Bare trees with branches, tentacle-like, grasp. Exposed bark. Leaves cling to a few oaks, green tinged with yellow, orange, brown.
There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. God has given us nature to surround us and wrap us like a garment, and I have had only a few moments of electrifying clarity in my life, always at the hands of an important book or nature. It seems no accident that mystics seek nature to sharpen their visions and their divine movements.
And perhaps there is a mystical connection with coffee.
Thanks to my parents for the blessing of their house, their little hermitage, their house tucked away in the woods that has often been a retreat over the years.
Macbeth is definitely my favorite Shakespeare play…so far (I am more widely read in Shakespeare than the average person, but I am still woefully ignorant of the entire Shakespeare canon). However, spending any time at all among Shakespeare’s works quickly enlightens us as to why the Elizabethan playwright is so profoundly famous and global: his fantastical use of history, myth, and folklore as the backdrop to his stories; his ability to tap into the human predicament with violent images and lovely romances; his wordsmithing and timeless passages. All these and more have made his legacy timeless. We may not all be the lovesick youth of Romeo and Juliet. We may not all be the desperate and revengeful Danish prince, Hamlet. But Shakespeare has tapped into the universal human longings for love and justice, the plots in all of our lives that merely take various forms.
This morning I was reading in Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden, and in his chapter “Shakespeare and a Christian Worldview,” Barrs goes into a more thorough examination of Macbeth. This of course summoned in me all the passionate emotions I have experienced during my multiple readings of the play. So here are five reasons why you should take some time to read Macbeth this fall.
1. The supernatural elements are great for your fall/October/Halloween reading list.
Witches, spells, curses, ghosts, visions of floating daggers, murder. Here is a fantastic backdrop for your spooky seasonal reading. “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” (4.1.10-11).
2. The Scottish setting
Scotland is the more rugged, wild neighbor to the north of England. The misty, green landscape is the perfect backdrop to the evil machinations of Macbeth. Though Shakespeare takes great liberties, there is a historical connection to the play’s characters.
3. The universal themes
Fate versus free will. The thirst for power. The meaninglessness of life. Here are themes that have been gripping audiences throughout all eternity. Biological determinism is a contentious idea today. Greedy capitalism drives men and women to do unspeakable things in order to get ahead. And sometimes we feel like the arbitrary puppets of a madman.
…[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. (5.5.30-31)
Basically, Macbeth uses vivid images to examine what is actually in humanity’s hearts. Your life might not be surrounded by royal bloodshed, but it does not mean that a battle doesn’t rage just below the surface of what’s seen.
4. The enticing plot
From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare’s plot moves quickly from royal prophecy to bloodshed to massacre to madness and finally to its gripping conclusion. Don’t be fooled by the fancy language; this is a fast-paced story!
5. The brilliant writing
Books have been written about Shakespeare’s contribution to language. He is responsible for penning new words and phrases that are still in use today. His ability to express the depth of the human experience in profound ways is unparalleled. Yes, it may be difficult for the untrained reader, but keep at it; there’s treasure to be had. Here is the expanded passage of the lines already quoted above, my favorite of the whole play.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.22-31)
6. The great adaptations
Okay, so perhaps I can’t speak immensely into all the adaptations because truthfully I’ve only seen the Michael Fassbender film. But I really enjoyed the interpretation. I felt that Fassbender played the part well, the cinematography was top notch, and only the original dialogue was used. It was a great treat for the class I was teaching last year. However, I still need to check out other adaptations.
Finally, if reading Shakespeare is daunting, I highly recommend the Folger editions of the texts. On the right page is the original text, but on the left page are thorough notes to help with more challenging words and phrases as well fascinating factoids.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door…”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
“To be, or not to be…”
Some famous lines of literature. A good quote has the ability to boil down a profound idea into a single statement. Now, in this 144 character, bite-size Twitter culture, I’m not always impressed with our faddish, weightless phrases, and of course one must be careful not to rip things out of context. Nevertheless, I still believe in the power of a quotation, a nugget, a piece of gold from the classic, literary treasure chest.
Thus, here I am justifying a new little side venture. Follow this Instagram account for daily literary quotations. You can also see the account on this blog’s sidebar.
This week in my online Renaissance class we are reading Christopher Marlowe’s famous play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. In the play Faustus makes a deal with the devil in exchange for a life of decadence for twenty-four years on earth. In addition to various other tasks, we were asked to analyze the continued effects of Marlowe’s narrative on contemporary culture. I chose SNL’s “The Devil Can’t Write a Love Song” featuring Garth Brooks as Milo, an uninspired musician willing to sell his soul for a hit song to Lucifer, aka Will Ferrell. Please enjoy!
[I missed a post last week, so this is basically a combination of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s posts.]
