Hear a sample from the audiobook, An Introduction to “A Christmas Carol”:
This book is about understanding our culture and its literature and the idea that we’ve been having one long argument with each other for several thousand years. It’s a big idea, so I’ve got an analogy which might illustrate the issue.
Imagine for a moment you have recently married into a really big family, full of vocal, contentious people. These folks get together on holidays, and a family argument always ensues. It becomes clear certain people don’t “speak” to others, Aunt Thelma always disputes anything Uncle Jethro says, and other family members try vainly to avoid any squabbles by not mentioning certain topics. You, the new member of this tribe, sit there and try to imagine yourself navigating these family get-togethers through future years so you can stay out of the cross-fire.
It doesn’t take much to imagine the conversation with your spouse on the way home. “What was that all about?” you’d ask. Your spouse would then explain what the original bone of contention was and what the history of “who said what to whom” has been. Once you understand what the issues are, you are better prepared to attend future family events without putting your foot in your mouth or putting yourself into Aunt Thelma’s and Uncle Jethro’s crosshairs.
This analogy illustrates what I believe has been going on in Western culture for about four thousand years. The title of this book should tell you that we’ve been arguing with each other about the same thing for a very long time. The place to follow this argument is through the literature of our culture; this is the “who said what to whom.” If you don’t understand what the argument is about, you’re a baffled onlooker trying to make sense of what appears to be completely senseless.
This argument reflects and sometimes instigates historical events. Sometimes the dispute becomes so serious that wars result. Sometimes the wars themselves, originally started over issues not necessarily related to the argument, inspire people to write things which change the course of the argument and who’s “winning” at a particular point in time.
Once you have the ideas in The Eternal Argument clear in your mind, you’ll never look at literature, or even some world events, in quite the same way again. Now I know that sounds like a very boastful prediction to make, but I can tell you that, since that fateful day when I was first exposed to these ideas, I gazed at the world, its literature, its history, and its current – often agonizing – events, from an entirely different perspective.
You might often hear intellectuals, pundits, scholars, writers, and others in our culture called the chattering classes because they largely make their living by talking. They usually write a great deal as well, but before they can write they need to talk. They talk mostly to each other. I want, however, to share with you a little secret. They pretty much talk about the same thing the rest of us talk about: ourselves. As human beings, we are endlessly fascinated with ourselves.
When friends are sitting around having coffee, what do they talk about? What’s the latest with so-and-so? So then what did she say? Well, that was dumb! And then what did he say? Hoo, boy! That was a good one! So, what do you think will happen next?
The chattering classes have precisely the same conversations, but they might add another layer after they’ve thoroughly discussed the particulars of a specific event. They might move on to the general. By that I mean that, rather than just what Jim said to Mary after he did that terrible thing and she responded with something even worse, they might move on to questions like, “Why do people do such things? What has happened in the past that caused this to happen? What might be done in the future to prevent something similarly bad from happening or perhaps cause something better to happen?”
It is the overall thesis of this book that this sort of behavior has been going on as long as human beings have been civilized. Ever since we had the leisure to do so, we’ve talked and talked. Sometimes we’ve agreed with each other, and sometimes we’ve disagreed.
I can imagine some Egyptian tomb workers writing on the walls of Pharaoh’s final resting place. Maybe they wrote some idea down which they thought was particularly wise. In time another worker would come along and read them and say, “Hey! That’s what I think too!” and go on to add to the discourse his own ideas of why the original writing was particularly profound thinking. But, by and by, someone else would come along, read the original idea, and they say, “Well, that’s a crock! Here’s what I think!” and away they’d go, arguing back and forth. Perhaps those arguments got heated and resulted in more than just written disagreements.
So this is fun. . . imagining all these erudite, argumentative tomb workers furiously plastering the walls with their ideas and perhaps getting so heated in the exchange that violence ensues. Overall, this is what The Eternal Argument is about. We’ve been fussing with each other for thousands of years and these arguments – which have sometimes resulted in real wars – have been reflected in our literature.
So what? you say. This only goes to show how violent and disputatious we are as a species. I’ll grant you that. Although we’ve graduated to more sophisticated ways to wreak havoc upon each other, we still rarely find more peaceful methods to resolve disputes. It can be said, then, that so far I have failed to shed any new light on these matters. But I’m about to because I’m not merely making the case that we’ve been arguing for several thousand years; I’m saying we’ve been arguing about the same thing for all that time.
