Books / Reading

Books of the Year

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As a new academic year begins, I look back over the books that have shaped, nudged, tickled, offended and inspired my thinking over the past twelve months. They are abundant and widely varied, neither of which will not surprise anyone who knows me even slightly well. A quick glance at my overflowing bookshelves reveals some of the best and most memorable. The paragraphs below share a portion of this eclectic collection of writings.

Mystery:

I have always loved the British mystery genre, beginning with Conan Doyle’s famed Sherlock Holmes and continuing through Sayer’s debonair Lord Peter and G. K. Chesterton’s amiable Father Brown. Last month, at the gigantic annual used book sale at the Lancaster Mennonite Heritage Center, an intriguing title caught my eye, and another author joined this august collection. Sally Wright’s intelligence agent turned academic is American, not British, but somehow she captures the same flavor of authenticity, intelligence, and enthusiasm that characterize the world’s greatest fictional detectives. Publish and Perish is the only one of Wright’s books that I have read, but I will be keeping an eye on the used-book stalls.

Memoir:

Unlike Sally Wright’s mysteries, the next book on my shelf is very well known. Elie Weisel’s Night  has touched millions with it haunting record of one man’s journey through the Holocaust. Wiesel survived, his faith did not, but he still hopes—and this is what makes his account so moving. To lose one’s faith in God, to die on the inside, and yet to somehow hold on to a hope; this is the horror—and the hope—of humanity.

Searching for God Knows What. Donald Miller’s candid recounting of his search for a fuller understanding of the Jesus of the Gospels is refreshing, challenging, and oddly disturbing. I think it is his very honesty that puts me at unease, coupled with a irreverently unorthodox conception of the Christ we all thought we knew. I read this one slowly, over several months, and found my walk with God was refreshed by sharing Miller’s quirky perspective.

Nonfiction:

Susan Cain’s Quiet took the market by storm in the last year or so. Since I am in many ways an introvert myself, I was drawn to her premise that the quiet people have a valuable contribution to society as well as the more voluble, but I was unsure that any book could live up to the hype. Well, it doesn’t—no real surprise there. This book contains no revolutionary ideas, nothing we introverts didn’t already intuitively know. If we were lucky, our parents and role models may even have confirmed what Cain so eloquently exposits: that extroverts don’t have all the advantages, and being quiet is sometimes and advantage. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, and found it worth rereading, if only for the joy of hearing again that there is nothing wrong with being my introverted self!

Fiction:

Sometimes the old things really are best. I confirmed this in a surprisingly surprising way this past year. One of my most respected and influental professors casually noted that The Odyssey of Homer was one of his favorite books. He recommended Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, and I decided that it deserved a fair attempt—after all, a two-thousand year old classic must have something going for it. To my own surprise, I fell in love with the vigorous, poetic style, and became engrossed in the story of Telemachus and his father Odysseus. I even read the book twice, and the second time through was just as enjoyable as the first. I highly recommend The Odyssey for anyone who feels as though they ought to read some of the ancient classics, but are unable to maintain interest. Mandelbaum’s excellent translation puts the joy back into reading this classic.

Sociology/ethnography:

The Joyful Community is Benjamin Zablocki’s accurate and detailed account of the organization and institutional structure of the Bruderhof, a twentieth century communal group. Although highly scholarly, I found this a valuable introduction to one of America’s most unique people groups. I also became fascinated by both the similarities and the differences between the Bruderhof and somewhat similar groups such as the Hutterites and the Old Order Amish. This is a book for the serious scholar, though others may that find that a quick skim through the introductory chapters will suffice for their curiosity.

Sui Generis:

And finally—though far from least—is a book that fits in no neatly organized category. Jostein Gardner truly created a one of a kind book in Sophie’s World. Gardner takes the reader on a spirited journey through the history of major philosophical theories as seen through the eyes of young Sophie. Far from being as boring and pretentious as that sounds, this is both an excellent introduction to the art of philosophy as well as a fun read. Gardner brings the theoretical alive as few other authors manage to do.

And there you have it, a baker’s half-dozen out of the stacks of books that have passed under my eyes since this time last year. What are you reading? I’d love to hear!

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