Saturday, December 29, 2007

2007: A Year in Reading (An Essay)

When I was in Divinity School, I took a preaching course taught by two Unitarian Universalist ministers. I remember the advice one of them offered: That to be a good preacher, much less a good minister, you have to be a voracious reader. The instructor’s advice continued, suggesting, if I recall correctly, reading (at least) a book per week in addition to holding a greater than average number of magazine subscriptions and reading the daily paper.

The instructor also recommended that our reading embrace a wide diversity of subject matter. If we only read mysteries or romance novels we better have congregations of people with entirely identical reading interests. We were advised to read fiction, non-fiction, and poetry; books from different cultures; classics and contemporary literature; and books on subjects we knew nothing about and in which we were not in the slightest way interested.

One day in class we were assigned to write a brief paragraph about the most recent book that we had read that was not assigned for an academic class. I wrote about the then brand-new David Leavitt novel Martin Bauman: or, a Sure Thing about the coming-of-age and rise to success of a young gay writer. (Leavitt will come up later in this essay.) The instructor responded that I might read something more "substantial."

I will admit that my magazine and newspaper reading tends to lag. But, then again, the preaching instructor said nothing about on-line magazines and blogs, which I do read voraciously.

My goal for 2007 was to read 52 books, to average a book per week. What follows is my year in books more or less chronologically. Click here for the full list.

Addicted to Eggers
When I find an author I like, I tend to read his or her catalogue of works in their entirety. In 2006 I read all eight titles by David Foster Wallace which included two novels, three short-story collections, two collections of essays, and an impenetrable (to me) book on the mathematics of infinity. In 2007, it was another Dave: Dave Eggers. In 2008, maybe I’ll continue this pattern and read everything by David Sedaris.

I approached Eggers in 2007 the same way I approached Wallace a year earlier. Wallace’s magnum opus is the 1,079 page novel Infinite Jest. In order to warm up and prepare myself, I first read one of Wallace’s collections of essays. Eggers’ most well-known book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, comes in at 482 pages. Was I ready to be heartbroken and staggered? I decided to ease into Eggers by first reading his around-the-world-in-eight-days novel You Shall Know Our Velocity! With a taste for Eggers, I moved on to A.H.W.O.S.G. and then his short story collection How We Are Hungry. I finished these just in time to pick up his heart-rending novel What is the What. Written as the autobiography of a true-to-life Sudanese lost boy named Valentino Achak Deng, What is the What is a haunting and deeply affecting book. Over the course of reading it, at least ten times it moved me to such tears that I literally had to put the book down and take a walk around the block before I was emotionally ready to continue reading.

How are we hungry? For more Eggers! I soon discovered that Eggers was the founder of McSweeney’s, an exemplary and experimental literary quarterly of contemporary short stories. I decided to subscribe; the first issue I received was number 24. I also decided it might be worth it to go back and read the first 23 issues. At a rate of one issue per month, I would be caught up within two years. I began in April and by the end of December I had read issues 1, 2, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 24, and 25. These collections of short stories and experimental writing by contemporary authors range in size from 137 pages (volume 1) to 463 pages (volume 22) although, as the pictures below will indicate, counting pages isn’t exactly easy.

McSweeney’s volume 17 (above) is packaged in the form of junk mail.

McSweeney’s volume 19 (above) contains several short stories, a novella by T.C. Boyle, and reprints of government pamphlets and documents (including George W. Bush’s dental records from 1973) piled inside of a makeshift cigar box.

I could write pages upon pages about McSweeney’s. Allow me to say that it is a treat to get to read brilliant, quirky, cutting-edge, experimental literature. While I can’t do justice to the 10 volumes I read in 2007, let me give a brief list of the plots of just a few of the stories.
● A story about attempting to find love written in the form of a diary of a character inside the Oregon Trail video game. (Volume 25)
● A young man trying to impress a young woman decides to play hero during a hostage situation at a fast food restaurant. (Volume 24)
● A lion lays down with a giraffe in Africa. (Volume 22)
● KU professor of creative writing Deb Olin Unferth writes about Deb Olin Unferth. (Volume 18)
● A history of suburban Sasquatch in Southern California (Volume 17)
● Pia Z. Ehrhardt writes about a southern woman contemplating adultery. (Volume 16)
● A haunting story in the voice of a precocious patient in a pediatric cancer ward. (Volume 14)
● Giant capybaras roam across Sicily. (Volume 2)
● Egotistical architects engage in intellectual battles… in Marfa, Texas! (Volume 2)
● Famous U.S. Supreme Court decisions are diagrammed as basketball plays. (Volume 2)

Beyond Eggers
In 2007 I did read more than publications from Eggers’ literary empire. In early 2007 I read Sharon Salzberg’s The Force of Kindness. An American Buddhist nun with a retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts, Salzberg writes accessibly about Buddhist principles. It was a treat to revisit her writing as I had heard her speak in June 2006.

