Category Archives: From my Commonplace Book

“MONUMENTS WITHOUT INSCRIPTIONS”–OUR WWII VETERANS

The World War Two Memorial

I was back in Washington, D.C. last week and had the privilege of visiting the World War Two Memorial there.  If you haven’t visited it before, it’s an impressive site, although I had the kind of mixed feelings that regularly plague me on such locations.  I can’t help but think we should visit such places in quietness and contemplation.  One of the prominent inscriptions on the memorial is from one of my sailor father’s heroes, Admiral Chester Nimitz:

They fought together as brothers-in-arms.  They died together and now they sleep side by side.  To them we have a solemn obligation.

And yet there was very little solemnity around me as I walked around the memorial.  The memorial is ringed by two semi-circular walls on which the names of the major battles of the European and Pacific theaters are inscribed, and when I got to the two words “LEYTE GULF”–the battle in which my father’s destroyer was sunk by Japanese suicide bombers–I found it hard to swallow, and for a moment, difficult to see.  And yet all around me there were children laughing and playing, teenagers eating hot dogs and taking selfies, and tired parents resting on the names of battles at which Americans had died.  If an experience can be inspiring and depressing simultaneously, this one was.

“Monuments Without Inscriptions”

All of which has got me to thinking about a different kind of WWII memorial, namely the dwindling number of surviving WWII veterans.  Roughly 97 percent of those who served our country during World War Two are now gone.  Many who are still with us are past sharing about their experiences, and many never wished to.

In writing this I am reminded of one my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, the prolific Kentucky novelist, poet, and essayist.  Like many of Berry’s novels, Hannah Coulter is set in the tiny fictional hamlet of Port William, Kentucky.  Narrated through the reminiscences of an aged farm wife, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

HannahCoulter

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter.  Nathan came home physically unscathed, but forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. As I have noted before, my dad saw extensive action in the South Pacific from 1942-1944. On the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his destroyer, the U.S.S. Mahan, was hit by three Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers off the coast of the Philippines and sunk. Dad has always been willing to share this much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

Are there “monuments without inscriptions” in your life today?  Reach out to them while you can.

ON THE BREVITY OF LIFE

I hope that each of you had a wonderful Christmas.  For me, the pleasure and excitement of the Christmas celebration gives way all too quickly to the introspection of the year’s end.  (You know it wouldn’t be this way if we were living in colonial America.  Until 1752, almost everyone in England and her colonies observed New Year’s Day on March 25th, not the 1st of January.)

At any rate, the close of the year always makes me more somber than giddy. Unlike the revelers who will throng Times Square in a few days, I have always thought of New Year’s Eve as a time for reflection, a time to evaluate the past twelve months and take stock of the course of my life.

Seneca the Younger

Seneca the Younger

These reflections take me back to my commonplace book, and to a quote from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.). I shared this quote a year ago, but I think it’s worth circulating again. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a philosopher, statesman, and playwright, and by all accounts one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ. He was also as pagan as they come.

I have quoted primarily from Christian writers in sharing passages from my commonplace book, but that’s not because we have nothing to learn from unbelievers. The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author. I think the quote below is a case in point.

Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate Vitae (On the Brevity of Life):

The majority of mortals . . . complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. . . . It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.

Read woodenly, Seneca seems to be denying one of the most undeniable declarations of Scripture, namely that our lives are short. Time and again, we hear the biblical writers remind us that our lives are no more than a “breath,” a “passing shadow,” a “puff of smoke” (Job 7:7, Psalm 144:4, James 4:14). But far from dismissing this truth, he is calling us to confront a more haunting one: when our lives are at an end, it won’t be the length of our time on earth but the portion of it that we have squandered that grieves us most.

