Archive for the ‘Biography/Autobiography’ Category

“A Reporter’s Life” by Walter Cronkite reviewed

19 April 2009

A Reporter’s Life by Walter Cronkite. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1996). 382 pp.

A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite

A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite

Published in 1996, Walter Cronkite’s memoirs, A Reporter’s Life, document an exciting life and career and reveal an engaging and decent man.  He begins, naturally, with his early life.  His childhood was a happy one and isn’t dwelt upon too much.  He quickly became involved with the media; he started out selling newspapers but rapidly progressed to being a cub reporter and then to more serious assignments.  He clearly loved the industry, writing fondly about “the heavy odor of printer’s ink and pulp paper and melting lead, and the building-shaking rumble of the big presses.” (33)  His journey to being the first news anchor and “the most trusted man in America” took him to Houston, Kansas City, Europe—including Soviet Russia—and other places, while going from newspapers to radio and back before landing on television.  Along the way, he shares a number of great stories and observations that are interesting and often quite insightful about how the news industry has changed.  For instance, he argues that competition between newspapers is good for accuracy: readers—and editors—can compare stories between newspapers, providing great incentive for the reporter to get it right.  With few cities now supporting multiple newspapers, this incentive is largely diminished or absent.

During his lengthy career Cronkite had innumerable exciting and unique experiences.  He met Bonnie and Clyde’s partner in crime, Ray Hamilton; he was also forced to vote—twice—by Boss Pendergast’s political machine in Kansas City; and he had a number of adventures in WWII, which he reported on from a number of angles.  He went on a bombing raid, serving as a gunner in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which require reporters to be non-combatants.  He also flew on a sub-hunting mission to Iceland and back; they bombed a whale, having mistaken it for a u-boat.  And on D-Day he flew with another bombing mission, but that time they didn’t bomb anything due to clouds.  Later, he flew into France with some infantrymen on a glider, which he doesn’t recommend as a way to go to war.  One of his best wartime experiences happened when riding with Patton’s Third Army to the relief of Bastogne.  Patton stopped his tank when he saw Cronkite riding in a jeep without a helmet.  The reporter had to sheepishly admit that it had fallen off… and rolled into a minefield.  Upon learning that Cronkite was a war correspondent and not a soldier, Patton simply cursed and drove on.

Like everyone of that generation, Cronkite was effected by his experiences of the war.   He expresses internationalist views, which are also influenced, I imagine, by his many experiences working and living all over the world.  He writes that:

The world is unlikely to survive a third world war, which would almost certainly bring universal nuclear devastation.  If we are to avoid that catastrophe, a system of world order—preferably a system of world government—is mandatory.  The proud nations someday will see the light and, for the common good and their own survival, yield up their precious sovereignty just as America’s thirteen colonies did two centuries ago. (128)

He doesn’t develop these views, and one suspects that his own views don’t extend much deeper than that to all the difficulties that world government would entail and the obstacles to forming one at this time.

Cronkite’s insight on the many U.S. presidents that he knew is very interesting.  He writes that, as many are now coming to realize, Eisenhower was not the lazy, hands-off chief executive that had previously been portrayed.  He says that Nixon was easily “the most complicated personality to occupy the Oval Office”, but the reporter got along well with the 37th president; Cronkite was later disappointed not to have made his “enemies list.”  (224) The author says Nixon’s successor, “President-by-accident” Gerald Ford, was “one of the more affable, straight-arrow presidents,” though Reagan “won the affability contest hands down,” (238) though Cronkite largely disagreed with Reagan’s laissez-faire, trickle down policies.  Some of his observations are more surprising.  For instance, he says that

Of the presidents I have known since Herbert Hoover, the best brain was possessed by Jimmy Carter.  I base this not on his political or administrative skills, which clearly were wanting, but on his incredible ability to read complicated material and file and catalog it in his memory so that it could be instantly recalled when needed. (225)

He shares an anecdote when Carter extemporaneously “delivered an excruciatingly long dissertation on the history of all agricultural supports with facts and figures relating to every increase in milk prices since World War I.” (226)  I also found Cronkite’s thoughts on would-be president Adlai Stevenson, who he covered during the ’52 campaign, to be interesting.

