In 2005 I began keeping a list of every book I read. The official home for that list is now in a Baron Fig Confidant notebook sturdy enough to survive forty or fifty more years of handling.
I read an average of fifty books each year. (I think my highest total was 75 and my lowest was 32, but those were extreme outliers.) One trend I’ve noticed over the years is that I finish more books in January than in any other month. That’s because I start more books—too many books—during the holidays. I’m usually not done with them before the end of holiday break, and so I scramble to finish the previous year’s backlog before starting new ones.
January 2019 was no different. I finished six books and got within just a couple chapters of finishing two others. January’s books included the new novel by Barbara Kingsolver, one book by an Amish farmer, another book inspired by the Amish, and three books by Wendell Berry. Mr. Berry, a mainstay on my reading list for as long as I’ve been keeping it, will—if this is even possible—be more prominent over the next several years, as I read through his collected works for my podcast.
Here’s a bit more about the six books I finished in January:
UNSHELTERED: A NOVEL, by Barbara Kingsolver
Unsheltered tells the interwoven stories of two families, separated by more than 130 years, who live in the same troublesome brick house in Vineland, New Jersey. The modern narrative is about Willa Knox and her husband Iano Tavoularis, who inherit the house. Instead of being a windfall, the house becomes another burden for Willa and Iano (mostly Willa) to manage—along with their faltering careers, an ailing father, a dying dog, a politically radical daughter, and the grandson their own son can’t care for. All this is set against the surreal backdrop of the 2016 election.
Hoping to find some historic preservation funds to pay for desperately needed repairs on the house, Willa, a journalist, begins researching the history of the neighborhood. She discovers a fascinating woman who lived on the same block in the 1870s. Mary Treat was a (real-life) naturalist who studied insects, birds, and plants, and corresponded with many of the greatest scientists of the 19th-century, including Charles Darwin. And this gets to the novel’s second thread.
Unsheltered was a divisive book for our book club. Those members who had the most experience with Kingsolver’s other fiction tended to like this book less. I wasn’t “burdened” with having read acclaimed novels like The Poisonwood Bible or The Bean Trees, and so I enjoyed Unsheltered just fine. I was as drawn to Willa’s heroic if imperfect ordinariness as I was to Treat’s extraordinariness. The situation in which Willa and Iano found themselves in—struggling financially after decades of doing all the “right” things—is one I see all around me in my own community. And I love imagining how my own life may connect to those who lived in my house forty years ago…and those who will live here 130 years from now.
ROUND OF A COUNTRY YEAR: A FARMER’S DAY BOOK, by David Kline
David Kline is an Amish farmer and a bishop in his church. (Not coincidentally, Barbara Kingsolver describes a visit to Kline’s farm in the one book I had previously read by her, the life-changing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Everything that rises must converge.) Written as a series of short journal entries, Kline’s book is an account of one year in the life of his 120-acre Ohio farm. Each entry is fresh and complex. He describes his work, much of which is done with horses, as well as the rhythms of family life, community life, and his non-human neighbors on the farm.
I’ll come right out and say it: I simply loved this book. No sooner had I finished it than I passed it along to a friend. And so it will continue for a while. It was at once lyrical and plainspoken, moving but often quite funny, and always interesting. I have so many friends I wish would read this book.
I was struck by how varied Kline’s days are. This comes out in his descriptions of the diverse creaturely life unfolding on the farm: bees and dragonflies, the endless variety of birds, and so on.
There also seemed to be very little work on Kline’s farm that could be described as “drudgery.” While I’m sure there are tasks Kline doesn’t enjoy, he and his family are farming at a scale that makes even those chores short-lived. Can drudgery endure when you love your work and the place where you do it? When you are pursuing an ideal of flourishing that incorporates elements of health, wholeness, holiness, and beauty? When your work from one day to the next is varied and is done in collaboration with neighbors, friends, and nature? I don’t think so.
The best thing I can say about this book is that it helped me see my own home place more clearly. Inspired by Kline, I put up a rain gauge and bird feeders. Every morning, my daughters and I scatter bird seed outside our backdoor. I had modest expectations for what kinds of birds we would see in the dead of winter, but we’ve surprised and delighted. Our yard is now a haven for dark-eyed juncos, American robins, northern flickers, scrub jays, stellar jays, spotted towhees, Anna’s hummingbirds, and more. One afternoon we watched a red-breasted sapsucker drill holes into a mountain lilac shrub, then observed how the hummingbirds came along behind to drink the sap from the new openings. Many of these birds have been our neighbors for a long time; I just never noticed them until now. Others are newcomers as we try to make our backyard more hospitable for wildness. We can’t wait to see how the bird population changes with the weather.
