On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow PriorSummary: An exploration of reading as a means of learning virtue.

It is hard to review books of people you know and like. I have been Facebook/Twitter friends with Karen Swallow Prior since 2012 when her first book came out. I am in a private Facebook group where both of us are active. We have never met in person, but I would gladly meet her and do anything I could to help her. Karen is the kind of person that I want many more of in the world. She was profiled in a recent New Yorker piece.

I both love the actual book On Reading Well and I love the intent of the book. On Reading Well is trying to teach the reader how to read books with an eye on classic virtue. Swallow Prior is an English professor, focusing on 17-18th Century British literature.

Karen Swallow Prior is trying to restore the historic ideal of seeing literature as a means to understanding virtue. She is part of the movement toward great books. And there have been a number of books that have started to write on traditional virtues lately.

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali PerkinsSummary: A family moves to the US and the three generations change, adapt and remain Bengali.

As I said yesterday, I find good books quite often by listening to people that love to read. One of my regular habits is listening to several interview podcasts that often interview authors. The Conversing podcast by Mark Labberton, the president of Fuller Seminary, is one of my favorite. It has a diverse guest lists, but also quite often these are actual friends, or long term acquaintances.

Mitali Perkins studied public policy and political science. As someone that came to the US from India as a child she said there were three options for children, to be an engineer, a doctor, or an engineer, a joke that is in the book as well. After first breaking the mold to study politics and political science out of a calling toward justice, she took the plunge to change hearts through stories.

You Bring the Distant Near is her most recent book and it was nominated for a National Book Award. Her earlier book, Rickshaw Girl, was named as one of the top 100 Children’s books of the past 100 years by the New York Public Library and is currently being made into a movie. Several of her other 10 books have also won numerous awards as well.

You Bring the Distant Near is a novel, but from what I know of her Mitali Perkins’ story it is also semi-autobiographical. It is the story of five women, from three generations of an immigrant family. Starting in the 1970s focusing first on one daughter, Sonia, and then the other daughter Tara, the story progresses in time as the daughters marry, have daughters of their own, and then also the story of the matriarch, Ranee.

Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution by Youssef Daoudi

Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution by Youssef DaoudiSummary: Great presentation of improvisation in art form.

One of the important steps to reading great books, is surrounding yourself with people that like to read and recommend great books. Even more, find people who like to read books that you would not normally pick up on your own.

A facebook friend of mine is an expert in graphic novels. He is an artist himself and has written several books, but he also runs a very good graphic novel review site, goodokbad. I do not read a ton of graphic novels. But when I do, I pay attention to Seth’s recommendations. If you like recommendations, follow the website or follow one of his social media accounts where he has a daily recommendation.

Yousef Daoudi’s graphic novel biography of Thelonious Monk is excellent. Going in, I liked Monk’s music but knew not a thing about his life. I now want to read more, which I always consider a good way to see whether a book is any good.

The most striking thing about the biography of Monk as a musician is the way that Daoudi draws the concept of improvisation.

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I do not have enough skill and experience to really review a graphic novel, especially about a subject that I do not know all that much about. But I did enjoy reading this and I would love to see additional biographical graphic novels of other jazz greats.

Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America by George Yancy

Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America by George YancySummary: A linguistic, philosophical and cultural commentary on the backlash to minorities talking about racism. 

Backlash that was written in response to the writing a 2015 editorial on racism at the NYT. The book opens, after a forward by Cornell West and an introduction by Yancy with that original editorial. Backlash is the type of book I needed to read. And while I think it is a book that many here would benefit from, the editorial is much shorter and worth reading on its own. So even if you are not particularly interested in reading book about racism, I encourage reading the editorial.

George Yancy (a philosopher at Emory and not George Yancey, a Sociologist at University of North Texas, notice the difference in spelling of the last name) draws a parallel between his own participation and benefit in sexism because he is a man and the participation and benefit that all Whites receive because of racism in the US. He is making an explicit argument that racism (and sexism) are systemic and cultural. That the very best we can do is become anti-racist racists or anti-sexist sexists. We never stop being racist (or sexist) because at root racism and sexism are not individual positions, but cultural and systemic positions of the world around us. As much as we can work to decenter whiteness and try to be personally anti-racist, we will still do and think racist things (or sexist things) because that is the culture we swim in.

That basic point of the editorial I think is important here. We have not and will not ever ‘make it’ to be a perfectly safe or good white person. We will always have more to correct and work on. But also we will always be at least partially dangerous to the people of color around us. The danger to minorities around us is developed more fully in his fourth chapter of Backlash. I did not fully grasp this point prior to this book. I was able to grasp the historical damage of racism. I was able to grasp the theoretical cultural damage that systems place on minorities in the US. I was not able to see how that damage of racism also was current and personal to my own body. (The development of this needs to be read, I am not going to recreate the argument here.)

