July 2009: Books Read

1. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook, by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding. Since I went to a contestant tryout for the game show Jeopardy! in May, I’ve suddenly grown very curious about certain subjects that show up repeatedly on the show. Like Shakespeare. I took a Shakespeare class in college, but there were still lots of things I didn’t know about Shakespeare’s writings. We read several of his plays, but I didn’t get the overview of all his works that might come in handy if I were ever on the show. So I decided to get that overview from this book.

It’s a great book for the purpose I read it for. There are shelves and shelves of books about Shakespeare, but I found that not many of them are very good for getting plot synopses and character listings for all his plays. Also, not all of them have nifty color photographs, like this one. It also mentioned later stage and screen adaptations of various plays. I found it helpful for finding out information that I didn’t know about Shakespeare’s lesser plays (like The Two Noble Kinsmen, or Pericles), and also deciding which ones I haven’t read that I might like to someday (like King Lear).

2. Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life by Douglas V. Porpora. I picked this book up for free from the religion editor of the LA Times eight years ago. I had never heard of Porpora, but something about the title and a few pages I read stuck out to me. After sitting on my shelf for eight years, I decided to pick it up and see what it was about.

Porpora, a sociologist who teaches at Drexel University (or did, when this book was published), sets out to affirm moral meaning in a society where meaninglessness presses in on all sides. He seeks to call us back to our human vocation – or rather, to the idea that humans have a vocation that can be discerned and fulfilled.

While I found some aspects of his argument to be fascinating and dead-on, the overall argument I thought was weak and inadequately supported. It seemed like he meandered through a land devoid of meaning for several chapters, then mustered the energy for a final chapter that was meant to inspire, but fell flat. A big reason for this was that I thought he was not specific enough in what his call actually entailed. Will the idea of a human vocation (even if we do not know what it is) be inspiring or comforting for people who feel a lack of meaning or purpose in their lives? Porpora identifies himself as a Catholic in the book, and I was disappointed, as a Christian, that he did not enunciate the Christian vision of the human vocation. Even if he finally believes that the Christian view of human vocation is not the only one, it would have been more helpful for him to say something more specific.

Nevertheless, the book was worth reading for some inspired passages, like these:

The tendency is to think that belief in objective truth makes us intolerant of others’ perspectives. It need not. What belief in objective truth should make us intolerant of are those beliefs of our own we cannot justify. Unless we subject ourselves to such rigor, we entertain no critical thought and experience no intellectual growth. (21)

Secular humanism has been attracted to Judeo-Christian morality, but it has scrapped the Judeo-Christian cosmos that underlies it without putting anything in its place. Without such metaphysical grounding, rights talk threatens actually to become the empty rhetoric that postmodernist philosophers suppose it to be. (74)

Although atheists and agnostics rightly assess the objective evidence for God as inconclusive, they tend to forget that the objective evidence is not the only evidence anyone brings to the case. Even atheists and agnostics are also entering into evidence their own personal experience. It is just that in their personal experience, God is absent. (127)

For Jesus, God is our moral exemplar. Thus, if Jesus’ ethic were to be formulated as a rule, that rule would not be, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but rather, “Do unto others as God does unto you.” … Without either Jesus or God as exemplars of the heroically good, the Christian ethic atrophies into a banal norm of reciprocity, what we now call the golden rule. No wonder other discourses, those of utilitarianism or self-fulfillment, encroach on it. (165)

The real religious divide in America does not concern belief. It concerns emotional attachment to the sacred. There are those who are emotionally attached to God and those who are emotionally alienated from the God in whom they believe. (299)