Tag Archives: books

The Best Book You (Almost) Never Read

Maybe it’s the book you rescued from a yard sale, or the one you left abandoned on a shelf for years because the cover was awful.  Maybe it’s one that was mis-shelved at the library right between two of your favorites, and you found yourself looking at it on a whim.  Maybe you happened to hear two people randomly mention it within a few days of each other and then saw a copy on a friend’s coffee table.

Sometimes the best books are the ones we almost never read.

It’s definitely true in the publishing world that many of the most legendary classics are books that almost never saw the light of day…

Poems by Emily Dickinson, discovered after her death.

An unusually fat grade-school novel by an unknown writer rejected 12 times in a row (Harry Potter).

A quirky little picture book about some tea-drinking bunnies that was self-published because no one else wanted it (Peter Rabbit).

Even Moby Dick reportedly sold only 50 copies during Melville’s lifetime.

If you’ve ever read a book by Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, James Patterson, Madeleine L’Engle, Louis L’Amour, Dr. Seuss, or Margaret Mitchell, you’ve met an author in those pages whose books narrowly escaped dying in a dresser drawer, unpublished.  And it’s not just fluff fiction:  books by Chinua Achebe, E.E. Cummings, Jack Kerouac, William Golding, Alice Walker, James Joyce, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Yann Martel have been insulted, misunderstood, and unceremoniously shot down time and again.  And some that were printed in the author’s lifetime moldered on the bookstore shelves until the writer was dead and gone for decades (ever heard of Jane Austen?)

Aspiring writers often moan about the devilish catch-22 of getting anything published without platform when platform is so hard to achieve if you haven’t been published.  But our problem is hardly new to the internet age.  (Joseph Heller himself felt it, too.)  Loads of manuscripts pile up on publishers’ desks, and the poor guys/gals have to sort through the Pulitzers and the drivel without the help of a crystal ball.  They’re searching for the needle in a papery haystack.

At Blackwell’s in Oxford, I saw a great display of books wrapped in brown paper with just a handwritten teaser on the front.  “Wildly imaginative story about a shipwreck, a tiger, and the meaning of life.”  “One victim, a dozen suspects, all stranded on a luxury train in a blizzard.”  “A puzzle book written in exquisite prose, perfect for fans of so-and-so.”  What a super idea!  Pick the book blind, not for its reputation or its famous author or its fancy cover art; let it speak on its own terms.

Last year my reading resolution was to review the books I read (on Goodreads, Amazon, wherever).  What if next year’s reading resolution went something like this:  for every book I read because I already know and love the author I’ll try one by someone unknown?  For every bestseller I’ll browse the shelves for one I’ve never heard of?

What if we don’t let the big shots in New York dictate what we’ll read this year, but look for the treasure in the brown paper bag?

You can click on my Want-to-Read pile at Goodreads for some inspiration if you want.  But I’m on the lookout, too, so give me your best suggestions below.  What’s a book we’ve never heard of that you know we’d all love?

What’s the best book you almost never read?

Photo on Visual hunt

Book Nook: High School Edition

So my oldest two kids are enrolled in a dual-credit high school/ community college English class.  Imagine my surprise when they weren’t assigned any books the first quarter!  Well, turns out it’s more of a rhetoric and analysis class, ergo, no books.  Wanting them to please, for the love of Pete, PUT DOWN THE DEVICE AND READ, I made them a list for the sole ugly purpose of bribery.

Read one of mine, and I’ll buy you one of your choice.  Read ten of mine, and I’ll give you Big Bucks.

It occurs to me that many of you might face the same dilemma and wonder where to start.  What are the great classics worth reading?  Which books are the right combination of challenging and “hooking,” as my kids like to say — which ones are entertaining enough to overcome reluctant readers?  Which ones are a pretty safe bet for a PG read?  And some of you might just want a new audio book from the library to pass the time while driving.  Here ya go.

I offer the following list with a disclaimer:  I have not read every single title on this list.  Out of 99, I have read 56 of these, many others by the same authors, and chunks of several listed.  Those I haven’t read made the cut either because I’ve heard glowing reviews or because they are on my own lifetime I-really-oughta-read-this list.  Use your own discretion.

