Pros and cons of reading books about books

Pros & cons of reading books about books

Perhaps, like me, your childhood experience with books about books leaves you cold to the idea. In general, and even (perhaps especially) for children, I prefer to read the actual thing. However, there are exceptions that prove the rule.

Truly great books are part of a conversation about ideas, so in order to be worthwhile, a book about a book can’t be didactic–it has to draw you into the conversation in a deeper or more accessible way.

And that can be a great experience. Here’s one example (followed by some tips):

This summer I purposed to read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Taylor presents important insights and cultural analysis, but this work of philosophy clocks in at 896 pages and if you aren’t used to reading the genre you might get bogged down. I love reading philosophy, and greatly enjoyed the book, but even so it’s length made it difficult for me to keep track of all of the threads of the argument.

And so I was delighted to find that James K. A. Smith wrote a book based on a class he teaches on A Secular Age. So it’s a book about a book, but in the best possible way. Smith’s book, How (Not) to be Secular, engages with Taylor’s work in a succinct but comprehensive way. Smith brings his own (slightly different) perspective to the work and ties the arguments a little more closely to applications from our current cultural moment.

So, how do you know if it’s worth your time to read a book about a book? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Can you read the books together? I’d generally avoid a summary or a book that attempts to replace the original with a watered-down version. However, if you can read the two together (as I did with Taylor’s and Smith’s books) and it forms more of a conversation, that’s a great thing.
  • Does reading the second book enrich your experience or understanding? Well-done books about books help you read more deeply and interact with original ideas more completely.
  • Is the second book a must-read on its own merit? In my example above, Smith added enough of his own spin and insight to make his book able to stand on its own. So while I’d wholeheartedly recommend both of the books I mentioned if you are interested in philosophy, history, or culture, I also think that for those who don’t have time for Taylor’s monumental tomeSmith’s book would still be a worthwhile read that would expose you to Taylor’s ideas and pull you into the conversation.

What do you think about books about books? (And is there a better way of saying that phrase without resorting to so much repetition?!) I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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Ordering the rhythms of our tables, calendars, and hearts

a-spirited-mind-1We live in a time in which we are fortunate to have lots of options. You can eat strawberries in November and wear sweaters in July. From where we live to how we eat, even to how we observe or ignore the weather, we pretty much get to chart our own course.

Because we have this freedom, it’s even more important that we pay attention to the underlying framework that drives our choices. I’ve recently been reading and thinking about this in light of seasons and rhythms.

I’m not against the convenience of modern life. I’m writing this post in my air conditioned office while it’s 94 degrees outside. I’ll be putting a can of tomatoes in tonight’s dinner, and I buy everything from books to pajamas to eyeliner on Amazon. But I do see a difference between using modern conveniences as tools and being blindly co-opted by our consumer culture.

As I read I began articulating some impressions of unease I’ve had about how (or if) my life reflects my beliefs on a number of fronts. I’ve made some steps to change our rhythms with things like moving to a term schedule for school (generally six weeks on, one week off), and we’ve always done a Jesse Tree for Advent. Still, in reading thinkers like James K. A. Smith and others, I’ve found myself examining our life looking for the liturgy embedded therein–we all live a liturgy, Smith says, it’s just a matter of what we base it on.

circle of seasonsIn a roundabout fashion this brought me to Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s excellent book The Circle of Seasons. Ireton didn’t grow up in a high church tradition, so her study of the church year as an adult gives her a valuable outsider perspective. Ireton avoids the temptation to create or uphold empty ritual, and digs into the value and symbolism of various church traditions.

For example, in looking at Advent as a season of waiting and preparation for Christ’s birth followed by a twelve day feast of Christmas, Ireton ties in ways Christians can move beyond the commercial Christmas to enjoy a season of peace and then extend joy and love when everyone else is tapped out and suffering a post-holiday slump. What if we had a Christmas party the week after Christmas? What if we invited people over for a Christmas dinner on December 28? How would that impact our family’s ability to enjoy Christmas and be a blessing to others?

