The Shield of Achilles

I’ve prepared two critical editions of long poems by Auden: The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (originally published in 1947) and For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (originally published in 1944). I love this kind of job.

It requires patient and thorough archival work — Auden’s notebooks and manuscripts are scattered in several locations, but the work he did after his move to America is largely held in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library and in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas — and meticulous attentiveness to variations in published work. This latter is especially important for Auden, who was an inveterate reviser.

Then, once you have established the text, you have to annotate it carefully — not the easiest thing with a poet as learnedly allusive as Auden — and provide a synoptic introduction that will make difficult poetry comprehensible to its readers without inserting your own personality and preferences.

And maybe that’s what I like best about textual editing, and especially the preparation of a critical edition: Not one element of the job is about me. It’s completely focused on Auden, and on connecting him to his readers and potential readers. And then there’s this: Not one of the monographs I have written will last nearly as long as these editions will.

So I am extremely pleased to say that I am going to be editing another book of Auden’s — though this one will be a rather different enterprise. This time it’s not a long poem, but, in a first for the Auden Critical Editions series, a collection of lyric poems, The Shield of Achilles (1955). This is worth doing because of all Auden’s collections — counting them is complicated, but there are around ten — The Shield of Achilles is the most carefully organized and internally coherent. Individual lyrics, including the great title poem, sit in the middle of the collection, bookended by two magnificent sequences, “Bucolics” and “Horae Canonicae.” Teasing out the complex relations among these texts, and understanding the whole that they make, will be challenging but deeply enjoyable.

I am able to commence this task thanks to the invitation of Edward Mendelson, Auden’s best critic, literary executor, and editor of his complete works, and to the agreement of the fine folks at Princeton University Press. This will be my fourth time working with PUP, and the previous projects have been the best publishing experiences of my life, so I am looking forward to this more than I can easily say.

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why Blake is terrifying

The Vision of the Last Judgment

Last December, when I was in London, I spent a good deal of time at the Tate Britain’s big exhibition of Blake’s work, and found it frustrating. I ended up writing a long reflection on the exhibition, and on what it doesn’t tell us about Blake’s career, which has just been posted at the Harper’s website. (Why it took several months to be posted is a long and odd but not especially interesting story.)  

One point I didn’t pursue in the essay, but which I think is important, concerns why the curators of the exhibition might have worked so hard to downplay Blake’s religious sensibilities. In the catalogue for the exhibition, they emphasize that their goal was to display “a Blake for all,” and hint that their choices were constrained by the need to construct an exhibition that would attract corporate funding. A weirdo mystic who had visions of angels in trees and “the Ghost of a Flea” doesn’t fit the bill.

The Guardian’s review of the exhibition, by Jonathan Jones, enthusiastically echoes the exhibition’s view of Blake: 

The poster for Tate Britain’s exhibition of William Blake uses the three Rs to sell this icon of the Napoleonic age to the turbulent Britons of 2019: “Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary.” It may seem an over-eager attempt to contemporise him – but Blake was all these and more. You could add pacifist (albeit a militant one who once got arrested after a heated debate with a soldier) and anti-racist, for as Blake’s devastating portrayal of a hanged slave in this show illustrates, he passionately protested against Africa’s subjugation.

And how about feminist? There is even a book of children’s stories that he illustrated for Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This hackish kids’ book wasn’t the finest hour for either, but it shows their connection through the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, while Blake’s great frontispiece to his own original work Visions of the Daughters of Albion, done in about 1795, shows what he learned from Wollstonecraft: a man and woman are chained back to back, the woman’s head lowered in despair. “Enslaved, the Daughters of Albion weep …”

This is not an exhibition of some old master honoured by kings and collected by aristocrats. It is a raw encounter with a heretical artisan who was ignored and despised in his lifetime and whose self-taught genius comes out of the popular culture of 18th-century London.

Politically radical? Check. Pacifist? Check. Feminist? Check. Pop culture maven? Check. In short, Blake was basically a Guardian reader. And that’s the kind of “Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary” that the corporate world is happy to support. Meanwhile, the visionary imagination that drove Blake’s entire career, which he believed to be pursuing in response to a Divine command — all that is to be passed over in discreet and embarrassed silence. Rebels, radicals, and revolutionaries can be commoditized and can therefore be “for all”; but ecstatic visionaries? The less said the better. T. S. Eliot found Blake “terrifying,” for reasons which the Tate exhibition tried to obscure. Fortunately, the attempt was not wholly successful. 


