It’s been one of those weeks. The morning after switching our family cell phones from a major carrier to a budget carrier, my own phone stopped working. The current status is that whenever I dial any number, no matter when or what, the call is answered by the new carrier’s technical support department! A couple of hours of trouble-shooting with the support team were terminated suddenly when the technician reported that “a huge number of calls are now coming in on this same issue, so it must be a system problem on our end; it may take up to 72 hours to fix it.”
I’m not complaining. This is what we call in the trouble trade a very minor nightmare, but it does remind us that we are now joined at the hip to our cell phones. In the course of “backing up” and resetting the phone completely before they discovered it wasn’t my phone that was the problem, I also lost all my data. But if you are like me and never keep anything really important on your phone, this just means spending some time downloading and installing the apps you use frequently, adding back the most urgent contacts, and setting everything up to look roughly like it did before.
I won’t mention the name of the new carrier, which has a good reputation overall, because that wouldn’t really be fair. It is not for me to judge why Our Lord decided that this was the right minor catastrophe for this moment in life. But it also reminds us about how much of life we can’t control. This is a much-needed cross for those of us who are always worried about our “precious time”—as if we own it, and as if our own ideas of how to spend it are always right.
The large book’s obstacles
One aspect of the perennial human time problem is trying to fit in the reading of large books. I’ve always been able to skim rapidly if all I needed to do was to get a general understanding, “ripping the guts out of a book” as I used to call it in graduate school, where only a true scholar could enjoy plodding through all that stuff. On the other hand, in every reading speed test I’ve ever taken, from junior high school on up, I have been an abysmally slow “read every word” reader.
Of course, there are all kinds of ways to read. When I was in college and newly in love, and so more easily distracted than I had been since about the age of 5, I learned the immense difficulty of concentrating on the things I read simply because they were assigned. Again and again, I would emerge from some imaginative ramble only to find that I was ten or twenty pages on in the reading of some book, and had absolutely no recollection of what was on those pages.
So I’d go back and read it again, usually (at least) with better results. But to this day I cringe when I receive a really long book for review. Some people think my commentaries on CatholicCulture.org are long; Phil Lawler beats me all hollow when it comes to making a clear and effective point in a minimum of space, a quality I admire more each year. But there is a big difference between my longest commentary (a few reached as far as 5,000 words before I learned, years ago, to break them into parts)—there is a big difference, I say, between that and an 800-page book, or even any book at all in fine print that you can feel the weight of when you pick it up.
1. As an example, I recently received in the mail a truly admirable new book from a fine publisher (Emmaus Road) by Erick Ybarra, a major study of The Papacy: Revisiting the Debate between Catholics and Orthodox. It is clearly a good book and even an important book. It is certainly a scholarly book, with extensive notes. But it runs to 762 large dense pages (and has no index). Still, I can definitely recommend it to those who need it: The Papacy.
2. Another example is a fine study of the current watershed moment in philosophical personalism by David Walsh (which I touched on lightly in my commentary of February 28th on The ERA’s manipulation of thought and culture). It is 357 densely abstract pages, and it was not until I was halfway through it that I could really be sure about the author’s primary philosophical purpose (which was a good one). I can also recommend this to scholars: The Priority of the Person.
But the range of people reached by such books is extremely limited, and for this reason I have developed an important guideline over the years: If you can’t make your main point in about a thousand words, then you really haven’t mastered your thoughts, and you will deservedly lose 90% of the total audience that could otherwise benefit from them. One of the greatest problems in modern universities is that scholars write for other scholars; it is an important part of the career path. Few, therefore, master the art of brevity, or even of writing a book in a way that would be interesting to a broadly educated non-specialist. At least that’s what I say here as I meander along.
3. If I seem to be damning such books with faint praise, I would argue that it is the nature of the beast. As a third example, I’ve just browsed through Michael R. Heinlein’s biography of the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, published by Our Sunday Visitor (see Glorifying Christ). Cardinal George was one of Chicago’s better bishops, and this is certainly a competent biography. I think it extremely likely that this is the best book on the subject. But it is 424 pages of fairly balanced coverage. Chesterton and Belloc would have hit the saliant points in half the pages or less—and the deeper Catholic meaning would have leapt off of nearly every page. Nonetheless, the book is well-researched, and the author’s task was completed both well and, in both senses of the word, faithfully.
