Category Archives: Reading Life

Doodling thoughts as I listen to Noam Chomsky









LOTR Trilogy: Favorite character, most moving scene

FellowshipOfTheRingAfter reading the LOTR trilogy I felt the buzz of good literature and the romance of epic storytelling for a week. No more than a week, because even now I can recall the buzz. Of course I’ve taken to listening to the soundtrack while I paint, so that keeps the experience alive. It was hard to say good-bye and figure out where to turn next in the Land of Lit.

After some disorientation, I finally decided to take up where I left off last year in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles and started in on Doctor Thorne, which is a delicious treat of book so far. But before I travel further down that path, I will write one more little LOTR post. I promised to tell you which character I most related to and which part of the story really got to me……

Of course if I pose the question as which character I’d like to be, I’d have to say an elf. Definitely an elf. Who wouldn’t want to be a Tolkien elf – you get to be a beautiful creature with supernatural eyesight, all kinds of magic things such as vials of evil-repelling light, a rich lyrical language, and immortality. Also you always get to be above the fray. Heck, if these elf people were so perfect, where are they now? Over the sea on the eternal island I suppose.

But the question I put to myself if not what I’d like to be but who I relate to now, as I am. There are so few females in the trilogy and even fewer human females.Most of the other major females are elves. The one major human female character is Éowyn , the lady of Rohan, but I don’t really relate to her at all. She is too perfect, too devoted to duty, too blonde.

To be honest I have to say I relate most to the hobbits, and if I had to choose one hobbit in particular it would be Merry. I really felt for him, wanting so badly to contribute to the struggle, but feeling out of his depth, having no idea what he could do to help, feeling alone, outside the loop, an insignificant presence among mighty heroes. I was so happy when he got to do something really brave, a thing that only he could do, and I was thrilled when he actually got the credit for it. (I won’t tell you what that thing is because if you have not yet read the books, I would not want to be a spoiler.)

shield of gondor

Shield of Gondor

As for which part of the epic got to me most, there are so many dramatic, pivotal, beautiful events in these books that many qualify as candidates for “most satisfying moment.” But only one of them brought tears to my eyes. It was is that part of Return of the Ring when the stronghold city Gondor is in its darkest darkest hour. The fearsome and powerful leader of the Nazgûl is at the gate and Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, has gone mad and suicidal. Lots of people are dead and the rest of them are expecting to be dead in the next few minutes. Suddenly they hear the horns of Rohan – the powerful equestrian army of their ally has arrived in the nick of time.

The part that swept me away was when we are with King Théoden and the Rohan army as they approach the burning mess and carnage of Gondor in its final hour. They hesitate for moment and then shout their war cries, blow their horns, brandish their swords, and ride into battle. You have to read it. I am pretty much a pacifist so it surprised me that a war scene could so move me. It opened a door to understanding about the whole appeal of war: the opportunities it presents for ultimate courage, friendship, and self-sacrificing love. I never quite understood this, at least on an emotional level, until I read this scene.

Finally read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but made mistake of seeing films first

I decided about a month ago I needed to finally read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. These novels were published in 1954 and 1955 and the films came out in the early 2000’s, so long ago that the action figures are now collector’s items. But hey, I work on my own timeline, and 2016 turned out to my personal LOTR year. Maybe it has something to do with what’s going on in the world – horrible wars and the feeling of a spreading darkness, and being an election year with its spectacle of people clutching after that ring of power.

Certain members of my family, who have been Tolkien fans for years, have watched the LOTR movies repeatedly so I have caught parts of them multiple times. I did go to see each of the films when they they first came out, and honestly, I did not like them all that much. Not that they are half bad as film adaptations go. As such they are quite good. It’s just that these kind of action productions are not to my taste and haven’t been for quite a while. As I get older I seem to be developing a sort of strange resistance to this business of “being entertained.” The thought of going to a concert or watching a movie is steadily losing what appeal it ever had.

The books, of course, are a whole different experience. I must have
read The Fellowship of the Ring before, because once I began reading it, parts of it came back to me.  And I remember reading The Hobbit. The Two Towers and The Return of the King seemed new to me. Now that I have read the entire trilogy I am not sure how a true Tolkien fan can love the films. The Lord of the Rings is all about words and language and histories passed down through poetry, song, and legend. The books have rhythm, depth, and towering height. To do them justice it seems to me you need to devote the time and mind-space to reading them.