Yesterday I went to las cascadas de Juayua with some friends. We’re in the rainy season here in El Salvador, but if we wait for ideal conditions in life, we’ll sell ourselves woefully short. Thus, we plowed on and had a great time despite the rain. Unfortunately, the weather did prevent decent pictures. Still…
These waterfalls pour into crystal clear pools where one can relax and enjoy the surrounding environment (the jungle). I guess we couldn’t exactly relax too much since it was really cold, but we did have fun. Built alongside these pools are multiple tunnels leading to other pools. Though a little intimidating to plunge through a tunnel in the dark, it was a neat experience. We had a great time, and tried to stay dry, but most of our stuff got pretty wet. Afterwards we cleaned up as best as we could (I was directed to go inside this poorly lit house to change. As I walked in an old lady was moseying about and soon left. I changed quickly hoping she wouldn’t walk back in while I was stark naked!).
After the waterfalls we ate a delicious lunch and then visited Ataco (now my second time) to walk around and grab some coffee. There’s some really great wall art there!
As you can see, there’s a painting dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s work, El Principito (originally in French, Le Petit Prince). This work is significant throughout the world, but it is especially significant in this region of El Salvador: Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval of El Salvador, and Ataco is near Sonsonate, the departamento where she grew up.
I started reading El Principito to work on my Spanish. Here are a couple favorite quotes so far:
Las personas mayores nunca pueden comprender algo por sí solas y es muy aburrido para los niños tener que darles una y otra vez explicaciones.
Cuando el misterio es demasiado impresionante, es imposible desobedecer.
Finally, I’m also reading Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel for the first time. In his fifth chapter, Manning goes into great detail to discuss the exchange of grace and wonder. This idea of wonder I think accurately relates to my experiences in El Salvador as well as to what I’ve read so far in El Principito.
The spirituality of wonder knows the world is changed with grace, that while sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.
In the grasp of wonder, I am surprised, I’m enraptured. It’s Moses before the burning bush “afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). It’s Stephen about to be stoned: “I can see…the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). It’s Michelangelo striking his sculptured Moses and commanding him, “Speak!” It’s Ignatius of Loyola in ecstasy as he eyes the sky at night, Teresa of Avila ravished by a rose. It’s doubting Thomas discovering his God in the wounds of Jesus, Mother Teresa spying the face of Christ in the tortured poor. It’s America thrilling to footsteps on the moon, a child casting his kite to the wind. It’s a mother looking with love at her newborn infant. It’s the wonder of a first kiss.
I’m learning to live with wonder in the moment. Thanks for sharing in part this journey with me.
If you could spend a day as your favorite book character, who would it be?
I wanted to think outside the box a little bit here and choose a character lesser known than, say, a certain famous hobbit. Then it hit me: Anodos!
Anodos is the name of the main character in the Victorian fairy story Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women written by George MacDonald in 1858. If you have never read George MacDonald, you should. His stories are full of imagination, and he is incredibly influential in the fantasy genre. Many are unfamiliar with his name, but he rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous writers in Western Literature. C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, acknowledged his incredible literary debt on multiple occasions. In fact, George MacDonald takes the place of Virgil as guide in Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a modern interpretation of The Divine Comedy. Lewis would say this about MacDonald’ Phantastes in his own book Surprised by Joy:
It was as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. . . . I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness. . . . It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side.
In Phantastes the main character, Anodos, awakes one day to find himself no longer in his own room–he is in Fairy Land. The story follows Anodos through Fairy Land on his strange adventures as he seeks to escape the wiles of the spirits of the Ash Tree and the Alder Tree. At one point, even, he has confrontations with his own, evil shadow, an element that would later remind me of Ged in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series (another must-read for all fantasy lovers). I kind of felt like Phantastes was an adult Alice in Wonderland: more plot, less nonsense, and deeper moral imagination all amidst a strange, Alice-like journey through a magical place (this is an especially appropriate example since MacDonald was a mentor to Lewis Carroll and his Alice publication). I don’t want to ruin the story, but you must read it!
Therefore, the character I pick is Anodos. I want to wake up in Fairy Land and learn bravery and beauty and mystery through magical forests even if it is risky.
Yet I know that good is coming to me—that good is always coming, though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. -Phantastes
How about you? If you could spend a day as your favorite book character who would it be and why?
“I have come to believe that coming true is not the only purpose of a dream. It’s most important purpose is to get us in touch with where dreams come from…”
This weekend I watched a TED talk by Lisa Bu entitled “How Books Can Open Your Mind.” It’s a fascinating account of a young girl scorned from pursuing her dream (Chinese opera) and finding solace in books. Eventually reading also gave Bu the tools necessary to “re-start” her relationship with her parents. However, as the quote above points out, the ultimate benefit of reading in Bu’s life was not an actualization of her dreams but rather an actualization of her identity.
