I remember being in about fifth or sixth grade when I first realized that I was reading multiple books at once (and thinking that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.) I was cleaning my room and stacking books I was currently reading beside my nightstand. There were six total–some I’d read before and others that were brand new. (The only title I remember was On the Banks of Plum Creek.) I decided that perhaps I should narrow my focus and complete the oldest ones before moving on, a habit I’ve failed to develop over the years. A new book or author grabs my attention and I don’t want to wait, or a friend makes a recommendation, and then I run out of renewals at the library because not only am I trying to read (maybe) too much, but I do have other things to tend to. (Such as teaching students not to end sentences with a preposition.) Dusting book shelves is the worst as I often find myself in the floor reading with the same feeling you get when sneaking chocolate in a house full of kids.
So now, in order from oldest to most current, with a few comments, are a few of the books I’m currently reading.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
“I’ve told you to read that one like a thousand times!”
We were eating lunch and tossing around book recommendations when I confessed that I had yet to read one of the few recommendations he’d made to me as a writer.
Yes, well, despite how good it might be for a writer to read such a work of nonfiction (Kudos to Harper Lee for all the research Capote didn’t thank you enough for, by the way.), I haven’t been able to make it past the first chapter for a couple of years and peeking ahead hasn’t helped. Of course it’s well written, but the mindset of Hickock and Smith is hard to stay in for too long, probably much as it was for Lewis writing Screwtape. From what I’ve gleaned so far, the murderers’ motives could be summed up easily by the Apostle James and Aristotle: because they are sinful and because they can. Still, I’m sure Capote’s exploration of those truths is probably worth it both generally as a human being and specifically as a writer. We’ll see.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
I actually only have a few more chapters left, and this is one of a few books in which the beauty of the title captivated me and the rest of the book has remained true to its promise. Smith’s writing while earthy and contemplative is not quite as good as To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think she honors childhood and human struggles in a tangible and beautiful way. Heavy themes thread through the story making it more appropriate for older teens and adults, but Smith handles them quite humanely.
Running with the Buffaloes by Chris Lear
Last spring, I wanted to broaden my reading both for the sake of my students and my own personal development. I also was preparing for my first 5k and wanted to write about running in addition to doing it.
“Well, if you’re going to write about running, you need to read about it,” a far more experienced runner told me, and then he gave me a list of about five books to read. I checked two libraries and couldn’t find it, so based on my faith in this person’s judgment (and the fact that he’s a pretty good salesman, and maybe even more so that he’s the guy who recommended In Cold Blood–ahem, guilt trip), I went ahead and ordered the book. I’ll admit I’ve had to Google terms like “red shirt,” but the great thing with reading about the daily perseverance of athletes is that it’s much harder to snack while reading, despite Mr. Lewis’s claim that “eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably” (142).
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxis
Last summer I made a a few six to eight hour road trips to see some friends in Nashville, D.C., and Alabama, so I borrowed several of my family’s Focus on the Family Radio Dramas: Les Miserables, The Hiding Place, C. S. Lewis at War (which is actually mine), and finally, Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Freedom. I knew a little bit about Bonhoeffer from Dr. Greg Thornbury in chapels at Union University and even more from my mom when she went on her Bonhoeffer kick. (My mom has a strange obsession with dead men. Her historical flames have ranged from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to John Adams to Winston Churchill to Stonewall Jackson to Martin Luther. And somehow nearly all of them remind her of Dad at one point.) To be honest, about all I remembered from the documentary she had us watch was a naked man walking to the gallows and big letters detailing the end of his life and continuance of his legacy plastered across the screen as if to provide some sense of modesty. I did read his short book Life Together, but it wasn’t until after driving with no air conditioning through the state of Virginia in the middle of July and listening to the story of the man’s life (with no distractions, hineys, or big letters) that I decided to discover who this man actually was and borrow the thick blue and black book mom had already read at least twice. Halfway through, and the question brought about from his life is the same challenging one from his books: Are those of you who say you love Jesus and believe Him willing to do what He says with the expectation that it will be as costly as He promised?
Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds
The first time I met Miss Sayers was while applying for a job at a classical Christian school in Jackson, TN. Those of you in the realm of classical education can probably guess that they had me read her lecture “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Of course her lecture doesn’t adequately represent Miss Sayers (or classical education for that matter, nor was that her intention, but that’s another conversation). But first meetings are often limited. Over the years I came to appreciate Lord Peter Wimsey. (He’s great for the bathtub, preferably without the dead body and pinch nez.) I came to learn through conversations with friends that she was fairly well-acquainted with the Inklings and had written things like The Man Born to Be King, Are Women Human?, and The Mind of the Maker. This past Christmas my mom gave me a biography of Sayers (after reading it first), and I’ve been delighted, intrigued, and perplexed by this complicated woman’s story. At times she seems so much the person you see in her more theological writings, and then at others you see that she was quite human herself in ways you might not have expected, and then you realize it really is the same person all along.
Socratic Logic by Peter Kreeft
I asked for this book for my birthday a year ago because I’ve been wanting to learn formal logic for my own purposes as well as to become a better teacher of students within what Dorothy Sayers calls the “Pert” stage. I was acquainted with Kreeft’s writing through his Philosophy of Tolkien, which was an unrequested and thoroughly relished gift from a friend, and his logic text came recommended from many fellow scholars in Faulkner’s Great Books Program. I’ve dabbled in the same logic text/workbook as my students, but I’ve quickly found Kreeft’s approach to be more conversational and helpful to someone seeking to self-educate.
The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry
I’m ashamed to say that I gave away one of Mr. Berry’s books a few years ago having never actually attempted to read it. One of my college friends’ roommates had left (for good) a stack of books in her apartment, and as they were up for grabs, I helped myself to a few including Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and a hardback collection of Mr. Berry’s agrarian essays. I want to say it was The Art of Commonplace, but I’m not even sure, which indicates how ignorantly unappreciative I was of his work. I felt as if I’d heard the name before (from my poetry professor, I believe), but when downsizing my shelves, I passed the book on to a friend who also collected (and sold) books.
“You can just sell these and keep the money.” I said. He sifted through the stack, indicating half to himself and half to me which ones he planned to keep for himself, and The Art of the Commonplace was one of them.
“Are you sure you want to get rid of these?” He asked.
I had no idea. It’s the one book I regret having tossed aside, though I know it’s in good hands. After hearing the poet-farmer’s name for the millionth time from fellow grad students and professors, I thought I might need to take a field trip to the library. I grabbed a few of his poetry and essay collections, along with the novel The Memory of Old Jack. I’d spent time trying to select where might be a good place to start, but I also confess I liked the title. My great-grandfather was a lumbering coal miner named Jack, and his daughter (my grandmother) is the primary reason I love stories, especially about hardworking people who fight close to the earth.
I haven’t been disappointed. He’s been one of those writers that I not only find pleasurable and wise, but I with whom I find myself thinking I want to write like this man.
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This one probably should be at the top, as I’ve read the first chapter multiple times over the years, checking it out from three different libraries (and incurring a $1 fine at the last one) until finally purchasing it, only to have my mom say she bought and read it about a year ago. Far from lacking in style or relevance, the book is simply thought-provoking, one meant to be read more in the way I’ve watched my dad read a book. (He nurses one book at a time in his big chair in the living room, often as early as five or six in the morning. In fact, its very similar to how he eats a candy bar. He puts it in the refrigerator, and for several weeks he gets it out just to smell it and let everyone else know it’s still there. Then the day comes in which he gets it out, and takes the tiniest bite just to show everyone his prowess over chocolate. It’s a completely different story with licorice or candied peanuts.) I have made it through the second chapter, which I had to read not in one sitting but three, and I was sharing the other day with a colleague that I couldn’t remember the last time a book made me feel uncomfortable in a good way. Agreeing with Pastor Bonhoeffer about the prevalence and devastation of cheap grace is one thing, but to take in his implications of the paradox “Only those who believe obey” and “Only those who obey believe” is a bit daunting: don’t read it unless you expect to do something in response (68).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1959.
Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. Orlando, Harcourt, 1955.