Needless to say, I don’t want anyone to get sick, much less die, but if we could remove that precipitating cause, I have to say: A world in which (a) air travel doesn’t happen and (b) all gatherings of more than seven or eight people are cancelled is approaching my idea of Utopia. 

what’s in my bag

The Cool Tools site does a regular series in which people describe what they carry around and what they carry it around in. I thought I might do my own entry in the series, even though I don’t have affiliate links. 

First comes my Tom Bihn Synapse 19 backpack, which I find to be brilliantly designed — with the right number of pockets in all the right places — extremely comfortable to wear, and sufficiently rugged that I will probably have it for the rest of my life. (I’ve had it for seven or eight years and it still looks basically new.) The chief things you’ll find inside it are … 

  • My 12” MacBook, in Tom Bihn’s bespoke sleeve
  • Apple AirPods Pro 
  • Pentel Energel pens 
  • Palomino Blackwing pencils + sharpener 
  • Leuchtturm A5 Hardcover notebook 
  • Kindle Voyage
  • Whatever books I happen to be teaching at the moment 
  • Ibuprofen and hand sanitizer 

Other things come and go but those are the permanent essentials. I’m not adding links (except to the Tom Bihn site) because the most obvious place to link to is Amazon and I don’t really want to promote Amazon. Just search for items you’re interested in! 

Automata, Animal-Machines, and Us

What follows is a review of The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, by Jessica Riskin (University of Chicago Press, 2016). The review appeared in the sadly short-lived online journal Education and Culture, and has disappeared from the web without having been saved by the Wayback Machine. So I’m reposting it here. My thanks to that paragon of editors John Wilson for having commissioned it. 


The last few decades have seen, in a wide range of disciplines, a strenuous rethinking of what the material world is all about, and especially what within it has agency. For proponents of the “Gaia hypothesis,” the whole world is a single self-regulating system, a sort of mega-organism with its own distinctive character. By contrast, Richard Dawkins dramatically shifted the landscape of evolutionary biology in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene (and later in The Extended Phenotype of 1982) by arguing that agency happens not at the level of the organism but at the level of the gene: an organism is a device by means of which genes replicate themselves.

Meanwhile, in other intellectual arenas, proponents of the interdisciplinary movement known as “object-oriented ontology” (OOO) and the movement typically linked with it or seen as its predecessor, “actor-network theory” (ANT), want to reconsider a contrast that underlines most of our thinking about the world we live in. That contrast is between humans, who act, and the rest of the known cosmos, which either behaves or is merely passive, acted upon. Proponents of OOO and ANT tend to doubt whether humans really are unique “actors,” but they don’t spend a lot of time trying to refute the assumption. Instead, they try to see what the world looks like if we just don’t make it.

In very general terms we may say that ANT wants to see everything as an actor and OOO wants to see everything as having agency. (The terms are related but, I think, not identical.) So when Bruno Latour, the leading figure in ANT, describes a seventeenth-century scene in which Robert Hooke demonstrates the working of a vacuum pump before the gathered worthies of the Royal Society, he sees Hooke as an actor within a network of power and knowledge. But so is the King, who granted to the Society a royal charter. And so is the laboratory, a particularly complex creation comprised of persons and things, that generates certain types of behavior and discourages or wholly prevents others. So even is the vacuum itself — indeed it is the status of the vacuum as actor that the whole scene revolves around.

For the object-oriented ontologist, similarly, the old line that “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is true, but not primarily because of certain human traits, but rather because the hammer wants to pound nails. For the proponent of OOO, there are no good reasons for believing that the statement “This man wants to use his hammer to pound nails” makes any more sense than “This hammer wants to pound nails.”

Some thinkers are completely convinced by this account of the agency of things; others believe it’s nonsense. But very few on either side know that the very debates they’re conducting have been at the heart of Western thought for five hundred years. Indeed, much of the intellectual energy of the modern era has been devoted to figuring out whether the non-human world is alive or dead, active or passive, full of agency or wholly without it. Jessica Riskin’s extraordinary book The Restless Clock tells that vital and almost wholly neglected story.

