Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, Owen Barfield, Language, Childlike Faith, Joy, and the Inklings

I have just begun reading Susanna Clarke’s weighty novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I mean “weighty” in the literal, physical sense: I am finding this 1,000-page wonder, a book I did not believe could be written in this century, a difficult one to hold comfortably while reading in bed! But it is also weighty both in its material–a Regency-era fantasy presenting an alternative world not far off our own maps–and its impact. Incredibly, it was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize; less surprising, it won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, as well as the World Fantasy Award, the Locus, and the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Lit. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the books of the decade.

And I am enjoying it. True, I have needed supplementary physiotherapy to adjust for the weight of the tome. But I am pleased to finally get to Strange & Norrell, which has been tempting me for years.

Besides the desire for a SHANWAR 2021 read, part of my reason for pulling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell off the bookshelf now is because Clarke has recently published Piranesi, a dramatic fantasy experiment in fiction. I had heard that there is a significant connection to C.S. Lewis’ Narnian prequel, The Magician’s Nephew. This novel has been noted for its fantastic evocation by J.K. Rowling, and continues to fascinate readers and writers alike. A quote from Uncle Andrew is also the epigraph to Piranesi, inviting us to think about the possible links between these two fantastic worlds.

Because I study literature and the spiritual life, someone recently sent me an interview with Susanna Clarke by Sarah Lothian of the Church Times. Lothian notes the importance of The Magician’s Nephew for its ability to help her think about difficult questions of life. While it seems that no doubt The Magician’s Nephew is worth reading with Piranesi, it is actually Owen Barfield who seems to be the most important influence behind the new novel. Barfield’s philosophical treatments of the evolution of language–captured in philosophical books like Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearance, or more popularly in things like History in English Words–is one of the critical unseen realities that binds together the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It also seems to be the core material for a literary experiment by one of the 21st-century’s most important speculative fiction writers, Susanna Clarke.

This note remains just a teaser, as it will take me weeks to read Strange & Norrell before I finally get to Piranesi. However, I thought it was worth sharing the Church Times interview. This podcast is actually quite lovely as a whole. Clarke talks about Owen Barfield’s work about 30 minutes in, with an intentional nod to Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings and a thanks to Malcolm Guite. But beyond these literary Inklings’ links, it is a winsome conversation about Clarke’s own faith journey, as well as a cautious invitation to a childlike faith and a robust invitation to consider religious joy.

You can find the podcast here or click below.

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Christ and Hitler with C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner

This week, I have been sharing my thoughts about and some highlights from Frederick Buechner‘s recent book, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). Drawing materials from his memoirs–, which are a continual part of my devotional life, Buechner also reminds us in these newly published lectures some key moments in texts like The Alphabet of GraceA Room Called Remember, and Whistling in the Dark. Buechner wants to draw out how the transformational moments in life are not always remarkable miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary.

I have shared how Buechner quoted from J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald, so it is only fitting to also share his brief quotation of C.S. Lewis. In his memoir, Buechner includes Lewis among his conversation partners when he worked as a chaplain and religion teacher at a wealthy private school. He also engages with Lewis, MacDonald, Tolkien and others in his chapter, “The Gospel as Fairy Tale” in Telling the Truth (1977). Beuchner also deals with Lewis pretty extensively in Telling Secrets (1981), which has a chapter on “The Dwarves in the Stable” from The Last Battle.

The Lewis quotation I am highlighting today is not terribly long, but it shocking and perhaps would fit well in its original context. When talking about “the face of Christ” in the people around us, Buechner closes chapter 1 of Remarkable Ordinary with C.S. Lewis:

Then there’s that wonderful passage in C. S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm where Lewis speaks of having met a European minister who had seen Hitler. Lewis says, “What’d he look like? What did Hitler look like?” and the minister says, “Like Christ, of course.” Like Christ. Tremendously moving.

Our secret face is that face. Paul’s right—the whole creation is moving, the whole great complex show has started so that we may eventually obtain the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, but to see it, the artist says, you have to stop and really look, look for it with X-ray eyes.

This is, of course, one of those moments where a Christian understanding of the “other” can be uncomfortable. In a generation of Christians being paraded across social media and news networks who clearly cannot recognize the face of Christ in the people in their neighbourhoods–let alone in the face of the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the stranger–Lewis’ reminder is essential. In Letter XIV of Letters to Malcolm, Lewis wants to press in on the biblical point that the stranger among us is Christ himself:

“Now the very Pagans knew that any beggar at your door
might be a god in disguise: and the parable of the sheep and
the goats is Our Lord’s comment. What you do, or don’t do,
to the beggar, you do, or don’t do, to Him.”

Avoiding theological extremes of legalism or what would look today like an “all is god” New Age thought, Lewis instead notes the “brotherhood” of being that is the stranger, the oneness who all share our human flesh. It is this fellowship of humanity that stands in distinction to God, the true Other: “All creatures, from the angel to the atom, are other than God; with an otherness to which there is no parallel.” One must not blur the distinction, for though “God is present in each thing,” it is not necessarily in the same mode or in the same degree.  And yet, God is present in each person:

“In each of them as the ground and root and continual supply of its reality.”

Therefore, of each person, there is both an otherness and a not-otherness, a shared reality and let a separate reality. And of this shared and distinct human experience, Lewis turns to the face of our enemy:

“Therefore of each creature we can say, ‘This also is
Thou: neither is this Thou.'”

Simple faith leaps to this with astonishing ease. I once
talked to a continental pastor who had seen Hitler, and had,
by all human standards, good cause to hate him. ‘What did
he look like?’ I asked. ‘Like all men,’ he replied. ‘That is,
like Christ.'”

Like Christ. Tremendously moving.

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“I Would Rather Die for Evermore Believing,” with George MacDonald and Frederick Buechner

This week, I have been sharing my thoughts about Frederick Buechner‘s recent book, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). I have also been sharing some highlights from the text, including quotations from remarkable–and remarkably ordinary–authors. As Buechner wants to draw out how the transformational moments are not always astounding miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary, he turns to George MacDonald.

George MacDonald was a Scottish minister, lecturer, novelist, essayist, and fantasy writer. MacDonald was tremendously influential to C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, and is really a writer recovered in the last generation or so. He also, apparently, had quite an impact on Frederick Buechner‘s work. While the context of Buechner’s use of the following quotation is interesting, it is the strident and determined nature of the text’s voice that I want to highlight. Buechner captures a speech that MacDonald’s protagonist of Thomas Wingfold, Curate, speaks in the novel. I have always been uncomfortable with the all-in nature of this kind of comment–a speech that Puddleglum echoes in The Silver Chair. But I admire this commitment to the deepest rhythms of truth in the universe, even if it haunts me:

“Whatever energies I may or may not have, I know one thing for certain, that I could not devote them to anything else I should think entirely worth doing. Indeed nothing else seems interesting enough—nothing to repay the labour, but the telling of my fellow-men about the one man who is the truth, and to know whom is the life. Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. No facts can take the place of truths, and if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further … and say, I would rather die for evermore believing as Jesus believed, than live for evermore believing as those that deny him….”

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“Joy Beyond the Walls of the World, Poignant as Grief,” with J.R.R. Tolkien and Frederick Buechner

This week, I have decided to share my thoughts about Frederick Buechner‘s recent book, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017), and to share some highlights from the text. Drawing materials from his memoirs in a storied approach to his life, Buechner wants to draw out how the transformational moments are not always remarkable miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary.

One of these great spots in Buechner’s book is another piece that originated as a lecture and became a famous essay. This is J.R.R. Tolkien’s brilliant piece, “On Fairy-stories,” first given in 1939 as a talk, and then drawn into the C.S. Lewis edited volume, Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), as well as some other collections like Tree and Leaf (1964). I have already published on Tolkien’s poem, “Mythopoeia,” but readers may not know how theory and ideas of “On Fairy-stories” shoots through my academic work.

