Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Books (Page 2 of 18)

The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous

I’m preparing this post on a Thursday night. Tomorrow morning I will meet my friend, Dr. Rook, at our local Starbucks. He will be sitting at the same table he always sits at. He, like me, is a man of routine. He will be drinking his morning coffee and he will have a stack of books in front of him. One of them will be a novel by Philip Dick and another will be something on Zen Buddhism, unless he has left that for the time being to return to exploring the biblical book of Job. I know this because we talk about these things. When we meet, I will ask him about his books, and he will ask me about how I’m doing with the Joyce Carol Oates book I’ve been laboring through. I will tell him that contrary to my tendency to dutifully plow to the end of any book I start, I’m abandoning her after giving her 400 pages of my time. We’ll talk about other things, of course, but since books are a part of our lives, we’ll talk books.

And that is as it should be. Reading, though a solitary endeavor, is still a communal affair. Books are meant to be talked about, and some of that conversation has been going on here in the comments to the recent posts. I have decided to extend that conversation.

Over the next few weeks, perhaps longer, I am going to share with the readers of this blog interviews that I’ve conducted with a number of people known to me and known to be readers. Some of these will be people others know well, and some not. But as I’ve conducted these interview and gotten a variety of replies, I believe all will find these of interest.

I’ll begin shortly by sharing the responses of my friend Dr. Rook. Though he has taught literature at both the high school and college level, his reading habits and recommendations don’t read like a syllabus at all. As well, I look forward to introducing you to the reading recommendations of a fellow pastor and those of a home school mom / part-time engineer, both of whom read surprisingly and widely.

Steve Brown

Eventually we will hear from those who write books as well as read them. Steve Brown, former pastor, current author, and founder and director of the radio and on-line ministry of Key Life will reveal what’s on his night stand.

Wesley Hill

We will get a chance to look over the shoulder of Biblical studies professor and acclaimed author Wesley Hill. There will be others to surprise us along the way.

I hope there will be encouragement here, as well as fun. We never read alone.

Of Serendipitous Plans and Obscure Napkins

My wife and I were having lunch with a young woman a few months ago when she reported having purchased some books from the local “friends of the library” sale. Among the titles she listed for us, one caused her to stumble because it seemed so odd to her, almost embarrassing. She is fascinated with Rome and so seeing a book titled Rome, 1960, she grabbed it, having no idea what was in it.

I knew what was in it. Cassius Clay (aka Muhammed Ali) was in it. Wilma Rudoph was in it. A barefoot Ethiopian shocking the world was in it, as well as Americans tempting Russians to defect. Racism, sacrifice, triumph, and disappointment were in it. Two years before I had asked a friend who teaches sports writing at Rollins College in Orlando for an example of really good sports writing. This book by David Maraniss was his answer, a fascinating story of the 1960 summer Olympics, “The Olympics,” the subtitle tells us, “That Changed the World.” She had snagged a gem.

Choosing a book can have that kind of serendipitous air about it just like taking unplanned walks in the woods will sometimes bring us to places more surprising than we would find on a systematic tour. And yet sometimes without a plan, we just never get to see that Grand Canyon we’ve heard so much about.

My reading is a combination of the planned and the serendipitous. I outlined my plan with a friend over lunch once. It looks like this:

Translation available upon request. Please allow six weeks for delivery.

I’m clearly in need of therapy.

It struck me long ago that without a plan in my movie watching, then what I watch is dictated by Hollywood marketing or Netflix algorithms and I miss the gems which might otherwise enrich me. The same logic applies to reading.Enjoy the bestsellers and and blockbusters. But set aside some time to find out what all the fuss is surrounding books (and movies) that you have heard about and never tasted.

Plan to read Anna Karenina even though it’s been a long time since it’s been a best seller. Or maybe it’s time to read To Kill a Mockingbird to see what all the fuss was/is about. And Crime and Punishment really isn’t that long. Give it a shot. Don’t shy away from having a plan, even if that plan is simply to read one classic each year.

Part of my plan is to read ONE Patrick O’brian Aubrey/Maturin novel each year. The logic in this, besides their being so good and a wonderful treat, is that there are over twenty and so I’ll have to live to be at least 80 to finish. Friends are telling me to step up the pace and read one after the other. I think they want me to die young.

But don’t be ruled by your plan. Occasionally, just take a walk in the woods and see what you can find.

And walk with friends. Reading is never a solitary endeavor. Some of the best books I’ve read (like Rome, 1960) have come from the recommendations of others.

Ultimately, reading is one area of our lives where we are permitted to follow our hearts. And that’s not a bad thing.

