Saturday, January 9, 2010

2009: A Year in Books

I have two friends that try to read 52[1] books per year. For the last two years Joel has posted updates on how he did and brief thoughts about each work. I liked the I am stealing it. I do not remotely try to read 52 books per year. Twenty is more my pace…particularly because I take detailed notes on many of them in an attempt to retain the material.[2] Here is my 2009 in books.

Pigeon Feathers - John Updike
I am embarrassed to admit that the first time I heard of Updike was the day he died. I LOVED this little book. The man could write, and had an uncanny window into my psychology[3] in a way I suspect few experience. There is a sense in which I wonder why he has such wide appeal, because his work appealed to me on such a personal level and I consider my experience to be relatively eccentric.

Culture Makers – Andy Crouch
I was disappointed by this book. It was long and sluggish (especially for a book on Culture). But, as I look back over my writing and preaching since I read it, it is clear that Crouch has influenced my thought or, at least, has flourishes of quoteability. He did change the way I read some OT prophetic work.

Perelandra (A)[4] - CS Lewis
The best volume of Lewis’ space trilogy. Lewis’ fiction is mostly uneven.[5] But his playful and creative mind cannot be held down by his lack of mastery of the genre. There are flourishes of absolute brilliance. And these alone are worth the price of admission.

Ender’s Game (A) - Orson Scott Card
I am trying to consume more classic Science Fiction since that is what I have been writing lately. I listened to this while exploring Portland one week while I was there on business. For me ‘The Gate is Down’ will always be associated with morning runs along the Columbia and evening walks through one of America’s finest cities. I liked it, but have come to the conclusion that the criteria for artful prose is lower for classic SciFi than for contemproary or classic novels. At least I finally get a whole genre of nerdy jokes:

Imagine: A Vision for Christians and the Arts - Steve Turner
A book that culminates in an analysis of U2 isn’t exactly ground breaking, but despite a slow start and a predictable end, Turner can write and brings a pretty withering analysis to Christianity’s relationship to the arts. The middle chapter ‘The Split’ is, by far, the best.

Life Together - Dietrich Bonheoffer
Bonheoffer is one of my favorite theologians (maybe my favorite). I have taught classes on his theology more than once. But I had never read his work on community. It started a little slow but, on the whole, was unsurprisingly stunning.

Stumbling on Happiness (A) - Daniel Gilbert
My last post emerged from this book, but does not even begin to plum its value. The book’s general thesis is that humans are very bad at predicting what will make us happy and that the accounts of others who have been through a given event are much more reliable at predicting our experience of the event than our personal prediction.

In Cold Blood (A) - Truman Capote
Capote can write and can also structure a story. I am still amazed that he manage to spring a twist ending on me in a book that was supposed to be as predictable as Titanic.

Downtown Owl – Chuck Klosterman
Lets be fair. I am a Klosterman fanboy. He could probably write a diary of a year of bowel movements and I would read an enjoy it. But I was apprehensive about his first work of fiction.[6] I liked it.

The New Testament and the People of God[7] - NT Wright
Sweeping scholarly work tackling the literature and worldview of the inhabitants of Israel from about 200 BC to about 125 AD. Wright’s thing is to try to walk the line between what he calls ‘the two arrogances’ of fundamentalism and reductionism. He is a scholarly giant who brings to bear the best scholarship to first century studies and finds the outlines of an orthodox Christian faith[8] in the morass. I found that some of the points I thought were insufficiently argued in his popular works were thoroughly demonstrated in this volume.[9]

Acts for Everyone: Part 1 - NT Wright
But, the really intriguing thing about Wright is that he can switch hats so effortlessly. He can produce some of the best NT scholarship being written and then turn around and churn out these helpful, readable, accessible and enjoyable commentaries for preaching help and devotional use.

City of God - Augustine
I have written plenty about this tome in this space.

Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
I wrote an extended piece on this and my friend Joel wrote an extended response.

Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell (A)
Friends have recommended Vowell to me for years, so I finally picked upp her only work the Library had in Audio for our two ‘through the night Tampa<-->Panama City drives’ during our holiday vacation. It was very good. Though I was left wondering if Assassination Vacation should have been more like Killing Yourself to Live or visa versa. Vowell is insightful and funny, but her Northeastern Liberal requirement to express moral outrage[10] at most things southern got in the way of handling the Lincoln assignation sites in the nuanced, even handed way she treated the Cleveland and McKinley sites.[11]

The Rise of Christianity - Rodney Stark

I wrote a post on this one.