In his closing chapter, “The Presence of Peace,” Buechner turns to the subject of “joy.” Given how important C.S. Lewis was to Buechner (see more on Friday), and how central joy is to Lewis’ spirituality (see here), prompting an autobiography called Surprised by Joy, we can imagine how he would turn to Lewis to discuss how one must listen for joy in everyday life. Instead, and with a great lyrical lift in the text, he turns to Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories.” I will simply leave you with Buechner’s selection of Tolkien’s comments on joy:

And, of course, one of the things we must listen for is joy. It’s hard to talk about joy for the almost superstitious reason that you might take the bloom off it, you’ll quit, you’ll threaten it, you fear it will come to an end when the demons come and gobble it up. But almost in spite of ourselves we get glimpses of joy, and maybe glimpses is all we can ever have of joy. There’s a wonderful phrase of Tolkien’s in an essay he wrote on fairy tales where he speaks of “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief,” which you glimpse in fairy tales during what he calls the “sudden joyous ‘turn’”—where the frog turns out to be a prince, where the straw is spun into the gold, or the funny little man turns out to be the king, or whatever it is. The sudden glimpse of a joy beyond the walls of the world. We do get glimpses of it, I think, if we have our eyes opened for that possibility, like when I suddenly realized that I was at the manger, or being at SeaWorld where I saw the peaceable kingdom and Eden and tears filled my eyes and also the eyes of my wife and daughter. These glimpses we have of joy—that’s part of the news of the day and a very easy part to somehow let slip by.

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“The Laughing Room of Maya Angelou” by Frederick Buechner

This week, I am sharing my thoughts about and some highlights from Frederick Buechner‘s recent book, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). Reminiscent of his memoirs–each year I select one to reread–with echoes from key texts like The Alphabet of GraceA Room Called Remember, and Whistling in the Dark, Buechner reads his life as a text. And in this story, he shows how the transformational moments in his life have not been grand miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary. It is not a terrible tight collection, but I am grateful for the release of these old lectures and some new material.

Today, I want to share with you the time when Buechner first met Maya Angelou at a shared series of lectures by the Trinity Institute. These lectures are “geared for burned-out Episcopal clergy—men and women who simply have had it,” Buechner says. Often filled with big names like theologian Jürgen Moltmann, archbishop Desmond Tutu, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the like, these thinkers and writers and ministers talk about ethics, the church, and the role of Christianity in terms of culture. Buechner, a relatively well-known novelist, was invited to share from his recently published memoirs, The Sacred Journey (1982) and Now and Then (1983). No doubt the audience of church leaders would be intrigued by hearing from a clergyman working in the arts, sharing about the moments when God had worked in Buechner’s life.

It isn’t hard to explain why Maya Angelou would be invited, and Buechner particularly notes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as one of his favourite of her writings. Buechner describes encountering her in his life:

Maya Angelou is a large woman about my height, black, beautiful, and so full of energy you can warm your hands in front of her. She was born in the South and brought up in great poverty by her grandmother in the little town of Stamps, Arkansas. Awful things happened to her. She was raped at the age of eight, not a violent rape but a sort of one-thing-leads-to-another rape by a boyfriend of her mother whom she’d gone to visit. She came back from that experience afraid to tell anybody about it, but she eventually told her little brother Bailey that this thing had happened. By a fluke, within a couple of days of that, word came that the man who’d raped her had died, and she was terrified that her words had killed him. So she was mute for five years—didn’t say anything for five years. Well, she grew up, became a dancer, became a waitress, became a cook, and for a brief time she was a prostitute. She fell on evil times—the man whom she was with at that time said he needed some money and, if she wouldn’t mind, could she entertain some of his friends, and she did that for a time. Then she started to write and one thing led to another—acclaimed books, operas, films, and TV shows. She’s a Renaissance woman, in other words. Full of life, full of beans, full of stories.

Buechner tells two or three great stories about Maya Angelou and what she said and did, and I would encourage you to read the entire third chapter of The Remarkable Ordinary–including what a “laughing room” might be. I would, however, like to share two bits, out of order in the chapter.

One story is about the way that Angelou and Buechner were introduced, and how Angelou worked to bridge the distance between the wealthy, white, urban Presbyterian minister and her own experience as a black woman coming out of extreme poverty.

The other thing Maya Angelou said that moved me was when the two of us were being introduced by the friendly fellow I had made cry on the phone. I had given my lecture first, which was based, as I said, on my spiritual autobiography, and after I was done, this fellow introduced Maya, saying, “Ms. Angelou will now get up and tell you her story, and it will be a very different story from the one that you have just heard from Frederick Buechner.” As he said that, Maya Angelou, who was sitting in the front row and shaking her head from side to side, got up, and she said he was wrong. She said, “I have exactly the same story to tell as Frederick Buechner.”

I was very touched by that because in so many ways, what stories could be more different? I’m a man and she’s a woman, I’m white, she’s black, she grew up in dire poverty while by comparison I grew up with riches, though God knows we weren’t rich, and yet she said it’s the same story. And what she meant I think is that at a certain level we do, all of us, with all the differences, we do all have the same story. When it comes to the business of how do you become a human being, how do you manage to believe, how do you have faith in a world that gives you 14,000 reasons every week not to believe, how do you survive—especially surviving our own childhoods as Maya Angelou survived hers and we’ve all survived ours—at that level we all have the same story, and therefore anybody’s story can illuminate our own.

And that’s the only reason I have, the only justification, to tell you my story. Who gives a hoot about my story? But you can give a hoot about it because also it’s in many ways your story.

I don’t know how Maya Angelou’s work to bridge the distance of culture with the universality of story would go over today, but it was a striking moment for Beuchner nearly 40 years ago. I will leave you with another one of these stories, this one about an encounter Maya Angelou had with a friend–and, I think, an instance of The Remarkable Ordinary that Buechner is trying to draw out, the astonishing beauty within everyday life.

The most moving part of my time at Trinity happened after one of Maya’s lectures. There had been a number of questions and one person asked her a question about racism—has it gotten better, has it gotten worse, is it better in one place in the West Coast than the East Coast? And she had said, “Let me tell you a story.” She said she had been in the San Francisco Bay area fifteen years or so before to do a public television program on African art, and out of the blue one day she got a telephone call from a white man who told her that he had a collection of a certain kind of African statue and perhaps she would like to come over and look at them. So she went over and they were wonderful examples of whatever form of African art they were, and he lent them to her and she used them in ways that pleased him. Through this experience, they became great friends. She went to his house for dinner a number of times, got to know his wife, and Maya had them over to her place for dinner, and they were terrific pals. She said it had been one of the bright spots during her time there, and then the public television show was over and she went back to wherever it was she went. Time went by and about four or five years later she returned to the Bay Area, this time for a longer period of time. So right away she called up her friend, who told her he’d be delighted to see her again. He said, “Let me just catch you up on what I’ve been doing since I saw you last. I have been in Europe working on the problem with American troops over there. It’s not an easy row for them to hoe in a way,” he said, “and it’s especially hard for the black troops for obvious reasons. There aren’t too many blacks over there, but our boys are also having a hard—”

She interrupted him. “What did you say?”

“I said, in Europe it’s especially hard for the black troops, and that our boys are also—”

“What did you say?” She had interrupted him again, she told us, because she wanted him to hear it.

So again, “Well, the black troops . . .” and then he got it. “Oh my God! What have I said to you, of all people? The black troops . . . our boys. I’m so embarrassed I simply have to stop talking. I’m going to hang up. To say this to you, of all people.”

And Maya had said, “No, don’t. Don’t hang up. This is just the time we need to talk. This is what racism is beneath the level of liberal utterance and superficial friendship, the sort of deeply rooted sense of we and they, the whites, the blacks, the browns, the whatever it is.”

So they finished off their conversation agreeing that they would meet. Then she said after that she had tried to call him innumerable times and left messages of one kind or another, and there was never any response at all.

She told us that was the end, and when she had finished that question and answer time, she had been obviously very moved and sort of shaken by it. The next day she had started her lecture reflecting on this story about racism, saying, “As I left the room yesterday, a man stood up and said, ‘Here I am!’”

No sooner had these words left her lips when this small, bearded, white Episcopal clergyman suddenly stood up in our midst a few rows behind me and walked down the aisle, up onto the platform, and put his arms around her. He was, of course, her friend who had been too embarrassed to talk to her anymore. And she cried and he cried and all of us cried because we just got a glimpse of the kingdom of God. So moving. So gorgeous.

