December 29, 2009
My Great Unfinished Books of 2009
Some of my friends like to record all the books they read in the past year and blog about them. I could do that too, and you might be impressed. But since my New Year’s resolution is to become the most humble reader on the face of the earth—and the most transparent too!—here’s my list of unfinished books of 2009.
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. This book has slipped into the danger zone: the shelf beneath the living room coffee table, where it keeps company with Sunset gardening books and bird guides. But I know it’s there, and when I sit in my favorite chair, Taylor gives me the hairy eyeball every once in a while. Nevertheless, as far as I’ve gotten in this book—page 256 out of 776, not counting endnotes—has been worthwhile. “Porous self” and “buffered self” are now part of my vocabulary. I even tried to use “buffered self” in some back cover copy, but I sensed it would be greeted with muffled mirth. But this is a book I will return to, and when I do I’ll need to review the first 256 pages in order to grasp the line of argument again. This will be an impediment to my progress in finishing the book, if not toward my goal of being a humble reader.
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Untold Story. This is a biography of perhaps the wickedest man of the twentieth century. If there is anything to be redeemed in this man’s soul, it would take the Lord to find it. And let’s just suppose this carefully written and meticulously documented book is exaggerating by fifty percent the wicked deeds of Mao. He would still be shockingly repulsive. So why read this book? For a strong shot of reality and a deeper understanding of the suffering the Chinese people underwent during his regime. But also so you know enough to be truly outraged by the idiocy of some in the West who think it’s intellectually chic to hold him in regard or think that sporting a Mao bag is smart and stylish. Seriously, Mao makes Hitler look like a tyro. Read this book. Even if you only get to page 250 (out of 616, not counting endnotes), where I am now, it will be enough. But I plan to finish.
Leon R. Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature. I’d read some essays by Kass, and someone mentioned this book, perhaps it was in First Things (in that nasal tone that implies that anyone worthy of reading FT has surely read this book). It sounded interesting, so I bought it. And it is “a fascinating exploration of the natural and cultural act of eating,” just as the back cover copy says. Kass searches out the meaning of the most basic and ordinary aspects of the human act of eating—from the position of the orifice we call the mouth to the cultural conventions of table manners—and produces the most stunning insights. I feel like a slob now every time I grab a quick bite to eat while standing over the kitchen sink. And I now recognize the moral decline implied in grabbing a sample food item while pushing my cart down the Costco aisles. But right now Kass is flattened under the Mao book on my nightstand, and he’s carrying on about the indignity of it all. But I would like to remind Kass that Mao at least ate with chopsticks, which, as Kass says, “make for—and celebrate—small mouthfuls. The distance from the violent knife and the grasping hands couldn’t be greater.” Maybe I’ve found something worth redeeming in Mao after all.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. I was faithfully reading Barth’s CD for eighteen months at a minimum pace of five pages a day. And I went all the way through IV, which as many of you know is actually four books and a “fragment,” making five. I was on a buy-as-you-go reading plan. Just about when I finished IV, the publisher announced it was coming out with a new edition. So I decided to wait for that to come available. Then it was delayed. But then I wasn’t sure whether I really wanted the new edition. It’s divided up differently, you see, and with new covers. It would, well, look odd on my shelves (and my shelves look odd enough already). Then I got to thinking I could pick up remaindered volumes of the old edition. But I didn’t get around to that. And in the past I’d bought them at a good discount at AAR/SBL. Then AAR and SBL split, and I’m only going to SBL. The publisher doesn’t seem to want to sell individual volumes at a discount to biblical scholars at SBL. So there’s another problem. Anyway, all this change and indecision has diverted my attention from Barth. But I plan to resume. Maybe with Volume two. But first I have to buy it. And in what edition? And at what discount? You see the problem here. I even blogged about my reading CD, just to keep myself on track, since people would ask, “How’s your Barth reading going?” (as someone did at SBL back in November). And I’d have to say, “Fine!” Or lie or be embarrassed. I couldn’t lie. At least not about Barth. But embarrassment doesn’t seem to work on me anymore. That’s what happens when you read too much Barth, I guess.
Alberto Angela, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome. This is a great book and a compelling read. When I discovered it—at Costco, of all places—I couldn’t put it down. Then I did put it down, and I didn’t pick it up again until I started writing this blog. How does this happen? All too easily for someone who thinks nothing of reading many books at once and is easily distracted by another new title! But now that I’ve rediscovered it, I’m in danger of disqualifying it from this list of Great Unfinished Books of 2009. The author takes you as a sort of invisible tourist on a tour of ancient Rome and Roman life in the year A.D. 115. Hour by hour, from pre-dawn stirrings to night life, we view the grandeur and the lowliness of life in this great ancient city. It wasn’t difficult to pick up where I left off—at 11:30 a.m. for a quick visit to the senate of Rome, and on from there to the imperial forums and then a visit to the restroom. I’m just about to have lunch at a Roman snack bar. And there’s still the trip to the baths and the gladiatorial contests at the colosseum to look forward to this afternoon. This book is R-rated in spots, though there’s hardly anything the Apostle Paul didn’t warn you about. If I were teaching a seminary course on New Testament backgrounds, I think I’d make it required reading. And I’ll bet they’d read it.
Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God. This one barely makes the list, since I just began reading it. Over 1,100 pages (with endnotes) on An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul! This book was the topic of a very interesting session at SBL back in November, and it’s clear that it’s going to be a much discussed book in the future. And with the current turmoil over the meaning of justification, I feel compelled to grapple with Campbell. But I can see that I’m going to have to overcome my complete-reading obsession in order to call this one read. But I’m currently much more intrigued by Michael Gorman’s proposal in Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. And while I’ve not quite completed Gorman’s book, I will before 2010 rolls around (and a couple of chapters I have read twice).
John Updike, Rabbit, Run. Updike was a great writer. But Rabbit is an idiot. I’m stuck on page 50. But I have a long day of travel coming up, so maybe I’ll take this one along. And I see that chopsticks come up on page 52, and Rabbit prefers “sticks” for his Chinese food, so if Kass is right, maybe Rabbit will redeem himself.
Not counting Barth, I’m carrying a 2,400-page reading debt into 2010.
There! Confession is good for a reader’s soul, don’t you think?