Reading through an Author’s Canon



Do you set goals to read the complete oeuvre of an author? Do you get a little buzz inside your cheek when you read “she’s read all of [fill in author’s name]?

I do.

And I tell myself little fictions about what I’m going to do.

I’m thinking aloud, trying to articulate a reading plan for the year to come. The last plan I made, for 2010, was to read around the world. I read 18 of the 71 titles listed. And reviewing the list makes me want to renew that quest. But when I listed the books read in 2011, I was disappointed in the absence of authors dear to my heart. So, without a formal reading challenge I’m planning to be more intentional with my reading.

In my last post I asked why do you read?  Thank you for your answers, which evoked many happy sighs. Thank you!

My next question is how do you decide what to read next? In my case, it often depends on which bookshelf I browse. The entry-way shelf has an eclectic collection of books just received. Since they are new to me they are the equivalent of shiny objects. The hall shelf holds favorite authors, the Penguin collection, and books which look pretty on the shelf. The guest room shelf is an unorganized hodge-podge of books that no longer fit on the entry-way shelf. The living room bookshelf has the heavy hitters: history, biography, poetry.

I love all the reading challenges that blow by me this time of the year: Ireland, L.M. Montgomery, WWI, North Africa. Part of me wants to join a half a dozen. But I hold back.

I’d love to hear how you decide which book you’ll pick up to read.

And one more question: who are the authors whose entire works you would like to read?

Key phrase: would like to. If you had time to read, if you had access to every book, if, if, if…who would it be?

I made the Wordle above just playing with this idea. I look at it five minutes later and realize that the one author I’ve been thinking about the most in this context—David McCullough—is absent. There is a category of authors—Mark Helprin comes to mind—that I’m not convinced that I will want to read everything. And the thought of actually reading through and finishing Tolkien’s Silmarillion makes me want to shout “I take it back!”

I’ve been reading Barbara Tuchman’s book of essays, Practicing History; she also needs to be added to the list. Reading her is the equivalent of holding Coldstone ice cream on your tongue until it melts. Or perhaps a better analogy would be homemade bread hot from the oven: there is some effort involved, but the end result is nourishing. A sample quote:

When it comes to language, nothing is more satisfying than to write a good sentence. It is no fun to write lumpishly, dully, in prose the reader must plod through like wet sand. But it is a pleasure to achieve, if one can, a clear running prose that is simple yet full of surprises.

My simple plan is this: Read one book from my list of high priority authors a month, before other reading. Then fill in with other books. Though I don’t write much about Bible reading, that tops my list. I’ve bounced between fast and slow Bible reading. I consider reading through the Bible in a year fast reading. But sometimes I catch myself zipping through just to put a checkmark in that box. Then I slow down.

So if on December 31, 2012, when I review my reading, I hope I will see a Chesterton, a Spurgeon, a L.M. Montgomery, a Tuchman, a McCullough, a Dickens and a Trollope on the list.  Yes, that would be lovely.

Who is on your list: Jan Karon? P.D. James? Amy Carmichael? John Milton? J.K. Rowling? N.D. Wilson? Elisabeth Elliot? Agatha Christie? Anna Quindlen? Sigrid Undset?



Fascinating Interview

With Marilynne Robinson here

It is my lot in life to be the dissenter in tastes in books.  Earlier, when so many friends pressed Frank Peretti’s books in my palm with promises of enchantment, I had to tell them that, “no, I didn’t find them wonderful.”  Ditto all the apocalyptic pulp fiction of the last decade.  Shudder.  

In fact, I must confess, in a new circle of reader-friends that went bonkers praising Marilynne Robinson’s  Housekeeping, I felt like the one dissenting voice.  Granted the writing was good, but the storyline sure depressed me.  I found Gilead much easier to digest, but I didn’t go into paroxisms of joy over it.  These are two books, however, that I wonder if I should re-read someday and compare notes with my original reactions.

The Paris Review’s interview of Robinson has so many points worth printing out, pondering, discussing with my high school senior.  Much food for thought.    

P.S. – I came across this interview through a free weekly newsletter called Books & Culture.  You can subscribe here.   

An Evening with Kathleen Norris


It’s hardly fair to write a book review on a book I haven’t yet read;  but since I recently attended a book reading where Kathleen Norris gave the background of <A href=" and Me and read from it, perhaps I can introduce the book. 

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Acedia is pronounced uh-SEE-DEE-uh.  It means boredom, listlessness, lack of caring.  Acedia is something Norris has struggled with all her life.  She said this book has been percolating for over twenty years.  She believes that it is a struggle common to humanity.

Back when (1000 years ago) the major sins were categorized, there were first eight.  Acedia was telescoped into sloth and the deadly sins were seven instead of eight.  Norris is careful to distinguish acedia from depression by calling acedia a spiritual condition and depression a medical condition. She also sees sloth as physical laziness and acedia more a state of the mind.  It can exhibit itself both as torpor and frenetic activity. 

Fresh from a series of caretaking roles (Norris’ father and husband died after long illnesses) and still caring for her 91 year old mother, Norris spoke of times when she was so numb that she couldn’t pray.  She wasn’t so worried because she knew how many others were praying for her.  Much of the book is memoir, recounting what she has learned in the last difficult season of her life.

One feature of the book which insures I will read it is the commonplace entries in the back: quotes Norris has been collecting about acedia all her life. 

Kathleen Norris came across as a person of integrity, a woman comfortable in her own skin. She was neither pretentious, condescending, or arrogant.  She is a person I would delight in inviting to my house for dinner.  The Q & A was most interesting, especially because the Portland audience was across the spectrum.  Because my theology is  more conservative than hers, some of her answers caused me some inward wincing (e.g. her off-the-cuff definition of a Christian in response to a question had more to do with community than with Christ).     

Why I call Kathleen Norris L’English.

Previous post about acedia here.

A nugget on the subject of pride from Norris’ Cloister Walk.


Trifecta Day of Birthdays

Forecast: snow all day

The first email I read this morning was from my sister (in-law) Kathie with the title of this blog.  She got me going on The Writer’s Almanac; she listens to it on the radio, and I read mine by email.  Occasionally we compare reactions to the day’s entry. 

Today, November 29, is the birthday of C.S. Lewis, of Louisa May Alcott and of Madeleine L’Engle

Curious, isn’t it, that only twenty years separate Lewis and L’Engle.  I think of her as contemporary and of him as modern classic.

What an interesting juxtaposition: Bunyan’s conversion experience – his burden fell off after years of study, prayer, torment and doubt – and Lewis who left for the zoo an unbeliever and came back home a believer.  God works in mysterious ways, eh?

We really ought to celebrate today.  Let’s do a meme! Answer in the comments, or copy the questions into your own blog and leave a link.  If you don’t have time, just pick one question.

The November 29 Birthday Meme
(Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle)
Answer for one, both, or all authors.

1. What was the first [Alcott, Lewis, L’Engle] book you read?

2.  If you could be a [Alcott, Lewis, L’Engle] character for a day, who would you be? 

3.  Do you prefer [Alcott?, Lewis, L’Engle]’s fiction or nonfiction?

4.  Which [Alcott, Lewis, L’Engle] book would you recommend to any reader?

5.  Which [Alcott, Lewis, L’Engle] book did you dislike?

6.  What is your favorite [Alcott, Lewis, L’Engle] quote?

7.  Which [Alcott, Lewis, L’Engle] book would you like to read next?

8.  What biography of [Alcott, Lewis, L’Engle] would you recommend?

9. Rate the ALL authors by order of preference.