Posted by: Dan | January 5, 2007

December Books

Well, I’ve finished off the year and was able to read over 100 books, thereby attaining my goal of reading 200+ books in the last two years. These are the eight that I read last month:

1. The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical by Shane Claiborne.

This is a book that I had heard a lot about but I had hesitated to pick it up. Sometimes I struggle reading authors who are associated with “counter-cultural” movements because they often seem so self-absorbed or egotistical. Thus, I had sort of put off reading Claiborne’s book because I was worried it would just end up sounding like another (perhaps more radical) Blue Like Jazz. However, I’ve been invited to lead a few seminars at a conference in March and Claiborne is one of the main speakers… so I figured it was about damn time to read his book.

And it’s a helluva good book. Although personal and anecdotal (with a good measure of pithy quotations from people like John Chrysostom, Kierkegaard, John Wesley, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.), I found Claiborne’s writing did not rub me the wrong way. In fact, it did quite the opposite. I found myself delighted, inspired, humbled, challenged and encouraged.

Claiborne is able to offer a narrative critique of popular Christianity and pop culture that is both emphatic and tender. However, unlike many voices of criticism, Claiborne does not simply stop with his critique, nor does he offer a few suggestions on things that might be done differently. No, he and the other members of The Simple Way (the community of which Claiborne is a part, which is associated with a broader movement known as “the new monasticism” — look it up if you don’t know about it) embody a positive alternative and, IMHO, a more genuine way of living Christianly in our world. This book is a witness to a community of people who have taken Christianity (and Christ) so seriously that they actually allow the love of God and of neighbour to guide the whole of their lives (and not just parts of their lives).

You should read this book.

2. Street Journal: Finding God in the Homeless by Gary N. Smith, S.J.

I picked this book up on a whim in a Used Book Store (it was cheap, and I was a little bit familiar with the town where Smith was writing) and I quite enjoyed it. This book is a selection from the journals kept by Smith when he was overseeing a drop-in for street-involved people in Tacoma, Washington. What I especially appreciated about Smith’s journal was the way in which he was able to capture some of the delight, humour, and joy that often bursts forth on the margins of society (he relates one especially funny story about a time two men were gearing up to fight and all of a sudden one of the fellows popped his teeth out, passed them to Smith, and said, “Hold my teef, fadder!” At that point, all three men sort of stopped and burst out laughing and the fight was averted). It is important to remember the humour that exists here lest we move from loving those on the margins as equals to pitying them and treating them with condescension.

Furthermore, I also appreciated the humble tone of Smith’s writing. He is honest about his struggles as he journeys through his job and as he enters into burn-out. There is a candidness here that is quite refreshing.

3. After Virtue: a study in moral theory by Alasdair MacIntyre.

Well, there is no way that my shockingly inadequate “reviews” can do justice to this outstanding contemporary classic. I apologize in advance for what follows.

Basically, MacIntyre is disturbed by the observation that contemporary moral discourse seems to be at an impasse. How is it that, in our day, two (or more) very different moral views can be held and neither view can convincingly triumph over the other(s)? That this is the case would seem to suggest that the language of morality is in very serious disorder — and this is precisely what MacIntyre claims. In fact, MacIntyre believes that current moral discourse only contains fragments of, or the simulacra of, genuine moral discussion. MacIntyre believes that this is so because, after the Enlightenment, moral discourse moved away from the classical Aristotelian tradition that saw a community of people possessing a narrative-identity pursuing a telos (the common good). Thus, according to MacIntyre, in the Aristotelian tradition, the virtues where those things which aided a person-in-community in the pursuit of that telos.

However, with the post-Enlightenment rejection of teleology and narrative-identity, with the rise of emotivism and individualism, there was no longer a commonly agreed upon foundation for the virtues and thus moral discourse, and discussion of the virtues, became increasingly fractured, contested and arbitrary. Indeed, MacIntyre is convinced that Nietzsche is correct to argue that, after the Enlightenment, no moral philosophy has provided an adequate foundation for the virtues. Yet MacIntyre has no desire to see Nietzsche’s philosophy triumph and so this book is an effort to revive and recover the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues, of narrative-communal-identity, and of teleology.

In the end, MacIntyre concludes with these stirring words:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us… We are not waiting for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St Benedict.

Therefore, reading MacIntyre’s book at the same time as Claiborne’s book was quite intriguing. After all, Claiborne — and the other “new monastics” — are engaged in precisely this activity. Oddly enough this is also a goal that I have been pursuing for the last few years (which just goes to show how much of MacIntyre comes through in the writings of Hauerwas).

Finally, as something of a philosophical aside, I think that it would be well worth reading this book in conjunction with Jean-Francois Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition. Both books begin with something of the same observation/problem and it is therefore quite interesting to compare the solutions offered by MacIntyre and Lyotard since they are members of two very different communities.

4. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics by Sigmund Freud.

This book rounds off my reading of Freud’s major works on religion and culture (the other two works being The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents). It is not one single piece but it is a collection of four essays that deal with the topics of (1) incest, (2) neurotic (and totemic) “ambivalence” and “projection,” (3) animism and the “omnipotence of thought,” and (4) the “Oedipal complex” in relation to the origins of human society.

