Joseph Bottum, morning truantJul 6, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Morning comes like a great bird, sailing over the dark curve of the earth to illuminate the hills and trees. Dawn arrives like an angel’s burning sword, expelling night from the garden of this world. Sunrise melts to fresh dew the last wisps of frost across the lawn, a diamond sparkle in the golden angle of the sun’s first rays, and in the background always plays “Morning Mood,” the opening movement of Grieg’s first Peer Gynt Suite.
Or maybe “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”? Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” which movie soundtracks seem to use for scoring almost any uplifting scene? Hard to say, really, since I’m not at my best before noon. Or maybe mid-afternoon. Evening, certainly—by 6:00 p.m. or so, I’m raring to go: bright-eyed and bushytailed, facing the new day’s challenges with a well-rested dedication and commitment. Shouldering life’s burdens with a good and happy will.
Not that I have anything against the a.m. hours. They have their part to play in this crazy cavalcade of life, no doubt, and who am I to condemn times I’ve rarely encountered? Or, at least, rarely encountered from the sunny side. Most days I see the clock well past midnight: the early hours in their dark mood, when they dress in nightshades and prowl the deserted alleys and the empty docks down by the water. It’s a different look from the new morn, with its face all scrubbed, tying the strings of its bright apron around its gingham dress.
No, the only trouble with morning is that it comes too early in the day, while I’m still asleep. Given that measured time is a human invention—its arbitrariness revealed by the games we play with “daylight savings” (which may be the oddest phrase currently allowed in English without a doctor’s prescription)—you’d think somebody would do something about the way morning disappears before we night owls have a chance to appreciate it. I mean, the dawn-besotted music of Edvard Grieg does give me a sense of what it might be like, but why are early risers the only ones who get to taste the day’s worms?
I know I’m not alone in this circadian deprivation. Recent studies have suggested that the later classes begin, the better boys do in school. Girls less so—more proof, if it were needed, of the advantages American education gives its female students. My father always said that the one thing his two years in the Army taught him was how to get up in the morning. But he never said it with anything like fondness or gratitude in his voice.
In truth, I have measured out my life in broken alarm clocks, smashed in the ham-handed attempt to shut them off. I have spent my years with pillows curled around my head to block out the clatter of morning traffic. I think I made it to brunch a time or two, back when I was young, but breakfast is basically a dream of lives I haven’t led. Rex Stout’s assistant detective Archie Goodwin once admitted his need to find a way to wake up in the morning without resenting it: “It may be that a bevy of beautiful maidens in pure silk yellow very sheer gowns, barefooted, singing ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ and scattering rose petals over me would do the trick,” he agreed, “but I’d have to try it.” As would we all.
Back when I lived in Washington, there was a congressman who called me, looking for someone to meet him for breakfast once or twice a month and talk about the novels he had read as an undergraduate and wanted to have back in mind. I tried to explain to him that no one capable of talking about Ulysses is capable of doing it before noon—the mutual exclusivity of literary criticism and early rising a fact well documented in the literature—but he wasn’t buying it. “Morning is the best time,” he insisted. The town is quiet, the workday only started, and the mind fresher, more able to absorb ideas and operate efficiently.
Perhaps so. Perhaps each new morning glows with a golden and graceful light. Perhaps brightness falls from the air like luminous, new-minted coins, and the early worms gladly offer themselves up as sacrifices. Perhaps the world’s soundtrack plays a feel-good movie score from dawn to noon. Perhaps bevies of maidens really do scatter rose petals on those who rise to meet the day without bashing their alarm clocks and cursing the ungodly hours.
How would I know?
What explains the years of rage on campuses? Jun 15, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 38 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Maybe American higher education was never all that serious about, you know, the education portion of its name. After more than a decade of teaching in the Ivy League, the philosopher George Santayana dubbed Harvard and Yale the nation’s toy Athens and toy Sparta. He actually meant it as a compliment—as much a compliment, anyway, as he could muster. Santayana resigned his Harvard professorship in 1912 and moved to Europe.
