The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Formation over information

My old man emailed me a link to a blog post by singer Ashley Cleveland. In it she relates some of the history of her spiritual journey, and it is well worth a read. One line in particular stood out to me, regarding her transition to the Episcopal Church:

My desire is less for information and more for formation, less like Martha, more like Mary.

Formation over information. It has a nice ring to it. She continues:

To that end, the beauty and repetition of the Episcopalian liturgy which is built on the scripture, the common worship, the symbolic gestures and the centerpiece of communion have given me a rich experience of worship and a place for practice, regardless of my spiritual fitness at any given time.

All churches are repetitive. Some like to pretend that they don't have a liturgy, but they really do. Yet there is something distinct about the never-ending cycle of the Church Year. We repeat the same seasons and the same feasts year in and year out. We read through the lectionary every three years. And we repeat the same form of the Eucharist each week. All of these provide signposts by which I can look back and assess the progress of my Christian life. Formation.

It's not that information is bad. I have an advanced degree in Christian information (Biblical Studies) after all. And it's not that Biblical exposition in a church setting is wholly inappropriate (though I do think that Sunday school is probably a better venue for it).

One of the main things I came to appreciate early on about the Episcopal church was the short and sweet sermons. They are detached from a need to convey a lot of facts about the reading and instead provide a moment for reflection in the midst of worship. They are the opportunity for the clergy to provide some context to the never-ending liturgical cycles.

So yes: formation. It is a good theme to focus on in this Lent.

Readings for January 2016

Getting caught up on periodicals feels good. Getting deep into long books feels good too, though they don't show up in the ledger in a timely fashion.

Periodicals

  • Harper's January 2016
  • Harper's February 2016

Readings for December 2015

In which our hero realizes that life changes have made reading more difficult by observing his end-of-year reading stats.

Basically I lost a long train commute which afforded a lot of reading time and on top of that had a baby. It was my lowest total since 2010, when I had my first son.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

Considered by many to be Ellul's magnum opus, The Technological Society did not disappoint. It is the full exposition of the thinking of Ellul which I had only seen in small bits previously. Reading his account of technique will change how you perceive the world in a fundamental sense. Or at least it has for me.

I left many dog-ears in my copy, and I keep saying I'm going to a post expanding on my observations there. For the most part his observations are prescient and still relevant to this day. One fascinating angle in the work is that he wrote at the height of the Cold War, at a time when it was not clear how it would pan out.

This is a very dense work, so it takes commitment to complete. Recommended if you have the will to get through it. Perhaps warm up on some shorter articles or interviews to find out if you have the taste for Ellul.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Walker Percy has a boisterous following, and some thinkers I respect are among them. The Moviegoer won the National Book Award and therefore in some sense is a part of the American literary canon. Yet it is in a realist school which I find a bit tiresome. I felt as I did after reading The Sun Also Rises, that nothing important had really transpired in the course of the novel. Yeah, I probably didn't read closely enough, and missed the point. But this one did not inspire close reading for me.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's The Sleeper and the Spindle is a delightful short story which springboards from a certain well-known (but never explicitly named) fairy tale. The version I read was made even more delightful by the inclusion of fantastic illustrations by Chris Riddell. I got through it in a single sitting, and I do believe it has re-read value (once I get it back from a friend to whom I lent it). Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's October 2015
  • Harper's November 2015
  • Harper's December 2015

Year-end stats

In 2015 I read:

  • 14 magazines
  • 18 books
  • 7,874 pages
  • or about 22 pages per day

Much less than last year, as discussed above.

Updates to lxxmorph-unicode and lxxmorph-corpus

The conversion of the original CATSS betacode into unicode relies on beta2unicode.py, a script published by James Tauber. James has just done an early release of greek-utils, which includes an updated version of the betacode converter. I tested the new version with the CATSS conversion process, and discovered that it produces the same output, with an exception.

Thanks to a bug-fix in the new version, a fault in the existing unicode texts has been discovered and corrected. Specifically, initial ρ was marked with smooth breathing marks instead of rough breathing. This changed 1,017 lines in 58 of the books.

Check the lxxmorph-unicode and lxxmorph-corpus repositories for updates.

Readings for November 2015

We happened to welcome a new baby to our family near the end of the month, so I feel lucky to have completed what I did.