I became a great admirer of his intellect, his personality, his gentlemanliness.  I also decided he would probably not make a good President.  He was almost too bright, too humane, too liberal (in the best sense of the word).  He saw and understood, it seemed, all sides of all issues. (181-2)

Cronkite seems fair in his assessments of the various politicians he covered.  His own views seem to be pretty centrist; he refers critically to the right wing several times, but has nothing against Republicans per se.  He is also not a leftist, writing critically about “confiscatory inheritance taxes” that he had to deal with. (374) Various people at different times wanted Cronkite to become involved in politics by running for office, without even knowing his positions on the issues.  He always turned them down—including Senator Ted Kennedy, who wanted Cronkite to run for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1968.  Cronkite worried that “once there a prominent network anchor ran for public office, the people might suspect all news anchors of doctoring the news to satisfy secret political ambitions. (259)  He says “I can go Sherman one step further. … Not only if nominated, I would not run, and if elected, I would not serve, but if perchance I did serve, I would be impeached.” (210)

The chapter dealing with coverage of the space program was quite interesting, as were his dealings with Apartheid-era South Africa and the Middle East peace process, which was somewhat facilitated by one of Cronkite’s interviews of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.  Cronkite’s work also took him to the rain forest, the Himalayas, and 8500 ft. to the ocean bottom in the Alvin.  He also came close to going into space; he was one of 40 finalists to be NASA’s first reporter in space before the civilian in space program was ended when its first participant, teacher Christa McAuliffe, was killed in the Challenger disaster.

Anyway, all of that is sort of interesting and adventuresome, but Cronkite’s observations and views on the evolution of the media and its place in a democratic society are the most thought provoking parts of the book.  He points out that back when political bosses selected the candidates, they did the screening; but now that candidates are selected not by party leaders but by voters in primary elections, the role of the press is much more important—since people are choosing their own candidates, they must have the information necessary to screen those men and women themselves. (197-8)  Unfortunately, the evening news is not a good way for voters to do this.  The average sound bite for presidential candidates during the ’92 election was just 8.2 seconds, and “naturally, nothing of any significance is going to be said in seven seconds, but this seems to work to the advantage of many politicians.” (376-7)  Cronkite, who is most famous as the first news anchor  (indeed, the term was coined for him, but was slow to be adopted in Sweden where such people were called “Cronkiters”) is very frank about the limits of TV news.  “The nation whose population depends on the explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who can prey upon the semi-informed. (380)

The autobiographer at his CBS news desk

The autobiographer at his CBS news desk

He points out that Germans after WWII claimed not to have known the holocaust was in progress.  Since the press had been shut down, these claims have some validity.  However, Cronkite does not absolve them of responsibility, since the German people acquiesced in the Nazi dismantling of the press; they made themselves ignorant. (268)  He is also critical of British officials who maintained excessive secrecy during the Falklands War and American officials who did likewise during the U.S. invasion of Grenada and actions in Panama and the First Gulf War.  Most notably, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was criticized by the Defense Department’s own official review of press relations for “an excessive concern for secrecy.” (269)  Cronkite points out that a free press is important for informing not just the citizenry, but also the government about what is going on. (298)  The Soviet government wouldn’t have needed so many spies and informants in their own country if they’d simply had a freer press.

Having an informed public is very important to the author.  He laments the state of history education, writing that “understanding the issues on which citizens of a republic are expected to vote is impossible without an understanding of the past.”  He says that those who have an opportunity to impart this knowledge but fail to do so “can be accused of sabotaging the democratic process.” (28)

And another thing—geography!  They don’t even seem to be trying to teach it anymore.  Maybe, now that we are homogenizing the world via television and the airplane, knowing where you are and where you’re going and what the place and people are like wherever you are isn’t considered as important as it once was.  But surely this knowledge is fundamental to understanding our place on this planet, philosophically as well as physically. (28)

The book is a light read and the life reported on is an interesting one.  His stories about changes in the news media as they enter the television age are also interesting, and will call to mind parallels with the current shift to the internet.  The reporter’s observations and views give meaning to the disparate adventures he has and he’s a decent gentleman that you’ll be glad succeeds.  If you want a light read filled with true adventures, give this book a try.

“Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller reviewed

7 April 2009

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Thomas Nelson Publishers (2003), 205 pp.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I first heard about this book about three years ago when several of my friends were reading it.  They recommended it, but I didn’t get around to reading it until a friend obligated me by giving me a copy.  Anyway, the book is basically a memoir that contains lots of autobiographical material, and its subtitle, “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” is apt.

Like most memoirs, the book lacks a clearly stated central thesis or argument to push; Miller prefers to relate his own experiences and observations and seems happy to raise questions and get his readers thinking.  For instance, he raises the question “Why would God want to call Himself father when so many fathers abandon their children?” (His own dad played very little role in his life, as he explains.)  He proffers no suggested answers for his question—which is a very good one—and humorously remarks that “all the vocabulary about God seem[s] to come from ancient history, before video games, Palm Pilots, and the Internet.” (4)  One quickly realizes that Miller has a good sense of humor and it comes across well throughout the book.  (And in his other writings too. On his website, he says he’s going to use the money from his next book, which “might be the greatest book ever written,” to go into space.)

One of the book’s main themes, and the closest it comes to having a thesis, comes up early, when Miller is recounting his thoughts about the genocide in the Congo.  He writes that “Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.” (23)

The problem is not a certain type of legislation or even a certain politician; the problem is the same that it has always been.  I am the problem. … The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest. … True change, true life-giving, God-honoring change, would have to start with the individual.  I was the very problem I had been protesting.  I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM.” (20)

Miller says there is nothing more progressive than embracing the fundamental idea that the problem in the universe lives within us.  He develops this idea throughout the book.

Another major theme is the need for authenticity, or the need to be genuine, which is often hard to achieve in our society which emphasizes appearance so much.  He says that “Everybody wants to be fancy and new.  Nobody wants to be themselves. … If there was a guy who just liked being himself and didn’t want to be anybody else, that guy would be the most different guy in the world and everbody would want to be him.” (29)  Elsewhere he diagnoses one problem with our culture:

I think we have this need to be cool, that there is this undercurrent in society that says some people are cool and some people aren’t.  And it is very, very important that we are cool.  … The problem with this is that it indicates there is less value in what people believe, what they stand for; it only matters that they are cool.  In other words, who cares what I believe about life, I only care that I am cool. (105)

He laments that “even our beliefs have become trend statements.  We don’t even believe things because we believe them anymore.  We only believe things because they are cool things to believe.” (107)  He goes on to say that true belief requires commitment and costs something, as opposed to the cheap, trendy variety.  He adds that if you believe something passionately, regardless of what it is and whether it is right or wrong, people will follow you, “because they think you know something they don’t, some clue to the meaning of the universe.” (109)  That’s one reason why believing things that are true is so important.  He adds that “if we believed the right things, the true things, there wouldn’t be very many problems on earth,” like the genocide in the Congo. (107)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Much of the book details Miller’s adventures among people who are not only not Christians but are actively suspicious of them.  He discusses his time at Reed College, which is known for its secular and libertine culture.  He and others from the school’s small Christian community set up a “Confession Booth” on campus during the annual Bacchanalia.  The twist was that they confessed to the students who came in, not vice versa.  They apologized for not living up to the message of Jesus and for ways in which Christians have historically not been very Christlike.  His observations from the time he spent with the hippies in the woods are also interesting. One passage I found very powerful concerned a student at Reed College who had a speech impediment and a question that Miller fielded from someone asking how he could deal with all the immorality at the school.  He writes that

I never thought of Reed as an immoral place, and I suppose I never thought of it as an immoral place because somebody like Nathan can go there and talk like Elmer Fudd, and nobody will ever make fun of him.  And if Nathan were to go to my church, which I love and would give my life for, he would unfortunately be made fun of by somebody somewhere, behind his back and all, but it would happen, and that is such a tragic crime. (224-5)

