Books I Read in January 2018
January is an exciting time for me, especially in my reading life. A new year brings a fresh start, and this year, my fresh start included getting back on track with some reading goals I’ve had in previous years that I had to set aside in 2017 due to other responsibilities. Each year, I like to choose one author and read through his or her works throughout the year. I like to compare it to that popular ice-breaker question, “if you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose and why?” But instead of having one dinner with that person, reading through his or her works is comparable to dining with them every day for a year. You get inside their thinking. You learn their answers to questions. You anticipate where the conversation is going. And, if you’ve chosen well, you get plenty of surprises along the way.
So this year, I chose C.S. Lewis. I’ve read many of his works before, but I wanted to read as many as I could in the span of 2018. Lewis was a great thinker and writer. He knew how to use his imagination to create worlds that draw in the reader. His Christianity was real, and though he wasn’t a theological, nor a scholar of theology, he had a way of writing about the life of faith that was enduringly beautiful. He’s quoted often from the pulpit and his influence runs deep and wide. His cross-genre span of works also allows for one not to grow bored throughout the year. For those reasons and more, Lewis is my choice for 2018.
But C.S. Lewis is not the only author I plan to read this year. Below is a list of what I read in January.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
This was my third time through this book. The first was shortly after I had awakened to the gospel. The second was a few years after that. But as I read through it this year, it was as if I’d never read it before. It came alive to me in new ways. So many quotes I recognized from sermons, other books, and lectures I’ve heard over the years, and I see now how this book has stood the test of time.
“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
The Aeneid by Virgil
Every biography I read of anyone born prior to the mid-20th century includes a bit about the man or woman reading Virgil growing up. This story is a classic beyond our modern meaning of it. It has endured centuries. If you’ve never read it, it’s comparable to Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey stories. In the way that Homer’s stories gave the Greeks a mythology of their creation, the Aeneid does the same for ancient Rome. It’s one of those books you probably should have read in school somewhere along the way, so why not read it now?
“Do the gods light this fire in our hearts or does each man's mad desire become his god?”
Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel by George Saunders
This was a weird book. Winner of the Man Booker prize last year, it reads like a series of letters recounting the events leading up to and days after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son. Grounded in the historical fact of the young Lincoln's death and his father's grief, the book takes those facts and greif and stretches them into a tale of the afterlife that includes some not-so savory characters, a reverend, and the young,recently deceased Lincoln boy. They all exist in this ghostly otherworld—not heaven and not hell. Over the course of the book, they all vanish from this ethereal world into whatever lays beyond. Mixed with both humor and sorrow, Saunders’s book takes the reader on a weird journey that at it’s best takes you inside the intense grief of a father and makes you feel all the feelings you never want to feel again. It also shows us the hopelessness of a world without a real Heaven and a real Savior who gives real assurance.
“How was I (how are any of us) to do other than that which we, at that time, actually do?”
Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid
My third novel of the year was one of the most critically-acclaimed from last year. Hamid’s novel tells the story of two young people, Nadia and Saeed, that fall in love in their war-torn country. Eventually, they are forced out of their homeland and find their way through the world via a series of magic doors that take them to new places and to new people. In our day with so many refugees fleeing places like Syria, this book gives a view into the emotion involved in leaving home. It does have some adult sexuality in it (as does Saunders’s book I mentioned above), so read with caution. But if you want to understand the difficulty of the refugee crisis, this novel helps you see it through the tool of story.
“To love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Here is another book quoted so often I felt like I’d already read it. But to pick it up and make my way through it, I think it must have been awful for Lewis to write it. To imagine the demonic conversation is both brilliantly helpful and dangerous spiritually. It is probably far better for us than we imagine that we cannot hear these spiritual conversations, nor can we see the heavily battle waging all around. It is far better instead for us to cling to Jesus through the Spirit and let his power grant us victory over every evil. But Lewis’s fictional account does help us see that there is a real enemy to God, and the sad thing is that we too often fall for his schemes. Praise God that he has a better scheme—one the Devil himself cannot fathom, cannot overrule, and cannot conquer. No matter Screwtape's advice, Wormwood doesn't stand a chance against God.
“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Sometimes I scroll through my library app and find a classic book to listen to. One day in January, I found this one and listened to it at night. I remember watching the movie as a kid and that Cheshire Cat’s smile still resides somewhere in my mind’s eye. It’s one of those books that as you read outside of childhood, you see how much depth exists in a silly story about a girl stumbling into Wonderland.
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle.”
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
Lewis’ journals come to life in this book. The loss of his wife hit him harder than he imagined it would. His tale of first-hand grief is illuminating and stirring. I haven't lost my wife, but walking through the death of my father-in-law two years ago with my mother-in-law gives this book even more weight. Everyone experiences grief differently, and not everyone experiences it the same was Lewis did. But that makes this book no less effective.
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' and I accept it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
What a book! This fictional account of a dead man passing through hell to heaven gives incredible insight into what really damns us. Yes, some people do terrible things in this world that earn them a seat in the inner court of hell. Others, however, live a “good” life. But the door of hell is locked from the inside, or so Lewis believed. The good life can be the hellish life we want to live, and no amount of pleading from the heavenly host will persuade us to come to the other side. We can debate the theology of this book if you’d like (which stands for most of Lewis’ books), but we can’t debate the literary beauty of it.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
This was the hardest of Lewis’ books to get through this month. I read it quickly, probably too quickly, and I think that had something to do with it. Regardless, it was a good one, and I see why it’s in the collection of some of his best.
