Monday, November 26, 2012

UPDATED My new e-booklet -- please read! Free booklet for the asking!

Naturally Healthy Living with Diatomaceous Earth, cover, Lisa Nicholas, Ph.D.
New cover, print version coming!
I'm a reader and a writer. When I write, I try to write things I'd like to read. I'm a bit of a DIY nut, especially when it comes to my health, and one of the things I'm really interested in is finding ways to use more natural products around the house, to avoid toxic chemicals and to save some money by avoiding brand name products (there are a number of large manufacturers that I am always happy not to buy from). I do a lot of informal research on the internet regarding more natural ways to stay healthy, clean my home, etc., but I find that sometimes some really wild claims are made about things like raw honey, boric acid, etc. I find it rather irritating that reasonable claims about the valuable properties of such things are often all mixed up with really wild claims (cures cancer! pulls viruses out of the air!), so I decided to do a little more research and then write a little book about healthy, natural products for the home, with reasonable explanations of why and how they can safely be used around the house.

I haven't finished the book (many other projects in hand!), but I decided to publish the one chapter already written as a stand-alone publication for the Amazon Kindle. I've done this really more as an opportunity to experiment in various ways to market a self-published ebook than for any other reason. But I need some help to learn how to "work the system," and this is where you come in, dear readers!

You may know that Kindle users can download free samples of Kindle ebooks; the sample is always the first 15% of the book. Since my little booklet is so short, about the only thing in the sample (beyond the title page) is the first couple of paragraphs of the introduction and the table of contents, so I need some help giving potential buyers a better idea of the book. Therefore, I'm looking for some people to read the booklet, then post reader reviews on the Amazon website. (I'll be watching to see the extent to which reviews affect sales.) Yes, I hope these reviews will say nice things about the booklet, but more important I hope they will mention specific things that seem good or helpful.

The book is called Naturally Healthy Living With Diatomaceous Earth (Simply Smarter Living). If you would like to be one of my reviewers, and you are already both a Kindle owner and an Amazon Prime member, you can already borrow my book for free on Amazon (if you're neither, you can purchase it and read it either on a Kindle or on one of the free Kindle reader apps you can download from Amazon.com). If you would like to get a free review copy (with the understanding that you will, in return, post a review on Amazon), please send a request by email to writernicholas [at] gmail [dot] com (put it in normal email address format, please, as in "joebloggs@fakemail.com"). In the subject line, just put "Catholic Reader Freebie," and in the body of the email let me know if you would prefer Kindle format, epub (works on Nooks and other non-Kindle ereading devices), or PDF format (which you can read on your computer, or print out).

I will send a free copy in the electronic format of your choice to the first fifteen readers who request it, provided you promise to post a review on Amazon. I'll also give you some specific questions you can address in your review (if you wish), to help you pinpoint specific things that you find helpful (or not). Later, when I finish the full-length book, I'll give you credit (if you wish) for having helped me with my editing and marketing research. If you find any serious errors, I'd appreciate it if you would let me know privately and give me a chance to fix the problem, rather than just posting a bad review on Amazon.

UPDATE: To post an Amazon review, you must have a registered Amazon account, and have purchased at least one item. If you are not already an Amazon customer (gosh, why not? I do almost all my shopping on Amazon!), you can set up an account and then download a free Kindle book, which counts as a purchase, even though the price is $0.00. You can read the book in Amazon's Kindle Cloud Reader (no software to install) or using their free Kindle for PC (or Mac, Android, etc.) application, if you don't have a Kindle device. Click here to see a list of books currently free for Kindle.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Epic poetry and the moral imagination


Achilles vase
Achilles the magnificent warrior
This fall I’ve been teaching a course on Medieval Epic Poetry, a continuation of the Ancient Epic course I taught last spring, in which we read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, poems that are all deeply grounded in a pagan worldview but which nonetheless examine human nature, and particularly human excellence, in such an authentic way that they continue to speak profoundly to readers in our own day. Still, the pagan world that produced those works valued things that sometimes run counter to Christian values, so their heroes are sometimes seem strange and not entirely admirable to a Christian. Nonetheless, all the poems we read in the Medieval Epic course are written by Christian poets who have, to one extent or another, appropriated the epic tradition and made it their own.

