Books Read: September 2020

Dear Reader,

I have a short list this month but it includes one long review so I thought I would go ahead and publish it.

September 2020

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope — Another long audio book finished. This is my third Trollope novel and while it was not bad it was probably my least favorite thus far. The length is perhaps part of the issue; this is certainly a long one. It reminds me a lot of the other long book I listened to this year: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Both are set in Britain in the 1800s and feature lots of couples and their romantic angst as well as some cultural/political issues. There was a character in this one who reminded me very much of a modern political figure (read it and guess who) which added some interest value. There were lots of love triangles in this one, particularly featuring a woman torn between a man she is attracted to/loves and one that seems more suitable. The triangles didn’t always resolve the same way and I wasn’t always pleased with the end results. Not the best book but not the worst. I wouldn’t rush to read it but it was pleasant enough.

The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, & Everyone In-Between by Abigail Marsh — I had heard Marsh speak about her work two or three times before and wanted to get the long version. Marsh is a professor of psychology and neuroscience and a researcher in those areas. Her work is fascinating and there is a lot to think about here. I plan to write  a longer post on it once I think of how to respond. For now I will say that Marsh approaches her subject from a purely scientific point of view. She leaves no space for the spiritual here and so her take would not be that of a Christian. Yet her subject is very much about good and evil and where they come from and how we respond to them. So I think there is a lot to wrestle with here, but I will have more to say on that in the future. It is a good book so I hope you read it and let me know what you think about it. 

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf — Once again a yard sale find that I had never read but thought I should. The lady I bought it from was most anxious that I should and hard-pressed to part with the volume. If you have not read it, perhaps you like I will come to Woolf’s work with some skepticism, some expectation of liberal things that one must disapprove of. If I could sum up A Room of One’s Own in one sentence it would be this: I liked it. It may not all be good but quite a lot of it is and it was easy to read and entertaining. I honestly didn’t even know if the book was fiction or nonfiction when I picked it up. It is if possible something in between, a kind of long essay with lots of imaginative portions. It is about literature and why women haven’t written more of it and how it is maybe different when they do. 

As we turn to content, let me say that Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own in 1929, after WWI but before WWII, and after women’s suffrage, but not by much. I have learned recently that feminist was not always a bad word. There have been various waves of the feminist movement and some have been better than others. Woolf comes before the more destructive ways, hell-bent on birth control and abortion.  Many of her criticisms of why women have not, historically, had the time or freedom to write are true. In today’s world, with its radical dismissal or blending of genders, Woolf’s work is quaintly old-fashioned. She does not say women are better than men and she does not say they are equal. Her take is actually that the two are different and unique from one another but that they need each other. “[T]he nerves that feed the brain,” she tells us, “would seem to differ in men and women” (p. 81). She argues that we all have, or should have, some of each gender in us which could be taken quite wrongly in modern terms but I don’t think she meant it as we would today. There is also a portion which could be taken as referring to lesbianism but we don’t  need to take it that way either. Really I found her take on gender quite orthodox and refreshing. Modern Christian writers I have read have implied that women have unique contributions to make but have struggled and failed to tell me what those contributions are and how they are different. Woolf, I think, does a much better job of this. (See my booklist on marriage and gender issues here). Yet there is also a level on which we must not think of our gender in writing. Certainly in our own day there is too much focus on gender and sex as defining characteristics by which one must identify oneself, but even in the early 1900s Woolf complained that the women’s suffrage movement caused people to focus too much on gender and to polarize themselves in ways that were unnecessary and detrimental to their writing (p. 108). 

I also loved what she had to say about books and literature (see also this post). Consider the following:

“Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.” (p. 4)

On the place of each piece of fiction within the stream of human thought:

“For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately.” (p. 84)

On the enduring and transformative power of literature:

“The wonder is that any book so composed holds together for more than a year or two, or can possibly mean to the English reader what it means for the Russian or for the Chinese.” (p. 75) 

“Thus, when one takes a sentence of Mr. B into the mind it falls plump to the ground – dead; but when one take a sentence of Coleridge into the mind, it explodes and gives birth to all kinds of other ideas, and that is the sort of writing of which one can say that is has the secret of perpetual life.” (p. 105)

“For the reading of these books seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life.” (p. 114)

If that isn’t inspiration for more reading, I don’t know what is.


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