Every now and then I land upon a book that causes me to pause, to slow my reading. My desire to absorb what I read surpasses my desire to finish the book, even such a short one as A Confession.
Leo Tolstoy was 51. Having gained fame and fortune after publishing War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), he earnestly questioned his purpose in life. Tracing his childhood and young adult life at first, Tolstoy admits that he never thought about what he believed or why. He saw no reason to continue in the Orthodox Christianity he was brought up in. People at a certain level of education didn’t need faith, he thought. “Then as now, it was and is quite impossible to judge by a man's life and conduct whether he is a believer or not.”
Tolstoy did not see how religious doctrine played a part in anyone’s life—“in intercourse with others it is never encountered, and in a man's own life he never has to reckon with it.”
Instead of pursuing what he saw as an empty faith, he says, “I tried to perfect myself mentally—I studied everything I could, anything life threw in my way; I tried to perfect my will, I drew up rules I tried to follow.” His self-centered attempts soon led to wanting to appear more perfect than others.
So he did whatever he wanted, and the older he grew, and the more he watched others, he knew he had to make progress. He wanted to be good but saw that he was alone in this desire. As he describes his military life, Tolstoy lists all of his sins, but as he turned to writing in his twenties, his fellow writers were no different at heart than the soldiers and officers he lived among for so long. It wasn’t long before he realized that “the superstitious belief in progress is insufficient as a guide to life. I had to know why I was doing it.”
It makes me remember a phrase from long ago, “the cult of progress.” In a writer’s life today, it’s still a mantra.
But then in Chapter 3, Tolstoy turns his thoughts to education as he considered plans for his own children someday. “I would say to myself: ‘What for?’” He was really asking how do we teach if we’ve never been taught--
In reality I was ever revolving round one and the same insoluble problem, which was: How to teach without knowing what to teach. In the higher spheres of literary activity I had realized that one could not teach without knowing what, for I saw that people all taught differently, and by quarreling among themselves only succeeded in hiding their ignorance from one another. But here, with peasant children, I thought to evade this difficulty by letting them learn what they liked. It amuses me now when I remember how I shuffled in trying to satisfy my desire to teach, while in the depth of my soul I knew very well that I could not teach anything needful for I did not know what was needful. After spending a year at school work I went abroad a second time to discover how to teach others while myself knowing nothing."
Tolstoy clearly recognizes the voids within him. He tried to replace an absence of faith in God with a faith in himself. He tried to give himself purpose, trying to attain status and fame in the military and as a writer before turning to teaching peasant families, all before he married and had a family. His striving had left him empty, and with his retrospective, Tolstoy saw himself for what he lacked.
I’ve only read these first chapters of A Confession, and I think I’ll reread them before moving on. Maybe it’s because I’m near the same age as he was when he examined his life. Maybe it’s because, when I'm alone, I question the fruitfulness of my life. Regardless, Tolstoy gives us much to ponder. What do we truly value? Do I know what I believe? Do I know my purpose?
“The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence,
and by reason of their very duration, great misfortunes are monotonous.”
As an independent teacher, I was eager to make a curriculum shift to my World Literature class this school year. I added Albert Camus’s best-selling novel The Plague because I wondered how my students would see a fictional epidemic.
Why not use our times as a secondary context to the novel?
I was not disappointed by our discussions in September. Though Oran, Algeria, is beset by plague, the novel is relatively static. It is also uniquely ahistorical. It may be set in 1947 but there are no references to World War II. Neither the Arab nor African populations of Oran are mentioned. Centuries of segregation are never described. And then there are the facts. It is not possible for a town to have sustained itself for the period of time described in the novel. Yes, the characters are realistic, but the novel is not.
This unique paradigm, however, lends itself to the timelessness Camus captures. Within the bubble of Oran, Camus’s commentary as narrator allows him to describe the “portents and panic” with searing truth.
As COVID broke out in March and April, The Plague, of course, was referenced and quoted repeatedly. Penguin Classics has already had to reprint it twice this year.
From my class discussions, here are my top timeless quotes:
Spanning generations and political views, the authors I teach here have influenced how I see people, how I see my own students, and hopefully how we all see the world we live in.