I must say I love Howard Shore’s soundtrack, even though the main theme sounds just like an old hymn called “This is My Father’s World.” (Which is so appropriate maybe it’s deliberate.) Apparently the LOTR soundtrack has won a “Best Soundtrack of All Time” award for like six years in a row from some organization called ClassicFM. It’s possible that the experience certain literature can be enhanced by a good instrumental soundtrack. (For that matter some lives could be enhanced by a good instrumental soundtrack.) But maybe even music limits the mind by overlaying a structure the mind wouldn’t otherwise impose on itself. My reading experience is also affected by picturing the characters as their film counterparts. It’s always a mistake to see the movie before you read the book.

But maybe in this case it is not a big deal. I am not upset about it. I did it to myself.  I think that on the whole it is a good thing that books are adapted to film, as long as the filmmakers make a good faith effort to be true to the book to the extent the limitations of their medium allow. There have been many book adaptations that seek to appeal to current values and tastes rather than trying to be true to the book. You could make a case that even this is healthy – literature reinterpreted to speak to the culture. But when the movie actually reverses or debases the spirit or theme of the book – I find that sort of thing abhorrent.

For example the main theme of the LOTR is that you cannot compromise with evil. You cannot keep just a little bit of evil and think you can use it for good. The nature of evil is such that it wants to devour and make everything part of itself. If the films had changed things just a little bit to let the good guys keep the ring of power, that would have destroyed the story. But these films, although they adapted much, did not change that most important thing. So they are tolerable.

In my next post I will talk about which LOTR character I most related to and which part of the saga really got to me.

What do you mean by “world”? Fun with overthinking.


World in a dewdrop. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Today I was thinking about writing more on G.K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World? But I could not get past the word world. Instead of What’s Wrong With the World? my book will be called What IS the World?

What do we mean when we talk about the world? Usually we aren’t referring to nature or the planet or the universe. Some people say we are advanced animals and therefore our world is as natural as theirs. I disagree. If we really are only advanced animals then we are cheats. We do not play by the rules of the natural world. We twist survival of the fittest to suit our moral sense, our emotions, our historical memories, our beliefs, and all those prejudices our fellow creatures do not have. It is obvious to me that humans are not simply advanced animals, but are in fact a whole different kind of thing.

Nor is human world purely spiritual, despite what some New Age gurus would have us believe. We are forever identified with our mortal forms, these bodies with a head, a torso, two arms, and two legs, organisms beholden to the uncompromising demands of nature. It’s difficult even for the most wildly imaginative writers of science fiction and fantasy to do away with this basic pattern, though many have made vigorous attempts to break free from the humanoid form.

Though we may thwart the law of the jungle, our bodies insist on operating according to plan. We may ingest tons of sugar, chemicals, alcohol, and opium and hope the body will continue to operate unimpeded, but it won’t. It will process whatever substance goes into it according to its hard-coded internal program. No matter how much we meditate, that half gallon of ice cream we consumed will not transcend to the spirit of sweetness but will turn into fat and burden our liver.

Our bodies keep us tied firmly to the natural world and that is as it should be. It keeps us humble, lest we fly off and think we can join the angels. We are not angels and we never will be. We are humans, a distict order of creation, above the animals, below angels. Our origin is planet earth with its specific nature, yet we are not fully at home on planet earth in the wild kingdom/evolutionary sense. When we talk about “what’s wrong with the world” or “world record” or “world war” we are not talking about the world of the wild kingdom. From earliest history, it seems, humans have been aware of that other world that I call spiritual; but that is not really our home either, at least not in the purely spiritual non-material sense.

The human world (I am guessing) is a relatively new experimental creation, currently superimposed between or on top of the natural and the spiritual. Perhaps this age is an early iteration of a world that will eventually become more suitable for human souls than this borrowed and cobbled-together gerry-rigged thing balancing precariously between those two other worlds. I imagine that when we shed these bodies we remain human beings. We do not perish and we do not turn into something essentially other than what we are now. Maybe – probably even – we keep our general form, identity, memories, and mental structures.

Perhaps “up there” will be sort of the flip side of “down here.” We will then follow the rules of that world but our identities will continue to desire the pleasures of earth, just as here we long for the pleasures of heaven. We will be spiritual beings who want to eat, climb trees, walk with companions, and live in houses. We will want to build camp fires, smell flowers and pine trees, have sex. (!?) We will be as different from the angels there we differ from the beasts here.

I can imagine a semi-spiritual world that duplicates the things of earth so that God’s graduated creatures can feel at home. Perhaps, as Plato thought, we will find there the ideal forms of everything. But I fancy those ideal forms will be still further ahead of us and the next world will simply be one created for humans who have journeyed to the next level of our existence. Somewhere along the way, perhaps soon, the experimental cobbled-together world will transform into one perfectly suited to the kind of creation human beings are meant to be, a world that is the perfect integration of nature and spirit.