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The Remarkable Ordinary, with Frederick Buechner

A few weeks ago, I wrote about being “Enslaved to the Pressure of the Ordinary.” This was a quotation I found in The Screwtape Letters, and what I thought was a self-revelation I had during our COVID-19 lockdown and the “new normal” we have to face. This is what I wrote:

“for me, the strange self-revelation of 2020, is how much I am mourning the ordinary. I don’t want a new normal, I have come to realize. I want the old normal, the patterns and stirrings and possibilities of everyday life before the end of the world hit in early 2020”

Characteristically, it takes me more than a single try to find my words and ideas. This is one of the reasons I blog: sometimes you have to say something out loud to know if it is true. A number of people wrote to me, concerned that I was missing an essential part of life that they had recovered themselves. “The mundane can be beautiful,” one person assured me. Another reader wrote in and said:

“’Ordinary Life’ can be a good gift from God. It is when our clinging to or yearning for ordinary leads us to sin that is the danger. If we hold it loosely, if we are willing to accept whatever God brings us in each day, I am not certain it is wrong to appreciate and savor the good in the ordinary.”

I think this reader is on to something that is inside of me, though I would press it a little further. I do think that the “every day” can be a gift, can be beautiful in its very mundaneness. I like the image of holding the ordinary loosely, because what my self-revelation was about in 2020 was actually the enslavement to the normal that worried me. And reflection since has led me to realize that I learned more in 2020 than I had imagined.

For the last two decades, I have lived my life trying to resist the snares of “what everybody does,” shaping my vocational choices, my community service, and my family life as a kind of resistance to the white picket fence suburban picture of success I had imbibed as a child in the late 20th century. For a long time, that meant staying off the grid of socioeconomic culture, living a kind of vagabond lifestyle in various parts of the world. Since then, because we have made certain choices, I have been able to write and teach and study what I wanted–always with unhelpful pressure to pay the bills as a non-tenured, unsponsored public intellectual, but never finding ourselves disappearing into sheer necessity. Socially, spiritually, intellectually, religiously, environmentally, and economically, I have resisted the “normal.”

Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, I believe it to be immoral for most Christians to live a normal Canadian (or American, or Western European) lifestyle. Even if not immoral, how tepid to live one’s life according to the Baby Boomer washing out of the American Dream that has been handed down to us!

And yet, with all my rebel dress and revolutionary heart, COVID-19 hit and I found out how absolutely dependent I was upon the normal systems and patterns of our world. I now believe I have always misunderstood Mario Savio’s famous speech. He protested in 1964, crying out that

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart”

So sick at heart. That’s where my mind hung since I first heard those words, sampled in a song I now forget. How mind-numbingly, soul-destroyingly normal North American life seemed to me–enough to make me sick at heart, though I am not one of the oppressed. To be a cog in that machine that strains the last bit of life out of every person–no, of course, I mean every taxpayer. Sick at heart. Those words.

Yet I missed the part where Savio called us to cast our “bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels” of the machine, to allow our ragged flesh and crushed bones to jam the workings of the whole damned and damnable thing. 2020 has been that kind of year too, a year of disruption, of reflection about the systems we participate in and the ones we perpetrate. Though I have been trying to reconfigure the machine, I have not died upon it.

As this call for liberation echoes in my ears this year, it brings home even more clearly to me my desperate “attachment” to this world–to use a Buddhist image. In St. Paul’s words of Romans 12:2, I have aligned the schematic of my life to the world’s blueprint in ways I was never aware of. I think the two kinds of liberation are linked, that we cannot truly have that radically sacrificial, community-connected, love-infused liberation of Romans 12 as long as we are simply cogs in the machine of the world around us. That this world system is so liberating to many, so full of opportunity and beauty and potential for equality, only makes our unreflective submission to it even more nefarious.

Thus the normal kills–both in the individual soul as well as the systemic violence of bigotry and inefficiency and technocratic ends that match economic means.

And yet there is great beauty and grace and laughter here in the ordinary. This cup of coffee, the music in my ears, waking and laying down in warmth and love, children playing in the other room, the cat supervising my work, these books at my elbow and on my bedside, making love and sharing the sign of peace, mandarin oranges, arugula, cameras in our pockets, fat snowdrops on red and brown faces, beautiful eyes above non-medical masks, the season’s death and rebirth in the great turning of the world. Oh, the beauty that there is!

So when I wrote late last year about enslavement to the normal, I really was not rejecting all the little patterns we make in our jobs and families and friendships. Humans are liturgical beings, and I believe it is healthy for us to make little liturgies of the ordinary. Sometimes that ordinary is disrupted like it was in 2020. And in that disruption, I discovered patterns in myself that I could not recognize in the cross, which is the model of true life. For there is also a danger in the normal, the mundane, the everyday–as anyone who has been crushed by the machine of the world can tell us.

Intriguingly, even when kindhearted readers were challenging me about my understanding of the ordinary, I knew I was struggling with the words to say what I mean. Truly, I anticipated that I wasn’t quite capturing what I wanted to say even before I published my piece. So I picked up a book to read devotionally, Frederick Buechner‘s The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). Each year I select one of Buechner’s memoirs to reread, and The Remarkable Ordinary is very much reminiscent of those autobiographies. There are also echoes of key texts like The Alphabet of GraceA Room Called Remember, and Whistling in the Dark. In The Remarkable OrdinaryBuechner reads his life as a text. And in this story, he shows how the transformational moments in his life have not been grand miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary.

Admittedly, this tiny book is not a terrible tight collection. It pulls together some old lectures and some new material to help us recover or reimagine our relationship to mundane reality. However, with some imagination on our part, we can walk alongside Frederick Buechner as his memories and experiences show the little moments of grace in the daily routines and terrible surprises of life. To live my life going against the grain of the world’s systems–both in solidarity with those who suffer and for the health of my soul–does not mean that I reject the simple and lovely ordinary things in life. Indeed, I think that’s where my greatest strength comes from: the Spirit of God in my heart and at my elbow, at my desk and the dinner table, as I lay down to sleep and rise to walk in the road. So I am thankful for Frederick Buechner’s newest collection of ideas for reminding me of the liberation that comes in the normal moments of life.

This week, I will be blogging each day with a reflection from Frederick Buechner‘s The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life. You do not need to have read the book to enjoy these articles, but this is a text worth having.

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Texmoot 2021 Call for Papers and Conversations (Feb 13th, 2021)

One advantage of our online environment is that we now have some options for attending conferences that we would otherwise miss. On Feb 6th, for example, is the free Urbana Theological Seminary online Tolkien conference, with guest speakers Carlie W. Starr, Craig A. Boyd, Sarah Waters, and Matt Green. You can register here.

As part of the normal regional conference cycle of the “Moots” connected to Signum University is this year’s TexMoot. While would all like to go to the LoneStar state to talk about Tolkien’s non Middle-earth poetry, C.S. Lewis’ vision of the hnau, Madeleine L’Engle’s awkward bodies, physics and metaphysics in the Harry Potter world, anime and body image in Eastern Poland, aetherial love-making in Shakespeare, Ready Player Three: After the Apocalypse, or whatever nerds like you happen to be thinking about. In the meantime–and with some degree of perspective–the organizers of TexMoot have gone digital on Feb 13th, but rooted the theme in the idea of Embodiment. This happens to be the same Saturday as the first Tolkien Society Seminar of 2021–though the Seminar is pretty focussed on content, and the times overlap but are not the exact same. You can probably attend TexMoot and get some of the Seminar as a bonus. In any case, I thought I would share this opportunity with you all. They are not looking for full academic papers, exactly, but more like conversational teasers and provocative conversation starters. It looks like an intriguing day.

TexMoot 2021:
Signum University’s Fourth Annual Texas
Literature & Language Symposium

13 February 2021
in the Cyberverse

Do You Need Some Body to Love?

Signum University is pleased to announce its fourth annual Texas Literature & Language Symposium (aka “TexMoot”) on Saturday, February 13th, 2021, in the great universe of Internet, Texas. TexMoot will offer a gleeful gallimaufry of lively curated conversations, a keynote presentation, workshops, and lots of fellowship and social time. Plan ahead to enjoy this balanced blend of academic rigor and avid literary fandom. Stay tuned on the Announcements page and in our Facebook group for more information about special guests, optional pre-conference activities, workshop participation, and more. Visit our CFP page for info about how to submit a topic for discussion; the deadline is January 16th. Email with questions.


Registration for TexMoot 2021 costs $10 for students and $15 for everyone else. CLICK HERE to register now!

What is a “Moot”? 