He describes his experiences living alone and living with a group of other guys, saying he finds it “interesting that God designed people to need other people.” (154) Miller stresses community a lot throughout the book.  He describes hell as “a place where a person is completely alone, without others and without God,” (171) which contrasts with Jean-Paul Sarte’s view that “hell is other people.” (226)  He says that “the words alone, lonely, and loneliness are three of the most powerful words in the English language. … These words say that we are human; they are like the words hunger and thirst. But they are not words about the body, they are words about the soul. … Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body” (152)

Miller stresses love for others, not coincidentally, just like Jesus did.  He writes “I think love is a bit of heaven,” (cf. his description of hell) and says that when he was in love “there was somebody in the world who was more important than me.” (151) He stresses that we shouldn’t love others in order for them to like or love us, or in order to get anything whatsoever from him.  He said he hated the idea of befriending people in order to get them to go to his church—but he liked the idea of loving people just to love them, with no other motives attached. (135)  The passage on page 150 which concludes the 13th chapter is also informative on this topic.

Towards the end of the book Miller deals just a bit more directly with the topic of God and our relationship to the divine.  “It comforts me to think that if we are created beings, the thing that created us would have to be greater than us, so much greater, in fact, that we would not be able to understand it.” (201)  He says that in the face of such “big beauty” we have two choices: terror or awe; he recommends the later, adding “I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.” (204, 206)

Don Miller suggests, but rarely directly states, a lot of good questions in the book, mostly concerning how the church has screwed up, is marginalizing itself, and is detracting from what should be its very powerful—and important—message.  But sometimes I wish he’d come out and be a bit more straightforward with criticisms and critiques.  Still, this is a good book for anyone, Christian or not, to read in order to have their view of what Christianity is and can be shaken up just a bit; it’ll keep people thinking.  The book is a light read; his writing style is conversational (as demonstrated) and humorous; the book doesn’t deal with deep metaphysical or theological topics; it is very practical.  It’s also short, at just 205 real pages, so few will have excuses.  Especially if a friend gives them a copy.  Recommended for anyone who wants an introduction to the new emergent movement within American Christianity.

“Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: 1905-1931” reviewed

3 April 2009

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: Family Letters: 1905-1931. Edited by Walter Hooper. Harper Collins. 983 pp.

Volume I of III

Volume I of III

At 983 pages, excluding the helpful biographical appendix, this is a pretty big book—and it’s just the first of three volumes of C. S. Lewis’s collected letters.  The man wrote a lot and this volume contains 95% of the extant letters that he wrote between 1905, when he was seven years old, and the fall of 1931, shortly after his conversion to Christianity.  While tedious at places, it contains interesting biographical details and accounts of his early life and reveals an impressive intellect and strong personality.

Much of the material is, of course, quite quotidian.  One letter, sent from school in January 1915 to his father, says “Yes; I did change my socks. No; there are no holes in my shoes. Yes, thanks, I have plenty of warm underclothing.” (101)  Almost half of the letters in the first 200 pages were sent to his father and until he became a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford requests for funds were a staple of his letters, along with itemized lists of expenses for which the money was needed.  His father, a solicitor, once apparently suspected Jack (as all of C. S. Lewis’s friends and family members called him) of cheating him out of about £1 and Lewis wrote a point-by-point letter arguing that the charge was illogical and contrary to the facts;  it was  probably more than what was called for (see p. 135-6).

The author’s mother died when he was ten and when reading his letters to his father, one wishes to have the other half of the conversation and to know more about just what sort of relationship they had.  Lewis wasn’t above pointing out how smart he was.  To his father he says he  “often wonder[s] how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?” (85).  They often debated abstract matters, Lewis once claiming that “no further disputation is possible after my crushing and exhaustive demonstration” (93) and elsewhere that “one of these days you will come round and ‘see my point'” (213).  These seem likes things one would write to an equal, not a parent.

