Finishing what I started in the previous post. . .
Before I get back to the book list ‘proper’, I’ll take a quick detour to mention a few authors for whom I’ve had various and sundry ‘fetishes’, and read large numbers of their books, just because I enjoyed their style, or content, or whatever. . .
When Molly and I were first married, a friend recommended that I read James Michener, so I picked up a copy of The Source, and I was hooked. Michener’s epics of historical fiction just absolutely grabbed my brain for a few years, to the point that Molly took to referring to Michener as my ‘other woman’ – I’ve probably read close to a dozen of his tomes. A Michener novel is quite a commitment – most of them are upwards of 1000 pages – but by the time you’ve finished one, you’ve just about had a college course in the history of wherever the subject of the novel is. The Source (on Israel / the Holy Land) is probably my favorite of his novels, although The Covenant (South Africa) and Hawaii are also tremendous.
I also went on a Michael Crichton jag for a while. I read Jurassic Park (before the movie came out, thankyouverymuch), which I really enjoyed. Just the whole premise of cloning extinct pre-historic critters was intriguing (dinosaurs are quite a stretch, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a cloned mammoth before I die. . .), but his comments on the possibility of ‘destroying the planet’ were pretty insightful, I thought. From there, I read The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, and The Lost World before the impulse waned. Crichton is very adept at getting his readers to keep turning the page, but his books (at least, those that I’ve read) have in common that, after a certain point, the author seems to lose interest and just wrap up the story as quickly as he can. Especially for an author with Crichton’s story-telling gifts, his books have some of the worst, most clichéd endings I’ve ever read.
Going back to the beginning, when I was a kid, I read pretty much everything by Dr. Seuss that I could get my hands on. And what I didn’t read as a kid, I read to my own kids. My favorites are what I call his ‘imaginative’ books, especially McElligott’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra (‘because most people stop at the Z; but not me’) and If I Ran the Zoo (which has gotten credit for coining the word ‘nerd’, and thus is pivotal for my own life). One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (which is like an ‘early reader’ version of McElligott) and Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! are also among my kids’ favorites. And the books starring Horton the Elephant hold a special place in my heart – Horton Hears a Who! (‘a person’s a person, no matter how small’) and Horton Hatches the Egg (‘I meant what I said, and I said what I meant – an elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent!’). And pretty much anything else he wrote. . .
Lewis and Chesterton and Kreeft, whose books I mentioned in the previous post, would also fall into this category of ‘Authors of Whom I’ve Read Everything I Could Get My Hands On’. But, since I already mentioned them, I won’t repeat myself here. . .
Returning to the book list, a few books on science and mathematics (just to give a bit of air to my Inner Nerd) –
Faith of a Physicist, by John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne is a world-class particle physicist, and also an ordained Anglican priest. This is one of the best books I’ve come across, as far as presenting the deep harmony between the Christian and ‘scientific’ worldviews. Polkinghorne’s Belief In God In an Age of Science is also excellent. I’ll also mention a couple other books – The Road of Science and the Ways to God, by Stanley Jaki, develops the idea that the intelligibility of the universe points to its Creator. And Genesis and the Big Bang, by Gerald Schroeder, is especially interesting; the author is a world-class physicist, and an Orthodox Jew, and his Jewish presentation of ‘natural theology’ is wonderfully fascinating.
Fermat’s Last Theorem, by Amir Aczel. A stimulating account (OK, maybe just ‘stimulating’ to a certain type of mind. . .) of Andrew Wiles’ solution of one of the great, long-standing ‘unsolved problems’ of mathematics, which, by the time it finishes, provides a pretty comprehensive tour of mathematical history.
Beyond the Third Dimension, by Thomas Banchoff. I first engaged the concept of ‘four-dimensional space’ (or space-time) when I was in high school, and found it to be very ‘mind-expanding’ (sort of like LSD, without the flashbacks). I have carried that fascination with me through most of my life. Banchoff’s book is a solid, comprehensive account of four-dimensional (and higher-dimensional) space, and what it might mean, and how to think in (or through) it. . .
A few history books -
History of the English-Speaking Peoples, by Winston Churchill. This four-volume set fed my Inner Anglophile, and helped me understand my cultural heritage from even before Jamestown and Plymouth. It also helped me to better understand my 'cultural kinship' with folks like Aussies and Canadians (did you know that there were 17 British colonies in North America? But only 13 of them joined the 'rebellion'; the four that didn't formed the basis for what would become Canada), as well as to have a 'wider perspective' on history than is typically afforded students in American high schools (eg, the fact that England had a little thing going on with a fellow named Napoleon, might've had something to do with why the fledgling USA could successfully prosecute the War of 1812 against the 'superpower' British. . .)
