Quick sketch by me

Quick sketch by me

As a child I always imagined Heaven to be a giant library where I could curl up on a big plush chair and have eternity to read all the books I wanted to read. Since then all kinds of adult theology has interfered with the naivety of that vision: who knows how reality will shift in the next world or how relevant written language will be or what sort so things will be pleasurable in that new kind of existence?

But even if I do get to read books in Heaven, I believe it is important to read as many as I can before I get there, because every time I read a book really worth reading I become a slightly changed person: my mind expands and my soul deepens, sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot. So here is my working theory about reading: the books I read get absorbed into the soul I bring with me into the next version of my existence. You can only take anything with you if it becomes part of yourself, and when I read a book that is what happens. If the book feels like spiritual junk food, if I get the sense it has no sticking value, if it does nothing to strengthen or transform the mind, I generally abandon it.

So here is the “Must Read” list I came up with, the books that, as of today, I have either not read or not read thoroughly, that I feel the need to read during this lifetime.  I think Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Pensees by Blaise Pascal are absolutely essential books, but they are not on this list because I have already read them. This list is by no means definitive or complete. I’m sure I will wake up in the middle of night thinking of an essential one I forgot.

The most fun and pleasurable books on my list are the novels and novellas, and I have included most of the books by Dickens that I have not yet read and the complete set of one series by Anthony Trollope, and many more; but I find the more I understand and think about history, philosophy and culture, the more enjoyment I get when I read good fiction.  So I’ve also included some philosophic works I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, and also some history, economics, and culture analysis. My classical education was sorely neglected in my youth, so I really have at least 1000 years of literature to catch up on even before the Fall of the Roman Empire, but time limits being what they are, I picked just a few ancient classics.

  1. The Aeneid by Virgil
  2. The Republic by Plato
  3. Phaedo by Plato
  4. Poetics by Aristotle
  5. Ethics by Aristotle
  6. Metaphysics by Aristotle
  7. Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas
  8. The Divine Comedy by Dante (I’ve read the Inferno and Purgatorio but have not yet been able to venture very far into Paradisio)
  9. The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross
  10. All of Shakespeare’s Sonnets plus re-read King Lear, Othello, Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra and several other plays
  11. John Donne’s Poetry (Norton Critical editions)
  12. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
  13. The Essential Kierkegaard by Soren Kierkegaard
  14. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
  15. Rob Roy by Walter Scott
  16. The Talisman by Walter Scott
  17. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
  18. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
  19. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  20. The Battle of Life by Charles Dickens
  21. The Cricket of the Hearth by Charles Dickens
  22. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  23. No Name by Wilkie Collins
  24. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  25. The Virginians by William Makepeace Thackeray
  26. Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray
  27. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
  28. Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope
  29. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
  30. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope
  31. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
  32. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
  33. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  34. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
  35. Middlemarch by George Elliot
  36. The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot
  37. Phantastes by George MacDonald
  38. Daniel Deronda by George Elliot
  39. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  40. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  41. Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  42. The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  43. The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  44. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  45. Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers
  46. The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K Chesterton
  47. Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  48. The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot
  49. My Life by Anton Chekhov
  50. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
  51. Individualism and Economic Order by Friedrich Hayek
  52. The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism by Friedrich Hayek
  53. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman
  54. The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman
  55. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
  56. Political Theology by Carl Schmitt
  57. Christianity and Culture: The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture by T.S. Eliot
  58. The Politics of Friendship by Jacques Derrida
  59. The Proper Study of Mankind by Isaiah Berlin
  60. Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino

So that’s my list. I kept adding and deleting and considering and reconsidering and finally decided to keep the number to an even sixty. I have some abstract idea of truth I am chasing and I chose most of these books based on the hope that they might help me get a little closer to that light in the distance. My deadline for reading the books on this list is July 20, 2019, five years from today. I’d say 12 per year is do-able. I usually read somewhere around 50 or so books per year, so that gives me plenty of time for other books that serendipitously catch my attention.

If you have not already done so, I encourage you to make your own personal reading list. Your list does not have to stick to “classics”; however, as a way to stem the tide of time slipping by before you have absorbed all the best quality human thought that has happened throughout the epochs of our interesting little species, you might want to put some hard ones on the checklist. Pick and choose from other personal and “official” lists, but make it your own until you are truly excited about the adventures ahead for your mind and soul. I’ve been building a “To Read” list on Goodreads.com and that helped me put this one together by jogging my memory. Making your list should be at least as exciting as planning your own personal five-year trip around the world.