Joseph Bottum, book burnerMay 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It took me six hours to destroy it all, that cold, wet winter day. Freezing rain coating the leafless trees and the slush of snow left from the previous days’ storms. A weak fire in one of the stingy, grudging little fireplaces they used to build in Manhattan apartments. And me, alone with thousands of pages of unpublished writing by Richard John Neuhaus, burning the record he’d kept of his life.
Setting that certain feeling to music.May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I found an error in Ted Gioia’s new history of love songs. It’s late in this 336-page book, when he mentions that Simon and Garfunkel gave their 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson” to the movie soundtrack for The Graduate. As it happens, the adulterous Mrs. Robinson was first a character in the 1967 movie, and the little koo-koo-ka-choo filler they composed for her they developed into a full song only after the movie’s success.
Joseph Bottum refuses to convert.Mar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It used to happen regularly. Some poor science writer for a magazine or newspaper would try to humanize an astronomy fact: The distance light travels in a year is enormous!
Joseph Bottum counts the days Jan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
until after Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t really begin until Christmas—Christmas Day itself, that is. And I don’t mean just in the way the Christian churches lay out the season: the whole 12-days-of-Christmas thing, if you remember. And I know you do, because everyone remembers the song about the partridge in a pear tree, which is what our loves would give us on the first day of Christmas, if they were true.
Green in exchange for green.Dec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Speaking truth to power is easy—or easier, anyway, than speaking truth to money. We might resist a sovereign who commands us to preach his favored doctrines. But a sovereign who slips us a little cash on the side, just for a sermon or two on something we maybe don’t really disagree with all that much? Harder. Much, much harder. It was true back in 1717, for example, when Benjamin Hoadly preached a famous Anglican sermon in front of a receptive King George I—a sermon that called for church government to be taken away from the bishops and given directly to the king.
How it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end timesDec 1, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 12 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
1. The Return of Original Sin
Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Hazel Motes, the hyperanxious protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s great novella Wise Blood, finds himself so bedeviled by the demands of religious belief that he rebels by founding a religion of his own: The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. The mainline Protestant churches of the twentieth century, says our contributing editor Joseph Bottum, did something similar when the challenges of the secular world proved too much: They abandoned the inconveniences and discomforts of faith and became, instead, secular liberals.
A church father gets an ideological makeover. Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Vincent of Lérins was a Gaulish monk who lived and wrote in the fifth century. Little is known about him, really. It’s said that he was originally a soldier but gave up his military career to enter a monastery near Cannes, on the small Mediterranean island of Lérins (later renamed the Île Saint-Honorat, after the founder of Vincent’s monastery). He may have been a brother of the better-known St.
The evolution of forbidden language. Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The early British and American reviews of this book are hilarious—hilarious, that is, in the sense of proving two of Melissa Mohr’s minor theses. In her account, the sex-based swear words so reviled by the Victorians have become almost commonplace: No real stigma attaches to their use these days, although certain classes may still feel a little antiquated frisson when they write or say them.
Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook is delighted to commend to readers a new ebook from our contributing editor Joseph Bottum.
The writer’s vocation in J. F. Powers’s correspondence. Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
One of the things you learn when you read the letters of great writers is how rarely great writers talk about literature in their letters. Mostly they talk about money. The letters of Henry Ford show more interest in big ideas and artistic principles than do those of James Joyce. When Joyce wrote a letter, it was usually a complaint about how expensive everything seemed—and would the recipient mind enclosing a small check in his next reply?
Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Early in 1659, a strong-willed woman named Sarah Chevers and an even stronger-willed woman named Katharine Evans arrived in Malta. By chance—or, as they insisted, Providence—they had been diverted, their Dutch ship chased into the port of Valletta by rumor of pirates and bad weather. And since Malta is where they found themselves, Malta is where they would stay, preaching God’s true Protestant faith—the Knights Hospitaller who ruled the Catholic island be damned.