Reading My Reading

People have frequently asked me to provide in this space a list of the books that have most influenced me or that I would most recommend.  I have hesitated to meet this request for several reasons: first, because different books were important during different stages of my life; second, because many books are significant only in the context of an author’s larger work or in relation to a broader area of interest; and third, because the books that are important to me cover a range of genres that are not always congruous.  I almost feel compelled to make a list for each stage of my life, for each subject area that interests me, and for each genre that makes up my regular reading.

So, I offer the following list, but only with certain caveats: first, I will only include texts that continue to be important to me, though this means that I will exclude some books that were very formative for me in my earlier years; second, I will only include a single text from any particular author, though this is sometimes misrepresentative of an author’s significance to me; third, I will include texts from various genres, however poorly they may seem to combine, for the very simple reason that anything more categorized would be a poor reflection of how I actually read; and fourth, I will let the list remain ridiculously partial, though I hope that it will nevertheless give an idea of the reading that has shaped me.

G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Chesterton may be the greatest writer never to have written a great book. His imagination is unique in my experience, and this particular text is my favourite example of his writing.  There is little that is subtle about Chesterton, least of all the moral of his stories, but his bluntness has an affability about it, and his style is so jovial that his moralizing is somehow enjoyable.  His style can never be mistaken for anyone’s but his own.

Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life
De Certau is the most recent author to have influenced me, and I will likely write more about him in the future. I had read his work on history in my MA, but had not been interested enough even to find out what else he might have written. This fall, however, when I was expounding some point to Don Moore, he suggested that de Certeau had said it all before and recommended that I read The Practice of Everyday Life. It is an eclectic book, sometimes at the expense of coherence, but it also raises some fascinating ideas, and it is a good introduction to the kinds of things that are preoccupying me at the moment.

Jacques Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship
I can hardly overemphasize how significant Derrida has been on my intellectual development. Though I was initially very antagonistic to his ideas, I gradually grew to respect and even love his work. Frequently misused and misunderstood, he needs to be read by a wider audience. The Politics of Friendship was particularly influential on the development of my approach to ethics, and I may be due for a rereading of it in the near future.

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Dillard was forced on me against my will, but I love her. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her first and most widely read book, is a great place to start, but the rest of her work deserves to be read as well, even if it has not received the same kind of critical attention.  Her thinking has a sensitivity and a subtlety to it that proceeds in a way that combines the figurative and the logical and arrives at some compelling conclusions, all in what is essentially a novel.  It is a unique and beautiful book.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot
I had read other novels by Dostoevsky before The Idiot, but none of them had the same nature that it does. I enjoy and respect everything I have read by Dostoevsky, but The Idiot is profoundly disturbing for me in ways that I have difficulty expressing. This book breaks something in me every time I read it, as if it was somehow directed at me specifically.  It is the only book that has ever made me consider learning another language to read it in its original tongue.

Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightening
Dave Humphrey introduced me to Girard, and I did not know what to do with his thinking for some time. Much of his work draws on psychology and anthropology, areas where I do not have any expertise, but he also draws on literature and art and mythology and theology and just about everything else.  This particular book is his most accessible one, and it introduces some of his central ideas, though his academic work is often more radical and provocative.

Ivan Illich’s Rivers North of the Future
Illich is another of the authors that I have discovered through Dave Humphrey, and the one whose thinking has altered my own most forcefully. Illich brings a unique perspective to the analysis of social and political institutions, one that is unrelentingly committed to the human and the relational, to what he calls conviviality.  His work on educational and religious institutions particularly have challenged my own preconceptions and my own practices, and Rivers North of the Future offers a good retrospective on these and some of the the other issues that Illich addressed over the course of his career.

Franz Kafka’s The Trial
Until I read Kafka, I did not know that a Kafka could exist in the world. My understanding of what literature could and should do was entirely overturned the first time that I read The Trial, and I still find it to be a tremendously uncomfortable book. There is a something in it, and in Kafka generally, that is both entirely true and entirely horrific. This truth displaces me somehow, every time I read it, and I find myself captured and terrified by its logic.  I have never encountered anything else quite like it.

