A Year with G. K. Chesterton

365 Days of Wit, Wisdom, and Wonder
edited by Kevin Belmonte

This isn't a book you'll need to - or want to - read all at once. It's that after dinner mint of a book; just one (or maybe two) entries read per day. Then you think about them, enjoy them, mull them over. Digest them.

Chesterton was a turn of the century (the last century, that is) writer, lay theologian, poet, dramatist, journalist, orator, literary and art critic, biographer, and Christian apologist.

Don't let that throw you off, though. Chesterton can be read without any specific reference to religion or theology - particularly this volume - and his observations needn't be read in the light of Christianity.

Chesterton was an odd-appearing man by age 62, though perhaps more so as seen through the lens of 100 years. Well-fed, in the manner of men of the Gilded Age, with a riot of waving hair and spectacles on a chain. Even as a young man he looked intense and deeply engaged. By all accounts - and certainly from reading this book - he was a man of prodigious intellect and spirituality. He counted among his closest friends C.S. Lewis and Hillaire Belloc. He has been accused, with some merit, of antisemitism, though that hardly squares with his strong anti-eugenics stance. He joined the Church of England, but then felt that as long as he was going to delve in, he might as well go for the original and was baptized a Roman Catholic. In short, he was a complicated man.

The editor, evidently an intellectual and thoughtful man himself (he wrote the screenplay for the film on William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace), organized the book as a daily diary of readings, each day containing a Biblical verse combined with a reading from Chesterton's own work or works (he wrote poems, biographies, critiques, essays, plays, and novels) and then perhaps a note about an event or publication that occurred on that date.

Among Chesterton's many other accomplishments, he is credited with reviving an interest in Dickens, of whom he is supremely fond. As I read passages from his writings on Dickens, I was reminded of something I never knew I was aware (which is something Chesterton might himself say!): how achingly lovely Dickens' view of mankind was. How charitable he was to the meanest of people; even his villains were to be pitied rather than merely scorned, though the villains who preyed upon children were, of course, mostly scorned.

I became intrigued with Chesterton when I read this observation:

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

I have remembered that, and thought about it, many times, and realized that it is not just a clever thought, but a brilliant observation.

But I fell in love with Chesterton when I came across this segment of his poem, The Ballad of the White Horse:

"Lady, the stars are falling pale and small,
Lady, we will not live if life be all,
Forgetting those good stars in heaven hung,
When all the world was young;
For more than gold was in a ring,
and love was not a little thing,
Between the trees in Ivywood,
when all the world was young."

I loved this poem for no reason, really, other than that it was like a fairy tale, told partly for a purpose, and partly just because it delighted the imagination and was full of magic and mystery and wonderful words strung together.

That's one of the delights of Chesterton that is discovered with this 365 days sampling: that he can be both practical and poetical; insightful and whimsical. Sometimes, I pondered the quotes and ended up nowhere. Not for nothing is he called the king of paradox.  And he appears to have equal admiration and disdain for the ends of the political spectrum, as well:

"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution."

Of course, when I began the book it was not the first of the year, but I was determined to read each passage on its own day. Still, I couldn't help finding my birthday and reading that passage immediately. I wasn't disappointed:

"Only in our romantic country (England) do you have the romantic thing called weather - beautiful and changeable as a woman. The great English landscape painters (neglected now, like everything that is English) have this salient distinction, that the weather is not the atmosphere of their pictures: it is the subject of their pictures. They paint portraits of the weather."

It seems the genius of Chesterton was his ability to observe, and find meaning in the meanest thing. Or no meaning at all - simply the act of observing. It is really up to you, the reader, which is what makes this thoughtful collection all the more delightful. My best guess is, I will read it again and again each year, til the pages are worn out, or until I have figured out a meaning for each entry. So, other than with a recommendation that you pick up a copy immediately - no need to wait for the new year - I leave you with this observation in a political year:

"It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem."


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