Mar 30 2017

A Eulogy to Bookclubs (in the form of Confession & Resolution)

The few bookclubs I’ve been in have given me the opportunity to network and befriend (at a distance) a few people–but as goes the act of reading (whether for fiction or non) these overall experiences have left me with a bad taste in my mouth– they’ve helped me discover that I don’t read the way other people read, and I’m somehow now resentful to the idea of bookclubs (but not their members) because I feel like an outsider.

I’ve always admitted to being a dilettante, a Tolkien taster,[1] and not a professor, not an expert in anything I’ve ever read or reread.

I have a poor memory, so I take notes when I read, and I reread those notes, so that I can attempt to grasp some inking of the author’s intention upon the page. Then I reread my notes and try to connect them to things previously read (and those notes previously taken).

And I’ve found many good points from a few good people in previous bookclubs and have been exposed to many (not just several) life-changing works I never would’ve discovered on my own.

And yet I don’t miss going to bookclub, though I sometimes miss meeting and seeing some of the people–I now must come up with some way of reminding myself that whenever I take notes on something I’m reading (and I tend to take notes on the things in a book that make me excited) that I must additionally attempt to remember that I am an oddball when it comes to the act of reading–and I must remember that overbearing, out-of-place feeling so oft felt when attending bookclub–a feeling that on reflection later reveals all the things I overlooked in the books I thought I had already read.


[1] As Tolkien puts it:

I have, in this peculiar sense, studied (‘tasted’ would be better) other languages since. Of all save one among them [Welsh?] the most overwhelming pleasure was provided by Finnish, and I have never quite got over it.

“English and Welsh – the O’Donnell Lecture – Oxford 21 October 1955” The Monsters and Critics: and other Essays. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. NY: Harper Collins. 1983. 2006. p. 192.



Feb 7 2017

Three Articles on Russia

Three things I read about Russia over the weekend:


Putin’s Intelligence Crisis,” by Amy Knight, New York Review of Books, February 3, 2017.


Exxon, Rex, and Russia: a Deep Drilling,” Dana Snitzky,, February 3, 2017.


An Activist is Mysteriously Ill in Russia; and the U.S. Needs to Speak Up,” Editorial Board, Washington Post, February 2, 2017.



Jan 25 2016


bookbread pencil shavings





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.




Aug 7 2010

The Difference between Quoting and Vomiting up the Words and Works of Authors

(A Dialogue of Diagnosis between the Brothers Grimm)

Let us try to clarify what we said earlier….

JACOB: So brother, did you dream of any books last night?

WILHELM: Yes, again I dreamed of books, of authors, of words, and even ideas—ones read before and ones I can’t remember.

JACOB: I too have forgotten most of my readings from the stacks and shelves and piles of books scattered around my parlor.

WILHELM:  Yes, all words and works inside my mind have fermented into squalor.

JACOB: I am losing my sense of taste as well—it now seems that all books are bland.

WILHELM:  All literature lukewarm…

JACOB: Yes, and frequently cited but not enough studied are the words of Lord Bacon, who once suggested: “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested,” (01). But because I find it difficult to remember what I’ve read, it’s to a point where I don’t even know whether they were books I wanted to read.  Perhaps it reflects a tendency of mine to fixate on the desire rather than the act of reading.

WILHELM: My memory has lost words once absorbed as well as ideas once articulated by others—everything now dims toward dementia. But I take a touch of comfort in knowing that I’m not unlike Montaigne.

JACOB: How so?

WILHELM: Recall who Montaigne was: a man who retired to read, who attempted (or “essayed”) to discover himself as he put his thoughts on paper—here was a man who, after holding up a book marked full of strange notes in its margins, hesitated upon realizing that the book which seemed foreign should actually have been familiar to him, because the notes were written by Montaigne, and only afterwards did he remember having already read the book (02).

JACOB:  The devil he didn’t bother telling us the name of the book.

WILHELM:  True, he must not have digested it properly, but instead, read and chewed and ate too fast, as often occurs to people in opulent retirement.

JACOB: Often for me a book appears unfamiliar because I didn’t read it closely enough—

WILHELM:  —Because you tend not to savor the flavors of those spicy sentences.

JACOB:  I forget to fasten them to my memory, probably because I am strapped more to the idea, rather than the act, of reading books. I attend to the context of reading something while ignoring that something’s contents.

WILHELM: Perhaps Montaigne fell in love with the idea of reading his unnamed book but cared little for its contents?

JACOB: That difference, a desire for method over meaning, confounds me.

