Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tolkien: Notes from his Biography

What follows are my notes from an OUTSTANDING biography of J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter. I've interspersed some comments along the way that summarize some parts of the bio. The book is definitely worth reading. I borrowed it from a friend who said he had already read it 3 times and I imagine I'll read it again before long. I've already lined up a number of books he references in the bio to read, many of which heavily influenced Tolkien's thinking and writing, shaping what eventually became Lord of the Rings (LOTR hear after). Page numbers are from the bio. Most of my comments are in Italics (book titles are also in italics).

J.R.R. TOLKIEN - A BIOGRAPHY


ON MALE FRIENDSHIP: 53 - he came to associate male company with much that was good in life.. Started a group called the “Tea club.” Later changed title to the “Barrovian Society.” (name of place they met).

One of the major themes of the book, and I've heard one of the major observations of those who've studied Tolkien's life, was his deep need for male friendship. And anyone who's read LOTR or the Hobbit can see this pretty clearly. More quotes to follow on friendship - especially

ON BOOKS OF INFLUENCE 42, 54 - Beowulf, The Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Tolkien published his own translations of all three of these works). Volusungasaga (from the Norse) - Wagner’s interpretation of these events  lead to the ring series? (see note on p.77 on the translation).
Curdie’ books of George Macdonald
57 – Kalevala - or “Land of heroes” the collection of poems which is the principal repository of Finland's mythology. WH Kirbys everyman translation.
71 – Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon reader
72 – Crist of Cyenwulf - a group of anglo saxon poems. Two lines struck him forcibly from this:
“Eala Earendel engla beorhtastofer middangeard monnum sended.”
         (note: this is where the LOTR name “earendel” came from).

72– Valuska "prophecy of the seer rest"
77 – William Morris' The life and death of Jason (Morris’s translation of the Volungasaga), and a prose-and-verse romance The House of the Wolfings (both he found fascinating).

A note on these books and his love of languages: that was also another major theme of the bio. In fact, LOTR really flowed out of his love of languages and not the other way around. He also was versed in many ancient languages, mostly related to various forms of old English and nordic languages. He headed up various discussion groups, even with fellow faculty, who would meet to discuss works in the original old english and Ancient Nordic.

83 - ON HOW HE CAME TO WRITE LOTR: "G B Smith, after reading some of Tolkien's stories about Earendel, said that he "liked them but asked what they were really about." Tolkien had replied: "I don't know. I'll try to find out." Not try to invent: try to find out. He did not see himself as an inventor of story but as a discoverer of legend. And this was really due to his private languages.  He had been working for sometime at the language that was influenced by Finnish and by 1915 he had developed it to a degree of some complexity. He felt that it was a "mad hobby", and he scarcely expected to find an audience for it. But he sometimes wrote poems in it, and the more he worked at it the more he felt that it needed a "history" to support.

98 - B - William Morris: The earthly paradise (influenced The Silmarillion.)

107 – ON HIS FACINATION WITH INVENTING LANGUAGES: Not only did he invent languages for fun, he also toyed with it in his own diary: “After starting it in an ordinary hand writing he began instead to use a remarkable alphabet that he had just invented, which looked like a mixture of Hebrew, Greek, and Pittman’s shorthand. He soon decided to involve it with his own mythology, and he named it “The Alphabet of Rumill" after and elvish sage in his stories. His diary entries were all in English but they were now written in this alphabet. The only difficulty was that he could not decide on the final form of it; he kept on altering the letters and changing their use, so that a sign that was used for "r" one week might be used for "L" the next. Nor did he always remember to keep a record of these changes, and after a time he found it difficult to read earlier entries in the diary. Resolutions to stop altering the alphabet and leave it alone were of no avail: a restless perfectionism in this as in so much else made him constantly refine and adjust."

Tolkien's friendships were critical to his creative process. He depended on the men in his life to sharpen him and give him creative energy and feedback. His friendship with Lewis became so important that it even created a bit of jealousy with his wife. This started as a young man, having gathered a close knit literary group in college, a group that was decimated by the ravages of WWI.

