Failure, Inspiration, and My Reading Experience in 2018
My reading resolution taught me a lot, and it came right down to the wire…
I could hear the fireworks relentlessly popping outside the window. The celebration had begun, and the clock in the hallway sealed things as it rang in the new hour and with it a new year. You’d think I’d be joining in the celebration. But no, the fireworks felt like they were mocking me instead.
I was sitting in a chair with a book in hand. Reading is something I enjoy thoroughly, but even it seemed to be mocking me in that moment too. Everything seemed to be mocking me.
You see, I began 2018 with a reading goal of 20 books. Last year when I wrote the previous version of this post, I had the same goal but had fallen short by reading only 14. I decided to keep my reading goal at 20, and I entered the final day of the year having read 19 books. I brought Michelle Obama’s new memoir Becoming with us on our trip out to see Sarah’s brother, sister-in-law, and our new baby niece. It was to be my final read of the year. With the clock winding down on 2018, I still hadn’t finished the book.
Finally, after reading for almost the entire evening, I finished the book. But the fireworks had already died down, and the clock had finished chiming. I looked at the time.
After all that, I had missed my goal by a measly 19 minutes. But, as I went to sleep early in the first morning hours of 2019, I thought about my “failure” a little bit more. Yes, I had once again fallen short of my goal. But I was very proud of myself for not giving up on the goal on that last day of the year. I easily could have looked at the size of the book and the pages left to read and just set it down to go to bed. But I kept reading and gave it my best shot. I just came up a little short.
More than that, though, I don’t think reading is ever a failure. Reading is an activity I hold in the highest regard. I’ve learned so much from reading this year. To me, that is the takeaway.
So, as we move into the new year, let me pause for a second to take a step back and reflect on what my 2018 reading taught me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last book I read in 2018 had Inspired as its title. It’s the perfect word to describe my reading experience over the past year.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Our world is so enamored by taking sides. Split screens on 24-hour news cycles, endless lines of pundits and talking heads and virtual spats played out over Facebook and Twitter. Upon reading The Sympathizer for the first time, I became intrigued with the idea of a narrator who always sees both sides. Nguyen does such an amazing job of crafting this character. Everything about him is two-sided. In our culture, the term “two-faced” is wholeheartedly negative. And yet, we place value on compromise at the same time. Through cultural institutions like our free press, we say that we value the ability to see and hear both sides. And yet, so often, we inherently push for only one side. That tension was always in the background as I read this book.
The Sympathizer tells the tale of a Vietnamese man who is a double agent. The book begins with the Fall of Saigon. As it continues, we see this man travel to America and become a part of this new culture while always keeping some small part of home with him. Then, he goes to the Philippines as part of a movie production that clearly is an homage to Apocalypse Now. Our narrator’s role in the production is to supervise the portrayal of his countrymen in this movie about the Vietnam War. Yet, he soon finds out that the task is not quite what he had in mind — which brings up another aspect of this book that impacted me.
Apocalypse Now is one of my personal favorite movies. In fact, before I read this book, I heard that it contained an homage to the film in it. That fact coupled with the incredible acclaim this book received made we want to read it in the first place. But what I found in the book was that, while Nguyen has clear reverence for the film, he is very conflicted by it. In the book’s fictional version, we see that our narrator feels that The Auteur (the book’s stand-in for Francis Ford Coppola) has not taken care with his portrayal of the Vietnamese. Though the narrator tries to provide the Vietnamese perspective, his voice doesn’t quite make it into the finished product. And it’s not just this sequence. The entire book can be read as a Vietnamese perspective on America. In that way, it was incredibly eye-opening for me.
The story takes us to other places, but I’ll spare you all the details and instead highly recommend that you go read the book for yourself. It is a page-turner if there ever was one. Nguyen is a fine writer, and this story grips you from the very beginning. But it also gives you many things to ponder, and I found myself considering it long after I was done reading. The Sympathizer is Nguyen’s first novel — an incredible feat considering it was the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Having read it, I can attest that it is deserving of all the praise it has received and then some. I look forward to reading more of Nguyen’s work.
Living Forward by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy
This book had been on my list for a while, but over the last few years I’ve tended more towards fiction for my pleasure reading than non-fiction. But recently, I decided to start listening to audiobooks on my commute. My wife had a few credits available in her Audible account, and she was gracious enough to let me use a couple. I couldn’t bring myself to get any fiction books — I just can’t give up that feeling of getting lost in the actual pages of a real book. But self-help and personal growth seemed like a good compromise, and Living Forward was at the top of my list in that genre. As I would soon find out, I should have picked this book up a long time ago.
