Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote an article called “Classic literary works to challenge the thinking Christian” in which she lists 12 + 1 (a baker’s dozen) works she recommends because they are challenging but rewarding, and all have helped her “to love the Lord my God with all my soul, all my strength, and all my mind—and to be a better steward of this world in which God has placed us.”
It is a good list. I’ve nothing against Prior’s list. So far I’ve read 2 of her 13, and have at least three others on my shelf. I agree that the list is challenging. I started one of the books she lists, and was not able to go on after about a page. I’ve not had the courage to try again, though everyone raves about Beloved. (Does this count as a true confession? Probably.) Though Prior’s list is good, it isn’t my list. So I’ve come up with a list of my own, not to replace hers, and not with exactly the same criteria. I made a list of books, works of fiction, that have in some way shaped my spiritual life and thinking. Often a particular author has been a spiritual guide in many works, but I have only chosen one work by any author.
Disclaimer: These are all works of fiction, and I don’t think any of them is classified as “Christian Fiction” anywhere. Some come closer to actually being that than others. Just because a novel is on Prior’s list, or on my list, you shouldn’t think it is “safe” or happy-clappy or filled with people going to church. These books gave me some kind of positive spiritual insight, but they are not in the least preachy.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve set this as an option for an intro to the OT class I taught. I have enjoyed students’ thoughts on this as well, and learned from them.
- John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. I’ve also set this for that OT intro class. This has some striking ideas about what it means to be created Imago Dei.
- P.D. James, The Children of Men. You may notice a speculative/science fiction bent to this list so far. Yes, that is true. Sometimes by writing about worlds askew somehow from reality, writers are better able to comment on lived reality.
- Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. And a fantasy novel?? Yes. See above remark. Also see the works of C.S. Lewis, who I have not included on this list anywhere.
- Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana. More fantasy. Don’t worry, I’ll turn to more “serious” fiction next. If, however, you think that the speculative/science fiction and/or fantasy is less serious than other kinds of fiction, I refer you again to that guy Lewis.
- John Grisham, The Last Juror. Yes, this could be classified as genre fiction of a certain kind (Thriller? Mystery?). Grisham is, however, a good story-teller, and his stories can pack a punch. You don’t need to go to the classics for the possibility of life-change.
- Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection. At last! A canonical writer! Bet you’ve never heard of this Tolstoy though. You should check it out. It is his last novel.
- Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. More solid recognized fiction, even recognized as Christian. I read Resurrection and The Power and the Glory this year. The timing was good for me on both of them. If you don’t find them appealing now, try again some other time.
- Susan Howatch, Mystical Paths. Again, Howatch’s Church of England series is pretty churchy, but not in a conventional way. I picked this one out of all of them because it was the one that resonated with me most when I read it.
- Chaim Potok, In the Beginning. All of Potok’s books belong on this list, as with Howatch above. Let’s just leave it there. With Potok we end the obviously religious books.
- Emma Donoghue, Room. This is a life-altering book. I’ve heard lots of people say so. I don’t think anyone who says that has exactly the same experience reading the book. You should try it.
- A.S. Byatt, Possession. I debated putting this book on this list. It could also be on a list of books that have influenced my personal life, or resonated with me personally/emotionally/intellectually. It does all those things, but it also has spiritual resonance.
And now the plus one for the baker’s dozen. Ready for it?
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’ll just leave it there for you to ponder.
What about you? Books that have influenced your spiritual life in some way?
Filed under fiction, lists
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac by Mark Kingwell. A local Philosophy prof writes popular essays.
- 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.
- Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey. More monastic practice, but with notes for current practice of this ancient art.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
True Confessions: I went to a bookshop today. Is anyone surprised? I was. I wasn’t really planning on it, but it turns out the new Book City Bloor West is open. I am so happy there are books in the ‘hood again, I went in and bought books. The three books I bought have been added to my growing To Be Read Pile. Here are 9 randomly grabbed books from my fiction to be read pile. The first three I bought today, the others I acquired as noted.
- Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Why have I not noticed this book before? Possibly people have pointed it out to me but I couldn’t see it for various reasons.
- Divergent by Veronica Roth. Now A Major Motion Picture! But I’ve also been intrigued by what I’ve heard about this YA dystopia. My friend the Library Page is a fan.
