I was recently informed by Goodreads which books I finished reading in 2014. On that page I can boast a modest ten books, but you’d need more than just the fingers on both hands for the actual count – for some reason it didn’t show up Alistair McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis, which I read as soon as I was given it for Christmas last year. I finished it a few days into the new year, I believe.
So, eleven books finished last year. That is pretty poor, I know. One friend of mine successfully completed his goal of 52 books in the year – and that with a full-time job (I only had a full-time job for the last three months of the year). That said, some of his was teen fiction. Another blogger I am becoming acquainted with completed a round 40 books, with not a few heavyweights in there including NT Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
Me, eleven. I almost feel ashamed to confess it. Perhaps I’m just a slower reader than everyone else. Or perhaps I’m too busy. Or have too much fun playing music. Or, I have a small suspicion, actually read every book properly rather than skim-reading. But I digress. Here’s what I managed to get through in 2014.
McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis was a joy to read, and came in the middle of a binge on Lewis’s fiction. After an anaemic childhood diet on Narnia, I finally made sure I read the complete series in 2013. Moving on to Lewis’s cosmic series, I took a pause to read this biography. After finishing that, I concluded the cosmic trilogy last year with That Hideous Strength. Lewis’s cosmic trilogy, it’s true, may not quite have the finesse that Narnia has in communicating its meaning, but it’s still extremely striking and eye-opening in places, as all of Lewis’s writing seems to be. At some point, I’ll start to chew through his non-fiction. If anyone wants to buy me the set, I’d be more than happy.
The last stop on the Lewis fiction tour was with Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, a PhD thesis turned book-and-tv-documentary. It’s rare that a thesis this ground-breaking is ever posed in the realm of literature (or any other realm, for that matter), but Ward’s theory that Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia was schematically based on the medieval view of the cosmos seems nothing but irrefutable. Yet another wonderful avenue into the mind of Lewis.
Fiction or Theology next? From Lewis I could take either route, so for no particular reason, the rest of the fiction goes first.
Him With His Foot In His Mouth is a (relatively long) short story by Saul Bellow. The Adventures of Augie March is one of his earliest novels. I love the American sentences of Bellow. He doesn’t belittle the reader; you need to concentrate as you read. But it’s worth it. Of course, Bellow’s style matured with age, but I still found myself sitting back after Augie March and wondering at the feat.
Taking a different turn, I read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. Trollope has his fans for good reason – he is witty, insightful, can spin a good yarn, and manages to command a large cast of characters with only the right amount of superficiality where needed to provide comic relief; the rest are well-written and 3-dimensional. That said, it’s only the second Trollope novel I’ve read; Barchester Towers was first in 2013. Trollope’s complete output is large and I’m not planning on reading anything in any particular order; the next one I have on my shelf is The Prime Minister.
Before dealing with Theology, only one book comes under what I would class as my other interest: history. Maybe I need to give it up if I only finished one this year. But Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World just made it through the gate. If I’m honest, I don’t even remember when I started it. But it is well-written; if you’ve got the time for history, it’s worth it. I like anything that will tell us how we got to where we are now.
Finally, under ‘Theology’, I must begin with NT Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. (Maybe the reason I haven’t got a great finishing rate is I tend to go for books with at least 500 pages.) For some reason I read volume three (The Resurrection of the Son of God) of his magnum opus first, a couple of years ago – don’t ask why. But it doesn’t particularly matter, I think. I get the gist of the project. Volume One sets the scene – ie., laying out the whole religious and political backdrop in first-century Palestine. Volume Two is next on my list, obviously, and it’s about Jesus. Three is just about the resurrection. Four (recently published) is, as we know, on Paul, and I very much look forward to reading that (though I did read the decidedly ‘paraphrased’ version last year, What St Paul Really Said). Volume Five is, I think, meant to tie together the various components of Wright’s thesis. I have a feeling that he may have even hinted that there might possibly need to be two further volumes after the one on Paul. I wouldn’t be surprised.
I spare comment on these only because there’s so much to say that it has to be left for other blog posts, but one of the reasons I find NT Wright such a joy to read (and listen to thanks to the many hundreds of YouTube videos he can be found in) is that he has such excitement about what he says. It’s really living for him, and that has to count for something.
I knew at some point I’d have to try a bit of Jürgen Moltmann (just like I know that at some point I’ll have to try Barth and Bonhoeffer), and The Crucified God seemed like as good a place as any to start (another of my problems – reading books asequentially; Theology of Hope was published first, however, I think Moltmann himself says that The Crucified God establishes some of the backdrop, the necessary ingredients and components, for understanding what comes in Hope). It is a striking and profound book. Moltmann is capable of short, powerful aphorisms (eg. “Faith in the ‘crucified God’ is …a contradiction of everything [people] have ever…desired to be assured of by the term ‘God'”) which boil down his most powerful arguments, yet is not in the least bit pithy.
Lastly and, not quite fitting the category, is Jesus Through The Centuries, a delightful little book by Jaroslav Pelikan which I picked up a few years ago at a second hand bookshop. The pencil mark in the front cover says £5 and if it was, I think I was ripped off, because it was falling apart when I picked it up, and the pages only became looser as I read it. Only just holding it together myself (literally and figuratively), I persevered nonetheless through the centuries as Pelikan (a remarkable scholar) tours through the history of art and culture to see how the figure of Christ has been represented and has shaped each epoch. It provides a nice bridge between theology and art; I gave a copy to my Gran for her birthday (a nice shiny new not-falling-apart-one) while I was still reading it, and it seemed to hit the mark; she has a working knowledge of theology, and a good appreciation for art and music. She was taken almost straight away.
Well, eleven books in a year. Looking ahead to 2015, I’m determined to improve on that, though my chances may be hampered by yet more weighty tomes (and a busy life to boot – how does anyone do it?). I’m currently reading Kingdom of Fools by Nick Page, a brilliant historical piecing-together of the Book of Acts together with the epistles of the New Testament and other contemporary writings. That should be done soon; then, I’m set probably for the rest of the year with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Running to just over a thousand pages, it looks like I won’t be beating my total from last year easily.
Not with Volume Two of NT Wright’s magnum also on my wishlist. But there may be reliefs along the way; I still retain an interest in fiction. Presently I’m re-reading The Hobbit (nearly finished) and might re-read The Lord of the Rings too if I’m feeling crazy enough (what was that about weighty tomes) before attempting The Silmarillion which sits, mysterious and silent, on my shelf. As I mentioned there’s also Trollope’s The Prime Minister which in present company might qualify as ‘light fiction’; I don’t know if the same can be said for E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, but it’s another classic that I’ve had on my shelf for years and have been very much meant to read.
More; there’s always more on the wishlist, but I think that’s enough to keep me going for now.