It has been two days since I finished A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (first published in 2013 by Hogarth), and the book has stuck with me. It has also given me three nights of nightmares, like when the news gives me nightmares. I don’t generally read horror stories, vampire stories, or stories with gratuitous violence, but this is historical fiction –  if you can call 1996 to 2004 history. I think it probably takes longer than a decade for the past to settle into the historical perspective, especially when it comes to the complexities and atrocities of war. However, the fact that it is historical fiction makes the horror worse than any other genre of fictional violence. The wars in this book are two wars for independence from Russia fought in Chechnya in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Here is my review for Goodreads:

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena has all the elements of a great novel: realistic characters with psychological depth, plenty of drama and pathos, dark secrets, a dose of romance, humor, and great dialog. The setting is a war-ravaged village in rural Chechnya where three childhood friends live as neighbors. The novel begins in 2004 with the abduction of one of the friends, but we eventually catch up with the past as the narrative moves non-sequential time. The central focus point of the story is eight-year-old Havaa who is hiding in the woods as her father is brutally taken and her house set on fire. The “Feds” are also looking for the child, but friend and neighbor Akhmed is also watching the scene and is able to rescue the girl and get her to a safe place – a hospital where all employees have fled except for one tough surgeon named Sonja, one elderly nurse, and a one-armed security guard. Akhmed, who graduated in the bottom 10 percent of his medical school class, volunteers to help at the hospital if Sonja will let Havaa stay there.

I liked the even non-judgmental tone. I liked also that the author gives not only a past story for many of the characters but also a future story. This novel covers the time span 1996 – 2004, the length of the child Havaa’s life, but we get to peek into the distant futures of those characters who end up having a distant future. In a fictional world as dark as this one, the very idea that some of the characters have futures feels like a comfort. I felt like I knew these people so well it was hard to dislike even the ones I knew I should hate, especially because each of the characters has to deal with trauma outside the normal range of human experience. Some characters are able to maintain their human dignity and integrity and some are not. Some are able to find ways to cope; others lose their grip on sanity. My favorite is Akhmed, the pride of the village, a smart kid who went to medical school but then cut a some of his med school units to audit art classes and prefers drawing portraits to amputating limbs. I also love Sonja’s younger sister Natasha, who finds herself abandoned in a bombed-out city when the first war breaks out and then ends up in forced prostitution. Later, while trying to regain her sanity and recover from heroin addiction, she reads a medical dictionary that describes “life” as “a constellation of vital phenomena.”

With the warning that this book is scary and violent, I would highly recommend it especially if you are not aware of the Chechnya situation. The author has said in an interview that one of the reasons he wrote the book is because there were no English-language novels about Chechnya. Although Marra’s lyrical storytelling is able to wrench beauty and humor from a dark and terrifying scenario, for me the literary value is overshadowed by the horrible reality of the subject matter: the ugliness and senseless violence of war, forced into prostitution, land mine amputations, State-sponsored disappearances, and most vividly, torture.

My instinct is to group this novel with dystopian novels such as 1984, A Brave New World, and The Trial, except that this is not a dystopian novel about a hypothetical world that might happen. Instead it is about something that has happened very recently, and we can be pretty sure the same sorts of things are still happening, if not in Chechnya then in other parts of the world. It’s hard to assess the pure literary value of book about history that is so chilling and so recent. This book gave me nightmares because although the characters are fictional the torture is real.

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At least I never had to duck and cover. Maybe my Cold War childhood was after the duck-and-cover phase of the hysteria or maybe my Catholic school did not participate in that practice. In any case, I was told – practically every day it seems now – that I lived in a free country, as opposed to the Soviet Union, which I understood to be a big shadowy portion of the globe that existed in an alternative reality behind an iron curtain, a land of nightmare where everyone dressed in ugly gray clothes and an evil government dictated every move the unfortunate people made including what they could say, where they could go, and what they could watch on TV, and wasn’t I lucky to live in America the land of free. As a child I tended to be a literal thinker, but even then if pressed, I think I knew the iron curtain was a metaphor even if the barbed wire was not.

Remains of Iron curtain in Slovakia by Vladimír Tóth, 10 April 2007, Creative Commons

Remains of Iron curtain in Slovakia by Vladimír Tóth, 10 April 2007, Creative Commons

Now it seems like maybe, for us Americans, the iron curtain was upholding the illusion and to some extent, the reality of freedom, because it so sharply delineated the difference between living under an oppressive system of excessive government control and a system based on the principle of individual freedom. Once the Berlin Wall came down, it seems as if legions of little collectivist demons were loosed and lots of them emigrated to America like a contagious bacteria. Maybe the collectivist demons are a bit fanciful but so much of the whole Cold War thing was metaphorical, a symbolic war fought largely on mental battlegrounds of intimidation, fear, propaganda, and imagination. This is not to minimize the impact or importance of the proxy wars such as the one fought in Vietnam but just to acknowledge that the more numerous battlefields were fought on less physical battlegrounds. I would say that these invisible battlefields were no less real, but that idea would sure ring hollow to those who lost lives, limbs, or loved ones in Vietnam. The invisible battlefields of our minds were, however, very real on a different and insidious level.

