Summer Reading: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
This year, owing to the pandemic, spring seemed to slide effortlessly into summer. In terms of my summer reading, it has meant a bit of a delay in terms of my regular schedule. Normally at the beginning of the summer I take up Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. This is something I have done for about the last fifteen years. This year, I waited until just this last week to start reading ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. At first I read the Trilogy as a Christian morality tale, then as the reworking of a medieval saga. I now read it as simply a story which possesses a remarkable narrative power. I find this compelling in that Tolkien never allows a complex narrative to overwhelm the simple story of the conflict between good and evil. Perhaps there is a lesson here for those of us who wish to share our Christian faith with others, that is, don’t allow the complexities of theological narrative to overwhelm the story of the Incarnation and the simple truths taught by Christ himself.
One of the main reasons that I was late in starting my regular schedule, is that so many other books crossed my path and demanded my attention. One of these was Ross King’s new book, ‘The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance’. This last spring I had read Christopher Hibbert’s ‘Florence. The Biography of a City’ so it seemed natural to delve deeper! I started the plunge with another Hibbert book, ‘The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519’ and then turned to King’s book. It was a fascinating read encompassing a century in which the world changed, with that change being personified by a dealer in manuscripts in the street of the booksellers in Florence. One learns the labor involved in preparing a simple manuscript, acquiring an trustworthy exemplar to copy, a scribe and then obtaining all the needed materials – parchment, ink, leather, etc. – for one single book. During this century, the dissemination of such manuscripts allowed the reemergence of Plato after a thousand years of relative silence (Aristotle having already been “baptized” by Thomas Aquinas). The latter portion of the book takes up the invention of printing, yet also dispels a number of myths regarding that technological advance. As an example, more Florentines were literate in the age of manuscripts than that of the printed book. It is a reminder that knowledge does not always follow a straight line continually moving upward. Societies can forget what they once knew even as technologies advance.
For some lighter reading, I thoroughly enjoyed Ronald Brownstein’s ‘Rock Me on the Water: 1974 – The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics’. If you remember Chinatown, The Eagles, Tom Hayden, MASH, Jackson Browne, All In the Family, Linda Ronstadt and her boyfriend, Gov. Jerry Brown, this book is for you. If you don’t remember, consider it the cultural history of an ancient civilization! Objectively, I also had to question how much the American entertainment industry really does drive the culture after reading this book. The industry is about making money. Money is made by reflecting the culture that already exists and thereby affirming that culture, knowing that people will pay for that affirmation. All In the Family was not displaced as the top television program in America by another socially aware sitcom, but by the socially sanitized Happy Days. They followed the culture. They followed the money. In the end, culture wars are not about winning and losing, but about buying and selling.
In the area of theology, two books made their way to my bedside table. The first one is Brian Daley’s ‘The Hope of the Early Church; A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology’. While not an easy read, it is a lucid and accurate compendium of Christian writers addressing the “last things”. While so much current eschatology seems rooted in a semi-religious pop culture, it was refreshing to read the Church Fathers whose speculations as to the nature of heaven, hell and the last judgement were firmly based in the nature of God as revealed in the Incarnation. The other book is an old friend, Boniface Ramsey’s ‘Beginning to Read the Fathers’. Clear, concise and appropriate for any level of knowledge, Ramsey makes use of the Fathers in taking the reader through the great themes of the Christian life and core Christian theology. There is even a chapter on setting up a patristic reading program if you wish to go deeper. This, along with a timeline of the Fathers and a select bibliography, will make this one of the more useful volumes in your library.
Half way through the summer and a stack of books await my completion of Tolkien’s Trilogy. First, however, I have to make my way to the dark land and eventually say good-bye to my friends at the Grey Havens for yet another year, before turning to my other books and saying, “Well I’m back…”