Did you know…

That New Year’s Day used to be a more popular holiday than Christmas Day?  New Year’s was a traditional festival in pre-industrial English towns and villages and, according to historian Hugh Cunningham, mid-nineteenth century employers had a difficult time convincing their newly-urbanized workers to give it up. Some managers gave up completely, allowing workers a holiday on New Year’s and Easter Monday rather than on Christmas Day and Good Friday, the two holidays revered by Parliament.

It makes sense to hold New Year’s Day as a holiday – a day of leisure or time with family that allows a body to sink into the thought of a fresh start in a new year. I tend to make resolutions on a weekly basis rather than a year basis – because that’s about how long I can keep them most of the time – but I thought I’d share some general goals for the coming year. These are hopes rather than rules, I think, but ones that I’d like to have a go at:

1.) Blog once a month – and if all of my potential material seems uninteresting, find a way to make it fascinating.

2.) Read some of the classic Christian spiritual writers and/or try contemplative prayer. (Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, for the inspiration to delve into Julian of Norwich, Theresa of Avila, and the book of Proverbs.)

3.) Set reasonable goals and work hard to meet deadlines. My housemate, Maya, and I have been in continuous conversation about this over the semester. Here’s to a new semester in which to succeed.

4.) Recommence the practice of giving. Growing up evangelical, tithing is one of those things you just learn to do. I’m part of a congregation now that is particularly good at it, and it’s time for me to get back in the habit of giving to church and charities on a regular basis.

5.) Be more gracious about losing…and winning. I am a petulant loser when it comes to card games, board games, and mild competitions of all varieties. I also gloat when I win. This might seem like a small thing to resolve to change, but I’d like to think that cultivating graciousness in this specific area of my life will lead to greater grace in other areas as well – like wedding planning and the politics of academia and communications with friends.

There you have it. Some goals for the year. I’ll undoubtedly add others as the month (or week) wears on, but at the very least I’d like to strive toward these hopes and share my successes and shortcomings in them throughout the year.


Ash Wednesday Reflection: Thinking About Spending Money Well

Today marks the start of Lent for Christians. This is a season of reflection for us and a time when many people choose to practice the discipline of fasting. Sometimes this means giving up sweets for the forty days, sometimes it means abstaining from watching TV and movies, sometimes it takes the form of going without food once a week or on specific holy days during the season.

This year, I’m trying to think more deeply about how I spend my money, so I’ve decided not to purchase new non-necessary consumer goods during Lent this year. For the most part that will mean not buying clothing, shoes, or books for the next forty days. I’ll still buy groceries, of course.

The larger point is to think about what it means when I spend money on those things and what sort of long-term impact my purchases have. This is something I’ve been thinking about over the last few years as I’ve tried to be more intentional about buying local, buying from independent sellers online, and buying used when possible. But the big-box companies are still really tempting. So I want to stop and think for a while: Who does my money go to when I buy a dress on Modcloth? (That site can be a serious pitfall for me.) Who reaps the benefits of my purchase at Amazon or Ebay? What are the reprecussions of buying my jeans at Target? Do those purchases have a positive impact? A negative one?

Maybe those purchases don’t have any impact at. Still, I’m ultimately striving not just to avoid harm, but to actually do good with the way I spend money. One of the companies that has made that easier for me in the last couple years has been Better World Books. I’ve purchased the vast majority of my books for grad school from them during the last four semesters and I feel confident that the hundreds of dollars I’ve sent their way have been used prudently. I won’t be patronizing them during Lent, of course, but I wanted to encourage other people also considering how to use money well to do so. Here’s why:

I pulled a bookmark out of my latest purchase from Better World Books this morning. The front of this small scrap of cardstock greeted me with the heartwarming picture of a Somalian woman and her child. Lovely, for sure, and the story on the back of the bookmark just warms my feminist heart to the core:

The most dangerous thing a woman in Somaliland could do was to get pregnant, and Edna Adan Ismail couldn’t accept that. After she sold her car and used her pension to build a Maternity and Teaching hospital in Hargeisa – based in a site where mass killings had occurred during the civil war – we found out about her mission. Linking up with Books for Africa, we sent 6,000 medical and other college-level books to the nursing students there. Ms. Edna was able to train 22 new students in Community Midwifery, a new category of schooling in the community, and a crucial step toward tackling maternal and child mortality rates.”

