Review: Bookmarked


Bookmarked: Reading My Way from Hollywood to BrooklynWendy W. Fairey. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015.

Summary: A literature professor who is the daughter of a famous Hollywood columnist writes a memoir interweaving her life with significant books and characters.

“I want to write of the private stories that lie behind our reading of books, taking my own trajectory through English literature as the history I know best but proposing a way of thinking about literature that I believe is every reader’s process. We bring ourselves with all our aspirations and wounds, affinities and aversions, insights and confusions to the books we read, and our experience shapes our response.”

In Bookmarked, Wendy W. Fairey draws upon her own life, both experienced and in books, as an illustration of this thesis. The daughter of famous Hollywood columnist Sheila Graham, she grew up in a home with one of many Graham’s lovers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who selected books for Graham, a “College of One.” Reading through Fitzgerald’s books started her on a lifelong journey with books, books that helped make sense of her life.

In David Copperfield, she sees in brutal Mr. Murdstone the violent male paralleling “Bow Wow,” one of her mother’s lovers. She takes us through Jane Eyre and Vanity FairDaniel Deronda, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Henry James The Portrait of a Lady, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Forster’s Passage to India, and more recent authors from India.

She intertwines four themes from these various books, also paralleling her life–the orphan, the new woman, the artist, and the immigrant. As she does so, she traces her own discoveries that her mother was a Jewish orphan (not unlike Daniel Deronda) and that her true father was British philosopher A.J. Ayer. She takes us through the ups and downs of her marriage to Donald Fairey, her own self-discovery as a woman in academia, and her love affair and eventual marriage to Mary Edith Mardis. She reflects on Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse as well as “Tonio Kroger” in Thomas Mann as she recalls her affair with Ezio Tarantelli. She considers the immigrant experience as she recounts her travels in India and growing familiarity with Indian, ex-pat Indian, and Indian-American writers.

As we read, we listen to a skilled literature professor critically reflect on issues of class and gender, even as she also considers her own life. We read someone who both thoughtfully engages books on their own terms, and yet not in a way detached from her life. She both reads these books with her life, and in some respects, finds the books reading her.

At times I wondered if all of this might be considered a bit self-indulgent. And then I reflected on the self-indulgence that is reading–an exercise in which we both lose ourselves, and sometimes find ourselves as well, making sense of ourselves, our lives as we have lived them thus far, and perhaps making some sense of our world. Isn’t this, as she contends, “every reader’s process”?

The book made me wonder what books I would use in narrating my life. It clearly would be a different shelf of books than the author’s. But I have no question that there were books that resonated with my experiences, and others that served to shape and crystallize my understanding of the world. It is an exercise I would like to pursue further as time allows.


Review: On Reading Well

On Reading Well

On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.

Summary: Makes a case that the reading of great literature may help us live well through cultivating the desire in us to live virtuously and to understand why we are doing so.

Karen Swallow Prior wants us to heed John Milton’s advice to “read promiscuously” great works of literature because they may help the reader distinguish between vice and virtue, and hopefully choose the latter. In doing so, Prior advances an argument contrary to most of contemporary literary criticism that argues against the purpose of teaching literature to form moral character, perhaps most famously argued in Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time (review). Prior argues that great books do set before us not only examples of vice and virtue but help us see the telos or purpose or end of living a virtuous life.

Along the way, as she introduces her theme, she proposes some helpful advice for how we might read well, summarized here:

“Read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging reading, read deeply and slowly, and increase your enjoyment of a book by writing words of your own in it.”