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

XenocideAs I began Orson Scott Card's Xenocide, third in the Ender series, I quickly fell into the same joy which accompanied Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, the first two books in the series. Card's craft is storytelling first and science fiction second, as it should be. In this novel I particularly appreciated the mixing of religion (not just religious themes, mind you) into science fiction.

Card sets the stakes high in this novel, with the opening plot on a course to the destruction of a planet full of colonists along with two (or three?) entire sentient species. The addition of a new characters on another world - some obsessive-compulsive whose attention to detail is put work in service of an empire - adds a good counter-balance, keeping Ender's universe from becoming too in-grown.

What spoiled the book for me, to a degree, was Card reaching too deep into fantastic world-building in order to elucidate the mysterious connection between Ender's mind and that of the Hive Queen, the Pequeninos, and Jane - the ghost in the machine of the interplanetary communications network. It's not that Card's plot device is too fantastic, it's that it arose in a series in a way in which I feel it violated the reader's expectations. Card set the stage one way, and dramatically shifted it later. Probably the brightest spot coming out of this plot shift is that we get to see a bit of Mormon theology shining through: namely the implication of the pre-existence of souls.

As anyone can tell by reading the front-matter, the Ender saga is far from over. However I think I'll leave it here. It has been quite enjoyable, but it is time to move on to new stories.

Anarchy and Christianity by Jacques Ellul

I have probably read three or four works on Christian anarchism, but Jacques Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity is now my favorite. This is definitely a good read with its emphasis on nonviolence and neither seeking nor serving political power.

I have slowly been making my way through his seminal work The Technological Society. Once I complete that, I am planning on putting together a "Quotable Ellul" piece with quotes from each of these works.

Readings for October 2015

I promise, I have a bunch of longer books going. I promise.

Periodicals

  • Harper's August 2015 - I found it fascinating to read about the Parsis of India in Nell Freudenberger's article "House of Fire".

  • Harper's September 2015

Until next time.

LXX Mean Log Word Frequency

In another recent post, James Tauber covers the topic of mean log word frequency as a measure of difficulty of reading. I adapted James' code to address the CATSS LXX data (new format still forthcoming, I promise!).

Output columns are mean log word frequency, and then book+chapter (insert caveat about LXX chapter numbering). The higher the first column, the harder to read. Here are the top ten hardest chapters by this measure:

7983 Wisdom 17
7708 1 Chronicles 1
7281 2 Esdras 2
7217 Proverbs 10
7128 3 Maccabees 4
7114 Wisdom 11
7110 Wisdom 13
7092 Proverbs 14
7076 Proverbs 11
7065 Wisdom 14

Wisdom 17 has the unique distinction of having a broader vocabulary than a list of names, which is impressive. And now the easiest:

4752 Psalm 133
4752 Psalm 135
4792 Deuteronomy 30
4809 Deuteronomy 26
4836 1 Kings 13
4837 Psalm 116
4851 Ezekiel 20
4852 2 Chronicles 7
4856 Ezekiel 37
4881 Ezekiel 33

Top five hardest books:

6777 Wisdom
6677 4 Maccabees
6664 3 Maccabees
6634 Proverbs
6484 Joshua A
6402 2 Maccabees

Books composed in Greek appear to have the edge. I included a sixth because "Joshua A" in this corpus is not a full-length work. Now the five eastiest:

5189 Deuteronomy
5205 2 Chronicles
5239 1 Samuel
5242 Judges A
5256 Baruck

That's all for now.

Ancient Greek 80% Core Vocab Flashcards

Imagine you wanted to study vocabulary in advance of reading not just a work, but an entire corpus, or perhaps the super-corpus of the Greek Classics. Wilfred Major advocated for learning a core vocabulary in his paper It's Not the Size, It's the Frequency. In it he provides some good news:

Ancient Greek has a high-frequency core vocabulary scarcely half the size of many other languages.

He provides lists of lemmata which comprise 50% or 80% of the words in the ancient Greek corpus. The 80% has only 1,100 entries, so it is definitely achievable for advanced students.

I have made a flashcard pack at Quisition which contains this vocab list. If you think it would be useful to your studies, you can add it to a deck and start memorizing.

LXX Vocabulary Coverage

James Tauber is blogging daily until SBL, and several of his posts have piqued my interest, so expect to see a few derivative posts here.

