Saturday, September 29, 2018

Netflix does "Hold the Dark": William Giraldi's novel on the screen, directed by Jeremy Saulnier

I don't watch too many movies these days (kids and work and all) but I am hoping to catch the screen adaptation of William Giraldi's Hold the Dark, which was released on Netflix yesterday. The novel is outstanding, in my opinion, and betrays the author's deeply Catholic imagination, though he may not care to admit it.

What am I talking about? For those interested, I'll re-up two pieces I wrote when I first read the novel a few years back:

-My initial take for this blog

-My essay for Dappled Things, which won third place in their 2017 non-fiction contest

I have a few book reviews forthcoming--stay tuned! When they run I will post links here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Review of How to Think

My review of Alan Jacobs' How to Think is up and running at the American Interest. It's my first time writing for them, and I've been impressed by the quality of their publication. I admire Jacobs as a writer and thinker, but I came away from How to Think with mixed feelings. Though the book contains exactly the right kind of advice for our distracted, tribal age, the form of Jacobs' argument--scattered, unnecessarily redundant, and circuitous--works against the very good habits he wants to inculcate in his readers.

The American Interest allows two free articles per month without a subscription, so if you're looking for another offering, check out Sean Keeley's thoughtful take on Ross Douthat's most recent book on Pope Francis.

Monday, July 2, 2018

An Update, and Some News

It's been over six months since my last post here, and I wanted to update any regular readers (hi Mom!) on the status of the blog and my writing. This past year our family has grown and my school obligations have increased, and I just haven't had the time to spend on the blog. And perhaps that's not a bad thing: these kinds of undertakings naturally ebb and flow, and I'm amazed to see that it's been 3 1/2 years, and 72 posts, since my first one on Walker Percy. It certainly hasn't felt that long.

The time I have had to write I've dedicated to publishing, and in the near future I'll have three reviews running in various publications, both print and online. They are: Tara Westover's Educated, Alan Jacobs' How to Think, and Susan Wise Bauer's Rethinking School. I'll post all links here when they run.

New blog posts are on hold for now and for the forseeable future, but I will continue to use this site as a hub of sorts for my writing. I'll use it to update readers when my writing is published, and I may also post "further thoughts" on articles and reviews I've written. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Catholic Paradise: Further Thoughts on David S. Brown's Paradise Lost

The January 5th edition of Commonweal contains my review of David S. Brown’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Paradise Lost. My take is that though Brown’s book gives us a unique angle on Fitzgerald’s work, it doesn’t do enough to give us a complete portrait of the author. A large part of that, as I argue in the review, stems from Brown’s misunderstanding of the kind of paradise that animated Fitzgerald’s art, and I’d like to elaborate on that a little more in this post.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Teaching Western Civ Backwards

As someone who has both taken a Western Civilization sequence as an undergraduate and taught it as a teacher (my school has an interdisciplinary program that all Sophomores take) I have spent a good deal of time thinking about the scope of such a comprehensive undertaking. What is the best way to introduce students to the thought and culture that connects Greece and Rome all the way to the good ‘ol US of A? Which thinkers should we teach? How do we do proper justice to the tradition and confront the darker aspects of Western culture as well as acknowledge its achievements? There aren’t easy answers, of course, which makes the task even more interesting and keeps me coming back to the question.

Monday, August 28, 2017

St. Midas Goes to Print!

The September 8th issue of Commonweal includes my article "St. Midas's Prep: What Catholic Schools Can Learn from Fitzgerald." The article was published on the magazine's website last fall, and at that time I wrote two follow-up posts to the issues I raised:

"More on St. Midas, Part 1: Identifying the Problem"

"More on St. Midas, Part 2: Three Suggestions for a Return to the Humanities"

Also, see my review of William Deresiewicz's book Excellent Sheep, which I draw upon in the Commonweal article.

Thanks to Commonweal for getting it to print! My review of a recent biography of F. Scott should be forthcoming in their magazine as well.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich and the Socially Mediated Self (LMM #4)

(This is the fourth installment in my Literature for the Modern Mind series. To learn more about the series, see here.)

This past year I had the opportunity to teach Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich for the first time. In re-reading the novella, I was struck by how well Ivan’s character, who orients his life around the avoidance of discomfort and the pursuit of the approval of his peers, resembles the kind of self-understanding that our modern culture—especially social media—works to create in us.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Jacques Maritain Prize at Dappled Things

I'm honored to have received 3rd place in Dappled Things' annual Jacques Maritain essay contest, for my 2016 article on William Giraldi's Hold the Dark. I'm especially humbled to see the other names ahead of me--artist Daniel Mistui and the philosopher/writer James Matthew Wilson. Both are quite accomplished in their respective fields. Congrats to them and thanks to Dappled Things for the award.

Sorry for the sparse blogging of late. I hope to return soon, once some upcoming events and obligations are behind us.

See my original essay here:

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Contemplation and Catholic Education: on Rik Van Nieuwenhove and Simone Weil

I came across a great article published recently in The Journal of Catholic Higher Education (Villanova U.) that argues that the distinct identity of Catholic education lies in religious contemplation. The author, an Irish professor named Rik Van Nieuwenhove, draws heavily on one of my favorite essays, Simone Weil’s “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” I would upload a .pdf of the article, but it I imagine it wouldn’t be kosher, since Villanova doesn’t make it available online. Thankfully, the author has posted the piece to his profile, where you can view the article or even download it if you sign up for a free account, which I did.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Follow me on Twitter

Say it ain’t so! After much back-and-forth between the angel and devil on my shoulders, I decided to join the wide world of Twitter (I’m not sure who won the argument…but I don’t really think I want to know).

I don’t plan to do much original Twittering, but to use the medium to give more visibility to this blog and my writing in general. I will Tweet out new posts, and probably some old ones, too, so if that is your platform of choice, I invite you to follow me: @Mike_StThomas

And you can always contact me the (relatively) old-fashioned way:

Monday, April 3, 2017

More thoughts on Nicholson Baker's Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids

Commonweal Magazine’s latest issue contains my review of Nicholson Baker’s Substitute, in which the best-selling novelist observes classroom life in your everyday American public school. You can read the piece here. I found the book to be a painfully accurate depiction of life on the ground in our educational technocracy. In this post I'd like to include some observations that I didn’t have the space or time for in the review itself, not the least of which is the book’s relevance to Catholic educators.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Community, Consumption, and the Canon (Part 2)

In my first post, I discussed Augustine’s idea that a community is bound by common “objects of love,” by real things which people experience in common. I hope here to use that definition to get a better handle on why the canon—the art and ideas that are foundational to our culture—needs to be central to any academic community.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Community, Consumption, and the Canon (Part 1)

What makes a community? And what sustains it? Important questions in any age, and certainly in ours, for whatever glue it is that holds us together has never seemed more brittle.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sir Gawain and the Sin of Self-Preservation (LMM #3)

(By Unknown -, Public Domain,

This is the third installment in my slow-to-develop “Literature for the Modern Mind” series. For an overview of what it’s all about, see here.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the role Catholic education plays in helping students understand the ways in which our Christian inheritance comes into conflict with the modern technocracy. My recent article on “St. Midas’ Prep” deals with this subject directly, and as I’ve thought about it more and more, I’ve come to conclude that everything at stake here can be boiled down to one essential question: Does the world exist for us, or do we exist for the world?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Drinking and Storytelling

Last year for a Christmas present I received a copy of Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking. Now that this year’s Christmas vacation is here, I’ve finally found time to read it (aren’t gifted books like wedding thank-you notes? One year to get around to them?). It’s quite good—Laing, a British writer, travels the US on a route that traces the haunts and tortured careers of six American writers of the last century: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway (pictured above), John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. All of these writers also happened to be professional alcoholics, and Laing digs deep to find the roots of their drinking in their pasts, as well as its manifestations in their art. I’m more than halfway through, and so far it’s excellent. Laing's gaze is unflinching, neither glamorizing their drinking nor celebrity status, and in its ability to connect the dots among the six protagonists, the book reminds me of another of my favorite multi-person biographies: Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which presented the interconnected lives of the last century’s most influential American Catholic writers: Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O’Connor.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Technocrat or Storyteller? On Hillbilly Elegy, Public Schools, and Trump

During weeks leading up to and after the presidential election, I read J.D. Vance’s much-talked-about memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. The book had shot to the top of the bestseller lists before the election, and in the wake of Trump’s victory, Vance has been a go-to commentator for an East Coast media desperately searching for someone who understands what makes the rest of the country tick.