This shows, on the one hand, the powerful appeal of the epic form and, on the other hand, the way Christians have always been able to “baptize” the best of pagan culture.  One of the key, defining features of the ancient epic is the hero upon whom the poem is focused. For ancient Greeks and Romans, to be a hero meant to be, in some way, godlike. If you know anything about the gods of Graeco-Roman mythology, however, you’ll realize that being “godlike” did not necessarily mean being “virtuous” in the ethical or moral sense; it simply meant being super-humanly good at something, and being able to get away with things that would never be tolerated in mere mortals. Achilles, for instance, was noted for his godlike rage, which made him a most excellent warrior, but the Iliad makes no bones about the fact that he turns his godlike rage against his own friends and allies, and even prays (successfully) to Zeus that they will suffer mightily for having offended him. So the Christian poet who chose to wrote an epic tale had to wrestle with the problem of the hero – what should he be like, if not like Achilles or Odysseus? 

Beowulf and the dragon
One way to deal with the problem is illustrated in the first work we read is in the Medieval Epic course. Beowulf, a Norse hero tale reworked by a Christian monk for a Christian audience, presents a vibrant depiction of a pagan hero which is also a Christian commentary on the inadequacy of pagan values. For the Christian, the greatest hero is always Christ Himself, who was not merely godlike but actually God Made Man, who won the greatest possible victory – over sin and death – not through his power and might but through his deliberate weakness and willing defeat (see my earlier post on the Heliand for more on this). So for the Christian epic poet, every true hero must be, in some important way, Christ-like (“godlike” in the sense of being like the God Made Man). Often this means that he will be self-sacrificing (as Beowulf is, saving his people from a dragon, but dying as a result of his wounds): many times, we will see the hero “harrowing Hell,” literally or figuratively redeeming the souls of the dead, as we find Aragorn doing in Tolkien’s The Return of the King (there is an analogous scene in Beowulf); like Christ, the hero may win a great victory by virtue of his humility rather than his might, as Frodo does, another Tolkien character. (Tolkien was, like the Beowulf poet, inspired both by Norse myth and by his Christian faith.)

In this final regard, however, Beowulf falls short – he is not a Christian, after all, and his insistence that he fight the dragon on his own is a final magnificently heroic gesture of vainglory, not humility, and although he defeats his foe, he gets himself killed in the process, thus leaving his people undefended. Left without a king, they are doomed to be destroyed by hostile neighbors, who have nothing to fear in the absence of a powerful king. The Beowulf poet reminds his reader of this sad consequence at the end of the poem and thereby manages to pay homage to a great Danish hero only to expose the weakness of a culture that exalts vainglory over truly selfless heroism – such a culture bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Sir Gawain humbled by his foe
This is a message that also haunts the Arthurian literary tradition, as we saw in the second work we read this semester, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem was written by a Christian poet, for a Christian audience, and its hero is himself a Christian, Gawain the nephew of King Arthur. Many elements of pagan mythology – in this case, Celtic – are also to be found in this poem, but they are found in the antagonist, not the protagonist, and Sir Gawain manages to come out of the conflict a victor, albeit a flawed one. Yet here the hero acknowledges his flaw, is humbled by it, and willingly returns to King Arthur’s court penitentially wearing a badge of shame, which will always remind him of his ignoble behavior. However, the noble lords and ladies of Arthur’s court do not recognize the penitential reminder of the green sash that marks Gawain’s shame; instead, they admire it as a trophy of victory and even decide to wear a similar sash, much as football fans may sport "fan gear" bearing the number of their favorite linebacker. In the discrepancy between Gawain's shame and humility and the admiration of Arthur's court, the poet indicates the vainglory of the court and signals the difference between nobility of birth and nobility of character, and foreshadows the ultimate downfall of Arthur’s realm, which is narrated in other Arthurian romances.