Likewise, Lent offers a chance to think about the true purpose of fasting–not self-denial or being absorbed in yourself, but creating space for God to work in and through us.

I appreciated how Ireton thoughtfully examined ways that the church calendar can break us out of our tendency to passively trudge through life, and make us more mindful of our days.

irrational seasonI’ve already mentioned The Irrational Season, but it bears repeating here because in the book Madeleine L’Engle writes her reflections on the year in a way that is informed by and immersed in the church year.

L’Engle did a masterful job of showing how being aware of the church calendar can direct our thoughts and contemplation. Thinking about Jesus’ coming birth during Advent leads to being watchful for His return. Considering the events of our lives in light of Epiphany, Easter, or the Trinity helps us to understand them in a truer light, and orient our own experiences in light of a bigger story.

Reading The Irrational Season won’t be so much a practical primer on how to celebrate the church year as an inspiration for how being aware of seasons and traditions can be a rich avenue for study and contemplation. I’m thinking about this a lot as I structure our school terms for next year.

feastOne of the e-books in a bundle I bought recently turned out to be an interesting resource on the Christian year. Feast! is full of practical tips and recipes for aligning your family culture with church culture.

The first two sections–on Advent and Christmas–were particularly helpful. I liked the ideas for ways to build up to Christmas and make that our focus, but without seeming Scroogey or anti-Christmas. A lot of the tips were ideas that would help to keep December less frantic by spreading out all the things we love about the season into a longer and more relaxed celebration. I’ve always felt that Christmas was this weird abrupt stop after a couple of weeks trying to cram too much in. I really like the idea of a more restful Advent and then a great fun long Christmas with plenty of time to listen to music, make gingerbread houses, and read Christmas books rather than putting everything away. The authors suggest adding to your Jesse Tree until Epiphany, which I remember my mom trying to do for us some years. The Stewarts suggest adding the names of God or attributes of Jesus for those extra twelve ornaments. I have this on my list to try.

I will say that after the Easter ideas the book wasn’t as applicable for me. The authors are Catholic and so they have special saints days they celebrate at different times, which isn’t something we do. But there was enough good food for thought in the other sections to make Feast a worthwhile read for me.

life giving home

Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s book The Life-giving Home is arranged around the year too, although I didn’t take as many notes on practical things to do in January versus May or anything like that.  Those ideas are there, but I found the book to be more helpful to me in giving me a stronger vision for the way that my home and life can better express the truth and beauty I believe in, versus specific decorating or menu ideas.

I love the point the Clarkson’s make about how our homes and family cultures are ways to engage with the broader culture and a means to tell the story of what is most important to us. This is true no matter what we believe, and certainly worth serious thought. Are our lives–from our time to our traditions to our decorating aesthetic–telling the story we want them to? Are they restorative and life-giving for our families and friends and neighbors?

jameskasmith-youarewhatyoulove

If you want to dig more deeply into how our lives tell a story of what we love and reveal our vision of the good life, you should certainly check out James K. A. Smith’s latest work, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. This book is powerfully insightful and profoundly challenging.

Smith talks about the way that our worship must incorporate not just our minds, but also our hearts. If we fail to capture and reorder our hearts, our head knowledge will not be enough. “You are what you love,” Smith writes, “because you live toward what you want.”  When we have misdirected loves it’s not because we have bad ideas, but because “our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing. And that happens through practices not propaganda.”

So if we are formed by liturgies whether we admit it or not, we ought to devote careful consideration to what those liturgies are. As a parent and teacher, this gives me a lot to think about. Of course we want to give our children truth and sound ideas, but are we going beyond that to capture their hearts with truth and beauty? Does our worship and our family culture give them a vision for what it means to flourish, or are we giving them second-rate music and sappy stories and then wondering why their palates incline them to cartoons and the mall?

This has so many implications for how we structure our time, our family culture, our schools, our work…while the book may seem the odd one out in this post, it really forms the basis for why and how we follow (or don’t) seasons, rhythms, and traditions–Christian or otherwise.

