Let’s talk about Pinterest.

Hey guys. I don’t get it. What’s up with the Pinterest obsession? I have read about eleventy billion papers from students on the topic, and I even wrote about Pinterest (before it was popular, mind you, because I’m just that hipster) when I was the tech columnist for WORLD, and I still don’t get it.

Every so often I start feeling like I must be missing something. I’m hardly a late adopter. People ask me to write / talk about technology. I buy Apple products. So I log into the site and poke around and leave saying meh.

Enlighten me?

Thinking the Twentieth Century

I’ve been reading Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder this week – and finding it totally engrossing. Here’s a bit from what I read on the way in this morning (Judt’s narrating here):

In 1995, I was offered the Nef Chair of Social Thought at Chicago; after agonizing for a while, I turned it down. Looking back, I now realize that I was beginning to see myself in a different light: not just as a historian, nor even as a “public intellectual,” but rather as someone who might apply his skills and energies to a new task. I was drawn to the idea of forging an institutional forum to encourage the sort of work I admired and to bring together the sorts of people I found interesting and whom I wanted to support. This, as it seemed to me then, was more readily achieved in Manhattan than in Chicago, much less in the rarified atmosphere of Hyde Park.

New York, after all, was special. Until I moved there I had spent my entire adult life in Cambridge [England], Berkeley and Oxford: each, in its way, an isolated ivory tower. But here in New York the universities – NYU, Columbia, CUNY Graduate Center – could not pretend to separate themselves from the city. Even Columbia, gloriously isolated upon its little hill on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, could hardly deny that the reason most of its faculty and students were drawn there (rather than to its competitors in Princeton, New Haven or Cambridge, Mass.) was precisely its location in what was still, if perhaps anachronistically, thought of as the world’s most cosmopolitan city.

From an academic point of view, New York resembles the continental European model rather than the Anglo-American template. The most important conversations in town are not those conducted among academics behind college walls, but the broader intellectual and cultural debate exchanged across the city and taking in journalists, independent writers, artists and visitors as well as the local professoriate. Thus, at least in principle, universities are culturally and intellectually integrated into the wide conversation. In this sense at least, by staying in New York I could also remain European . . .

What I wanted to create [at NYU] did not even have a name. Above all, I was setting out to facilitate an international conversation: providing it with an institutional infrastructure and practical resources . . .

And also this:

The consequence of the impossibility of both the Whig and the moralizing approaches [to history] is that historians don’t know what they’re doing anymore. Whether that’s a bad thing is a different question. If you asked my colleagues: what is the purpose of history, or what is the nature of history, or what is history about, you would get a pretty blank stare. The difference between good historians and bad historians is that the good ones can manage without an answer to such questions, and the bad ones cannot . . .

Of course I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I find it immensely interesting – and I’m fascinated by the idea of doing intellectual history by setting it within a specific person’s experience and, in a fairly explicit sense, exploring that person’s own intellectual history.

Book me

Friends, followers: I am starting to construct my summer reading list, and I could use some of your suggestions. At this point I have very little non-reading work to do and so I’m hoping to tackle three books per week, in three main categories: political philosophy/ethics, history/biography, and novels (particularly ones I should have read by now).

I recognize these will be mostly “academic reads,” not deep reads, but right now I’m just trying to fill in the gaps. (All of my school-related reading in the school year is creative nonfiction, so hold off on that.)

So please comment with suggestions?

Whidbey, I hardly knew ye

After a shuttle bus, ferry, cross-country plane ride, and cab, I landed safely at home last night after ten days on gorgeous, green Whidbey Island, a magical land populated by bald eagles and driftwood and Frighteningly Dumb Deer and, for these days, Rambunctious MFA Students, to whom I belong. Here is where we were.

I know.

