Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Magic (GKC)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Full title: Magic: A Fantastic Comedy.

Genre: Play, comedy.

Overview:

This play is set at the Duke’s home. The action begins with the search for his adult niece, Patricia Carleon, who has been in the garden, exploring Fairyland.

[Enter Patricia.]
Carleon. [Still agitated.] Patricia, where have you been?
Patricia. [Rather wearily.] Oh! in Fairyland.
Doctor. [Genially.] And whereabouts is that?
Patricia. It’s rather different from other places. It’s either nowhere or it’s wherever you are.

Thus Patricia, the mystic, sparks a debate about belief involving herself, her uncle, and her uncle’s guests. The themes about disbelief and skepticism in this little play are strongly echoed in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which in 1950 became the first of The Chronicles of Narnia series. An interesting difference is that Lucy, who discovers Narnia, is a child; while Patricia, in Chesterton’s play, is an adult. Chesterton wants the reader to know that belief is not confined to childhood or naivete.

Conjurer. [Contemptuously.] Yes, your Grace, one of those larger laws you were telling us about. (p. 42)

Published in 1913 and performed in London’s Little Theatre, this is the first of only three plays written by Chesterton and performed during his lifetime. (A fourth was published posthumously.) This is also the only one of his plays that is widely accessible today, having been digitized by Project Gutenberg.

Meat:

The debate about belief is resolved in much the same way as it is in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: we are reminded of the gloriously child-like wisdom of giving people the benefit of a doubt when they speak of miracles.

Why should sham miracles prove to us that real Saints and Prophets never lived. There may be sham magic and real magic also. . . . There may be turnip ghosts precisely because there are real ghosts. There may be theatrical fairies precisely because there are real fairies. You do not abolish the Bank of England by pointing to a forged bank-note. (p. 30)

One character notes that disbelief is just as bad a curse as gullibility.

Here is the boy who questions everything and a girl who can believe anything. Upon which has the curse fallen?

Bones:

There is not a lot of action in this play. The plot would have been more memorable if it had been a little longer or had more change of scenery.

Quotes:

Old women have taught you that the fairies are too small to be seen. But I tell you the fairies are too mighty to be seen. (p. 4)

The Doctor does not believe me. He is an agnostic; and he knows everything. (p. 43)

There is no bigot like the atheist. (p. 47)

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html), Kindle Store (mobi)

Review: Greybeards at Play

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Full Title:  Greybeards at Play: Literature and Art for Old Gentlemen, Rhymes and Sketches

Genre: Poetry, humor.

Overview:

Greybeards at Play is Chesterton’s first published book. He published it in 1900 at the ripe age of 26, so “greybeard” is used with tongue in cheek. This kind of dichotomy or paradox is a major pattern that marks his entire writing career, and looms large in almost every book he wrote. Aging and youth is also a favorite theme of Chesterton in his prose and poetry, used, for instance, in the introduction to The Man Who Was Thursday:

The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.

Meat:

The four poems play on philosophical themes and mock, to some extent, the high-faluting learning that he probably encountered during his London education. (Supposedly, Chesterton’s alma mater had the highest rate of Oxbridge admissions in the country.) This quick book makes fun and relaxing reading and the illustrations make it a treasure from Chesterton’s early career.

The whimsical monochrome illustrations accompanying the poetry will remind some of children’s books like those of Shel Silverstein, but the poetry is not really for children, hence the title.

If you have enjoyed Chesterton’s Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900) or Poems (1915), you will likely enjoy a quick romp through Greybeards at Play, although Greybeards is not as serious as most of his other poetry. If you enjoy the humor in his poetry and the lilt of English “doggerel,” you could also take a peak at Wine, Water and Song, which is all doggerel.

Bones:

These poems are fun, but the book goes by fast, and they are not Chesterton’s best poems (as reflected in the rating).

When I first read the Kindle edition of this book, I wondered at the brevity of it. The word count is only 1675. The reason is that the illustrations are missing in some editions. Chesterton himself created these illustrations, and as far as I know this is the only book he illustrated. He had taken classes at Slade School of Fine Art (UCL), focusing on illustration. If you do read this book, make sure you find an illustrated edition, such as the free HTML version on Project Gutenberg.

Review: What I Saw in America

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Non-fiction, travel, essays.