So beautiful, right? This is just part of the positive impact Better World Books has. In addition to Books for Africa, the for-profit company also partners with Room to ReadWorldfundthe National Center for Family Literacy, and Invisible Children in an effort to forward their humble task of promoting literacy through partnerships with non-profits around the world.

Am I proselytizing for them here? You bet. So let me finish with an invitation to thoughtfulness and reflection.

Next time you’re looking online for your next popular fiction read or a textbook for a class, think about browsing through Better World Books before you head over to Amazon or Alibris or Abebooks. Their prices are fair and between the BWB warehouse and partnered sellers, they do their best to provide books in a variety of conditions and price ranges. They’re good to the environment too. The company does not charge extra for shipping, they give customers the option of paying a few cents per purchase to offset their carbon use in shipment, and they use recycled packaging whenever possible.

Sure, you might pay a few dollars more than Amazon, and I understand that can be prohibitive for some people. (Grad students included!) But if you can manage it, the impact of those dollars can be pretty inspirational.

dear new jersey. you are beautiful.

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods this week, which chronicles the author’s hike through portions of the Appalachian Trail. Despite Bryson’s horrific tales of black bears, drifting murderers, and life-threatening mountain passes (all of which have troubled people other than him, of course), the book contains charming passages about deep forests, gorgeous ridges, and stunning summits.

And it’s had me itching to hike since I turned the first page.

I climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine with my brother last summer, and if all goes well I’m hoping to bag two other modest state high points this summer: Mt. Marcy, NY and the oh-so-creatively dubbed High Point, NJ. But as neither of those peaks (or mounds, in the latter’s case) were in reach this past Sunday, I headed for Hacklebarney State Park, an out-of-the-way little plot of forest outside of Chester, NJ.

My favorite is the advertisement for a "Rock Grove." Which happens to be, yes, a pile of rocks much like every other in the park.

The park had everything I wanted for the day – trails, no parking fee, and the opportunity to stop at Alstede Farms (where I’m a CSA member) for homemade ice cream on the way home. And not a single bear to be found. Besides, why would a bear go for my plain ol’ Larabar when he could have all the  hotdogs, side dishes, and s’mores from the numerous picnickers instead?

The "Windy Ridge Trail" via which I avoided numerous small, inevitably whining children, cantankerous fishermen, and one prolific Pakistani family reunion.

One of Hacklebarney's six simple, picturesque bridges.

Why do people always want to leave their mark in the woods?

The walk was lovely, moderate, and just long enough to get the hiking impulse out of my system for a moment. Hacklebarney’s 3 or so miles of trail can’t boast beautiful views or challenging hikes or even rugged charm, but it has a river, a brook or two, six bridges, and plenty of benches for taking in the scenery. All in all very pleasant and a lovely way to kick off the summer.

A flowering tree, smooth rocks and a babbling brook. The best of the forest at Hacklebarney.

One happy hiker on the trail.

Take That BBC. Or Rather, Facebook Meme.

Note: Drat.  I fell for a meme! As it turns out, the BBC does not think that readership is declining.  Or at least members of the company’s staff never suggested that most people have only read six of the one hundred listed below.  Alas, this is a pure and simple Facebook ploy.  (My thanks to a savvy Houghton professor who posted the incriminating link–on Facebook, of course.) However, I’m leaving this post up with some editing to clear the good name of the BBC.  This is a good lesson in humility…and fact checking.