147 – ON HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH CS Lewis - ‘Anyone who wants to know something of what Tolkien and Lewis contributed to each other’s lives should read Lewis’s esay on friendship in his book The Four Loves. There it all is, the account of how two companions become friends when they discover a shared insight, how their friendship is not jealous but seeks out the company of others, how such friendships are almost of necessity between men, how the greatest pleasure of all is for a group of friends to come to an inn after a hard days walking: ‘Those are the golden sessions,’ writes Lewis, ‘when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim or responsibility for another, but all are freeman and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life – natural life – has no better gift to give."

159 – ON MARRIAGE AND HONESTY - GREAT QUOTE!!! “Indeed he perceived that his need of male friendship was not entirely compatible with married life. but he believed this was one of the sad facts of a fallen world; and on the whole he thought that a man had a right to male pleasures, and should if necessary insist on them. To a son contemplating marriage he wrote: ‘There are many things that a man feels are legitimate even thought they cause a fuss. Let him not lie about them to his wife or lover! Cut them out - or if worth a fight: just insist. Such matters my arise frequently - the glass of beer, the pipe, the writing of letters, the other friend, etc, etc. If the other side’s claims really are unreasonable (as they are at times between the dearest lovers and most loving married folk) they are much better met by above board refusal and “fuss” than subterfuge.'

Good advice for sure. Every man needs a hobby - needs a productive outlet. Too many guys are bored with their lives. But they also feel the hobby takes time from the family. Make the time! It may actually give you more energy for your family.

165 - Bombadil metaphor: “Tom Bombadil was intended to represent ‘the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside."

Another theme of the book was his love of trees - and how much his love of trees shaped his writing. The Bombadil metaphor certainly points at this. More on that later.

167ON HIS WRITING FOR HIS CHILDREN: Tolkien would write out an account of recent events at the North Pole in the shaky handwriting of Father Christmas, the rune-like capitals use by the Polar Bear, or the flowing script of Ilbereth. Then he would add drawings, write the address on the envelope… and paint and cut out a highly realistic North Polar postage stamp. and he would deliver the letter in a variety of ways… leave in the fireplaces as if it had been brought down the chimney, and cause strange noises to be heard in the early morning, which together with a snowy footprint on the carpet indicated that Father Christmas himself had called. Later the local postman became an accomplice and used to deliver the letters himself….” HA! Fun idea

same pageChildren’s Lit: G.Macdonald’s Curdie, Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collection, E.A. Wke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs. Highly amusing!

168 – Book Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (and source of the name hobbit?)
171 - read his Arthur poem - “the Fall of Arthur” - colleague said, ‘shows how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English.'
173 – C.S. Lewis' "ransom" trilogy reread and get a copy!

175 – ON HOW THE HOBBIT STARTED - How the Hobbit started: “On a summer’s day… he was sitting by the window in the study… marking exam papers. Years later he recalled: ‘One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner) and I wrote on it: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like. But that’s only the beginning.’"

A good reminder that the mundane can lead to the exceptional. Note the "I'd better find out..." line again.

182 – compost heap - “One learns little by raking though a compost heap to see what dead plants originally went into it. Far better to observe its effect on the new and growing plants that it is enriching."
199-200 – procrastination story = "leaf by Nagel in the "brilliant! Also, "The Whitehorse”

ON PROCRASTINATION AND THE ROLE OF TREES IN HIS LIFE:
“He was fifty-one, tired, and fearful that in the end he would achieve nothing. He had already gained a reputation for almost indefinite procrastination in his philological work (i.e. his university work with languages), and this sometime amused him, though it was often saddening to him; but as to never finishing his mythology, that was a dreadful and numbing thought. 