The bone of contention can be characterized as follows: one side says, “There is a God and He rules over a flawed mankind by giving us rules by which to live.” The other side says, “There is no God so people decide what’s good and what’s evil, and human nature can arrive at the rules.” Because the descriptions of those two positions are rather wordy, I have chosen to call the first side the Theistic side. The second side I call the Humanistic side.
It has taken me a long time to come up with these two names, and they aren’t perfect. The major flaw with them is that they have other meanings in other contexts. In a religious sense a Theist is one who believes in one all-powerful and loving God. The term Humanist doesn’t necessarily mean one who does not believe in God; that word is a bit broader in its meaning. But to a believer, one is either a Theist or a Humanist; there is no in-between. I’m asking you, in the context of this book, to see the use of these two designations in a literary/artistic/philosophical sense, and in that sense there is room for middle ground. I had to find a term for the two sides of the Eternal Argument, and these two seem to me to fit the bill the best. I’m going to address this issue of the terms theism and humanism again, but first I need to share with you why I think the ideas in this book will be helpful to you and/or your children.
Imagine two students in a college literature class, having a discussion about a book. One of the students is a deeply committed Christian; the other is an atheist, who feels just as deeply about his beliefs. They look at the world from two diametrically opposed viewpoints.
The class instructor poses a question as to the “meaning” of the book, and the two boys answer in completely different ways, based on their personal worldviews. When the atheistic student verbalizes his position, the Christian feels offended and attacked. When the Christian states his case, the atheist dismisses the Christian student’s comments as supernatural, not real. They can’t have a substantive discussion because each feels his position is being attacked and an argument ensues. They just want to throw their hands up in the air and say, “I can’t talk to you about this!”
Short of erecting barriers around the two students where no one will ever make a statement which disagrees with his point of view, what are we to do about this? Is there no way for these two to meet in the middle, even to talk about the book?
In real life, you will not often encounter a person who represents only one extreme of the Eternal Argument. In my opinion, if each of us were to honestly examine our own psyches and/or souls carefully, we would find assumptions and beliefs which are to found on both sides. When I’ve had a chance to explain more about this literary meaning of theism and humanism, you’ll see what I mean. Since books are written by real people, you will also rarely encounter a book which exemplifies only one of the extremes of the Eternal Argument. And, please remember, I am talking about the literary definition of these two sides.
The way to talk to each other, and to discuss literature, is to be able to identify what elements, ideas, assumptions, and beliefs are being expressed as representative of one side of the Eternal Argument or the other. In some cases by so doing, you might find that one or both of the people in the discussion have to look more carefully at what was first said. In other cases, the two might simply have to “agree to disagree,” but at least they could approach the discussion from a position of mutual respect rather than animosity.
What I’m trying to do with this book is to give those two boys a way to talk about literature that focuses on what elements of these two worldviews are being expressed by the author. I also hope that they can understand that both sides of the Eternal Argument actually exist, and that people have been disputing these issues in our literature for millennia. It is not useful to simply dismiss the ideas of those who oppose yours as illegitimate; they must be dealt with in some way if one is to understand our literature and indeed our culture and our world.
In the course of reading each chapter of The Eternal Argument, I’m going to include one significant book which illustrates or gives some insight into the point of that chapter. That means that, by the end of this book, you’ll have read about several other books. You won’t fully understand what The Eternal Argument is all about until you’ve finished the entire book, however, so I won’t really be able to discuss these books – viewed through the lens of The Eternal Argument – until you’ve finished the chapters. That being the case, I intend to devote a chapter, near the end of the book, to taking another look at all the books we will be discussing and talking about them from this new viewpoint. The literary analysis of those books just won’t be meaningful unless you’ve taken the time to read The Eternal Argument in its entirety.
By the way, if you haven’t already read them, you may find yourself interested in one or more of the books I discuss. Sometimes I’m going to talk about how these books end. I’m therefore going to give you a “spoiler alert” before I do that so, if you’re reading this book, you can put it down and go read the book you’re interested in. If you’re listening to the book with your family, you might want to put your fingers in your ears and say, “La, la, la, la, la, la, la!” loudly until someone tells you the danger has passed.
In the course of your life, you have met and will meet people who hold views which are either similar or different to yours. I submit to you that, even if you have no idea what the two sides of the Eternal Argument are, you still have a position. I think everybody above the age of about 25 or 30 does. And, even though I’m going to try to explain both sides as even-handedly as I can, I too have a position. So I’m going to devote my final chapter to the thoughts and observations I have regarding my own position and perhaps how it has changed over the course of my life.