You are finally out of school

Too Many Books!

[Before Christmas we began a conversation about reading for pleasure. The previous two posts can be accessed here and here.]

The journey from the parking lot at the local mall to the Apple Computer store inside runs through the Barnes and Noble bookstore, a not unpleasant feature for sure. After walking through it the other day, I stood at the far end and looked back across that space and thought, very profoundly, “That’s a lot of books.”

I think even Solomon, who was more aware than most (“Of making many books there is no end….” / Ecclesiastes 12:12), would at the sight have run to a safe corner and melted into an overstimulated lump.

I can’t pick a Christmas tree from the mere forty or so on the lot. How daunting picking one book to read can be. The “Books in Print” people catalogue over 20 million books worldwide and the International Publishers Association tell us that over 300,000 annually are added domestically to that list. You might need to hurry to catch up. Or join Solomon in the corner over there.

And yet, if want you to pick one, how can you?

You could ask me, but I’m reticent to do so. I can tell you what I like, but that might not correspond to your passions and may do little to rekindle your wonder. More importantly, I think many of us have lost the ability to feel curiosity and have forgotten how to feed it. I want us to again experience the magic of our desires fixing upon a book that shows itself worthy of our attention.

A recently minted college graduate asked me recently what to read. As we discussed it, I suggested he answer that question by asking himself some questions first. Perhaps thinking about these will help others navigate the myriad choices before us.

  1. What questions do you want to have answered?
  2. What concerns would you like to think more deeply about?
  3. What things interest you that you’d like to explore?
  4. What books/authors have you always wanted to read (or types of books) but have never had time to do so?
  5. What genre of books would you like to explore that perhaps you’ve not explored before?
  6. What people would you like to be better able to communicate with or understand?

Perhaps you’ve heard a lot about this Tolkien fellow (question 4) and have always wanted to check him out. Or maybe mushrooms fascinate you (question 3). Out of 20 million books in print, surely there is a good one on mushrooms. Or maybe you have a Muslim neighbor and want to enter into his experience (question 6). Surely there is good book that will help you do so. (NOT a “How to Share Jesus” book, but one that helps you understand his or her life.)

Of course, I’d be happy to offer a suggestion or two. But my goal is not to get you to like the things I like. My goal is to rekindle the curiosity that possibly our education has dimmed.

Buying Books

Some common concerns surfaced in reaction to my post Tuesday regarding reading for the mere pleasure of it. Most of us despair of finding adequate time to read, and many of us struggle with the cost of buying books. I’d like to touch upon the issue of cost before we set the whole aside and return to it in January.

Books are, as they should be, expensive. Many worthy and creative people are involved in creating a book and we support their labor (and guarantee more books) when we pay for them. And yet, since the cost can be prohibitive, many need to consider alternative ways of supporting the habit.

As several mentioned, there is the library. Libraries are local and free with wonderful selections staffed by people who love books. And yet I don’t use the library. I read slowly and rarely can finish a book in the library’s allotted time. As well, I like to make books my own (as Mortimer Adler encourages us to do) by marking them with a pencil. The good ones I like to keep on my shelf to share with others. Nevertheless, though libraries don’t work for me, they do for many, many others.

A second option obvious to us all is to find a trustworthy used book store in your community. The best ones will buy your old books turning your ‘old’ ones into ‘new’ (albeit used) ones through an amazing economic alchemy. Locally Brightlight Books gives me store credit for my old books which I then use when they have a book I want. I’m spoiled. If this model does not exist elsewhere, it should!

As a further option, I’m surprised that more people are not aware of Abebooks, an online bookstore ‘aggregator.’ From a single portal users have access to the stock of thousands of book stores all over the world. I will often find a used, hardcover, first edition for far less money than I can get the same title in paperback and new elsewhere. Some sellers are book mills, slapping stickers all over the books and shipping them out like a factory, and should be avoided (I have a list). But most are small booksellers who love books delivering them lovingly wrapped in brown paper like a present.

Surprisingly, buying sight unseen can be a joy. I once ordered a hardcover of Michael Chabon’s wonderful Summerland (my review here) for $5. What arrived was a pristine first edition copy, autographed by the author.

So, yeah, I’m a big fan.

Here is what we all need to do. With that Amazon gift card you get for Christmas buy a new book. But if the new book is too expensive, use the gift card to buy wiper blades for your car. (Amazon sells them and, admit it, you should have replaced those old ones months ago.) Then spend the excess from your car maintenance budget at your local bookstore or at Abebooks. You get books, your budget is happy, and you can see out your car window again. It’s all good.

