Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The White Company

BLOG #18, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE’S THE WHITE COMPANY
April 30, 2014

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For our May selection, I am reaching back to a book I reveled in as a boy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company (originally published in 1890). Before selecting it as our 29th Book of the Month, somewhat apprehensively, I re-read it to see if it still had the magic and romance it had for me as an adolescent and teenager. Not to worry–it was just as gripping now as it had been back then.

Why was I apprehensive? Because of the recent Sherlock Holmes movies that portray him and his constant sidekick Dr. Watson as violent, sex-addicted, spiritualistic, and into drugs. And that was not how I remembered him in The White Company. Nor was it, generally speaking, in the original Sherlock Holmes stories. True, the spiritualistic and drug elements are in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but they were understated. Indeed, The White Company doesn’t even contain foreshadowing that Doyle would desert the audience that made him wealthy in the first place.

But it is comforting to be reassured that The White Company is all I remembered it to be when I was young. The ultimate books to me are the ones you re-read, each time with enjoyment almost as great as the time you first read them. Here is my February 28, 2014 reaction: What a story! What a prodigious work of research and scholarship it took to bring back the wild, bloody, yet glorious Fourteenth Century, the heyday of the archers and the beginning of the long decline of armored knights. Doyle brings all of them to vibrant life. You feel you are in that century, on the eve of England’s losing France. Young people have always loved the book. More mainstream than later spiritualistic druggy Doyle. A tremendous read!

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Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was born into a prominent Irish Catholic family (son of the artist Charles Doyle). Doyle was educated in Stoneyhurst, in Germany, then returned to earn his medical degree at Edinburgh University. He then practiced as a physician from 1882 – 1890. But after trying his hand at writing historical fiction, he concluded that writing was more remunerative than medicine. Three of his most popular novels turned out to be Micah Clarke (1889), The White Company (1890), and Sir Nigel (1906).

When Britain was drawn into the fiercely fought and bloody Boer War (1899-1902), Doyle volunteered as a senior field physician. In 1902, he was knighted for his wartime contributions. It was while he was in Africa that Doyle wrote his semi-utopia, The Lost World (1912), for which he created a new character, Professor Challenger, who also starred in the sequel, The Poison Belt (2013). Doyle also created a Napoleonic Wars hero, Brigadier Girard.

But it was the creation of the subtle hawk-eyed amateur detective Sherlock Holmes that catapulted Doyle to world-wide fame. His stolid roommate, both friend and foil, Dr. Watson cemented them as a team. The Strand (one of the era’s finest magazines) carried almost all of their crime-solving adventures.

James D. Hart, author of The Popular Book (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1963), a reprint of the original book by Oxford University Press in 1950), had this to say about the pair’s international success:Scan_Pic0092

“Doyle arrived in America for a lecture tour in 1894, “four years after A Study in Scarlet, the first of his detective stories, appeared in this country. His popularity grew through three editions of this book, The Sign of the Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had begun as a conventional historical romancer, but later he applied the techniques of the romance to a new type of fiction. The American public came to know him only as the creator of two characters permanently enshrined in this nation’s literary mythology–Sherlock Holmes the master detective and his friend Watson, who could grasp only the most elementary clue… He created simple, clear characters whose personalities remained constant but whose thrilling adventures were ever changing–ingredients typical of the romance, which emphasizes the excitements of plot involving characters clearly representative of good and evil”, (p. 198).

It shouldn’t be difficult for you to pick up an unabridged copy of The White Company, but I urge you to secure, if at all possible, the Cosmopolitan Book Corporation’s 1922 edition, with its magnificent N. C. Wyeth color illustrations. Prepare for a timeless great read, one that all generations will revel in.

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WE DON’T TAKE SNOW FOR GRANTED

BLOG #17, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WE DON’T TAKE SNOW FOR GRANTED
April 23, 2014

Much of the Southwest is in drought mode. Even California, the breadbasket of the nation.

Snow and rain. Human life could not live without moisture, consequently millions of people are concerned about climate change. Each year, here in the Colorado Rockies, many worry that this year we won’t have enough moisture for our crops, this year the rivers won’t bring life to counties or states fed by rivers born in the Rockies, this year lack of snow may cut the ski season short, this year our wells may run dry, this year wind and fire may combine to burn up everything we own. The list could go on and on.

But one thing is for sure: we do not take weather for granted. Mankind never has.

In a service club I’m a part of, every week we collect what we call “happy dollars” (which we then donate to our annual literacy campaign). As each of us weighs in on what we are happiest about, almost always weather comes up: if we’ve had a good snowfall or a good rain, invariably at least one member calls attention to it; in the opening invocation, God is usually thanked for whatever moisture comes our way. And when moisture does not come, God is reminded in the invocation that we’d sure appreciate more snow, or more rain.

