Category Archives: Summer reading

Summer dreams

Standing in front of the stove, stirring the chopped chinese cabbages and carrots and garlic and ginger in the biggest frying pan, I think to myself: Oh I remember that place where I…. But it was a dream, not a memory: a dream place in which I wandered sometime last night while lying in bed.

Books make dreams even stronger in summertime:

A hymn to Agni, god and priest of fire, that I read in the Rig Veda comes back as people in a mysterious place that is part building and part woods.

The story about a library with no end becomes a waking dream, a poem that makes me interrupt cooking in order to write it down.

Perry Mason the amazing attorney is in my dreams, or is it his secretary Della Street, or I am detective Paul Drake.

The dreams fade into the early morning light that I never see because I stay up late into the night reading.

The dreams return at the oddest moments, a flash, then they fade. Sometimes I have to put down a book because of such a strong thought, which I think I should write down, but then I don’t, and when I next think of it, it’s gone; or was it only a dream thought that I thought I had thought?

Summer is rooted in the earthy carrots, grounded in the solid chinese cabbage that we bought at the farmer’s market in Davis Square. But summer fades into the nothingness of airy dusk when dreams return to you as you sit nodding there on the front porch reading.

Swallows and Amazons

In the book Swallows and Amazons, four children from a 1930’s upper middle class English family spend their summer holiday on an unnamed lake in England’s Lake District. Roger is the youngest at 7, and John is the oldest at about 12; Susan is about 10 and Titty (an unfortunate name for today’s readers) is about 8. Their father is in the Navy, and their mother lets the four of them sail off in a small sailboat named “Swallow” so that they can camp out on an island in the middle of the lake.

Soon they meet two other children, the sisters Nancy (age 13) and Peggy (age 12), who fly the Jolly Roger from the mast of their own small boat, which is named “Amazon.” The six children become friends, although their friendship includes skirmishes and a naval war, and the rest of their summer is shaped by the boats they sail.

One of the highest values these children hold is to be good sailors. The younger children, Roger and Titty, long to be allowed to take the tiller of “Swallow.” The crews of the Swallow and the Amazon watch each other’s ability closely, and of course they race each other. The next highest value these children hold is self-sufficiency. They camp out on the island, cook for themselves, and do their best to take care of themselves. It may be that these two values, self-sufficiency and good sailing, cannot be separated for these particular children: to have the responsibility of sailing a small boat is to learn self-sufficiency. At least one organization in Boston, Community Boating, believes this to be true, and offers children (even those who can’t afford it) the opportunity to learn how to sail on the Charles River Basin.

No need to tell you all the adventures the children have. Suffice it to say that all their adventures, while fictional, could be true; everything they do is something that children of their age could manage, including living on their own in the outdoors for a week. These are not carefully protected children of 21st C. North American suburbia; these are children who are expected to learn how to take care of themselves. You can’t help but notice the influence that the ideals of British Empire have on these children, and some will reject the children’s self-sufficiency on that score.

(More astute readers might suspect that Empire is living on in these children’s play in the same way that the ravages of the Plague live on in the game “Ring-around the Rosy.” Better to play at departed Empire, if it leads a child to self-sufficiency and a love of the outdoors, than to play at video-games, which will be a useful skill once the child grows up and joins the United States military, but which will ultimately lead only to dependency and slothfulness, and a lack of competence at living outdoors.)

Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, wrote a dozen other related books with the same characters. Speaking of the ones I have read, Ransome’s books seem to me to encourage children’s self-sufficiency without resorting to the pyrotechnics of, say, Harry Potter. If you have children, have them read Swallows and Amazons now, and deal with the longing for small boats later.

The book is still in print, and I found my paperback copy in the “Harvard Book Store”: Link. Another bookstore, “Curious George Goes to Wordsworth,” tries to keep all twelve volumes of the series in stock in their Cambridge, Mass., store (but call them for mail-order, because not all their books are availabel through their Web site): Link. One of the mangers of “Curious George Goes to Wordsworth” told me that the distributor thinks the books look “too old-fashioned” and doesn’t always keep them in stock, so the bookstore may have to back-order individual volumes now and then.

