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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Logos Software offers great resource for studying the Catechism in the Year of Faith (and beyond!)

The Year of Faith that officially began last week calls Catholics to reacquaint themselves with (or perhaps enter more deeply into) the Faith they profess, in order to live it more effectively and to present a more compelling witness to the love of Christ for the world. Reflecting on this, I realized that there will probably be lots of people using the Catechism to systematically review the Catholic faith. Sure, lots of Catholics own a copy of the Catechism and perhaps even pull it out from time to time as a reference to clarify the Church’s teaching on one point or another, but probably few have tried to read it cover-to-cover. Many parishes around the country have, in the last few years, used the Why Catholic? Program to re-catechize the adult faithful, a program which is based on the Catechism and follows its organization (i.e., fleshing out the tenets of the Nicene Creed). My experience with Why Catholic, however, was not very encouraging – there was too little of the Catechism and too much of the usual touchy-feely rubbish that has contributed to the current “crisis of faith” throughout the Church: “This week reflect on how the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is meaningful in your everyday life, then list three reasons why you feel more sparkly-special just knowing that God is Three in One.” Blech.

Back when the “new” Catechism was actually new, Ignatius Press brought out The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: A Compendium of Texts Referred to in the Catechism of the Catholic Church Including an Addendum
— a collection of the texts of all the passages from various Scriptures and patristic works referred to in the footnotes of the Catechism. I loved this, because most readers of the Catechism, like myself, are not going to have at hand the huge library of Catholic reference works you would need to understand all the footnotes, so most people would just skip over the notes as not being that important. However, the whole reason the footnotes are included in the Catechism is to show that the Church is “not just making this stuff up” when it comes to official doctrine, but rather the Catechism is simply a new enunciation of truths that Christians have held all along for, now, two thousand years. The notes show the sources of particular statements and explanations in the Catechism, and root the Catechism in Christian tradition all the way back to the first written expression of the Faith in the Bible and early Church Fathers. (By the way, this Companion to the Catechism is now available for Kindle.)

Unfortunately, even though I have the Companion, I have seldom used it. For one thing, it is physically unwieldy, even bulkier than the Catechism itself and, then again, I find it somewhat disorienting to read passages (even lengthy passages) lifted out of the context of the documents from which they were taken. (I am a big proponent of reading things in context, to avoid misunderstanding.) In those days, the terms “hypertext” or “hyperlink” were still unknown to all but the geekiest of computer nerds, but if I had known what hyperlinks were, I would have known that that’s what I was wishing the Companion provided – a link to the specific passage a note referred to, in the place where it actually occurs in the original source.

Well, now, just in time for the Year of Faith, the Logos Bible Software company has produced an inexpensive version of exactly what people like me have been wanting (perhaps without knowing it) since the new Catechism first came out back in 1994. You may be familiar with Logos as the company that, for nearly twenty years now, has offered Bible study software that allows Scripture scholars, students, and enthusiasts to study the Bible with hyperlinks to different translations and commentaries. They’ve expanded their offerings enormously over the years, with lots of add-on libraries, and have perfected a system for connecting related texts and allowing readers to switch between them with ease. I’ve known about Logos for about fifteen years and admired their product but, frankly, it’s always been too expensive for me (the entry-level base package costs around $250) – it’s been one of those things on my “if I ever have money to spare” list. So I was delighted when, a couple of months back during the Catholic New Media conference, I saw a demo of a new, inexpensive ($49.95) stand-alone package designed just for Catholics – in fact, the Logos rep I spoke to said that this package was created specifically in response to the Holy Father’s call for Catholic entrepreneurs to find ways to use the new media and new technologies in the service of the Church, and brought into production in time for the Year of Faith.

All these works are included in Logos’ Catechism software package.

Here are all the works included in this package:

Watch the video here to get an idea how this software works. I like the fact that you can add your own notes. This software is available for Windows, Mac, and smart devices such as iPhone or Android tablets (although how you’d use it on a tiny iPhone screen beats me). If you buy this Catechism package and fall in love with the Logos system, you can later purchase one of the regular Logos base packages and use this Catechism bundle with the larger system. (I believe this is not true of other Logos bundles, which are essentially just plug-ins or add-ons to the base packages and won’t work without the base.)