Friday, October 21, 2016

More on St. Midas, Part 2: Three Suggestions for a Return to the Humanities

In Part 1 of my follow-up to my recent article in Commonweal, I attempted to explain how Catholic high schools encourage the achievement culture without perhaps realizing it. Online gradebooks, I argued, play a major part in fostering an “education-as-consumption” mindset, in which students are made to understand their classes as opportunities for them to gobble information in order to receive accolades. I think that most Catholic educators would agree that this is not what a Catholic school culture should be. So what should we do?

Monday, October 3, 2016

More on St. Midas, Part 1: Identifying the Problem

­­­­Thanks to Commonweal for running my piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Catholic schools. It's online now and is forthcoming in their print magazine. It’s been a while since I wrote the article, and in revisiting it in recent weeks, I realized that I have quite a bit more to say on the topic of the achievement culture and Catholic Ed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Andrew Sullivan on the Distracted Life in New York Magazine

I apologize for the sparse blogging as of late. I've started teaching at a new school, and the start of the school year, combined with learning the ins-and-outs of my new community, has filled up my mental space. I hope to have more time to think and write as all of these new things settle into a routine, which is already starting to happen.

While I have a minute, though, I wanted to draw attention to Andrew Sullivan's article in the most recent issue of New York Magazine. Sullivan, you might know, is among the most prominent cultural writers of our time. He was one of the first public figures to push for same-sex marriage. His blog was at the forefront of the push of the 24/7 cycle of news-and-commentary, and his influence is enormous.

Sullivan stopped blogging last year, and in his article he writes about his recovery from addiction to the information cloud. I won't recap the article here, but a few things struck me:

First, we can add Sullivan to the list of prominent writers who are leading the discussion about the harms of 24/7 access to information, along with Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, Matthew Crawford, etc. These are folks who are arguing that personal technology is not only changing how we understand the world but how we understand ourselves as human beings. I tend to agree with them, of course, and think that our future depends on figures of their generation (30-and-older) speaking out now about what is happening. We have the privilege of remembering what I've heard called "an analog past"--a time when our thoughts were not directed towards the digital stream, when there was no alternative to being present where you were, when peace and rest and leisure seemed to come a little easier than it does now. My current students do not have this memory--as they grow older, smartphones and wifi will be to them what television is to most of us living now: something always there, as fixed in the universe as rock ledge.

It is easier for those with a memory of an analog existence to fall prey to technological cynicism and visions of the apocalypse, for sure. But those who have experienced life without the cloud are the only ones who are able to remember what the cloud obscures, what was lost. We are living on what we could call a "seam" of history, where the direction of society takes a drastic shift, and while we are on that seam we can see that direction as a direction, and not as the background scenery. To know something for what it really is, as Eliot said, is to know it "for the first time." We are there now, and writers like Sullivan, who do the work of preserving that vision of technological havoc while it is still fresh, are not unlike Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and the other Romantics, who witnessed what kind of transcendent vision was being lost in industrialization, and tried to preserve it in their art.

My second observation is that Sullivan's article is more proof that the current state of affairs moves intellectuals into two camps: those who follow the god of information and those who admit that there is a soul. Is human experience ultimately material or transcendent? There is no in-between, and one benefit of the rapid acceleration of personal technology is that it forces the hand of thinkers who otherwise wouldn't be caught talking positively about things like religion to admit that the world does have meaning. Consider Sullivan, a fallen-away Catholic who is publicly at odds with the Church, who in his article writes about the importance of monasteries and of creating a space in our routines, such as "weekly Mass...that lets your life breathe." Religion, Catholicism especially, might be the only cultural institution left that has a chance of surviving the information age with its identity intact, because its practices cultivate stillness rather than restlessness, silence rather than noise, being consumed by rather than consuming.

Sullivan, who should know better than anyone else the effects of 24/7 connection to the information stream, writes at the end of his essay that "the threat is to our souls." Strong words from a man who has chosen them carefully. I urge you to read his essay.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Further Thoughts on David Denby's Lit Up

In America Magazine's most recent issue you'll find my review of David Denby's Lit Up.  Some additional thoughts—on Denby's project, and teaching while Catholic—that I didn't have room to fit in the piece:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What is Education for? William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep and the Religious Tradition

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Catholic school’s role in perpetuating our American meritocracy. It’s been an underlying theme of this whole blog, and I wrote about it most directly last year in a post on F.Scott Fitzgerald’s experience in a Catholic prep school. That post has since developed into a more polished article that should run in the near future in a Catholic periodical.