May 2, 2023
As I turn through books I come across, I find myself struck by particular sentences, and I’ll note their location in the margin, perhaps with a comment. Here are some that caught my attention:
Bud Robinson: Miracle of Grace, by Basil Miller (Beacon Hill, 1947)
I found this book on the sales cart at Landmark Book Store in Franklin, TN. It sat in the midst of several books in the same series, each with a familiar name. I’d heard of “Uncle Bud” Robinson, but I couldn’t tell you anything about him. Reading the book, I found him to be a remarkable holiness preacher with rustic roots in East Tennessee, born on the eve of the Civil War in 1860. He was eminently quotable, with the following sentence to his credit. I recognized it right off as one that evangelist Bill Stafford repeated on several occasions:
O Lord, give me a backbone as big as a sawlog and ribs like the sleepers under the church floor; put iron shoes on me and galvanized breeches and hang a wagonload of determination up in the gable-end of my soul, and help me to sign a contract to fight the devil as long as I have a vision, and bite him as long as I have a tooth, and then gum him till I die.
Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family, by Paul C. Nagel (Oxford: 1983)
This book traces the Adams family down from two US presidents (John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams) to John Quincy’s seven grand kids, including Louisa Catherine Adams (“Sister Lou”), who was an arrogant piece of work. Judging her to be “thoughtless and self-willed” with a “haughty domineering spirit,” her father, Charles Francis Adams, sent her off to a school in Lenox, Massachusetts, hoping she’d be straightened out. The headmistress soon concurred with the father’s assessment:
Louisa loudly asserted that all her classmates were beneath her, and Miss Sedgwick replied that not only was Miss Adams afflicted with the sin of pride, but she was the only person the school had encountered who was proud of her pride.
The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, by Philip Roth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988)
Philip Roth was a perfectly awful man who was widely celebrated for his novels (including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, with eight of them [incl. Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint] made into movies). A sexually-promiscuous, contemptuous atheist, he made his biggest splash dissecting and scandalizing his Jewish roots. In this sentence, he describes his first encounter with Margaret Martinson Williams, nicknamed “Rosie,” whom he married and divorced. He came to despise her (in part for her feigning pregnancy to capture him), and when she died in a traffic accident, he was relieved. As I read through the book, I was struck by how long his sentences could be, albeit strung together by semi-colons. The one you see below runs 126 words. I don’t recall seeing anything like it, at least not among celebrated authors. Well, maybe the Apostle Paul.
The exoticism wasn’t solely in her prototypical blue-eyed blondness, though she was blue-eyed and very blond, a woman whose squarish, symmetrical face, no matter how worn down by furious combat, could still manage to look childlike and tomboyish in a woolen ski hat; it wasn’t in her prototypical gentile appearance, though she was gentile-looking in a volkisch way that recalled nothing of the breezy bearing of brainy Polly, with her sophisticated martinis and her sardonic refinement; it wasn’t in her Americanness either, though her speech and dress and manner made her a virtual ringer for the solid, energetic girl in the cheery movies about America’s heartland, a friend of Andy Hardy’s, a classmate of June Allyson’s, off to the prom in his jalopy with Carleton Carpenter.
Spare, by Prince Harry (Random House, 2023)
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle) are insufferable, and I refused to buy Harry’s Spare, when I saw it on sale at Costco. But I thought I’d give it a spin when I saw it among the local library’s “Lucky Day Collection” with “14 Day Checkout, No Renewals, First Come, First Served.”
There’s some remote overlap with the players. I became a church planter in Evanston, Illinois, in 2000, and also assumed the role of Baptist Collegiate Ministry director at Northwestern University. Meghan enrolled there in 1999 and graduated in 2003. As “woke” as she can be, she’s a predictable product of that school. Then, as I write, King Charles and I are both 74; I was born in June of 1948, he in November. I just imagine how much fun it is to have Meghan as a daughter-in-law (or, in fairness, what it would be like to have him as a father-in-law). And Sharon and once took the Queen Elizabeth II from Brooklyn to Southampton. (In the book, the namesake is called “Granny.”)
Some fascinating stuff in the book, with my taste going toward the inner workings and livings of the royal family. For one thing, I learned that the Queen had a personal piper on call when she visited their estate in Scotland. How cool is that? Harry describes him as “rumpled, pear-shaped, with wild eyebrows and a tweed kilt,” and notes a couple of his regular duties. (We could all use a bit of this):
While summering at Balmoral, Granny asked that the piper play her awake and play her to dinner.
Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race, edited by Janet Smith (Hill and Wang, 1962)
Mark Twain was a fascinating writer, from his novels to his travel works to his essays on the condition of man, whether cynical or warmly humorous—not at all evangelical, but capable of some engaging and convicting insights of use to the church. His takes had edge and could be quite dark, but I think he’s on to something when, in “My First Lie and How I Got Out of It,” he says that most lies are acts, not utterances.
The universal conspiracy of the silent-assertion lie is hard at work always and everywhere, and always in the interest of a stupidity or a sham, never in the interest of a thing fine or respectable.
He calls it “the most timid and shabby of all lies,” and makes application to the nation’s long acquiescence to slavery, with only a handful speaking boldly in opposition.
The Courage of a Conservative, by James G. Watt (Simon & Schuster, 1985)
As Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt was a lightning rod who finally became such a political liability that he had to resign. His big offense—consistently and vehemently deplored by the environmentalists and their servants in the media—was to encourage drilling and mining on federal lands. And he never mastered diplomatic speech in the service of truth. In this book, he addresses a bundle of public policy issues in play in “The Battle for America.” And so he speaks to our “loss of absolutes,” “the betrayal of the American Black,” “the rights of the victim,” “the disarming of America,” etc.
When he takes on the notion that poverty is the cause of violence, he pushes back with this:
Why would a beggar on the streets of Calcutta starve to death rather than steal food to live, even when his punishment would mean only a jail sentence with regular meals?
Of course, one could press him in a number of ways on this example, but he does raise the valuable question of the role that culture plays, whatever one’s material circumstances.