At its best, to quote historian David Harlan, the study of history invites us to join a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” From across the centuries, the pagan Roman admonishes us: “It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. . . . The life we receive is not short, but we make it so.” Not a bad reminder as another year comes to a close.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: C. S. LEWIS ON MEMORY AND HISTORY

I’m still occasionally struck by the irony that the person who has helped me most in thinking through the nature of history wasn’t himself a historian.  But the irony that C. S. Lewis has frequently been my guide is more apparent than real.  Lewis was a scholar of ancient and medieval literature, and that gave him both an appreciation for the past and a language for expressing it that few historians have equaled.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Lewis rarely taught on literary works less than half a millennium old.  Of necessity, he spent much of his career trying to convince skeptical undergraduates that they should care about the world before they were born.  Few scholars have been more adept in exposing the arrogance that underlies “chronological snobbery” and the blindness that presentism perpetuates.  But he was also a master of metaphor and story, and he understood something we academics are prone to forget: namely, that when it comes to conveying complex truths, word pictures are often more effective than abstract theorizing.  Among his many intellectual gifts, Lewis’s greatest may have been his talent for translation, by which I mean his ability to make complicated concepts accessible to broad audiences.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything from my commonplace book, so I thought I’d pass along a couple of passages from Lewis that I copied just this morning.  They come from his short book A Grief Observed, a set of reflections that Lewis recorded as he was dealing with the death of his wife Helen.  I listened to A Grief Observed on tape while driving to see my father over spring break, and then I re-read it in hard copy once I returned to Wheaton.  It’s not a fun read, but it’s honest, convicting, and ultimately encouraging.  I recommend it.

Surely most of the readers who pick up A Grief Observed aren’t thinking about history at all.  They open its pages to see how Lewis dealt with death, perhaps to think about the ways that loss can challenge faith.  That’s as it should be.  But hidden early in Lewis’s “map of sorrow” are ruminations that spoke to me as a historian, for they wonderfully capture a challenge that I face every day.  When I ask students what causes them to admire a particular history book or history teacher, what I hear most commonly is that the book or teacher in question makes the past “come alive.”  This, then, becomes my challenge if I want to connect with them.  What they find engaging, I should strive to model.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible.

Only God resurrects the dead.

What do we really mean when we say that a particular work of history makes the past “come alive”?  Sometimes all we mean is that it entertains us, but often we have in mind much more than that.  With the historian as our guide, we have the sensation of traveling into the past; we imagine ourselves in another time.  Soon the historian fades into the background and we observe the drama in solitude, directly observing the historical figures that the historian has made to “come alive” for our benefit.

Early in A Grief Observed, Lewis bluntly dispels such misleading figures of speech.  Listen in as he talks with himself about advice that he should think less about himself and more about Helen (or “H”) as he deals with his grief:

Yes, that sounds very well.  But there’s a snag.  I am thinking about her nearly always.  Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers.  But it is my own mind that selects and groups them.  Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.  Founded on fact, no doubt.  I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t).  But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own?  The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.

Here Lewis confronts us with a disturbing reality.  Despite the clichés with which materialists comfort themselves—the dead do not live on in the memory of the living.  “What pitiable cant,” Lewis snorts.  Although Lewis loved Helen dearly and knew her intimately, he knows also that his memories of her are imperfect and selective.  And though it is heart-wrenching for him to acknowledge, he knows that the Helen who “lives” in his memory will be “more and more imaginary.”

Lewis elaborates his point by relating how he had recently met a man whom he hadn’t seen in ten years. Although he thought that he had remembered this acquaintance quite accurately, it took only five minutes of real conversation with the fellow to shatter that delusion.  “How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.?” Lewis asks with palpable anguish.  “That it is not happening already?”

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her.  The real shape will be quite hidden in the end.  Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this.  And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again.  The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.

What a remarkable illustration!  And how does this help us to understand the body of knowledge we call “history”?  History, as John Lukacs puts is, is not the past itself but the “remembered past.”  And just as with Lewis’s memories of his late wife, the past as we remember it will always bear an imperfect resemblance to past reality.  We can magnify the disparity through sloppiness or dishonesty, but even in our best moments—when we labor to recreate the past with the utmost integrity—we always fall short.

Like Lewis, we can strive to immerse ourselves in the facts, we will (hopefully) purpose to invent no details, but the necessity of selecting, grouping, and interpreting the facts—figuratively breathing life into them—inescapably remains.  This means that to some degree we always remake the past subjectively.  “Little flakes” of us are perpetually, inexorably settling down on the past to obscure its real form.

So what are we to do with this truth?  Shall we throw up our hands and say the whole quest is futile, that there’s no point in pretending that we can learn anything about the past or from the past?  Absolutely not!  But if we take Lewis’s insight to heart, we’ll be more humble in the claims that we make to historical knowledge.  The exciting news is that God regularly pulls aside the curtain and grants us precious glimpses into the past.  The humbling news is that we always peer into the past “as through a glass, darkly.”

