Those Books Won’t Read Themselves
To be honest, this is not a question that vexes many people – but it is one that can get under the skin of people who read blogs like this one. Let’s ask some other questions: How many movies have you seen since January? How many hours have you spent watching TV? How about hours spent on Facebook/Twitter/Etc.? Or time spent reading blogs? And how many different blogs? What about how much of the Bible you have read? And how many hours have you spent in prayer?
All these are valid questions. They are also ones that can generate, in varying degrees, a sense of competitiveness and inadequacy, superiority and inferiority, pride and guilt.
I generally read at a rate of about one book every ten days. In ‘good’ years I might hit a book a week, but more normally I get through thirty or forty a year. However, I am a nerdy completist, so a book doesn’t make it to my ‘read’ list if I haven’t read it first page to last page. And my reading patterns change over time. I subscribe to The Spectator (weekly) and The London Review of Books (fortnightly) and getting through those certainly cuts back on my book reading time – although reading the book reviews in these publications means I feel like I’m reading more books than I actually am.
I tend to have a reading total immersion when on holiday: a baptism of books, during which I will hit an almost Wilsonian rate of page turning. Few things are as pleasurable as sitting on a sunny French terrace with a good book in one hand and a good glass of wine in the other. I often take something I might not normally pick up, but think I ‘ought’ to read, because of its wider cultural impact.
This year that book was Marlon James’ much feted A Brief History of Seven Killings. I got nearly halfway through it before giving up and throwing it in the recycling. (Looking at the reviews on Amazon, I am not the only one.) It’s clever, yes, but overwhelmingly unpleasant. But it took me a day or two to come to my senses and realise I didn’t need to read it – I was free not to. Having woken up, in the bin it went, and I purged my soul with some Wendell Berry.
It made me think though, about what we read and why we read it. And about the power of books to bring us pleasure, or make us feel guilty – either because we are reading things we shouldn’t, or we are not reading things we think we should. I guess there are blogs where people keep a record of how many movies they see each year, but books exert a special pull on us. If you’re reading this post, I bet you are a book reader too – and I bet you have a pretty good idea of how many books you’ve read this year. And I bet you felt some conflicted internal emotions when you read Andrew’s account of his one hundred books.
So how about this for an early New Year resolution: In 2017 read some books, because books are good, and teach us many things. (And they are far better when physical objects than Kindlefied files – though if you’re going on a beach holiday you may take your Kindle.) Read broadly, but wisely – you don’t have to read stuff that does your soul no good. Read for information, and for pleasure, but not competitively. And don’t feel guilty about all the books you haven’t read, or those you only skim through, because of the making of many books there is no end. And read your Bible!
And just in case anyone is interested, here is my list of books read so far in 2016, with a brief comment about each:
Moore, Onward: Engaging the culture without losing the gospel. Helpful, and probably even more so now than it was at the start of this crazy year.
Murray. The Happy Christian. Outstanding.
Kennedy. The First American Evangelical: A short life of Cotton Mather. Superb.
Thornbury. Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the wisdom and vision of Carl F.H. Henry. Very helpful.
Scruton. I Drink Therefore I Am: a philosophers guide to wine. Wine & philosophy? What’s not to like?
Simpson. Touching the Void. As gripping as it was when I first read it nearly thirty years ago.
Meyer. The Culture Map. One of the most helpful books I’ve read this year.
Harmon. Philippians. An excellent commentary.
Updike. Rabbit, Run. Admire the writing, depressed by the story.
Mead. One Perfect Day: the selling of the American wedding. Bridezilla, hang your head in shame!
Ferry. A Brief History of Thought. Yes!
Griggs. Small Town Jesus. Yes!
Sprinkle. People to be Loved. Yes, but…
Grant. Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and found in the Mississippi Delta. I need to visit Mississippi.
Newsham. All the Right Places: Travelling light through Japan, China and Russia. A well-written travel book.
Leithart. Solomon Among the Postmoderns. This is good.
Klebold. A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy. Clear-eyed heartbreak.
Park. The Great Soul of Siberia: In search of the elusive Siberian tiger. Woah, what do we have here? Extraordinary.
Matar. The Return: Fathers, sons and the land in between. Beautiful, sad, profound.
Berry. That Distant Land: the collected stories. Soul purged.
Dahl. Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s letters to his mother. Laugh? I did.
Helprin. A Soldier of the Great War. Mark, how do you do that?! Utterly extraordinary.
Backhouse. Kierkegaard: A single life. Either/Or? Still not sure.
Smith. You Are What You Love. Unlike everyone else, I didn’t much enjoy this.
Yarhouse. Understanding Gender Dysphoria. The most useful book on the subject so far.
Haidt. The Righteous Mind. Have we mentioned this book on Think yet?
Vance. Hillbilly Elegy. It’s true.
Theroux. Deep South. There’s just something about the Southern States of America. I need to go to Mississippi.
Yeats. Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney. Tread softly on my dreams.
Crossman. Mountain Rain: A biography of James O. Fraser. As inspiring as it was when I first read it 22 years ago.
Sayers. Disappearing Church: From cultural relevance to gospel resilience. Lots of books have jacket puffs saying, “A must-read.” This is a must-read.