Okay, I sort of told a white lie. Yesterday I waxed on about my favorite books of the summer, hoping folks would shell out for Michael Perry or Richard Doster. I explained about Holy Roller and The Unlikely Disciple. Oh yeah, we listed the books we most loved, enjoyed, learned from, and appreciated over these last few months.
But I did not tell you about one of my absolutely finest reading experiences of the season, the time I spent with my advanced promo copy of the forthcoming Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life (Nelson) $19.99. I didn’t feel right mentioning it since it isn’t out yet, and it is a real privilege that I got an early review copy.
So I didn’t mention it. But when I look at that list from yesterday–and a fine one it is, if I do say so myself–and I think about sitting out back at our picnic table, I have to mention the forthcoming Miller. I was a highlight of my summer reading. Heck, it was a highlight of my summer!
I really did like his million-selling Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, and thought his Searching for God Knows What was even stronger—clearer about theological concepts, and an important, helpful look at true faith. (For some reason, some are fretful of his doctrine, and I suggest they actually read this one, at least.) I got teary at his book on fathering (To Own a Dragon), and am happy to be one of the few bookstores that really got behind his very first book, later re-issued as Through Painted Deserts which tells of a post-college road trip in a van, thinking about God, girls, beauty and such. Well worth reading! I am not sure exactly why I like his books so much, besides the zany characters he seems to meet and the sly stylings, but if you haven’t read him, you simply must. He is a good, clever, interesting writer that speaks in a voice that really works. And he’s got fans.
Miller is a somewhat edgy, s they say, a youngish, hipster-slash-bohemian writer whose evangelical faith is challenged by its cheesy and shallow oddities; he’s smart enough to see through that, and so wants to tell about a more authentic, Christ-like, real kind of faith experience. So he’s been on a journey, trying to be authentic and hip and real and honest about Jesus and life and times. It has helped some of our customers when I say that he is moving out of evangelical faith’s cultural in-house ways and sort of meets Anne Lamott on her way into faith, out of her sex and booze addled bohemian past. They are coming from different places, to be sure, but have a bit in common, it seems. She is truly one of the better essayists of our time (and a fine novelist) and it is nice that, now, on the very front of Miller’s Million Miles in a Thousand Years hardback, there is this solid Anne Lamott blurb: “I love Donald Miller. He is a man after my own heart.” Well, there ya go.
Miller is rooted in and seems to remain in the evangelical church, though (in a way Lamott does not, exactly.) He is a writer that reminds me for some reason of Holden Caulfield, with these simple repetitive sentences and odd places for periods. He tells stories, and he tells them very well, in an understated kind of way. He’s funny and also insightful, and this may be his most important book. It is certainly less overtly religious than his others, making it ideal for seekers, or for those wanting to figure out their lives. I suppose that many Christians will want to give it to people, especially angst-ridden 20-somethings or, those like Miller, angst-ridden 30-somethings who may not read a more obvious theological book. I know it sure won’t turn anybody off, and it will draw people in. It is a fabulous memoir.
The book will be out in a few weeks, and I must say that I cannot wait to sell it. I so enjoyed it earlier this summer, truly wanting to see what happens to him as he re-evaluates his life Big Time. Why does he do this, you ask? Well, you’ve got to read the book, but basically it is this: some guys are making a movie of his life, based on the popularity and appeal of Blue Like Jazz. They ask him—white board now moved into his living room at the condominium, starting to map out the screenplay—what he does. What does he do? He thinks about God a bit, imagines himself a writer of deep thoughts. He ponders his last and next book, goes to the coffee shop, complaining about the Christian right, maybe, with some righteous indignation. He cares about stuff. Yeah, yeah, they tell him. Nobody cares about that. It becomes evident, in chapters that are hilarious, and yet somehow very convicting (to this reader, at least), that for a movie about one’s life to be compelling, it has to have some narrative arc (as they say in the story-biz) and without some admirable action, some struggle, some movement, well, there isn’t much of a movie or story.
So–get this– the real Don decides that the movie Don is much more interesting and noble and important that he, the real Don, actually is, and decides to do something about it. If the real Don wouldn’t be all that interesting in the movie, well, perhaps the theories of movie-making—that is, what makes a good story, what makes a good life—might help him reconfigure his own life.
The subtitle, “what I learned while editing my life” really is exactly what happened. And, man, does he fly. A listless, writerly, ironic, Portland-based, post-evangelical thinker, becomes more intentional, more earnest, more active, more radical, more really real. It is an amazing transformation, actually. Graceful? Well, it isn’t without stumbles and set-backs, but I think it is graceful. Yes, this is a graceful book. It is about making a movie about your life, and what that might make you think and do. That is, he wants his real life to be as interesting and noble as the one in the movie they are making. Is that a crazy-good idea for a book, or what? Sederis or Palahniuk didn’t think of that, did they?
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life by Donald Miller is a can’t-put-down saga, a dramatic bit of storytelling about, well, about storytelling. It is about the making of a movie, and the need to have the life the movie is about be worthy of making a movie about. How about you? Would a movie of your life be interesting? Good? If you studied film a bit, read some novels, learned some stuff about narrative arc and virtue and story, might it effect your own sense of the story you are a part of? Do you think God is a part of that?
We say, these days, that our lives should be part of God’s story. That our worldview is really best described as the narrative that shapes us, the story we are a part o
f. That is exactly what Miller discovers, in his lackluster, oddball way. He is honest and funny and a bit goofy and ends up in Africa and riding his bike across country and paddling in a kayak or something up to Alaska or somewhere. He meets some rich people, and some not so rich people. He tells of a very, very moving funeral, where the person’s life obviously was worth mourning and celebrating. He wonders about his. And he invites you to wonder about yours. This is one of the books of the year, hip, funny, interesting, contemporary, and deeply right. Our lives need to make sense, and they do that when we live for something other than our own sorry selves.
Donald Miller’s new
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Blue Like Jazz
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