We discussed Shakespeare and craft and truth and poetry and teaching and metaphor and life, and also everything else in the known universe. I learned things about myself, like for instance, I have almost no need for sleep, and a great fondness for snow-capped mountains (which peeked out around Wednesday and stayed the rest of the time). We listened/sang along to umptymillion late-night mandolin renditions of such classics as Ms. Spears’s “Toxic”; we went from acquaintances to BFFs; we ate and drank well, roasted faculty in the poetry competition (I turned in a mediocre but heartfelt impression of Lauren Winner), made Shakespearean-inspired jokes and drinks, and read and wrote. I found direction for my work and identified the spot in my writing I need to press into, and thought about my upcoming theses. I also wandered along the beach before dinner and let the wind blow my hair into wild curls and just watched the sun set over the water.

Basically, perfect.

I have some more substantive thoughts brewing and at some point they’ll boil over and onto this blog, but for now, I’ll just write my overdue class lecture for tomorrow, and pine for the island.

Books I've Been Annotating, Pre-Residency II

So I’m headed off to my second MFA residency tomorrow out on (I suspect) rainy Whidbey Island, and in preparation I’m putting together my projected annotation list for the next quarter. (Footnotes: There’s another correspondence quarter from now till June, because SPU, being on the West Coast, does that weird quarter-instead-of-semester thing; part of each correspondence quarter is ten two-ish page writerly “annotations” on various books in my discipline, most of which I choose, some of which are chosen by my faculty mentor [presently Paula Huston, then, for my second year, Lauren Winner], and the program director, Greg Wolfe, who chooses common readings for each residency that everyone in every genre reads – you know what, if you’re confused, just go look at the program website.)

Right, so: I thought I’d post what I’ve got here. Asterisks indicate they were assigned by Paula or Greg.

First quarter annotations (submitted in December):

  1. *Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  2. *The Lady and the Monk, Pico Iyer
  3. Life Work, Donald Hall
  4. The Florist’s Daughter, Patricia Hampl
  5. The Discomfort Zone, Jonathan Franzen
  6. Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon
  7. An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis
  8. Looking Before and After, Alan Jacobs
  9. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
  10. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
  11. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
  12. Blue Arabesque, Patricia Hampl

Second quarter annotations (just submitted last week):

  1. Tete-a-tete, Hazel Rowley
  2. *Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt
  3. Air Guitar, Dave Hickey
  4. The Best American Essays 2011, Edwidge Danticat (ed.)
  5. Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography, Amy Frykholm
  6. Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan
  7. *For the Time Being, Annie Dillard
  8. *Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
  9. *King Lear, William Shakespeare
  10. *The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Some books I’m thinking about for the third quarter (which ends in June; assigned books will probably supplant some of these):

  1. Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder
    (Just arrived and realized it’s half memoir, half history, which is so awesome it makes me grin)
  2. Let’s See, Peter Schjeldahl
    (Which I’ve been teaching; super fun.)
  3. The Broken Estate, James Wood
    (I like Wood’s criticism, and this is his early work)
  4. When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
    (Just arrived!!)
  5. Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens
    (It’s time, and, so.)
  6. The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers
    (I shamefully have never read this, though I’ve referenced it.)
  7. Dakota, Kathleen Norris
    (I’ve read everything else she’s ever written.)

I’ve also been slowly working my way through Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, which will probably end up in a fall annotation, along with a Really Thick Book of Updike’s criticism.

A Small Thought On Sci-Fi

I have recently realized that my great love of Battlestar Galactica (the newer one, obvi) and my obsession with The X-Files has grown into a full-blown crazy love of good sci-fi. Not movies, so much, but TV. My Postmodern World students this semester (that’s a class, not a commentary on them) have probably gotten tired of it, but that’s why I’m the professor, and also, sci-fi is ideal for illustrating things like postmodernism. (Hey, how have I not found a way to work Firefly in yet?) It’s gotten bad enough that I unprovokedly admitted to Tom a few days ago that it’s now time for me to start watching Star Trek. I squealed, more than audibly, when I noticed Quantum Leap showed up on Netflix. Oh no, and Dr. Who as well. It’s bad.

