Review: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

Caring for Words

Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Summary: Explores, in a culture of “spin” and poisoned discourse, practices for caring for our use of words, that they may be used well and true.

If you have been following this blog recently, you know how highly I think of this book. Written prior to the latest spate of “alternative facts,” agenda journalism, and the publication of “fake news,” McEntyre’s book explores the abuses of our language, the deadly consequences to which this may lead, and the responsibility of all who preach, teach, and write to care for the language. She summarizes with elegance the theological case for such care:

    “Peter’s admonition to ‘be sober, be watchful’ applies to this enterprise. Noticing how things are put, noticing what is being left out or subverted, takes an active habit of mind. But what is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.”

What follows in this book are twelve “stewardship strategies” by which we might care for the words entrusted to us and the wider use of words in our culture. McEntyre, who is a retreat leader as well as English professor, gives us, as it were, formational practices that usher us into the careful use of words. She begins with the simple truth that we must start with loving words. Whether they be single words in themselves or the elegant and arresting expression of words in literature, it makes sense that the care of words begins with loving and delighting in their felicitous expression. She then leans into the challenge of truth-telling, giving the example of asking her students to define terms in common parlance: liberal, conservative, patriotic, terrorist, and Christian. Imprecision and hyperbole make it possible to lie with words, or at least to be obscure in our meaning. This chapter is paired with one on not tolerating lies, in which she shares the questions she teaches her students to ask.

The next chapters (“stewardship strategies”) might come under the heading of cultivating our skillful use of words. She urges us to read well, including the incorporation of the practice of lectio divina into our reading. She writes about the importance and delights of good conversation, cultivating the skills of asking good questions and attentive listening. She explores the richness of story, not only those we read but the life stories of those in our families and communities, that give perspective and offer challenge as they are told.

Two of my favorite chapters followed. One was on loving the long sentence, contrary to what you hear from most writing teachers and editors. She contends that “long sentences ask us to dwell in a thought rather than come to a point.” The other chapter is on practicing poetry, something missing from my life. After reading this, I picked up a collection of Seamus Heaney poetry, having thoroughly delighted in his rendering of Beowulf. She then wrote about a practice I hadn’t given much thought, that of translation. She observes that all of us who use words are translators, conveying a thought (whether our own or another) to a particular audience. Those who have to learn more than one language and translate between languages uniquely appreciate this challenge.

The final three chapters seemed to me to be overarching stewardship strategies to be used in conjunction with the others. One was simply to play with words and ideas and see where they will take you, which is sometimes to unexpected places. I like this because often I discover what I think about something as I write. The second is to pray, both in our own words and those of others and to listen. And this leads to the third, which is to cherish silence where words of clarity and grace and power may come.

What made this work so rich was that one has the sense that McEntyre has lived into the strategies she commends to others. More than this, to read this book is to read words that have been cared for, and chosen for their ability to teach us to love them, and others like them. McEntyre does what she advocates. I found myself wanting to love words more attentively, read better, converse more thoughtfully and write with greater clarity. I found myself wanting to discern with greater acuity the coarse and cavalier ways words are used to poison discourse and spin webs of deceit, and to resist these ways of twisting God’s good gift of words to humanity.

“A book for our times” almost seems too cliché, and yet it is accurate to describe how important this work is for all of us who care for words, care for culture, and long for better conversations about the common good. It is not enough to aspire to such things. McEntyre’s “stewardship strategies” show us how to translate aspiration into action in our care for words.

Previous posts on this book:

Word Care as Culture Care

A Poet in Your Pocket

Bob on Books in 2016

20151225_163728I just looked back at a post from a year ago where I talked about some of the things I hoped to do on the blog in 2015.  Here are some of the successes, and some of those lapses we won’t talk too much about:


  • I reviewed more recently published books, those with a 2015 copyright.
  • I started including a summary at the top of my reviews to help with deciding whether you were interested enough in a book to read my whole review. I also include publishing information and a link to the publisher’s website for the book if I can locate this.
  • I did a couple author interviews, a two part interview with a publisher, and many of the bookstore reviews included interviews with an owner or bookseller.
  • I certainly did posts on the reading life. Some of my favorites were on books I read too soon and books I wish I had read sooner.
  • I did a variety of bookstore reviews, enough to give this its own category on the blog menu.
  • I also converted the blog to a “responsive” theme, making it easier to read in general and especially on tablets and smartphones.
  • I continued the “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” series– far longer than I expected.