What would such an integrated world be like? Who knows? I am sure we are all in for plenty of surprises and I wouldn’t want it to be otherwise. Still, it’s fun to make some guesses. I imagine it as a place where nature is more alive and responsive to human thought and emotion: the rocks would truly sing and the mountains would really clap their hands. There would be animals that would speak and love and interact with us in a meaningful way instead of being limited by the demands of survival.

I think we can see small previews of this in our relationships with pets. My dog Cocoa is as close to a loving being as any animal I have ever known. She interacts, responds, and communicates lavish affection. But after living with her brother Pippin for ten years, she saw him die of lymphoma in our living room and the loss seems to have had little effect on her. I do think I notice a few changes I her behavior. She seems more needy for attention since his death and she hates to be left alone in the house. I just don’t honestly think she “cares” the way humans care when a loved one dies. However, I like to fancy she cares an ounce or so more than an animal in the wild cares. Survival in nature leaves little room for grief.

In any case we seem to say world with great frequency, often without the slightest thought as to what it is we mean by it. Generally we seem to have the vague notion that we refer to some kind of comprehensive system. We know well enough what we are trying to communicate. No need to be like me and bog yourself down making problems out of things that are not problems, like the meaning of words. Language usually works like the involuntary organs of the body. The heart beats and the words issue forth. Until you start messing with them.

As part of my research, I noticed that Amazon lists more than 100 pages of books with the word “world” in the title. Here are a few of these titles, just to observe the variety of ways we throw this word around. I have read a few of these….

Books with WORLD in the Title

Brave New World . Aldus Huxley
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Susan Cain
World Order. Henry Kissinger
The World and Will. Arthur Schopenhauer
The Greatest Salesman in the World. Og Mandino
Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. Joanna Weaver
My Beloved World. Sonia Sotomayor
The World According to Garp. John Irving
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.
The War of Worlds. H.G. Wells
The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Martin Puchner and Suzanne Conklin Akburi
Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book: Make a World. Ed Emberley
The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House of Pooh. A.A. Milne
The World As I See It. Albert Einstein
Danny the Champion of the World. Roald Dahl
How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. James Wesley Rawls
The Lost World. Arthur Conan Doyle
Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos. Michigan Kaku
America: Imagine a World Without Her. Dinesh D’Souza

And the award for the weirdest title with World goes to…..

Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Ida Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero

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And we haven’t even begun with the song titles. “Part of That World” from The Little Mermaid is the first one that pops to mind. Or TV shows. Like The Wonderful World of Disney.

But enough of this. After writing my crazy thoughts I Googled “world” and discovered that the Wikipedia article is not half bad. For one thing it says the English word comes from two Old English words that roughly translate to “Age of Man.” As opposed to the Latin word  – mundus – which means “clean, elegant” and is related to the Greek cosmos which means “orderly arrangement.” If our world was once defined as something orderly it is currently becoming more disorderly by the minute. Words themselves are splintering, meanings no longer as clean and elegant as they once were. But orderly or not, we are stuck with this world and might as well make the best of it.

My plan is to read, write, and draw and try to make sense of what I can. What comes of my attempts I share here for what it’s worth. And Happy Valentine Day. Buy someone a cardboard heart full of chocolates and don’t stress too much over the meaning of it all.

What’s Wrong with the World? by G.K. Chesterton. Some notes….

imageI have just finished listening to What’s Wrong With the World? by G. K. Chesterton. This is actually my second reading of this book. I have learned a few things since the last time I read it a couple years ago and have come to see things in a different light. GKC speaks from a Catholic point of view and last time I read the book I was seriously considering returning to the Catholic Church. I needed a sense of continuity in my life I suppose, and also a spiritual home. I thought the Catholic Church might fulfill both purposes. I liked that it was rich in tradition, music, and history and it might have the right balance of structure and space to support my spiritual needs.

That was in 2014. In 2015 I decided against the idea. I can’t say this is my final decision. Until this life ends there is always the possibility I will change my mind. I sometimes wish I could just commit to an idea and stay with it. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, I wish my soul could select its society and shut the door. My soul seems to like to hang out with a society for a while and then sneak out the back door that it always leaves ajar.

In reading What’s Wrong I realized I pretty much still agree with GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view. But maybe GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view does exactly jibe with the point of view the Church has expressed through the last few centuries. GKC thinks the Church accommodates the moral needs of human nature and is a good institution for broad spiritual guidance. This is the ideal, but it seems to me the Church has too often gotten wrapped up in protecting itself as an institution and has not always stood for the rights of the individual vs the state. It has sometimes been an agent of the state and of state-sponsored violence when it should have been a voice for non-violence and love. That’s one of the reasons I decided against committing to it again.

