Jan 8 2016

5 Books by 4 Authors to be reviewed in 2016

bookbread pencil shavings

As a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 1999, I acquired and have since retained a chip on my shoulder: that I will forever be an under-read individual. It’s silly how often I’ve imagined myself: as a Texan I’m less read than most Americans from other states; as an American I’m less literary compared to most Europeans. It’s all very neurotic—as if I could somehow read a bunch of books, “play catch up,” and become a better writer. Ha!

Made As and Bs in middle and high school, but when I got accepted to Longhorn Land––an acceptance probably based on socio-economic grounds, for I was neither in the top ten percent of my class nor an ethnic minority––I was soon stung by the realization of my lack of acquired mental rigor. ‘Twas only later that I learned that, although I was homeschooled for third and fourth grades, such a feeling of the absence of knowledge is a common part of being a product of the Texas public education system.

Though an arbitrary measurement (because page count varies wildly), these days I read about a hundred books a year (87 in 2015), take notes, and try to continually study them. But this chip on my shoulder––this thorn in my side––refuses to leave. Moreover, whenever I discuss something I’ve read, I tend to over-cite and elaborately quote it chapter and verse, and this, I suspect, seems to have given some of my writings a pseudo-medieval flavor which modern readers generally detest.

Nonetheless, 2016 is a new year for book blogging…. so Bookbread begins with some meditations on:

While it seems a little clumsy (if not quite naive) the way the young Count Tolstoy once said he wanted Truth to be the hero of his written sketches of Sebastopol (1855), today in 2016 I too aim for truth to be the leading character on this blog; although, the requirements for achieving that aim will be, in Dreher’s words, “hard, big, real, and dirty.” [1]

What kind of book is Dreher’s Little Way of Ruthie Leming? It’s a memorial biography of Dreher’s dying sister; a portrait of an ideal community (of the author’s home town) in the American South experienced from a Christian perspective. The book also functions as a requiem, a dirge on the life of the title character. As I told some family members after giving them copies of the book last Christmas, “it’s like Steel Magnolias (1989), but with spiritual grit.”

What kind of book is How Dante Can Save Your Life? In addition to being a sequel to the above work, this is a how-to book, a spiritual confessional, and a portrait of a flawed individual (as are we all), who is part of a normal, white, middleclass family living in a perceived (at least by the author) ideal, small community in the American South. Themes include fitting in (or not) and forgiving others (or not) in that small community. The book is also a work of reader-response criticism as the author describes how reading a particular book revolutionized both his outlook and insight on life. Both of Dreher’s books include bildung: spiritual journeys, coming-of-age narratives.

What kind of book is the Divine Comedy?

Each shade displayed no less astonishment
or less confusion than a mountaineer,
who, even as he stares about, falls silent
when, rough and rustic, he comes to the city

––Purgatorio XXVI, 67–69 [2]

I fear I have nothing meaningful to say about La Divina Comedia. Nonetheless: if the text is an Everest—I feel, now as a reader of Dante, like one of those perfectly preserved, frozen bodies splayed about Everest’s mountainside—although mine is the body of one who reached the summit before dying on the way back down. Plato affirms it’s more difficult to reenter the cave than initially exiting it, and why should mountain climbing for Beatrice in Dante be any easier than spelunking for Sophia in Plato? [3] But no doubt after a first reading of Dante I now feel as exasperated as the dying Ivan Ilyich:

It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death. [4]

What kind of book is Why Place Matters? This is an academic anthology that includes various essays on the concept of place and community in present-day America—it covers many perspectives and topics and (often conflicting) suggestions and solutions to an agreed upon premise: that the importance of Place has waned in modern American life.

 What kind of book is Elmer Gantry? It’s a novel set at the turn of the twentieth-century in the American Midwest; it too is a coming-of-age tale, but also a tale about a spiritually aloof Protestant, evangelical American minister. Elmer is a rambler, he never settles, not even in the fictitious Midwestern metropolis of Zenith. The Midwest is in fact emphasized throughout the novel as a place. The book also satirizes a good ole boy who chose Christian ministry as a career because he found it the best way to attain power, attention, and influence. Elmer is not so much a charlatan seeking material riches but a football player who wants to be Christ’s number one cheerleader.

Why did you read these books? I read these books initially because they had to do with topics I am experienced and interested in such as: small town life, the dynamics of modern Christian belief, Southern communities (and escape and exile from them)—but also because, even though I often disagree with his premises and conclusions, Dreher is a particularly a good writer, a deep thinker, someone who writes honestly—which is the most difficult thing a writer can achieve. I identify and empathize with him when he writes things like:

And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest. [5]

The theme of being different versus fitting in was one of the central socio-psychological dilemmas C. S. Lewis faced in adult life. [6]


And throughout the upcoming explorations of these texts, I will try to keep the below maxims in mind as I ask the following questions:

Part of any spiritual discipline, however, is discovering—repeatedly—that one had it all wrong. You both knew and did not know.

––Gregory Bateson [7]

Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion?

