In 2012 I did a lot of catching up. I read a lot of books that have been sitting on my shelf for months (ok fine, years), silently judging me. That is another reason real books are so much better than e-readers – they represent a physical manifestation of failed ambition. And they pile up. How else can you amass a shelf full of scorn and self-loathing. But this year I decided enough was enough. Having Martin Buber’s Life and Work sitting on your shelf can only do you so much good. Sure it looks awesome, and occasionally people will see it and say, “Wow, you have a big book on Martin Buber there,” and they will assume you have read it and think you are really smart. But in order to really benefit from a book, you have to open it up and actually read it.
So this year I went after books that were already on my shelves. Of course, this didn’t stop me from buying books like crazy when I got the chance. We went to the US for a month and I came back with 37 books and I don’t regret it at all. But I put them on the shelf, they will have to wait their turn. Nobody cuts in front of Martin!
Here are some highlights:
I started off 2012 by reading A Timbered Choir by Wendell Berry. I don’t usually read straight through poetry collections, but I did with this book, and I was well rewarded for my efforts. These poems are so full of beauty and wisdom, but the kind of beauty and wisdom that sneaks up on you. I often found myself going through this 5 step process:
1. Read a line.
2. Realize by the end of the line how awesome of a line it is.
3. Realize that I am reading too fast and almost missed an awesome line because of it.
4. Curse myself.
5. Reread the line, much slower this time.
Actually, that is probably how poetry should be read. I found so much in these poems that seemed to describe my life in the past year, but nothing more than this: “We live the given life, and not the planned.”
I also read Surprised by Joy for the first time this year, and it honestly surprised me. I don’t know why, but for some reason I always thought that this would be a lame book even though I had never read it. This was probably an opinion I formed in high school, and probably had something to do with the fact that the title has the word joy in it. “Who wants to read about joy?” I can imagine my 17 year-old self thinking. “Boring.” To my mind, a book about joy could only mean one thing – silly or frivolous writing, and I judged the book by its cover. Needless to say, I was wrong (kind of how I was wrong when I thought The Grateful Dead must be a heavy metal band based on their name), and thankfully I have outgrown my high school philistinism.
I loved this book, and identified with it in a lot of ways. Also, the analogy of the incarnation given is probably the best I have ever heard. If Shakespeare were to ever have a relationship with Hamlet, Lewis says, it would have to be initiated by Shakespeare. One way for this to happen would be if Shakespeare wrote himself into the play as a character who interacted with Hamlet. In this way, it would kind of be like God coming to earth as creator and created.
Actually, it is probably for the best that I didn’t read it in high school. They say youth is wasted on the young. Sometimes good books are as well.
I was unable to buy NW while we were in the US (I think it came out like a week after we left), so instead I read The Autograph Man which I (typically) bought two or three years ago and have not yet read. I figured “Why should I buy another Zadie Smith novel when I have one sitting on my shelf that I haven’t even read yet?” The obvious answer to that is, “You should buy every Zadie Smith novel as soon as you can, regardless of what you have sitting on your shelf.” While this is clearly true, circumstances prevented it, and I was forced to continue reading books I already own. But I am glad, since I probably wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation to read NW if I had it, and The Autograph Man would have been skipped over again, and that would have been a shame. I liked it a lot.
This year I also read a book that I should have read a long time ago – The Brothers Karamazov. I know, I am a terrible person. Believe me, this (fat) book has been mocking me for the past decade. I have tried to make excuses (“Who has the time?”), tried even to blame the book itself (“Look at how thick it is!”), but always the book sat and stared at me unblinking and accusatory, like Jesus quietly hearing out the Grand Inquisitor.
I finally read The Cost of Discipleship this year (I know, I know), but before you judge me too harshly, please see what Bonhoeffer has to say:
“If when we judged others, our real motive was to destroy evil, we should look for evil where it is certain to be found, and that is in our own hearts. But if we are on the look-out for evil in others, our real motive is obviously to justify ourselves, for we are seeking to escape punishment for our own sins by passing judgment on others”.
I read Cloud Atlas this year, and I really liked it for a number of reasons, but what struck me the most was the different voices. It has lots of different narrators, and they all speak with a unique voice. I usually don’t like books like this, and almost didn’t read it for this very reason. I picked it up a few times over the past couple of years and casually flipped through it (*Note – this is basically the same thing as judging a book by its cover. I know this, and yet I still do it all the time.), but all I saw was a string of first-person narrators, speaking in peculiar dialects about things that did not make sense. I get how portraying different dialects in the prose heightens the authenticity, but when a writer continually writes things like “G’day” instead of “Good day,” I get a headache after a few pages. It wears me out. It is hard work learning how to read a character that speaks in a strange way; the going is slow. And a book with a bunch of characters like this seemed to be more work than it was worth. But with Cloud Atlas, once I started reading from the beginning, I quickly overcame my hesitation (prejudice?), and was sucked into the story. The writing is so good, and the different dialects actually help to craft the different voices. It is really a small miracle. Not only has Mitchell given each character its own voice (no small feat in and of itself), but, in many cases, they are given their own vocabulary! It is like reading the results of a writing exercise on voice, if the student was an amazing, visionary writer, and all the scraps of writing fit together in the end. Reading this book isn’t work. It is fun.
Also, I wanted to read it before the movie version came out and Tom Hanks ruined it forever. I guess I didn’t really need to worry about that, since I have still not seen the movie, and won’t in the foreseeable future. Not because I don’t want to, but because of the severe shortage of movie theaters here in Niger. In any case, I really wanted to read the book before seeing the movie, cause I wanted to be able to look down my nose at the film version, and point out how different it is from the book. This is a lot of fun, but you have to be careful and not overdo it. It is easy to go from being the cool guy that read the book before it was made into a movie, to one of the LOTR-era, “How could they leave out Tom Bombadil” pouty types. Of course there is room for this type of conversation, but you have to go into it knowing that if you start saying things like, “I like it, I am just disappointed in their choice of…” people will stop talking to you.
Lastly, I read Waiting for God by Simone Weil. This was not a book I sought out. It was a book I found while going through my grandfather’s library. My grandfather passed away this year, and when we went back to the United States, I was able to go through his books. In a way it was like being with him again, and I was able to trace the movement of his intellectual interests and pursuits over the years by looking at the books. The books on farming and communal living belong to the 70’s, when he was starting a farm and building a community/retreat center. The books on marriage and family counseling came later, when he began his studies to become a counselor. Those are fairly obvious, but I was really intrigued by the outliers, like Weil. When did he read this book, and what influence did it have on him? I couldn’t help but ask myself these questions while I read it. But I found that the more I read, the more peripheral these questions became, since I was continually blown away by what I read.
I didn’t agree with everything, but there was so much that was meaningful to me, I couldn’t put it down. Waiting for God is another book that I probably wouldn’t have read at all at an earlier stage in life, but sometimes the right book finds you at the right time. When that happens, it is magic. But the key is waiting. Why? because, as Weil writes, “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.”