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The Reading Experience: Are Ebook Readers the Next Big Thing?

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You may have seen this video that's been making the rounds the last couple of years.



The joke is that, back in the middle ages, the "codex" (a flat book, with separate pages bound between two covers) was a revolutionary new technology that took the Western world by storm, pretty much putting the scroll-book industry out of business. This happened, by the way, largely because of the Christian Bible, which people wanted to be able to peruse quickly and easily, and, probably, keep it all together instead of on umpty-jillion separate scrolls. (LOTS has been written on how the spread of Christianity helped popularize the codex -- here's one example from Catholic apologist, Jimmy Akin.) Very soon, the obvious advantages of this new form of book spread, making multi-volume rolled books a thing of the past. (Jews, however, to this day scorn the "new-fangled" technology of the codex in liturgical use, requiring each synagogue to have a scroll of the Torah, from whi…

Hidden in Plain Sight: Biblical (il)literacy and the modern reader

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I've kind of had parables on the brain the last few days. Of course, the Gospel readings that the Church's lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, and Mark Shea's recent feature article on InsideCatholic.com, “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward,” is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple moral tales. As Shea points out, what's obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not “eyes to see nor ears to hear”; these only faith can provide.

However, one of the reasons I’ve been thinking about parables lately really has nothing to do with the liturgical lectionary or even the Gospels per se. In the literature class I’m currently teaching  (an introductory course that teaches the basics of literary interpretation), we’ve been studying short stories and how they work, so we’ve been reading selections that provide …

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Aristotle and C. S. Lewis

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If you are a reader of books (not just blogs), these days you are apparently in the minority. Some alarming statistics I've run into on various web sites claim that: 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college. 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. Today's column by Fr. James Schall on The Catholic Thing suggests that one reason young people don't read much any more is that they are tethered to their cell phones, which constantly demand their attention, making it impossible (unlikely, at least) for them to devote themselves to reading or sustain reflection -- these days, college students hit the beach with their "smart phones," not paperback novels. Fr. Schall goes on to comment that he is not encouraged by the current fad for "electronic books&q…

Catholic fiction on the Internet: CatholicFiction.net

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This morning I discovered a website called CatholicFiction.net, which offers, "news, views, and reviews" on fiction by Catholic writers. The site is sponsored and maintained by Idylls Press, a Catholic publishing concern with an interest in promoting a "new Catholic literary renaissance." The Catholic Fiction site looks like a good place for anyone interested in finding books written from a Catholic perspective (they cover "fiction in every genre, both classic and contemporary .. [as well as] literary biography and criticism) or reading reviews that give a Catholic "take" on fictional works that may or may not have been written by Catholic authors. They also have a Catholic Fiction Reading List, where you may find authors you may not have read before, or may not have realized were Catholic.

What makes a "Catholic writer" is a more complicated question than you might think. A number of years ago, I bought a book from Ignatius Press called

If books were snow-cones: Martha Grimes & Clive Cussler

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I have recently gone through a spate of what, for me, constitutes the equivalent of "beach reads" -- books that you read just for the fun of it, knowing that they provide more amusement than edification or cause for reflection. Such books are the mental equivalent of buttered popcorn or snow cones, tasty but probably not good for you if taken in quantity. I find that, as with such junk food, after a couple of servings I lose my taste for such stuff and the thought of going back for another helping any time soon makes me feel a bit nauseous.

My recent "junk reads" of choice have been novels by Martha Grimes and Clive Cussler. Grimes writes British-style murder mysteries (although an American herself) that have come to occupy a prominent place in the subgenre of "cozies" (i.e., atmosphere and quirky characters predominate over plot and characterization), while Cussler's brand of story-telling almost defies description -- I suppose I would say his novel…

Doctor Who in Denmark? David Tennant's Hamlet

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When I was a graduate student, I always had far too much to do in the time, and with the energy, available to me. Yet, since I was a "re-constructed" graduate student (i.e., returned to graduate school after a gap of many years, and eager to put as much into, and to wring as much out of, the experience as humanly possible), I was constantly seeking ways not only to read what needed to be read for class, but also to reflect upon what I had read, so that I could learn from it. Toward the end of my coursework, I took a class on Shakespeare's history plays, which met (I believe) once a week, in the evening. (I think we covered a play a week.) Many of these plays I had never read before, nor seen performed, so I got into the habit of going to the library one afternoon each week to watch a video of the play assigned for the next class. Fortunately, the University of Dallas's library possessed the complete collection of the BBC's televised performances of all of Shakes…

Laughs in the Catholic Blogosphere

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Since this is a blog about things I'm reading, I guess it's okay from time to time to make reference to other blogs that I read occasionally. (I don't plan to make a habit of this, however.) One that I enjoy from time-to-time is Fr Dwight Longenecker's Standing on My Head blog, particularly when he is in satirical mode (which is much of the time). One of his recent entries that got me snorting was an announcement that he will henceforth be linking his blog to the website of his new parish, Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, SC, and including more parish-relevant posts. That much is just straight news, no funny business intended. However, to let his new parishioners get a taste of what they will have to put up with from their new pastor, he includes the following at the end of his discussion of his new parish:
... The parish has a building project, so the chance to build a new church is an exciting challenge.

I have already designed a very nice contemporary structu…

Lectio Divina: The Ancient Christian Art of Spiritual Reading

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Often, when teaching college undergraduates, I have found that my students are hiding a guilty secret: they don't really know how to read.

Now that doesn't mean that, if I were to give them a book or newspaper and asked them to read a particular sentence they would be stymied. No, they would be able to make out all the words, and even comprehend entire sentences or paragraphs, so they are not "illiterate" in the most basic sense. But many of them don't know how to make sense of what they read:  to be able to discern the most important ideas and see how those ideas fit together; to put these ideas into context with other assigned readings (to see connections or contradictions); to assess or apply the significance of what they have read, once they understand it; to judge the value of what they have read, taking into account its merits and deficits; and other tasks that allow them to get some value out of what they have read.  Once I discovered how universal this &…

More recent reading: Madeleine L'Engle's "Dragons in the Waters"

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When posting my list of recent and current reading last week, I had a feeling I was leaving something out, and I was right. I neglected to include Madeleine L'Engle's Dragons in the Waters, a story of Poly O'Keefe, daughter of Meg Murry O'Keefe and her husband Calvin, who were children in L'Engle's Time Quartet (A Wrinkle in Time, etc.).

L'Engle's stories of the Murrys, O'Keefes, and Austins (families at the center of several of her novel series) are among those I like to re-read from time to time. Most people who read L'Engle start with A Wrinkle in Time as children, but I believe I am an exception to this generalization. Memory is a tricky thing, but I seem to recall that the first L'Engle novel I read was The Young Unicorns, a story of the Austin family that involves a chilling mystery connected to the great neo-Gothic (Episcopal) cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. I remember being completely gripped by the sense of metaphysi…

Recent Reading: Dynamics of World History

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I've been wanting for a long time to read more of the work of historian Christopher Dawson, having read one or two of his essays on the relationship between Christianity and Western civilization. Dawkins wrote through the middle of the twentieth century, and was widely held in high esteem until about the late 1960s, when a rigidly secularist view became de rigueur in academic circles and any historian who acknowledged religion as a force in the shaping of history became persona non grata.

That, at least, is the explanation that Dermot Quinn offers for Dawson's disappearance from the canon of important historical scholars taught to history students in American universities these days. I refer to Quinn's introduction to the third edition of Dynamics of World History(ISI Books, 2002), a compendium of Dawson's essays compiled and edited by John J. Mulloy. Mulloy has arranged the essays into five sections grouped in two parts: Part One -- Toward a Sociology of History and

Current reading: mystery novels, history, literary criticism et cetera

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I've been doing a lot of reading, not much writing lately. Here are some of the things I have read, am reading, or will shortly begin, some of which I will shortly be discussing in subsequent posts.
Mysteries Thanks to a new Half Price Books nearby, I've been able to entertain myself reading inexpensive murder mysteries.

Careless in Red, Elizabeth George. One of her Inspector Lynley mysteries which has not yet been turned into an episode of the television series by that name. [finished reading]Last Act in Palmyra, Lindsey Davis. A Marcus Didius Falco mystery that takes place in the Decapolis during the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian (see earlier discussion of this Roman mystery series). [finished reading]The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. The first in this charming series, whose detective-protagonist is Botswanan Precious Ramotswe and which has been turned into a movie and TV series on HBO. All of the plots for the first series of TV episodes were…

Moral lessons from historical figures: Plutarch's Lives

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While I've got Rome on my mind, I've begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre we know as "biography." The most famous of these are Plutarch's "parallel lives," in which he pairs off a Greek and a Roman figure who share some significant biographical features (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero were each renowned orators), describes the life of each, and then compares the points on which each should or should not be admired (Demosthenes was more mercenary than Cicero, but Cicero engaged in unseemly boasting about his own abilities and accomplishments).
I've got two different editions of Plutarch on hand to choose from: one is the Penguin Classics' Fall of the Roman Republic, a selection of Plutarch's Roman biographies that highlights figures who played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Republic (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Cae…

Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 3 (Marcus Didius Falco mysteries)

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The third series of murder mysteries set in ancient Rome with which I am most familiar are those of Lindsey Davis, the investigations of fictional detective Marcus Didius Falco, who lives and snoops during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (father of succeeding Emperors Titus and Domitian, who all together constitute the Flavian Dynasty). Unlike the Roberts and Saylor novels, this series gives insight into the popular culture of the early Imperial Rome, rather than the historical events that contributed to the collapse of the Republic. Falco's escapades are also considerably more lighthearted and deliberately comedic than those of the other two fictional detectives, which may be why they are so popular.
Period: The first in the series, The Silver Pigs, takes place in A.D. 70, at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Vespasian (also the year of the razing of Jerusalem), but the central events transpire in Roman Britain. The most recent (20th) addition to the series, Nemesis (only recen…

Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 2 (Roma Sub Rosa)

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The mystery novels that got me started on this topic are those by Steven Saylor, a series called Roma Sub Rosa(a Latin term for something done secretly). Paradoxically, one of the things I like about Saylor's series is also the thing that most sets my teeth on edge: it covers the same period and the same historical events as those dealt with in Roberts' SPQR series, but from a distinct outsider's point of view, which contrasts rather strongly with that of John Maddox Roberts' aristocratic insider, Decius Caecilius Metellus. The titles chosen for the two series indicates the essential differences between them: SPQR (the motto of Republic: Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome) seeks to acquaint the reader with the values that made the Roman republic great and whose collapse led to the Republic's demise and the rise of the military dictatorship we call the Roman Empire, while Roma Sub Rosa presents the post-Machiavellian view that Rome's gove…

Mysteries of Ancient Rome, Part 1 (SPQR)

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I just finished reading Rubicon, by Steven Saylor, and thought I would discuss one of my favorite "just for fun" genres: murder mysteries set in ancient Rome. There are three series by different authors that I am familiar with (there are also some other series I've sampled), which I can recommend for different reasons. Right now, I'll just briefly describe the three series and what distinguishes each one; perhaps another day I'll go into more depth on particular novels.
SPQR series, John Maddox Roberts The first is the SPQR series by John Maddox Roberts, which I began reading about 15 years ago, a couple of years before I first began studying the Latin language and the culture of the late Roman Republic and early Empire. SPQR stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus ("The Senate and People of Rome"), an official motto of the Roman Republic which can still be seen on manhole covers in Rome to this day. This remains my favorite series of the three, perhaps …

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