Prior then leads us into the practice of reading literature with an eye to what great works might help us understand about specific virtues. Most of this work focuses on twelve virtues in three groups, with a discussion of that virtue being focused on a particular work. While other virtues may be found in each of these works, her discussion is focused around one virtue in each work. Here is how the work is organized:

Part One: The Cardinal Virtues
1. Prudence: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
2. Temperance: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. Justice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
4. Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Part Two: The Theological Virtues
5. Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo
6. Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
7. Love: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Part Three: The Heavenly Virtues
8. Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
9. Diligence: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
10. Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen
11. Kindness: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders
12. Humility: “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor

One of the effects of reading Prior’s discussion is to introduce us to the vocabulary of virtue, one that may seem archaic for many, and yet is central to the well-lived life. Tom Jones’s observations of the imprudence of many helps us understand that prudence is “right reason direct to the excellent human life.” From The Great Gatsby, we discover that temperance is not abstinence but that “One attains the virtue of temperance when one’s appetites have been shaped such that one’s very desires are in proper order and proportion.” While chastity may often be regarded, in the words of C.S. Lewis, as “the most unpopular of Christian virtues,” we discover through Ethan Frome that “chastity is not withholding but giving” of our bodies in the right context, keeping faith that we say with our bodies what we’ve vowed with our lips and that individual chastity is nourished in a community that healthily values the living of chaste lives.

Prior’s discussion is nuanced, distinguishing between false versions of virtues as well as how each virtue is a mean between an excess and a deficiency. For example, from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, we learn not only that patience is born out of enduring suffering but also that patience is virtuous “only if the cause for which that person suffers is good.” It may not be a virtue to be patient with injustice!

One of the effects of reading this work was to make me want to read or re-read the works she explores in her book. Some, like The Great Gatsby or Ethan Frome, I read in high school. Her chapter on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and her discussion of hope amid the dystopian setting of the book intrigued me enough to pick up a copy of the book.

I do find it curious that all but one of the writers she chose were westerners of Caucasian descent. The exception is Shusaku Endo and his fine work, Silence (review), in which she explores the virtue of faith. Perhaps her selection reflects her own academic area as a professor of English whose research has focused in the area of Eighteenth century English literature and the work of the Eighteenth century women’s writer, Hannah More. It might be valuable in future editions of this work (for which I hope!) to offer a reading list, perhaps organized around the virtues, of other great works, including those of non-Western authors and Western authors of color.

The book includes a discussion guide at the end, making this a great resource for reading groups, as well as for personal study. The work features delightful illustrations at the beginning of each chapter by artist Ned Bustard (who also drew the cover illustration).

Karen Swallow Prior makes a convincing case in this work for what many of us have intuited–that great literature can change our lives as we reflect on examples of virtue. And far from “spoiling” the great works she discusses, she opens them up in their possibility to instruct us such that we want to go out and read them for ourselves. But before you buy the works she discusses, I would suggest you pick up On Reading Well, because I believe it will enrich your reading of the other books.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Great American Read

The Great American Read

Image from

Have you heard about The Great American Read? On May 22, PBS will premiere an eight part series exploring the power of reading, hosted by Meredith Viera. The program explore this through the lens of 100 works of fiction selected through a poll of the favorite works of 7200 people and narrowed the list to 100 books. The series will consider how and why the authors of these books created their fictional worlds, how these books affect us, and what they say about the diverse mosaic that makes up America.

The first episode will run two hours and introduce the 100 books. The next five episodes will look at concepts common to this list. Then the final episode will announce America’s favorite book. And how do they discover that? Beginning May 22, we all can vote either online or on social media. Voting will continue all summer with the results announced in October 2018.

A few caveats on the books. Only works of fiction are included in this list. They must be in English. Series are allowed but only count as one book. Only one book per author is included on the list. The list ranges from classic works to contemporary novels, and covers various genres of fiction from mystery to thriller to young adult to science fiction.

So, what books are on the list? By going to “Read the 100 List” you can see cover images of the book and can click on a link giving a short summary of the book and a brief profile of the author. My only wish is that they had a downloadable list of the books. Obviously, some of the items on this list have not yet stood the test of time such as The Martian or Ready Player One. Young adult fiction like The Outlanders and The Hunger Games make the list.  I was surprised to see Christian thrillers by Frank Peretti, Dave Hunt, and Tim Lahaye, and Paul Young’s The Shack. I was pleased to see literature from an ethnically diverse selection of authors: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Another Country James Baldwin, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and others. Marilynne Robinson, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien make the list, but Flannery O’Connor and G. K. Chesterton are missing. I’m also surprised at the absence of William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, and John Le Carre.  There are others on the list I easily could replace with them. The list is called America’s “most loved” books–not the greatest works of fiction in English.