WILHELM: Ah, but haven’t you heard how preferring methods over meanings is what it means to be modern? “The medium is the message” and all that?

JACOB: I remember in another place where Montaigne compares his readings of books to: “the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested,” (03). Montaigne reveals an attitude similar to the advice on reading prescribed by Bacon, but the Frenchman’s humility makes him more honest (more intimate) than the English Lord.

WILHELM: So when it comes to reading books, do you prefer eating “excrement” or “bacon”?

JACOB: Ah, brother, but wouldn’t a far number of Muslim and Jewish readers equate the two?

WILHELM: As I am neither, I can respond only with an old pirate’s proverb: Why fart and waste it, when you can burp and taste it?

JACOB: I am astonished at your ability for over-specificity.

WILHELM: Dear brother, I am only trying to get at how it seems as though Montaigne were about to spout a kind of “bookish bulimia” onto his readers—a projectile vomit full of anorexic annotations of God knows what obscure Latin authors Montaigne read as a child. He probably quoted them aloud and at random—

JACOB: —As we ourselves often do—

WILHELM: —As does Bookbread on his blog.

JACOB: And well before Montaigne, there was Epictetus—a man who, unlike Montaigne, owned no library of books to organize his thoughts, nor castle in the French countryside with which to house them—yet still that slave and Stoic recognized:

Accordingly if any conversation should arise among uninstructed persons about any theorem, generally be silent; for there is great danger that you will immediately vomit up what you have not digested. And when a man shall say to you, that you know nothing, and you are not vexed, then be sure that you have begun the work (of philosophy). For even sheep do not vomit up their grass and show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do you also show not your theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion. (04)

WILHELM: In other words, we have both the ancient Epictetus and the more recent Renaissance men (Montaigne and Bacon) warning us against this habit of reading books and then regurgitating their quotations before we have let them settle in the stomachs of our souls.  And they warn us because such a habit fails to provide the mind of the reader with any sort of mental-nutritional value?

JACOB: Precisely.

WILHELM: Should we (as readers) then behave like dogs—dare we return to our own vomit?

JACOB: There you go with that over-specificity again, brother, but recall the old proverb: if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog….

01. Bacon, Francis. “Of Studies.” The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral. (1625).  Project Guttenberg. <>.

02. Montaigne, Michel de. Essays II, x, “On Books.” (1580).  Trans. Charles Cotton.  Project Guttenberg. <>.

03. Montaigne, Michel de. Essays III, ix “On Vanity.” (1580).  Trans. Charles Cotton.  Project Guttenberg. <>.

04. Epictetus, Encheiridion (“The Manual”) xlvi, pp. 400–401.  Trans. George Long.  Google Books. <>.

Jul 7 2010

Reading at the Speed of Print (Three Percent)

People can read traditional printed books a good bit faster than eBooks on tablet computers, a new study has found.

The study tested peoples’ pace of reading on two popular e-reader tablets – Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle 2 – as well as a standard PC monitor and a plain ol’ regular book.

Three Percent: Reading at the Speed of Print.

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 10 2010

The Ideal of a Literary Anti-Canon

Young men, especially in America, write to me and ask me to “recommend a course of reading.” Distrust a course of reading! People who really care for books read all of them. There is no other course. Let this be a reply. No other answer shall they get from me the inquiring young men. [original emphasis]

Andrew Lang, Adventures Among Books (1905), Longmans, Green, & Co. p. 23.

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.

Jun 7 2010

Reading about European Exceptionalism in the Middle Ages (A brief comment)

At the Catholic literary journal Dappled Things, Hugo-nominated sci-fi writer Michael Flynn puts to rest the myth that Christianity held back science during medieval times, and shows how it was rather the opposite that was true:

The philosophers of the “Age of Reason” called the Middle Ages the “Age of Faith,” and claimed that because “God did it!” was the answer to everything, no one searched for natural laws. Some have since imagined a “war” between science and religion, and accused the medievals of suppressing science, forbidding medical autopsies, and burning scientists. Bad times for science and reason!

Or was it? In fact, the Middle Ages were steeped in reason, logic, and natural philosophy. These subjects comprised virtually the entire curriculum of the universities.

Come on: “Steeped in reason, logic, and natural philosophy?” While I have no doubt “these subjects comprised virtually the entire curriculum of the universities” such a suggestion of steepness seems to imply that the majority of Europeans attended universities in the Middle Ages—a steep slope of argument much too slippery for my meager, Middle American footing.

The Age of Faith and Reason » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.