Weekend Digest 2020:2
Greetings, St. B’s Family —
This is probably my favorite week of the year — the days are still growing infinitesimally shorter until the solstice (I love winter — the darker and colder, the better!), Christmas is still out in front of us (I prefer my gratification delayed yet a little longer still, thank you very much), and by now packages have begun appearing under the Rectory tree. And some are book-shaped — my favorite kind! A while ago, I collected a wonderful word — Tsundoku: n. “Leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.”Those book-like wrapped shapes under our tree may add to my stack. I love the word “tsundoku” for the same reason I love the week before the solstice and the days before Christmas — it’s all about anticipation. About potential. I first came across the word in a review of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan.
The reviewer, Maria Popova, quoted Taleb writing about medievalist and author Umberto Eco:
Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and non-dull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.Nassim Taleb
Read Popova’s review >>> here. It’s an act of humility to build a library of what you don’t know. I thought about that often this year when we saw such divides in our country over issues of race, public health, politics — you name it; we found a way to disagree about it. The thing about books is not just that they can teach us truths. They can also correct misperceptions we may not even know we have. I don’t know who said it (Mark Twain?), but the quip seems more axiomatic to me this year than ever: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
If you have room under your tree, maybe buy yourself a copy of Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead. Jacobs is one of my favorite writers (his The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis was a gift from Renee last Christmas and became one of my favorite reads in 2020). Jacobs’ thesis in Breaking Bread is that life in an environment of “high informational density” like ours (we’re awash in a sea of information from Twitter to The News Hour) tends to produce people of “low personal density.” We’re whipsawed by the most recent “fact” we’ve encountered. Jacobs: “A World that seems to give us infinite choice actually makes a choice nearly impossible: the informational context chooses for us. And what that means is . . . our web of information determines what we love.” So he proposes we read broadly, and specifically that we read old books, voices from outside our time, speaking from without our presuppositions and biases. It’s a necessary corrective to our wandering hearts, a way to cultivate virtue, which Augustine called “rightly ordered love.”
For some shorter fare, let me recommend two pieces from Breaking Ground, a web commons collaborative between Comment Magazine and Plough Quarterly (both of which I ravenously consume when they appear in my mailbox), along with the Davenant Institute. One piece is by my friend Leah Libresco Sargeant, and the other is from her husband, Alexi, whom I’ve yet to meet. Both write beautifully and have turned their attention, in different ways, to the world emerging from Covidtide. Leah compares the current state of the world to life on a “generation ship,” a kind of interstellar ark traveling at sub-light speed, leaving our world in search of inhabitable planets off-earth.
A generation ship spans the wide gap of time between planets. No one aboard at the beginning of the journey expects to see the destination. They commit to the ship in order that their children, or their children’s children’s children will see and reach the promised end. Delivering on the promises of a generation ship requires committing to specific practices of stewardship.Leah Libresco Sargeant
Leah proposes (>>>here) an ethic designed not to make our lives resemble “normal” in the middle of a disaster but to enable us to rebuild better.
We aim to conserve the best of our old lives and to discover new strengths and traditions as we go. A generation-ship mentality embraces the continuing crucible as an invitation to become more deeply rooted in what matters most, to leave behind whatever evils we’ve allowed to accumulate, and to discover new gifts. We can’t narrow our vision to only work toward what will be won in one lifetime.
Or, as Wendell Berry would say: “Plant sequoias.” Alexi’s piece, “Small Apocalypses,” begins with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, quotes G. K. Chesterton, and ends with this beautiful resolution:
Let us wake up to ways the world ends every day, responding with compassion when we encounter others going through one slow-motion apocalypse or another. But let us also not turn a blind eye to the grace-filled apocalypses of first steps, surprising kindnesses, and new possibilities. Just because a baby, for example, is a small and ordinary being doesn’t mean she is not also an apocalyptic prophet, tearing with tiny hands at the veil that keeps us looking only at what is and not at what ought to be.Alexi Sargeant
Wow. Wish I’d written that.
God bless and keep you these long winter nights —
P.S. When you’ve worked through the playlists I shared last week, maybe check out this one >>>here from my friend Mother Beth Maynard. Any Advent playlist that starts with Johnny Cash — I want in on that.