As an aside — I was

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MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

drooling looking over the software specs just now and thinking, “Hey! Logos software does for the Bible and the Catechism what the Perseus Project does for classical literature – but the Perseus Project does it online, for free.” I’ve been in love with the Perseus Project for years, ever since, as a graduate student, I took a course in Latin Historians as an independent study. The Perseus Project has huge libraries of classical-era Greek and Latin works, as well as English translations of most of them, and allows you easily to flip back and forth between the original text and English translation, or to click on a particular word to check its meaning and morphology. In other words, the Perseus Project has much of the same kind of functionality as the Logos Bible system. And, as I find out by perusing the Logos Software channel on YouTube, the Logos folk also recognized the similarity, so they now offer a free Perseus collection add-on, which allows users of the Bible software to include the classics collection in word searches. Here’s a video that shows how this works:

Okay, enough of the scholar-geekery. My point is that Logos Software has made available to ordinary Catholics a fantastic tool for studying the Catechism, in the context of the Catholic teaching tradition, for a very reasonable price. For fifty bucks, you get a wonderful library of Catholic reference works AND a superb software system for discovering the connections amongst these works. If you haven’t yet settled on a personal plan for improving your grasp of Catholic teaching in this Year of Faith, here is a great place to start.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Waking the Dead: A Blogger’s Return

It's Monday, what are you reading?

I see it’s been a year since my last post — but not because I’ve quit reading, or thinking about what I read. I simply got busy and lost the habit of writing, and have been reading too many things to keep up with, thanks largely to my Kindle eReader, which makes it perhaps too easy to be reading several different books at once. For instance, right now the “Current Reading” category on my Kindle (which I have come to prefer for reading, over physical books) contains 34 titles — not all of which I’m actually reading at the moment — spanning a range of categories from spiritual reading (St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and St Therese of Lisieux’s The Story of a Soul), through some agrarian essays of Wendell Berry and historical novels of Louis de Wohl, to Stephen King’s Dark Tower novel series. It’s interesting that these 34 title represent almost exactly 5% of the 678 titles currently residing on my Kindle. If I’m stranded on a desert island with my Kindle in tow, I’ll be at no loss for reading material — at least until the battery runs down!

Since I first started getting interested in ereaders (just a few blog posts past, but now more than 18 months ago), devices for reading electronic books have gone quickly from being esoteric hi-tech to ubiquitous mainstream (or so it seems). Certainly, they are now available for half the price that a bottom-rung Kindle was fetching just one year since ($139 for what is now known as the “keyboard Kindle, which has been replaced as Amazon’s entry-level ebook device by the bargain basement Kindle Wi-Fi with “special offers” for just $79), and now that public libraries lend many popular titles in both Epub and Kindle formats, it is possible to read a lot of books without paying another dime after buying a reader device.
 
Of course, the ease of acquiring, and toting around, many books has its concomitant dangers. In my early months of Kindle ownership, I fell for awhile under the thrall of “Kindle freebies,” ebooks in Kindle-reader format available at no cost, through Amazon, in public-domain repositories such as the Gutenberg Project, or “e-publishing” sites, such as SmashWords.com. Who can resist free books? Well, I can, after months of snapping up every freebie that came my way and finding that many of these books (not all, by any means) were not worth the price. The wonderful world of e-publishing has made it possible for everyone & anyone to become a “published” author, without the pesky intervention of a discriminating literary agent or editor (or even a proofreader). So, for awhile I was like the proverbial kid turned loose in a candy store, and wound up with a bad case of literary bellyache. (Remind me, sometime, to address the ethics of reading bad books.)

Still, even after learning to restrain my impulse reading somewhat, I still found that, even after avoiding the more awful free offerings, I would be left with a disproportionate number of books that I would never have chosen if they were not being given away free. So, probably a high portion of the nearly 700 titles residing on my ereader device are books that I won’t be reading soon or, perhaps, ever; still, it’s very nice indeed to have my pick of free versions of books that I would otherwise could ill afford or might not even to find in print (the novels of Robert Hugh Benson, for instance.)
 

I’ve already got several of these classics in free Kindle format.

Anyway, the “new” has worn off my fascination with digital books and their devices, so in future posts I’ll go back to concentrating on the works being read, rather than the physical or digital forms in which I find them.

Yes, I’m still reading!

After a gap of several months of posting nothing to this blog, I might be thought to have given up reading, but such is far from the case. Two majors factors contributed to my recent “blog sabbatical”:

Tenniel illustration, the Red Queen
“Now, here, you see,
it takes all the running
you can do, to keep in
the same place.”

