Another Humanities Journey Completed

Another year of teaching Humanities at Veritas Academy is now over.  This year was “Humanities: The Modern World,” and it is both one of my favorite courses and one of the most challenging (just like the other three in the quadrant).

Because of some changes in the course during the first semester and some additional books subbed in during the second semester, some favorite books were left off the reading list.  Overall, however, we had a good year of reading.  On some questions on the last day of class, I asked which book was the favorite, which book should have been given more time for discussion, and which book would each student wish to read again.  I think every book got picked by one student or the other, while many students listed “all of them” as their favorites, the one that needed more discussion time, and the one they would want to read again.

The year began (back in September) with Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  On the one hand, this book is not typical of Dickens’ usual plots and stories.  On the other hand, it is a fine novel that contrasts the French Revolution with England during the same time period.  I posted a series of blog articles back in September of 2014 while we were reading this book.

This book is always popular with the students.  The overt Christian message is outstanding.

We never read enough Shakespeare.  This year we did get through 3 tragedies–Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear.  I lament not having time for at least one or two of the comedies and a history or two, such as Henry V.  I found that Shakespeare works best when the plays are read aloud–with students standing, entering, leaving, and delivering the lines.  I also find that some of the movie versions of Shakespeare work well to follow up the readings.

This past year’s coverage of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost was a delight for me as a teacher.  This poem is not easy reading, either for students or the teacher.  But Milton’s verse is rich.  There are usually some discussions of portions of this poem that nearly turn the classroom into a revival meeting.  Milton doesn’t get straight A’s for theology, but he gets A+’s for expanding the mind and imagination in regard to God’s original creation, the sinfulness of Satan’s perverse rebellion, and the pristine beauty of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

It is hard to know exactly where to place Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Ivanhoe in the Humanities program.  Most moderns have slipped it off the reading lists.  It is a romance about the Medieval period, particularly the time of King Richard the Lionheart and his usurper brother, Prince John.  But it was published in 1820.  Scott was showing the relevance, the importance, the necessity of the past.  Scott honored tradition, chivalry, manners, and morals.  He was writing a novel of manners and grace to warn an ever increasingly industrial world to not forsake the old verities (to echo William Faulkner’s term).  The story grates against our age and against almost any age.  So it always is when honor is contrasted with dishonor, morality against licentiousness, law against evil.  I really came to like this novel during our studies this past year.

Another book that is hard to classify is Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.  It is to be read, for C. S. Lewis loved it, and that is sufficient for including it.  We only read one of the existing 6 books of this English classic.  Book I has been published with some good notes and helps by Canon Press.  This portion is titled Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves.  (Canon has also published Book II, which is titled The Elfin Knight.)  This story is also Medieval, but is much more.  In many ways, this is a poem that captures the issues of the Reformation poetically just as Luther and Calvin dealt with issues theologically.  The great quest of the Red Crosse Knight is for holiness.  Like all Christians, he stumbles, errs, gets deceived, acts stupid, and sins grievously.  But, this is a story of God’s grace and of sanctification.

I hope that my students who expressed the wish to read the other books of The Faerie Queene will press on with that desire.

We devoted much of the months of March and April to reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  Of course, the month was interrupted by a snowstorm, a cold and rainy spring break, and by a trip to Greece and Italy that took all my juniors and seniors away for a time.  Les Miserables always proves to be a favorite with the students.  We also used the movie version that stars Liam Neeson.  I enjoy hearing the students complain about the movie’s shortcomings.

This year, I received a number of complaints regarding this 600 page novel.  The version we use is not complete.  The book is actually a 1000 or more pages.  Four of my seniors requested the complete version of the book for their graduation gift (with the fifth senior requesting Homer’s Iliad).

We ended the year with Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice.  I almost skipped that book in order to read Sense and Sensibility, but I stuck with the group.  I was struck once again with Austen subtle humor and deftness in unveiling this story of misjudgments, economic and social differences, honor and shame, and romance.  I had to labor to tame down some of the excesses of the Austen fans who have almost no restraint, or to use an Austen term, propriety, in showing their enthusiasm for her writings.

Along with a long study of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? and the reading of a biography of one of the Protestant Reformers (Luther, Calvin, or Knox), these constituted the main readings of this past year.

So much accomplished.  So little accomplished.