He may be strong, but he's no Hercules
In many ways, our contemporary culture has much more in common with the ancient pagan worldview than the medieval Christian one; modern folk are more likely to admire the battle rage of Achilles or the self-serving cleverness of Odysseus than the humility of Gawain. Yet it is remarkable that, if you were to ask ordinary people to name a defining characteristic of the hero, most would say that a hero must be self-sacrificing. They might cite a firefighter who risks his life returning to a burning building to rescue a cat, or a bystander who tries to save a woman from a mugger. To this extent then, the Christian concept of the hero as one who risks his own life to save the weak and the innocent has made a lasting impression on the modern imagination. Unfortunately, too many popular “heroes” resemble degraded versions of Achilles or Odysseus, excelling at one (perhaps inconsequential) thing, while presenting poor examples as human beings – professional athletes who break records in their sports but live lives of disgusting excess and moral depravity, celebrities who shamelessly parade their vile lifestyles before the public eye, wealthy executives who make millions even when they destroy the businesses they run, and so on.  These decadent “heroes” risk nothing but expect to have everything, and they infect the popular imagination like a virulent social disease.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the study of the epic tradition continues to thrive in Christian environments – “classical” Christian academies, homeschool curricula, Catholic liberal arts colleges, etc. What was, for thousands of years, mainstream culture has been abandoned by the modern world, leaving a great impoverishment of the modern moral imagination. But this continues to thrive in what is now the Christian counter-culture, among those who still aspire, themselves and their children, to live lives that transcend the degraded mundane existence that is the “new normal.” Anyone depressed or disgusted by our toxic contemporary culture, anyone who aspires to be a member of the new moral counter-culture, could do much worse than to pick up one of the great works of the epic literary tradition and catch a glimpse of true heroism.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Catholic Science Fiction -- is this the moment?

http://www.francobrambilla.com/
Just a priest and his dog ... oh, yeah, and an alien.
I wonder if the new initiative to "re-evangelize the culture" will result in a spate of Catholic science fiction novels? And what will those be like? Over on my scifi blog, Sancta Futura, I just posted some background on the story I'm working on -- take a look!

Just about the same time I wrote that post, I noticed that one of my Facebook friends had "liked" a FB page for a Catholic science fiction novel that will be published in a few months. It's called Father and Captain, written by Patrick Baum. Here's the blurb on the FB page:
The last Catholic seminarian in the US, forced into exile by the Bureau of Virtue Engineering, must choose between God and family, a life on earth or a life in interstellar space.
I suspect, as we all get more and more discouraged by the direction modern society is headed, we'll see more such things. My own story is set in the distant future, partly because I don't want it simply to be a thinly veiled commentary on our contemporary world, although it does have religious themes (in the background of this first book, although they'll become more prominent later in the series). Speculative fiction, which includes both science fiction and fantasy, is a hugely popular field which definitely needs more contributions from writers with a coherent worldview informed by Christian hope.

That is not to say that we need science fiction stories full of people praying the rosary and quoting the Catechism, necessarily; preachiness -- be it religious, political, ideological, or other -- never makes for good fiction. But I would like to see more stories where the ordinary practice of the Faith is treated like a normal thing. Even more important, however, is a depiction of a world in which Christian truths -- such as the redemptive value of suffering, an acknowledgment of human fallenness without giving in to cynicism or despair, etc. -- undergird the story being told. Dean Koontz has done this in his Odd Thomas novels (which fall more in the horror genre than science fiction).

I hope the field of Catholic science fiction will take off in a big way.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Taking the Faith to the Stars -- and Beyond!

