Tuesday, September 1, 2009

One For the Books

A while back (quite a while, by now), my friend Lime posted (in two installments) a list of 15 books (which turned out to be 16, but I'm not fussy) that had a dramatic impact on her life (she got the idea from Suldog, so credit where it’s due. . .) It was such a cool idea, that I decided to do a book list of my own. Besides which, I've been thinking for a while of posting a list of my favorite books, so Lime and Suldog mostly just nudged me to do what I'd already been thinking of doing. However, I’m neither disciplined nor ruthless enough to pare my list down to 15 books. And the books I’m giving you are something of a random mix of ‘Books That Have Had a Dramatic Impact on My Life’, ‘Books That I Thought Were Really Good', ‘Books That I’d Like to Have With Me On a Desert Island’, ‘Books That I’d Recommend to a Friend’, and probably a few other sub-categories, besides. It will probably be quite a mishmash, so please bear with me. And when I’m done, you can tell me if it was worth it. . .

I suppose I should start with the Bible, even though there’s a part of me that resists that. I mean, it’s a bit like praising motherhood – it can seem kinda trite, and ‘yeah, well, of course’. But if we’re talking about books that have radically shaped my thinking, it all starts here. And the Bible has shaped the thinking of most of the books which have also shaped my thinking. . .

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That said, I’ll start with three books that I lump under the heading of ‘Christian Classics’ that have significantly shaped my thinking and my life, and which I enthusiastically recommend to any of my friends –

Confessions, by St. Augustine. "You have made us for Yourself, O Lord; and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." Augustine’s autobiographical account of his conversion to Christianity. It is fascinating for the manner in which Augustine gives his readers an open look into his soul. And his is a great soul, and a titanic intellect. Some of his thoughts on science and religion, for example, are many centuries ahead of their time, and startlingly appropriate in the present day.

The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis. After the Bible, the most-read Christian book of all time, and justly so. It reads like a medieval Christian Book of Proverbs, and is full of profound wisdom. One of my favorites: “If you had a good conscience, you would not fear death so much, and it would be better for you to abandon sin than to fear death." And so on it goes. . .

Pensees, by Blaise Pascal. I picked this up because I was intrigued by Pascal’s reputation as a genius of physics/mathematics. But I wasn’t very far into it before I realized that it was a Christian spiritual classic in its own right. For a 17th-century writer, Pascal understands the modern soul really well: “The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." Or, “Reason's last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.” Wonderful stuff. The Pensees can be a bit of a disjointed read, since Pascal died (at age 39) before he could beat it into a coherent whole, but what he left us is no less rewarding of the reader who picks it up. . .

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Next, a few of what I’ll call ‘Modern Spiritual Classics’ –

The Everlasting Man, by GK Chesterton. My college roommate first gave me this book, and by the time I finished it, I wondered why I had never heard of Chesterton before then. Chesterton has an amazing gift for turning the world around on itself, and seeing the absurdities of the world where most people (myself most definitely included) miss them. His Orthodoxy is also excellent.

Mere Christianity, by CS Lewis. One of the first of Lewis’ books that I read, back in college. I don’t really think it’s his best book, but it’s a gateway to most everything else he wrote. For sheer inspiration, and formation of my thought, I think the title essay in The Weight of Glory is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read – “Aside from the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest thing that will ever be presented to your senses.” Miracles and The Problem of Pain are also terrific books. As are his books of fiction – I have especially loved Lewis’ Space Trilogy (I might be unusual in that Out of the Silent Planet – the first book of the trilogy – is my favorite), and we have read the Chronicles of Narnia to our kids many times over.

Love Is Stronger Than Death, by Peter Kreeft. My favorite book by my favorite living author. Kreeft has an amazing ability to cut through the confusion and help his readers to see things truly. The analogy between birth and death that Kreeft presents in this book is simply incredible. Other books by Kreeft worth looking into are Making Choices (sort of a ‘Moral Philosopy 101’ book) and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, which (its cheesy-awful title notwithstanding) contains some wonderful speculative theology. He’s also written good ‘introductory’ books on Pascal and Thomas Aquinas that are worth the price, and his Socratic dialogues were one of my early introductions to the joys of philosophy. . .