The book is all about life-planning which, I’ll be honest, I was a little hesitant about at first. It’s hard for me to connect with the idea that you can box your life into compartments and rigidly plan out the way you should go. But to say that is what Hyatt and Harkavy are espousing would be a gross misrepresentation.
The book is really about considering where you want to go and who you want to be, then how you’re going to get there.
They lay out an intricate blueprint for life-planning. I’ll be honest, I didn’t go through with the full on program. That’s not to say that I don’t recommend it. I’m sure it can be incredibly helpful.
Instead, I found a few — extremely practical — insights that I could implement in my life right away. One was the idea of instituting a weekly review. Now, on Fridays, I have time in my schedule to go over all I accomplished that week and plan out what tasks are still outstanding for next week. This has quickly become a vital part of my weekly routine.
Other aspects of the life-planning process that they discuss helped me almost through osmosis, I think. It’s just this idea of recentering your dreams, goals and aspirations and realizing that you can put work towards them TODAY.
I thoroughly enjoyed this — my very first audiobook experience. Hyatt has long been a favorite online writer of mine, and his pairing with Harkavy really makes for an intriguing read (or listen).
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
It is clear why Faulkner is so beloved and respected as a writer. His skill is on full display here. This was the first time I had ever read Faulkner, and for all the many emotions and thoughts that went through me during this reading, it is undeniable that Faulkner is surely a great writer.
His style is difficult at first, I must say. Some of the more stream-of-consciousness type sections are not easy to read. But as I finished the book, that gave me a greater sense of how much I look forward to reading The Sound and the Fury again. It’s hard to describe — it’s this sense that you just had a fantastic experience, but you’re not really sure what all happened.
It’s funny, because right as I began reading this book, I had an interaction with a friend on Twitter where he told me that this is a book he recommends reading at least two or three times. He said that great books aren’t always able to be figured out on the first try. It’s part of what makes them great. I definitely felt that way about this book.
Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere. I don’t know. But I surely look forward, not only to reading more of Faulkner’s works, but diving back into this book after some more time — that “mausoleum of all hope and desire” — has passed.
Poetics by Aristotle
I am as big an Aaron Sorkin fan as they come. I count The West Wing as my favorite TV show of all-time. Recently, my in-laws bought me Aaron Sorkin’s online Masterclass for a present. In it, he talks about how Aristotle’s Poetics is the basis for his and all dramatic writing. So, I figured I should read it.
In all seriousness, for anyone interested in any kind of dramatic writing, it is a very interesting read. This is considered the first treatise to focus on dramatic and literary theory. Aristotle wrote it c. 335 BC. For that reason alone, it is intriguing to read about how drama was conceived and considered centuries ago. What makes it even more fascinating is to consider that those same rules apply today. They are timeless.
Take, for instance, Aristotle’s theory of the preference in drama for impossible probabilities over improbable possibilities. What that means is that we, as the audience, accept that in Star Wars the Millennium Falcon can jump into hyperspeed. It is an impossibility in our reality, yet we accept that in the reality we are asked to believe in the Star Wars universe, this could happen. However, we should not accept a piece of drama that asks us to believe, for instance, that a character just happens to hear a drastically important plot point on the radio at the specific time they turn it on. Could this happen? Well, yes it could. But it is highly improbable to the point of being ludicrous. According to Aristotle, the first example is preferable to the latter.
There are many rules such as this that Aristotle sets forth. For me personally, I was also intrigued by how Aristotle critiqued various dramas of his day. I began reviewing movies on my own personal website in 2017. I have found that it helps my own writing to thoughtfully consider the art of others. It’s not about picking movies apart. On the contrary, I find that it is much more common for me to see worthy aspects in a film than the unworthy ones. I just enjoy searching for the threads of drama and learning how that can help me grow as a writer and creator. It seems Aristotle was doing this very same thing back in his day.
Linchpin by Seth Godin
A friend of mine recommended this book to me a few years back, and it’s been on my list ever since. For some reason, I had just never gotten around to it. Again, my reading tastes have lately tended more towards literary fiction, but my newfound use of audiobooks for nonfiction books opened up an opportunity. It is one for which I’ll be forever grateful.