Overview:

What I Saw in America (1922) is a long book of essays, first published in 1922, mostly about America and English-American relations in the wake of World War I. They were written during and after a lecture tour in the United States. Chesterton includes a few funny anecdotes from his travel but otherwise avoids any details concerning his trip—that is to say, this is by no means a travelogue; it is a book of essays reflecting on his time in America.

To cover this rather lengthy book, I will have to divide the themes into headings. There are four topics in What I Saw in America: 1) American culture; 2) understanding foreign cultures in general (and what is today known as “culture shock”); 3) American politics; and 4) international unity efforts (then called “internationalism”)


Chesterton on American Culture

The first chapter (“What Is America?”) sets the tone for the whole book and is probably its most important chapter. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t enjoy the rest of the book. In its title, Chesterton hearkens back to Crevecoeur’s famous Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782, in which he asks the question, “What Is an American?” Crevecoeur’s conclusion:

The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence.—This is an American.

Chesterton’s conclusion in this chapter is not far off:

America invites all men to become citizens. (p. 8) . . . [America] is making a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles. (p. 14)

Chesterton continues along this line in two important later chapters, “The Spirit of America” and “The Future of Democracy.”

He makes many other general statements about American culture and work ethic. Here is another (from “The Spirit of England”):

The Englishman is moody. . . . In America there are no moods, or there is only one mood. It is the same whether it is called hustle or uplift. American sociability is . . . like Niagara. It never stops, under the silent stars or the rolling storms. (p. 288-289)

And there are, in the book, many, many other amusing notes about the differences between the Englishman and the American.


Chesterton on Culture Shock

Chesterton has a refreshing way of discussing culture shock in this book. He points out the discomfort that is inevitable in travelling.

A foreigner is a man who laughs at everything except jokes. (p. 163)

He also argues that as long as we think we understand a people or nation, we will be unable to learn anything new about them. He illustrates this by a strange anecdote in the chapter “The Extraordinary American,” which is about an inexplicable meeting in Oklahoma. His apt summary:

We have never even begun to understand a people until we have found something that we do not understand. (p. 182, emphasis mine)


Chesterton on American Politics

The modern Briton sees American politics from afar as a circus. Chesterton calls it—along with his own nation—a plutocracy (rule by the rich), a term which has only grown in relevance.

Vulgar plutocracy is almost omnipotent in both countries; but I think there is now more kick of reaction against it in America than in England. (p. 264-265)

Political representation in democracy, for Chesterton, is a sleight-of-hand trick: we go to pains to elect whomever we want, and then spend their term criticizing them. He writes that the King of England is a popular figure, and that “pure democracy” leads inevitably to tyranny. (He first said this, I believe, in his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill.) This agrees somewhat with statements made by James Madison in Federalist Paper no. 10, written in 1787.

Along with many British believers or young American Christians, Chesterton would be considered conservative on moral issues but liberal on social issues. Firstly, he sees the American republic as having a theological foundation:

America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. (p. 7, emphasis mine)

This rings true, of course, with most conservative Christians; but his other opinions may raise some feathers—especially his view of economics, which is definitely not capitalist, but not exactly socialist either.

A wise man’s attitude towards industrial capitalism will be very like Lincoln’s attitude towards slavery. That is, he will manage to endure capitalism; but he will not endure a defence of capitalism. (p. 226)

Politically moderate Christians, who are today called “politically homeless,” will definitely be interested in Chesterton’s views.


Chesterton on Internationalism

The League of Nations, which was later replaced by the United Nations, was the first worldwide intergovernmental organization, founded in 1920. Although we may have forgotten it after the disillusionment of World War II, the original goal was to maintain world peace and international unity. Novelist H. G. Wells had written that if we could not maintain such a peace, then only war is possible.

This kind of thinking Chesterton consistently and utterly rejects. In numerous places in his writings, he shows outrage at the idea of a neutral assimilation along any lines, whether moral, political, denominational, linguistic, or cultural. He says twice that this is the main contention of the entire book:

I would insist everywhere in this book . . . that the remedy is to be found in disentangling the two and not in entangling them further. (p. 233)

The safest path for Anglo-American relations, he says, is for the English to be more English, not more American; and for the English to learn to appreciate America as American, and the American to appreciate England as English. In this way, he makes a great argument for diversity (as elsewhere). One of the characters in his early novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill makes a similar argument:

Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimaux has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus? (Napoleon of Notting Hill, p. 41)

Chesterton’s objection to “internationalism” is summarized thus:

