5 Books by 4 Authors to be reviewed in 2016

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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 History’s 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.




Intricacies of Bureaucracy & Images of the Body: Rereading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

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Two passages particularly struck me when rereading Ilyich. The first has to do with the way healthcare workers tend to cross examine the bodies of patients, like lawyers cross-examining the mind of a witness or police interrogating a suspect. Amid an illness, particularly chronic illness, the patient is always on trial:

Ivan Ilyich knows quite well and definitely that all this is nonsense and pure deception, but when the doctor, getting down on his knee, leans over him, putting his ear first higher then lower, and performs various gymnastic movements over him with a significant expression on his face, Ivan Ilyich submits to it all as he used to submit to the speeches of the lawyers, though he knew very well that they were all lying and why they were lying. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

It is almost as if Ivan Ilyich––a bureaucrat and son of a bureaucrat, see “Chapters 02 & 03”––suspects he may die by the bureaucratic ways and means of his doctor. Recently, I had my own health scare, and while everything turned out to be alright, there were nevertheless forms to fill out and receipts to file away. It is not just 21st century Obamacare or British healthcare or Canadian healthcare that piles on the paperwork—Tolstoy had the intuition, imagination, and foresight to see that healthcare and bureaucracy are intimately intertwined, and have been so since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

And after all the paperwork has been completed, the tests run, and the doctors have finished updating the diagnoses for their patients—after all these barriers of bureaucracy are crossed, the ill individual looks in the nearest mirror and does not recognize the stranger reflecting back:

And Ivan Ilyich began to wash. With pauses for rest, he washed his hands and then his face, cleaned his teeth, brushed his hair, looked in the glass. He was terrified by what he saw, especially by the limp way in which his hair clung to his pallid forehead. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

Intricacies of bureaucracy and images of the body—these are what moderns like us, like Tolstoy, and like those around us must deal with when confronted with a crisis of healthcare. But do we Westerners tend to focus more on the image of the body because of two millennia of Christian culture? The American philosopher James Bissett Pratt (1875–1944) seemed to think so when he observed in an essay written thirty years after Tolstoy’s story:

I think, however, there are several additional factors which give Hinduism a certain advantage over Christianity in nourishing a strong belief in immortality. One of them is connected with the question of the imagination already discussed. The Hindu finds no difficulty whatever in imagining the next life, for his belief in reincarnation teaches him that it will be just this life over again, though possibly at a slightly different social level. I am inclined to think, moreover, that the Christian and the Hindu customs of disposing of the dead body may have something to do with this contrast in the strength of their beliefs. Is it not possible that the perpetual presence of the graves of our dead tends to make Christians implicitly identify the lost friend with his body, and hence fall into the objective, external form of imagination about death that so weakens belief in the continued life of the soul? [Bookbread’s emphasis] We do not teach this view to our children in words, but we often do indirectly and unintentionally by our acts. The body––which was the visible man – is put visibly into the grave and the child knows it is there; and at stated intervals we put flowers on the grave – an act which the child can hardly interpret otherwise than under the category of giving a present to the dead one. And so it comes about that while he is not at all sure just where Grandpa is, he is inclined to think that he is up in the cemetery. Much of our feeling and of our really practical and vital beliefs on this subject, as on most others, is of course derived from our childhood impressions.

(“Some Psychological Aspects of the Belief in Immortality” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 12. No. 3. (July 1919.) 294–314 at 308.)

An Epistle to Cousin Paul: or, How to Subvert Irreconcilable Differences

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Hola, Primo:

Oft (how oft!) do I don my contrarian cap and criticize something only for the sake of criticism rather than as a way to pursue truth. Yet I recall your observation from July 18, 2015:

It’s really a shame how low things have gone in our country, with each side of whatever issue willing to demonize the other and vilify anyone with a difference of opinion. Our time in this world is short and winning an argument is pointless. I’m tired of all the anti-Obama AND the anti-Republican stuff out there. It’s hard being a teacher trying to teach kids to treat each other with respect when adults behave even worse.

