The Annals of America

annals of america

In this era of Wikipedia, it’s hard to imagine a time when we relied on bulky multi-volume printed encyclopedias to get our information. When I was a kid, my grandparents gave me a set of World Book encyclopedias, and that set got me all the way through high school. Then when I was out of school, I fell prey to a shifty hardselling salesman who conned me into buying an overpriced set of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Except it didn’t happen that way at all. There simply came a time when I missed my World Book, and wanted to update my library, so I called the salesman, not the other way around. He came to my apartment and sold me a handsome set of the 1985 15th edition Encyclopædia Britannica. The covers were padded and beautiful. It felt nice just to hold them, and reading them was even better. Yes, they were expensive, but I didn’t consider them overpriced. Over the years, I more than got my money’s worth out of those books.

Additionally, the encyclopedias came with a perk: a 20-volume set of collected period documents called The Annals of America. This awesome set of hardcover history books covered American history from Christopher Columbus through Gerald Ford. It was prepared in time for the 1976 American Bicentennial. I never made it through the entire set, but I read several of the volumes cover to cover, and bounced around plenty in the remainder. It was a valuable resource and again I more than got my money’s worth.

My last attempt to get through all 20 volumes in chronological order (I’m anal that way) came just after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I was feeling patriotic, and thought there was never a better time to read about American history in depth. I started over at the very beginning. I wasn’t working at the time except for a part-time position, so I had lots of time to read, doing much of it while laying out by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The historic location only added to my feeling of intense patriotism. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a halt to all air travel. There were armed guards at government buildings. There was an odd feeling in the air. And there I was, getting my suntan and reading these hefty books.

Sadly and stupidly, I somehow got sidetracked and abandoned my project of reading The Annals of America straight through. Even more stupidly, my wife and I moved away from Cambridge, a town we loved, a couple years later. Then money grew tight and I had to sell several possessions which I now wish I had back. Included in that number was my beloved set of Encyclopædia Britannica and also The Annals of America. I hope whoever has them now is getting a lot out of them. I hope they are being read and loved, not gathering dust on a forgotten shelf.

 

Science and Theology

bible and sci-fi

Here are two books I’m currently reading: The Common English Bible Study Bible (With Apocrypha) and The Big Book of Science Fiction. I realize this pairing of books lends itself to jokes, and I didn’t put them together this morning by accident. They highlight a problem that has baffled humankind for centuries, if not millennia. What we are taught to believe does not always mesh with what our minds tell us.

I was raised in a Christian environment, and like many other people, there came a point in my childhood when I noticed a divergence between what I heard in church and what I heard at school. I remember feeling a great sense of relief when our church pastor’s sermon one Sunday promised to resolve the disparity. He told a story about a student not unlike myself who had approached his own pastor with a science textbook and a Bible, demanding to know how to resolve the two. The pastor in the story said, “The Bible is God’s word; the textbook is man’s word. We use the Bible in church to learn about God’s world, and we use the textbook in school to learn about man’s world.”

I was not happy with this answer. It was cleverly said, but resolved nothing. The pastor’s response skirted around the question in an effort to please both sides, but did not do justice to either. I have no satisfactory solution, but I know that asking the questions and searching diligently with open minds for the answers is a worthwhile pursuit. So I will continue to study theology AND science.

Here are two websites that are good places to start:

 

Science Fiction

Yesterday I mentioned Library of America. I recently bought two boxed sets of science fiction from them, American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1950s and American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s. When a schoolmate turned me on to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series in junior high, it was love at first sight. I devoured every science fiction book I could lay my hands on. Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison (don’t tell him I put him in the sci-fi category!), and many others. This lasted most of the way through high school.

But tastes change, with books and in other things. I drifted away from science fiction, and mostly ignored it except for an occasional dose. But lately I’ve picked it up again in a big way. I’m especially drawn to the classic sci-fi of the 1970s and earlier, so the two LOA collections mentioned above are perfect, promising 3100+ pages of entertaining reading.

Here are a couple of lists I’ve found with some good book recommendation:

And if your science itch needs more scratching, check out a couiple of fun YouTube channels from VlogBrother Hank Green:

Help for Troubled Times

I am 55. Getting older is hard. Things hurt that never used to hurt. I have less energy than I used to. I also have less optimism about both my own prospects and the prospects for the world at large. Now we find ourselves in the middle of a global COVID-19 pandemic with no clear end in sight. Here in the USA, we have a leader whose sense of obligation doesn’t extend past his own skin, and our elected officials don’t seem to have any interest in reigning him in, or really in doing anything other than continuing to amass more wealth and power for themselves. It’s hard not to feel helpless.

I intend to step into all of this bad news and try to come up with some ways to cheer myself up. With any luck, I’ll be able to help at both individual and global levels. It’s a tall order. That’s what I’ll be chronicling here.

