The Recommendations of an Avid Reader
Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for your 2020 reading list.
When I was young, I assumed that I would work in a bookstore because I enjoyed recommending books so much. The bookstore gig didn’t materialize—at least not yet—but suggesting titles for others and adding the titles that others love to my list is my favorite conversation. I look forward to John Wilson’s annual “Year of Reading” lists, so I can add to my Amazon wishlist.
Never before have I added up the books that I’ve read in a year, but I decided to walk through the list this time to remember those works that have transformed my thought and imagination. To find them all, I scoured my Amazon and Audible orders, my library checkout history, my syllabi from the year, my book reviews online, and those dozen titles piled beside my nightstand. Unless I’m missing some, and without counting the dozens of children’s books (we discovered Jonathon Rogers Wilderking Trilogy this year, which brought me to tears), I’ve read sixty-three books this year. I had to Google to see where I fall in the American average. Apparently, most Americans read approximately four books a year, with avid readers tallying twelve per year. Like most professors, I get to teach and read books for my profession. Not everyone gets to curl up on the couch with Flannery O’Connor and say to her children, “Not now, I’m working.” Apart from those titles that I taught, studied, or reviewed, I’ve read at least nineteen books including six poetry collections. As I reflect on this year of reading, I want to extend my favorite conversation to you and recommend some of these titles, especially those published recently.
At the start of the year, I picked up Leif Enger’s novel Virgil Wander to read in conjunction with a book club, Storied, which meets on Facebook, hosted by Fathom magazine. I remembered reading Enger’s Oprah Book Club selection Peace Like a River from years prior, so I was looking forward to his first new novel in ten years.
To my delight, Enger joined our book club via live stream on
January 30 to answer our questions about the novel. The title character is like Walker Percy’s outsider wanderers, literally suffering from amnesia because of an accident where his Pontiac sails off a bridge into a freezing lake, reminiscent of Percy’s mother’s fatal crash. Percy thought the ideal character would be one whose slate is wiped clean, so he can experience the world afresh, see through the accumulated grime caused by years of advertising, public programming, and commercial liturgies. I asked Enger whether the book was also influenced by Charles Portis’s fiction because it shares the wit and edge of The Dog of the South or True Grit. Because I teach and write on twenty to thirty novels each year, I read very few outside of those, but Virgil Wander was a worthy addition for its humor, delight, and literary feel.
Join Storied, The Fathom Book Club
Three Poetry Collections
While I also teach poetry, I am mostly leading workshops on how to write poetry. We do read a collection each term, and I choose a new one that I’ve never taught: this year, we read Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins. Reading those poems aloud in class, we had to close the door because of the strong language, yet each sonnet raises goosebumps. They all share the same title, in which Hayes makes visceral for readers the threat African Americans face in this country:
Probably someone is prey in all of our encounters.
You won’t admit it. The names alive are like the names
When a white pastor that I know visited an exhibit with one of his black friends, he had a revelation while staring at the portrait of a lynched man: while he could look at the image and say, “I would never do that to someone,” his friend could not say, “That will never be me.” In America, the threat looms over those with dark skin, and Hayes reminds readers of this reality in his poetry. His collection won’t let you move quickly past the pain. Hayes has you sit with it so that the pain changes you.
In April, I read Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, a mixed genre collection that intersperses sketches of sign language between the poems. The collection tells the story that begins when a government seizes control of a town, kills an innocent boy and faces the silent protest of the citizens, willing to die to confront the injustice. Echos from the final poem in the sequence reverberate out of the imaginary town into our own nation:
When the man reaches for his wallet, the cop
shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.
It is a peaceful country.
Like Hayes, Kaminsky showcases the irony between our daily lives of going to “the dentist, / to pick up the kids from school, / to buy shampoo / and basil” and the lurking violence.
And, this past November, from a strong compulsion to find beauty in the midst of my chaotic schedule, I picked up Marly Youmans’s The Book of the Red King. I knew Youmans as a novelist, and her poetry collection shows her narrative flair. These poems switch perspectives between the Fool and the Red King, playing our ways of imagining foolishness, kingliness (“What does it mean to be a king?”), and God. The two characters play icons to one another. In the opening poem, the Red King calls out to the Fool, “My brother and my self, / My mirror, the crack inside my heart!” Reading these stories, one feels caught up in a love story, one that transcends time and space and place and all the limits of this world. There is such beauty in these verses and such fantasy, like strolling through a Chagall painting. In the title poem, the poet questions the book itself, the source of its existence:
And why is this the book of the Red King
When it was plainly written by a fool?
. . . The Fool has done nothing to earnt he book.
The Fool was given a gift, and that is all.
The poet asks the questions that we all ask of ourselves and of our own stories. To read this book is to not simply experience your life as a narrative but also as a poem.
