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What Are People For?

What are People for?: EssaysWhat are People for?: Essays by Wendell Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first encountered Wendell Berry in freshman English at OBU. The essay we read seems to be in this volume, "Word and Flesh" (at least this essay makes the same points I remember from 1992). At the time I disagreed with him, particularly that problems, including environmental problems, cannot be approached globally but can only be addressed locally.

I came back to Berry near the turn of the millennium, when I read his poetry and fell in love. The poetry invited me into the essays, and Berry has been one of the most significant influence on my thought.

But his ideas are rarely easy for me. In fact, they are quite difficult. He is not a writer I read for confirmation of my own ideas, but to convict and challenge me. Whenever I read him, I am reminded of my hypocrisies and moral failures.

Back in 2004 I considered following Berry's advice and abandoning my life and career and moving to a poor small town to become a teacher and grow much of my own food. I didn't do that. I came out, and gay life led in a very different direction. Though I did have friends who did something of the sort.

It is exciting in 2017 to see Berry's influence for good upon our culture--the local food movement, more sustainable agriculture, more awareness about food ethics, the various craft movements, etc.

This is one of the essay collections I had long planned to get to. It seems particularly apt in our Age of Trump, even if the essays are from the 70's and 80's. What Berry was warning us about has come to fruition.

I marked up this volume like my adolescent Bible. I will return to it often.

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Culture & the Death of God

Culture and the Death of GodCulture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Based on a Christian Century review that ended with this description--"This is articulate, winsome, and dashing Christian apologetics dressed up as the history of ideas. It’s a sumptuous feast."--I ordered this book last year.

In an enjoyable survey of Western thought since the Enlightenment and its efforts and failures to find a replacement for God, Eagleton narrates how we have arrived at our current moment of a meaningless postmodernism and violent fundamentalism. He does so with intelligence and wit. Reading while flying the other day, I kept giggling at the humourous lines, such as "The first sentence of Fichte's Science of Knowledge declares that the book is not intended for the general public, a warning that the briefest glance at its pages renders instantly superfluous."

Along the way he makes key points such as this in a critique of Matthew Arnold and Emile Durkheim, “The idea of religion as a source of social cohesion receives scant support from the Christian Gospel. By and large, the teaching of Jesus is presented by that document as disruptive rather than conciliatory. . . . Jesus proclaims that he has come to pitch society into turmoil.”

Much like my own thought, and those Don Wester who influenced me, he reads Nietzsche in a way that opens up the possibility for a truly revolutionary Christianity rather than the socially and politically accommodating kind that has traditionally existed, even if this is not at all what Nietzsche had in mind. Basically, it’s a good thing that God is dead—at least the God Nietzsche proclaimed as dead.

For much of the book I was unsure where he was heading, and enjoyed the turn near the end.

But I throughout I thought the book lacking, though finishing I now realize that the missing elements may have been intentional. There is no discussion of key figures who represent an alternative to the main narrative of the book, folks such as Peirce, James, and Whitehead. In other words, those figures who have most influenced my own thought.


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The Bridge on the Drina

The Bridge on the DrinaThe Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than three centuries of the complex history and cultural mix of Bosnia presented as the story of one bridge and the town that surrounds it. Filled with rich characters, astute observations about life, compelling stories, and beautiful sentences, this novel will remain within my memory and imagination for some time.

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TV (The Book)

TV (the Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All TimeTV (the Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time by Alan Sepinwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of course with any book like this you are going to disagree, sometimes heartily. And I do. But, overall, I enjoyed reading it and engaging the perspective of these critics, who have an amazing breadth of knowledge and experience.

I particularly recommend the essays on Roots and the Cosby Show. The latter is a deep examination of the legacy of the show in light of Cosby's later reputation. They ultimately decide that the series, for all of its importance at the time, has become unwatchable, and not just because of his reputation, but because with retrospect some of the situations and storylines seem to be Cosby making light of his sexual predation (read the essay for the details).

I was further moved by the fact that the Cosby Show essay was followed by one on the Andy Griffith Show, which they laud for holding up over time and recommend continue to be watched for its moral lessons.

My biggest complaint about a ranking was how low they put Six Feet Under, which I think among the very best shows I've ever watched.

Another strange facet is how many of the shows I haven't seen. Back in 1999 when all the list-making was going for the 20th century, I had seen at least some of almost every show that would have appeared on a list like this, precisely because most of them appeared on broadcast with the old ones in reruns (I did make my own list at the time, lost to the pre-blogging era). But for much of the golden age of cable TV shows, I have not had cable, and so many of the highly regarded shows of the last two decades, I have not seen.

