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Monday, November 30, 2009

Books - Part 1

Yesterday morning at church I had a delightful conversation with someone in between services. We were talking about possible Christmas presents, and she shared how her husband has been "threatening" that he'll get her a Kindle, knowing full well of her deep love for books, and how that gizmo would be anathema to her. I had one of those "me too!" moments, and we chattered on top of each other about how we love all things bookish... owning books, reading books, arranging books, writing in books, shopping for books (used ones, of course). I decided to be an English major in college for that very reason. I had no aspirations of writing The Great American Novel. I simply shook at the realization that if I majored in English it would be my job to read books. It seemed too good to be true!

Also, earlier this week I heard a podcast on NPR titled Books That Changed America. In it an author named Jay Parini was interviewed about books he felt had changed the course of our country. I don't have a lot to argue with in terms of list. You can hear the interview yourself and decide. But the whole idea got me thinking on a smaller scale. What books have changed my life?

Once I started thinking about it, it was easy for me to quickly come up with my list. I invite you to do the same. Here are mine as they came to me. I am also not listing in the order I read them.

In fact, once I got going I realized that I better split this list up into two entries. Waaayyy too much reading at one sitting.

My Books, Part 1:
  1. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen. One of the few books I can read over and over. It is always satisfying. Her understated but spot-on descriptions, her delightful understanding of women and the ways we work internally and externally, and her own real story, all keep me coming back. I took a senior seminar in college with a syllabus that simply required us to read everything she'd ever written. It was so easy to be an English major -- it didn't feel like work!
  2. The Spirit, The Church & the World by John Stott. I have probably read every book Stott has written. In a Time magazine poll, Billy Graham listed him as the most influential evangelical of the 20th century. His prose is clear but not dry, his logic is precise yet also passionate, and his approach is methodical and accessible. I have truly been tutored by Stott throughout my years of vocational ministry. This book listed here was the first big A-HA! book that I read in seminary. It's a commentary on the Book of Acts, and I remember thinking as I read it, This is fascinating, I can't wait to read more, and oh my goodness, I GET it!
  3. Mere Christianity / The Great Divorce / The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The summer after my freshman year of college I got a job at the U.S. Geological Survey's western headquarters, where I literally typed for 8 hours a day in a windowless room. I knew no one else at these offices, so I decided to spend each lunch break reading these C.S. Lewis books. Up to the point I read them, I would say my faith was pretty simplistic and immature. I decided to follow Christ at age 15 for a bunch of 15-year old reasons that were all valid, but they held little weight as I got older. When I read these books by Lewis, I was launched on a whole new trajectory. It sounds like a cliche, but I was never the same. Lewis put some meat on the bones of my faith, and I grew up.
  4. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Enchanting. It's one of the few books I've read that literally makes me laugh out loud at times. It's the most entertaining how-to book you'll ever read. It's often rather crass, but not gratuitously so. Lamott's voice is always authentic. Her combination of writerly insight and spiritual honesty is totally winsome. This book also made me believe I could actually write. I had been so paralyzed by the I'm-not-sure-anyone-would-ever-want-to-read-what-I-write fears that I never had the guts to start. Lamott made me realize I could write because I just had to -- it was dying to come out of me.
  5. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. This book unlocked the world of imagination for me. It was read to us in our 2nd grade class by my teacher, whose name was Mrs. Woolwine (is that a great name or what?!) I received the book as a gift that year as well, and loved picturing Veruca Salt and August Gloop and the golden ticket and the chocolate river. Glorious. Movies have attempted to capture this movie, but I like the version in my head much better.
  6. Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. This is a can't-put-it-down account of the Lewis & Clark expedition. I read it during a long camping vacation in a national park, which made it all the more interesting. This book hooked me on travel and "extreme" narratives -- I went on to read Into Thin Air, Endurance, Into the Wild, My First Summer in the Sierras, among others.
  7. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. This is a writer of uncommon gifts. Like Anne Lamott, her writing sometimes causes me to laugh out loud. But where Lamott's writing is like comfort food, Dillard's writing for me is more like listening to a symphony. It's got so many layers. It is so precise. Her language is stunning. I often have to read sentences twice. She makes me pause at times because her imagery is so powerful, and her thoughts even more breathtaking. She is philosophical and lyrical and spiritual and a remarkable storyteller. I want to grow up and be Annie Dillard. P.S. Another of her books, The Writing Life, could easily be on this list.
  8. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. How I wish this book didn't speak to me so much. I have walked through terminal illness with more than one beloved friend. This book is a slow start, and I found their beginning love story a bit mushy and over the top. But as Vanauken describes their growing relationship with Christ and his wife's battle with cancer, I was completely drawn in. Tears poured down my face as I got near the end. I'm seeing a pattern here -- when a book elicits genuine emotional response, and not just the warm enjoyment of a good read, I can't forget it.
  9. The New Yorker magazine. Sure sure, not a book, I know. But oh, the writing is so glorious. Their reviews of books, films and general culture have also prompted me to read stuff I never would have looked at. The New Yorker is classy, creative and funny, and the topics covered are expansive. There is solid journalism and extensive coverage. I don't always agree with the perspective of the writers, but I'm nearly always challenged to quantify my own by the discussion. I especially love their articles on the environment, and their interviews of writers. The gauge I use when reading a New Yorker article of some breadth and depth is not Do I care about this enough to read it? but instead, Does this article make me care enough about it to keep reading? Rarely am I disappointed.
  10. The Bible by God. I did not grow up reading the Bible. When I was 15, I asked my mom to buy me one, and she was less than excited. She bought me a Living New Testament from Gemco, most likely from one of those racks near the checkout, where they also have self-help and "Dummies" books. A less than auspicious start for me in the Good Book department. When I received it, I just opened the cover and started reading -- and the content grabbed me. By the sixth chapter of the Book of Matthew I was sold. Yes, I got very confused along the way (I really did not get how the "plot" kept repeating itself through Matthew, Mark, Luke and John...) but sought out guidance with my questions. Thirty-three years later, I still read it nearly every day. That's something.

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