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A Visit to Vanity Fair by Alan Jacobs

It is hard to top the publisher’s description of A Visit to Vanity Fair:

These perceptive moral essays crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. A cultural hawk eye delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations on the way we live now. “A Visit to Vanity Fair” blends personal reflection with cultural criticism to address such topics as reading with children, sitting with a dying friend, and watching TV documentaries.

I mean it really does “crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. and Jacobs is a “cultural hawk eye” who “delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations” and “blends personal reflection with cultural criticism.

The sad thing is that I have had this book on my shelf for quite some time.  I have long been enamored with Jacobs and his writing.  I have read a number of his books and have followed his writing online for many, many years.  But like so many of the authors and topics I collect and mean to dive into, I get distracted and end up just dipping into a book here or there.  For the last year or so I have thought about trying to read as much of Jacobs catalog as I could but have mostly failed.  So I recently girded my loins, so to speak, and grabbed this book of the shelf and forced myself to concentrate and spend time reading until I finished.

And it was worth it. It truly is a wonderful collection of thought provoking and well crafted essays. Published nearly 20 years ago, it nevertheless feels as engaging and relevant as ever. Whether dealing with Bob Dylan or Harry Potter, Jacobs gets at issues that remain not frothy debates of the minute. Instead, philosophy, literature, faith and writing are explored with verve and wit.

Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

I have an on-again, off-again fascination with productivity and attention management. Which is what prompted me to request Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee from NetGalley.

Do Nothing Book Cover
Do Nothing Self-Help Harmony Kindle 288 pages NetGalley

Despite our constant search for new ways to “hack” our bodies and minds for peak performance, human beings are working more instead of less, living harder not smarter, and becoming more lonely and anxious. We strive for the absolute best in every aspect of our lives, ignoring what we do well naturally and reaching for a bar that keeps rising higher and higher. Why do we measure our time in terms of efficiency instead of meaning? Why can’t we just take a break?

In Do Nothing, award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee illuminates a new path ahead, seeking to institute a global shift in our thinking so we can stop sabotaging our well-being, put work aside, and start living instead of doing. As it turns out, we’re searching for external solutions to an internal problem. We won’t find what we’re searching for in punishing diets or productivity apps. Celeste’s strategies will allow you to regain control over your life and break your addiction to false efficiency. You’ll learn how to increase your time perception to determine how your hours are being spent, invest in quality idle time, and focus on end goals instead of mean goals. It’s time to reverse the trend that’s making us all sadder, sicker, and less productive, and return to a way of life that allows us to thrive.

It took me quite some time to really get into the book, but eventually I found my rhythm and enjoyed it.

One problem was its seeming simplistic view of economics (at least to me). The tone and approach seemed very anti-free market and at times even seemed to have a whiff of a conspiratorial philosophy that big business is and has been controlling our lives (corporations and marketers seem to be controlling consumers rather than seeking to meet their needs; although there is a tangent on why we became addicted to disposable goods too). Lastly, I had the feeling that as a journalist she was trying to pack as much information as she could into the argument and give it a respectable amount of depth and intellectual history.

In the end, this story is about how the industrialist desire to have fewer workers doing more hours of work merged with the religious belief that work is good and idleness is bad, along with a capitalist faith in constant growth.  When time is money, the need to get more time out of workers became urgent if profit targets were to be made.

Suffice it to say, that Headlee offers a lot of provocative and even interesting arguments about how Western society has viewed work and how the industrial, technology and knowledge revolutions have impacted that view in unhealthy ways.  But that is an argument that would take a great deal of unpacking just to get your hand arounds let alone make a persuasive argument about.

Give Me Liberty by Richard Brookhiser

One of the myriad reasons for the near-death of this blog is that I simply don’t have the time, focus or energy to put into serious reviews of serious books. I read a decent amount of non-fiction but review very little of it. I feel caught in a catch-22, if I could write serious reviews of non-fiction I could get paid to do it and yet I rarely get around to posting quick reviews of the same books because I want to do the book justice.

