Why I love reading: Mostly, I enjoy reading because I like watching what an author can do with words. Without ever having seen the 19th century unsettled prairieland of the Midwest, Willa Cather in My Antonia can place that prairie with its scents and colors and sounds directly in my mind simply by arranging letters on a page. James Joyce in Ulysses can expand a single day with his words in a novel that takes a couple weeks of sustained and deliberate reading. Truman Capote, Nathaniel Hawthorne, A.S. Byatt, and hundreds more all have special gifts: keen description, shrewd commentary, textured characters…. Books are just wonderful places for readers to hide in for a while, and then reappear in the real world hours later with a sort of secret knowledge.
What I’m reading now: Currently, I am making my way through the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction 7th ed., a compendium of shorter titles from the American and English literary canons. Short fiction—or poetry—works well for me during the academic terms in seminary since I am frequently interrupted with other classroom projects and don’t always have the leisure for longer works. So far, my favorite stories from the collection include “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin; “Death by Landscape,” by Margaret Atwood; and “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad.
My favorite book: I have never quite been able to convince myself of established criteria for determining what makes a novel a “good novel,” but if I find myself still thinking about the book, its characters or plot, months or even years after I’ve finished it, the story must have impressed me in some way.
Of the novels I have physically laid down years ago but have never quite been able to put away from my own thoughts, two stand out: Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham. Jealousy is an experimental French novel that subordinates plot and character to the details of the world perceived through the obsessive mind of the jilted narrator. Its genius is that while the author explores so thoroughly the theme of jealousy and goes so far as to name his entire work with the word, the story never once describes any emotion at all. Of Human Bondage is a more conventional novel in form that introduces the reader to a main character who struggles with grinding poverty, finding his vocation, and resolving philosophical ideals, but ultimately finds that the most perfect patterns in life are often the simplest.