Chronological Snobbery, Part 1

This is part 1 of 2. Click here to skip ahead to part 2, or see the link at the bottom.

It was Owen Barfield who induced a young C.S. Lewis to abandon what he called ‘chronological snobbery.’ I like the term, but its meaning is not immediately clear. Is this what Lewis is referring to when he exhorts us to read old books as a corrective to the errors of the day (most famously argued in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”)?

But no – it cannot mean simply reading old books since Lewis was already reading old books even at an early age (he loved classical poetry), well before meeting Barfield and having his chronological snobbery apparently cured. So what is it, then?

In this post I’d like to explore these ideas a little bit. Let’s start with what Lewis writes about it:

In Surprised by Joy, he defines chronological snobbery as

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

There is overlap here with his famous quote from the essay mentioned above on reading old books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. … Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

Reading old books is part of the solution, but the assumption of “newer is better” goes deeper, and it will likely take something more than mere exposure to old ideas to cure you of it. The fact that today we have many university humanities departments devoted to exposing the ‘hetero-normative patriarchal misogyny’ of Shakespeare and Dante and Milton makes that clear enough. They are reading the material, but with such a distorted lens that it renders no benefit, like eating a hearty stew but straining out everything except the onions.

This snobbery, like all snobberies, is subtle and mostly invisible to the one infected with it. It is something that one detects in others but never in oneself. Think about how often you have heard “what a snob!” said, and how not once was the person saying it talking about themselves. We accuse ourselves of many things, but snobbery doesn’t tend to be one of them.

I’m cultured, not a snob, you silly peasant.

The attitude, to the degree that one is conscious of it, seems entirely justified by the facts of the case. “After all, I have very good reasons for feeling this way!” So we are dealing with something that must be exposed before it can be dealt with.

I take it as a matter of fact that this attitude is widespread today. And my hunch is that the less historically informed our society becomes, the more this default assumption about the superiority of our fashionable ideas – this snobbery – will spread. I can see two other reasons for its prevalence.

First, there is this myth of progress. Generally speaking, the field of engineering is more advanced now than 400 years ago. The same is true for medicine, physics, and chemistry. These are the hard sciences where a wrong theory pretty quickly slams into the solid wall of objective reality, or better, the world as God made it. Since the delay between theory and result is brief, misguided ideas tend to reveal themselves as dead ends before getting too far, and more importantly, before the theorizers get too attached to the ideas.

But it really is another story when we are talking about fields such as sociology, anthropology, morality, or ethics. The myth of progress is the assumption that steady progress has been taking place in these fields similar to the progress that we can all see happening when we look out the window at the high-speed trains, jet-liners, and orbiting satellites. In this mode of thinking, the latest idea is, by virtue of its novelty, the best idea.

The problem is that the delay between theory and result in these other fields is much longer. By the time the fruit of misbegotten ideas becomes undeniable, not only can there be a huge human cost, but sometimes the entire field of study has become institutionally committed to the bad idea and cannot abandon it despite the growing evidence for its failure.

Second, it is basic human nature to desire to feel superior to others. Simply put: chronological snobbery allows me to feel superior to an awful lot of people – and most of them are not around to call me out on it. It is therefore a satisfying attitude to adopt.

To return to a point in the second quote above, every age – our own included – has its characteristic virtues and its prevalent vices. Future ages, or contemporary observers from outside the culture in question, are able to see and denounce what we cannot. And so we rightly reject the cruel tortures of the medieval world, the inexcusable infanticide of the Romans, and the perverted pedophilia of the ancient Greeks. But if we are not careful, we will miss their virtues and miss the chance to see and address some of our own vices.

In the next post, I’d like to reflect on some related insights I’ve gleaned from René Girard.

On the Writing of Novels

I joked about writing a novel a few days ago, but the truth is that I feel as far from writing a novel as ever before.

Seriously, just thinking about it makes me feel like this:

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It’s similar to a one-legged man who has always dreamed of climbing mount Everest. He arrives at base camp and gets a taste for the effects of high altitude and the difficulty of, well, climbing the world’s highest peak with half as many legs as is typically needed. In other words, he gains an appreciation for the immensity of the task, and the romantic glow which accompanied the thought in his mind is replaced by a stagnant dread.

Recently I discovered that my brother is into writing electronic music, and being musically inclined myself, I asked him to show me how he does it. I figured I could take a look at the interface and whip up something decent sounding in a few minutes. Well, not so much. He uses an online interactive in-browser set of tools that is as expansive as it is complicated and intricate, from mixing boards to effects pedals to wave synthesizers and loops, each with dozens of settings and adjustments. I didn’t even know how or where you could even start putting notes down, never mind putting together something with any more complexity than The Itsy Bitsy Spider in C major.

