Friday, February 25, 2011

All Things Considered by G.K. Chesterton

Sometimes Chesterton’s brilliance leaves me breathless with awe, but most of the time he leaves me feeling like an intellectual midget (not a feeling I particularly enjoy).  All Things Considered has moments of genius, but at times it reads like garbled nonsense. Chesterton’s own assessment of himself was that he “suffered from a simplicity verging on imbecility” so maybe that explains it.

Chesterton excuses himself in the book’s introduction by saying that “This is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current subjects for it is mostly concerned with attacking attitudes which are in their nature accidental and incapable of enduring. Brief as is the career of such a book as this, it may last twenty minutes longer than most of the philosophies that it attacks.”

He was right in saying that the book would be outdated twenty minutes after publishing because many of the subjects of the article have long been forgotten. Nevertheless nuggets of gold are sprinkled throughout the book and patient digging turned up the following treasures:

On journalism: For the journalist, having grown accustomed to talking down to the public, commonly talks too low at last, and becomes merely barbaric and unintelligible. By his very efforts to be obvious he becomes obscure. He leads in to darkness by excess of light.

On reformers: It is a fact that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be a reformer; that the man who thought everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better… It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with startled indignation… The pessimist can be enraged at wrong, but only the optimist can be startled [enough to want to change it].

On Shakespeare: Nobody could say that a statue of Shakespeare, even fifty feet high, on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, could define Shakespeare’s position. It only defines our position towards Shakespeare. It is he who is fixed. It is we who are unstable.

On Joan of Arc: It is not for us to explain this flaming figure in terms of our tired and querulous culture. Rather we must try to explain ourselves by the blaze of such fixed stars.

Believe it or not, I have more quotes to share later. I think this post has gone on quite long enough.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tribute to Brian Jacques

Thanks to fellow blogger, The Ink Slinger, I heard about the death of Brian Jacques. There's a sweet tribute at the Rabbit Room about this celebrated children's author. If you've never heard of him, the article describes him pretty well. When my children were small we loved the Redwall books. Our favorites were the audiobooks from the library that were narrated by Jacques himself. What a treat!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Books to Read in the Wilderness

In addition to being a very physically active man, Theodore Roosevelt was a voracious reader and writer. I was amazed at the number of books he and his party lugged through the jungle. Below are a few of his journal entries from Through the Brazilian Wilderness. Please note that the parenthetical explanations are mine.

“A party such as ours always needs books… I strove to supply the deficiency with spare volumes of Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – six volumes). At the end of our march we were usually far ahead of the mule train, and the rain was also usually falling. Accordingly we would sit about under trees, or under a shed or lean-to, if there was one, each solemnly reading a volume of Gibbon—and no better reading can be found. In my own case, as I had been having rather a steady course of Gibbon, I varied him now and then with a volume of Arsene Lupin (French crime fiction) lent me by Kermit.”

Later he wrote, “Some of us read books. Colonel Rondon, neat, trim, alert, and soldierly, studied a standard work on applied geographical astronomy. Father Zahm read a novel by Fogazzaro (Italian). Kermit read Camoens (Portuguese poet) and a couple of Brazilian novels, O Guarani and Innocencia. My own reading varied from Quentin Durward (by Sir Walter Scott) and Gibbon to the “Chanson de Roland” (French epic poem).”

Other books mentioned: Thomas a Kempis, Oxford Book of French Verse, La Fontaine, and Victor Hugo’s Guitare. If you read my review last week, you’ll know that Roosevelt’s expedition was no picnic. He must have been pretty determined to drag those books around. I love peaking into people’s libraries, don’t you?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt

In Through the Brazilian Wilderness Teddy Roosevelt chronicles his travels through unchartered territory in Western Brazil. Roosevelt, along with his son, Kermit, and several naturalists from the American Museum of Natural History joined Colonel Cândido Rondon, a Brazilian explorer on his scientific expedition to discover the source of a previously unknown river.

I was very interested in TR’s story because I’ve lived in the part of Brazil where his journey began. I recognized some of the city names and most of the animals he mentions. But I wondered if some of the details might be dull for someone with less knowledge of the area. Also, I felt severely handicapped by the Kindle version of this book because there was no map and I would very much have liked to have seen exactly where they were at specific times.

The trip fulfilled two purposes. The naturalists collected specimens for the museum: 2,500 birds and 500 mammals. (Amazing in light of the many laws in place to preserve Brazilian wildlife today.) The other purpose was for Rondon and company to travel up the unexplored river and chart it on a map for the first time. Roosevelt wrote:

We did not know whether we had one hundred or eight hundred kilometers to go, whether, the stream would be fairly smooth or whether we would encounter waterfalls, or rapids, or even some big marsh or lake. We could not tell whether or not we would meet hostile Indians, although no one of us ever went ten yards from camp without his rifle. We had no idea how much time the trip would take. We had entered a land of unknown possibilities.

At first the journal was a dull routine of animals seen and miles travelled. Halfway through the trip they reached some rapids that were impossible to descend. The canoes had to be unloaded and the baggage carried by land to the bottom of the next calm spot in the river. Then they were reloaded and the group went down the river for a few miles until the whole process had to be repeated over again. The action picked up as canoes were lost, a man is killed, Kermit almost drowns, and Teddy becomes ill with a life-threatening fever.

After two months in canoes (Feb 27 to April 26, 1914), their mission was accomplished. They had put a 600 mile river on the map which had previously been unknown. The unofficial name for it was “The River of Doubt”, but by the end of the grueling trip, it was dubbed “The Roosevelt River”.

Final note of interest: If you type in River of Doubt on youtube, you can see several short, silent movies of the expedition.