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar TisbySummary: An introductory survey of American history and the relationship of the church to racism.

Racism is hard to talk about because we have a hard time agreeing with what racism is. Not only the definition of the word, but looking at specific events the discussion frequently devolves into, ‘That was racist’ and ‘I don’t understand how you can say that was racist’.

The Color of Compromise is an introductory survey of how the church has compromised with racism over history. Early chapters cover slavery and the divides within the church over the Civil War, Jim Crow, segregation and the Civil Rights movement. All of this is well done and important, but also a history that I think many will be relatively familiar with.

I think where The Color of Compromise really is valuable and most important (and will be most controversial) is the last several chapters where racism is less overt and where Tisby specifically is using comparisons with Billy Graham and a few others to show that even when there may not be intention, harm can still occur.

In previous eras, racism among Christian believers was much easier to detect and identify. Professing believers openly used racial slurs, participated in beatings and lynchings, fought wars to preserve slavery, or used the Bible to argue for the inherent inferiority of black people. And those who did not openly resist these actions—those who remained silent—were complicit in their acceptance. Since the 1970s, Christian complicity in racism has become more difficult to discern. It is hidden, but that does not mean it no longer exists. (page 155)

The word Compromise in Color of Compromise I think was well chosen. Racism, like many other things is not just overt harmful action, but also the times when it is easier to just not say or do anything. The examples of Billy Graham compared to Martin Luther King Jr or other figures from our recent past really do give the best illustrations in the book about how subtle, but real, lack of attention to how racial lines create an other matters.

Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way by Richard Twiss

Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way by Richard TwissSummary: What it means to be a Christian cannot be culturally constrained.

I have been meaning to reading Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys pretty much since it came out. I briefly met Richard Twiss at a conference sometime in the late 90s. That was enough for me to know I wanted to read the book, but it was not until two recent things that I actually started reading the book (although I bought it several years ago).

The first thing was the discussions about John Chau’s death as he attempted to reach an isolated group of people on an island off the coast of India that reportedly has had almost no outside contact for hundreds of years. As part of that discussion, a Facebook friend of mine suggested Rescuing the Gospel From the Cowboys as an essential book to thinking about how we approach unreached people groups. The second reason I actually picked up the book was that I realized when looking at my reading over the past two years that I had not read a single book by a Native American author.

Richard Twiss’ focus in Rescuing The Gospel from the Cowboys is helping to understand how he can be Christian and remain culturally Lakota. The early parts of the book trace both his own story and the story of Native Americans in the US more generally. Both of those stories are similar, Christianity is continually presented as a White man’s religion, not just historically, but as culture. To be Christian means that Native Americans have historically (and today) been told that their culture is pagan, and therefore they must become White culturally to become Christian.

I roughly understood the history. But reading direct reports are important to hear. More important is the theological and cultural work that is being constructively done here. I can understand why some will disagree with some of his conclusions and approaches. However, what is important here is that those within the Native American culture are working out what it means to be Christian and Native American.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Good Lord Bird by James McBrideSummary: A slave is ‘rescued’ by John Brown in Kansas and tells his story through the Harper’s Ferry raid.

John Brown is rightly a controversial figure in American history. I read a short (children’s?) book last October. And Brown was a figure in the biographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman that I also read in 2018.

On the positive side, John Brown radically believed that slavery was something that was so evil in God’s eyes that it was morally justified to take up arms to attempt to end slavery. On the negative side, John Brown was so convinced of his calling by God and God’s blessing on that calling that he either failed to plan well or was just incapable of planning well. From the blatant murder of pro-slave individuals in Kansas to the failed raid at Harper’s Ferry, where the first people to die were free Black residents of the area, Brown’s actions failed to meet his intentions.

James McBride uses the character of Henry Shackleford, a young pre-teen slave to tell the story. John Brown attempts to free several slaves in a tavern in Kansas, which results in the death of Henry’s father. Brown mistakes Henry as a girl and for the rest of the novel, Henry plays the part of a girl, nicknamed ‘Little Onion’.

There is lots of humor in the book, but also clear social commentary both for today and of the pre-civil war era. Even among abolitionists, Blacks, slave or free, were barely human in the eyes of most Whites. Onion (Henry) plays the part of a girl, because the role of Blacks at the time (and in many ways today) was to be put on a performance for Whites that kept the individual (or group) safe first. The authentic self was less important than the safety.

Onion’s play acting as a girl is played for laughs frequently, but the point isn’t just laughs, the point is the dehumanization that is part of what it means to be Black in a society that is designed for White Supremacy.