You can take a quiz as to how many of the 100 you have read. I’ve read 35 of the works on this list. There are some I will take a pass on, like The DaVinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, this is on the list), but I also got a few new ideas like The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I seriously hope I can read Don Quixote and The Count of Monte Cristo one of these days.

There are many different lists of great books, and I don’t agree fully with any of them. But one of the delightful aspects of this series is that it gets us talking as a country about books we care about, which might be a better conversation that much of what passes for public discourse. Having a vote for the most loved book is kind of like American Idol for book nerds. You can geek out on social media, following them on Facebook and Instagram and tweet about them at  #GreatReadPBS. The only thing I’d suggest is make sure you find a few on the list that interest you, and take some time to talk with others about what you like about them. Wouldn’t it be great if The Great American Read could become the Great American Conversation?

What to Read


Long Room, Trinity College, Dublin. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia

In one sense, answering the question of what to read is truly daunting. In 2010, Google ran an algorithm to estimate the number of books ever published in its efforts to develop the capacity to catalog all these books. They came up with the number 129,864,880. That brings new meaning to one of my favorite laments, “so many books, so little time.”

That does make the choice of what we read worthy of some thought. This is also part of the “battle” we readers face. Consider, if we read 50 books a year for 40 years, that is 2,000 books out of all those ever published. This is one of those FOMO (fear of missing out) moments all of us encounter. We will inevitably miss out on many books. For me, the question comes down to what book, or at least what types of books, do I not want to miss out on. Here are some considerations I bring to this question:

  • I want to read books that have stood the test of time–decades and even centuries have passed and they are still influential. I don’t just want to read about them, but want to follow advice Marilynne Robinson gave in a lecture: “Read the primary sources!” I’d class The Bible, works of Shakespeare, Plato, Homer, Augustine, Calvin, Doestoevsky, among others in this category. C. S. Lewis recommended we read one “old” book for every recent book we read in an essay introducing a very good old book, On the Incarnation by Athanasius
  • I want to read the best books I can in genres I’ve found life-giving, which for me ranges from mysteries to presidential and other leadership biographies, American history, and science writing.
  • Finally, I read books related to my own work and calling. In my case, I work in a Christian ministry among graduate students and faculty and hold a Masters degree in biblical studies. So I try to keep up on current literature in biblical studies, theology, and other ministry-related fields, as well as reading books on current developments in the world of higher education.

Your answers to these criteria will be different from mine, but they will help you think with greater discrimination about the books you choose to read, and be able to give better criteria to booksellers and librarians who may help you connect to these books.

There are a variety of reading lists one may find online that may help with the first and, to some degree, the second of my three criteria. For the third, so much of this comes from reading reviews of books in journals related to your field of work, or just going to those sections at a good university library. Here are a few sources of  book lists that I’ve found helpful:

  1. For books that have stood the test of time, the Great Books lists can be helpful, although they may be criticized as Western-centric. Other lists may compensate for that. Wikipedia provides the list of books that comprised the Great Books series as well as a list of universities that still have “Great Books” programs. One of these is St. John’s, which provides PDFs of the reading list by semester through the four years of their program.
  2. There are numerous lists of “100 greatest books,” some which may overlap with the Great Books. Wikipedia has gathered the most prominent of these lists in an article with links, including lists for genres like crime fiction, fantasy, and science fiction as well as more general lists.
  3. For the thoughtful Christian reader, James Emory White at his Church and Culture website, has a wonderful collection of lists including “Ten to Begin With,” “Twenty Five Toward a Christian Worldview,” and a “One Year Reading Program” of 26 books and twelve other topical lists. A personal favorite for discovering thoughtful Christian writing is Byron Borger’s “Booknotes” blog which connects you with his store, where you can order the books you read about, usually at a discount. Byron is one who can listen to you, and on the basis of what you tell him about yourself and your interests can suggest ten books to you–and they will be good suggestions. He typifies what is best about brick and mortar booksellers.