Have a merry Christmas everyone!

Restoring the Lost Love of Reading

Before reading this post, I’d like you to answer three questions, in the comments section if you would, but at least in your head.

  1. Is there a book that you have been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to reading?
  2. What book is it?
  3. What has kept you from reading it?

Some of us read so that we not feel alone. Some read for other reasons. But how many of us simply read because of the pleasure it affords?

According to a recently released study from the Pew Research Center, 26% of Americans did not read one single book in the 12 months preceding the study.

pew_chartMy mistrust of polls and statistics is well documented and this recent election cycle has not remedied that.

But even though that figure seems like it is probably right, how high would the percentage go if we excluded those who only read a book because it was assigned or otherwise required of them? That is, how many of us read a book simply for the pleasure of doing so?

When I was a kid, I’d plunder the local library. How many of us still do such a thing? If, as I expect, the answer is few, I want to know why.

Is it possible that we have educated the love of reading from among us? The stats say that the more education, the more likely it is that one has read a book. But it is possible that the books the educated continue to read are those assigned or demanded of their profession, not those chosen? My experience with students AND academics is that many have given up reading for fun. Years of forced reading has squashed the love of reading. It has all become so serious.

We who were once kids carting books home from the library to feed our imagination have been reduced to grownups who lug books around to fulfill our obligations. That part of our heart that resonated with wonder and adventure, if not as well human empathy, dies in that transformation.

Believing that embers of that wonder yet remain, I am issuing a challenge to all who will join me in a small act of rebellion against the stats. Read one book that you want to read in 2017. There is a caveat here: to qualify, the book must be one that you want to read for the mere pleasure of reading. Books that will help you professionally, self-help books, books directly related to your career, and books assigned for a class do not count. Be a kid again and find a book that you just want to read. Just because.

I know there are more substantive causes you could join, more significant acts of rebellion in which you might engage. But there might be more value in this one than you can imagine. So, do it. Do it if you even need to stop reading your favorite blog (this one, of course) to do so.

Do it. Do it to wreck the stats, sure.

But most importantly, do it for fun and the rekindling of wonder.

To Not Be Alone and Not Forgotten

My name is Randy Greenwald and I believe this: we read to know we’re not alone.

This being the internet, with a little bit of luck that quote will emerge somewhere attributed to me and I’ll be thought profoundly wise. But it would be a ruse.

I ran across this idea, that we read to know we’re not alone, while at the same time reading Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and I linked her with the quote. But it is not hers.

Online, it is linked everywhere to C. S. Lewis. That kind of sounds right, but, no. It is only ‘his’ because Anthony Hopkins speaks that line while playing Lewis in the movie version of the stage play Shadowlands.  So in reality the credit belongs to the playwright/screenwriter/novelist William Nicholson, the author of the play.

Whether the quote was original with him, I’ll not bother to research further. The idea itself is and has always been true. Those times when I have been most engaged in a story, particularly a memoir, are those times when I realize that the experience of the one about whom I reading resonates with my own. At that point I bond with the author and I realize that I am not alone.

These are not books. This is a birthday cake.

This is the world’s greatest birthday cake.

Lauren Winner in Still speaks of her obsessive anxiety and how that plays out in her life. I see myself in that. I am not alone. Thomas Oden details a significant change in his theological thinking in his memoir A Change of Heart. The details differ in important ways, but the wonder of renewed discovery of old truths crossed my own and encouraged me to know that this is a shared experience. I am not alone.

And I believe that Mary Karr did say somewhere that in her own life as a lonely, friendless, young girl that when she immersed herself in her books, she felt less lonely. The characters in her books became, at least for a time, her friends, her companions along the road, those who would hang out with her and share their hearts with her when no one else would.

So, yes. We read to know we are not alone.

Parallel to this it might be said that we write that we, or others, might not be forgotten. There is a wonderful insult placed into the mouth of Paul Bettany’s Geoffrey Chaucer in the movie A Knight’s Tale. Chaucer’s only way to get revenge on those who have taken everything he owns is to write about them.

I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.

His motive was negative, but the idea in actuality is positive. What is written, we hope, will not be forgotten. All Over but the Shoutin’   is the wonderfully engaging memoir of Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who, along the way, somehow managed to forget to go to college. In the prologue he shares a story about his interview with a mother in the projects whose young son had been killed by a stray bullet on his way to kindergarten. As he leaves after hearing her story she thanks him.He asks her why she would thank him.

“She answered by pulling out a scrapbook of her baby’s death, cut from the local newspaper. ‘People remembers it,’ she said. ‘People forgets if it ain’t wrote down.’”