––William James [8]

We must avail ourselves of every means in our power to see the situation exactly as it is. What, in short, is the real strength of religion in the community? And here we have a right to look for assistance to the psychology of religion. As yet, indeed, but little has been done toward answering this question; but the task of feeling the pulse of the religious community and investigating the real nature and strength of its religious belief naturally belongs to religious psychology, and, though vast, is well worth its while.

––James Bissett Pratt [9]



[1] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p.  216; Tolstoy,  Sebastopol, last lines of Section II.

[2]Alighieri, Dante. La Divina Comedia. (The Divine Comedy.) Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Introduction by Eugenio Montale. Notes by Peter Armour. NY: Everyman’s Library. 1995.

[3] Plato, Republic, VII 517C–519C.

[4] Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (1886.) Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. “Chapter 09.” But compare also another passage from this story:

Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light. What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction. (“Chapter 12”)

[5] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 32.

[6] Lewis, Clive Stapes. “The Inner Ring.” They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London: G. Bles. 1962. Lewis’ essay should be compared alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Circles,” for there is much overlap among them.

[7] Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005.  pp. 105–06.

[8] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902. NY: Modern Library Classics. 2002. “Lecture II,” p. 40.

[9] Pratt, The Psychology of Religion.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 1. No. 4. (October 1908.) pp. 435–54 at 448–49.




Oct 21 2015

Elmer Gantry’s Theology & the Benedict Option

bookbread pencil shavings

Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option seeks to establish clusters of Christian communities instead of cloisters. The Ben Opters have two enemies: Secular Liberal Purists and Moral Therapeutic Deists.

I agree with C. S. Lewis that atheism is too easy, but I severely disagree that simplicity in theology is somehow the work of the devil (Mere Christianity. NY: Macmillan. 1944. Reprint 1952. 46-48). Rather simplicity is the way to wisdom—just as brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet II, ii)—but Lewis doesn’t address this point.

Yet once all the orthodox-in-name-only have been purged (or politely asked to leave) the cluster sought by Dreher and others, how will the remaining Ben Opters handle the Elmer Gantrys who will inevitably emerge from among them?

Take a funny scene from Sinclair Lewis’s novel from 1927:

“And of course, Brother Fislinger, you believe in infant damnation.”

Eddie explained, “No; that’s not a Baptist doctrine.”

“You–you–” The good doctor choked, tugged at his collar, panted and wailed: “It’s not a Baptist doctrine? You don’t believe in infant damnation?”

“W-why, no–”

“Then God help the Baptist church and the Baptist doctrine! God help us all, in these unregenerate days, that we should be contaminated by such infidelity!” Eddie sweat, while the doctor patted his plump hands and agonized: “Look you here, my brother! It’s very simple. Are we not saved by being washed in the blood of the Lamb, and by that alone, by his blessed sacrifice alone?”

“W-why, yes, but–”

“Then either we are washed white, and saved, or else we are not washed, and we are not saved! That’s the simple truth, and all weakenings and explanations and hemming and hawing about this clear and beautiful truth are simply of the devil, brother! And at what moment does a human being, in all his inevitable sinfulness, become subject to baptism and salvation? At two months? At nine years? At sixteen? At forty-seven? At ninety-nine? No! The moment he is born! And so if he be not baptized, then he must burn in hell forever. What does it say in the Good Book? ‘For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.’ It may seem a little hard of God to fry beautiful little babies, but then think of the beautiful women whom he loves to roast there for the edification of the saints! Oh, brother, brother, now I understand why Jimmy here, and poor Elmer, are lost to the faith! It’s because professed Christians like you give them this emasculated religion! Why, it’s fellows like you who break down the dike of true belief, and open a channel for higher criticism and sabellianism and nymphomania and agnosticism and heresy and Catholicism and Seventh-day Adventism and all those horrible German inventions! Once you begin to doubt, the wicked work is done! Oh, Jim, Elmer, I told you to listen to our friend here, but now that I find him practically a free-thinker–”

Theology will not save Americans from being themselves, just as it could not save a genius Jew from Poland like Solomon Maimon:

Originally the Cabbalah [that is, “tradition”] was nothing but psychology, physics, morals, politics, and such sciences, represented by means of symbols and hieroglyphs in fables and allegories, the occult meaning of which was disclosed only to those who were competent to understand it. By and by, however, perhaps as the result of many revolutions, this occult meaning was lost, and the signs were taken for the things signified. But as it was easy to perceive that these signs necessarily had meant something, it was left to the imagination to invent an occult meaning which had long been lost. The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized, till at last the Cabbalah degenerated into an art of madness according to method, or a systematic science resting on conceits. The big promise of its design, to work effects on nature at pleasure, the lofty strain and the pomp with which it announces itself, have naturally an extraordinary influence on minds of the visionary type, that are unenlightened by the sciences and especially by a thorough philosophy. (Autobiography, Translated from the German, with Additions and Notes, by J. Clark Murray. Boston: Cupples & Hurd. 1888, p. 94)

Or as Walter Kaufmann once put it:

Theology is a misguided attempt to make poetry scientific, and the result is neither science nor poetry. (Critique of Religion and Philosophy. NY: Doubleday. 1958. §58, p. 238.)

Jun 22 2010

Three Types of Books to Read (Oscar Wilde)


BOOKS, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:— 1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St . Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.

2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats : in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels ; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.

3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Oscar Wilde, “To Read or Not to Read”. Originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette, February 8, 1886. The Complete Writings of Oscar WildeReviews. The Nottingham Society. 1909. p. 43. [Google Books]

Jun 8 2010

One Possible Cause of Readicide…. (The Nation)

John Palattella of The Nation writes:

The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves….

Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. “Have you gone crazy?” the editor asked. “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Americas newspapers in the 1990s,” Romano reflected, “is their hostility to reading in all forms.”

via The Death and Life of the Book Review | The Nation.

Jan 29 2010

The Book Blogger’s Scepter of Censure

“Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority; men please themselves with imagining that they have made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. And the pleasure of wantoning in common topics is so tempting to a writer, that he cannot easily resign it; a train of sentiments generally received enables him to shine without labour, and to conquer without a contest.”

—Samuel Johnson

“It is a truthful sublimity which elevates the mind, and flatters it into believing such sublimity to be its own offspring and production.”


Being new, this blog is still coming into its own with providing a suitable style and proper form. Bookbread strives to provide and participate in “elevated conversations”: elevated in Longinus’ sense of the sublime—and conversations that concern books, literature, and language. But when online in the twenty-first century, the temptation is exponentially greater to “willingly indulge” in criticism on the views of others, or “censure” whatever one happens to come across while reading/browsing.

It can certainly be confessed that Bookbread still experiences moments of pleasure when imagining that [Bookbread has] made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. Such pleasures are reserved for those who bear the scepter of censure.  Those bearers are called book bloggers.

Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler 02. March 26, 1750. (¶ 2).

Longinus, Dionysius. An Essay on the Sublime. (~100 C.E.). trans. by Herbert A. Giles. (1870). J. Cornish & Sons, London. (§ VII, pp. 17–18).

Jan 28 2010

The Expansive Nature of Experimental Fiction as an Ideal

Daniel Green over at The Reading Experiment concludes the end of a book review with a definition for experimental fiction:

In my opinion truly experimental or innovative or adventurous fiction attempts to expand the possibilities of fiction as a literary form and does so for the sake of the form itself, not to amplify social or cultural criticism or to intervene in philosophical debates (although these things might be an indirect effect, as is often enough the case in all worthwhile fiction).

The issue appears to be whether experimental fiction can be defined, whereby Green decides that such fiction must push the form, for the sake of the form, forward.

There is nothing wrong with propagating social/cultural/philosophical discourse, but that is not the primary “attempt” (Green’s word) of the experimental novel.

For most of the last century, readers were whipped into believing they must assume some sort of social/cultural/philosophical discourse as the author’s primary “attempt” or purpose or reason for writing. True, most fictional texts are not exempt from these types of analysis, but how should the “general reader” prioritize them? Should readers question themselves, as Green does, as to why they inherently assume social/cultural/philosophical “debates” function as prioritized parts of the primaries that constitute the writer’s purpose for penning an experimental novel?

Others may argue that in Green’s line of reasoning—fiction [that] attempts to expand the possibilities of fiction as a literary form and does so for the sake of the form itself—is itself a social, cultural, and philosophical judgment, but such a recognition assumes Green to be a Critic of the experimental novel pronouncing poppycock rather than a Reader evaluating the primary purposes of experimental novelists.

Jan 18 2010

Blind Book Reviewing

Bookbread strives for honesty and transparency in its conversations about books and literature, which is why it abides by the NYR tag.  But Rob Walker over at murketing explores the implications of reviewing books without ever having to make contact with the text itself:

[Physical] books will continue to have covers, front matter, blurbs, and other elements of the “framework” Talyor describes. In my (limited) experience, publishers dothink of these things as something like a movie trailer or advertisement. That is, they think about the cover design and title and so on in terms of potential readers: How to attract them, get their attention, hook them, reel them in. Will a shorter subtitle grab more people? What snappy language on the flap is most likely to lead to a sale? Is the cover bold enough to stand out from the pile at Barnes & Noble? Etc.

This idea of blind book reviewing is not quite what Bookbread had in mind in endorsing Rebecca West’s proposal for an abusive criticism.

Jan 15 2010

A Modest Proposal for Abusive Criticism

Over at The New Republics new book blog/site “The Book,” Rebecca West is not ashamed to preach a new gospel:

[It] is the duty of writers to deliberate in this hour of enforced silence how they can make art a more effective and obviously unnecessary thing than it has been of late years. A little grave reflection shows us that our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism.

Bookbread fully endorses West’s path towards a non-pacifist kind of criticism.  Perhaps Johnny Rotten would be willing to endorse it.

Jan 10 2010

Why Waste Words? a.k.a. Welcome to Bookbread

Welcome to Bookbread. In a recent link distributed by Arts & Letters Daily Michael Kinsley at The Atlantic gets it exactly right: too many words leads to too many non-readers.

Too bad (or not) that journalists will learn about it all much, much too late. It seems that for most of the priesthood of the press, verbosity is still in vogue.