Of course, I hope you will follow Bob on Books if you do not already. Over the course of a year, I will review about 140 books along the lines of the books I like to read and think important, and I hope some of these will find their way into your hands as well. Equally, I hope some of my reviews may help you choose not to read certain books in favor of others more congruent to your answers to the question of “what to read.” That, also, is a good thing.


The Month in Reviews: November 2015

With the colder weather of November, it seems I found time to read a few more books. I began and ended the month around the idea of calling–our calling to care for creation at the beginning of the month, and a more general book on calling at the end. I read a novel on the life of St. Brendan the Navigator, and finished Philip and Carol Zaleski’s monumental work on the Inklings. I explored the history of the “Great Books” movement and a work on the Greek classic philosophers.  I learned about faith-rooted organizing and considered the idea of the pastor as public theologian.

All in all, a good month of reading, and you might find something here that would make a great Christmas gift. So, here is the list with book titles linked to the full review:

Laudato siLaudato Si’, Pope Francis. Vatican City, 2015. Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, advocating an “integral ecology” that links care for the creation with care for the poor, the quality of life in our cities, and a way of life emphasizing spiritual rather than material priorities.

Irresistable CommunityThe Irresistible CommunityBill Donahue. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2015. Looking at the upper room narratives, Donahue explores how Jesus created community through the table, the towel, and the truth.

BrendanBrendan, Frederick Buechner. New York, Harper Collins, 1987, 2000. This is a fictional account of the life of St. Brendan, often known as the Navigator. Buechner traces his life from being taking by St. Erc at one through his early years, the establishment of his leadership in founding Clonfert and in making kings, and most of all his marathon journeys, one lasting seven years.

Preventing SuicidePreventing Suicide, Karen Mason. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. This handbook is written for pastors and other religious counselors, who the author contends can play an important role in preventing suicide. It focuses on how both theology and psychology can contribute to helping those at risk to harm themselves.

AcediaAcedia and Its Discontents, R. J. Snell. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015. This is an exploration of the vice usually known as sloth, which is rather an contempt of all relationships and a destructive embrace of unchecked freedom rather than God and the good work to which God calls us.

The FellowshipThe FellowshipPhilip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015. This traces the literary lives of the four principle Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams) the literary club they formed and its impact on literature, faith, and culture.

When Athens Met JerusalemWhen Athens Met Jerusalem, John Mark Reynolds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. The Christian message advanced in a Greco-Roman World prepared in many ways by both the failure of the Homeric gods and the classic philosophers. This book explores the intellectual antecedents to the gospel in pre-Socratic, Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelian thought, culminating when Jerusalem meets Athens when Paul preaches on Mars Hill.

A Great Idea at the TimeA Great Idea at the TimeAlex Beam. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008. Beam narrates the story of the Great Books movement from its beginnings with John Erskine, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, to the publication of The Great Books by Britannica and rise of Great Books groups, the “core wars” and the remnants of this movement still hanging on today.

Faith Based OrganizingFaith-Rooted Organizing, Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014. Most advocacy and activism efforts have been organized around secular principles. The authors explore what organizing and advocacy work that is deeply and thoroughly rooted in Christian principles would look like and illustrate this from their years of experience.

God and RaceGod and Race in American Politics, Mark A. Noll. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. This text explores the interwoven story of religion, race, and politics in American history, with a concluding theological reflection.

Pastor as Public TheologianThe Pastor as Public Theologian, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. The authors contend that at the heart of the pastoral calling is a vision of doing theology with the people of God, pointing them to what God is doing in and through the Christ, and how they may participate in that work.

CalledCalled, Mark Labberton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Understanding our calling to follow Jesus and seek God’s purposes for the flourishing of the world is key both to a life well-lived and a church that fulfills its mission. This book explores the contours of what it means to live a called life.

