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Josephine Tey: The Franchise Affair (audio)

On the weekend of November 6, i.e. the weekend after the election, my wife and I made an overnight trip to my ancestral homeland of northern Alabama. It's a 5 1/2 hour drive at least, more if you make more than the minimal stops, so we usually listen to an audio book on the way up and back, trying to find one that will take most of the time but not go over it. This time it was the above-mentioned Josephine Tey novel, read by Carole Boyd. 

It's pretty rare for me that I recognize the name of the reader of an audio book, and the pattern held here. The quality of this one is so fine that I wanted to know more about the narrator, so as soon as I got home I looked her up. It turns out that Carole Boyd is a moderately successful actress (see Wikipedia), especially so at voice work.

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Christopher Lasch: The Revolt of the Elites

RevoltOfTheElites

Having finally read this well-known and so-often-recommended book, I'm sorry to say that I was a little disappointed in it. It's not that there is anything wrong with its actual contents--it's a good book, and I recommend it--but that the contents aren't quite what I was expecting. I assumed that the topic named in the title would be the entire subject of the book. But "The Revolt of the Elites" is really the title essay in a collection whose subjects range somewhat afield from that of the one. They are certainly related, describing other components of the general "betrayal of democracy" which is the book's subtitle, but they don't deal specifically with the revolt.

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The Closing of the American Mind, Visited

"Visited" as opposed to "revisited," which is what most people who are interested in this book are doing now if they are discussing it. It was published over thirty years ago, in 1987, and attracted a great deal of attention then. I was aware of it, and had a rough idea of what it was about, but didn't read it. Over the past several years there has been some revisiting of it, with people saying that Bloom accurately diagnosed a number of bad tendencies which have only gotten worse since the book was published. 

So, better late than never, I've read it. A thorough consideration of it is beyond the scope of what I can do in a blog post, but here's my broad view.

TheClosingOfTheAmericanMindIt is a very good book, maybe in some ways a great one and a classic in a limited sort of way: at any rate a polemic that transcends polemic and has outlasted its occasion. Though it does begin and end with a discussion of higher education, it also takes in the last three centuries or so of Western intellectual history, and returns frequently to the Greeks, especially Plato. A good deal of what he says there is beyond my reach, dealing with figures of whom I've read little or nothing, and in some cases am only vaguely aware of. Nietzsche: I've read one book. Locke and Rousseau: I have a rough idea of what they're about. Max Weber: German? Something or other about capitalism?

Nevertheless, I recognize the malaise:

To repeat, the crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization. But perhaps it would be true to say that the crisis consists not so much in this incoherence but in our incapacity to discuss or even recognize it. Liberal education flourished when it prepared the way for the discussion of a unified view of nature and man's place in it, which the best minds debated on the highest level

A very good book, at least, and yet also a tragic one, and Bloom a tragic figure (in his public role, not necessarily his private life). Bloom might be thought of as the last public intellectual. Well, not the last, but one of the last. A celebrity, someone said, is a person who is famous for being well-known. Similarly, a public intellectual might be a person who is famous for  being an intellectual. That is, there is no requirement or even expectation of such a person that this exercise will result in any settled conclusion or permanent wisdom; the exercise, the wrestling with important ideas, is the essential thing. I'm thinking of real intellectuals, not the pseudo-intellectuals, entertainers, and political fanatics who tend to be given the title now but don't really deserve it.

Bloom is the kind of person who was once more common in our universities than now: a man pursuing, in absolute earnest, knowledge and truth, and following wherever they tend to lead him. Perhaps there were never really very many such people, but they were the ideal, at least. (And I know that at least one existed, because he was my teacher.) The contemporary university is now frequently inhospitable to them (which is probably to understate the case). The old ideal is more or less gone, and in its place is service to a quasi-religious political program. 