GKC disagrees with Leo Tolstoy’s assertion that violence is always wrong, at least if you profess to be a follower of Christ. GKC seems to accept that violence is sometimes needed to protect what is good and part of being human is the desire to protect what is good. There are huge problems with admitting the necessity of certain categories of violence, but this is not the post to go into that. Obviously the world agrees that violence is a necessity for the human race. I think I agree that we humans do want to protect what is good but more often we want to protect what we think is our own, which, as far as most of us are concerned, is exactly the same as what is good. GKC would agree, but he thinks we need to get clear on what should and should not be our own.

What is wrong with the world, according the GKC, is that everybody needs to have a very specific something of our own – a house with a door and a small patch of earth, perhaps three acres. In early 20th century England, a small segment of the population had taken over all the property and the vast majority of souls were left to scramble and scrape to get by on scanty mine or factory wages. Instead of a house with a few acres they had to live in slums, the workhouse, or the streets. In this series of 49 essays GKC talks about what led to this state of affairs and why it is so difficult to fix.

GKC is always funny and charming but in this book I actually perceive some anger coming through, such as when he talks about a certain law that required girls of poor families to cut their hair short to control lice. Why, he asks, do we not address the conditions that lead to little girls living in lice-infested conditions rather then demanding that children adapt their hair to the conditions? Parliament, he says, would not dare to demand such a demeaning thing of children of the rich.

Chesterton was a proponent of distributionism, a social theory that was neither socialism or capitalism. It said that everyone who wanted to should be able to own a private home and a little land. It advocated distribution of land but not by force – rather landowners should be encouraged to bequeath their land to the poor upon their death. Not sure if the idea ever took off.

GKC skewers socialism of the type that tells people they do not want what they want, the type of socialism that tries to engineer society to benefit the state. The exploitation of people for the benefit of industrial profit fairs no better. These interests are represented in the book by two hypocrite politicians named Hudge and Gudge who, as it turns out are really working together, against the interests of poor “Jones”, the ordinary man who simply wants to live a peaceful life in a home of his own.

This quote, I think, expresses the heart of the book’s message:

“Whether we can give every English man a free home of his own or not, at least we should desire it; and he desires it. For the moment we speak of what he wants, not what he expects to get. He wants, for instance, a separate house; he does not want a semi-detached house. He may be forced in the commercial race to share one wall with another man. Similarly he may be forced in a three-legged race to share one leg with another man; but it is not so that he pictures himself in his dreams of elegance and liberty. Again, he does not desire a flat. He can eat and sleep and praise God in a flat; He can eat and sleep and praise God in a railway train. But a railway train is not a house, because it is a house on wheels. And a flat is not a house, because it is a house on stilts. An idea of earthy contact and foundation, as well as an idea of separation and independence, is a part of this instructive human picture.

I take, then, this one institution as a test. As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of woman, every normal man desires a house to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair beneath him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses. This is the normal appetite of men; I do not say there are not exceptions.”

What’s Wrong With the World was first published in 1910 so I am sure some readers will have problems with Chesterton’s discussions of women and the suffrage movement. It seems absolutely stone-age when you read of a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote. But it’s also interesting to enter into new insights about that time. The State and its doings were not always considered all that important to the mass of the population. Chesterton discusses the importance of the private home to men, women, and children and why its importance ought not to be superseded in importance by the demands of either the government or commercial industry.

Note: I have long since made the decision not to be offended by points of view popular in the past that are widely considered insensitive now. I just don’t want anything (such as anger) to stand in the way of gleaning what wisdom the past has to offer. Attitudes have changed dramatically in the past few decades, mostly for the better. Heck, I wouldn’t even want to be women in the 1960s, especially after watching Mad Men, but it was what it was, and I want to be free to seek understanding of the world wherever and whenever it can be found.

A question occurs to me. Why do I feel compelled to read social theories from 1910? In  this book GKC actually provides an pretty good answer to that question – the question of why we might want to look to the past for answers to current problems. I may need to talk about that topic in the next post.

Favorite Einstein quotes about God and America

Einstein - His Life and UniverseEinstein: His Life and Universe is a treasury of Einstein stories and quotes. Einstein was a very quotable guy and this surely enhanced his popularity. Here are a few of my favorites:

In an interview shortly after his 50th birthday, a journalist named George Sylvester Viereck asked Einstein if he accepted the historical existence of Jesus. Einstein’s response: “Unquestionably. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

I was just impressed that Einstein had taken the time to read the Gospels. In the same interview, Veireck asked him if he believed in God. He was asked this question or some version of it many times during his life; this was one of his best answers.

