On Reading Well:
Finding the Good Life through Great Books
by karen swallow prior
brazos, 272 pages, $19.99
In On Reading Well, Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior sets forth a thoughtful, nuanced vision of the relationship between morality and literature. This vision is based upon both respect for art as art and a commitment to solid Christian anthropology and morality. As she explains,
While the ethical component of literature comes from its content (its ideas, lessons, vision), the aesthetic quality is related to the way reading—first as an exercise, then as a habit—forms us. Just as water, over a long period of time, reshapes the land through which it runs, so too we are formed by the habit of reading good books well.
According to Prior, to read well is to read virtuously. “Reading well,” she writes, is “an act of virtue, or excellence, and it is also a habit that cultivates more virtue in return.” By attending both to the explicitly ethical content of literature and to its aesthetic form and experiential power, readers can grow in the practice of prudence, faith, humility, and more.
The books she analyzes span centuries and genres, from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Shūsako Endō’s Silence. Some of her readings may initially seem surprising or unconventional, but she puts forth convincing arguments for them. Prior models the virtuous reading she praises, attending carefully to both the form and content of the works she analyzes.
The book is a delight to read—challenging in its call to pursue a moral life yet charming in its invitation to immerse oneself in the imaginative worlds of great art.
National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy
by nicholas tampio
johns hopkins, 216 pages, $24.95
In this slim volume, political science professor Nicholas Tampio clearly and succinctly analyzes the kinds of curricula and tests used in schools in the Common Core era.
The Common Core (which affects “nearly every aspect of education policy”) was nationalized before anyone had tried it, “without real robust debate,” a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation informant told researchers. The Gates Foundation bankrolled Common Core—and supplied the Obama administration with several employees to push states into this initiative.
Tampio finds that such policy-making endangers self-government, which he approvingly calls “democracy.” Despite his progressive politics and education philosophy, his basic argument, grounded in James Madison’s cautions in the Federalist Papers, should be attractive to both left and right: “National education standards empower one faction to impose their education vision on the country. They alienate citizens from the local schools and civic life in general.”
He samples prominent education programs, revealing that “every definition of ‘minimal’ education standards is controversial. Reasonable people disagree over how to teach literacy, numeracy, science, history, and sexual health.” Thus, there are only two viable options: Force everyone into one system regardless of their differences, or allow people to make their own education choices.
Common Core supporters took the first approach. Tampio supports the second. As he explains it, “national education standards can create an educational monoculture that has bad pedagogical and civic consequences.”
The Collector of Lives:
Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art
by ingrid rowland and noah charney
w. w. norton, 432 pages, $29.95
Perhaps inevitable in a work by two authors, The Collector of Lives is not a single book—not even a forgivable two. It is three books pretending to be one, and as any of the too many figures appearing in it could tell you, without unity no work of art can be good or beautiful.
Collector of Lives is ostensibly about the life and legacy of Tuscan artist Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), especially the influence of his book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. That collection of biographic encomia and invectives laid and lays the foundations of art history. It’s also a portal to that amorphous thing we call the Renaissance. Therein lay the danger.
History is always how you frame it, but Europe 1300 to 1600 makes that painfully obvious. We can call Petrarch’s coronation in 1341 the start of the Renaissance, but that is four years after Giotto died (b. circa 1267), whom Vasari sets up as forerunner to his paragon, Michelangelo, who died in 1564. Meanwhile another historical set of events, the Reformation, has occurred—Wycliffe born around 1330, Luther’s theses in 1517, Henry VIII Supreme in 1534, Trent ending 1563.
Collector of Lives could have been a needed new biography of Vasari. Or it could have been a thorough examination of the composition and significance of The Lives, his greatest work. Or it could have used The Lives as scaffolding for a history of the Italian Renaissance, an in many ways arbitrary framing of one cultural and political upheaval among many, and been as discursive as it wanted to be. But unlike the polymathic Renaissance men who inspired it, Collector of Lives cannot excel at three things.
The Power of Images:
by patrick boucheron
translated by andrew brown
polity, 240 pages, $24.95
This well-researched review of political life in fourteenth-century Siena takes as its guide Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a series of three panels situated in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, the seat of the Republic of Siena’s magisterial council of nine merchant-banking oligarchs. The panels were commissioned by the council, “the Nine,” both to remind itself of its civic duty and to warn against the cataclysmic consequences of misrule.
Patrick Boucheron, professor of history at the Collège de France, is as much historiographer as historian, and Lorenzetti’s fresco, with its social, political, theological, aesthetic, philosophical, and phenomenological dimensions, provides him a sturdy springboard from which to embark on a long and winding self-referential meditation. His erudition is impressive, but readers unfamiliar with the period, place, or painting in question will likely find the book inaccessible. Page-long paragraphs, packed with historical minutiae, will delight scholars but put off the curious lay reader.
