Summer Books

Books about writing and reading, both of which occupy my time, are enjoyable and helpful. My favorite writing book, in addition to Anne Lamott’s, Bird by Bird, is Annie Dillard’s, The Writing Life. I always wrote anything I was going to deliver orally and still do, including sermons, based on the simple reality that I think and convey ideas more clearly at a desk with a pen in my hand than I do on my feet in front of a group of listeners. That may not be true for everyone but it was, and is, for me. I wrote the prayers, even the announcements for public worship, to make sure I said exactly what I meant. Sermon writing was my biggest project weekly and I wrote every word, editing and correcting as I went, then delivered the sermon from a typed manuscript which I had further edited. Writing has been important to me. I love Annie Dillard’s book and keep at hand two vignettes. She wrote, “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window.” I have also appreciated, and found true, Dillard’s advice about using, not saving, ideas that are hot, pressing to be expressed, instead of saving them for another day or sermon. She advised, “One of the things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later time in the book (or sermon); give it, give it all now. The impulse to save something for a better place later is a signal to spend it now. Something more will arise later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”

I have been a reader all my adult life, until retirement largely for utilitarian purposes. I wrote once that books read in the summer are like jars of canned tomatoes and beans on your mother’s cellar shelves, to get you through the long winter of sermonizing. Now I have the luxury of reading what I want, regardless of future homiletic potential. I’m loving it. This summer, in the rocking chair on the porch at the beach, I read: Jeff Shaara’s, A Blaze of Glory, a novel of the Battle of Shiloh, and was staggered once again with the raw brutality and devastation of the Civil War; Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, a follow up novel to her best seller, Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII and his right hand man, Thomas Cromwell. Bring up the Bodies refers to the order issued at the Tower of London when it was time to bring a prisoner to the scaffold, in this book Anne Boelyn and her accused lovers; Kent Haruf’s Benediction, the third in his fine trilogy, best sellers Plainsong and Eventide. Haruf is a lovely writer whose characters are both compelling and utterly human. Haruf had me in the first chapter when the main character, elderly Dan Lewis, a Holt, Colorado farmer, having just learned that he is terminally ill, sits on his front porch in the early evening. His wife asks if there is anything she can do. He requests a cold beer, looks at the bottle and says, “I might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. A guy I was talking to said something about Belgian Beer. Maybe I’ll try some of that. If I can get it around here.” Richard Rohr, Franciscan Priest, is my most recent find and I read and liked very much A Lever and Place to Stand, The Contemplative Stance, The Active Prayer. Finally, I was intrigued by Kenneth L. Vaux’s The Ministry of Vincent Van Gogh in Religion and Art. His intriguing theses, that Van Gogh’s art grew out of his deeply spiritual longing and failed attempt to become a clergyman, caught my imagination. The book is expertly researched and literally full of fascinating information about Van Gogh’s life, friends, struggles and his unique sensitivity to light and darkness in his painting. Vaux draws extensively on Van Gogh’s voluminous correspondence. In one letter he writes: “everything in men that works that is truly good and beautiful, with an inner moral, spiritual and sublime beauty, I think comes from God. I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing God is to love a great deal…If one loves Rembrandt that man will know that there is a God and he’ll believe firmly in him.”

Lastly, a new book about reading was recommended by a reading friend who who phoned and said, “Stop what you are doing. Go to the book store and buy The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.” I’m glad I took her advice. Schwalbe’s mother, a life-long avid reader, was dying. As she and her son spent long hours in various hospital waiting rooms their conversation invariably turned to books and reading. So, they founded a two member book club and read together and talked about what they were reading for the rest of her life. It is a gentle, lovely book, which lovers of books and reading will appreciate very much.


  1. Kathy Preble Bayert says:

    I have always appreciated your thoughtful book recommendations. In fact, am a huge follower of Anne Lamott based on your recommendation. Though not a writer, I found Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird a helpful approach to most any complex challenge. Will be checking out some of your other suggestions as well. Enjoy your year-long summer reading, you’ve earned it.

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