“I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written this books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”

About America he most admired the freedom to express individual ideas, even unpopular ones, without fear. “From what I have seen Americans, I think that life would not be worth living to them without this freedom.”

Einstein’s appreciation of freedom, his natural tendency from birth, was greatly energized by his experience of living in Berlin and witnessing the rise of the Nazis. He publicly announced that he “would not live in a country where people were denied the freedom to hold and express their own thoughts.”

Review of Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

Einstein - His Life and UniverseEvery now and then I get the urge to read a biography, and every time I do I think I should read more of them. I find biographies especially rewarding because they give me a close-up view of history and always remind me that history was once the here and now and very personal experience of the people who lived it. I suppose I chose this Einstein biography primarily because of that face, the face that has been present all my life attached to some fascinating quotes and forever associated with the quintessential brilliant and eccentric scientist.

I once read a book that attempted to explain the theory of relativity to children and learned that the theory has something to do with the continuity and unity of time and space and that it shows that time is not some static thing that we move through but actually varies depending on the observer’s speed and orientation. Also I once read a children’s book about young Albert’s childhood to my son. This is just to give you an idea of how little I really knew about Albert Einstein before reading Walter Isaacson’s fantastic Einstein: His Life and Universe.

As I read Isaacson’s skillful narrative that weaves the personal, political, philosophical, and scientific strands of Einstein’s amazing life into a deeply moving portrait of his character and the world in which he lived, that iconic image with the crazy hair and the kind wrinkly face transformed into a real multi-dimensional person. Of course the central and anchor strand of Einstein’s life is the scientific and I was impressed by how the author manages to make theoretical physics somewhat interesting even to a non-scientific reader. Like me.

The theory of relativity – either special or general – is not easy to explain even in a book of its own, so I’m sure it was quite a challenge to work Einstein’s most significant achievement into the story of his life. The facts surrounding the publication of his landmark 1905 paper however are fascinating even without knowing what the paper said: how even with a Doctorate in Theoretical Physics he could not get an academic job and actually worked out the theory of special relativity while working in the Swiss Patent Office. The “Swiss Patent Office” story is legendary, but Isaakson brings it to life by showing who the young Einstein was, how he got the job, and what the job was like. (For example, it was no drudge job, it payed pretty well, and Einstein actually enjoyed examining patent applications.) In fact, much of popular lore about Einstein’s early failures, such as flunking math, are either false or exaggerated. He was, in fact, brilliant and intensely curious about the forces behind reality from early childhood.

It literally took the help of the heavens for Einstein and his theory to capture the public imagination. He needed a total eclipse to verify the theory but the first eclipse opportunity was lost by complications caused by the outbreak of World War I. This proved fortunate because a calculation was wrong and Einstein was able to correct it by the time the next eclipse opportunity came around. When his astronomer friend declared that the eclipse proved the theory about the bending of light the news media took it up and Einstein’s international fame took off at the speed of light, helped along by his eccentric appearance, charming personality, and quote-ability. The truth is he took to fame and attention like a fish to water, an unusual quality for the scientists of his time who tended to try to stay above the public fray. Against the backdrop of his times, you begin to see clearly just how singular a person Einstein was.

Between his scientific adventures and complicated love life there is plenty of drama, but what about the theory itself? What is it so important? What was its real impact on physics, philosophy, and even world history? Isaakson explains all of these complexities in various ways, so that even if the reader does not fully understand ho the theory works (and who does?) you begin to understand its tectonic effect on he popular perception of the nature of our universe and popular imagination as well as how it affected world history in the 20th century. For example, it indirectly lead to the development of the atom bomb, to pacifist Einstein’s great regret.

The book, written in 2007, is 551 pages long plus 125 pages of end notes and indexing. So there is too much dense info to summarize in a short review. However none of it drags when you are reading. Here are a few points that really affected me:

