Tuesday, June 8

Lazy, Hazy Reading Days of Summer

I have a peculiarly Medieval love for lists. I love lists of names and dates, lists of baseball statistics, and lists of projects and plans. I love to make lists and read other people's lists. But of course, my greatest list making/list reading joys always have to do with books. That is why I was so delighted when my friend and frequent book-correspondent, Ben House, sent me his summer reading list. I think you'll be delighted too:

C. S. Lewis recalled a favorite childhood memory by saying, “On a Saturday afternoon in winter, when nose and fingers might be pinched enough to give an added relish to the anticipation of tea and fireside, and the whole weekend’s reading lay ahead, I suppose I reached as much happiness as is ever reached on earth. And especially if there were some new, long-coveted book awaiting me.”

My experiences are different, but not necessarily better. For the past decade, Saturday afternoons meant sermon or Sunday school preparation. Any reading was done in short snatches. Summer, for me, has been a better reading time, though not needing the fireside and having the tea served cold.

There have been some unforgettable summers. Way back there was the summer that I read Loraine Boettner’s Studies in Theology and The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. That shifted the direction of my life quite a bit. I consciously became a Trinitarian and later a Calvinist.

Some years later, I set out to march from Fort Sumter to Appomattox with Shelby Foote by reading all three massive volumes during the summer. Only got through one and a half. I wore out and went AWOL, but later returned to duty and finished the trilogy.

During a bad summer many years ago, each day was ended with a Sherlock Holmes story.

Summer is great for fat books, for hefty classics, for light reading, for humor, for serious studies, for biography, history, and theology. It is hard to find a category of books that does not blend well with some aspect of summer.

In past summers I have read biographies of President John Adams, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Southern poet and literary critic Donald Davidson, New England poet Robert Frost, and the father of Bluegrass music Bill Monroe.

Sometimes the quietness of summer days is disrupted by the clash of arms of wars gone by. Past summers included reading Kevin Philips’ Cousins’ Wars, which covered the English Civil War, the American War for Independence, and the War Between the States, and Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War.

There is nothing quite like discovering for the first time a classic that has been around for a while. Last summer’s reading of Anna Karenina was such an experience. And wasn’t it in summer that I discovered both Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon?

Summer usually begins with a plan and a system, but it quickly ‘gink oft awry.’ The plan alternates, modulates, and conglomerates. Planned reads get started, unplanned reads intrude, some books are lapped up like homemade ice cream, some trudge along like a slow walk on an August afternoon.

Whatever the case, I love summer reading, especially the morning reading time. There are few things nicer than waking up without an alarm, but an inner call saying, “Bible, coffee, books!”

I generally dip into two or three books each morning, after Bible reading. Usually there is the “I need to read this” book that calls for morning alertness, lots of caffeine, and a ready mind and pen for notes. When that book is closed and while I am still breathing hard from intellectual calisthenics, then there is the next level: The book that delights as well as informs, that feeds the soul and pleases the mind. While it is often hard to finish reading the first book, the second is never long enough. If there is a third reading session in the morning, it involves skimming or previewing a new or unread book, or one read and marked some years before.

Summer days provide little time for reading. Even though school is out, there is work for the administrator at school or yard and housework at home or errands to run. A few pages are quickly consumed here or there like fast food. But the better reading time is the late hours of the night.

Late summer nights are the time for a classic or a good history or biography. The main criteria for this reading time are personal interest and mood. This reading time is like desert with extra helpings.

Since my summer schedule is flexible, I am usually free to read until I am too sleepy to make out the print. Sometimes my own reading is delayed by parental duty--reading to the children. How nice that they are now old enough for me to read some of the great books I never read in childhood.

I have quite a few books that were started over the course of the school year but did not finish because my assigned readings were so all consuming. The first pages or early chapters of these books beckoned me back in the winter or early spring. The interest never flagged, just the energy. In most cases, I read at least a hundred pages into a book (there is something magical about reaching page 100). These books whisper, “Finish me” when I walk by. Yes, something of the context is lost, and sometimes I have to start the book over, but usually I just pick up where I left off.

Out of Revolution by Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy is one such book and is high on the list to be finished. Rosenstock-Huessy is a highly regarded intellectual thinker and historian. His admirers include the late Dr. R.J. Rushdoony, who quoted Rosenstock-Huessy often, James Jordan, an author and theologian who highly recommends him, and Matthew Smallwood, who likes to read Germans. So, who am I to lag behind these men?

