I’d Buy Their Next Books

One of the things about inveterate readers is that they have favorite authors. When the news comes that they have a new book coming out, we want to know when. We might even pre-order the book. Authors win that status with us in different ways. Some are great at writing page turners. Others simply write so beautifully that we revel in their prose. Some make sense of our world through their writing. Others make us think, or even re-examine our lives. So, here are some of those authors whose newest book I would buy.

 

Anthony Doerr. All the Light We Cannot See  is probably the best work of fiction I have read in the past ten years. There are books that instill a sense of wonder as one reads. This was one of them. It’s been six years since this came out, so I hope there is a new one coming soon.

Kristen Hannah. I’ve remarked recently on how much I’ve enjoyed both The Nightingale and The Great Alone. Both had characters who take up residence in your head and plots that raise profound questions about the nature of evil and the possibility of goodness.

Louise Penny. I’ve discovered in the last year what many mystery lovers have long known–it’s a good thing Three Pines doesn’t really exist, or we’d all move there–just for the chance to get to know Chief Inspector Gamache. One of the great “thinking” detectives. Word is that the next in the series comes out this fall.

Ron Chernow. He’s given us some of the best biographies of the last few decades–Titan, The Warburgs, Alexander Hamilton, Washington, and Grant. The next will likely be a tome, but I will buy it for a great and long read.

Robert Caro. I dearly hope he (and I) live to see the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. I was in my early teens when he was president, and Caro draws out the complexity of this man who was both better and worse than I remember. His little volume, Working, was a fascinating glimpse into how he researches, sleuths for the truth, and his process of writing.

David McCullough. I think I’ve read everything he has written. His book Pioneers was fascinating, simply because he told the story of the people from the east who settle my home state of Ohio. I only wish he would have told more of the story of the people who were here before them. Maybe his next book will do that, if he has any more in him. My favorite was his biography of Harry S. Truman, who had the misfortune of coming between Roosevelt and Eisenhower.

Wendell Berry. He defines what it means to be a “curmudgeon” but provokes me in all he writes to think what it means to hold “membership” in a community, and to think of the land from which we derive our livelihood. Berry continually provokes me to think of what it means to love and care for a place and the desperate need for more such people in our country.

Fleming Rutledge. The Crucifixion was one of the most profound theological works I read in the past ten years, reading it over the course of Lent. Her emphasis both on the substitutionary death of Christ and the victory over evil that occurred in Christ’s death took my thinking about these things in fresh directions.

Matthew Levering. This, perhaps is a name you’ve not heard. He is a Catholic theologian. The last book I read was Dying and the Virtues, exploring the virtues that help us both die and live well. I’ve read three of his books, all of which brought me to fresh insight about theological truths I grew up with. I had the privilege to spend interviewing him, much of which was spent in wonder as I listened to him do what seems the theologian’s calling–to think and then teach great ideas about God, and our relation to God.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I have only read her book on Caring for Truth in a Culture of Lies. This is a woman who cares for words in a culture where there is so many of them and so little insight or truth. I want to read more of what she has written, and will keep an eye out for her newest work.

There are many I’ve not included. I’d love to know the ones you would list and why. I have to think that between good authors and their readers, there is kind of an unspoken contract where authors reward the effort of their readers with everything from wonder to insight, where they faithfully pass along the vision of reality that opens not only their world, but ours.

 

What Gives a Book Staying Power?

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Masterpieces” by Randy Robertson licensed under CC BY 2.0

What makes a book a classic? Why do some best sellers quickly peak and die, while other books, which may or may not have been bestsellers in their time endure? We’ve been talking about this at the Bob on Books Facebook page, and some of what’s here draws on the thoughts of the avid readers on that page.

Of course, a good plot and memorable characters generally are a prerequisite. Need we go further than Ebenezer Scrooge and the appearances of the three ghosts? Another example would be the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin–Tom, Eliza, and Evangeline St. Claire to name a few, and memorable scenes, like Eliza’s flight to freedom across the ice on the Ohio River, pursued by fugitive slave hunters. Plots don’t always have to be fast-moving or tight. Think of the massive works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Often, it seems that the development of a character, and that person’s interior monologue can sprawl across pages and yet engross us, because we can see how someone would really think like that.