Most of these are novels, ranging from old school classics to science fiction.  There are short stories, plays, nonfiction, and poems as well.  Some of them are more enlightening than entertaining, and a sprinkling are more entertaining than informative.  (I think it’s a crime to make reading something your kids will dread.)  I didn’t bother to list the books my kids gravitate toward on their own; the point of this list is to stretch them.  Some come from a very different world view than my own, and are important for digesting/ discussing/ interacting with.  The last part of the list are explicitly Christian books (you can see where the alphabetizing starts over).  These are just a sampling from my pastor husband’s shelf — a few of the most accessible ones.  There would be another whole list for a slightly older or younger group — these were my best guesses for kids 14-18.

I didn’t bother to alphabetize the titles, just the authors, so don’t hate.  If you catch a mistake, let me know.  And please, from one reader to another, leave more must-reads for high schoolers in the comment box below!

99 Books for A Rainy Day

  1. Alcott, Louisa May:  Little Women
  2. Austen, Jane:  Pride and Prejudice
  3. Austen, Jane:  Sense and Sensibility
  4. Austen, Jane:  Emma
  5. Babbitt, Natalie:  Tuck Everlasting
  6. Barrie, JM:  Peter Pan
  7. Berry, Wendell:  Fidelity
  8. Brontë, Charlotte:  Jane Eyre
  9. Brontë, Emily:  Wuthering Heights
  10. Card, Orson Scott:  Ender’s Game
  11. Cather, Willa:  My Antonia
  12. Chesterton, GK:  The Best of Father Brown
  13. Christie, Agatha:  Murder on the Orient Express
  14. Conrad, Joseph:  Heart of Darkness
  15. Crane, Stephen:  The Red Badge of Courage
  16. Defoe, Daniel:  Robinson Crusoe
  17. Dickens, Charles:  Oliver Twist
  18. Dickens, Charles:  A Christmas Carol
  19. Dickinson, Emily:   Poetry
  20. Dillard, Annie:  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  21. Dillard, Annie:  An American Childhood
  22. Doig, Ivan:  Sweet Thunder
  23. Du Bois, WEB:  The Souls of Black Folk
  24. Enger, Leif:  Peace Like a River
  25. Equiano, Olaudah:  The Life of Olaudah Equiano
  26. Frank, Anne:  Diary of Anne Frank
  27. Frost, Robert:  Poetry
  28. Gladwell, Malcolm:  Outliers
  29. Golding, William:  Lord of the Flies
  30. Griffin, John Howard:  Black Like Me
  31. Grisham, John:  A Time to Kill
  32. Hawthorne, Nathaniel:  The Scarlet Letter
  33. Hemingway, Ernest:  A Farewell to Arms
  34. Hemingway, Ernest:  The Old Man and the Sea
  35. Henry, O:  Short Stories of O. Henry
  36. Herriot, James:  All Creatures Great and Small
  37. Homer:  The Iliad
  38. Homer:  The Odyssey
  39. Hurston, Zora Neale:  Their Eyes Were Watching God
  40. Huxley, Aldous:  Brave New World
  41. Keyes, Daniel:  Flowers for Algernon
  42. King, Jr., Martin Luther:  Letter from a Birmingham Jail
  43. Lee, Harper:  To Kill a Mockingbird
  44. L’Engle, Madeleine:  A Ring of Endless Light
  45. Lowry, Lois:  The Giver
  46. McCullough, David:  1776
  47. McCullough, David:  The Wright Brothers
  48. Miller, Arthur:  Death of a Salesman
  49. Mortenson, Greg:  Three Cups of Tea
  50. Orwell, George:  Animal Farm
  51. Paterson, Katherine:  Jacob Have I Loved
  52. Paton, Alan:  Cry, The Beloved Country
  53. Potok, Chaim:  The Chosen
  54. Ransome, Arthur:  Swallows and Amazons
  55. Rawls, Wilson:  Where the Red Fern Grows
  56. Remarque, Erich Maria:  All Quiet On The Western Front
  57. Sayers, Dorothy:  Lord Peter
  58. Shaara, Michael:  The Killer Angels
  59. Shelley, Mary:  Frankenstein
  60. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr:  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  61. Steinbeck, John:  Of Mice and Men
  62. Stevenson, Robert Lewis:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  63. Stevenson, Robert Lewis:  Treasure Island
  64. Stowe, Harriet Beecher:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  65. Swift, Jonathan:  Gulliver’s Travels
  66. Twain, Mark:  Huckleberry Finn
  67. Washington, Booker T:  Up From Slavery
  68. Weisel, Elie:  Night
  69. Wilde, Oscar:  The Importance of Being Earnest
  70. Wilder, Thornton:  Our Town
  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich:  Cost of Discipleship
  2. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich:  Life Together
  3. Bunyan, John:  Pilgrim’s Progress
  4. Chan, Francis:  Crazy Love
  5. Cymbala, Jim:  Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire
  6. Elliott, Elisabeth:  Shadow of the Almighty
  7. Graham, Billy:  Just As I Am
  8. Hayes, Dan:  Fireseeds of Spiritual Awakening
  9. Keller, Timothy:  Generous Justice
  10. Keller, Timothy:  A Reason for God
  11. Lewis, CS:  The Screwtape Letters
  12. Lewis, CS:  The Space Trilogy
  13. Lewis, CS:  Till We Have Faces
  14. Little, Paul:  Know What You Believe
  15. Little, Paul:  Know Why You Believe
  16. McDowell, Josh:  More Than a Carpenter
  17. Mextaxas, Eric:  Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
  18. Packer, JI:  Knowing God
  19. Piper, John:  Don’t Waste Your Life
  20. Perkins, John:  With Justice for All
  21. Platt, David:  Radical
  22. Reeves, Michael:  Rejoicing in Christ
  23. Reeves, Michael:  Delighting in the Trinity
  24. Richardson, Don:  Eternity in their Hearts
  25. Tolkien, JRR:  Lord of the Rings
  26. Tozer, AW:  The Pursuit of God
  27. Tozer, AW:  Knowledge of the Holy
  28. Ten Boom, Corrie:  The Hiding Place
  29. Yancey, Philip:  The Jesus I Never Knew

