Update: I remembered a few of my story favorites and added them to the list.
I can’t resist writing a post about books, at least every now and then. So, when I ran across a bevy of book posts by good friends listing the books that most shaped their thought in the last year, I decided to write one of my own. I like this idea. This won’t be a long list, just a few of the books that smacked me in the brain and changed the way I think. I will only count books that were, in my evaluation, marvelous, and that I had never read before, and that I read in their entirety. It’s rather a fun exercise.
1. Faith, Hope, and Poetry, by Malcolm Guite
I’ve known about Guite for quite awhile. I first encountered him as a speaker (who, incidentally, resembled a hobbit) at a C.S. Lewis conference, where he gave a winning talk on the spiritual value of poetry. So, when my Dad got me this book for my birthday, my curiosity was pleasantly piqued. But when, in the first chapter, I encountered his central theme of defending “the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty,” I was captivated. Guite explores, considers, and concludes many things I have felt about knowing God through imagination, but have struggled to articulate.
In the opening chapter, he traces the history (a story that begins with the Enlightenment) of our modern dependence on reason and logic, observation and analysis as the sole means of knowing truth. He explores the false divide of imagination from reason, and challenges the modern skepticism toward imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, arguing that poetry, myth, and story are vital and powerful ways through which we know what is true. In a grand survey of poetry, beginning with The Dream of the Rood and ending with Seamus Heaney, he shows how the faculty of imagination helps us to apprehend what is real, and also beyond our sight. That it is a vital part of faith in “what is unseen.”
Because Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings basically saved my faith, and poetry, story, and myth are the things I first turn to for spiritual succor, I find his book to be one that affirms the powerful truth that I have encountered in story. And this book is an excellent exploration of great poetry in general. After finishing Faith, Hope, and Poetry, I immediately placed a library order for a collection of poems by each of the poets whose work he explored in his book. This book, especially the keen exploration of reason, imagination, and the false divide between the two, has opened up a whole new course of study for me. It’s one I intend to follow over the next year, and will probably result in a book of some sort.
2. Making All Things New by Henri Nouwen.
This was the first Nouwen book I encountered. I picked it up because I was at a point of needing to recover a quiet heart after a time of inner frenzy, and it spoke directly to my need. It was short, direct, and convicting. Why, Nouwen asked, do Christians often live in a flurry of good activity and yet feel separate from God and empty in spirit? God, he says, asks only that we be just like Jesus, and what Jesus came to show us was how to be children. To look at the Father, to love him, and to do only what he asks. When we have eyes fixed on God, instead of the thousand needs, demands, and fears that whirl about us, we are able to have a quiet heart, and act powerfully from that quiet.
3. Andy Catlett: Early Travels, by Wendell Berry.
Yep. It’s no secret I love the good Mr. Berry. This particular novel of his was an easier read than the others. Usually, I feel in need of great mental concentration when I set about reading a Berry book. This one is no-less thoughtfully written, but it is simpler, a story I sink into without much work, perhaps because it is written in the voice of a child. A short novel, just the account of Andy’s after-Christmas visit to the farms of his grandparents, the story is one that aptly captures the small details of household habits, of good meals cooked, atmospheres in old rooms, the quirks of grownups, and the little traditions that are so vital and vivid a part of childhood. And so, it is a dear book, nourishing in its homey imagery. Yet also strangely convicting. Having finished the tale, I was struck with how tangibly real the home of the book had become to me. I happened to realize this just as I reached for my computer, with its transitory world of emails and information contained in a single, blinking screen. I had the sudden, almost panicked desire to be sure that my own life, my home and habits were as real as those of the story. As rich. As meaningful. As affirming of what is truly of value in this world.
4. The essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes” by C.S. Lewis, in Collected Essays of C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper.
It will take me most of my lifetime to work through the many essays of the wondrous Mr. Lewis, but this particular one, read during my time at Oxford, marked a turning point in my conception of what it means to know. Most simply (you just have to read it), this essay explores the metaphorical nature of language and through that, the metaphorical nature of the universe. If that sounds a bit heady, you might take a glance at the assigned essay I wrote addressing this essay here. After reading, and really digesting the meaning of Lewis’ thoughts on language, I began to feel that the world was a far more meaningful place than even I had thought.
5. O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather
I include this novel, not because it is my absolute favorite ever, but because it has reintroduced me to Cather’s spare, earth-toned prose, and her keen insight into the human heart. I am currently on a Cather kick, and her words are shaping both the way I craft stories and the way I craft my life. Years ago, I read My Antonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop and both times felt that I had been taken to a quiet, wind-haunted place in which I was better acquainted with my own heart. O Pioneers! is set in Nebraska and is the story of one woman’s tenacious faith in, and cultivation of, her land. But it is also a story about love. The way it too is planted and nourished, its waywardness and the fruit that can be bitter… or sweet. It grieved me to finish this story, but it was a grief that brought me into the presence of my own frailty. I have heard people object to Cather because her writing is marked by sorrow, by tragedy, a little, perhaps, like an American Thomas Hardy. Her stories are what I like to call “broken-souled” art, a powerful form of creation. I love stories that picture redemption, but one of the inescapable roads on the journey to redemption is the road of self-knowledge, the road of sorrow, the realization of what it means to be frail in our very souls. We need stories that teach us what it means to live in a broken world… and also to yearn to be made whole. And in Cather’s tales, amidst the sorrow is the hushed beauty of western land, of open plains, and the sky whose unfailing presence promises something beyond our sorrow.
6. City of Bells, by Elizabeth Goudge
What would my book list be without a little Goudge to brighten it? I’m just glad I’m still at the place where I have a few more of her novels to experience for the first time. This story, set in the town of Torminster, and based on Goudge’s childhood in the real life cathedral city of Wells (in England), is one of my favorites. It is a book about idealists, about all those who are haunted by a vision of a beauty that is always just a bit beyond their grasp. Henrietta, a young girl whose sparkling reserve is taut with the vibrancy of a very wakened soul, is a young idealist, one of several in this story who explore what it means to envision the ideal and live in fidelity to that vision. What happens when we cannot reach it? Or embody it? How do we keep ideals alive? In reading this story, I felt as if I was meeting myself in the character of Henrietta. Her words, toward the end of the book, sum up some of what I have understood about my own life this year:
She went back to her room…and stood listening again… to the lovely silence and it seemed to her that in it she came right way up again and her dreams, that had deserted her in London came flocking back, so that with joy she flung open the doors of her mind and welcomed them in. Never again, she vowed, would she live a noisy life that killed her dreams. They were her reason for living, the only thing she had to give the world, and she must live in the way that suited them best.
Isn’t that lovely? Everyone should read Goudge.
And for now, that’s it. Now that I’ve updated this post with a few more books, I’ll stop for now and save anything else I remember for whatever the next bookish post may be.
So. What were your books of the year?
And may a new year of avid literary exploration come your way.