  • I loved the story about how Einstein got semi-expelled from an authoritarian high school. One of his most consistent qualities throughout his life was his anti-authoritarianism, all the more amazing for a kid growing up in a hyper-militaristic late 19th-century Germany.  One of his professors said that young Einstein undermined his authority in the classroom by his very presence. “When Einstein insisted that he has committed no offense, the teach replied, ‘Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile, and your mere presence here spoils the respect on the class for me.'” And so Einstein was apparently asked to leave the school.
  • He was not a particularly monogamous man and did not seem to suffer from undue guilt about that. He was never unkind to anyone expect perhaps his first wife Mileva Marić. She was the only female student at Zurich Polytechnic and in the beginning their relationship was beautiful, intellectual, and idealistic. It lasted for many years. They married in opposition to their family’s wishes and had two sons. But his growing fame and her professional disappointments worked against the ultimate success of the marriage, and finally they divorced, another unusual thing at the time. Isaacson presents this highly complex relationship, including Einstein’s extra-marital relationships, with special sensitivity and fairness.
  • I was impressed with Einstein’s resistance to the many extreme political positions of his time. He was a socialist but did not support the Soviet Union, a pacifist but supported the second world war, recognizing early the dangers presented by the rise of the Nazi party. (Living in Berlin as a Jew made this recognition fairly easy.) In his early life Einstein saw no conflict between being both a German and Jew, but as event developed he came to identify fully as a Jew, becoming a leader of world Judaism to such an extent  that he was eventually offered the position of Prime Minister of the new Israel.
  • Most fascinating to me was Einstein’s attitude toward God. He was never a practitioner of any particular religion but believed deeply inn a higher power, which he tended to see as a non-personal principle being the existence and nature of the universe. Even this conception of a God raised eyebrows among his scientific peers. But in this, as in all things, he was a non-conformist.
  • I think what I liked most about Einstein was that his guiding principle was that individual freedom of thought and expression was the most important thing and above all things that freedom must be protected. He thought socialism could protect freedom again authoritarianism but as soon as socialism itself turned into tyranny, as in the USSR, he withdrew his support.

In the end I loved this book. The story of Albert Einstein’s amazing life and its impact on the 20th century and beyond is told with grace, depth, and excellence. I also love the subject. Besides Einstein and I have the same birthday.

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Next post: Einstein had a pithy way with words and was very quotable. Next post I will share a few of my favorite Einstein quotes, found in Walter Isaacson’s biography.

Kicking off my reading year with C.S. Lewis

I ended 2015 with my wick burnt to the bitter end, but no more so than on most of my other New Year’s eves. I generally do end my years with a whimper rather than a bang. By December 31st time really does feel ancient. Also the whole holiday season thing wrings me out. By the last day of the year I am such a tired stupor that all I want to do is curl up in my big easy chair in my new Christmas pajamas watching some old movie that I’ve seen at least 20 times before. Or read a book, a comfortable old book; I am not in the mood to break through any intellectual frontiers. Perhaps I might have a glass of wine to feebly welcome in the New Year, limping half-awake across the midnight line.


New year pic 2016
I may have drawn a party girl but that’s about as close as I get to being one.

csl the art of writingBut New Year’s day, as in the past, I awoke with a new sense of purpose and energy. I know the calendar is only an artificial human construct but, artificial or not, there is something magical about the dawning of the New Year. Right away I felt excited about returning to my essential creative self and beginning anew. The bright spirit who guides my reading life immediately produced exactly the right book to help me get there. I was browsing Hoopla* and there it was: C.S. Lewis: The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers. Immediately I felt a familiar and welcome something welling up within – that combination of urgency, desire, and “rightness”, similar I suppose, to love at first sight. The book is a collection of essays, speeches, and recordings on the theme of writing, most of which I had never read.

In fact, now that I think of it, 2015 was an unusual reading year in that other than one essay (“Why I Am Not a Pacifist”) I went the entire 12 months without reading any C.S.Lewis. He, along with a few others, is usually the bread and butter (or in my new gluten-free diet the nutritional yeast) of my reading life. Perhaps part of my burnout was due to Vitamin CSL deficiency.

As soon as I began listening to the book I felt a surge of spiritual energy and I knew I had found the perfect book to kick off my 2016 reading year. As with many other C.S. Lewis audio books, this one is narrated by Ralph Cosham. His proper slightly dry British diction strikes the perfect note of confident intelligence and self-effacing humility. It’s easy to forget I am not listening to C.S.L. himself. Sadly I have just read that Mr. Cosham passed away in 2014.

A few minutes into the first essay I felt myself coming home to the green pastures, wooded paths, and clear sparkling streams of my literary world. Many of the pieces have to do with children’s literature and Lewis’s ideas about what that means. This was especially delightful because my first project this year is illustrating a children’s book for an author I know. I am now inspired not only to illustrate but to write, maybe for children, maybe not.

In Lewis’s view, the author should let the subject matter of his or her imagination choose the appropriate form, whether that form be fairy tale, detective novel, science fiction, essay, poetry – whichever vehicle seems best to fit your material. To Lewis it would be beyond vulgar to write according to the demands of the market. He himself wrote the Narnia books because they seemed the best form for the stories he had to tell, not from any special affection for children.