Through reading we live a thousand lives, and I believe that by surveying those multitudes we better understand our own. Books empower and they teach and they console. And in a sense, they allow us to live out those lives that our world won’t allow (our dreams). Furthermore, as Bu points out, even shattered dreams can help us understand ourselves better. Therefore (motivational soap box), find your dreams, find your books, find your dreams (yes, it’s cyclical). Even in the pursuit of understanding a dream realized or a dream dreamed, you will find yourself more deeply I believe.
Okay, okay. I know this is earth-shatteringly profound. But seriously, as cyclical a statement as this might seem (the way to develop a love for books is to keep reading but it’s difficult to keep reading without having a deep love of books), I’m learning how important this is. Here is my point: sometimes we challenge ourselves in what we read (as we should), but we hit a dry-spell. The gas runs out. We are weary (“even youths grow tired an weary”–Remember the Titans or The Bible, whichever you prefer). Netflix keeps looking more like a viable option to unwind. If this is you…QUICK! DON’T WASTE TIME…FIND A BOOK THAT REALLY APPEALS TO YOU OR DUST OFF AN OLD FAVORITE.
Keep pushing yourself in what you read…top shelf material. But if you’re reading game is getting a little dry then (to rip a Bible verse wildly out of context) REMEMBER YOUR FIRST LOVE! It’s okay to put something uninteresting down for just a little bit. I’m not suggesting that quitting halfway is a good, ongoing habit. I’m just saying that sometimes we need a little LTLC (Literary Tender Loving CARE…duh!).
I remember once I was reading this extremely dense philosophy book and, even though I was theoretically really interested in its contents, it was actually boring me to tears. But I felt that if I was going to read, I needed to be reading that book. The problem: I stopped reading altogether! Don’t let that be you. Plus, I can almost guarantee, if you’ll keep yourself reading in general, you’ll find a greater ease and desire to return to that top shelf material. So spice up your reading life!
Finally, here’s my personal reading template to use or toss aside: always I am reading one piece of nonfiction and one piece of fiction. Naturally I finish fiction novels much quicker than nonfiction (this may not be true for everyone), but I’m always reading both. Additionally, I mix up my fiction. This isn’t a hard, fast rule, but I usually go no more than two or three books in a row of either literary classics or contemporary fiction or even pop fiction. I want to read the canonized classics to understand why good literature is good literature (some of my all-time favorite books are more than a hundred years old). But I also want to read new literary fiction (Pulitzer type material) as well as The Hunger Games and other “pop” novels (aside: we’ll often find that “pop” novels have as much depth as “literary masterpieces;” they simply appeal on a different level).
So what story do you need to return to in order to fan that reading flame?
[Here is my first post entitled “Poetry Wednesday.” This is a pretty new blog to begin with, but this particular idea is fresh-outta-the-oven-new. I like the medium of poetry. I once heard someone describe dance as a pure art since dancers rarely get famous and the peak of a dancer’s life is so short (they’re bodies literally cannot handle the grind forever). So you know there’s something embedded in the soul that wills them to make art regardless of notoriety or even longevity. Similarly, I think of poetry as the purest form of writing because poets are so dedicated to their craft. They can’t NOT write poetry. You know this because poets, unlike serial novelists (potentially), can have no grand illusions of wealth/fame. It’s not that kind of field. But it’s important. I thought Wednesdays would be good since poetry has the power to lift us out of our stations and our weeks momentarily, to connect us with the heavens or to remind us of the hells… or all the in-betweens. That’s it for now.]
“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I was first introduced to Wendell Berry by a friend. I haven’t ever sat down and simply read through his collection. I’ve probably read about thirty of his poems, though. I pick them up when I need something. I often find the peace of his writing, the nature-ness of it, is a balm and a quite spot. I want to share a diversity of poetry, but this is one of my favorite poems, a classic, and I knew it would fit rather well as the first on this blog.
A band whose music I enjoy titled an album after this very poem, listing Berry as an influence. They are called Paper Route, and I’ve added a song from that album which I think captures some of the essence of Berry’s writing.
My reading list is BIG… REAL BIG. And it’s always growing. At times I make the mistake of going out and buying a book as a way of adding it to my list even if I’m not ready at that exact moment to read it. Bad idea. Because by the time I get around to reading the book, something else has been added to my list, and it’s jumped to the top. I have lists in my head, lists on my computer, lists in the form of purchased books on my shelf. However, probably the most thorough and consistent list I have kept is on Amazon. Thanks Amazon…because I don’t always buy those books from your website; it’s just a handy way to catalog the books I’d like to read. So I thought it’d be fun to revisit my reading wish list and see how it’s evolved (or how it hasn’t). Thus, I will share my five oldest added books and my five most recently added books, none of which I have already read. Some of them represent areas that I already know a lot about and want to know more; others represent areas both of ignorance and fascination.