Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. (Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch)
Recently, I revisited with my daughters the book some have called Dickens’s masterpiece: Great Expectations. From its gripping opening scene between Pip and Magwitch in the bleak and isolated churchyard, to the concluding conversation with Estella on the grounds of Miss Havisham’s neglected estate, I marveled again at Dickens’s genius breathing life into his characters. Such a master at rendering loneliness and self-deception with merciless clarity, who cares so much for the poor and sounds the clarion call for reform, and who can weave such complex and intricate plots, must not be as self-deceived as the average person — right?
Wrong. Robert Gottlieb’s readable and sympathetic Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens reveals the most popular writer of the Victorian era as all too human. Each of Dickens’s ten children are introduced in the first half of the book, and we are given a glimpse of their family life and their relationship with their father as revealed through the novelist’s letters and other interesting sources. The second half describes how they fared after Dickens’s death.
The picture that emerges is complex. Dickens was certainly a dominating personality, by all accounts a man who loved his children very much and worked hard to set them on a course to success in later life. He was most enthusiastic about them when they were very young, but as they grew he was frequently critical and quite openly expressed his disappointment and pessimism about what he saw as his sons’ lack of focus and energy. Toward his two daughters he was less severe in his judgment. One daughter, Katie, and one son, Henry, achieved real distinction in later life and even won some approval before their father’s early death at 58. The others (with the exception of one, Dora, who died in infancy) were a mixed bag of decency and moderate success, and, in some cases, disgrace.
All of them regarded their father with something close to reverence and remembered their childhoods with fondness and pride. Their father was the starring personality, giving each child a nickname, playing with them in the garden and caring for them when they were sick, and creating and directing family dramatic productions. He cared for them very much and took his obligation to provide for and direct them very seriously. But his self-involvement often conferred a great sense of obligation on the children, too, and at times he seemed all too ready to be rid of them, sending several of them off to Australia in their teens.
Most of us have heard about Dickens’s early life — how his father’s debts landed the family in debtor’s prison, and how the young Dickens had to work in a blacking factory for a time. It’s perhaps less well known that after the tenth child was born, Dickens abruptly and brutally turned his wife out of the house and kept the children, complaining publicly of her laziness and poor mothering (of which there is no evidence), and frowning upon any interaction between the children and their mother. Her younger sister Georgina stayed on with him and took care of the children, and Dickens carried on an affair with the much younger actress Ellen Ternan. Gottlieb discusses the impact of this family split on the children, the youngest of whom was only six at the time.
About the only thing I was desperately curious about that Gottlieb didn’t discuss was Georgina Hogarth, the younger sister of Catherine Dickens who stayed on after her sister was ejected from the home. What a strange state of affairs! I learned much and appreciated the sympathy and candor of Gottlieb’s narrative, which left me with a picture of a brilliant, compassionate, self-involved, self-blind and at the same time deeply insightful artist whose public readership adored him almost as much as his family and friends. Charley, his oldest son, commented once that his father’s child characters were often more real to him than his children. Certainly this introduction to those who surely inspired and instructed him, whether he realized it or not, will deepen my future encounters with the fictional children of Dickens’s novels.
One of C.S. Lewis’s most oft-quoted statements concerns selective reading. “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading,” he writes in Surprised by Joy. “There are traps everywhere.”
It comes to mind as I finish David R. Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood — except that it’s the Young Earth Creationist who must be careful, for, as Montgomery shows, there are traps laid everywhere. Literally. The ground under our feet is full of them: layers of sediment, folded rock, fossils, patterns worn into Earth’s surface, archaeological finds, all of which tell a story of a planet almost unfathomably old.
For those who insist on a literal reading of Genesis and a 6,000-year-old Earth remodeled by Noah’s flood, there is plenty here to challenge and inform. But there is also plenty of food for thought for the Atheist who regards religion as childish superstition. What distinguishes this book is its its combination of thoroughness and civility. Montgomery discusses the long and complicated relationship between faith and science with a welcome graciousness to both sides. I found the book to be a readable, educational, and inspiring introduction both to geology and to the (surprisingly recent) history of the present-day Creationist movement. You can find a summary of the book over at Amazon, and read the annotated table of contents as well. I would prefer to use this space to focus on a few of my own reactions. But in general, Montgomery’s landing place is that science and faith do not have to be opposed to one another. “In reality, faith and reason need not be enemies if one views ignorance as the enemy of both,” he writes. The history of interaction between science and faith shows that both sides can veer into blinding dogmatism.
My only reservation about the book was that at times I felt Montgomery simplified his discussion of the ancient biblical text. When he writes about the discovery of ancient Mesopotamian flood stories as relegating the biblical flood story to a “Babylonian hand-me-down,” he simplifies the nature of influence. I preferred Peter Enns‘ more qualified statement that these tales inhabit the same conceptual world, with both being much older than their written forms can tell us. But this is a minor criticism, because overall I felt that he did the subject justice — more justice, it has to be said, than some Christians untrained in geology have done the subject of Earth’s history. Like Enns, he regards the story’s treatment in Genesis as a possible response to the older tale from a monotheistic point of view. I don’t have a problem with this because it makes sense to me that God could use the basic ingredients of an existing story to distinguish himself from other gods.
