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G.K. Chesterton

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It’s Thursday morning, which at least means it’s Friday tomorrow.  And I’ve got three student papers to print out, even though I’ve told them I’d rather have the hard copy even if it has to be a class late.  And I’m tired, which is inevitable this time of the week.  And I’ve got a lot of running around to do.

But none of that explains why I didn’t just pick out the next Agatha Christie novel from my stack and go with that, especially since I’ve been on something of a Christie jag, lately.

What I did pick out was a copy of G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics, a book I’ve had hanging around the house forever and that I’ve never read.  I’ve also had Chesterton’s Orthodoxy hanging around the house forever–in a companion volume, so that the formats are identical and the covers are nearly so–and I’ve never read that either.

Chesterton is one of those writers who have been recommended to me over and over again through the years, both by people I like personally and by writers I like to read.  He’s certainly the motherlode fountain of quotations if you’re writing a book with a crime in it.

I tried a couple of the Father Brown stories when I was younger and never could get into them.  I tried a few odd essays and excerpts of the nonfiction since then and couldn’t get into them either.

Heretics is a book about–well, I keep forming really impossible sentences.  Think of it as something like Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, except written about contemporaries instead of historical figures. 

And, unlike Johnson, Chesteron has at least some sympathy for the people he’s intent on proving wrongheaded and perverse.  For one thing, in order to be “heretics,” these people have to be passionately committed to their wrong ideas.  Chesterton likes less people who are passionately committed to nothing.

Part of the problem here should be obvious.  A lot of the people who were important and famous as intellectuals at the time this book was published–1905–are not those things now.  Several of the authors Chesterton critiques are unknown to me, and I read a lot.

But some of the authors in this book are famous enough now, and even people whose work I’ve read.  There’s Kipling, for instance, and George Bernard Shaw,  and H.G. Wells.

And his opinions are neither stale nor convention.  He thinks Kipling is a great writer.  He admits to the occasional very bad poem, but he’s convinced that the greatest writers write a lot that is very bad, for the same reason Babe Ruth led his team in strike outs as well as in home runs.

Chesterton’s problem with Kipling is that he lacks patriotism, or even an understanding of what it means to be patriotic. 

It’s not the kind of thing you usually read about Kipling, and Chesterton’s argument actually makes a lot of sense.

What my problem with Chesterton is is that he seems to write, very often, the way some people talk after dinner where the men sit over brandy and cigars.   The prose feels like it’s coming out of a very comfortable man, just sort of riffing on one subject or another, taking little side trips, making little parenthetic comments.

Maybe I’m just too modern in my experience of criticism and argument–or maybe not, because the Federalist Papers, written before Chesterton was born, are as direct and focussed as I could ever want anything to be.

I just get a little frustrated with the diffuseness of the thing. 

I chose Heretics over Orthodoxy because I’m not a Catholic.  I’m not even a believer.  I thought social and literary criticism would be closer to the things I connect with than an exposition of the truths and necessity of the Catholic Church. 

And I expect the contents here are more interesting to me than those of Orthodoxy would be.

It’s just that, every once in a while, the prose drives me up the wall.

Written by janeh

September 30th, 2010 at 5:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'G.K. Chesterton'

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  1. I don’t think I’ve read any of Chesterton’s serious work, but I read most if not all of the Father Brown stories. They’re curiously mannered, if that’s the word, in style, but I liked them well enough.


    30 Sep 10 at 6:37 am

  2. Well, you’re reading them in the correct order, anyway, but do read ORTHODOXY as well. You will appreciate it more–and more of it–than you think. It’s not a catechism, and resembles the previous book in some themes and the approaches to them.

    As for HERETICS, yes, some of the authors have fallen out of favor, but that’s what wikipedia is for. And all the TYPES still seem to be with us–sometimes strikingly so. If our universities had any real interest in opening minds, “On Sandals and Simplicity” would be in a reading packet for freshman orientation.


    30 Sep 10 at 4:37 pm

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