The first post covers vocabulary coverage statistics for the SBLGNT. The concept can take a moment to wrap your mind around: given a count of vocabulary learned (vertical axis), assuming you want to be able to read a certain percentage of words in a verse (horizontal axis), in what percentage of verses will you be successful (intersection of the two).

My usual instinct when reading posts about New Testament Greek is to try the same thing with the Septuagint. Here is the data for the LXXM using the methodology outlined in James' post:

             ANY    50.00%    75.00%    90.00%    95.00%   100.00% 
------------------------------------------------------------------
   100    99.78%    88.63%    27.16%     1.99%     0.74%     0.62% 
   200    99.80%    94.19%    51.25%     8.65%     2.58%     1.56% 
   500    99.84%    98.38%    78.01%    33.00%    13.95%     8.30% 
  1000    99.89%    99.35%    89.86%    58.46%    34.27%    23.08% 
  2000    99.92%    99.61%    95.93%    79.25%    59.45%    46.20% 
  5000    99.99%    99.87%    98.67%    93.72%    85.12%    77.44% 
 10000   100.00%    99.99%    99.78%    98.31%    95.33%    92.15% 
   ALL   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%

(In order to obtain the necessary input data, I had to restructure the lxxmorph-unicode dataset - after proofing I'd like to release the new format soon.)

Say you had learned 500 words, and only wanted to look up about one word per verse (90%), you would be successful in 13.95% of verses. Another way of looking at it: if you wanted to know 75% of words in 90% of verses, how big would your vocabulary need to be? About 1000 words.

I have been convinced by smart and experienced educators that vocabulary mastery really is the key to mastery of reading Greek. Just imagine the frustration of having to look up words that often even after learning so many. Wait, you probably don't have to imagine it - we've all been there! Vocab is king.

The LXX is a much bigger corpus than the New Testament (and maybe has more lexical diversity - perhaps the subject of a forthcoming post). By way of comparison with the above, a vocab of 500 targeting 90% coverage would be successful in 36.57% of verses.

I wonder if maybe the number of proper nouns in the LXX may significantly skew these numbers. Proper nouns are not vocabulary words per se - the knowledge and memory of them works differently than vocab words. So what if I remove them from consideration (in this case just filtering out words which start with a capital letter from the input file). This decreased the word count from 623,685 to 589,731. Here is the updated coverage:

             ANY    50.00%    75.00%    90.00%    95.00%   100.00% 
------------------------------------------------------------------
   100    99.91%    91.57%    40.48%     6.54%     3.36%     3.02% 
   200    99.92%    95.92%    63.30%    18.17%     7.77%     5.79% 
   500    99.97%    99.21%    85.79%    47.92%    26.03%    18.13% 
  1000    99.99%    99.84%    94.92%    72.53%    49.98%    38.05% 
  2000    99.99%    99.97%    98.84%    89.13%    74.26%    63.61% 
  5000   100.00%   100.00%    99.92%    98.40%    93.92%    89.70% 
 10000   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00% 
   ALL   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%

That change upped the 500/90% result to 26.03% from 13.95%. Still pretty daunting, but less intimidating when you think of it that way.

Readings for September 2015

In which I discover that reading on an e-reader may lead to you to forget the name of the novel you are reading.

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

I was planning what to read for our family's vacation and wedding travel this May when I decided to read the next volume in the Wheel of Time saga. Luckily my wife had already bought me the paperback, so I grabbed it off the shelf and started reading a night or two before the trip. In the course of reading the first chapter I was getting the most incredible sensation of deja-vu, and upon starting the second it become clear: I was accidentally re-reading the preceding book in the series, which I completed in February 2014.

Well, that was somewhat embarrassing, because I was the one who told the wife which book to buy. The day before the trip, I walked to Powell's from work to get The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the series, and the actually correct one. And they literally had every single book in the 14-book series except this one.

With no time left, I decided to try something new: I purchased an electronic copy for reading on my wife's e-reader. That was quite the experience. I really enjoyed not having to lug around a big heavy book, and liked that I could customize the font, the size, and what headers and footers to include (or not). As I alluded in the introduction, I actually forgot the name of the novel by the time I finished it, partly due to a long break in reading, and partly due to never seeing the cover. Ultimately I won't invest more in e-books, since I don't like the terms of service and digital restrictions management which go along with them. Maybe someday the great technology will be partnered with new content without draconian protections.

