Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Read Any Good Books Lately?

I'm afraid I've been kinda' stacked up when it comes to book discussions in recent days. In fact, I’ve had three of these meetings in two weeks and, because of a rather hectic schedule, I have had the rare misfortune of missing one of them altogether. That discussion was over Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, August's book selection of our longstanding (and outstanding too!) monthly literary club, the Notting Hill Napoleons.

North and South is a Victorian novel of manners but with a serious reform-minded perspective, not too surprising from a woman whose professional start came via Charles Dickens. But alas, hardly having gotten into the novel, I cannot give any personal comment on it. And, as is my custom on those unusual occasions where I have not read the book, I disqualified myself from attending last Saturday night’s discussion. Oh yeah; I know that many members of book clubs in America do not consider actually reading the selected book necessary for attendance. But still, my own scruples will not allow me to attend empty-headed…well, any more than usual anyhow.

(An aside here --Scruples is an interesting word, mysterious even, for it derives from the Latin word scrupulus -- a small stone. Cicero is the first we know to use it in a way relating to conscience, many say suggesting the discomfort of a pebble in a shoe. But I'm more inclined to think he used it to emphasize a minor pressure on one's conscience as opposed to a weightier, more serious feeling of guilt. After all, we still speak of "something weighing on my conscience" or "I felt as if a huge weight was lifted from me" and so on. But scrupulus is a diminutive word, meaning a smaller version of the normal word for a sharp stone, scrupus. I think Cicero deliberately used the diminutive in order to describe that niggling pang of conscience that one can "shrug off" rather than the deeper guilt which leads to sorrow and repentance.)

Anyway, back to my theme...

I don't know if I missed much in not reading Elizabeth Gaskell. From what Claire told me, the consensus of the Napoleons was that it was but a modest success. However, I did miss very much the fellowship of the evening. These guys are all dear friends and partners in Christian ministry.

But on a more successful note... The couple of weeks preceding the literary club meeting did bring two terrific books and subsequent discussions my way. One was the pleasure of discussing G.K. Chesterton’s novel of 1904 (his first) which was The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Yes, that's the source for the name of our book club and, as yet, it stands as the only book in our 13-year history that we have re-read as one of our monthly choices. This time around though, The Napoleon of Notting Hill was the selection for our bi-monthly meeting of the Omaha Chesterton Society. The second book was The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis, the next in line of Vital Signs Ministries' ongoing Book It! project.

Regarding our Chesterton group, it was a bit smaller than usual but a great time was still had by all, including Sr. Rita, who laughingly testified that our selection was the only Chesterton book that turned her off. “I didn’t like it at the beginning; I didn’t like it at the end; and I didn’t like it in the middle!” So, take that, Gilbert!

There’s definitely some reason behind Sr. Rita's negative reaction because Chesterton’s early novels, especially this one and The Man Who Was Thursday, do create problems even for his most enthusiastic fans. For in those days, Chesterton was still a young man and inexperienced as a writer of fiction. The immaturity of his understanding of Christianity also comes into play. It shouldn't be surprising then that it takes some time for him to really hit his stride.

Still, we’re talking about Chesterton, one of the most insightful, exuberant and talented wordsmiths of the 20th Century and so even his early works are treasures in their own right. Not fully developed, but still witty and colorful adventures which bring forth many profound ideas and always uniquely phrased. Thus, the others gathered that evening could sympathize a bit with Sr. Rita's good-natured dismissal of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, but they still found more than enough in the novel to make it an enjoyable and even inspirational experience.

The primary subjects explored in The Napoleon of Notting Hill are courage, chivalry, patriotism and idealism. It is a fantasy novel, an exaggerated martial adventure which sees the boroughs of London pitted in deadly warfare against each other. It contains humor and high farce yet, like Chesterton does in all genres, he uses this wild, futuristic novel to make very serious points about the English practices of his own day, including British imperialism. Indeed, The Napoleon of Notting Hill served as a strong influence on such revolutionaries as Michael Collins and Mohandas Ghandi. Another point -- the emphasis on local patriotism in the novel sheds light on GK’s love of Europe’s chivalrous sentiments of the past, sentiments which would later be used even in shaping his economic philosophy of Distributism.

So, risking a knock on the head from Sr. Rita, I must say that The Napoleon of Notting Hill gives the reader some wildly unique characters, an ingenious and adventurous plot, and that masterful use of the English language at which GK Chesterton is paramount. And it gives even more than that. Read it...and like several of us have...read it again and again.

The second book read and discussed in the last couple of weeks was also one of the earliest works of its author, C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism. This isn’t an easy book to read (like most carefully constructed literature, none of Lewis' are) but it is certainly worthwhile for all believers. And yes, for skeptics too. It is an especially valuable read for anyone interested in Christian apologetics (of a unique sort) for Lewis’ fiction, of course, isn’t really fiction at all – it is preaching, but using a distinctive approach that Lewis pulls off better than anyone.

The Pilgrim’s Regress is part autobiography, part allegory (using John Bunyan as a rough precursor), part apologetics and part artistic exploration. And while the arguments within can be a little obtuse for those without the basics of philosophy, they are still quite illuminating to all. Like all great books, it teaches you an awful lot -- including teaching you what you don't know so you are motivated to go make up for those deficiencies!

A second problem in The Pilgrim's Regress can come from an under-appreciation of Lewis’ remarkable insights into the human need for romance. But in most versions of the book you'll find available today, there is included a preface written by Lewis 10 years after the book’s first publication. In that preface, he gives an expanded definition of just what he means by "romance." That is very helpful.

So, even if you’re a novice at philosophy and even if you do not completely track with Lewis’ fascination with the “intense longing” of the soul, you may find the book (as did all of those present for the discussion: Walt, Mary, Chet, Matt, Sandy, Quint and the Hartfords) of remarkable interest and power. I'll go so far as saying that you may find The Pilgrim’s Regress one of Lewis’ most outstanding works. It is easily one of the most appealing, honest, and insightful books ever written about “the process" of conversion.

I have read C.S. Lewis pretty consistently since my own conversion to Christianity 36 years ago. But this was my first time reading The Pilgrim’s Regress. It will not be the last. I found it every bit as captivating and wise as my heretofore favorites: Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man and Screwtape Letters...and, oh yes, Miracles.

So, there you have it -- I missed out on the Elizabeth Gaskell discussion (my bad) but I’m so pleased I managed to get in on the other two – GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill and C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress.

Good books and good friends to share them with – this only is a taste of heaven.

By the way, if you're looking for nice paperback copies of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man Who Was Thursday, or many other Chesterton books, why not order them from the American Chesterton Society? Scroll down this page a little ways and you'll find what you need.