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Matthew Schmitz

I've been reading Madness in Civilization, Andrew Scull's history of madness from the braying of Nebuchadnezzar to the battles over the DSM. Foucault, whose Madness and Civilization is referenced in the title, comes in for some criticism (inter alia, over his assertions that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a “Great Confinement” of the insane and that the reformist, humanist “moral treatments” that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century were a “gigantic moral imprisonment”). Despite these few jabs, the work is less concerned with scholarly correction than with laying out a sober, readable, general history—a task at which it amply succeeds. 

Julia Yost

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson's bestselling pop-history from 2004, chronicles the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the serial killer who did his thing then and there. Before there was Norman Bates, my children, there was the infernal hotelier Dr. Henry H. Holmes, at whose establishment on 63rd and Wallace many young ladies checked in, never to check out. But the Chicago World's Fair, in addition to a body count, gave us the Ferris Wheel, and Shredded Wheat, and Crackerjack—and these things turn out to be more fascinating, in Larson's tale, than the Ripper manqué south of the Midway. Larson does a fine job with the Great Men of the Fair: architect Burnham, landscape architect Olmsted, engineer Ferris, and others. He expounds their trials and their well-laid plans as they build their dream-city by the lake, forerunner of Disneyland and all our other magic kingdoms. Larson is a historian—so, a bully. He does less well when trying out novelistic tricks. He goes inside the Great Men's heads to maudlin effect, and he is lost when inventing dialogue. And if he is not a novelist, still less is he a crime novelist. His portrayal of Holmes is most disappointing. To write a really monstrous villain is difficult—but very important to do well if you're going to do it at all. The inner life of such a person is so different from ours, we simply can't imagine. Larson can't either: He gives us painstakingly the paraphernalia of evil, the dimensions of the crematory, the effects of chloroform, the vile blueprint of the horrible hotel. Otherwise the killer just gets on with it like any hobbyist, and Larson, despite his gestures at the menace (like a man shouting “Boo!”), seems more amused than appalled. His Holmes, a guy who may have killed two hundred people (!), seems less a fiend than a curio. Increasingly, while reading the Holmes chapters, I found I'd rather be getting more about (say) the tornado that almost ate the Ferris Wheel.

Having gained novel-length acquaintance with Larson's passable style, I turned to Nabokov's Speak, Memory. This memoir is the only one of the author's “American” works that I hadn't already read. Like all those works, this one is luminous, fabulous, hilarious. Awesomely plotless, it depicts the adventures and reveries of little Vladimir on his family's Russian estate before the Revolution. It may be read as a totally unsentimental, and deeply efficacious, defense of childhood. Young V.N. was not a remarkably nice kid, nor does he recall the grownups around him as paragons of anything (with the exception of his martyred-statesman father). But in yielding up his memories, he reminds us that all children notice things like this: Riding a train, young Vladimir watches out a window, “where the wires—six thin black wires—were doing their best to slant up, to ascend skywards, despite the lightning blows dealt them by one telegraph pole after another; but just as all six, in a triumphant swoop of pathetic elation, were about to reach the top of the window, a particularly vicious blow would bring them down, as low as they had ever been, and they would have to start all over again.” Adjust for the advance of technology, and tell me you don't remember seeing exactly that, on car trips. Then tell me you don't wonder why you haven't looked at the world in that way lately.

J. David Nolan

For a recent Thomist fest, I was required to read Lawrence Dewan, O.P.’s essay “The Important of Substance.” It’s a rich piece. His comparison between today’s pop-physicist-philosophers is particularly compelling, and his prescription seems right:

The Presocratics are always with us. We do not have to look far to find positions taken which resemble those reported by Plato and Aristotle. We need to rehearse the history because rehearsing the history may serve to awaken contemporary Presocratics from their dogmatic slumber.

Like the Presocratics, many of today’s thoughtful physicists can’t help but hint at metaphysics as they try to describe material phenomena, even as they can’t quite see that this is what they’re doing. This is not a tendency to mock. Rather, it’s a tendency that philosophers should encourage their lab-going peers to develop, with the hope that these scientists will eventually recognize that they’re trying to do two very different sciences—metaphysics and physics—not one. Once this distinction is clear, it’s fair to hope that scientists, and the people they influence, won't so easily slip into thinking that matter is all that there is.

Dominic Bouck, O.P.

“The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.” This is true enough, but it doesn't guarantee you're fighting for the side of truth and justice. Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls gets better with age, showing faces behind revolutions. It is also a fascinating look at the radical anti-clericalism of republican Spain which shed the blood of many innocent religious folk. But most of all, it's a great story. No one writes fiction like a tortured Catholic.

Bianca Czaderna

Heart to Heart: A Cardinal Newman Prayerbook is a compilation of Newman's spiritual writings by Daniel M. O'Connell, S.J, the title echoing Augustine's famous phrase of cor ad cor loquitor (heart speaks to heart).  Beginning with prayers to and reflections on the Holy Trinity, Christ, the Eucharist, and Mary, the compilation demonstrates the way in which Newman's vision of the dynamic relation between God and human beings, ordered by grace, animated his person and all of his writings.  A heart speaks to God's heart, then, not vaguely and formlessly, but from within the Church and its particular deposit of faith.  This speaking is particular, and, in its relation to the tri-personal God, it is personal, but then we find that this particularity, somewhat paradoxically and bewilderingly, frees us to such an extent that our only response can be to praise and give thanks. This compilation can help us along that way, and Newman proves himself to be a gracious and intelligent guide.

Matthew Young

As of late, I have been enthralled by Living in Truth: 22 Essays—a collection of essays both by, and about, the late Czech dissident, playwright, and president Václav Havel. The compilation volume, published in 1990 to celebrate the Erasmus Prize awarded to Havel, contains six of his own essays as well as sixteen essays from other authors reflecting on Havel’s legacy in Eastern Europe. Particularly moving, among all of the book’s selections, is Havel’s essay Politics and Conscience. Havel argues that totalitarianism alienates individual humans from their consciences, personal experiences, and the transcendent truths that all other existence is founded upon. Havel—who himself served jail time for his criticism of the Soviet regime—concludes that there is hope for truth, if we are but willing to die for it. Havel’s tone is passionate and compelling, with the weight and conviction that comes with his own experience as a dissident. He concludes that there is hope, however, writing “a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power…than do thousands of anonymous voters.” At a time when conscience and truth seem endangered by emotional pleas and demagoguery, Havel’s testament to the power of individual courage and sacrifice is an encouraging—and challenging—read. 

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