I certainly hope I haven’t scared you to death. Yes, it’s true: I’m going to be talking about some BIG IDEAS here, but remember I spent most of my life in a classroom explaining things to – gasp! – 8th graders. Large groups of bumptious, hormonal 8th graders, and, for the most part, those kids understood what I was saying because I knew how to explain it to them. You, on the other hand, are either sitting by yourself reading this book, reading it out loud with your family, or listening to it in your car. You’ll be just fine.
By the way, I would like to say something about my style of writing. In 34 years of teaching kids, I learned you have to “grab ‘em” at the beginning, and you do that by appealing to them emotionally. The way I did that was to use humor. You’ll notice, especially in the early chapters, my language is quite informal and I tell a lot of jokes. (Whether they’re funny or not I’ll leave up to you. I can tell you that 13-year-olds think I’m hilarious!)
Once I’d pulled them into my topic by appealing to their emotions, I could choose language that would speak to their intellects. You’ll notice, then, that especially in the middle chapters of this book, the tone becomes a little more serious.
Then, when I’d presented all my facts and “serious stuff,” I’d try to give a lighter impression with my choice of language, in an effort to leave them with a sense of confidence, and an “I can do this!” attitude. So the final chapters of this book become once again less “scholarly” in tone.
The fact that I utilized these methods for 34 years in front of 150 middle school kids a day – and lived to tell the tale – indicates that they were fairly successful.
Another thing: I have spoken to many parents in the course of my work on this book, and I’m often asked, “Is this a book I’m supposed to read, or is my kid supposed to read it?” The best answer is that both should read the book, but it should be done together so each concept, as it is introduced, can be discussed. I can promise you discussion topics will arise! I believe, in the best of all possible worlds, this book would best be read aloud, one chapter at a time.
I have inserted pronunciation guides for words which, in my experience, some folks – especially kids – don’t know how to pronounce. I’ve placed them in the text right after the word in question, to make it easy for folks to use. If you don’t need them, skip over them.
Since I hope you read this book with your family a chapter at a time, I intend to pose a few discussion questions and/or ideas at the end of each chapter. Some of these questions are “deep,” some are not quite so profound, and some are just there for fun. If you are experiencing this book in an “audio-book” platform, I can envision you all rolling down the highway and listening to the chapters. Then I see you trooping into the nearest eatery and having some fairly “toothsome” discussions as you bite into your burgers, dip your fries in catsup, and sip on your sodas. The waitress might give you what my students used to call “the hairy eyeball,” but pity her ignorance and keep talking! Who knows? There might be more, “Mom, I really want to read that book when we get home!” and less, “Don’t make me turn this car around!”
Chapter One: Why Should We Read All These Books?
I want you to picture a California college campus in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Imagine kids wandering around in the fashions of the day, which were really costumes rather than clothes. (We spent a great deal of money attempting to look poor.) Imagine the brick buildings and the carefully maintained beds of shrubbery. There was the “free speech area” in front of the campus bookstore, where very earnest people handed out pamphlets with pictures of starving Biafran children on them. Most felt obligated to take a pamphlet and then wait until they got out of sight before tossing it into the trash. There were the music majors (harmlessly insane), the psychology majors (seriously insane), the engineering majors (mismatched socks and bemused expressions), the business majors (purposeful strides), and then there were English majors like me (enormous armloads of books—students had not as yet figured out how great backpacks were). But I was an English major with a question.
Exactly why was I an English major? This thought kept ricocheting around inside my skull as I wandered across the campus that fine spring day, not too many months from graduation. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I should have been on top of the world. But this nagging thought kept coming back to me: what really was the point in being an English major? What did English majors do? Well, reading is what we did. We read a lot. We read books written largely by people who were dead. I mean, they were good and dead. They were for the most part dead guys who wore wigs and knee breeches and spent a great deal of their time sitting around and thinking deep thoughts. As far as I know, they didn’t have jobs that kept them busy eight hours a day, much less take care of a husband and run endless errands as I spent a considerable part of my life doing. So what did they or their thoughts have to do with me or anyone else I knew?
But I was an English major, and we were told that their books and essays and poems and plays were the “classics.” Everybody had read this stuff, so we were supposed to read it too. But why did we read those particular things? Did you ever get to the point where you’d read them all? How did you know when you’d read enough? How did you know when you were at the end?
