Read, Write, Think

Recently, I was uncomfortably challenged when I read this quotation by Malcolm Cowley about writing: “Writers often speak of ‘saving their energy,’ as if each man were given a nickel’s worth of it, which he is at liberty to spend. To me, the mind of the poet resembles Fortunatus’s purse: The more spent, the more it supplies.” Cowley’s words challenged me for the very reason that I tend to hold a to a tacit, logically inexplicable view of my powers of expression (such as they may be) as a finite resource. I used to have a similar idea—albeit an unexamined one—about reading in that, when I began to especially love a book, I always began to read it exponentially more slowly. I suppose I felt that, the better and more worthwhile a book was, the longer I ought to savor it.

A few of the books on my shelf.

Certainly there’s an element of truth to such an idea. As Francis Bacon once said, “Some books are to be tasted, other to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” My problem, however, is in discerning which books are in those elite few who deserve “to be ready wholly.” It’s also helpful for me to remember that, even if I misjudge a book at first and don’t read it thoroughly enough, I can always re-read it more fully; the important thing is to begin.

Although I know it would behoove me to write more, I also realize that in order to write well, one must read voraciously. Such a recognition pricks my conscience a bit since I have not, of late, been as disciplined as I ought to have been about making time for vigorous, intensive reading outside of class assignments. And as one professor is oft-reminding me, college is not about pedagogy (a basic transfer of spoon-fed knowledge); but is rather andragogy, with professors in the role of inspiring guides. Thus, if our view of college is simply that of fulfilling the minimum requirements necessary to get an “A” in a class (though, granted, doing so is hardly an easy feat at Erskine), our vision for education becomes limited and stultifying. Admittedly, deep, intentional intellectual exploration requires generous amounts of time, and that is something hard to come by in college. Anything of value, though, is worth striving for.

With friends as the Sigma Tau Delta English Convention I attended in New Orleans last month. Conversations there often centered on literature and ideas...so fun!

I’m always amused by Benjamin Franklin’s quip that “[r]eading feeds the brain. It is evident that most minds are starving to death.” Franklin was, of course, speaking in a cultural and historical context in which American society was perhaps at the peak of its literacy—or at any rate, the peak of actual, meaningful literacy rather than the mere functional literacy so sadly common today. The fact that he thought that many minds were so starved in the nineteenth century begs the question of what he would say were he to visit our current image-centered culture. If you’re interested in thinking through the differences between a culture dominated by the printed word as opposed to one pervaded by the visual (often to the exclusion of much meaningful engagement with  written language), I would highly recommend Neil Postman’s seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death. Lest I sound too polemical, I should perhaps mention that I enjoy a good movie as much as the next person. I think it is vital, though, that we use and appreciate technology as a tool rather than allowing it to dominate or control us due to a failure to examine its implications.

Of course, if one is taking a challenging load of classes and aims to make good grades, the dilemma over how to approach technology and entertainment is largely simplified. The reason for this simplification is that if one regularly spends large amounts of time on Facebook, watching TV, or playing video games, good grades will all too quickly become nothing but a figment of the imagination. Most college students I know say they just don’t have time to watch more than the occasional TV show on the weekend. And really, I don’t think we’re missing too much. So pick up a book (or a book on CD, for that matter), set to work, and think! You might fight it more refreshing than you’d expect.

The Company of Books

Now that J-term is over, I spent a couple of days at school last weekend, and then headed home on Monday for an extended J-term break.  My sister and I both finished our classes early, so we are enjoying a full week at home, sitting outside in the beautiful Charleston weather and catching up on everything that seems to get neglected while at college.  First on my list: Reading.

Some of my J-term Break reading that I have been enjoying.

There is a permanent pile of books sitting on my shelf that I am dying to read or re-read (usually for the past few years), but during the semester there are always textbooks and novels to read, essays to write, projects to plan, laundry accumulating, and so many tasks that accumulate.  But in those precious days of vacation between semesters, I have hours to pick up and enjoy these dear friends that have been neglected for too long.  What can be better than a few hours sprawled out on your bed, lost in a novel?  Or savoring an anthology of your favorite poet, discovering new meanings in your old favorites?  And even delving more frequently into The Book – isn’t it comforting to be able to sit down and get a good message out of a Bible reading and study?  Ah, c’est la vie.