The word “moot” refers to a meeting or legislative assembly and also the place in which that meeting is held. It’s from the Old English -mot, which could be appended to the end of a word, as in “Texmoot.” It was made famous by the “Entmoots” of the tree-shepherding Ents in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Signum University sponsors regional gatherings called “moots” throughout the year. These are times of academic conversation and fellowship that often include creative presentations and special guests. Although these conferences may vary in flavor, they are united by a love of stories and the people who read them.


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2020: A Year of Reading: The Nerd Bit, with Charts

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
~ C.S. Lewis “On Stories”

2020 was my first full year since 2013 when I was not a PhD student where it was my “job” to read and write about what I read. As someone who loves to read and write and teach, no doubt I stretched the definition of PhD student–as the 1,100 articles on this website can attest to. 2019 was a tonic year, where reading was a salve for the soul, an attempt at recover and quiet while still feeling the drive forward. 2020 was a much more normal year for me in terms of reading. I suppose that’s about the only normal thing about it! (see my reflections here and here) In particular, in 2020 I was able to set the book down when tired–or, especially, to turn the audiobook off. 2020 was much more about reading what I wanted to read than anything else. 

I feel like I am starting to heal from the damage of the PhD period, though 2020 has created its own wounds. This post is a chance for me to look back at the reading (and writing and teaching) year that was 2020 and to think ahead to 2021.

I had a few goals for 2020:

  • Ease off my reading to 120 books (averaging 320 pages/book)
  • Read 90 articles, shorts stories, essays, or other short pieces
  • Listen to or watch 10 lectures series or classes
  • Read one theological or devotional book each month
  • Achieve a 1:2 female:male ratio of authors (as I did in 2018 and 2019)

These goals for this year were really about:

  • reading for course prep, particularly in the Winter and Fall of 2020;
  • extending my reading of L.M. Montgomery‘s catalogue and secondary sources; and
  • enjoying books by reading what I wanted to read.

Really, honestly, 2020 was not very goal-oriented. That turned out to be a good thing!

So, how did I do?

After years of pushing myself to read more and longer books, 2020 was a good step back for me, both in terms of length and in the sheer number of books. 

I dropped from 154 to 133 books (134 books on my spreadsheet), reduced the length of the books (to 315 pages, from 323 in 2019 and 333 in 2020), and reduced my short pieces reading. That is still more books than I aimed at, and though I have read fewer short pieces, overall it is still a strong year.

In the manner of drawing a target around the arrow you have thrown, I feel like I met most of my individual goals for 2020. It was an unfocused year, but a literary year that I quite enjoyed from beginning to end.

As I did not plan for a global pandemic, between teaching schedules and research projects, my reading was seasonal in 2020, as it usually is:

  • Winter and Early Spring: I loved my teaching schedule in early 2020. I was teaching “Christianity and Literature” at Maritime Christian College, “Lewis and Tolkien” at Signum University, “The Fantasy and Fiction of C.S. Lewis” at the King’s College (NYC), and for the first time, “Japanese Religion and Culture” at the University of Prince Edward Island–which I co-opted as a literature and film class. Thus, I had an awesome semester: Milton’s Paradise Lost (with Lewis’ Preface to Paradise Lost), Dante’s Inferno (in a couple of translations), Charles WilliamsDescent Into Hell and some of his poetry, Frederick Buechner’s gorgeous fictional hagiography, Godric, most of Flannery O’Connor’s catalogue, Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, Walter Miller’s hilarious and troubling, A Canticle for Liebowitz, works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and a number of Tolkien works, including The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, the Tree & Leaf collection, and parts of the Middle-earth histories. This semester also gave me an opportunity to explore C.S. Lewis’ catalogue from the Ransom Cycle to Narnia to his less well-known jewels, like An Experiment in Criticism, The Weight of Glory, and Till We Have Faces, which I taught twice and created a blog series on. I also spent time exploring a number of texts about Japanese religion, history, and warfare, as well as the brilliant work of Haruki Murakami, Shūsaku Endō, and Makoto Fujimura
  • Late Spring and early Summer: Even though most of my conferences were cancelled in 2020, springtime was still a period of paper writing and academic reading, as my full list below can bear out. Most of my academic work was focused on C.S. Lewis and L.M. Montgomery, as I was finishing up one project and beginning another. But the spring also bears out my reading out of pure interest. In the spring, I began a good ole’ paperback reading of Harry Potter, which I am just now finishing in early 2021. I read Tolkien’s medieval translations, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, some writers on writing like Anne Lamott, and some nonfiction just for fun. In 2020, I was supervising a thesis on Octavia Butler, so spent the better part of the year reading my favourite of her works and some new materials, which was especially powerful for me in the spring and the summer.
  • Summer: My summer began with some intense research, but I did not go lean on reading for fun. I read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 for the first time, and encountered Nnedi Okorafor’s incredible Binti series. My estimation of Black women who write SF continues to rise, as I also spent a good deal of time getting to known Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which was an award-nominated book that includes Prince Edward Island in its fictional universe. It was a thin Canadian year, but I did read the work of Rebecca Rosenblum and Mark Sampson in the sunlit hours. Essays and nonfiction by N.T. Wright, David Foster Wallace, Verlyn Flieger, Annie Dillard, Huston Smith, James W. Sire, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Elizabeth Epperly also filled my spring and summertime reading. As I set C.S. Lewis aside for a season, my 2020 summer was filled with Lucy Maud Montgomery works, including successive rereads of Anne’s House of Dreams and her poetry, the Emily series, and the manuscript version of Anne of Green Gables—as well as a number of critical Montgomery articles, and biographies by Mary Henley Rubio and Liz Rosenberg.
  • Autumn and Early Winter: Autumn began early with vampires. This was for a simple reason: I taught the Folkloric Transformations course at Signum University in the fall, and I wanted to slowly read the material. This meant starting early. So I found myself reading Bram Stoker and those who study him at a campground, as well as classic texts like Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla, John Polidori, The Vampyre, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Christabel.” In August, I began rereading Anne Rice’s The Interview with the Vampire, and I have continued reading the series into 2021. There were quite a number of vampire and werewolf texts this fall, but my favourites were texts that were more vampiric than vampire tales, like Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre and her sister’s Wuthering Heights. I also read through Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Cycle this past year, beginning with Gilead in the winter and ending with the new release of Jack in the fall. And in the fall, following my great reread of Anne of Green Gables in the summer, I began reading through Montgomery’s fiction in published order. My nonfiction in the last half of 2020 has included a number of religious studies and worldviews texts because my teaching has been more foundational in that period.

Throughout the year I had a few projects and some nice unintended consequences:

  • This is the first year that science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy are the largest category. This is partly about the heavy lit teaching year, but also because I just wanted to read great books I love!
  • Actually, this was a light year for C.S. Lewis reading. Normally the ratio of Lewis books and Lewis studies books is about even, with few dozen articles and short pieces. This year, almost all my Lewis reads were his fiction and nonfiction books (23 of 27), and mostly in the first half of the year.
  • This was my most successful year in reading Montgomery’s books (and a couple of biographies, one full work of literary criticism, and a couple of dozen articles). It seems I traded Lewis for Montgomery in the second half of the year, which largely matches the academic projects I was working on.
  • I intended to read through Octavia Butler’s major novels, and did more than half.
  • I read through Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Cycle.
  • I wanted to get into classic literature, hoping to read about 1 per month. I came close.
  • I intended to read one theological or devotional book a month, and again came close.
  • It was a light Inklings year, mostly filled with Tolkien in the early part of the year. In 2021 I am reading The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Fall of Sauron

Here’s a pretty version of the same thing:

My final goal was to achieve a 1:2 ratio of women and men authors. This is tough to do when your primary author is male (C.S. Lewis), his primary partners are male (Tolkien and the Inklings), and my field has been largely male (theology). As I was extending more deeply into Montgomery studies, and reading through the catalogues of Octavia Butler, Marilynne Robinson–and added Harry Potter, Flannery O’Connor, and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles as well–I was confident I would surpass that ratio this year, and come much closer to gender parity. In that way, it was my best year yet. For entire books and in my reading as a whole, it was 54% men to 46% women, and for all my reading. In 2021, I suspect that will be closer to 60/40. 

There are limits to how effective tracking of reading by gender (or other categories) can be, but it is a helpful reminder for me. In 2020, I intentionally expanded my reading of Black women writers, with a total of 10 books.