That gets to another reason these books endure. They come to be recognized as books in which we both lose and find ourselves. We may become engrossed by a character, who in turn invites us to look at our own lives in fresh ways. It may be that a setting and characters remind people of what they value most in life. I think of the popularity of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a story of a family, of coming of age, and Brooklyn. Thousands of soldiers in World War 2 read the book, with memories of their families, their loves, and their homes. And many continue to see themselves in the adolescent children of the story, Mary Frances Nolan, and her brother “Neely.”

Sometimes, it seems to be a timeless issue. I’m not sure Fahrenheit 451 is distinguished in terms of plot and characters, but in its exploration of book burning and a society of censorship and why this must be resisted. The Jungle, though written in the early 1900’s setting of meat-packing plants still resonates as we think of how workers are often exploited in similar settings around the world (including meat-packing plants that are hot spots of infection in the current pandemic).

Timelessness seems to be one of the critical elements. Classic books are those people connect with generation after generation. Most of us are far from the gentrified setting of 18th century England. Yet generations have found themselves enthralled with the descriptions of elegant drawing rooms and manners, budding romances, and the roles of men and women, the limits on women, and how they contended with these in the works of Jane Austen. The dynamics of relations between men and women will always be with us, no matter how different our circumstances.

Classics are hardly infallible. They may draw us in but we may also define our realities in very different terms. We may come to these books with different sensibilities regarding race, gender, or social class. We may object to the way these are framed by the author, but they help us recognize from where we have come. They also make us question how future generations will evaluate our social structures.

One of the curious things is how classic works stay in print. It would seem to come down to people hearing about the book year after year from others who have loved it until it becomes one of those books you need to read. I do have to admit that I’m curious why some books make it to “classic” status, like Ulysses by James Joyce that maybe five people in the world have any clue to what it means. Maybe it is that people are impressed to see it on one’s shelf, which is one reason some acquire “classics.”

I suspect different classic works connect with people through the generations for different reasons. It suggests to me that there are variety of ways in which a work may be great, not just one. It also encourages me that the ways a work may be great are not exhausted. Some of the books that have deeply touched us may speak to future generations. Unfortunately, most of us will probably never know, any more than those who first read Jane Austen. But we will know that we read a good book.

Reading Withdrawal

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This is a cropped image of a painting by Pierre Auguste Cot (1837-1883) titled “Ophelia/Pause for Thought

Reading withdrawal. Is that a thing? If you talk to my reading friends you will discover it is.

What are the signs of reading withdrawal?

  • Irritability and crabbiness
  • Tiredness from staying up late to compensate for lost reading time
  • Extra or long trips to the bathroom which may be the frustrated reader’s last sanctuary.
  • Some people get depressed. Reading for them is a break from depressing realities. Take that away and what’s left?
  • Some have less energy to socialize. Reading is one place where introverts recharge to meet the world. Extroverts, who are in the majority, just don’t get it.
  • Others feel torn between the people and obligations calling them away from their books and the books that are calling to them.

Sometimes the withdrawal is self-inflicted. We really want to read that new novel, and yet we wile away our reading hours on our smartphone, or binge watching that great new series. Put the phone in another room. Step away from the screen.

Then there are the times the people we care about want our attention during our “reading time.” Maybe it is because the day at work was exasperating and they work things out by talking. Or the kids at school were really mean. Or the one we love wants to go for a walk in the rain or a drive in the country. Just because. If our priorities are right and our love of reading is in the healthy range, we give a longing look at our book, a promise to be back, and thank who or whatever we worship that we have someone to love and who loves us.

At the same time, those who live with and love readers, will probably do well to not fight their urge to retreat into a book sometime during the day or evening. It’s likely that when they put down their book, they’ll be an easier person to live with. They sleep better and are not cranky. And the bathroom is more available.