This is clearly one of the greatest books I’ve ever read…or, in this case, listened to.
Seth Godin has long been hailed as one of the great thinkers of recent memory. His blog is legendary, and I’ve been an avid reader of it for a few years now. But this is the first of his books that I’ve experienced. His generosity and desire to give back to those coming up next are palpable here.
This book is all about becoming extraordinary and giving yourself the permission to share your art with the world.
What’s revolutionary about that thought is that Godin doesn’t just relegate art to paintings or novels — though those would certainly qualify as well. No, you can practice art wherever you are, no matter what you’re doing. Your art can be a kind word or a customer service response on Twitter. Or your art can be a poem or a piece of music. The linchpins are the ones who bring their art to their work and make themselves indispensable.
I’ll definitely be listening to this book again, and I’m so grateful to Godin for writing it!
Lent for Non-Lent People by Jon Swanson
The tradition continues.
For the third year in a row, I read through this book during Lent. It impacts me in new ways each year. This year, I gave up iPhone games for Lent, and it was amazing to see the added time blocks that began to open up through intentionality.
What struck me anew during this read-through was actually the section that came after Easter. Jon walks readers through a weeklong process of reflecting on and recapping what happened during Lent. The goal here is really to investigate any new rhythms that came up and see if and how they can be incorporated into everyday life going forward.
I still enjoy playing iPhone games as a way relaxing and engaging in play — something that I actually think is really important. However, there are always opportunities to become more intentional in what we’re doing. I had certainly let a blind spot creep up in my life in that I was playing these games too much. Lent was a great opportunity for me to recharge and reassess things, and this book was once again the catalyst in that process.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson is a literary genius. She’s a prophet, a legend and a bearer of the truth. Her writing is nothing short of extraordinary, and with each book of hers that I read, I feel I’ve found a new favorite.
This is my third of her books to read, after having read Home and Gilead each in the last two years. If I had to pick between the three, I think I’d say that Housekeeping is my favorite, though that may simply be a product of it being fresh in my mind. In any case, all three are incredible and should be on everyone’s reading list whether you’ve never read them before or they’ve long been favorites.
Robinson’s writing surprises me often. It’s not that I come to the page without expectations of greatness. By now, greatness is exactly what I expect when I come to her writing. But her words have the ability to take that expectation and go deeper — find a new level. She unearths treasures that I didn’t see there. I think that’s what powerful writing should do. It should be a portal into the experience of another person that allows us to see with new eyes and feel that which we’ve never felt. At the same time, writing can also be used to help us feel things we’ve felt many times, but feel them in a deeper sense. Robinson’s writing does all of that and more. Her writing is an invitation to stop and notice. To pause and think.
Here, Robinson’s accute sense is turned toward the passing of life, the transcience of the human experience. The family in this remote town of Fingerbone has been through great turmoil. The relationships that form and shift are nothing short of fascinating, and their power to speak truth into our lives as readers seems inexhaustible. Just as with her other books, Housekeeping is a read to savor. I’d encourage anyone reading it for the first time to take their time with it and really experience it. There’s a wealth of treasure waiting on every page.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
This is such a fun story, especially for people my age who grew up on video games. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less and less of a gamer. So this was a nostalgic throwback for me. Which is interesting, because the specific era that the story mainly focuses on is the 1980s, which was a little before my time. But the themes and ideas expressed in these pages carry across timelines and eras.
This was the next in my new series of audiobooks, and I listened to this one being read by Wil Wheaton. I was encouraged to read the book by my brother-in-law, Michael, and it certainly did not disappoint. I also wanted to prepare before I saw the new film adaptation from the great Steven Spielberg.
I did have a hard time with the way he discusses religion early on in the book. I think there are enough positive themes throughout the remainder of the story to warrant a read, but that was something that always kept me a bit at arms distance. To have characters wrestle with themes of faith and come to conclusions that are different than mine is one thing, but to have them just make blanket statements is entirely another.
I will also say, I think it missed some opportunities to go even deeper into its themes of how we experience reality and the power of love between friends. The most glaring would be in the character of Mrs. Gilmore. I won’t give away what happens for those who haven’t read the book, but I definitely felt that they could have developed the relationship between her and Wade a little more so that later moments packed more of an emotional punch.
Finally, I found myself wondering repeatedly throughout the novel how Wade would possibly have had enough time to memorize all these facts and lines of dialogue from obscure 80s movies and video games.
