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Being a Catholic Reader in the Modern World

One of the ideas that has animated this blog since its very beginning is that my understanding that a "Catholic reader" does not simply imply being a Catholic who likes to read nor that one prefers to read works written by Catholic writers or intended for Catholic audiences. In fact, in the sense I have always used the term on this blog, being a "Catholic reader" means having "catholic tastes"-- reading widely, not narrowly; being willing to confront ideas one does not already embrace, and to sift works for any truth they may contain. In fact, if the term means nothing else, being a Catholic reader means reading for truth even more than for enjoyment, truth being found even in works that don't pretend to be factual. I have often made the case that fiction and poetry are capable of conveying deeper truths than most nonfiction. Explicitly, I have presented a method for discerning the truth found in works of nonfiction, and implicitly, through my own disc

The Story God is Telling at the Present Time

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AFTER A YEAR OR TWO of particularly alarming and distressing events in the world and the Church, many of us have begun to think of the present day as something like the End of the World (at least, "the world as we know it") and to wonder if things will ever get better instead of continuing to get steadily, and ever more rapidly, worse. Some even claim that we are in the End Times and look forward eagerly to the Second Coming of Christ, so that we can all be put out of our misery and admitted into the paradise of Eternity.  Plenty of other people pooh-pooh this apocalyptic fervor and point out that there have been many previous periods of Very Bad Things Happening, and yet the world did not end but continued to totter on -- why should our own age be any different? In between these two views stands the great mass of humanity alive today, bewildered, distressed, but trying to get on with their lives as best they can, much as they have always done. In the pagan worldview, even t

Books Can Save Our Dying Culture

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On Renewing “A Catholic Reader” I’VE BEEN WANTING to get back to writing on this blog for some time now, after several years of neglect. When I started it, ten years ago, I was recovering from a severe case of burnout, so I wrote mostly to give my frazzled brain something to do. I had spent the past ten years or so teaching in college classrooms, so a bit of that showed up in my blog posts, but mostly I was trying to express what interested me about the books I read and just putting that out there to see if it interested anyone else. I originally called this blog “A Catholic Reader” because that describes my reading tastes—“catholic” with a small “c”—and because it also describes my perspective as a reader, “Catholic” with a capital “c”, a worldview that permeates my understanding of, well, everything. Now that I want to get back to blogging about books and reading, a part of me still wants to teach others, about how to read and why to read and how to get the greatest pleasure and ben

Peacocks, Vanity, and the Possibility of Redemption

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Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks “Vain as a peacock,” we used to say, back when vanity was a vice rare enough to be remarked on. If you've never lived with a peacock, you may not realize just how vain they can be. I had a chance to become acquainted  with these creatures when I was in college in northern Illinois and occasionally stayed on the farm of my Aunt June who, like Flannery O’Connor (probably their only similarity), loved all sorts of barnyard fowl, including peafowl. June lived on the family farm she had inherited with her brother, Reynolds. He looked after the hog farming while June stayed busy breeding, raising, and selling all sorts of birds and bird eggs: chickens, ducks, and geese, as well as more exotic kinds of birds, such as peacock and rheas (a South American cousin of the better-known ostrich). I soon noticed that each of these bird species has its own native personality; you couldn't act around a goose the same way you could with a duck, for instanc

The Secret to Reading Flannery O'Connor

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A very young Brad Dourif played Hazel Motes in John Huston's incomparable film adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's  Wise Blood. Veiled Mystery About forty years ago, I read the work of Flannery O’Connor for the first time, at the suggestion of my college English professor, John Glass. I was immediately hooked, although at the time I had no idea what her stories were about. Mr. Glass, who liked to set us reading challenges, had assigned one of O’Connor’s short stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for class. I read it and was suitably shocked by it but also intrigued. For reasons I won’t go into here, I felt I knew the family in the story — in fact, it could have been my own family, except that none of us had ever been gunned down by escaped felons while on a family road trip. (Not yet, anyway.) If I could make sense of that senseless slaughter, maybe I could make sense of my own life. After that, I read her two novels,  Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away (I e

Authors I Call Friends: Andrew Seddon

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Some books I've edited, translated, and/or designed in the last few years. I've been away from blogging for a while, and this blog has moved to an independent WordPress site and back to Google's Blogger platform since I last wrote here regularly. Despite my neglect of A Catholic Reader over the past few years, I owe a lot to this blog because it helped launch me into all the other activities that have been keeping me busy: writing, editing, and translating, as well as publishing and book design. As a way of easing back into talking about things I read, I thought I would introduce you to some of the authors I've gotten to know as friends and acquaintances (through reading, editing, or translating their stuff) through this blog. These are writers whose work I can heartily recommend to other readers. First, I must mention Andrew Seddon , with whom I first got acquainted after he found me (I think) through the (now defunct) Catholic Blogging Network and offered to se