  • I didn’t do graphic novels. Sorry Ben. I think I’m going to leave reviewing these to you!
  • I didn’t really feature famous readers other than Dr. Eliot’s “five foot shelf.”

Some thoughts about 2016:

Reviews: I will continue to look for ways to tweak these and would love to get your feedback on what would make these more user friendly for you. I would also like to explore doing more author interviews in conjunction with book reviews. I consider reading an interactive relationship of the ideas and imaginations of reader and author via the book. I hope I can personalize the author end more.

Literacy: It has always been a passion of mine to foster literacy, which is not just the ability to read and write, but a growing love and thoughtfulness in engaging in these activities through reading quality work, thinking critically about what we’ve read, and writing with cogency and grace. I hope to interact with teachers of reading, librarians, booksellers, and writers around this theme. Because I review and write on theological subjects, I’m also interested in the role churches and other religious institutions play in fostering literacy. I’ve been most intrigued by the work of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, and their Englewood Review of Books in this regard.

Bookstore Reviews: I hope to continue to feature great bookstores, both for new and used books, especially those independently owned. I have to do this as my travels give me opportunity. If you know of a great store in another part of the country than the Midwest and would be interested in doing a “guest review”, let me know!

On Life: These posts, and those on Youngstown tend to be the most popular, but in some ways the most unpredictable. What I would say, is that in these and all posts, I want to exemplify and encourage what I called recently “the speech of freedom.” I want to work out more of what that means this year. I’m not sure of what that will mean but I do want to foster a different kind of speech, a different ethic of speech from the polarizing speech in the worlds of politics, punditry, and other forms of popular discourse. I hope we can work together on that!

Thanks to all of you who follow the blog and especially those who engage the things I write. I would like to hear what you think about my ideas for the blog, and your ideas of what you’d enjoy seeing.

Little Free Libraries

Little Free LibraryDid you know that you could have your own lending library in your front yard? Or the lobby of your church or business? This is the idea of the Little Free Library (LFL) organization. All this started in 2009 when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin built a little red school house as a tribute to his mother, a former school teacher, mounted it on a post in his front yard and filled it with books. People were invited to “take a book and leave a book.” Neighbors loved it, he made more of these for his friends, and a movement began. When Rick Brooks, a youth and community development educator at the University of Wisconsin with a background in social marketing, got involved, the movement took off. As of September 2015, there were 32,000 registered Little Free Libraries in all 50 states and in 70 countries. Evan Mark Zuckerberg has installed a Little Free Library at Facebook headquarters, in the form of a renovated phone booth.

I’d heard of these and even have come across a few in my travels. But what caught my attention was hearing of my son’s plans to place copies of his new book in some of the Little Free Libraries in our area. He even told me about finding one of these just blocks from our home, the only one, I discovered, in my zip code. It is pictured above. I suspect he will put one here and perhaps at the one nearby his home featured in a 2011 Dispatch article. These “Stewards” not only installed a Little Free Library, but even put a bench nearby so people could sit down and read. Since then they have sprung up all over our city, even in my neighborhood. Several elementary schools in a nearby school district secured a grant and installed Little Free Libraries in four of their schools.

The box owners (“Stewards”) may provide the initial collection of books for the Little Free Library, but the idea is that the collection quickly becomes a community collection. It all works on the honor system, where it is suggested that those who take a book, leave a book, perhaps not the one they took but one they have enjoyed. One of the benefits of this idea is creating neighborhood connectedness. Some Stewards have hosted block parties when they installed their Little Free Library. All of this feeds into the Little Free Library organization’s vision of “literacy friendly neighborhoods.” They even provide a toolkit for neighborhoods to organize around literacy.

The Little Free Library website is chock full of resources and stories and FAQs. You can order boxes, or make your own. It is recommended that you register your box, and when you do you will be provided with a box number, a charter sign and then you will be able to post your location on the site’s world map.