One day at about this time Lady Agnew, who lived opposite in Northmoor Road, told him that she was nervous about a large poplar tree in the road; she said that it cut off the sun from her garden, and she feared for her house it if fell in a gale. Tolkien thought that this was ridiculous. ‘Any wind that could have uprooted it and hurled it on her houses’, he said, ‘would have demolished her and the house without any assistance form the tree.’ But the poplar had already been lopped and mutilated, and though he managed to save it now, Tolkien began to think about it. He was after all ‘anxious about my own internal Tree’, his mythology; and there seemed to be some analogy.

Eearlier in the book he describes an experience with trees as a boy... which I didn't capture here. The cutting of a tree brought great sorrow. This quote continues...

“One morning he woke up with a short story in his head, and scribbled it down. It was the tale of a painter named Niggle, a man who, like Tolkien, ‘niggled’ over details: ‘He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening odd dewdrops on its edges. Yet he wanted to paint a huge tree. There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out’

In the story, which he  called Leaf by Niggle, Tolkien expressed his worst fears for his mythological Tree. Like Niggle he sensed that he would be snatched away from his work long before it was finished - if indeed it could ever be finished in this world. For it is in another and brighter place that Niggle finds his Tree finished, and learns that it is indeed a real tree, a true part of creation.

243 – ON LEWIS' DEATH - He felt lonely at the lack of male company. Lewis died…. “so far I have felt the normal feel ins of a man of my age - like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.” He spent many hours pondering over Lewis' last book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer.

246 – Never a TV, washing machine or dishwasher in the house. Hmmm... 

259 – Best known inklings: Lewis, Charles Williams, Tolkien, also Hugo Dyson. author says to visit their graveyards.

260 – read "leaf by niggle” - excerpt LAST LINES OF BOOK: “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to catch. he gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It’s a gift!’ he said."





Sunday, February 22, 2015

Three stories on Eric Liddell

I've been researching some of Eric Lidell's life for a piece in a new product were developing at FamillyLife. One of the things that really struck me about his life was the surprising amount of parallels between Liddell's life and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's. Here's just a few of the similarities:

  • Both wrote a book about Discipleship.
  • Both focused on the needs of others while in a prison camp.
  • Both were in prison camps because of circumstances surrounding World War Two. 
  • Both died in prison just a few months apart.
  • Both gave up opportunities to save themselves for the sake of others.
  • Both cared more about obedience to Christ than wealth or fame.
In the midst of this research I came across three stories that I hadn't heard before and found particularly interesting. Of course many people aren't even familiar with the more fascinating second half of his life. Most only know of his "Chariots of Fire" fame. But after his Olympic success he went on to be a missionary in China, eventually dying in a prison camp.

Before sharing the three particular stories, I found the general testimony of his life to be a great encouragement. Especially his commitment to the daily discipline of spending time with God. Even while in the prison camp. One of his fellow prisoners observed the following (All quotes in this post come from a chapter in Eric Metaxas' book 7 Men):
"No matter how busy he was, Eric never neglected his daily time with God. Each morning, Eric and his friend Joe Cotterill woke early and quietly pursued their devotions together by the light of a peanut-oil lamp for beginning a long day of work." (P82)
There are many days where I find myself tired, frustrated, and scatterbrained. And I often lament having not spent personal time in Bible study and prayer. Sometimes I even blame it on busyness. But it's a great encouragement to know that even a man in a prison camp kept this a priority. If he can, so can I.