It is a wildly ambitious book, and even its 500 pages are probably half as many as a thorough telling of its story would require. (The second half of the book, covering events since the Romantic era, seems particularly rushed.) But a much longer book would have struggled to find a readership, and this is a book that needs to be read by people with a wide range of interests and disciplinary allegiances. Riskin and her editors made the right choice to condense the exceptionally complex story, which I will not even try to summarize here; the task would be impossible. I can do little more than point to some of the book’s highlights and suggest some of its argument’s many implications.


Riskin’s story focuses wholly on philosophers — including thinkers that today we would call “scientists” but earlier were known as “natural philosophers” — but the issues she explores have been perceived, and their implications considered, throughout society. For this reason a wonderful companion to The Restless Clock is the 1983 book by Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility 1500–1800, one of the most illuminating works of social history I have ever read. In that book, Thomas cites a passage from Fabulous Histories Designed for the Instruction of Children (1788), an enormously popular treatise by the English educational reformer Sarah Trimmer:

‘I have,’ said a lady who was present, ‘been for a long time accustomed to consider animals as mere machines, actuated by the unerring hand of Providence, to do those things which are necessary for the preservation of themselves and their offspring; but the sight of the Learned Pig, which has lately been shewn in London, has deranged these ideas and I know not what to think.’

This lady was not the only one so accustomed, or so perplexed; and much of the story Riskin has to tell is summarized, in an odd way, in this statement. First of all, there is the prevalence in the early modern and Enlightenment eras of automata: complex machines designed to counterfeit biological organisms that then provided many people the vocabulary they felt they needed to explain those organisms. Thus the widespread belief that a dog makes a noise when you kick it in precisely the same way for for precisely the same reasons that a horn makes a noise when you blow into it. These are “mere machines.” (And yes, it occurred to more than a few people that one could extend the logic to humans, who also make noises when kicked. The belief in animals as automata was widespread but by no means universal.)

The second point to be extracted from Trimmer’s anecdote is the lady’s belief that these natural automata are “actuated by the unerring hand of Providence” — that their efficient working is a testimony to the Intelligent Design of the world.

And the third point is that phenomena may be brought to public attention — animals trained to do what we had thought possible only by humans, or automata whose workings are especially inscrutable, like the famous chess-playing Mechanical Turk — that call into question the basic assumptions that separate the world into useful categories: the human and the non-human, the animal and all that lies “below” the animal, the animate and the inanimate. Maybe none of these categories are stable after all.

These three points generate puzzlement not only for society ladies, but also (and perhaps even more) for philosophers. This is what The Restless Clock is about.


One way to think of this book — Riskin herself does not make so strong a claim, but I think it warranted — is as a re-narration of the philosophical history of modernity as a series of attempts to reckon with the increasing sophistication of machines. Philosophy on this account becomes an accidental by-product of engineering. Consider, for instance, an argument made in Diderot’s philosophical dialogue D’Alembert’s Dream, as summarized by Riskin:

During the conversation, “Diderot” introduces “d’Alembert” to such principles as the idea that there is no essential difference between a canary and a bird-automaton, other than complexity of organization and degree of sensitivity. Indeed, the nerves of a human being, even those of a philosopher, are but “sensitive vibrating strings,” so that the difference between “the philosopher-instrument and the clavichord-instrument” is just the greater sensitivity of the philosopher-instrument and its ability to play itself. A philosopher is essentially a keenly sensitive, self-playing clavichord.

But why does Diderot even begin to think in such terms? Largely because of the enormous notoriety of Jacques de Vaucanson, the brilliant designer and builder of various automata. Vaucanson is best known today for his wondrous mechanical duck, which quacked, snuffled its snout in water, flapped its wings, ate food placed before it, and — most astonishing of all to the general populace — defecated what it had consumed. (Though in fact Vaucanson had, ahead of any given exhibition of the duck’s prowess, placed some appropriately textured material in the cabinet on which the duck stood so the automaton could be made to defecate on command.) Voltaire famously wrote that without “Vaucanson’s duck, you would have nothing to remind you of the glory of France,” but he genuinely admired the engineer, as did almost everyone who encountered his projects, the most impressive of which, aside perhaps from the duck, were human-shaped automata — androids, as they were called, thanks to a coinage by the seventeenth-century librarian Gabrial Naudé — one of which played a flute, the other a pipe and drum. These devices, and the awe they produced upon observers, led quite directly to Diderot’s speculations about the philosopher as a less harmonious variety of clavichord.

