Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Saturday Auditorium Series Speaker: Susan Cain

Saturday Auditorium Series Speaker: Susan Cain (Photo credit: ALA – The American Library Association)

If you’ve ever wanted an insight into my mind – the how and why of it’s inner workings – I’ve got a book for you.   It’s called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  It was loaned to me, probably with the assumption that I would find something relevant in it’s pages.  I certainly have.  I’m constantly amazed at how in tune with my own mind the author seems to be.  I loved this passage early on in the introduction:

Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas.  They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family.  They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.  They tend to dislike conflict.  Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

I had a friend when I was young who was determined to teach me the art of conversation.  Apparently “Fine” was not a satisfactory answer to “How are you doing today?” no matter how sincerely I meant it.   She was very patient, and persevered until I could actually give and take a little bit.  I still run through that basic script when faced with small talk.

But after I finish it, I’m ready to go.

I’m surprised at how deeply this book has resonated with me.  I’ve known for a long time that I was an introvert, and I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone that’s spent more than five minutes with me, especially after a first meeting.  But this book has validated something I didn’t realize needed validating.  I suspect that most introverts harbor some deep paranoia that there’s something wrong with them and envy the extroverts.  It’s nice for someone to say that it’s not only normal, but can be a powerful asset.



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some old books i found in the guest room. =]

Image via Wikipedia

I always have a huge stack of books sitting next to the chair in my room waiting to be read, and it always seems to be replenished just as fast as I can get through them.  My goal this year is to read 35 books, so here, in no real order, is a sampling of the stack that awaits me for 2012.  A strikethrough is a book I’ve already finished.

  • 11/22/63 – Stephen King
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole – Stephen King
  • Habibi – Craig Thompson
  • Blankets – Craig Thompson (re-read)
  • A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
  • The Universe in a Nutshell – Stephen Hawking
  • On the Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
  • The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene
  • The Peaceable Kingdom – Stanley Hauerwas
  • The Seven Pillars of Creation:The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder – William P. Brown
  • The Valley of Fear – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • A Storm of Swords – George R. R. Martin
  • A Feast for Crows – George R. R. Martin
  • A Dance with Dragons – George R. R. Martin
  • The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – Stieg Larsson
  • Myths America Lives By – Richard Hughes
  • Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis
  • The Fall – Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

This is the working list.  Obviously I’m a bit short of 35 at the moment, so this will be evolving as the year progresses.  Some have been holdovers from prior years, and this time I’m going to get to them.  If you haven’t already, find some good books to read in 2012.

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I was asked in class a few days ago what poetry I liked.  I don’t read much poetry, so while some people love poetry and can quote their favorite verses on the spot or continuously post snippets as their Facebook status, I can’t really name a poet that I love to just sit and read.  My answer was J. R. R. Tolkien, mostly because he’s always my answer to ‘What’s your favorite ________________?’ when discussing anything literary.  Even so, I maintain that it is a good answer, and I think the following poem is evidence of that.  Incidentally, I initially wanted to name my dog Lúthien, but my wife vetoed it.  We settled on Zelda.  

The Story of Beren and Lúthien as told by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings  

by J. R. R. Tolkien

The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinuviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.
There Beren came from mountains cold,
And lost he wandered under leaves,
And where the Elven-river rolled,
He walked alone and sorrowing.
He peered between the hemlock-leaves
And saw in wonder flowers of gold
Upon her mantle and her sleeves,
And her hair like shadow following.

Enchantment healed his weary feet
That over hills were doomed to roam;
And forth he hastened, strong and fleet,
And grasped at moonbeams glistening.
Through woven woods in Elvenhome
She lightly fled on dancing feet,
And left him lonely still to roam
In the silent forest listening.

He heard there oft the flying sound
Of feet as light as linden-leaves,
Or music welling underground,
In hidden hollows quavering.
Now withered lay the hemlock-leaves,
And one by one with sighing sound,
Whispering fell the beechen leaves
In the wintry woodland wavering.

He sought her ever, wandering far
Where leaves of years were thickly strewn,
By light of moon and ray of star
In frosty heavens shivering.
Her mantle glinted in the moon,
As on a hill-top high and far
She danced, and at her feet was strewn
A mist of silver quivering.

When winter passed, she came again,
And her song released the sudden spring,
Like rising lark, and falling rain,
And melting water bubbling.
He saw the elven-flowers spring
About her feet, and healed again,
He longed by her to dance and sing
Upon the grass untroubling.

Again she fled, but swift he came.
Tinuviel! Tinuviel!
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice lay on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinuviel
That in his arms lay glistening.

