The Mantra of Jabez: Break on Though to the Other Side
Douglas M. Jones
Canon Press, 2001
60 pp., $7.00
4. The Fall & Other Poems, by J. Bottum (Saint Augustine's Press). You may know Jody Bottum from his essays and reviews in The Weekly Standard (where he is Books & Arts editor), The Wall Street Journal, First Things, and many other publications, including Books & Culture; he's also the host of a nationally syndicated radio program, Book Talk. And he's a superb poet, as this first collection demonstrates (surely the only book ever to be blurbed by Dana Gioia, Michael Novak, Christopher Hitchens, and David Brooks). Three qualities distinguish his poems: moral passion, musicality, and wit. You will meet at least one of these virtues in a fair number of contemporary poets (musicality is the hardest to find), and some poets give evidence of two out of three, but to find the whole package in a single poet is rare indeed. See for example one of my favorite poems in the book, "Love in Boston," from which I'll quote the opening stanza:
The college girls wore black this spring,
army camouflage and green
and the kind of high-top sneaks
Bob Cousy wore to play the Knicks.
I asked them why they dressed this way,
but Love is dead is all they'd say.
From here the poem moves without a false step to a conclusion in an entirely different register. But you'll have to look that up yourself, along with "Modern Catholic Verse," a devastating review cast in the form of a poem, and much more. (Saint Augustine's Press, based in South Bend, Indiana, is a discerning publisher both of new books and reissues of classic texts, with a special emphasis on philosophy; the Fall 2001 list, for example, includes a collection of early essays by Leszek Kolakowski, translated into English for the first time.)
5. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850, by Brian Fagan (Little, Brown). Brian Fagan is an archaeologist—editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology—and the author of many popular works of history and archaeology. Don't be misled by the subtitle of his latest book, which must have been dreamed up by an editor with a taste for hype: Fagan is no environmental determinist. But he does argue the eminently reasonable thesis that changes in climate frequently have historical consequences. In doing so he emphasizes a part of the story that was largely neglected in the history I studied in school. The period known as the Little Ice Age was bracketed on one end by the Medieval Warm Period, roughly A.D. 900 to 1300 (during which Greenland was settled), and on the other end by the era of global warming that began in the mid-nineteenth century and that shows no signs of abating. And within each of these periods there were significant and sometimes catastrophic fluctuations in temperature and climate more generally. "Climate change," Fagan observes, "does not come in gentle, easy stages. It comes in sudden shifts from one regime to another—shifts whose causes are unknown to us and whose direction is beyond our control." He adds that this remains true today, despite the enormous increase in our understanding of the natural world.
6. The Mantra of Jabez: Break on Through to the Other Side, by Douglas M. Jones (Canon Press). It was July in Atlanta, site of the annual convention of the Christian publishing industry, and wherever I looked there was Jabez: Jabez mugs and keychains, Jabez neckties, even the Jabez fish (the familiar early Christian symbol, with the name "Jabez" spelled out inside the fish)—not to mention the stacks of official Jabez books and videos and the brazen Jabez knockoffs. Surrounded by this monstrous spawn of Jabezian enterprise, I happened on the booth of Canon Press and The Mantra of Jabez, a blessed parody which I downed in one gulp. I can do no better than repeat what I said about the book last summer: it is a mixture of delightful mimicry, Swiftian-strength theological satire, and inspired silliness in the great Monty Python tradition. Read it and be refreshed.
7. Medieval Children, by Nicholas Orme (Yale University Press). For some time now, beginning in the 1960s, scholars have asserted that the family as commonly understood is in fact a relatively recent cultural development. And along the same lines, we've been told that "childhood" is a construct of the modern era. Such arguments, of course, are ideologically freighted. If family and childhood as conventionally understood are merely transitory cultural constructs, there's no reason to lament their passing, no reason to regard them as normative. But a number of scholars have challenged this consensus. In a series of important studies, Steven Ozment has traced deep continuities between the premodern and the modern family—see for example his book Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe (Harvard University Press), published earlier this year. What Ozment has done for the history of the family Nicholas Orme does for childhood in his wise and learned book, Medieval Children. Their world was in many ways different from ours, and that is part of the reason we are curious to learn about them, but they were also children like our own, and regarded as such by their parents. Contrary to the assertions of historians such as the influential Philippe Aries, who claimed that "in medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist," medieval people, Orme writes, clearly "had concepts of what childhood was, and when it began and ended." He recreates the life of medieval children in rich detail, including their diet, their toys, and their education. His book is a delight to read, and superbly illustrated.