Here is a quote from this book that I love:

“No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally, and often more, worth reading at the age of 50.”

So true. I read The Wind in the Willows for the first time only a couple years ago and I can’t imagine I would have liked it better had I read it as a child. It is a book I will surely read again.

I am also fascinated by what Lewis has to say about movies based on books:

“Nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements cinema excludes are the very elements that give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world.”

Lewis would probably be appalled at the number of untrained minds in our time who are completely shut out from this imaginative world. A non-reader cannot even know what Lewis means by “imaginative world.” He is talking about a world that exists only in the human mind, a world that has qualities far beyond mere excitement, explosions, and sequential dramatic events, however well-acted and however impressive the special effects. This imaginative/spiritual world is a vast and eternal resource. The more you read the more you discover how words can lead you through doorways and secret passages to places that are beyond the reach of language. You cannot get this magical experience from the movies.

plaid jumber bookmark

One of my art projects is making custom bookmarks. Anything to encourage kids to read.

*Hoopla is a library-connected app where you can get free ebooks, audio books, music, and movies. Check it out if you have not already found this treasure.

How to REALLY have peace on earth

Seated Madonna. A drawing I did last Christmas

Seated Madonna. A drawing I did last Christmas

First of all Merry Christmas or Happy Whatever Holiday you are celebrating.

It may not look like it from the outside, but internally 2015 has been quite a wild ride for me, a year of faith exploration that has taken me in directions I did not expect. On this eve of the day we celebrate the birth of the founder of my faith, I sit down and take stock of where my faith has actually landed. More than ever I believe the birth of Jesus ushered in a new era for humankind, but my understanding on what that means has changed and expanded.

Of course this all this understanding has to do with reading. Books are always my lights through the dark forest of life. I think it started with reading a classic I’d been putting off for a while: A Confession by Leo Tolstoy. That was in March and that book affected my so profoundly that I can hardly believe it has been less than a year since I read it. Some people think it is just a description of Tolstoy’s personal mid-life crisis, but for me it cracked open the secret door in the wardrobe and sent me blinking into a vast new world. It led me to read several of Tolstoy’s subsequent works: Resurrection, his final novel, What I Believe, and The Kingdom of God is Within You. Each had an equally mind-expanding effect on me that I have barely begun to process.

What-I-BelieveJesus did indeed teach us exactly how to usher in a world of peace and good will. The most concise summary of his teaching is the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew Chapter 5. His life and further teaching support what he told the crowd at that time. From his reading of the Sermon on the Mount Tolstoy (in What I Believe) derived five new commandments of Christ:

  1. “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26
  2. “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32
  3. “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37
  4. “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42
  5. “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48

So far the human race never actually tried to do what Jesus taught, at least on a large scale. Of course there were pockets of those who got it – especially in the early Christian era but also among certain groups in later history. Throughout history there have been individual who tried to live accordingly, some with success. These people have always stood out as extraordinary and were often recognized as saints.

Going to church and singing hymns of praise are good things. These activities preserve the great hope and pass the tradition to the next generation. They may even make us better people. But as long as we keep returning violence for violence, or (and here’s the real rub) keep participating in systems that operate based on fear and violence, peace on earth will remain a hope and a dream.

Following Christ’s teaching begins with the individual. You cannot make other people do it, at least not if you want to follow the spirit of Christ. Force of any kind cannot lead to peace on on earth or even peace in your own home. Each person who sees the truth must simply follow Christ’s teaching to the best of their ability.

We must not even judge the Christian Church for all its faults. Judgment of anyone other than ourselves is not part of the new way. Humankind has not been ready for the radical change in structure and mindset inherent in Christ’s revolutionary approach to living on earth. Maybe the time is now and or maybe we will struggle on in our fear and violence based systems for a few more centuries, but as time goes on it will become more and more apparent that humanity must recognize the way of peace or perish.

I have written several posts on different sections of What I Believe. You can find these posts in the main menu of this blog. This year I will be adding to these posts.

Classics Review: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

barchester towersThis year, 2015, has been my year of Trollope. I finished reading all of the Palliser series and then went on to the first of the Chronicles of Barsetshire The Warden, which was a delight, and have most recently finished Barchester Towers, which is, as Victorian novels go, practically perfect – especially if you like a good helping of wry humor in your novels. This second novel of the Barsetshire Chronicles has the added benefit that we are familiar with the core group of characters and are happy to find out how things have turned out for them after the traumatic upheavals in The Warden.