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I've recently decided to take up the challenge to write "speculative fiction" from a Catholic point of view. I'll talk about the writing side of things over on the Sancta Futura blog, but here I'd like to talk about reading science fiction, and why it's not a total waste of time, as many people seem to believe.

space ship under the apple tree, slobodkin
I've been reading things that fall under the general rubric of "speculative fiction" (the term I prefer to "science fiction") since I was a little kid reading things like Sprockets: A Little Robot by Alexander Key (better known for Escape from Witch Mountain) and The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin. Later, in high school, I was hooked on the early novels of Robert Heinlein, and all sorts of post-apocalyptic novels such as Alas, Babylon and On the Beach, as well as the much more optimistic I lost interest is science fiction (strictly speaking) about the same time that I got interested in time-travel stories, such as those of Poul Anderson, and alternate history, such as Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South (which combines time-travel and alternate history) and S. M. Stirling's novels of The Change, which combine alternate history, science fiction, and Arthurian legend. All of these are included in the term "speculative fiction."

heinlein, farmer in the skyWhat is speculative fiction? Well, it is fiction that allows the writer to speculate, "what if ...?" What if the Southern States had won the American Civil War (alternate history)? What if a spaceship landed in your backyard? What if you could go back in time and prevent your own parents from ever marrying (time travel)? What if all the men in the world disappeared at once, leaving only women? What if certain laws of physics quit working, so that there was no more electricity and internal combustion engines no longer worked? What if, a thousand years from now, people can pick the kind of government they want to have, just by picking which planet they live on? What if apes suddenly evolved beyond humans and became their masters? What if you were the only person in the world whose parents had not opted to enhance you genetically to be super smart and strong? What if things continue the way they are going for the next hundred years: what will the world be like?

The thing that has always fascinated me about this kind of fiction is that it allows you to take contemporary, or perennial, problems and displace them -- in time, space, or cultural circumstance -- in order to dislodge them from their cultural context and allow them to be seen more objectively. It's rather like creating a computer model of a hurricane or an epidemic outbreak, allowing the problem and its implications to be studied without any risk to actual people. On the other hand, it can also be comforting to speculate that, whatever may change technologically, politically, climatically, people will still just be people: they'll still fall in love, have babies, get bored with their jobs, want to get ahead -- even if they are zipping around in George Jetson space cars, or have electronics wedded to their nervous systems, or travel across the galaxy.

miller, canticle for leibowitz
The novel that I'm planning to write is very much in this genre, covering a lot of "what ifs" that interest me, but which other writers haven't already done to death. What if, hundreds of years from now, the human race is beginning to get bored with discovering and colonizing new planets? What if some of earth's colonies have "dropped out" and lost contact with the rest of the human race? What if history has been forgotten? What if the Christian Church is openly tolerated but, in many places, is being covertly and brutally suppressed? What if the Church creates its own "alternate future" off the grid? What if a couple of young people travel to the far side of the galaxy to make a new life for themselves, only to discover that their "new life" has been carefully and secretly planned and prepared for them for generations? What if a handful of cultural dropouts become the key to the survival of the Church and the salvation of human culture?

They say that writers should write not what they know but what they would like to read themselves. I guess that's what I'm doing. I just hope I will be able to find others who would like to read it, too. What about you?


Thursday, November 8, 2012

More ways to read on your Kindle

Foxfire Send to Kindle screenshot
I've mentioned before that this blog (and, by the way, now also the Catholic Reading Project blog) can be delivered automatically to your Kindle, if you subscribe through Amazon. If you've gotten as used to Kindle reading as I have, you may find that reading from your Kindle is more comfortable than reading from a computer screen.

Well, here's another way you can read this blog (or anything else you find on the internet) from your Kindle -- just get the Send to Kindle browser plug-in (I just got the one for Firefox; you can also get it for Chrome, and a Safari version is coming "soon"). The add-on is super-easy to use: just click the little button that sits up in your browser bar (see photo) and it will allow to preview what will be sent or just send it directly. What the program does is analyze what is the main article on the page and send just that; this is similar to using "article mode" if you are reading a story in the built-in web browser found in non-Fire versions of Kindle (may be in Fire, too, but I don't have one of those). You have a couple of setting options, such as whether to archive the article with the rest of your Kindle titles.

I have a feeling I'll be using this a lot, since I carry my Kindle everywhere with me and like to have plenty of reading material; with this plug-in, I'll be able quickly to nab interesting things and send them to my Kindle for later reading, without getting distracted from whatever else I may be doing at the time.