The objection to spreading anything all over the world is that, among other things, you have to spread it very thin. (p. 244)


Other Themes in What I Saw in America

As in any book of essays, numerous themes are discussed and couldn’t possibly fit into a review. Some other themes addressed prominently in this book are given here:

  • American humor
  • American journalism
  • American politics
  • American individualism
  • Political representation
  • Capitalism and work ethic
  • Egalitarianism vs. capitalism
  • The moral influence of new technologies
  • The fruitlessness of the Prohibition (1920-1933)

Quotes:

“The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose; and the text of Scripture which he now most commonly quotes is, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” That text has served to identify self-satisfaction with “the peace that passes all understanding.” And the text to be quoted in answer to it is that which declares that no man can receive the kingdom except as a little child. What we are to have inside is the childlike spirit; but the childlike spirit is not entirely concerned about what is inside. It is the first mark of possessing it that one is interested in what is outside. The most childlike thing about a child is his curiosity and his appetite and his power of wonder at the world. We might almost say that the whole advantage of having the kingdom within is that we look for it somewhere else.” (p. 279)

Prohibition:

“The first thing to be said about it is that it does not exist. . . . Prohibition never prohibits. It never has in history; not even in Moslem history; and it never will.” (p. 145)

American Culture:

“Americans are very unpunctual.” (p. 113)

“Individualism is the death of individuality.” (p. 169)

Read for Free: LibriVox (audiobook), Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg (epub & rtf), Kindle Store (mobi),

 

Review: The Trees of Pride (Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview: The Trees of Pride is one of Chesterton’s mystery novels, of which he has many. Most are in the Father Brown series; this, however, is a singlet.

The Trees of Pride takes place in Cornwall, in a quaint coastal village in the far southwest reaches of England. Cornwall, though a popular tourist destination, is also associated with occult practices, as well as its history of piracy. This makes it an obvious choice for a murder mystery.

Meat:

For starters, I have to admit, this was the first mystery novel I have ever read, and Chesterton did not disappoint. All of his books are stimulating and thoughtful. Chesterton skillfully speaks through the narrative as well as through the characters as voiceboxes.

Chesterton creates a fictional saint, St. Securis. Trees are moved by his prayers; a myth of Orpheus leading trees by his music is also referenced. These walking trees are also in Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse and are a favorite motif of the Inklings (who, readers should remember, were readers of Chesterton and not his personal acquaintances).

Chesterton sets up these trees as a foil: everyone believes the trees kill. Then the doctor sets up an elaborated faked death in order to ensure the trees will be destroyed.

In the end, the popular myth was in fact correct; although, all the educated people in the story had assumed that this was the one explanation to be scorned. Thus, the doctor says in the end:

I had something against me heavier and more hopeless than the hostility of the learned; I had the support of the ignorant. (loc. 927)

And again:

Your rational principle was that a thing must be false because thousands of men had found it true; that because many human eyes had seen something, it could not be there. (loc. 954)

Bones:

This book is a very quick read, and it doesn’t have as wide an appeal as some of his other novels. Some modern readers will definitely feel off-put by the blatant use of certain characters as a voicebox, a practice criticized in postmodern literature. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable read and will remain one of the better of Chesterton’s fiction works.

Read For Free: LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (epub, rtf), Kindle Store (mobi).

You can find links to many Chesterton’s books for free here.

Review: The Knowledge of the Holy

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: A. W. Tozer was an American pastor with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. In addition to the books that he wrote during his lifetime—of which the most famous are The Pursuit of God and The Knowledge of the Holy—hundreds of his sermons have been preserved for us and published in various forms. He also wrote many short articles as editor of the Alliance Weekly, seen for instance in Of God and Men and Born After Midnight. He is Arminian in theology, but mystical in outlook.

Genre: Devotional, theology proper.

Overview:

Tozer makes a statement in the introduction of this book that encapsulates the meaning and importance of theology proper for every believer:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. (p. 1)

After this challenge, he handles attributes of God one by one in 23 chapters, each of which has been carefully distilled.

Theology proper was the task of a lifetime for Tozer. In addition to The Knowledge of the Holy, he has numerous sermons and sermon series on God’s attributes, some of which have also been published in book form. His Attributes of God series goes into more detail on specific theological questions. Of them all, however, The Knowledge of the Holy is the clearest and the best.