Actually the bacteria of collectivism had taken root in America long before 1989, but the hyped-up opposition with the communist empire acted as a sort of an antibiotic barrier that slowed its spread throughout the body politic.Groups and individuals interested in increasing government control over people’s lives had to tread carefully since we were supposedly at war with Communists and all. But once the Wall came down we could all feel good that we had won and all was well in the world and turn our attention to other things like making living our lives, building wealth, having fun, and reforming all the other things that were wrong with the world. As for me, young and busy, I took my freedom pretty much for granted.

Why must we be vigilant to maintain a simple thing like freedom – to own the items we want to own, grow the food or make the products we want to grow or make, sell the surplus of our labor to whomever we want to sell to for a price on which we and the buyer agree, cross the street where we want to cross, let our minds think about things as we find natural, say what we want to say about what we believe and who we believe in, wherever we want to say it? It seems like if we want to maintain a free country we are not free to neglect being vigilant, which means we are forced to devote a portion of our attention to what our government is up to. A really annoying paradox.

I guess it must be that when certain groups or individuals find themselves with access to a portion of political power they want to use it control a corresponding portion of the world, and this generally means controlling the people. Everyone has their opinion about the way the world ought to work and also the desire that it work in favor of material gain for themselves and their families. It is a rare individual who achieves political power and can maintain the moral character to use that power only for the good of others without regard for his or her own material gain or personal reputation. I suspect that all people in power are very skilled at rationalizing whatever they do, and can always convince themselves  that  whatever compromises the make, whatever deals they make under the table, even though it may happen to benefit themselves, is really for the greater good. After all, everyone needs to be able to sleep at night.

One way I attempt to be vigilant is to at least try to understand what the vultures, scavengers, and parasites of the world are up to – by reading. Of course all students of freedom and citizens of the United States ought to read the The Declaration of Independence, Common Sense, and The United States Constitution with special attention to the Bill of Rights. For more expansive discussion and thought about the philosophy of freedom, there are some really great reading lists out there. Goodreads has a great list called Best Books for Freedom Lovers and the Future of Freedom Foundation has a great reading list the focuses on books about free market economics.  Here also is a short list of a few excellent freedom books I have personally read lately (if I wrote a post on the book I include a link):

  • The Law by Frederic Bastiat: I would consider this little book the Cliff’s Notes of political freedom, the essential bones of issue. It is short and the tone is almost desperately sincere, as if Bastiat was gasping out his message with his last breath, which is pretty much exactly what he was doing, as he wrote this book while dying to tuberculosis. It is the message that this man, living in post-Revolutionary France wanted to leave with the world.
  • The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek. Friedrich Hayek (1899 – 1992), was a brilliant Austrian economist who is considered a one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and who was awarded a Nobel prize in 1974 for his work in economics. Mr. Hayek was nice enough write a nice clear explanation that anyone can understand of exactly how and why socialism inevitably leads to more and more government control and corruption and eventually descends into totalitarianism.
  • On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. Mr. Mill, a well-respected British political philosopher of the 19th century explains why freedom needs to be the guiding principle of a healthy society, even freedom to express unpopular, uneducated, even offensive opinions.
  • Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. This book concentrates on the reasoning for freedom in the sphere of economics. Of course none of us lives independent of economics. When they control your money, they control you. Attempts to control people through economic law is especially insidious because this is the area people are often least knowledgeable and therefore least vigilant.
  • Our Enemy the State by Albert Jay Nock. Mr. Nock is usually graceful, eloquent, and somewhat wordy in his writing, but not in this book. In this book he lays the brutal truth on the line clearly and concisely. Throughout the history of human existence, the purpose of the State, no matter by what “ism” word you call it has been to set up a mechanism that enables one group of people to live off the production and labor of all the other the people. The interests of the State are not necessarily your interests.


Duck and Cover film (1951).

I never got to watch this terrifying gem in school, thank goodness. It was a bit before my time. Only now do I understand what I escaped.

In honor of the 4th of July, I thought I would post a couple of mini-reviews I wrote a few months ago. I read both The Law by Frederic Bastiat and Common Sense by Thomas Paine as part of my son’s senior year home schooling curriculum, and  found both of these brief classics powerful reading. Taken as a pair, these two books express the essential points of political freedom.

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 The Law by Frederic Bastiat, written in 1850, beautifully and concisely states the legitimate limits of law and the reasons for having these limits.