Another thing that I have discovered to be quite enjoyable, despite my lack of great enthusiasm about technology, is following a couple of blogs.  Although I am far from a faithful reader to any, I have a few bookmarked on my computer that are written by friends, and I enjoy catching up on then once in a while.  For example, one is a first year teacher, like my older sister, so it is fun to compare their experiences.  Another is a recently graduated friend who is very artistic and musical, so I like to see her projects and get some good suggestions for new music.  Also, as various acquaintances at Erskine go abroad, I find it especially exciting to follow their adventures in England, Spain, France, or elsewhere – especially after having such a great experience abroad, myself.

Finally, there is a wealth of news and information to read on the internet.  Catching up on current events – something I do not leave myself much time for at school – and reading articles is a great use of a few spare minutes.  My dad often sends me interesting articles to read on npr.org, my sister does the same with cnn.com, and I have a few of my own sites that I frequent, one of my favorites being earthsky.org (I always had a curiosity for science, especially astronomy).

Just a few days left!  Imagine all the quality time I can fill reading in those many, free hours

Just One Reason Erskine is Special…

In the nearby village of Elche, Spain…in a bookstore. You can always spot a humanities major.

If you’re either around college-age or have a student who’s beginning to look at schools, you’ve probably spent at least some time researching and visiting different universities, weighing the respective pros and cons of the institutions that interest you. One factor which I know I took into account when I was looking at schools is the difference in the number of resources found at a large university as opposed to a smaller one. I worried that, were I to go to a small college, I would be missing out if I didn’t have access to everything made available by a large university. Certainly, such a wealth of resources—primarily in the form of enormous libraries—is an extremely valuable asset. What I’ve found since coming to Erskine, however, is that, thanks to incredible librarians and a well-oiled interlibrary loan system, I never have trouble obtaining exactly the resources I need, no matter how specific or obscure the topic I’m researching.

Today, I saw a bit of the flip-side of the research process that I’ve become familiar with at Erskine when I made my first foray into the world of researching at a large university. Before I comment on this experience, I should note that I don’t mean in any way to disparage the University of Alicante by doing so—I am greatly enjoying my classes at the university, and all of my experiences and professors thus far have been excellent! It’s just that, my time in the library this morning helped me see that “the grass is always greener” is an adage because we often don’t fully appreciate the good things we have. You see, when I walked into the huge, multi-level library and saw the shelves upon shelves of books, I was enchanted. Had I gone to a huge school, such copious amounts of resources might have been at my fingertips as well. (Of course, such resources are at my fingertips within three to five days of requesting them from WorldCat…but the green monster is rare
ly logical.) I then commenced searching for books on the topics on which I plan to write my final essays. And gracious, I couldn’t seem to find anything. This was probably at least partly due to my unfamiliarity with the system of book cataloguing used in Spain (which, like measurements, temperature, and classroom numbers, is completely different from that used in the US). Nevertheless, I was quite disheartened to discover that the books I needed were scattered all throughout the vast library building and that some apparently weren’t even in the same building where I was seated. Sigh.

Inside the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid

So I did what I usually do when I’m confused (which, of course, happens only *cough* very rarely): I asked for help. Walking up to one of the librarians, I was met with what can only be described as something of a grimace. She explained—in rapid Spanish—where I could find the list of books I’d compiled and seemed quite annoyed when asked for further clarification on where the basement and the Law Library were. Later, after I finally wandered back to the front desk on that particular floor, I asked the other librarian on duty if I could check my books out then. Only, as I quailed a bit under his scowl, my Spanish vocabulary seemed to vaporize, and I stumbled over my words a bit before being told, rather gruffly, that I could check books out on the first floor. All that to say, the librarians were reasonably cordial, if not friendly, and answered my questions. But as I walked out of the library thinking that I would prefer to just do my research online, I couldn’t hel
p but think how spoiled I am to walk into McCain Library in Due West and to unfailingly be given swift, one-on-one assistance by one of Erskine’s well-versed keepers-of-the-books (surely “librarian” is too mundane a name for such an important job?). I’m not sure that the contrast between that possibility of “being a number” at a large university and the personal, close-knit-community feel I’ve come to enjoy at Erskine have ever seemed quite so stark to me. That’s not in any way to say that one can’t thrive in either a small-school or large-school setting or that each type of school doesn’t have its charms… I just happen to really appreciate my Erskine family and am thankful that God has placed me in it!