If your idea is to set up a library in a location you don’t own, you should clear this with owners and proper authorities. Even if you are putting this on your own property, it is probably a good idea to check with your neighborhood association, with local zoning ordinances, and utilities before you dig. The Little Free Library suggest that you might check with your home insurer about coverage and your attorney if you have questions about possible liabilities.

This seems like a great grassroots way community developers can promote literacy. Apparently 32,000 LFL Stewards agree. So does the grandest library of all, the Library of Congress. In October 2015, the Library of Congress honored the Little Free Library organization for promoting community literacy. Founder Todd Bol said, “For an organization that builds some of the smallest libraries around, it’s quite an honor to be recognized by the largest library in the world.”

The story of Little Free Libraries drives home the idea that fostering a literate society involves us all–children, parents, educators, neighbors, social organizations, community developers, and social entrepreneurs. What an amazing idea to come out of some scrap lumber!

If you had a Little Free Library, what books would you place in it?

Happy Birthday Bob on Books!

One of my TBR piles

One of my TBR piles

Bob on Books is two years old! The picture above is the one that adorned my very first post. Since then, I’ve read most of those books but some never managed to work their way to the top of the TBR pile, for reasons known only to my subconcious, if that. Looking back on that first post, I had no idea where this blog was going to lead! The one thing that has been true is lots of conversation on books, reading, and life.

Bob on Books by the numbers. This is my 689th post. One or another page on the blog has been viewed just under 100,000 times (I expect to hit this milestone later this week). The growth of the readership has been slow and steady–I write for a bit of a quirky audience–booklovers, university geeks, people of faith, and surprisingly, a loyal audience of people from my home town of Youngstown. In 2013, I averaged 23 views a day on the blog. Last year, this went up to 124, and this year so far, I’ve been averaging 227. Currently 2,229 “follow” the blog in some form, but the viewership is far wider because of posting in a number of groups and re-posting on other blogs. WordPress tells me that people have visited from 150 countries, the top five outside the U.S. being Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil (!), and India. Altogether, I don’t think this is too bad for a “toddler”!

Bob on Books — the conversation. I wrote early on that my hope for this blog was that it would be “a meeting place for anyone who cares about good literature, who loves books and reading, and wants to talk about ideas that matter.” It has been that and so much more. We’ve talked about what we liked and disliked about books, about what makes for a good society and a good life, and even a good pizza! We’ve explored this activity so many of us love and take for granted, the act of reading and what makes for good reading. We’ve talked about what we do with all those books once we’ve read them, and what we do about the ones we haven’t read.

A big surprise has been the continuing conversation with the unique tribe of people who, like me, grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. What began as a few posts to answer the question of what it was like to grow up in working class Youngstown has become a rich conversation about what made this such a good place. I’ll never forget a post from last fall in which I posted a picture of a cigar box, which many of us used for pencil boxes, only to get a flood of comments from others who did the same, and who, in some cases still had them. I’ve come to understand something I’d only dimly intuited–that growing up working class was an incredibly rich experience that has shaped my life more than I knew.

Bob on Books — On reviewing. I don’t think I anticipated when I started this blog that I would become far more reflective on the art and ethics of reviewing. One of the things I’ve discovered is that authors are engaging us in a conversation, and reviewing and discussing books via social media can be a wonderful way of turning monologue into real conversation, mostly with other readers, but sometimes with the authors. We don’t always agree, but what I hope for is that they can say, “you understood what I wrote and were fair in representing the book.”

I’ve come to realize that reviewers, and not just the ones in the New York Times, play an important role in connecting authors to readers and promoting a literate society. Fundamentally, we help people answer the basic question of “why should (or shouldn’t) I read this book when there are so many others?”

Bob on Books — The Vision. Years ago, a leader I respected said, “you may be a reading Christian without growing, but you cannot be a growing Christian without reading.” In an age of busyness and visual media saturation, I hope to encourage the rediscovery of ways the reading of good works may nourish our souls, deepen our intellects, and elevate our aspirations. There is more to life than reading, but I am firmly convinced that the best books point us to that “something more” and that the richest conversations in life are about that “something more.” I look forward to more of those as long as God grants me to write!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Libraries

Do you remember your first trip to the library? Were you, like me, utterly amazed at the shelves and shelves of books? Were you a little intimidated by the librarians who would “shush” you if you talked in the library? (I don’t think they do this as much any more in our day of kinder and gentler libraries.) Those are some of the early memories I have of going to the library as a boy growing up in Youngstown.