So how does this relate to religion? Well, religion ends up being revealed as an essentially primitive neurosis that civilized man (yes, man, not woman) should be able to move beyond.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with some of Freud’s arguments. Some of them (especially those that relate the Oedipal complex to the rise of civilization) are so far out that they would seem laughable… if so many people hadn’t taken them so seriously for so long. I guess it just goes to show what we’re willing to believe it if ends up gratifying our own undisciplined desires.

5. Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles (Hank) Bukowski.

So, the first think to know about Bukowski is that he’s an asshole. That’s probably also the second and third thing worth knowing about him, so consider yourself warned.

Bukowski, for those who don’t know, was an American writer and poet who wrote largely about booze (he was an alcoholic), living on “skid-row” (he lived in the ghetto in L.A.), working shitty manual jobs (he worked for various factories and spent a number of years filing mail at the post office where he ended up going, well, postal), going to the races (he was also addicted to gambling), and having sex with lots of women (see prior comments about Bukowski being an asshole — Bukowski was reputed to be a misogynist, and he hits — and is hit by — various women. When asked about this in an interview Bukowski stated he assaulted women, and not men, because of the “chickenshit” blood that he inherited from his father — who used to beat Hank quite regularly and violently when Hank was a child). So, this book is a collection of short stories that Bukowski bases upon his life experiences and the experiences of his friends (he knew a lot of, um, “interesting” people).

So, if this is the case, why read Bukowski?

Well, for one thing Bukowski is also a damn good writer and he can also be very funny. However, aesthetical appeal isn’t, IMHO, a good enough justification for choosing to view something. After all, a person could be a damn good film-maker but if they’re making porn, I’ll not be viewing it (I mention porn because Bukowski’s writing does, at times, border on the pornographic).

However, the main reason why I stuck with Bukowski was because, after having read so many books written by people who commit themselves to journeying alongside of those on the margins of society (cf. Books 1 & 2 this month), reading Hank is like getting a glimpse from the other side. Hank is one of the guys who would come into the drop-in or stop by for dinner on Friday, and reading his books is not simply reading words about the exiles, it is reading words of the exiles. Of course, Hank does not represent all those on the margins (far from it!) but he does represent a segment and, although a lot of what he writes about is rather… graphic, he just might be a voice worth hearing.

6. Women by Charles (Hank) Bukowski.

So, figuring that Bukowski might be a voice worth hearing, I thought I would pick up one of his longer narratives (since I enjoy longer stories more than short stories). Again, we get much of the same — beer, gambling, work, sex, and hard times — but this book pays especial attention to the protagonists relationships with women. Furthermore, one once again finds Bukowski’s mix of good writing, graphic depictions, wit, and dark humour, within this book. At the end of the day, I’m pretty torn as to what to think about this type of literature. If other people out there have read Bukowski I’d be curious to hear their thoughts.

7. Underworld by Don Delillo.

About 70pp into this 825pp monster of a story I fell upon this snippet of conversation between two former lovers who meet again after many years:

“I thought I owed us this visit. Whatever that means,” I said.
“I know what it means. You feel a loyalty. The past brings out our patriotism, you know? We want to feel an allegiance. It’s the one undivided allegiance, to all those people and things.”
And it gets stronger.”
“Sometimes I think everything I’ve done since those years, everything around me in fact, I don’t know if you feel this way but everything is vaguely — what — fictitious.”

It was at this point that I knew I would be hooked. The quote resonated with me because I often feel that “fictitious” element about the way we seem to live our lives. However, after reading coming to the end of the book — which is a swirling, and sometimes deliberately confusing, movement from the present to the past — I actually think that, within this conversation, Delillo is commenting on the nature of the story he is telling.

So, what is the story Delillo is telling? It’s hard to pin-down. I guess you could say it’s something of the story of America from the 1950s to the 1990s, a story of baseball games, the cold war, consumption, New York, Texas, art, and the internet. It’s a story of all sorts of characters with vague or passing connections to one another — sometimes through relationships, sometimes through objects, and sometimes through events.

I enjoyed this book, although I was slightly frustrated that Delillo didn’t “tie up” all of his loose ends (which, I suppose, may be part of the point of it all) and I think the book could probably afford to be a few hundred pages shorter. However, it’s always good to find authors of this calibre and so I look forward to reading more Delillo in the near future.

8. Would You Rather? Over 200 Absolutely Absurd Dilemmas to Ponder by Justin Heimberg & David Gomberg.

When I used to plant trees up north the members of my crew would sometimes play a game called “would you rather” wherein we would formulate totally absurd either-or situations and attempt to determine which alternative would end up being the better choice (i.e. would you rather vomit violently at an unknown time once every day, or have a minor leak coming out of your bum all the time?). Ah yes, there’s something about tree-planting the brings out the best in everyone.

Anyway, this book (a Christmas present), makes for good toilet reading, or good conversation after a few drinks (although, I tend to think that people like my half-crazed hairy little Polish foreman came up with some better material).

So, to select but one example from the book, would you rather…
have a flair for interior design but smile fiendishly and constantly rub your hands together when talking to members of the opposite sex
OR
be able to type 90wpm but moan like Chewbacca whenever you use the bathroom?

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