Friday, January 30, 2015

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren

At the beginning of January, I decided that I was going to read a serious book.  A book that would stretch me and make me work on stretching my mind just a little.  I picked up How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren.  It was the beginning of January and I was fresh off of making a good resolutions list and it felt so pleasantly stark and stiff for a gray January.  I finally finished it and I confess to almost dropping the book a few times.  However, I'm glad I stuck with it and I think that I will definitely be glad of a few tips and tricks that I picked up.

How to Read a Book was written in the 40s and was a call to arms for people to return to the serious reading of their forefathers.  This meant intelligent reading, rather than mindless reading, and also reading difficult books, rather than light novels.  In the back is a 30 page reading list of every classic that Messrs. Adler and van Doren believed to be important for the Western reader.

The book reminded me in many ways of The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer.  It had similar themes and, while Bauer's writing style was much more accessible, both Adler/van Doren and Bauer were/are greatly influenced by the Great Books movement.

Not there weren't some problems with the book.  The book recommendations were extremely dated.  Now, before you say, but of course they were dated, we're talking about classics here!  The notion that Classics (with a capital C) are all written by dead, white men is a bit dated and one that I do take offense to.  And it's one of the things that I appreciated about Susan Wise Bauer's book.  She was happy to include Toni Morrison along with Charles Dickens.  Adler and van Doren's list was so skewed that Emily Bronte didn't make it onto the list.

Adler starts with the premise that there are 3 levels of reading and that we need to be fully using every level or else we will not be getting every bit we can out of the book.  First is elementary reading, which is simply the act of reading that we all learn in elementary school.  Next comes inspection reading, where you systematically skim first of all and then carefully analyze all parts of the book to gain a better understanding of it.  Finally comes analytical reading, the process of which takes up the second third of the book.  It includes pigeonholing the book, x-raying the book, coming to terms with the author, determining the authors message, criticizing the book fairly, agree or disagreeing with the author and then aids to reading are discussed.

Part 3 deals with specific instructions on how to deal with every genre of writing, from practical books to philosophy.  The last part discusses the ultimate goals of reading and ends by summarizing why we should all be reading in this way.

The section on inspectional reading was what fascinated me the most.  I had been taught to scorn the practice of skim reading, but Adler's words completely changed my mind.  He writes,

"Let us assume two further elements in the situation, elements that are quite common.  First, you do not know whether you want to read a book.  You do not know whether it deserves an analytical reading.  But you suspect that it does, or at least that it contains both information and insights that would be valuable to you if you dig them out.  Second, let us assume-and this is very often the case-taut you only have a limited time in which to find all this out.  In this case, what you must do is skim the book, or as some prefer to say, pre-read it."

Now, to be fair, the kind of skimming I scorn is not what Adler and van Doren were referring to and, if the reader determines that the book is worth his or her while, then of course, they will not stop there, but go on to read the book again.

The book really inspired me.  In fact, this book is a large part of the reason why I decided to join Classics Club.  I was so spurred on after reading this interesting book that I wanted to start in on a whole stack of classics!  However, while Adler and van Doren were thinking about classics and meaty books when they were writing this, I don't think that's any reason to not apply these tips to my everyday reading.  After all, don't I do a sped-up version of inspectional reading when I decide whether I want to read a book that looks interesting at the library?  And I'm already starting to apply little bits and pieces of the analytical reading step to my reading-asking myself what the author's message is or what the tone of the piece is.  And I like to imagine that it's helped me become a better, more thoughtful reader.

I really recommend this book and, while the book is thick and pretty tome-like, the writing is not at all difficult and I gleaned so many interesting tips that I think plowing through the book was worth it.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thoughts on Narnia

(Girl With Her Head in a Book did a lovely post on Top Ten Irritating Book Characters.  One of the characters she listed was Susan, the responsible big sister in Chronicles of Narnia.  And that is how this train of thought started.)

Narnia is a series that I remember so fondly.  Throughout my elementary school years, my dad was primarily the evening read-aloud parent and we plowed through so many classic children's books together-Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time and Meet the Austins, Matilda, and so many more.  And, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia made it onto the list.  I remember loving them.  I wept bitterly through Aslan's death and resurrection and laughed at dear Mr. Tumnus and all of the other wonderful characters.  Narnia is one of those books that will live on in my memory probably forever.  Then I picked up the books again at some point recently (maybe 2 years ago?) and I began to notice new elements.

Of course, by the time I read the books again recently,  I was well acquainted with C.S. Lewis and had enjoyed The Great Divorce and the Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity and all of those books.  And I really do admire Lewis as a thinker and a Christian.  However, I also came to realize that he was very much a man of his time and his opinions come through loud and clear.