And now, Three stories:

Story #1: The Spirit, not the Letter

One of the things Liddell was most famous for was his stance on keeping the Sabbath holy. He would not run races that were held on Sunday, which was a significant part of the plot of Chariots of Fire, and most probably the reason why his story became so well known (can you name any other Olympians from the 1924 games?) But the following story speaks to Liddell's spiritual maturity and shows how he knew when to hold to the letter of this conviction, and when to hold to the spirit of it.
Throughout these difficult years, Liddell maintained his belief that Sundays should be reserved for God. But when teenagers got into a fight during a hockey match, Eric – to the astonishment of those who knew of his famous stand at the 1924 Olympics – agreed to referee the game on the following Sabbath. Joyce Stranks, who was a seventeen-year-old fellow internee, said that Eric, "...came to the feeling that a need existed, [and] it was the Christlike thing to do to let them play with the equipment and to be with them… Because it was more Christlike to do it than two [follow] the letter of the law and let them run amok by themselves. And for me that was very interesting because it was the one thing, of course, everyone remembers about Eric [that he would not run on Sunday because the Sabbath was the Lord's Day]." (P82)
Eric in Chinese prison camp.

Story #2: Hold on Loosely

Eric's sincere Christian faith was everywhere on display. Stephen Metcalf, who was seventeen in 1944, remembered one remarkable incident. Metcalf's shoes had completely worn out. One day Eric came to him with something wrapped up in cloth. "Steve," he said, "I see that you have no shoes, and it's winter. Perhaps you can use these." Eric push the bundle into Steve's hands. "They were his running shoes," Metcalf says. We can only imagine that Eric had been saving the historic shoes as a memento of his past triumphs, but in the difficult conditions of the internment camp, their practical value to this young man far outweighed their sentimental value to Eric. (P83)

Story #3: Women and Children First

I mentioned above that one of the parallels between Liddell's life and Bonhoeffer's was that they both turned down opportunities to leave prison in order to protect others. Bonhoeffer stayed in prison, even though he could have escaped, because he knew his family would have suffered if he had escaped. Liddell's situation was a little different, but he still was thinking of others first:
...63 years after Eric's death, just before the Beijing Olympic Games, the Chinese government revealed something that even Eric's family didn't know: Eric had been included in a prisoner exchange deal between Japan and Britain but has given up his place to a pregnant woman. (P86)
Part of me isn't sure how to feel about this, knowing he had a wife and children to care for. But of course, the other side of me is inspired and moved to live sacrificially as a result of his example. Either way, there's no doubt Liddell was an amazing man, firmly committed to Christ, and active in his love of others. I love it when there's so much more to the story than what the popular versions reveals. The things that occurred in his life after the Olympics are really some of the most fascinating parts.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Top Books of 2014

Another annual summary of the top books of the year. This year I had a goal of reading 60 books, but didn't quite make it, instead landing somewhere in the mid 50s. 

Anna Karenina – One of the most revered novels of all time. I was inspired to read it because of Teddy Roosevelt’s interest in the book (There's a story in Edward Murrow’s biography of TR describing how he read the book during a river boat journey while in pursuit of thieves). Definitely worth reading and a great reminder to not let sin grow, but bring it out in the open.

Command and Control – Recounts the many near misses in the atomic weapons program, centering on the tale of a missile silo explosion in Arkansas in the 80s (one of my co-workers lived nearby at the time and remembers feeling the explosion some 30 miles away). Fascinating read. Given all that is covered in this book, It really is amazing that there has not been an accidental explosion of a Nuclear weapon. 

Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry – Great, great book for putting in the hands of those who question whether one can be both for the preservation of marriage and yet also extend love towards those who would find a homosexual lifestly acceptable biblically. Allberry lays out the biblical case for traditional heterosexual ethic, and does it from his own perspective of being a same-sex attracted man who is fiercly committed to a life of celibacy. I had a chance to interview him last fall for a project we’re working on at FamilyLife and was VERY impressed with his compassionate, humble spirit.

Defiance by Tec – Reading this book was ridiculously inspiring and humbling at the same time. It recounts the brave leadership the Bielski brothers gave to hiding upwards of 1500 Jews from Nazi persecution in the Bellarussian forest. What incredible men! Made me feel very small, and yet emboldened to do brave things. You can watch the movie version of the book by the same name starring Daniel Craig. Very inspiring as well and fairly accurate.

Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards – Wow this book blew my mind. It was much more influential than I could have ever imagined. And I am under no illusion that I even really comprehended the main point of the book. In fact, most of it was very difficult to follow and tedious in its repetiion. But after completing it I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the soul and the various factors that weigh in on every motivation and decision we make. How ‘free’ are we truly? It deepend my trust and faith in God’s sovereign hand to guide me through life. Definitely worth taking the time to read. I read it with a couple of other guys (and was the only one of the three to finish it... and if one of you two are reading this I hope you feel just a twinge of guilt) and it was a great forum for reading and making better sense of it. I think this was honestly one of the most influential books I've read in the last few years in terms of understanding the human soul.

Bomb by J. Shankin – Tells the story of the building of the atomic bomb and also weaves in the espionage efforts by the Russians to steal the key program secrets as they happened. Written for a High School student, but a great read for anyone. Reads like a novel. Enjoyed the audio version during the daily commute.

Pensees by Pascal – one of the most widely read books of all time. Pascal’s theological ponderings are thought provoking and soul enriching. I read this in small daily doses over the course of the year (some of which are posted on this blog) and found that to be a tremendously enriching approach.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community by Wendell Berry - Not my favorite of Berry's books, but still good. I think the whole book is worth the essay from which the title is drawn (the last half of the book), as well as the essay on tobacco. 

A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry - Started reading this book because of a friend's
recommendation. He had heard Tim Keller say this book was the best single summary of why we think the way we do today. Written by an atheist French philosophy professor, you wouldn't know it (that he's an atheist) till nearly the end of the book, as he treats Christianity pretty fairly, even emphasizing the importance of it in shaping western thought. Readable, interesting, accessible. Need to read it again. If anyone wants to read/discuss, let me know.

Mastery by Robert Greene – Every young man or woman should read this book. It is so good at outlining some of the basic principles that lead to someone becoming a “Master” in their field. In fact, Greene presents these more as laws than principles, showing how they work time and time again, even debunking the belief that only ‘geniuses’ really become masters in their fields. Instead, he seems to make the case that those who work hard to become Masters in their field also become geniuses. Great read, though laced with some evolutionary mumbo-jumbo, but one can sort through that and still benefit greatly from the book. I was put on to Greene by reading some of Ryan Holiday (who reads like crazy and publishes an excellent monthly reading list – sign up for his email here). Ryan points to Greene as his mentor and as the man who taught him everything he knows about his research method. I'd put this book at the top of your reading list for 2015 if you are under 30. If that is you, then don't let the year end without reading it.


Other good books I'm working on right now:


J.R.R. Tolkien Bio by Humphrey Carpenter - wow. what an amazing biography. I love, love, love reading about his life. Most fascinating part about him is learning that he wrote LOTR to make sense of the languages he had created (and not the other way around).

Strange Glory - Another excellent bio on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In some ways I like this better than the one by Metaxas.

"S" by J.J. Abrams and some other guy - fascinating approach to a novel. Amazing design detail. I don't think I've ever seen a book quite like this.


As always you can check my Shelfari feed to see what I’m reading right now. The theme for reading this year will be “Book discussion groups.” Right now I’m reading 5 different books in discussion groups, sometimes only covering a chapter or two a month. They are as follows:

  1. Center Church by Tim Keller
  2. Instructing a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp
  3. Lost in the Middle by Paul David Tripp
  4. The Story of Christianity Vol. 2 by Justo Gonzalez
  5. Slaughter House Five (finished the book but waiting to discuss...)

Discussion groups are a GREAT way to trick yourself 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Bibles for a Young Boy to Read

A friend recently sent me the following email:

Hey John,

Was just wondering if you knew of any other Bible/Spiritual publications similar to the Action Bible
My son has read and re-read it a few times and recently asked us for a "new bible" that is similar to that one. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks buddy,

This is a great question because it's one I think a lot of parents worry about. How do I put engaging Bibles in front of my kids that help increase their interest in Scripture and pave the way for them to eventually read a real Bible? If you don't have an Action Bible, It's a GREAT start. It's like a Bible in a high quality comic book form. 

