Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Review: Splintered Light

This is the first edition of Splintered Light by Verlyn Flieger, not the 2002 second edition. The astonishing fact is that I want to read the second edition, even now. This was that much of a revelation. In short, in this book Flieger digs up bits of Tolkien's overall philosophy and shows how that shaped the Silmarillion (and, in one chapter, how The Lord of the Rings fits into the big picture). For an innovative, big-picture analysis type of book Flieger writes well, with pithy comments, well-chosen examples and even a sense of pacing. If all academic books were like this, more people would be academics. Especially in the second half I take issue with some of her points but as a foundation for understanding what Tolkien was up to, this is a fantastic book and I think it's right on. For the first time, I feel like I understand how the different parts of Tolkien's life -- philologist, father, Christian, author, sub-creator of languages -- all relate and feed into each other. I feel fortunate to have a library in which I can find a book like this in its hard-to-find first edition -- but, like I said, I know that some day I'll read it again, and that's rare for a book or even a movie.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Review: Real Scientists, Real Faith

Real Scientists, Real Faith is a collection of essays by Monarch Books that each contain a short personal essay from a scientists who are Christians talking about their science and their faith. The broad spectrum of disciplines is inspiring, and there is a good international mix too, although if anything it's tilted toward British scientists I personally don't get to see that often, so much the better. (Many spoke in the Faraday lectures I listened to recently.) It's actually a bit much to read all at once and I took it in smaller bits. The Simon Conway Morris essay alone is worth the price of admission; I really need to read one of his full-length books one of these days. Another standout to my eyes is Wilson Poon, a physicist from the University of Edinburgh whose essay is titled "The Laboratory of the Cross." Most essays are substantially autobiographical, and if you take that as your expectation, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the deep debates that get touched upon from time to time. But this is more summer reading than deep reading (with the possible exception of the two essays I mention above). I guarantee that any reader going through it will be struck by how prevalent the science-faith so-called dichotomy is in just in the air in the common media. This book shows there's no such dichotomy, sometimes directly, but more effectively indirectly, showing how lives can be lived reading from both "Books" of knowledge with joy. It's just in the air for this book, quite the opposite of what's "in the air" for the way science is usually described. Breathe deep.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book Review: Academically Adrift

At least for professors, this book was big news. Once I read it I realized all the media summaries were a bit off, so I'll hold off on summarizing it myself. OK, I have to give you this summary: There's a lot of sociological data here that suggests that colleges aren't doing their job to produce "critical thinkers." By that, they mean people who can sort through lots of info, compare it, and then write about it. On the one hand, my institution took part in the preliminary part of this exact study and scored consistently in the top quartile, so that feels pretty good (though, as a teacher of juniors and seniors, I personally can't take much credit for a sophomore-year test!). On the other hand, there is a problem here, extending into the past (high school) and future (after graduation), and although I can quibble with certain aspects of this work (especially the claim that critical thinking doesn't change after the sophomore year?!), at the heart this is about a cultural problem with a moral aspect. In fact, in their final chapter the authors say basically the same thing. So new-fangled analytical tools suggest a moral change. How about that.