Now even though I pursue the truth in my spare time, I cannot call myself a philosopher. I’m a student, and while actual philosophers and scientists have the advantage of peer review, students can only review their own self-understanding. Actual philosophers and scientists contribute to everyone’s understanding, but students can only contribute to their own. Students pursue truth but do not speak, write, present, or publicize anything about their pursuit. Students can, however, read (alone or aloud) texts and quotations from actual philosophers as well as take notes. So to be absolutely sincere, I must first admit that I’m really not writing to you, but only to me, and only for my own understanding.


A philosopher might have the capability to organize their thoughts into a formal model, but since I am a student, an informal scheme should suffice. Being informal, I write in a casual manner in proposing a scheme to solve some disagreements between citizens of our country who are divided on particular political issues. I propose this scheme because “agreeing to disagree” does nothing to prevent the rash of resentment from spreading over the entire body politic.

But I also believe a scheme is needed simply because the sages (at least the male ones) point out over and over how it is so much easier to tear things down than rather to build them up. So often do folks make divisions, even when they know there are none:

To offer objections against a discourse which has been delivered is not difficult, but very easy; but to set up a better against it is a very laborious task.


And generally let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledges be accepted rather for lines and veins than for sections and separations; and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved.

––Francis Bacon[ii]

The greater part of our success & comfort in life depends on distinguishing the similar from the same…. It is a dull and obtuse mind, that must divide in order to distinguish; but it is a still worse, that distinguishes in order to divide. In the former, we may contemplate the source of superstition and idolatry; in the latter, of schism, heresy, and a seditious and sectarian spirit.

––Samuel Taylor Coleridge[iii]

Be afraid to destroy the unity of people by stirring bad feelings amongst them against another with our words.

––Leo Tolstoy[iv]

Must you again divide the indivisible?

––Martin Buber[v]

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

––Albert Einstein[vi]

But because we must divide, to reduce the emphasis on any one traditional division must, in the long run, mean an increase of emphasis on some other division. And that is the subject I want to discuss. If we do not put the Great Divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where should we put it? I ask this question with the full consciousness that, in the reality studied, there is no Great Divide.

––C. S. Lewis[vii]


My scheme requires four “givens” or assumptions, that is, the immediate context, or brute facts concerning political disagreements between groups of citizens. These four givens are:

1. Group A and Group B disagree to an irreconcilable degree (so much so that they cannot even “agree to disagree”).

2. A group is bound together by a “declared cause,” which is the idea that binds and makes its members part of the group. The declared cause is also the principle issue of disagreement between the two groups:

 By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community….

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. (Madison, “Federalist 10”)

3. Because all causes, including declared causes, are derived from other causes, all causes can be deconstructed in terms of their prior causes. Hence there are no monolithic or indestructible causes. Nor is a group monolithic––not even in an age when human bodies can be cloned––for while a group is united around its declared cause, each member of that group has a distinct, individual perception of the declared cause. In other words, if a group was monolithic, it would cease to be a group of anything, and would only be one, indivisible thing. (Again from “Federalist 10”: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”)

For example, groups that advocate gun control and groups that advocate gun rights both have a declared cause of “guns.” But an analysis (or deconstruction) of the rhetoric of both sides reveals that whatever they’re arguing over has very little to do with actual armaments. The word “guns,” for all of these groups, really refers to the conflict of mental illness and its alleged relationship to crime as well as the question of its limitations and intrusions on privacy; the word “guns” for these groups means the lack or surplus of law enforcement in the immediate lives of the members of these groups; the word “guns” for these groups also means reading the Constitution literally, pragmatically, practically, critically, cynically, or skeptically.

4. The history of humanity shows that resentment from one group toward another group increases the resentment both groups have toward each other. No matter the origins, the aim of one group’s resentment toward another ends only in “mutually assured resentment.” Or as Baylor Professor Alan Jacobs has recently put it:

Both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.[viii]


My scheme proposes that the two groups might come to an agreement via a technique of subversion, or more specifically, a counterintuitive method of divide-and-conquer. Through this method all members of all groups can arrive at the goal of united disagreement. United disagreement then makes for a new foundation to build understanding upon.