Maybe this was some sort of huge game in which we competed to see who’d read the most. I smiled as I started to visualize the scene: a bunch of snotty little English majors on graduation night standing around at a party, and the first guy says, “I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath.”
The second guy says, “Grapes of Wrath, huh? Well, in between my nap and my shower this afternoon, I read Don Quixote!”
“Oh, Don Quixote, big deal! How about I see your Don Quixote and raise you one Moby Dick, from which, by the way, I can trace every biblical and mythological allusion!”
“Okay, you wanna play hardball, huh? I’ll see that and raise you all the Canterbury Tales—in Middle English!!! I win!” at which point there is a stunned silence in the room, and all the others skulk away, beaten and broken little English majors.
Or maybe there’s some great cosmic list that’s kept somewhere. And when it’s all said and done, it’s just this: he who reads the most before he dies wins!!!
But nonetheless, there I was, a senior, having read tons of novels, short stories, plays, essays, and poems, representing all the “greats” of Western literature, and suddenly I didn’t see why I had done it, except for the fact that I would be able to impress people at parties by saying I had read and actually understood T. S. Eliot’s poetry. And, frankly, that didn’t seem enough justification for my future career as a teacher, in which I would be exhorting students to read these same “classics.”
I did, however, shortly find an answer to my dilemma, and it came in the form of a wonderful professor named Dr. George Betar. I’ll come back to him later.
At the present moment, though, why is my confusion all those years ago of any significance to you? Perhaps you are teaching literature or are contemplating teaching literature. Or you’re reading literature and wondering, just as I did, why you’re being made to do it. Or maybe you’re through with that phase of life now, you’ve read a lot of stuff, but wonder from time to time why you did it. Soon, or perhaps even now, you’ll have your own children coming to you and asking you why they can’t just read the Baby Sitter’s Club series instead of being made to read Jane Eyre, which is the story of the life of a young woman with whom they can’t seem to identify at all. Or maybe it isn’t literature at all that baffles you but the disputes and arguments and even armed conflicts that are taking place all over the world these days. These are all legitimate questions. And asking them doesn’t indicate a lack of intellectual merit or rigor because they are being asked.
Let me tell you another story. It took place nearly 30 years after that sunny stroll across my college campus. By then I was a veteran English teacher, not far from retirement. I was having dinner in a local restaurant with my family when, on my way back from the salad bar, I ran into a former student. He had just graduated from high school and was having what was no doubt a celebratory dinner with some friends. I had taught him in my 8th-grade language arts class, and I remembered him well as one of the most brilliant students I had ever had. After our initial greetings and my congratulations to him, I asked him how his high school English classes had been and did he feel prepared for college.
It was then James made the comment that really stayed with me:
”Almost all my English classes,” he said, “were just book reports, one after another.”
I don’t remember how I responded. It’s not important, really. I smiled, we said our goodbyes, and I went back to rejoin my family.
But I couldn’t quite let go of what James had said to me. This boy had read a lot of fine literature in high school. I knew he had taken Advanced Placement classes, taught by teachers who worked very hard to make sure their students truly understood what these books were saying and what the authors had “really meant.” But if a gifted student like James still came away from each “novel study” feeling he had just read a book and maybe taken a test on it or written a paper, what must the other kids be feeling? Did they think they too were just doing a series of book reports? Maybe James was saying it felt as though there was some Great List somewhere with all the stuff people were supposed to read. So they would read it, take a test, maybe write a paper, and then somewhere some box would get checked, and they’d move on to something else. Sort of like, “Been there, read the book, saw the movie, got the tee-shirt. Next?”
But why in the world were we reading this seemingly endless succession of stuff? Not only did I not know the answer to that question, but I felt strongly that I would enjoy reading the great classics of our civilization a lot more if I did. Let me give you an analogy that might help:
Suppose you were handed one piece of a big jigsaw puzzle and told to study it. You weren’t told it was a puzzle piece that fits together with other puzzle pieces to make a big picture. So let’s stretch our imaginations even further and say you do indeed study that puzzle piece in great depth. You take quizzes on it. Maybe you write an essay or a research paper about it. Maybe you do an oral presentation having to do with that puzzle piece. When you’ve finished with whatever it is you’re required to do with that piece, you go on to other things and, by and by, you’re handed another individual puzzle piece and told to study it.
