Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Notes From My Knapsack 1-15-09 Granville Sentinel
Jeff Gill

Twin Sons of Different Mothers

Less than a month from now a significant event in world history reaches its 200th anniversary.

This singular event has two particular people tied to the same birthdate, Feb. 12, 1809. On that day, Charles Darwin was born in England, and Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky.

Arguably these two men stood at the intersection of dramatic times, but in two different places, never meeting. Even so they both shaped the world we live in today, and their roles continue to inspire and provoke passionate debate.

And, they generate books by the truckload (and articles, and dissertations, and essays, and, um, columns).

If you’re wanting to be up to speed on these two epoch-makers by their joint bicentennial, what should you read? First, read some of their own words. Books about them are piled high, but each is a prose stylist with much to commend about their writing, even though they are as different a pair of authors as the circumstances of their births.

The Library of America series is always stellar in quality of binding and organization, and their two volume “Lincoln: Speeches & Writings” is divided between 1832-1858 and 1859-1865. They can be a bit pricey, and if you need to just get one, you’ll go for volume two.

The presidential proclamations, the speeches you’ve never heard of, and the “fragments,” particularly “Meditation on the Divine Will,” are something you’d want to have on your shelves.

The Second Inaugural Address is almost the paragon of brevity and eloquence that the Gettysburg Address is known for, and along with the letters and drafts leading up to both that the Library of America volume provides, I’d recommend Ronald White’s “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech,” available in paperback. Gettysburg has overshadowed the Second Inaugural, but I hope someone has slid a copy of that majestic speech onto President-elect Obama’s desk before Jan. 20. Garry Wills’ “Lincoln at Gettysburg” takes the story back to the Revolution and down to the present day, but White’s book immerses you in the perilous days of 1865 that led to Lincoln’s last and I think greatest speech.

Not to break the hearts of my good bookseller friends, but for the massive and extensive writings of Charles Darwin, your best source is http://darwin-online.org.uk, where literally every printed word of Darwin’s can be read for free, and much of it is also available as audiobook downloads that you can simply listen two.

I will admit that the Victorianism of Darwin’s prose is an acquired taste, but my favorite of all his books (well, behind his notebookss on the voyage of the Beagle) is also the most accessible: “The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms.” The quiet scientist of Downe Cottage had endless patience and curiosity for all of life, and his last book looked at the absolutely crucial role of the lowly earthworm. Gardeners, you will love this one.

The revolutionary work, whether Darwin intended it or not, of “On the origin of species by means of natural selection,” which is usually just called “On the Origin of Species,” is found here in all six editions, the ones that Darwin painstakingly refined and rewrote himself.

But for the non-scholarly reader, may I recommend a book I will speak of more later – “Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. This is, quite candidly, one of the best books of any sort, for any reason, that I’ve read in the last ten years. It came out in 2006, and not enough readers have found it yet.

Love Darwin or hate him, but read this book and you will understand him ever so much better, and what it was he was trying to do. You may even find you come to a greater appreciation for the work that is left to us to keep pursuing on our pilgrim way, 200 years later.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at knapsack77@gmail.com.

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