Bloom also represents what appears now to be the last gasp of the Enlightenment. His understanding of man and of the life of the mind in the modern world is explicitly rooted there. He sees history in the way of the Enlightenment and its apologists: there were the Greek and Roman classics, followed by roughly 1500 years of darkness, and then the dawn. He isn't naive enough to use the term "Dark Ages," but he treats the Christian centuries as such. And he is wise enough to note, in passing, that religion is a natural human phenomenon of which the loss is not necessarily a good thing. But nowhere in the book does he take religious ideas--that is, theology, and religious philosophy--seriously. In fact they are barely mentioned at all. He seems to take as an axiom that actual religious belief is intellectually untenable.

And so there is an enormous hole at the center of his understanding of the crisis. The passage quoted above would in its sense if not its style be more or less at home in Newman's view of liberal education. But for Bloom the unified vision for which he longs is impossible to achieve. There can only be a perpetual search and struggle, as he more or less acknowledges at several points. The search may be heroic, but the very best that can be hoped for is that now and then a gifted individual may arrive at a vision. I'm doubtful that anyone of much insight even believes any more that philosophy and the Great Books alonecan save our civilization. I wonder what Bloom would think if he were still alive (he died only five years after the book was published).

For some odd reason, almost the only specific thing I recall reading about the book when it was published is a comment from a liberal dismissing it as conservative crankiness (yes, the lines were already drawn back then). It went something like this: "Bloom is stupid because he thinks that the Great Books and other elements of western culture are the solution. The Nazis were cultured, and look where that got us."

The comment was itself cranky and reactionary. But it's at least half true. 

Bloom, by the way, denied that he was a conservative. And he was one only in the sense that he wished to conserve what he saw as the core of Western and specifically American civilization. 


Daniel Taylor: Death Comes for the Deconstructionist

I just finished this wonderful book. You should read it. 

I'm busy with, among several other things, trying to put a mobile-friendly design for this blog into operation, so I'm not going to say a whole lot about it. I'll let the blurbs at the publisher, Slant Books, do that job for me: click here

Well, of course I can't resist saying something. Imagine, if you will [Rod Serling voice], a murder mystery written by Walker Percy. Imagine that it's Percy at his wittiest and most surgically painful and merciful. Like I said, you should read it.

DeathComesForTheDeconstructionist


Slant Books: Web Site and Blog

Perhaps you're aware of Greg Wolfe's new enterprise, Slant Books. Slant is:

a literary imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers specializing in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essay collections, and beyond. 

Wipf and Stock, as you probably know, is a theologically-oriented publisher. You can read a bit more about both the house and the imprint here

Slant has a new web site, and a new blog called Close Reading, which is off to a very interesting start. That title phrase is one I'm fond of, and haven't heard for a long time. It was a sort of ideal or at least a highly regarded practice back when I was on the fringes of literary academia, and to me it was tied up with a more or less moral ideal of intellectual integrity. I'm a little surprised that it's survived, since the kind of close reading I hear of these days often seems to be more along the lines of the "interrogation" practiced by post-modernists, for which the association of the word with secret police and beatings is often far too appropriate. But here is what it means at Slant:

Close Reading is the art of paying attention to the ways that literary form and meaning interact. In our politicized era, when craft and vision have often been replaced by propaganda, the art of close reading reminds us that great literature deepens our respect for mystery and the divided nature of the human heart — and in so doing offers us hope for healing and reconciliation.

I'll certainly be following the blog. And as for Slant's titles, well, at this point I don't have much personal experience, but what I have seen is excellent. As those who read this blog may be aware, I don't read a lot of contemporary literature, which is in large part because I'm still trying to read the classics. But I did buy Daniel Taylor's mystery, Do We Not Bleed?, some months ago.  It's the second in a series, and I enjoyed it for several chapters until I decided that I really needed to know more about the background of the narrator and his odd sister, Judy. So I bought Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, which I've barely started but is off to a great start: its more-or-less-accidental detective seems to be a Walker-Percy-ish sort of character, "expert on a thousand things I wish I didn't know." (That reminds me of one of my favorite pop song lines, Bob Seger's in "Against the Wind": "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.") 