- Longbourn by Jo Baker. My Orthodox Colleague is muttering about the pollution of the shades of Pemberley again, but I can’t help it. It is Austen FanFic.
- MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. I got this for Christmas but Whim has not taken me to this book quite yet. I’ll get there soon. Almost there. (I’ve just finished reading The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs, who talks about reading Serendipty and Whim. These things, he argues, are vital to the well-rounded reading life.)
- Millenium by John Varley. A Time Travel Thriller! according to the cover. I recently re-read a Varley book (Red Thunder) and enjoyed it so much I went Varley-hunting in several used bookshops. I scored a bunch. This is one of them.
- The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe. Lent to me by 1Mom a while ago, but Whim has not yet encouraged me to open the cover.
- Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. The ambitious choice. I picked this mass market seventies edition up at one of my local used bookshops. The owner and I had a little chat about whether it was actually a readable book or not. We both agreed that the mass market format made it less formidable looking.
- Domino by Ross King. I’ve read King before and enjoyed his historical fiction. I found this used somewhere, so I picked it up.
- Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom. I really like Sansom’s murder mysteries set in the reign of Henry VIII. This is not so much set in the reign of Henry VIII, but I thought I’d give Sansom’s other work a try as well.
What is on your to be read pile?
Filed under fiction, lists
I list these eight in addition to the six-that-stick other-worldly books I wrote about the other day. These are in no particular order, but are clustered as indicated by the subtitles.
Books other people recommended to me that I was pretty skeptical about:
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The Norwegian gave this book to me. I was pretty skeptical. How interesting can a book about a tiger and a boy in a boat be? If this is what you think, think again. It is really good. Try it and see.
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Again, this is the Norwegian’s fault. I should just stop being skeptical of books she gives me and read them. This book won the Booker Prize in 1997. I don’t think the Booker is infallible (there are a couple of Booker-winners that I thought were duds) but I’ve usually enjoyed the winners. This one kept me glued to the pages, plus the writing is beautiful.
- Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. 1Mom recommended this one to me. I was slightly skeptical because of the title. But I thought I’d give it a try. I usually like the books 1Mom recommends, though we don’t always see eye-to-eye on every book. (Her theory is that this is timing. Sometimes a book comes to you at the right time. I think there’s more to it than that, but agree that timing is important.) This book blew me away for a variety of reasons, not least that it is a window on worlds I didn’t know existed.
Books other people recommended to me, no skepticism to overcome:
- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. One of my math students recommended this to me. “You are religious, right? And you like computers? You would like this book.” Who can resist this recommendation?
- Room by Emma Donoghue. This was the first book 1Mom lent me. I read it pretty much in one sitting. It blew me away. Look for the resurrection in it.
Books I read because of the author, but were better than I expected:
- Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Link this to Cutting for Stone because of the twins if you must, but this is something else entirely. Surreal. Haunting. Mind-blowing. All of these things. Fair warning: it is not The Time-Traveler’s Wife in any way, they just happen to share an author.
- Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams. I expected a nice little scifi adventure and got my mind blown. Kaboom! You should read it even if you don’t like science fiction. It is philosophical. Yes, yes it is. Mind-blowingly philosophical.
- My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Potok’s book stick in my head in general, but this one sticks out more than the others. I’m not sure exactly why that is. Some of it is the art discussion I think.
So there are my 8 books that blew my mind. Which books blow your mind?
Follow-up from the number 7:
Many of you have read my previous post about books I’m not interested in reading — in fact the post has turned out to be the most popular post I’ve published in some time, with over two hundred hits in the last couple of days. I’ve enjoyed the feedback, both in comments on the blog and on fb. I’m not actually sure that I’m open to reconsidering some of the books on that list (as the Constant Reader astutely pointed out on fb), but I’m thinking about some of them in a different way now that you have spoken. Keep speaking! Who knows what will happen.
Filed under fiction, lists
I’m not interested in these books, even though they are all on lists of the 100 books you should really read in your lifetime. Not Interested. These are the books that I’ve gotten close enough to to get a whiff of what they are about and what they are like and decided I was not interested. I’m not even sure I’m open to your arguments about why I should want to read them. But you can try.
- Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- Ulysses by James Joyce
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
So tell me, why should I care about any of these?