1. Booker T. Washington
If you read my blog, you know I’m an ardent fan of Washington and his words. [See An Educator’s Devotion and Booker T. Washington’s Compromise.] When I read his Character Training (1902) in January this year, I was inspired to be more intentional in laying excellence as a standard in my classrooms. I’ve continued to read more of his works and biographies by others, including the singular The Negro in the South lectures with W. E. B. Du Bois. It's interesting to see the two men juxtaposed. Even if you've never read these men before, Washington is naturally more positive in these lectures while Du Bois's deep sense of injustice permeates his words.
2. Lorraine Hansberry
Just as Washington believed hard work and perseverance were noble efforts, Hansberry depicted a different reality in the 1950s, the limitation of the American Dream for black Americans. I know it’s not her only work, but her play A Raisin in the Sun (1957) is such a living picture. She writes to her mother, “It is a play that tells the truth about people. But above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity.” It is the essence of a merciful humanism, a good kind, that stirs understanding in the middle of activism.
3. Chinua Achebe
Like Hansberry, Achebe was published by the age of 28. I first read Achebe in college under the tutelage of a visiting professor from Nigeria. More than the class discussions about Things Fall Apart (1958), I remember the sense of my cultural ignorance. Yes, suffering, pride, and injustice are human frailties, but more than that, a native son can criticize his own country for allowing Western values to compete with traditional African culture. I also read his second novel No Longer at Ease (1960) and include my reflections here in Reading Binges. It very much reminded me of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
4. Christopher Paul Curtis
I first read Bud, Not Buddy (2000) with my oldest son when he was in third grade. Bud, a ten-year-old African American boy, runs away from his abusive foster family in Flint, Michigan. He embarks on a journey to find his father, enduring the fears and horrors of the Great Depression. Written in a strong, compelling voice, Bud, Not Buddy beautifully evokes what life was like for African Americans, especially musicians, in Michigan during the Depression. Since then, my family was captured by Curtis’s historical fiction, having read The Watsons Go To Birmingham and Elijah of Buxton. I continue to recommend Curtis to families looking for compelling historical reads.
5. Harriet Ann Jacobs
At the recommendation of Karen Swallow Prior, I finally read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) two years ago. Not only had I never heard of the account, but my students hadn’t either. I now include excerpts from Jacobs after I teach Washington's Up from Slavery. Jacobs addresses her autobiography to white Northern women who fail to comprehend the evils of slavery. Published in 1861, it is a harrowing account of hiding for seven years before being reunited with her children in New York. After the Civil War, Jacobs traveled to Union-occupied parts of the South together with her daughter to organize help and begin two schools for fugitive and freed slaves. Her book was well-received in America and England.
TEACHING MY STUDENTS how to improve their own writing is no easy task. I emphasize content and typically focus on one to two stylistic elements per assignment. At the beginning of the school year, I quickly noticed that my seniors were overfond of the verb “use” in most any casual or formal writing assignment. We quickly built a synonym base for the word on the whiteboard and discussed connotations. For several months, I had them search and highlight the word, allowing for a single use.
As I worked on my novel these past months, my editor had to repeatedly teach me how to balance my use of active and passive voice in both dialogue and narration. Repeatedly. It took a number of attempts for my brain to get it. And practice was very much a part of the process.
My point is that it often takes mini-lessons like these as we each take steps in our writing or even speaking. And that is when writing style guides can be such a help. But forget writing classics like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The concept of spelling out rules with writing examples was tackled well before the 20th century. Think of Aristotle’s Poetics in 4th century BC. Though he focuses on drama and epic, he does address the use of language and a playwright’s diction.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also consider a short but splendid stylebook of the first century, one that considers the written and the spoken word. More than our contemporary guides, Cassius Longinus explores the motive of the writer. Why is he writing? What is his end? But more importantly, can we attain sublimity of language? Are we capable of learning it?
A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no.”
In On the Sublime I especially enjoy how Longinus speaks of the artistic turn of phrase, the creator's craft, as he cites concrete examples from Homer, the Bible, Sappho, Herodotus, Aristarchus, and so on. The sublime is a simple term that implies so much. The "loftiness and excellence of language" remain the ideal in writing as opposed to fluff or bombast. And yes, Longinus, fully discredits those as false writing. I think today we would call that emotional or reactionary writing. Bombast is simply writing that goes too far. The writer recognizes the need to be original in his use of description and goes overboard. Longinus eventually calls it pathetic. It seems everyone wants to be original. Too true.