To start with, during this time of closures, cancellations, and quarantines, there’s never been a better time to read. An organization I support and believe in is Library of America. According to their website, “Library of America, a nonprofit organization, champions our nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy.” Think of them as the good guys in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, making sure great writing is preserved in high quality books so that the history, knowledge, and learning preserved in them doesn’t disappear. You can buy directly from them, or make a donation to the cause (they are a non-profit) at their website. Even better: You can buy their books through your local bookstore, which accomplishes two good deeds at the same time!

Animal Farm

I first read George Orwell’s Animal Farm when I was in junior high. I read it at least once again many years later. Then I read it again yesterday and today. It is a short book. There is no excuse for not reading it, especially these days when most of us suddenly have a lot of free time on our hands.

The book was written during World War II, and can be read as a diatribe against Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, or any other authoritarian regime. Orwell’s point in writing Animal Farm was not to be subtle. The message is delivered with sledgehammer force. And comparisons to what is happening today in the United States are too obvious to escape notice.

If you’ve never read Animal Farm, or have not re-read it recently, NOW is the time. Read it. Listen to it. Absorb it. Don’t let the pigs win. Even more importantly: Don’t become one of them.

Book Glutton

bookshelf 7-23-2019

I am a glutton. Not with food—well, not usually—but with books. I look at the books on my shelves, many of which I still have not read, and I want to dive into all of them at once. When I pick up a hefty book like Kristen Lavransdatter, War and Peace, or Bleak House, I want to devour it in huge chunks. I want to fill myself to the brim with all the delicious words I just know are waiting for me between the covers. I recently made the plunge into George R. R. Martin’s massive Song of Ice and Fire (five volumes and counting). Proust’s complete In Search of Lost Time (4,211 pages according to Amazon), has been sitting by my bedside, waiting patiently for at least two years now. There are literally hundreds of classic books I have not read in the world, not to mention those old favorites that I want to re-read. Every year a new batch of great books is published, both fiction and non-fiction. I don’t want to read some of them; I want to read all of them! Right now I have four books going at once, which even by my standards is a bit much. Happily, they are all dissimilar enough that I am unlikely to confuse them.

In an effort to consume as many books as possible, I am tempted to read too quickly. Though I have never been and never intend to be a speed reader, I often gobble down more than I can comfortably digest. Just as I can be overwhelmed at a large buffet (remember, I said I’m not usually a glutton with food), the sheer quantity of great books tempts me to overfill my plate. I have to remind myself that I am not in a contest of quantity. I must remind myself to slow down. As author John Green says, “Being a slow reader can in some ways make you a better reader.” His brother Hank follows this advice up with, “An important part of reading is not reading.” Put the book down and contemplate what has just been read. Spend some time thinking, musing, and engaging the text through questions, thought experiments, and creative writing.

“Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.” – Lindsay Waters

So tonight after supper, when I pick up a book (I’m not sure which one it will be yet), I will endeavor to savor the experience. Instead of counting pages, I will swim in them. If I drown, I can’t think of a better way to go.

Stumbling Blocks

I recently read the book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. As I did not know much about the author, I did a little online research on her. Among other things, I learned that Held Evans died tragically and unexpectedly at the young age of 37 from complications involving allergic reaction to medication. I also learned that I think I would have liked her, and am now curious to read more of her writing.

As is not surprising when looking up anything remotely involving religion online, I found widely polarized opinions about her. For example, an article from a conservative religious website claimed Held Evans was leading people to hell for daring to harbor and express doubt. (To put things into context: This same website condemned contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle for NOT condemning homosexuals.)

On Goodreads, reviews for Inspired tend to be raves or rants. In the latter category, one reviewer went on at length about what he or she considered Held Evans’s flawed theology, even putting the book on a “false teaching” shelf. (The possibility that this person’s own theology might be flawed is apparently out of the question.) Near the end of the scathing review, comes this line: “I advise readers to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care and in light of the scripture.” In other words, scripture itself is not to be questioned nor is this person’s interpretation of it. I would like to advise the reviewer “to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care,” INCLUDING scripture! (I opted not to engage in argument in the Goodreads comments.)

This highlights a very real problem for Christianity. How does a tolerant person deal with intolerance? How does someone willing to harbor doubts and ask questions confront someone who would never entertain the possibility of their own fallibility?

If you want to find ways to weaponize the Bible, it’s not hard. Want to keep women subjugated to men? Plenty of justification for it in scripture! Want to condemn homosexuality? Got it covered! Support for slavery? Too easy! Xenophobia, genocide, polygamy, incest? Check, check, check, check. Any pet prejudice can probably find support someone in the Bible, given the proper spin (sometimes requiring very little spin at all!)

For those of us who want to follow the Jesus we hear preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), this poses a stumbling block. It is hard to support the Christian church when so many of its loudest voices are those preaching intolerance, bigotry, and hate. It’s hard to admit to being a Christian when so often the church has come down on the wrong side of history. How does one stay inspired?