Having said that, any issues I had with the story were minor compared to the amount of fun I had with this overall. It is a very well-told tale, especially when you consider just how much Cline has to do in terms of building the world of the novel and explaining how it all works. He does this with great skill.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
My first experience with Hemingway. I know, long overdue! This is another book about which there may be nothing new to say. I could talk about how wonderfully spare the writing is or what a wonderful story is contained within the pages. What a great character Santiago is, and so too the fish and the sea.
All of that is true. The book is certainly worthy of its unanimous praise. For me, I think I was most struck by the way the old man spoke to himself. I found so much truth there. I talk to myself in similar ways, even though I’ve never chased a marlin on the open sea.
Therein lies the power of books, I think — to be able to use a story so that others can find resonance in it though their lives look drastically different. Truth spans perspectives and experiences. It can touch everyone. Hemingway himself spoke to this in one of his many great quotes on writing.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence.” — Ernest Hemingway
Part of me laments that I waited to dive into classics such as this. But the rest of me is thankful — and greatly excited — that I now have so many before me. This book was a joy to read, and I certainly look forward to working my way through more of Hemingway’s works!
Robin by Dave Itzkoff
Robin Williams has long been one of my favorite actors. He was such a unique talent. I don’t believe there is another comedic actor who handled dramatic work as well as he did. Besides that, his comedy was unlike any other. Everyone always talks about the lightning-fast speed of his wit, and for good reason. His mind made connections that others simply couldn’t. His talent amazed me from a young age when I first watched Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire. As I grew older, performances like his in Dead Poets Society stood out. So when I saw that a new biography had been released, I couldn’t wait to dive in.
Certainly, we look at Robin Williams differently now after his death by suicide in 2014. I’m filled with sadness to think that we will never be graced with his incredible talents again. But Robin Williams — the man — was far more than just his work. And that brings even more sadness to consider that he is gone.
I thought this book (which I listened to on the audiobook version) did an incredible job of putting all of that into context. Yes, it is sad that Robin Williams is gone, but think of all the joy that he brought when he was on this earth. It’s hard to think of another celebrity that has brought such pure-hearted joy through their work. This book dives into all of it, and for a fan of Robin Williams like myself, it was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the joy that he brought.
It also puts his death into the proper context. Robin Williams had been wrongly diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease not long before his death. In reality, he was suffering from Lewy Body disease — an ailment that can bring about similar symptoms as Parkinson’s but that also brings with it an increased risk of suicide. It would not be hyperbolic to say that Robin Williams was losing his mind in the end, and he could feel that. Think of the horrible despair that must have caused. Suicide has a stigma associated with it. But I think we need to remember that there are many things that affect a person’s mind. I had two aunts commit suicide when I was just a young boy. We must remember that there are often biological issues at play, and that anyone who needs help should seek it out. It is not bad to get medical help. It is not bad to go to therapy.
After listening to this book, my love for Robin Williams has only grown. I never met him, but his work has affected my life in powerful ways. I will forever be thankful for that, and I hope that he and his family are at peace.
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
From a young age, I’ve been a fan of C.S. Lewis. He’s one of the great thinkers of the last 100 years, and in Christian circles, few figures are held in such universal acclaim. I think it’s because Lewis could speak to all viewpoints without coming across as “holier than thou.” I’ve always been fascinated by his willingness to take large philosophical viewpoints and bring them down to an easily-accessible level.
Having said all that, I cannot believe that I managed to get this far in life without having read this Lewis classic. A friend of mine loaned his copy to me, and it encouraged me to finally give it a read. It is a fascinating story of Heaven and Hell and the importance of everyday decisions. Again, I was struck by how Lewis refuses to assert the superiority of his, or really, any view. He simply presents scenarios and allows us to come to conclusions.
I believe that Heaven and Hell are real places. I believe there is an afterlife, and I believe that our decisions here on Earth will affect that experience in some way. I believe that Jesus Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” I believe that true salvation comes only through acknowledging His sovreignty and the fact that He lived, died, and rose again to provide salvation from sin. I believe all that. And yet…
…I don’t know what any of that will look like.
None of us do. When it comes to the details of the afterlife, I choose to leave it to God. I believe that He is in control, and that my focus should instead be on continuing to seek and follow after Him in this life. The Great Divorce provided insightful ways to consider these heady topics in a new light, and I very much look forward to reading it again someday.