Here's how I responded....

Have you seen the Jesus Story Book Bible? Love that one.
It's not the same as the "Action Bible" in terms of the art and comic book style - but it is really good for the whole family and seeks to weave all the stories of the Bible together and point out how they relate to Jesus (instead of simply telling the major stories of the Bible as stand alone stories).
You can also get this version with audio CDs and a DVD. These are great for the kids to listen to as they fall asleep.
John Isaac also really likes "The Picture Bible" - definitely an older style, but it's great.
I know some families that also love the Lego Bible, called the "Brick Bible". I looked it over briefly, but never got a copy.
There's also an action bible devotion book. again, I've not used it yet. But I think we may check it out soon.
BUT, this week I got John Isaac the ESV Action Bible Study Bible. It's basically a full blown ESV Bible (all the same text of any other ESV) with pages from the Action Bible weaved throughout and kid-level study notes. He LOVES it. He's been reading it a fair amount on his own - much more than I expected him to do. And he's carried it to church. Prior to this he was carrying his Action Bible and a copy of the ESV (so he could look up the text the preacher was reading, but also read the Aciton Bible during the sermon). It's really turning out to be the perfect Bible to help him transition from a kid's story Bible to a real Bible.
 [Ok so there's even a "trailer" for the Bible - I didn't put that info in the email... but see a glimpse below]
On another note, I bribed John Isaac to read this kids church history series when he was 8, then again this year. He really liked it. Great to get this stuff in them now. Be aware that this is not a picture book format - much more like regular books, but all story based. Might try reading one of the stories to the family each week over dinner.
This one's great as well. Definitely picture based - aimed at younger kids.



Let me know if you've run across any other Bibles you like, (or any you don't for that matter) - and put your thoughts in the comments.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Only Thing to Fear... Is God

"Fear: not that which comes from believing in God, but from doubting whether or not he exists. The right fear comes from faith, false fear from doubt; the right fear is linked with hope, because it is born of faith and one hopes in the God in whom one believes; the wrong fear is linked with despair, because one fears the God in whom one has not put one's faith. Some fear to lose him, others to find him."

Pascal - p293

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pascal on true and false things

"Instead of concluding that there are no true miracles because there are so many false ones, we must on the contrary say that there certainly are true miracle since there are so many false ones, and that false ones are only there because true ones exist. The same argument must be applied to religion, for man could not possibly have imagined so many false religions unless there were a true one."
Pensees -p.238

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reading and Note Capturing System

Much of this blog is about reading and the joys of reading. One of the main reasons I read is to collect stories and tidbits and information and research that I can hopefully use in my work with marriages and families. And it is sometimes surprising what kind of stories can be applied to the work I do. While reading Plutarch I found this amazing story about Solon and the work he did to reform the entire government of ancient Greece. I condensed the story and included it in a product we developed for men to illustrate servant leadership.

For me, the key to collecting and finding excerpts from these books is a system I developed over the years. Recently I read Ryan Holliday's blog post on this topic, who is a well read young man and an Internet marketing expert. I really like his idea of using note cards, and I've begun to use notecards more frequently to capture ideas, thoughts, and quotes. I learned some helpful tidbits from him, but I thought it might not hurt to post my approach here as well. It's a system I've been using for the last five or six years and it works well for me.

So here's how it works: I start with reading a book, of course, and while reading through the book, this blue pen is always in hand (yes I buy them by the dozen). I don't use a highlighter because I can't write notes in the margins or in the back of the book with a highlighter, and I don't like wasting time switching back and forth between pens and highlighters. Also highlighters have a tendency to bleed through, but my trusty blue pen rarely does. While reading I mark and underlined like mad, and when I see something that seems reference worthy, I make a note on the very last page of the book. Sometimes it's a long note, but usually it's just the page number and a couple of words that point back to the importance of the quote.