DIY Degrees: 18 Books for a Year of Thinking Christianly

If wishes were horses, beggars could go to Denver Seminary.  Alas, my horsiest wishes have not given me a wallet of fat cash to go back to school at the moment, but if I could, I would love to take classes on Christ and culture, philosophy, apologetics, and theology.  I’d take classes on Christianity and the arts, poetry, worldview, the Inklings.  In point of fact, I have listened to master’s level classes while I do the dishes, free classes provided by Gordon Conwell or lectures on Youtube.  Ryan Reeves has posted a wealth of material, entire courses on Lewis and Tolkien, Reformation history, and historical theology, enough intellectual stimulation to make the chores fly.  But as I watch my husband buckle down and tackle a Ph.D., I’m amazed at his tenacity, his focus.  Without the accountability, I’d never make myself read the challenging stuff, the brain-stretchers.

Why not?  Why can’t I make a decision, flip a switch, go to the library?  Well, I know me.  I know how I battle laziness and perpetual distraction.  I know how deadlines and threats motivate me in a way lofty dreams never seem to do.  But I also know that it’s silly on some level, childish, really, to wait to fork over vast sums of money to study books that are available largely for free.

One of the great wonders of the internet is the availability of other people’s must-read, must-see, must-do bucket lists.  You can hop on Goodreads and find out what your mentors want to read.  You can peek at Tim Challies’s book reading resolutions, the syllabus of any class at any school.  What a treasure!  A Do-It-Yourself degree!  Well, maybe not quite.  But a good place to start.

Here’s my thought:  even though I never quite accomplish all the things I hope to do, all of the goal-setting and dreaming has a way of changing me.  It’s like those prayers that God never answers in the way I want — the act of praying still changes my heart.  Thinking through what I want to read, what I want to learn, has a way of raising my sights.  Even if I get through only half of what I hope to do, that’s still a lot more progress than I’d make watching Gilmore Girl re-runs on Netflix.

As Challies has pointed out, lots of fantastic books (usually current bestsellers and classics) are available in audio format, and I can usually find a good audio book to download from my local library.  While I was thinking through my Thinking Christianly gotta-read list, I chose the first one I found available for download to start with.  I’m halfway through Tim Keller’s Reason for God, taking it up whenever I’m in the car or scrubbing pots.  I doubt very many of my theologically-heavy books will be possible to find that way, but the good news is that most of my just-for-fun books are.  That means I can listen to novels while I sort laundry and save the seminary stuff for actual feet-up-in-the-evening paper book reading or morning quiet times.