There is so much in You Are What You Love that I can’t begin to touch on all of it, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in habits, virtue, the good life, spiritual life…well, really I’d recommend it for anyone.

I haven’t finished thinking all of this through yet, so can’t give you my conclusions, but I’d be interested to know if you’ve considered these things and, if so, how you shape your family’s calendar or traditions as a result?

 
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A few books on the science, philosophy, and mysteries of the mind

I’m on a spree of categorizing my books read this month – and I’m linking this one up at QuickLit. It’s interesting in hindsight how I tend to read in sets without planning it that way in advance. As I looked over my list of recent reads, I noticed that a few were on the mind, but from different perspectives.

mind changeIn Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, Susan Greenfield leverages her background in philosophy and neuroscience to explore the ever increasing field of research into how technology impacts and changes our brains.  Greenfield is not a Luddite–she discusses positive aspects of screen use and presents a balanced view of research findings–but she doesn’t pull any punches about the implications of the facts.  If you’ve read much on this topic it won’t really surprise you–computers, smart phones, video games, social media, and the like have a significant effect on how we think, read, and solve problems.  As Greenfield points out, these technologies aren’t going away, but if we understand them and their impact on ourselves and our kids, we can be smart and intentional about technology use in light of what sort of society we want to live in and what sort of people we want to be.

world-beyond-your-headThe World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction comes at the problem of what modern life is doing to our brains from a different, more philosophical angle.  Instead of asking, “Should we use technology?” this book asks “How is our culture impacting our ability to pay attention, and what does that mean for our way of life?”  I appreciated that the author, an academic, wrote a book of philosophy while maintaining a highly readable style.  If you have a background in philosophy, you’ll like how Crawford traces our current problem of attention back through the logical consequences of previous philosophical breakthroughs, but even if you’re coming to the topic cold Crawford’s style won’t overwhelm you and will certainly give you a lot to think about.

fermat's enigmaFermat’s Enigma combines an interesting history of mathematicians with the intriguing story of how mathematics’ most interesting problem was finally solved.  I love learning how math works if I don’t have to actually sit there and do the tedious work of adding and multiplying, so I really enjoyed reading about the different mathematicians who contributed to the problem’s solution, and the proofs and breakthroughs that advanced the study of math along the way.  Plus the problem was finally solved by a Princeton professor, so, school pride!  Not that I can really claim any personal connection to the math department, seeing as how I fell off the wagon at Calculus 104 and never made it to the cool stuff.  Still, this is a great book if you’re interested in the subject, and I’d recommend it.

rising-strong-book-coverBrene Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong, explores the way we think about our circumstances through the stories we tell, and how we can take control of those stories to live more “wholehearted” lives.

While I didn’t find it as helpful as her previous works, I did think the story framework was interesting. I’ve always called this “narrating” my life, and didn’t realize everyone did so, but that makes sense.  I’ve noticed before that my stories are not always accurate, and it does take a huge effort to unpack why I’m crafting my explanatory story one way or another.  Brown’s insight will help people who haven’t considered this aspect of thinking, and her suggestions could be really powerful impetus to corral your thoughts and change the trajectory of your thinking so you can have healthier relationships and a better outlook on life.

Have you read anything interesting along these lines recently?

 

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Death By Living

deathIn Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent
–a series of essays collecting his thoughts about his grandparents’ end of life and the implications for his own decisions–ND Wilson contemplates the meaning of a life well lived.

Along the way, Wilson tackles subjects like the  nature of life as a story, modern ideas about youth and value, and what really gives life meaning.  I thought the book was a good reminder about the illusion of control and the true meaning of legacy as the impact you have on other people’s stories.

“Lives and generations are there for the tipping.  You have hands.  You have words.  You have something.  Touch the scales.”

