Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2016)

This past year in reading was a year of many books. Too many, probably, given the way they all seem to be bleeding into each other in my memory. And yet, there remains a stack of books I intended to read this year (and never did), along with a number of extremely witty/insightful/brilliant essays I intended to write (and never did). But, while my failure to write is a perpetual source of frustration (not so worried about the stack of “to-reads” – there’s always next year, after all), in a world dominated by a new baby with a powerful set of tiny lungs I was pleased I could still find time to read now and then while rocking her in the dark (with the help of my workhorse Kindle). Anyway, here’s a list of books that stood out from the past year (not necessarily published this year) in no particular order (a brief “toddler edition” can be found here).

2016 was the year I entered the world of P.G. Wodehouse, primarily through his stories about Bertie Wooster and his “gentleman’s personal gentleman,” the inimitable Jeeves. It’s a cliché to point out that Wodehouse is pure escapism, but sometimes you need a little escape, and he reliably made me laugh out loud a number of times during a year when I needed a few laughs. He also happens to be one of the most skilled prose stylists of the 20th century (click on my Wodehouse tag for some quotes I’ve pulled out over the year). Wodehouse has an amazing grasp of the English language, and while I am a little dubious of Bertie’s claims to have won a scripture knowledge prize while at school, Wodehouse clearly knew his Authorized Version and spotting the various scriptural allusions and quotations is a fun little side game for the amateur theologian. If you’re looking for a place to start, fire up the two-seater and ramble through Right Ho, Jeeves.

I also fell deep down a Diana Wynne Jones hole this year after discovering her work last Christmas. Think: a little bit like J.K. Rowling, with a bit more mischief, irony, nuance and humor (although, a real problem with endings). I liked the  Chrestomanci series, and Charmed Life is the place to start there.

For sheer literary geekery it is hard to beat Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies. It is an impressively wide-ranging look at the interaction between literature, art and climate. The book is packed with interesting details (e.g. “‘Spring’ was used as a verb  (‘spray beginneth to springe’), but it did not become the name of a defined season until the 1500s. ‘Lencten’ served well enough to denote the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, and ‘Somer’ encompassed both our spring and summer.“) while managing to tell a comprehensive narrative across centuries. One of the most enjoyable books I read this year.

Two of my favorite novels were Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. Somehow I managed to get a copy of Golden Hill on Kindle before it had an American publisher and I devoured it in a couple of long, satisfying gulps, having enjoyed Spufford’s previous work in Red PlentyUnapologetic etc. They are both terrific historical (er, sort of, in the case of Lavinia) novels that play some clever tricks with narrative framing while also offering a study in contrasts for how to tell a compelling story: Golden Hill is packed with incident and stylistic fireworks while Le Guin’s prose is understated and lets the meditative reflections of her narrator on marriage, motherhood etc. elbow the battle scenes to one side.

Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself is, according to the acknowledgements, an “atheist’s argument for belief in God,” via Kant and science fiction. I (still) hope to write some more about this challenging (on multiple levels) and fascinating book when I have a chance. 

In theology, Robert Jenson’s A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? is a book that that achieves what it sets out to do: provide a “taste” of theology, as Jenson puts it in the foreword. It is an energetic, enthusiastic book, packed full of gems in an accessible style (the book is based in an introductory undergraduate theology class Jenson taught at Princeton). For a taste, here’s Jenson on the image of God:

So to be made in the image of God is to have a role, and that role is to be in a relationship and a discourse with God and to occupy a place in the story that God has and lives with his people. And that story is not random, but has a plot. And the plot is given to it by the presence in the story of its author. What is really there within each of us, instead of what the Greeks call a physis, is rather something in which each of us participates—an ongoing drama with a plot.

My appreciation for Oliver O’Donovan’s latest (and much more opaque), Finding and Seeking, can be found here.  

Duncan Hamilton’s biography of Eric Liddell, For the Glory (I would like to write more about this one as well), and Stephen Backhouse’s  Kierkegaard: A Single Life were both lively, well-written accounts of fascinating figures who have loomed large in my own life in differing ways. For a contemporary memoir, I enjoyed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, which I wrote about here. In the memoirish vein, I wrestled with J.M. Coetzee’s “fictionalized memoirs” (really though, if fiction is included in the mix, it is just fiction), and I enjoyed, or rather “enjoyed,” (Coetzee is perhaps the opposite of Wodehouse) Summertime the most. I wrote a brief note after finishing the first two volumes here where I described the project as A Portrait of the Artist as the Underground Man.

In the reread department, I somehow stumbled into a bunch of Kipling this year, starting with rereading his Jungle Books (I also read Kim for the first time this year, and at some point I would like to write something about Mowgli and young Mr. O’Hara). Rereading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World was an unexpected delight as I found myself revisiting a number of childhood favorites.