Probably 90% of the letters in the first third of the book are either to his father or to his lifelong best friend, Arthur Greeves, with whom he shared many interests in music and literature.  Lewis similarly thought he won all of the arguments with Arthur: “How funny that I always prove everything I want in argument with you but never convince you! … be good and talk sense the next time you do me the honour of arguing with me” (129-130).  Of course, their relationship was very close and their philosophical conversations were vigorous but never mean spirited.  Some of the most interesting exchanges they had concerned religion and Christianity.  Lewis was, of course, an atheist from the age at which he was first able to form his own beliefs and make his own decisions and Arthur was a Christian, though he played relatively little direct role in Lewis’s later conversion.  The two best letters to examine for Lewis’s beliefs at this period are the ones to Greeves dated 12 October 1916 and its follow up dated 18 October of the same year.  To quote the former at length:

You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.  All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention—Christ as much as Loki. …

… Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it, though usually outwardly conceding it for convenience.  … ones views on religious subjects don’t make any difference in morals, of course. A good member of society must of course try to be honest, chaste, truthful, kindly etc: these are things we owe to our own manhood & dignity and not to any imagined god or gods.

Of course, mind you, I am not laying down as a certainty that there is nothing outside the material world: considering the discoveries that are always being made, this would be foolish. Anything MAY exist: but until we know that it does, we can’t make any assumptions.  The universe is an absolute mystery: man has mad many guesses at it, but the answer is yet to seek.

Lewis also pointed out how ideas of God evolved throughout the Hebrew scriptures from a tribal diety to a universal one (206) and often took opportunities to tweak Arthur, for instance pointing out that another person is “a rather violent athiest, so I suppose I shall meet him by ‘the fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” (240).

Lewis in 1947

Lewis in 1947

These disagreements notwithstanding, Lewis and Greeves had much in common.  Many of their letters involved planning visits to each other, and discussing the good times they enjoyed in each other’s company.  And it is almost disconcerting the vast number of books that Lewis mentions reading in his letters and the analysis he brings to them, frequently recommending works to Arthur. Lewis was not found of Thucydides, who he called “a desperately dull and tedious Greek historian” (145)—an assessment I disagree with—and also disliked Cicero and Demosthenes.  He did, however, enjoy The Histories of Herodotus, who he said pleasantly combined both history and romance (284), and also recommended The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (447).

The volume also contains a smattering of references to historical events, such as the appearance of Comet Halley in 1910 (14), the Battle of Jutland (204), and the 1918 influenza epidemic (416, 430, 442).  Regarding World War I, Lewis echoes the sentiments of his tutor, William Kirkpatrick (the inspiration for the Professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) and wrote in 1914, when the war was only three months old, that

one of the most serious consequences of this war is what Kirk calls ‘the survival of the unfittest'[.] All those who have the courage to do so and are physically sound, are going off to be shot: those who survive are moral and physical weeds—a fact which does not promise favorably for the next generation.

(Lewis would follow his older brother, Warnie, into the army and was injured in combat.)  Anyway, Lewis seemed to be something of an elitist, which is perhaps easier to understand if one remembers his privileged upbringing and education.  For instance, he criticizes a list of the 100 best books, saying he “abominate[s] such culture for the many, such tastes ready made, such standardization of the brain” (581) and elsewhere praises aristocrats for “having tradition in [their] outlook” and rues “the influx of commercial democracy” (746).  But a few months later he writes that “the aristocracy was not a bit better than the plutocracy that has replaced it” (772).  And while he evinces some disdain for socialism in several letters (see pp. 441 and 544), he wrote Arthur in 1917 saying “I am a bundle of contradictions, but I must say socialism does interest me.”

When you think of the way labourers in the factory live at home,—men & women slaving from half past five in the morning to six at night at hard, monotonous work in hideous rooms full of shrieking machinery year after year, with never a moments pleasure except when they are drunk (and you can’t blame them) it really does make you feel that the whole thing is wrong. Are you ashamed to think of us], blessed prigs, with our books and music and little grumbles about nothing, dawdling along … while half or more than half the people are slaves.  As much slaves as ever there were in Rome, their only liberty being to starve when the torture becomes unbearable!