As I close The Rocks Don’t Lie, I wonder: What if the worst (from a Creationist perspective) is true, and the Creation story and Noah’s flood are both more legend — divinely inspired and adapted legend — than fact? What if they were never intended to be taken literally as historic accounts, but were rather literary forms available to the ancient writers through which God inspired unique insights into his nature and character? What if they convey a different kind of truth, and a different kind of proof, than some have insisted upon by seeing them as historic narratives?
For myself, I find that my faith as a Christian is not shaken, because I’ve never understood why some feel that these particular stories have to be taken literally to begin with. Much depends on your beliefs concerning the inspiration of Scripture. I believe the Bible is inspired by God. It tells us something about his humility, his desire for relationship, and his respect for his creation that he is willing to work through finite, history-bound human minds to write his holy book rather than dropping it fully-formed from Heaven. It is consistent with the character of a God who is willing to take on human flesh and submit to the limitations not just of a body, but of all the injustice and brutality humans can dish out, all for the purpose of saving humanity. But it also makes the Bible more difficult to understand, and less willing to submit to our modern-day demands for detailed science, accurate history, and standardized time. In the case of the creation and flood stories of Genesis, there are many similarities of plot to older stories from other cultures; yet the distinctiveness of God — for instance, the fact that he is one all-powerful God who envisions a whole different kind of relationship with his created beings — stands in such striking contrast to the way divinity was typically imagined that it is not hard to believe it was God himself who communicated the concept to the biblical writers. There are other details of the story borrowed from earlier stories, but this God is altogether original.
Isn’t it in this sense that our best stories communicate truth? That so many people I know and care about in the Christian community demand that even these ancient stories in the Bible constitute straightforward, literal science testifies to the impoverishment of our culture. We no longer recognize that stories have value, even when they are imaginative rather than documentary truth. In today’s world the emphasis is on “STEM,” with the humanities as a separate and less valued compartment of knowledge. This attitude carries over into the evangelical view of the Bible, in which all seems to depend on mere literal accuracy — rather than truth, which has imaginative dimensions as well. It cannot be reduced entirely to the literal. The prophetic and poetic literature of the Bible itself, along with the parables of Jesus, testify to this.
So does The Rocks Don’t Lie. For the long and mutually stimulating conversation between Christianity and the developing science of geology illustrates the centrality of stories in understanding the earth under our feet. The first geologists were Christians who saw the Earth in terms of Noah’s flood, but who also recognized that Nature is equally a text that tells us about its Creator. When there has been friction between what the Earth reveals and what Scripture seems to be saying, the challenge has been to adapt our understanding of both. Modern Creationists seem to have given up and resorted to arguments that were discredited back in the 19th century, turning away from science altogether and substituting dogma instead. This hearkens back to the Church’s response to Galileo but overlooks centuries of more sensible and faith-filled teaching that Nature and Scripture both reveal God. We may rightly reject intellectual fashions that assume a godless universe, but Christians more than anyone should rise to the challenge of our own profession of faith in the goodness and creative power of God by welcoming scientific discoveries with confidence.
I watched the last installment of the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham a few weeks ago, and I was appalled at the lack of scientific observation, knowledge, or curiosity Ham demonstrated. But I find books like this one tremendously stimulating because they open my eyes to the incredible scope, diversity, and order of Nature. I’ve been a Christian for over 30 years now, and I still have questions — especially questions related to the problem of evil. But the more I learn about nature, the more awe I feel toward its Creator — a Creator whose processes are not related in detail in Scripture, but whose personality is stamped in amazing ways on what He has made. It doesn’t shake my faith at all to consider geologic time; it seems appropriate that God would need a grand scale on which to work, and that the clues we uncover about his world would make sense. The excitement of scientists and archaeologists piecing together history is something I can readily enter into. I’m a nature photographer, and the beauty and variety of my own locality continually amaze (and sometimes trouble) me. All of this seems to me to be consistent with the enthusiasm God has throughout the Bible for his Creation. Participating in this with him begins with curiosity and knowledge, and Christians should be among the front-runners in exploring the world they believe to be made, redeemed, and placed under their stewardship by God.
*I edited this post after publication to clarify a few points.
Most of us are required to read Orwell’s political satire Animal Farm at some point in our high school career. I remember reading it, and even remember vaguely that it was connected with Lord Acton’s statement, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But the experience of reading it, the characters, and any sense of the general mood or atmosphere of the story — all of these aspects of the book have escaped me.