But a further point on that. In 2015 I began watching The Wire, which ranks third on their list. I admired the quality of it, but eventually quit watching somewhere in the third season because I decided that I simply didn't want to watch such violence--I didn't want the negativity in my life.

High on their list are the series of cable shows in recent decades which have been about antiheroes or violent situations--The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, etc. But often such shows hold little appeal for me. I really don't feel the need to repeatedly encounter the darker sides of the human experience.

Now, in my twenties, I would have criticized my mother for saying something similar. I guess I've changed as I've aged and become a parent.

But one thing I noticed in their criteria of ranking is that nowhere were they considering whether the story was a good story. And by good I don't mean high quality in the writing or directing, I mean morally good, a story that helps to convey virtue, excellence, well-being. I frankly don't think that all of the shows high on their list will be stories told over the ages, because they aren't those types of stories.

You see, I appreciate highly shows like Little House on the Prairie and the Waltons. I also greatly admire Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is a good story, in the way I mean it. I long believed M*A*S*H to be the greatest show in the history of TV. Six Feet Under is good story, in the way I mean it (something they seem to miss in their review of it, mentioning primarily matters of technique).

The select The Simpsons as the greatest show. I probably agree. The Simpsons is a good story.



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Well-Being

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Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life
by Neera Kapur Badhwar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well-Being is a deeply admirable book. I feel better for having read it. The philosophical arguments are strong. The writing is engaging. The conclusions are profound and common-sensical, cutting through the bullshit.

I learned virtue theory from Neera, in her graduate seminar twenty years ago. I also served as her TA for an undergraduate ethics class where we read the great classic works. Reading the book I realize how questions and conversations she was having two decades ago were working themselves into this comprehensive view of the good life.

I plan to adopt the book for my ethics class at Creighton University this autumn.

On a side note: reading this book confirms my moral judgments of Donald Trump and further puzzles me as to the moral failure of the electorate.

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Democracy and Social Ethics

Democracy and Social EthicsDemocracy and Social Ethics by Jane Addams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading more about Jane Addams in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy (see that post here), I was determined to read her writing. She's a good and perceptive writer. I'm puzzled why this work is not more seriously part of the canon.

Though the contemporary issues she grapples with are dated (aren't they in most of the great ethical works?) they contain universal ideas applicable to current problems.

And what I most admired was her vision of democracy requiring a social ethic (instead of an individual one) in which we must honor the perspectives of a diverse people.

A sample line, "As democracy modifies our conception of life, it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community, however humble he may be."

I also think her work might be crucial in the progressive movement reconnecting with the working class.

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The Norse Myths

The Norse MythsThe Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What struck me most about these Norse myths was their darkness. There is a lightness to the fantasies of the Greeks and Romans and an enjoyable humor in the tales of Native Americans. But these myths contain a heaviness.

For example, in the description of Yggdrasill, the great tree which is the axis of the world. It is constantly being gnawed at by the dragon Nidhogg "trying to loosen what was firm and put an end to the eternal." We are told that "Parts of the huge trunk were peeling, parts were soft and rotten. Yggdrasill whispered and Yggdrasill groaned."

Strange to imagine this corruption and rot in the the very core of one's mythology. Plus, the constantly foreboding of the end of the age and the destruction that would come with it.

How strange that there was a time when these were the tales people told about those they worshiped.

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Lao She's existentialism

I recently read Lao She's classic Chinese novel Rickshaw Boy. Here's my review of the book.  One thing I enjoyed was his description.  Eloquent and beautiful descriptions of the weather and scene, but also vivid psychological detail that conveyed a certain existentialism.  Two samples:

The best he could come up with was self-pity, but even that seemed impossible, since his head was empty; he no sooner had thoughts about himself than he forgot them, like a dying candle that won't light.  Enveloped by darkness, he felt as if he were floating inside a black cloud.  Though he was aware of his existence and that he was walking forward, there was no evidence of where he was headed.  He was like a man tossed about on the open sea, no longer able to believe in himself.  Never in his life had he felt so bewildered, so downhearted, so very alone.

***

He could not shake the feeling that he'd never again be happy.  He swore off thinking, speaking, and losing his temper, and yet there was a heaviness in his chest that went away for a while when he was working but always returned when he had time on his hands--it was soft, but large; it had no definable taste, yet it choked him, like a sponge.  He's keep this suffocating something at bay by working himself half to death so he could fall into an exhausted sleep.  His nights he'd give over to his dreams, his days to his arms and legs.  He'd be like a working zombie: sweeping away snow, buying things, ordering kerosene lanterns, cleaning rickshaws, moving tables and chairs, eating the food Fourth Master supplied, and sleeping, all without knowing what was going on around him, or speaking, or even thinking, yet always dimly aware of the presence of that spongelike thing.