First, in the fall I was teaching three classes at a college campus 60 miles distant, on a grueling and exhausting schedule that left me with no energy to do anything other than run like the Red Queen, trying to keep up with myself (I lost that race). I had plenty of ideas for blog posts, many sparked by discussions in my literature classes — my Blogger dashboard shows at least 15 drafts that never got finished and posted, some of which I may complete later. That is the problem with college teaching in the current sweat-shop environment: one is so consumed with preparation, teaching, grading, meeting with students, and various administrivia that there is no time for intellectual leisure or refreshment. And breaks in the academic year that are meant to provide such refreshment are generally consumed by a combination of total physical and mental collapse, followed hard on the heels by a desperate scramble to prepare for the next venture into the fray.

Second, just after quitting that job, which was taking more out of me than I had available to put into it, I received an Amazon Kindle for Christmas. Since that time, I have been reading almost non-stop, mostly books that are available for nothing, or next to nothing, to Kindle readers. (It’s ironic that my last previous post was about ebook readers — at that time I had no real intention of getting one, although the idea was gaining appeal for me.) I’ve discovered that there is a huge range of reading material available for little or no money for “catholic” tastes, from magnificent literary classics (long available in various electronic formats, thanks to organizations such as the Project Gutenberg ) to truly execrable self-published drivel; I’ve read some from the entire range, and I’m getting better at spotting the duds before wasting too much time on them. I’ve also paid for some Kindle books, something which Amazon makes ridiculously (even dangerously) easy.

Amazon Kindle Keyboard
Morning coffee tastes better with Kindle.

I’ve read essays and articles arguing that the advent of portable reading devices, and the wide availability of free, or inexpensive, electronic books will spur a new renaissance in reading among all sorts of people. Whether that shall prove to be the case remains to be seen; since I was already a reading-addict (since childhood I have been willing to read literally anything with print on it, from pickle labels and pillow tags — “Do not remove this tag, under penalty of law” — to the entire World Book Encyclopedia), I can only say that I find my Kindle to be an enormous convenience, which provides a much more pleasant reading experience than I had anticipated. The Kindle is my constant companion, traveling to the breakfast table with me in the morning and accompanying me in the side pocket of my purse wherever I go during the day. Now I need never be without books, magazines, even newspapers to read, because I have them all stored on my Kindle.

Currently I have exactly 300 items on my Kindle, filed in various categories to help make the list more manageable. Here is a sampling from my Current Reading category:

Now that I’m more or less recovered from my academic exhaustion (maybe it’s just the effect of spring sunshine and birdsong), I hope to be posting some comments on these works and others, in the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile, I’m going to post this, so that I can get back to The Spectator.

The Reading Experience: Are Ebook Readers the Next Big Thing?

You may have seen this video that’s been making the rounds the last couple of years.

The joke is that, back in the middle ages, the “codex” (a flat book, with separate pages bound between two covers) was a revolutionary new technology that took the Western world by storm, pretty much putting the scroll-book industry out of business. This happened, by the way, largely because of the Christian Bible, which people wanted to be able to peruse quickly and easily, and, probably, keep it all together instead of on umpty-jillion separate scrolls. (LOTS has been written on how the spread of Christianity helped popularize the codex — here’s one example from Catholic apologist, Jimmy Akin.) Very soon, the obvious advantages of this new form of book spread, making multi-volume rolled books a thing of the past. (Jews, however, to this day scorn the “new-fangled” technology of the codex in liturgical use, requiring each synagogue to have a scroll of the Torah, from which the sacred texts are read during worship.)

With the increasing proliferation of electronic gadgets designed especially for reading digital texts (ebooks), however, some people are beginning to question whether such specialty appliances will soon make “tangible books” a relic of the past, much as the codex supplanted the scroll many centuries ago. As a card-carrying “bookie,” I’ve always pooh-poohed this idea, but I’m beginning to feel the allure of devices such as the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. I have perhaps a thousand old-fashioned “tangible books,” and I will probably continue to acquire more, but I’m already starting to collect “ebooks,” which exist only in digital form, needing some kind of electronic device to translate them into “type” on a “page.”


Several things have recently influenced me to begin to look more favorably on what might be called “notional books.” The most immediate and pressing is the fact that most of my several hundred books are crated up in boxes, gathering dust in a rented storage unit, and look to remain that way for some time to come. As a result, I have begun buying duplicate copies of the books I need (or want) for ready reference. (Half Price Books and various online re-sellers should thank me.) However, my current living conditions offer me limited space for books, so I’m already running out of room for these duplicates. One possible solution to the problems of both expense and space might be to borrow from a local library, but the public library doesn’t carry a lot of the titles I use regularly, and there’s always the pesky business of remembering to return borrowed books. On the other hand, the sort of things I like to read “just for fun” are readily available from the public library, and libraries are beginning to make such titles available in electronic formats, which you don’t physically have to return (thus avoiding the expense of library fines). That, however, raises a new problem.