Stephen King’s The Gunslinger
I have written before about this book, so I will add only that it broadened substantially my understanding of the possibilities of contemporary popular fiction. Prior to reading it, I would have said that popular fiction has been reduced to genre writing so completely that it is now incapable of producing work that has literary merit. The Gunslinger , however, overturned this idea definitively, and I have since found other isolated examples of similarly interesting work.  I have even been encouraged to explore the possibilities of popular fictions myself.

Emmanuel Levinas’ Ethics and Infinity
If my relationship with Derrida was something of an arranged marriage, my relationship to Levinas was love at first sight. I found in him immediately a thinker who said what my spirit felt to be true in many respects. My theology has benefited more from his writing than from any other single source, though I can only think of him in relation to Derrida and to what Derrida has written about him.  There are several of his texts that I might have chosen here, but Ethics and Infinity will be as good a place to start as any.

C. S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces
I do not overstate the case when I say that Lewis was my introduction to almost everything literary. I loved the Narnian stories as a child, so I read everything of Lewis’ that I could find, which meant that my first exposure to narrative poetry, to theology, to literary criticism, to apologetics, to science fiction, to autobiography, to allegorical fiction, to literary diary, and to collected correspondence, all came through Lewis. Though his thinking no longer influences mine as much as it once did, Til We Have Faces remains one of the books that most haunt my imagination. It is by far the best of Lewis’ novels, which is probably why it is the least read, but I am changing this one recommendation at a time.

George MacDonald’s Lilith
Though he is not read much any more, MacDonald wrote some of the most beautiful fairy tales and children’s stories that I know. Lilith is directed at adults, but it too bears this fairytale quality in its fantasy. It is a strange and unforgettable book, with depths of allusion and allegory that reward careful reading. My students respond more strongly to this text than to any other, and I find myself meditating on it at the oddest times. I love this book, deeply, though I cannot readily explain this emotion, even to myself.

Jean-Luc Marion’s  God Without Being
Marion is a Catholic philosopher, and my own philosophical ground could be said to lie in the tension between his work and that of Derrida. I have read this particular book several times, and I never seem to exhaust it. It is also a good introduction to Marion’s theological thinking as a whole. What I feel most in Marion is a profound sense of sincerity, and I am constantly challenged by the way that he relates to biblical texts and to religious practise.

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
Rushdie is most often mentioned because of his notoriety rather than his literary ability, so I was sceptical of his work when it was introduced to me, but he has become one of my favourite writers. Midnight’s Children is perhaps still my best loved of his novels, but there are several others that I enjoy almost as much, and some of his short stories are fantastic. Even if he does get attention for all the wrong reasons, he rewards this attention in full.

William Shakespeare’s King Lear
Shakespeare is not on my list by default. Though I have always enjoyed his plays, I have never found in them the sort of timeless genius that so many other people claim to find. The exception, however, came on my third reading of King Lear, a reading that I was forced to make for a class on Shakespearean adaptation. As I have written elsewhere, the love test in this play suddenly captivated me, and I could not rid myself of it. It lead me into many other texts and eventually formed the basis of my MA thesis. It still remains a crucial influence of my understanding of ethics.

Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow
I found this book in the laundry room of the University of Guelph’s Family Student Residence, where my wife and I lived during my MA. I had read almost everything else on the shelf before it, because its title and its cover always dissuaded me.  When I finally did decide to read it, however, I finished it right there beside the dryer, even though the laundry had been done for an hour or more. It is an animal allegory, a beautiful and haunting animal story that deserves to be read more than it is.

  1. Isaiah said:

    To be honest, my only exposure to Rene Girard is through CBC’s “Ideas” and wikipedia, but even through that little exposure he has changed completely the way I read the Old Testament.

    Particularly the stories of Abel, Job and the thematic elements of the Psalms.

  2. Isaiah,

    David Cayley, the same guy who did the Ideas series on Girard did a similar series for Ideas on Illich. He has also published interviews with both authors. Anyone that Cayley takes up is usually worth a read.

  3. Isaiah said:

    I’m reading his “Deschooling Society” right now.

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