One thing I can say with certainty is that these books are beautifully produced. Here are the links again:

Slant Books

Close Reading


3:10 To Yuma

Several years ago (more than several, actually) I had the notion of watching the old-time Westerns that are considered classics. I went through several of them--The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and maybe a couple of others. I was somewhat disappointed, especially as I loved Western stuff when I was a kid, and didn't go any further. 

The other day something reminded me of another film that's usually ranked with those others, 3:10 To Yuma, from 1957. I found it on the Criterion Channel, which I have not used very much and am wondering whether I should cancel, and watched it, in two roughly 45-minute sessions.

I really liked it, and it's definitely my favorite of its type at this point. It's a good story, pretty convincing for the most part in spite of the conventions of the time. It's about a rancher who ends up, more or less against his will, solely responsible for getting a captured outlaw on that 3:10 train, with the outlaw's gang trying to stop him. Glenn Ford, atypically, plays the outlaw, and is very effective--genial and charming with just a hint of menace. 

But what I really love about it is the photography. It's very crisp black-and-white, and full of the Western scenery that I love. The story is set in southern Arizona, and I think it may have been shot there, or perhaps in some part of southern California where the landscape is similar. You can get a sense of the quality in this Criterion Collection trailer:

The song, by the way, has nothing at all to do with the plot, except for the title reference. 

The movie is based on an Elmore Leonard story by the same name. Being an admirer of Leonard, I was curious about the original story, and found it at the local library in a collection called The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories. I suppose I have to say that I was disappointed in the story. It's pretty slight, its action including only roughly the last half of the movie. It's a case where you could argue that the movie is better than the story, though I don't really trust my judgment there, since I encountered the movie first. Some of the other stories in the collection are really good, though. And they have a sort of potato-chip, can't-eat-just-one appeal. I think I've read half of them now, and I only got the book a couple of days ago, with no intention of reading more than the one story.

There's a 2007 remake of the movie which apparently got pretty good reviews. I may watch it sometime. My interest was dampened a bit by a clip which I saw on YouTube, thinking it was just sort of a trailer, which gave away the very different ending.

Many years ago in college I had a Southern Lit teacher who had a very old-style  genteel southern accent, and who once, when whispering and giggling broke out in class, said to the culprits "I fail to see the humor." Only in his accent it came out as "I fail to see the Yuma."  It's unfortunate for me that I still remember that after almost fifty years.


The Eighth Day Books Catalog Is Back

I say that even though I had never seen it until a few days ago, when it arrived in the mail, announcing its return. I didn't know it had been away. I've been hearing about Eighth Day Books for years, but didn't know much more than that it is a highly regarded Christian bookseller, with an Orthodox slant. 

I think they got my name and address from one of the magazines I subscribe to. I can tell because they have my name as "Maclin," not "James M" or "Mac." Maybe it was Touchstone. Or Dappled Things. In any case, I'm glad they did, because it's a great catalog. If you're not familiar with it, but you used to get the old A Common Reader and/or Cahill and Company catalogs, this can fairly be described as a Christian version of them. I know, Cahill was/is Christian, but, as I recall, in a sort of lite way. And I seem to recall liking Common Reader more, but it's a shaky memory.

At any rate I did love the Common Reader catalog, which I think was killed by Amazon. It was a good read in itself, and although I did not order very often from it, because I didn't have much money to spare in those days, it did introduce me to some writers of whom I had not previously heard, such as Alice Thomas Ellis and Ronald Blythe. (I hope I'm not giving it credit that should go to Cahill and Company; these are decades-old memories.)