A Short History of Nearly Everything (A) - Bill Bryson
I am a sucker for science as story. Seriously, tell the historical narrative of how something came to be known, believed, or disbelieved, include a couple of outlandish personalities, make a couple jokes and I’m happy. Bryson’s little romp through a history of science was insightful, artful and entertaining.

Partial Reads

My reading time is probably my most limited commodity. Therefore I do not waste time finishing books that: (a) could have been pamphlets and yield most of their useful insights in the first 100 pages or (b) suck or (c) do not demonstrate enough potential to out compete the shiny new volume in the just-arrived Amazon box for my time.

Marriage: Sex in the service of God (30%)
Ash’s work is sound, scholarly and weighty. I got a lot out of what I read. Unfortunately, it is also dry. I’m not sure if it is a compliment or an outrage that he managed to make a book about sex boring, but I am going to go with both.

Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit - Clark Pinnoch (50%)
Pinnoch’s book on the Holy Spirit was really good, but not good enough to finish.

Life: The Science of Biology – Sevada (30%)
This was the text for the two Biology classes I took in the Fall. It is actually very good. Well written, well illustrated…I enjoyed reading it and did most of the assigned readings though I knew they would not help me much on the tests.

The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church and the World – John Stott (30%)
Really liked Stott’s commentary on Acts – but only read the passages I preached on.

That Hideous Strength - CS Lewis (60%) (A)
This is Lewis’ attempt to make his argument from The Abolition of Man in a fictional work. I simply haven’t finished it yet. But it says a little about my ambivalence about the Space Trilogy that I was able to put it down and not completely compelled to return to it.

How Fiction Works - James Wood (70%)

My friend Tiffany recommended this after taking a look at one of my short stories. It was excellent, but I was not ready for it. There are two chapters on how Flaubert changed the novel. I have not read Flauber. So, hopefully, my 2010 list will include a couple of his novels and then I will revisit this text.

Apostolic Fathers - ed Michael Holmes (60%)
The Fathers were thrilling, but I got bogged down in the Didichae and the Shepherd. The latter are such crass moralists I had trouble identifying with them. But Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp et al were like finding family I did not know I had.

Mere Christianity - CS Lewis (50%)
I have decided to revisit some of Lewis’ writings. While his fiction can be uneven, his prose is unmatched. So much of contemporary Christian thought is just a repackaging of the things he wrote.[12]

From Every Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race - J. Daniel Hays (50%)
This text is full of intriguing factoids and effectively makes the case that the world of the Old-Testament must be read as a thoroughly multi-ethnic world. Unfortunately, it seems that Hays is an OT scholar and I read the book hoping it would help me unpack and preach the issue of ethnicity in the early church. Sadly, there were only four pages on Acts. This seems like a pretty dramatic failure, seeing as ethnic tension/reconciliation is probably one of the top 3 or 4 themes of this central Biblical text.
[1] Joel and Alex – that’s one per week.
[2] I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on ‘year in review’ blogs, but surely I am flirting with it.
[3] As a quasi-existentialist, post-neo-orthodox Christian strongly influenced by Kierkegaard and Chesterton.
[4] (A) stands for audio book. I consume most of my fiction and popular literature through audio media. But I count these as ‘books I read.’ It's ok, you can judge me.
[5] With the exception of The Great Divorce, which is mostly dialogue, and, therefore, is just a more readable version of his prose.
[6] Apparently, I’m not the only one. He had to sign a two book deal to get this published, promising the same publisher his next major essay collection, Eating the Dinosaur which just came out.
[7] I finished this at the beginning of 2010, but am including it anyway
[8] Even if it is, at times, a strained orthodoxy.
[9] Which is the first of a 4-5 volume set.
[10] Yes, we understand, slavery was bad. We are not going to think you are a racist if you fail to express moral outrage every time you mention it.
[11] In a related note, she caricatured Jonathan Edwards, using him to demonstrate why an upstate NY free sex commune (where the middle aged men ceremonially ‘deflowered’ the girls) wasn’t so objectionable after all. How could someone who is so deeply curious and interested in the complexity of American History so completely mischaracterize (though it is a popular mischaracterization) one of our most interesting historical figures. Her penance should be to do an Edwards/Wesley/Awakenings book - that could really be in her wheelhouse.
[12] In fact, a recent CT article argued that Lewis is the bane of Christian writing because nearly anything we try to articulate, he has already done and with more insight and creativity.