It’s unimaginable you’d put up with this for long, but that’s sort of how I remember my education in literature being in high school and even during my first few years of college. Book after essay after play after poem after book. Each one was an individual puzzle piece, although I didn’t know that at the time. I had no idea that, if properly understood, they would fit into a large puzzle that would reveal to me what it means to be a well-read, well-educated, and thoughtful person living in the time and place in which I find myself.
I remember in my sophomore year of college taking a class called “The Great American Novel,” the main focus of which was Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book with which I had long struggled. I’m going to talk about this book in more depth in a later chapter, but I bring it up now because it was in this class that I began to see that there was supposed to be some connection among all these works of literature and, more important, between them and all the other subjects I was studying. By no means did I know what the “big picture” on the puzzle box was, but I now knew I was actually working on a puzzle instead of just studying individual pieces.
Suddenly this book, which I had unsuccessfully tried to read for so long, became one of my favorites! What was more significant, however, was that I began to get a glimmering of what it meant to read great literature. It was as if this fine young professor showed me that an individual puzzle piece, the book itself, fit together with other puzzle pieces. The other puzzle pieces in this case were the added information about the history and intellectual atmosphere of our country when it was being written. It told me a lot about what it was to be an American in the mid 19th century, which of course has led us to who we are as Americans today.
So I learned from this class that I needed to educate myself about the time and place in which a piece of literature was being written so I might be able to attach that piece of writing to a bigger picture. This helped, but it still didn’t seem to be enough; I still seemed to be dealing with a series of little puzzles made up of a few pieces.
What was it all for?
As I mentioned before, this is when we go back to my senior year in college where a critical event in my education occurred. This is where Dr. George Betar enters the narrative. He was one of those men who was rather good-looking, in a messy-haired, tweedy sports jacket sort of style, Central Casting’s idea of the “cool” college professor. I think he was in his early 40s when I knew him. He was an incredibly gifted teacher, passionate and knowledgeable about his subject, very witty, and extremely charismatic. He was secular in his approach and very cynical, but he would always listen with respect to people whose opinions differed from his own.
I took a couple of classes from him, and I believe this was “Survey of American Literature I.” A “survey” class is one in which you sample bits of literature, either American literature or British literature or world literature, in chronological order. Often you don’t read entire works in a survey class; you read excerpts, carefully chosen samplings from those books or poems or whatever. Survey classes are usually where English majors start out, and then they get into more focused “elective” classes. I don’t know why I, as a senior, was still taking survey classes, but there I was.
I have a distinct memory of one class meeting in which Dr. B. admonished us sternly that we definitely did not want to miss the next class meeting because he was going to deliver his universally renowned lecture entitled “The History of the World.” We all laughed dutifully at what had to be a joke, because we knew no one could lecture on the history of the world in one class meeting, but we were certainly intrigued. So we all showed up at the next meeting, opened our spiral-bound notebooks, clicked our ballpoint pens, and raised our eyes expectantly. I had no idea I was about to experience a turning point in my intellectual journey.
One of the greatest regrets of my life is that somehow I lost the notes to this lecture in which Dr. Betar laid out his vision that Western culture and literature are one long dispute. In time I forgot what the two sides were arguing about, but the basic idea of our literature—the literature of Western culture—as one big ongoing dispute remained with me. I remember asking a zillion questions during the lecture. (I was never able to be quiet in class. I often made bets with myself I’d go to all my classes and not ask one question. Want to know how many times I actually pulled that off? Not once.) But I vividly remember walking out at the end of that particular class in total silence. I must have looked like one of those zombie-like folks from a bad 50s horror movie like “Invasion of the Pod People” or some such thing. I was so “gobsmacked” by the ideas from that lecture I think I just wandered to a bench somewhere and sat.
I knew I had come to a turning point in my intellectual life because now I knew why I was going to spend the rest of my life exhorting others to read. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt why I was an English major and that I had chosen a noble way to spend my life and earn my living. Pretty big stuff for a college senior but nonetheless true. One hour in a classroom had changed the entire direction of my life.
Our literature has many stories about people who experience something that results in a total change in their lives, just as I did as a result of Dr. Betar’s lecture. The most famous of these stories is, in my opinion, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Most of us know the characters in this story and have a general idea of what happens, but I am always surprised by the number of folks who aren’t familiar with it.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a lonely, bitter miser, a “squeezing, grasping, covetous old sinner, hard and sharp as flint.” He owns a financial business, the main function of which is to lend money out to small businessmen and women at high rates of interest. When his customers aren’t able to pay, he confiscates what they own, sells it, and thus adds to his great wealth. He has no family except for a nephew, the son of his deceased only sister. Since his sister died in childbirth, Scrooge has never been able to forgive the nephew and refuses to have anything to do with him. Scrooge is a man absolutely alone in the world.