Finally, the book that seems to have stuck with me the most this year is Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (I quote it extensively here). It’s a book I have thought about a lot, but have little to add to at the moment (other than please read it if you are at all interested in theology done “in public”). I describe it as sobering in that earlier post, although I have found depressing to be a more accurate adjective as the year has worn on. It is a book that describes a catastrophic failure of theological reasoning and discourse in the public square and looking around I find little reason for hope in the contemporary context. Although, perhaps that is just the wintercearig, an old English word for “winter cares” or “winter in my heart” (a Weatherland discovery) talking as the days grow shorter and my evening commute grows increasingly gloomy. And in the end the cold chill of winter does not have the last word. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” makes for an excellent lullaby,  for those of you in need of such of things, while also warming the wintry heart with some embers of hope.

My triumphant return

And now, my triumphant return to blogging with a deep analysis of Kant’s Critique of Pu…. hahaha, just kidding, the new baby has destroyed my brain (and soaked up all available time in her vortex of loveliness and helpless need). In the meantime, here is Coleridge putting his late nights with a new baby to good use (one of my favorite poems):

Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;

Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,

And makes a toy of Thought.

But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,

My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould

Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.


Getting ready for an arrival … or a departure?

From Anthony Doerr’s (enjoyable) memoir, Four Seasons in Rome:
Having a baby is like bringing a noisy, inarticulate foreigner into your house and trying to guess what he likes to eat.
Later in the book, Doerr reverses the metaphor:
Maybe being a new parent is like moving to a foreign country. There is a Before and an After, an Old Life and a New Life. Sometimes we wonder who we were before. Sometimes we wonder who we are now. Sometimes our feet get tired. Sometimes we find ourselves reaching for our guidebooks.
We have made this trip before (the baby we are waiting for is #2), but it has been a while since we’ve had our passports stamped, and I find myself dusting off the guidebook in hopes of reminding myself of the terrain. Sleep schedules? Feedings? The landscape all looks different anyway, with a toddler on the scene. Like preparations for any big move, there are many details to iron out, rising anticipation, and a growing sense of bewilderment in the face of all we don’t know.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

I recently finished Mark Noll’s historical study, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (a full review of the book can be found here). I don’t have any special interest in the Civil War – I am more interested in the “theological crisis” side of things. The crisis Noll explores is summarized like this:

American national culture had been built in substantial part by voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture. Yet if by following such an approach to the Bible there resulted an unbridgeable chasm of opinion about what Scripture actually taught [regarding slavery, God’s providential action], there were no resources within democratic or voluntary procedures to resolve the public division of opinion that was created by voluntary and democratic interpretation of the Bible. The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms.

Later in the book Noll offers the memorable line: “The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. As I have written elsewhere, it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.” I suppose I was hoping the book would help me understand how and why public theological reflection takes the shape it does in America. It is a sobering book, one that should make anyone who wants to think through contemporary public issue “X” theologically and biblically, extremely uncomfortable. Noll is primarily descriptive, and readers need to draw some of their own conclusions concerning what this might mean for contemporary theological reflection. I very much recommend the book if you ever find yourself thinking/saying “the Bible says … .” Some quotes that stuck out:

Re: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the forms of public discourse:

The significance of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the biblical debate over slavery lay in the novel’s emotive power. More effectively than debaters like Jonathan Blanchard or Francis Wayland, Stowe exemplified-rather than just announced-the persuasive force of what she regarded as the Bible’s overarching general message. The fact that a novelist brought off this task more effectively than the exegetes did not stop abolitionist scholars and preachers from continuing the battle in their chosen media.

Re: nuance in interpretation and debate:

On the other front, nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters. As such, it contradicted democratic and republican intellectual instincts. In the culture of the United States, as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed.

On the fact that the issue of race was largely absent from the public debate in the US (even among abolitionists) – excepting African American writers (who were ignored), and some foreign observers:

In order for American Bible believers as a whole to have acted on distinctions between slavery as such and slavery as practiced in the United States, or between colorblind biblical slavery and black-only American slavery, a revolution in the nation’s racial attitudes would have been necessary, and that revolution would have demanded a greater alteration in accepted convictions than the American War of independence itself. Even the Civil War that preserved the Union, that broadened out to the Emancipation Proclamation, and that led to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments did not persuade most Caucasian Americans that African Americans were on their level of humanity. To have carried the country in 186o, the argument that a racially discriminatory slavery was a different thing from slavery per se would have required the kind of commitment to racial antiprejudice that the nation only accepted, after immense struggle, late in the twentieth century – if in fact it has accepted it even now

From Noll’s conclusion:

The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock. The first was the course taken in the Civil War, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. As things worked out, military coercion determined that, at least for the purposes of American public policy, the Bible did not support slavery. The second course, though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of Scripture.