There is also a fan club for those who like Swallows and Amazons: Link.

Post revised August 20, 2006.

The Case of the Amazing Attorney

The Hero has to wend his way through the snares and traps of untruthful witnesses, past clients who would throw him to the Wolves, and find the path that leads to Truth and Justice. With him is the Heroine, always calm and capable, ready to do battle beside the Hero at a moment’s notice. They are accompanied by the Sidekick, never as brave as the Hero but competent and completely honest. Cornered by the bear-like Adversary, the Hero triumphs at the last minute, finding truth and saving the Beautiful Maiden from disgrace and death.

It sounds like something Joseph Campbell might have written, but of course it’s only a description of the typical Perry Mason novel. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 85 books featuring the amazing attorney, his saucy secretary Della Street, and the dogged detective Paul Drake. The books are potboilers so devoid of literary merit that they are unlikely to ever be assigned in a high school English class. Yet millions of copies have been sold, starting with the first book in 1933 and continuing to the present day.

Two days ago, I went down to the Harvard Book Store to browse through their used book section in the basement, and I found a paperback copy of The Case of the Crooked Candle first published in 1944. At the cash register, the young woman checking me out looked like the typical bookish person who works at the Harvard Book Store. But she didn’t comment on the Daniel Pinkwater young adult novel I purchased, nor did she notice that I had the classic two-volume Sources of Indian Tradition, nor did she say anything about The Cornel West Reader.

When she got to The Case of the Crooked Candle, she looked me in the eye and smiled. “Perry Mason!” she said delightedly. “They say that they’re going to put out the entire television series on DVD!”

“You mean the original one, in black and white?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said. “I hope they do put it out on DVD, I’m going to buy it and watch them. I love Perry Mason!”

The literary snobs may turn up their noses at Perry Mason, but book store employees don’t give John Updike that many exclamation points. The literary snobs relish stories of grim truth and reality that reflect the sordid life that they believe we all live. Little do they know that most of us live partway inside the Realm of the Collective Unconscious, where they take part in the eons-old battle against Evil, and against Untruth.

I have tried reading Updike’s novels, but find them inexpressibly dreary. Indeed, I have mostly given up on reading fiction. Why should I read something someone has made up? — I’d rather read about things that really have happened. Maybe that’s why I continue to read Perry Mason novels:– they’re fiction, but Perry Mason is also the Hero, the Jungian figure who stalks through the Collective Unconscious righting wrongs and saving the day. That’s about as true as you can get.

As for The Case of the Crooked Candle, suffice it to say that the murder takes place on a yacht that is moored in shallow water. The crooked candle lead Perry Mason to unravel the true solution to the murder. And at the end of the book, after Mason reveals the solution to Della Street, Paul Drake, and his clients Roger and Carol Burbank, the phone in his office rings….

Mason nodded to Della. She picked up the receiver, listened a moment, then placed her hand over the mouthpiece.

“Chief, there’s a blonde woman out there with a black eye who says she has to see you at once. Gertie [the receptionist] says she’s terribly upset and she’s afraid she’ll have hysterics if…”

“Show her into the law library,” Mason said. “I’ll talk with her there. While I’m doing that, you can get a check from Mr. Burbank payable to Adelaide Kingman for one hundred thousand bucks. You’ll excuse me, I know. An hysterical blonde with a black eye would seem to be an emergency case, at least an interesting one — The Case of the Black Eyed Blonde.”

So the Hero ends one adventure, and immediately sets out on the next one….

The Man with the Beautiful Voice

Lillian B. Rubin is a psychotherapist who believes that psychotherapy is not quite so scientific as its practitioners sometimes claim. She writes:

In reality,… psychotherapy is a cross between science and art in which science holds sway over thought, art over practice.It can lay claim to science only if science is defined most broadly — an endeavor that proceeds from a theoretical model to the generation of hypotheses that can be tested in practice. But given that the “testing” is done by therapists who work unobserved behind closed doors, women and men who bring with them their own problems and their own unique ways of seeing and hearing, the tests are not and never can be the controlled, systematic, and rigorous inquiries that science requires.

