What Makes a Book a Good “Read”?

GrantWhat makes a book a good “read”? This has been a question I’ve been pondering as I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s Grant. As I write I’m 680 pages into the book and into Grant’s presidency. There are about 300 pages to go, and this is one book I don’t want to end. I contrast this with some 200 page books where i get to page 50 and wonder when it will end.

I’ve come up with several things that I think play into making a book of any length and any type a great read:

First of all is the choice of a subject or plot focus. Grant as a person makes for a fascinating subject. Son and son-in-law of two overbearing fathers. Resigned his position in the Army due to drinking problems, which dogged his heels all his life. A failure in civilian life in the years leading up to the war. Yet he comes alive with the Civil War as a leader who doesn’t worry about what others could do to him, but wants Confederate officers to worry about him. He takes the fight to his enemies. He finds an aide, John Rawlins, who acts as his conscience, keeping him more or less sober. He fights Lee fiercely, wearing him down, and treats him with grace at Appomattox. He sees Blacks as people, and embraces Emancipation and Reconstruction, when so many, even in the North, resist it. He is a man of integrity, yet can be strangely blind to others of lesser character. And on it goes.

A good writer finds or creates interest in her plot or subject. In one sense, almost anything can be interesting if the writer finds what is interesting in it. What a good writer seems to do is tease out the richness, the fascination, the goodness, and flaws of his character or characters. This is far more than a bare narrative of Grant’s life–one event after another. It is an exploration of what it was to be Grant. Chernow’s obviously thought about the strength’s and flat sides of Grant–how what worked on the battlefield and didn’t in political office. He considers the people around Grant, and their influence without submerging the influence of Grant himself.

Then there is the question of pace. How can someone write a thousand page book without being tedious? It comes down to keeping things moving. Chernow always seems to move on before I start wishing he would. Sometimes this is not the case with books that are considered “great.” Readers often complain they are hard to read, even if they explore fundamental matters of the human condition. I’m not sure what to say about this except that perhaps there are times when what is being said is of such importance that we hang in there, even if we wish it had been written with greater facility.

Finally, I think it comes down finally to good sentences. As a reader, what one notices is that you don’t bog down in the text but just move down the page. Meaning comes through clearly, and the sentences aren’t too complex. You don’t keep going back asking, what did I just read?

A good read is a pleasure. We often spend far more on a good meal or performance than we do on a good book that affords hours of pleasure and enriches our lives. I’m coming more and more to believe it is money well spent, a way to say “thank you” to authors, publishers, and booksellers who bring this goodness into our lives.


Taking for Granted What is Granted

happy-thanksgiving-greetings-graphicIn his message this past Sunday, our pastor mentioned the idea of “taking for granted what is granted” as he talked about thanksgiving. I’ve been turning that over in my mind all week. It seems we have this propensity to forget that every good, true, and beautiful person, place or thing we enjoy comes as a “grant” and not something we earn or are simply entitled to. It is easy to think we have done something to deserve the good things we have in life. Yet we can think of instances of others who have done the same things and don’t have what we enjoy, or those who have done squat and enjoy far more.

Actually, the idea of “thanksgiving” seems to recognize that there is both something for which we give thanks, and someone to be thanked. We are both thankful for and thankful to. We are thankful for what we’ve been granted, and also thankful to the grantor.

Certainly some of what we’ve been granted comes from significant others in our lives. I am truly thankful for the love and companionship, the home and the meals, the good sense and artistic view of life, that are gifts from my wife. I’m thankful for the nurture and care and guidance and love of two parents who profoundly shaped my life. I’m thankful to my son for a friendship where we spur each other on in writing, and where he’s not afraid to push back when he thinks I’m “out of touch” or disagrees with my take on life. I’m thankful for and to friends and colleagues who have so enriched my life.

There is so much else though that is good, true, and beautiful for which there is no person to thank. The glories of this evening’s sunset. The smell of autumn leaves. The crisp tang of the morning air. The inspirations of a glorious landscape or the song of a bird, to art and music and dance. The simple pleasures of being alive–the warmth of the morning shower, the savor of coffee brewing and that first sip, the refreshment of a nap, a brisk walk across campus, the hug of someone you love.

