Summer reading lists are like candy for most of us here at Wheatstone. We love them, and we use them. But this month, we thought we'd try to give you a slight spin on that annual theme. Instead of telling you what we're reading and giving a pitch for why you should read those books too, three couples on Wheatstone's staff decided to show you some of the most interesting reasons why we're reading some of the books that we are. We hope that you come away with a pleasant dose of personality, and with some ideas for how you might go about constructing a list of your own. Enjoy!
For the Beauty of the Earth, by Steven Bouma-Prediger
I was first introduced to this book by reading a selection of one chapter for a class, and after finishing the snippet, I filed the author under my "to read later" file. Intrigued by the chapter, which was well partnered with the lecture that it accompanied, I knew by the end of the course that I wanted to spend some time reading more deeply into "creation care." These are principles by which my wife and I want to order our household, but in order to live wisely without depending solely on ideology, we both agree that we need to be able to have reasons, both philosophical and practical, for championing this cause.
For the Time Being, by Annie Dillard
It seems as if all of my friends are smitten with Annie Dillard. I was first introduced to her writing after hearing so many people talk about her works, and having only read a few of her books, I am beginning to see why her writing has struck so many to the heart. This particular book made it onto my summer reading list when I asked a friend for "a good book to read while at the beach." Her recommendation was sound, because this book is one that can be taken in both long and short doses. Since other books have interrupted my reading time, I have yet to finish it (apologies to my gracious and patient friend.) For the Time Being has helped inspire new thoughts for this year's Wheatstone conference, and is helping give shape to the conversations I anticipate having this summer.
Fear and Trembling, by Soren Kierkegaard
A good rule of thumb for choosing which book to read is to choose one that lots and lots of people have read but you haven't. Kierkegaard has somehow evaded my reading lists up until this summer, which some may think an unpardonable sin. Overstatement or not, the feeling of shame that I often bring down upon myself for not having read really important books can prevent me from ever getting around to them. It's a strange thing: sometimes I will pretend to have read books that I have not yet read, or avoid reading them because I should have read them by now. In the ilk of the literate (or at least those of us who like to read books), there can be an unnecessary sense of guilt associated with our "I haven't read these yet" lists. Fret not: no one has read everything, and happier is the person who reads out of curiosity rather than shame.
My summers used to be a time for binge reading. In my undergraduate years, I would read with the stated goal of accomplishing feats: “Yes I can read the Complete Works of Shakespeare in one month! Yes I can read The Brother’s Karamozov and Crime and Punishment in between studying for the GRE!” It was fun. It was silly. I can’t do it anymore.
Now, as an English graduate student with a summer job, an M.A. exam around the corner, and a wedding to plan, I simply don’t have the time to accomplish literary marathons. I’ve felt a little haphazard about the books I find myself reading in these summer months, but in truth, the few books that have squirmed their way into my schedule have done so for good reasons. Here’s a quick look at the books that have been travelling with me:
I started reading On The Road by Jack Kerouac about two weeks ago, and I’m only on page 65. It’s a good thing that it reads well in bits. The book is an American classic, and a quintessential document of the Beat generation (think Alan Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, the 1950’s, and “liberation”). It’s been on my shelf for a year now, but when Annie Dillard referenced it not once but twice in An American Childhood, Kerouac shot to the top of my list. I’m curious about Kerouac’s generation; amazed by the mystic, even spiritual, experiences he describes having as he made his way across the country; fascinated by a libertinism that strikes me as frighteningly godless but wonderfully attentive to the present.
But the choice to read Kerouac was also strategic. On the Road is referenced countless times in contemporary American literature, and it influenced some of my favorite writers (like Annie Dillard and John Steinbeck). It’s a classic example of one of my favorite tricks: if you’re interested in the way someone thinks or writes, read what they read. Already, reading Kerouac has given me a radically new perspective on the mundane wonder I’ve loved in Dillard.
My decision to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere was likewise strategic. It’s a foundational text in a quirky branch of academia called “critical pedagogy” full of scholars and teachers who think politically and theoretically about the teaching practice. As a teacher, he fascinates me. Even if I’m a little wary of some of his fast and loose uses of terms like “oppressor and oppressed,” he was among the first of the twentieth-century theorists to start thinking critically about education not as a means of filling minds, but as a means of liberating people. That idea (an idea a great deal older than Friere) excites me, and it’s also an idea that has influenced both my own current professors and Bell Hooks, a feminist critic who first helped me to think through my teaching philosophy a few years ago.
I’m reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed now for a few reasons: 1) I’m considering using a portion of it as a text in a class I’m teaching this fall, and I want to be able to teach with an appropriate understanding of the scope of the text. 2) It’s valuable to me to understand the teaching philosophy of my own teachers and professors. If this is something they’ve read and loved, reading it gives me another window into understanding the reasoning behind their teaching choices. 3) I’m actually a little skeptical about some of the ideas I have heard attributed to Friere. Some of his politically inflected language seems inaccurate to me, so I’m going to the source so that I can find out what he actually said and wrestle with it. As much as possible, I want to avoid contending with a philosophy I haven’t worked to understand.
Last summer I joined a reading group. It’s packed with people I respect, and they’ve been meeting together for years now. After all this time, they’ve learned to have wonderful, vibrant discussions, and they’ve tried out some pretty varied subjects. This summer, the theme (“common weal, common woe”) was inspired by the upcoming election. When it was our week to pick a text, my fiancé and I chose to gather together all of the American Presidents’ Inaugural Addresses that were given during wartime. It felt quirky and a little academic, but the reading was fascinating. In less than a hundred pages, we watched our presidents move from a careful position of apology and stewardship (like James Madison offering a detailed justification for the War of 1812), to a prophet-like position, representing the ideals of the American people to the world. They articulated an ideal of freedom and human dignity that motivates the American project. It was lovely, and it was enigmatic.
I’m grateful for the choice we made both because it felt like something I was connected to—we finished with the inaugural address that I listened to on television a few years ago—and because it felt like there was something at stake in my understanding it and considering it. I’m sometimes tempted to become jaded about American politics, but it was sobering to read the words of men who have offered their greatest efforts to fill an amorphous, evolving position in a country defined by its ideals. Their job is risky, and I respect them. After reading these addresses, I’ve found myself listening more carefully to American politics, not out of guilt, but out of admiration and concern. I don’t feel the same triumph I felt reading through Shakespeare in my college summers, but I’m content to find that my reading is doing what I’ve always wanted it to do: its shaping my habits and changing my opinions.
An Empire of Wealth, by John Steele Gordon
Perhaps I chose this book because its subtitle is "The Epic History of American Economic Power." My interest in economics actually began with my work as a donor development officer for Wheatstone Ministries. Non-profit organizations like ours rely not only on the generosity of other people, but also the financial surplus that enable people to be generous at all. Non-profit businesses have for-profits to thank for their existence; if everyone worked for non-profits, there wouldn't be anyone out there to ask for money!
I'm reading this book to jump-start my thinking on our economy. It's pretty bad right now and I want to know how I can do my part without camping or complaining. I'm particularly interested in how one measures the health of an economy, and how different industries are meant to support each other for the good of all involved. An Empire of Wealth delivers a brief and fascinating American history through the lens of economic creation and destruction. I didn't pick it because it is the most neutral on the subject; I picked it because it isn't dry. It explores economics through great stories. And sometimes I need all the help I can get to jump into a new subject.
I've long considered starting a business in the gaming industry, and one of my summer reading goals is to discern whether becoming a Christian gamer is good for the economy. Would it be better for the economy if I did something more "bricks and mortar?"
The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, by Robert Farrar Capon
At dinner one evening, a friend read out loud the conclusion of this lovely and unique book. Immediately it jumped to the top of my reading list. Why? Well, it is about food, one of my favorite subjects—I love eating it; I love cooking it; I love talking about it, shopping for it, tending it in a garden. And I want to practice all of those things with an ever-deepening sense of wonder. This book is not merely about food in an immediate sense; it mixes Father Capon’s recipes together with his meditations on simplicity, freedom, communion, and sacrifice.
Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Stoker's book's been on my list for a while now, not least because of this and this. My well-read friends rave about it. My fiancée called it "so good," with her serious eyes on. I don't take every book recommendation from my friends; there are too many. But this one got through because I'm pretty sure I can count on having good discussions about it after I finish, and because I heard it recommended by unexpected folks. One whom I found more likely to be reading, say, The Great Gatsby, or another who's buried in C.S. Lewis, or one who feels at home with Plato, each told me to pick it up. That sort of recommendation–from someone outside a book's obvious audience, rather than from a genre fan–helps assure me that I'm going to dig into something great.
But, speaking of genre fans, I'm also planning on reading Dracula because pop culture insistently sucks from its lovely neck, and has been sucking since it published. I don't intend to read Twilight, but Edward's existence makes me that much more likely to read the stories its author had to read in order to come up with him. Like, obviously, this one. Big movements in pop culture are often drawing from small, deep sources, and if you can find and master those sources, you can navigate in and above the pop movement without being pushed around by it. It's a kind of flexible relevancy, produced by letting your selection of great books be guided, in part, by the existence of less-great derivatives.
One last reason why Dracula's my pick par excellence for the summer: About four years ago, my collection of books that were written later than 1900 was shockingly sparse. My collection of American literature was similarly small. My taste for poetry was relatively new. Modernism mostly baffled me. So I set out to learn to love it all. I grabbed up Hemmingway and Salinger, Stein and Neruda, Delillo and Roth, and so forth, and fell in love. So much so, in fact, that I was recently startled by the relative smallness of my collection of 16-19th century writing compared with the new books. What was once my biggest collection now looks short-shrifted on my shelves. And, what's more, Romantic and Enlightenment language currently baffles me even more than modernist poetry did. My strident steps toward modern and contemporary writings left old loves in the dust, and it's time for me to turn around and renew some friendships. Dracula helps here. I've been neglecting the Gothics. They don't seem attractive. Therefore, here I go! Things are more lovely when I learn them. If I don't think I like a category of books, then maybe it's time to read it.
Good Poems, American Places, ed. Garrison Keillor
Ready for the shortest entry on this list? Good. I'm reading this book because I love Garrison Keillor's editorial style desperately. His first collection, Good Poems, is my favorite poetry anthology always and forever. So I've bought all his follow-up anthologies too. I love them. I love them. I love them. They're accessible, beautiful, homey, rich, and deep. And American. Keillor did so well with my first exposure to him, that I trust him absolutely. That's it. The only reason. It's a good one.
One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, by Rebecca Mead
Yes, well–yes. Of course that's why I'm reading this. It's next year. Mmhm.
We are in the middle of the beginning of our planning. You know: she picked the dress. I'm designing the invitations. We've got the church. The flowers. The rings. And that's all great, but the list goes on. The suits. The cake. The MC. THE photographer. THE musicians. THE guestbook. THE honeymoon rental. THE hair stylist. THE THIS. THE THAT! THE THE THE!
Now, don't get me wrong. I love planning big, beautiful events (proof: the Wheatstone conferences). I daydreamed about my wedding as an eight year old. (It'll look much different than I imagined. Much less elfish.) I'm a big fan of traditions, and of making all mothers everywhere as happy as possible.
But my love for designing events and for upholding traditions has had a funny effect: it's made me massively leery of current assumptions about what makes a wedding "right." The lists of what's "necessary" for a good wedding just don't resonate with me. Perhaps they were made to help people who don't know how to design a solemn church service and a smashing party, or perhaps they were made to better subdivide and exploit already distractible and emotionally vulnerable customers' attentions, but in either case, they're being endlessly published and pushed on hapless... well... people like me. My fiancée and I might as well have been pinned up on targets for an army of commercial sharp-shooters!
And the result? It's somehow become "traditional" to center one's wedding around current, personal tastes, and to spend more money than would ever have been commonly deemed acceptable not too long ago. It's somehow become "right" to enlist an army of experts.
But the way to making a good event is almost never marked by massive, pre-fabricated lists. And tradition, by definition, isn't trendy (though nostalgia or an older aesthetic might be). My grandparents didn't do most of this! Why am I expected to, except to feed some of the most lucrative companies in the country?
Because of tradition, and because I love designing events, all of the "THE's," of contemporary weddings are, for me, charitably suspect. It's not that they're bad. I like weddings as they are. No babies are getting thrown out with my bathwater, if I have anything to say about it. But I feel like I must be able to throw a more traditional, more fun party than any of the lists will allow. While spending less money. You follow?
That's where this book comes in. I haven't read it yet, but it boasts an ability to show which wedding traditions are actually traditional, and which conventions are little more than a commercial gimmick to get my pocket change. Hopefully it isn't a big conspiracy theory. Its reviews don't seem to suggest that it is. I hope I get to read a book that evenly, cheerfully looks at nice conventions and parses what people were thinking about when they started them. Hopefully it isn't bitter. Hopefully it's charitable. Hopefully it's ruthlessly honest, too. It should be good fun.
Now, back to the "save the dates."
'Which W. Morris print did you prefer, honey, sugar pea, sweetheart, dear?'
The Iliad, by Homer
I first read The Iliad for a Great Books class in my sophomore year of high school. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a literature teacher, because some books are just so rich and so interesting that I wanted a good excuse to keep revisiting them for years to come. So here I am ten years later, teaching a summer class and reading The Iliad again with my students.
I approach the text so differently than I did as a bright-eyed and intimidated fifteen-year-old, or than I did on my second reading of it as an academically-driven college freshman. I've had a lot of life experience since then, and as a result, I trust my intuitions more when it comes to recognizing things that are important. This time as I read, I'm less interested in fastidiously tracking every theme, or charting out every instance of Hector's helmet flashing (though that's a good thing to chart, if you do read it). Instead, I've enjoyed soaking in the story more restfully, letting its human elements arrest my attention as they will.
The Iliad is centered on the rage of Achilles, the great war hero who refuses to fight in battle after the king, Agamemnon, had seized his hard-earned war prize. Achilles’ fury drives the conflict, climax and resolution of the story. But what I hadn’t pondered until this time reading of the text is that beneath Achilles’ great rage is Achilles’ great dilemma. He had been given an option between a short, glorious life—one filled with the glitz and fame so prized in his culture—and a long, happy, but uneventful life. So here he is in Troy, giving up his chances of peace or longevity and toiling for the one thing he has set his sight on: glory. Agamemnon’s insult to his pride, then, threatens the whole house of cards he has staked his destiny on, and it forces him to question afresh what his life is worth. If he can’t have the glory his culture has always told him he should want, what does he want?
Our culture isn’t that different from Achilles’ in some ways. It is constantly telling us what we should want. My other summer reading has consisted of articles on feminism, women in the workplace, and the work-family balance dilemma. I’m realizing that there has been huge cultural pressure in the past decades, not only that a woman should “have it all,” but that she should want to have it all: the elusive happy-family-and-successful-career combo. Like the war-glory of the ancient Greeks, this superwoman life is the glory that our culture today lauds and tells us to desire. I don’t think I could have seen this connection when I first read The Iliad years ago. But today as I navigate my career and motherhood, I relate to Achilles more than ever before. We both live in societies that tell us what we should want. And I wonder: what does it look like to release my desires from cultural enslavement and cultivate what I actually want? What do I actually want? How might Achilles’ story illuminate my own process?