Tozer sees theology as leading us first and foremost to worship. As such, his book only takes on controversial topics as they tend to the kindling of renewed faith. He is the consummate devotional writer: which is to say, his goal in his writings and sermons is always to lead his listeners and readers to worship.

Meat:

The first chapter, “Why We Must Think Rightly about God,” is an obvious high point.

A high point in this book for me was Tozer’s Arminian explanation of “The Sovereignty of God.” He writes that we may know with certainty that a steamer is bound for Boston without knowing who will be on the steamer; in the same way, we know that the “elect” are going to heaven, but who is included in the “elect” is a matter subject to change over time. This explanation should be lucid and helpful to most Arminians.

Bones:

After the introductory chapters (1-4), Tozer spends five chapters introducing theology proper in a kind of Classical framework, which is obviously influenced by Greek philosophical thought. Although there is very little that I take issue with in chapters 5 through 10, the framework is based on systematic philosophical concerns. I think it could have been a more biblically grounded, rather than systematically grounded.

Probably the hardest thought of all for our natural egotism to entertain is that God does not need our help. . . . The God who worketh all things surely needs no help and no helpers. Too many missionary appeals are based upon this fancied frustration of Almighty God.

While this is clear enough in systematic theology, it is not so clear in biblical theology. One of the misconceptions of Job’s friends (42:8) was that they believed that God puts no trust in his servants (4:18-19, 15:15-16). On the contrary, the theatrical frame for the Book of Job leads us to believe that God puts too much trust in his servants. God isn’t flippant concerning our spiritual outcomes; both Testaments lead us to the conclusion that he is truly invested—if anything, more invested than we ourselves are.

Quotes:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. (p. 1)

The greatness of God rouses fear within us, but His goodness encourages us not to be afraid of Him. To fear and not be afraid—that is the paradox of faith.

God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.

Review: The Appetite of Tyranny

Rating: ★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Full Title:  The Appetite of Tyranny: Including Letters to an Old Garibaldian

Alternate Titles: The Appetite of Tyranny combines two previous books, both of which were very short: The Barbarism of Berlin (1914), which was a response to the July Crisis, and Letters to an Old Garibaldian (March 1915).

Genre: Non-fiction, journalism, wartime essays.

Overview:

The Appetite of Tyranny is a brief, thoughtful book, but not always measured in its tone. This little book addresses what Chesterton sees as the roots of German aggression that resulted in World War I. Although at the outset it is supposed to be reasoning against German ideology and policy, the book devolves into criticisms of the German people themselves.

The essay was published in 1914—directly in the wake of the July Crisis that led into World War I—so it is understandably polemic in tone. Chesterton sees the crisis as resulting from lack of faithfulness among German leadership on two points: keeping their word (they had promised not to invade Belgium), and maintaining reciprocity. Of course, the war itself would probably not be described so unilaterally in most history books.

Based on Project Gutenberg downloads, this appears to be the least popular of Chesterton’s fifty-odd books (the most popular being Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday).

This book is not really what we would call “classic” Chesterton, so I don’t recommend it for devotional or leisurely reading, unless you are highly interested in World War I. I consider World War I to be an understandably weak period in Chesterton’s writing.

Meat:

Chesterton is never concerned solely with the surface of the issue; he is always hunting for some principle behind the circumstances at play, so that he can better understand the motives and outcomes. For the most part, that is the case in The Appetite of Tyranny (though probably less so in The Crimes of England or Lord Kitchener).

He begins by seeking to demonstrate that “civilization,” in terms of technological advancement, has made the Germans no less “barbarous.” He argues that intellect and technology may only increase their evil:

If their cities soared higher than their flying ships, if their trains travelled faster than their bullets, we should still call them barbarians.

This is the kind of argument used, for instance, in his novel The Trees of Pride. But Chesterton’s argument weakens as he resorts to less logical attacks on the German people.

The most interesting points in this little book, I thought, were those that presaged the development of the Nazi movement. From the beginning of World War I, Chesterton openly mocked German “race theorists” and the superiority complex that he saw as fueling—or, at least, excusing—German aggression. He quotes a Professor Ostwald of Berlin University as saying:

Science combined with organisation makes us terrible to our opponents and ensures a German future for Europe. (p. 48)

Chesterton goes on to recount an argument by a German writer that Leonardo da Vinci was German! These examples are interesting in retrospect as exemplifying the kind of ideology that preceded Nazism. Chesterton was relatively consistent in this area as an outspoken critic of eugenics and related ideologies.