Well, if this whole #StayHomeAndRead thing is going to work I am going to have to post some short blog reviews of non-fiction books. So let’s start with one of my favorite authors, Richard Brookhiser, and his latest book Give Me Liberty.

There are two things happening in this book: one is a simple history of America through the lens of our pursuits of liberty, the second is an argument about American nationalism.

The first thread creates the structure of the book

This book focuses instead on thirteen documents, from 1619 to 1987, that represent shots from the album of our long marriage to liberty. They say what liberty is. They show who asked for it, when, and why. Since no marriage is ever simple, they track its ups and downs. These thirteen liberty documents define America as the country that it is, different from all others

Sunlight shining through trees

Reforesting Faith: Are trees essential to every Christian’s understanding of God? (5/100)

I had never heard of Dr. Matthew Sleeth before he visited my church.  One of the Sunday school classes was reading his book The Gospel According to the Earth. I will confess that I was skeptical of the title and the subject for a variety of reasons I won’t go into at the moment (complicated subject), but when he came to speak I found him quirky and interesting so picked up two of his books: Reforesting Faith and 24/6.

I started reading Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us almost immediately and it was the fourth fifth book I finished in 2020.*

In this groundbreaking walk through Scripture, former physician and carpenter Dr. Matthew Sleeth makes the convincing case why trees are essential to every Christian’s understanding of God.

Yet we’ve mostly missed how God has chosen to tell His story–and ours–through the lens of trees. There’s a tree on the first page of Genesis and the last page of Revelation. The Bible refers to itself as a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18).
Every major Biblical character has a tree associated with them. Jesus himself says he is the true vine (John 15:1). A tree was used to kill Jesus–and a tree is the only thing the Messiah ever harmed.

This is no accident. When we subtract trees from Scripture, we miss lessons of faith necessary for our growth.

This is the rare book that connects those who love the Creator with creation, and those who love creation with the Creator. It offers inspirational yet practical ways to express our love for God–and our neighbors–by planting spiritual trees and physical trees in the world.

After reading it in fits and starts, the chapters are pretty short, I found it to be a very earnest, and at times interesting, but too anecdotal devotional of sorts focused on trees.

Dr. Sleeth moves through scripture pointing out the near constant connection between important moments and trees, bushes, seeds, etc. all the while extolling the planting of trees as a spiritual gift to the planet and our neighbors.

2/100 – Notre Dame by Ken Follett

If you have been following along, in 2020 I am attempting to read 100 books.  I am also going to blog each book.  Hence the 2/100 in the title of this post.  Book #2 was another “hmm, that looks interesting and it has the added benefit of being short” library grab.  And as I often enjoy, and tend to collect, short biographies or histories of people, place and ideas Notre Dame by Ken Follett fit the bill.

But it turned out to basically be a short essay exploring the history of the cathedral in the aftermath of the great fire in 2019 via historical touch points or vignettes. It is a sort of explanation of why the famous cathedral captured our imagination and became such a symbol. It felt, however, too short and insubstantial for anyone with knowledge of the subject. For those new to it, however, may spark interest in further reading. And proceeds from sales are donated to the restoration fund.

Publishers description:

Hardcover Notre Dame by Ken FollettIn this short, spellbinding book, international bestselling author Ken Follett describes the emotions that gripped him when he learned about the fire that threatened to destroy one of the greatest cathedrals in the world–the Notre-Dame de Paris. Follett then tells the story of the cathedral, from its construction to the role it has played across time and history, and he reveals the influence that the Notre-Dame had upon cathedrals around the world and on the writing of one of Follett’s most famous and beloved novels, The Pillars of the Earth.

I suppose we should give marketing a break but “spellbinding” is a bit much.  It is an interesting essay if you have an interest in the famous cathedral and/or the author but if you want to give the restoration fund there are easier ways to do so than buy a book that would be better off as a series of blog posts. The Smithsonian Magazine has a taste.

But on the other hand, if you enjoy this sort of thing, grab a short fast read that illuminates some key historical/literary vignettes that brought us to the that fateful day when the fire started.

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