Great story about e-readers! What about the book? Well, I have to say this was not the greatest read. It felt like Jordan was marking time in this book, not progressing very quickly at all. I feel like it could have easily shed 400 pages and still covered all of the pertinent plot points and character development.

But am I ready to quit the series? Not exactly. I've already invested so much in it, and in a 14-book series, you're allowed to have a stinker or two.

Readings for August 2015

In which I made progress on long books but did not finish anything.

Periodicals

  • Harper's May 2015 - You know when you think you lost an issue of a magazine, but you find it under a pile of stuff? That's pure joy.
  • Harper's July 2015

Until next month.

Readings for July 2015

Summer reading was in full swing, but where was I?

Periodicals

  • Tin House 61 - Hard to believe this was already my 12th issue from the venerable Tin House.
  • Harper's June 2015

Readings for June 2015

The sweet beginnings of summer reading.

The Spirit of Eastern Christendom by Jaroslav Pelikan

In graduate school our course on historical theology had us reading the first and third volumes of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. At the time our professor recommended volume two, which though it was not part of the curriculum for the course, was still an excellent insight into Eastern Orthodoxy (which to most American Christians is vague and mysterious). I purchased the volume at the time, but never got around to reading it . . .

. . . until now. And I am glad that I did. First of all, by reading a historical theology of the Eastern Church, it helps me as a Western-centric Christian to appreciate that my scope is not the whole of Christianity. Secondly, it provides a good examinations of theological controversies, some of which are still alive, some of which are mostly settled, and some of which made me really question my position.

The most difficult part of The Spirit of Eastern Christendom is the focus on Christological and Trinitarian controversies, which occupy the first part of the work. I was familiar with them all, but some of them go into such detail that at times I was having trouble actually understanding the distinction being debated by past theologians (perhaps their parishioners felt the same way). I was a bit relieved when a few of the controversies were basically deemed unanswerable and therefore out of bounds for debate.

I really enjoyed learning about the iconoclastic controversies, and how those related to the Eastern Churches' relationship with the West, Islam, and Judaism. I also became acquainted with the rather fascinating notion that Rome was Never Wrong (TM) on theological debates, which as a protestant I find cute.

Pelikan is a great academic writer, so be warned about the density of this work. If you like historical theology, or want to learn more about Eastern Orthodoxy, this is certainly recommended.

My Struggle: Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The next volume of Knausgaard's magnum opus arrived in English translation in paperback, so I picked it up. In this volume the author retells his boyhood, from about the time he started primary school until he moved away before high school. There will be boyish high-jinks, parental angst, the beginnings of romance, and poignant observations about the nature of things.

I thought I had come to divine something of a pattern from the first two volumes, but this one broke the mold a bit, with no ill effects. It is more chronological, with fewer flashes forward and backward in time. It also lacks the meta narrative which provided the framework for the first two volumes. Volume four apparently continues on into high school, so I am getting the feeling that these will form something of a double volume of youthful recollections.

Still recommended.

Readings for May 2015

It's that season when you are finishing up an old job, going on a long vacation, and then starting a new job afterward. You get a decent amount of reading done on vacation, at least, but it is in an epic fantasy novel, and does not result in getting to add it to the reading log. So May looks pretty pathetic, but I'm turning things around.

Periodicals

  • Harper's April 2015

Readings for April 2015

Potential job transition leads to slowdown in reading.

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

I had picked up The Color of Magic some time ago, having wanted to test the waters of the Discworld series for some time. When Pratchett passed away recently, I decided it was a fitting time to dive in.

Now this is a bit of a strange review for me, because I was not very engaged by reading this entire month. I believe that was due to being distracted by other developments in life. So this may color my review a bit.

Pratchett's Discworld is a great premise. I love the goofy universe, the characters, the magic, etc. I find Pratchett's comic writing to be superb, and I had some real guffaws whilst reading. However, for whatever reason, this was not a page turner for me. It took me quite a while to get through a short novel, because I was just not all that interested in finding out what came next.

I may try another Discworld novel, just because people I respect love Pratchett so much. But for now, I did not love The Color of Magic.

Periodicals

  • Harper's March 2015

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