“Withdrawal” can mean simply missing any healthy habit, from reading to working out. Mostly, it suggests the negotiation that goes on within every household of allowing each to pursue their distinctive interests, balanced with our shared affections and obligations. I’m not a trained counselor, but you might consider seeing one if your reading habit is resulting in a deteriorating relationship, or if it interferes with your work or other obligations, or results in neglecting good self-care.

Most of the time, the best thing is probably to realize that the readers we love need their time to read. If we are that reader, our challenge is to figure out how to get in reading time while showing those who love us we have time for them.

 

Ten Books on My Racial Journey

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Civil Rights March on Washington D.C., Photo by Rowland Scherman, licensed under CC0

True confession. I am a recovering racist. It has probably only been in the last ten years that I could even admit that to myself–or anyone else. I grew up watching the civil rights marches and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr talk about the dream. In elementary school we sang, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” with its soaring conclusion “To take each moment and live each moment in perfect harmony.”

Meanwhile, I grew up on the White West side of my town. In our schools, we were about 98 percent white. Years later, I saw the maps of my city from the 1930’s and 1940’s that confined Blacks to the most inferior housing, marked in red, hence the idea of redlining. I listened to those in my extended family talk about “them” and how they lived and imbibed unconsciously so many stereotypes. Going to college was supposed to shatter all that with a good liberal education. I learned how to talk the talk, but I still walked White.

I’ve worked in a collegiate ministry funded through donations. Though not as well connected as richer friends, I never had a problem raising funds, unlike most of my black colleagues, for whom it always seemed harder. It was here I began to understand something of the privilege I enjoyed, despite my modest background, simply because I was white (and male). It made me wonder why the playing field wasn’t level, despite all our civil rights rhetoric.

And so I did what I always have done as a bibliophile. I started reading. That’s not all I did. I was graced to have friends and colleagues that were black. And finally, it began to get through my head that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know and to stop pretending I was “woke,” and listen. I don’t think you can recover from racism just by reading books. But here are some that have helped me understand both the black experience, and hold up a mirror to myself.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Alexander helped me understand the ways the mass incarceration of black men, many for drug offenses (much more heavily enforced in black neighborhoods) that helped create a permanent underclass who couldn’t vote, couldn’t qualify for federally subsidized housing, or obtain work.

Lerone Bennett, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black American 1619-1964. This helped me understand better the 400 year history of black subjugation, that began prior to the Pilgrims!

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. A set of letters from father to son that reveals the abiding awareness of the threats against the black body, and the abiding struggle to hope for something different.

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. A profound reflection on the parallels between the cross of Christ, and the lynching tree, one white Americans are oblivious to as we deny our lynching history, but one that offers meaning to sustain the long struggle.

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility. This book showed me that most often I and other whites are the problem in race conversations. We so want to be good, to not be thought racist, that we do all sorts of things that shut down conversation. It also challenged me that as whites, we need to do our work rather than put that on blacks.

Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith. Two sociologists look at why 11 am on Sunday is still the most segregated hour of the week. They note the individualistic solutions to race in white evangelicalism that fails to deal with the structures of a racialized society inside as well as outside the church.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy. This book, recently adapted into a film looks at the ways race often enters into the police and justice systems of our country, depriving many blacks of equal treatment under the law. Stevenson opens our eyes to this through death row inmate Walter McMillian, and how difficult an obstructive system made it to prove that he had been wrongly convicted of murder.

Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin. Wallis awakened me with how racism and the dehumanization of blacks traces to our national origins, our earliest economic patterns, and our founding fathers and documents. It persuaded me that, not wanting to face how profoundly we are implicated, we have tried to heal this wound lightly.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. Through three families, Wilkerson traces the great migration of blacks from the Jim Crow south to the north and the west, and how this transformed the cities of north and west, as well as the south.

Ken Wytsma, The Myth of Equality. The most memorable statement in this book, that the rest of the book unpacks was “White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It means that if you are a person of color, simply by virtue of that, your life might be harder.”