In April I boldly ventured off into reading Philip Schaff’s 8-volume History of the Christian Church. On this journey of about 6000 to 7000 pages, I am 250 pages into the first volume. Schaff begins his history of the Christian Church with basically a historical commentary on the New Testament. Schaff, the father of American Church history, is a model of scholarship, evangelical zeal, and readability. My hope is to get through several volumes of his eight-volume work this year.

Two theological heavy weights I did not finish are N.T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said and Jeff Meyer’s The Lord’s Service (a book about worship). Wright is a leading Pauline scholar. His arguments are tight and revealing. I am increasingly aware of how little I know about Paul and his writing. Meyer’s study is a detailed examination of worship. Personally, I like John Frame’s book on worship better, but Meyer has already blown a few of my flimsy mental gaskets. A few weeks ago, I started reading Fydor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. I was supposed to save it for the summer, but jumped on in and read about a third of it before Virgil demanded that I finish The Aeneid first. Dostoevsky proved too heavy for the heaviness of May and the end of school. In other words, I am too close to being an idiot in May to read a book with that title.

Summer seems to beckon a great Russian novel or two. I expect my brain will allow a return to The Idiot soon and then I may tackle another Russian work or two. I am really thinking of War and Peace, which is a good combination of literature and history.

Along with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, summer is a great time for such Southern writers as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Caroline Gordon.

I desperately need to read something by Walker Percy.

We read from two theological classics of Saint Augustine this past year in Humanities. We read about two thirds of Confessions and the first quarter of On Christian Teaching, and I hope to finish both. I have read and taught through On Christian Teaching before and hope to teach from St. Augustine more in the future.

A few weeks ago, I started Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. I am considering using it for the American Studies Humanities program next year. Paul Johnson’s perspective--British, independent, conservative, bold--always challenges, always delights. His massive Art: A History calls for much more than the mere glances I have given it so far.

Back in March or April, I got the Shorter Writings of J. Gresham Machen, and have since read about a dozen or so of the writings, generally choosing the most inviting titles. Machen appeals to the Calvinist, the Presbyterian, the Southern Agrarian, the conservative, the libertarian, and the classical educator--in me.

There are always a host of classics and older books clamoring to get read. Doggone it, new and great books keep rolling off the presses.

Since I will be teaching American history and literature next year, I am anxious to tackle some books on Colonial America. In particular, I would like to read George Marsden’s new biography of Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards. If I am a real man, I will finally pull down David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. I don’t yet have, but am badly wanting his new book Washington’s Crossing.

If I am a true Calvinist, I will start reading from Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi America. This book is described both as a daunting, laborious tome and as a delightful first Christian history of America.

The Revolutionary War is yet another incurable interest of mine. The Fourth of July always calls for a short campaign with the Continental Army. Prior to the Fourth of July is the Third of July--the date of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. The War Between the States has been off my reading lists lately, but I have lots of unread books, both first hand accounts and recent books on that great conflict.

If I can get hooked on the War again, then perhaps I revise, update, and drastically expand Beyond Appomattox: A Guide to Rethinking the War Between the States. I would like to have it for use in my class next year.

The two World Wars continue to spawn a good number of books. On World War One, I have wanted to read Robert Massie’s Castles of Steel, which deals with Britain and Germany’s naval conflicts in WWI. His book Nicholas and Alexandra is an all time favorite.
This week I hope to finish
A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud. This is a wonderful and saddening history of a Polish air unit that fought in the Royal Air Force in World War II. They are forgotten heroes, and their story reminds us of the bitter plight of so many men and countries caught between the Nazis and the Communists.

Since it is a political year, a political reading or two might be fun. I recently bought a new and huge biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now I know that it is heretical for ‘one of us’ to read about FDR unless the book is one of the FDR-bashing books. I know the man, his many faults, his failed legacy, but I am still fascinated by him as a political leader. And I have a big book of Ronald Reagan’s letters to read as an antidote for the FDR contagion.

I just remembered that I need to read Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order all the way through, I need to tackle de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for next year. This is a highly regarded classic that all educated people in America have read thoroughly. So in case I ever run into one of them, I need to read it.

And then there are all those great authors that continually delight. Every G.K Chesterton book and C.S. Lewis book that I have ever read deserves a rereading. Plus, I have not even read all their books.

Now if only summer could last for a really long time--especially the early mornings and late nights.

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