When asked by two gentlemen on Christmas Eve if he will contribute to a fund “to buy the poor some meat and drink and means of warmth,” he flatly refuses, inquiring sarcastically if the poorhouses and prisons are no longer functioning. When told they are but that most people would rather die than go there, he replies that if they “would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population”!
Feeling rather pleased with himself for thus dispatching the two gentlemen so readily, Scrooge goes home to his rooms and, as he is settling in for the night, he is visited by the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley. Marley had died on Christmas Eve, exactly seven years before our story unfolds. The ghost is draped in chains to which are attached ledgers and cashboxes. “I wear the chain I forged in life,” he says. He goes on to tell Scrooge he is doomed to wander the earth and see people in need but be unable to help them. His fate is to want “to interfere for good in human affairs but [to have] lost the power to do so forever.” He then goes on to tell his former partner he will be visited by three spirits who will offer Scrooge the chance of redemption.
The visits occur as Marley had foretold. First, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows him the bitter loneliness he suffered when he was a child as a result of his father’s rejection. Next to appear is the Ghost of Christmas Present, who reveals not only the suffering of many of Scrooge’s contemporaries (including his own clerk, Bob Cratchit) but also the happiness of people who have chosen to live their lives by investing their time in loving their families and friends. The final visitor to make its appearance is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who foreshadows Scrooge’s own death and the lack of any human sadness that results from it.
Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning a changed man, vastly relieved to know he is not, in fact, dead but alive—with time before him to make amends for the evil things he has done. “He became as good a man, as good a boss, and as good a friend as the good old city . . . had ever seen.”
A Christmas Carol, which Charles Dickens wrote in a matter of a few days to make some extra money for his large family before Christmas, sold out immediately and then went into extra printings. It has never been out of print since it was written, has been made into several movies and television programs, and is performed on the stage in just about every major city in the world during the holidays. Its tale of redemption and hope clearly strikes a chord with people, and its characters have become part of Christmas celebrations all over the world.
Even though this story is about “ghosts,” it shows how much Dickens understood human beings and how they are really “wired.” He knew, for example, that emotional pain in one’s childhood can be manifested in negative ways in one’s adulthood. He was also well aware we all fear death and what, if anything, might come after it. His description of Marley’s “hell” (what Marley described to him) is actually more frightening to many people than the idea of devils and pitchforks.
Whenever I read this story to my students, I would mention a man I met once who told me about his witnessing an auto accident involving a car with small children in it. The car caught fire, and he tried desperately to get to them to pull them out, but he was too far away to get to them in time. He told me that, although the event had happened some twenty years in the past, he was constantly haunted by his failure to help those children. He told me it was “like being in hell.” When I told my students this story, they were able to understand what agony Marley was going to be in—forever and ever—as punishment for living his life as Scrooge was living his. He saw all this need and wanted desperately to help, but he no longer could because he was dead.
Like all great literature, A Christmas Carol offers up a great deal of “meat” to chew on during and after its reading. My book is about how to identify those bits of meat and how to discuss them with your children, with your students, or within your own head. But I believe The Eternal Argument will do more than help you understand the books you are reading, have read, or intend to read. As I’ve said earlier in this chapter, literature is simply a reflection of how one man or one woman saw the world in a particular place and at a particular time. Events and struggles are happening all around us; we read about them in the newspapers or on blogs or hear about them on television. They can seem so baffling. What in Heaven’s name is going on in my town or with our country or the world, we ask. My understanding of the Eternal Argument has helped me make sense of many things, not just what I read.
So why do we read the classics? To be a fully participating player in your own life, your community, your country, and the world, you need to understand who we are and where we came from. Western literature tells the story of what western men and women were doing and thinking and – most importantly – why. The Eternal Argument will provide you with the unifying thread that will help you find your way.
1. In the introduction we talked about the chattering classes and how most of the time we human beings are either talking about ourselves or talking about each other. When is this fruitful discussion, and when is it just gossip? What’s the difference?
2. Has the description of A Christmas Carol in this chapter changed your way of looking at this story?
3. Have you or anyone you know ever had what could be described as a “turning point” in life? What was it? What did you learn from it?