Today I’m going to talk about other-worldly books, six that stuck in my head. This group of books is not clearly Science Fiction, or clearly Speculative Fiction. One is a Fantasy more than anything else. I’ve put them together because they are all set somewhere Other. Plus they all stick in my head. Books that make you think, that you remember for a long time, these are the ones that are good, not your every-day run-of-the-mill stuff. I won’t argue that these books are great, but I will say they are all worth reading. These are in no particular order.
- Children of Men by P.D. James. This is not a mystery novel, it is speculative fiction. I’ve just finished listening to the audio book version for a different spin on it. I want to assign this book for a children’s ministry course in seminary. This evening, I began comparing it in my head with The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. James and Atwood are onto some similar themes I think, but they work them out quite differently. Things that make you go hmmm.
- Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. So good. Kay’s best in my humble opinion. The Constant Reader thinks so too. This is the Fantasy book. Kay writes Historical Fantasy, in which his fantastic worlds bear some resemblance to some aspect of world history. This one is sort of Italian.
- A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright. A twist on time travel, with apocalyptic overtones. It references The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which I’ve not yet read. I should get on that. One thing I remember about Wright’s book is that Harry becomes king and we never find out what happened to William. (This was written before George was born.) Henry IX is a very remote and background figure in the book, but it was an interesting future what-if detail, part of a well-imagined world.
- The Moon is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. Moon colonies and sentient machines, plus a lot of political manoeuvring, what else could you want in a SciFi book? I liked this one on audio quite a lot because the guy who read it performed the voices so well. (To be fair, others found the voices irritating.) The sentient computer is a key character in the book, which is part of what makes the whole thing interesting to me. Plus Heinlein managed to imagine a moon colony with its own evolving cultural mores.
- Red Thunder by John Varley. Part of the reason this one sticks in my head is the the giant engineering hack that is the centre of the plot. Home-built spaceship anyone? Oh yeah. Plus there’s a fake crocodile in a pool, and the space coast setting in Florida, what more could you want?
- Beggers in Spain by Nancy Kress. I read this one first a long time ago. It was recommended to me by a fellow physics teacher. This is speculative fiction that imagines what happens when people are genetically modified so they don’t need sleep. The Sleepless have 8 more hours every day than the rest of us. Think on that.
Any Other Worlds that stick in your head?
(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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
I’ve just finished The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I was about to give up on Greene. I’ve heard lots of good things, but, while his books I read last year in my Reading Older Books project were ok and had memorable moments, I didn’t find them “wow” kind of reading. I had one Greene more to read already in my TBR pile that I’d heard lots of people talk about, but given the description of the story along with my previous experiences, I did not have high hopes.
Instead of disappointing, The Power and the Glory blew me away. It is really good. But, I will qualify that by saying not everyone will like the book. I don’t think I would have liked the book this much had I read it 10 years ago. Sometimes books come along and there’s a synergy with a moment in time in your life. I feel like that might be the case for me and TPatG.
Or maybe having experienced Greene two previous times, I was able to read him better the third time. What’s your favourite Greene book? Maybe I should look for that one next.
Numbers can be irrational. Euler’s number, e, is between 2 and 3, so in my numerical sequence, e comes next.
If you clicked on the link above, you were reminded that e=1+1/1!+1/2!+1/3!+1/4!+… This is very exciting. Look at all those excited numbers! You also may wish to recall that when a number gets excited it multiplies like this: 4!=4x3x2x1. Numbers in excited states often work well into probability theory as well as calculating Euler’s number.
How on earth does the irrational number e (approximately 2.718281828459045…) connect with books? I’m glad you asked. Initially I also had a hard time with this question. I’ve decided that the book that I’ll talk about that I’ve read that has the most to do with e is Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I’ve mentioned Anathem before, but a quick review of my posts indicates that I’ve not really discussed the book at any length. Let me remedy that situation.
I think that Anathem is Neal Stephenson’s best work to date. He is a pretty good writer in my books, so this is saying something. The book is set in a place that is like Earth, but not quite. The action takes place in an enclosed area called a “Math” which is something like a monastery. The main character is called Erasmas, and he lives in a ten-year Math — which means the math only opens its doors for a week every ten years. The book begins just before the open week after Erasmus’s first ten years inside. Within the week, everything starts to change. Along with the math references, the book involves fun with Quantum Physics and the multi-verse. Don’t worry if you aren’t a math/physics geek, this is also a good story.
(There are also books about Euler, the guy who the number is named for. He is pretty interesting. I’ve just not read a biography yet.)