Sunday, June 19, 2005

Book Tag (cont.)

All right, number 2:

Last book I bought.

Umm, can't remember. Mainly because I usually buy more than one at a time, and after about a month I can't remember which two or three came first. But those recently purchased include the Collected Stories of Frank O'Connor, a book of short stories by Anton Chekov, Chesterton's Heretics (containing a marvelous reflection on the Crusades), and After Rain by William Trevor. Oh, Flannery O'Connor's Collected stories or Complete Stories or some such. But that was for Bernadette to take on her golf travels. I've already read them all.

3. Last book I read

ummm, can't remember. Over the past few months I've been dipping into the ones listed above. Possibly it was Mortimer Adler's How to Think About God.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me

I can't make such a reduction. So here's a list of things that come to mind, not necessarily in order of importance:

1. The aforementioned How To Think About God. It's a small book, but the task Adler has set for himself is monumental, claiming to have proved God's existence by natural reason alone, and further claiming that his idol, Aquinas, was slightly off in each of his five ways. Bertrand Russell used to sneer at the fact that the Pope of Rome had had to dogmatically assert that God's existence could be proven in just this way. (If it could be proven by reason, what need of dogma?) And there is a lovely irony in the fact that this Jew, Adler, was (I believe, don't hold me to it) baptized a Catholic before he died. His work is highly accessible to the layman, for he was, of course, a great teacher (Buckley called him a virtuoso), and his prose style invites you into his study.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Really an intellectual autobiography by a man driven over the edge in his pursuit of Quality. A Christian would know it as Truth. Like me, he was a teacher of Rhetoric. Merging the drama of his own life with the philosophical inquiry, this book can lead you not to the Trinity or the Incarnation, but to the One. I couldn't put it down and I mention it because it came at a time of religious and philosophical doubt and made firm the ground beneath my feet.

3. The Sun's Gold, a novel by Smith Kirkpatrick. This one's personal. Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1974, it was the only novel my writing teacher ever wrote or published, his metier being the short story and the critical essay, many of which appeared in The Sewanee Review. Though it will not go down as among the great novels, this seafaring tale exhibits the craft of a master at work, a man who knew more about that craft than any I've ever met. There is a scene in which our young protagonist is sitting in the crow's nest atop a masthead, the description of which will make you dizzy. Smith is the retired head of the creative writing program at the University of Florida, a post he inherited from his own teacher, Andrew Lytle, one of the original Fugitives.

4. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. A narrative tour de force.

5. James Joyce's Dubliners, most especially the long story "The Dead", the power of which first told me what I'd like to do with my life. Wish I'd done it better. Time is an obstacle.

6. An old issue of The Sewanee Review dated Summer, 1953. Picked it up at a used-book store in Gainesville where some fool had traded it in, not knowing what he had. Inside, Flannery O'Connor's "The River" appears for the first time in print. There's an article by Robert Penn Warren called "A Note to All the King's Men." And an essay by Caroline Gordon, "Some Readings and Misreadings." She was a devout Catholic and long-suffering wife in the face of her husband's (Allen Tate's) infidelities. She wrote one of the great short stories in the language, "Old Red," but never achieved her husband's fame, nor that of some of those she tutored, like Flannery O'Connor. Her article is comparatively short but sweeping, tracing the Christian scheme of redemption as it appears, to greater or lesser degree, in a broad array of works: Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Henry James' The Ambassadors, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, and the works of Francois Mauriac, George Bernanos, and Evelyn Waugh, with mentions of Faulkner, Hemingway and others thrown in for perspective. Her thoughts are offered beneath the guiding light thrown over all by a quotation that opens the article - one from Jacque Maritain's Art and Scholasticism on the nature of Christian art. There was a time when such references were commonplace in our literary journals.

7. Apologia Pro Vita Sua, by John Henry Newman. I was already Catholic when I read it, but if I hadn't been it would have made me so. Reading it was like converting all over again. To find such intellectual and literary brilliance, such sincerity of heart, combined in one man's work was a revelation, and a further blot on the secular education that had excluded him from my experience. The same would apply to Chesterton, who is number

8. The Everlasting Man. Need I explain?

9. Elizabeth Anscombe's Ethics, Religion and Politics, one of a three volume set published by the University of Minnesota, and the most accessible of the three. Don't remember how I heard of her, but of all the Catholic lights in the sky, this was one I'd never seen or heard of. Like Newman, another revelation in her combination of intellect and deep faith, so unlike the modern convention, which is an abiding scepticism, if not outright contempt, where things transcendant are concerned. Her prose is not as ornate as Newman's, but something in its phraseology bites deep and holds.

10. Flannery O'Connor's The Habit of Being, in which one discovers why Walker Percy thought her, of all the writers he knew, the only one who might approach sainthood.

5. Tag 5 people. If you'd like to be so honored, email me and I will oblige.

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