Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 A Year In Books

Last year I posted a list of the books I read…and it was fun. So I am doing it again.

Madame Bovary (A)[1] - Flaubert

Definitely more “important” than “good.” MB is a heavy handed morality tale that lacks a single redemptive character. But apparently Flaubert innovated the modern novel…and I can see the template for all of the great ones in it. So there is that.

The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene

LOVED it! This is my new favorite novel not written by a dead Russian[2]. I wrote a post on it.

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs - Klosterman (A)

This is my third time through SDACP[3]. By now it is a period piece. But it remains THE definitive statement of Xer culture. It led to one of my favorite posts ever. And Klosterman is a bit of a rhetorical mentor for me, so listening to him read his best prose is valuable in its own right. I suspect this will not be the last time SDACP ends up on one of my year end lists.

Robinson Caruso (A) - Daniel Defoe

This book is REALLY old. And, while I am always trying to be aware of “chronological snobbery”[4], my brother described it as “a book that passed for entertainment in a time when there wasn’t anything else to do.”

Jesus and the Victory of God - NT Wright

Over 1000 pages into Wright’s scholarly series I am beginning to feel diminishing returns.[5] I might be a one woman man, but I am a promiscuous reader. I am beginning to feel a little smothered in this relationship and really want to “start seeing other people”. Still, this text has been hugely valuable. My basic take on Wright is that about half the time I think his method leads him to a spurious interpretation and the other half of the time his reconstruction of first century Palestine makes complete sense of biblical passages that were previously obscure. His treatments of Mark 13, the cleansing of the temple, and that weird passage where Jesus talks about driving out a demon only to have it replaced with seven stronger ones were worth the price of admission. Oh, and he demolishes the Jesus seminar stuff without breaking a sweat (and without being a jerk).

Lilith – George McDonald (A)

George McDonald might be best known as a character rather than an author. He was the Virgil type guide in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. But he[6] was also one of the indirect[7] instigators of Lewis’ conversion. I liked Lilith. It started really slowly but there were a couple of sublime chapters near the end. Friends have suggested that McDonald’s children’s literature is really his best stuff…so expect some of that on next year’s list.

Drive – Daniel Pink (A)

Most of the valuable ideas from this book were summarized by his TED talk. This is the classic case of a book that could have been a pamphlet. Still, the big ideas are pretty compelling. They include 1) for creative problem solving type jobs, monetary incentives impede rather than augment innovation[8] 2) success is not correlated with intelligence but how one perceives intelligence.[9]

Pensees: Christianity for Modern Pagans - Pascal/Kreeft

Pensees was the first book I read for fun by someone who had been dead for several hundred years. I loved it. In many ways, Pascal became my intellectual mentor[10] and introduced me to the many many dead friends and mentors I have had over the years. In a couple weeks, I am giving a talk on his life and thought,[11] wanted to revisit the Pensees, and happened on this fantastic book. Peter Kreeft has selected and organized[12] the best of the Pensees and then wrote a sort of midrash.[13] Some of his reflections on Pascal are more valuable than others, but to have an excellent contemporary thinker articulate the current import of enduring[14] insights of one of the all time great thinkers makes for a fun read. Kreeft’s[15] tone (simultaneously serious and playful) is also a good match for Pascal, whose tone is similar.

Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians – NT Wright

As usual, Wright’s popular work is as useful as his scholarly work. I read this little text to orient myself to the scope of 2 Corinthians before I began a detailed study of the passages I was going to preach.

Ezra and Nehemiah – Derek Kidner

The post-exilic OT literature is surprisingly difficult. Haggai and Zachariah[16] only make sense on the backdrop of Ezra and Nehemiah, but the historical books are unhelpfully non-sequantial and kind of confusing. So, when I agreed to teach Nehemiah over the summer I knew I was going to have to do some preliminary heavy lifting. Kidner made it easy. This thin little text laid out the chronology and significance of both books in a readable and insightful way. I highly recommend it for anyone hoping to understand the post-exilic texts.[17]

Home – Marilynne Robinson (A)

I have a friend who met Robinson relayed an off the cuff quote where the author confessed, “I hate plot.” Let’s just say, I believe this story. But she writes beautifully. I knew these characters. I can still picture them better than characters from film. And the last page of this book made me cry. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

In the Beauty of the Lilies - Updike [18]

I just love Updike’s sentences. I was lukewarm on the plot, but plot is not why I read Updike. I read him for his lyrical use of our language and his unshakable Christ hauntedness.

Partial Reads

Letters to my Students – CH Spurgeon (50%)

This was easily the most nourishing volume I read this year. It got squeezed out of the rotation by more pressing books, but it will almost certainly end up on next year’s list as a completed book. The book served two purposes 1) It is the transcripts of his lectures on preaching. His insights were enormously helpful not only for my personal preaching but for the class we are teaching on it. I even assigned a few pages for our students. 2) He uses words so well. I try to work some authors into my rotation who have the gift to select and order words in such a way that the product is qualitatively different than most writing. This is why I read Updike and Robinson, and Spurgeon has the same gift.