In Part XV, Longinus provides real examples from Homer, Sophocles, and others that we can imitate. Grand language and perfectly crafted imagery are praised most, but his third and fourth principles are the most practical. Combine figures of speech or rhetorical devices for the most effect. A “close and continuous series of metaphors” is distinctive. Use conjunctions intentionally. Arrange your words in a certain and best order.
There is so much more to his advice and criticism, but I especially appreciate Longinus’ analysis of a writer’s style. After we have picked at all the parts, how do we determine what the best writing is? His final pages explore this very question--
Is it not worthwhile to raise the whole question whether in poetry and prose we should prefer sublimity accompanied by some faults, or a style which never rising above moderate excellence never stumbles and never requires correction? ... these are questions proper to an inquiry on the Sublime, and urgently ask for settlement."
And Longinus finds it hard to do. At first, he says a reader can discern an innate harmony within an essay. The reader simply knows it is sublime writing. But then, Longinus provides several examples of what sublime language is not. In other words, good writing remains to this day something easy to recognize yet hard to define.
Read "On the Sublime" at Project Gutenberg.
Experience humbles us. So does sin.
In My Divine Comedy: A Mother’s Homeschooling Journey, Missy Andrews not only presents an educator’s memoir but also a spiritual trek, one reminiscent of Petrarch’s “Ascent of Mount Ventoux.” Andrews details the failures of relying on ourselves as parents and educators. Those failures spoke to me as a mother and as a teacher because she calls us to remember that motherhood and home education are “fruitful work.” But not before reminding us that our students might be performance-driven because we have modeled it for them first.
It is the age-old problem of confusing what we do with who we are. Our work as educators or as parents is not our identity nor should our identity be based on our performance checklists, or testing, or following the latest and greatest curriculums. If we do not see that we are imperfect, that our motives and our ideals are impure, we can be guilty of creating an idol out of education itself. Andrews asks us if we’ve mistaken “the good gifts of God for the Giver.”
And that’s the point. What is education really?
Andrews has a wonderful way of describing what it is by what it isn’t. I was captured by her comments on what she called “the identity race” that we see in every type of schooling—public, private, home, or co-op. We can mistakenly train children and teens with questions like “What are you good at?” rather than “Who are you really?” When we equate schooling with performance and doing, we mislead our students and cause them to ask, “Is anything good enough ever?” Here, she poignantly cites the account of the prodigal son and his brother in Luke 15. In this instance, both boys saw themselves as doers, employees, rather than as sons of a loving father.
Andrews leads us through scripture and literature to show us the truth of Proverbs 29:25 — the fear of man is a snare because we become man-pleasers. She is clear. We will never know it all and neither will our children or our students. They need to know this from the beginning.
True education familiarizes a child with the stuff of goodness, truth, and beauty in order to equip him with eyes to see his true condition, the shortfall between the ideal and the real. This self-awareness has the potential to awaken humility and prime the soul for an encounter with the sole source of goodness, God Himself.”
Andrews’ memoir is not about perfect solutions in education or becoming the ideal homeschooling parent. Rather, it’s about a shift in perspective, a humbling awareness of God’s abundant grace that makes us fit for good work.
Read more Book Reviews on classic and contemporary novels.
No, there's no such thing as husband poetry.
I mean my husband asked me to teach him more about poetry. My husband felt there were decided holes in his education, but I thought surely somewhere in junior high or high school a dedicated teacher must have taught him some famous verse. He swears he remembers nothing of the sort. Thus, three months ago, my husband picked up a volume of Emily Brontë poetry and determined to understand what he read.
He was already a decided Brontë sisters' admirer, so likability wasn't an issue. What did become an issue was rhyme scheme and syllable structure. So what to do?
As he read poetry before bed each evening, he began to ask me questions like Why does this line have eight syllables and this one has ten?
I know, I know. Nerd alert. How many married couples talk like this before falling asleep? Anyway, I began by asking him not only to count syllables in every line, but to also determine if there was a pattern. How many lines are in the overall poem? Did you say 14? So what type of poem is that? What was Bronte imitating? Pretty soon I realized we needed to start at the beginning. All the intelligent Rush lyrics of his youth bred a natural appreciation for poetry and the lyrical art, but that didn't mean he understood the required elements of the poet's work.
This is what we've learned so far in the poetry journey:
STEP ONE: Read poetry you like, poetry you're drawn to.
Each person has their own taste of course. Bronte did that for him as did Frost and Seamus Heaney.
