Yesterday, I posted my choices for the “Best Books I Read in 2013.” Over the years that I have been doing this, I have made a few friends, but even more enemies. Books that were quietly shelved together have broken out into squabbles and fights. Books are tempermental. They demand our time and expect our full attention. They hate speed reading and resent scanning. They crowd themselves into our lives and expect to capture our full attention.
Sure, there is the novel that is happy to be read once and then tucked away, and there is biography or history that is satisfied knowing that it once filled a niche in our lives. Then there is the serious study that rests assured of its own merit and doesn’t mind that it is not pulled off the shelf again and again. But most books are possessive. They expect their imprint to be life changing, their content to be revolutionary, and their extent to be all embracing. Yes to all those expectations. But we are limited, too limited in how much, now many , and how often. As Andrew Marvell’s speaker in his poem tells the “Coy Mistress,” “if we had worlds enough and time.” We don’t. So we read quickly, we glance, we scan, we read and file away, we read in part, we read a selection, we jump from table of contents to index, we dissect to get the vital truths, we extract bits and pieces, we laugh and forget, we think and move on, we love but only briefly.
But the books remember and seethe. Franz Kafka said, “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, when then do we read it?” But there are only so many reading headaches we can endure. And for us incurable, unstoppable, unsatiable readers, we grow used to and pleased with the fist of books hammering our skulls. Of course, some hammer harder, more forcibly, and longer than others.
Here then are some other good reads from the past year:
1. Man With a Bull Tongue Plow by Jesse Stuart. I wish I had met Jesse Stuart. Why I never wrote to him back in the 1970s, I will never know. Authors were more mysterious to me then. I continue to read and reread his works. I am already looking forward to teaching Hie to the Hunters to my junior high this spring, and I am currently reading from To Teach, To Love. This past year, I read Stuart’s 703 sonnets in Man With a Bull Tongue Plow. Stuart was not as good a poet as Frost, but he was more prolific and varied. If one judges 1 out of 10 Stuart poems as very good, that is still an impressive 70 poems in this book. The content ranges from fair to good to very good. But it is not the ranking of the poems that matters. It is the story-line. This collection of poetry tells a story. It is, in many respects, an American version of Virgil’s Georgics. The agrarian world, life on the farm, the man with a plow–these are all captured here in the beauty of the fields, the changing of the seasons, the miracle of life cycles. A man with a plow is a picture of Eden, but also of the Fall. That too is in these poems. The lives captured in the poems are those of successful people and failures, of tragedies and triumphs. People do good and sometimes great things. People do bad and sometimes really awful things. People live and die. The story of mankind–as seen through the microscope of rural Kentucky–compressed into a mere 703 sonnets.
2. Medieval histories and literature. Last year, I taught the Medieval portion of Humanities. I feel completely overwhelmed in this course and recognize my own limitations. But Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization and his Mysteries of the Middle Ages delight, instruct, and irritate in ways that only Cahill can do. Morris Bishop’s The Middle Ages was a great survey of Medieval history, but largely focused only on social history. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy was a classroom favorite, and The Rule of St. Benedict never lures me to the monastic life, but does remind me of the need for contemplation. One of the great, but incomplete, delights was reading from John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
3. Amity Shaes’ The Forgotten Man is a critical and revisionist history of the Great Depression and the New Deal. Her scholarship exceeds her writing style, but her books are worth the effort. Her biography of Calvin Coolidge, titled Coolidge, rushes in with a much needed re-evaluation of an underestimated and good President.
4. American history studies also included two other incompleted readings: The Education of Henry Adams is ranked as a classic of American literature. Therefore, it suffers from the fate that Mark Twain described concerning classics: “A book that everybody talks about, but nobody reads.” But worse, this book is rarely talked about, in my experiences. I began reading it last summer and got about halfway through. It may be next summer before I resume the reading, but it is a “must finish” book.
5. Some great theological reads included Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology by Greg Dutcher, Inerrancy and the Gospels by Vern Poythress, A Taste of Heaven by R. C. Sproul, and Name Above All Names by Alister Begg and Sinclair Ferguson. Portions of books by John Frame, James Montgomery Boice, Michael Horton, and Tim Keller were also instructive.
6. Was it last summer when I read The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchinloss? That was a really good novel. A second reading will probably land it on a future “Best Books” list. Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full was a powerful read. I thought it was the best non-Christian conversion story I have read. Lief Enger’s novel Brave, Young, and Handsome was not as good as his Peace Like a River, but it was still a fun book. I am also glad to be finally getting into some of Larry Woiwode’s books.
7. The American classics that I have assigned and reread this year in Humanities: The American Story all improved on the reading. Twain and Cooper, Melville and Hawthorne are all masters and models.
8. Two short books that packed full messages were Andrew Sandlin’s Christian Culture: An Introduction and Herman Bavinck’s The Christian Family. Sandlin, a friend, has written and spoken often on topics related to Christian culture. For the long time readers of Christopher Dawson, Francis Schaeffer, and others, this book will be a good reminder and good application of the lessons of Christian culture. For Christians who have never connected the walk with Jesus to the greater application of Christianity to all areas of life and thought, this book is a vital introduction. Bavinck is best known for his more in-depth theological works. His four volume Reformed Dogmatics is a weight-lifting set, but The Christian Family is a small, practical book. Yes, there are a thousand and one Christian books on the family, but only one is written by Herman Bavinck. This book also is Dutch and old, and just recently translated and made available in English. Some of the issues and approaches, therefore, will be interestingly different.
9. Sermon on the Mount and Matthew Studies. This will necessitate a whole blog post in time. I don’t know exactly which books I read completely or almost completely back in the spring and summer as I was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. I just know I read extensively and often re-read certain portions. In quick order, the books by Martin Lloyd-Jones, John R. W. Stott, Sinclair Ferguson, D. A. Carson, and David Doriani were most useful on the Sermon on the Mount. Thomas Watson’s Beatitudes and The Lord’s Prayer were little used, but treasured in the portions. Books by Philip Graham Ryken, N. T. Wright, and Wayne Mack on the Lord’s Prayer were all moving. Commentaries and sermon sets by William Hendriksen, Leon Morris, Charles Spurgeon, R. C. Sproul, and John MacArthur all provided helps, teaching points, and encouragement along the way.
10. A lot of other books. Some were read through. Some were started and remain unfinished. The recent reading of David Calhoun’s Southern Zion paved the way toward a return to reading Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South. One book always reads to another, or in some cases, it leads to a whole range of other books.