Earlier this week, we finished reading Rowan Williams’s The Way of St. Benedict. Williams of course had been the Archbishop of Canterbury, and here he writes about St. Benedict and the Benedictines, as an outsider (at least of the religious order), but nonetheless still an impressively accomplished observer of the Rule and its influence. As a monk I must say it was heartening to read such a positive interpretation of the Benedictines and their founder. It makes for excellent monastic table reading, though near the end it becomes pitched at a more scholarly than general audience. This is especially true of the last chapter which focuses on Dom Cuthbert Butler’s attempt to demystify mysticism.
We recently read The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss. This also was a very timely book, given the centenary (1920) of the franchise for women being extended by constitutional amendment across the country. Until having read this book, I had not realized that Tennessee was the 36th, of a possible 48, state to ratify the 19th amendment, thereby making the franchise for women constitutional. Much of the book takes place in Nashville, but side-trips are also made to Memphis, Chattanooga, and out of state.
We recently read Mitch Landrieu’s In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. It was clearly a very timely book to be reading. While mayor of New Orleans Landrieu had to figure out how to remove Confederate statues from the city. This part of the book is quite interesting, but most of the book is standard political autobiography.
A couple of weeks ago we finished Lost in Shangri-La: An Oral History of Saint Anselm Abbey. (Just kidding.) We actually finished Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II. I must say that it is unusual for us to read a real-life thriller, but this one was effective even for monastery table-reading. American service men and women are lost in a hidden valley after a plane crash in Dutch New Guinea during the second world war. Despite some gruesome reading about deaths and gangrene in the early stages, the rescue itself amounts to a considerable page-turner.
Appropriately enough we have been reading Lenten-themed books at table this season. What could be more Lenten than a book entitled “To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience” written by a towering figure in studies of the Rule of Saint Benedict, Adalbert de Vogüé? This French Benedictine distinguishes between the monastic practice of abstinence (abstaining from particular types of food, say, red meat) from that of fasting (pushing back the time for the first and perhaps only meal of the day). Living as a hermit, the French monk has adopted the latter practice in his own personal observance, and in this book champions that practice against the modern monastic practice that focuses on abstinence.
There is something strange about reading at table during meals a book about fasting. I’m not sure if the prior’s choice of the book was ironic or inspirational. Despite its seeming inapplicability to the monastic life as it is lived here at Saint Anselm, the care with which de Vogüé treats the practice historically is edifying and worthwhile, even when your idea of fasting consists of eating shrimp scampi on Ash Wednesday.
Manifesting a bit of a French bias, De Vogüé locates the root cause of the modern day aversion to Benedictine fasting as the introduction to the European continent of the Anglo-Saxon custom of breakfast. Yes, breakfast is the culprit. I believe the movement to reintroduce the monastic fast will not arise from Manchester.
Our Advent reading began with Fr. Michael Casey’s Grace: On the Journey to God. Michael Casey, OCSO is well known to our abbey, having spoken to the monastic community here. We are also very familiar with some of his previous writings. I would like to single out his Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict, one of the best explorations of Benedictine spirituality. His individual essay, “the Virtue of Patience in the Western Monastic Tradition” (Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 1986; reprinted in The Undivided Heart, 1994) is also very fine.
At the beginning of Advent we finished reading American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley.
The book closely tracks Kennedy’s career and involvement with the race for space. With his death the book effectively ends, which relegates the fulfillment of his pledge to have a man on the moon by the end of the decade (and of course return him safely to the earth) to the epilogue. JFK’s career is interestingly paired with Werner von Braun’s, who not only worked on rockets for NASA, but also for Nazi Germany during World War II.
This was our second book in the last ten years on the space program. Recall, Craig Nelson’s Rocket Men, which we read way back in 2010.
Two weeks ago we finished If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years by Christopher Benfey. One surprising feature of this biography is that Rudyard Kipling was actually in New England for a good portion of this time, not so far away from Saint Anselm, given that he was living in Brattleboro, Vermont, in view of Mount Monadnock. There he wrote The Jungle Book! His time in America also led to the writing of the poem “If” and the novel, Captains Courageous. He arrived in the US in 1889.
The set-up of the book at the beginning is quite well done, as is the section on the writing of The Jungle Book, especially in the comparison of its human protagonist, Mowgli, with the later works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose central character was the famous Tarzan. However, this work on Kipling, while quite good, at times does not lend itself well to table reading. Its style may just be too literary.
At the end of Why Read Moby Dick, Nathanael Philbrick recounts the story of how Herman Melville’s friend, Nathanael Hawthorne, had written a campaign biography for the presidential candidate Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne and Pierce had been friends since their college days at Bowdoin. Someone quipped that the Pierce biography was Hawthorne’s greatest work of fiction.
Two weeks ago we finished reading Nathanael Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick. We have read Philbrick before at table, notably, Mayflower. This new book, a short quick read even at table, is an encouragement for you the reader, yes you, to read Moby Dick.
You will see if you keep following this blog that this is the first of three consecutive American literary books we are reading.