Reading Old And New

It’s the end of another calendar year, and our cultural trends decree that we compile best-of lists for everything from the music we heard to the socks we wore. Not to mention the books we read. I haven’t ranked mine in any order; they appear here as I’ve thought of them, along with a word or two about why they deserve notice. On the whole I’ve chosen the books that stuck in my mind long after I put them back on the shelf.

There is one curious thing about them, though, which wasn’t planned: all the works on this list are creative non-fiction. I developed my taste this past year for this kind of writing and started actively seeking out essay collections and books of that nature. These were some of my favourites.

The Sabbath (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

My discovery of this book in the spring still feels a bit serendipitous, although I was simply browsing a bookstore looking for something to read. What I discovered was not just a book, but an entire writer whose work I eagerly look forward to exploring more. A wide-ranging journey towards the meaning not just of the Sabbath day but also the meaning of time itself and how God relates to humanity, one would never guess that English was Heschel’s second language. His poetic command of logic is an inspiring breath of fresh air. Reading The Sabbath led to my determination to remember the Sabbath—to keep it in a more devoted and intentional way than I have before.

The Four Loves, A Grief Observed, Letters To Malcolm (C.S. Lewis)

The other great religious writer of the last century, though from a different angle of approach, was of course C.S. Lewis. 2022 saw me finally reach the end of my project to read the majority of his published works. Of those read this year, these three stood out as the best, confirming my suspicion that his later years found Lewis at the height of both his philosophical and his literary powers. Reviews of all three (and others) may be found through this page of links.

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Christian Wiman)

I have not read much of Christian Wiman’s poetry (and what I have read has been read to me by friends at poetry gatherings), but when I sampled this book (essay collection or extended essay?) I knew I had to read the whole thing. Perhaps not surprisingly his prose is very poetic and it has the raw power of imagery that the best poetry has. What he writes about is being a believer in Christ within a milieu that not only eschews Christianity but religious or spiritual belief in just about any kind. By the standards of orthodox Christian theology, the kind so ardently defended by traditionalists, he sometimes misses the mark or says things in the wrong way. But he hits on the same truths often and he grasps so fully the importance of Christ as a real Person as well as the (sometimes hidden) desire in the modern West for true communion with that real Person.

Touching This Leviathan (Peter Wayne Moe)

Ostensibly about whales, this book is about knowing and specifically about knowing something through the language we use about it. This becomes linked with how we know and speak about God. Along the way, Moe engages with the obvious touchstones like Melville’s Moby-Dick, the Book of Jonah, and Job’s Leviathan, but that they are obvious is part of the point: those who would seek to know something must grapple with the fact that they are inheriting language and don’t necessarily get to choose what they engage with. The book gave me a strange desire to have something to know, to do the work of knowing it and pursuing it; to have an obsession, and isn’t that odd?

Another, sadder thing I notice as I look back on my reading habits in 2022 is an ongoing trend. I used to read an average of 70-80 books a year. But for the past half decade that average has dropped to 40-50. Grad school is obviously a major factor. I do get to read some great things in my studies, but it’s not always full books—and of course it takes time away from the novels and literature I’d otherwise choose.

I recently heard the idea that we should treat the books we buy not as a “to read” pile, but as a wine cellar: we are stocking on the books that will be read at the right moment, in due season, when the mood and the taste strike us. I’ll take that nice bit of optimism into 2023. Happy reading!

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