This week it was included as a supplemental reading recommendation with our history study of the Russian Revolution of 1917. My recent foray into C.S. Lewis’s On Stories reminded me that the horse Boxer is shipped off to the knacker at some point in the tale, and as my daughter is a horse-lover I thought I would reread the book before deciding whether to recommend it to her.
My reaction is mixed. Animal Farm is generally regarded as a masterpiece of wit, and I admire Orwell’s ability to capture in clear, simple terms the demise of a utopian vision among some farm animals who revolt against their human masters and create a set of egalitarian rules to live by. They end up dividing quickly into two classes, with the cleverest animals — the pigs, especially, who read well — lording it over the other animals. The book certainly makes the point that power tends to consolidate despite the best intentions, and self-interest takes over easily. In some respects the book prompts sobering comparisons to various totalitarian regimes throughout history, as well as various trends in the present day.
On the other hand, there is an inevitability to the plot that made it seem, dare I say, boring. It’s not difficult to predict the outcome, and getting there feels like a bit of a chore at times — especially considering that there are no rays of light along the way. If your emotions are involved, it’s a sad book; if you only engage at the intellectual level, it’s an unremittingly pessimistic one.
According to one Orwell biographer, every detail of the story has a real-world counterpart. At the level of allegory, it’s that exhaustive. One admires Orwell’s thoroughness. Yet I wonder what the point is of creating such a painstaking fictional reflection of real events. Perhaps I would like the book more, and regard it as a better imaginative work, if it started with a “What if?” of some kind: What if one character had behaved differently than his historical counterpart did? What if one of the pigs had a conscience? What if…? It would lose its (sometimes plodding) equivalence with actual events, but it might be more engaging and affecting. If one knows the historical details Orwell is translating into allegory, the story really adds nothing at all.
Except, perhaps, to simplify and clarify. Which brings me back to the beginning: admiration, however lacking in real involvement or sympathy. I wonder how many people reread Animal Farm after their required reading in high school. I wonder how many people remember the book well. Having reread it now myself, I’ll be curious to see how often it comes to mind. It wasn’t exactly an enjoyable experience, but I have a feeling this book may haunt me enough to surprise me.
It will be awhile before I’m able to see the movie, but I have spent the past week or so reading The Book Thief. I realize I’m way behind the curve on this one! It was an unexpectedly powerful book to me. The first time I tried to read it (several years ago) it didn’t click; the narrator, Death, gave the whole book a morbid feel, and he seemed a tad too melodramatic. But I stuck with it this time and found its characterizations to be absolutely amazing. It’s the kind of book that makes me wonder: how did Markus Zusak ever think of this? How is such a story born, and how does it grow?
One review I read referred to Zusak’s “postmodern” narrative interruptions. Though they disrupted the normal sequence of events, I eventually appreciated these teasers, however heavy-handed. In effect they gave me something of the same experience as rereading, in which you know the plot of a book and find that suspense, or uncertainty about the outcome, are not the main things holding you to the reading process. As C.S. Lewis has written, “Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savor the real beauties.”
What did hold me to The Book Thief? Part of it was curiosity about the details. How does Rudy die? What are Death’s dark hints about regarding Liesel’s world ending? What becomes of Max? But most of it was that the glimpses of heroism were so compelling. Hans Hubermann, Rudy Steiner, Ilsa Hermann, and of course Liesel herself remind me that ordinary kindness in extraordinary circumstances has ten times the potency.
Although Zusak himself says that part of the joy of writing is simply playing with words, John Green in his review finds a way to reconcile The Book Thief‘s sometimes distracting descriptive style by tying it in with the chaotic nature of the tale’s fictional world:
Indeed, everything is upside down in Zusak’s Nazi Germany. Sounds are tasted, visions are heard, death has a heart, the strong do not survive, and your best chance of living may be a concentration camp. The entropy of this world is near complete.
…But it’s the kind of book that can be life-changing, because without ever denying the essential amorality and randomness of the natural order, “The Book Thief” offers us a believable, hard-won hope. That hope is embodied in Liesel, who grows into a good and generous person despite the suffering all around her, and finally becomes a human even Death can love.
It’s a welcome change from the dark stories most middle and high schoolers were assigned when I was in school. I don’t recall much hope in books like Animal Farm (which I am currently rereading) or Lord of the Flies or “The Lottery.” This book certainly has its share of darkness (as any war story must), but I would agree that I closed it feeling that the good things were affirmed.
It’s not central to the story, but I find myself musing about how I might respond to the idea of “the essential amorality and randomness of the natural order.” I totally understand why someone would see the world that way. For a Christian, the orthodox explanation would be that this world is neither random nor amoral, but rather fallen. It has been redeemed and is playing out a sometimes agonizingly long story of ultimate restoration. In the midst of it we continue to have wars and hatred and suffering. But as in The Book Thief, we also have real goodness, and love, and courage.
As this brief commentary by the author indicates, the story originated in a desire to capture beauty, even the beauty in war-making human beings, in a terrible time. I won’t easily forget the everyday heroes I’ve met in these pages.