Bones:

As the essay continues, he slips into equating German politics with the German people as a whole, and commits several slurs which are difficult to excuse over a century later. Surely, when they were written, the English would not have thought twice about his generalizations, reeling as Europe was in the shock of the Great War. To my mind, he somewhat repeats the error of the Germans by insulting them as Germans.

I should add, even if he weren’t English, Chesterton’s sympathies would almost necessarily on the French side, the French being predominantly Catholic. He often speaks fondly of his travels in France; I am not sure if he ever visited Germany, and he had little regard for Luther.

This and several of his other books of the time period are mainly responses to the needs of the time, and haven’t aged nearly as well as most of his works. Although it contains a few interesting historical notes and aphorisms here and there (several given below), The Appetite of Tyranny definitely should not be the first (or even third) Chesterton book you pick up.

Related Works: Lord Kitchener, The Crimes of England.

Quotes:

“Others besides German soldiers have slain the defenceless, for loot or lust or private malice, like any other murderer. The point is that nowhere else but in Prussian Germany is any theory of honour mixed up with such things.”

“The collapse of German philosophy always occurs at the beginning, rather than the end of an argument.”

“The danger of the Pruss is that he is prepared to fight for old errors as if they were new truths.”

“The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you; and howls when you hurt him.”

“The promise, like the wheel, is unknown in Nature: and is the first mark of man. Referring only to human civilisation, it may be said with seriousness that in the beginning was the Word. The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known.” (in an argument about German faithlessness)

“He cannot get outside the idea that he, because he is he and not you, is free to break the law; and also to appeal to the law.”

 

 

Review: The Man Who Was Thursday (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Surrealism, crime, suspense.

Overview:

The Man Who Was Thursday is probably Chesterton’s most intriguing work of fiction. It reads exactly like a modern action movie, skipping from place to place, and you are not quite sure, until the end, who is on which side of the conflict.

The story centers around the work of the “philosophical police,” especially one man named Syme. Syme, along with others, has been given the assignment of rooting out anarchism in England, and he begins by getting acquainted with Gregory, a friend of a friend, who appears to dabble in anti-establishment talk around parlors and dinner tables. Syme believes that Gregory may be involved in some deeper plot with an underground anarchist organization; Syme has no idea, though, how deep the rabbit hole will go.

As the plot thickens, it carries with it all the intrigue of The Matrix or an M. Night Shyamalan film, as readers are trying to figure out what is real and what is fantasy. Chesterton despises tidily framed opinions and political correctness, and this book makes some brow-furrowing philosophical statements both through the characters’ voices and through the paradoxes engendered throughout the plot.

Meat:

My favorite part of this book was not any of the aphorisms peppered throughout—which are inevitable in any Chesterton book. My favorite part was the irony that grows larger and larger throughout the book, until it becomes so ludicrous that you see why the book’s subtitle is A Nightmare. The story couldn’t be real just as he describes the story; it is real all around us and is renewed every day.

Chesterton proves to cross genres just as adeptly as Lewis or MacDonald. Nothing is lost in reading his non-fiction, poetry, or novels.

Bones:

My biggest bone with this book is the presentation—as usually printed, it looks like a piece of crime fiction, and it could easily be confused as one of the “Father Brown” stories. This story is very different from those, and, as I mentioned, the subtitle—which is left out on many editions—should suggest as much.

Although on the whole the book is full of suspense, parts of the plot do seem predictable, but the narrative is told in such a clever way that it did not bother me in the least, or detract from the constant wonder of reading the novel.

Quotes:

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front . . . “

I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace.”

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (epub & rtf), The Internet Archive (pdf)



An old review reads:

A WILD, MAD, HILARIOUS AND PROFOUNDLY MOVING TALE

It is very difficult to classify THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. It is possible to say that it is a gripping adventure story of murderous criminals and brilliant policemen; but it was to be expected that the author of the Father Brown stories should tell a detective story like no-one else. On this level, therefore, THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY succeeds superbly; if nothing else, it is a magnificent tour-de-force of suspense-writing.

However, the reader will soon discover that it is much more than that. Carried along on the boisterous rush of the narrative by Chesterton’s wonderful high-spirited style, he will soon see that he is being carried into much deeper waters than he had planned on; and the totally unforeseeable denouement will prove for the modern reader, as it has for thousands of others since 1908 when the book was first published, an inevitable and moving experience, as the investigators finally discover who Sunday is.