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SENECA ON THE BREVITY OF LIFE (RE-POST)

I hope that each of you had a wonderful Christmas.  For me, the pleasure and excitement of the Christmas celebration gives way all too quickly to the introspection of the year’s end.  (You know it wouldn’t be this way if we were living in colonial America.  Until 1752, almost everyone in England and her colonies observed New Year’s Day on March 25th, not the 1st of January.)

At any rate, the close of the year always makes me more somber than giddy. Unlike the revelers who will throng Times Square in a few days, I have always thought of New Year’s Eve as a time for reflection, a time to evaluate the past twelve months and take stock of the course of my life.

Seneca the YoungerThese reflections take me back to my commonplace book, and to a quote from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.). I shared this quote a year ago, but I think it’s worth circulating again. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a philosopher, statesman, and playwright, and by all accounts one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ. He was also as pagan as they come.

I have quoted primarily from Christian writers in sharing passages from my commonplace book, but that’s not because we have nothing to learn from unbelievers. The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author. I think the quote below is a case in point.

Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate Vitae (On the Brevity of Life):

The majority of mortals . . . complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. . . . It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.

Read woodenly, Seneca seems to be denying one of the most undeniable declarations of Scripture, namely that our lives are short. Time and again, we hear the biblical writers remind us that our lives are no more than a “breath,” a “passing shadow,” a “puff of smoke” (Job 7:7, Psalm 144:4, James 4:14). But far from dismissing this truth, he is calling us to confront a more haunting one: when our lives are at an end, it won’t be the length of our time on earth but the portion of it that we have squandered that grieves us most.

At its best, to quote historian David Harlan, the study of history invites us to join a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” From across the centuries, the pagan Roman admonishes us: “It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. . . . The life we receive is not short, but we make it so.” Not a bad reminder as another year comes to a close.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: GEORGE HERBERT ON GOD’S GRACE IN THE MIDST OF SUFFERING

NOTE: This weekend I am away from home on a visit to my father, and I thought I would re-post an older essay while I was away.  I composed the reflection below almost exactly a year ago, inspired in part by a powerful chapel message from Wheaton College president Philip Ryken.  It remains deeply meaningful to me.  I hope you’ll find it of value.–RTM

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When I began this blog, I promised to deliver essays that explored the intersection of Christian faith, the life of the mind, and the study of the past. This post will seem a little removed from that, but hang in there, and I think you’ll see a connection.

I had heard my younger daughter speak fondly of George Herbert before, but I knew almost nothing about him when I took my seat on the stage at Wheaton’s convocation this past August. “Convocation” is what we call the opening chapel service of the academic year. Wheaton has required chapel services three times a week, but the convocation is considerably more formal than these. The college’s two hundred or so faculty file into the chapel wearing caps and gowns, and it’s a stirring experience. The entire school is gathered under one roof—which I think is neat in and of itself—and the students and faculty sing an opening hymn while the chapel’s massive pipe organ makes the pews vibrate. Sometimes the relentless daily demands of my job cause me to lose sight of the eternal significance of my calling as a teacher. Never during convocation. When the organ is blasting away, and I look out on the student body for the first time since the summer’s hiatus, I regularly feel both delight and fear. I feel anew the wonder that God has called me to labor in this place, and I sense again—as if for the first time—the weight of responsibility that is part of the calling.

As moving as convocation can be, I rarely remember much about the speaker’s message. Perhaps I’m too caught up in my own reverie, or maybe I’m too self-conscious sitting up on the stage in medieval regalia that’s hot and itchy. But this year’s convocation was different. The speaker was Dr. Phillip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College. Dr. Ryken speaks about once a month in chapel during the academic year, and he typically addresses a single over-arching theme from autumn through spring. This year he will be bringing a series of messages on the theme “When Trouble Comes,” and he chose to introduce the series during convocation. (You can download Ryken’s message here.)

It took about ten seconds for him to get my attention.