And if machines could prompt philosophy, do they not have theological implications as well? Indeed they do, though, if certain stories are to be believed, the machine/theology relationship can be rather tense. In the process of coining the term “android,” Naudé relates (with commendable skepticism) the claim of a 15th-century writer that Albertus Magnus, the great medieval bishop and theologian, had built a metal man. This automaton answered any question put to it and even, some said, dictated to Albertus hundreds of pages of theology he later claimed as his own. But the mechanical theologian met a sad end when one of Albertus’s students grew exasperated by “its great babbling and chattering” and smashed it to pieces. This student’s name was Thomas Aquinas.

The story is far too good to be true, though its potential uses are so many and varied that I am going to try to believe it. The image of Thomas, the apostle of human thought and of the limits of human thought, who wrote the greatest body of theology ever composed and then at the end of his life dismissed it all as “straw,” smashing this simulacrum of philosophy, this Meccano idol — this is too perfect an exemplum not to reward our contemplation. By ending the android’s “babbling and chattering” and replacing it with patient, careful, and rigorous dialectical disputation, Thomas restored human beings to their rightful place atop the visible part of the Great Chain of Being, and refuted, before they even arose, Diderot’s claims that humans are just immensely sophisticated machines.

Yet one of the more fascinating elements of Riskin’s narrative is the revelation that the fully-worked-out idea of the human being as a kind of machine was introduced, and became commonplace, late in the 17th century by thinkers who employed it as an aid to Christian apologetics — as a way of proving that we and all of Creation are, as Sarah Trimmer’s puzzled lady put it, “actuated by the unerring hand of Providence.” Thus Riskin:

“Man is a meer piece of Mechanism,” wrote the English doctor and polemicist William Coward in 1702, “a curious Frame of Clock-Work, and only a Reasoning Engine.” To any potential critic of such a view, Coward added, “I must remind my adversary, that Man is such a curious piece of Mechanism, as shews only an Almighty Power could be the first and sole Artificer, viz., to make a Reasoning Engine out of dead matter, a Lump of Insensible Earth to live, to be able to Discourse, to pry and search into the very nature of Heaven and Earth.”

Since Max Weber in the 19th century it has been a commonplace that Protestant theology “disenchants” the world, purging the animistic cosmos of medieval Catholicism of its panoply of energetic spirits, good, evil, and ambiguous. But Riskin demonstrates convincingly that this purging was done in the name of a sovereign God in whom all spiritual power was believed to dwell. This is not simply a story of the rise of a materialist science that triumphed over and marginalized religion; rather, the world seen as a “passive mechanical artifact world relied upon a supernatural, divine intelligence. It was inseparably and in equal parts a scientific and a theological model.” So when Richard Dawkins wrote, in 2006,

People who think that robots are by definition more ‘deterministic’ than human beings are muddled (unless they are religious, in which case they might consistently hold that humans have some divine gift of free will denied to mere machines). If, like most of the critics of my ‘lumbering robot’ passage, you are not religious, then face up to the following question. What on earth do you think you are, if not a robot, albeit a very complicated one?

— he had no idea that he was echoing the argument of an early-18th-century apologist for Protestant Christianity.

Again, the mechanist position was by no means universally held, and Riskin gives attention throughout to figures who either rejected this model or modified it in interesting ways: here the German philosopher Leibniz (1646–1716) is a particularly fascinating figure, in that he admired the desire to preserve and celebrate the sovereignty of God even as he doubted that a mechanistic model of the cosmos was the way to do it. But the mechanistic model which drained agency from the world, except (perhaps) for human beings, eventually carried the day.