Notes from the back page of The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll

I write it in the back of the book because I write with my right hand, so that allows me to not have to slow down so much that I have to put the book down and open to the front to write in the front. I have noticed that others like to write in the front, but it seems to go faster for me to just write in the back, on the left side. (Publishers, PLEASE leave a few extra blank pages in the back of your books!) Once I've completed a book, and I agree with Ryan Holliday and others here, it's good to put the book down for a few days, and often it ends up being a few weeks or months before getting back to it. A benefit of waiting to go back through the book is the things that once seemed important may not seem so later, thus time acts as a natural editor. In theory two or three weeks would be best, but in practice, when I have time that could be dedicated to capturing notes from a book, the impulse to read often overtakes the window of opportunity. Hey it's a terrible habit; an addiction that is hard to stave off at times.

Books, patiently waiting their turn to be lovingly grafted into the system.

The next step is eventually picking up the book and capturing the notes out of the back page. I used to type these notes, but now, with the wonderful advantage of voice capture on the iPhone, I am able to do this in the car, at stoplights, which really speeds along the process. Once I have the notes from the back of the book captured, I use that set of notes as a guide to work back through the book and capture the individual quotes, all of which I enter into a single word document.

Some of the note files
Once I capture all of this I place the doc in the file where I have all of these various book notes captured. The beauty of having it this way is that it is fully searchable. Ryan Holliday makes a great point that if you are hand writing these notes on notecards, then it makes it more memorable. Even though I'm a HUGE fan of writing, fountain pens, notebooks, etc., I haven't found handwriting on notecards and the potential ability that they might make the ideas more memorable to be worth the trade-off of not having these notes fully searchable on my computer. Inevitably what happens is as I am trying to write something for work or a blog post, a story or a segment of a story will come to mind. To be able to search that on my computer is much more valuable than having it buried in a box of notecards. Although in theory it would be great to have the notes in both places, I haven't figured out how to do that nor could I imagine wanting to take that much time away from actually reading.

I may publish more of these note documents here on this blog, as I have done before with Theodore Roosevelt and Bonhoeffer (still two of the most often visited posts). Just be aware that these documents are not  book summaries or a complete analysis of a book, they are simply a compilation of things I thought were interesting in the book and felt might be usable at some point in the future.

In theory it is best to only read one book at a time. That way you do a better job of tracking the argument of the book over time, and retaining a sense of the key thoughts of the book and a collective sense of the overall purpose of the book. However I find myself getting bored if I try to read only one book at a time. I tend to have 3 to 5 different types of books going at any given time. I usually read different styles of books different times of the day. In the mornings I tend to read theology or books that require more thought. Right now I'm going back-and-forth between Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will, and Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought. In the afternoon I read business or productivity books, or marriage ministry books. Right now I'm reading What's Best Next by Matt Perman, and What is the Meaning of Sex by Denny Burke. In the evening I read history and/or fiction. I usually like to finish the night by laying in bed and reading, but I try to only read history at that point. I find it to be the best way to wind down the day. I don't usually want to read most fiction then (though I REALLY enjoy a good novel) because I can get too drawn in and stay up later than I should, and I don't want to read something that requires a lot of thought and gets my brain stirred up again. I recently finished a Harry Potter book (I know, contradicts my above statement about fiction, but it was easy to put down, and I was primarily reading it to know what they're about as my son is reading them), and I'm also finishing up a long book on Winston Churchill by Max Gilbert. I tend to read just 10 to 20 pages of history a night, thus it might take me many months to get through a history book, but I enjoy it that way. One other thing I might do is have an audiobook going in the car. This can be fiction or history. Recently I've listened to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'engle (another my son enjoyed), Shadow Divers, and a Lance Armstrong bio. This week I started listening to a VERY interesting book on the making of the Atomic Bomb that my son has been listening to. Fascinating. I've read Richard Rhodes' epic book on the topic, but this book gives a slightly different and more engaging take (and probably much more accessible).