I can't find any similar browser extension for Nook or other ereaders. Let me know if you are aware of any.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Flannery O'Connor and Charles Williams: Coming to the Big (and Small) Screen

Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood
I just ran across the Facebook page for a television and film production company called Good Country Pictures. This small company is dedicated to bringing the works of Flannery O'Connor and Charles Williams to the screen, and currently is working on producing a TV series based on O'Connor's short stories, and making a film of Williams's novel, All Hallows Eve. Here's how they describe their mission:
Good Country Pictures is dedicated to producing TV and film projects that help their audience rediscover 'mystery and manners.' GCP presently owns the TV and film option rights to most of the works of Flannery O'Connor and Charles Williams. Already underway is a feature film of O'Connor's 'The Violent Bear It Away' and a TV series of her short stories. A film treatment of Charles Williams' 'All Hallows' Eve' (1941) is also in progress.
I've recently written a bit about Flannery O'Connor (there's lots more I'd like to say, when time allows); if you visit Good Country Pictures' Facebook page, you'll find links to various resources online that will help you learn more about both these writers. A number of Flannery O'Connor's works have been adapted for television (not very successfully); they are also the favorite subject of amateur filmmakers -- just take a look on YouTube and you'll find plenty of videos made by students, indies, and other O'Connor enthusiasts. By far the best made and best known adaptation is John Huston's feature film of Wise Blood, in which a very young Brad Dourif was brilliantly cast as Hazel Motes (the Criterion edition is available on DVD).

Charles Williams novelist
Charles Williams,
Inkling & novelist
Those who don't know the works of Charles Williams are missing a treat. Inklings fans will know that Williams was a member of that literary coterie, the only one of the group who did not teach at one of the great English universities. C. S. Lewis was a great admirer. Williams is best known for his metaphysical novels, which are weirdly surreal yet rooted in a profoundly Christian worldview. (Williams also wrote poetry and at least two works of theology.) There's really no way to describe his books adequately; probably the best one to begin with is War in Heaven, which has to do with the Holy Grail, found in an English country church, and the struggle between good and evil forces to possess it. I'm not aware of any screen adaptations of Williams's novels, but they would all be wonderful as films.

I'll be interested in seeing what Good Country Pictures produces.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Greatest Book Ever Written!

bergsma bible basics for catholics
I am very big on the importance of reading things in their proper context, as you can see in my Four-Step Reading Method for reading with understanding. Earlier today, I was reading this article by Thomas P. Harmon on Catholic World Report, a review of John Bergsma’s Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History . I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like a good one, chiefly because it presents the Bible the way it has traditionally been read – i.e., the entire Bible is about Christ. This is the way the first Christians understood Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament) and it is obviously true of the New Testament.
Much of the exuberance of the early Christians stemmed from the extraordinary realization that the Scriptures had been fulfilled within their lifetimes and in their sight (one is tempted to say, right under their noses). Their exuberance is present in Peter’s speech to the crowds on Pentecost, when he points out Christ’s fulfillment of the promises given to David with a chain of references to the Prophet Joel and the Psalms (Acts 2:14-36); it’s also present in Paul’s speech in the Synagogue in Antioch, where Paul shows that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel from Moses to David (Acts 13:13-41). Christ’s words in Matthew 13:17 nicely capture the bewilderment of the early Christians that so many of their fellows remained unmoved: “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
The message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures was the bedrock of the early Christian mission to the Jews and the source of much of their energy. That exuberance has continued to be vital force in the Church ever since. But the message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures has been obscured in recent years. ...

I’ll get to why this message has been obscured in a minute. The important point here is that the Bible is one unified book, not simply a random collection of sacred writings. Like a novel, it has a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end; unlike a novel, the story it tells is true, although not every “chapter” (book of the Bible) is factual. (More about that in a later post.) If we think of the Bible this way, we can see that reading a single chapter, out of the context of the whole, makes no more sense than reading just one chapter of a novel – we can’t really understand it, except as part of the whole.