This seems to have some corollary with my growing obsession with superhero movies (which has yet to spread to comic books, but I’m just waiting passively for that swamp monster to sweep in). And also, dystopian fiction, which started in a highfalutin’ way when I was in my first master’s program, but now is basically just me reading Hunger Games and trying to explain why dystopian fiction is awesomer than full-on post-apocalyptic fiction, which is a conversation I found myself inexplicably having last Wednesday night in a crowded room of intelligent acquaintances. 

I sit outside myself, looking in, at some loss to explain what the frak is going on. I mean: I still harbor no particular affection for Star Wars, and I don’t think I’m in any danger of starting, like, Farscape, although I doubt I’m out of the woods. But seriously, self. What up?

Well, I’m starting to think I’m just happy to immerse myself in a genre where you can actually say things about our world, almost didactically, without having to worry about realism. I’m sort of loving that you can twist things, turn them on their heads, unsettle our assumptions, and make us look at our (real) world differently – but do it obliquely. I also love that good sci fi (and superhero stories and dystopian fiction and all that) is unabashedly entertaining, even when it’s being quite explicit about its intentions. 

Oh well. I tried to put up a fight. Happy surrender.

Over there

There’s now a Cardus staff blog, and along with some of my colleagues, I’ll be posting there once a week or so. So I blogged something very brief about the KJV Bible today. (I also quite frequently post to the Comment Tumblr.)

And speaking of colleagues, Rob and I have a point/counterpoint piece in the May/June Books & Culture on food politics. Some of it may sound familiar if you were in our workshop at Jubilee this February, though it’s more developed here. If you’re a subscriber, you can read it at Books & Culture’s website or in the print edition if it’s shown up in your mailbox. If you’re not a subscriber, well, shame on you. For Christians who want to actually thoughtfully engage with both books and culture with some depth, there is, quite literally, nothing else like it. (So subscribe!)

Peeking out

Hello, friends. I have not blogged, because I have been extremely busy teaching five classes, editing a magazine, writing, and traveling for conferences and meetings: Pittsburgh, southern Ontario (several times), San Antonio, Texas hill country. I am off to Grand Rapids and Princeton this April, and very occupied with a bunch of fun pursuits.

That said, I’ll try to do better, when I have something to say. You should also follow Comment’s Tumblr, where I post fairly regularly.

A Hurried Linkdump

I know I’ve been absent, mostly because since I last blogged I’ve entertained a ton of out-of-town company, written several relatively hefty articles, started the semester, and been to Canada and back. So what you get from me right now is a linkdump.

  • I wrote this review of Nancy Pearcey’s latest book, Saving Leonardo, and it published in Comment on Friday.
  • My friend David works at the Daily Beast and sent out this cheatsheet which he and another colleague put together with the best longform journalism on Egypt. Some great stuff on here.
  • On teaching literature through seduction. Not what it sounds like.
  • Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, wrote a riveting, knockout piece on the paper’s dealings with Julian Assange. Also an impassioned defense of the freedom of the press. A real study in how to write an informative essay with personal elements.
  • Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury, if you’re not paying attention) set up a writing prize for young people and wrote a little about it in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago. A great idea, incidentally.
  • Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, on how boxing is like writing, or maybe how writing is like boxing.


First things first: I was featured on the back page of the December issue of Christianity Today, and the interview went online yesterday. The digital edition has a couple of factual inaccuracies (notably, I am not the editor of Comment), but I’m still very humbled that CT even asked me to participate and grateful for their kind support.

So, as you might know, we had a bit of a snowpocalypse here in New York, beginning Sunday. My family almost never treks to NYC to visit, but as luck would have it, not only were my mother and brother in town, but my paternal grandmother and aunt had taken the train down from Boston to spend the night. They got here right as the snow started falling, and so we had a grand time traipsing around in a Little House on the Prairie– style blizzard on Sunday, eating at our favorite restaurant, book-buying at Greenlight, bracing against some crazy winds, and eating Tom’s chili.