I have always been very picky about the typeface in which a text is displayed. As a kid, I was always excited to learn that a book I was reading included a colophon (a note that told you what typeface, paper, etc. was used to produce the book), and I loved learning the names of typefaces, and sometimes thought I would like to be a book designer. (That was many years before I became a graphic artist and typographer — lots of fun, while it lasted, but in the end unsatisfying). Anyway, even if I am willing to forgo the pleasures of the look, smell, feel of an actual, physical book, I’m not willing to look at crummy typefaces (hideous Times New Roman! awful Arial!), nor lousy layouts, meager margins, or other horrors that a badly-rendered ebook might force upon me.

For this reason, I’ve been a bit frustrated with the free digital versions available of many out-of-copyright books widely available for download from websites such as the Gutenberg Project and Google Books. Many of these — those available as PDF files — are essentially the digital equivalents of bad photocopies of old books. The new EPUB format that Adobe has popularized is a big improvement, because instead of the separate page images of old document scans, you get just digital text with minimal formatting, which an appropriate software application can render in electronic type on your computer (or other electronic) screen, which can be a little easier on the eye and give  you some control over the display by letting you scale the size of the text at will. (Read a comparison of different ePub readers here.) Yet even so, you still have the inconvenience and discomfort of having to read from a computer screen (or, worse, from the tiny display of a smart phone — eek!). That’s alright for old books that you’re lucky to find available in any format and may thus be grateful to read for free, but it’s not a situation I’d be willing to put up with to read books I’ve actually had to pay money for and might wish to have frequent, ready access to. I’ve tried reading, for instance, Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, in Adobe Digital Editions (an ePub software application that runs on my computer), but I can’t get more than about half a page before I wander off to do something else (Spider solitaire, any one?).

The fact is that reading from a computer screen is tiring to the eyes and inconvenient, which are just two more strikes against electronic books in their “ether only” format. This is where dedicated ebook reader devices are working to fill the gap between convenience and comfort, and I’m beginning to think they may make a convert even of a diehard bookie like me (“You’ve have to pry my tangible books from my cold, dead hands!”). This fall, several major book sellers are offering new and improved versions of “ereaders” that suggest that electronic books are the wave of the future, even if they will probably never make the codex a dead relic of the past. These new readers, such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Amazon Kindle, the Kobo Reader sold at Borders, and other, sport appealing features that are sure to continue to improve with time. EInk provides the matte finish, high contrast, and look (if not feel) of text on a page; built-in storage capacity allows you to store thousands of books on the device, while software allows you to read “volumes” you “own” across a variety of devices, and gives the user some control over the size and style of typeface. You can even highlight passages, embed notes (like scribbling in the margins of a “real” book), and lend your “notional books” to friends (if they have a similar device). The prices of the devices is coming down rapidly, and availability of decent professionally-prepared editions is proliferating, so a gadget like the Nook may be in my future.

I’m one of those people who are loath to go anywhere without carrying some reading material along “just in case,” and I have to admit that I’m beginning to envy those who can tuck their entire library into their purses or jacket pockets. Sooner or later I’ll undoubtedly find myself sliding an electronic book gadget into my purse alongside a paperback book or magazine; meanwhile I invite comments from anyone who has some experience with one of these new-fangled doodads.

UPDATE Sept 2012: This post looks mighty dated, just a couple of years later. Since Christmas of 2010, I’ve been the proud and grateful owner of a Kindle keyboard, with over 600 hundred books in my Kindle library. Contrary to my expectations, I quickly got used to reading on this “new-fangled doodad” and don’t miss paper books at all, except when reading a reference work in which I like to flip back and forth (yes, I still buy paper books, too, occasionally). I don’t think I would want one of the new backlit, full color Kindles (or other gadgets of that ilk), at least not for ordinary reading. But I love my Kindle so much that I actually worked the first one to death — I’m now reading on the replacement that Amazon provided (for about half the price of a new one, since mine was out of warranty). But, guess what? Although the Kindle croaked, all my electronic books were safe in the cloud. And they always will be. You can’t beat that.