Of course, it's a pretty much universally known piece of information that Narnia is one great biblical analogy.  The books are about the Christian story, starting with the new worlds created when Edmund and Lucy jump into the pools in The Magician's Nephew and ending with the Book of Revelation-filled The Last Battle.  Aslan is, of course, Jesus and the four children are everyman/everywoman/other biblical characters as needed.  The evil white witch is, I suppose, Satan.  You could go into a whole analysis of why the representation of evil is a human female and I know that many people have.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The thing that drove me wild while reading these books recently was that C.S. Lewis was sexist as all get out.  I think it's interesting that this came out most in a children's book.  It didn't cross my mind when I was reading, say Mere Christianity, but the message is loud and clear throughout most of the book.  I think that we can say very mildly that Lewis did not, ahem, have a very contemporary view of gender and race.

Susan, in particular, bothered me.  She goes from being the personality-less big sister whose sole purpose in life is being the stable Martha-like (as in the Mary and Martha story) character to being cast out of Narnia because she has become interested in makeup and parties.  This struck me as so strange and I will confess to be annoyed to no end on behalf of all big sisters everywhere. And then there's the white witch and her other evil counterpart who appears in The Silver Chair, The Lady of the Green Kirtle, or the Emerald Witch.  There were some weird comparisons to Eve in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of The Magician's Nephew.  Those are just a few off the top of my head.

The other thing I cringed over was the racism in the Horse and His Boy.  I mean, it was bad enough that I was cringing while reading.  Sheesh, did he really just say that?  And that does make a book uncomfortable to read.  The portrayal of the Calormens is hard to take at best; they are every Middle Eastern stereotype you've ever heard.  And the way that they are constantly contrasted with the fair people of Narnia made me gag.

It gives me a bit of a pang to admit all of this.  See, I still absolutely adore Narnia.  The imagery is some of the best out there, the characters are all lovable and the plot is perfectly crafted.  I would be loath to tell any parent not to read these books to their children.  On the contrary, if I were running the world, I would insist on every parent reading these books to all of their children, simply for the beautiful storytelling.  There are some pretty wonderful truths throughout the books that I think everybody should hear, like sibling loyalty and the importance of a culture and, oh, a thousand things.  I could write a whole series of posts on things that Narnia taught me.

So I wonder, am I overreacting?  Should I treat Narnia like I would any old book-appreciating the good stories and the wonderful things they have to offer, while also acknowledging that we have moved on in some ways in our modern world?  And the thing is, all authors are human and, therefore, all authors are flawed and products of their times and places.  Can any book ever be perfect?

I'm not sure why this book struck me particularly.  Perhaps because it was such a crucial book in my childhood, or maybe just because it's such good writing.  Maybe if the writing were less that perfect, I would be willing to write off the author's flaws more easily.  Is it because C. S. Lewis is such a good, good writer that it is harder to acknowledge his personal flaws?

So those are my Narnia musings, all set off by a simple comment and having read the books recently.  Now, tell me, what are your thoughts on Narnia?  Should it get a free pass on any kind of scrutiny because it is such beloved and wonderful writing?  Should we just throw it out and stop romanticizing over the writing?  Or should we strike some kind of happy medium of acknowledging it's problems while also accepting that this is some of the loveliest children's fiction out there?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Snow Day

We're in for a blizzard around here, which means that I'm battening down the hatches, but also making sure that I'm stocked up on entertainment and things to do.  There's a dirty house to get tidy and all the animals to tuck up first, though.  And a blog post to write, because it's been on my list for so long.  Be warned-this is a multi-part post.  So sit down with a cup of tea and prepare to listen to me ramble.
A little wooly worm that I found creeping across the icy snow.
Of course, I tucked him up into the hay in the barn.

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Part 1-Snow Ice Cream
Yesterday, the snow hadn't started for real, but we had about 5 inches, so I went outside and filled a metal bowl and prepared to make snow ice cream.  Have you heard of this?  I first read of this in the Melendys books when I was elementary school aged.  The idea enchanted me and I remember making a batch and ending up with sweet, watery milk.  After that, I abandoned the idea.  The memory of that flashed through my head and so I ran to get the ingredients and hurried outside to try snow ice cream again.  And it was delicious!  It's not like regular ice cream, but the trick is to keep everything thoroughly frozen in the snow and to eat the ice cream outside, exclaiming about how cold it is all the while.  I love making this recipe because it's pretty ridiculous to sit outside making ice cream in the middle of winter and, oh is it delicious.  I firmly shut my brain off that is reciting the litany of nasty stuff in that precipitation and pretend that I've never heard of acid rain, er, snow, and heaven knows what else and make this ice cream.  It's lovely.  Here's my recipe:
This is a terrible picture, but white ice cream against white snow is extremely hard to photograph.