In the book’s final chapter, Boucheron, discussing a specious nineteenth-century interpretation of the painting, writes, “Are we following a false trail here? Probably: but there is always something to be learned from wandering from the straight path.” This line captures the spirit of the book. If the reader is willing to follow the author and stray from the straight path of history—willing, therefore, to scratch his legs against thorns and thickets along the way—he may discover new and fertile ground.
by moira egan
criterion, 120 pages, $22
The first half of Moira Egan’s latest collection of poetry, Synæsthesium, is a study in smell-induced memory. It is a volume of “geraniums exuding pheromones,” a sensual, often sexual collection which reminds us how much our attractions derive from the unconscious processes of our biology. For Egan, pheromones are “a luscious word I’m pleased to have just learned / in 9th grade bio.” Indeed. At times, the book feels like it’s been commandeered by a teenager practicing her new vocabulary. It’s a collection of gin, cigarettes, and musk as often as it’s one of “pink pepper, golden saffron in the rice.”
Occasionally, the verse feels almost bloated with this type of list-making, betraying the fact that Egan just doesn’t tackle that many discrete odors. Many scents, such as vanilla, are listed upward of three times. However, things pick up toward the second half of the book, in which the poems treat the work of French Post-Impressionist painter Suzanne Valadon. Egan begins this part with these lines: “She hates it when they tell her that her hair / Looks pretty that way, and that she should try / To act more like a girl. It isn’t fair.”
If we scratch the surface of this familiar complaint, we begin to see the crux of Synæsthesium. Too often when we say “beauty,” we mean “prettiness.” Egan, for all her grit, cares for beauty—that third, hard-won transcendental—too much to allow preciousness. Concluding the collection, she writes, fittingly: “This is the toll of love and gravity. / And yet you cannot disregard the beauty.” Though it may leave us longing for a bit more truth and goodness, Synæsthesium is a book for those tired of the saccharine on the one hand, and the sarcastic on the other, which so characterize our times.
The Great Pilgrim Routes of Britain and Europe
by derry brabbs
quarto, 256 pages, $40
Few undertake pilgrimages these days, and most who do use modern means to get there. We no longer walk or sail to Rome, but fly. However, ancient pilgrim paths still snake through Britain and Europe, and a number remain navigable. Derry Brabbs’s beautiful volume of photographs maps some of these holy trails.
A few, recently renovated, link sites associated with particular saints. St. Cuthbert’s Way, which opened in 1996, runs from the remains of Melrose Abbey (where Cuthbert spent his early years as a monk) to his grave on the isle of Lindisfarne. The Via di Francesco leads the pilgrim on a nine-day hike from the Sanctuary of La Verna, where St. Francis received the stigmata, to Assisi.
Most of the pilgrimages Brabbs chronicles are the historic ones. He maps the shorter courses running from Winchester to Canterbury and Rouen to Mont-Saint-Michel, but the long journeys are the most famous: The Camino Francés remains the most trodden pilgrim road of our time, at least from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees through the vineyards and fields of northern Spain to the bones of Saint James. Its spidery network of footpaths extends out across Europe, to Le Puy-en-Velay in the east (the Via Podiensis) or Seville in the south (the Vía de la Plata), with disconnected fragments in Germany—all still traversable. Most impressive of all is the Via Francigena, the walk that the tenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury Sigeric took from Canterbury through France and Switzerland on to Rome.
Brabbs’s delightful volume permits even the armchair pilgrim to marvel at how these routes celebrate the particular culture and architecture of small, medieval towns, all linked by the faith that formed and nurtured Europe. Pilgrimage uncovers the Catholic culture written into the landscape, waiting for pious travelers willing to make a difficult but rewarding trek.
by catherine o’donnell
three hills, 552 pages, $36.95
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774–1821)—popularly known as “Mother Seton”—is among America’s most honored saints, with many schools, parishes, and institutions named after her. Nevertheless, most Americans (even Catholics) know little about her, as general histories of the United States tend to neglect her entirely. Catherine O’Donnell’s superb new biography, a thorough account of Seton’s fascinating life and extraordinary achievements, remedies that oversight.
Drawing on a vast collection of primary sources, O’Donnell recounts Seton’s intellectual and spiritual journey toward Catholicism—a quest often complicated and even wrenching, but one that ended in genuine serenity. Readers will encounter Seton as a precocious child, young society woman, married mother of five, early widow, Catholic convert, and finally foundress of the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland—America’s first congregation of female religious. Through selections from her private journals and the memories of her family and friends, O’Donnell brings Seton vibrantly back to life.
What jumps out on every page is both how devout Seton became (after a brief flirtation with skepticism) and how quintessentially American she was. Whether it was her ongoing concern for her family, order, and students; her thrift and industriousness; her outgoing spirit and perseverance; or her ability to compromise without sacrificing her principles, Mother Seton resembles that friendly, generous, hardworking American neighbor we’ve all known.
Especially moving are the last few chapters, which examine Mother Seton’s final illness, her passionate love for the sacraments, and her longing for eternal life. There is a power to this book that will remain with readers long after they complete it, and I highly recommend it to people of all faiths.
—William Doino Jr.