Introducing a new feature of The Hovel, in which CenterForLit staff will occasionally be forced to confess what it is that they are currently reading, no matter how nerdy or frivolous...
I’ve been working my way slowly through Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans, the commentary which launched Barth’s career as the foremost Protestant theologian of the 20th century. The book was originally published in 1918, and its influence on the world of theology was almost as significant as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which came out only three years earlier. It went through six editions in a handful of years, and remains the essential text for understanding Barth, whom many place on a short list of history’s greatest systematic theologians.
I was initially drawn to the book because of its historical significance, but its compelling discussion of Paul’s message in Romans has kept me reading. Barth emphasizes the uncrossable line between the world of man and the world of God. Quoting freely from Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, forerunners of 20th century existentialism, he stresses the absolute transcendence of God and the corresponding futility of religion and indeed of the whole physical world. He says that this futility (which we experience as pain, suffering, anxiety, and doubt) represents God’s “No” to the world – and that the Resurrection, which miraculously crosses that uncrossable line and redeems our experience, represents God’s “Yes.”
If the Gospel really applies to every time and place, and is mediated through every culture in history, I think Barth’s book might be what it looked like in the 20th century – maybe what it still looks like today. The modern age has its own set of questions, problems, and anxieties, and I find many of them answered in his treatment of Romans. It has been a slow and difficult read and I’m not even close to the end, but so far it has been well worth the effort!
I have been hearing about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World ever since I was a little girl. My father, and economics and history teacher, referenced it in somber tones every time the government did anything that resembled statism. When I discovered Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, it came up again, this time in comparison with George Orwell’s landmark novel, 1984. Postman, who like these sci-fi authors, observes that his 20th c. American peers are in fact losing their liberty, argues that it was Huxley, rather than Orwell, who guessed how this would occur: through an addictive, pleasure inducing drug that keeps men in a pleasant stupor. Rather than government oppression and Big Brother’s machinations, the people in Huxley’s novel choose subjugation, jettisoning humanity for hedonism.
Looking for something to read on our family vacation last month, I reached for Huxley’s book and found Postman was right. Huxley imagines a society completely controlled by the state. From personal relationships to reproduction to vocation to entertainment, everything is mandated and controlled. The concept of a nuclear family is passe, and the words “mother” and “father” are regarded as vulgar because of their former relationship with reproduction and monogamy. Sexual freedom has ceased to be voluntary and is instead legislated and enforced. In the spirit of Marx, Lenin, and the sexual liberation movement of the 1960’s, sex has been divorced from the bonds of monogamous relationship and parenthood, rendering both men and women objects for momentary fleshly gratification. Children are manufactured sterilely in test tubes, their gender and intelligence manipulated according to the production needs of the society to insure a biological hierarchy in which everyone is satisfied to dumbly do the job they are assigned. To insure this, children are conditioned through brainwashing and hypnotism techniques to adhere to state-created moral codes. Religion has been abandoned for positive law. The One has been jettisoned for the Many. All books that imbibe the transcendentals have been banned; only manuals and state propaganda are disseminated.
Some light beach reading, right? Huxley imagines this dark society through the eyes of a character he calls The Savage, who grew up in the remnants of the former world, his mind, heart, and values informed by the only book available to him, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. This allows Huxley to underscore the value of the transcendentals and their connection to the human in humanity. Huxley’s prescient social critique still resonates. Since I finished the book, I find myself, like my father before me, referencing it in somber tones every time I read the news, asking myself, like Postman, will we as a people amuse ourselves to death? Will we choose entertainment over humanity, happiness over liberty, sterility over fruitfulness, and test tubes over family? Will we, have we become mere mechanical men?
The formation and concerns of Southern literature have fascinated me since I took a college course on "Southern Fiction After Faulkner," especially as a history major engrossed by the enigma of America's Civil War. In my studies, I was assigned Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and have finally decided to return to the work of this 20th century physician-turned-artist by reading through his collected essays in Signposts in a Strange Land. I just finished the section on life in the south, and am beginning to read through his thoughts on literature and language.
Percy loved to meditate on man's unique ability among earth's creature to use language to bridge the gap of "otherness" between each of us. He particularly saw the need for healing from otherness in the historical narrative of the South, still struggling to make sense of their cultural identity in the face of an ever-distanced Civil War and the growing civil rights movement. In the essay I'm currently reading, however, he is marveling over the mystery that is man's ability to use language to name everything around him, but simultaneous inability to use it to name himself. He suggests that this is the source of modern anxiety, and that art may be the cure.
Don't let me fool you, though. The only reason I started these essays is that I blew through J.K. Rowling's first two Cormoran Strike detective novels and the third hasn't yet arrived in the mail.
I’m in the smack middle of Cornelia Funke’s Reckless, a delightful little novel for teens that follows the exploits of an Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunter in a land where fairytales are reality and our world is slowly seeping in through the cracks. Obviously, that seeping is a bad thing: who wants technology and mercantilism to infect a world full of magical creatures? What interests me about this idea is Funke’s ingenious use of fairytale tropes to de-mystify the trappings of that world, while simultaneously re-mystifying the power of the human heart. You see, the creatures Jacob Reckless faces are every bit as selfish and calculating as any human villain, and they want their world to modernize itself. Our treasured fairy-tales are simply chattel to them as they bend their will toward progress and wealth. These aren’t the kind of noble values we generally turn to fairytales to find! Funke knows this, and turns this reversal to her advantage: in a world where wood-nymphs, goblins, and not-so-noble princes are real and average, love, loyalty, and selflessness become the real magic. I haven’t finished just yet, but so far as I can tell, Funke has, as usual, swiped our clichés, flipped them upside down, and told us the truth despite them.
I didn’t know when I picked up Amor Towles’ bestselling novel Rules of Civility that I was about to be treated to a Fitzgerald-esque journey through the Roaring Twenties. Sumptuous settings, glamorous characters, and fascinating subplots captured my interest immediately and I read the whole thing in just a few days, thanks to our timely family vacation on the Oregon coast. Set in 1920’s America, Towles’ piece takes snapshots of the high society elite as they feel the impending threat of the Great Depression. Protagonist and narrator, Katey Kontent, is a working-class woman from a family of Russian immigrants. When she and her bewitching social-climber roommate, Eve Ross, run into a dashing banker on New Year’s Eve, a triangular friendship quickly forms with all the potential to break hearts and hurt feelings. So far so predictable, right? But the handsome Tinker Grey may not be all he appears and even as sparks fly between him and Katey (causing Eve to seethe with jealousy), one wintery drive might change the course of all three of their lives forever. Even as Towles revisits the glittering scenes and Hedonistic values of golden age Manhattan, he prompts the reader to consider the relevance of man’s struggle to live a life of purpose in an unprincipled culture. Desperate for meaning, Katey and Tinker seek significance in relationships, holding one another to self-proclaimed standards of decency and civility even as they reject the “outdated” maxims and morals of previous generations. In narrating his story through Katey, an anachronistically modern woman, Towles may be suggesting that the disillusionment that plagued 1920’s contemporaries still plagues Americans today. This book tasted like candy but left me with so much to think on. I’d highly recommend a read!