By the way, we shouldn’t be led astray when we speak of “books” of the Bible. Before the invention of the codex (a book of individual leaves or pages, bound together within a rigid cover), written works meant to be preserved were inscribed on scrolls, each scroll being called a “book.” Lengthy works spanned several scrolls, or many “books.” Since the codex format allows entire works to be published in a single unit, we have come to think of a “book” as a complete work. But the ancient “book” was the equivalent of “chapter” in our modern parlance. (See my earlier discussion of the revolutionary advent of the codex.) Therefore, my suggesting that each “book” is like the chapter of a novel makes more sense than you might first think. Modern editions of ancient works still call the “chapter” divisions “books” (St Augustine’s Confessions, for instance).

icon christ creating
In the beginning:
Christ creates the animals
ghent altarpiece adoration of the lamb
End of the story: Christ triumphant
To give this analogy of the Bible and the novel, consider, too, that Christians regard the Bible as having one Divine Author, who used individual humans as His ghostwriters. Each writer (Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, etc.) wrote in his own chosen style, but wrote what the Author wanted to convey. (Plenty of successful novelists, who have contracts that require lots of new titles in rapid succession, create plot outlines and then entrust them to ghost writers.) So the Bible is the book, God is the author, the prophets, evangelists, etc. are the ghost writers. What is the story? It’s the story of the salvation of Mankind and all Creation, starting at the beginning (Genesis) and ending with the triumphant wrapping up of beginning to end (Genesis to Revelation). Some bad stuff happens along the way, but the Hero wins out and vanquishes the Foe, and the story has a happy ending. God the Son is the Word with which the story is told, as well as the Hero of the story. We are the readers being instructed and delighted by the story, but we are also characters acting it out.

These days, lots of people learn about the Bible in Bible Study groups – but how many of those present the Bible in the way I have just described? Very few. And yet, this is the way Christians have always understood the Bible – at least until the modern age, when modern Biblical scholarship began notice that the forest was made up of lots of different species of tree, i.e., to take into account different rhetorical contexts, genres, and styles of the individual chapters (this is called the historico-critical method). We began to think of them as separate “books” in the modern sense of being complete, discrete works. This is a problem that Harmon points out in his review:
The underlying assumption of most historical-critical scholarship is that, not only can we not rely on the divine inspiration of Scripture to provide unity to the Bible, but even the individual books and parts of individual books are the result of random, subrational processes. We cannot, therefore, find unity in the books of the Bible even on the human level. The result is that, when the unity of the Bible is denied, so also is its intelligibility. It is no wonder so many contemporary people find Christianity unbelievable when a large percentage of those who spend their lives studying the Bible think that it is unintelligible.

This is a problem that recedes from view when we return to the understanding that God is the author, that the Bible, although its individual chapters were produced by different ghost writers and composed in many different styles and genres, nonetheless follows the Author’s master plot. It is crucial that we know and remember this. Here’s Harmon again:
Without an appreciation of the intelligibility and unity of the Bible, history appears random and God’s salvation of men seems unlikely, uncertain, or impossible. The theme of fulfillment of the Scriptures is especially important now, during the Year of Faith and as the Synod on the New Evangelization in Rome is just completed.
mark shea making senses out of scripture

If you’ve decided to devote more time and attention to reading and studying the Bible in this Year of Faith, you might try Bergsma’s Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History, which follows the theme of successive covenants throughout salvation history. Another good book that helps the reader understand the Bible in the traditional way, to see it whole, is Mark Shea’s Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did . Read well, and prosper!

Read any work with greater understanding

owl reading
You'll grow wiser as you read!
I thought I would offer here the following method of analyzing any serious work, which can be used by intelligent readers with no particular expertise in the subject matter of the work being read (I've also published this over on my Catholic Social Teaching blog). This is a method I developed for my Humanities students at the University of Southern Indiana, who were usually not accustomed to dealing with primary works and needed some guidance in developing good reading skills. This method is intended to be used for "non-fiction" works of all sorts, although it can (and has) been adapted for reading literary (poetic, fictional, or dramatic) works.