And Some Nonfiction
In addition to literature, I read quite a few nonfiction books that I hope will enlighten me about the strange world we live in and the strange creatures we are. Recently I finished Tara Westover’s Educated; like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the memoir narrates how a person overcomes their educational deficits to fulfill a vigorous vocation. What enthralled me about Westover’s narrative—in addition to its captivating prose—were the underlying questions about the fate of women. Westover was raised in a tradition in which “feminist” was an insult meant to conclude an undesirable conversation and silence the female who dared to present her opinions.
At the same time I was reading Westover’s memoir, I read Kate Bowler’s history of evangelical women, The Preacher’s Wife. At Cambridge University, Westover discovers John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft and must answer the question for herself, “What roles might women have outside of marriage and motherhood?” while Bowler asks in particular for evangelicals, “What is the proper role for women in the Christian church?” Because Bowler writes a history instead of a memoir, The Preacher’s Wife does not designate clear answers. Bowler reveals the irony of church’s who hold the position that women may not be preachers within an American church building, yet these women may be preacher’s wives, who run missionary organizations, preach and teach abroad, care for a church’s finances and budget, and may even speak to a church, if they are seated at a piano or call themselves a “Bible teacher.” Bowler’s well-documented book not only displays the inconsistency between churches that profess certain doctrines but have to negotiate around their staunch position with loopholes and made-up addenda to their rules, but also pokes many holes in the claim that reads one line of Scripture with resolute literal hermeneutic: “women should not hold authority over men.”
Finally, three books that have altered my paradigms about the world this year: Alan Jacobs’s The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and David Brooks’s The Second Mountain: How People Move from the Prison of Self to the Joy of Commitment.
Jacobs’s book casts a shadow over recent turns in higher education away from humanities and liberal arts as core requirements, reminding us that what is at stake is not just—heaven forbid—interesting courses or elitist tradition, but by all accounts, our freedom. When the Axis powers of World War II threated to destroy society with fascist and totalitarian rule, scholars in America, France, and Britain fought the war with the long game in mind: C.S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, W.H. Auden,
T.S. Eliot, and Simone Weil all delivered lectures, wrote poems, essays, or letters, and taught courses designed to reinvigorate the humanities. Why? Because, as Jacobs writes, “a humanistic education that encourages students to think vocationally is in itself a refutation of Fascism—perhaps one of the more lastingly powerful refutations imaginable.”
A book that buttresses Jacobs’s historical chronicle is Epstein’s Range, a mind-boggling book for educators with its litany of anecdotes from history, neuroscience research, and personal interviews. Epstein counteracts all of our most popular myths about specialization: why we need not start training our children when their toddlers, why we should encourage less similarity, slow learning, outside experiences, less grit and more ability to know when to quit, why experts
mis-predict the future, and a half dozen others. For those parents eager to place their four-year-old in piano lessons or hurry their kids through college-prep schools, this book will alleviate all of those unnecessary burdens you’ve added to parenting. For educators of all stripes, this book provides evidence that a major is not a path to success, but that engineers should take painting and poetry, and poets should study chemistry.
As someone who teaches vocation to first-year college students, I want to create a course that requires Jacobs’s, Epstein’s, and Brooks’s recent books. When I mentioned teaching The Second Mountain to undergraduates, a senior faculty member pushed back because he thought the book’s primary audience was those gearing for retirement. I disagree. Whereas Brooks is writing from the perspective of someone who discovered his second mountain in the latter half of his life, imagine the benefit to a twenty-something who can begin the climb sooner. For Brooks, too many people climb their first mountain, which is comprised of “certain life tasks,” such as establishing an identity or cultivating our talents, motivated by “reputation management”: “The goals on that first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses—to be a success, to be well thought of, to get involved into the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness.” Yet, once you arrive on the top of that mountain, surrounded by “all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on,” something unexpected happens that throws off the plan. Or, I would add, the person finds that the top of the mountain is rather lonely, boring, and unsatisfying. Brooks dedicates his book to outlining his climb up the second mountain, the one that seeks to contribute to society, serve other people, pass on truth to the next generation, generally a life for more than one’s self. He cannot help but quote a variety of historical exemplars who spent their lives on the second mountain, people like those whom Jacobs and Epstein also draw from.
Polyphony of Voices
When I consider what I’ve read this year, the only theme I find is the polyphony of voices. What a lackluster life it would be if I saw the world only through my own eyes.
If I could advise everyone with one New Year’s resolution, it would be to read. You need not read the bestsellers; you need not compete and read for quantity of titles. Nor should anyone push through reading a book they are not enjoying because they think they must. Rather than reading for popularity or compulsion, read for humility, empathy, expanded vision, for beauty, for wisdom, for delight. Read because you remember how The Hobbit excited you or Roald Dahl made you laugh. Read because life is short, and the world is big. Read because we all know that love is best and we need more to love with, more words, more grace, more vision.