Monday, March 20, 2017

February’s Reading

I know we are past halfway through March, but hope late is better than never. Though life is busy, even hectic, a life without reading is dreary, especially in February.

1. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.

I thought I had read it before and do like to reread an Austen every year, but as I passed the first few chapters, the scenes and characters became new and I began to believe I must have begun, but never finished it some time in the distant past. It is now one of my favorite Austen books. I watched the movie afterward and think that perhaps the director had also never read past page 35 or so.

2. The Essays by Francis Bacon.

Of course I’ve heard this man quoted and referenced all my life, and my son enjoyed him in high school, but I just had the pleasure of spending a few months slowly reading the wisdom of this Elizabethan era sage. I was delighted to discover how easy the essays were to read, but though precisely and smoothly written, contain mountains of material to digest. I believe reading one a week would be a wiser approach and I do intend to go back through these gems more slowly. Here is excellent writing to have your high schoolers immerse themselves in, and ageless truths about us all.

3. Practicing History by Barbara Tuchman.

You will hear more from me of this book. I am a fan of Tuchman, but her personal revelations about the puzzles and perils of being a history writer were delightful insights into her amazing mind. This book has many of her classic articles and essays, as well as some by history writers she admired.

4. The Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling.

I set out a year ago to reread this series as it had been ten years since the first time through and I wondered how I would feel a decade later. Due to the shortage of Braille copies, the second novel didn’t arrive for eight months from the time of my request. This book was a perfect way to relax in the evenings of a demanding month, and probably more enjoyable than the first time I read it. Where have the Harry Potters gone?

For the joy of reading,


Monday, February 20, 2017

Our Books, Our Teachers

In Ourselves, Charlotte Mason discusses the role of conscience in our lives. Without question, the conscience needs instruction. But how is it to be instructed? “Life brings us many lessons––when we see others do well, conscience approves and learns; when others do ill, conscience condemns. But we want a wider range of knowledge than the life about us affords, and books are our best teachers. (Book II, p. 9)

In the reading of many and various worthy books, not only are our intellects informed, but our moral development grows. Living books--the Bible, Plutarch, history, biography, poetry, drama, essays, and novels all contribute. I have learned life by reading from these rich sources. Some of the ideas encountered in books are new, intriguing, others shape and strengthen opinions and knowledge. Most good books provide food of all kinds and feed me on many levels. Regardless, much intentional learning occurs, and sometimes accidental information is discovered.

“There is no nice shade of conduct which is not described or exemplified in the vast treasure-house of literature. History and biography are full of instruction in righteousness; but what is properly called literature, that is, poetry, essays, the drama, and novels, is perhaps the most useful for our moral instruction, because the authors bring their insight to bear in a way they would hesitate to employ when writing about actual persons. Autobiographies, again, often lift the veil, for the writer may make free with himself…” (Book II, p. 9)

I especially love the surprises of incidental tidbits encountered when reading for another purpose. It’s similar to the surprise of finding an unexpected wad of cash in a pocket, filling inside a cupcake, or a treasure under the clods of earth when turning the garden soil.

Last month I read the first autobiography of Rumer Godden, a favorite author. The personal acquaintance of an author made through their autobiography is particularly appealing to me. After coming to know some ideas and characters and plots of several books by the same author, one feels a kinship with that author, and reading their own account of their childhood and adult experiences is almost as good as being invited to their home for a chat. The knowledge revealed brings a new intimacy. In A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep I was captivated by her colorful years in India and the firsthand accounts of life through both world wars. It is no wonder that her writing is so vivid, as her real life was packed with more adventure than most of the people she invented. It was fascinating to read what was going on in her life while the fictional characters were coming to life under her pen.

But then, during her solitude and isolation in the Second World War, separated from her husband and family, a single mother struggling for survival in remote Cashmere, India, she realizes that her growing girls need formal schooling. Imagine my delight to read that Charlotte Mason came into her life and the life of her children. Godden’s mother signed her up to receive a programme from the P.N.E.U. I squealed with excitement to have a living connection with an author whom I know, but who will never know me.

