Category Archives: non-fiction

Favourite Non-Fiction Books

After posting my ten favourite novels I got thinking about a top-ten non-fiction list. This turned out to be much harder than I thought it would be. I’ve got a list of non-fiction books that I like and have been influential, but how do you pick favourites? And how do you eliminate some of these? I’m not sure. So I have two lists.

The first list is my current top ten, ordered alphabetically by title. Here it is:

An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

Girl Meets God by Lauren F. Winner

Holy Writing Sacred Text by John Barton

How To Read Slowly by James W. Sire

Outsmarting IQ by David Perkins

Second Words by Margaret Atwood

The Call of Stories by Robert Coles

The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education by Walter Brueggemann

The Godbearing Life by Kenda Creasy Dean

The Science of God by Alister McGrath

The second list is the next twenty books. These books might make a top ten list given more or different criteria, or given a different week or month. I couldn’t quite bump them up, but neither could I let them go. So here they are for your consideration, again alphabetically by title.

100 Ways to Improve your Writing by Gary Provost

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Between Two Worlds by John R.W. Stott

Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry by William R. Myers

Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

Everybody’s Favourites by Arlene Pearly Rae

Knowing God by J.I. Packer

Like Dew Your Youth by Eugene Peterson

Of This and Other Worlds by C.S. Lewis

Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative by Adele Berlin

Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

Take and Read by Eugene Peterson

Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible

The Bluestocking Circle by Sylvia Harstock Myers

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Original Vision by Edward Robinson

The Scope of Our Art by L. Gregory Jones

This Odd and Wondrous Calling by Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell

How about you, any favourite non-fiction reads?


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Current and Recent Reading

It has been a bit of a slow reading year so far. Not that I haven’t been reading (68 completed books to date), not that I haven’t been reading widely (both fiction and non-fiction, the old books percentage is up-to-date), but nothing has really stood out so far. Sometimes that happens, then BAM, a book hits you over the head. Still looking for the BAM book.

Enjoyable current reads:

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. I started this one a while ago and never got past the first page. Not sure why. This time I’m enjoying it very much. There is this lovely little bit on books and reading near the beginning. The main character is in hospital recovering from a serious fall and is contemplating with some disgust the pile of books kind friends have sent in.

Even in that, you knew what to expect on the next page. Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thrilled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about ‘a new Silas Weekley’ or ‘a new Lavinia Fitch’ exactly as they talked about ‘a new brick’ or ‘a new hairbrush’. They never said ‘a new book by’ whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.

Excellent. The book itself is about Richard III, monarch who has recently been in the news because he was dug up out of a car park. This book is a great novel to give beginning history students, or anyone who thinks all history they’ve heard in school is true. This is one of my older books, so there is no discussion of kings in car parks at all.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. Below-stairs at the Bennet’s house during the events related in Pride and Prejudice. So far this is a well-imagined mirror world. I’m quite enjoying it.

Recent Reads:

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. A very enjoyable essay on reading and its benefits. Jacobs does not rail against the internet and all distractions, but talks about them as one who has been distracted, but managed to find his way back from distraction. With an e-reader. True story.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I had high expectations of this book as many people said this was THE Murakami book as far as they were concerned. I’m not quite sure. I think I liked 1Q84 better. It is the fourth Murakami I’ve read, and it isn’t the last, but so far it isn’t my favourite. Possibly I was reading it at the wrong time.

What have you been reading?

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Ten (non-fiction) books on my To-Be-Read Pile

Yesterday I inflicted part of my fiction To-Be-Read Pile upon you. Today, it is time for non-fiction. These are all books in the actual piles in my apartment. They are not on shelves. Some of them are borrowed from the library or from kind, accommodating friends. Again, these are in no particular order.

  1. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition by C.S. Lewis. Scored a seventies reprint at a used bookshop. Looking forward to Lewis on Literature.
  2. The Lord as Their Portion: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World by Elizabeth Rapley. It looks interesting and the title is intriguing and there is a great photo of cloisters on the front.
  3. Thomas Cranmer by Diarmaid MacCulloch. A biography of a Very Important English Reformer. And he has a great beard in the cover painting. I borrowed this from the accommodating friends.
  4. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs. A biography of C.S. Lewis with a cool picture of him and a lion drawing on the cover.
  5. Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac by Mark Kingwell. A local Philosophy prof writes popular essays.
  6. The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund De Waal. About a nineteenth-century art collector and his collection and his family.
  7. Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey. More monastic practice, but with notes for current practice of this ancient art.
  8. A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. Recommended to me by a friend last summer, but I haven’t quite gotten past getting it to reading it.
  9. Theology, Music and Time by Jeremy S. Begbie. I’ve heard Begbie a couple of times and am fascinated by what he’s said on both occasions. Now I also want to read his stuff.
  10. Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. About the terrible, wild, and crazy things that happened at the end of the second war. I heard this guy lecture on a podcast and went after the book.