Yesterday we’d originally planned to do some touristy sightseeing, as my grandmother had never been to New York before, but with the winds and the snow we thought we’d better stay inside. So we headed for the Met, which, thankfully, was open, and wandered around a bit. Several of the wings were shut off (unfortunately that included the contemporary art wing), but several among our party had never been inside the Met before. (My brother walked into the room with the Temple of Dendur and said, “Gee, some day a really confused archaeologist is going to dig this up.”)

They all got off safe between last night and this morning, and after lunch with an old friend from college whom I haven’t seen in years, I’m in my office, madly meeting deadlines, voting on end-of-the-year lists for CT and Paste, and returning emails before the rest of the week happens: celebrating the New Year with friends (notably, Rob, who is coming all the way from Hamilton-by-way-of-Ottawa for the occasion, provided the good weather holds), traipsing to the Cloisters (which ought to be gorgeous in the snow), practicing music, drinking whiskey, playing poker, hopefully seeing both True Grit and The King’s Speech; basically, wishing 2010 a fond farewell and greeting 2011 with open arms.

(Marilyn Chandler McEntyre exhorts us to “love the long sentence” – I think she’d be proud of that last paragraph.)

O come, O come

I’ve been keeping very busy traveling back and forth from various places, mostly all over the states from here to Virginia and back, for family things: weddings, funerals, holidays, and the occasional fine craft beer tasting with cousins-in-law. And the semester, which ends next week. And writing and editing. You get the idea.

That said, through the wonders of modern technology we can now do such things without wildly disrupting our work, and so, I’ve been working busily. The latest bit – co-authored with my good friend and colleague, Rob – was published in the Globe & Mail yesterday: Not their parents’ conservatism.

What I’ve learned this semester about teaching, and writing, and myself, is manifold. For instance, I do have a breaking point, and my eyes are bigger than my proverbial stomach: I often, as Linford Detweiler put it, grab this life and wring its neck with joy, but sometimes it turns around and fights back. Also, I revert into my college-era unhealthy habits when I am stressed out, eating poorly or forgetting altogether, not exercising, sleeping a little here and there.

Also, Bach is very helpful for concentration.

Also, there’s a reason we were created for community.

Last week I accepted an offer (with support of my department) to teach a class at NYCAMS next semester as an adjunct, as my course load at King’s will be four sections of a class I’ve taught twice already and therefore (hopefully manageable). It’s a departure from teaching writing, which is mostly a workshop-based endeavor. The class is a history of Christianity and the visual arts, and I’m still sorting out what exactly I’ll teach but it will be something in the crossroads between philosophical theology and aesthetics, read against (mostly Western) art history. It is in fact what I dwell in and work with and think about, but it’s the first time I’ve put it together in a formal way. I’m nerdily excited. But wow, the spring semester is coming fast, isn’t it?

That all said, Advent is here. The new church calendar started on Sunday. Though it wasn’t actually acknowledged where I was on Sunday, I still felt the newness of it, the anticipation. It’s no accident, I don’t think, that the darkness stretches wider and wider across the day until just about Christmas. So much to wait for. So much to yearn for, and anticipate. So much rejoicing to come.

On tackling and linking

A last-minute trip out of town for family matters and I’ve spent the entire day (after class) trying to unearth myself from links and projects and emails. I have a Sharpied list of five enormous projects staring me in the face now, taunting me from my bulletin board. But seeing them there, they seem tacklable. Even if I’ve just realized one of the deadlines is in two and a half weeks, not six.

And I tacked my “we want you in our MFA program” letter from SPU to the board right above it, right below cards and notes from loved ones, to remind me that all I have needed, His hand has provided. The semester marches on. And then. And then!

Some links collecting in my browser:

On teaching poetry as a non-poet

Also, from a student today: “Well, poetry’s really like when you pour Coke into the glass, and fills in between the ice cubes. That’s the poetry.”

I’ve been taken aback by how much I’ve been soaking up poetry these last couple weeks as I prepared for class. I didn’t teach poetry in last year’s class – it is, after all, a nonfiction class – but, inspired by Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, I built two weeks’ worth into my syllabus and as it turned out, it hit right in the perfect time for both my students (who have been wearily slogging through midterms) and me. October was good, but not easy, and very wearying in body and soul and spirit in a way I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. In the past when I was weary, I shut down, but this month I’ve felt the exact opposite happening inside of me. I’m beginning to understand things I haven’t in a long time, if I ever did.