The Goodreads app is kind of limited, though you can check out my 2020 infographic. They have a thousand possibilities for creating infographics including gender, language, geography, genre, and popularity, yet they choose not to give us that power. It gets worse every year. So, in my limited way, this year I also tracked books by era, with some mixed results. The charts are a bit lopsided as almost 3/4 of my book reading is since WWII–despite studying figures that were active in the “modernist” period, which was only 15% of my book reading. As my reading was a little less academic this year, the 2010s dominated less–and 2020 starts a new decade!


What does 2021 look like? As long as I’m doing literary scholarship, it will be weighted upon the last century, though Montgomery and Lewis scholarship has proliferated in this century. Looking ahead, once again the first half of the year is heavy with Lewis and the second half with Montgomery. Unusual for me, I have no literature classes this year, so things are completely open. I have some personal goals:

  • Complete a chronological reading of Montgomery’s major works, with journals and letters
  • Read one Shakespeare play a month
  • Reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Fall of Sauron
  • Read one theological or devotional book each month
  • Continue to extend my reading of Black women SF writers, critical race theory, and classics I have missed

Until next year, here is my old-fashioned reading excel sheet list. I wish I was infographically-inclined, but I do like lists! This is my list of reading from 2020. “CSL” below means “C.S. Lewis.” I’ve linked some of the blog posts that connect with the things I’ve read. Are any of these books or papers yours? If so, feel free to link my list. If you have your own year-end list or best-of blog, make sure you link it in the comments.