I will confess that this method (which the students found very helpful, not only in my class, but in upper level classes in their majors) is one I boiled down from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (which I've referred to several times before). One way in which I’ve improved on Adler’s method (if I may say so) is to put “evaluation” last – with undergraduate students particularly, who seem to have remarkably few analytical skills, it was necessary to emphasize that an opinion must always be predicated on knowledge and understanding of the matter being opined, otherwise it is just prejudice (i.e., literally, judging before having knowledge or understanding).

Anyway, I offer this method to my readers, as it may be useful in reading all sorts of works in fields in which one is not particularly well-versed. If you use it consistently, over time you'll find that you can read all sorts of serious works with greater ease and understanding. You'll also find, as you read a broader range and more books, that you begin to hear a kind of on-going conversation amongst the books of your acquaintance.

As you'll see, the absolute key to understanding any work is context-context-context!

Four Question Analysis of Any Work of Non-Fiction

You’ll find as you go through this method that the keynote is “context.” No work is self-interpreting, neither should it be read simply against the background of the reader’s own experience or opinion. To learn from any work, one must be careful to read it by its own lights in order to understand what the author was trying to convey. Once this understanding has honestly been reached, one should see how the work has contributed to, or perhaps even diverted, the historical discussion of its subject matter. When this has been done – and only then – can the reader arrive at an intelligent evaluation of the work.

1.     The Rhetorical Context: What is it about as a whole?
  • What kind of work is it?
  • What is the central theme — or themes?
  • How does the author approach this theme?
  • What kind of audience does the author seem to address?
  • What purpose is the author trying to achieve?
There is nothing more surely guaranteed to produce misunderstanding than to fail to read a work in its proper context. This is true of everything from the Bible to the instruction manual for an appliance. Consider how disastrous it would be to read the Bible as if it were merely an instruction manual, like the one that comes with your toaster or hairdryer (undeniably, many people have tried to do so), and or to fail to notice that Jonathan Swift is being satirical when he suggested in "A Modest Proposal" that English overlords deal with the overpopulation of their Irish subjects by eating their babies as a delicacy. 

2.     The Argument of the Work: What is said in detail, and how?
  • What are the key terms and what is meant by them?
  • What are the author’s leading propositions?
  • What argument does the author present, and what are its components?
  • How do the different parts of the argument work together to support the leading propositions?
  • Does the author solve the problem he addresses? If not, does he recognize or acknowledge that he has not solved it?
Understanding key terms is crucial to comprehending what the author is trying to say. Once again, context is important in understanding terminology correctly. Then again, it is important not simply to understand individual examples or claims, but to understand them in the context of the work as a whole – are they major claims, or do they support some proposition? Are they statements the author makes, or propositions he is refuting?

3.     The Significance of the Work: The work in literary, historical, or cultural context
  • How does it relate, or respond, to other works?
  • How does it relate or respond to the cultural conditions in which it was produced?
  • How does this work reflect, change, or advance a particular understanding of human concerns?
No work stands completely on its own, nor does our attempt to understand it occur in a vacuum. Again, context is key to understanding the significance of the work. In this case, this means that we should consider how this work relates to others on the same, or similar, subject, how it changes or adds to what we already knew or what had already been said on the subject, or even how this work has changed the ongoing “discussion” represented by its particular literary tradition.

4.     Evaluation of the Work: To what extent does the work express or illuminate Truth?

  • Would you say that the work is true, in whole or in part?
  • What specific valuable and true insights does the work provide?
  • To what extent does the author’s analysis or account seem incomplete?
  • In what ways does the author seem uninformed, misinformed, or illogical?

Intellectual honesty mitigates against crude dichotomies of right and wrong; a qualified appraisal is often more appropriate than an absolute approval or disapproval. A work which is mistaken or illogical in some regard may nonetheless offer insights worth gleaning. We shouldn’t disdain Aristotle’s ethical insights simply because he erroneously believe that frogs are spontaneously generated out of pond water, or dismiss Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modern problems out of hand simply because his prescription for solving those problems seems so wrongheaded. Anyone who truly desires to grow in wisdom must restrain (and retrain) the impulse to rely on gut reactions or to give thumbs up/thumbs down evaluations of serious works.

So there it is. Try it, you'll like it. And if you don't, let me know why.