August 3, 2005


Category: Literature :: Permalink

As I mentioned a few entries back, Tim tagged me for a book thing that’s going around the blog world. It was actually harder for me to do than I might have thought, but here’s an attempt at some answers:

How many books do I own?

I can’t give you an exact number, but it’s probably around 8500, most of which are fiction.

The next question that’s often asked is “Have you read all those books?” I’ve pondered the answers that Umberto Eco suggests in Travels with a Salmon (e.g., “If I’d read them, why would I still have them?” or “No, these are the ones I have to read by next Friday. The rest are in another room”), but my own answer is the one I learned from my seminary professor, Nelson Kloosterman:

“Have you read all those books?””Some of them twice.”

What is the last book I bought?

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, which I picked up last week at the library for 50 cents. I’ve heard that it’s supposed to be good. Come to think of it, most of my recent purchases have been children’s books.

The most recent non-fiction book I’ve purchased? I suppose it would be The Cruelty of Heresy by C. Fitzsimmons Allison, which I found at Value Village in Red Deer for less than a dollar and bought only because it had a blurb by Geoffrey Wainwright on the back. But at the time, I was more pleased by the trade paperback of Gene Wolfe’s Castleview which Moriah found there.

What’s the last book I read?

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling, which I greatly enjoyed. It’s the best in the series so far. (I know, I know: I’m behind. But I am catching up.)

Prior to that, Greenmantle by John Buchan, one of my favourite authors. This was the third time I’d read this book, the second in the Richard Hannay series, but it had been fourteen years since the last time I had read it.

Before that, I also read Justice by Faye Kellerman, The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley, and Freddy Goes to Florida by Walter Brooks (read aloud to Aletheia before her bedtime).

Currently, though you didn’t ask, I’m reading Rainbow’s End by Martha Grimes (I’ve read this far in the series and I’m less and less impressed; every character is stagnant, none really grows or develops, several of them are depressed, and all are caught in a sort of holding pattern, doing the same things again and again), Theology and Social Theory by John Milbank (which I’m struggling through), the Complete Poems of George Herbert (which I dip into from time to time), The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (which I’m about halfway through), the Complete Stories of Bernard Malamud (from which I read a story occasionally), and (with Aletheia) Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater (which is surprisingly disappointing: a lazy father who puts his penguins ahead of his family). I’ll be picking a new book for Aletheia soon, too. Recommendations?

What are the five books that mean the most to me?

This is the hardest question for me, and part of the difficulty is knowing what the question is asking. Is it asking which books I’d take to a desert island? In that case, the list below doesn’t answer that question. If that’s the question then the answer would be that, besides the Bible, I’d take my complete works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, as well as Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and some non-fiction, though I’m not sure what.

But I assume what the question is asking is which five books have influenced and shaped me the most. I assume, too, that the Bible is a given. After some thought, here in chronological order is a list of five, though more thought might prompt me to add or delete others.

(1) Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Lion Man. I read this book when I was eight years old and then went on to devour the rest of Burroughs’ books. From then on, as I recall, I was a fan of fantasy and science fiction. I can’t say that this book means the most to me, even out of Burroughs’ whole oeuvre. A Princess of Mars was probably far more significant to me. But this was the first Burroughs I read.

If I were listing fiction books that would be indispensable to me, books I’d hate to be without, Burroughs wouldn’t be on the list today. Buchan and Wodehouse might be. Gene Wolfe and Larry Woiwode would definitely be.

(2) John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. This book was life-shaping for me in more than one way. Not only did it give me a new perspective on theological study, it also showed me the importance of looking at more than one side of a theological question. But more than that, this was the book that God used to convince me of infant baptism. As I finished the section on determining who has the burden of proof, where Frame illustrates his point by referring to debates about abortion and about baptism, I was persuaded. It’s still a book I return to again and again.

(3) James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes. This one, if you know me, should be obvious.

I came to Jordan late, having written him off (stupidly) earlier in my theological journey. There was a time when I was a theonomist of the Greg Bahnsen sort (and if I were listing every book that had a major influence in my life, I suppose I’d have to include Theonomy in Christian Ethics, even though that’s not at all where I am today in my thinking about the law). During that time, I thought Jordan was out to lunch.

Later, having interacted with him on a mailing list for a while and then having plunged in and read some of his works, I began to see that Jordan has an amazing grasp of biblical symbolism and typology. Now his work probably informs most of the sermons I write these days in one way or another.

(4) N. T. Wright, For All God’s Worth. Though this isn’t Wright’s most important work, it was the first thing I read by N. T. Wright, and having read it I went on to devour many more of his works. I can hardly imagine trying to preach the New Testament without consulting Wright. His work is constantly stimulating, even when I disagree with him. Again and again, he challenges me to look carefully at the text of Scripture, to follow the flow of the argument carefully instead of seeing it merely as a prooftext for my theology, to read Scripture eschatologically instead of flattening out the history, and to understand things in terms of their original context and setting. Invaluable.

(5) Jeffrey J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service. I read this first in manuscript form; I haven’t read it in published form. This is by far the best book on the liturgy I’ve seen, let alone the best from the Reformed perspective. Meyers has done more than anyone else (with the possible exception of Jim Jordan, on whom he draws) to shape my thinking about the liturgy.

(6) Peter Leithart, Against Christianity. This book, together with (to a lesser extent) William Cavanaugh’s amazing Torture and Eucharist, has shaped a lot of my thinking about the political nature of the gospel and the church. It’s an amazingly thought-provoking book and it has shaped my thinking on more levels than I can name here.

Well, that’s the list as it stands today. But as I look over the list, I recognize that it hardly gives an accurate impression. It’s not as if most of my development, even in my theology, has come about through reading. It’s true that I’ve learned a lot from books, but most of my learning has been through interaction with others in conversations, e-mails, classroom lectures, and so on.

I understand that I’m supposed to tag three other people now. So I’ll tag Jeff Meyers, Peter Leithart, and Mark Horne. And just for good measure, I’ll tag Gideon Strauss, too (unless he’s already done it).

Posted by John Barach @ 4:22 pm | Discuss (0)

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