Monday, April 30, 2012

The Book That Changed My Life

Some time ago I received a phone call from the librarian at my local public library. She called to tell me that she had been looking over records and found that since the card catalog had been computerized about twenty years ago, I had checked out more books than any other person in my county. 

I was surprised by this news and also perplexed. All these years I have been seeking for something, but what? And why, after pouring through many stacks of lofty titles, did I still feel ignorant? 

I realized that it was time to submit myself to a list of recommended reading.

Lately, I have noticed a lot of literary bloggers referring to the moment when they "turned to the classics." It sounds like such a life changing, momentous event. And it is.

What I'll be reading for the next several months.
Classics are books which, the more we think we know them by hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them. -- Italo Calvino

How has The Well-Educated Mind changed me?

The first time I read The Well-Educated Mind, I was living in a basement apartment with my husband and two small children. I had dropped out of college to get married and I was starting to feel intellectual withdrawal. In her book, I discovered Susan Wise Bauer's advice for reading through five different types of literature: fiction, autobiography, history and politics, drama, and poetry. She explains how to read each type by following the tried and true method of the classical trivium. She quotes Sir Francis Bacon: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." --
[Bacon] was suggesting that not every book is worthy of serious attention. But the three levels of understanding he describes -- tasting, swallowing, and digesting -- reflect his familiarity with classical education. In the classical school, learning is a three-part process. First, taste: Gain basic knowledge of your subject. Second, swallow: Take the knowledge into your own understanding by evaluating it. Is it valid? Is it true? Why? Third, digest: Fold the subject into your own understanding. Let it change the way you think-- or reject is as unworthy.
Reading Susan Wise Bauer's words, I felt as though an older, wiser friend had come along beside me, offering to be my guidance counselor. I began to shape a plan for a dream that could be accomplished over my lifetime. 

Now that I have five children, allotting time for my classical education often feels daunting -- some days I don't get to it at all -- but I'm inching forward and the reward is always worth the effort.

I started out alone on my quest. I had never heard of a "blog" and I knew no one personally who was interested in working through the lists with me. A big part of the process in a classical education is conversing with a rhetoric partner, but I didn't find mine until recently. After I started Classical Quest, I did a Google search and discovered a A Classic Case of Madness, a blog authored by three mothers who are also working their way through the WEM lists. I had started with the autobiography list; they were going through the novel list. Switching lists midstream was not a decision I made lightly (the lists are arranged chronologically). But now that I've worked through two novels alongside them, I realize that I made the right choice. They put up new posts from our reading nearly every day and some mornings I start my day laughing myself to tears over what they have written.

The Great Books have been likened to "intellectual NordicTrack machines", helpful for preventing atrophy of the mind. This is a good analogy, but my favorite imagery is food --

I have noticed that readers of the classics always seem to have in common a love for sumptuous food. Perhaps science will one day prove that a refined palette and a love for classic literature are genetically intertwined; regardless, the analogy of food is a good way to describe what reading a classic work does for me -- It feeds me. Entering into "The Great Conversation", I have found I'm not eating alone. I am joining into a shared experience with countless others through the ages.

Some of what I have experienced:
Augustine’s Confessions, which contains some of my all-time favorite quotes, provided a buffet for my soul during a trying time. I have laughed out loud to the tongue-in-cheek humor in Moby-Dick which others have laughed at for 150 years.  I have developed a love/hate relationship with Michel de Montaigne after reading his Essays a few months ago -- yet, more and more, I find myself referring back to his tips for living a good life. I have silently wept over Uncle Tom's Cabin and thought: This is why this book started a war. And now I know by experiencing these books for myself, not just by being told about them second hand.
Books I've read since I started working through the WEM lists.

If you are interested in reading through the Great Books on the WEM lists, I would love to hear from you! I am in the process of compiling a "Well-Educated Mind Blog Directory", which I know will be a means of support and encouragement for those on this quest. 

You are also welcome to join me in reading any particular book on the list.  Please leave a comment to let me know!

To view the complete WEM list go HERE.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Create Your Own Life Story

Today I am pondering Moby-Dick in light of a new memoir I read this past weekend: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller. It challenged me to view my life as a story -- one in which I am a co-author.
Author Donald Miller found himself in what, Ishmael would have called "a drizzly November in [the] soul." Through the aid of two movie producers, he began to"edit his life into a better story."
Through the passing of a beloved uncle, Miller realized that at the close of life "If you [haven't told] a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died." He began to wonder if a person could plan a story for his life and live it intentionally.
Ishmael contemplated this too. In chapter 47 of Moby-Dick, he and Queequeg were weaving a sword mat. Ishmael used his hand for the shuttle and Queequeg slid his oaken sword between the threads. seemed  as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates... this warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads.

If I have a hope, it's that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the Story, and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as though to say, 'Enjoy your place in my Story. The beauty of it means you matter, and you can create within it even as I have created you.
So what's the basic structure of a good story? "A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it." That's it. 
What does it all come down to? Relationships. "Most of our greatest fears are relational. It's all that stuff about forgiveness and risking rejection and learning to love. We think stories are about getting money and security, but the truth is, it all comes down to relationships."
What's the point? "If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation."  One of the important questions I must answer at the end of each novel on the WEM list is
"How did the protagonist change?"
"The point of a story is never about the ending... It's about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle."
Miller wondered if:
...we were designed to live through something rather than to attain something, and the thing we were meant to live through was designed to change us. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Moby-Dick: The Experience

The goal of my quest is to obtain a more enriching life experience. (And perhaps become a little smarter too while I'm at it.) This is something that can be achieved through reading great literature. By entering the Great Conversation of the ages. I read old books to think great thoughts.
 We believe, with our technology, that we have reinvented life. But this is not the case. The gadgets that surround us are minor details, the essence of life remains unchanged. It feels the same to be alive today as it did a thousand years ago.
Hence I turn to the old classics to find new stuff to chew on.

For the next few weeks I will be sharing my favorite quotes from Moby-Dick. Starting today with a famous one from chapter one, "Loomings":

I love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts. 
I can sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts anytime with a good book. My family thinks I'm normal, predictable Mom, what they don't see is that I've spent the last month on a whale-ship hanging out with a cannibal who stabs his breakfast with his harpoon (among others).

If they only knew.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Grub Ho!

Not the Try Pots, but pretty darn-good chowder!

In Chapter Fifteen of Moby-Dick, Ishmael and Queequeg enjoy a legendary chowder supper at the Try Pots. As my completion of this lofty novel draws near, I thought it would be fun to mark the event with chowder for supper.

This recipe has been a family favorite for a few years now. Who can say how it would compare to the Try Pots chowder, but you can't really go wrong with an Ina Garten recipe.

Oh sweet friends! Hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishy food before him, and the chowder being surpasssingly excellent, we despatched  it  with great expedition... Moby-Dick, chapter 15,"Chowder"

My Best tip: I use lobster base instead of making homemade seafood stock. (This is a literary blog, not a food blog. If you want to make homemade seafood stock, knock yourself out: I'm going with the lobster base.) Be sure to add a 6oz. can of tomato paste and bit of thyme to the 1 1/2 tablespoons base/one quart of water.

Second best tip: Don't skimp on butter! The recipe calls for one stick, but last time we made it my husband slipped in a second stick when I wasn't looking. At dinner, I was raving about the chowder, how it was exceptionally scrumptious. Hubby-Dear looked sheepish. I'm telling you, you could butter your bread by dipping it into your bowl.

Third tip: You don't have to use the exact seafood called for in the recipe -- just some kind of mild white fish you like will do fine. Shrimp and scallops are a bonus.
Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes...