Book Review: Heading Out: A History of American Camping

Camp site near Acadia National Park

Camping has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From before I can remember, my parents took us RV camping: in a VW microbus and then later in a borrowed Winnebago. Eventually we got a trailer camper. As I got older, I became a Boy Scout and camped with them and into my adulthood, camped with friends and family and now have introduced camping to my own family.

So, when I heard the interview with Terence Young, author of “Heading Out: A History of American Camping,” on the Art of Manliness podcast, I was intrigued to find out more about this activity that seems such a part of my life and of the American landscape. Young begins by noting that recreational camping, as such, is a somewhat uniquely American activity that has it origins in the post-Civil War 19th century due to several streams that coincided then.

First, there was the Romantic movement that in America idealized nature and natural landscapes, creating a spiritual connection to the land that was unlike what existed before. Thoreau and Emerson are prime examples of this in writing, along with Thomas Cole and the Hudson River school in painting. You also had the rapid urbanization of America, as what had once been a predominantly rural and agricultural society began streaming into the mechanized and industrialized cities where there was more wealth and opportunity, but also less privacy, beauty, and nature. There was the closing of the American frontier along with the Centennial of American Independence that recalled the once rugged character of the pioneers and frontiersmen that many people thought was being lost in modern urban hustle and bustle. Finally, there was a critical mass of Civil War veterans who all experience with roughing it in the outdoors who could act as guides and who enjoyed the outdoors themselves.

There was also a religious element to the rise of camping as well. For centuries, Catholics in Europe had headed out in spiritual pilgrimages, especially the Camino Santiago de Compestela, in which they walked hundreds of miles in a journey to bring them closer to God. Protestants, meanwhile, did not engage in such a Catholic activity, laced as it was with popish “saint-worship”. But there was still a felt need to make a spiritual connection by getting away from every day life. This coincided with Romanticism to create a new kind of spiritual pilgrimage, a communing with God with took place in nature, away from cities.

Into this mix walked a Boston Protestant minister by the name of William Henry Harrison Murray, who published a book in 1869, Adventures in the Wilderness, that described camping in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state in such colorful and accessible terms that it was a huge hit. If it were today, it would by a NY Times bestseller and an Oprah book pick. And because it also described the hows and whys—where to go, what to bring, who to hire as a guide—it ignited a massive rush of people into the woods that continued for years.

As National Parks were set aside those also became destinations, as people traveled West by train from the Atlantic states to spend weeks in Yosemite and other places they read about in magazines and newspapers and books.

That was followed some decades later by the next big leap in camping provided by the automobile. Once the car could transport people to all manner of destinations, auto camping became a big push. You could load a full set of gear onto the car or even attach a trailer and set off in relative comfort. No riding a train and then a horse-drawn wagon provided by a guide. Instead, you traveled on your own, by your own itinerary. By the late 1930s, camping had become a huge national pastime, all impelled by the desire to get out of the urban rat race and into the tranquility and authenticity of nature for a spiritual reconnection with the true American spirit, at least that which people thought was true. Read More and Comment

Review: Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization

The thesis of Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization is that the whole structure of Western civilization, every major institution, all of its intellectual, entrepreneurial, and cultural accomplishments can be traced to the work of innumerable priests over the past 2,000 years, both famous and faceless.

I have to admit that Fr. William Slattery provides a compelling case that the history of the West, in ways both surprising and unsurprising, owes nearly everything to the Church. But that’s my small quibble. In almost every example given, while the contributions of the ordained clergy of the Church was vital, the contribution of laypeople was just as vital.

Fr. Slattery does acknowledge this early on:

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.


Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

I don’t disagree with a bit of that, but I don’t think this book necessarily builds the case for it either. On the other hand, whatever the book’s subtitle or thesis, what it does do is provide a look at the remarkable contribution of the Church in the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, and Renaissance to building a better world that we continue to benefit from today.

What Heroism and Genius does best is to strip away the accumulated cruft of centuries of “black legends” concocted by the Protestant reformers as well as Hollywood inventions that collectively created this image of the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and Martin Luther’s 95 theses as an unrelieved slog through the muck and mire of superstition that left 95% of the populace as virtual slaves serving privileged and backward-thinking robed masters. In fact, as presented by Fr. Slattery, the Church—in her priests, bishops and laypeople—advanced the cause of humanity in great leaps.

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Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too): A Book Review

There are lots of books that outline all the reasons one should give up atheism or other religions and become Catholic and with good reason: Because the path to the Catholic faith has its origins in many places and wends its way through a myriad of obstacles, challenges, and objections.

Brandon Vogt—one of the smartest, engaging, and energetic young Catholics out there—has written a new book, “Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too),” that offers his own take on why one should consider the Catholic faith, a take that is aimed directly at the “nones”, the large and growing percentage of mostly young Americans today who tell pollsters that they have no religious preference, and does so in a way that should appeal to a younger audience, characterizing becoming Catholic as a way of “joining the Rebellion”, rather than giving into a massive institution.

I’ll admit it’s a weird decision. It goes against the grain. It’s radical. It is, in a word, rebellious.

In this concise, yet compelling book, Brandon outlines the reasons why anyone seeking the truth should become Catholic, using arguments both old and new. Brandon is an engineer by training and a philosopher by avocation so it’s no surprise that the book and its arguments are laid out in a logical progression, from whether God exists, to the necessity of religion vs. pure spirituality, to the supremacy of Christianity over other religions, to the Catholic Church. Read More and Comment

Prince of Outcasts

This is a book review for those who have read the previous 12 books of S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series of apocalyptic fiction, but haven’t read the 13th book in the series, The Prince of Outcasts. If you have not read the series, stop right now and go buy the first novel Dies the Fire or better yet, go buy the 11-volume bundle and get the discount now. You’ll end up reading the whole thing anyway.

As for the current book, we pick up where The Desert and the Blade left off, on the coast of southern California, a great storm suddenly sweeping one of our protagonists off to the West, leaving our other protagonist on shore, trying to figure out what she’s going to tell their Mother.

Like the fourth through 12th novels of the series, this 13th installment isn’t a single contained story. The first three books of the Emberverse were a trilogy, telling a complete story about the first generation of those who survived the Change. The next three told a classic “beginning/middle/end” quest story of the next generation, but they’re not the whole of that story.

The next four after that continue the tale of the second generation, but the pacing and plot shift. No longer are we moving forward in quest-style story, but we’re jumping around in time and place, back and forth across the continent. The pace of the action slows to a crawl. And that’s the sticking point for some fans. They’re so used to a different pace that this feels too slow. In fact, one of the books feels like it’s all about just a single battle!

Finally in the 10th book, the enemy that has been the focus of the previous six is confronted. What’s next?
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The Danger of Animal Rights

I just finished reading the science fiction novella, “The Vital Abyss”, by James S.A. Corey, which takes place in their “Expanse” milieu1. The story revolves around the fate of some scientists who engaged in the most horrific act of scientific malpractice in history, sacrificing millions of men, women, and children to an experiment.

At one point in the story, we see the main character, a scientists, as he undergoes intake processing for the project and through some kind of biological manipulation has his sense of morality removed. Essentially he and all the scientists are turned into psychopaths. The recruiter tries to explain to the protagonist through the lens of whether animal testing is okay:

“The idea that animal suffering is less important that human suffering is a religious one. It assumes a special creation, and that we—you and I—are different in kind than other animals. We are morally separate from rats or horses or chimps, not based on any particular physical difference between us, but just because we claim that we’re sacred by our nature and have dominion over them. It’s a story we tell that lets us do what we do. Consider the question without that filter, and it looks very different.

“You said there’s an ethical obligation to avoid unnecessary suffering. I agree. That’s why getting good data is our primary responsibility. Good experimental design, deep datasets, parallel studies whenever they don’t interfere. Bad data is just another way of saying needless suffering. And torturing rats to see how humans would respond? It’s terrible data because rats aren’t humans any more than pigeons are horses.”

“Wait, so you’re… are you saying that skipping animal testing entirely and going straight to human trials is… is more ethical?” “We are the animal we’re trying to build a protocol for. It’s where we’d get the best data. And better data means less suffering in the long run. More human suffering, maybe, but less suffering overall. And we wouldn’t have to labor under the hypocrisy of understanding evolution and also pretending there’s some kind of firewall between us and other mammals. That sounds restful, don’t you think?”

I realized as I read this that here is what’s fundamentally wrong with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and all the other animal rights groups out there.

What they all miss is that when you erase the distinction between humans and animals, you aren’t elevating animals so they can be treated like humans.

What would inevitably happen if the distinction between human and animal was erased is that humans would be treated like animals. Again. Like too often in history.

  1. Which has been made into a hit TV series on SyFy.

Disciplining Children, the Little House Way

No matter how much times change, human nature remains the same. Thus the lessons of child rearing we see in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, as explicated in this Crisis article, remain applicable today:

  1. Children need clear boundaries.
  2. They need consequences for transgressing those boundaries.
  3. They need to know trust is earned and can be lost and must be earned back.
  4. They need to be able to trust their parents not to be cruel or capricious, to love and respect them, not to ridicule them or hold them up for public mockery.
  5. They need to know that discipline is not just an anger response, but can be accompanied by love, caring, comforting, and even shared laughter. But it still must be discipline.

Although the Ingalls family lived in the nineteenth century, they still set an example for the twenty-first-century families who are faced with the knowledge of one thing that does not change: Children make mistakes. Knowing this, adults in positions of authority who want to discipline children with dignity can do what Pa and Ma did.

We can set clear boundaries. We can listen. We can talk privately and confidentially with the child. We can ask questions to help us better understand what happened. We can calmly determine sensible and just consequences—without forgetting to smile. We can believe the child can and will do better.

I don’t always live up to these ideals.

As I’ve heard snippets of the Little House books in recent years–in audiobooks during car rides, as Melanie reads aloud to the kids, and as Isabella has read them aloud to me–I’ve been impressed by the life lessons found there, whether about the dangers of the world, the way to be a family, or fair dealings in a market-based society.

Wanted: Literary Director to Pick My Next Book

literary director

There are life coaches for helping you get your life in order and to plan out your career path. There are personal trainers to help you get physically fit or in shape for a fitness challenge. There are spiritual directors who help you to pray and improve your relationship with God.

I want a literary director.

I want someone to help me choose what books to read based on my personal interests, what I’ve already read, what I have sitting unread on my bookshelves and in my Kindle, and what will best serve me in the future.

Right now, I choose my books to read haphazardly. Of course, Melanie has her suggestions; she’s a former English professor and book nerd, after all. And she’s made some good suggestions, including the works of one her favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay. But I’m not sure she can be completely objective. Don’t get me wrong; I know she loves me, but as a book nerd I think it may be tempting to recommend what she likes rather than what I should read right now.

I also get book suggestions from Goodreads, seeing what my friends there are reading and have read. I listen to a lot of podcasts and many of them will suggest books occasionally. Some of my favorite recent books have been found that way, including books about winemaking in France and a new science fiction series. Sometimes they come from an Amazon recommendation or a newspaper article.

What I want is a disinterested, objective third party who will assess the corpus of books I have read, my current reading interests and hobbies, and my personal objectives in life to help me create a reading list. There are the books I read for fun, including a number of ongoing series: the Tom Clancy novels being written under his name posthumously, Star Wars and Star Trek novels; as well as books by favored authors like Naomi Novik. There are the books I read for fun and edification on topics like the history of the Crusades or on the Guinness family or the maple syrup industry. There are books for spiritual and personal growth, including papal documents and philosophical and theological texts. And books that help me in my job that cover communications and social media and writing.

But there are only so many hours in the day! And so many good books that I keep adding to the list! Just this morning I was listening to the Word on Fire podcast where Bishop Robert Barron gives a list of good books to read on philosophy and I was thinking how I’d like to read some of them.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I often hear from friends about their massive piles of unread books and wondering how to make it through them all.

So if you’re someone who loves books, but can set aside your own preferences in order to help others reach their goals, I think there may be a career waiting for you as a literary director. And I may be your first client.

Now, literary director, should I read this new Star Wars novelization about General Leia or St. Augustine’s Confessions next?

Update: I find I need to clarify. I’m not looking for book recommendations. I have no dearth of books I want to read. I have piles and piles of books I want to read. There are dozens of podcasts, blogs, and articles recommending books to read. What I need is someone who can help me sort through it all to develop a plan to read the books I already have or want to read.

Perhaps an analogy will help. There are all kinds of newsletter and blogs and podcasts to recommend hot stocks and mutual funds. But what I need is a financial planner to help me create a retirement investment plan that will leave me with enough income to live on when I retire. What I need is not a financial planner, but a literary planner.

The One Ring of What Power?

The One Ring

I’ve been thinking about The Lord of the Rings lately because Melanie is reading it to the kids aloud each day. I’ve read it myself a couple dozen times, but something occurred to me recently that I hadn’t thought of before:

Tolkien never actually says what the One Ring does. Besides make its wearer invisible, that is. In much of fantasy fiction, magic and magical items have specific powers. They throw lightning or fireballs, they make things levitate, they transport the user somewhere, they transform people into creatures or vice versa. But Tolkien only tells us that the Ring is used to “dominate” others. That is was also what kept the fortress of Barad-dur standing and the Nazgul corporeal is somehow connected to this, but it’s apparently incidental or at least not made explicit how.

This idea that evil is the domination of the will of others is, of course, a perfectly Catholic one. It is the nature of evil to dominate. Evil does not create. It only warps and mutates. Evil is cancerous. This is why Gandalf rejects the use of the Ring as a weapon. The Ring isn’t like a rifle that one soldier can drop and a soldier from the other side can pick up and use. Instead, it is malevolence personified. It was a will of its own to warp and to dominate apart from Sauron’s. In a sense, it’s Sauron’s child or semi-clone, a mini-me.

The One Ring could not safely be taken up by any being, whether an elf or a man or a wizard because its power was said to be proportionate to the stature of the wielder. And so it was left to those of little power and no stature, but who were nevertheless strong in ways no Dark Lord could understand, to carry the Ring to its Doom. Even then it wasn’t the power of the Hobbits that destroyed, but the Ring’s own warping power. It had so warped Gollum, so bent his will that in the Ring’s triumphant moment of return to Sauron, it was undone, literally, by Gollum’s mad lust for it. More than a little ironic.

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The Harrowing of the Barrow Downs

Melanie has some great insights into the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits from the barrow-wight:

It struck me as I read that the whole scene is a type of the harrowing of hell, the moment that according to ancient tradition we recall on Holy Saturday when Jesus goes to the realm of the dead and smashes open the gates to release Adam and Eve and the patriarchs and prophets, all the holy men and women who have died since the beginning of time. He leads them out of the realm of the dead and into the kingdom of paradise. Not only that, but it’s also full of baptismal imagery, appropriate because baptism is also a type of resurrection.

Beneath New York Public Library, Shelving Its Past for High-Tech Research Stacks

Beneath New York Public Library, Shelving Its Past for High-Tech Research Stacks:

“Since March, after abandoning a much-criticized plan to move the bulk of its research collection to New Jersey, the library has been working instead to create a high-tech space underground for the 2.5 million research works long held in its original stacks.

The books will begin arriving in April, and by the end of spring library officials expect to be using a new retrieval system to ferry the volumes and other materials from their 84 miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts — a bit like miniaturized minecars carrying nuggets of research gold.”

I remember the uproar last March when the plan to move the books to New Jersey was announced because it meant that researchers would have to wait hours at best, if not days, to get their books. From reading this, it doesn’t sound like this is a completely automated, robotic system, which is a shame, but still involves people pulling from stacks and restocking. But it’s at least an improvement.

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