Original Post: I am absolutely, unashamedly a bookworm and I freely admit to a lifelong love affair with the classics.  Indeed, when I exhausted the children’s section of my elementary school library, the first book I reached for, at the precocious age of eight, was Oliver Twist.  (Yes, I am showing off a bit.)   A friend’s note on Facebook concerning the readership of one hundred books intrigued me this morning.   I can’t resist the opportunity to post a few good books, so below are the 42 books I have read off of the list of one hundred.  For those of you keeping score, that’s seven times more than the report expected.  (Now I am out-and-out bragging.)  The rest are going on my book list.  Take that Facebook meme!  Literacy isn’t dead yet.  (And thanks to LJ for posting the original note!)

1 Pride and Prejudice

2 The Lord of the Rings

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal – Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Victorian Mind: Charles Darwin

I’m taking a course entitled “Victorian Mind” this semester, which serves as an overview of nineteenth century British Intellectual History.   The brief analyses assigned for the class are short enough for a blog post, so I thought I’d share a recent one on Charles Darwin.   All quotes are from the Norton Anthology, Darwin, edited by Philip Appleman.  I’ve left in the page citations for the sake of academic honesty.  And because I know anyone who reads this will, of course, want to devour Appleman’s anthology immediately…

Charles Darwin and the Personification of Nature

In 1802, the minister William Paley articulated the most prevalent hypothesis of his time in “Natural Theology”: “The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over.  Design must have had a designer.  That designer must have been a person.  That person is God” (38).  Darwin himself found the idea of a “person” driving the progress of species a difficult notion to overcome.  Despite positing an impersonal force to explain the variation of species, Darwin consistently personifies Nature in his early writings.  Darwin writes of “the contented face of nature” (82) as well as “the hand of Nature” (108), and he concludes The Origin of Species: “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved” (174).  His use of the passive voice directly implies the presence of an actor who is intimately involved in this evolution.  By contrast, anthropomorphic language is completely absent in his later work, The Descent of Man.  Given the drastic linguistic shift in The Descent, Darwin’s ideas in The Origin of Species can be viewed as the watershed of the notion that a personal force is responsible for the existence of specific varieties of life.

Darwin was well aware of his use of anthropomorphic vocabulary in The Origin of Species, and when his imagery drew the attack of early critics, Darwin could only respond, “It is hard to avoid personifying the word Nature” (444).  Indeed, his literary debt to the Romantic poets made it nearly impossible for him to do otherwise (663) and, as James Eli Adams observes, Darwin may very well have been eager to preserve the idea of nature as maternal and nurturing rather than “red in tooth and claw” (449).  In addition, Darwin faced the difficulty of filling the vacuum created by his dismissal of a creator.  By proffering the idea of nature as a still-personal being, albeit a very different one from the Judeo-Christian concept of God, Darwin arguably made his initial articulation of evolution more palatable to a society accustomed to attributing the existence of species to a creator.

By 1871, however, Darwin could happily claim in his introduction to Descent that “at least a large number of naturalists must admit that species are the modified descendants of other species” and that “the greater number accept natural selection” (175).  Such widespread recognition of the validity of his theories allowed him to cast off his previous personifications of nature.  He freely admitted that he had previously “extend[ed] too far the action of natural selection” due to his inability to “annul the influence of [his] former belief…that each species had been purposely created” (210).  Although Darwin is primarily admitting his scientific overstatement of natural selection in this passage, his admonition also suggests a disavowal of the anthropomorphic activity he initially assigned to nature.

The influence of Darwin’s semantic shift continues to surface through the tension between his scholarly heirs’ more subtle personifications of nature and their rigid articulations of the impersonal essence of evolution.  Scientists like Lewis Thomas refer to the “general attitude of nature,” debating whether nature is hostile and vicious as Tennyson so vividly suggested or more cooperative (306).  Daniel Dennett, however, chooses to express nature’s role in terms of mathematics, which cannot be anything but detached.  In “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” Dennett posits that evolution is most akin to algorithms, which, as he points out, “don’t have to have points or purposes” (491).  In an attempt to finally silence the objections of those who cannot, or will not, accept the disinterestedness of evolution, he inquires: “Can it really be the outcome of nothing but a cascade of algorithmic processes feeding on chance?  And if so, who designed that cascade?  Nobody.  It is itself the product of a blind, algorithmic process” (493).  That single word, “Nobody,” marks a significant shift from Darwin’s face and hands of nature and serves as a decided rejection of the involvement of a personal force in the variation of life in all its forms.