STEP TWO: Break apart the poem skeleton.
This is tricky because if you spend too much time identifying parts you can also remove the pleasure of reading for the beauty of the thing. At the same time without the knowledge of parts it's hard to appreciate the whole. Think of the human skeleton. Knowing the parts of the body that frame it and allow it to stand and move increases our appreciation of its overall appearance.
STEP THREE: Find a teaching text that's written at your level.
Perhaps the most difficult creature to find, an instructional book is a necessary thing unless you already have an English teacher spouse at your side. From homeschooling curricula to college-level texts, there are too many choices. I've read quite a few that make poetry more difficult and even more that make it too simple. The trick is to find the one that fits you. As an adult learner, my husband didn't want a middle school beginner though he was willing. Instead we went entirely old school. Why not learn from two distinguished Yale professors?
MY TOP RECOMMENDATIONS
Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. It's no longer in print but is a valuable text if you find one. You can learn so much from reading just two chapters on narrative and descriptive poems. Brooks and Warren include plenty of examples and commentary on how the poem works and what it means. It is most helpful to learn from their wealth of experience and to learn from the types of questions they ask about each poem.
The Harp and Laurel Wreath by Laura Berquist. Berquist has compiled a thorough representation for grades 1-12. Poems are listed for memorization, analysis, and writing practice. She includes questions following each poem that are perfect for class discussion or independent learning. The appendices include most every literary term tied to poetry study in addition to plentiful examples on meter, rhyme, and verse.
*originally published November 29, 2017
DEVOTION CAN MEAN MANY THINGS. Sometimes we don’t realize we are devoted to something until we see how much time we give to it.
That’s how I would describe the steadfast quality in Booker Taliaferro Washington. Beginning in the 1880s, on almost every Sunday evening at Tuskegee Institute, Washington collected his students, teachers, and visitors to speak to them. The gathering wasn’t called a chapel service nor a Bible study, simply Sunday Evening Talks. His devotion to education and to the people who surrounded him in his work was clear. As Washington said,
Unless you have got truth, you have failed in your purpose to be educated.”
In these talks, Washington speaks of practical education, the trades, and working with our hands. He addresses qualities and virtues such as self-reliance, obedience, justice, and responsibility in order to study the nature of man. He mentions disappointments, homesickness, difficulties with people, and the danger of success but adds that we must always be aware of opportunities, even seeing life as a series of opportunities:
And so you will find it all through life, especially for the next fifty or one hundred years, that those persons who are going to be constantly in demand, constantly sought after, are those who make the best use of their opportunities, who work unceasingly to become proficient in whatever they attempt to do.”
On February 10, 1895, Washington illustrated the position of his students this way. He explained coming out of slavery as coming out of a sickbed where a man had been for a long, long time. The sick man would recover given time and opportunity, but he would have to learn again how to use his muscles, how to eat, how to function and work. Placed side by side with a healthy man, the sick man has a long way to reach his full strength. It is a process. The metaphor extends to equality between the races.
By 1902, a collection of these talks was published by Doubleday as Character Building: Being Addresses Delivered on Sunday Evenings To the Students of Tuskegee Institute. The booklet reads, “The speaker has put into them his whole moral earnestness, his broad common-sense and, in many places, his eloquence. Many of Mr. Washington's friends have said that some of these addresses are the best of his utterances.”
In the talk “Helping Others,” Washington speaks to all of us:
This institution does not exist for your education alone;
Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Booker T. Washington, half-length portrait, seated., ca1895. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2010645746/.
AS I HAVE reread lots of C.S. Lewis for the past two months, I was delighted by his many timely suggestions in An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis truly shuns critics and their systems. He would have us ask what benefit literary criticism offers if each theory presents but one angle. But more than that, the critics have spent so much time developing their critical theories that they just might have forgotten why they began writing about reading in the first place.
Tongue-in-cheek, Lewis says we are to leave them, the critics, to their own (now better informed) reactions because “When I inquire what helps I have had in this matter [in understanding what I read] I seem to discover a somewhat unexpected result. The evaluative critics come at the bottom of the list.”
I had to laugh aloud at that. Let's all boot the critics!
More than anything Lewis reminds us that the value of what we read lies with the reader alone--
For me it stands or falls by its power to multiply, safeguard, or prolong those moments when a good reader is reading well a good book and the value of literature thus exists in actu.”