We also plan to enlist in Kline’s “Monarch Rescue Squad.” The monarch butterfly population is in grave danger. This is due in part to the destruction of the common milkweed, the only plant monarch larvae will eat. Milkweed is found along the side of the road and around the edges of fields. In both cases, they are liable to be mowed indiscriminately or destroyed with Round-Up. This year, California’s migrating monarch butterfly population dropped by a “potentially catastrophic” 86 percent. Kline gave the name “Monarch Rescue Squad” to his family’s practice of rescuing monarch larvae before they can be mowed down. (One of the advantages of traveling on foot, by bike, or by horse, is that you move slow enough to notice a doomed caterpillar on the roadside.) Our household is going to sow milkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants this year to try to do our small part to protect a pollinator species that is beautiful but also worryingly vulnerable.
Two other quick notes: (1) David Kline is the editor of Farming Magazine, one of my favorite magazines. As I recently said on Instagram, we are not farmers, but we are eaters and gardeners and neighbors, and Farming Magazine speaks to our values and to our souls. (2) Not long ago, I purchased The Farm Home Cookbook, written by David Kline’s wife, Elsie Kline. I’ve made several recipes already and they have been delicious. Also highly recommended.
ALMOST AMISH: ONE WOMAN’S QUEST FOR A SLOWER, SIMPLER, MORE SUSTAINABLE LIFE, by Nancy Sleeth
While I disagree with some Amish theology—for example, around the roles of women at home and in the church—I find myself drawn to the Amish in ways that extend beyond, I hope, mere romanticism. This allure is summed up by a Bible verse used by Nancy Sleeth toward the end of Almost Amish:
This is what the LORD says:
“Stop at the crossroads and look around.
Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it.
Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.”
We’re all at that crossroads and every day too. In every moment, we have to decide who or what we want to model ourselves after. When making that decision, the most basic criteria for me is to look at the fruit. If I see a person or tradition whose life is characterized by peace, gentleness, self-control, and care for community and for the land, I take notice. I try to learn more and travel along that “old, godly way” as best and as far as I can.
Sleeth is the Managing Director of Blessed Earth, a creation care organization she co-founded with her husband Matthew. In Almost Amish, she identifies ten Amish principles every Christian should try to emulate:
- Homes are simple, uncluttered, and clean; the outside reflects the inside.
- Technology serves a tool and does not rule as a master.
- Saving more and spending less bring financial peace.
- Time spent in God’s creation reveals the face of God.
- Small and local leads to saner lives.
- Service to others reduces loneliness and isolation.
- The only true security comes from God.
- Knowing neighbors and supporting local businesses build community.
- Family ties are lifelong; they change but never cease.
- Faith life and way of life are inseparable.
Here, Sleeth articulates better than I could many of the aspects of Amish culture I find so attractive.
I liked this book. I guess my one quibble would be the title. Sleeth gives practical advice throughout on how to practice key Amish values in the midst of our non-Amish lives. These practices are important and helpful. Yet they are a far cry from being “almost Amish.” The paradox of the Amish is that these “Plain People” represent one of the most radical shoots of Christianity. There is a chasm between the Amish way and Sleeth’s “almost Amish” way—and an even greater chasm between the Amish way and my own life. Still, books like Nancy Sleeth’s help us travel further down that old, godly way, and for that I am grateful.
THE LONG-LEGGED HOUSE: ESSAYS, by Wendell Berry
FINDINGS: POEMS, by Wendell Berry
OPENINGS: POEMS, by Wendell Berry
I won’t spend much time on these three books, since I discuss them in more detail with my co-hosts in Season 1 of The Membership podcast.
Though it was published in 1969, the essays in The Long-Legged House are strikingly, even disappointingly, relevant fifty years later. Themes include war, racism, the degradation of nature, and the de-humanization of people. The book also includes three essays about coming home—“The Rise,” “The Long-Legged House,” and “A Native Hill”—that are among my favorite pieces written by Berry.
Findings and Openings are both poetry collections. Openings was—try to keep up—the second volume of poetry Berry published, but it comes third in the New Collected Poems, and it is the first of his collections that I really loved. It includes this classic, one of Berry’s most anthologized poems:
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
A long post about a busy reading month. What did you read in January that you really loved? What are you reading now that I should move to the top of my to-read list for February and beyond?