About five years have passed since the end of the previous novel, and we find kindly old Bishop Grantly on his death bed with his son the Archdeacon by his side. The Archdeacon loves his father but the old man has been in the process of dying for several weeks and the Archdeacon is hoping to be appointed his replacement as Bishop. It’s pretty much a sure thing unless a new Prime Minister and his party come in. That would mean the new gang of liberals would want to appoint a liberal clergyman to the post. The old Bishop hangs on to life just long enough for a new government turnover and the unfortunate Archdeacon loses his chance at the plum gig by moments.

The new regime appoints a certain Dr. Proudie to the post and into the cozy town of Barchester comes the new Bishop and his entourage, which includes the domineering Mrs. Proudie – “the real Bishop” – and his odious chaplain, the slimy social-climbing Mr. Obadiah Slope. This group belongs to the new evangelical, less traditional, wing of the Episcopal Church. It is strange reading a novel in which the liberals, who want things like Sunday schools for poor children and more inclusiveness in the church, are cast as the villains, but such is the case in Barchester Towers.  These people have scant respect for tradition and are perceived by our more conservative friends as vulgar busybodies. I found myself perfectly happy to root for the old guard against these obnoxious upstarts, even though generally I tend to sympathize with the oppressed masses. Mr. Harding, his daughter Eleanor, and even the Archdeacon, are just more likeable.

At the end of The Warden Eleanor Harding marries the young reformer John Bold but in Barchester Towers we find that he has, alas, died. It is apparent that Trollope never quite warmed up to John Bold, whose reforming zeal is the impetus for driving poor kind Mr. Harding out of his comfortable job as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, the local alms house, so it is no surprise that he kills the poor guy off. Besides, Bold’s early death leaves Eleanor a rich young widow who is available for romantic adventures.

Also newly arrived in town is the bizarre Stanhope family. The father, Dr. Vesey Stanhope, is a clergyman who went to Italy to recover from a sore throat and stayed there for 12 years, allowing proxies to take care of his clerical duties. His three Bohemian young adult children, two daughters and a son, both charm and scandalize the town. Bertie Stanhope, the ne’re-do-well son becomes one of Eleanor’s unwanted suiters; but he causes her little trouble compared to the odious attentions of Mr. Slope.

Trollope uses some unusual narrative devices in this novel, from time to time allowing the authorial voice to interrupt the flow of the story. For example his assures his readers that we need not worry that “his” Eleanor will marry either Bertie Stanhope or Mr. Slope. She has too much sense to allow such a thing to happen. In the process Trollope clues us in to his philosophy of novel writing: in a good novel this sort of information should not interfere with the reader’s enjoyment. And indeed it does not.

The pleasure of this novel is in the perceptive humor and the characters, none of whom is perfect, but all of whom are either lovable or interesting or both. Trollope somehow makes even the scheming Archdeacon lovable. I think the secret is that Trollope really likes these characters and makes us like them too. In real life when we like someone we like them in spite of or even because of their imperfections. It’s that way with the Barchester characters. I found myself affectionately shaking my head at the antics of Archdeacon Grantly even though he is the kind of man I probably couldn’t stand in real life.

It is Archdeacon Grantly’s scheming that brings another key character into the story: the handsome intellectual Mr. Arabin, former professor of poetry at Oxford University, who, at Dr. Grantly’s invitation, accepts a position as vicar of a quirky local parish called St. Ewold. Mr. Arabin is a conservative and Dr. Grantly needs an ally in his political struggle with the Proudie/Slope faction. Mr. Arabin is also single, and as it turns out, rather lonely. So Eleanor Harding soon has a third suitor, this one much more suitable.

Other interesting characters are Wilfred Thorne, squire of St. Ewold’s and his spinster sister Monica Thorne. This pair are evangelical about preserving the tradition of their Saxon heritage. Then there is the poor clergymen Mr. Quiverful, his wife, and their 14 children, who desperately need Mr. Harding’s old post as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital so that the children can have decent shoes to go to church. And there are also variety of townspeople who get the light of literature shone upon them so that we get a glimpse of ordinary village life with its jealousies, its passions, and pretensions. I look forward to soon reading the third book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series: Dr. Thorne.

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You've reached the Creative Space of Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse. Author of six books of fiction; and numerous short fiction, poems, and articles. Welcome. For info on my writing, services, and more, scroll down. If you need to contact me directly, email I update this space regularly; book reviews to news of my own books, #theWritingLife, and my CREATIVE SPACE column. Sharing with links and credits is fine but unauthorized use and/or duplication of site content without permission and credit is strictly prohibited. For my other blog, go to

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