Tired, Sick, Overwhelmed, But Still Reading

Two graduations–one for my son graduating from Wheaton and the other for my daughter graduating from Veritas Academy.

A whirlwind cross country trip from Arkansas to northern Illinois to load my son’s 400 plus books, along with his other stuff, and bring him home for a time.

A beautiful senior piano recital by my daugther TaraJane.

Reviews, recaps, semester tests to make, semester tests to give.

Then after a year of dodging all the seasonal ailments, a cold hits the last days of school.

Nothing really unusual about the hectic, tiring, blessed days of life in this world.  It has been a great month; it has been an exhuasting month.  It has been sad to see the endings–a school year and graduations.  It is exciting to see new beginnings.

Then there are the books.  My summer reading agenda is already overwhelming and exciting.  When I finished A Place to Stand by Gene Edward Veith and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, I knew that my official school reading assignments were done.  Now, I am a free agent.

I look forward to reading and writing about an overwhelming stack of books set aside for the summer.  For now, I want to comment on a few current readings.  Don’t expect much insight or consistency.  Those mental faculties perished during this marathonish month.

 How could I resist a book titled The Man Who Loved Books Too Much?  At first glance, I thought it was probably a fun novel, then I noticed the subtitle:  The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession.  This book grew out of the journalistic work of Allison Hoover Bartlett, the author, who got involved in and then consumed in trying to understand the world of rare and antiquarian books.

That world is fascinating, and for me, forbidding.  The true seller or buyer of valuable antiquarian books would find only a few selections from my library worth considering.  I do own some old books, some first editions, some rare works, and some autographed copies.  But my library is a workshop, not a museum.  I buy cheaply and look extensively for bargains.  The idea of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars for an autographed first edition of William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished is unthinkable to me.  Okay, I confess, it is not unthinkable, but just undoable.  Yes, I would pay $500 for such a book.  Well, even $5000, but only if I had such money to consider such things.  As a teacher, it ain’t a gonna happen.

But that world of buying and selling the rare, highly expensive books is fascinating.  But beyond buying and selling, there is the theft that is near rampant in such a world.  If people steal expensive works of art, then how much easier would it be to steal expensive books?  If forgeries, lies, and deceit exist in every area of life (even Christian ministry), then I should not be surprised to see it existing in the book world.

Most who steal rare books do so for money.  So, if someone shows up asking $5,000 for a book that is selling for $15,000, that person may be a book thief.  Book sellers, thanks largely to the work of Ken Sanders, the hero of this book, network to watch out for stolen merchandise.  By the way, eBay, which I enjoy, is an easy market for thievery and deceit.  Books or portions of books are filched, tucked away, and then sold to either unsuspecting or uncaring buyers.

But this book focuses upon an unusual book thief named John Charles Gilkey.  What made him so successful was that the books he stole rarely ever showed up again.  He wasn’t stealing to make money.  He loved books.  His idol was having impressive shelves of rare and fine books which would impress the rich and famous.

  Gilkey was well read, but it was the possession of the rare volumes, not the contents, that consumed him.  Sad to say, he was one of the most a-moral, warped, twisted human beings I have ever read about.  I am certain that Nazi henchmen and Communist thugs were worse because of what they did to people, but the total absence of a sense of right and wrong in Gilkey was depressing and appalling.  Maybe, he is just the modern man, the self-defined Nietzschian hero.  But I found him disgusting.  Neither jail time nor well known notoriety have cured him.

In spire of all that, this book was a informative and enjoyable read.

Teaching Particulars by Helaine L. Smith is another book about books.  In this case, it is an enjoyable account of how books can best be used.  It is also about that most daunting task–teaching the joys of literature to students.  Even with my end-of-the-school year doldrums, I found myself anxious to start applying the particular details and overall structure that Ms. Smith uses in this book.  The chapters are devoted to teaching particular works, ranging from the Bible to Uncle Remus to The Odyssey to Flannery O’Connor to Pride and Prejudice and much more.

Every literature teacher needs this book.

The Benefits and Uses of Unfinished Books

All of us who are readers, book buyers, and collectors have them.  They sit sullenly on the shelves or lie in dangerously high stacks on the night stand.  They are the books that were started and never finished.  A bookmark might be anywhere from page 1 to page 500 in a book, but it sadly testifies that the book was once started, was once embraced by the owner, was once sharing its secrets with the reader, and then was jilted, cast aside, ignored, buried under a pile of pulp fiction, or otherwise shunned from the reading stacks.

