The Complete Plain Words (1954) is a classic book on writing by Sir Ernest Gowers, an accomplished civil servant, aimed at curing the British Civil Service of its habit of writing in officialese rather than in plain English. Though written for civil servants, it soon became a hit with the general public and has not been out of print since.
In it Gowers writes, “The secret to style is to have something to say and to say it as clearly as you can.” He then asks why it is that adults are so prone to write in a complicated rather than simple way, the way children do. To illustrate this, Gowers offers an example of clear writing from a ten-year-old that’s not only impressive for its clarity but also hilarious:
“Why do so many writers prefer complexity to simplicity? Officials are far from being the only offenders. It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay on a bird and a beast:
What’s more important: intelligence and knowledge, or wisdom and goodness of heart?
I think most of us would say wisdom and goodness, but that’s not always how we approach education, is it? We worry about our tots getting into the right preschool because this could determine the rate of their early cognitive development, which could mean the difference between a public school and a magnet school, which could mean the difference between a great and just an average college, which could make or ruin their lives! We put time and effort seeking ways to make our little ones smart, whether through having them listen to Bach from the womb, to buying everything Dora the Explorer so that they can learn Spanish (this is in fact a great idea if your child lives in the United States), to putting them in Chinese immersion schools or classes so that they can compete in the global economy.
Of course, none of these things is bad in itself. But it’s worth asking if we’re neglecting our children’s moral formation at the expense of their intellectual development. Here we can learn from our nation’s second president, John Adams. As we learn in Harlow Giles Unger’s excellent biography John Quincy Adams, though Adams was deeply concerned about and demanding when it came to his son John Quincy’s education, he recognized that character trumped intellect, that the “sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head,” as he wonderfully put it. Listen to Adams, abroad serving as an ambassador, instructing his wife Abigail on their son’s education:
“I am under no apprehension about his proficiency in learning. With his capacities and and opportunities he can not fail to acquire knowledge. But let him know that the sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great virtue of temperance, justice, magnanimity, honor, and generosity, and with these added to his parts, he cannot fail to become a wise and great man.
“… Treachery, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, avarice, &c & should be pointed out to him for his contempt as well as detestation” (18).
Seeing the end of his earthly life draw near, the great eighteenth-century theologian Jonathan Edwards spoke to his daughter Lucy, who attended him during his last days, the best last words I have ever seen come from a dying father. Edwards, who dedicated his life to studying and teaching about a God who is sovereign over all things, knew he could entrust his family to this same God as their heavenly father. A child may learn nothing else from his father (or mother!) but to love God and walk in his ways, but this is more valuable than the greatest earthly inheritance any parent can hope to leave his children. This is the best thing a father or mother can do for their children, and it’s sweet to see the great theologian of the Great Awakening be that kind of father. From John Piper’s God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 2006):
“Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue for ever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a father who will never fail you.”
In his book The Message of the New Testament (Crossway 2005) Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (full disclosure: I’m a member here and love it), helps us see how in the Gospel of Luke we encounter a Jesus whose manliness is expressed in a special concern for the vulnerable: namely, women and children. This is striking because it runs counter to the popular image of a “man’s man” who is usually surrounded by other “manly” (I use quotes not because I don’t believe men can be manly, but because the way manliness is often portrayed is so superficial) men and concerned with “more important” things than those affecting women and children. Keeping in mind that in Jesus the fullness of God was made manifest (Colossians 1:19), Jesus’s manliness is also a good reminder that women and children are of great importance to God, and that if they are not to us, then that is to our shame.
“Jesus did give much time to discipling men. Yet Luke’s Gospel shows he had great compassion and concern for women as well. To see this, consider first Luke’s attention to Jesus’s infancy and youth. He recounts the celebration shared by the two pregnant mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Mary’s song of praise following the angel’s amazing announcement. It is also hard to miss the fact that John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, appears to have had more faith than his father, Zechariah. Mary’s faith is evident as well in her song of jubilation. She trusted and believed.
“…Chapter 10 highlights Mary and Martha’s friendship with Jesus. As Martha busied herself with meal preparations and Mary sat and listened to Jesus’s teaching, Jesus invited Martha to give attention to his teaching as well (10:38-42). Of course, inviting a woman to sit and learn was a radical idea in those days.
“…All told, Luke refers to more women than any other Gospel. This might reflect something about Luke, but it also reveals something of what Jesus considered important” (85-86).
Simply put, “Jesus taught and exemplified love and benevolence toward women when too often they had been ignored or abused in the name of religion” (87).
Jesus also showed a “special awareness of children”: “He healed children (8:41-42, 51-55). He said they should be welcomed (9:47-48). He described them as recipients of God’s grace in understanding (10:21). He even rebuked his disciples for keeping the children from him, and then pointed to them as models of trust (18:17; cf. 17:2).
“What other religious leader has been concerned with children? Perhaps you are a Buddhist or a Muslim, and you know of such stories involving Buddha or Muhammad. But I have not yet seen them, and I have looked for them. Jesus seems to have been unusual in his attitude towards children” (87).
In Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015), theologian and church history professor Carl Trueman (who is Presbyterian, not Lutheran) provides an excellent treatment of the great 16th-century Reforming Augustinian monk – more than biography, it’s a careful and critical consideration of Luther’s teachings on the Christian life, from salvation by childlike faith to obedience to civil government to doing marriage and parenthood.