I also opened up some volumes of poetry this past year beginning with a tour de force anthology edited by Roger Housden called Risking Everything: 110 poems of Love and Revelation. This collection does not lack for power. It is sort of a collection of poetry’s greatest hits. Just consider a few of the poets he includes: Wendell Berry, e.e. cummings, Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Seamus Heany, Mary Oliver, T.S. Eliot, and William Wordsworth. Previously, Housden had published short, popular anthologies with titles like 10 poems to change your life, 10 poems to last a lifetime, 10 poems to open your heart, and 10 poems to set you free. These anthologies contain the poems and then brief essays on what they teach. I’m torn. On one hand, the canonization of the major poets might make it difficult for more obscure poets to get noticed. On the other hand, poetry is not exactly doing so well right now and any attempt to get people to read more poetry is commendable.

Following the Housden anthology, I felt inspired to pick up a major poet I had somehow never previously read. T.S. Eliot came from a family of elite New England Unitarians but renounced this heritage, moved to England, and became Anglican. As a side note, one of my friends at Harvard got to live in the same dorm room where Eliot had lived a century earlier. Her door actually had a plaque on it, announcing, “T.S. Eliot lived here 1907-1908.” Incidentally, this same friend also briefly dated James Iha, the guitarist for the Smashing Pumpkins. When she told me, I didn’t believe her. So, she took out her cell phone and called him up. He answered as he was about to enter a recording studio in Chicago and I got to talk on the phone for two (awkward) minutes with a Smashing Pumpkin!

So, I read Eliot’s Four Quartets and The Wasteland. Reading these made me feel like I should be taking a college-level literature class. I found The Wasteland to be practically impenetrable and not much fun. Four Quartets, while also coded, is transcendent – the unfolding of a powerful mystical vision.

The Prodigal Reader
One morning in late February as I dropped by Muddy’s, my local coffee shop, I ran into my friend John Herron, a history professor at UMKC. He was reading a thick book with the image of a threadbare American flag on the cover. I recognized it instantaneously. It was Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. I told him that I had once started it, but abandoned it. He told me that there was no good excuse for that; it is a great book. I actually think I did have a good excuse. My copy was originally given to be (along with a $250 gift certificate!) when I concluded a student ministry at a church in Boston. I took the book with me during my internship year in Texas where I tried it out as poolside reading. This book is not poolside reading! And then it got dropped in the pool. I honestly don’t remember whether this was intentional or not, but on a subconscious level, I AM sure. If you visit my office at the church, you can see the water-warped copy for yourself.

There are not many books I’ve abandoned in my life: Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment when I was 15; Michale Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (twice); Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove; and Christopher Moore’s Lamb are the only ones that come to mind. All of them I mean to come back to at some point in my life.

I came back and this time I loved The Metaphysical Club. It is about the intellectual life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey and how these pragmatists were instrumental in changing the way Americans thought about freedom and diversity during the post-Civil War era and through the beginning of the twentieth century. While intellectually demanding, this book is chock full of fascinating anecdotes describing the changing thinking in the United States following the civil war. For example, they describe a court case involving a likely-forged will. Charles Pierce appears as an expert witness and tries to use statistics to prove the impossibility of identical signatures. The jury is incapable of understanding that math could tell them anything about signatures!

Around the time that I was reading The Metaphysical Club I also read two books by Christopher Hedges in preparation for a Memorial Day sermon. These two books work well together. In War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, Hedges waxes philosophical while also sharing details of his time spent as a correspondent during the wars of the last quarter century. By contrast, What Every Person Should Know About War is presented in a stark question and answer format that lacks embellishment, philosophizing, or descriptiveness. Each book is powerful, one for its direct simplicity and the other for its relentless humanization of such a powerful de-humanizing force.

Apropos of Nothing
Sometime during the first half of 2007 I also read J.D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey. I found is respectable but not spectacular. I’m completely at a loss for what else to say about it, as I can’t think of how it relates to anything else I’ve read or done this year. I suppose that most of us can make a list of books we think we should have read. Well, I guess I get to cross one of those books off the list.

