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He was......intimidating. The smartest guy in the room intimidating. Henry Adams, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were both American Presidents. There were plenty of troubled failures in the family, but not so Henry. Like his illustrious forebears, he went back in time, to Europe. Unlike John and John Quincy, he stayed there, at least scholastically, being an historian and intellectual. He had, oh, opinions. If he were political, he might have been the smartest man ever to be President. And like the other Adamses, he would not have served a second term. Smart as he was, he was often wrong. Some believe his adultery was a cause of his wifes suicide. And his published views on Jews are not softer than Hitlers.But I just want to talk about this book, which is unlike anything I have ever read. There is a structure to it that is not really apparent until near the end. It starts as a tourist guide, if you will, Henry taking us first to Mont-Saint Michel and then to Chartres, the former a warm-up for the latter. Look at this buttress, this nave, this window. Its a class in architecture, but never just that. Tourists want as few dates as possible; what they want is poetry. And so, through the roses and apses, Adams concludes:You may, if you really have no imagination whatever, reject the idea that the Virgin herself made the plan; the feebleness of our fancy is now congenital, organic, beyond stimulant or strychnine, and we shrink like sensitive-plants from the touch of a vision or spirit; but at least one can still sometimes feel a womans taste, and in the apse of Chartres one feels nothing else.Hey, I got an imagination. And thats nice, about the womans taste. But then overcome by the beauty of the glass of Chartres, he challenges (to the point of insult) the reader:You had better stop here, once for all, unless you are willing to feel that Chartres was made what it is, not by the artist, but by the Virgin.I pressed on anyhow, annoyed instead of sold, hoping, as an excuse, that he stared too long through the rosettes, straining his neck and thus his pen into hyperbolic ecstasy.As it turned out, all this -- the tour of French cathedrals -- was a base for Adams exploration of Christian thought. See, the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Acquinas was like the converging lines inside the nave of Chartres. Thomas, Adams says, was a theological architect. It takes a long time to get there.As Im writing this, Im wondering how I could have liked reading such gibberish. All I can say, in my defense, is that Adams can write as well as anyone Ive read. There are times when he refuses to translate from the Latin or French - (the whole Trinity, with the Virgin to aid, had not the power to pardon him who should translate Dante and Petrarch) - on the basis of the words being too beautiful or too sincere for translation. Perhaps its best to read Adams like that as well, as too lush to be weighed down with sense or translation.

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