Books and Beyond

“Alone in the Labyrinth” is the title of Hugh Mercer Curtler’s recent book, published by Ellis Press, c 2018. I find it to be one of the books I would take with me anytime to read and reread. It’s available at Marshall-Lyon County Library. Professor Curtler taught at Southwest Minnesota State University for many years … that’s where I knew him, though our paths didn’t cross often. He taught philosophy and coached tennis. He has written many books.

On the first page he quotes three people who have much to offer. Henry Adams wrote in 1868 that all the new discoveries and accomplishments in American life hadn’t done away with the troubles.

Ingmar Bergman, Swedish filmmaker, wrote that people had begun to focus on the individual rather than understanding the human need to worship a being larger than ourselves.

The first sentence refers to Carl Gustav Jung, Swiss psychiatrist, who said “modern man is in search of a soul.”

Then after reading just 20 pages, I felt in agreement with Curtler’s overall message: the past has much to teach us. It might be better for us to be like medieval people in how they tended to be happy with what they had — one’s soul was above material rewards. Here’s another way Hugh says it: “a healthy spirituality is essential to the well-being of any human civilization” (page 7).

Another essay that hit home is “Those Demons Among Us,” (pages 52 & 53). The night before I read this my husband and I had two couples for the evening meal. We are all in our mid-60s to late 70s. And Curtler’s two pages here got right to the point we discussed. We’ve learned a lot during our many years of life and could share with young people. But they are busy with finishing school or college or finding a job. To them we are old. One male guest said even his 10-year-old grandchild thinks he is someone to shun and not spend much time with.

My wish is that my parents had coached me to spend more time with aunts and uncles and grandparents and ask them questions about their lives. What have they learned?

To me the title of the book tells us we can feel alone in the labyrinth (definition: spiritual path), but hopefully we are on a journey to find meaning in life. And meaning often comes when we communicate with friends and writers who want to make sense out of life.

In the introduction, Curtler tells us that this book comes from his blogs, which are from 2011 to 2017. The entries are organized into six chapters: Seeking Answers, Education, Law and Freedom, Virtue and Values, Society and Culture, Art and Literature.

On page three the reference to Henry Adams took me back to my deep interest in the early days of our country. I have two of Henry Adam’s 15 books: Volume 1 and Volume 2 of “History of the United States during the Administration of Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809.” Henry Adams is the great-grandson of our second president, John Adams.

In the first chapter of Adams’ book, he describes the movement of people from the original 13 states to the territory across the Alleghenies. They often went west by the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Ohio rivers, and sometimes by wagon roads. This book is off my shelves now, and I’ll get back to reading it again.

The title of Curtler’s second section is “Education.” Again, I’m interested in the people Hugh quotes. Walter Cronkite said that television was focused on entertainment. Many people want to experience activity and noise as they watch TV. Curtler wants what is on television news to expand our “powers of imagination, thought, and memory” (page 73).

Forms of technology come up in many of the essays, and the general reaction is that the liberal arts education we really need is not built with computers. Yes, we can access information quickly, but thinking about important issues with the help of a good teacher is not there. Electronic “toys” perhaps keep us in touch briefly with people, but we are not usually communicating about things that really matter.

A liberal education in the humanities and sciences includes grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, music, astronomy, and arithmetic. Most of the time, the specific skills needed for employment can be taught “on the job.”

After reading this section, my idea is that college freshmen should be asked to write a paper about how they were educated during their years in preschool to grade 12. Was it mainly courses about how to do things? Did they study how to think about ideas such as how our country developed a democratic government? What were the strengths and weaknesses of the 1789 meetings when James Madison led the 13 states to develop the U.S. Constitution?

So far I’ve just introduced you to the first two sections in Curtler’s book. I’m still reading. The index lists subjects in the book and the people quoted. Because of Curtler’s respect for the British writer George Eliot, I’ve pulled her book “The Mill on the Floss” off the shelf.

Mr. Curtler’s book is on the Marshall Library’s new shelf under 814.6 CUR. For more titles that can help satisfy your curious mind, look to the Library’s “DIY University” section, just past the study rooms on the way to the Minnesota Room (where you can find more wonderful Minnesota authors!).