What non-fictional, reality-based things are you reading these days?


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FIVE Non-Fiction Books!

(Sing the title to the Five line of the 12 Days of Christmas. Ok, it doesn’t quite fit perfectly, but that’s what’s in my head.)

I mentioned in my 4 reasons for not posting for a while that I went on a road trip last month. I listened to two non-fiction audio-books on the road, one for the way there, and one for the way back. Let me tell you about those two books and three other non-fiction books that I read after that road trip.

  1. Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill. I’ve read Cahill before. I quite enjoyed his How the Irish Saved Civilization in the “Hinges of History” series. This book also fits into that series. I’m afraid I didn’t find Mysteries as well argued as How the Irish. I read the Irish book and came away convinced of the importance of the Irish monks in preserving historical documents in the early Middle Ages. Mysteries I found over-ambitious in its reach and without a clear-cut argument. I think Cahill was trying to show that good things came out of the Medieval Catholic Church, but I didn’t need convincing of that. He also elevated the expression “vox populi, vox deus” to scriptural status, which I find unwarranted. I am pretty sure that the vox populi can be misguided. Witness Rob Ford. The book contains interesting stories about interesting people, but its overall argument is not strong.
  2. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. I rather enjoyed this tale of murder and death in New York City, despite the general sense that it is in essence a tract on the evils of prohibition. Besides railing on the US Government and its misguided prohibition amendment, the book tells the story of NY City’s first medical examiner and his colleague, who developed the field of forensic toxicology. It is pretty interesting stuff. You should read it. Or listen to it.
  3. The Lion’s World by Rowan Williams. This is Rowan Williams’s reflection on Narnia. Reading this short book made me want to read all the Narnia books again. I am still not convinced that one should read the Narnian books in chronological order as Williams suggests (and yes, I know Lewis suggested it too) but Williams did give me different ways of looking at some parts of the books that I’ve never really liked, including seeing the value of The Last Battle, my least favourite book in the series.
  4. Time’s Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination by Richard Morris. This is a fascinating book. I read it over a very long time, more than six months, and it talks about understanding the data of archaeology in different ways, so that the past can be accurately heard in the data. I thought about finding Richard III a lot when I read the chapter on digging up battles and seeing that the story told by the remains doesn’t match the written historical record. The aerial survey photos and the writing about new techniques in archaeology are extremely interesting.
  5. Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. I’d not read this particular Lewis book before. I found his reflection on Praise the best part of the book. It is a nice short book, and easy to access.

What non-fiction books are you reading?

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Second Thoughts

After I posted my thoughts on the number 2 and books, I had second thoughts. Maybe I caught my second wind. No, I just had second thoughts.

Secondary literature — books based on other books or written sources — is sometimes easier to access than primary literature. Example: Some guy called Plato wrote dialogues thousands of years ago. I’ve never read Plato in Greek, though I’ve read a little Plato in translation. I’ve not caught the world of Plato from the primary sources, the writings of Plato. I’ve read lots ABOUT Plato, books that reference Plato, books that analyze Plato, books that compare Plato to Aristotle (among others). I’ve learned about Plato from secondary sources.

One of Margaret Atwood’s collections of essays and articles is called Second Words. In her introduction to the collection, Atwood gives two reasons for the title: she is first a novelist and poet and only secondly a critic and essayist; and people have to write literature before that literature can be written about, thus all criticism is secondary literature by its very nature.

Secondary literature is not inherently bad or necessarily poorer than the primary work it reflects upon. Atwood makes this clear: “This is in no way to imply that words spoken first are always better than the critical fabrics raised upon them. It is only to state what seems to be obvious; that is, that you can’t have a thought about a stone without first seeing a stone. (Which leaves us in a curious position vis à vis unicorns.)” (Second Words, 11.)

All the writing I do in this blog is secondary literature. Of course you can use it as primary literature, you can see it as about me, as something to study, and then you build the fabric upon the fabric.

Possibly it is time to move on from the number 2. But it has been fun.

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You may think I have not posted for a few days because the letter U undid me. But I am not undone. Things did not get ugly. I have a U-author who meets all the criteria for inclusion in this Alphabetical List.

Ulionis for Underhill, Evelyn Underhill.

Underhill was a spiritual writer. Mysticism (1911) is a seminal work in the study of mystics and mysticism. Underhill also wrote poetry, novels, and biographies. The biographies she wrote are of mystics, which is not surprising given her interest in the topic. Evelyn Underhill qualifies for this list because I’ve read her (she’s the only u-author I’ve read), she’s a woman, and she’s not well-known and deserves more interest. You should find her stuff and read it. Don’t start with Mysticism, that’s a bit much. I’ve not read Worship but am intrigued by what she’d have to say on that important subject. Mystics of the Church is an accessible way into some of Underhill’s work. Check her out. See what you think.