David Swanson said...

Great list; thanks for posting this.

Here's something I'd enjoy hearing from you on this blog: what is your "strategy" for tackling larger/denser books like NTPG and City of God? In other words, habits and practices allow you to read such significant books?

stanford said...

Hey David,

I’m not sure I have a ton to offer, but here are the three practices I utilize to metabolize and retain major works:

1. Read and Outline. Try to do separate the reading and the note taking by a few days so that it is two discrete interactions with the material. Try to summarize each chapter in less than 2 pages of quotes and themes. I tend to think that the less I try to retain the more I do. For popular works or fiction, I usually just record a few quotes that seem promising as future illustration material.

2. Discuss it. The major works that I have retained most successfully are the ones I read in community. I had a reading partner (Tyler the winemaker who shows up in this blog from time to time) for a couple years and am in a weekly reading group now. There is a pacing effect (e.g. it is more effective to run in a group because the group pace is faster than anyone would keep individually), but the main benefit is the insights, applications and illustrations that emerge in communal exegesis.

3. Revisit the notes. I try to set aside a couple weeks each year that are devoted to reviewing notes from some of these major works or other works I want to retain. Since I generally know my preaching schedule a year in advance, and keep files on upcoming topics or passages I know I am going to preach, this allows salient ideas from previous reading can to their way into contemporary reflection. I don’t do this as much or as systematically as I would like, but have gotten to the point that I would rather retain and implement 20% of the content of one good book than read 5 and keep 1% each.

Is that what you were interested in? What about you? I am always fascinated by how other people discipline their reading and retention.

Joel Wilcox said...

Funny. I liked "That Hideous Strength" best in the Space Trilogy. Granted, it's a tough one to finish the first time around (I hated it after my first read), but it's got all the literary devices I grew to love after all those years of high school English (I had really good teachers.) And the aphasia passage (which I'm guessing you didn't make it to) always makes me laugh.

Joel said...

I have a confession: I sort of cheat on my end of the year list. When I finish each book, I enter it on my tally with a few sentences, and when I do my end of the year entry I mostly just cut and paste. I do make a few changes (I think my one sentence description of "Catcher in the Rye" summed up my feelings better than my extended rant did), but I don't make any kind of extended notes, and am rather impressed that you do.

I'm also intrigued by some of your list. I love Bryson, but have not read that particular book. I keep hearing good things about Vowel, but haven't read any of her stuff and keep intending to. Based on your thoughts, it seems that I should try harder to follow through on that. I know I read some Updike in college, but can't remember what it was or if I liked it, so I may have to give him another look.

I do have trouble with Orson Scott Card, though. I know his stuff is classic, and I've always intended to read some, but since I found out last year that he is vocally homophobic I haven't been able to bring myself to buy any of his stuff because I feel self-hating giving him money. Normally I don't really pay attention to an author's personal life or beliefs, but for some reason in this case I just can't get past it.

stanford said...

I realized after I posted that I left two off the list. Unsurprisingly, these were forgettable books (in the purest sense of the definition) but I thought I’d add them for completeness.

-The Externally Focused Church – Great premise – but a classic example of my ‘most books should have been pamphlets’ theory

-Revolutions – Barna (60%) – This is a sad, bitter little book that essentially argues that Christianity’s future lies in breaking free from the model of the local church. He means well, but took a wrong turn somewhere. This text practically oozes bitterness and despair, though I actually think he thinks it is a hopeful book. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, not because it made me mourn the local church (which is, in fact, alive and well) but because it made me mourn its author’s despair.

Teresa said...

I have to agree about Vowell-althogh her written word comes off funnier than the audio book. Which is weird to recommend--*ignore* what the author is trying to say and get a better reading experience. Hm. Also, I am really happy you wrote how you read. I am not a good reader although I read a lot, and all of the time, and I have been trying to figure out how to be a better reader. I will try your method, too, and see how it works.

And Bryson rocks--