More Books on Books: Reading Fiction

THANKS to those who replied to the last post about book-selling and reading.  And special kudos to those who ordered some of our books about books; we are grateful.  I hope you had a chance to click through some of the links I offered—they are good articles on reading and book-selling and we thought you’d appreciate them. One is a kind but radical critique of “Christian bookstores” by my pal Shane Claiborne and another is an “insider” column from a trade journal called Christian Retailing, noting that the most important question in this age of the demise of the indie bookstore is whether booksellers love to read and can pass on the value of bookish passion to their customers.

I didn’t want to link to too many on-line articles, but here another link: this is a piece I wrote a few years ago for the esteemed think-tank Cardus, who publish the on-line (and quarterly hard copy) magazine, Comment.  I wrote this for college students, but it may be helpful for anyone wanting to commit to new reading habits.  One little contribution I tried to make–besides the rather pedestrian advise of carrying books with you and making a schedule to read, even having a favorite place,–is that, despite my love for all things Postman, and his masterpiece Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin; $15.00), I do not think we need to play off as mortal enemies print and image, reading books vs watching films or TV.  Popular culture need not be the whipping boy for those of us who want to nurture a love for books.  I’d love your feedback if you have anything to share…
Of course there are many other “books about books.”  One intriguing and enjoyable one that was popular a year ago is now in paperback, How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard (Bloomsbury; $14.00.)  (One friend joked that it could be my auto-biography!  Tee-hee.)  I love the line on the back by Jay McInerney from The New York Times Book Review, “I seriously doubt that pretending to have read this book will boost your creativity.  On the other hand, reading it may remind you why you love reading.”  The poet Billy Collins calls it “mildly unsettling” and the London Review of Books says it is “brilliant and witty…” calling it “literary sociology.”  Think I read it?  I’m talking about it, aren’t I?  Hmm.

Several of the books I listed in the last post were about those who love books, memoirs about reading, or the loss of reading in this electronic culture. Of course more ink has been spilled on this topic–and will continue to, although increasingly the ink isn’t spilled, but (what’s the word?  Pixelated?)  On-line or on real paper, the debate rages.  You may have heard of one of the more passionate books warning against the virtual world that came out this year called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr (Norton; $26.95.) Or the heady, anti-virtual manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget by the colorful Jaron Lanier (Knopf; $24.95–coming in paperback in February, by the way) which appeared on a number of “best of 2010” lists.  These are important voices in the broader conversation about the ethos of our time and the habits of attention that are demanded by–and created by–the long-form reading of books.

literature-and-theology.jpgFICTION & POETICS  I didn’t list many books in that last post, though, that specifically helped us appreciate fiction.  Again, reading about fiction isn’t the same as actually reading a real novel–do it, if you haven’t lately!–but it is itself a precious joy to some of us, reading about other books.  And so, here are a few books mostly about fiction books.  We have plenty of others, but these are just a few I grabbed from our literary criticism section to illustrate the sorts of things we enjoy showing off and talking about.

Literature and Theology  Ralph Wood (WJK) $11.00  Granted, one need not do ‘theology’ proper to do Christian literary criticism, but this fine author from Baylor surely has the great chops to do both.  Endorsements on the back are from story-lovin’ theologians like Stan Hauerwas and Fleming Rutledge and  the always erudite English professor Alan Jacobs.
Short, clear, engaging.  (Professor Wood has a particularly illuminating book on Tolkien, by the way, called The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth published by WJK; $15.00.)

Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature  Gene Edward Veith (Crossway) $15.99  This is most often my “go to” book when an undergrad wants a basic overview of a Christian perspective on literature.  Endorsed as “superb” and “profound” by poet Luci Shaw and given thumbs up by the likes of Leland Ryken from Wheaton, this is a fine, thoughtful, and insightful guide to the joys of reading.  Every college student, at least, should have a book like this.

A Christian Critique of Art and Literature  Calvin Seerveld (Toronto Tuppence Press)b943820dd7a02c7783a3f010.L._SL500_AA300_.jpg $15.00  This was my first Seerveld book ever, in an earlier edition, in maybe 1973. I was struck by what seemed like both dense and yet colorful prose, and radical, critical serious, flamboyant insight that demanded an utterly Biblical frame of reference.  Much of it is on art and aesthetics, but there is good stuff on literature here, too, and a bit on theatre.  If you have read his classic Rainbows for the Fallen World you may want to back up and read this.  For a taste, take a deep breath and read this remarkable, short Seerveld piece which he wrote for a recent edition of Comment, in response to an earlier essay about  the meaning of “Christian” fiction by another writer.  

