I think I’m a pretty avid reader. I mean, not compared to actual avid readers (i.e. people who can devour one or more books within the three week library limit or people who work in the publishing industry) but, generally speaking, I read quite a bit.
Since Andrew started seminary, I’ve challenged myself to read novels that would inspire me to wonder about God, about human nature, and about our place in creation. As we close off 2017, I wanted to share some of my top picks and why I picked them. If you’ve read these already, I’d love to know your thoughts.
And if you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments! 2018 is a new year and I’m looking for recommendations on what to read next!
The Screwtape Letters
Author: C.S. Lewis
Plot in a nutshell: A demon called Screwtape is writing letters to his demon nephew, Wormwood, advising him on how to corrupt the soul of the human to whom he has been assigned. Wormwood’s goal is to secure his subject’s place in Hell by attempting to twist his virtues into vices, convince him that blessings are curses, etc.
Why I picked it: I don’t mean to be dramatic, but The Screwtape Letters actually changed my life. I think about this novel on a daily basis. Whenever I think someone on the subway is intentionally cramping my space, whenever I’m suddenly paranoid over a whispered conversation, whenever I suddenly notice that I’m doing something vicious or unloving, I think: why? What inclined me to think this way? Or, more dramatically, “Get behind me Satan!” Even if you don’t believe in Satan or Hell, I’m guessing everyone can relate to that experience. This book provoked some deeper thinking about sin, human foibles, and the brokenness of our world while also providing some guidance on how to pay attention and stay the course of goodness. If you haven’t read this yet, seriously, read it.
And here is a great blog series on The Screwtape Letters by A Pilgrim in Narnia (one of many great blog series found there!).
The Lord of the Rings
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Plot in a nutshell: Sauron, an immortal villain, created a ruling ring to gain dominion over Middle Earth. The ring comes into the possession of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, who accepts the quest of destroying the ring by casting it into the fire where it was forged to defeat Sauron. But if his quest fails, Middle Earth is doomed.
Why I picked it: The Lord of the Rings is my favourite book of all time, but that’s not why I picked it for this list. I’m on my own kind of quest at the moment (i.e. faith quest). In a recent re-read of this epic novel, I found that the values and beliefs that underpin Tolkien’s world are the very same that underpin my life. The story of Middle Earth became very real, almost a call to action. As Samwise Gamgee once said, there’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for. Most of my favourite moments of the story happen early on, when Frodo is struggling to accept the quest he’s chosen. Particularly, when Frodo wishes the ring never came to him:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
When I was younger, I always thought this passage was about our lifespans and the time given to us in years. But now I realize that it’s also about historical time. We are born into a moment in time and we must decide how to act within that context, whether on the side of good or evil.
In conclusion, I love Tolkien. Once you’re done reading this, read the Silmarillion.
Author: Frederick Buechner
Plot in a nutshell: Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1981, this little book fictionalizes the real life of a medieval hermit (Godric) on his journey of faith.
Why I picked it: After turning the last pages of Godric, I basically had a meltdown. I came up against the wall of my pride. Throughout the novel, Godric is unable to see himself as worthy of God’s mercy. Despite dedicating his life to God, despite his humility, mortification and self-denial, despite healing the sick and even despite being visited by visions of Christ, Godric can only see himself as a self-serving sinner. Finishing this book, it dawned on me that, in general, I think of myself as worthy of God’s love and mercy through my own merit. Oh Lord. Is there a greater sin than that? What a reality check.
“Know Godric’s no true hermit but a gadabout within his mind, a lecher in his dreams. Self-seeking he is and a peacock proud. A hypocrite. A ravener of alms and dainty too. A slothful, greedy bear. Not worthy to be called a servant of the Lord when he treats such servants as he has himself like dung.”
English professor, literary critic and blogger, D.G. Myers has a great description of Godric on the Commonplace Blog
Till We Have Faces
Author: C.S. Lewis
Plot in a nutshell: Lewis retells the myth of Psyche and Cupid through the perspective of Psyche’s older sister, Orual. Because of her beauty, Psyche is sent as a human sacrifice to the god of the mountain (Cupid). Orual attempts to rescue her by convincing Psyche to betray her husband resulting in her banishment and dejection. Orual writes this novel as an accusation against the gods for their injustice.
Why I picked it: To be honest, I am still digesting this book, but that’s why I picked it for this list. In the first half, you’re convinced by Orual’s accusations against the Gods. She loves her sister and she wants to save her. But in the second half, you realize that Orual’s supposed pure and unmixed love was in fact coercion and manipulation fueled by jealousy and selfishness. What’s going on here? Admittedly this could be totally wrong, but I think Lewis is considering what love and desire looks like from a human perspective, and what it looks like from a God’s-eye view in the fullness of time. Caleb Rasmussen wrote in Spectrum Magazine that “Till We Have Faces explores love and its subtle counterfeits and presents the tension between mystery and reason in conceptions of God.” If you have insights on this, please do share!
Waiting for Godot
Author: Samuel Beckett
Plot in a nutshell: Two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the arrival of someone named Godot who never arrives.
Why I picked it: Ok, so I didn’t actually read this play… I saw it at Soulpepper in Toronto with Andrew and two of my dear friends (thanks again, Zach and Chris, for the wedding gift!). I’ve seen a few plays by Beckett but none as profound as this one. For me this play was really called Waiting for God. Where is he? Why doesn’t he come? Will he ever come? Where am I? The characters in the play continue the same routine again and again, yet nothing changes. They are desperate to pass the time, they are unable to determine their fate, and none of their actions – not eating, exercising, talking, thinking – nothing can keep them from having to wait. And for what? The audience certainly doesn’t know, and they don’t seem to know either. The characters seem to represent all humankind, and all of human history, waiting at the whim of their creator. Although dark and hopeless, I took this to be a profoundly Christian depiction of the human experience as a creature of God, almost like Beckett’s prayer of desperation.
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Plot in a nutshell: Countess Anna Karenina, a married noblewoman and socialite, has an affair with the affluent Count Vronsky. The couple, and particularly Anna, is exiled from society, and she grows increasingly possessive and paranoid of Vronsky’s infidelity. Their story is paralleled by the love of Konstantin Levin, a wealthy country landowner, and Princess Kitty. Konstantin has to propose twice before Kitty accepts, but eventually they marry and move to his country home.
Why I picked it: I will keep this short because I don’t pretend to have any understanding of Tolstoy… Basically, I think that Kitty is a Christ-like figure in the sense that she is similar to Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Through his love of Kitty and, eventually, through his love of their child, Levin’s soul is refined and he comes to accept the Christian faith. I thought about their love a lot in preparing for my own marriage. Also, it is without a doubt one of best novels I’ve ever read.
Wishing you all a Happy New Year with many new adventures!