I’ll also mention What We Can’t Not Know, by J. Budziszewski, which is sort of an introductory course in Natural Law. I know that not all, even of my Christian blog-friends, appreciate Natural Law philosophy, but after reading Chesterton, Lewis and Kreeft, I realized that Natural Law corresponded pretty closely to my own developing thoughts on Life and Morality and The Universe. And Budziszewski (boo-ji-SHEF-ski) has written the best popular-level books on Natural Law that I’ve come across (I’ve just recently finished The Line Through the Heart; Written On the Heart is also excellent).

And I should also mention the late Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, published as Man and Woman He Created Them. The late pope’s thoughts on human sexuality just revolutionized my thinking when I first encountered them. John Paul’s reasoning is very dense, and can be a pretty tough slog (but ultimately rewarding of the effort, if you can work through it); some might prefer Sam Torode’s Theology of the Body in Simple Language, which simplifies the pope’s language, without dumbing it down.

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A couple of newer books of 'social commentary', which probably don't quite count as 'classics' just yet, but which I've deeply enjoyed -

Real Choices, by Frederica Mathewes-Green. The best, most insightful book I've ever encountered on the issue of abortion. Frederica understands both sides of the question; in particular, she understands the desperation of women who "want an abortion the way an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg", and yet she never shies away from the awful truth of the question. If "everyone knows it's a baby", the question remains - why do women still seek abortions? Or, more to the point, why do so many of them come to believe that killing their baby is their only viable option? And just to ask that question leads in some very insightful directions. This book is full of both compassion and truth, and gives cause for squirming to partisans of both sides. One last quote - "Any society that pits mothers against their children in a fight to the death, is going insane."

Mudhouse Sabbath, by Lauren Winner. The author is a recent (at least, at the time of writing) convert to Christianity, after having been an Orthodox Jew, and she writes very insightfully about the 'touch points' she's found between Judaism and Christianity, and how her Christian life is enriched by her Jewish past. A fascinating book (and the source of inspiration for Molly's-and-my Sunday Morning Tradition). Lauren Winner might be better known for her book Real Sex, an account of her life in the 'typical American' sexual lifestyle, and how she found it wanting (as a footnote along the same lines, I'll also mention Dawn Eden's The Thrill of the Chaste)

This post is already in danger of being unreadably long, so I’ll break it off here, and continue in another post. . .

7 comments:

lime said...

some deep things there. some i am familiar with others, not. but an interesting peek into some formative literature. thanks! i look forward to the other installments as well.

Cocotte said...

So, you're not particularly fond of the NY Times Bestsellers List?

flutterby said...

Haahahha, Cocotte. My thoughts exactly. :D

I bet amazon.com LOVES you, Desmond!!!

I am duly impressed by your book choices. I received a "tag" like this on Facebook and really was a bit at a loss to list 15 suitably intellectual books. I got stuck somewhere after Douglas Adams and realized that my book list is not impressive at all.

Michelle H. said...

A very informative and interesting list! I keep wanting to do one, but then I get sidetracked with other stories.

Desmond Jones said...

Lime - Wow; really? There are items here you're not familiar with? I'm. . . so humbled. . .

And, watch this space for future installments. . .

Cocotte - Well, you know, my man CS Lewis had some cool things to say about the value of reading old books. . .

Flutter - Amazon and I be tight. . .

And hey, Douglas Adams is cool!

Michelle - Thanks! And listen, you know. . . whenever you're ready, I'll be there. . . ;)

FTN said...

Good list. I guess I can't consider myself very well read, since I haven't read most of these. I was supposed to read "Confessions" for a class in college, but I can't remember if I got all the way through it.

And of course the Turode writing on Theology of the Body... I have that. That's some interesting stuff. :-)

My list would change every couple of years, because it seems like every new handful of books I read are formative in my evolving thinking. I'm reading Brian McLaren's "The Secret Message of Jesus" right now, and it's pretty fascinating. It draws on some N.T. Wright lectures and books. In fact, half the authors I read say they draw on N.T. Wright lectures and books about the history and culture of first-century Judaism.

I guess that means if I had a list like this, N.T. Wright would have to be on it.

Desmond Jones said...

FTN - Well, I am by no means any kind of standard for what constitutes 'well read'. . .

My own experience has been that, as new books come along and form my thinking, they generally add to and refine what was there before. I haven't had to completely 'start over' too many times. As Cardinal Newman used to say, 'Truth cannot be contrary to Truth'. . .

I've read a couple of NT Wright's books of 'Jesus scholarship' (The Challenge of Jesus and The Original Jesus), and they were first-rate. He and I don't agree on everything under the sun, but as a 'Jesus scholar', he's the best there is. . .