we read to know we’re not alone

This entry was posted by on Monday, 31 December, 2012 at

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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?

9 Responses to “we read to know we’re not alone”

  1. Those last two are among my top favourites of all time. The Poisonwood Bible is the only Kingsolver I’ve read. I must get started on the others.

    My favourite read recently was “The Reserve” by Russell Banks. It is getting terrible reviews on Amazon so maybe I was having an off week, but I loved it. I also really enjoyed the very quick read that is “True Grit” by Charles Portis.
    I was very disappointed by David Mitchell’s “Thousand Autumns…” I know we had talked about that but I just could’t get into it.

    I have loved reading short stories for the first time ever. AL Kennedy, Raymond Carver and Elizabeth Taylor (not that one) have been my best finds of the last three months.

  2. jaybercrow

    I’d love to talk to you about the Murakami when we get to hang out next. I feel like I need to talk to someone else who loved it. Though talking about that book may be like dancing about architecture.

    It may be the Japanese connection that kept me interested with “Thousand Autumns.” I’ll have to check out some of your other recommendations. Happy New Year to the Johnstons!

  3. Must add those to the reading list for next year. I’ve been meaning to read Middlesex for a while, but was also put off a bit by the premise. And I’ve had The Poisonwood Bible sitting on my shelf for ages.

  4. Rhodri

    ‘Middlesex’ is a great novel. ‘Gilead’ and ‘Canada’ by Marylinne Robinson and Richard Ford were my favourites.

  5. jaybercrow

    I’ll have to check out the Richard Ford one Rhodri. Anyone who loves Middlesex and Gilead has my attention.

  6. How the flip did you find the time to read all that jm?? I bet you just look at the pictures. btw, glad you liked the lives of others. It’s a favourite, along with the mask of zorro of course.

  7. jaybercrow

    You rumbled me Dave. I just read the first chapter and then skip to the end to see what happens. I also love how you can’t praise a high-brow film without throwing in a blockbuster to show you’re a man of the people. 😉

  8. Sarah M

    I will have to look into those. I have had a year where I’ve had trouble finishing books. I got more than three quarters through Murakami’s 1Q84 though and found it very interesting. Of books I did finish, Brennan Manning’s memoir All is Grace was my favorite. I did recently get the The Lacuna out on audio to see if that would help my concentration. Looking forward to it.

  9. jaybercrow

    The Lacuna is wonderful. Debs enjoyed All is Grace, will have to check it out. I think I’ll wait a while before I try another Murakami. 🙂

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