The Princeton Guide to Ecology – ed. Levin (40%)

I LOVED this book. It is a compellation of 92 six to ten page reviews of the state of the art regarding the most important ecological principles. The papers are mercifully and maniacally brief literature reviews that oriented me to the watershed ideas and contemporary directions. For someone who is trying to get up to speed on a new discipline, I could not have designed a better text. About 15% of it was assigned as readings for my intro class. I found it way more valuable than that.

Foundations of Ecology: Classic Papers with Commentaries - ed. Real and Brown (50%)

Someday I will write a post on the culture differences between engineers and ecologists. As I am fundamentally a scientist (who likes the rigor and practicality of the engineering skill set for doing science) there are many ways in which I prefer the culture of Ecology. This is one of them. I have found that ecology has a ‘cannon.’ Initiates are told the story of the major Khunian paradigm shifts that is the heritage of our moment. Case in point, my text for the required introductory graduate course was this anthology of seminal papers. I read half of it, which was, again, far more than required.[19]

The Cross of Christ – John Stott (50%)

I used this for Lenten devotions this year. It was extremely valuable in that context. It is a little more technical than devotional, but was a great way to keep up a sustained and substantial meditation on the cross.

This post was written while listening to Deja Entendu by Brand New


[1] (A) means that I listened to this in an audio format. Most of my reading time goes into scientific journal papers. So I listen to most of my ‘fun’ reading. I did a post on this.
[2] My wife’s reading group also read and enjoyed this one, so it is not just for nerds.
[3] The second time generated one of my favorite posts of all time.
[4] Which is responsible for my attempt to balance my reading diet to include approximately equal parts books by the living and the dead.
[5] One of my principles of getting the most out of a modest reading program is diversity. Most non-fiction authors offer a maximal insight/time ratio early on and returns diminish pretty markedly.
[6] Like Chesterton
[7] There were direct instigators (his contemporaries) like Tolkein and indirect instigators, authors from the previous generation.
[8] Creatives are motivated by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivators. I believe this. This is how I am motivated. I work harder on (and put more personal time into) the stuff I have less funds to do if I think it is compelling.
[9] I think I am going to do a whole post on this.
[10] Creating the desire to be a philosopher-scientist…which is not easy in the current era of hyper specialization.
[11] Look for it to show up on my MP3 page.
[12] Which is important because, Pascal died very young and not only never finished his book, but never really started it. the Penses are just fragmentary notes and have historically been published in almost arbitrary order. They are also redundant and some have more contemporary utility than others. So, simply selecting them, grouping them and putting them in a logical order was a great service. Incidentally, Kreeft’s take on Pascal’s major themes match mine pretty closely.
[13] A running commentary. It is almost like a Penses blog – in paperback.
[14] And often prophetic.
[15] Kreeft is Catholic – in a fun way. Reading him as a Protestant is like reading Chesterton. You forget that he is Catholic for dozens of pages at a time, until he drops a zinger against Protestants that leaves you saying ‘Ouch, where did that come from.’ Reading Kreeft has the effect of enlarging my affection and alliance with my Catholic friends…while, at the same time, affirming that I am, in fact, not Catholic.
[16] These guys were contemporaries and, presumably, even friends (Nehemiah lists them as both present during a couple big events)…but their writing styles could not be more different. Haggai is a straight forward moral prophet while Zachariah is a “if I didn’t know better I’d think he was high”/ “Predicted things he had no business knowing” apocalyptic type. I’d love to see a HBO quality dramady about the friendship of Haggai and Zachariah (um, minus the boobs – It really sucks that HBO is making some of the best art of our generation but feels compelled to cheapen it with totally unnecessary nudity).
[17] I did some teaching out of Nehemiah this summer. The venue was not amenable to recording, so there are no MP3s. But I did one blog post which revolves around an insight I owe to Kidner. Also, Mark Driscoll’s series on Nehemiah was extremely helpful.
[18] I mentioned in my Portland post that I read this book and home at the same time. They are both about the damaged children of a Presbyterian minister.
[19] No book like this exists for my field. I have contemplated putting one together. Also, engineers do not do meta-analysis like ecologists do…though we could very much benefit from it.


Joel said...

I refuse to post my list until January 1 (mostly because I'm still on book #52, and I'm going to finish it by midnight on New Year's Eve even if I have to sequester myself to do it) but at least one book on the list is there because of a book on your list last year.

Anonymous said...

Great post and synopses! Thanks!

Bronwyn said...

I just put some books on my "to read list". Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I still have no idea how you read, study, and write so much and still have time to work, be a husband, and a father. You seem to also watch TV and listen to music a lot. Have you found the secret to the 30-hour day? Great list BTW!


Bri said...

I've wanted to read Pascal's Pensee's for a long time - do you recommend starting with this book, or a "clean" version without the commentary?

Also, if you ever get around to footnote #19, I'll be your editor :).