1 Jan 01 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia” and notes from “On Fairy-Stories” (1930s-1940s)
2 Jan 06 John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667-1674)
3 Jan 07 CSL, Out of the Silent Planet (1937)
4 Jan 10 CSL, A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942)
5 Jan 12 Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868)
6 Jan 13 CSL, An Experiment in Criticism (1960)
7 Jan 15 CSL, Of This and Other Worlds (1937-1962; 1982)
8 Jan 16 CSL, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1949)
9 Jan 20 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)
10 Jan 22 Corey Olsen, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (2012)
11 Jan 23 CSL, Perelandra (1943)
12 Jan 24 CSL, Prince Caspian (1950)
13 Jan 24 Selections from Elizabeth Rollins Epperly‘s The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance (1992; 2014)
14 Jan 24 Selections from H. Byron Earhart, Robert S. Ellwood, Richard Pilgrim, Simon Armitage, Jane Cowan Fredeman, Monika Hilder, Alana Vincent, Kirstie Blair and William V. Thompson, Sarah Wallingford, Seán Somers
15 Jan 25 Dante, Hell, trans. Robert Pinsky, foreword by John Freccero, notes by Nicole Pinsky (1308-1320; 1996)
16 Jan 27 Dante, Hell, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (1308-1320; 1949)
17 Jan 27 Thomas P. Kasulis, Shinto: The Way Home (2004)
18 Jan 31 Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell (1937)
19 Feb 01 Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (1996)
20 Feb 01 Scott Lewis, Japanese Mythology: Classic Stories of Japanese Myths, Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, and Monsters (2018) 
21 Feb 01 Charles Williams, “The Son of Lancelot” (1938)
22 Feb 04 CSL, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1950)
23 Feb 04 CSL, The Horse and His Boy (1953)
24 Feb 06 CSL, The Silver Chair (1951)
25 Feb 11 CSL, Till We Have Faces (1954)
26 Feb 12 Frederick Buechner, Godric (1980)
27 Feb 14 Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953)
28 Feb 15 Octavia E. Butler, Wild Seed (1980)
29 Feb 17 Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (1960)
30 Feb 18 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor” (1879)
31 Feb 20 CSL, The Last Battle (1953)
32 Feb 26 Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
33 Feb 28 Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (2016)
34 Feb 29 L.M. Montgomery, The Selected Journals Of L.M. Montgomery, Vol. 2: 1910-1921 (1988)
35 Feb 29 Selections by Brendan Wolfe, Josiah Peterson, Andrew Spencer, Louis Markos, Madeleine L’Engle, Tara Isabella Burton, Mimi Kramer, Warren Cole Smith, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Michael Abbaté, Randy Alcorn
36 Mar 01 Selections of Christine L. Norvell, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold–A Reading Companions (2017; 2020)
37 Mar 02 Shūsaku Endō, The Samurai (1980)
38 Mar 02 Shūsaku Endō, Silence (1966; 2016)
39 Mar 03 H. Byron Earhart, selections from Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity (1974)
40 Mar 06 Introduction of Herbert Bix, Introduction of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (2016)
41 Mar 07 John W. Dower, Introduction of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1999)
42 Mar 11 R.H.P. Mason & J.G. Caiger, A History of Japan (rev. ed., 1972; 1997)
43 Mar 12 CSL, The Magician’s Nephew (1953)
44 Mar 18 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (1977)
45 Mar 19 Octavia Butler, Mind of My Mind (1977)
46 Mar 20 Mark J. Ravina, Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (2000)
47 Mar 20 Robert Ellwood, Japanese Religion (2007)
48 Mar 22 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth,” selections from Morgoth’s Ring (1960s-70s; 1993)
49 Mar 24 CSL, The Great Divorce (1944-45)
50 Mar 25 Leo Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886)
51 Mar 26 Corey Olsen, w. Sørina Higgins, Lewis & Tolkien (2014)
52 Mar 26 Mary Beard, “Facing Death with Tolstoy” (2013)
53 Mar 28 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
54 Mar 28 A.A. Milne, “In Which Piglet Is Entirely Surrounded by Water” (1926)
55 Mar 30 Selections from Grayson Carter, Andrew Cuneo, Sparrow F. Alden, Hugh McLean, Nicholas Lezard, Nelson Goering
56 Apr 01 CSL, The Last Battle (1953)
57 Apr 02 J.R.R. Tolkien, Tales from the Perilous Realm, 2d ed. w. Tom Shippey preface (2008)
58 Apr 03 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (1939-47; 1956; 1980)
59 Apr 03 CSL, “The Grand Miracle” (1945)
60 Apr 04 Selections from Jonathan B. Himes, Barbara L. Prescott, Josiah Peterson, Josh Wimmer, Reggie Weems, Gale Watkins, Charlie W. Starr, Jo Walton, Jennifer Neyhart, Kevin Belmonte, John A. Stoler, John Keats, Walter Blake, Russell Hillier, Chris Gehrz, Jesse Russell, Harold K. Bush, Charles Andrews, Ray Horton, Andrew Connolly, Kenneth Paradis, Andrew S. Jacobs, Joel B. Green, Leon Morris, Cyril of Alexandria, John Craddock, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Mark R. Mullins, Nate Silver
61 Apr 05 Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)
62 Apr 09 CSL, Perelandra (1943)
63 Apr 12 Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
64 Apr 13 CSL, That Hideous Strength (1945)
65 Apr 17 L.M. Montgomery, “Each In His Own Tongue” (1910)
66 Apr 17 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle” (1945)
67 Apr 18 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Of Beren and Lúthien” (1917-2017)
68 Apr 18 Marilynne Robinson, Home (2008)
69 Apr 20 N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2007)
70 Apr 21 Jerry L. Walls, “Narnia and the Enchanment of Philosophy” (2005)
71 Apr 21 Elizabeth R. Epperly, “Chivalry and Romance: L.M. Montgomery’s Re-vision of the Great War in Rainbow Valley” (1993)
72 Apr 22 Alan R. Young, “L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside (1920): Romance and the Experience of War” (1993) 
73 Apr 25 Benjamin Lefebvre, “Pigsties and Sunsets: L. M. Montgomery, A Tangled Web, and a Modernism of Her Own (2005), with readings from Montgomery’s novel
74 Apr 29 CSL, Till We Have Faces (1954)
75 Apr 30 Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass (late 2nd c.; 1998)
76 Apr 30 Selections from Charlie W. Starr, Jacob Sherman, Bradford Lee Eden, Stephanie Derrick, Grayson Carter, Arend Smilde, Laura Smit, Gary Tandy, Harry Lee Poe, Andrew Stout
77 May 01 Ernest Cline, Ready Player One (2011)
78 May 01 Mickey Corso, “The Lady and Our Lady: Galadriel as a “Reflexion” of Mary” (2020)
79 May 02 CSL, The Four Loves (1959)
80 May 07 Alana Vincent, selections from The Consequences of Imagination: Holocaust Memory and Political Fantasy (2020)
81 May 08 Justin Keena, “C.S. Lewis’s Rooms at Keble College” (2020)
82 May 12 Maxine Hancock, As We Are Known: Representations of the Evangelical Experience in Literature of the 20th & 21st Centuries (2004)
83 May 12 Michael L. Peterson, C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview (2020)
84 May 13 Selections from Dan Nosowitz, John M. Barry, Crystal Hurd, Joel Heck, Kate Kinast, Jared Lobdell, Miroslav Volf, Tara Isabella Burton, Justin Keena, Paul W. Bennett, Hannah Karena Jones, ChrisC, Laura Portwood-Stacer, Katelyn Knox, Dianne Brydon, David C. Downing, Sanford Schwartz, John Haigh, Heather Walton, Elaine Graham
85 May 13 William Germano, From Dissertation to Book (2005) 
86 May 15 John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline & Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-45 (1970)
87 May 16 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
88 May 19 Virgina Woolf, “Street Haunting A London Adventure” (1927)
89 May 21 John Hatcher, The Black Death: A Personal History (2008)
90 May 23 Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (2009)
91 May 27 Lauren Spohn, “‘Further Up and Further In’: Roads, Pilgrim’s Regress, and Sehnsucht on Earth and in Heaven” (2019)
92 May 28 Selections from Bryan Walsh, Geoffrey Skelley, Bruce Johnson, Kathryn Lindskoog, David Downing, Jared Lobdell, Sanford Schwarts, Charlie Starr, Courtney Petrucci, Adam Mattern, Lauren Spohn, Arend Smilde, Joel Heck, Jon Emont, Monika Hilder, Walter Hooper, Geoffrey Skelley, Likhitha Butchireddygari
93 May 29 Jane Austen, Emma (1815)
94 May 29 CSL, selections from The Screwtape Letters (1941-42)
95 May 29 CSL, selections from Perelandra (1943)
96 May 30 J.R.R. Tolkien, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo (1400; 1979)
97 Jun 01 Audrey Albertson, “Cage and the Timepiece” (2020)
98 Jun 01 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
99 Jun 02 Jonathan Swift, “A Modest Proposal” (1729)
100 Jun 04 Tami Van Opstal, “Perelandran Diction: A Study in Meaning” (2013)
101 Jun 04 Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling (2005)
102 Jun 07 Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message (2000)
103 Jun 08 Octavia Butler, Clay’s Ark (1984)
104 Jun 09 Unknown (Peer Review), “The Ten C.S. Lewises: Prolegomena to the Study of Lewis” (2020)
105 Jun 10 Selections from Ellen Meloy, Justin Keena, Charles Jones, Hans-Friedrich Mueller, Jane Urquhart, David Downing, Gregory Wolfe, Donald Glover, Catherine Sheldrake Ross and Åsa Warnqvist, Annie Nardone, Ann Cowan, Perry Bacon Jr. and Meredith Conroy
106 Jun 11 Adam Roberts, “Mithraic Narnia” (2020)
107 Jun 13 Marilynne Robinson, Lila (2014)
108 Jun 13 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (2004)
109 Jun 15 Octavia Butler, Patternmaster (1976)
110 Jun 15 Liz Rosenberg, House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery (2018)
111 Jun 15 L.M. Montgomery, “The Life-Book of Uncle Jesse” (1909)
112 Jun 16 Lisa DeTora, “In After Years: Retrospection and the Great War in the Work of L. M. Montgomery” (2000) 
113 Jun 16 Laura Robinson, “Kindred Spirits: Kinship and the Nature of Nature in Anne’s House of Dreams and The Blue Castle” (2018)
114 Jun 16 William V. Thompson, “The Shadow on the House of Dreams: Montgomery’s Re-Visioning of Anne” (2016)
115 Jun 16 L.M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams (1917)
116 Jun 17 L.M. Montgomery, The Watchman and Other Poems (1916)
117 Jun 18 N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (2006)
118 Jun 22 Jens Hieber, “Negotiated Symbiosis: Power, Identity, and Community in the Works of Octavia E. Butler” (2020)
119 Jun 23 Selections from Sørina Higgins, Kutter Callaway, Susan Drain, Elizabeth R. Epperly, Raymond E. Jones, Jonathan Y. Tan, Linda Hutcheon, Leonard R. Mendelsohn, Nancy Huse, Hildi Froese Tiessen, Brenda Niall, Ashley Cowger, Katharine Slater, Marah Gubar, T.D. MacLulich, Jackie E. Stallcup, Emily Woster, Ashley Cowger 
120 Jun 23 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
121 Jun 25 Stephen King, 11/22/63 (2013)
122 Jun 27 Nnedi Okorafor, Binti (2015)
123 Jun 29 L.M. Montgomery, Akin to Anne (1896-1933; 1988)
124 Jul 01 Nnedi Okorafor, Home (2017)
125 Jul 05 Nnedi Okorafor, Night Masquerade (2018)
126 Jul 07 Charlie W. Starr, The Faun’s Bookshelf: C. S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters (2018)
127 Jul 10 David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (1992-2005)
128 Jul 10 Veryln Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (1983; 2002)
129 Jul 12 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (1999)
130 Jul 15 Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy (1817)
131 Jul 16 Carol Gerson, “Seven Milestones: How Anne of Green Gables Became a Canadian Icon” (2010)
132 Jul 16 Irene Gammel, “Introduction: Reconsidering Anne’s World” (2010)
133 Jul 17 L.M. Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill (1937)
134 Jul 17 Irene Gammel and Elizabeth Epperly, “L.M. Montgomery and the Shaping of Canadian Culture” (1999)
135 Jul 26 Rebecca Rosenblum, So Much Love (2017) 
136 Jul 27 Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (1958; 1991)
137 Jul 28 Diane Tye, “Women’s Oral Narrative Traditions as Depicted in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Fiction, 1918-1939” (1993)
138 Jul 29 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1975)
139 Jul 31 Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019)
140 Aug 01 James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 4th ed. (1973; 2004)
141 Aug 01 Selections from Christopher Partridge, Tim Dowley et al., Introduction to World Religions (3rd ed., 2018)
142 Aug 03 L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon (1923)
143 Aug 09 Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire (1976)
144 Aug 10 Dante, Purgatory, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (1308-1320; 1955)
145 Aug 12 Carole Gerson, “‘Dragged at Anne’s Chariot Wheels’: The Triangle of Author, Publisher, and Fictional Character” (1999)
146 Aug 12 Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014)
147 Aug 16 L.M. Montgomery, Emily Climbs (1925)
148 Aug 19 L.M. Montgomery, Emily’s Quest (1927)
149 Aug 22 L.M. Montgomery, Carolyn Strom Collins, ed., Anne of Green Gables: The Original Manuscript (1908; 2019)
150 Aug 25 J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla (1872)
151 Aug 27 David J. Skal, Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula (2015)
152 Aug 27 Owen Dudley Edwards and Jennifer H. Litster, “The End of Canadian Innocence: L.M. Montgomery and the First World War” (1999)
153 Aug 28 Peter Straub, A Dark Matter (2010)
154 Aug 28 Charles Franklyn Beach, “Some Thoughts on the Poetry of C.S. Lewis” (2020)
155 Aug 29 Mary Henley Rubio, “L.M. Montgomery: Scottish Presybterian Agency in Canadian Culture” (1999)
156 Aug 29 Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, “Afterword” to the Signet edition of Anne of Green Gables (1987)
157 Aug 31 Selections from Simone Nelles, Sylvia DuVernet, Emma Battell Lowman, Andrea McKenzie, Mahmoud Ali Manzalaoui, N.T. Wright, Laura Robinson, Dale Nelson, Monika Hilder, Lee Drutman, Geoffrey Skelley and Nathaniel Rakich, Elena Mejia and Geoffrey Skelley, Joe R. Christopher, Steven Brocklehurst, Don Pittis
156 Sep 01 Mary Henley Rubio, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (2008)
157 Sep 03 William Bascom, “The Forms of Folklore” (1965)
158 Sep 03 Dimitra Fimi, “Hobbit Songs and Rhymes: Tolkien and the Folklore of Middle-earth” (2009)
159 Sep 04 Alan Dundes et al. The Vampire: A Casebook (1998)
160 Sep 05 John Polidori, The Vampyre (1819)
161 Sep 07 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Christabel” (1797-1800; 1816)
162 Sep 09 Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897) 
163 Sep 17 Jens Hieber, “Negotiated Symbiosis: Power, Identity, and Community in the Works of Octavia E. Butler” (2020)
164 Sep 17 Max Hamon, “Success/Failure? Louis Riel and the History of Policing Canada” (2020)
165 Sep 22 Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat (1985) 
166 Sep 30 L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea (1909)
167 Sep 30 Selections from Meredith Conroy and Nathaniel Rakich, Emily Chung, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Geoffrey Skelley, Sheri-Marie Harrison, Nathaniel Rakich, Caryn Ganz, Alex Usher, Harry Lee Poe, Max Hamon, Tood Webb, Russell L. Almon
168 Sep 30 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
169 Oct 04 Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark (2001)
170 Oct 13 Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories (1979)
171 Oct 15 Selections from Charles Perrault, The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, including the biographical introduction by Thomas Bodkin (1697; 1993)
172 Oct 18 CSL, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1949)
173 Oct 18 CSL, The Screwtape Letters (1940-42; 1959; 1982)
174 Oct 21 Norbert Feinendegen, selections of Reason to Believe (2020)
175 Oct 21 Mark Sampson, All the Animals on Earth (2020)
176 Oct 23 Marilynne Robinson, Jack (2020)
177 Oct 25 Anne Rice, The Queen of the Damned (1988)
178 Oct 25 Louise Bernice Halfe, Burning In This Midnight Dream (2016)
179 Oct 28 L.M. Montgomery, Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910)
180 Oct 29 Francesca Lia Block, “Wolf” (2000)
181 Oct 31 Richard Matheson, I Am Legend and Other Stories (1951-89)
182 Oct 31 Selections from Amir Hussain et al, Eric Feltham and Nicholas A. Christakis, Joshua Lawson, Nate Silver, Geoffrey Skelley and Anna Wiederkehr, Marcie Hatter, Ana Mardoll, Richard Beck, Matthew Rettino, Robert C. Stroud, Monika Hilder, Matt O’Reilly, Mark R. Cohen, James Carroll, Christopher A. Snyder, Stewart Goetz, Frank V. Bellizzi, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, Jasmine Mithani and Laura Bronner, Julia Azari
183 Nov 01 Otto Penzler, Kim Newman, et al. The Vampire Archives (18th-21st c.; 2009)
184 Nov 04 Roald Dahl, Revolting Rhymes & Dirty Beasts (2001)
185 Nov 05 Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908)
186 Nov 05 Catherine Storr, “Clever Polly,” “Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf,” “Little Polly Riding Hood” and other stories (2007)
187 Nov 05 Julia Donaldson, The Trial of Wilf Wolf (2002)
188 Nov 05 Anthony Browne, Into the Forest (2004)
189 Nov 12 David Baggett et al., C.S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness and Beauty (2008)
190 Nov 14 Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)
191 Nov 18 Phyllis A. Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (2008)
192 Nov 19 Malise Ruthven, Islam: A Very Short Introduction (1997)
193 Nov 19 Dimitra Fimi, “Folkloric Transformations: Vampires and Big Bad Wolves” (2016)
194 Nov 22 Caroline Leaf, Switch on Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health (2007; 2013)
195 Nov 30 Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (2000)
196 Nov 30 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
197 Nov 30 Selections by Andrew Lazo, Nate Silver, Nathaniel Rakich, Clare Malone, Perry Bacon, Jr., Timothy Dalrymple, Ted Olsen, Tim McDonnell, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, Adam Miller and Amina Zafar
198 Nov 30 Carolyn Strom Collins, introduction to After Many Years: Twenty-One “Long Lost” Stories by L.M. Montgomery (2017)
199 Dec 07 L.M. Montgomery, Chronicles of Avonlea (1912)
200 Dec 07 Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (1963)
201 Dec 08 Alan Duncan, “Gilbert and Jack: What C.S. Learned Reading G.K. Chesterton” (2020)
202 Dec 09 Walter Hooper, Mary Anne Phemister, Marjorie Lamp Mead, etc., some selections from Mere Christians: Inspiring Stories of Encounters (2018)
203 Dec 09 Andrew Cuneo, “Introduction: Oxford, 1963, and a Young Boswell” (2011)
204 Dec 13 Walter Hooper, “Editing C.S. Lewis” (2008)
205 Dec 18 L.M. Montgomery, “Christmas at Red Butte” and various Christmas short stories
206 Dec 20 L.M. Montgomery, The Story Girl (1911)
207 Dec 20 Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (2020)
208 Dec 22 Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (1986)
209 Dec 27 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)
210 Dec 28 Sean O’Hare, “Our Hearts in Ink” (2020)
211 Dec 29 Frederick Buechner, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017)
212 Dec 31 Andrew J. Spencer, ed., The Christian Mind of C.S. Lewis (2019)
213 Dec 31 Selections from Walter Hooper, Alexander Panetta, Geoffrey Skelley, Elena Mejía, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Laura Bronner, Neil Paine, Kathleen Mawhinney, Heather Thomson, Julie A Sellers, Mary Beth Cavert, Éric Grenier, Maya Angelou, Nathaniel Rakich, Gabriele Greggersen, Ross Benes, John Milton
214 Dec 31 Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995; 2005)