Fill a smallish bowl with cleanish snow.  Sprinkle sugar liberally into the snow.  Now that I think of it, maple syrup would be delicious as well.  Actually, maybe more delicious.  Pour about a capful of vanilla into the snow.  Splash full-fat, maybe even raw (if you're a rebel) milk into that sugary snow and then lightly toss together, kind of like you stir egg whites into batter.  Your goal is to keep the snow intact so you have a kind of ice cream-ish texture.  While you're doing this, keep your bowl sitting firmly in the snow so it's staying as cold as possible.  Enjoy!
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Part 2-Winter Activities
I have the hugest pile of mending to do.  And, you know what?  I'm actually looking forward to tackling it in front of the fire during these blizzard-y evenings.  I've got a bag filled with yarn and thread and needles and a thimble and I'm ready to go.  I'm also planning to entertain myself with my camera.  I'm in the process of going through the pictures I just took off of my camera and sorting them and, I'm sure, throwing great quantities away.
The cute sweater-wearing (trust me, it's necessary) dog, but also
this perfectly illustrates wood stove season.  There is always ash.  Always.


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Part 3-The Buzzards in the Tree
I can't believe it, but these buzzards haven't made it into a blog post.  I apologize to them and now will post several pictures.  We have this very old tree that is dead, but provides great shelter to so many animals.  It is a spectral sight to look out and see that stark, old, dead tree filled with buzzards with their wings spread (we think they're drying their wings, but who knows).  I do wonder what they're watching for.  The chickens?  There are no carcasses that I know of.   I have become peculiarly fond of those old birds.

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Part 4-My Book List
I do have a book list, readers.  Of course I do.  Here it is:
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, because it seems extremely fitting
Essays of E. B. White
The Edwardian Lady: The Story of Edith Holden
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
A new vintage magazine that I plan to read
I plan to keep busy with these titles.  I'm sure there will be more reading.  I'll keep you updated.
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Whew!  I'm finished rambling.  If you've reached the end, thank you for listening.  Now I'm off to stuff the cracks of the chicken coop with straw.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

She Stoops to Conquer-Classics Club #2

This is my second Classics Club read, which I think is pretty good, being that it's only January 16th.  This one was a fun read.  It was a running read and so I got to listen to a little every morning.  Hearing plays dramatized is really the best way to experience a play, if you're not going to go see it.

She Stoops to Conquer, set in England in the 1700s is about Kate Hardcastle, a young woman who has fallen madly in love with a young man too shy to court girls of his own class who, instead, spends his time pursuing servant girls and barmaids.  Kate meets this man, Marlow, who is being sent by his father to meet her as a possible suitor.  Kate is infatuated at once but, of course, Marlow is not.

Meanwhile, there's a secondary romance between Kate's best friend, Miss Constance Neville, and Marlow's best friend, Hastings.  In order to win Marlow over, Kate decides to play the part of a barmaid and, sure enough, he falls in love with her.  And then it gets so exceedingly complicated that I'm not sure I could even begin to summarize.  There were so many ruses and double-ruses and all kinds of mistakes of character that I must admit to my head spinning at several moments.

There are other characters involved in the plot, too.  There is Mrs. Hardcastle, the miserly mother of Kate who is forcing Constance (who, by the way, is her niece) and her nasty son Tony (whose tricks are part of what make the whole plot so convoluted) to marry.  There are Constance's jewels, which Tony wants to steal and Hastings wants to use so they can elope.  There is Mr. Hardcastle who is the main deciding factor in whether or not Kate will marry Marlow.   And there is a whole host of bartenders and sneaky servants who fill the pages and add to the general confusion.

I had a lot of fun reading (er, listening to) this.  I'm always surprised when I read a book this old and find myself laughing out loud like I would at modern comedy.  I think we as a modern culture have a bit of a representation of literature and culture at this time period as being stiff and boring and completely lacking in any kind of emotion.  And so, when something proves us wrong in that assumption, we are completely surprised.  This book was like that.  It proved that, no, people did like a good joke, even back then, and they actually laughed at most of the same things we do today.

The story in itself is very good.  It's not a well-known classic in the sense that all high schoolers read it, so if you didn't study theater or English in college, it's probably not something you would have come across.  I hadn't read the book, but had heard it mentioned in passing several times.  I'm so glad I picked up this book.  It was a really fun read and a great way to start out my year of Classics Club.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Family Circle's Complete Book of Beauty and Charm

Yep.  That's the title.  Wanna guess the publish date? 1951.  Knowing my inordinate love of all things vintage, my dear mother got me this book for Christmas.  I saved it for my Sunday afternoon reading and I just finished it this past Sunday afternoon.  And now I'm going to show it to you.

