My Year in Reading – 2017

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As always, I have enjoyed reading the different A Year in Reading entries at The Millions. Unfortunately it has been awhile (4 years!) since I wrote about my year in reading, but life gets in the way, etc.

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to this year, but I still managed to read quite a bit, and I still managed to read some books and some passages that will stay with me long after 2017 ends. Here are some highlights:

I read God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, and I loved it, just like I have loved everything I have ever read by Abraham Joshua Heschel. A couple of years ago I went on a Heschel tear, but then I slowed down because I didn’t want to finish reading his whole oeuvre so quickly. I started spacing them out, and I had been looking forward to this one for a while. The Prophets is cued up for 2018 – goodie!

There is so much that could be said about this work, but I will content myself to sharing some of the golden nuggets that I unearthed from this rich wisdom-mine.

On reading the Bible too literally: “there is a type of reader who, when you talk to him of Jacob’s ladder, would ask the number of steps.” – Ouch.

On how to read the Bible: “The Bible is to be understood by the spirit that grows with it, wrestles with it, and prays with it. – Yes!

On how to read the Bible (and any book actually): “One must be inspired to understand inspiration.”

On life: “There is a task, a law, and a way: the task is redemption, the law, to do justice, to love mercy, and the way is the secret of being human and holy.” – Emphasis original, as is the lyrical tenacity.

On how to fix the world: “The world is torn by conflicts, by folly, by hatred. Our task is to cleanse, to illumine, to repair. Every deed is either a clash or an aid in the effort of redemption.” – Amen.

I also read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari this year, which was one of the most interesting and most terrifying books I have ever read. I mean that as a compliment. Good books should unsettle us and take us outside of our comfort zone, and this books left me thoroughly unsettled. There are many things I could say about it, but I think that is best reserved for another setting. However, I will say this – one of the things that scared me was the casual dismissal of any notion of free will. I hate to over-simplify what Harari is saying, but I will. Basically we act the way we do because of algorithms and free will is a myth and we are who we are because we are biologically determined to be who we are.

Afterwards, and not intentionally, I read something that served to counter this vision of who we are. Anarchy and Christianity by Jacques Ellul was a sort of palate-cleanser after reading Harari, especially when he writes about an inherited concept of God as the omnipotent and all powerful mover and shaker that is shaped more by Greek philosophy and monarchists in the 16th and 17th century than by anything found in the Bible. In this way, he reclaims God’s freedom, but also the idea of free will. He writes, “There is no providence in the Bible, no God who distributes blessings, sicknesses, wealth, or happiness. Is God a giant computer function according to a program? There is nothing biblical about an idea of that kind. In the Bible there is a God who is with us, who accompanies us in our ventures. This God can at times intervene but not according to set laws or dictatorial caprice.”

I didn’t read as much fiction as I should have in 2017, but I did read Precious Bane by Mary Webb, which was so good. I was especially interested in this novel because the main character Prue Sarn has a cleft lip (which was of particular interest to me since we treat many patients with cleft lips in our hospital). I really didn’t know what to expect (although any book that takes its name from Milton is ok with me). I was happy to be surprised by the (bitter)sweet story, the heart-break and the happy ending.

It is a story about the dichotomy between greed and giving, and this is illustrated in a stunning passage on farming (and life): “For reaping…is a grutching and a grabbing thing compared with sowing. You must lean out to it and sweep it in to you, and hold it to your bosom, jealous, and grasp it and take it. There is ever a greediness in reaping with the sickle…But reaping is all greed, just as sowing is all giving. For there you go, up and down the wide fields, bearing that which you have saved with so much care, winnowing it from the chaff, and treasuring it for this hour. And though it is all you have, you care not, but take it in great handfuls and cast it abroad, with no thought of holding back any. On you go, straight forrard, and the bigger your hand the better pleased you are, and you cast it away on this side and on that, till one not learned in country ways would say, here is a mad person.”

Also, this is how Webb describes the scent of corn, once it is ready to be harvested: “What other scent is like it? There is so much in it beyond other sweets. There is summer in it, and frost. There is water in it, and the heart of the flint which the corn has taken up into its hallow stalks. There is bread in it, and life for man and beast.” – Swoon.

In 2017 I also read Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which was great. In writing to and about the people that were missing in his life while in prison, Bonhoeffer (naturally) had a lot to say about what it is like to have people missing from your life.

He writes, “nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.”

Also, “There is hardly anything that can make one happier than to feel that one counts for something with other people. What matters here is not numbers, but intensity. In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life; the modern ‘efficient’ man can do nothing to change this, nor can the demigods and lunatics who know nothing about human relationships. God uses us in his dealing with others. Everything else is very close to hubris.”

Obviously, we are not in a Nazi prison or concentration camp, but we are far away from many of the people that matter in our lives, and these beautiful words resonate.

Bonhoeffer also wrote poignantly about the true meaning of Christmas – “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.

And, “From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgement of man, that God will approach where men turn away, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn – these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people”.

I read Camus’ The Plague this year, and it was of course very different from Bonhoeffer, but dealt with a lot of similar themes. In Camus’ novel, the allegorical plague which seizes the city (a stand-in for the fascist occupation) separates many people from their loved ones. Camus also talks about Christmas under oppressive circumstances. He writes, “Christmas that year had none of its old-time associations; it smacked of hell rather than of heaven. Empty, unlighted shops, dummy chocolates or empty boxes in the confectioners’ windows, streetcars laden with listless, dispirited passengers – all was as unlike Christmastides as it well could be. In the past all the townspeople, rich and poor alike, indulged in seasonable festivity; now only a privileged few, those with money to burn, could do so, and they caroused in shamefaced solitude in a dingy back shop or a private room. In the churches there were more supplications than carols.”

Unlike Bonhoeffer, what Camus failed to understand is that Christmas is about supplications. It is about crying out through suffering, through fear and through faith. If you listen carefully to the words of the carols, they speak of redemption, of liberation and of hope. The window-dressing that he rightly associates with Christmas is just that, but the true meaning of Christmas is salvation. True, that is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but it is a word that has real, weighty meaning for those who are enslaved in one way or another.

It is interesting to note, however, that in spite of his jaded views on Christmas (and Christianity), he still chose Christmas as the turning point in the novel, when the plague starts to abate and the end comes within sight. True, the symbol of salvation in this particular case is the reappearance of rats all over the city (absent since the beginning of the plague). But hope is hope, and as Camus himself writes, “once the faintest stirrings of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was ended.”

Also, on a completely unrelated note, Camus wrote this, which is probably the most French diss ever penned, “Even before you knew what his employment was, you had a feeling that he’d been brought into the world for the sole purpose of performing the discreet but needful duties of a temporary assistant municipal clerk on a salary of sixty-two francs, thirty centimes a day.” – Ouch.

Finally, I read Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity by Primo Levi this year, and it was a game-changer. I feel a Levi tear coming on in 2018, and I have a few of his books already on deck. His dispassionate but searing testimony about his experiences in the Nazi Lager system were deeply troubling, but also full of insight.

In many ways, 2017 was a political year. Many people started following the news and sharing political opinions, even if they never really did before. It seems like across the board, across the political spectrum and around the world, people have felt like more is now at stake. I usually refrain from getting into political debates and discussions, at least online. I don’t feel like it is the best forum for real and meaningful interactions, even though it almost doesn’t matter anymore since life is now being lived online, like it or not (I don’t).

So I am not interested in stirring up debate (unless it is in person, then I have no problems!), but I want to end with a quote from Levi, in the Author’s Preface. It is not a political statement, but given the current state of things in the world right now, it kind of is:

“Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy.’ For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal.”

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