The Law

The Law by Frédéric Bastiat

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book as a possible text for my son’s senior year civics and economics course. The book begins by stating the real and just purpose of law: “It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense”—that is, the lawful defense of our natural rights to person, liberty, and property. Bastiat then goes on to discuss the many ways human governments have perverted and abused this purpose, and the possible motivations for doing so. This book is short and direct, so I was able to both read and listen to an excellent audio version (ready by Bernard Mayes)in one day.

The tone is both clearly stated and passionate, as if Bastiat does not have time for beating around the bush. I got the clear sense of a man sincerely trying to convey an important message to mankind before he passed on, which was almost certainly the case since he wrote “The Law” in 1850, the final year of his life, knowing he was dying of tuberculosis. Bastian was French and living in aftermath of the first French Revolution, so there are many references to the political characters of that time period such as Robespierre and Napoleon and their philosophic inspirations, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

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Common Sense is the little book that revved up and consolidated support for the American Revolution. That Thomas Paine sure know how to pack some power into a pamphlet. And it still retains its zing and ability to roil up the blood of freedom-loving people. Common Sense still retains the power to rev up the blood of freedom-loving folk.

Common Sense (Great Ideas)Common Sense by Thomas Paine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This classic model of persuasive writing is as much a shocker now as it was in 1776, more so in fact since one can’t help but notice that we are currently experiencing many of the undesirable effects government’s self interest they fought the American Revolution to escape. Anyway. What a dramatic turn of phrase that Thomas Payne had, a true gift for wrapping reason and passion into one neat sentence after another. I used this book as a reading assignment for my son’s high school American History course. He had little trouble understanding the the words, but we will we got through it and he was able to increase his vocabulary. It’s an interesting statement about popular literacy that this was considered easy reading in 1776, designed to appeal to the rank and file citizenry.
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If only we could all enjoy so calm and pleasant a dialog about the limits of government infringement on individual lives as John Stuart Mills gives us in his classic work of political philosophy On Liberty. The issues discussed here are certainly more relevant and more essential than ever, no matter how tired some of us are of talking about them. Here is my review for Goodreads:

On LibertyOn Liberty by John Stuart Mill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill is an in-depth exploration of the relationship between the individual and authority. Authority in this book refers not only to that imposed by government but also all kinds of societal checks on individual freedom of behavior, speech, and thought, with particular attention to the kind of pressure inherent in most organized religion. Mills begins by stating:

“The Subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”

Published in 1859, On Liberty was extremely well received and has been in print ever since. Interestingly, Mills began writing the work in 1854 in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor. Originally intended as an essay, it kept expanding in scope until it became a full-fledged book published shortly after Harriet’s death. I enjoyed the clarity of thought Mills brings to topic which can be a muddy one with vast areas of gray. When is an individual’s action of concern only to him- or herself and when does it affect others enough for society to step in and regulate it? How much tolerance should society have for aberrant behavior, unpopular lifestyle choices, and the spouting of opinions deemed pernicious?

According to Mill, a healthy society tolerates a wide berth of eccentricity and welcomes diversity of opinion, primarily because it is only by being challenged that we can truly be strong in our beliefs about what is true. Society is justified in interfering with individual liberty only when the individual’s actions cause harm to others. The problems emerge mostly in how we define “harm.”

Mills seems quite reasonable to me and certainly not an extremist. I think he would have been a libertarian when it comes to restrictions on what substances people choose to imbibe and in favor of zero restrictions on expressions of faith in the public square and in the workplace as long as these expressions of faith are not physically harmful to anyone else. He is most definitive in his support freedom of speech and the press.

He is a bit less libertarian when it comes to public education. In fact, as you get toward the end of the book, it becomes apparent that the keys to his vision of a society that allows for maximum individual liberty are universal education and responsible procreation. If people just did not bring children into existence that they were not prepared to feed, shelter, and educate to take a responsible role in society everything would just fine. But to the extent that this happy state of affairs is not exactly fully realized, the state is justified, for the well-being of society, in educating those children whose parents do not or cannot fulfill their most sacred duty. According to Mills, all education sponsored by the state should stick to the basics such a language usage and scientific facts and there must be no requirement that students subscribe to any particular creed or political opinion in order to obtain a certificate of completion.

So there are some “if onlies” and a bit of utopian thought here, but all in all this is a great read for anyone who wants to explore the complex many-sided issue of the individual liberty versus interests of society. If this was a complicated issue in 1859 it is more so now as our civilization has become exponentially more interconnected. Since we live in a world where individual liberty is diminishing as the interests of society become increasingly dominant, this great book of social philosophy is a great way to understand how we got where we are and to help us decide if we think it is worth resisting the general trend.