Thus Rubin wrote this book. The Man with the Beautiful Voice: And More Stories from the Other Side of the Couch (Boston: Beacon, 2003) presents case studies of six of Rubin’s patients. Except these are too well-written and thoughtful to be mere case studies. Instead, Rubin’s work rises to the level of documentary non-fiction: she honestly records her real-life experiences, combining the art and science of psychotherapy with the deep humanity of a good writer.

In my favorite chapter, “Watching and Waiting,” a “quintessentially yuppie” couple comes to Rubin for counseling. Valerie opens right up and tells Rubin about herself, and about her perception of the problems she and Richard are having. But Richard is cool and almost unflappable. This continues for weeks, until Rubin finally tells the couple that because they’re not getting anywhere — because Richard is unwilling to participate in therapy fully — it’s time for them all to take a break from the therapy.

I was sure this was going to be another story about how upper middle class white men can block off their emotions and hide themselves away. But then the plot takes an extraordinarily surprising turn. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, but before she’s done Rubin has to push the boundaries of professional standards for couples counseling, while Richard and Valerie have to push far beyond what they thought were the boundaries of their relationship.

But this book has more than just good stories. Some of Rubin’s stories raise profound issues, like whether or not forgiveness is always possible. In one chapter, “To Live or To Die,” a young man talks about how his father hit him, and then says he cannot forgive his father:

“If you really want to know, I don’t give a damn whether he lived or died. And don’t tell me I should feel sorry for him because he was nuts. Forget it! I don’t want to hear any of that forgiveness crap…. See this scar,” he said, pointing to the gash on his face, his voice tight with rage, “he gave me this….”

…I [continues Rubin], who have written about the tyranny of the belief, preached so insistently by our twin gods, religion and psychology, that only in forgiveness will we find healing. In fact, some things are unforgivable, high among them parents who seriously abuse the children they’re supposed to love and protect….

The plot of this chapter is suspenseful and tragic. But good stories need more than a good plot: good stories need some meaty thinking about big issues, like whether or not forgiveness is possible or even a good thing.

Rubin writes good nonfiction stories about real people facing real problems. One of two of the chapters are a little trite, but generally she manages to transcend the jargon and limited moral and philosophical compass of most writing on psychotherapy. Believe it or not, this would make good beach reading (better yet, I got my remaindered copy at the Harvard Bookstore in Harvard Square for $4.99, which is cheaper than a Stephen King or Danielle Steele novel).

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart

In No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice, Tom Slee looks at how games theory and the theory of freedom of choice underlie most current economic thinking. Slee gives examples of how both liberal and conservative politicians in the English-speaking world hold up freedom of choice as an ideal to strive towards. But, says Slee, freedom of choice has some unrecognized effects, and he offers a wealth of entertaining examples of how freedom of choice in fact do not give us what we want.

In one example at the beginning of the book, Slee shows how the freedom to choose to shop at Wal-Mart is good for consumers at first, but then leads to less happiness for the consumer. Before Wal-Mart opens, a hypothetical person named Jack enjoys shopping at two downtown department stores: Jack gets reasonable selection and price, the variety of shopping at two stores, and the pleasure of a thriving downtown neighborhood that he gets to walk through every day on his way to work.

Then Wal-Mart opens, and now Jack’s life is lots better: now he has three stores to choose from and even better pricing because of the competition from Wal-Mart, even more variety since there are three stores to choose from and Wal-Mart is even bigger than either department store, and he still gets the pleasure of a thriving downtown. Obviously, Jack chooses to shop at Wal-Mart because it improves his life.

Improves his life, that is, until the two downtown department stores close because they can’t compete with Wal-Mart: now Jack has less variety than before Wal-Mart arrived, less variety, and little pleasure in the now-deserted downtown. Even though Jack made rational choices, Slee writes:

In the beginning Jack made a choice that he believed would make him happier, but now he finds that he is less happy…. His tale embodies the frustrating predicaments that many of us face. We have the right to make choices, and we make them sensibly, like Jack did, and yet that is not enough to lead to a happy outcome.