History as Corkscrew and Kaleidescope

I recently finished reading A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 in which Paul Berman, once again, skillfully details the shifts in the New Left movements spawned by the student revolts of 1968, including second wave feminism, violent anarchist trends like the Weather Underground, the gay awakening following the Stonewall Riots, and the influence of both diplomats and cultural icons in the Eastern Bloc.  The finale of Berman’s account is “A Backward Glance at the End of History” in which the author examines the impact that the political journey 68ers made on ideas of what exactly “history” is.  Although I was familiar with the framework of ’68 outlined in Two Utopias (thanks to my research for senior sem in ’08), the final chapter presented an interesting and thought-provoking argument, one worthy of a bit of summation and reflection.*

In his conclusion, Berman expounds on two major theories of history.  First, the idea of history as a “corkscrew,” most famously championed by the Reagan-era intellectual Francis Fukuyama, the author of The End of History and the Last Man.**  The corkscrew theory suggests that history ultimately has forward motion and that, for all the apparent chaos, the series of events eventually becomes progress.  History is also finite; the events, or at least the progress, have to end somewhere down the line.

The second idea, championed by the French philosopher and former Maoist André Glucksmann in The 11th Commandment, suggests that history is best understood as a kaleidoscope.  All of the apparent chaos is just that–chaos.  Change happens and perhaps there are some similarities among events, but there is no way to fit everything together.  History is potentially infinite; it’s entirely possible that the series of events could continue eternally. 

Berman rightly observes that the two theories are irreconcilable, but also points out that both theories have their merit and we need not completely ignore the perspective allowed by one theory just because we side with the other.  Besides, it’s difficult to prove that either is entirely wrong or entirely correct. 

So then, what benefits can the readers and writers of history derive from each idea?†

The corkscrew theory, I think, legitimizes the formulation of narratives in an era suspicious of metanarratives.  Three different students might come up with three different narratives, but at least all of them think that can tell a story of how A led to B which became C.  This particular freedom satisfies a human need for purpose and creates the possibility of a story being passed on.  (Chaos might be interesting to observe, but it’s beastly to attempt to retell it.)  Furthermore, the idea of an end to the events plays well into the pervasive egoism and inescapable mortality of human beings.  It stands to reason that if there is an end to my own life, there must be an end to everyone else’s and to their actions and events.  Therefore there must be an end to history.

However, I don’t think historians or humand in general are always comfortable with confident narratives or admissions of mortality.  The kaleidoscope theory therefore satisfies some equally human, but paradoxical, sensibilities.  The idea of a history as a series of disconnected, but sometimes similar events, allows an historian to admit a limited perspective.  It frees the historian to notice similarities and make connections if it seems reasonable to do so, but there is absolutely no pressure to construct an overarching narrative.  One’s tale might not be quite so neat and tidy, but at least it’s honest and doesn’t attempt to force the events to fit a theory.   It also legitimizes new theories and perspectives on old stories; it becomes perfectly appropriate to formulate a new narrative when the viewer changes and the metaphorical lens shifts.

I’ve oversimplified Berman’s chapter and the original theories quite a bit here and might revisit them again at a later time.  In the meantime, I’m wondering if there are other applicable or prominent metaphors for history?  Do the corkscrew and kaleidoscope still make sense?  Or is there a better idea that describes the series of events we call history?  Just something to think about. 

*The following paragraphs are a very brief summation of section one of Berman’s final chapter.  He goes into far greater detail about Fukuyama’s and Glucksmann’s family backgrounds, education and political maturation.  The whole chapter is fascinating, but outside the scope of this blog post for the moment.