As Beren looked into her eyes
Within the shadows of her hair,
The trembling starlight of the skies
He saw there mirrored shimmering.
Tinuviel the elven-fair,
Immortal maiden elven-wise,
About him cast her shadowy hair
And arms like silver glimmering.

Long was the way that fate them bore,
O’er stony mountains cold and grey,
Through halls of iron and darkling door,
And woods of nightshade morrowless.
The Sundering Seas between them lay,
And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
In the forest singing sorrowless.

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I read Shirley Jackson‘s The Lottery in high school and loved it, but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to reading anything else she wrote.  Well, I’ve fixed that.  I just finished reading The Haunting of Hill House, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite horror books.  Jackson is a master of terror.  The “ghostly” manifestations in the house are described in vague, abstract ways – and you’re never sure if the house is generating the visions or one of the guests.  The prose is concise and poetic.  The book has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve ever read.  Read this and tell my your not curious to read more:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.  Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.  Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

How brilliant is that?  It perfectly sets the ominous tone, it immediately establishes the house as a presence looming over the rest of the story, and it personifies the house by naming it and describing its abnormal personality.   In one paragraph she has given you a sense of fear and unease towards this place without mentioning a single specific occurrence.  She never mentions any ghosts or ancient burial grounds or long-ago murders, and yet you already realize it is no sort of place you would want to go.  It’s a fantastic book.  I highly recommend it, and I’m going to be sure to read more of her books.  Maybe next I’ll read We Have Always Lived in the Castle because I think it has a wonderful and intriguing title.

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The idea of someone adapting Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is exciting, but the fact that HBO is doing it just makes my anticipation level skyrocket.  HBO’s original shows are compelling television, and better than just about anything else out there.  Neil Gaiman is a brilliant author, and one of my favorites.  The pairing of these two is almost too exciting to believe.  If you’ve never read any Gaiman, you should start now.  Get anything – novels, young adult novels, short story collections, comics – it doesn’t matter, they’re all worth it.

Now wouldn’t it be cool if HBO were doing a Sandman series?

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My friend Mac gave me this article to read yesterday, and I thought it was worth sharing.  It’s about violence in children’s stories, and how it can form an integral part in the development of their morality and ability to deal with the alien adult world.  Think about some great children’s books.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Aslan gets ritually sacrificed, the protagonists’ friends get turned to stone, and the book ends in a giant bloody battle.  The Hobbit – Everyone nearly gets boiled and eaten by trolls, Bilbo nearly gets eaten by the creepy Gollum, a dragon nearly destroys a village before he takes an arrow to the heart, and near the end of the book you have a giant bloody battle.  The Black Cauldron – again, bloody battles, and a magical artifact that raises the dead to create undead armies and can only be destroyed by a willing, living, sacrifice.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – the queen wants to chop off a young girl’s head.   I can’t remember if I’ve read something Neil Gaiman wrote on this subject or not, but it’s pretty clear what his views are if you’ve read Coraline or The Graveyard Book.  The latter opens with a toddler being orphaned when his parents are brutally and efficiently murdered in the night, while he escapes only by wandering out of the house and into a graveyard where he is raised by all manner of ghosts and ghouls and dark creatures.  It’s a fantastic book.   How about the early versions of most fairly tales?  In the version of Little Red Riding Hood in my copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, grandma and Little Red aren’t rescued by the hunter until after the wolf has eaten them both.   This is how it reads:

He was just going to raise his gun when he missed the old grandmother, and thinking that the wolf might have swallowed her, he remembered she might yet be saved.  So he would not shoot, but, taking a pair of scissors, cut open the stomach of the sleeping wolf.

Disembowelment by scissors, how often do you include that in your bedtime stories?

I think there is some truth in this.  It’s probably one of the major reasons why when I play video games that offer moral decisions I can’t seem to be anything but the noble good guy on the first time through.  I don’t want to be anything else.

So how about it?  Should children’s stories contain violence?  What are some good violent stories you remember from childhood?


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I’ve finished reading Richard Dawkins The God Delusion.  In short, John Polkinghorne is absolutely right when he says:

It is simply an atheistic rant – a disappointing book full of assertion but devoid of real engagement with theological arguments.

If that’s all you needed to know and your curiosity is satisfied, then feel free to carry on your perusal of the internet.  If you would like some more specifics, then here are a few things that stood out to me.

