written in 1939, it does not have 21st-century sensitivities, and modern parents may cringe at the casual references to "Negro slaves." But that was reality, and it's good for Northerners to realize what they would love to forget—that slavery was not exclusively a Southern sin. It was part of life at that time, as were smallpox and starvation, Indian attacks and British oppression.

Many modern parents may find even more objectionable the protagonist's friendship with an older man of very ill repute, and the fact that she sneaks away on several occasions to meet with him. Nothing untoward happens, and there is nothing at all romantic in the modern sense about the relationship. I've read many modern children's books that are infinitely worse in that dimension. Nonetheless, it may make modern parents queasy, which is why I'd suggest this book as a read-aloud, or that parents might at least read it themselves, first.

But I do recommend Ocean-Born Mary, highly. It's a gripping story, enjoyable to read, and I think it paints a good picture of colonial New England.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 22, 2019 at 8:53 pm | Edit
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There's no doubt that video games and manipulating phones and tablets develop certain skills. But if we think all that button pushing and finger-swiping are improving manual dexterity, apparently it's not doing so in ways that still matter greatly—such as the skills needed by a surgeon.

Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical. ... "It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things—cutting things out, making things—that is no longer the case," says Prof Kneebone.

Prof Kneebone says he has seen a decline in the manual dexterity of students over the past decade. ... Students have become "less competent and less confident" in using their hands, he says. ... "We have students who have very high exam grades but lack tactile general knowledge."

Such skills might once have been gained at school or at home, whether in cutting textiles, measuring ingredients, repairing something that's broken, learning woodwork or holding an instrument.

Is this something to be gravely concerned about, or will we simply turn surgery over to robots the way we have turned shifting the gears in our cars over to automatic transmissions?

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 8, 2019 at 7:02 am | Edit
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