Even if I could manage to produce a sound that I liked, and wrote a little hook, to think of building upon that layers and layers of individually tailored sounds and beats and loops, each requiring a mastery of minutiae, is just overwhelming. The effort required to focus all your faculties on tiny details all while holding in your mind a vision of the entire piece so that each created section fits cohesively within the whole is simply staggering. And writing a novel is just like that. In that sense, even the most basic and formulaic novel is an impressive achievement, never mind creating believable characters that draw you in emotionally, scenes that play out in the readers’ minds with 1080p clarity, story arcs that are suspenseful and thrilling, and a depth of humanity and honesty that moves the work from mere entertainment to literature.

Maybe, I hope, I’ll get there someday. But for now I’m sticking with bite-sized pieces that my mind can wrap itself around. I’ll leave the grand weaving to others who feel so inclined, and heartily cheer when they do it. It is no small task. My humble goal this month is to submit a short story I’ve written to the CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Competition. All the previous winners seem to be legit published authors with actual credentials so my expectations are low, but that’s not a reason not to try!

So here’s to you, novelists: well done, well done indeed.

*slow clapping*

Announcing My New Upcoming Debut Novel Pioneering An Entirely New Sub-Sub-Genre

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Do you love horse-drawn carriages and the sweet smell of manure wafting across the endless prairies? Do you long for the thrill of international espionage and counter-terrorism? Well thanks to me you won’t have to spend one single more candle-lit evening sitting at home and wondering how you’ll ever be able to reconcile these two passions…

Well that’s it, I’ve decided to throw my lot in with all those countless aspiring authors. The problem is: how to get noticed? How can one stand out of the crowd? Or conversely, how can one find a niche so nichey that one becomes a big fish in a very, very small pond? Well, as I was driving to Wal-Mart today to buy more Hot Wheels cars for mysel– I mean my son — I had the idea of a lifetime. Well actually I shouldn’t be quite so modest; it was the idea of a generation, an era, an eon. What if I could take a niche and niche it a little further? And then what if that new niche was actually a hybrid super-genre with massive public appeal? Well shoot if I haven’t gone and done it.

segwaycommandosIn fact it wasn’t terribly complicated – I simply combined the one genre that all Christians who are female and between the ages of 12 and 82 can’t resist: Amish Romance, with one of the hottest selling genres of all time. No, not vampires – someone beat me to the punch – I’m talking about the very first Amish Romance Geopolitical Terrorist Plot Thriller.

The title will be:

A Bomb in Her Bonnet

Synopsis: The incredible based-on-a-true-story story of a young Amish woman who rebels, heads to a massive city of twelve thousand people, and falls in love with a rebellious occasional drinker of alcoholic beverages who turns out to be a CIA spy who actually turns out to be a Middle-Eastern terrorist mastermind who forces this poor damsel to become the world’s first Amish Suicide Bomber by threatening her fourteen younger siblings with iPhones and Netflix accounts and similar forms of torture. She pretends to go along with the plot but secretly informs the police by way of carrier pigeon that she is indeed carrying a bomb in her bonnet. With the help of an extremely handsome, pious, and conservative police officer, she thwarts the threat and returns home on horseback and he proposes to her in the rain and they marry and have lots of children.

Scheduled for release in late March 2014, with sequels every six months afterwards, you may want to pre-order these puppies because they will sell faster than Twilight at a Justin Bieber concert.

My Top Ten Books from 2013

Caveat: These books were not necessarily published in 2013. In fact none of them were except for the last one.

Phil’s Top Ten Books of 2013 (in no particular order):

19063The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

My wife got this book at a family gift exchange at the end of 2012, and it was the first book I read in 2013. I’ll say three things about this book, and then you should go read it. First, the narrator is Death himself, and so you can be sure that the writing is incredibly imaginative. Second, the main character is a little girl, orphaned, in Germany, during the second world war. Third, the story is sweeping and beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to finish it. It’s also been made into a movie, which I haven’t seen yet, but certainly will.

matterhornMatterhorn by Karl Marlantes

A novel of the Vietnam War by a marine veteran. Marlantes captures the horror of war along with the power of brotherhood and friendship. Not an easy read, but a moving and rewarding one.

13624683Sutton by J.P. Moehringer

Willie ‘The Actor’ Sutton was America’s most prolific (and endearing) bank robber from the late 1920’s to the 1950’s. Witty, a gentleman, a master of disguise, non-violent, he became a folk hero during a time in America when the banks continued to get richer while the public suffered in economic distress. Not much is known about Willie Sutton, so this book is technically fiction. The author, J.P. Moehringer, has collected the available facts and imagined the rest, and the result is quite an enjoyable story! It’s an interesting twist on the genre of historical fiction. In any case, I like stories of criminals with ideals (The Great Train Robbery is one of my all time favorites), and this fits nicely in that category. Sutton is the man who answered, when asked why he robbed banks, “because that’s where the money is.”