Summer Fun and Summer Fluff
Now we come to what I call fun, summery reading. Back in June of 2005 I got hear Nick Hornby speak at the Chicago Book Fair. I had loved the movies based on his books, but wasn’t expecting much from the books themselves. I was greatly impressed by his talk and immediately set out to read his books. By the end of that summer I had read his three fantastic novels (How to Be Good, About a Boy, and High Fidelity), his one atrociously bad novel (A Long Way Down), his soccer-fanatic memoirs (Fever Pitch), and a collection of short stories he edited called Speaking with the Angel. In terms of interesting connections, my favorite piece in Speaking with the Angel is the immensely creative short story “After I was thrown into the river and before I drowned” by Dave Eggers. This was the first piece of Eggers’ writing I had ever read and a foreshadowing of reading to come.

This summer I decided to finish off Hornby’s oeuvre by reading all three of his books of critical essays. These books include two collections of columns he writes for The Believer magazine (published by Eggers’ McSweeney’s, by the way) and his book Songbook in which he writes about his favorite songs. I find Hornby to be as gifted a critic as he is a novelist. The Believer column is a simple idea that he makes fresh and fascinating. He begins the column by listing all the books he has purchased in the past month and all the books he has read in the past month and then writes a critical essay about them. The two collections – The Polysyllabic Spree and Houskeeping vs. The Dirt – consist of approximately three years’ worth of his columns. Reading these columns led me to add dozens of books to my “to-read” list.

Here is where we start to get lots of intersections between these books. Hornby has an autistic son and the proceeds from Speaking with the Angel go to benefit a school in London for children with autism that he started. (Half the proceeds from The Polysllabic Spree also go to the school with the other half going to a center for young writers being opened in New York City by the good folks at McSweeney’s.)

I paid particular attention to Hornby’s thoughts about Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book written from the point of view of an autistic teenager, because autism is so close to Hornby’s life. I found Haddon’s book to be compelling, quirky, and endearing while also bothersome because Haddon’s protagonist seems at times to be too competent. I worry about its effects on the parents and family members of those with autism. Hornby’s review is equally as mixed. He finds the book “absorbing, entertaining, [and] moving” while at the same time he admits to being bothered by the protagonist’s ability to overcome his own severe limitations by the sheer application of will-power.

The rest of my summery reading included three books by Sarah Vowell and two books by long-time favorite authors of mine written outside of their usual genres.

First up was NPR commentator Sarah Vowell’s Assassiantion Vacation, a unique piece of travel writing about places and people connected with the murdered presidential triumvirate of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. I followed that up by reading The Partly Cloudy Patriot, a book of essays dealing with her complicated feelings about American history and being an American, and then her autobiographical essays contained within Take the Cannoli. Vowell, a regular NPR commentator and the voice of Violet in The Incredibles is one of the most quirky and hilarious writers around. Her essay about taking driving lessons from Ira Glass had me stifling tears of laughter.

Unusual Books by Two of My Favorites
Before it was time to go back to work in August I read two books by a pair of authors I deeply admire: A.M. Homes and David Leavitt. I originally encountered A.M. Homes when I read her short story “Raft in Water, Floating” in the June 1999 issue of the New Yorker. From there I went on to read her two brilliant collections of short stories The Safety of Objects and Things You Should Know as well as her conceptual, anti-suburban novel Music for Torching and her deeply-disturbing and graphic Lolita-meets-Charles-Manson novel The End of Alice. I discovered a new Homes title while browsing at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts while on the Coming of Age pilgrimage to Boston. The Mistress’ Daughter is a memoir. Homes was adopted at birth. Her biological parents were a sleazy married businessman and his underage mistress. In her early twenties, Homes was contacted by her biological parents. Her book is a rich reflection on identity, family, genealogy, and the rights of adopted children.

I first read David Leavitt when I was assigned his short-story “Territory” in a high school English class. That short story, about a gay young man taking his partner home to meet his parents for the first time, produced one of the most memorable and powerful experiences in my public school education. Years later, I picked up Leavitt’s short-story collection Family Dancing, his collection of three novellas published under the title Arkansas, and the afore-mentioned novel Martin Bauman. About a year and a half ago I discovered that Leavitt had authored a book about the life of Alan Turing. This book is a part of W.W. Norton’s Great Discoveries series in which well-known authors are enlisted to explain complex mathematical and scientific discoveries in a manner accessible to non-scientists. From this series I had previously read David Foster Wallace’s book about Georg Cantor’s mathematical work on infinity.

