Free Rein in the Candy Store

Last year, I wrote an essay on John Henry Newman to be included in the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the Theologians. In return, I was promised one copy of the finished volume plus the opportunity to select two hundred dollars’ worth of books from the Blackwell catalog. Like a gift certificate for a candy store! I wrote the essay and in due time a copy of the Companion arrived: two handsome volumes neatly boxed. Then came the invitation to choose my candy – by September 1.

Have you ever had to choose two hundred dollars’ worth of books by a deadline? It ain’t easy. First, I put it off successfully for a number of weeks. But that deadline began to loom and finally I got down to it. I will skip over my difficulties in navigating the online catalog and simply report that I finally did select eight books, mostly paperback, and they have arrived in several separate shipments.

What does it say about me that my selection was eclectic? History, biography, theology, language — Michelangelo, Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette, Benjamin Banneker, dying languages, early Christianity, pre-historic Britain, revolutionary America. Something for everyone? Well, not if you specialize in murder mysteries! But this is my idea of fun: a really good book and time to enjoy it.

Here’s a quick review of the first one I read: Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s. “Only two guests were invited to what was arguably the most elegant, sumptuous, and important dinner party that Thomas Jefferson ever hosted . . . complete with wine lists [and] recipes.” That’s the cover blurb. The inside falls short. Yes, there’s a description of the dinner complete with the wine selection. But the depiction of the dinner is provided in chapter 12 of a book with 20 chapters, and I didn’t need to know that much about the background and consequences. The six recipes provided—for muffins, beef stew, peas, stuffed cabbage, salad dressing, and Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream—didn’t seem that remarkable. I’d be curious about the ice cream, but when you have it all mixed together and are told “freeze the custard in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions” you could find yourself short a crucial piece of equipment. If you’re curious, borrow my copy or wait until you have a gift coupon to shoot on books. I couldn’t recommend you spend $15.95 of your own money.

On the other hand, if you want a really great encyclopedia of theologians and have $350 of loose change ($318.58 from Amazon), there’s this excellent essay on John Henry Newman on pages 103-121 of Volume II.

Leave a comment

Your comment