A tip to reading more for those who have a hard time squeezing it into their schedule: find groups to discuss books with. Right now I'm involved in three different book discussions, nibbling away at a few chapters a week in each of these books. At least two of the books are ones I probably wouldn't take the time to read on my own, even though I know I should. But the discussion groups provides a schedule and motivation.

Now, about E-Books: The above system is the reason why I read very little on a kindle or any other device. E-books are almost completely worthless to me for note taking and referencing. I do read a handful of books a year on a kindle app, but very few of which I highlight at all. The activity of writing in a book, flipping through the pages, and the speed at which I can move around a paper book FAR EXCEEDS that of an e-book. Digital books are too cumbersome to fit with this process. But maybe some day... Amazon, start by REQUIRING PAGE NUMBERS IN ALL BOOKS! Fundamentals...

Let me know if you have any tips or ideas on how to best collect notes from books. I'm always looking to learn.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Pascal on Peer Pressure

"When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board [a] ship. When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point." 

Blaise Pascal, Pensees, p.230

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Summer Reading Recommendations

If you're looking for a summer read, here's a couple of recommendations from my pile of spring reading material:

Shadow Divers: Amazing story of the discovery of a WWII U-boat off the eastern coast of the U.S. The fascinating part was that neither the U.S. or German government had any record of the boat in that location. Thus began a multi-year obsession by the two man diving team to identify the sub. As with any discipline that seems simple on the surface, the more you learn, the more you realize just how dangerous deep sea diving really is. A gripping and inspiring read for sure.


Defiance: Great movie, but the book sheds much more light on the complexities of the work of the Bielski brothers to hide 1500 jews in the Belarusian forest during WWII. These were decidedly manly men, giving of themselves in a time when most were taking. The discipline, rigor, sacrifice, and organization required to pull this task off is mind boggling. If that much energy could but consistently put toward improvement, not just survival, our world would be a different place. Definitely worth reading and reflecting upon.

Going Clear: If you watched TV in the 80's, you saw more commercials for "Dianetics" than you ever cared. You also learned that the author is "L. Ron" Hubbard, not "Elron" Hubbard. The book takes a critical look at Scientology, exposing the nasty underbelly of a hyper-controlling cult. Some of the bizarre antics of Tom Cruise leave one wondering what the group is about - this book will leave you wondering why any one in their right mind would ever be involved. Well written, researched, and infused with a personal touch.

Anna Karenina: Classic Tolstoy work. Difficult to ingest in places because of the moral self-destruction of the main character. But a great study in contrasts to see the comparison to Levin, who  many believe was Tolstoy writing himself into the book. Teddy Roosevelt took great delight in this book, consuming it while floating down a partially frozen river in pursuit of boat thieves in South Dakota. However for most people, I recommend reading it on the couch. Note: Pay the extra for the linked hardcover edition. A good translation is an important part of reading Russian literature. This one is good, and the quality of the binding and paper makes the overall reading experience, especially of a longer work, a greater pleasure.


You can always look at my current reads on Shelfari for ideas, and PLEASE share your favorites with me as well. I'm always looking for a good book.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Importance of Handwritting

Mom and I enjoy reading and sharing good books. She is also one of the very few people I still exchange letters with on a regular basis. Writing by hand is an important discipline to me. I often will write out first drafts of documents by hand, before transferring to the computer. I've long felt there's just something about the act of handwriting that can't be replaced by modern technology. It promotes creative thinking and a linear flow of thought, it slows me down in a helpful way, and it is a physical activity that gets my eyes away from the distraction of a screen.

Many scoff and guffaw at such antiquated thinking, especially with the rapid decline of handwriting curriculum in schools. But finally science is here to back up my assumption. Read this great article on the importance of handwriting to brain development, reading, memory, and creativity:

What's Lost as Handwriting Fades

Here's one quote to whet your appetite:
Two psychologists... have reportedthat in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.