On Writing by Stephen King
I have often had the feeling that I was meant to read a book at a particular time in my life. The words speak so intensely into my specific situation that it seems some force is at work as I flip the pages.
I had that feeling while reading On Writing — Stephen King’s memoir about the craft of writing.
Personally, I don’t think that such instances are a coincidence or simply blind luck. I believe that God does have designs for our lives and is active in our lives in some ways. I also believe he gives us free will. Finding the middle ground there is often murky, and it’s certainly a discussion for another time.
In any case, I honestly believe that it was not a coincidence when my friend, Michael, loaned me his copy of this book and I began to read it. I had been wanting to read it for some time, but it seemed that this was the perfect moment as I began to read it.
One of the main things I pulled from this book was the idea to remember your toolbox. King talks about elements like vocabulary and sentence structure as tools in the writer’s toolbox. As you work on your craft, don’t let these various tools fall into disrepair. One of the best ways I’ve found to work on these is to simply read great writing. That will help you grow your vocabulary and it will open your eyes to new ways of structuring sentences and plot and how great writers build their characters.
Speaking of plot, I was also struck by how much King dislikes it.
He repeatedly stresses the importance of story over plot, and I’m inclined to agree with him. I think we get too caught up in plot when it comes to writing. It certainly has its place, but (as King rightly points out) our lives aren’t plotted. They happen. Shouldn’t stories unfold in a similar manner?
On top of all that, King weaves in his own personal story so beautifully. I think anyone would find this book fascinating, but it is especially so for people who are interested in the craft and art of writing.
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
It is abundantly clear to me at this point that — if I were forced to pick one — Cormac McCarthy is my favorite author. Suttree is my most recent foray into his writing, and it was another incredible journey.
I can’t say that Suttree is one of my personal favorites of McCarthy’s works, but that’s not much of a knock. I didn’t quite connect with it in the ways that I did with books like The Road, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men. However, just as in those books, I was amazed at McCarthy’s ability to write worlds into existence.
His writing is so incredible because he can take you from some menial, unimportant object or occurrence to a transcendant place simply by the words he uses. And it’s not just vocabulary, though his writing contains some of the most beautiful combinations and choices of words that you’ll find anywhere. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but his prose is just otherworldly. It brings about moments that transport you. I know the world “transport” is commonly used when talking about books. I think that most of the time it’s meant to describe what happens in our imaginations when we read a book. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a writer who has so mastered their craft that they are taking you on a journey. They have chosen and employed their words so artfully that they are doing the “transporting.” McCarthy has that incredible skill.
For readers who are new to McCarthy, I probably would not recommend Suttree right off the bat. My personal favorite of his is the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Road. Having said that, Suttree is still an incredible novel, and just another example of why I believe Cormac McCarthy to be one of the greatest novelists to ever live.
Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell
Rob Bell has become a controversial name in religious circles. I remember watching his Nooma videos in youth group growing up, but as I got into college his name carried increasing levels of baggage with it. Much of that stemmed from people’s thoughts on Bell’s book Love Wins. In the years after that, I hadn’t read much of Bell’s writing.
Velvet Elvis is one of his earlier books, and I always remembered it being around. My youth pastor had recommended it to me, and I had heard from various other people that it was a good book. But I’d never read it. Then, a friend loaned it to me and I finally gave it a chance.
What I’ve realized is that so much of my thinking around Rob Bell had been formulated based upon what other people had said. I hadn’t actually gone to the source. Once I did so, I was surprised at some of what I found.
I certainly don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says in the book. But after reading it, I think Bell himself would appreciate that fact. He encourages readers to critically engage with his writing and test it against Scripture. I really resonate with that. Nothing should just be given a blanket pass. We need to engage with and consider what we read and hear and weigh it in light of our own experience and what we find in Scripture.
The other key point is distilled in a phrase Bell repeats often in the book — “God has spoken, and the rest is commentary, right?” It’s this idea that the words and the meaning that God handed down through the writers of the Bible have gone through multiple hands by this point. We have translations of translations. And every time we read the Bible, we are engaging in the act of interpretation. Different verses in the Bible have been used by various people to support vastly different meanings. How can two people look at the same verse and come to different conclusions?
There aren’t easy answers here, and I don’t think Bell has it all figured out by a long shot. But I appreciated that he at least acknowledges that. Other writers seem to think that they have the Bible interpreted. They know it exactly and their word is gospel. The true Gospel is that Jesus came and He is here with us to bring about new life.