There is a sense in which all these things are “granted” as well even though there is no human grantor. Some resolve this by saying that what is important is just the state of thankfulness. And probably that is far better than a grumbling, complaining spirit and our own mental outlook. Others, depending on their outlook thank nature, the universe or the Creator. I find myself in the latter camp, inclined to think that something so personal as a heartfelt “thank you” fits best with an infinite-personal Creator who “grants” these wonders for which I am so thankful and feel myself so blessed. One of my favorite passages of scripture is found in James 1:17:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

This reminds me of the chorus from Godspell (based on an old German hymn, later translated into English):

“All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love..”

Today is a day that reminds me that I am loved extravagantly. Lover.
Father. Lord. And all I can do is say “thank you.” And that is enough.



The Month in Reviews: May 2015

May continued the trend of listening to non-Westerners discussing theology. I read a travel narrative on prayer and a business narrative rooted in a study of Joseph the son of Jacob. In the history category, I worked may way through a sprawling history of Scotland and a parallel biography of Grant and Lee and their Civil War commands. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s musings on the English language, a work that dealt with 145 “myths” about Christianity, and a plea for “slow church”. For some reason, I didn’t finish any fiction in May, but look forward to a review of the Pulitzer Prize winning All The Light We Cannot See which is one of the best works of fiction I’ve read in some time.

That said, here is what I reviewed in May with links to the full reviews:

MythsA Year of Living Prayerfully1. Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell. Under eight headings, this book offers 145 short essays responding to lies, legends, and half-truths about Christian faith in contemporary discussions, giving concise, thoughtful and catholic responses (in the sense of representing the wide swath of Christianity) helpful both to the person exploring the faith and to apologists and others who proclaim it.

2. A Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock. Jared Brock and his incredibly patient wife Michelle go on a year long pilgrimage that takes them to the Vatican to meet the Pope and to Westboro Baptist Church and many other places alternately delightful and weird in a quest to deepen their prayer life.

slow churchMother Tongue3. Mother Tongue: The English Language, by Bill Bryson. This amusing and informative book surveys the history of the English language and all its vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations and why it has become so successful as a world language.

4. Slow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Accidental ExecutiveCrucible of Command5. The Accidental Executive, by Albert M. Erisman. A former Boeing executive reflects deeply on the biblical character of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and amplifies on these reflections from his own experience in business leadership and interviews with other executives in a highly readable account suitable for discussion groups in business and church settings.

6. Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, The Peace They Forgedby William C. Davis. This is a dual biography of Grant and Lee that studies their contrasting origins and yet similar qualities of command through back and forth narratives covering similar periods leading to their climactic confrontation, the peace they established, and its aftermath.

Preaching the NTScotlandEvangelical Postcolonial Conversations7. Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha, and L. Daniel Hawk. This book arises from a roundtable that sought to apply postcolonial concepts to re-visioning evangelical theology and praxis, coming to terms both with how colonialism shaped evangelical theology and mission and what it means to listen to the voices of the formerly colonized.

8. Scotland: A New History by Michael Lynch. This one volume work provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Scotland from the Roman invasions, through the kingdoms of the Picts, the Wars of Independence, the rise of the House of Stewart, the Treaty of Union in 1707, the commercial and intellectual zenith of Scotland in the late 18th/early 19th century and its continued efforts to define its relation with the U.K down to the time of writing in 1992.

9. Preaching the New Testament edited by Ian Paul & David Wenham. The contributors to this volume consider how the character of the genres and sub-genres of the New Testament shape how these texts are preached with faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text but also to the type of text they are preaching. Essays include not only discussions of genres but also issues in hermeneutics and homiletics as they bear on the teaching of the New Testament.

Best of the Month: I would have to go with Slow Church. The authors of this book propose a different way of thinking about the church from so much of the mega-church and church growth models that have dominated evangelical discussions of what the church ought to be.

Quote of the Month: I chose this one from Exposing Myths about Christianity: 

“Original sin is actually a democratic idea. Without believing in original sin, one person might pride himself or herself on being better than another and one group or race or nation might claim to be better than others. The idea that absolutely everyone is a sinner makes it much harder to be arrogant and judge others” (p. 263).

In addition to the review of All The Light We Cannot See, look for reviews of a book on preaching centered around Christ, even when working from Old Testament passages, Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, and a book on caring for the creation that seeks to develop the biblical ethics behind our care for creation. Time allowing, I also hope to review David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.

Perhaps from all these choices you will find a good summer read. Happy reading!

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.