These books are uncomfortable reads for a white person like me. They undermine the image I want to project, and the things I want to believe are true. They also liberated me because managing the image that I’m a good “woke” person, and sustaining lies about our society and about me is actually a burden. In shattering my illusions of my goodness, our goodness, they free me of demanding perfection of the other or patronizing them. They remind me that in some sense, we are all “muddling through” and it might make more sense to muddle together than separately.

I do want to acknowledge that I’ve written here in terms of black and white. The racial journey in this country is far more complicated. We are white, Latino/a, black, Asian, and indigenous peoples, and more. I will admit that I’ve read less of these others and wish to read more, listen more to their narratives. I’ve still got a lot of recovering to do.

Spiritual Formation Books I Would Read Again

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Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

The idea of spiritual formation is that the spiritual life is not a static experience but a project of growth. Formation literally suggests the shaping of our lives, our characters, our affections to reflect who or what we consider the ultimate. As you know, I write as a Christian, so the books I share here reflect what it means to follow and be formed in Christ. They are books I have found helpful in my own spiritual progress, and would visit again (and have in some cases).

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat. A wonderful guide to answer the invitation of Jesus to “come with me.” I’ve appreciated a number of works by this author but this is one I pull out whenever I plan a retreat.

Carmen Butcher (tr.), The Cloud of Unknowing. Butcher’s translation of this classic work sings. The author is unknown but leads us into the richness of contemplative prayer.

Michael Card, Inexpressible. The whole book is a study and meditation on one rich Bible word, hesed, referring to the covenant-keeping, lovingkindness of God.

Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life. Ford follows the practice of praying the hours to help us discover what it means to pay attention to God’s work throughout our days and all around us.

Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening. This was the first book that drew me to rather than repelled me from spiritual direction. Guenther is so unpretentious about the whole thing.

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal. The parable of the prodigal is such a profound story, and Nouwen’s use of Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal takes us deeply into this story and what it means for our lives.

Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles. The subtitle of this book is “The shape of pastoral integrity.” While I am not a church pastor, this book challenged me with suggesting that such integrity functions within a triangle of prayer, the reading of scripture, and the work of spiritual direction. He beckons away from the siren calls of charisma and technique.

Gordon T. Smith, Teach Us to Pray. A guide to prayer using our Lord’s prayer, taking us through three movements, of thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren connects the extraordinary things we pray in our churches on Sunday with the ordinary events of our domestic daily lives.

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Willard’s focus is less on the disciplines themselves that what is behind them, why we practice them. He contends:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” 

Nearly all of these writers have written other things, and I could have easily substituted other works. If you find one of these who is a good guide to you, keep reading their works. Above all, I think all of them would direct you to the ultimate formation book, perhaps obvious, but often neglected–The Bible.

How Reading Affects Us

focused teen boy reading book on couch

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I came across a Ted Talk yesterday that asked the question, “What’s the Use of Reading?” The speaker, Beth Ann Fennelly, proposed that research demonstrates that reading fosters empathy in the reader, and some fascinating MRI research showing how most of our brains light up whe we read–perhaps a good argument for staying mentally sharp.

I didn’t think this was the only benefit to reading. So I asked my friends at Bob on Books “What effect do you think reading has on the kind of person you are?” Now this is not scientific and is self-reporting but I was impressed with the variety of ways reading affects the dedicated readers on this page.

There is a quote among the bookish that “I read so I know things.” Knowledge, understanding, perspective, discernment, and wisdom came up quite a bit. Often we read because we are curious, and aware of our ignorance in some area we would like to better understand.

Reading offers the chance to be an independent thinker. This requires that we don’t passively absorb what we read but engage and even argue with it. It means we read different points of view, and use it to test our own way of thinking.

Reading can widen our worlds. It takes us to places, introduces us to different peoples, and even other parts of the universe, from the microscopic to the ultra-distant. It helps us see that there is more than one way to see the world or solve a problem.