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“In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” From On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill, C. 1870

John Stuart Mill, C. 1870

I am nearing the end of On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (published in 1859) and am finding the book to be a treasure trove of delicious quotes. I thought I’d share this one today, because I suspect it is much more relevant to modern American society than, believe it or not, to 19th century society in England. George Orwell and others have suggested that one powerful resource Charles Dickens had in gathering such rich material for his novels was that he had easy access to so many eccentric unique characters for observation. I often observe the characters around me, but in my world of strip malls, Wal-Mart, highways, cars, off-the-rack clothing, standardized housing, and advertising I can believe that it is harder for a writer in present-day America to extract eccentric characters out of his or her surroundings that it was for Dickens trolling around the London streets in the mid 19th century.

The kind of societally-enforced conformity John Stuart Mill seems most concerned about back in the 19th century was the variety imposed by religious people of Calvinist tendencies, the same type that concerned Nathaniel Hawthorne when he wrote The Scarlet Letter. Now we have to deal with a different sort of societal pressure to conform, the kind enforced by political correctness with its PC police groups who pressure our government to codify into law their preferences about the way everyone should behave, and more and more often, the way they should think.

Recently in a CNN Town Hall a certain potential 2016 candidate for president of the United said, “We cannot let a minority of people—and that’s what it is, it is a minority of people—hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people.” The potential candidate was discussing telling the audience how disappointed she was that this horrible crime failed to result in more gun control legislation. The politician was Hilary but it hardly matters which power-hungry office seeker said it because she was only voicing seems to be a widespread and pernicious assumption that our opinions should be legislated. I don’t think she is accurate in her statement that people against additional gun control laws are a minority but I don’t have time to look up the latest polls right now. Reason magazine has an article about the incident:

Hillary Clinton Equates Gun Control Opponents With Terrorists

It’s scary when people don’t immediately question the very idea that certain “viewpoints” need to be stomped out, not only through societal disapproval but through legislation. When your opinion is against the law it means you can be punished for having it, which would tend to discourage free thought, or at least open discussion about free thought. Of course, Hilary probably did not mean we should pass laws against opinions per se. She was probably simply using improper English. She probably meant something closer to, “We cannot let people who have who hold opinions that are in opposition to our opinions dictate what laws we pass.”

This weekend marks the end of an era for me as my youngest child is turning 18 and has just graduated from high school. I’ve been looking forward to the day my kids are independent adults and have exciting plans and ideas now that my parental responsibility is entirely voluntarily. I know you never stop being a mom, never stop worrying about them, and are always being willing to help them along wherever and whenever possible, but once they become legal adults the practical demands on your time do diminish. In my case I will have more time to work on my projects because I have been homeschooling, or at least supervising my son’s homeschooling, and now that will no longer be necessary.

But somehow instead of feeling the elation of freedom I expected, I find myself coming to a precipice, sort of like Leo Tolstoy did (see my previous post about his book A Confession.) Something wonderful is ending and will never return. In fact, as I went through old pictures all weekend, I realized that something had ended a long time ago. For some reason, once they hit adolescence, both my sons became entirely new creatures  complete with new personalities to go with their new bodies and the delightfully quirky little boys they had been were gone forever.


Butterfly on a sunflower. Picture by Aaron Apple, Summer 2013.

The child was embedded in the new tall lanky body somewhere, but his delightful daily presence, his sweet voice, innocent observations, natural displays of affection were just ***Poof*** gone. If you knew them as small children you could see how the infant tendencies had been incorporated into the new configuration, but it was not how you would have expected. In both cases, at the time this transformation was happening, it was gradual enough that I didn’t grieve much. The child slipped away inch by inch and by the time his last sweet wisp had been entirely absorbed into the new adolescent I had accepted each degree of loss without too much conscious grieving.

My older son, although he hit some bumps in the road, was a fairly clear in his trajectory: born to “reverse engineer” everything he touched, he is now gainfully employed reconstructing smart phones and working on a degree in engineering. My younger son though, was a complete wild card. A sanguine child, he was a social extrovert, friendly, outgoing, dramatic, and funny and then for a while, became a somewhat sullen angry teen, disillusioned early with the corruption and hypocrisy of the world as he saw it. Now, happily, I find his natural love of life coming back to the surface, but in a new, intensely mission-driven way. He is leader among his friends in living a healthy organic lifestyle, has taught himself the skill of photography, and has become a photographer for a local band. With his band and freelance work he has plenty of social opportunities and seems excited about the future, interested in everything, and is a sponge for continuous learning.

I didn’t want to go through the pictures. I knew I would become acutely aware all at once of what I had lost and now, at the very moment of my youngest son’s transition to adulthood, I knew it might be particularly painful. And I do feel the ache of the spear in my heart. But this is the way life is: people grow and change and you cannot hold onto the moments for longer than they last. I am fortunate to have much to look forward to and be thankful for, and though I am not ready to put it into words quite yet, I do have a certain mission in mind for myself, so the pain of loss is quite bearable. Also, unlike many of my friends with graduating children, my son is not leaving quite yet. He will be attending classes at a school close to home and working on his own small businesses. I am thrilled to be able to offer him a nice place to live and food while he builds the foundation of his adult life. If he were going away to college I’d be thrilled about that too, but I’d also be a lot sadder.

