I’m often asked, “What are you reading?” I suppose if you know me personally (or read my work), you can pretty much guess that there is a hefty stack of books beside the bed (and other parts of the house).
I love when others share what’s on their bookshelf, so I’ve decided that I’ll try and post more regularly at the end of each month what I’m reading or have finished (or, as is most likely the case, have put down indefinitely). Here’s January’s list:
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
If I weren’t facing the task of revising my second book, I’d love to write an essay about writerly self-doubt based on this book, which is a fascinating exploration of four famous Oxford Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, Williams). I loved exploring the literary minutiae of these authors’ lives (C.S. Lewis rarely wrote second drafts, Tolkien endlessly revised and perfected). But if you don’t care about Tolkien’s contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary and the Jerusalem Bible or Lewis’s early narrative poem, Dymer, you might want to pass. It is, after all, 500 pages.
Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre I have been curious to read McEntyre, who teaches English at Westmont College in California, ever since enjoying an essay she wrote years ago for Christianity Today. Her book, What’s In A Phrase: Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause also won a 2015 CT Book Award. (I’ve picked up both books but have only started this one so far.) What I’m probably enjoying most is the wide range of communication she addresses in this book—from reading to marketing to poetry. “Caring for language is a moral issue,” she states early in the book, and though I would have heartily agreed with that before reading this book, she’s helping me to see less obvious implications involved in the careful stewardship of words. As one example, she has an entire chapter dedicated to conversation. “One way to minister to a busy and hurried people is to take, and offer, time for conversation.”
Scape by Luci Shaw. So I told you that I’m trying to read more poetry. Well, I had the privilege of meeting Luci Shaw two years ago at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. She signed my copy of Scape with this lovely inscription: “For dear Jen—God bless your desire to grow and flourish. Fondly, Luci. April 2014.” You might imagine my utter dismay when I couldn’t find the book last summer after the construction crew had repaired and repainted my office ceiling, scattering books and papers to the wind! I’m embarrassed to say that I’m only starting to read Scape now. It is a lovely collection, and I’m hoping to write an essay about reading poetry as a spiritual practice, using her poem entitled, “Catch of the Day.” If you’re like me and feel like a poetry dunce, you’ll find this to be an accessible collection.
Give Me the Word: Advent and Other Poems, 2000-2015 by Laura Merzig Fabrycky. I had the privilege of connecting with Laura when she interviewed me about Teach Us To Want for The Washington Institute’s Missio Lent Series. (You can find that interview here.) We’ve discovered a lot of kinship (not least because she is also a graduate of Wheaton College), so I was happy to buy and begin reading her first collection of poetry. I sent Laura a list of my personal images and lines, but what she doesn’t know is that I read aloud one of her poems, “Object Lesson: Swaddling Clothes” to the children’s ministry workers one Sunday morning in Advent. Building on the image of the startle instinct, Laura describes a world in which we are all falling, a world into which God sent a swaddled Son. It’s exquisite.
The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter. This is another book from which I just read aloud last Sunday to the children’s ministry workers as we prayerfully prepared to serve. I love this translation and commentary and am now reading through it for the second time. Alter is a first-rate Hebrew scholar, and though he isn’t a Christian, his literary and textual insights are very helpful. I won’t go back to reading the Pentateuch in the ESV for several years.
52 Ways of Looking at a Poem: Ruth Padel. If you’re not a subscriber to Books & Culture (and you like both!), you want to be. The essays are really thoughtful, and I’m always finding titles that sound intriguing. As an example, I found Padel’s book in Lauren Winner’s essay, “Why I Read Poetry.” I promptly bought it and have been reading (studying, nearly) the collection of poems. I didn’t understand when I bought it, however, that it exclusively featured British poets—not that I don’t like the Brits, but well, I felt reflexively indignant about the exclusivity of the project (an indignation I did NOT feel reading the title below. Hmpf.) If you want a primer on reading poetry, this is a good one. (I’ve also been recommended Tania Runyan’s, How to Read a Poem, which explores poetry through a Billy Collin’s poem. Standard American fare, if you prefer that.)
The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry, Edited by Rita Dove. It’s not entirely fair to say that I am reading this book. It’s more accurate to say that it is currently borrowed from the library, and I’ve read a handful of poems from the collection (Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov). Anthologies like this can be helpful, however, for finding poetry you like (and understand)!
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Yes, I’m devouring this novel. If it weren’t for five children needing to be fed, I would have finished it already. Wharton describes the social codes of the wealth elite in 1870s New York and the struggle of certain characters to resist those norms. (I’m left wondering why I often cheer for the “bad girls.”)