I think we have to acknowledge that we are interpreting the Bible, and we may not have it right. Just acknowledge that. I’m not saying that we should dismantle all our beliefs and doubt what we’ve been taught is, in fact, true. But we need to acknowledge our own capacity for error. And we need to acknowledge that it is God’s Word and it is He who will guide us into the meaning of Scripture. It is He who will show us the way.
I found a lot of truth in this book. If nothing else, it reminded me that I should never judge a person’s writings or beliefs until I’ve engaged with them myself.
Learning to Speak God from Scratch by Jonathan Merritt
What are the two topics you always hear mentioned as ones you shouldn’t discuss in public? Politics and religion, right? The idea goes that so many of us find ourselves at diametrically opposed ends of the spectrum on those issues that bringing them up in conversation will only lead to bitterness and anger. What always confounds me about this, though, is that two incredibly important topics end up getting relegated to hushed whispers and nervous conversations.
Maybe this is why I found Jonathan Merritt’s new book so fascinating. His basic premise is that the language of faith is in decline. If we don’t do something about that, we run the risk of allowing sacred speech to go the way of Latin — a language that is used in certain circumstances but is not known to the masses.
Merritt systematically walks you through various words in the sacred lexicon to show how they’ve been warped or misused and how we can begin to reclaim their meaning.
Even assigning meaning is a difficult task in some cases. I was fascinated by the section of the book that wrestles with our conception of the “meaning” of words. Take this excerpt for example:
Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, says language doesn’t work like most assume….dictionaries have given us the impression that words’ meanings are fixed. When people go to the dictionary and look up the definition of a word like love, Stamper says, they expect to find an explanation of what love is. But, as Stamper explains, dictionaries don’t explain what words mean. They only tell us how they are used. Every word — love included has many, often overlapping uses that will change over time.
It may sound strange to say that dictionaries don’t really tell us what words mean, but that is because we have always lived in a time where dictionaries were in use. Merritt shows how ancient civilizations saw words as being far more malleable than we do today.
You may be wondering at the point in all this. Forgive me if I’ve gotten a little in the weeds, but Merritt’s unpacking of linguistics was so fascinating to me. When you’re dealing with ethereal issues like that of faith and religion, you can never really describe them perfectly. Words will never get to the heart of the matter, they will always be imperfect symbols. When you open yourself up to a less rigid understanding of sacred speech, I think it becomes liberating. But how Merritt chooses to finish the book is even more powerful.
For sacred speech to continue, we have to speak it.
That may sound obvious, but when was the last time you started a conversation with someone about issues of faith or religion. Outside of family and a few close friends, I can’t say that I have too many conversations that I can point to myself. We must get in the habit of speaking these words — words like grace, love, peace, faith, hope and mercy.
We cannot let this language die.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
I had started this book in college when it was part of a summer reading plan. It was such a singular reading experience in that I only got 78 pages into it (I know exactly because the bookmark remained in its place) but one section in particular made such a profound impact on me. That would be an early section about reading at Whim.
This book is so thoughtful and insightful about reading and the issues that sometimes hold us back from it. The reading at Whim section is such a wonderful way to reset your thinking about reading if it has gotten a bit off track.
When was the last time you picked up a book because you just had a sudden urge or desire to read it? No pressure. No one telling you that you have to read it (that includes yourself). Just a momentary whim of desire.
I often think about how my phone has come to dominate my life in some respects. The new iPhone setting that allows you to see your screen time has been a bit sobering for me. I’m trying to learn how to set boundaries more, but it’s a constant journey. This book does such a good job (as its title suggests) of unpacking the ways that reading can fit into our overconnected culture.
I definitely picked this book up on a Whim. It had been years since I had opened its pages. But I’m so glad that I started it up again, and I’m even happier that I actually finished it this time.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
After watching The Muppets Christmas Carol with friends, I had the notion to read this Dickens classic. I don’t believe I’ve ever actually read it before. It may have been required reading in grade school, but I have no recollection of ever reading it. I had purchased the book at a flea market bookstore, thinking that I might have the urge to read it someday. I did, and the timing was spot-on — I read it just before Christmas.
It’s easy to see why Dickens is so beloved. This is a rather short book, but in no time at all, he creates what must be one of the great stories ever told. Think about the sheer number of times this particular story has been adapted. To captivate that many people is quite a feat indeed.
