we read to know we’re not alone
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it?… A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen within us. (Franz Kafka)
Anyone who knows me knows that I love to read. And probably assumes that I mostly read weighty books about Christian life and theology. Which is partly true. This year there have been lots of books of that kind (though not all weighty) which have stirred my heart and shaped my thinking: How God Became King (Tom Wright), The Wisdom of Stability (Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove), Washed and Waiting (Wesley Hill), Evangelism after Christendom (Bryan Stone), Introverts in the Church (Adam McHugh), The End of Sexual Identity (Jenell Williams Paris). I also found a lot of food for thought in The Penguin History of the USA (Hugh Brogan) and Religion for Atheists (Alain de Botton).
But my first love when it comes to reading is fiction. A good story well told is what gives me most joy, and perhaps also what does me most good. I read an essay by Eugene Peterson years ago about why those who want to be pastors and preachers must read good fiction, and I wholeheartedly agree. Maybe I’ll write about that here sometime.
Anyway, when it came to picking my favourite reads of 2012, all the leading contenders were novels, and here are the winners:
- Prodigal Summer (Barbara Kingsolver). Over the last few years she has become one of my most-loved novelists (only Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson are in the same ballpark). For me this is her third masterpiece (along with The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna). It deals with themes of nature and ecology, the love of land and place, and above all loneliness and the longing for family. It broke my heart but left me hopeful. Beautiful.
- Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides). This has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, and if I’m honest, what put me off reading it was a kind of squeamishness about the central premise (the main character in the novel was born with ambiguous gender). When I finally read it I felt genuinely rebuked for my hesitation. The book shines the most compassionate of lights onto a character (like many in our world) struggling with questions of identity and belonging, feeling like a misfit and a mistake. It’s a big, epic, rip-roaring, page-turner of a novel, taking in the Greek-Turkish wars of the early 20th century, the rise of the car industry in Detroit, the nation of Islam, and much more. It made me laugh and cry in equal measure, and left me feeling smarter and more compassionate. What more do you want in a novel? (I read it just after being distinctly underwhelmed by Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and this was everything I had hoped that book would be).
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami). I don’t really know what to say about this one. It’s one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read, 600 pages of bizarre characters, jumping between modern-day Japan and the war in China-Mongolia in the 1940s, blurring the lines between reality and dreams and imagination. I don’t really have any idea what it is all about. But I could not put it down and devoured it in 2 days. It’s like a metaphysical detective novel trying to solve the mystery of human existence. I felt like it was always on the verge of revealing to me the meaning of my life. Having been born in Japan (and with a father who grew up there) I’m fascinated by trying to understand the Japanese mind, and I even found the small village where I was born in the middle of all the madness in this novel. Not for everyone, but impossible to forget.
Other novels I enjoyed this year: Black Dogs (Ian McEwan), Number 5 (Glenn Patterson), Dirt Music (Tim Winton), Bel Canto (Ann Patchett), The Long Song (Andrea Levy), and two trilogies for young adults – The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and the astonishing Chaos Walking trilogy (Patrick Ness).
Which books have hammered on your skull and thawed your frozen parts this year?