Ben's Top Ten
My dear friend, Ben House, sends me a top-ten list every year of the best books he has read in the previous twelve months. As usual, this wise pastor and Classical Christian educator from Texarkana has demonstrated a rich reading life of diverse, interesting, and unusual selections--they also mirror my own intersts, quirks, and proclivities! Herewith are his choices for the best books of the year:
I start more books than I finish. I buy more than I start. I forget much of what I read. I neglect yard mowing, leaf raking, bill paying, and other necessities to read. Mornings begin with reading and coffee. My light cannot go out without at least a few minutes to read at the end of the day. Beside my bed stands a dangerous leaning tower--the great mass of unfinished volumes looming over my bed. I will hesitate to buy a much-needed pair of shoes, but will jump at the chance to buy a rare volume I might never read. I even try--unsuccessfully--to read during lulls in conversations with my wife.
Is there any help for people like me? Is there a book that might help? If there is, I’ll buy the book. If there are two views of how to solve the problem, I’ll buy both. But these linear adventures are not in vain. At the end of every year, I select my top ten books from that year. The greater book publishing and marketing world never notice my selections, but it does add a bit of drama in my life to the gray overcast days between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Several considerations need to be kept in mind about my list. Rarely have I read a best seller. Some years ago, I read the best-selling novel Cold Mountain and I liked it, but survived the experience. And then there was the year I read John Adams by David McCullough. Who would have thought a book about John Adams would have been a best seller? Perhaps Bill Clinton inadvertently created a desire in the public to read about an honorable man.
My rankings are subjective; that is, 99% of the criteria is based on what the book did for me. In the providence of God, a particular book is life changing at a particular time. Also, I am not a critical reader or thinker. The mistakes, the logical flaws, or thematic inconsistencies usually escape me. My most typically profound critical insight is either “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” Kind of deep isn’t it?
Below is the listing for 2003 with comments and supplements. As will be noticed from the range of selections, I am either undisciplined in studying a particular subject or area, or I am eclectic. The latter term sounds better.
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a couple who has translated several works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. This is a fat Russian novel, basically the only kind of Russian novel. I feel guilty for not having read enough great classics. Maybe it has something to do with having a master’s degree in education, in having a minor in English, and in teaching literature. Once before I started this book and stopped after a few chapters, but this time I pushed on through. Anna Karenina is just one character among many. In one sense, she is not even the main character. Another character, Levin, an intellectual, an agrarian reformer, a farmer, overcomes a rejected proposal and becomes being a good husband and father. Through his wife’s faith and family experiences, he changes from atheist to a believer. Anna Karenina, a beautiful and powerful woman, on the other hand, destroys her life and family by her adultery. Tolstoy was theologically brilliant as a writer, although he was theologically kooky as an individual. Theologically, this book is near perfect. True husbands are paired against false husbands. True spirituality is paired against superficial spirituality. Growth in grace is paired against the slippery slope of sin. Humble family life is contrasted with high society. True calling is found in faith and family, and not in society and economic success. With that Russian feel to it, Anna Karenina is worth reading and rereading.
2. Memoirs of the Second World War by Winston Churchill. Revoke my history major if necessary, but I have never read Churchill’s six volume history of World War II. At least I have now read this one volume abridgement, this pamphlet of a mere1000 pages. Churchill was both a major participant and major historian of the epic Second World War. As scholars have noted, while Britain under Churchill may not have won World War II, they kept Hitler from winning in 1940. Churchill miscalculated the number of weapons of mass destruction in Germany in the 1930s; he spoke with rhetorical flourishes lacking precise details; he made enough political and military blunders to end a dozen careers, but he had vision. We only know of his more exact, careful political contemporaries because they stand in Churchill’s shadow. Churchill understood the essence of Nazism better and earlier than anyone else in leadership. He also understood the essence and vulnerability of Communism. Both insights came because he still understood Christendom. And he was a great writer: magnanimous toward others, while restrained toward his own role in the war, powerfully descriptive, subtle, and witty. His feats during the war were enormous, especially considering his age and health. A couple of good supplements to this book that I read were The Battle of Britain: Myth and Reality by Richard Overy and Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian. by John Lukacs. The former title shows how Britain basically saved Western Civilization and the second assesses Churchill’s insights, strengths, flaws and greatness. You can never read enough by or about Churchill--the last great knight of Christendom.