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2020: My Year in Books: The Infographic

Happy New Year everyone! I will have some fun putting together the data in an upcoming post, including some new charts. I love charts. Meanwhile, I wanted to share the Goodreads “My Year in Books” infographic. I’m pleased to say that I met my goals this year, and exceeded them. You can see the online infographic here., but this post covers the basics.

Well shucks, thanks for the encouragement Goodreads! However, this is the first year that I have slipped back in reading–and I doubt that I’ll ever repeat my 2019 success again. 

However, in terms of sheer page numbers and books, I did pretty well. Goodreads tracked 133 books (my spreadsheet shows 134), and 41,995 pages, which is 21 books and nearly 8,000 pages fewer than last year. In 2020, I saw a drop in books as well as a drop in the size of books, down to 315 pages/book.

My average book rating is 4.2 stars–which is normal for me. I rate books too highly, I know. It comes from my years ranking music, where 5 stars goes to songs I want to hear most often, and so on. To be fair, I try not to read books that warrant 1, 2, or even 3 stars. My DNF pile is relatively high, but I also tend to read great authors–C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, L.M. Montgomery, Frederick Buechner, Octavia Butler, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, Shūsaku Endō, Madeleine L’Engle, Anne Rice, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Haruki Murakami, and great discoveries this year like Alix Harrows and Nnedi Okorafor. Great authors that I love like Stephen King have some stinkers in their book basket, but generally when I am reading for interest or enjoyment, I stick with the best. Intriguingly, the highest rating on Goodreads book is one of my lowest rated of 2019 (a mixed collection with some good essays in it).

Here is the rest of the infographic and stay tuned for more next week!


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The Top New Posts of 2020 on A Pilgrim in Narnia

2020 was the busiest year ever on A Pilgrim in Narnia! And by a pretty big margin. In 2020, we topped 1,000 posts, blew past our 1,000,000th page view, and passed 200,000 hits in a single year for the first time. It was a busy autumn, with November breaking the all-time monthly hit record, which was then broken again in December. All but one of the busiest months in the website’s history were in 2020–this despite there not being a single “hot post” like my nerdy “How to Read All of C.S. Lewis’ Essays” 2017 piece, my 2015 article, “The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life,” or Kat Coffin’ “How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie?” in 2019 and the follow-up articles (like this one and this one). Kat’s piece is actually one of the top 5 most popular Lewis & Inklings posts ever.

Blog activity continues to grow, despite having reduced weekly content a little over the last couple of years (to about two posts per week, including announcements). The one metric where activity was down a bit was in network connections (likes and comments). I think that has to do with normal trends in blogging, an increased use of Facebook and Twitter for conversations, and the lack of a “hot post.” However, I did lose my cool with a commenter early in 2019 and stepped back from website conversations a bit, which I think is also a factor.

Overall, what the statistical story tells is that A Pilgrim in Narnia is now simply one of the trusted resources on the Internet for resources on the intersection of faith, fantasy, and fiction in conversation with writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, the Inklings, L.M. Montgomery, and contemporary fantasy and SF writers. Older, substantial pieces of writing continue to be read over and over again by visitors to A Pilgrim in Narnia, including “The Deeper Meaning of The Great Divorce,” “Harold Bloom’s Canon: The Essential List,” “The Planets” in C.S. Lewis’ Writing,” and Narnia posts, like “The Real Order to Read Narnia: A Third Way,” “A Timeline for the Creation of Narnia,” “Good Political Leadership According to Narnia” (worth revisiting given 2020), and the one more scholars should read, “Is Narnia an Allegory?