While we might word it a little differently, those of us in the religion business know all about this predicament. In the context of my own religious frame of reference, I might say something like: Tempting as it may be to do so, we can never make choices based simply on our own personal happiness — we always have to consider a bigger picture that includes our convenantal bonds with the wider community, particularly our covenantal bonds with those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and our covenantal bonds with (the highest ideals of humanity)(God) [pick at least one].

Slee’s book goes much deeper than the Wal-Mart example. In one of my favorite passages, Slee refers to the work of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter:

Heath and Potter go on to make a provocative claim: that many of the supposedly anti-capitalist counterculture movements of the last 40 or 50 years have actually done more to promote capitalism than to oppose it. They argue that many on the “countercultural left” have misunderstood the nature of the consumerism they oppose, believing that consumerism is all about conformity (“little boxes made of ticky-tacky and they all look the same”) when in fact modern capitalism thrives on selling goods that allow people to distinguish themselves….

Here again, individual choice doesn’t necessarily lead to the end result desired by the individual making the choice. Here again, no surprise to anyone in the religion business, since we have long known that simply being countercultural isn’t enough.

I can’t resist mentioning that “freedom of choice” has become a watchword within my own denomination. The Unitarian Universalist Association has recently been trumpeting “freedom of choice” in the realm of placing ministers in congregations. We’ve gotten rid of the old system where denominational officials would send a short list of ministerial candidates to a congregation searching for a minister, based on a perceived match between ministers’ abilities and congregations’ needs. Now the whole process is open, and congregations can chase down whichever minister they choose, and ministers can apply for whichever congregation they please. Freedom of choice instead of some pseudo-bishop constraining choices. Everybody’s happy, right?

Wrong. Older, more experienced ministers now find that it’s harder to get a position, women are still not getting most of the highest-paid positions (even though they comprise half of all our ministers now), and I’d be willing to bet that ministers who are not white find it very difficult to find positions in the rich white suburbs. In a few years, we could find ourselves with increasing discrimination against women ministers, older ministers, and non-white ministers. Contrast this to what some United Methodist bishops are doing: deliberately placing white ministers in predominantly non-white congregations, and vice versa, in order to promote the religious values of true equality.

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice could be a very useful book to promote reflection among people of faith who might want a little critical analysis of the seductive pull of “freedom of choice.”

Summer reading

A new category on this blog is “Summer reading,” short critical summaries of what I’m reading this summer. They’re classified under the general heading of “Meditations” because for me reading is an act of meditation. For some people, meditation involves emptying the mind, but for me religion has to include serious thinking. Since ancient times, Christians have done what is called “lectio divina,” or “divine reading,” reading the scriptures as a way of prayer. I’d like to think that “scriptures” can mean more than just the Bible; I’d include the scriptures and basic texts of all the world’s great religions, commentaries on those scripts, works of theology and philosophy, and really any poetry and prose that invites meditation or thinking, or that just calms me down. But if my reading notes bore you too much, you can just skip over them!

Religious Naturalism

One of the papers that’s on my summer reading list is “Religious Naturalism in a Unitarian Universalist Context,” a paper presented at General Assembly under the auspices of Collegium, June 23, 2006, by Jerome A. Stone [full text]. Here’s a short critical summary of my reading:–

“Naturalism,” according to Jerry Stone, is a “set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world.” Stone says that naturalism rules out an “ontologically distinct and superior realm.” Religious naturalism, of course, concerns the religious aspects of this world “which can be appreciated within a naturalistic framework.” [p. 2]

Religious naturalism is of particular interest to Unitarian Universalists for two reasons. First, there are many people associated with Unitarianism or Unitarian Universalism who can be considered religious naturalists, including: Henry David Thoreau (raised Unitarian), Henry Nelson Weiman (theologian who joined a UU fellowship), Frederick May Eliot (president of the AUA), Stone himself, and others.

Secondly, religious naturalism is a theological position that encompasses both those who include the concept of God, and those who don’t, in their theologies. Many people think that if you believe in God you can’t find common theological ground with those who don’t spend time thinking about God, but religious naturalism proves this need not be so.