So here’s the beginning of my list — we’ll call it Year One.  I’ll aim for about a book and a half per month.  I’ll never finish!  But that’s no reason not to start.  I tried to balance old and new, exciting and daunting, theological (by which I mean theology in the academic sense — what do I really believe about the person of God) and cultural.

  1. Reason for God, Tim Keller
  2. Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon
  3. Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves
  4. Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson
  5. How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer
  6. Let the Nations be Glad, John Piper
  7. Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr
  8. Christ and Culture Revisited, D. A. Carson
  9. This Day, Wendell Berry
  10. Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  11. Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers
  12. The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis
  13. Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness
  14. The Only Wise God, William Lane Craig
  15. Wisdom and Wonder, Abraham Kuyper
  16. Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor
  17. Valley of Vision
  18. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance

What’s on your list?

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Friends and Books

Maybe you have felt that reading a book is like making a friend, or that, picking up someone else’s pages, you have made a connection across miles and time with the author.  You read someone else’s words and you think, Yes!  I feel the same.  As C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .'”  For a lonely kid, that is the magic of books.

Now, as an author, I see another side of publishing, “red in tooth and claw” as it is.  Books are business, and business is not friendly.  Trying to get a manuscript published is like sucking up the courage needed to run naked across a stage while being pelted with rotten fruit and large pointy objects.  No one sane would do it at all.  But even in the muck of publishing, there is a nice side, the friendship that can bloom in unlikely ways through the pages of a book.

I have been privileged this year to make such a friend, a stranger across the country who was willing to review Thirty Thousand Days.  That it could have gone badly I am well aware.  Even as I sent off a copy, I dived under the bed to wait for tomatoes to fly.  But what I heard to my happy surprise was “What?  You too?” I am pleased to say that I have found a friend in Carolyn Litfin, and I am honored to know her.  If you should happen this week to read a book that makes you happy, find the author (she’s probably hiding under the bed) and tell her so.  We all have room for another friend.

Here’s Carolyn’s kind review.

Photo credit: krecimag via VisualHunt /  CC BY

Ms. Anne Lamott on Books

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

Book Medicine, or The Two-Sentence Book Review Challenge

So I was wandering through Costco one day and I accidentally walked down the book aisle.  Well.  Accidental is relative.  I picked up a paperback called The Little Paris Bookshop and decided to give it a new home, because this was on the back cover:  “Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself…”  It was a weak moment, OK?  I am also a sucker for cheesecake samples.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I love the idea of prescribing just the right book for just the right person in just the right season.  I do it all the time, sending books for gifts, thinking long and hard about what book will speak to whom.  Now all I need is a floating bookstore in Paris, and my life will be complete.

So now I find myself in a bit of a reading funk.  I am too busy to read during the day, so all of my reading time is chunked into two big compartments:  devotional reading as I kick off my morning, and light reading as I fall asleep.  The trouble is, I keep falling asleep mid-page.  (Les Mis isn’t keeping me awake what with all of the Napoleonic history.)

So for my own amusement, here is my want-to-read page from Goodreads.  screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-5-45-46-pmSomewhere on this list is my next favorite book (I hope!)  Here’s the big fat favor I’m asking —  help me pick a new book!

I’m taking a poll.  A poll, people.  That means you have to vote.  If you have read any of the books on my list, give me a two-sentence book review in the comment section below and help me choose my next guilty purchase.

If you have a better idea, add a title (and a two-sentence review) below.  And if you should happen to have a free cheesecake sample, you can be my new best friend.

On a related note, I am realizing how awfully hard it is to get reviews for one’s book on Amazon, so if you go to all the trouble to write out a couple sentences here, you may as well copy and paste it on the book’s actual Amazon or Goodreads page, and make that author’s day.  We can be the Make-An-Author’s-Day team, and save despairing authors everywhere from eating their weight in Costco’s free samples department.

9 For Nerds: A Book Lover’s Bucket List

Last week we took the kids to a great second hand bookstore called 2nd and Charles.  It was vast.  Since they weren’t bound to recent bestsellers, we found all kinds of treasures that Barnes and Noble doesn’t stock and the library has forgotten.  I found a great copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and my sweet Abbey walked out with a stack of books — $1.50 for Emily of New Moon.  You can’t find that anywhere!

Got me thinking about my deep and insatiable love of books, the slow, sad, extinction of the indie bookstore, and the places I absolutely need to go before I die.  So here’s my Book Loving Bucket List — three author’s haunts to explore,  three experiences to plum, and three places to shop. All of the photos below are links to fuel your own daydreams.  Enjoy!

The Robert Frost Museum
9.  The Robert Frost Museum, Shaftsbury, Vermont

Vermont is one of the only states back east I’ve never visited, and Robert Frost is such a favorite.  While I’m at it, I’d love to swing over to Amherst and visit the Emily Dickinson house (and maybe Mark Twain’s, Louisa May Alcott’s… OK, maybe just a dozen or so in New England.  Why not?)  I think Frost’s words and his landscape were so wedded, you’d feel you were walking into a poem.  “A breeze discovered my open book / And began to flutter the leaves to look.”

 

Jane Austen's House
8.  Jane Austen’s House

There are scads of Jane Austen tours that take you through the countryside she knew and loved, but of course, the must-see spot is her actual house.  I can only imagine it’s packed.  All the time.  Because Mr. Darcy!  Emma!  Says Miss Austen, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”  Wow, Jane.  Don’t hold back.

 

Visit Guernsey shoot at Victor Hugo's Hauteville House
7.  Victor Hugo’s Hauteville House in Guernsey

Little bit influenced by the scenery, not gonna lie.  I am loving reading Les Mis right now, but it is work in spots, for sure.  But Guernsey!  And not only would I need to pack Les Mis, but The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is one of my all-time favorites.  I might need to stay for a week.  Clear the calendar.

 

American Writer's Museum
6.  American Writer’s Museum, coming to Chicago in 2017

Y’all, this looks so great.  Last night when I couldn’t sleep I started daydreaming about a writer’s museum.  Why is there not one?  It was a happy thought, and when I googled it today, lo and behold, there’s one coming!  And I don’t even particularly like Chicago — but now it’s on the list.  Yippee.

 

The Rabbit Room
5.  The Rabbit Room

So The Rabbit Room is more of an online destination, and it is fantastic.  Enough distraction to derail a month of workdays.  But they actually do host really incredible events, often at the Art House in Nashville, pictured above.  They have this crazy idea that art and music and faith and stories all flow out of the same great place.  I don’t have the chutzpah to join in, but I’d love to be a fly on the wall.  From their website, “Through books, movies, theater, and other media, the magic of storytelling has the power to shape not only our minds, but the world around us. And story, like music, has the kind of magic that not only draws people closer to one another, but draws them further up and further into the great Story.”

 

The Glen Workshop
4.  The Glen Workshop

The Glen Workshop is the brainchild of Image Journal and Seattle Pacific’s MFA program.  I torture myself by looking into it every year and then not going.  (Money.  Sad but true.)  Participants in the MFA go to two residencies per year, one in Whidby Island, one in Santa Fe.  The Santa Fe version is open to non-MFA students as well, and brings in an amazing assortment of artists from many disciplines, authors, and crazy respected speakers.  Someday, friends.  Someday.

 

Signs of Life
3.  Signs of Life Bookstore, Lawrence, KS

So it’s not better than Guernsey.  It doesn’t beat Santa Fe.  But it’s practically local, a mere 8 hours away.  I’ve been to Signs of Life (the only one on the list with this distinction) several times, and it’s my favorite bookstore in the world.  So very cool.  Like The Rabbit Room and The Glen, this little gem is saturated in an Art/Faith/Mystery worldview that embraces visual arts, poetry, theology, and literary fiction.  There’s a café for chatting, a gallery for contemplating, and lotsa books.

 

The Last Bookstore
2. The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles

I love the whole gutsy story of The Last Bookstore.  You have got to click on the link above and watch this beautiful little story, of a guy who was pretty broken, who nevertheless had vision and determination, who built maybe the coolest bookstore you’ll ever see.  Redeem your next visit to LA with something extraordinary.

 

Hay-on-Wye
1. Hay-on-Wye, Wales

I think I could live here forever.  It is the land of books.  An entire village of bookstores.  And where the books aren’t shelved in shops, they’re shelved up and down the streets and ruined castle walls, honor system style.  Just be sure to buy a round-trip ticket or you’ll spend all your traveling money and be stuck there forever.  Unless that’s not such a bad thing, after all.