Best book of the month: This doesn’t take much thought. The Fellowship was a magnificent treatment of the circle of friends that became known as the Inklings. Along with well-painted portraits of Lewis and Tolkien, we learn more about both Williams and Barfield as well as Warnie, Hugo Dyson and others in this circle.

Best quote of the month: This was from Frederick Buechner’s Brendan from the mouth of his traveling companion, Finn in response to Brendan’s last words “I fear the sentence of the Judge.” Finn, after Brendan passes says:

“I’d sentence him to have mercy on himself. I’d sentence him less to strive for the glory of God than just to let it swell his sails if it can.”

That might be good wisdom for any of us who are our own harshest judges.

In coming weeks you can look for reviews of a book on the intellectual state of American universities, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a collection of apologetic essays in response to the New Atheists, John Frame’s magisterial A History of Western Philosophy and Theology and a re-reading of Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, which I first picked up twenty years ago. I also have a couple of books on sex (!) and Seamus Heaney’s version of Beowulf sitting on my TBR pile. I might also be working a book or two on Youngstown, my home town, into the mix. Stay tuned.

So here’s to a good cup of wassail and some good books!

Review: A Great Idea at the Time

A Great Idea at the TimeA Great Idea at the TimeAlex Beam. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.

Summary: Beam narrates the story of the Great Books movement from its beginnings with John Erskine, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, to the publication of The Great Books by Britannica and rise of Great Books groups, the “core wars” and the remnants of this movement still hanging on today.

I have probably been intrigued and tempted by the Great Books idea all of my life. I remember looking with envy at the Britannica set acquired by a friend of mine and was probably saved from acquiring one myself only by my wife’s very sensible questions: “where are you going to put those?” and “are you going to read them?” Still, along the way, I’ve attempted to read at least some of these, usually in annotated editions (the Britannica set is not), guided by Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book and Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan.

So it was with some interest that I picked up Alex Beam’s book which is neither hagiography nor hatchet job, but a highly readable, and a times humorous, look at the Great Books movement and particularly its two principle lights: Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.

The book traces the beginnings to various “great books” lists, most notably Charles Eliot’s at Harvard, which eventuated in the Harvard Classics, Adler’s initial inspiration. Adler was mentored by John Erskine, who advocated for the great books at Columbia in the General Honors course, which eventually Adler taught as a graduate student in the 1920s. Erskine, Adler, and Clifton Fadiman also taught courses for working adults beginning the dual character of Great Books promotion in the academy and in “middlebrow” circles among working people seeking a broader perspective on life.

Then enters Hutchins who invites Adler to Yale in 1927, and then to the University of Chicago, when Hutchins became president in 1929. Together they sought to reform undergraduate education around a Great Books curriculum and later promoted Great Books groups among the public culminating in the Great Books Foundation to promote these groups. Within four years (by the late 1940s) they claimed there were 2,500 such groups meeting across the country.

William Benton’s involvement was a key moment in the Great Books movement. A consummate salesman and member of a Chicago Great Books group, he acquires Encyclopedia Britannica and proposes publishing a collection of “the Great Books”. Adler, Hutchins, and Erskine oblige and Beam narrates the sometimes hilarious process by which certain books were included or excluded by this committee of white males, selecting largely a collection of books by white males. He also gives a detailed account of Adler’s signature contribution to this project, The Syntopicon, an index of 102 ideas with references to where they arise in the Great Books. Beam describes the questionable marketing techniques used to lure middle-class families to acquire an impressive looking set of books most would barely read.

The rest of the book is an account of the gradually dwindling sales and disappointments of both Adler and Hutchins, the “core wars” which eliminated many of these works from college curricula at most universities, offset by the narratives of those whose lives were profoundly touched by the Great Books, and the collegiate holdouts, like St. John’s in Annapolis and Santa Fe, where the Great Books are the curriculum. He concludes with describing Great Books weekends where, although he is “of a certain age” he is the youngest person in the room.