Like all of us, C. S. Lewis was a product of his own time.  Thus, some of his letters from this period seem to reflect some of the racial views held by many of the time.  When writing to his brother who was serving in the Army in Sierra Leone, Lewis wrote “What a queer thing that black man … is: he’s been there as long as anyone else and has never adapted on quarter of a step.  Perhaps the really strange thing is that others have” (538).  Elsewhere, he refers to “an atrocious little blackguard of a French nouveau riche boy with negro blood in him and the manners of a swine” (613) and is critical of Chinese culture (see pp. 710-11 & 720n).

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

He was also not entirely comfortable around women, again probably because of his upbringing (his mother died in his childhood, he had no sisters, and he attended all boys schools).  For instance, when he was “bothered” into teaching a class of young women he writes to his father that teaching “girls, if one considers only their faculties, … might seem an easy task.  But then they would be reading for the same exams as the men: and that being so, the ‘weakness of the sex’ (assuming that they are dunces) would make the proposition all the tougher” (598).  He also wrote that “as a general rule, women marry their tutors,” but he wasn’t worried because in his class “the pretty ones are stupid and the interesting ones are ugly, so it is alright” (667).  As an Oxford don, he said he “did [his] duty” in voting for a resolution that “the university has a right to remain predominantly a men’s university” and was happy that it passed, being concerned that Oxford might become “the women’s university” and Cambridge “the men’s university” (702-4).  He also comments that “that mixture of Northern respect and Oriental suppression” is “not a bad answer” to “the female sex” (771).  These are all views which we would not be likely to entertain today.  However, he did say that women write very good novels (910).

Speaking of Lewis’s views of women somewhat naturally raises another topic dealt with in his early letters: sadism. Most fans of his work probably have no idea that Lewis entertained sadistic fantasies.  To quote from one of his biographies, C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia by Michael White,

In a letter written in January 1917 Lewis begins to explain that he is writing the letter on his knee and this seemingly innocent comment leads him on to a discourse on whipping and spanking.  He declares: “Across my knee … of course makes one think of positions for whipping: or rather not for whipping (you couldn’t get any swing) but for that torture with brushes … very humiliating for the victim”  Soon he was signing his letters to Greeves “Philomastrix” (“lover of the whip”) and detailing gruesome fantasies involving Arthur’s younger sister, in which he whipped her “for the good of her soul”.  In other letters he described a particularly beautiful girl he had seen in Oxford and what pain she would have suffered if she had received only half the torment he had inflicted on her in his imagination. (p 47)

Arthur later scribbled through incriminating passages in the letters, but those passages are restored (and noted) in the volume presently being reviewed.  In 1931, Lewis wrote Arthur “I am now inclined to agree with you in not regretting that we confided in each other even on this subject, because it has done no harm in the long run—and how could young adolescents really be friends without it?”  (Incidentally, Arthur was homosexual and, presumably, indicated some of his fantasies to Jack.)  At the time, Arthur indicated concern about confiding such details to paper, but Lewis wrote “if any person did read out letters, he would be an ill-bred cad & therefore we shouldn’t mind what he say” (274).  Hopefully he would except the present reviewer and his audience.  The material is certainly salacious, but I wouldn’t characterize it as “gruesome” as White does.  In any event, after considering some possible sources of Lewis’s interest, the biographer points out that that as an adult Lewis was somewhat embarrassed by his interest and

As far as anyone knows, Jack’s attraction to sadism never strayed beyond his own imagination, but no one will ever know what went on behind closed doors later in his life.  For the eighteen-year-old at least, these sadistic musings went no further than that: onanistic fantasies and bravura to impress Arthur. (p 48)

Anyway, some of the most interesting letters occur near the end of the collection, around Lewis’s conversion to theism in 1929 and ultimately to Christianity in 1931.  The roots of his conversion, which are familiar to anyone who read his autobiographical Surprised By Joy, are evident in his earlier letters.  For instance, in 1916 he wrote Arthur saying “I know quite well that feeling of something strange and wonderful that ought to happen, and wish I could think like you that this hope will some day be fulfilled.”  And to another friend, Leo Baker, in 1921: “beauty seems to me to be always an invitation of some sort & usually an invitation to we don’t know what.”  Though an atheist from the time he could form his own views until about age 31, Lewis was never a materialist, the main species of atheist that one sees these days.  He always seemed to sense that there was a “more” or something beyond the purely material, and that is was ultimately lead him to theism and Christianity, a journey described in his highly recommended Surprised By Joy and hinted at throughout the present volume.

