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The Dastard’s Dictionary: From Spines to Spinelessness

Note: Yes, I realize that I have been terribly neglecting this blog. However, I am working on a master’s degree in history while working full time, and therefore do not blame myself. Blame may be accepted from other parties, however.

Appendix, n. 1. An organ which scientists once considered useless. 2. A section of a book which is still considered useless.

Appendices, n. A condition that appears after more than one appendix has been cursed with Latin. See appendixes.

Appendicitis, n. An acute condition that occurs in books with more than one appendix. Demands swift surgery.

Appendixes, n. More than one appendix, which form a word so awkward that people curse it with Latin out of pity.

Ballad, n. Notoriously difficult to write: ballad authors frequently struggle over which character should die first, and how gruesomely.

Bibliography, n. 1. Literally, “book writing,” but usually has nothing to do with writing a book. 2. Bible geography, for those with poor diction.

Dewey Decimal System, n. The elegant way of categorizing books, created by Melvil Dewey. He is not to be confused with John Dewey, who preferred categorizing people and then telling them that categories are evil.

Dictionary, n. While this book has never improved anyone’s diction, it is superlative for bemusing the plebian masses.

Encyclopedia, n. An Enlightenment conspiracy.

Free Verse, n. Enslaved to the whims of the poet.

Juvenile, n. Someone young enough to think that growing up is a good idea. This group is particularly fond of books that do not win Newbery Medals.

Library of Congress System, n. The inelegant way of categorizing books. As disorganized as Thomas Jefferson, its inventor.

Limerick, n. If the limerick had not been invented, / English classes would be less demented./ Blame lies on Edward Lear,/ Who was evil, I fear,/ And probably never repented.

Picture book, n. The result when adults draw in books on purpose.

Sonnet, n. Rather like a dream catcher, but for small boys only.

Spine, n. Vertebrates have a spine; invertebrates do not. By these criteria, books are generally considered vertebrates, and politicians, invertebrates.

Spine label, n. Used to mark vertebrates. Invertebrates may be marked with a “Kick me” sign if you can sneak it past security.

Spineless, n. Books falling in this category are generally written by politicians seeking reelection.

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Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

A Southwestern Western

Diversity appears in unusual places. When it comes to Westerns, the stereotype is that old Westerns included almost no minorities, and new ones have seen the light and are giving a fair shake to everyone. But I recently finished a book that, while unique as a “Western” then or now, breaks almost every stereotype I can think of.

Westerns are plot-driven. This one is episodic. Westerns include cowboys. Cowboys are only mentioned in passing. Westerns don’t focus on clergyman. The main character is a Catholic bishop.

LamyThe book is Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. It reads as a succession of vignettes based on one man’s life—Catholic bishop, later archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy (called Jean Marie Latour in the book), who was sent to New Mexico shortly after it was taken by the United States. I’m not sure how many were based on actual incidents in his life, but in any case, Latour’s background and experiences make for a Western unlike most of its time.

Latour is a Frenchman who speaks both English and Spanish. In fact, he insists that his household speak either English or Spanish, since English is the language of the Americans who rule the region and Spanish is the language of the Mexicans whom he spends most of his time serving. Native Americans come into the story often, as well. In fact, I estimate that at least half the characters in the book are non-white. Probably more. And of the white characters, many are not even American. In fact, the only important white American in the book is Kit Carson, who is presented as a complex character. Carson converted to Catholicism after marrying a Mexican wife (a historical fact), and he befriends Bishop Latour by helping him save the life of another Mexican woman, one who was being abused by her murderous American husband. Yet Carson also takes part in an attempt to force a group of Native Americans from their lands, an action that Bishop Latour strongly disagrees with. (Sadly, he can do nothing, even when a chief begs for his help—Catholics were, at that time, viewed as suspect by the United States government.)

Cather’s book offers a rarely seen glimpse of Southwestern history. Most older stories on the West focused more on areas farther north, where Native Americans were the original inhabitants. The Southwest included a far greater array of cultures. Not all Hispanics immigrated to the United States in the last century. Some have been here far longer. There were Hispanics fighting alongside William Travis at the Alamo. The Southwest has traditionally been a region of considerable political, cultural, and religious complexity, much of which Willa Cather chose to address in her novel.

Death Comes for the Archbishop isn’t a very entertaining story. There are adventures, but not enough of the building tension that makes for a gripping read. Yet it offers a broad look life in the American Southwest that can be found in very few early writers. If you want to take a look at the early West’s multiculturalism, you do not need to go to modern Westerns. Just read Willa Cather.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Remembering Christmas

I think that this is perhaps the first year when I really understood that you don’t have to be a commericialized Christian to get caught up in all the holiday busyness. It’s all too easy to be so busy doing good things, necessary things, and letting these days of Christmas pass by without much thought. Yes, I intentionally typed “days.” Traditionally, Christmas has twelve of them. And, given that I celebrate Christmas longer than most people I know, you would think that it would be easier to keep my mind focused on Christ. Usually that has indeed been the case. This year–I suppose the fault lies somewhere amid family obligations, an early end to Christmas break, and my own propensity to get distracted and postpone my devotional life until a few minutes before midnight.

So maybe the problem–or, at least, my problem–has been less about commercialism and more about simply being human. It’s why we have holy days, after all. If we didn’t set aside a time to remember the important things, most of us would have a tendency to forget.

I have never heard of The Giver being connected with Christmas, but reading it during Advent brought to mind the reasons behind Christmas. For those who haven’t read The Giver, it is a rather dystopian children’s story (although it really isn’t appropriate for younger children) about a community that has managed to nearly obliterate things like pain and uncomfortable weather. Everything is organized, including employment, and every child is apprenticed during his or her twelfth year. Jonas is assigned to a man he comes to call the Giver–a counselor to the community and the only person who “remembers” the old way of living, both the pleasurable things and the painful ones. When the Giver transmits all of his memories to Jonas, then Jonas is to take his place. But when Jonas and the Giver come to realize that their neighbors’ state of induced tranquility is harmful, they come up with a plan to spread the memories to the entire community.

Christmas–all twelve days of Christmas–was intended to do exactly that. And even though we all have a tendency to allow everyday life to get in the way of our celebrating the season with full attention, Christmas certainly does make us pay more attention to the things we would usually forget. At what other time during the year do we really sit down and make ourself think about what the Incarnation means? When else do we really ponder the great mystery of God becoming man?

Christ Himself came to make us remember. Adam and Eve knew what God was like, but once they were tempted by the serpent, they began to forget. Eventually most of their descendents lost much of their knowledge about what He is like. As G. K. Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man (a wonderful book to read during Christmas, by the way), many so-called polytheistic religions have a background of monotheism. Above all the myths–easily told to those with questions–there was typically a belief in a supreme creator god who ruled the lesser and more humanlike “gods.” But people rarely have talked much about Him–after all, they have forgotten most of what they knew about Him, beyond His creation of the world.

Christ came for a world filled with people who had forgotten what God was like. Even those of Abrahamic descent had forgotten a great deal about God, despite having the scriptures, if the Jewish religious leaders are any indication. The world needed to remember. What would it be like if God walked among men again, as He did in the Garden? If He gave them stories to tell about Him, instead of about imaginary gods? Jesus, “the image of the invisible God,” showed us. “He was in the form of God…but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6, ESV).

If Christ came to remind us, surely we should make more effort to remember.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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