A Taste of the Classics volume 1, volume 2, volume 3, and volume 4  Ken Boa (Biblica) $9.99 each  Yep, the master apologetics writer, and author of an excellent textbook on spiritual formation also is a literary buff.  In these four great paperbacks he summarizes and explains classics of older novels (and some serious devotional non-fiction as well, such as Pascal or Tozer.) Boa on Dante or Austen or Dostoyevsky or Bunyan?  Go here to see which ones he describes in which volumes, and come back to order ’em from us.  What fun!

yhst-38174537758215_2136_165513639.gifThe Emmaus Readers volume one and volume two edited by Susan Felch & Gary Schmidt (Paraclete Press) $17.95 each  I’ve mentioned these books before; they came out of a great gang of thoughtful Christian friends in Grand Rapids and tells of their interaction with some of the best of contemporary fiction, “listening for God” as it were, through these stories. The first one includes studies of the work of Fred Buechner, Leif Enger, David Guterson, Oscar Hijuelos, P. D. James, Yann Martell, Nicole Mazzarella, Ian McEwan and more.  Volume Two includes Geraldine Brooks,  Michael Chabon, Kate DiCamillo, Khaled Hosseini, Edward Jones, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, and many more. I can’t say enough about them, and hope you’ll be inspired to try one.  

The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club edited by Cecilia Konchar Farr (SUNY Press) $24.95  You may recall Ms Farr’s important Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads. This collection explores the cultural impact of the OBC, particularly in light of debates about the definition and purpose of literature.  A few weeks ago I tweeted an article that was in The New Republic mocking Oprah for suggesting to have ordinary women read Dickens. (Stop the presses, sound the alarms: housewives will be storming the big box stores looking for Oliver Twist. Ye gads!)  I noted how I despised the elitist criticism, and appreciated the way the scholar was taken to the woodshed by many who posted comments, taking exception.  Maybe some read this book.

Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant  Alan Jacobs (Eerdmans) $18.00  I shall admit that the extraordinary art of the short-form essay is one of my favorite styles of prose, and I admit it isn’t fiction.  Yet, here, the master of the essay–aesthetically delightful, one reviewer says—writes also about fictional books.  Harry Potter.  Kahlil Gibran.  And about sentences, even.  Truly interesting, learned, and wise, on all manner of topics.  

mockingbird parables-755153.jpgThe Mockingbird Parables: Transforming Lives through the Power of Story  Matt Litton (Tyndale) $14.99 I wish I had time a way to read some of this out loud to you, convincing you it is thrilling, inspiring, practical in a way that is at once literary—it is reflecting on portions of To Kill a Mockingbird, of course–and prophetic.  Litten teaches high school English, so this is, in a way, a report from the trenches, emerging from good conversations about the meaning of of Harper Lee’s timeless novel with ordinary kids.  As Scot McKnight says, “you’ll be enchanted…”

Mending a Tattered Faith:  Devotions with Dickinson Suzanne VanZanten (Cascade) $15.00 This is new, and another unique way “into” a deeper appreciation of classic literature.  This is just what is sounds like—a daily Christian devotional inviting reader’s to ruminate a bit on the spirituality of Emily Dickinson’s intense, brief poems.  Very nicely done, by a scholar in the field.  John Wilson, certainly one of the better read people in these United States, says “I’ve never read a book quite like this, and I’m hoping it will inspire a new genre: engaged reading, slow reading, deeply informed by scholarship but inviting to all.”

Speak What We Feel: Not What We Ought to Say  Frederick Buechner (HarperOne) $12.99  You may recognize the quote from Shakespeare, which is fitting as here the master Presbyterian preacher explores four important authors of great literature—“four who wrote in blood” as he puts it.  He ruminates on G.K. Chesterton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, and William Shakespeare.  

Conversations with American Writers: The Doubt, the Faith, and the In-Between  Dale Brown (Eerdmans) $18.00  I’ve praised this before, but Brown deserves very special praises for these fine interviews with tremendous contemporary writers, mostly novelists.  This is a spectacular treasure-chest, full of good stuff.  From David James Duncan to Jan Karon, Lee Smith to Ron Hanson, Philip Gulley to Eleanor Taylor Bland, these are a truly fun (and informative) dialogue on the power of art to sustain faith, often in unexpected ways.  Highly recommended. Brown was the founder of the famous Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing and now directors The Buechner Center at the Kings College in Tennessee.