Notable Books Read in 2018

It is the time of the year when everyone is posting their ‘Best of’ lists. This is not going to be a ‘Best of 2018’ because less than half of these were published in 2018. And I think that is a good thing. Books should have a life of longer than a year, and even longer than five or ten years.

I154x237xNewImage 3 png pagespeed ic 6a8NtE0wHF jpg have taken a number of different approaches to my end of year lists, reposting over a week or so the reviews of the books I loved the most. Or posting separate lists of best fiction and non-fiction. This year I am going to approach it thematically.

There are too many books here, but I do not really know how to pair them down beyond this and I am already not including a number of books that were excellent, but I think most people will probably already not read though the number I have here.

Empathy

I have been happy about the fact that the idea of reading to expand our view of the world and gain empathy for others has been on the ascendant. That is not the only reason to read, but it one reason. Death Comes for a Deconstructionist, was partially a satire against deconstructive literary theory that had no use for reading for self improvement, enjoyment or understanding. Grace Lin has a TED talk about the importance of having books as both mirrors (to see yourself in the characters) and windows (to see the world differently). This grouping are books that mostly gave me a window.

I159x250xNewImage 8 png pagespeed ic E14TJW3sX3 jpg think fiction is particularly good at building empathy and it is one of the reasons I keep wanting to increase my reading of fiction. But this section is not only fiction. Most naturally in this section is Children of God by Mary Doria Russell. This is the sequel to The Sparrow. It is a science fiction book, which naturally expands the idea of how to be empathetic by explained what it means to be human.

19529073 45E2 4725 8A42 ED841F46DB22Golden Hill by Francis Spufford was the first book I read this year. The plot twists, especially in the last few pages play into the empathy building. The characters change in perspective and the reader suddenly has to re-evaluate everything that has previously happened.

One of the most consistently good series of books I have read has been the Inspector Gamache series of mystery books. This year’s book, Kingdom of the Blind, continues with the big question of the past several books, ‘when it is acceptable to do morally and ethically questionable things, for a greater good.’ There are no simple answers. Many people would make different decisions. But by the end, you understand why the characters have made the decisions they have and you have insight you likely did not have previously.

NewImage 8Memoir and biography/autobiography can be empathy building. But I think I mostly read them for knowledge or inspiration. And while many of these books could easily be in two or more categories, these two were particularly helpful at building empathy. James H Cone finished his second memoir immediately before he passed away and it was not published for several months after his death. But both Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian, and his earlier My Soul Looks Back, really communicated they why of his life and work. Many disagree with aspects of his theology, and I certainly do, but it seems to me to be missing the point if the focus is on the theology and not on the why of his theology.

Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds

Miles Morales by Jason ReynoldsSummary: Miles Morales is Spiderman in an alternate reality.

I am not really a comic book guy. But I like the idea of superheroes even if I have not spent a lot of time reading about them. I did spend a lot of time watching the cartoons when I was a kid, and while I am years behind, I do watch the Marvel movies.

My wife took a children’s literature course over the summer for her grad school and read Jason Reynolds and I have been meaning to read something by him for a while. So with the movie coming out (this is not a novelization of the movie) and it being written by Jason Reynolds and it being available at my library on audiobook, I picked it up and finished it in two days.

There are aspects of the original Spiderman story. Miles Morales is a teen, bitten by a spider and he becomes Spiderman. But aspects are different. His parents are both living, and married. His dad is the one that instills in him the responsibility for the community and the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ that is traditionally from Peter Parker’s uncle Ben.

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel TaylorSummary: An English lit grad school dropout is working as a researcher investigating the death of his former advisor. 

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist was recommended by someone that I do not remember, but a fair chance it was John Wilson. Wilson review is in the Amazon description:

”One part academic satire, one part mystery, and one part theological investigation, this pleasingly disorienting novel packs a wicked punch. Like life itself, Daniel Taylor gives us a story in which all sorts of incongruous elements are jumbled together. (Reality is not fastidious.) But is there–could there be–a pattern nonetheless, a great design amid all the confusion?”

And really that is a great short description. It is academic satire making fun of literary theory, while actually understanding it. There is a real mystery at the root of the story. While the protagonist grew up a Christian and has theological reflections throughout the book, this is not a Father Brown mystery. It feels a little like Mark Berstrand’s Roland March Mystery series. Roland March was a real detective and there was not any academic satire, but both have an approach to Christian fiction that eshews most of the standard Christian fiction tropes.

But I suspect like Berstrand, this probably has not found a wide audience. It is well written, I understand why it has had so many good reviews, including winning Fiction book of the year in Christianity Today’s 2016 Book Awards. But it is niche. Christian fiction does not have a lot of room for either academic satire or mystery fiction.