Trueman on Luther is excellent all around; he’s devoted decades of study to the man who launched the Reformation. But my favorite part of the book was the few pages on Luther’s marriage and on Luther and Katie (Katharina von Bora) as dedicated parents (he would read his catechism with his children every day, saying that he, though he was a brilliant Reformer and minister of the gospel, was as much a learner of doctrine as they were). The bit below is a delightful and exemplary snapshot not just of the marriage of Martin and Katie Luther, but of the blessing that she was to him. You have to admire the practicality and thoughtfulness she brought to their marriage! (Indeed, much like that brought by my own wonderfully practical wife, Laura.)
“His unexpected [because he was a monk] marriage to his Katie proved to be delightful, loving, and fruitful. Today, visitors to the Augustinian cloister in Wittenberg…will see that the door frame has a little stool built into it on each side. The door frame was a present from Katie to her husband, made at a time when she felt they were not spending enough time talking to each other. Thus, at the end of a busy day, Martin and Katie could sit on either side of the door and talk to each other. Inside and upstairs, there is a similar arrangement, presumably for when the Saxon weather made an outdoor tryst somewhat wet and cold. This in itself speaks eloquently of the love and the happiness that marriage brought to the life of the Reformer” (Kindle, chapter 8).
In Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (Penguin 2006), Pulitzer winning American historian Gordon Wood makes the bold assertion that we are not going to get leaders like the founders again, and for this he gives a provocative and, at least to me, convincing reason: that the forces unleashed at the founding have in effect prevented that we’ll again get leaders of the quality of the founders. These forces democratized politics, extending them to the “common man,” and in so doing they deteriorated the discourse – and with this the ideas – with which men like Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams engaged.
On the book itself, I heartily recommend it. It is a learned and highly readable collection of brief biographical treatments of the founders, including the black sheep Aaron Burr and that genius pamphleteer of a Brit, Thomas Paine.
“If we want to know why we can never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders, there is a simple answer: the growth of what we today presumably value most about American society and culture, egalitarian democracy. In the early nineteenth century the voices of ordinary people, at least ordinary white people, began to be heard as never before in history, and they soon overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being. The founders had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people; indeed, they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves” (28).
This Independence Day weekend I went to Monticello, and there I bought Douglas Wilson’s Jefferson’s Books, a delightful monograph that shows us Jefferson as the remarkable book collector and reader that he was. Much of it deals with his decades-long, setback-ridden (fires! thieves!) building of his library, whose 6,700 volumes became the founding contribution to the Library of Congress upon his retirement.
I have more, much more, to learn about Jefferson, but at least in the matter of books and reading, he may be my ultimate role model. Not that I want to build extensive, world-renowned libraries, but I want to dedicate myself to the systematic study of books to improve my knowledge and to share it with others and encourage them to read more – all things at which Jefferson excelled.
Below are some choice quotes from the book, a recommended reading schedule he gave to a friend, and a picture of his revolving bookstand, one of the coolest (okay, maybe cool isn’t the right word here) items in his Monticello house.
“As Jefferson’s library revealed, books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (8)
“…the book-hunting chores he tirelessly performed for his friends back home far outnumbered his own requests for help.” (25)
“The amount of money [he] spent for books while he was in Paris and throughout his life was prodigious…He was aware that his indulgence in books amounted to extravagance and sought to moderate it by buying cheaper and smaller format editions wherever possible, and driving a hard bargain when offered an expensive book.” (25)
“His library, from an early period, formed an essential part of his vision of the good life.” (26)
“Jefferson was dependent on books, tended to take his knowledge from them rather than from direct experience, and approached the world with studied eyes.” (29)
“The need to know seemed to to come as naturally to him as the need to breathe. He spoke often of his belief that nature had formed him for study, and he exercised his remarkable powers of discipline to find time for reading even in the busies and most hectic times of his life.” (29)
“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” (46)
His favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, said of him: “Of history he was very fond, and this he studied in all languages [he knew seven], though always, I think, preferring the ancients. In fact, he derived more pleasure from his acquaintance with Greek and Latin than from any other resource of literature…I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.” (48-49)
“Jefferson was constantly being consulted on matters relating to books and education and conscientiously made out dozens of reading lists at the requests of his friends.” (50)
To a friend he recommended this reading schedule:
– Before 8 am: Physical Studies, Ethics, Religion, Natural Law
– Eight to 12 pm: Law
– 12-1 pm: Politics
– Afternoon: History
– From dark to bedtime: Belles-lettres [literary works admired for their style], Criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory
And finally, his revolving bookstand, on which he liked to have five reference books while he wrote letters to friends:
Have you ever in your reading come across that gem of an insight that got you so excited, you had to stop reading and share it with a friend?
Have you ever felt frustrated at the sheer quantity of good books that have been written, waiting to be read and discovered anew, knowing there simply isn’t as much time as we’d like to read all of them, much less reread the ones that merit the compliment?
Have you ever come to that place where you realize that books offer such a vast world of wisdom and delight and experiences, that you knew you had to begin capturing some of this for yourself, not only for your own education and enjoyment, but for better knowing how to do this thing called life?
This blog was born out of such experiences.
When we delight in something, we instinctively want to share it with others. That’s exactly what I want to do here. As someone who loves books and the treasures they have to offer, I invite you to join me as I share what I consider to be the “choice morsels” from my reading diet with friends and anyone willing to stop by. Following my interests, this blog will be heavy on liberal arts and humanities, theology and philosophy in particular; but you’ll find other subjects interspersed between Aristotle and Augustine, as I strive to wander out of my favorite neighborhoods into unfamiliar yet equally fascinating territory.
Thanks for reading!