One wonders in reading this if Adler and Hutchins had two principle faults: inflexibility and codifying the Great Books into a published set. Beam contrasts this movement with Oprah’s book club (which probably has Adler and Hutchins turning in their graves). I would add the attention book recommendations receive from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Neither are recommending fluff books and there is always a spike in books sales around their recommendations. While it is true there are many adults who only read a few books a year, and that mostly contemporary popular fiction, there are those who recognize that something was missing in their education, and are looking for help in enlarging their horizons.

What if, instead of pouring their efforts into dubious marketing of the Great Books sets, Adler and Hutchins had worked to develop annotated works, and good discussion guides, and maybe excluded some of the more challenging and obscure ancient mathematical and scientific works? What if they had shown a more enlightened approach that recognized great works like W. E. B DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk and other works by those not in the “dead white male” tradition? Might they have forged a literacy movement that would have embraced all Americans and avoided the “core wars?” Maybe not, and it is clear that this just was not their vision. What Beam’s book makes clear is that it was this truncated vision, and not the American populace that was to blame for their disappointments.

When is a Book “Great”?

A post in Salon this week by Laura Miller on “What Makes a Book a Classic?” raises again a perennial and oft debated question. It’s a great post and I’d encourage you to read it. I thought I might take a slightly different tack because one definition of “classic” is that it has stood the test of time, which automatically disqualifies recent authors, including the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, who Miller mentions. I’ve not read David Foster Wallace yet although I have Infinite Jest on my Kindle, and I have to admit that Slaughterhouse Five is the only Vonnegut book I’ve read and that I actually gave up on it.

What I want to explore is what makes a book “great”? Certainly this is also open to debate but this framing allows for current as well as “classic” books to considered. As you consider my criteria, keep in mind that I am not and have never been an English or Literary studies major but rather am simply a dedicated reader who wants to read great books because there is not enough time to read everything.

1. A great book explores great questions about life, questioning both my assumptions and even my questions. Whether it is Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesan, or Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, it explores the large issues of love, relationships, grace, justice, life, and death and the Ultimate.


2. A great book matures as I mature. At very least it stands the test of the times of my life. If a book speaks to me at 30 and speaks more profoundly at 60, there is something to it. If I come back to a book and find myself asking, “what did I ever see in that book?”, it may have been entertaining, interesting or even significant for a particular time in my life–but it’s not great. I’m re-reading Pilgrim’s Progress right now and it makes far more sense to me than when I read it in my twenties. This suggests that our early judgments on a book should be provisional. Maybe an immediate clue is that I want to read the book again on completing it because I have a sense that there is “more” there.

3. Normally, great books reflect the elements of good writing in terms of plot (if fiction), character development, narrative, pacing, organization of ideas, felicity of expression, etc. As Miller notes, there may be exceptions such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  I’m also convinced that our standards of “good writing style” have changed over the years.

4. Great writing can be found all over the bookstore. Miller notes that a book is “classic” to booksellers if that is the section where most people look for it. It might be a George Will book on baseball or Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln or Ray Bradbury in science fiction or St Augustine in theology. One of the things I realize I haven’t thought about is how widely this applies. Is there great horror writing, or romance novels, or dystopian fiction (I guess 1984 might qualify here)?  This also raises the question of whether there are genre-specific criteria of greatness.

5. A great book is becoming part of a sub-cultural or cultural conversation. It keeps coming up as the standard of reference around its subject matter. You can’t talk about Russian fiction without talking about War and Peace.

6. I do think that whatever the genre, great writing somehow helps me understand and better live in my world. It clarifies rather than distorts reality, it leads to greater self-understanding, and evokes “the better angels of my nature.”

What are your thoughts on great writing? What, for you are examples of great writing?


Reading 2.0?

I continue to find Jason Merkoski’s Burning the Page quite thought provoking.  One of his chapters is titled “Reading 2.0” after the software convention of naming new versions.  Merkoski explores some of the ways reading might change with the digitization of texts, particular with the search capacity of Google. He proposes that in fact all books are part of One Book and that digitization more possible to realize this reality.