I put together this little retrospective slide show using Flipagram, a really cool app that makes it easy to put together and embed in your blog.

Suddenly, out of the blue, early this morning I got the urge to read A Confession by Leo Tolstoy and downloaded the “Whisper Sync” Kindle/audio combination. I finished it on the commute home from work and then listened to the entire thing again while working on a retrospective slide show my son’s graduation. Maybe there’s something about your last kid graduating from high school and also celebrating his 18th birthday and puts you in mood to contemplate the meaning of life. In any case, this book came along today and swept me in heart and and soul. It will probably be one of those I return to again and again. Here’s the quick review I wrote for Goodreads:

A ConfessionA Confession by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book twice in one day. It was that good, and also short. Just before reaching 50, Tolstoy at the height of his fame, owner of a prosperous estate, popular and successful, satisfied with his family life, and in good health, suddenly decides he no longer wants to live and has to hide the ropes and guns to prevent himself from committing suicide. It was the kind of existential middle-age crisis that spiffiest horse and carriage was not going to solve. He had it all but, he asked, what was it all for?

“My life came to a standstill….I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life if meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death – complete annihilation.”

In the first part of this riveting account to Tolstoy’s crisis and journey to faith he relates the pattern of his life, which I find to a certain extent mirrors my own, at least as well as the life of a member of the 19th century Russian nobility can mirror the life of a working-class 21st century American woman. True, I did not spend my youth killing people in war and duels and visiting brothels, but other than that I did grow up in a formal ritualistic church and accepted what they told me until I reached the age of 16, which is when both Leo and I noticed that the adults did not really believe the story they were telling us. Then we both lived 10 or so youthful years that were expansive and exciting enough that for a time, we forgot all about death. After that, we both got real busy with family and career, way too busy to deal with the doubts, forbodings, the disillusionment with our cultures and way of life that kept cropping up in our minds.

Here is where we part company. I had been reading and exploring all along, but having kids made me stop and think and I decided to believe in God in my early thirties. Tolstoy spent several years in his late forties talking to experts, reading, and brooding. He had access to the best minds in the arts, philosophy, and natural sciences, could personally see a dramatic contrast between the lifestyles and beliefs on his own type, the wealthy and educated, and the masses of poor Russian peasants, and could talk at length with both sets of people.

His reading revealed four prominent historical experts on the meaning of life: Socrates, King Solomon, Schopenhauer, and Buddha. To his dismay all four seemed to agree that life was evil and meaningless and all seemed to conclude that therefore the most reasonable thing to do was to welcome and even hasten death. Considering this consensus of the wisest experts in history, Tolstoy observes that the educated people in his class tended to react in one of four ways: remain blissfully ignorant, know that facts but concentrate on squeezing every drop of pleasure out of this life (the Epicureans), commit suicide (the strongest, most reasonable course), or exist in a weak and miserable state of mind, knowing the state of affairs but hanging on in the faint hope that some other answer might turn up. This last is the category in which Tolstoy places himself.

Finally, after observing that the simple laboring people of his world did not fit into any of his categories and seemed on the whole happier and free of existential angst, Tolstoy begins making some halting experimental movements toward the life of faith, both trying to believe in God and participating in the rituals of the Orthodox church. He totters back and forth a hundred times between belief and non-belief and finally notices that when he decides to believe he feels alive and when he turns away from belief he returns to the fearful sense of impending annihilation. The rituals of the church are another matter. He finds he has a problem with some of the church doctrine, hypocrisy, and history of killing heretics.

The whole book is so honest, such a raw confession of the deepest experience of a very intelligent man, that I think reading it would benefit anyone who interested in exploring the meaning of life.

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In my neverending quest to make sense of it all, I am reading up on World War I history and literature this summer. So far I have been heavy of the literature and light on the history. I’m not generally into battle strategies or military stuff, but I thought I might as well try something new because I like to stretch my mind in new directions sometimes. If you’re a person who doesn’t particularly love military history but feel you need to go into it to get a better understanding of history, Barbara Tuchman is your writer. She delves deep into the nitty gritty detail but somehow manages never to get bogged down in her narration. Here’s my review for Goodreads:

<The Guns of AugustThe Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This summer is the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of World War I so it seemed like a good time to read The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, the classic history of the lead-up and first weeks of the war. The book was published in 1962 and won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for 1963. Perhaps 1962 was just the right distance from the first world war to achieve an accurate analysis of what happened while many people still living had personal memories of that time. The subject itself is so full of complex politics, human interest, conflicting philosophies, and so sweeping in scope and expansive in impact—really the ultimate human tragedy—that it would be difficult to make any account boring; but the way Barbara Tuchman tells the complex story, with its cast of millions, is masterful, gracefully moving between descriptions of the culture, politics, and social conventions of the time to military decisions and battle strategies, never letting the story lag in excitement for a moment.