Shouts and Whispers: 21 Writers Speak About Their Writing and Their Faith edited by Jennifer Holberg (Eerdmans) $16.00  Again, this is a world class collection, many gleaned from interviews done at the aforementioned Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing.  Here you have discussions with Doris Betts and Betty Smartt Carter and Koy Kogawa and Anne Lamott and Madeleine L’Engle and Bret Lott.  There are a few who aren’t known mostly as novelists, such as undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch, spiritual memoirist Kathleen Norris, and film-maker Paul Schrader.  Barbara Brown Taylor is here—she’s a wordsmith for sure, as a preacher and writer, and Luci Shaw’s interview about poetry is just excellent.  Yay.

Invisible Conversations: Religion in the Literature of America  Roger Lundin, editor (Baylor University Press) $29.95  A beautifully bound hardback collecting important, scholarly essays at the interface of Christianity and literature.   This is serious, impressive, and what one reviewer called “exhilarating.”

Dostoevsky: Language, Faith + Fiction Rowan Williams (Baylor University Press) $24.95  Again, BUP has given us a richly done, beautiful hardcover study of one of the great writers of all time.  Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury brings considerable knowledge and insight to this energetic study.  As a prof at Yale writes, “Williams is at home in Russian philosophy, particularly the Orthodox emphasis on kenosis, the voluntary emptying out of Christ’s divine attributes…this is a work of learning and passion, a heteroglot blend of literary, ethical, and subtle theological argument that is full of surprising local triumphs of interpretation…”

Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of Image edited by Greg Wolfe (Eerdmans) $30.00content27143a7169c9018baf89aea05372ad68.png  This is a book lovers masterpiece, which I have extolled before.  It is perhaps the finest collection of significant short stories, essays, criticism, poetry, interviews and full color art that we have ever seen.  These are drawn from 20 years of Image, the premier journal at the intersection of religion, the serious arts, and good literature.  Breathtaking, to be savored, over a lifetime.  Visit their great website, sign up for the blog, but don’t forget to come back.  You can order this on sale, below.

 Greg’s own regular column from Image, by the way, was collected by my friend Ned Bustard over at Square Halo Books, illumined with very moving woodcuts by Barry Moser, making a truly lovely little paperback that you ought to have.  It is an under-appreciated gem, short, thoughtful pieces about art, literature, faith and culture, written with substa
nce, integrity and deep insight.  Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Faith, Art, and Mystery Gregory Wolfe (Square Halo Books; $14.00)  Comes with a rave review of Annie Dillard.  Nice.

How to Grow a Young Reader: Books for Every Age for Readers for Every Age  Kathryn Lindskoog & Ranelda Mack Hunsicker (Shaw) $14.99  This equals–and surpasses for great recommendations—the classic Honey for a Child’s Heart by one of the Christian booksellers’ patron saints, Gladys Hunt (Zondervan; $12.99.)  While I’m on the subject, the properly famous The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin; $16.00) is in a sixth edition, and remains  a book that should be on every parents home, hopefully on a coffee table or kitchen counter. What fun, and not just for those with little kids.  And, you (or somebody you know) should know Guys Write for Guys Read edited by Jon Scieszka (Viking; $10.99.)  It isn’t all gross-out and sports and adventure, but it is an anthology of boys’ favorite authors writing about being boys.  Dig that, if you dare.  

Speaking of children’s literature, I think one of the best essays I have read in years, certainly one of the ones I enjoyed most this year, came from a 2005 Harvard Divinity Bulletin, written author8079_2416871634174009445526734.jpgby the esteemed Presbyterian children’s writer, Katherine Paterson. It was called “Are You There God” and you can read it here.  It is a great joy to read.  It was included, by the way, in the The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006 edited by Philip Zaleski (Houghton Mifflin; $14.00), a luminous volume of 30 some folks like Wendell Berry, Rick Bass, Mary Gordon, John Updike, Scott Cairns, Brian Doyle and the aforementioned Paterson with an eloquent forward by Peter J.Gomes.  Click on the link and spend 15 minutes or so reading this lovely and inspiring tribute to the power of story.  You’ll be glad you did. 

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3 thoughts on “More Books on Books: Reading Fiction

  1. Thanks, Byron, for this list. I know some students that are attempting to read as many of the classics as they can, and I sent them over to read this post!

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