The Eighth Day catalog is just as good, just as much a good read. I've now looked through most of, and read much of, its 130 pages. I have to admit that I have no plan and not a great deal of desire to order books from several of its categories: Theology and Patristics, Ecclesiography, probably not even Spiritual Direction or Athletes of Prayer. At one time I might have coveted some of these, but at this point in my life much of it seems too specialized for me. But the literary stuff, and the more general philosophical-theological stuff--well, I've already marked several titles to be ordered.

For instance: George Steiner, known primarily as a literary critic, died recently. Many years ago (close to fifty) I read some of his reviews in The New Yorker and was impressed enough by them that his name stayed with me as a writer I might want to investigate further. I think it was one of these which included a remark which has stayed with me ever since: that The Waste Land was "a last run through the stacks before they close the library." I never have followed up on that impulse, but news of his death reminded me of him. And here's this catalog which includes two intriguing titles by him, Real Presences and In Bluebeard's Castle.

And I do intend to order them from Eighth Day, possibly even using the order form in the back of the catalog. Even if one disapproves or is suspicious of Amazon in principle, the temptation to use it is often almost irresistible, for reasons which I'm sure we all know, and which come down to "it's so convenient." For a while I tried to make myself use my local independent bookstore instead, but essentially everything I want is a special order for them, requiring two trips to the store (one to place the order, one to pick it up). Also: (a) I suspect special orders are more trouble than they're worth for the store, and (b) I don't think the store needs me. This has become a pretty affluent town over the past 25 years or so, and the store now includes a coffee shop and a music venue, and seems to be doing very well without my occasional few dollars.

Here's the Eighth Day Books web site. At a quick look I don't see a way to sign up for the catalog, but maybe if you order from them they put you on the list. Another reason for buying from them is to keep getting the catalog, though I suppose it doesn't change very much from one edition to the next.


Interesting Item for Twin Peaks Fans

Some intriguing comments from Mark Frost at the Welcome to Twin Peaks web site, which I guess I should look at more often. On The Return:

The themes we were looking at were different. All of that is reflected in the show. I think it’s an older and somewhat sadder and wiser look at the world.

I found the third season somewhat disappointing, but that wasn't the reason. I guess my criticisms are worse, really, because what disappointed me were some of the specific artistic moves. The minimizing of Agent Tammy Preston's role, for instance, for which Mark Frost's book The Secret History of Twin Peaks raised expectations. 

And I don't know about "wiser." Darker, for sure. 


It Pleases Me To Know That This Exists

CollectorsWodehouseThe publisher's description doesn't say, but multiplying rows and columns in that image gives me ninety-nine for the number of volumes. I think that covers all the fiction, though apparently sorting that out is complicated--the order and titles differ somewhat between British and American printings, for instance. This treasure can be yours for only $1975.00, and probably worth every bit of it. I say "probably" because I don't have much acquaintance with Wodehouse's work apart from the Jeeves and Blandings books. 

These are very, very nice editions. I have all but one of the Jeeves-and-Woosters, and a few others. I thought I had all the former, but discovered the other day that I lack one, Right Ho, Jeeves, and immediately sat down to order it. I came across this collection in the course of searching for Right Ho. It appears that some of the individual titles, perhaps many, have gone out of print. I hope they won't stay that way. 

I first became really fond of Wodehouse some years ago after a rather dispiriting Christmas, when I found that he is a very effective mood-brightener. And now reading one of his books around the holidays is...well, not exactly a firm tradition, but something I do most years. This year I couldn't remember which ones I'd read, so I arranged the shelf in order of publication and read the first one, The Inimitable Jeeves. This holiday season was a little on the extra dispiriting side, so I'm having a second helping, Carry On, Jeeves. This one I have read before, and am enjoying every bit as much on this second reading. 

A little quote from Evelyn Waugh is featured on the dust jackets of these editions:

Mr Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

It certainly hasn't staled for me. More of Waugh on Wodehouse can be found here. Also, here is what seems to be an authoritative list of the order in which his books were published, in their British editions as far as I can tell, and very handily divided into separate lists for the series. That was how I found conclusively that I was missing a Jeeves title.