This probably explains the interest he entertained in his 20s in the occult and magic, which he called “the burning subject” of the time and that it was difficult to obtain even enough evidence to disbelieve (543).  He said that he had “no doubt” that some people could see the future (640) but that astrology was “all rot” (597).

Some of the best passages come from his own self examinations, where he identifies his main sin as pride—which he calls “the mother of all sins”—and that he also experiences lust, wrath, and envy.

What I feel like saying … is “things are going very, very well with me (spiritually).”  On the other hand, one knows from bitter experience that he who standeth should take heed lest he fall, and that anything remotely like pride is certain to bing an awful crash. … Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be. (877)

He confides to Arthur that

I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realise I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me.  I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit—and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked. (878)

He says that fighting pride is like fighting the Hydra, which grew a new head every time one was cut off: once you stop one line of prideful thinking one is tempted to be proud of doing so.  The argument will be familiar to those who’ve read Lewis’s popular works, like Mere Christianity.  He also discusses his attempts to cultivate “the blessed sense of charity, so rare in me,” writing about an experience after Christmas Eve service in 1929, when he could view “even my worst enemies in college [as] funny and odd rather than detestable” (852).

The editor takes the opportunity of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity to bring the volume to a close, and I must say I am interested in obtaining its sequel.  I am especially interested in seeing how his views and outlook may or may not change as a result of his new religious views.  I also expect that theology will be a much more prominent subject in the two later volumes, once he becomes a well known theologian and apologist.  This volume, which you have gotten only a not particularly representative sample of in the above, is good in its own right, but is only recommended for those already familiar with C. S. Lewis’s popular works, especially Surprised By Joy, who want to learn more about the person behind them.

“The Path to Power” by Margaret Thatcher

27 January 2009

The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher. (1995). 615 pp.

Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs are contained in two volumes; The Downing Street Years (1993) cover her time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and this volume, though published second, largely covers her life prior to that point.  The book starts off with her childhood and upbringing, her time at Oxford, and then very quickly moves into politics; she is elected to the House on page 100, less than a sixth of the way into the book.

This is very much a political autobiography; you won’t learn much about Thatcher’s personal life, hobbies, or interests.  So don’t read this book unless you’re interested in British politics.  If the terms three line whip and Hansard are unfamiliar to you, this book probably isn’t for you; the author doesn’t stop to explain these things and you’ll be frequently at a loss when she mentions red boxes or tells how she wondered whether it was constitutionally possible for Alex Douglas-Home to become Prime Minister.

Many will find the path that Thatcher took to power to be interesting.  She never held any of the three principle offices or shadow offices (Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Minister, or Home Secretary) before becoming Tory leader in 1975.  She was Education Minister in the Heath Government, and then shadowed various departments in opposition before deciding to oppose Heath for the party leadership.  Throughout the book her disagreements with other Conservatives is a constant theme and she often critiques her colleagues who were less keen on market forces and more willing to engage in socialist policies.  However, she rarely, if ever, has any criticism of herself which makes the book less interesting than it otherwise might be.

Some, especially those on the left, may be annoyed at the frequent sniping she does at Labour, almost as if the book were a political speech and not an autobiography.  But she writes “of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer.  He was a serious man and a patriot.  Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show.”  Most of the compliments she has for other Labour members are of the “he was a good speaker” variety.  I am forced to wonder if this book would have turned out any differently if Thatcher hadn’t written it so soon after leaving office.  Perhaps her analyses would have been different.

Something I found interesting was the view of British government from the inside—how the opposition and government are at each other all the time, how frontbenchers interact with backbenchers, how various politicians rise and fall.  A disappointment that I had was that the book doesn’t really describe any of the debates and exchanges which happen in the House of Commons.  Anyone familiar with Prime Minister’s Questions will understand my dissatisfaction at this omission.  (Hint for those not in the know: debate in the British House of Commons is very different in tone that that on the floor of the U.S. Congress.)