Finding Livelihood

Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking (1973), says, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This must be the most quoted definition of vocation in contemporary literature on calling and work, the only problem being that it isn’t really true. It’s a good line, and it sounds good when you’re 19 (it did to me), but easy acceptance of this phrase is quickly challenged by the question of “what happens when the world’s hunger requires something of me I am not glad to give?” A glance at scripture, at history, at your own life and the lives of those around you, reveals that it is a matter of when, not if, you will be asked to give something that hurts rather than provides gladness if you are to follow God’s calling in a broken world. When you’re 19 this reality is perhaps less clear (and not particularly welcome as you plot your glorious plan for your life).

Since I love Buechner, I should note that less frequently referenced is his “Memoir of Vocation,” Now and Then (1983), a book that offers a more nuanced exploration of calling and the lived experience of work. In Now and Then Buechner doesn’t describe the easy convergence of personal gladness and worldly need, but instead describes a journey of wrong turns, of frustration, of set backs, of confusion, of minor victories, in the pursuit of his calling. The most famous quote of that book suggests that in listening to our life the “boredom and pain” of life is no less holy, no less a gift of grace, than its “gladness.” And many find as they grow older that boredom and pain may be the defining features of their working lives, rather than deep gladness.

Nancy Nordenson’s Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure speaks to this reality as she explores what meaning can be drawn from the “shadow side” of work, its boredom and frustrations, of trying to navigate the “tension of your planned life and your given life.” It’s less about finding work that will fulfill our deepest desires and more a meditation on searching for “signs of transcendent reality and participating in that reality, even when work fails to satisfy.” It is a book about work and vocation “for grown-ups, “as the promotional copy puts it, for “who but a very small minority” Nordenson asks “can find the exact intersection [of deep gladness and deep hunger] and feed a family? Or at that sweet spot sustain their position for a lifetime?”

In a series of “lyric” essays, Nordenson enters into the details of a working life (she earns her living as a freelance medical writer) that often get glossed over in more abstract and theoretical descriptions of work: meeting deadlines, the pain of being laid off, the frustrations of the job search, of doing work that seems disconnected from “my calling,” of the bills that show up in the mailbox every month and the alarm clock that rings every day. The figures Nordenson references are not the latest productivity gurus, nor the latest behavioral economics studies, but figures like Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Josef Pieper.

This is not a how-to guide, or a book stuffed with answers to the dilemmas many (most, if the statistics concerning work satisfaction are any guide) people face with regard to work. The lyric style Nordenson uses relies on a “nonlinear structure, white space, metaphor and a slant-angle perspective. It is a way of exploring, not a way of explaining.” It requires and rewards patience, and leaves the reader with plenty of work to do on her own. It is this style that lets Nordenson explore some areas of work that other more “explanatory” books do not, even if my one complaint with the book is that I did feel as though some of the essays lost a certain amount of momentum and direction. My favorite essays were likely the “Summa Laborum” chapters, modeled on the rhetorical structure of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The structure of those particular chapters gives shape to Nordenson’s reflections as she starts with questions like “Should money be excluded from a discussion about the meaning of work?” and works through reasons to answer yes, or no.

Finding Livelihood is a vulnerable book, a book that displays its doubts and bewilderment in a way theological reflections are not often willing to risk. It is a book that is honest about the wrestling that occurs as we try and find our way in the world of work with its many kinds: “the work of earning a living, creating, serving; the work of looking for work. The work of marriage. Raising children. … The work of play. The work of the church. Laundry. The preparing of food. What should we call the work happening inside of us?” A reader who is living in the “tension between passion and need, between aspiration and limits, between the planned life and the given life” may find Nordenson’s contemplative essays a welcome companion along the way.

Freelancing, “Office Occupations” and the Writing Life

Writing for the press cannot be recommended as a permanent resource to anyone qualified to accomplish anything in the higher departments of literature or thought: not only on account of the uncertainty of this means of livelihood, especially if the writer has a conscience, and will not consent to serve any opinions except his own; but also because the writings by which one can live are not the writings which themselves live, and are never those in which the writer does his best. Books destined to form future thinkers take too much time to write, and when written come, in general, too slowly into notice and repute, to be relied on for subsistence. Those who have to support themselves by their pen must depend on literary drudgery, or at best on writings addressed to the multitude; and can employ in the pursuits of their own choice, only such time as they can spare from those of necessity; which is generally less than the leisure allowed by office occupations, while the effect on the mind is far more enervating and fatiguing. For my own part I have, through life, found office duties an actual rest from the other mental occupations which I have carried on simultaneously with them. They were sufficiently intellectual not to be a distasteful drudgery, without being such as to cause any strain upon the mental powers of a person used to abstract thought, or to the labour of careful literary composition.

The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill – courtesy of Alan Jacobs’ Pinboard. Some alternative titles for this post, (for me at least): “Be careful what you wish for,” “Get on with it already,” and “But, maybe you’re simply delusional.”