Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Book Meme

I got tagged with this from Pastorius at CUANAS:

1. Total Number of Books I've Owned:
This is actually a bit of a domestic crisis at the moment. We have bookshelves on every available wall in our house with loose books shoved sideways in the spaces between one row of books and the next shelf. In front of some of the shelves, my wife has crates and boxes of books sitting on the floor, two rows deep at one point. Every available surface has a stack of books on it. I have no idea how many there are. Surely in the thousands. And that doesn't account for the many books donated to libraries, lost in moves or "loaned" to friends over the years.

2. Last Book I Bought:

Restoring the Lost Constitution by Randy Barnett of the Volokh Conspiracy. Haven't had a chance to start it yet, but I have been impressed with many of Barnett's arguments.

Before that, I can't quite remember which books I've bought. Most of my reading recently has been trying to catch up with backlogged books that I've owned for awhile. For reasons cited above, I've put a semi-moratorium on buying new books, although occasionally my wife will find something interesting at the thrift store for a price too good to pass up. We got the first five Lemony Snicket books that way, I think.

3. Last Book I Read:

This answer has thee parts: my personal reading, the book I am reading to my wife and the book we are reading in our church's reading club.

Personally, I am just finishing Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy. Most people have heard about The Prince, of course, and think they know what it is about: power for power's sake, the end justifies the means, etc., etc. I learned that in public school too when I actually tried to read the Prince. But I was too ignorant of general political ideas to make much of it, so I pretty much assumed that what I had been taught to think was what I actually did think, and left it at that for several years.

When I began to be a conservative, in college, I suspected that maybe the conventional wisdom was unfair to Machiavelli, especially since he was always presented as someone you don't need to read because everyone already knows what he is all about. But other interests got in the way and only recently did I get serious enough about political theory to give him another read. As noted below, his Discourses are focused on the concept of liberty and how to preserve it. It is true that he does make some hair-raising statements such as "it is better to be feared than loved." But what he means by that is that someone who tries to govern by making people like him will inevitably do more harm to innocent people by letting the guilty go unpunished than if he acquired a reputation for strictness. This is an observation many conservatives have had occasion to reiterate in recent years.

For the last few weeks, I have been reading Charles Williams' War in Heaven to my wife. This is my third-favorite book by him, coming behind The Place of the Lion and Descent into Hell, in that order. I am discovering, however, just how difficult Williams is to read aloud. His thought is often so idiosyncratic that you have to read a sentence a few times to yourself to get what he is saying, which of course doesn't work if you are reading aloud. Also, his humor is of the elliptical, 1920s variety (think P. G. Wodehouse or Lord Peter Wimsey) that derives much of its effect from the assumption that if you are sufficiently in-the-know, you don't really need to hear the punchline to get the joke. Also, you wouldn't be so offensive as to suggest that the teller should go to all that extra trouble to actually say those few extra syllables. Also, you've heard it all before. It is a humor of ultra-sophistication and embodies all of the worldliness, ennui and arrogance of the early 20th century. I actually enjoy this sort of humor and try, in my own pathetic way, to indulge in it whenever I can. But it is one thing to make this kind of humor, and quite another to read the transcript of someone else making it. If I were a voice actor, I might be able to pull it off but in an unrehearsed, after-dinner reading session it is a bit beyond my capacity.

At church we are reading Russell Kirk's Roots of American Order. If you haven't read it, stop wasting time with this silly blog and go buy a copy. Now, Damn It!

4. Five Books That Mean A Lot To Me:

Only Five? ONLY FIVE? Jeez, who wrote this question, Dyslexics Anonymous? Well, hmmm. I will skip including the Bible as that should be fairly obvious. Nor will I include the Lord of the Rings, for pretty much the same reason (though to a different degree, of course). Also, I won't mention Atlas Shrugged or Mere Christianity, even though they were jointly responsible for my conversion to Christianity, since explaining how that all works would make this a very long post indeed. I won't mention Roots of American Order, either, because that was included in question #3. Does that narrow the list down? Well, no actually.

Hmmm. Well, how about this: I'll only mention the 5 books that I think would be most surprising to people who know me. That might work.

I. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip. Quite simply the best fantasy novel ever written. Her ability to create a compelling and intricate moral conflict among people who love each other in varying ways is phenomenal, and, what is more, she manages it without becoming sentimental or introspective in that annoying twentieth century way. In general I hate stories that put essentially modern characters into chainmail bras and codpieces and expect us to pretend it is honest fantasy. For some reason people of our era tend to be so pleased with our own consciousness that we can't help projecting it back into the past or out into faerie with uniformly tedious results. But McKillip maintains a voice that, while not particularly archaic, is nevertheless ancient and weighty. I marvel, for she speaks not as the scribes, but with authority. This book ranks for me with Till We Have Faces but the latter is excluded because it isn't terribly surprising.

II. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. Okay, this won't surprise a lot of people because I mention it all the time, but most of my friends are surprised the first time I bring it up. The idea seems to be that I am too intellectual, too serious, too mathematical to be fooling about with whimsical children's books. But, actually, it is because I am all those things that I value Pooh so much. There is nothing more mortifying to me than the recollection of my late childhood and early adulthood when I couldn't communicate with my peers because I (unconsciously) thought I was smarter than them. Or, at least, that my interests were more important. If I have a personality at all, it is largely because I discovered late in life that I could borrow Pooh's and no one would know because they were only familiar with the idiotic Disney version.

III. The Magic Goes Away by Larry Niven. Also the related short stories, "Not Long Before the End" and "What Good is a Glass Dagger?" For much the same reasons that I like the McKillip book: there is a certain worldly wisdom in these stories that I draw upon frequently in the real world, and yet they belong quite firmly in the fantasy genre. I still find the paragraph where Niven relates the "history" of how the story of the quest for the lost god is reflected in tale of Chicken Little thrilling. I hope someday to be able to write with so much flair.

IV. Radical Son by David Horowitz. This book completely changed the way I thought about politics, not because I learned any new facts about the left, but because the facts became illuminated by a pattern I could never previously articulate. Reading this was very much an oceanic experience. I don't generally like biography, but this book is the biography of an entire worldview.

V. Illusions by Richard Bach. Well there are many books that I like that I could have put in this final slot, but the question was books that mean a lot to me. This book is important to me in much the same way that the Holocaust is important to Jews: Never Again. The self-deifying theology of this book corrupted much of my early life, aided my involvement with Mormonism and pretty much turned me into the arrogant, cynical relativist that I have spent the latter half of my life trying to escape. Obviously there were many other influences from the 70s that aided this corruption, but I think this single volume is a good metaphor for the lot.

5. People I Will Infect With This Meme:

There are lots of intriguing possibilities here, but I will play it safe for the moment and pick on my fellow parishioners Andrew, Michele and Paul. (If for no other reason than to wake them from their slumber...)

Update: Paul responds here.

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