He wants us to think for ourselves and think of what we really derive from our reading. “If we take literature in the widest sense, so as to include the literature both of knowledge and of power, the question ‘What is the good of reading what anyone writes?’ is very like the question ‘What is the good of listening to what anyone says?’ Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer is obvious. And if it is worth while listening or reading at all, it is often worth doing so attentively. Indeed we must attend even to discover that something is not worth attention.”
Simply put, if something is worth reading, it is worth our full attention.
More than understanding and discernment, though, what we read can reach us in deeper ways than we know. Whether we get out of ourselves or dive more deeply inward, Lewis says that one reason we happily read fiction is because we delight in the stir of our imaginations--
We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.”
AGES AGO I took a college course titled “History of the English Language.” In the textbook, Pyle and Algeo argue that language development makes us human. They begin with what we know—speech comes first then writing. Simply put, we can talk before we can write. There are spoken languages in fact with no written form. In spoken language, inflection and stress provide intended meaning. Writing itself distinguishes meaning through its process, but it is useless without words.
Words are building blocks, units, ingredients, pieces of a sentence or thought puzzle.
But before it entered an English dictionary, the word word was known by the Greeks as logos. In pre-Socratic philosophy it was the principle governing the cosmos because it encapsulated human reasoning. The Sophists later saw it as the topic of rational argument or the arguments themselves. The Stoics viewed logos as nous—the active, material, rational principle of the cosmos that was identified with God. It was both the source of all activity and generation and the power of reason residing in the human soul. In Judaism, logos becomes the living, active word of God. It is creative power, and it is God’s medium of communication with mankind. In Christianity, logos becomes the creative word of God which is itself God incarnate in Jesus in John 1.
As I write this summer, I am ever conscious of how words are used, and not just mine. The writer of Ecclesiastes 3 might describe it this way—words are used to inspire fear, to bring wisdom, to bring joy, to show emotion, to display passions, to attack or defend, to bring comfort, to encourage, to belittle or tear down, to cause pain, to bring healing, to mend. Whether I write fiction or nonfiction, blogs or essays, speeches or stories, the inherent caution is there. My words, our words, have life as we give them. As writers, readers, and speakers, we share a responsibility to use them well.
MY STUDENTS ARE CERTAIN that the word thesis applies only to nonfiction. That is after all the only way they have ever personally used it. In essays. In speeches. In formal rhetoric classes.
But the word itself has no such limitation. In ancient Greek, the word means to physically place a proposition statement, to place it with intention. In logic, further etymology explains it was recorded in the 1570s as a formulation in advance of a proposition to be proved and only later in the 1650s did it come to mean a fully written speech as a dissertation presented by a candidate for a university degree. (1)
Though the word itself can mean a sentence or a paper or a speech, I would like to speak of it as a seminal sentence, the one thought (or close to one) that is the seed, the pith, of a story or novel. It’s not something we the readers create. It’s a sentence the author wrote.
So how do we find that sentence?
Or I could better ask, how do we recognize it?
I offer some questions to help:
My best examples come from Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs through It, because there are many sentences that capture the novel. And that’s the fun of analysis. As readers who have experienced the story, we get to choose.
Do we go with the poetic, like the first sentence which holds true for the entire story? Maclean writes, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
But what of the last pages? After experiencing the grand Elkhorn Canyon and so many beautiful moments on the Big Blackfoot River, we read, “A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.” And Maclean’s final words ring with beauty—
Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Or could that pith of a sentence be a philosophy like the curiosity theory mentioned by Maclean? Does it apply to fishing and life? “It is the theory that fish, like men, will sometimes strike at things just to find out what they are and not because they look good to eat.”
Or could we choose the theme of help when Norman offers his brother help after posting bond to get him out of jail? A few pages later, ironically, Paul asks if Norman should “help” his brother-in-law, “But maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.” How true for the brothers themselves. Norman’s wife Jessie says, “Why is it that people who want help do better without it—at least, no worse.” But then his father defines it— “Help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. So it is...that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves.” He comments that perhaps it is just being willing to help that counts.
From the many angles of an angler, we see that a story can flow with many thesis sentences. But I would also add this caution. A story can't be interpreted in dozens of ways. It shouldn't be. It can't just mean what you want it to mean. We rely on the author's words because he does have intent. The living words of a story have a soul, and that is the sentence I look for.
1. Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary.