Summer Reading

Week of Monday, August 13, 2001

A few years ago I attended a birthday party for a friend who was turning fifty. As part of the festivities, he did something which I thought was both interesting and enjoyable. He read a list of his top ten favorite books. I had already read a few that were on his list, including The Creators and The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin. I subsequently read two others that were new to me. I can't say that Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery (the author of the well known classic The Little Prince) did much for me. But I so thoroughly enjoyed Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic by Alfred Lansing that my wife read it to our kids on summer vacation.

You might have noticed that on the main page of our web site, Ray Cowan has a place for you to list your own favorites in several different categories. This has not yet caught on, but herewith in this essay I offer a glimpse of my own summer reading as a token effort to remedy my negligence in this area. As I look at the pile of books on my office floor, I find the following potpourri.

At the end of the academic year I took a personal retreat. For me this is usually a time to be alone, sleep, pray, work out and read. This year on my retreat I read and can recommend two books by Gordon T. Smith, the academic dean of Regent College in Vancouver. Their themes will be obvious by their titles. Listening to God in Times of Choice (1997) takes an unusually fresh look at the art of discerning God's will. His more recent book Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential (1999) explores the themes of vocation and work.

Those who know me know that I am a Henri Nouwen fan. This spring and summer I read his book Finding My Way Home (2001) two times. This is actually a posthumous collection of four essays: The Path of Power, The Path of Peace, The Path of Waiting, and The Path of Living and Dying. Nouwen is at his best (and sometimes worst) when he takes his own deeply personal experiences of following Jesus and extrapolates from them universal themes that apply to us all. We are now reading this book aloud at our weekly faculty group at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

I was raised in a mainline Presbyterian church but spent important and deeply formative years in conservative Christian schools, so I am always interested to read and think about fundamentalism and evangelicalism, especially when it comes from the pen of another favorite author, Richard Mouw. Mouw is president of Fuller Seminary and in The Smell of Sawdust; What Evangelicals Can Lean from Their Fundamentalist Heritage (2000) he draws upon his own upbringing to think about the revivalist tradition with both candor and fondness. This is no dense scholarly treatise, but if you have a fundamentalist past, or are prone to fundamentalist-bashing, Mouw is an able guide.

For one of my web essays recently posted, I dipped into Roland Bainton's classic work Here I Stand; A Life of Martin Luther (1950). I had read this book long ago in seminary and was so engaged by it when using it for the essay that I happily and rather greedily reread it. It is the type of book most scholars only dream of writing: impeccably researched with total bibliographic control of the material, elegantly written and as a result eminently readable, thorough in his descriptions of the origins of Protestantism, and still in print fifty years after its initial publication. A special treat are the more than 100 woodcuts and engravings from Luther's time. Time magazine once hailed this book as “the most readable Luther biography in English.”

For quite some time I have wanted to read Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994) by Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist in Nebraska. Since I was taking my ten-year-old Megan on a trip to Austria with me, I figured now was the time. With more than a million copies sold (and over 200 books reviews on Amazon) Pipher has clearly struck a chord. Ophelia is the character in Shakespeare's Hamlet who lives only for his approval; she eventually drowns. Pipher identifies what she calls the “girl-poisoning culture” of today that is nothing less than a hurricane for most adolescent girls. She plots the transition when young girls cease to be the subjects of their authentic selves and become the objects of others. Rich with stories from her research and private practice, parts of this book made me cry; lots of it made me angry. As a result of reading Pipher, I also read Ophelia Speaks; Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search For Self (1999) by Sara Shandler. This is a compilation by Shandler of perhaps 50 first-hand accounts by young girls about their adolescent struggles growing up. The single most common struggle for adolescent girls, according to Pipher and Shandler? Body image and food disorders.

That brings me to my two most recent forays. On our family vacation to northern Virginia and Washington, DC this summer, we visited Thomas Jefferson's summer home at Monticello and his memorial in the capital. As a result I bought and am now reading American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996) by Joseph Ellis. The book won a National Book Award, and although I am only about a hundred pages into it, Rose is clearly successful in his goal to “steer an honorable course between idolatry and evisceration” and reach an audience of “ordinary people with a general but genuine interest in Thomas Jefferson.” The second book I bought on vacation but have not yet started is the controversial work by James Carroll, his massive Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (2001). Carroll argues that the Holocaust was a culmination of Christian anti-semitism, that the Church must face this fact, and, as a result, fundamentally rethink its faith.

What are you reading these days? Why not list them on our web site's Top Ten Book Lists and enrich us all?

A closing thought. I think it would be equally interesting to learn about the books we tried to read but for various reasons did not finish. I always felt like you had to finish a book if you started it. Now that seems silly. On my list of unfinished books are Lenin; A New Biography (1994) by Dmitri Volkogonov, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Guns, Germs and Steel; the Fates of Human Societies (1997) by Jared Diamond, Christoph Wolff's new and acclaimed biography Johann Sebastian Bach (2000), and then the massive biography of Pope John Paul II by George Weigel entitled Witness to Hope (1999). I am sure if I dug around my piles and shelves I would discover more unfinished tomes.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.