**Fukuyama is not himself a 68er, but Berman outlines the philosophical influences that connect Fukuyama to those actually involved in the revolts.

The last few paragraphs are my own musings.  Just so you know that the potentially flawed ideas are mine and not Berman’s.

The American People: A Tirade

I’m a huge fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  The satire is sharp, intelligent and a much-needed perspective in the midst of a news media that (I think) tends to be sensational, polarized, and generally unwilling to take the time to report on any story that won’t fit into a 60-second sound byte.  To be fair, I don’t think Stewart always gets it right either.  He has his own biases and he is certainly given to moments of just complete and utter nonsense (like his spiel about Roland Martin’s ascot on Wednesday evening).

However, his recent piece “American Apparently” was absolutely spot on.  (Start at about 2:50 for the ‘meat’ of the sketch.)  Stewart lampoons the tendency of American politicians (both Republicans and Democrats) to expound on what “the American people want” and who “the American people” are in an effort to promote the special interests of a small group of citizens or those who hold a particular political ideology.  Or to win re-election.  His criticisms aren’t exactly original, but they are still poignant.  And just plain funny.

Having just completed Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I found the sketch to be particularly relevant.  For those of you unfamiliar with the book, A People’s History is a bold attempt to recount the history of the United States in a way that is far more sympathetic to those generally left out of the history books (blacks, Indians, women, trade unions, immigrants, developing countries, the poor, prisoners) than to those whom historians have traditionally glorified (the Founding Fathers, the presidents, the Rockefellers and Carnegies, military leaders).

Zinn is unapologetically biased in favor of the marginalized and has no qualms about vilifying those with political, economic and military power—“the elite.”  I’ll admit that the category of “the elite” is suspiciously vague at times, but the evidence certainly adds up against certain politically and economically powerful persons whose machinations and even seemingly humanitarian actions are all driven by a desire to protect their own wealth and power.  Indeed, one is left with the sense that not a single political leader in our short history has possessed a moral compass that points north.  At the same time, Zinn avoids idolizing those whom he favors; it’s clear that those without power are as capable of violence and shortcomings as those with power.  He’s just more interested in exploring why those who are poor and without political or military power would choose to engage in protests, riots, and violent actions.

If one takes Zinn’s account seriously, all politicians’ claims to represent, to listen to, to be concerned with what “the American people want” are part of an age-old ploy to protect the corporate interests of the richest and most powerful 1% of “the American people.”  And by age-old, I mean this has been going on since Columbus set eyes on the West Indies in 1492.  That is to say that such an unbelievable and unjustified imbalance of power has existed for the entires history of these United States.

Let’s be honest.  In 2010, “the American people” continues to be a euphemism for the lobbyists, the oil companies, the insurance giants, the bailed-out banks, and the tank-gun-explosive-and-bomber-producing corporations who fund the politicians’ campaigns.

And I’m not quite sure what to do about that, except publish this hopelessly opinionated tirade.

Zinn holds out some hope for a “coming revolt of the guards”—a true people’s movement in which the 99% of people who do not hold sway in this nation will unite against the continued injustices and oppression of the 1% who do.  A time in which those of us who are presently content with our relative prosperity will join with those who have good reason to be malcontent in demanding a better way of life.

I’m afraid I don’t share his faith in human beings.

“Human nature being what it is,” (Thucydides, 300 BC) I think we are more given to division and prejudice and the hatred of anyone that we consider an “other” than to unification.  And even if we are not such vicious beings as all that, we (dare I say, “I”?) value comfort and security more than justice and are unwilling to disrupt the system that seems to provide just enough safety for just enough people.

Alas, it appears that without some fundamental shift in the nature of our current political system (perhaps in the very nature of human beings), what those supposed “American people” want will continue to be the driving force of western power for a very, very long time.  I can only hope that such a shift will take place long before I dare to believe it will.