Before I decided in December to take a thirteen-month break from social media, I put apps on my phone and computer to track the quantity of time I was spending on Facebook and Twitter. I was embarrassed by what I discovered.
What those apps couldn’t measure, but I knew instinctively, was the low quality of the hours — yes, hours — I spent each day refreshing my news feeds, arguing online with relatives about politics and religion, and checking and re-checking to see who had liked or shared my latest post.
To fill the vacuum of these newly-available hours, I wanted to be intentional but not overly controlling. Quality would be my standard. I would look for opportunities to be more present with my family and friends, my place, God, and myself. And I would follow my delight.
As I reflect on the last couple months, it’s obvious that most of the time I used to spend on social media has been channelled into two primary activities: making things (mostly with wood) and reading.
The woodworking has come as a surprise, and I’ll talk more about it in future posts, especially as it relates to a current writing project.
The reading isn’t a surprise though. I love reading. I complete 40-50 books per year. (I start and abandon about a dozen others.) But I’m reading even more now, finishing six books in December 2016 and seven last month. I’m also retaining more of what I read.
But I think what I miss most about Facebook, Twitter, and especially Goodreads is exchanging book recommendations with friends who are also passionate readers. As an alternative, I’m going to publish a monthly round-up of my reading. Below are the seven books I read in January 2017.
Have you read a fantastic book lately? If so, please leave it as a recommendation in the comments!
The great 20th-century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once wrote in a poem addressed to God, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And you gave it to me.”
Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, must have the same prayer. She is a poet of wonder. In her poem, “Sometimes,” Oliver famously said:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Her 2009 collection, Evidence, explores similar themes. In the title poem, a kind of apologetic for the astonished life, she writes, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” And in another poem:
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
(from “Mysteries, Yes”)
That’s a good description of why Mary Oliver herself is such good company.
2. SEEKING PARADISE: THE SPIRIT OF THE SHAKERS, by Thomas Merton
I’m going to be reading a lot about craft and creativity in 2017, and I’m going to be reading a lot of Thomas Merton. So it’s fitting that I started the year by reading this collection of Merton’s writings on the Shakers, the Christian sect known for their simplicity and the quality of their craftsmanship. (The remnants of an old Shaker community are situated not far from Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. I visited both a couple years ago.)
According to Merton, the Shakers strived to make chairs good enough for angels to sit in…because someday an angel might actually sit in them. Merton writes, “One feels that for the Shaker craftsmen, love of God and love of truth in one’s own work came to the same thing, and that work itself was a prayer, a communion with the inmost spiritual reality of things and so with God…”
I’m drawn to this theology of craftsmanship, as well as to the possibility that Shaker craftsmanship may have been the perfect distillation of their overall theology. What if the same is unintentionally true for us? What does what we make as a culture, and how we make it, reveal about our deepest-held beliefs about God, the land, and what it means to be human?
Deathly Hallows isn’t my favorite book in the Harry Potter series, and yet it is one of my “desert island” books. J.K. Rowling, who must possess the Elder Wand of storytelling, is at the height of her craft. She wraps up the series masterfully, beautifully, and with new layers of depth and meaning.
I’ve read the book before. But what made this month extra special was that I read it with Molly, my nine-year-old daughter, for her first time. She loved it. The same day we finished Deathly Hallows she picked up Book One to start over again from the beginning.
4. TWENTY POEMS, by John Haines
Twenty Poems is the short but powerful 1971 collection from John Haines, the late poet and Alaskan homesteader. Haines studied art and painting, and at least two poems in the collection are inspired by painters — Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) and Paul Klee (1879-1940). The poem “Ryder” is reproduced below, along with the its inspiration, Albert Ryder’s astonishing painting, “Jonah.”
The moonlight has touched them all…
The dream hulk with its hollows
the ancient helmsman, his handbones
glinting with salt and memory.
Under the sail of sleep, torn and flapping,
night’s crowded whale broaches,
heaving another Jonah
to the shoal of a broken world.
Jehovah’s arm outstretched
like a locust cloud at sea,
and the moon itself,
a pale horse of torment flying…
How should I put this? This was an…aspirational read. We have no fireplace in our home and so have no need for firewood. Which is good because we don’t have access to a forest where I can properly fell a tree. Still, reading Norwegian Wood, I took notes on axes, chainsaws, clean-burning wood stoves, wood stacking philosophies, and sustainable forestry.
Simply put: I was surprised at how thoroughly engrossed I became in a nonfiction book so irrelevant (for now) to my actual day-to-day life.
Vance’s people come from Appalachia. Some still live in Kentucky, while others have moved over the generations to Ohio, looking for better work and more opportunity. Vance gives us an unflinching look at his family, both the good (their fierce loyalty to each other, their love for their home place, the ways in which they bear each other’s burdens) and the bad: poverty, violence, addiction, racism, and the disintegration of families. But everything Vance writes, even the really hard stuff, is infused with a love that I admire. Also, Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw, is one of the fiercest, most lovable, most memorable characters I’ve encountered in a memoir in a long time.
Vance, now a Yale-trained lawyer, wrote an influential article in The Atlantic during the presidential campaign about Donald Trump’s popularity among the white working-class. He also delivered this TED Talk on “America’s forgotten working class.” Hillbilly Elegy is required reading for anyone genuinely curious about some of the people who helped sweep Trump into the White House. The New York Times agrees.
Also, don’t be surprised if J.D. Vance himself runs for national office someday. (You heard it here first.) Think of Hillbilly Elegy as his Dreams from My Father.
7. HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD: PARTS 1 AND 2, by Jack Thorne (play); based on an original story by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne
A couple years ago, Molly asked, “Dad, are we a Harry Potter family or a Star Wars family?”
“I don’t think we have to choose,” I said. “But we’re probably a Harry Potter family.”
My wife and I both love Rowling’s series about The Boy Who Lived. We bought separate copies of Deathly Hallows when it first came out, just so we could read it simultaneously. But I tried keeping my expectations in check for The Cursed Child — the eighth book (actually the script of a play), which takes place nearly two decades after “The Battle of Hogwarts” depicted in Deathly Hallows. Still, I couldn’t help but look forward to reading it.
What a disappointment.
I don’t regret reading Cursed Child, but only barely. The basic premise is interesting — what would it be like to grow up as the youngest son of the most famous wizard in the world? — but that question is explored only shallowly and through a convoluted and tedious plot that threatens to undermine what you most enjoyed about Books Four through Seven. I figured out soon enough why Molly, who read The Cursed Child before me, came out of her room one evening frustrated with the book almost to the point of tears.
Because J.K. Rowling helped conceive of the story, I assume she considers The Cursed Child to be “canon.” I, for one, will do my best to forget it exists. I know just the spell:
DECEMBER 2016 READING LIST
Rather than ending on such a downer, here are the six books I read in December 2016:
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
- Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, edited by Robert Inchausti
- Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality, by J. Brent Bill
- The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor, by Amy Hollingsworth
- Payne Hollow, by Harlan Hubbard
- Do the Work, by Steven Pressfield