3. Literary Converts by Joseph Pearce. While the British Empire and nation declined greatly in the 20th century, God blessed them with something perhaps greater than political power--great literature. While Britain needs a Christian Reformation (far more than America), she did at least experience a Christian Renaissance in the last century. The results may bother those of us who are committed Calvinists and Protestants. Most of the converts were or became Roman Catholic: G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, and Malcolm Muggerridge. The Church of England was not left out, with such names as C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Dorothy Sayers. All these writers formed a loose network--influencing, inspiring, and converting one another. Along with the well-known, there are quite a few names I did not recognize. At points in reading this book, I wondered if every atheist, communist, agnostic, skeptic, and laborite who wrote a book in England converted to Christianity. This book sent me to my bookshelves and to the web in search of titles and authors Pearce discussed. I read Chesterton’s Heretics and Orthodoxy; reread Brideshead Revisited; read biographies of Belloc and Dawson; read books by and about the Inklings. We have yet to see the full fruit of this great cadre of Literary Converts.
4. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I was a slow and reluctant convert to the charm of Middle Earth. My early attempts at reading Tolkien neither impressed or enchanted me. My son and I read The Hobbit a few years back, and he ventured on into the LOTR. After the first movie, I realized that every person in the universe, except for me, had read and loved LOTR. I couldn’t discuss the flaws and omissions in the movie. So I read it. I still confuse Arwen and Eowyn. I would fail a Middle Earth geography test. I stand trembling near The Silmarillion, but there is hope for me, I think. Two great works on Tolkien that helped me see his Christian worldview and applications are A Tolkien Celebration, which is a collection of essays edited by Joseph Pearce, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth by Bradley Birzer.
5. The Divine Comedy by Dante. Some of my first-time reads embarrass me. These reading selections should have been my high school reading or college reading, or at least my early post-college. Over a quarter century after having a degree claiming that I am educated, I am still overcoming the bad effects of modern education. Like the trilogy listed above, I was unimpressed at first with reading of the first volume of this work, The Inferno several years ago. This year, with my high school students, we read the whole work. The return trip through the Inferno began slowly, but my dull senses began to awaken. By closing cantos of The Inferno, with Dante and Virgil climbing up the body of Satan frozen in ice, I was a willing convert. Moving into The Purgatorio, I begin hearing the penitent sinners singing psalms (there was no singing in Hell). I was not converted to a Medieval Catholicism, but I was willing to follow Dante anywhere. The visions of heaven and Beatrice and then the beatific vision of God in The Paradiso put me on my knees. A valuable companion to The Divine Comedy is Peter Leithart’s Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy. By the way, we used the Allen Mendelbaum translation this year, but I hope to use Dorothy Sayer’s translation next time.
6. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson. George Grant recommended this book and author, comparing him to Paul Johnson. One reading is not enough for this history. Ferguson boldly rushes in where most academics fear to tread. He defends the British Empire--you know, colonialism, imperialism, the white man’s burden, etcetera--and he calls upon the U.S. to learn to favorable lessons of the British Empire and apply them. His defense of the Empire is not without qualification; this is not Jingoism or Manifest Destiny run amok. History is almost always ugly up close and beautiful at a distance. Such is the history of the British Empire. The benefits of the Empire were enormous: the United States being one the results, along with the spread of free trade, free government, and the rule of law throughout much of the world. Like it or not, two oceans notwithstanding, the U.S. stands in the role similar to but even greater than Britain at the height of its empire. I know this is news to Democratic presidential candidates, but the U.N. needs American support to act and the U.S. does not need U.N. resolutions. This book is urgent, insightful, and thrilling reading.
7. Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt. This book and the one listed above will not make many reading lists in the typical state university Western Civ classes. Schmidt discusses the Christian influences on the sanctity of human life, abortion, the freedom of women, free government, education, art, music, and literature. On every area he marshals quotes from original sources, from scholars and participants, and from friends and enemies of the faith evidencing Christian salt and light. I had probably read a third of the quotes before from who knows how many different books and articles. But they are all here, well documented. The story of Christianity is not the Inquisition, the Crusades, and endless oppressions and suppressions. This is the true story. There are many useful supplements to this book. One I reread was How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. This is the marvelous story of how Christians, like St. Patrick and Columba, converted kingdoms and saved the great literary manuscripts of the West. Also, historian Christopher Dawson’s numerous volumes are great on the Christian influences on Western Civilization.
8. The Next Christendom by Phillip Jenkins. Jenkins’ book shows that the transforming effects of Christianity are alive and well on planet Earth. Europe slumbers in unbelief and cultural apostasy and portions of American Christianity are sliding into perversions galore, but south of the equator, the Christian faith is growing. In fact, Christianity is growing faster than Islam, faster than paganism, faster than any other belief system, in spite of persecutions, poverty, and other hindrances. The Christian faith is largely Catholic, wildly charismatic, and fundamentalist in its manifestations--just like the early Church during the first millennium. Jenkins aptly compares the early Christianization of Europe and the current Christianization of the southern hemisphere. This book is postmillennial, although the author is undoubtedly not. I found it an unexpected help when I was preaching through Romans 10 and 11 on the issues of branches of belief being cut off and others being grafted in.
9. Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. This book, listed along with the works of Tolstoy, Churchill, Dante, and Tolkien, may seem out of place. But the roots of Southern, rural, folk music reveal the Christian faith, the rural folkways, and hardiness of the mountain and farm people of America’s near past. A.P. Carter collected, preserved, and wrote quite a few songs that captured that faith, that history, and that culture of the older agrarian American folk. A poor man from the hills of Virginia, he became famous in his day for singing with his wife, Sarah, and sister-in-law, Maybelle. The Carter family made history by riding over rough roads to sing at the now historic recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee in the 1030s. This was the beginnings of recorded country music. The Carters sang of faith, of loves lost and lost, of heart-ache and happiness, of life and death. Their personal lives paralleled the themes, both good and bad, of their songs. Their songs influenced many singers across a wide spectrum of music, and the popular movie and compact disk “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is just one example of their on-going influence. The original Carter family was replaced by Mother Maybelle Carter and her daughters. One of the daughters, June, became the most famous due to her love for and marriage to another singer, Johnny Cash. June was God’s primary instrument in turning Cash from drugs to Christ. The last segment of the Carter story was fulfilled this year with the deaths of June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash. I miss them all now that they are gone, but as A.P. pointed out in one of his most famous songs, “There’s a better world awaiting’, in the sky, Lord, in the sky.”
10. Herodotus: The Histories. This is another of those great monumental works that I once started, put aside, and then read fully this year. The history Herodotus preserved can be found in better organized, shorter, more accurate accounts. But Herodotus tells you how to teach history: Tell stories, mix the incredible with the chronological; insert humor and fantasy; give your sources; raise doubts; bounce along the details; ascribe the results of history to God’s purposes and man’s sins (hubris or pride); and teach the greater themes, such the victory of freedom over tyranny. The experts who point skinny fingers at Herodotus’ errors would do well to ponder his success. History without stories and without passion is impossible. Augustine would encourage us to borrow well from the wisdom of the pagan ancients (“Plunder the Egyptians,” he would say.) This book contains many truths worth borrowing and plundering. As a follow-up or as a short cut to understand Herodotus, Ernle Bradford’s Thermopylae gives a fine account of the Greco-Persian wars, laden with quotes from Herodotus. Bradford himself was a wonderful historian. Herodotus’ Histories is an indispensable help in understanding the world and culture found in the Bible. Sacrifices, oaths, cultural habits, the inescapability of religion, and much more that is central to the Bible is also found in Herodotus.