It took me a while to get into this book.  Wilson’s style is a bit more flowery than I usually prefer, and sometimes it felt like he was trying too hard.  However, I did get used to it for the most part and really found the second half of the book meaningful so if you’re also someone who is put off by style issues, it might still be worth pushing through for this one.  I haven’t read any of Wilson’s fiction, but I wonder how his voice comes through in that genre.  We do have a copy of 100 Cupboards around somewhere, and reading Wilson’s non-fiction made me curious to try his other books, which are stories geared toward children (I’m not sure if they are YA or middle grade).  If you’ve read both his fiction and non-fiction, what did you think?

Overall, I found Death by Living inspiring and thought-provoking.  It’s a good reminder about attitudes and the purpose of serving others and what we’re here to do.  If you’ve lost sight of the big picture vision for a life well lived, or if you just like to have a different way of looking at things every now and then, I’d recommend this book.

 

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The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

the-sunflowerHave you ever wanted to put a note into a library book and ask the next reader to contact you because you’re so desperate to discuss the topic?  I found myself in this situation after reading Simon Wiesenthal’s intriguing thought experiment about forgiveness, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.

The premise is this: Wiesenthal was a Jew who spent World War II in concentration camps.  Once, when sent on a work detail to a hospital, he was pulled aside by a dying SS man who asked Wiesenthal to forgive him for a particular crime against some other Jews who Wiesenthal didn’t know.  After listening to the SS man’s confession, Wiesenthal left in silence and did not forgive the man.

The book raises questions of culpability, how people are blind to their own prejudice and inhumanity, and how–or even if–forgiveness is possible.  Wiesnethal ends with the question, what would you have done?

In the version I read, a variety of philosophers, theologians, and survivors of different genocides weighed in with short essays on what they would have done if they were in Wiesenthal’s position.  It was truly fascinating to read how other people approached the question.  As I read their reactions, I was surprised to find that I did not personally subscribe to the apparently widespread Christian reaction to the story which is to say Wiesenthal should have forgiven the SS man.

I don’t think he should have–or could have–forgiven him.

First of all, the crime was not committed against Wiesenthal directly or even indirectly against his family or friends.  And the things that the SS man was culpable for against Wiesenthal–his role in concentration camps, his helping keep Nazis in power, his bringing terrible risk on Wiesenthal by pulling him off his work detail with no explanation to the guards, and even his continued prejudice of treating Wiesethal as a random representative of some amorphous and not-quite-human group rather than an individual–the SS man didn’t ask for forgiveness for.  So I don’t think Wiesenthal could have forgiven him.  How can you say “Sure, I forgive you for shooting a family in cold blood as they tried to escape a burning building that you had crammed them into and then brutally set on fire.  Die in peace, my friend!”  That’s ridiculous.

Second, and most importantly, I don’t think Wiesenthal’s forgiveness would have done anything for the SS man other than give him false hope.  What that man needed was God’s forgiveness and Jesus’s substitutionary atonement.  This case is actually a pretty sound example of the need for perfect atonement–there is no way the SS man can atone for his sins himself.  Any attempt he made–and he’d have to give a whole lot more effort than finding a random person to confess to–would fall short.  Really, this is all of our position relative to God’s holiness, isn’t it?  Who of us could be the propitiation (complete, perfect atonement) for our own sins?  The SS man needed a savior, not false hope.

I was so interested to read the other takes on the question, though, particularly the differences between the Jewish and Christian ideas of atonement.  Apparently Jewish belief is that God will not forgive someone who has sinned against another human being, unless the person sinned against has forgiven the sinner. That seems to put murder in the ultimate sin category (which is counter to the Old Testament law, right?), and gives the person issuing forgiveness more power than God.  There are probably nuances to that interpretation that were missing from the short essays.  On the other hand, many of the essayists seemed to think that if Wiesenthal had forgiven the SS man, the SS man would have gone to heaven, which would have put Wiesenthal in the role of God.

I could go on at some length about The Sunflower, but suffice it to say, it’s incredibly thought-provoking and would make an excellent book for discussion, especially in a mixed-faith group if you have one.

If you’ve read the book, what did you think of it?

 

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