Some of you may have noticed that when I’m not writing about Youngstown, I write a good bit about books–books I’ve read and about reading and literacy.  I have to say that I owe my love for books and this value of literacy, at least in part, to the libraries in Youngstown.

Main Library from Public Library of Youngstown website:

Main Library from Public Library of Youngstown website:

My first memory of the Youngstown Library was of my father taking me to the main library on Saturday mornings. As a child, you were only allowed to go to the children and youth section of the library in the lower level. How I longed to be old enough to explore the stacks upstairs!

Later on, I got a library card of my own. Back then, they had a system that I believe involved photographing the card along with the cards of the books you were withdrawing–long before the days of barcodes! Eventually, most of my trips to the library were to the West Side branch on Mahoning Avenue. I liked going during the summer to get an armful of books to read on hot summer days (when I wasn’t at the pool!). I had fun just exploring the different sections–science, sports, and war history were among my favorites. I’d usually check out the maximum and come back a week later.

West Side Library--Youngstown Ohio from Public Library of Youngstown website:

West Side Library from Public Library of Youngstown website:

In high school, I would visit the library for papers I would have to write. Our school librarians introduced us to the card catalogue, and the Dewey Decimal System, and The Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, these green covered journals where you could look for magazine articles by topic, listed in columns and columns of tiny print. (What is amazing is that I can now access all these things, and either read online or reserve materials and even drive through and pick them up!)

Of course as a college student, I spent a good deal of time in Maag Library at Youngstown State. During an honors seminar in my sophomore year when I wrote a long research paper, I discovered that reference librarians could be your friend in helping you find material not only at your own library but at others. They were great–and I think often under-appreciated!

Maag Library (c) Robert C Trube

Maag Library (c) Robert C Trube

It seems that libraries are a common thread in my family. My wife worked at the Brownlee Woods and Main Libraries during high school and part of college. My son’s first job during high school was shelving books at our local library in Columbus. And libraries in Youngstown have figured even in our adult life. We celebrated a 50th birthday of a good friend at the Austintown Library. We donated books from my parents home to the Poland Library book sale. I’ve even met colleagues from Pittsburgh at the Poland Library a couple times in conjunction with Youngstown visits and enjoyed lunch at the Kravitz Deli.

A bit of history about the Public Library of Youngstown (most of this I found in A Heritage to Share, a birthday gift from my son who found a copy in a used bookstore in Columbus). The Youngstown Library was founded in 1880 by Reuben McMillan, then superintendent of the Youngstown Public schools. Like many libraries around the country, it received major funding from Andrew Carnegie, but unlike many others, bore McMillan’s name, a tribute to his leadership in the formation of the library. I came across this set of facts from the Depression era that signified the importance of the libraries to working class Youngstown:

Poland Library (c) Robert C Trube

Poland Library (c) Robert C Trube

“The Reuben McMillan Library reflected the times when it reported a 20% increase in the circulation of fiction, and a 40% increase in non-fiction circulation. The greatest demand in non-fiction was for books and manuals concerning repairs of furniture and household appliances, automobiles, and other practical household procedures, and books concerning business and science. The library reported a total circulation in excess of 1 million books.”

Then as now, libraries offered the economically disadvantaged the resources to sustain themselves through do-it-yourself projects as well as the chance to self-educate to improve one’s opportunities. Libraries provided books for both educational and pleasure purposes for children at no cost to cash-strapped families.

I’m thankful for the educational and civic leadership that created the library system in Youngstown. It encourages me to see that libraries still are an important part of the Youngstown community. Children’s programs, access to the internet, and promotion of both literacy and technological knowledge are critical elements to educating the next generation of our children for the new economy in front of us.

What are your memories of trips to the library? How do you use libraries today?


Why I Will Vote For Our Library Levy

Next Tuesday Worthington Public Library, the library that serves our area, has a levy on the ballot. The levy will add approximately $60 a year or $5 a month to my property taxes. While that doesn’t sound like much, every little bit of taxes eats into my discretionary income. And the truth is, my home is a library of sorts, and so much is available on the internet. I have no school age children at home. So why vote for this?

