Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Books Are Here! The Books Are Here!

The Ignatius sale spurred me to buy some books I coveted (in a non-sinful way, of course) but could not justify purchasing: Volumes 29-34 of the Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton (The Illustrated London News).

Ah, but at only $5 a volume, the temptation proved too much.

They arrived the other day. My wife gave me that "Not more books?" look.

I blame Ignatius.



Anonymous said...

I was just as delighted as you when my sale copies of his 1911-1928 articles in the Illustrated London News arrived. Thanks for telling me about that special offer. I can read the originals at a local university library, but this is much handier.

While it'd be wrong to suggest that any slice of Chesterton's writing is his best, the ILN was a very influential publication, roughly equivalent to Time magazine in the 1950s and 1960s. It attracted an educated and well-informed audience and was particularly known for its high quality pictures and graphics, hence the "Illustrated."

From 1905 until his death in 1936, Chesterton wrote the magazine's only opinion column, Our Note-Book. Well aware of the magazine's influential audience, he almost always wrote on serious themes. Because the magazine had such a wide circulation, he also wrote quite extensively on international topics. It's the place to go to study Chesterton as a statesman and foreign policy advocate.

When I first began Chesterton on War and Peace, I'd hoped to include almost all that Chesterton wrote on those topics. I quickly discovered that'd be impossible to fit inside one cover, so the book became the best of what he wrote for the ILN between 1905 and 1922, when the post-WWI debate about what to do with Germany came to an end.

That proved a marvelous choice. In those articles, he explains in great detail the causes of war and, with great realism, how peace can be maintained. His warnings about the potential for Germany to start another war were so strong and his condemnation of the very aspects of Germany that Nazism would later exploit were so great, that I ended up giving the book the subtitle "Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II." Chesterton was issuing the warnings Churchill would later issue, but doing so twenty years earlier.

To give a shameless plug for my book, if you're an expert on World War I, there's isn't much in Chesterton on War and Peace that you won't find in the ILN collection itself. But if, like me when I began that project, your understanding of that war is lacking, you'll find the extensive commentary and footnotes I include quite helpful. About half the book's 250,000 words is commentary and background to what Chesterton is saying.

There's a reason for that. The ILN was a weekly magazine written for a well-informed audience and Chesterton wrote for them as such. When he referred to recent events in the Balkans or to some politician, his readers knew what he meant. Some 90 years later, we don't. Even more important, when he's debating something that someone else has written, I made every effort to find those other remarks and include them in a footnote. You get to read Chesterton and his foes locked in mortal combat. You'll know what he was fighting when he clashed with H. G. Wells or Bernard Shaw.

Most important of all, what Chesterton had to say about war and peace is as relevant today as it was then. In fact, as I edited it, I was forced, almost against my will, to adopt a different point of view. Read any history about the end of WWI and the 1920s, and you'll read of extensive efforts to get nations to disarm. Because a naval arms race preceded WWI, conventional wisdom was that disarmament would prevent another war.

Chesterton would have none of that, dismissing the idea, in reference to Germany, as "breaking their toys." And, after much thought, I concluded he was right. Weapons weren't the issue. Germany was disarmed after WWI. It remained without an effective military until Hitler took power in 1933. But none of that kept Germany from becoming powerful enough to conquer most of Europe a mere seven years later.

Instead, Chesterton stressed a need to keep the focus on the primary threat to peace, which he made clear was Germany, and for the leaders of Britain and France to display the courage and wisdom to block any aggressive moves by Germany, particularly in Eastern Europe, whose small countries would prove all to tempting. In 1932, before Hitler took power, he warned that Germany would get itself a dictator and become aggressive. He warned that unless the leaders of Britain acted, the next war would begin over a border dispute between Germany and Poland, precisely what happened in 1939.

The same principles that Chesterton was championing in his day are relevant today as we face trouble in the Middle East and with Russia. In fact, many of Chesterton's criticisms of German nationalism apply with almost equal force to Putin's Russia. There's the same arrogance, the same bullying, the same inability to see from any perspective but their own. We ignore what he wrote to our peril.

p said...

'My wife gave me that "Not more books?" look.'

Ha! I know that look all too well. That was a great sale. I picked up a number of the Pope's books that I had on my wish list.

A Secular Franciscan said...

m - of course there is an unofficial understanding with the good-looking-one that if I bring a new book into the house, an old one has to go.

Six new Chestertons - what to six old ones get donated to the library??

A Secular Franciscan said...

Michael - wow, my short and simple post sure attracted a lengthy and informative comment from you! The irony is that I received a begging letter from the Chesterton Society the other day, and in addition to a donation I ordered a copy of your book!