Stone identifies three basic types of religious naturalists, and his typology has to do with how different religious naturalists deal with the concept of God.

(1) The first type includes people like Henry Nelson Weiman, and they conceive of God as creative process within the world. Weiman was committed to common sense empirical inquiry and to scientific method. In the context of this kind of inquiry, Weiman wondered what allowed human beings to escape form evil (which we occasionally do manage to do). Weimen felt that individual human beings were not always capable of extricating themselves from evil, but that there was a transformative principle that could and did pull us out of evil. This he called “creative interchange” in his book The Source of Human Good; this he was willing to call by the name “God.”

(2) The second type of religious naturalist considers God to be the totality of the world, considered religiously. Stone gives Bernard Loomer as an example of this type of religious naturalist. In a 1987 essay, Loomer wrote: “If the one world, the experienceable world with its possibilities, is all the reality accessible to us, …then it follows that the being of God must be identified in some sense with the being of the world and its creatures.” Loomer, too, is committed to empirical inquiry as opposed to metaphysical speculation.

Stone believes Loomer coined the phrases “power with” and “power over” (the second phrase implies a relationship wherein one party has the power and uses it to dominate another party; the first phrase implies a relationship where the party with the power shares it with others, thus avoiding domination). Loomer also refers to an inter-connected or interdependent web of existence, and Loomer identifies this interdependent web with the concept of God. Thus, Loomer appears to be somewhat interested in creating a liberative theology.

(3) A third type of religious naturalism sees no need to use the concept or terminology of God. Stone himself is an example of this third type. He writes:

I hold that many events have what could be called a sacred aspect. I am not talking about a being, a separate mind or spirit. I am saying that some things, like justice and human dignity, and the creativity of the natural world, are sacred. This vision is very pluralistic. What degree of unity there is to this plurality I am reverently reluctant to say.

Stone is willing to allow for transcendence, but only relative transcendence. In other words, there isn’t anything that is absolutely transcendent, but in certain situations there are things that surely do feel transcendent. Stone says that if he were forced to choose between humanism and theism, he’d reluctantly choose humanism; but really he’s somewhere in between the two positions. Indeed, he has what he calls a “minimal definition of God” which he uses in ordinary conversation, when leading worship (he’s in fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister), and when talking with other “religious voices.” His minimal definition is as follows: “God is the sum total of the ecosystem, community and person empowering and demanding interactions in the universe.”

In order for me to be interested in a new theological position, I have to be able to understand how it will contribute to liberation. In this short paper, Stone does not adequately go into how religious naturalism might be applied to liberation (perhaps that will be a part of his book-in-process). But Bernard Loomer’s religious naturalism has definite implications for liberation; and Stone’s own religious naturalism could have as well. As attractive as I find religious naturalism to be, I can’t call myself a religious naturalist until I know more about how it will contribute to liberation.

Obscure pleasure

Last month while poking around in a used bookstore in Cambridge, I found an odd little paperback in the mystery section. The cover showed a man sitting on a red hammer and sickle playing a cello, while a malicious-looking face hovered in the air behind him. “The Philomel Foundation,” said the cover, “The exciting debut of the Antiqua Players. By James Gollin.”

First published in 1980 by an obscure press called International Polygonics Limited, the book is a spy novel about an early music ensemble who are recruited by a shadowy foundation to travel to East Germany during the Cold War to help a Soviet dissident escape to the West.

It’s well-written, but a book that injects detailed descriptions of what it’s like to play early music into a Cold War spy thriller can only be called an obscure pleasure. It worked for me, but how many others would wade through passages like this:

After four more bars, I fall out, grab back my alto recorder and rejoin on the top line. For the final repeat, we’re a mixed consort: bass viol, bass recorder, tenor recorder, and wooden flute. Working out all this instrumentation so that it doesn’t sound too choppy or too cute takes hours of rehearsal time….

…in order to get to passages like this:

…When the shot took him he was just starting to inch his way down the slight gradient from the edge of the road into the dry ditch. The force of the bullet shoved him backward into the ditch. His heels caught. He sat down abruptly on the far bank….

I mean, seriously, would you read this book?