Winston Churchill once quipped that “In order to lead, one must read.” The best preparation for times of difficulty--and believe me, leaders will face times of difficulty--is a well-rounded, well-trained mind. Sloppy thinking is a terrible handicap in the day of testing—whether that day of testing is the loss of a job, the birth of a child, an unexpected medical diagnosis, the beginning of a new semester, or the resolution of an intractable conflict. I have always found that when the pressure is on my best course of action is feed my mind with provocative books. Of course, I need to maintain my spiritual disciplines, eat right, get plenty of rest, make sure I get out and exercise, and stay connected with those God has placed around me. But, if I am not reading, most of those other aspects of a healthy life seem to fall by the wayside.
The last couple of weeks have been very intense for me. There have been the typical difficulties of preparing for a new fall semester and new academic year. There have been the typical messes of a life lived in covenant community. And there have been the typical criticisms of my leadership, character, projects, ministries, writings, sermons, and lectures--all of which long experience has taught me just goes with the territory of being in leadership, but none of which ever gets any easier to handle emotionally.
So, rather than fretting, obsessing, or emoting, I have taken to a fresh round of wide-ranging reading:
Just in the last couple of weeks I have read four remarkable books by Umberto Eco—always one of my favorite thinkers and writers despite his coarsely determined skepticism. His comprehensive History of Beauty is simply amazing. It is going to take me years to process everything in this work. Part anthology, part historical survey, and part encyclopedia, it is a stunning achievement. Likewise, his new novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is brilliant. I actually enjoyed it in places—but, long ago I discovered that with Eco I tend to have more reading awe than reading enjoyment. His On Literature is a collection of essays that should not be missed by anyone who teaches literature or who is serious about reading the classics. You’ll never read the same way again. But, the best Eco book I have read this summer is perhaps the shortest and most ephemeral. It is not likely to go down as one of his classic, memorable works. Serendipities is a book about language, lunacy, and translation and it demonstrates the wide range of Eco’s interests. But, I love the book for the insights it reveals into his thinking and writing. Now, I want to go back and reread The Name of the Rose and Foucalt’s Pendulum all over again.
During the last couple of weeks I have also discovered a new favorite: Margaret Visser. Her exploration of church architectureThe Geometry of Love is one of the best books combining history, aesthetics, and cultural commentary that I have ever read. It is marvelous, illuminating, informed, and entertaining. I was so wowed by Visser’s worldview virtuosity that I immediately went out to buy her better known books, Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner. Both explore the extraordinary history and mythology, allure and obsessions, perils and taboos of ordinary meals and ordinary table manners. In truth, both works provide delightfully intimate histories of Western Civilization, of chivalry, of Christian influences on art, music, and literature as well as on pot roasts, potatoes, and green beans. This is all heady stuff. I am going to read everything I can find by Margaret Visser—she serves up a fine feast for the heart as well as the head.