One of the most important sections of The Restless Clock comes near the end, where Riskin demonstrates (and laments) the consequences of modern scientists’ ignorance of the history she relates. For instance, almost all evolutionary theorists today deride Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), even though Lamarck was one of the first major figures to argue that evolutionary change happens throughout the world of living things, because he believed in a causal mechanism that Darwin would later reject: the ability of creatures to transmit acquired traits to their offspring. Richard Dawkins calls Lamarck a “miracle-monger,” but Lamarck didn’t believe he was doing any such thing: rather, by attributing to living things a vital power to alter themselves from within, he was actually making it possible to explain evolutionary change without (as the astronomer Laplace put it in a different context) having recourse to the hypothesis of God. The real challenge for Lamarck and other thinkers of the Romantic era, Riskin argues, was this:

How to revoke the monopoly on agency that mechanist science had assigned to God? How to bring the inanimate, clockwork cosmos of classical mechanist science back to life while remaining as faithful as possible to the core principles of the scientific tradition? A whole movement of poets, physiologists, novelists, chemists, philosophers and experimental physicists — roles often combined in the same person — struggled with this question. Their struggles brought the natural machinery of contemporary science from inanimate to dead to alive once more. The dead matter of the Romantics became animate, not at the hands of an external Designer, but through the action of a vital agency, an organic power, an all-embracing energy intrinsic to nature’s machinery.

This “vitalist” tradition was one with which Charles Darwin struggled, in ways that are often puzzling to his strongest proponents today because they do not know this tradition. They think that Darwin was exhibiting some kind of post-religious hangover when he adopted, or considered adopting, Lamarckian ideas, but, Riskin convincingly demonstrates, “insofar as Darwin adopted Lamarck’s forces of change, he did so not out of a failure of nerve or an inability to carry his own revolution all the way, but on the contrary because he too sought a rigorously naturalist theory and was determined to avoid the mechanist solution of externalizing purpose and agency to a supernatural god.”

Similarly, certain 20th-century intellectual trends, most notably the cybernetics movement (associated primarily with Norbert Wiener) and the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, developed ideas about behavior and agency that their proponents believed no one had dared think before, when in fact those very ideas had been widely debated for the previous four hundred years. Such thinkers were either, like Skinner, proudly ignorant of what had gone before them or, like Wiener and in a different way Richard Dawkins, reliant on a history that is effectively, as Riskin puts it, “upside-down.” (Riskin has a fascinating section on the concept of “robot” that sheds much light on the Dawkins claim about human robots quoted above.)


At both the beginning and end of her book, Riskin mentions a conversation with a friend of hers, a biologist, who agreed “that biologists continually attribute agency — intentions, desires, will — to the objects they study (for example cells, molecules),” but denied that this kind of language signifies anything in particular: it “was only a manner of speaking, a kind of placeholder that biologists use to stand in for explanations they can’t yet give.” When I read this anecdote, I was immediately reminded that Richard Dawkins says the same in a footnote to the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene:

This strategic way of talking about an animal or plant, or a gene, as if it were consciously working out how best to increase its success … has become commonplace among working biologists. It is a language of convenience which is harmless unless it happens to fall into the hands of those ill-equipped to understand it.

Riskin, who misses very little that is relevant to her vast argument, cites this very passage. The question which Dawkins waves aside so contemptuously, but which Riskin rightly believes vital, is this: Why do biologists find that particular language so convenient? Why is it so easy for them to fall into the “merely linguistic” attribution of agency even when they so strenuously refuse agency to the biological world? We might also return to the movements I mention at the outset of this review and ask why the ideas of OOO and ANT seem so evidently right to many people, and so evidently wrong to others.

The body of powerful, influential, but now utterly neglected ideas explored in The Restless Clock might illuminate for many scientists and many philosophers a few of their pervasive blind spots. “By recognizing the historical roots of the almost unanimous conviction (in principle if not in practice) that science must not attribute any kind of agency to natural phenomena, and recuperating the historical presence of a competing tradition, we can measure the limits of current scientific discussion, and possibly, think beyond them.”

toss them out of the window


I don’t think I’m becoming a grumpy old man, but I am, I know, increasingly inclined to heed that voice inside me — let’s call it the Voice of Binky — that always asks “Why should you do this simply because it’s the kind of thing you’re expected to do?”

Professors give lectures, so why don’t you give lectures? Don’t want to. Look, this proliferation of administrative offices is just the way life is in the university today, so why don’t you adapt? Don’t want to. This country has a two-party political system, so quit complaining and just pick a side. Don’t want to

You hand me all the defaults and say Do these. I say, “Toss them out of the window.” 


This is a terrific post by Matt Thomas on living by the seasons: “when you think of things in terms of seasons instead of a single day, the entire year becomes your canvas.” Matt makes me want to be governed more by the seasons, but my thoughts and moods are linked much more tightly to the rhythms of the academic year. Which are of course not unrelated to the seasons: the practice of dismissing children from school for the summer is a throwback to an agricultural world in which, during the growing season, all hands were needed on the farm. But the academic rhythms are their own thing now, and last year, when I had a sabbatical, I was genuinely disoriented when August came around and I had no classes to prepare for, no syllabuses to write, no instructor’s copies of books to pick up. I certainly enjoyed my time to write, but I have to say that it felt good this August to feel those old patterns reassert their old claim on me. Because the academic seasons have been my seasons for more than half-a-century now.

enough already

I’m trying to make myself stop talking about politics, for the most part — I will make the very occasional exception for the two issues I am, personally and professionally, deeply invested in: religious freedom and higher-education policy. And even then I want to speak only after a waiting period in which others may be able to state my position more knowledgeably and wisely than I can.

As I explained to a friend earlier today, I’m taking this path (or hoping to) because I worry about the health of many of the good things that politics, properly speaking, exists in order to protect and nurture. I thus find myself remembering this famous letter from John Adams to Abigail, written from Paris:

I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelain, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.

We can be thankful that John Adams made that decision. But it is not a decision to which we should apply a categorical imperative, because if every person of his time had made the same choice, then several generations could have gone by without the production of Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain (and most of these are not the sorts of arts that are readily learned from the mere observation of existing examples). I worry about a society that has so lost the taste for such things that it will no longer know what it’s missing when they’re gone. I worry about a politics that has become an all-encompassing end in itself — an endless series of victories and losses and more victories and more losses — rather than a means by which, as Adams understood, room is to be made for pursuits far better than partisan disputation and maneuvering.

The best of the human order is damaged by these political obsessions. The artist who neglects his craft in order to agitate full-time will soon have no craft to exercise — or to pass down to younger artists. The scholar who abandons the archive for the protest march may return — if she ever does return — to find the archive abolished, its contents destroyed, because when the time of decision came there was no one present with the knowledge and love necessary to protect it. Auden once wrote in praise of those who forget “the appetitive goddesses” in order to take the momentous step of pursuing their own weird private obsessions:

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Likewise, there should be some people in our land unsure who the President is, wholly unaware of the latest legislative wrangle — even when such matters directly affect them — because they are absorbed in something else that they love, that they can’t help focusing on, that they can’t manage to turn aside from. I don’t know how many such people there should be, or whether you should join their company. But I strongly suspect that there ought to be more of them than Facebook and Twitter currently allow. And I want to be one too.

The BCP and me

I’m pretty happy with my biography of the Book of Common Prayer. It has some typos and other embarrassing errors that didn’t get caught in the editing process, and I wish I could fix those; but overall, I think I did a decent job of capturing a very complex history in a very small compass, and to make it an interesting story too. The book got largely positive reviews and has sold well, by my standards anyway, and by those of the series of which it’s a part. So all that’s good.

There’s one thing that troubles me, though: Anglicans don’t seem to care about the book at all. Embarrassing admission: when I wrote the book I thought one of the fringe benefits would be the opportunity to go around to churches, and maybe seminaries, to celebrate the inheritance of the BCP and discuss its possible future. But unless I am forgetting something, not one church, or seminary, or diocese — well, let’s be honest here, no one at all has asked my to talk about this book (though I often get asked to talk about other matters, and especially about, well, you know who).

For a while this flummoxed me, but I think I’ve figured it out. Here are my suspicions, laid out in highly general terms:

  • Liberal Anglicans aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because all of those books embody sexist language for God, a heterosexual definition of marriage, exclusivist soteriology, and many other retrograde ideas from which they hope to escape.
  • Anglo-Catholics aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because those books are all deeply implicated in Reformational theologies that the A-Cs would like to ignore or overcome.
  • Evangelical Anglicans aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because they want to reach people they think might be alienated or confused by formal language and liturgy.