And so I’ve been inhaling poetry, more than anything else.

On Friday I went down to First Things to hear Christian Wiman – eminent poet and essayist and editor of Poetry magazine. He read some old work and new. I admit, shamefacedly, that I’m familiar with his name and reputation but not his actual poetry. It was a rather august crowd, including some King’s students (some mine!) and a colleague on the faculty as well as a number of other familiar faces – including, believe it or not, Mark Strand.

Wiman’s poetry is dark in a not hopeless way. There seemed to me to be a lot of spareness and trees in his work, probably something borne of his youth in far-west Texas. He found his way toward faith through poetry. His work seems like it’s a curtain between the eternal and me, fluttering and letting me see beyond it just a little, once in a while.

Later that night we were at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, where about half my students and some of their friends and roommates piled into a corner for their Friday night slam, which was (at times literally) hopping. The poet who won is an NYU student and a pastor’s kid, something I wasn’t expecting and something I was glad of, for their sakes.

After these few weeks of teaching, experiencing, and observing poetry, I’ve been gratified to have several students approach me and say they want to start writing and maybe even performing their own work. Nothing could delight me more.

But I don’t write poetry. Sometimes I think  I could, but I’m not sure you can force that sort of thing, and I’ve chosen my genre for the next few years. And yet. And yet.

Rare, Vaguely Existential Ramblings

Last night I popped over to the blog I kept when I first moved to the city to establish a date on something – I’m glad I blogged that year, there’s so much I’d forgotten – and it reminded me once again that I was quite a funny writer at one time. I’ve been digging through my archives and putting them on Dropbox and found my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, which I abandoned about five thousand words in, but it wasn’t as bad as I remembered. And I thought: Huh, maybe I’m more creative deep down than I really think I am. Which bodes well for my next stage of graduate study.

But before I can get back to creative writing, I need to finish my Harvey Fellows application. My chances are very slim – I’m not being modest, they are slim for a few different reasons – but I have amazing, wonderful recommenders and at least a shot and it would cover tuition entirely, so it’s worth the angst. It’s due November 1, so I’m hoping to get it submitted by mid-week. Then I can go back to noodling around with essays and conference paper abstracts and the like.

By way of quotidianity: It’s been in the seventies here the last few days, which is thoroughly confusing. I do like warm weather. But I also relish the scarves and sweaters, and whenever the warmth extends too deeply into fall, I get nervous that I won’t get enough winter to satisfy my need. I’m such a northerner. I need seasons to feel settled. And I do want snow – preferably by the New Year, because it’s just so happy-making to have white stuff on the ground when the year ticks over.

And on the subject of years: Every year ends and I say, wow, that was quite a year, but this year really was on so many levels. I am much older at the end of it than I was at the beginning. For instance – and this is simply one instance of many, but you’ll have to buy me a coffee or a glass of wine if you want more – at the turn of the last year I had just finished and submitted my thesis and had no real intention of pursuing further graduate study or seriously pursuing a job in academia. Then I got offered one out of the blue. And then I was convinced by a couple of conversations and some gentle Almighty-nudgings that no, this is for me, and I need to go for it. And now here I am: applied and accepted in a program I’d only sighed wistfully over before, and working full-time with a proper office and students who call me professor. It’s freaky. And fabulous.

That leaves me wondering what on earth can be in the cards for 2011. People sometimes write me emails to ask how I have gotten into the jobs and opportunities I have, and at this point all I know to say is that the only thing I do is make myself extremely available to – well, to whatever – and I work really hard at whatever I’m doing at the moment.

From what I can tell, from my fairly naive and inexperienced vantage point, it seems the line between success and failure is just showing up and doing whatever you’re given to do.  And doing it well. And on time. And with a smile and a sense of wonder.