Leavitt’s The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer is an accessible glimpse into Turing’s remarkable and tragic life. Leavitt is particularly sympathetic to Turing’s homosexuality and advances a creative hypothesis about the connection between Turing’s sexual orientation and his academic focuses. Before Turing’s suicide in his early forties he had, among other things, developed a tremendously creative proof of the insolubility of the Entscheidungsproblem, led the team responsible for cracking the Nazi enigma code at Bletchley Park during WWII, designed the world’s first computer, and pioneered the concept of artificial intelligence. Despite being one of the 20th century’s greatest minds, Turing was prosecuted under England’s anti-homosexuality laws and soon thereafter committed suicide.

Despite the tragedy Turing’s life, one of the more humorous realizations I had while reading this book was that I regularly face the insoluble problem of mathematical logic known as the Entscheidungsproblem. Suppose I am sitting at Muddy’s Coffeeshop working diligently on my sermon and suppose I need to use the restroom. Rather than go through the hassle of packing up my laptop to take to the restroom, I might ask my neighbor at the table next to mine if they would be willing to watch it for a minute. So, I ask my neighbor if they are trustworthy. Logically, the only answer they can give is “Yes.” If they are trustworthy they will tell me the truth. If they are not trustworthy they will lie and say that they are. It is impossible for them to answer that they are not trustworthy because that answer is a logical fallacy. Either they are trustworthy and they are lying about it, thus making them untrustworthy, or they are not trustworthy but telling me the truth about it which makes them trustworthy. The Entscheidungsproblem (to simplify it greatly) deals with whether we can find out for certain whether a person is telling the truth or lying by asking them a single question like this. We can’t. We have Turing to thank for proving the insolubility of this dilemma. Oh yeah, he also played an instrumental role in defeating the Nazis and invented the first computer.

Reading as Spiritual Practice
The calendar turned to August and church work picked up in earnest. I began the new church year by committing to a brand new spiritual practice. The UUA publishes a wide array of meditation manuals, most of which are written my ministers. These manuals contain 30 to 50 reflections, most of which are two or three pages long. I decided to begin each morning by reading one or two of these meditations and spending a few minutes in silent reflection on their significance and relevance to my life and ministry. I know this is a simple spiritual practice, but it one that I have been able to keep daily without fail for five months, so that is worth something. The first meditation manual I selected was Amethyst Beach by Barbara Merritt. Of all the meditation manuals I’ve perused over the years, this one ranks right at the top, along with Jane Rzepka’s A Small Heaven and Nancy Shaffer’s Instructions in Joy. (In late October I mentioned this practice to Jane Rzepka who sent me a copy of her meditation manual. I’d already read it about ten times, but am thankful for her gift.)

I continued this spiritual practice by picking up Delights & Shadows, a volume of Ted Kooser’s poetry. Ted Kooser is the Poet Laureate of the United States and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. I think the word that best describes his poetry is “nostalgic.” For that reason, I’ve always found it slightly inaccessible even though he writes extremely plainly and straightforwardly. I found spending time with his poetry rewarding this time, because I forced myself to sit with it.

I continued my daily spiritual practice by reading meditation manuals by Robert Walsh, Mary Wellenmeyer, and Meg Barnhouse. Despite having written at least a half-dozen books of spiritual writing, I had never read anything by Barnhouse. Since I sat next to her when I received Final Fellowship at the UUA General Assembly in Portland, I knew I had to read her. She is a hoot!

Barnhouse occupies an interesting niche in the genre of spiritual writing. It is a niche she shares with authors like Anne Lamott and Sark: outrageous, quirky women who approach spirituality with a no-holds-barred, no-subject-off-limit attitude. I love this genre.

However, I despised the book by the latest author trying to join the club. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was easily the worst book I read during 2007. In this book, Gilbert goes through a tough divorce and then sets off to heal herself, receiving a book deal to spend four months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia. Hers was not so much a spiritual pilgrimage as an exercise in selfishness. In India she agonizes about her meditation practice at a tourist-y Ashram but never says so much as a word about disease or poverty. In Indonesia she does do her good deed for the year. She buys a house for a local friend of hers. She writes her New York writing friends to raise money and together they come up with around $15,000. Her fifty friends are able to just barely raise the needed funds. This does not say much about her friends. If I felt moved to do the same act of charity, I could come up with the cash on my own, even though it would be a bit of a sacrifice. I guarantee you Elizabeth Gilbert is leaps and bounds ahead of me financially, not to mention the wealth of her circle of friends.

