What I’m reading (March 2009)

If there is one thing that can always be said about me, it is that I am actively reading something and normally more than one thing.  This post is a mini review of a few of the books I am currently reading or just completed.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Alder and Charles Van Doren

This is a book that I purchased a number of years ago in response to reading How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gorden Fee and Douglas Stuart.  I was a little put off by the size of the book and the topic.  I mean how interesting could a book be that was about reading a book?  So it languished on the book shelf for years before I recently picked it up.

To my surprise the book has been a very enjoyable read.  The authors distinguish between 4 levels of reading and concentrate on what they call analytical reading.  One of their premises is that reading a book can be approached as learning from an absent teacher.  Since reading is a learning task there are habits which can be learned which will make that learning more consistent.  It has been helpful to think about my reading from this standpoint.

The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith

This is a book that I started reading because I was intrigued by the author.  Galbraith was an economist in the 20th century.  He was a young economist during the great depression and was a part of FDR’s war time administration.  The book was begun as a study of the poor but wound up being a treatise on the rich.  But his intent in writing the book can be summed up in this sentence from the Introduction.  “There is no blight on American life so great as the enduring poverty in our great cities and of the still unseen poor in the rural and mountain regions.  And, of course, in the larger world.”

Not being an economist this book is a stretch for me.  But as I’ve read about the history of economic thought, as he delivers it, the book is making me question some of my assumptions about how things should be.  More will follow when I finish.

His second chapter about Conventional Wisdom, which is a term he coined, should be required reading.  Since I can’t require any reading I can only highly recommend the chapter to everyone.  This chapter is an excellent explanation of why politics, both election politics and the more general politics of relationships between people, has degenerated to its current level of triviality.

When Light Pierced the Darkness by Nechama Tec

The full title of this book include the sub title, Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland.  I ran into this book when I was intrigued by the trailer for Defiance the motion picture about the Polish Jewish partisans who formed a hidden village for Jews in the forests of Poland.  While I didn’t see the movie, and actually don’t intend to, the story was intriguing.  I found that the basis of the movie was a history written by Tec.  In looking at other books she wrote I found When Light Pierced the Darkness and I could not resist reading it.   I am very glad I did.

Tec wrote a compelling and captivating book based on her experience as a rescued Polish Jewess, extensive research, and interviews of rescued and rescuers.  Her goal in the research and the writing of the book was to try to find out what it was about the rescuers that caused them to risk their lives to save strangers in the midst of the Nazi Final Solution.   I think this is a great book.  I would recommend it to everyone.

As a trivial aside, one of the things I particularly like about this book is that, unlike many books I’ve read recently, it wasn’t summarized in the first chapter.  Many books can be adequately read by reading the first chapter only.  Not this one.  Even the final chapter with her conclusion included new ideas and not just a rehash of what had already been written.

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Nickel and Dimed

On Saturday I picked up the  book Nickel and Dimed written by Barbara Ehrenreich from the library.  I am currently in the middle of reading it.

The book was conceived, researched and writtne between 1998 and 2001.  If you will remember this was boom time in the US and the time of the Republican Revolution in the House of Representatives.  On of the very common topics then was that welfare mothers should be encouraged to work.   Encouragement was a euphemism for forced.

In that atmosphere the author decided to see if it was possible for a welfare mother to get an entry level job and “make the rent.”  So she picked three cities, and traveled to the city and looked for an apartment and a job without leaning on her actual work experience, education, etc.

I’ve finished the second chapter about her month in Maine.  I have been thoroughly engrossed by the book.  To be honest it is a piercing story and makes me feel completely lazy.  After all, here I am in writing about a a book I’m reading in the middle of my work day.

I have had a great concern for the situation the poor find themselves in, which is why I picked up the book, but it has opened my eyes to more of the reality of their situation.  One of the deadly things about our culture is the insulation we have from each other.  It is this insulation that is critical to the success of the whole enterprise I think, but it makes us all less human.  We are unable to see each other and our situations.

I haven’t finished the book and don’t know what I will do in response, but rest assured that it will have lasting impact on the way I live.

I also wanted to share my sadness at the portrayal of the church in Maine.  Not because I think her portrayal was inaccurate, but precisely because of its truth.  There are caveats that could be argued in the church’s defense, but ultimately we, speaking for my fellow Christians, need to own up to our blindness to the poor.

Honestly, I am a Christian because of Jesus.  There are so many layers to that, but a big part of it is the way he treated the poor and his promise that in the coming of his kingdom the social order will be turned on its head.  Maybe I said the backwards, it is because the kingdom will be upside down that he cared for the poor.  And he commanded his disciples to “Follow Me!”  I want to take that command seriously.

Of King and Lost Values

Since my surgery last week I’ve been doing a lot of listening. Mostly to “books on tape” but also to some sermons. I was loaned a set of CDs called A Knock at Midnight. It is a collection of 11 recorded sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.

These are the recordings that were transcribed for the book of the same name that I read last year. It has been great to hear the sermons this time.

In the first sermon a young King takes on the reason for the world’s fallen state. That is a shorthand for why there is crime and bad things happening around us in the world. Actually a very contemporary subject, even 50 years after the recording.

King sites those who say that the problem is lack of knowledge, or lack of understanding — a lack in what King calls our “scientific genius,” but he rightly points out that we (even in the 1950s) are more advanced in knowledge of science and philosophy than at any time in history. Yet there has been no indication of the problems nearing an end.

He rather points to a lack in our “moral genius.” King claims that there are moral laws, just as binding as the physical laws. He says that there are other laws that are just as binding as the law of gravity. No one questions that there is a law of gravity that must be obeyed. But we do question whether there is absolute right and wrong.

And yet there is. God created the world and set both physical and moral laws into governance. This seems to me to reach right to the heart of the problem. King gives two alternative to moral laws that we believe instead: that right and wrong is relative and that right and wrong is practical. Or said another way, we believe the the majority determines what is right (the everyone’s doing it morality) and that what works determines what is right (the I didn’t get caught morality).

This may seem a tangent, but I think it is bound up in this. Wednesday I listened to part of “Your Call” with Jonathon Simon as guest, who has been thinking and writing on the way America believes that the answer to most problems is to declare “War on ….” As examples there have been wars on cancer, heart disease, terror, etc. His particular interest was the “War on Crime” and it’s pillar of incarceration. Particularly here in California with our “Three Strikes” law. His premise was that incarcerating a generation of youth and young adults actually perpetuates the problem because the family’s of those people become bitter — continuing a bitter cycle. This bitterness results from long prison terms for three non-violent crimes, and because people are not getting paroled when their terms are served. There is a breach of trust with a generation.

So where does this fit with King’s sermon. It fits in at the point of violence. Violence is wrong, was wrong, and always has been wrong, no matter who is wielding it. Whether in the commissioning of a crime or the tearing apart of a family violence is wrong. The “War on Crime” mentality places all the blame on the criminal, for the crime and for tearing apart his family. But can it be this simple. If you believe that it is a war? Yes. War is us against them. If you believe that we are all God’s children? No.

There is no “them.” Only an “us.” Violence is wrong no matter who wields it. So do I have a solution. Hey this is a blog, I don’t need to have a solution. Well, seriously I don’t have one. But I do have a starting point. It comes from King. There is also a law of Love. What would happen if we started not with the premise of war but of love? There would still need to be prisons. People do commit crime that requires rehabilitation and maybe even punishment.

But if we actually cared for our brothers and sisters it would hurt us to incarcerate and would never seem to be a victory.