For one thing, it isn’t all about me. Libraries are one of the things that make communities rich and livable. They serve as a community center. Our nearby library serves as a community meeting space. When a number of us were concerned to save a local wetland from developers, the library was a key meeting center.

I am also deeply impressed with the number of children’s programs and after school programs and academic assistance offered the children and youth of our community by the library. The love of literature and literacy is under fire with so many competing distractions. Libraries are one of the places helping children fall in love with stories and books and the wonderful experience of the imagined story unmediated by video. Our library also offers tutor rooms and serves as a wonderful adjunct to a good school system.

Our library also offers resources to immigrants and those who are economically challenged through unemployment to access the internet, search for jobs, print documents when they may not be able to afford the computers, internet connections and printers at home needed for functions many of us easily accomplish. Many who use these services are working hard to establish themselves and are not looking for a hand out but a hand up that helps them with their own initiative and respects their dignity.

Our library stewards it resources well and has been nationally recognized. It was rated a Five Star Library in November 2012, one of only 30 to receive this award for the past five years. It seeks to be responsive to the community, enjoys continuing increases in patronage, and has vastly increased its resources in the area of digital downloads, recognizing the changing world of libraries.

Lastly, I find they continue to provide excellent service. I don’t borrow books often but when I do, I can obtain books from any Columbus Metro Library within days. They even have drive through pickup on reserves. Recently, I was researching books on changing trends in higher education and was able to obtain a number of books on reserve from my home computer, was able to download one available in digital to my Kindle, and reserve via internet chat a book not in the system via inter-library loan, all in about 15 minutes, without even having to go to the library. What a pleasure!

Actually, come to think of it, the books I reserved would probably have cost me what I will spend in property taxes to support the library.  All in all, not a bad bargain for such an important community resource!

Neil Gaiman on Libraries and Literacy

Today is a travel day.  Thought I would post this article by Neil Gaiman titled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming“.  The question I continue to wonder about is with the digitization of media, will the physical spaces we call “libraries” continue to be necessary?  I can see the “library of the future” consisting of a computer server (and this need not be localized) and an office with cubicles where librarians spend their day fielding online queries.  I personally would miss the sensual wonder of wandering the stacks and the serendipitous discoveries, but that may not mean much to others.

Literacy and Liberty

This week I’ve been in several conversations with people and with books I’m reading around the theme of the connection between cultural literacy and preserving our liberties. This item first came up as I was reading Os Guinness’s Suicide of a Free People. Guinness’s basic idea is that there are two kinds of freedom–freedom from and freedom for–and that our society almost exclusively emphasizes the former in a manner that is unsustainable for the long haul.  He argues that our founders were wiser in part on these matters because their thought was formed by the classic Greek and Latin writers on government and human affairs, as well as more recent writers like Locke.  For example, they knew of Polybius and the three ideal forms of government, including democracy, and each forms degraded expression, which for democracy is mob rule and built into the constitution various constraints against mob rule in the balancing of powers.

In John Henry Newman’s Idea of a UniversityNewman doesn’t address this directly but speaks of the enlargement of mind that he believes is a function of a liberal education as it classically has been understood:

That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.

What both writers have in common is the recognition of a breadth of perspective that comes when we engage the great writers and great books.  And this is what came up in a couple conversations with university faculty this week. The great concern is that in place of this kind of education, today’s student usually gets a smattering of self-selected GEC courses and lots of focused training in a very specific, job-related area, unless they opt to go to a liberal arts college, or a place like St John’s, that focuses on a Great Books curriculum.  (Here is the reading list for their curriculum.)

What troubles me is that while there is great emphasis on preparing students for entering the world of work, it seems there is little that facilitates the enlargement of mind of which Newman speaks.  Many of us bemoan the smallness of mind that characterizes our present political discourse.  The question for me is whether in fact we are achieving the result that we are aiming for, highly skilled specialists who fuel our economic engines but lack the enlargement of mind and the habits of literacy to think cogently over a lifetime about the important matters required of us as citizens in a representative democracy? Perhaps what troubles me most is wondering what will happen should the cohort entering our workforce wake up and recognize that their education has been directed primarily to the end of making them cogs in our economic machine, and the only resource at hand to them is inchoate anger?  That, it seems, is a prescription for mob rule.