There is hope, longing, and wisdom in that.

And maybe, if it is ‘wrote down,’ another who has suffered such anguish will read it and not feel so all alone.

A Bonhoeffer Bio Worth Reading

“Reading anything?” I asked a young friend over lunch.

“The bio on Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas,” he answered.

I cringed. In my judgment, friends don’t let friends read Metaxas. Since I first read it, I believed it to be a badly written book. I didn’t want him to read it.

A biography tells the story of a person’s life. It should do so in a style appropriate to its subject. It should tell the story well. And it should tell it truthfully. It should be critical, but it should withhold sufficient critical judgment to allow the reader to form an opinion of the person whose life is being told. If it is told well, the reader will find something in the biography’s subject that resonates with his own life and experience. I found Metaxas’ book to fail on most of these points. Others with greater expertise fault it for its accuracy.

strangegloryRecently, I was urged by a friend to revisit Bonhoeffer through the eyes of Charles Marsh’s 500 page Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, brings a lifetime of interest in and study of Bonhoeffer to his task. He also knows how to tell a good story.

It is rare for an author who has an appreciation for his subject, as Marsh clearly does, to present his subject’s weaknesses and flaws. Marsh does so and even at times downplays Bonhoeffer’s supposed heroism as possibly being over drawn. This in no way detracts from Bonhoeffer, but make him more human. I can better relate to someone who is often as concerned about the style of his shoes as he is about the state of the church. This clearer understanding of his flaws and weaknesses causes me greater respect for the courageous stands he took and for which he eventually, sadly and tragically, died. He comes across as fully human, a real person, not unlike many of us, and yet one forced to make extraordinary choices.

As such, he becomes a mirror for us, one which causes me dis-ease. There is a difficult overlap between Bonhoeffer’s Germany and our own America. It can be pressed too strongly, of course, but Hitler’s drive to make Germany great again challenged the church and her pastors to determine just what the church is and is to be. It is easy to sit back and cheer those who in 1930s Europe made what we now judge to be the right decisions and judge those who made the wrong ones. Those decisions are tough ones on the ground in real life. I’m never quite sure I’d make the right ones. As Christians we speak of our unflagging willingness to give our lives for Christ and his church, but will we? At what point? For what cause? At which time? And where will the courage come from, if at all?

I’m deeply committed to living out my life as a part of Christ’s church, seeking to reflect the Kingdom Jesus brought near. The church can be an outpost of the Kingdom of God in which culture can find rest and restoration. Seeing the church flourish is where I see hope for a broken world. But is that hope well founded? A friend recently wrote to me:

“It’s Christianity and the church that have really disillusioned me. The disconnection from the message of Christ and what has been promoted as “Christian” has broken me. And part of me knows that I have no right to judge other Christians because I’m sure I am just as bad in my own ways, but I do have the right to not join them….”

She has given up hope in the church, a step I’m not at all ready to take. Though this biography reminds me that in a time of grave crisis, the church did fail in many ways, it did not disappear. It was squashed, hounded out of relevance, compromised, and a remnant sent into exile. But it prevailed, and persevered through many in hidden ways living out the norms of the kingdom, and the gates of hell did not prevail. A brave man died, but did not die without such hope.

And so, when my friend mentioned his interest in Bonhoeffer, I put this one in front of him. I gladly do the same for you.

Note: to see Charles Marsh’s own take on Metaxas, read this.

 

Atticus Was Feeble

The virtues of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird hardly need to be sung by me. But if you are, like me, someone north of 50, a male, who does little to arouse the admiration of anyone, you will enjoy Scout’s ruminations on Atticus’ feebleness.

Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected upon his abilities and manliness. He was much older than the parents of our school contemporaries, and there was nothing Jem or I could say about him when our classmates said, “My father—”

Jem was football crazy. Atticus was never too tired to play keep-away, but when Jem wanted to tackle him Atticus would say, “I’m too old for that, son.”

Our father didn’t do anything. He worked in an office, not in a drugstore. Atticus did not drive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did not farm, work in a garage, or do anything that could possibly arouse the admiration of anyone.

Besides that, he wore glasses. He was nearly blind in his left eye, and said left eyes were the tribal curse of the Finches. Whenever he wanted to see something well, he turned his head and looked from his right eye. He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did: he never went hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the living room and read.

I can relate.

Models of Biblical Decency

The BBC drama Foyles War starring the perfectly cast Michael Kitchen as an unflappable British detective during and after WWII is, for me, must watch television. Watch it. Watch every episode. Savor it. And as you do, consider Inspector Foyles’ character. Note his integrity and the hints of compassion and kindness. Note his perseverance and wisdom and attend to his gentle longing to be reconnected with his estranged son. And then, in one of the final episodes, listen carefully as another in his world speaks of Foyle saying, “He is a decent man.”