“It was the spring semester of the academic year, and I was in trouble,” Dr. Ryken began.  “Over the course of long weeks that stretched into months, I fell deeper into discouragement, until eventually I wondered whether I had the will to live.  I’m talking about me–not somebody else–and I’m talking about last semester.”  A hush fell across the chapel.  For the next several minutes our president shared briefly about the personal, family, and job-related circumstances that had  brought him to a lower point, spiritually and psychologically, than he had ever known.

Discouragement does not begin to convey the state of mind that Dr. Ryken related.  Depression comes closer, but I think that despair more truly captures the darkness that enveloped him. My own family has been touched multiple times by something akin to what he was describing. My pulse quickened as Dr. Ryken began to share honestly about his struggles. Then my heart began to ache. Then I began to feel the rush of encouragement that comes when God reminds us that we are not alone.

In describing what his trial felt like, Ryken borrowed two lines from a poem that he had come to identify with. The author was George Herbert. The lines that had literally become Ryken’s testimony were these: “I live to show His power, who once did bring my joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing.”

These words impressed me deeply, and through blurry eyes I scrawled the phrase “griefs to sing” on my program and determined to locate the entire poem as soon as I could. When I got back to my office, a quick Google search took me to Herbert’s poem “Joseph’s Coat,” published in 1633. That same day I entered the entire poem into my commonplace book. I’ve shared it since with several family members and students, and I want to share it with you in a moment.

George Herbert (1599-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

George Herbert (1593-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

But first, a little context. George Herbert (1593-1633) was born into a powerful English family. His father held the aristocratic title “Lord of Cherbury” and sat in Parliament. The son, who was educated at Cambridge and became a favorite of James I, seemed destined to a life of wealth, prestige, and political prominence before he decided to take orders as an Anglican priest in his mid-thirties. For three years he labored as a country parson in a tiny parish southwest of London, before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine. “Joseph’s Coat” is part of a collection of poems by Herbert that was published shortly after his death.

The poem begins with a set of seemingly contradictory statements:

Wounded I sing, tormented I indite,
Thrown down, I fall into a bed and rest:
Sorrow hath chang’d its note: such is his will,
Who changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.

The image here, as I understand it, is one of opposites. The writer has been dealing with a great trial of some sort, a trial so severe that he speaks of being “wounded,” “tormented,” and “thrown down.” And yet this great pain has been leavened with joy. It is a divine gift, Herbert understands, attributable only to the one who “changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.” It is a joy so powerful and life-giving that Herbert can now sing despite his wounds, compose poetry (this is the meaning of “indite”) amid his torment, and find peace and rest while being thrown down.

Herbert continues, referring to God,

For well he knows, if but one grief and smart
Among my many had his full career,
Sure it would carry with it ev’n my heart,
And both would runne until they found a biere
To fetch the body; both being due to grief.
But he hath spoil’d the race; and given to anguish
One of Joyes coats, ticing it with relief
To linger in me, and together languish.

Herbert reveals that “many” griefs have weighed him down, and he is convinced that if even one of these had been given full sway he could never have survived the assault. (Is there a veiled allusion here to the attraction of suicide?) Undiluted, Herbert’s grief would have been unbearable. Absent the mercy of God, it would have triumphed, prompting body and soul to long for death, literally propelling both to run toward the grave. (A biere was a wooden platform that the dead were placed on before burial.) And yet God in his mercy did intervene. But He hath spoiled the race—this is probably my favorite phrase in the poem. God sends joy as a balm to the writer’s anguish.

I find it significant that Herbert does not write that his anguish disappears. This is about a million miles away from happy-clappy-your-best-life-now theology. The joy that Herbert writes about brings relief and revives hope. But nowhere does Herbert suggest that God has completely eliminated his suffering. In a sense, God has done something more amazing. He has empowered him to live victoriously in the midst of his trial.

Which brings us to Herbert’s concluding declaration:

I live to show his power, who once did bring
My joyes to weep, and now my griefs to sing.

I review these words regularly, and I am praying that Herbert’s declaration will also become the testimony of someone very dear to me. Herbert’s words encourage me greatly, for they testify to “the God who does wonders” (Psalm 77:14). In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged.” As followers of Christ, Bonhoeffer writes, we are to “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.”

Unfortunately, as Margaret Bendroth notes in her wonderful little book, The Spiritual Discipline of Remembering, most of us live “stranded in the present.”  (You can read my review here.)  We may refer to the “communion of the saints” when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, but we shut ourselves off almost entirely from the Church across the ages. George Herbert penned “Joseph’s Coat” nearly four centuries ago. I went into a national chain Christian bookstore recently, and apart from a couple of books by C. S. Lewis, I didn’t find a single work more than twenty years old.

Yes, we are stranded in the present, and our lives are poorer for it.

St. Andrew's Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.

St. Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: TAYLOR AND POSTMAN ON THE POWER OF STORY

It’s been a long time since I shared something from my commonplace book, so I thought I would pass along three extended quotes that I recorded just last week. For you new readers, a commonplace book is essentially a quote journal, and in keeping one I am following a practice that was common in the 17th-19th centuries. Mark Edmondson calls it a “life thickener.” I keep one in order to be more intentional about living an examined life. In its pages I write out the concepts and ideas, arguments and assertions that I want to reflect on regularly as I live out my vocation.

The quotes below all have to do with the power of story. You may find their assertions obvious, but I’ve come to them slowly. If I’m ever asked to write the history of my life, I’ve already picked out a title. It’s going to be “Well Duh: The Autobiography of a Slow Learner.” I can’t even begin to list all the ways that this applies to me. But when it comes to my failure to appreciate the power of story, I know my thick-headedness isn’t unique within the Academy. The Academy was where I learned it.

For most of the time since Herodotus took up his pen, historians have been story tellers. Even as history evolved into an academic discipline in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of the most respected academic historians were still masters of narrative. In the archives they were meticulous scholars, painstakingly poring over ancient manuscripts, but when they returned to their offices they became writers, aspiring to craft true stories that would make the past “come alive” for their readers.

This ideal did not fare well in the twentieth-century Academy, however. The reasons for this are complicated and debatable, so I’m not going to pretend to tackle them here. Suffice it to say that narrative history gradually fell out of favor. When I began graduate school in the early 1980s, I quickly learned that it was viewed as naïve, outdated, and amateurish. It’s taken me nearly three decades to unlearn that lesson.

Wheaton College’s fall semester began this morning, and in the first meeting of my U. S. history class, I tried to alert my students to the power of story. We’ll return to that idea in our next class meeting, and my plan is to begin our time together with the first passage below. It comes from an essay by retired Bethel College English professor Daniel Taylor titled “In Praise of Stories.” (If you’d like to read it yourself, you can find it in The Christian Imagination, an anthology edited by my Wheaton College colleague Leland Ryken.) Over the coming weeks I’ll bring in the two quotes that follow. Both are from a short review essay in the Atlantic by the late Neil Postman titled “Learning by Story.” See what you think of them.

“We are drawn to a story because our own life is a story and we are looking for help. Stories give us help in many ways. They tell us we are not alone, and that what has happened to us has happened first to others and that they made it through. They also help us see, however, that our own story is not big enough, that the world is larger and more varied than our limited experience. They help us be more fully human by stimulating and appealing to all that we are—mind, body, spirit. They help by calling us into relationship—with other people, with other places and times, with creation, and with God. They help by giving us courage to be the kinds of characters we should be in our own stories, and by making us laugh, empathize, and exercise judgment. But most of all, stories help us by telling us the truth, without which we cannot live.”—Daniel Taylor

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“Human beings require stories to give meaning to the facts of their existence. For example, ever since we can remember, all of us have been telling ourselves stories about ourselves, composing life-giving autobiographies of which we are the heroes and heroines. If our stories are coherent and plausible and have continuity, they will help us to understand why we are here, and what we need to pay attention to and what we may ignore. A story provides a structure for our perceptions; only through stories do facts assume any meaning whatsoever. . . . Without air, our cells die. Without a story, our selves die.”—Neil Postman

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“Nations need stories, just as people do, to provide themselves with a sense of continuity, or identity. But a story does even more than that. Without stories as organizing frameworks we are swamped by the volume of our own experience, adrift in a sea of facts. Merely listing them cannot help us, because without some tale to guide us there is no limit to the list. A story gives us direction by providing a kind of theory about how the world works—and how it needs to work if we are to survive. Without such a theory, such a tale, people have no idea what to do with information. They cannot even tell what is information and what is not.”—Neil Postman

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: RAY BRADBURY’S “LOVE LETTER TO BOOKS”

I have one more set of reflections I want to share with you concerning the Confederate battle flag controversy, and I promise that I will get to them, but my recent experience on “my” bench at Lake Ellyn called to mind a marvelous novel that I finally got around to reading earlier this summer, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Quite a number of its passages are now in my commonplace book, and I thought I would share a few while they are fresh in my mind.

Many of you are probably familiar with Bradbury’s 1953 classic, but in case you aren’t, it’s easy to summarize the plot. It’s a dystopian novel, set some time after the year 2020 (the only year ever mentioned), at a time when the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to set them. Specifically, they burn books, almost all of which are now illegal. The novel explains retroactively how such a state of things came to be and meditates on the incalculable human cost that ensued. At its most basic, it’s a “love letter to books.”

Fahrenheit 451

Years after writing Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury identified himself as “a preventer of futures . . . not a predictor of them.” The book is speculative fiction, imagining what would happen if men and women succumbed wholly to the lure of empty entertainment and simply stopped reading, or at least stopped reading books of substance. According to a recent reviewer, the novel’s remarkable staying power stems from its ability “to symbolize the importance of literacy and reading in an increasingly visual culture, offering hope that the wonders of technology and the raptures of multimedia entertainments will never obscure the vital importance of an examined life.”

As the novel unfolds we learn the chilling truth that “the public stopped reading of its own accord.” Although the prohibition of reading is now officially enforced by the state, it originated with the people themselves, and throughout the book individuals who are hiding books are caught because they are turned in by neighbors rather than because of extensive government surveillance. The local fire chief reveals the genesis of the oppressive regime to the novel’s protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag whose eyes are opening to the heart-emptiness and soul-sickness that surrounds him: “It didn’t come from the Government down,” Chief Beatty exults. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no!”

The majority preferred to be amused rather than stimulated, titillated rather than educated, affirmed rather than challenged. Above all, they preferred to be happy rather than wise.  Because books might threaten these values, the safest course was to give up books entirely and reduce life to two dimensions: work and entertainment. The path to this impoverishment led directly through the schools, as Chief Beatty explained: “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

“Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.” No firemen will set our books aflame, but doesn’t this mindset pervade our society? A generation ago, Neil Postman offered a trenchant critique of how modern media feeds our cultural obsession with entertainment in his marvelous book Amusing Ourselves to Death. More recently, Martha Nussbaum has exposed the ways that higher education is actively exalting the other pillar of Bradbury’s dystopia, the grossly misguided conviction that higher education should focus primarily on knowledge that generates income. In her work Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum exposes how both politicians and university administrators are evincing a willingness to sacrifice the liberal arts as peripheral subjects that don’t produce the same obvious public benefits as investment in science and technology. Both groups, Nussbaum writes, “prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.”

All across the country today, state legislatures and boards of trustees are concluding that the humanities are peripheral to education. Rejecting the heart of the western intellectual tradition and following the example of nations like India and Japan, they are choosing to allocate precious resources disproportionately to STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) on the grounds that the primary purpose of education is to promote national competitiveness in the global economy. Boiled down, they now champion a vision of education that teaches students how to make a living rather than learn how to live, that helps students to create technology but not to think deeply about it, that trains them to think about things but rarely the meaning of things. Bradbury saw this coming sixty-plus years ago.

As a historian (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I can’t help but notice that this glorification of the pragmatic—life is immediate, the job counts—is also a mindless exaltation of the present, a marvelous example of what C. S. Lewis long ago labeled “chronological snobbery.” Throughout Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury makes the point that it is in books that we most commonly connect with the generations that have preceded us. Professor Faber, an out-of-work literature professor who went into hiding after the final liberal arts college was shut down, explains to Guy Montag that books were a “type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.”

Toward the end of the novel, Montag—who is fleeing for his life after being caught with books and forced to burn them himself—joins a band of hobo intellectuals in the distant countryside. Each individual has memorized all or part of an important book, and they wait for the day when they can return to print what they carry in their minds. Until that day comes, they are a living library, the world’s surviving, secret connection to the best that has been thought and said in humanity’s now forgotten history. The group’s leader explains their thinking to Montag as the novel closes, shortly after a nuclear attack has devastated the nearby city:

“Some day the load we’re carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering.”