Reading fosters imagination. We hear the voices of people speaking, envision the scenes, taste the tastes, and smell the smells according to the brain research. We imagine ourselves in situations and how we would act. Sometimes this leads us to imagine how we will act in real life. Sometimes, that imagination leads to out of the box solutions to real life problems.

Reading relaxes us and even helps us sleep (unless what we are reading is so riveting that it keeps us awake!). Reading allows us a respite from the thoughts and concerns of daily life, a chance to set them aside. I think of that not as escape, but rather hitting “pause.” Sometimes those pauses allow us to return with greater freshness to the challenges of daily life.

One reader made the observation that you could turn this around and consider how the kind of person we are shapes our reading life. Is it because we are curious, independent minded, empathetic, and imaginative, that we read? My hunch is that it goes both ways. I also suspect that many of us began reading because someone we admired was a reader and imparted their love of books to us.

Does reading make us better people? It may, or may not. Some might be shaped by what we read and whether this sustains “the better angels of our nature” or encourages us to embrace the darkness. We might devote ourselves to the best that is thought and written, or to tawdry page-turners that no one will want in ten years. Our reading choices no doubt reflect the bent of our character, but also will tend to reinforce our tendencies for good or ill.

One last remark on the effects of reading. Most of us tend not to take kindly to being interrupted in our reading. It makes us cranky!

Theology I Would Re-read

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Theology books I would re-read. Photo © Bob Trube, 2020. 

I read quite a few theology books, which may be odd for some. All I can say is that if one believes, according to the Westminster Confession that “the chief end of human beings (“man” in the generic form) is to worship God and enjoy Him forever,” then it seems a worthy form of reading to explore the excellency of God, and how we might joyfully relate to this God. No offense if you see things differently, though the question of “chief end” is one we all must answer. Here is some of the theology, I would re-read. In fact, some of these I have re-read.

Garwood Anderson, Paul’s New Perspective. There has been much discussion of the “new perspective” on Paul. This careful study of Paul’s writings explores the possibility of development in Paul’s understanding, offering warrant for both “traditional” and “new” perspectives.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  One of the best summers I ever spent including working through these two volumes, marveling at one who loved God so deeply and reasoned so carefully.

Daniel L. Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God. This is the best book I’ve read on the troubling Old Testament passages that connect Israel’s violence with God. Hawk allows for the disturbing complexity of the biblical witness that explores the messiness of God who is both in but not of the ancient Near Eastern world of Israel.

Matthew Levering, Dying and the Virtues. A probing exploration of the biblical virtues by which we live–and die. He revives the ancient pastoral conversation on what it means to make a good end to our lives.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God. No single book played a greater role in opening my eyes to the greatness of God and the joy of knowing Him. This was one to be read a few pages at a time. I’ve done so several times.

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity. The shortest book in the collection, but no less rich in its insights into the mystery of the Triune nature of God.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion. I spent Lent last year reading this work, leaving me in wonder at the death of the Son of God.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith challenges the notion that all we need to do is get people to believe the right things. His theology of what it means to be human is to be desiring creatures, and that we believe what we practice, that “thick” practices shape our spiritual affections.

John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ. For many years, I was part of a reading group called the Dead Theologians Society. After reading this work together, one of our participants remarked that this was the best book we had read (in a group that had read Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and many others). Stott, with his typical clarity of expression and insight, sets forth the work of the cross, and his defense of substitution, not so popular nowadays, with depth and concision.

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. This is an absolutely magnificent study of the idea of the resurrection in “second temple” Judaism and the surrounding culture, and the evidences for the physical resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things all these works have in common is that they are works of conviction, that pulse with the passion for God of the authors, that elevates them from our image of theology as a dry and dusty discipline. There are many others that I could have added and I’d love to hear of those you would re-read. It’s just possible that I might choose to read them for the first time. I always love a book recommendation that says, “I would read it again.” In the area of theology, that tells me that the author has moved beyond the commonplace nostrums to a personal knowledge of the God of whom they write.

 

History I Would Re-read

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Some of the history I would re-read. Photo © Bob Trube, 2020.