Reading Broadly

In my last post (Take Me Out to the Ball Game), I mentioned getting stuck in a reading rut. I read a lot, and enjoy many different genres of fiction, especially science fiction and classic literature. And yes, I also read a lot of juvenile and young adult books; adults who think they’re too old for J and YA books are missing out on some great reads! For non-fiction, I tend to turn toward history, theology, and philosophy.

This sounds like a nicely varied diet, but even so, I sometimes need a nudge to read books I might not otherwise pick up. To help find that nudge, this past year I joined John Green’s online book club, Life’s Library. I have also partnered with a friend to start a book club at our church, in which we explore books that challenge our thinking about religion, and deepen our understanding of faith and its place in society.

John Green, himself the author of several acclaimed young adult novels, urges his fans to read broadly, and to think about issues and other people complexly. We all like to read periodicals and blogs we know in advance we agree with. We find it comforting to turn again and again to favorite authors. There’s nothing wrong with doing either of these things, but doing so exclusively can result in a narrowing of the mind. When so much of our information comes from social media whose algorithms carefully filter out content with which we might disagree, it is vitally important to follow Green’s advice and actively seek out a wide variety of sources and opinions.

Here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Visit your local library. Wander some aisles you normally avoid.
  • Make friends with the people who work at an independent bookstore. Ask them for suggestions.
  • Join a book club.
  • Get involved in the conversation at Goodreads.
  • Browse some book review sites:
  • Little Libraries are popping up all over the place. Next time you pass one, look inside and pick up a book that piques your interest. And remember: While I don’t recommend giving up on books too quickly, it’s okay to abandon a book if it’s rubbing you the wrong way or just not striking your fancy. But again: Sometimes it’s good to at least give a fair hearing to an author with a point of view different from your own.

Happy reading!

 

Book Habits

When I read a book, I highlight passages that I think I might want to find quickly later on. I also jot down notes and cross-references in the margins, most of which would not make any sense to anyone other than myself. On top of that, if there are longer passages I want to remember, I note those along with appropriate page numbers on the first blank page. And yes, I slap a bookplate on my books as well, usually inside the front cover. (All of these practices drive my wife up the wall. She has sometimes resorted buying her own copy of books she wants to read so that she won’t have to see my vandalism.)

I do this more now than I used to. For most of my life, I read books as isolated experiences unless they happened to be for a class at school which required me to think of them in relation to one another. Over the past few years, as I have accumulated more memories and—I hope—a greater store of knowledge, my reading habits have subtly changed. The more I read, and the more I think about what I read, the more I notice connections between books, across genres, and in relation to life in general. Deliberately looking for ways to bring books out of their silos has made reading more meaningful to me.

Which brings us to the question of how many books to keep on hand. Some housekeeping experts say that once a book has been read, it should leave the house. (“Does it spark joy?”) Over the years, I have donated, sold, or given away dozens, if not hundreds, of books. I wish I had most of them back. I have bought, purged, then rebought the same book multiple times. I long for the day when I can afford a big enough place to have an organized home library. If I read a book that I know I’ll never read again, whether it’s because I didn’t like it or because it was just plain bad, I’m okay with letting that one go. Otherwise, I do return to books. They are friends I like to keep close.

 

Reading

I love reading. If I ever find out I have 24 hours to live, I know how I will spend it. I will buy the best bottle of Cognac I can afford, gather up a nice assortment of cheese, crackers, and olives, stack a few books of interest within reach, then drink, eat, and read myself into the next world. I’ve been sick all this past week, and there were a few nights when I was close to wanting to do exactly that.

As a kid, I was fortunate to have two great storytellers in my life: my dad and his mom, my grandma. It was a rare night that I didn’t get a bedtime story. First there was Dr. Seuss, of course, and other children’s books like Go, Dog Go!, The Mice Who Loved Words, Never Tease a Weasel, and dozens of Little Golden Books. When I got a little older, I became enraptured with the Mother West Wind books by Thornton Burgess, the Bobbsey Twins, and then (fanfare, please): The Hardy Boys!

The first book I read entirely by myself was What Spot? (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1369269.What_Spot_) At some point our grade school librarian introduced us to the Newbery Medal books, and I made it my quest to read them all…in chronological order. I remember my dad’s frustration when I had trouble finding a copy of Smoky the Cowhorse (1927 winner) at our local library. “Why don’t you just read the next one?” “No!” A series of frantic phone calls (on a rotary phone) located Smoky in a library at the opposite end of town; dad reluctantly drove me there so I could my project uninterrupted. (I like to think he was privately proud of my dedication.)

I never made it through all the Newbery Medal books on that first attempt. Many years later, though, this time as an adult, I decided to revisit that earlier goal. With the help of the librarians in the children’s room at the Cambridge Public Library and the miracle of interlibrary loan, this time I finished! The latest Newbery winner at the time was Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder (2001). With only two exceptions, I’ve kept up with the Newbery winners ever since, and frequently encourage other adults to check out the children’s section next time they’re in the library. Lots of good reading there. But no Cognac.