Book Review: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

This book is one of the most interesting that I have read in a very long time. It is the thoughts and experiences of one of America’s greatest authors, John Steinbeck, as he travels across the United States with his dog, Charley. He begins his travels from his home in New York, driving across the northern half of the country on his way to his childhood home in California. In his journey back east, he travels the length of Texas as well as a South in the midst of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

Along the way, Steinbeck experiences America through conversations with average Americans of all sorts. His focus throughout the book is largely upon these conversations and the impressions they make upon him as well as the insights they grant him into what makes America and its people unique and what binds them together.

I found the second half of the book, which features his travels through Texas and the Deep South, the most interesting. It is here, as Steinbeck sees the Civil Rights Movement and the South’s racial attitudes first hand, that we get to see Steinbeck at his best, both in his ability to empathize with black and white in the South, to see the complexities of the situation. Rather than reducing the South and its relationship to race to simple assertions of good vs. evil, Steinbeck sees the human element throughout and allows the reader to see it as well.

Although it is now 50 years old, the America that this book shows remains largely the same in spirit and substance. Travels with Charley is essential reading for anyone looking for the meaning of America.

Book Review: The Classic Slave Narratives by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Ed.)

Don’t be thrown off by the title. What is contained in this book is not merely four “slave narratives,” a phrase that implies the contents would only be of interest to those who want to learn more about African American history or literature. On the contrary, what is herein contained are four of the best pieces of literature in the English language that I have ever had the great privilege of reading. Each of them is an exhibition of excellent writing, skillful storytelling, and the resiliency of the human desires for respect and freedom. This is particularly true of the last two narratives in this collection, those of Frederick Douglass and Linda Brent.

Douglass’s narrative is the most well-known and widely read of slave narratives. In addition to being a masterpiece of American literature, it also contains a number of the most memorable and interesting stories of any of the slave narratives. Douglass’s insights and observations, in addition to his story, are brilliant and place Douglass among the greatest thinkers of the last several centuries.

Brent’s narrative has only been rediscovered as the excellent work it is in the last few decades and restored to its proper place as a masterwork of English literature. For her narrative, she recounts her story in the manner of a romance, which culminates not in a marriage, as most romances do, but rather in the moment at which her freedom and the freedom of her children is at least ascertained. Like Douglass, the depth of her insight into the mind of the slave and the depraved psychology of the slave owner are always fascinating and illuminating.

One one gains by reading these narratives is not merely historical knowledge about the institution of slavery nor is it merely background for the later, fuller blossoming of the African American literary tradition. It is, instead, an insider’s look at one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind and the effect it had on both sides, on slave and on slave owner as the former was treated as a beast and the latter behaved in a manner fit for one. To paraphrase one of Douglass’s many stirring sentences, you will see how a man becomes an animal and how an animal becomes a man.

Book Review: Bede’s History of the English Church and People

The Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People is an interesting read, though not one I’d recommend for those who do not have a relatively intense interest in the subject matter contained in the title. Bede’s history often reads as a record of English folktales about monks and various holy man more than it reads like history in the sense most modern people attach to that word. In fact, it might make better religious reading than it does historical or literary reading. Unless you have a real interest in the primary sources for medieval English religious thought, it would be best to stick to more modern academic writing on the subject of English history.

What I found most interesting about the book is the tension it exhibits between an incipient nationalism on the British Isles and the Christianity notion of catholicity as the universality of faith in the Church. The question of the legitimacy of practices native to or at least antecedent of the Roman practice in Britain frequently arises. Bede is fairly charitable, especially given the climate of the Church at that time, but always sides with the Roman practice as evincing a catholic nature over the more local, even if older, practices.

It was this tension between nation and Catholic Church, of course, that eventually led the English Church to schism from the Roman Church in the 16th century. That such a tension existed at even this early point, albeit in quite different forms, makes for some often fascinating reading, for one so intellectually inclined.

Short book review: Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis

Given that this encyclical is now fairly old news, as far as news goes these days, I will keep my comments on it brief. As most are already aware, this is Pope Francis’s encyclical letter on the environment which generated some controversy when it was first released. Having now finally read it in full, I have to express my surprise at the controversy. Far from being anything altogether innovative as I was expecting Francis instead recapitulates 2000 years of Christian thought on the relationship between wealth, cosmos, and man. The conclusion that he reaches is, essentially, that it is best for each of us to choose to live a simpler life and that rich nations should help poor nations and rich individuals help poor individuals. Throughout, the text is sprinkled with citations from some of the great Fathers of the Church as well as various medieval and modern Christian thinkers. The result is a sound synthesis of Christian thought on what it means to be simultaneously a spiritual/rational being in a material/animal existence. It is, in short, Christianity. Anyone who was shocked and/or appalled by this had best keep away from such controversial writings as those of Ss. Francis or Basil. In fact, anyone offended by this encyclical might want to stay away from one of the most shocking and subversive thinkers of all time: Jesus.

Book Review: How to Read the Bible as Literature by Leland Ryken

Ryken here offers a very succinct, though not especially engaging, introduction to reading the Bible as literature. His approach to this introduction is thematic, with chapters about, for example, the parables of Jesus, the use of satire in the Bible, and biblical poetry, among other subjects. The final chapter, explaining the literary unity of the Bible, is also very good.

A particularly positive aspect of this book is that through introducing the Bible as literature Ryken provides a book that is a sound introduction to both the Bible and to literature more generally. Because the Bible is such a tremendous compendium of types of literature and, in some sense, the source of nearly every Western story of the past thousand years and more, any exploration of the Bible as literature necessarily is an introduction to Western literature more generally. As a result, even if you are not interested in the Bible in particular, this book is a very worthwhile resource on the centerpiece and source of so much of the Western literary tradition.

The downside of this book is its style. Ryken opts for a very straightforward approach that sometimes seems more like one is reading the outline of a book than a book itself. While this style choice makes this book quite succinct, it also makes it quite dry. My recommendation, for the sake of avoiding tedium as well as because it completes the picture, is to read relevant biblical texts alongside each of the chapters of this book.