Thatcher circa 1975

Thatcher circa 1975

Anyway, the last 140 pages or so cover her activities after leaving 10 Downing Street.  In the final pages she becomes somewhat more reflective and also comments on how her early life experiences shaped her political and other views.  Rest of the second part is only slightly autobiographical and tends to be more an exposition of her views on the European Union (she was skeptical or closer political integration), traditional values and the family (she was socially conservative on such issues), and the need to continue opposing socialism in all its guises.  Those seeking more information on her foreign policy views should check out her more recent book Statecraft.  Those wanting more on her views on social policy, fiscal policy, and how they interact should read The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher, which covers her entire time in politics.

To give you a bit more of the flavor of the book, here are some not necessarily representative quotations and fragments that I found interesting for one reason or another.  The second one seems quite Randian to me.

Market forces operating within the right framework make for fairness, and … even beneficent state control only makes for equality. (228.)

All collectivism is always conducive to oppression: it is only the victims who differ. (406)

So many people and so many vested interests were by now significantly dependent on the state—for employment in the public sector, for Social Security benefits, for health care, education and housing—that economic freedom had begun to pose an almost unacceptable risk to their living standards.  And, when that finally happened, political freedom—for example the freedom to join or not join a union or the freedom to have controversial views and still be entitled to teach in a state school or work in a government department—would be the next victim. (440)

The primary duty a free country owes, not just to itself but to countries which are unfree, is to survive. (365)

Youth cult of the 1960s whereby the young were regarded as a source of pure insight into the human condition. (186)

That one mortal sin in the eyes of mediocrities—he had shown “lack of judgment”, i.e. willingness to think for himself.

As indicated above, I would not recommend this book to most people, only those interested in politics and who have some background in British government.  For those who are and who do, I would recommend this book. It has me interested in checking out it’s companion volume, The Downing Street Years.

“When I Was a Young Man” by Bob Kerrey

20 January 2009

When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir by J. Robert Kerrey. (2002). 261 pp.


This is a short, autobiographical work by former Democratic Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey.  He describes his happy childhood in Nebraska, how he joined the U.S. Navy and became a Navy SEAL, and his various training.  Kerrey was sent of to Vietnam where he took part in several actions and was ultimately wounded seriously.

The portions where he describes his convalescence after the amputation of part of one leg, including how it impacted how people saw him, has lessons for us today as we face so many wounded Iraq vets.  Incidentally, Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Vietnam.

The book lacks direction and purpose, however.  Perhaps that is because, as he explains in the preface, he set out to write a different book: one about his father and uncle, the later of whom was killed in the Philippines in WWII.  There are some anti-war sentiments throughout the book, but they are never really developed or made explicit, Kerrey doesn’t truly make them his own.  Anyway, from the preface he sort of sets things up this way:

In the first half of my life, history was one of two things: sterile and meaningless information to be memorized for school tests of myths told to generate good feelings and memories.  The patriotic and heroic stories I heard in my youth caused me to believe that my nation was never wrong and that my leaders would never lie to me.  When the sand of this foundation blew away, I lost my patriotism.  In the second half of my life, I rebuilt this foundation on something sturdier: the observation that Americans at their best can be unimaginably generous and willing to put their lives on the line for the freedom and well-being of others.

There are some amusing points in the book, such as the club he was in that was to be called “the Angels” but ended up being “the Angles” because “we let our poorest speller write our name on the door” and then the account of what they saw from the tree house (p. 58).  Other material of interest to me were Kerrey’s comments on his religious upbringing and the evolution of his beliefs, his comments on racism, and the account of the serviceman who died in training.

This book is very light reading; I finished it’s 261 pages in about 5 hours despite a few distractions.  While not a bad book, I don’t particularly recommend it; time reading it won’t be wasted, but it would probably be better invested elsewhere unless you’re completely ignorant about the Vietnam war.