Those are the old posts that keep respinning. This year’s top posts are very event connected, capturing COVID-19, some focal points in my scholarship, and the loss of key figures in 2020, like Walter Hooper and Christopher Tolkien. Here is my list of the top 6 newly written articles of 2020, with some honourable mentions. Many thanks to all you great readers and sharers of material in 2020. I receive absolutely no pay or support for this website, so reaching readers is the main reward. Best wishes in 2021!

#6. The World as a “Vale of Soul-Making”: A Brief Note on John Keats, C.S. Lewis, and L.M. Montgomery click here

As I describe in this year-end post, 2020 was a big period for me in my work with Prince Edward Island writer, Lucy Maud Montgomery. In 2020, after years of writing and editing, my first Montgomery studies peer-reviewed paper was published. This was my literary-critical piece, “Rainbow Valley as Embodied Heaven: Initial Explorations into L.M. Montgomery’s Spirituality in Fiction,” published in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies (see here). A second piece, “Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams,” won the 2020 Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper (see here, including the description of my piece)–and I have the draft open now for revisions for a 2021 publication in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies. And 2020 also saw the launch of the MaudCast, the official Podcast of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, which I produce and host. It was a big Montgomery year, and I have plans for more.

As I postponed my spring 2020 L.M. Montogmery series, I published fewer Montgomery articles on A Pilgrim in Narnia in the past year. Most of my writing on Montgomery still exists as abstracts for unwritten papers and scattered notes. But I did work up this 6th most popular Pilgrim piece, “The World as a ‘Vale of Soul-Making,'” where I take a great moment from Rainbow Valley and show its possible ur-text in John Keats. Like young Faith Meredith in Rainbow Valley, it seems that C.S. Lewis’ philosophy of joy wants to challenge the idea that life is a “vale of tears.” However, Lewis does think that, whether Keats understood it or not, the world is a valley fit for soulcraft. My work argues that Montgomery’s fiction is built in that way, and this little piece gives a hint of that possibility.

HarperCollins Signature Edition#5. My Paper, “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters,” Published in Mythlore click here

It is unusual for academic posts to get much traction–much less, a post that points the reader to a long peer-reviewed paper. However, this post represents 8 years of archival and literary-critical work on The Screwtape Letters and its place within what I call The Ransom Cycle–C.S. Lewis’ WWII-era experiment in speculative fiction. Mythcon was where I first launched my discovery that it was Dr. Ransom of the aptly misnamed “Space Trilogy” who was the discoverer and translator of the tutorial (and anti-tutelary) epistles by the senior demon, Screwtape. So it was with great pleasure that my most substantial piece, “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters,” was published in Mythlore in autumn 2020. This post celebrates the publication, provides a summary of my findings, and makes links to the resources you will need to follow the story. 

Not completely disconnected, 2020 also saw the publication of “The Archangel Fragment and C.S. Lewis’s World-Building Project,” which I co-wrote with Lewis handwriting specialist, teacher, novelist, and all-around good guy, Charlie W. Starr.

#4. The Legacy of Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’ Better Than Boswell click here

In early December, following a credible social media announcement and news that he had been sick, I announced on my blog that Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’ Literary Secretary, Has Died (1931-2020). Like Christopher Tolkien of his father’s work, Walter Hooper has been a critical resource for Lewis readers. While there have been many hands at the task, no other figure has been as important to the Narnian’s literary legacy as Walter Hooper. Through the curation and editing of letters, essays, stories, and pieces nearly lost to time, we have a wealth of inexpensive and constantly-in-print materials. Readers and fans of C.S. Lewis are deeply in debt to Walter Hooper for nearly six decades of literary work.

It took me a few days to write the piece, but I was finally able to publish “The Legacy of Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’ Better Than Boswell.” As I had only met Walter a couple of times and there have been plenty of great tributes, I wanted to do something different. In this longer article, I assess Walter Hooper’s positive legacy for C.S. Lewis studies. In this resource-rich piece with select bibliography, I consider Hooper as a Compiler, Archivist, Anthologist, Editor, Publisher, Preface-writer, and Mentor. While it would have been interesting to have someone who was an intimate biographer of C.S. Lewis’ life and letters, like Boswell of Johnson, what we got–what Walter Hooper developed into–was a resource more helpful for a broad community of readers. There is more to say about Walter Hooper’s legacy, but this is the piece I worked the hardest on in late 2020, and within 2 weeks it became one of the top posts of the year. 

#3. It is Easy to Teach C.S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces,” but It’s Hard to Blog About It click here

Before the most recent end of the world, I began 2020 with a series on Till We Have Faces. This was original work that came out of a winter semester where I was teaching the text twice. I used this opportunity to do some writing about Till We Have Faces–the first time I had done anything substantial with the text in eight years of writing about Lewis.

Though I am always nudging readers to see The Great Divorce as C.S. Lewis’ most genius work of fiction, Till We Have Faces truly is a remarkable novel. It is the dying-days journal of Orual, Queen of Glome, who sues her capricious gods for their unfair treatment of her. The writing is elegant, the portrait is intimate, the transformational element is intricately tied to the psychological development in Orual’s tale, and the fictional world is complete. I know of many people who resist Lewis’ work but who admit that Till We Have Faces is among the 20th century’s important novels.

Perhaps because of its honesty about my hesitation to write about such a complex and layered novel, but most likely because it works as a front-page to my other articles, this series introduction piece was the 3rd most popular new post of 2020. Here are the others in the series:

#2. Christopher Tolkien, Curator of Middle-earth, Has Died, and a Letter from His Father click here

In January 2020, the last living Inkling passed away. In terms of literary creativity and scholarship, Christopher John Reuel Tolkien (21 Nov 1924 to 15 Jan 2020) may well have been overshadowed by his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. While it is true that his father was the subcreative genius of a vast, sweeping legendarium associated with the bestselling Lord of the Rings, Christopher Tolkien grew to become the literary curator of that world. At a rate of a book every year or two, Christopher Tolkien provided us two dozen collections of incomplete works, background materials, archival pieces, and translations–writing from the Professor that most of us would never have seen otherwise. 

I have tried other words for Tolkien’s sharp editorial eye and tireless work: custodian, guardian, conservator, gift-giver. In the end, “curator” stuck for me. For this gift to the lovers of Middle-earth and fans of Tolkien’s linguistically rooted mythic worlds, we are forever grateful.

#1. Superinfection, COVID-19, and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces click here

Perhaps it is not a huge surprise that in 2020, a COVID-related post was #1. How often have we heard the word “unprecedented” in those pandemic-stricken months? 

What I particularly liked about this post, however, is its core literary-critical argument and the way that context helped me read in new ways. While I did push back against COVID deniers in the piece (see here and here as well), it was reading Till We Have Faces while learning about the social and historical realities of plagues that triggered a new discovery for me. Never before did I see how Lewis used the plague as the structural event to trigger the critical moments in Orual’s story. While there are a series of key events that are the critical supports of the story–like pillars in a temple–none is more important than the pestilence that inhabits the land of Glome. COVID-19 helped me see this social moment in the text and ask new questions–including some about Lewis’ own experiences.

Thus, however terrible COVID-19, lockdowns, and 2020 has been in general, I am constantly reminded of how our contexts can help us become better readers.

Some Honourable Mentions

The Top Guest Post, hands down, belongs to Justin Keena, and his detailed and interesting paper on “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Friendship, True Myth, And Platonism.” This is the first time a detailed academic piece received much traffic, so I congratulate Justin on his work!

The Top Post on a Classic Piece was “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” by Virginia Woolf, a nice discovery for me in 2020 and a great urban read at any time.

The Top Shared Resource was, again without much competition, “Neil Gaiman on Discovering the Author in Narnia (and a note on beards).” Of my “Friday Feature” notes, Throwback Thursdays, and occasional other discoveries and announcements, this personal video by Neil Gaiman was the most popular among fans. Someday I’m going to have to sit down and have a chat with this fellow.

The Top Video of 2020 was “A Canticle for Leibowitz: A 10 Minute Book Talk with Brenton Dickieson,” which I share with you here.

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