Tuesday, May 17

Another Meme

This one's from Lauren of Cnytr, and since she's requested a royal command performance, I'm happy to oblige...

Total Number of Books I’ve Owned: Probably between 500 and 700, I would think; given many of these belong properly to my parents and were subsequently “borrowed” and never returned, the figure gets a little bit sticky. Here in South Bend I have at least 130, I should think, and at home I have a whole wall of shelves and that still doesn’t fit all of them. Unlike Zadok, I will not attempt to be ashamed.

Last Book I Bought: A history of the invention of Meissen porcelain entitled The Arcanum. Before that, it was a book on the origins and development of the Papal intelligence service called Spies in the Vatican and a Terry Prachett paperback. These were all on a gift card, so before that, the last book I actually bought was a travelogue-cum-history of the Turkish hat-making industry named A Fez of the Heart (seriously) which had followed on the heels of The Devil in the White City.

Last Book I Read: It’s difficult to define this, considering I am usually reading any number of things at once. The last book I finished was probably Terry Prachett’s The Truth and before that, an entry in Alexander McCall Smith’s Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Egelfeld series, At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances. As of today I’m reading three books, The Arcanum, Spies in the Vatican and a different Terry Prachett novel, Carpe Jugulum. This is omitting coffee-table books like the tomes on heraldry, Piedmontese architecture and Sicilian baroque churches that I have been paging through intermittently lately.

Five Books that Mean a Lot to Me: Picking favorites is very difficult for me, especially with books. Often sensing the physical existence of a book may be an emotional experience for me--taking it off the shelf and sensing its peculiar potentiality, of future enjoyment. And a payoff that sometimes never happens. I’ve gotten excited this way over all sorts of random things, some of which were great, others less so. For example--Silverberg’s history of the Prester John myth (uneven), Neil Gaiman’s charming Neverwhere, a revisionist fantasy set in the London underground (fun); a translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere (stale, oh-so-modern renditions of old faves); Gibson and Sterling’s steampunk epic The Difference Engine (fun, but too clever for its own good); and just about every gimmicky paperback mystery ever written. Amid these trials and errors, a few classics remain:

1. Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man by Chesterton. I may be cheating by including these together in one entry, but to me they have always felt like one great book tracing the Christian’s journey through conversion and then through salvation history. Chesterton, for the longest time, was the biggest hero in my literary pantheon and still today his shadow looms large enough. Now, a little older and wiser, I look on his writing with a slightly more critical eye, but the magic still remains. I’ve read these two books so many times and taken away something different—and complementary—every time: a tapestried wealth of beautiful description; an economy of beautiful language strategically applied; the unexpected beauty and wonderful strangeness of Christianity; the unexpected rationality and straightforward logic of Christianity; and all and none of the above all at once.

2. Story of a Soul by St. Teresa of Liseaux. Unlike the other books on this list, I’ve only read it once, but it was the right book at the right time. Those of us who are just plain complicated like me rather than complex like Aquinas sometimes have to go back to the source and learn to trust God like a little child, an art that the Little Flower raised to a level of complex beauty that would have made Aquinas smile in wonder.

3. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. (Foucault the nineteenth-century scientist, not Foucault the twentieth-century degenerate). This bloated, highly intellectual conspiracy novel about a band of crackpot editors who discover a seven-hundred-year-old Templar plot to take over the world (Dan Brown wishes he had this man’s brains) may seem like a surprising choice to some of those who know me. Or maybe it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure the book is really that profound, but it provided me with so much of my mental furniture (Templars, the Grail, alchemy, cryptography, the seamy underside of the Enlightenment, the Comte de Saint-Germain, and my loathing of the Freemasons) and gave me so many diversions during my teenage years, it’s hard to ignore on a list like this. Like Chesterton’s work, I’ve read this book at least twice straight through and at least two times in random chunks, and each time I’ve picked up a new facet of Eco’s strange adventure through the back-alleys of the last five centuries of Western history. I’ve read it and found out about the serpentine turnings of the early Rosicrucians; I’ve read it and found out why kooks are happy to believe that oligarchs in smoky rooms control the universe and yet prefer to deny God; I’ve read it and thought about how symbols work; I’ve read it and found out about spiritual knighthood (sort of); I’ve read it and found out that a culture built on reason alone breeds superstition. I’m not sure anyone else would have found those meanings there, but I’m glad I did. It’s an acquired taste, I think.

4.The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. The blind Argentine Borges is one of those writers I love, though sometimes he tries my patience with his existential shell-games. (A good chunk of the time, I love to fall for his paranormal pranks, hook, line and sinker). In the case of The Book of Imaginary Beings, his playful flair for the esoteric comes to the surface without his other attendant manias about mirrors, doubles and darkness. In this bestiary of literary chimeras, we learn of the Mermecolion, born of a Greco-Jewish biblical mistranslation; Swedenborgian angels and demons (Joseph Smith had nothing on Emmanuel Swedenborg); beautiful sylphs; Origen’s glorified spherical bodies and Kafka’s Odradek. It’s a book which is a pleasure to read, in true Borgesian fashion, out-of-order, and a book I could see myself writing, and enjoying it to boot.

5.The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis. Of all the books written about the Middle Ages, this is by far the one that best grasps the medieval “project” by picturing the marvelous world they saw themselves inhabiting. The rational Aristotelian universe of crystal spheres, moved by the love of God, was the universe of Dante and Boethius, St. Gregory and St. Francis. The medieval world is a beautiful world, a humane and colorful world gilded and gaudy as a re-painted Gothic cathedral: unlike our confused and arcane (and, I admit, rather exciting, in a Valentinian sort of way) cosmology of ten-dimensional string and dark matter. Of course, it has the disadvantage of not strictly being true, but it’s nice to think about it, and anyway, it’s also important to remember that the medievals thought this stuff through instead of assuming they imagined the world was flat and that God lived in a local cardboard heaven about ten miles off the surface like something out of a manuscript illumination. Never underestimate the medievals. Or I will send Aquinas to your house and he will sit in your living room and make your guests feel uncomfortable until you agree.

Tag five people and tell them to do this on their blog. Well, I’d like to see some of my other Whapster friends do this, but I’d also enjoy hearing from Fr. Jim, the Old Oligarch, Eve Tushnet, young Master Cusack, and, seconding Zadok’s motion, Meredith of Christendom.

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