“May, 1943…’Mam has made me a member of the P.N.E.U., the Parents National Education Union, which sends material out each month, not only a good help, but a lifeline for me. With every set of lessons they send literature, poems and extracts, well chosen, and also a brief study of an artist, say Michelangelo, with a pack of reproductions, which I value. Part of the P.N.E.U. method—a most valuable part—is “telling back,” which not only trains the memory, but makes for concentration. They claim that students trained this way never have to take notes at a lecture, they can remember it.

‘The method is to read the children a short passage in, say history, discuss it, read it again more slowly, then say to one of them, ‘Now, tell that back to me.’ It requires effort and, quite often, they were unwilling to do it…”

Then she recounts an incident after reading 22 lines of a poem three times through and receiving no narration from the students:

“'You weren’t listening.’ But somebody was. From under the table came a little piping voice which said the poem right through! Paula, at five years old.”

This account tickled me, but also reinforced an idea that was probably a continual frustration in Mason’s day, as it is in ours: the misunderstanding of the method. Godden received notes from the P.N.E.U., but clearly had not read Mason’s books herself, understood only sketchy ideas, or she would have known that “only a single reading is required.”

At any rate, I immediately knew I must share this with my readers. Do enjoy some of Godden’s stories. They are worth reading. They will bring pleasure, instruction, and wisdom, exactly as reading Mason herself does.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, February 13, 2017

Books I Finished reading in January 2017

I plan to continue posting my monthly list of books I finished the previous month and apologize for being a bit behind in doing so—not a good habit to start off a new year. Alas, travel and illness interfere with the best laid plans.

I have embarked on several lengthy and weighty tomes that will take me several months to complete, but one begun last fall wound up in January and is listed here.

1. The Four Dolls by Rumer Godden

When I was a little girl, I not only had an assortment of dolls whom I loved and cared for most diligently, but I adored stories about dolls and other little girls with dolls. One of these stories enchanted me, the author and title long forgotten, and I occasionally pick up a story about a doll to see if it might be that story. Thus, I decided on this one, as well as because I have only read Godden’s adult novels. This collection of doll stories is diverse—different kinds of dolls, children, and settings, but all delightful and exquisitely reminiscent of childhood fears, ambitions, and pranks.

2. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep by Rumer Godden

I like to have a biography going all the time and enjoyed reading this first of Godden’s autobiographies while simultaneously reading one of her children’s books. This must rank in my all-time favorite autobiographies. Godden’s life is colorful and full of fortune and misfortune, triumphs and tragedies, and was written in her usual perfection of description and expression. I admired especially her ability to make the most of any circumstance by sheer willpower, creativity, ingenuity, and humor. In an era overpoweringly deluged with memoirs, this one stands out above the rest.

3. Best American Science Writing, 2003 ed. Oliver Sacks

Finding myself at a loss for a new science title to stretch my knowledge, I picked up this volume of 25 top writers in the field of science. Oliver Sacks is already one of my favorite science writers, so I was fascinated by his choices for best science writing. My ultimate goal was to discover names of authors I could then pursue to take me down some scientific trails and am now stocked thanks to these various and fascinating articles on subjects from zoology and oceanography to bioethics and physics.

4. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

There is nothing better than winter days with a new (to me) title by a favorite author. Mary Barton is a heroine who is far from perfect, but through willfulness and misjudgment rises to heroic heights of effort in a tense and exciting conclusion. I think this a good choice for teen-aged girls especially who are wrestling with family relationships, use of their talents, and finding their own moral compass.

5. Plato’s Republic. Ed. Jowett

I read this volume 15 years ago and felt like a first-time sailor put in charge of a voyage. I took a few impressions away, but thought returning to it after intervening years of further reading might help me make more sense of it. Though I get a bit annoyed at Socrates’ seeming disingenuous questioning technique, I did admire the Greeks’ efforts to grapple with the topics of justice, knowledge, class, and true nobility.

For the joy of reading,