For me the life blood of the book is Tuchman’s juicy portrayals of all the major characters among the world leaders, generals, and commanders who were making all those fateful decisions. No one in this book is a cardboard figure: she describes each character fairly, giving the reader a well-rounded sense of their humanity, capturing each in all his corpulence, foolishness, vanity, blustering, tears, cruelty, kindness, and courage. Even those, who history has revealed to have made horrible errors in judgment and to have serious character flaws, are treated fairly and given credit for what they did well. For example, even though Joseph Joffre, Commander of French Army, made serious errors early in the war that lost him a vast area of French territory, Tuchman makes it clear that his steady calm character in crisis is what made it possible for the French army to rally in the end in the Battle of Mons, the battle that saved France from total loss in September 1914.

The Guns of August focuses on the decisions made at the highest echelons which made me realize that all my previous World War I reading had been, so to speak, from the trenches: accounts of soldiers, novels, tragic poetry. So I suppose I went into this book with certain assumptions, such as the assumptions that World War I was a result of mass stupidity, was unnecessary, and could have been avoided. I still think the war could have been avoided, but now I see that it could have been avoided in the same way human civilization could be different if only humans were better and wiser. European civilization had built up to some inevitable pressures because lines had been drawn, governments had solidified, and certain beliefs and philosophies had taken hold in the culture and influenced government decisions. So reading this book has opened my mind to the possibility that there may have been causes for the war other than stupidity, although stupidity certainly did play a part.

I like how Tuchman tells the story of the summer of 1914, how rapidly the intricate fabric of European politics unraveled once the string was yanked by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand. You get the sense a button accidentally got pushed, the giant war machine groaned to life, and once the gears started grinding all desperate attempts to shut it down failed. The loquacious Kaiser Wilhelm tried as hard as anyone to stop the machine, but it got ahead on him. Tuchman tells of the tears and hand-wringing behind closed doors that could not stop the machine from mowing down Belgium and then France. By the time it was over France had lost more than four percent of its total population or about 1 in 28 and England had lost 1 in 32.

Now is a great time to read up on World War I and as an introduction to the war, you can’t do better than The Guns of August. There are lessons here and I have a feeling we need to learn them real quick.

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How is history and art influenced by how people were fathered? Probably more than we can possibly know. Off the top of my head some famous people with outstanding fathers include Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Mozart, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Abraham Lincoln’s father was overwhelmed by hardship, poverty, and the loss of his first wife, but it sounds like, as is the case with most fathers, he was good enough. C.S. Lewis’s father, from what I discern from Lewis’s biography Surprised by Joy was a halfway decent guy who cared about his sons, but was somewhat distracted and perhaps a bit depressed after losing his wife to cancer.

Emily Dickinson’s father, Edward Dickinson, an autocratic public servant, seems to be the kind of father Emily needed as he did provide her the space and security she needed to remain unmarried and write poems. The father of the Bronte sisters, a benevolent-minded vicar named Patrick Brontë, who outlived his wife and all six of children by 40 years, seems to have been the kind of father they needed also, giving them the freedom and creative atmosphere they needed to become great writers.

Sam Weller and his father from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens: The most charming depiction of a father/son relationship that I know of in literature.

Sam Weller and his father from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens: The most charming depiction of a father/son relationship that I know of in literature.

It would be a fascinating study to look carefully at the fathers of all kinds of key people in the arts and history and see what patterns we can discern. Albert Einstein’s father, Hermann, ran an electrical technology business and apparently activated the young Albert’s interest in science.  Of course not all father influence is on the positive side. George Orwell (pen name of Eric Blair) had a father nearly entirely absent from his life except to send money for his boarding schools. I wonder… had Mr. Blair been an attentive, loving, encouraging parent would young Eric have been able to so clearly see the sour side of life? There is so much we cannot know but about which we can have so much fun conjecturing. This is why historical fiction has an important role in piecing together what is important, what we need and want to know, or at least  need to think about.

Obviously mothers have surely had an incalculable influence on history, and I want to look at their stories too, but today is Father’s Day, so I will focus on the Dads. In honor of the day I am re-posting this article I wrote a couple of years ago about the father of Blaise Pascal, one of my favorite writers and philosophers…..

Pascal’s Father

Étienne Pascal was a lawyer, a government official, a member of the minor nobility, an amateur mathematician, and a classical scholar. He was also one of history’s greatest fathers. Born in Clermont France in 1588 we would have probably never heard of Étienne had it not been for his famous son. But is also quite possible we would never have heard of Blaise Pascal had it not been for his father.