So basically, within the Anglican world there’s a very limited constituency for my book — and, I fear, for the Book of Common Prayer itself. At least, that’s my best guess. I hope that I am wrong — especially about the BCP. Because it is a great storehouse of wisdom and comfort, and I wouldn’t begin to know how to be a Christian without it; and I think there may be more than a few others like me in that respect.

Virtually every writer I know has [a ritual]. One claims to sharpen half a dozen pencils. Another gulps down a can of beer (never mind the hour). A third meditates. (The sound of chanting from up in her lair gets the kids scrambling in embarrassment off to the school bus.) Another needs espresso. His cousin requires Darjeeling straight from India. And one goes outdoors and marches for a while to the beat of a different drummer — marches, literally, around the backyard…. I don’t think most writers’ rituals are mere affectations. I think they’re quite necessary. The writer needs the right room, crowded or bare; the right drink, soft or mildly spiked; the right ambient noise or a dose of earmuffed silence.

— Mark Edmundson. I have a very different take on this: far from being necessary, rituals are pre-fabricated excuses. “I couldn’t write this morning because I have to sharpen six pencils before writing and there are only four in the house.” “I couldn’t write a word today because the Darjeeling hasn’t arrived.”

My writing ritual is: I write. With whatever is available. I typically use my MacBook or, when I’m in a certain mood, a fountain pen in a notebook. But I can write on an iPad or even on a phone. I can write on a legal pad with a ballpoint pen, or on index cards with a pencil. As soon as you say “I can only write when things are just so” you have set yourself up for failure.

When I read Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns, I thought first This is a magnificent book and second I wish I had written it. I don’t often have that second response when I read books I admire. Most good books come from minds so different from my own that my admiration of them is unaccompanied by envy. But Romantic Moderns overlaps so much with my own interests that as I read it I really wished I had made that subject my own — even though I don’t have the expertise and skills necessary to do so.

I just finished Weatherland, and what I felt about Harris’s previous book I feel also about this one, but twice as strongly. She exemplifies a combination of virtues that is very unusual — I don’t have a name for that combination, but I can awkwardly summarize it as the whole-hearted and vivid narration of hard-won knowledge. There are true scholars who couldn’t tell a strong story to save their lives; there are wonderful storytellers whose narratives are raised on shaky scholarly foundations; but writers who have genuine expertise and the ability to weave a wonderful tale — those are rare birds indeed. Alexandra Harris is one of that breed.

I’m not an Episcopalian, or even particularly religious, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me that one of the books I most enjoyed this year was Alan Jacobs’s The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2013). It turns out that the story of the Anglican prayer book is a great yarn: a tale of theological dispute and refined prose style against a backdrop of the mafia-like power struggles of England’s royal families. Jacobs is a tactful historian, who doesn’t assume that his readers know much about English history or religious doctrine. But I imagine that even a reader who knew a great deal would enjoy the snap of Jacobs’s telling, as when he describes an early disavowal of transubstantiation as “palpably crabby.” If you’ve ever wondered why the Church of England has failed to substantially revise its prayer book since 1662, or what the jokes in Victorian novels about church candlesticks are really about, this is the history for you.

When I think about songs that have made an actual difference to me — not really what I mean when I speak of “favorite” songs, necessarily, or the songs I think are the best, even, though there’s some of both here, but the ones that had an effect, that changed how I thought or acted — this one may be at the top of the list. At a time, about fifteen years ago, when I was confused and uncertain about my path, when I lacked confidence to move forward to write about things I believed in, this song reached me and gave me the impetus I needed. It will always have a very distinctive and important place in my heart. “And you know you come with empty hands / Or you don’t come at all….”

So thanks, Bill Mallonee, I owe you one. Thanks so much.

credulous skeptics

Of course, I can’t universalize my own experience – but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they’re not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.

Most of today’s leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like Mr. Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company’s products. Discerning a difference between people’s professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do. Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It’s not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?

— I wrote this four years ago and still think it’s a true and important point. Just sayin’.