First of all, I took pictures of the inside of the book, so you get an idea of what it's like:


See?  The book tells you comfortingly that glasses can, too, be attractive, if you carefully
read their chart.

This caption says, "Even housewives need to take care of their hands!"

Properly applying foundation.
Necklines depending on your face shape.

I love books like these-books that are simply for the purpose of providing a window into another time, the purpose of inspiration.  This kind of reading is what I call Sunday Afternoon Reading, also known as inspiration reading.  Sunday Afternoon Reading is generally nonfiction, usually filled with pictures, always chock full of inspiration for the coming week.  I don't normally read for the sole purpose of getting good ideas or just for enjoying something for its prettiness.  Books normally have to hold something more for me, but not on Sunday afternoons.  That is when I pick up books just because they're pretty and inspiring and fun.  And while I wouldn't love to read like that all the time, it's actually very lovely to have that one day a week set aside where I do read like that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Best Hot Chocolate

We've been in the middle of a pretty bitter cold snap and that means that I've been spending huge amounts of time inside.  Sure, it leads to cabin fever and absolutely must be relieved by (very) short daily runs outside, followed by standing by the fire whining about not being able to feel my legs.  However, my book load is lightening at such a rapid pace; I can't remember reading this much in a month before.
Can you see the little flash of red from the cardinal?

But, I absolutely require that there is a steady stream of hot beverages while I'm sitting by the fire of an evening.  I've narrowed it down to, truly, the best hot chocolate.  It's also the speediest.  It was (very roughly) copied off of this blogger's recipe, but I've gotten more loosey-goosey with the method in order to spend the minimum amount of time in my freezing kitchen.

When I was young, my mom used to make stove top hot chocolate when we came in from sledding-stirring cocoa and sugar and water until it boiled, then adding milk and heating for what seemed an interminable amount of time.  Then on the other end of the spectrum is the tepid watery sludge made by mixing powdered milk (blech), cocoa powder, and heaven knows what else into water that, for some reason, is never quite hot.  I'm grossed out just thinking about it.  This hot cocoa is the happy medium.  It's got the full-body flavor of the stovetop method with the quickness of the awful hot cocoa mix method.

This is like no hot chocolate mix you have ever had before.  In fact, it doesn't even deserve to have the same name as that sludge-in-a-package.  I think you'll agree with me after you've made a mug.

Here's the recipe and, oh, is it a lovely to have that hot chocolate ready and waiting in the pantry.

Get out a pint jar and into it put:
1/2 c. cocoa powder (don't bother using some cheap, Dutch-processed, alkalized baking cocoa…use a very dark cocoa powder instead-the flavor is far better)
1/2 c. white sugar
2 tsp. cornstarch (This is to make a smooth hot chocolate mix…don't leave this out!)
Now, this part is pretty optional and I haven't actually seen a huge difference when I omitted it.  However, you can add about 1/4 c. very, very finely chopped dark chocolate (I stuck mine in the food processor)
Then, when you go to make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, just dump, oh, about a tablespoon into a mug full of milk and heat.

Enjoy with your next good book!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

One of my goals for this year was to read some nonfiction and branch out a little from my usual staid fiction reading.  I started with this book because it looked funny, was interesting, I really do love science, and I owned it (fulfilling my requirement for a library-free January).  What better book to start out my January?

What If? is written by Randall Munroe, the writer of the website XKCD, a website where people post absolutely absurd what if? questions.  Some of the questions reminded me of the questions that toddlers ask repeated all day every day.  Except these are, presumably, written by grown people.  IF

Here are some of the examples:

If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn't the common cold be wiped out?

What would happen if a hair dryer with continuous power were turned on and put in an airtight 1x1x1-meter box?

If every person on Earth aimed a laster pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?

How quickly would the oceans drain  if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean?  How would the Earth change as the water was being drained?

Randall Munroe is a former NASA roboticist, but he's also a comic writer.  He brilliantly combines both his humorous comics with truly fascinating science.

Like I said, nonfiction is not something that I normally read, but this actually made me change my mind.  The book was funny and actually held my attention.  I wasn't reading as some sort of discipline  or goal to read something nonfiction.  I was just reading for the pure fun of it, which is something that I don't frequently do with nonfiction.

So I really enjoyed this book.  If you're looking for a place to dip your toes into nonfiction writing or just are looking for an informative, yet funny book, this is a great place to start.  I highly recommend it.