In 1626 Étienne lived in Clermont with his wife Antoinette and their three small children, working as a government official in the post of counselor for Bas-Auvergne.

Suddenly Antoinette died, and Étienne became a single father to Gilberte, 5, Blaise, 3, and Jacqueline, 1. He hired a governess named Louise Delfault, to help with the children, but took over most of their education himself. In 1631 he moved the family to Paris where he felt his bright children could get a better education. He did not like the school system in France at the time so he gave up his job and devoted himself to educating his children at home full-time.

Étienne gave the children a well-rounded education with an emphasis on studying the classics, especially Greek and Latin.  But there was one subject he did not teach. His son Blaise showed great intelligence but was delicate in health, and Étienne believed mathematics, especially geometry, would make him overly excited and strain his health. He believed the boy should not be exposed to such heady subject matter until he was 15 or 16 and he locked the math books in a closet. When Blaise was around 11, his sister Jacqueline caught him studying geometry in secret and told on him. His father was delighted.

(Wow – I wonder if that would have worked with my kids. Perhaps Étienne found the secret to getting kids excited about math! Make it forbidden fruit.)

After moving to Paris, Étienne became involved with a hotbed of leading Paris intellectuals and scientists, a group of whom met weekly in the homes of friends to discuss and debate philosophical, mathematical, and scientific ideas. Some of the big names involved in the group were Mersenne, Roberval, Fermat, and Desargues; the group was also in touch with the most famous philosopher of the day, René Descartes. One member would present a thesis and everyone else would critique it and a lively debate would ensue.

Étienne began taking Blaise along to the meetings when he was about 13, and the boy quickly became in active participant. At 16, he presented his first paper to the group, a theory of conic sections, which seems to have been met with both admiration and annoyance at the nerve of the upstart youth. The paper launched Blaise’s career as a respected mathematician.

Apparently in 17th century France, you could buy and sell government positions. Étienne sold his Clermont position, and being the loyalist his was, he invested the money he got for his position in government bonds. However, in 1635 the government needed money for the Thirty-Year war, and decided not to pay on the bonds. Étienne joined the protests, was threatened with prison in the Bastille, and went into hiding. In an amazing story, his  14-year-old daughter Jacqueline was able to plead for her father’s pardon after performing in a play before the powerful  Cardinal Richelieu. The Cardinal pardoned Étienne and also appointed him to a new government post as chief tax officer in Rouen, the capital of Normandy.

This was a period of angry peasant revolts and being a government official was a dangerous position. Also the job often required Étienne to work all night. Blaise was there to help him calculate taxes night after night. To help his tired overworked father, Blaise invented a calculating machine that worked with gears and levers, believed to the first precursor of the modern computer.

Father and son continued a close, mutually respectful relationship until Étienne’s death in 1651. They worked together in repeating experiments of Evangelista Torricelli with barometric vacuums in 1646. Also, in 1646 in incident occurred that awakened Pascal’s interest in spiritual things.  Étienne had a fall that required a bonesetter. Two brothers names Deschamps came to do the job and moved into the Pascal home to look after Étienne.

The brothers were members of a religious movement called Jansenism, a spiritual philosophy that advocated a strict approach to Christianity and was at odds with factions of the Catholic Church. The Pascal family was much taken with the movement; his sister Jacqueline eventually joined a Jansenist convent and Blaise’s friendship and discussions with the Deschamps brothers precipitated his journey into theological philosophy. When his father died, Pascal write a letter to his sister expressing thoughts about death and our spiritual condition that would serve as a foundation for his later work.

This story seems so familiar, so modern. It reminds me again that people in history are not just cardboard characters or actors in period movies. They were as real as we are – breathing, eating, thinking, and feeling. What comes across to me in the story of Blaise Pascal’s upbringing, was that he had a father who knew him well, gave minute attention to his educational needs, encouraged him, and eventually became a friend and partner: a father who enthusiastically participated in his son’s life. How much a part did that love and support play in Blaise Pascal’s accomplishments, his confidence, his abilities, and his thinking? Great minds sometimes emerge from terrible backgrounds, but how many more minds that could have been great have been extinguished by lack of a father’s support and love?

Do you know a great father – one who loves and encourages his children? My husband, himself the son of a great Dad, is one of these fathers; I know my sons will feel his influence throughout their lives. I don’t know how we can measure the immensity of the difference good fathers make in the world – their efforts reverberate through the generations. I thank God for every one of them, and those lucky enough to have one of these are fortunate indeed.


The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.  Étienne Pascal. By J J O’Connor and E F Robertson, JOC/EFR © August 2006 http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Pascal_Etienne.html

Morris, Thomas V. Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992.