For many of us, that unread book is a classic.  We picked it up with a determination to better ourselves and appreciate great literature only to enter into a bog of words and a fog of plot devices.  For a time, for a few chapters, we plodded along, and then that classic experienced what Mark Twain once said:  “A classic–a book which people praise and don’t read.”

I confess to having the unfinished books.  A glance at almost any shelf in my house, office, or study will reveal the tell-tale bookmarks, the testimonies to failure, a lack of perseverance, a journey begun that was never completed.  I am guilty and vile.  The shelves speak of great literature, history, theology, and philosophy, but the bookmarks tell another story.  The marines are looking for a few good men, and a book is looking for a few good readers.  We realize that we flunked out in basic training with a Puritan reprint, that we went AWOL with a hefty Russian novel, and that we turned and ran when a true epic poem confronted us for the first time.

How many readers have gladly locked arms with Ishmael and climbed aboard the Pequod?  That white whale was illusive, but the long ranging, deep sounding, endlessly moving tides of Moby Dick has turned many a sea-bound reader into a television watching land-lubber.  And what of Calvin’s Institutes, Augustine’s City of God, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Shelby Foote’s Civil War, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Tolkien’s Samarillion?

I teach literature to students.  Some students don’t like to read and some don’t like to read heavies.  Some students are incredibly busy.  Some are bored with everything that doesn’t appear on a screen, and many are only intellectually interested in mental fast food.  Even Spark’s Notes, Cliff’s Notes, and Fill-in-the-blank for Dummies are too wordy, too mind constricting, with too much thought-tonage for their minds.  John Locke’s notion of the tabula rasa, the blank slate of the mind, might very well have developed out of a classroom experience.

I don’t speak as a literary snob, but as a fellow stumbler, a mental dullard, and an undisciplined learner.  A droning lecture on the literary features of elegiac poetry or on social mobility in the Old South glazes my mind and lulls me to sleep.  Teachers all too often wrench the beauty of literature and turn the excitement of learning into a forced march across the frozen steppes of academia.  I missed the point of some of the great literature I was taught.  I, too, was often bored, uninterested, distracted.  Even without the rich trove of literature we teach in a classical Christian school, there was much that I missed in my own years in school.

We are all in this together.  I have books I have started and not finished.  My students don’t always get the books read that they are assigned.

So what are the benefits of unfinished books?

I am going to outline 12 benefits and uses of books we don’t finish reading.   Not every point applies to every book.  A reference work, a history text, or a collection of poems can be partially read with extreme benefit.  We don’t normally read our dictionaries and encyclopedias cover to cover.  But read and use these 12 points as needed.

1.  An unfinished book can give you a familiarity with the author, the style of the writing, and the theme of the book.  Most literary anthologies give excerpts.  At the very least, 20 to 100 pages of reading will give the reader a sense of the book and writer. Superficial knowledge is still knowledge.  You can move a book from the category of totally unknown to vague familiarity.  I have lots of books that I would benefit from reading just a portion from in order to at least make an acquaintance with the book and author.

2.  An unread book is a motivation to try to read it again.  The bookmark beckons.  The guilt weighs heavy.  You know that you tried once and failed, but you are willing to try again.  After being thrown from a horse, the best thing is to get back on again.  Gear up and give that unread book another go.

3.  An unfinished book may cause you to learn from others or listen to lectures on the book.  This past summer, I read Charles Dickens’ book Hard Times because I read an essay about the book.  Sometimes I have had friends who have talked about a book I had started, and they convinced me (usually without knowing it) to read or finish a particular book. If you didn’t finish a book, look at some reviews or essays on the book.  Find a lecture or discussion on it.  That may convince you to finish the book or it may give you what you need to know for now.  Thomas Foster, author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor and Twenty Five Books That Shaped America, can whet the appetite for any book, and he has read virtually everything.

4.  Along with learning from others, we can talk to others about unfinished books.  “I’ve some of that book” may be just enough to get you into a conversation.  When you see a copy of a book you never finished on someone else’s bookshelf, ask them if they have read it.  Their words, either recommendations or criticisms, may help yo to figure out if you need to read more, start the book over, or just skip over to a particular chapter.