The Great Flood in Literature: Wrestling with Proteus

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Walter Crane illustration of Hercules wrestling Proteus There is a figure in Greek mythology called Proteus (sometimes called the Old Man of the Sea), a minor sea god with two remarkable powers: shape-shifting and oracular utterance. To get the truth out of him, however, one must first catch him. When anyone attempts to grasp him, he rapidly changes from one form into another in an attempt to evade his captor’s clutches. But if a person is tenacious enough to hold on until Proteus tires and resolves into his true form, the god will render up the truth his captor seeks. Orally transmitted stories share with this mythical sea god a “protean” character. Handed on by word of mouth, each time a story is told the teller gives it a slightly different form and a different shade of meaning, so that over time many different versions of the same story emerge. The literary author who works from an oral tradition is like the hero who captures Proteus: first he must wrestle with the many v

Put on the Armor of Light, on St. Patrick's Day and every day

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Illustration from Slate.com As this article from Slate acknowledges, very few concrete facts about Ireland's patron saint have survived. Much that we think we know is merely legend. Keeping that in mind, did you ever wonder why Saint Patrick is credited with expelling snakes (not wolves, not badgers, not even demons) from the Emerald Isle? I'm not going to dispute whether holy Padraic literally chased serpentine creatures from Ireland, but you have to admit that on a symbolic level the story is apt. Serpents have a long history in Christian iconography, representing the deceptions of the devil. As an early missionary to the island, the fifth-century monk we know as St Patrick was successful in converting many from their pagan superstitions, and for more than a millennium Ireland was known as one of the most thoroughly Catholic lands upon Earth. Since pagan gods have long been regarded as being inspired by fallen angels, who presented themselves as deities, there could b

Ovid's Metamorphoses: Change is the only constant

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Third installment on the Great Flood in Ovid's Metamorphoses I left the discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by saying (as I often do) that, in literature, context is everything. We can’t really grasp the significance of Ovid’s version of the Great Flood unless we consider it in the context of the poem as a whole. So what is this poem really about? How does the early episode that recounts the Great Flood contribute to the overall meaning, and how does the overall meaning color the significance of the Flood account? The Constancy of Change The title hints at the poem’s meaning. Metamorphoses covers all of history (and prehistory), starting with the creation of the world and ending in Ovid's present day. What might seem, upon a first reading, a rather aimless stitching together of innumerable ancient myths is actually a very careful selection which is tied together by a single commonality: the metamorphoses themselves, one thing being changed into another. Most of these me

Rerum Novarum, §1-11: A natural law defense of private ownership

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As I start looking at Rerum Novarum , Pope Leo XIII's famous 1891 encyclical, I'll first summarize/paraphrase what the encyclical says, paragraph by paragraph, then analyze the way Pope Leo presents his argument, and finally offer my own commentary on it. The first two focus on what is being said, and the last is my own personal response to it. This is a method I recommend to anyone who wants to give an important work a fair reading -- in fact, it's something  that I have always tried to teach my students: understand first, and withhold judgment until you are sure you really do understand. This is the whole idea behind the 4-step method of reading with understanding that I’ve propounded elsewhere on this blog. Why start with summary? Because it forces me to boil down the argument to its essential parts — but I don’t want to oversimplify it, so sometimes my “summary” is really more of a paraphrase. I don’t want to skip over any really essential ideas. If you try this

Homer's Tardis: Literature is the best kind of time machine

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This guy looks more like a Texas cowboy than a Connecticut Yankee, if you ask me, but he got me hooked on time travel. One of my favorite kinds of speculative fiction is the time travel tale, not the H. G. Wells sort of thing that takes you into a distant, purely speculative future, but the kind that takes a modern person and sends him (or her) into the past. The earliest piece of time travel literature that I can recall reading was an Classics Illustrated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court , which I read probably at age ten or eleven. (I had already been introduced to King Arthur several years earlier, through a Golden Book storybook based on Disney’s The Sword in the Stone .) Imagining past lives Time travel stories allow us to visit the past in our imagination, but we are always conscious that we are visitors, outsiders — and therein lies the limitation of the genre. It is always more interested in commenting on (or even passing judgme