Until college, I thought history was just one dull fact after another. Then I had several history professors (not even my major) who made history alive, by weaving the facts into a story, connecting cultural forces, people, and events into a narrative that both made sense of the times, and helped make sense of how we got to our own time in history. Since then, I’ve been hooked on reading history. In fact, I couldn’t keep this list to ten (and could easily add to it).

Steven Ambrose, Undaunted Courage. Reading the account of the journeys of Lewis and Clark gives one an appreciation for the amazing accomplishment and improbable accomplishment of their explorations.

Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. As imperialist and colonialist as this is, Churchill offers a magnificent narrative from the beginnings of Britain through the age of exploration to the revolutionary age and the modern global spread of English-speaking peoples. Not only could Churchill speak, but also he wrote well, and made his living off his writing. Some day I would also love to read his six volumes on The Second World War. I’ve read a one volume condensation so this would not strictly be a re-read.

Shelby Foote, Civil War: A Narrative. Foote, a southern historian takes us from Sumter to Appomattox in three volumes that I didn’t want to end

E. H. Gombrich, A Little History of the World. An account of human history in 284 pages. Written for European schoolchildren, Gombrich pulls it off. It was a great summer read one summer. Maybe again this summer.

Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Guelzo directs the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College. He lives on the battlefield site. He knows every hill, valley, field and railroad cut and takes us inside the battle better than anyone I’ve read.

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam. Vietnam was the war I grew up with but I did not understand the unfolding and unraveling of the war until I read Karnow’s account.

David McCullough, The Great Bridge. This was my introduction to McCullough and his capacity to weave a fascinating narrative of the Roeblings, father and son, and the challenges of design and construction they overcame to build the Brooklyn Bridge, costing one his life, the other his health.

Candace Millard, Hero of the Empire. One can begin to understand why Churchill was such an inspiring and intrepid figure. Millard, who has also written about Theodore Roosevelt, and the death of James Garfield, gives at once, an account of the Boer War, and the miraculous escape and perilous flight across country of Churchill, working as a freelance journalist captured for ransom by the Boers.

Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower. Philbrick profiles the company of Pilgrims, the religious challenges that drove them to migrate, the new challenges they faced in the New World, and the challenges they presented the native peoples.

Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly. Tuchman is one of the great narrators of history. This was perhaps one of her more polemical books, demonstrating the foolishness and waste of war.

Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty (Oxford History of the United States). Wood traces the early life of the American republic, from the presidency of Washington through the end of the War of 1812, a time when the country’s existence was touch and go. Great writing, as is true of each volume of the history. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom on the Civil War is excellent.

Donald Worster, A River Running West. Worster chronicles the explorations of the Colorado River, and the surrounding canyons by John Wesley Powell, giving us a stunning portrait of this explorer of and advocate for the American West.

History researched and written well transports us into events being narrated. It makes names and places and events come alive with significance. It can inspire, instruct, and warn. It makes whole civilizations spring to life. And re-reading it may be like going through old family records in the attic. It reminds us of the family from which we descend. The human family.

Science Books I Would Re-read

serious adult woman with open book on street against facade of old building in university

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Some of us simply don’t pick up books on science because we fear we will never understand them. The gift of great science writers is that they can explain complex ideas for the non-specialist in a way that piques interest and never feels like the writer is talking down. One often has the sense of being in the lab or in the field with the person saying, “let me show you this!” The books I’ve listed are ones I’ve read that I’d be happy to come back to for another read. As with other posts in this series, I’ve limited myself to ten. Between the ones I’ve just left off, and those I haven’t even read once, I’m sure you will want to add to this list!

Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us. Most of us know Carson for Silent Spring, but her lyrical accounts of the wonders of life under the sea and the topography of oceans are ones I easily could read again and again in a book free of environmental advocacy.

Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. The book is still controversial, long after Gould’s death, but it is incredible writing about the Cambrian explosion of life discovered in fossil deposits.

Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe. My wife turned me on to this. Greene is wonderful in explaining physics, and introducing us to multiple dimensions and the nature of string theory.