“For every one pupil who needs to be guarded against a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
My first biography of 2018 was a good one. I wish-listed this book when it released late last year and picked it up on Audible with one of my credits this month. Leonardo da Vinci was a fascinating guy. He took his art seriously and created masterpieces by pulling from experiments and observations in science, math, and geography. This multi-disciplinary life gave him insights many never attain. The Mona Lisa’s smile, for example, is a masterpiece in itself, never mind the rest of the painting. He studied the muscles of the lips, even peeling the skin off of cadavers to find the proper movements. His notebooks are filled with insights and observations well ahead of his time. If they were publish in his lifetime, it’s very possible we would recognize Leonardo as the father of science and math in the same way, if not more so, we admire him for his art.
For a taste of the book, you can read an excerpt from Isaacson here.
“An object will display the greatest difference of light and shade when it is seen in the strongest light. . . . But this should not be much used in painting, because the works would be crude and ungraceful. An object seen in a moderate light displays little difference in its light and shade, and this is the case towards evening or when the day is cloudy; works painted then are tender, and every kind of face becomes graceful. Thus, in everything extremes are to be avoided: Too much light gives crudeness; too little prevents our seeing.”
Aesop's Fables by Aesop
Everyone knows the morals of these famous stories. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” “Gossips are to be seen and not heard.” “Birds of a feather flock together”,”you can’t please everybody.” “Misery loves company.” Do you know the stories behind these morals? They’re really wonderful and often funny. Most of us have read these stories before but revisiting these as you grow older gives you a greater appreciation for their staying power.
“Those who pretend to be what they are not, sooner or later, find themselves in deep water.”
The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch
I posted a picture of this book on Instagram with the caption: “When good thinkers write books, you read them because good thinkers produce good books. This book is helping me understand how to integrate technology into my house with wisdom. We don't have to reject it outright, but we should seek to accept it on our terms, nudging ourselves toward the life we really want, not the life our phones and tablets and TVs wish us to have.” This book was good, but it wasn’t the best book I read this month about technology. That book is below. Keep scrolling.
“Technology is only very good if it can help us become the persons we were meant to be.”
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
Elon Musk is changing the world. What he will change it into, and how deep and wide his impact will be, is still up in the air. What’s not up in the air is his ability to reach for crazy things and succeed. I see more and more Teslas on the road. They’re amazing. He’s made solar panels and lithium ion batteries common commodities at a low cost. He’s making a rocket to go to Mars. He wants humans to be a multi-planetary species. I have my doubts that will ever happen. I’m not sure that’s God’s plan for us. He has something far better than Mars in mind. But the fact that someone with Musk’s money and influence and success is trying this is something to pay attention to. Also, he once started a conversation with a girl in the 1980s by asking if she ever thinks about electric cars. Anyone who uses that pick-up line and it works is interesting enough to know about.
“He seems to feel for the human species as a whole without always wanting to consider the wants and needs of individuals.”
12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke
I said earlier my favorite technology book I read this month was coming. This is it. Reinke is a fantastic writer. He takes his time to craft each sentence for maximum impact. I have never once regretted reading anything he’s written. And this book was helpful beyond my expectations. One failing (in my opinion) of Crouch’s book is to put our current technology in it’s God-gifted place. But Reinke does that well. He says, “Every time we open our Bibles, our souls are being fed through centuries of technological advancement.” Technology is one of God's good gifts to us. It's what we do with it before him that matters. Reinke’s purpose of the book isn’t to bash our phones or to even expel them from our lives. It is to view them properly, considering the heart motivation for everything we do. “The question of this book is simple: What is the best use of my smartphone in the flourishing of my life? To that end, my aim is to avoid both extremes: the utopian optimism of the technophiliac and the dystopian pessimistic of the technophobe.” Read Crouch’s book for practical help for your family. Read Reinke’s book for practical help for your soul.
“The more we take refuge in distraction, the more habituated we become to mere stimulation and the more desensitized to delight. We lose our capacity to stop and ponder something deeply, to admire something beautiful for its own sake, to lose ourselves in the passion for a game, a story, or a person.”
2,000 Years of Christ's Power Vol. 1: The Age of the Early Church Fathers by Nick Neeham
Knowing Church history isn't and shouldn't be only for scholars and seminarians any more than the history of our country should be just for politicians and teachers. Christ has connected us to the saints who lived centuries ago. His power is present now as it was then and our understanding of what he did--how he guided his Church through the ages--gives us a deeper appreciation for his sovereign hand. Learning church history is a worshipful endeavor. Our God is a God of the ages, not a presently constructed idea nor a mere historical fact. He's a living person, existing forever, who always relates to his people as the loving Father, saving Son, and Holy Spirit. What makes this book (and the whole series) great is the simplicity of the writing without the forfeiting of truth. Everyone can comprehend the people, teachings, and impact of the different lives, thoughts, and controversies. It also includes samples of writings from so many church fathers, wetting the appetite for a larger meal.