That is what bugs me about Eat, Pray, Love: Italy, India, Indonesia. I, I, I. Me, Me, Me. Maybe she can do a sequel in which she travels to Ireland, Iceland, and Indiana. How different a book it would have been if she spent a year in Uganda, Uruguay, and Uzbekistan! (U-U-U; You-You-You) Imagine a year spent working with women fighting for gender equity in Uruguay, doing AIDS prevention education in Uganda, and using her tremendous writing skills to bring to light human-rights abuses in Uzbekistan. Which of these books would be more spiritually-liberating? Feel free to argue with me here.

Sermon Reading
During the course of a year, I always read a number of books for the purpose of sermon-preparation. Here are some links to sermons based on books I read in 2007:
● Two books by Christopher Hedges deeply informed my Memorial Day service.
● I preached a sermon in September based on Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy.
● In October I read an anthology of Gandhi’s writings for a sermon on his life.
● In November I read two books about Mother Teresa for a sermon on her life.
● In December I read two books about Depression for my sermon on the same theme.
● Finally, I will end the year by preaching a sermon based on Michelle Huneven’s novel, Jamesland.

Four Books Recommended to Me
Every year I try to read a book on business. SMUUCh member M.L. gifted me with a copy of The Halo Effect, which surveys previous decades of writing about what makes for successful companies and shows how all of those books are methodically flawed. I found it interesting not so much because I care about what makes IBM or WalMart successful or unsuccessful, but because the ways of thinking the book exposes are traps that we all fall into in other areas of life. How do we measure success in church life for instance?

Another church member, E.A., lent me her copy of Grave Matters which was a great read. Who knew that the environmental impact of the funeral industry could make for such compelling reading? I continue to be amazed by the concept of the burial reef, in which a person’s “cremains” are mixed with concrete and sunk in an area where environmentalists are attempting to rebuild the diversity of aquatic life.

A third church member, T.K., loaned me Roberta Gilbert’s Extraordinary Leadership, a book on Bowen family systems and ministerial leadership. Every minister learns Bowen family systems in seminary, but these concepts are easily forgotten. I try my best to stay current by reading a refresher book every year.

Along with the entire Church Board I read Thomas Bandy’s provocative book Kicking Habits about how to help churches to become transformational. (Thank you, Ron Robinson and Angela Merkert for turning me on to Bandy.) For a class on UU theology I read George Beach’s Questions for the Religious Journey. The class unanimously agreed it discouraged them from theological inquiry.

Two Books I Recommend
If you know anybody in their 20’s and 30’s I suggest you buy two copies of Strapped by Tamara Draut, one for them and one for you. This book brilliantly describes the economic context in which today’s 20- and 30-somethings try to make a life, the history of how this context came to be, and a prophetic call to action. The book is a bit heavy on the statistics, to its own detriment at times, but it completely reshaped my own understanding of how my generation deals with personal finance.

The second book I recommend is by Ben Nugent who happened to live in the dorm next to mine when I was a freshman at Reed College. Ben Nugent’s biography of the tragic life of folk-rock singer Elliott Smith is sympathetic, insightful, and a worthy tribute to one of the 1990’s greatest musical geniuses.

Bear V Shark & U.S.!
The last word in this sprawling diary of books I read in 2007 goes to two extremely creative novels by Chris Bachelder. In Bear V Shark, the entire nation is experiencing BvS mania. The book asks the great philosophical question, “Given a relatively level playing field – i.e., water deep enough so that a Shark could maneuver proficiently, but shallow enough so that a Bear could stand and operate with its characteristic dexterity – who would win in a fight between a Bear and a Shark?” (It really is a book about mass consciousness, media spectacle, etc.) While reading this experimental novel I conducted my own poll. I found that 90% of people choose the bear, thus displaying a clear mammalian bias. I am a shark man. No, I will not tell you how it ends!

The second novel by Chris Bachelder is even weirder. U.S.! has a triple entendre. It stands for the United States. It stands for us. And it stands for Upton Sinclair, the turn of the century American novelist and socialist. In Bachelder’s novel, Sinclair is repeatedly resurrected only to be assassinated by right wing Americans. The book is an allegory for the dashed hopes and resurrected hopefulness of the American left through the 20th century. Brilliant!

Turning to 2008
Before me sits a stack of books I aspire to read in 2008. First among them is a debut novel Bowl of Cherries by 90-year-old Millard Kaufman. Ask me in about a week what I thought of it.

And, in case you are interested, here are my ten favorite contemporary authors:

1) David Foster Wallace
2) Dave Eggers
3) Nick Hornby
4) Marilynne Robinson
5) A.M. Homes
6) Chris Bachelder
7) Sarah Vowell
8) David Leavitt
9) Pia Z. Ehrhardt
10) Anne Lamott