At the elevation where we live (9,700′), we get lots of snow. In fact, a neighbor and I keep track year by year. Over an eighteen-year period, we have averaged 200-230 inches of snow a year. We’re under normal for this year, but we keep hoping more snow will fall–and if it doesn’t, we’ll hope and pray that God will grant us a long summer monsoon season of rain.

How good God is.

Published in: on April 23, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (2)  
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QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY

BLOG #16, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY
April 16, 2014

It is said that poetry is the most condensed literary art form there is–much more than is true of novels and short stories. I would disagree: quotations are even more condensed than poems.

Of course that gets us into the debate as to whether quotations deserve to be classified as an art form. I submit that they are. It is almost impossible to create shorter condensations of wisdom than in quotations.

For example, how could it be possible to condense the essence of the following any further than these?

“God is Love” (John 4:8)

“I came, I saw, I conquered” (Julilus Caesar)
“All the World’s a Stage.” (Shakespeare)
“What’s past is prologue” (Shakespeare)
“To err is human, to forgive divine.” (Pope)
“Jesus wept” (John 11:35)

Looking back through time, I think I was first captivated by quotations in the old Reader’s Digest. In their early days, their editors routinely featured quotations worth remembering, the essence of Alexander Pope’s immortal “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

All of us aspire to be witty, to articulate thought so splendidly listeners will be in awe of us. But if we are not the first to come up with timeless phraseology–well the artist James McNeill Whistler captured it best in a conversation he had with Oscar Wilde:

Wilde: “I wish I’d said that.”
Whistler: “You will, Oscar, you will.”

Early on in teaching, I wrote on my classroom blackboard one morning, a quotation I felt worth remembering. I wrote another on the board the following day, and so on. It didn’t take long to discover that it was the first thing students noticed when they walked into the room.

Over time, that daily quotation became part of my persona. So much so that if I missed a day, my students demanded I immediately remedy that omission.

Fast forward to the last eighteen years of writing and anthologizing full time. As books bearing my name accumulated, former students began checking back in. A number mentioned those long-ago quotations–many had copied down their favorites: a number still had them. Several suggested I take advantage of the worldwide web and tweet one every day. That way, they could still pretend they were students of mine.

So it was that on October 1 of 2011, I tweeted my first quotation. I have not missed a day since. In late June of 2014, I’ll log in my 1000th quotation.

I take these postings mighty seriously for I want each of them to be worth remembering. I’ve discovered that most quotation books are merely compendiums of quotations, mighty few of them worth writing down, even fewer worth internalizing.

Though I have well over a million quotes archived, it is never easy to select a month’s worth of quotes. For I determined early on to avoid merely posting same ol’ same ol’s; quotes originating with individuals many of our contemporaries don’t even recognize. Because of this, in order to maintain a good mix of quotes old and new, I continuously search for current quotes worth remembering. I add humorous ones as day-brightening changes of pace as well. But always I also feature the greatest ones from ages past.

I’ll be most interested in your reactions to our quotes. If enough interest is expressed, I’ll consider making them available in printed form as well.

If you like quotes but haven’t yet checked ours out, you can access them at http://www.twitter.com/JoeWheelerBooks.

 

 

JUST ONE DAY AT A TIME

BLOG #15, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
JUST ONE DAY AT A TIME
April 9, 2014

Next to me in an office supply store line was a young woman in her mid to late 30s. She was working so hard to get just right a lamination of a long sheet of quotations that everyone in the waiting line got interested in her. Turns out that it wasn’t even for her, but for a dear friend. When I mentioned to her that her friend was lucky to have such a caring friend, she remarked in a very soft voice to me that creating this gift for her friend took her mind off her own troubles.

Conversationally, almost as an aside, I said, “Hopefully, your troubles aren’t too bad.”

When she puddled up, I realized I was in too deep to back out without further dialogue, and, well, one question led to another and before I knew it we’d moved away from the counter so she could speak confidentially. It helped that she’d purchased some of my books in recent years and trusted me.

It was far far worse than I had imagined: her husband had recently died from cancer. . . . Her teenage son had got in with the wrong crowd, overdosed on drugs, and died. . . . Without her husband’s income, she’d lost their home. . . . And the final straw: she’d lost her job too. She was homeless and destitute and didn’t know where in the world to turn.

She summed it all up with these poignant words: “God is my last resort, and I struggle to make sense of it all one day at a time.”

“One day at a time.”

* * * * *

Which reminds me of another encounter I had in a hospital break room a few years ago. I incorporated it into my story, “The Clock of Life.” in Christmas in My Heart 18 almost five years ago.