5.  Sometimes an unfinished book can be supplemented or partially explained by watching the movie version of the story.  Movies and books are different kinds of art and entertainment.  There are always lots of arguments over movie interpretation of books.  But lots of movies have motivated me to read the books they were based on.

6.  Some unfinished books need to sit on the shelf and wait.  Sometimes, you need time and experience to grow ready for a book, or you need the right occasion.  I got Rodney Stark’s book The Discovery of God one year for Christmas.  I started reading it and found it uninteresting in comparison to several of his previous books.  This past fall I picked it up again after starting to teach a World Civilizations dual credit class.  I realized that I needed to know more about the religions of Indian, Chinese, and other cultures.  The book was a perfect fit.

I bought the book In the Twilight of Western Thought by Herman Dooyeweerd about 30 years ago.  I had it for 20 plus years before I read it.  I was not ready for it prior to then, and the need wasn’t there, and the frame of thought was not in place.

Many books have to wait on us.

7.  Ownership!  This obviously doesn’t apply to a book checked out of the library.  But there is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment in owning books.  The stately spines filling a bookshelf to overflowing is a form of wealth, a heritage for your children, and a aesthetic comfort.  I admit to being consumed.  Like Christopher Dawson, I seek to have my house in a library rather than having a library in my house.  I would hate to not have my 40 or so volumes of the Church Fathers, my 20 volumes of Nobel Prize Winners, my complete set of Dickens, my many volumes of the Library of America, and numerous unread and partially read sets of books, besides many, many individual volumes.

“Books aren’t made to furnish, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.” H.W. Beecker This is a corner of George Grant’s book filled universe.

8.  Unfinished books motivate you to find supporting materials.  Sometimes, a shorter work by the same author, a commentary, or a condensed version of a book opens up the larger work.  Reading Augustine’s Confessions is a good start for tackling City of God.  Faulkner’s short stories pave the way for understanding his novels.  Books like An Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, really helps the reader to understand a classic.  Don’t be ashamed of reading simplified, condensed, and children’s versions of stories if that helps with later readings of the classics.  Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare is a good resource for understanding Shakespeare’s plays.

This is one of my favorite resources for reading about literary classics.

9.  Picking up an unfinished book gives the reader the chance to re-read the opening.  The opening paragraphs of Calvin’s Institutes can be read a million times.  Chapter 1 of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship is a gem.  The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities are unforgettable. Whether it is “There was a man and a dog too this time” or “Call me Ishmael” or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a good wife,” opening lines and first chapters beckon us to read them again and again.

10.  An unfinished book gives you time to evaluate the worth of the book itself and the worth of the book for you.  The best books, like good financial investments, accrue interest.  I only have to glance around my office to see the treasure stores that are untapped or only partially tapped.  I know certain books are good because I have read a bit of them, experienced some of the power, and witnessed the solidity of the work.  I also have the testimony of book reading friends.  A postcard from a place you have never visited can convince you that you want to go there.  So can the reading of just a portion of certain books.

In other cases, you will sometimes come to a different conclusion about a book.  Time will convince you that it has less value than you thought or that it doesn’t fit your needs or ideas.  Some people discard such books.  I am more likely to move them to the lower shelves.

11.  I know this point is repetitious, but I will make it anyway.  An unfinished book can be replaced by a condensed version.  In novels, the key point is to get the story line down and then to read the fuller version.  In histories, biographies, philosophical works, and theological works, shorter versions can be effective stepping stones to reading the full book.  I don’t figure I will ever get the 4000 pages of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica read (and maybe not even started), but Peter Kreeft put together a shorter version called  The Summa of the Summa, which is a mere 500 pages.  Thankfully, he then did a book called A Shorter Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Edited and Explained.  The title is almost as long as the book, which is 162 pages.


12.  Leaving a book unfinished gives the reader the chance to pick up another book and start reading.  I am writing this in May which is a hectic month for a school teacher.  It is even worse this year because I have a senior graduating from Wheaton College and another graduating from Veritas Academy.  (Congratulations Nick and TaraJane!)  Sometimes in May, I am prone to pick up a serious, sober, somber, scholarly theological work of several hundred pages and start reading.  Won’t work.  there is no mind power in May.  This is the month for the page turner, the delightful biography, the non-threatening comfort reading.  The serious works will end up with a bookmark, while the dessert reading will get top billing.

So, enjoy your unfinished books and stop feeling guilty.