There is an aspect of this that I thoroughly appreciate.  As I commented in “My Books Are Talking To Each Other“, books do converse with each other and are artifacts of a great human conversation that spans the ages. Understanding how an earlier writer influences the writer whose work I’m reading makes my reading of that work deeper. The Great Books series even included a Syntopicon to catalog 102 Great Ideas and references to them in the Great Books. With the search capabilities of Google and the ability to link content via hypertext, Merkoski contends that it is instantly possible to trace this “conversation” from one book to the next and to approach the reality of “one book”.

While aspects of this seem attractive, this also seems a prescription for what I might call “Reading ADHD”, an addiction to reading “rabbit trails” where one never follows just one work to its conclusion.  In limited form, such a capability could enhance our understanding of key ideas in a text. Annotated works serve a similar function.  Run rampant, and it would seem to be the ultimate reading distraction–a distraction to attentive reading.  I wonder if in fact it could function to re-wire the brain in ways that increase the prevalence of true ADHD?

I was staying with a friend in Chicago last night who works as a reference librarian for one of the major universities in Chicago and we got to talking about this.  He spoke of “losing the experience of drinking deeply and slowly from one book” that may be a result of such reading. The wonder of a really good book is to immerse oneself in this particular author’s vision of the world, not to have that vision diffused by all the others who have what seem “related” thoughts.

As we develop these capacities, I wonder if we need to be mindful of what makes for “good reading”.  I wonder if at the very least whether it means that we can turn on or off these functions as appropriate. How do you think digital media will change reading? Do you think there are downsides to this technology that should be avoided or addressed? How do you think reading could be enhanced with this technology? It seems to many that this is a change that is inevitably coming. What I wonder is whether the particular shape of that change is inevitable. Or do we have choices, some better, and some worse? What do you think?

My Books Are Talking to Each Other!


My books are talking to each other.  Some of you suspected I was a little crazy–now you know!  Seriously, have you ever had the experience of reading a couple works that either directly, or via your own thoughts, were in a conversation with each other?

I am currently reading Rodney Stark’s Victory of Reason and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (reviews in the next couple weeks).  Stark argues that medieval Christianity in fact was responsible for the rise of universities, the scientific enterprise, European capitalism, and human rights–all before either the Reformation or the Renaissance. Stark contends that Christianity, among all the religions, has an openness to reason that is reflected in the development of doctrine over time–that belief is not etched in stone but evolves over time responding to different social situations.  This openness to reason and progress in Stark’s mind accounts for this remarkable development of civilization during the supposed “Dark” Ages.

Worthen is addressing a very different period–the post World War II period up to the present and the neo-evangelical movement led by Carl F H Henry, Billy Graham and others that sought to maintain doctrinal ties with late 19th-early 20th century fundamentalism while promoting an intellectual and social engagement with the broader American culture.  I am only part way into the book but it appears that Worthen is exploring the fault lines that develop in this movement as the tension between its view of biblical inerrancy and authority and its attempt to articulate a reasonable faith become apparent.

The interesting conversation for me is around the differing perceptions of Christianity’s engagement with reason at different points–at some times, a friend, at others, an enemy or at least a bugbear.   I’m considering several questions as I read:  is Stark’s account of faith and reason in early Christian history accurate? is Worthen’s of American neo-evangelicalism?  is there a difference in the ways Christians engage society dependent on whether authority resides in the “magisterium” or in an inerrant or trustworthy scripture personally interpreted by a priesthood of all believers? When does orthodoxy foster creative engagement with the world and when does it stifle it?

While the authors (at least as far as I’ve read) don’t engage each other, their shared discussion of authority, faith, and reason and their differing perspectives provoke hard and good thinking.  That, it seems to me, is one of the important reasons for reading good and significant books.

Years ago, Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago and Great Books fame wrote an article (available as a free .pdf here) on The Great Conversation.  His contention is that the Great Books explore perennially great ideas and that over time, the different writers are engaged in a conversation with each other regarding these ideas.  By reading, we get to join in.

When have you found your books talking to each other?  And how have you been changed by that conversation?