The Discoverers, by Daniel Boorstin. A fascinating account of innovation and creativity, which wanders into a multitude of really interesting discussions, on mankind's growing understanding of time, space, the world, the universe, etc, etc. The history itself is simply fascinating, but Boorstin also develops a thesis of 'Illusions of Knowledge' - that when we think we know all there is to know about something, it becomes an obstacle to innovation and creativity. (As a footnote here, I’ll include To Engineer Is Human, in which author Henry Petroski gives a fascinating account of the role of failure in successful engineering design, including how the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster led to the design of my beloved Mackinac Bridge).
The Conquerors, by Allan Eckert. Eckert has written a six-volume set of 'narrative histories', which read like novels, but are in fact solidly documented histories, generally focused on the 'European conquest' of the United States (and not at all in a 'Euro-centric' manner; his respect and sympathy for the Indians are obvious, and he does not hesitate to present the dark side of the history we learned in school). The Conquerors (third in the series) covers the events that have come to be called Pontiac's Uprising, and so large chunks of the story take place in Michigan - most particularly Detroit and Michilimackinac, places I've been to, and so I can more-or-less easily imagine the settings for the stories Eckert tells. Any of the other volumes of the set are also excellent. . .
The Rise of Christianity, by Rodney Stark. Stark's 'sociological history' of early Christianity is a fascinating account of how a small sect of a few dozen people in Palestine grew to the point of comprising a majority of the Roman Empire within barely three centuries. Stark's research methods are quite unique, and he ends up telling a fascinating story on a much more 'mundane' level than typical 'Names-and-Dates' histories. I'll try not to spoil it for you, but basically, Christians did two things significantly better than their pagan Roman neighbors - they took care of the sick (which, in a day of periodic pandemic plagues, was no small thing), and they welcomed children into their families (often taking in children who had been abandoned by their neighbors). Which seems like it might have pertinence to the present day and age. . .
And finally, a few of my favorite books of fiction –
Love In the Ruins, by Walker Percy; with this book, Percy earned a place on my short list of favorite authors. For having been written in 1971, this is a remarkably ‘current’ book; sort of the Culture War a generation in advance. Percy writes with wickedly wry humor, and he makes some sharp commentary on a wide range of topics, including sex, race, wealth, marriage, Christianity, etc, etc (which just happen to include several of my own favorite topics). . .
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky; maybe the greatest of all ‘Russian novels’, but even more probably the greatest of all ‘Christian novels’ (if there can be said to be such a thing). Dostoevsky presents deep insights into the ‘Problem of Pain’, and the ‘Mystery of Evil’, and the ways in which we’re all sort-of ‘walking blind’ through our lives in this world. . .
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller; James Michener actually put me onto this book in probably my least-favorite of all his books I’ve read (Space, if anyone’s wondering). On the face of it, it’s a fairly typical sci-fi book about the rebuilding of society in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, but it’s full of solid thoughts on human nature and some really sharp bits of tongue-in-cheek humor.
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; I’ve long considered this to be the absolute greatest of all American novels, by the greatest American writer. I’ve had a few arguments with folks at my kids’ school, who want to ban it over its use of the ‘N-word’. Try as I might to convince them that that radically misses the point, some folks are just hard to convince. . .
The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien; this almost feels like what I said in the previous post about the Bible – it’s almost too ‘obvious’ a choice. But from the first time I read it, I’ve been blown away by Tolkien’s invention of entire languages and histories. And Frodo has always been the least bit ‘emblematic’ for my own life – much as I might personally despise ‘adventures’, they keep coming to me, whether I want them or not. . .
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley; often paired with Orwell's 1984 under the heading of ‘Future Dystopias’, I’ve thought that BNW is a sharper statement directed at the modern West, and where a society motivated purely by pleasure, enabled by technology, leads. And what real Humanity looks like, in contrast. . .
And one more book - Another Sort of Learning, by JV Schall, a delightfully odd book (I mean, in the preface, he seamlessly connects Eric Voegelin, EF Schumacher, and Mad magazine), for people like me who got all the way through college without really getting 'educated'. It contains 21 essays, on an eclectic range of topics, and 37 associated book lists. Probably the book that got me started on the whole 'book lists' idea in the first place. . .
So there you have it. Books that have formed my mind, books that I liked, books that I recommend to my friends, whatever. Way more than fifteen, by the time it’s all said and done, but it is what it is (and, in the immortal words of Popeye, I yam what I yam. . .). And the thing is, a month from now, I'll probably think of a dozen other books that I should've included. Oh, well; for here and now, anyway, this is what you get. . .