Early on, Dawkins presents his main rebuttal against the existence of God:

…any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide…

In Dawkins view, if I understand his words correctly, is that natural selection is a very simple theory that explains how complex organisms exist on earth today.  They descended gradually from increasingly complex organisms over millions of years.  Okay.  Fine.  Then he says that a designer must be as complex as whatever it is he is creating.  As far as human beings go, that seems to be the case.  He then applies this to God.  If God created the universe then he must be at least as complex as the universe he created, but if complexity arises from simplicity, how did he get there?  He also states that if the existence of complex organisms is highly improbable, and God is more complex that the most complex of organisms on Earth, then he must be even more improbable.  So what’s the problem with all of that?  He treats God as if he is some physical thing subject to all of the physical and natural laws of the Universe.  A view that I’m almost certain very few lay-theists, let alone serious theologians, actually holds.

And that’s really the crux of my problems with the whole book.  At no point does Dawkins demonstrate any sort of understanding of religion deeper than the most cursory study.  He treats faith as if it means believing in something despite obvious evidence against it.  He sets up Fundamentalism in all of it’s guises as a straw-man, pretends it is religion, and beats it to death, burns the remains, and buries the ashes in a deep pit.   That’s all he ever really engages with.  Of course when this is your view of theology –

I am tempted to go further and wonder in what possible sense theologians can be said to have a province. I am still amused when I recall the remark of a former Warden (head) of my Oxford college. A young theologian had applied for a junior research fellowship, and his doctoral thesis on Christian theology provoked the Warden to say, ‘I have grave doubts as to whether it’s a subject at all.’

– I guess you wouldn’t bother to deal with them.

This passage is another indicator of the sorts of arguments Dawkins is prone to making throughout his book:

We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist’s decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation. If one of these is ‘morality flying by the seat of its pants’, so is the other.

Maybe I’m wrong, and I’m certainly not saying it’s easy to discern which parts of scripture are history and which are allegory or mythology, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than a personal decision.  There are actual Hebrew and Greek scholars out there that understand the language and the writing styles, who spend years examining ancient texts working to figure this stuff out.  There’s not always a consensus among them, but it is a legitimate field of study.

Here’s another passage I found particularly telling:

Christians seldom realize that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. ‘Love thy neighbour’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew.’

And he goes on to use Jesus specifically as an example of advocating an ‘in-group morality’.  Interestingly enough, this seems to ignore Jesus’s interaction with the Samaritan woman, the centurion, or the whole parable of the Good Samaritan actually.  It ignores the fact that Jesus followers not long after his death were gaining followers from Jews and Gentiles alike.  His source is a paper by a physician/evolutionary anthropologist, and if these topics are covered in the actual paper, Dawkins doesn’t mention it.

He predictably attacks religion by bringing up all of the terrible things that are done in the name of God, and uses as evidence for the evil influence of religion among humans.  I disagree with his conclusion, at least as far as Christianity is concerned.  I fully admit that people have done terrible things in the name of God and Jesus.  However I don’t think that speaks to the inherent wrongness of Christianity, but to the innate ability of human beings to take anything at all and use it to do terrible things.  People do terrible things all the time.  They might use religion as an excuse, or politics, or natural selection (I’m looking at you Magneto), or ethnicity, or culture, or any number of things.  People do awful stuff.

The biggest problem with Dawkins’ book is the vitriolic and mocking language that he uses throughout.  It seems that his main argument to convert (And I do mean convert.  He explicitly states that as his goal early on and the book comes complete with an altar-call like section in the back for Atheist organizations to get in touch with should you feel overcome by the…well…whatever the opposite of spirit is.) others to atheism is to ridicule them into submission.  If he makes fun of God enough, maybe the people reading will be ashamed of their belief and lose their faith.  Not because they have made a rational decision to reject God based on the evidence – his arguments fall well short of that – but because whenever somebody stands up with confidence and mocks anything you hold dear, it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s hard not to feel some doubt.  Is that a legitimate way to argue for something?  Not logically, but I do fear that it is an effective way to argue something.  Emotional manipulation can be persuasive if it clouds our judgement.

I was interested that Dawkins did discuss the reality of the anthropic principle, and an apparent ingrained morality in humans (reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s moral law), although he draws the complete opposite conclusion from them than Christian apologists.  If Christians and Atheists alike agree that they exist, it’s probably true.

I guess in a way, I’m not disappointed that Dawkins atheist manifesto is so poorly argued.  As a Christian, I don’t really want Atheists converting people, so I find a certain level of comfort in that.   But the scientist in me really was disappointed.  Sadly, I almost expect this sort of angry rhetoric, and poorly argued diatribes from fundamentalist Christian writers.  I don’t have a real high level of expectation for that.

But a scientist should know better.

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