10058Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley

A book by the son of a World War 2 veteran who happened to be in the iconic picture of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The book traces the lives of all six soldiers who were in the picture, and it makes for fascinating and harrowing reading. You really come to know each one individually and root for them. If you have seen the movie, don’t be dissuaded – the two have very little in common and the book is better!

1845403Exit Music by Ian Rankin

This is the 2007 finale of the Inspector Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Scotland (Rankin resurrected the series in 2012). I read the first book and then the last 4 books of the series and I find them a very enjoyable light-hearted read; witty dialogue, imaginary Scottish accents, believable characters, lovable characters, loathable characters, lots of whisky and classic rock. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but if you like witty humor and mystery fiction, you may find yourself picking up the next one and the next one and looking up maps of Edinburgh on Google.

2924318Home by Marilynne Robinson

The polar opposite of light-hearted. Marilynne Robinson writes the way I wish I could. Really, it’s difficult even to describe her writing with any adequacy. What I admire the most is the seamless way she weaves profound spiritual realities into a grounded and earthy narrative. Book reviews tend to overuse superlatives, so forgive my indulgence here: sublime, perceptive, cutting, haunting, beguiling, utterly brilliant — hold on while I get my thesaurus — oh nevermind. I really enjoy her novels, if you can’t tell yet, so pick up her previous (and related) book Gilead as well.

1898Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I think about this book every time my hands or feet get cold outside. It is the incredible story of the 1996 climbing disaster on mount Everest where a number of people lost their lives, told from the perspective of one of the survivors. I found it nearly impossible to put down, and yet difficult to read at the same time – these are real people, real lives, and terrible deaths. I have never been into thin air at above 20000 feet, but I have been to Nepal, have seen Everest and the Himalayas on the horizon, and can just begin to imagine what would drive people to put themselves through unspeakable pain, discomfort, and peril, to simply climb to the top. The classic answer of course comes from George Mallory, the first man known to attempt to climb it: “Because it’s there.”

13697023In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Reading Sutton got me thinking about the whole idea of mixing non-fiction with fiction. I did a bit of research and discovered that in 1966 a book was written by Truman Capote that is considered to be the first ‘non-fiction novel.’ It is the story of the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in rural Kansas by two criminals who didn’t even know them. It was very well written and certainly interesting, but with little to offer in terms of redemptive value.

17159989Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr

After decades of silence regarding his unparalleled career, Bobby Orr finally wrote his story down. This book had loads of priceless moments, both funny and moving, but Bobby Orr is gracious and polite to a fault. I would have loved to hear him share what he really thinks a bit more often and bit a less sugarcoated. Nevertheless, it familiarized me with an era of hockey that I never got to watch, and I gained a lot of appreciation for those athletes. Orr had lots of good things to say about youth hockey and the NHL, and frankly if you love hockey you should read this.

16240761The Son by Philipp Meyer

My wife got this book out of the library for me, and once again she proved that she has great intuition. Meyer was highlighted in 2010 in the New Yorker’s list of top 20 authors under the age of 40. This book is breathtaking in its scope, spanning five troubled generations of a Texan family, from the settling of an untamed land to the building and collapse of a cattle and oil empire, from cold and empty mansions to eating raw Buffalo liver with Comanche Indians. It’s won a whole slew of awards and with good reason; it paints a powerful critique of the American dream, the pursuit of money and power, and human nature in general. As a follower of Jesus I only wish that the bleakness of the picture could have been set beside the brilliance of the One who showed humanity a better way.

Honorable Mentions:

13131149Evangellyfish by Douglas Wilson

A grim satire about the Evangelical world from a gifted writer. A fun and incisive read for anyone in ministry who has a sense of humor.

2964456Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

The book behind the movie Invictus, which tells the story of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was well written, flowed seamlessly from start to finish, and captured a truly remarkable moment in history.

9781408468241The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin

I haven’t read the Sherlock Holmes books yet (I just got them for Christmas: Thanks Dad!) but I picked this one up as an audiobook and really got into it. It’s an imaginative take on Watson and Holmes’ final years, with a twist. I didn’t actually care for the twist all that much, but loved the ride. I’m sure hearing it in ge-nu-ine British accents helped the experience as well.

If you are still reading this lengthy post, you are surely a fellow reader! So thanks for reading, first of all, and please leave a comment sharing your favorite reads this year – I’m always looking for a good book to add to the reading pile.