“Narrated by A. Square, Flatland is Edwin A. Abbott’s delightful mathematical fantasy about life in a two-dimensional world. All existence is limited to length and breadth in Flatland, its inhabitants unable even to imagine a third dimension. Abbott’s amiable narrator provides an overview of this fantastic world-its physics and metaphysics, its history, customs, and religious beliefs. But when a strange visitor mysteriously appears and transports the incredulous Flatlander to the Land of Three Dimensions, his worldview is forever shattered.”
We read this clever little novella in my book group. I was initially intrigued by the premise, but I’ll confess that I didn’t care for it at first. What sounded like a science fiction story appeared to really be a math puzzle. I like science fiction, but my brain rebels against math puzzles. As I continued to read, however, I realized that it was both science fiction and a math puzzle and, to my astonishment, religious fiction. I shouldn’t have been surprised, however, because the title page of the Project Gutenberg edition I read identifies Edwin A. Abbott as an English scholar, theologian, and writer.
When I saw that one of my favorite LibriVox readers recorded The Scarlet Pimpernel and two of its sequels, I decided to listen to them. The Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t great literature, but it’s fun, and I’ve been in the mood for light reading.
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Mark Twain (American classic)
“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”
Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so. Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage.
In April 2015 my book group read The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister. One of the fun things about this novel is that the school teacher in the story, Molly Wood, gives books to the Virginian to read. When he returns a book to her, he gives his spirited observations about it. His remarks about Fathers and Sons and Kenilworth are so intriguing that my group added those books to our list for 2016. Some of his comments—such as those about Emma, by Jane Austen—are about books we have already read. One of his observations is about The Mill on the Floss, a George Eliot novel the group hasn’t read yet. I wanted so much to add the Virginian’s comment about The Mill on the Floss to this post that I read it on my own.
I’ll warn you right now; the Virginian’s observation about The Mill on the Floss contains a significant spoiler, so you may want to skip down a few lines to Fathers and Sons. If you’re like me, however, you may prefer to avoid tragic surprises in a book and are more likely to read it if you get a warning, so here it is:
“Brought up at Dorlcote Mill, Maggie Tulliver worships her brother Tom and is desperate to win the approval of her parents, but her passionate, wayward nature and her fierce intelligence bring her into constant conflict with her family. As she reaches adulthood, the clash between their expectations and her desires is painfully played out as she finds herself torn between her relationships with three very different men: her proud and stubborn brother; hunchbacked Tom Wakem, the son of her family’s worst enemy; and the charismatic but dangerous Stephen Guest.”
The Mill on the Floss used to be on my list of George Eliot novels not to read. I watched a movie version of the story years ago and thought that the ending was so random and awful that there was no way I was going to read that book! In the years that have passed, however, I’ve read and loved several novels by George Eliot and come to trust her as an author. I decided I was ready to give The Mill on the Floss a try.
For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.
For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 2: The Power of Democracy), please click here.
Part 3: Babylon or Zion?
In the Introduction of Democracy in America, Volume 1, Alexis De Tocqueville declares that the democratic revolution of the world “possesses all the characteristics” of being “the will of God”:
In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a single great event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not turned to the advantage of equality. . . .
Whithersoever we turn our eyes we shall witness the same continual revolution throughout the whole of Christendom. . . .
The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress. . . .
If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence.
Tocqueville doesn’t speculate on why this democratic revolution of the world is the “will of God.” I, on the other hand, will attempt to give an explanation. In the Bible, we learn that there will come a time when:
When Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s he found a thriving democracy of a kind he had not seen anywhere else. Many of his insightful observations American society and political system, found in the two volume book he published after his visit, still remain surprisingly relevant today. (Summary by the Bookworm)
Genre(s): *Non-fiction, History , Philosophy
For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.
Part 2: The Power of Democracy
One of the key points that Alexis de Tocqueville makes in Democracy in America, Volume 1 is that democracy is a form of government that is extremely powerful:
“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system, Democracy in America—first published in 1835—enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character. Philosopher John Stuart Mill called it ‘among the most remarkable productions of our time.’ Woodrow Wilson wrote that de Tocqueville’s ability to illuminate the actual workings of American democracy was ‘possibly without rival.’
“For today’s readers, de Tocqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful. His shrewd observations about the ‘almost royal prerogatives’ of the president and the need for virtue in elected officials are particularly prophetic. His profound insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.
“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character. De Toqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful. His insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.”
Part 1: Introduction
Democracy in America is a classic that many Americans know about but few have actually read. I’m a member of a book group that exists to read this kind of material, and it took us ten years to finally be willing to take it on. The book’s length is formidable, and it’s written with such depth of observation that it requires time and thought to get through. Four members of the group made the effort to read Democracy in America. One finished the first volume and got part of the way through the second. The rest of us read the majority of the first volume with the intention of finishing it. All four of us were amazed and excited about the truth regarding America that we discerned in this book. All four of us gained a greater understanding of the origins of the United States, the things that make it great, and the underlying reasons for some of its current problems. All four of us want to put the second volume of Democracy in America on our list for next year.
“The novel tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her younger brothers and begins working as a saleswoman at the department store Au Bonheur des Dames. Zola describes the inner workings of the store from the employees’ perspective, including the 13-hour workdays, the substandard food and the bare lodgings for the female staff. Many of the conflicts in the novel spring from each employee’s struggle for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff.
“Denise’s story is played against the career of Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, whose retail innovations and store expansions threaten the existence of all the neighborhood shops.”
I found The Ladies’ Paradise to be interesting on several levels and incredibly thought-provoking. My thoughts went down a couple of different lines while reading this novel, both figurative and literal, and I’ll try to capture some of both lines in this post. The figurative one gave me a glimpse of Babylon that was unsurprisingly—yet disturbingly—modern. In this description of The Ladies’ Paradise, Zola compares the department store to a church or temple:
“Written at a time of social unrest, [Shirley] is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, when economic hardship led to riots in the woollen district of Yorkshire. A mill-owner, Robert Moore, is determined to introduce new machinery despite fierce opposition from his workers; he ignores their suffering, and puts his own life at risk. Robert sees marriage to the wealthy Shirley Keeldar as the solution to his difficulties, but he loves his cousin Caroline. She suffers misery and frustration, and Shirley has her own ideas about the man she will choose to marry.”
I really wanted to like this book and began it with that intention, and by the time I finished it, I did like it—I just didn’t love it. I think the reason was because it never completely captivated me. Brontë begins the novel by describing many minor characters in detail, and I had difficulty understanding which characters the story would follow, which made it all seem rather pointless to me in the beginning. As the novel and its underlying themes unfold, it does become just as much about a community of people as it does the lead characters, which gives at least some purpose for the detailed descriptions of the secondary characters. Structurally, this novel begins with a community in turmoil and ends as that community begins to come out of the turmoil. This struggle is mirrored on an individual level with several of the characters, in particular Caroline Helstone and Robert Moore. This observation puts into words what I believe is the overall theme of the novel:
“The Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
“God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot).
“God’s love and mercy can overcome all things—our ignorance, and weakness, and all the burden of our past wickedness—all things but our wilful sin, sin that we cling to, and will not give up” (George Eliot, Adam Bede).
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
“I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are . . . a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Moon by Night).
About the Author
Creator of spaced-out Christian fiction and clean-reading resources. See my BIO.