It helps to have some good traveling partners along the way, though. In that, I am blessed.

Getting in

The last couple weeks have been very roller-coaster-y: some excellent time in Hamilton and in the Cardus office for a bunch of work on Comment, then returning home to stacks of work and some very late nights.

Good things, though —

  • I got an incredibly exciting call when I was sitting late in my office trying to meet a deadline: I got into Seattle Pacific University MFA in creative nonfiction! I’ve deferred my acceptance to the fall term, which means I’ll start at the Glen West in August. I did a lot of research and soul-searching before deciding to apply to SPU because, frankly, it’s the best program out there: selective, rooted, low-residency but also very rigorous. And I’m so glad I got in.
  • Yesterday, my spring course load was rearranged, and now I have my ideal schedule, giving me freedom to schedule conference and Comment-related travel into my week when needed.
  • And I’ve caught wind of some exciting teaching opportunities in 2011.

Leaving shortly for my sister-in-law’s wedding in the Richmond, VA area. Relishing the idea of Monday, which starts my first full week in the office in a month.

Beauty: Truth Without Violence

More from David Bentley Hart:

An “aesthetic” response to a postmodern insistence on the inescapability of violence is adequate only if it gives a coherent account of beauty within the Christian tradition itself; only if beauty belongs already to the Christian narrative, fully and consistently developed, and in such a way as to allay the suspicions it arouses, can the beautiful conceivably mediate Christian truth without the least shadow of violence.

The Senate and the Feminine Fork

Articles I recommended to students this morning and thought you might appreciate, too:

In the Queue

What’s in my browser and/or Instapaper queue today (which means I haven’t read most of it, but I was interested enough to open the link and plan to read it later):

  • An interview with Ken Myers (of Mars Hill Audio Journal, which I cannot possibly praise enough) from last year’s fall edition of Comment. In re-reading it, I find his suggestions to once again be immensely challenging.

    3. You believe individualism to be a corrosive, destructive force in the modern world. Do you have any suggestions for students who wonder how to live in way that is not individualistic in the context of today’s college or university?

    Some form of community is often prescribed as the antidote to individualism. But “community” involves more than getting together with a bunch of people just like you. So I would urge students to get involved as much as possible in the lives of people who are unlike them: different ages, different vocations, different stages in life. Local churches are (at least in theory) an ideal place for this, as long as the church doesn’t segregate students into the “student ministries.”

    Secondly, one of the great conveyors of individualism is the commodification of everything. Individualism goes hand-in-hand with the displacement of the idea of culture as a legacy or inheritance with that of culture as a set of sovereignly selected commodities. We now choose everything in our cultural life; we don’t simply receive anything. One way of fighting the mentality of individualism is to put oneself in a position where one is an apprentice, where one receives something offered rather than “consumes” it. For example, find someone (in that church community you’re a part of) who knows a lot about an ethnic food tradition and go to a restaurant with them, letting them choose the menu (and maybe you can even pay for their meal). Or find someone (a professor, even) who knows a lot about some artistic tradition that is foreign to you (German cinema, Renaissance choral music, English detective fiction) and apprentice yourself to them. You could do the same with master gardeners, cooks, bird watchers, woodworkers, motorcycle mechanics, even theologians. Yes, there is an initial act of individual choice, but submitting to someone else’s authority and expertise over time is a great way to fight the temptation to assert our own sovereignty.

  • From the Guardian: “Technology and the novel, from Blake to Ballard
  • Steve Garber in the Art House America blog on “The Epistemology of Love
  • Several students have approached me about leading film conversations in different contexts on campus this year, so I’m looking back at the Arts & Faith Top 100 list. (I think Babette’s Feast may be first on my list.)
  • Obama gets the new Franzen novel early, panic ensues. (I have checked Amazon basically every day hoping that the novel – which I preordered what seems like millenia ago – has shipped. It has not. I may be a little obsessed.)
  • Kevin Spacey will be in the Bridge Project’s Richard III at BAM this winter – directed by Sam Mendes.
  • David Brooks as public theologian?