How different are three other books I intend to mention, and they are different primarily because they have left academic requirements behind, setting their course straight toward not scholars but simply readers.
4. The first is a book by J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B. Fr. Augustine sets out to help each of us learn to make better decisions by learning from a wisdom in which he himself is steeped, the wisdom of the very early hermits and monks whom Catholics call the desert fathers. The book, from Ignatius press, is Pray. Think. Act.
Fr. Wetta introduces his subject in a simple but structured way, treating praying, thinking and acting as three steps of the process of decision-making. His explication uses a (somewhat arbitrary) pattern of R words. In the “Pray” portion of each decision, we are to “Retreat, Repent and Rebuild”; in the “Think” portion, our task is to “Reduce, Refer and Reflect”; and in the “Act” section, we must “Resolve, Relax, and Revisit”. There is a suitable emphasis throughout on the need of that eighth R word: Relax. Anxiety is not from God.
A little corny, perhaps? That’s fair enough for a book which begins each sub-section with a humorous anecdote in which a young monk approaches an old monk and finds himself getting good advice. But it’s a straightforwardly simple book that is easy to love. And perhaps the best point is that—at least if you are the kind of person who has trouble making good decisions—you will probably read the whole thing through. While especially helpful in making vocational decisions, when approached properly, it could for a short time be part of daily spiritual reading for just about anyone.
5. But we shouldn’t forget literature—especially literature of the briefer yet often more demanding sort, namely poetry. One Catholic poet is Joseph Bottum, whose latest collection from St. Augustine’s Press is entitled Spending the Winter. Divided into three sections (The Morning Watch, Imitations (in which Bottum pays poetic homage to particular works by previous poets), Trifles, Occasionals, and Spending the Winter), these poems run from a few stanzas to a few pages, and they are packed with that fresh way of seeing which marks what we might celebrate as poetic “mystagogy”—a superb initiation into being which poets manage through a compression of concrete language into sonorous form: A literary tautness which bursts with meaning.
Reading and rereading a fine poem is not at all a bad way to bring to an end the time we spend in spiritual reading, immediately before or immediately following a closing prayer. The best poetry both stretches and surprises the mind, heart and spirit. Bottum is deep and skillful enough to touch us in a very few words.
6. Now the edges between my two book categories—the long and the short—are slightly blurred by Joshua Hren’s extended essay on what he calls “contemplative realism”. Published by the Benedict XVI Institute, this one is just 63 pages, but they are dense pages under a daunting title: Contemplative Realism: A Theological-Aesthetical Manifesto. You can purchase this small book on Amazon, or you can read the short form and even sign the manifesto on the Institute website.
Essentially what Hren has taken on is the task of superseding the gritty “material only” realism of so many modern authors, who rarely and only inadvertently see beyond the end of their noses. Thus Hren introduces the idea of contemplative realism, which is a whole realism, open to everything that is signified in the “real”, even when we are simply reflecting on material reality. Hren draws on an array of previous critics and writers of fiction who have addressed this theme, both in theory and in their creative work, and so his “manifesto” serves as a tour of the best literary and sometimes even philosophical insights into what is indeed a pressing need in our world today.
This essay effectively draws together the best insights into reality and how it can be portrayed, especially in fiction, so that by the end you will not wish to read (or write) anything that does not deliberately and artfully engage both reality’s immanence and its transcendence. It is not for readers who rarely stray beyond “pop” (such as my beloved mysteries). But for a 63-page manifesto, it is immensely rewarding.
Now, having myself soared to just over 1,800 words, I should stop writing here, raise my mind and heart to God, and thank Him for the mercy given to us now and always, especially in all that is written for His glory—and therefore, despite its concrete shortcomings, whatever is written transcendently well.
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