Christian men aim for more than decency. I get that. We are to be godly and Christ-like. But we could do little worse than to find models of mere decency and learn from them.

To find such models requires searching not because they are rare. Rather, decent men are not bombastic and they do not promote themselves any more than is necessary for their particular calling. Find men who care for their corner of the world and do so faithfully. These will be the decent men. Flawed they will be, for sure, and broken in ways they themselves may not be able to see. But their humility will lead them to face those flaws and seek to work beyond them. Reflect for a while, and you will think of men who bear the attributes that draw us: compassion, mercy, and kindness, with an ear quick to listen and lips that are careful to build up and not tear down. Decent men should be our models.

Popular culture gives us super-heroes whose impulse is to fight and exact vengeance. More people know of John Wick or Jason Bourne than of Christopher Foyle. Others should be known. Many know of Atticus Finch, the courageous and quietly compassionate attorney in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m struck, too, by the decency of Tom Robinson, the harassed and falsely accused black man whom Finch defends, or of Boo Ridley, the reclusive rescuer of children. Decent men, they are, functioning as best they can in a broken world.

In Alan Paton’s wonderful novel Cry, the Beloved Country the Zulu South African Anglican pastor Stephen Kumalo lives with his wife in poor, desolate Ndotsheni. There he cares for his church and all who live in its vicinity. He loves them and they love him. Circumstances lead Stephen to the big city of Johannesburg where tragedy and heartbreak await him. Though he gives in to the impulse to hurt others at times, his repentance is real and deep. Most of the time he sees the right thing to do, and does it though it costs him dearly. His decency is so real that I have a hard time remembering that he in fact never existed. I want him to exist. He is a decent man.

I’m drawn as well, as have been many others, to the fundamental decency of the Reverend John Ames, the congregational pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead, Home, and Lila. The Rev. Mr. Ames, too, is flawed. And yet those who meet him in these novels will remember his tenderness, his kindness, and his integrity. We walk away from time spent with him understanding that he is a decent man whom we wish to know better.

Decent men (and women) are those who, in spite of their imperfections and weaknesses, act in a direction that reveals genuine character and virtue. The men profiled here never existed. And yet they exist quietly all around us and should become our models, models of biblical decency.

Cry, the Beloved Country

My friend Roy (whose blog should be added to your regular reading list as he will one day publish a book and become famous and you will be able to say your were a fan before being a fan was cool) has not read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, the novel from which the title of this blog is (ever so inaccurately) lifted. Apparently the novel had been assigned to him as a high school student and been therefore mentally blacklisted ever since. I hope to change that for him, and for whomever else I can. It’s simply a great novel that bears multiple readings. It is one of my favorites.Cry

Paton constructs a story of two men whose lives are lived in geographic proximity and cultural isolation. One is a poor black Anglican priest, Stephen Kumalo (“a parson, so(m)ber and rather dull no doubt, and his hair was turning white”) and the other, James Jarvis, is a wealthy white farmer living nearby. Events in the crumbling 1940s culture of South Africa bring these two men together in a dramatic and surprising and tragic way. South Africa was on the cusp of formalizing the racial divisions that were existent in the policy of apartheid and against that backdrop, lives play out, mercy is displayed, and reconciliation is glimpsed. But much here breaks the heart.

The Rev. Kumalo is genuine, a pastor who loves his God and his people. His heart breaks for his country, his land, his parish, his family, and his church. He is honestly drawn as a man who struggles with temptation, loses his temper, and is not above acts of manipulation, but who also repents of his anger and acts with great compassion to those who cross his path. Like the friend he meets in the city of Johannesburg, he is “a weak and sinful man, but God put His hands on me, that is all.” There is a potent reality to these men.

With these men, the heart breaks for the beautiful land that is South Africa.

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.

The land is beautiful but it and the people living on it are broken. For that, there is mourning.

Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.

But the crying and the fear can lead to something greater, even to something beautiful in small acts of grace and in the softening of the hearts of men.

Yes the book breaks the heart, but it heals it as well. It leaves us hopeful, knowing that even though there is death in the land, and that things are not as they are supposed to be, yet small acts of grace can bring significant reconciliation, and sacrificial love can bring life in the midst of death. Maybe we are to realize as well that we are weak and sinful people on whom God has put his hands. One can hope.

As one can hope that my friend and many like him will finish that high school assignment that they might be blessed by this book.

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