Vital Works, Revivified

July-August 2010

This July-August 2010 issue of the NOR contains a minor milestone. We are re-introducing herein a long-lost article series: "Vital Works Reconsidered." Readers with long memories will recall this series, which began in 1989 and continued through 1995, when it ended with installment #18. The "vital works" were literary classics, which were "reconsidered" in light of the Catholic faith. The reasons why the original series ended so abruptly way back when are, unfortunately, lost in the mist of time. The reasons for its revival, however, are front and center.

When our current editorial team took over the reins of this magazine in 2008, one of our primary goals was to broaden the range of topics we discuss. We didn't want the NOR to be known as a one- or even a two-trick pony, harping on the same themes article after article, issue after issue. Our mission, for example, isn't to be a mouthpiece for the implementation of a single liturgical format or to advance the interests of the "American project." Neither do we want to limit ourselves to chronicling liturgical horror stories or throwing cold water in the faces of imperialist dreamers. We want to do more than that. And we want to do more than merely analyze the news or investigate Church history. We want to do more than just apologetics or polemics. We want to do more than hammer heretics or present uplifting stories of saints. We want to do it all. In a word, we want to bring you the most well-rounded of all Catholic periodicals.

Part and parcel of that program is to renew our waned focus on matters literary.

But our purpose in reviving the "Vital Works" series extends beyond the pages of the magazine you hold in your hand. The intellectual well-being of our religion and our culture is at stake. You see, the battle of the great ideas has taken on a new dimension in recent decades. Ideas aren't so much battling one another anymore; they're battling for their very existence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the unprecedented plight of book and periodical publishers, particularly small Catholic publishers like the NOR. As we explained in our editorial "How Many Victims Will the Revolution Claim?" (Nov. 2009), we are in "the throes of a media revolution," one in which "lifestyle trends, modern reading habits, and the diffusion of technology have collided with a worldwide economic downturn to threaten the viability of the printed word." The media revolution, we pointed out, "is really symptomatic of a larger cultural crisis": We are witnessing "the vanishing of great minds in Western culture." If we stand down before the revolutionary tide, we will be left with a religious and cultural landscape bereft of great ideas, in much the same way Ray Bradbury predicted in his seminal dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.

This is why literature matters. Literature matters because ideas matter. Through the ages, the great ideas have frequently found their expression in the great works of literature, both fiction and nonfiction. Literature matters because, as David Mills wrote aptly in "The Moral of the Story" (Nov. 2009), all true and valuable stories ultimately refer to "the Great Story" — the story of our redemption through Christ's death and resurrection. Not coincidentally, this story has been handed down to us intact primarily through the greatest volume of writing mankind has ever known, the Bible.

Imagine a religion without great minds to grapple with the great ideas in the Bible, theology, philosophy, and literature. What would such an impoverished Catholicism look like? Try fundamentalist Protestantism, with every man his own Magisterium and the prosperity gospel as the only common denominator. Not pretty, is it?

So we've pledged ourselves to the cause of the coun­ter-revolution in defense of the printed word and the ideas they convey, and to the renewal of the NOR as the most complete Catholic journal available today. A magazine that engages the great ideas as part of a broader discussion of topics relating to the faith can itself prove to be a vital resource in the evangelization of the culture.

Therefore, as a supplement to our ongoing reviews of notable new books toward the back of every issue of the NOR, we've been ramping up our explorations of vital, classic works of literature — see, for example, Tracy Jamison's article, "Flannery O'Connor & the Representation of Mystery," in our last issue. We are now ready to restore the official designation that formerly denoted these efforts: "Vital Works Reconsidered."

The idea behind the original series, as explained by the editors at the time of its November 1989 inauguration — Whittaker Chambers's Witness was the first work reconsidered, by contributing editor John Lukacs — was "to select an old, seminal book (or article) and take a fresh look at it. The book (or article) may be a classic or near-classic, or, alternately, something worth rescuing from obscurity. It has been selected, not because our writer agrees of disagrees with it, but because it is of enduring significance and worthy of further consideration."

With that in mind, we invite you to join us in welcoming back this series by enjoying Matthew Anger's three-pack blast on page 32 of this issue. Mr. Anger picks up the discussion by reconsidering three Victorian morality tales: Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells's Invisible Man, and Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. Lovers of books and ideas won't want to miss it.

We will present further installments in the "Vital Works" series periodically in future issues. We already have a few more entries lined up, so stay tuned.

For those of you curious about the original series, our online archives, available at our website, www.newoxfordreview.org, currently contain the last five installments:
#18: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, reconsidered by Mitchell Kalpakgian (May 1995)
#17: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, reconsidered by Edwin Fussell (Jan.-Feb. 1995)
#16: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, reconsidered by Charles Hallett (Nov. 1994)
#15: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, reconsidered by Edwin Fussell (Oct. 1994)
#14: Philosophy of Democracy by Yves R. Simon, reconsidered by Glenn N. Schram (Jan.-Feb. 1993)
Our online archives will eventually include all installments in the series, as we endeavor add all the past issues of the NOR. (Our archives currently go back to 1993.) Back issues of the print edition are also available upon request. See the notice on page 18 for information.

We also welcome submissions from those who wish to contribute to this series. For brief instructions on how to submit manuscripts to the NOR, see the notice on page 39 of this issue. For more detailed instructions, click the Submission Guidelines link in the left toolbar at our website.


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