View of the beach beside my house in Alicante

In the end, when I arrived back at my piso (apartment) and attempted to use the online Erskine journal database, I discovered to my consternation that I couldn’t seem to log onto the website. Of course, considering that there are a number of US websites that are not accessible from overseas, I wasn’t particularly surprised, but I figured I would email one of the librarians at Erskine to ask about my difficulty. I also mentioned, in my query, the topics I was attempting to research. And what do you think I found in my inbox only hours later? The news that the aforementioned librarian had entered my student ID into the system and that I should now have access to Erskine’s databases AND (get this), a flood of academic articles on the topics I had mentioned in passing. Wow. All the way from Spain, I felt so blessed. And now, I’ve got some reading to do.

Musings in Spain

One thing I’ve loved about being in Spain has been the relatively extensive amount of time I have here to read, study, and contemplate. Granted, I miss all of the Erskine fellowship, activities, and other commitments that fill my time when I’m at school in the US. It’s been quite refreshing, however, to have a season much more conducive to studying certain topics more deeply, with the time to follow intellectual rabbit trails that peak my interest. At the moment, for example, I’m reading Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, a 6th century work of philosophy that had a huge impact on the development of the Western tradition and is referenced by later authors like Dante and Chaucer. Although this ancient work of philosophy in not written from a specifically Christian perspective, God is often referenced, and I’ve been fascinated to note how closely much of the wisdom contained therein parallels the truths of Scripture.

This weekend, a friend from Erskine who's currently studying at Oxford came to visit me and Lisa! We had fun, and we even made time to go to the Alicante "mercadillo" (Saturday market), pictured here.

It has also been interesting to note how pertinent Boethius’s musings are to the twenty-first century world of pluralism and moral relativism in which we live. For example, he declares that, “If God exists, whence comes evil? Yet whence comes good, if He exists not?” Here, in this sixth century classic, a philosopher wrestles with the problem of evil, which a number of friends her in Spain have pointed to as a reason for disbelief. And yet, Boethius concludes that, yes, the fallen nature of our world is puzzling; but that, apart from some outside standard, our innate concept of “good” and “evil” makes no sense. If there is no God, we have no ground to stand on from which to condemn heinous acts, and this absence of an outside standard would inevitably lead to nihilism if we were intellectually honest.

Joseph, Lisa, and I enjoyed catching up over coffee...three friends talking about Due West, SC in a Spanish panadería. Who would've thought?

Boethius also remarks that, “whenever a man by proclaiming his good deeds receives the recompense of fame, he diminishes in a measure the secret reward of a good conscience”, which echoes the Scriptural truth that, “when [we] give to the needy”, we are “not [to] announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Mark 6:2). I also love the beauty of the author’s words as he addresses Lady Philosophy, albeit in the midst of his distress over being unjustly accused of treason: “Is this the library, the room which thou hadst chosen as thy constant resort in my home, the place where we so often sat together and held discourse of all things in heaven and earth? …thou didst trace for me with thy wand the courses of the stars, moulding the while my character and the whole conduct of my life after that patter of the celestial order…”

Anyway, back to Spain. A troubling dilemma that I’ve encountered since arriving is the question of how much I can reasonably cart back to the US. Namely, how many books will fit in my suitcase, along with all of my clothing and other necessities (oh, and a souvenir or two), without pushing it over the highly unrealistic weight limit (*cough*, please don’t report me to American Airlines). I empathize greatly with a remark of Ben House’s that I read the other day on the one of my favorite blogs, the Grantian Florilegium. This is his confession: “I start more books than I finish. I buy more than I start. I forget much of what I read… Mornings begin with reading and coffee. My light cannot go out without at least a few minutes to read at the end of the day. Beside my bed stand a dangerous leaning tower—the great mass of unfinished volumes looming over my bed.” I just hooted when I read this, because—as my family will tell you—I’m the same way. The only problem
is that I cannot realistically transport a mini-library across the Atlantic Ocean in my limit-of-fifty-pounds suitcase. My solution? I’ve borrowed books and gone to the library. Of course, as with Ben, my bibliophilic enthusiasm has rather outstripped my ability to read rapidly (especially in Spanish). Consequently, I have far more books in my room at the moment than I can possibly finish in a semester…and I only have four weeks left. I can hardly believe it! How time does fly.

A few of the books on my shelf...