So if the four givens are met, a four-step scheme is proposed:

1. One member from Group A subverts the opposition by “joining” Group B; and one member from Group B subverts its opposition by “joining” Group A. The subversion is driven by each group’s mutual will-to-grudge (the drive to resent the opposition). These subversives are called “undercover members.”

2. The undercover members of each group cannot be blatant in their subversion. Instead, each undercover member “preaches to the choir” or, in other words, promotes the declared cause of the subverted group so tirelessly as to induce ennui within that subverted group. Through rhetorical bombast, the undercover member invokes boredom in the minds of the actual members. Each undercover member should recall Tolstoy’s advice:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people.[ix]

A counter-intuitive subversive approach by undercover members fosters faction within the actual group, because boredom among members of the subverted group will eventually spur those actual members to deconstruct the declared cause of their group. In other words, if the undercover member holds up the whole, sooner or later other actual members of the group will pick it apart. Actual group members will start to “split hairs,” championing exclusivity among themselves. By then, the undercover member has successfully divided-and-conquered. For:

3. As both Groups A and B become more inwardly divided, soon enough no one within either group will agree on their particular declared cause, and the majority from both groups will begin to disagree within their own group as well as continue to clash with the group they originally opposed.

4. If no one from either group agrees on anything, then both groups are united in disagreement. An equilibrium of resentment will have been achieved.


“What was the one thing?” asks Oedipus, for: “One may be the key / To everything, if we resolve to use it.” Perhaps counter-intuitive subversion is not the one thing. For Plato, at least according to Aristotle, the mind is the one thing, while knowledge (science) divides into infinite specializations. Neither knowledge nor science can ever be one thing, because they are collaborative group activities requiring peer review.[x]

Nearly 2000 years after Aristotle, James Madison saw property as the one thing:

From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. (“Federalist 10”)

This is probably why Ben Jonson pointed out, a century before Madison, that––no matter the faction, or the direct cause of the faction, or the strength of its resentment––the whole of humanity remains united in greed, which can be a synonym for property.[xi]

But Tolstoy taught a century after Madison:

 If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself.[xii]

I hope to read more and think more and write more––that I may one day improve my community.


Cousin Christopher



[i] Plutarch, “On Listening to Lectures” Moralia. Vol. I. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1927. § 6, p. 221.

[ii] Bacon, Francis. Advancement of Learning. 1605. Edited by William Aldis Wright. 1858. Fifth Edition. Oxford UP. 1957. II, ix, 1, p. 129.

[iii] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Chapter XXII.” Biographia Literaria. 1817; “Introductory Aphorism XXVI.” Aids to Reflection. 1825.

[iv] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom. Translated by Peter Sekirin. NY: Scribner. 1997. January 5, p. 17.

[v] Buber, Martin. I and Thou. 1922. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. NY: Scribners. 1970. I § 10.

[vi] Einstein, Albert. “On the Method of Theoretical Physics.” The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science. Vol. 1, No. 2. (April 1934.) 163–69.

[vii] Lewis, Clive Staples. “De Descriptione Temporum.” [“A Survey of Time.”] Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge. 1954. So They Asked for a Paper. p. 11.

[viii] Jacobs, Alan. “Code Fetishists and Normolaters.” The American Conservative. July 29, 2015. (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/code-fetishists-and-normolaters.)

[ix] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 28, p. 100.

[x] Sophocles. The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb. Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1887. l. 120; Aristotle, De Anima. Translated by John Alexander Smith. Oxford: Clarendon. 1931. I, 2.

[xi] Jonson: “The great herd, the multitude, that in all other things are divided, in this alone conspire and agree—to love money.” (Timber: or Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter. Edited by Felix E. Schelling. Boston: Ginn & Co. 1892. p. 47.)

[xii] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 17, p. 89.