Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

There is wisdom in learning not to judge a book by its cover. But might there be merit in learning to test a book by its acknowledgements?

Acknowledgements—along with dedications, forewords, translator’s notes, prefaces, and the like—can be tempting to skip over as mere formalities, the necessary accoutrements of publishing. But recently I’ve come to consider these bookends as important waysigns to a larger reality. Here, in this small institutional practice of gratitude, we are reminded that there is no such thing as singular genius. Here, with customary nods and gestures to the humble hands and invisible minds that might otherwise go unrecognized, even the most self-important author testifies to the inescapable necessity of community. Here, in a few simple, heartfelt pages where writers testify to their reliance on others, we are reminded that friendship is no small part of the contributions the world remembers. Surely these words deserve more attention than the quick scan they typically receive.

Kate Harris

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O’Connor had little patience for the sort of questions that students and teachers asked about her stories. She wrote of a young teacher at Macon’s Wesleyan College, “an earnest type,” who asked all the wrong questions after a reading of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”:

“Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.

— Jonathan Rogers, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor

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Practice makes perfect, but pleasure makes practice more likely, so read something enjoyable. If a book is so agonizing that you avoid reading it, put it down and pick up one that brings you pleasure. Life is too short and books are too plentiful not to. Besides, one can’t read well without enjoying reading.

On the other hand, the greatest pleasures are those born of labor and investment. A book that requires nothing from you might offer the same diversion as that of a television sitcom, but it is unlikely to provide intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual rewards long after the cover is closed. Therefore, even as you seek books that you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you: books with sentences so exquisitely crafted that they must be reread, familiar words used in fresh ways, new words so evocative that you are compelled to look them up, and images and ideas so arresting that they return to you unbidden for days to come.

— Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

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Books are to read, but that is by no means the end of it.

The way they are bound, the paper they are printed on, the smell of them (especially if they are either very new or very old), the way the words are fitted to the page, the look of them in the bookcasesometimes lined up straight as West Point cadets, sometimes leaning against each other for support or lying flat so you have to tip your head sideways to see them properly. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, the Pleiade edition of Saint Simon, Chesterfield’s letters, the Qur’an. Even though you suspect you will probably never get around to them, it is an honor just to have them on your shelves.

Something of what they contains gets into the air you breathe. They are like money in the bank, which is a comfort even though you never spend it. They are prepared to give you all they’ve got at a moment’s notice, but are in no special hurry about it. In the meanwhile they are holding their tongues, even the most loquacious of them, even the most passionate.

They are giving you their eloquent and inexhaustible silence. They are giving you time to find your way to them. Maybe they are giving you time, with or without them, just to find your way.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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[L]et me identify a few common evangelical approaches to cultural interpretation that we need to avoid. …

I am not recommending that we participate in stories in order to find allegories for Christ or spiritual truths. This method doesn’t take the world of the story seriously; it treats the story as a prop. Instead, we should consider what the story says about life and explore its truth in relation to our experience. This means we seriously and empathetically enter into the world of a story, even while we may deny the truths it conveys.

I am also not recommending that we participate in stories in order to show how non-Christians are wrong and sin is bad. Many years ago, I had a Christian student object to reading The Great Gatsby because, he said, “I don’t need to read about people committing adultery and getting drunk to know that those things are sinful.” Of course, he was right, in a way. If you read the novel only as a morality tale, you will be largely unsurprised. Likewise, if we watch movies by secular directors in order to point out how hopeless they are because they don’t have Christ, we aren’t treating them as people. They’re props—evidence of how much better it is to be a Christian. And if we get to know enough Christians intimately, we will discover that many of them also suffer from bouts of hopelessness, mental illnesses, tragedy, and anxiety. We are followers of Christ because he loves us and called us to himself, not because we were promised a life of happiness. So playing the “whose life is better?” game is foolish and uncharitable. Good stories should produce empathy in us for others, regardless of who they are. Empathy does not mean that we affirm their actions or beliefs, but we understand and, as people who also suffer under sin, we lament. The correct posture for Christians approaching a story is one of humility, charity, and a desire to know. With such a posture, we treat our neighbors and the creators of the story as made in the image of God, burdened by the same fallen world, and in need of the grace and mercy of the same Savior.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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With discernment, charity, and dialogue, Christians can participate in stories in disruptive ways that challenge the distracted, secular age.

In concrete terms, this participation might involve going to a movie theater with a friend and talking about the film afterward, book clubs, discussing the latest episode of a TV show with a coworker, hosting parties for watching a TV show that intentionally include time for dialogue, hosting movie nights, or making time to talk about an album with a group of friends. Again, virtually all of us in America do this sort of thing to some extent. Stories of one kind or another are at the heart of our culture, and we relate to one another by sharing them and interpreting them together. I’m recommending that we be more intentional about our participation in stories in specific ways, in order to make the immanent frame more visible and to interpret intimations of transcendence toward the more satisfying and fulfilling account of existence found in Christ.

Practically, this means choosing aesthetically excellent stories, whether or not they are the most popular. These stories will tend to be darker or more depressing or heavy, which sounds unpleasant. But Christians should be known for their appreciation of tragedies, because in good tragedies we must reckon with our place in the world, the problem of evil, and the struggle for meaning. (In the classical sense of the term, comedies can also make us face these difficult realities, but in the contemporary world, this is less true.) All those questions and concerns our distracted age is good at helping us ignore come to the fore in stories that deal with the tragic element of life. I am not asking Christians to stop seeing superhero movies or listening to pop music, but we need to be mindful of how we use our time. Many of the popular stories in our culture leave us worse off. Instead of haunting us, they glorify vice, distract us from ourselves, lift our mood without lifting our spirits, and make us envious and covetous of fame, sexual conquests, and material possessions.

When a story haunts us, it troubles our buffered self; it intrudes on our thought life, makes connections to other stories and experiences and ideas, and compels us to contemplation.

… We do not need to only participate in dark or troubling stories, but we do need to give priority to stories that haunt us, unsettle us, and expand us, whether through beauty and delight or tragedy.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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With Bilbo, I saw the peaks of the Misty Mountains. Mirkwood surrounded me, the forest of fairy tales in particularly gnarled, glimmering, spider-infested form. When Bilbo climbed a tree in Mirkwood to spy out the land, I burst through the canopy of the forest after days in the green gloom, and found the sea of bright breeze-ruffled leaves where velvet-black butterflies played. Not — I find now, re-reading The Hobbit — that Tolkien described any of these things in the detail I remember. His was a speedy, storyteller’s art. It made a few precise suggestions, supplied a few nodal adjectives from which the webwork of an imagined world could grow in a child’s mind, and didn’t linger. I made the pictures. I was lucky that my first book put me in the hands of a writer with such a conscious and decided idea of what a reader’s imagination needed. Tolkien had trained himself on the hard nugget-like specifics of Anglo-Saxon and Viking poetry, with its names for things that were almost spells, and its metaphors that were almost riddles. At six I had no idea that the sea had once been the whale-path, or that Tolkien had any predecessors when he had Bilbo boast to Smaug that he was ‘the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly’. He made bread, blood and diamonds, and the bees as big as thumbs at Bjorn’s house, seem as fresh and vividly discovered as if they had just been thought of, for the first time in the world. What I did know explicitly was that while’Tolkien’s words were authoritative, his occasional black-and-white drawings in the text only counted as hints I was free to accept or refuse. What Middle-Earth looked like was my business. Illustrations — I decided — were limitations.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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