Scrooge is such an impressive character. The change he undergoes is obviously captivating. But I was struck by the relatability of his earlier incarnation. No, we may not all be craggy old misers that shirk others out of greed. But I think we may have more in common with the pre-Spirit encounter Scrooge than we’d like to admit. I know that I can often get so caught up in my own life that I forget to consider the feelings and experiences of those around me. Oddly enough, Christmastime is a season where this is easy to do. There’s so much going on and so many things to do. I may not be foreclosing on anyone’s house, but I just might be forgetting that a friend could use a kind word.
And, of course, the story wouldn’t work if Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t relatable in some way. We have to see ourselves in his story, otherwise we wouldn’t be invested in his redemption. And invested we are, that’s for sure! The change that comes over Scrooge after being visited by the Spirits is always moving to me. May we all be considerate of those around us. To do that, we need to take off the blinders from time to time, so to speak. We can’t get locked into our own little world. We must look out to see the needs of others.
When it comes to closing thoughts, I think Tiny Tim says it best — God bless us, every one.
Saint John of the Mall by Jon Swanson
I am so honored to call Jon Swanson a friend and mentor. His writing has been a mainstay of these posts the last couple years, and this year I read another book of his for the first time.
Saint John of the Mall is a fascinating fictional story woven into the real-life experience of Jon and his wife, Nancy as they go for walks in the mall. It is there that they meet Saint John, yes THAT Saint John, who gives them wonderful life lessons pulled straight from the Gospel of John.
I read this during the season of Advent, and it is a fantastic devotional book in that regard. It really urged me to step back and consider the meaning behind this particular season of the liturgical calendar. In stark contrast to the ways that our culture packs as much action as possible into the weeks before Christmas, Advent is really about waiting. Waiting for a Savior. Waiting for redemption. Waiting for Jesus.
Jon is such a good writer, and he pulls these beautiful topics and lessons right from the goings-on of everyday life. As Lent for Non-Lent People has become a yearly reading during Lent, I think this will become my yearly Advent reading as well.
Inspired by Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans has been a favorite author of mine ever since I read her book Evolving in Monkey Town in college. Her writing is so beautiful, and some of her experiences mirror my own somewhat when it comes to faith and the journey that it often represents.
This book takes a look at the various story genres that appear in the Bible and what each can teach us about this sacred book. I love the idea of looking at the Bible with a literary eye. I feel that the Bible comes alive even more when I consider that the writers — especially the Gospel writers — had artistic visions and composed their writings in a way that was meant to evoke a certain reaction. These writers were the artists of their day, and they were extremely skilled.
Since the Bible teaches that we are created in God’s image, I’ve always thought of our ability to create as the greatest connection between us and the Divine. I think in story, and that’s why I’m so moved by the way Rachel Held Evans depicts God as a storyteller. He tells us stories as the way to communicate deep truths to us. I resonate so much with that. It’s the way God has always communicated to me.
As my own story is continually being written, I’m learning more and more about the faith I’ve had since I was young. I’m constantly growing and being molded. I’m not the same as I was five years ago, and my faith isn’t the same either. But I know through it all that God is right there with me, speaking to me in stories that echo back to the stories that have been written for ages past. As I said before, the title of this book was the perfect encapsulation for my experience with reading in general in 2018. But it was true, too, of my experience with this book. I was so inspired to see the Bible in a fresh light and to grow even more in my relationship with my Creator Storyteller.
I wish you all the best in the New Year, whether reading is on your resolution list or not. My resolution will remain unchanged — read 20 books in 2019. Though I haven’t quite hit it these past two years, I have read more books each year since I started setting a reading goal at the beginning of the year. I wanted to read 12 in 2016 and I did. Then I raised the goal to 20 in 2017, and I read 14. Last year, I kept the goal at 20 and I came achingly close to hitting it but missing the mark by those measly 19 minutes.
But, hey, at least I’ve got quite the headstart on this year’s total.
And really, at the end of the day, this whole process has taught me a lot about myself as I head into the New Year. I tend to set high goals for myself, and I also tend to let the goals and statistics take center stage in my mind. But as I look back, it’s not the goal that I missed that means the most to me. What means most to me is the inspiration I received through reading in 2018, and I look to even more of it in 2019.
So, to everyone who made it this far, thank you for reading. I wish you the best in 2019, and may you find inspiration through your own passions in the coming year.
Love and blessings to you all in the New Year!