Sometimes in January, often in February—always somewhere in the course of the winter—I feel it settling down on me and the season: that icy fog that dulls the senses, the cold that gnaws the bone, the sadness that deadens the will.
A form of "seasonal affective disorder," I've been told such winter depressions are called: a vitamin D deficiency caused by lack of sunshine, maybe, or a rise in melatonin during the shortened daylight hours. Possibly a lack of serotonin. No one knows for sure. But the cure, they say, involves getting outside a little whenever the winter days are bright. Set up an indoor lightbox, buy a bedroom air ionizer, and it'll go away soon enough. Soon enough, they say.Read more
The Little Sisters of the Poor are headed to the Supreme Court this year, seeking escape from the contraception mandates of Obamacare—under which they fall, the government claims, as insurance providers for the employees in their nursing homes. The Justice Department is fighting the Little Sisters tooth and nail, determined not to allow them to evade the law's requirements, because . . . because . . .
Um, in truth, the Obama administration has never made entirely clear why it's so desperate to rope nuns into bureaucratic schemes for providing contraception. After all, the administration has let other organizations slip through the cracks.Read more
Michael Dirda isn’t a scholar, although he has the learning to do scholarly things. He isn't a critic, either, although his writing consistently shows a finely edged sensibility. The man isn't even a writer, strange as that is to say about someone who has written six books, edited another dozen or so, and has a quick and easy prose.
No, Michael Dirda is a reader, down at the root of his being. A man who gained his scholarly knowledge and critical sensibility from reading whatever came to hand as he pawed through the dusty shelves of used bookstores. Writing—well, yes: If you're going to keep from starving as a reader, you've got to find a bookish job, and writing is one of the possibilities, especially writingRead more
No, this is a disappointment. To read the 132 poems chosen by this volume's editor, Christopher Carduff, is to realize that John Updike is not a poet well served by the popular impulse that reduces a large body of work to a greatest-hits anthology.
Of course, there was a time when critics claimed that Updike wasn't much of a poet at all, his poems dismissed as the effluence of a literary talent that properly manifested itself only in the prose of his novels and short stories. Updike himself once described his verse as his "oeuvre's beloved waifs," and X. J. Kennedy explained that the novelist writing poetry was "like some designer of Explorer rockets who hasn't enough to do, in his spare time touching off displays ofRead more
There was a kind of grandeur about René Girard—a creator of grand theories, a thinker of grand thoughts. Born in France, he spent most of his career in the United States, before slipping away this month, age 91, at his home in California. But to read him, even to meet him, was to feel as though you’d been taken out of time, catapulted back into the presence of one of the capacious minds of the past.Read more
She seemed more curious than frightened, the doe-eyed . . . doe, I suppose, and we studied each other for a long moment or two. She, calm in a farmer’s field, looking over the fence line. And me, unmoving in the wreck, staring back at her through the shattered glass.Read more
You can find them here and there, scattered across England: the small green mounds, the hillocks and filled-in ditches, the hints of straight lines that once cut through the landscape. Just beneath the long grass lies the rich silt, piled up by the wind or washed in by the rain in the 62 years since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I I. In the 177 years since Victoria took the throne. The 949 years since a determined William of Normandy landed on the English shore. The 1,418 years since St. Augustine came to Canterbury, a prayer book in his hand.Read more
I've always loved the sound of a serpent. Well, no, not really. The 16th-century musical instrument is breathy, buzzy, and inexact—consistently requiring the player to gesture at the note in what’s called falset: using the tension of the lips in the mouthpiece to approximate a tone that the instrument’s fingering and natural overtones don’t want to produce. There was a reason the valved brass tuba swept the serpent out of modern orchestras in the 19th century. The tuba could, like, you know, actually sound the note.Read more
Robert Conquest could easily have missed being . . . well, Robert Conquest, the most morally significant historian of the second half of the twentieth century. Now that he’s slipped away—dying in California on August 3 at age 98—it’s possible to see that he might well have failed to find his way.Read more
In 1956, Doubleday published The Dragon in the Sea, the first novel by a California newspaperman named Frank Herbert. Even now, the book seems a little hard to pin down. It was, for the most part, a Cold War thriller about the race to harvest offshore oil—except crammed inside the thriller was a near-future science-fiction tale of fantastic technology. And crammed inside the science fiction was a psychological study of naval officers crammed inside submarines.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
They’re outraged, the students at Columbia University—outraged that their professors would dare to put Ovid on mandatory reading lists, outraged that the ancient Roman author doesn’t share their sensitivities, outraged that a modern education would include something so . . . so . . . so unmodern, dammit. Something so vile, so visceral, so triggering of all the thoughts we must not think in these days of the new morality.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
Rivers have rights, they say down in Mora County, New Mexico—“inalienable and fundamental rights,” beyond the power of any government to touch. Aquifers, too. Wetlands, streams, ecosystems, and even “natural communities,” whatever that undefined term means: All of them have rights to “exist and flourish.” The land itself has an “intrinsic right” to “exist without defilement.”Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
I couldn’t make a snowball to save my life. Not that my need was actually desperate, this time around—although it might have been, if my life were a Robert Ludlum thriller. The Snowball Identity. The Winter Deception. The Coldland Conundrum. Anyway, even in a small town, snowballs are nice for splattering the garage in a kind of Jackson Pollock painting, if the man had ever painted with ice. Or knocking icicles off the rain gutters. Or using for a cruel game of fetch with the dog. Where’d it go, Spot?Read more
It was a day like any other. Oh, the weather was a little cool, I suppose. A thin band of clouds moved across the early sun, threatening an angry rain—but then again, maybe not. Light around the edges but dark in the center, like a calculating woman’s smile, those morning clouds are hard to read, and the weather out here in the West often breaks its promises. All in all, the day seemed no more foreboding than usual when, at 6:26 a.m., the sheriff’s phone rang.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
The trouble with Christmas is that it would consume the whole world if it could—or subsume, maybe, like an amoeba. Left to its own devices, Christmas would wrap itself around the universe and digest it whole.Read more
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.Read more
Herr Riegel’s father vas a candy maker. Was, I mean. Was a candy maker. This morning, over the phone, a friend made some passing reference to German economic policy—speaking, unfortunately, in that exaggerated German accent that used to be a standard of American comedy. You remember? Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes, Arte Johnson on Laugh-In. And the trouble is that once that voice gets into your head, it hangs around for days.Read more
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