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. Hawking was probably the first to introduce me to things like the Big Bank, quarks, and the nature of time and the challenges of reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Edward Larson, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. Whatever you think about evolution (and let’s not get into that here), this is a great history of how the theory developed, the controversies both outside and inside the scientific communities, and present day developments. Don’t read this for polemics, but for understanding.

Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac. Strictly speaking this is more nature- than science writing, but Leopold’s careful observation of an ecosystem and his love for the land he observes makes this a wonderful read.

Matthew Ridley, Genome. What is all this “human genome” stuff? The book has a chapter for each of our 23 gene pairs, and explores how the genome provides the blueprint for our “self assembly,” genetic diseases, and the different ways genes express in men and women.

Francis Su, Mathematics for Human Flourishing. I read this just recently and it rekindled an interest in math for me. Su explores the way mathematics both answers to deep human longings and nurtures human virtues that contribute to our flourishing in life.

Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell. This is a wonderful collection of essays that I probably read sometime in the 1980’s. The first essay introduced me to the truth that the mitochondria in every human being, originated in another organism, but became a critical part of our own cells. It just gets better from there.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I have friends who are astrophysicists and Tyson helped me understand things like dark matter, and what a weird and wonderful universe we inhabit.

Science writing opens our eyes to the wonders of our own bodies, other life, the planet, and our universe. We truly are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and part of a wonder-filled universe. We care for what we love. Reading such books help re-enchant a world we often take for granted.

Biographies I Would Re-read

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Some of the biographies I would re-read, Photo by Bob Trube © 2020.

I’m a lover of biographies. Reading the life stories of others is one way I make sense of my own. Leadership fascinates me and reading about those who have led well makes for an interesting study, and it accentuates the importance of the leaders we choose, whether in government, education, business, or as faith leaders. Some of these biographies have been among my most memorable reads, a few in recent years, many going back twenty years or more. Once again, re-reading them could occupy me for many months. Most are big books, and some stretch into multiple volumes.

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Blight captures both the sheer perseverance of Douglass in the pursuit of freedom and justice for his people, and the eloquence that was his gift.

Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson (4 volumes in print, one still being written). I hope Robert Caro lives long enough to complete his study of the life of Johnson, and that I live long enough to re-read the series.

Ron Chernow, Grant. Chernow has given us a series of great biographies. Here he gives us one of the man who struggled in civilian life, was a magnificent and focused military leader, and a great president whose reputation was marred by those around him.

Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci. A magnificent study in print and image of this profligate genius. One wonders what he might have accomplished with greater discipline and focus.

Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. There was deep conviction and principle behind the gentle greatness of Mr. Rogers that drew children and adults to listen to him.

Nancy Koester, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life. In a well-researched work, Koester traces Stowe from her Calvinist youth to her years at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, where she saw so much of what she wrote in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, galvanizing her abolitionist work. She became the most successful American writer of the 19th century, later moving away from the Calvinism of her youth.

William Manchester (with Paul Reid on volume 3), The Last Lion. Whether this is the best history of Churchill, it is certainly the best written.

David McCullough, John Adams and Truman. Each of these presidents followed one far more famous, yet McCullough brings them out of the shadows and helps us appreciate the unique gifts each were to American history.

Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt. Morris tells the story of this larger than life figure magnificently from the somewhat frail boy who heeded his father’s encouragements to build up his strength, to the cowboy in the west, the Rough Rider, the president who invented the bully pulpit, and the world explorer who nearly lost his life in the Amazon.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times. He chronicles Kennedy’s growth from the McCarthy era to his work as Attorney General under his brother, the agony of the Johnson years, and his final presidential campaign cut short by an assassin’s bullet. One of his greatest moments was his on-the-spot response to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., facing an angry crowd in Indianapolis.

Great biographies to me combine the singular greatness of the person with writing that accentuates that greatness, while rendering a true account, and not a hagiography of their lives. Each of these biographies did that for me. I think they will for you. More than once. If I’ve left one off the list you think worth a re-read, I’d love to hear about it. It has to be worth at least one read!