“Good taste” is not, as most debates regarding the phrase assume, a term in the logical sense—a discreet idea signified by words. It will, for this reason, fare badly in argument; anyone who has tried for five minutes to defend the notion of “good taste” against the aesthetic relativist recalls the exasperating embarrassment of finding himself unable to define, let alone defend, the principle of which he nevertheless remains convinced.
My favorite nineteenth-century novel, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, spins its plot from this premise: What happens when a person of fervent ideals is born into a place and age that cannot support them?
Is it ethical to use a man’s emotions to persuade him?
In the electric atmosphere of today’s propagandistic politics, that question is charged. By and large, even teenagers expect that the vast majority of the campaigning, advertising, and peer-pressuring they will encounter is based solely on emotion; this is the definition of propaganda, of persuasion that is untrustworthy and manipulative. The haunting assumption that the persuasion directed at them respects neither people nor truth is one reason for teenage cynicism’s ubiquity.
Any essay has three most-important sentences, I tell my students—and nearly always, as I help them revise their papers, I suggest those three sentences be rewritten. Though good prose throughout an essay bolsters its ability to communicate and persuade, I’d wager many an essay stands or falls on these three sentences alone, for they are the ones that shape the reader’s experience of the essay and lodge in his memory of it; they are the ones by which he will decide whether what he has read matters to him or not.
During our Christmas visit to my husband’s family and the home where he grew up, we spent an afternoon rummaging through closets and sheds, stirring up dust and memories. Amongst the stowed-away treasures were his first “guitar,” carved by his grandpa from a piece of wood; the leather baseball mitt he donned every Saturday through years of Little League games; a fleet of toy cars; and about a half-a-dozen largish boxes of fishing tackle.
Nothing focuses my anticipation and sustains my contemplation so well throughout the Advent season as do daily readings. In keeping with traditions set by my family when I was little, I find that beginning or ending each day with a time to ponder the mysteries of the Incarnation binds all the other festivities of parties, music, festal foods, and flashy colors together into meaningful jubilation, when otherwise they would fall apart in overwrought frenzy.
For as long as I remember, I have turned to words to bestow names, and through them meaning, on my experiences. Yet for the past five weeks, since the birth of our first child, this chain of significance seems reversed: in every day with our baby boy, new experiences uncover treasures of meaning in words I thought I had already mined.
One of these words forms the central metaphor of the brief and beautiful Psalm 131:
Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.
The only time I have ever been a consistent coffee-drinker was during high school, when a daily cup sustained me through hours spent hunched over my desk struggling through math homework. (Perhaps the resulting associations form part of the reason I have not been a coffee-drinker since.) Unlike my humanities studies, math never came easily for me; it was my homeschooling mother’s commitment to academic rigor rather than any personal motivation that ensured its prominent place in my curriculum each year until I graduated.
To recreate is a harder task than to create.
Four chapters into our latest read-aloud, The Scarlet Pimpernel, the ninth-grade student whom I was tutoring spontaneously commented, “This is a really good story . . . it keeps you wondering what’s about to happen!” Heartily assenting, I turned the page to begin the next chapter of mounting mystery. But hours later, having left behind the novel’s Parisian streets and English inns, that comment echoed within the very different setting of my twenty-first century suburban preoccupations and pronounced an epiphany to my hard-hearing ears.