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Tricky T

T is Tricky. There are almost too many choices for a T-woman author. I might have to go with two or three even. I’ve written about three nineteenth-century women who are T-authors! There we are, Three Ts from The Women.

Tcelticis for Trimmer, Tonna, and Tucker.

I wrote my dissertation on Sarah Trimmer. If you are interested and are connected with a university library, you can download the dissertation as a pdf from the UMich online dissertations website. Please excuse the egregious error of fact where I get Trimmer’s birthdate wrong in the first chapter. She was born 6 January. I think I have 20 January or some such thing. Ergh. Anyhow, Trimmer. She wrote lots of books in the late eighteenth century on teaching the Bible to children in various settings. She also wrote a story about talking birds called Fabulous Histories. She’s a big deal in my humble opinion. Of course I think she’s a big deal. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on her.

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna wrote using the name Charlotte Elizabeth. She was deaf. She lived in Canada for two years. She wrote books about women, the Irish, and the Bible. I’m still trying to parse her theology. She had an interesting life and was very opinionated. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an introduction to an American edition of Tonna’s collected works, so she was widely read. Interesting, interesting, interesting.

Charlotte M. Tucker wrote under the pseudonym A Lady Of England (A.L.O.E.). She also visited Canada, including Niagara Falls. After her father’s death, she went out to India to live and do mission. Tucker also writes interesting books that teach the Bible to children.

Women! Writing on the Bible! Theology! History! Isn’t it exciting?


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L lives in your neighbourhood

L is just around the corner, the nice bit of the neighbourhood, the place you like to hang out.

Loldis for Local, local authors whose last names begin with L.

L is for Leddy, Mary Jo Leddy, an author who wrote about the neighbourhood where I lived for five years in Radical Gratitude. Mary Jo Leddy also teaches at the Toronto School of Theology, a place where I’ve been known to give a course or two.

L is also for Landsberg, Michele Landsberg, best known locally as a journalist and feminist. I really enjoyed her book Reading for the Love of It, and at first did not associate the author of that book with the newspaper columnist. Then I realized they were the same person! Landsberg has written other books that I think would be interesting to read, particularly the memoir of the time her husband was the Canadian ambassador to the US. (Landsberg’s husband is Stephen Lewis. One of their sons is Avi Lewis, who is married to Naomi Klein. Imagine family dinners at their house.)

Finally, a little further afield, L is for Little, Jean Little, an author who lives in Guelph, which is sort of near Toronto. Little writes mostly children’s books. I quite enjoyed her autobiography, Little by Little. I read more of Little when I was young, before I started obsessively writing down books read. In keeping with the theme of local non-fiction, though, I do recommend Little by Little. You should check it out.


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D is for Doh? No, not quite

D old

D is for Daniel and Dean, as in Lillian Daniel and Kenda Creasy Dean. Daniel and Dean have co-authored books — not with each other though — in my field, pastoral theology. Lillian Daniel worked with Martin Copenhaver on a book called This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Life of Two Ministers. Daniel and Copenhaver are pastors who reflect theologically on all parts of their lives. By making some of their stories and thinking public, they provide the rest of us with two examples of practical theological thinking. I appreciate their work. D is for the duo of Daniel and Copenhaver.

D is also for the duo of Dean and Foster, who together wrote The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry. Kenda Dean and Ron Foster focus on youth ministry, but, in my mind, this book speaks into something that resonates in ministry to any age group. Dean has also written other books on youth ministry and teaches at Princeton Seminary. The Peace Pastor and her husband the Foodie Theologian have heard her speak and thought a lot of what she said. The Godbearing Life is a book I highly recommend for anyone working in ministry, whether with youth or not. 




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Women’s education

Thoughts published in 1827 on educating women, from Conversations on the Bible by Sarah Ewing Hall, a book of conversations between Mother and her three children, Fanny, Catherine, and Charles. Here they are discussing Judges 4 & 5.

Fanny. Difficult as it is to reconcile our present notions with the conduct of Jael—or indeed to the participation of women in warlike exploits at all, I must plume myself on Deborah. The appointment of a woman to the dignity of a ruler and a prophet, by unerring wisdom, is in favour of my opinion, that the mental powers of the sexes are naturally equal.

Mother. That is a question my dear, which we can never determine until their natural powers are alike cultivated by education. So long as one and twenty years are unremittingly given to the improvement of the mind of one, and not more than half that time to the other, and that besides, in a desultory manner, it will be altogether unfair to estimate the minds of men and women by their subsequent conduct.

Go Sarah Hall almost 200 years ago.

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