I’d been operated on for an obstruction in my bile duct that had resulted in my skin turning yellow with jaundice. My hospitalist had told me that if I made it to dawn without the most excruciating pain I’d ever experienced, that would mean I’d escaped pancreatitis. So I walked the hospital corridors hour after hour, stopping once in a while in the break room. Once, there was a woman sitting there who was the spouse of another patient in the ward. Turned out that her husband had a rare virulent form of leukemia. When I asked how severe it was, she answered almost matter of factly, “He can’t even turn over without my help.”

I followed up by asking, “And how long has he had this condition?”

There was a very long pause before, in a soft but strained voice, she answered, “Twenty-five years!”“

I was so stunned, I was almost unable to speak. Finally, I said, “Twenty-five years?

She nodded. “Yes. And in all that time I’ve never left him–not even for a day.”

I could only stammer, “My dear woman, how do you do it?”

Never will I forget her response: “God gives me strength for one day at a time.”

* * * * *

I was on the phone for over an hour one night recently. On the other end of the line was a friend I’d worked with in a university some years before. His voice was so soft I hardly recognized it. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was so weak he couldn’t even get out of his chair without his wife’s help. He was undergoing 28-day cycles of radiation, each of which did all but kill him. The prognosis looked anything but good.

In situations like this one is almost incapable of speech. What do you say to a dear one who knows for a certainty that, unless a miracle takes place, he is living his last hours in life?

I told him I’d been praying for him. He told me that many others were praying for him too. . . and added, “It’s not too hard: we all know we’re going to die, so it’s not an “if,” only a “when.” And clearly he was getting his house in order: family and close friends visited him or phoned him often.

And he now lived “one day at a time.”

Before I signed of, he thanked me again for taking the time to call, saying, “You’re part of what means most to me: true friends who stay by me to the end.”

* * * * *

One day at a time. . . . God gives us strength for one day at a time.

Does Reading Literature Actually Make Us Smarter?

BLOG #14, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DOES READING LITERATURE ACTUALLY MAKE US SMARTER?
April 2, 2014

This is anything but a dead issue today with so many millions of people out of work. Even those with advanced degrees. No small thanks to the national fixation on all these jobless individuals desperately searching for good jobs, there have been many writers, pundits, and producers who have openly denigrated the study of humanities and urged young people to choose more “prac tical” courses of study, degreed programs sanctified by high job placement.

So, are the humanities doomed? Obsolete? Irrelevant in our cyber world? Is there anything at all practical about reading literature?

Knowing of my interest in this subject, Dr. Rosanne Vrugtman sent me Annie Murphy Paul’s splendid response to these questions. Her title includes two additional words:

“Does Reading Literature Make Us Smarter and Nicer?”

Let’s see what she has to say on the subject:

“Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, recently argued in the New York Times that we ought not to claim that literature improves us as people, because there is no “compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy” or other great books.

“Actually, there is such evidence. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.

“‛Deep reading’ – as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web – is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.

“Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading – slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity – is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions – Should I click on this link or not? – allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

“That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.

“None of this is likely to happen when we’re scrolling through TMZ. Although we call the activity by the same name, the deep reading of books and the information-driven reading we do on the Web are very different, both in the experience they produce and in the capacities they develop. A growing body of evidence suggests that online reading may be less engaging and less satisfying, even for the “digital natives” for whom it is so familiar. Last month, for example, Britain’s National Literacy Trust released the results of a study of 34,910 young people aged 8 to 16.

“Researchers reported that 39% of children and teens read daily using electronic devices, but only 28% read printed materials every day. Those who read only onscreen were three times less likely to say they enjoy reading very much and a third less likely to have a favorite book. The study also found that young people who read daily only onscreen were nearly two times less likely to be above-average readers than those who read daily in print or both in print and onscreen.

“To understand why we should be concerned about how young people read, and not just whether they’re reading at all, it helps to know something about the way the ability to read evolved. “Human beings were never born to read,” notes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Unlike the ability to understand and produce spoken language, which under normal circumstances will unfold according to a program dictated by our genes, the ability to read must be painstakingly acquired by each individual. The “reading circuits” we construct are recruited from structures in the brain that evolved for other purposes – and these circuits can be feeble or they can be robust, depending on how often and how vigorously we use them.

“The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.

“This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” If we allow our offspring to believe carnal reading is all there is – if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice – we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter.

“And we will have deprived them of an elevating and enlightening experience that will enlarge them as people. Observing young people’s attachment to digital devices, some progressive educators and permissive parents talk about needing to “meet kids where they are,” molding instruction around their onscreen habits. This is mistaken. We need, rather, to show them someplace they’ve never been, a place only deep reading can take them”.

Taken from a “Brilliant Report,” a weekly newsletter written by Murphy Paul

Published in: on April 2, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (7)