- how reading can strengthen your spiritual life and deepen your faith,
- why a journey through classic literature might be just what you need (and where to begin),
- how stories form your sense of identity,
- how Sarah’s parents raised her to be a readerand what you can do to cultivate a love of reading in the growing readers around you, and
- 20+ annotated book lists, including some old favorites and many new discoveries.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Tyndale House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Sarah Clarkson loves good books, beauty, and imagination, and thinks everyone else should too. She explores the intersection of literature, faith, and wonder at SarahClarkson.com and is at very slow work on a novel. She currently hails from Oxford, where she keeps good company with the ghosts of Tolkien and Lewis and also studies theology.
Sally Clarkson is the mother of four grown children who walk with God. She is the author of many books, including Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe and The Mission of Motherhood. She is a speaker, writes a personal blog ITakeJoy.com, and is the director of Mom Heart Ministry, an initiative to inspire, encourage, and restore mothers' hearts to God's heart for motherhood.
Erica Sullivan is a professional actress of both stage and screen and holds her MFA from the Yale School of Drama. Currently a company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she has performed in New York and regionally with such companies as the Lincoln Center, Soho Repertory Theatre, and New Dramatists. She makes her home in Ashland, OR, with her family.
Read an Excerpt
On the Crafting of BOOK LISTS
How to Set a Course of Reading through the Ocean of Endless Books
Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? ANNIE DILLARD, THE WRITING LIFE
"Of making many books there is no end," says the rather jaded writer of Ecclesiastes. Nor of the making of book lists, says this slightly wild-eyed but altogether idealistic writer. I still remember when a teenage friend and I were hosted overnight by a family in Boston during a history field trip. The mother asked me to jot down a few of my favorite children's books, so I curled on the couch and set to it as the adults packed picnics and snacks. The house grew curiously quiet (considering the combined presence of twelve children), but I was immersed, culling my best-loved stories from memory until I felt a tap on my arm.
"Sarah," said my bosom friend, Katrina, "it's time to go, and —" she peered over my shoulder before looking at me with a huge roll of her eyes — "thirty-five titles is more than enough. Good grief."
We both should have known my future would involve book lists.
The fact is, I can't keep quiet about a book I love. I want people to understand why this novel or that bit of theology can change the whole way they see life. I spent ten years reading classic literature and children's stories before I ever got around to starting a degree in theology (I like to say I took at least a dozen gap years), but once I did, I couldn't stop seeing connections between fairy tales and biblical narrative, doctrine and Victorian novels. I dragged my favorite works of fiction into every theological essay I could. I think I have become known as a bit of a Wendell Berry fanatic here in Oxford, because I've quoted him in essays on the Incarnation, argued against his being an anarchist with my college principal, and made my college small group read his poetry aloud. One of the best bookish compliments I've ever received came when a priest who has been mentor, theological teacher, and marriage counselor to Thomas and me asked for a list of novels to take on a spiritual retreat. We showed up at his door with ten possibilities because I couldn't choose just a few.
The thing about my book lists is that they are driven by love — for the story or kernel of truth that lies hidden in the heart of what is written and for the person in whose hands I can't wait to place the book because I honestly believe it will widen and enrich their life. And that's the first thing I want you to know as we open this discussion on the crafting of book lists. The book lists here are formed by love.
The problem, though, is that there really is no end to the number of book lists I could make, the number of absolute favorite titles I want to review in detail, the books I haven't yet had time to read, and the ones I've heard are wondrous. During the months of writing this book, I frantically read as many new books as I could, afraid to miss that one great title or be "behind" on a contemporary classic. I finally had to take a deep breath and remind myself that I have to begin exactly where I am, with the riches I've culled as a reader up to this point in my life.
So before you dive into the lists ahead, a few brief thoughts. First, on selection. It's pretty straightforward: I list what I love. Then, organization: in other words, how I've arranged these potentially unwieldy lists of beloved titles so that you will know exactly where to go, depending on what kind of book you want to read. Finally, content, in which I will briefly discuss the difficult and nuanced practice of discernment and its role in helping me to evaluate the literary quality and worldview of the books I've chosen.
I can't say it often enough: this book is not meant to be a be-all, end-all list of every modern book you should read or the classics you should cover before death. This is not a comprehensive guide to literature. (For that, take a look at the highly ambitious recommended reading list compiled by Mortimer Adler and thank your lucky stars I'll never be as well read as he is. And at least I'm not insisting you read Thucydides.)
Rather, my collective book list is one you could consider a story — a history by book recommendation; a living, delighted record of the books that have most kindled me to life in heart, mind, and soul. The selection process for the lists that follow is pretty basic: every one is a book I have loved. These are the books I press into the hands of my nearest and dearest, the titles I carefully select when those I love are in need of encouragement or freshened vision or comfort.
But I am only one reader who has happened upon a certain stream of books in the great ocean of the written word. The book lists that follow are thus highly individual, even eccentric at points. Of course, I've tried to read widely, dip into the classics, tour contemporary stories, taste some poetry, explore the paths of theology. I honestly think that if you read every title in this book, you'd have a rich exposure to some of the best writers around. But I know I have missed a lot as well. I know some of what I love will resonate with you and some just won't.
My goal in sharing the following lists is to simply open the reading life a little wider to you, set you on your feet, and launch you on your own journey of exploration. "Way leads on to way," wrote the poet Robert Frost, and I hope that you'll discover that book leads on to book and that the titles in these lists will lead you beyond, into the book lists of other writers and the best beloveds of other friends.
Each chapter is themed around a gift or grace that comes to a book girl through the reading life. The lists that follow are crafted to follow that theme, introducing you to the books that embody and continue the qualities discussed in the chapter. This book is structured specifically to address the different seasons of reading and experiences in the life of a book girl, organized in such a way that you can dip into this chapter or that list and find the resources you need in that particular phase. The lists are shaped to address different needs, varied amounts of time or attention, and different seasons of learning and growth. If you're a mother of toddlers, I'm guessing your reading needs might run toward a restorative novel, while if you're a student in a season of discovery, you'll find the tougher theological titles or cultural commentary to be the meat you need. The lists and chapters are individual, meant to meet you in these varied seasons.
These selections reflect my own reading experience, my deep sense of books as companions that come alongside me to help me to be faithful wherever they find me. During my twenties, during many long, lonely hours, I discovered classic writers on prayer and spiritual formation and spent hours in their brisk and convicting company. At the moment, as I sit here pregnant and overwhelmed by daily life, I doubt I could read one of them without feeling frustrated. Instead, it's a novel I crave, one that helps me to reconnect to ordinary life as a gift and a wonder.
In theming the chapters and lists that follow, I've tried to create the resources and stories I would want to discover in my own various stages of life. My hope for you as a reader is that you will encounter this book as an adaptable companion and resource through many seasons.
The easiest way to understand what makes a book excellent is simply to read good books. Read a short story by Wendell Berry, dip into George Eliot's Silas Marner, throw in a snippet of Narnia and a William Wordsworth poem, and you will be well on your way to discerning, even intuitively, what makes writing good. Along with C. S. Lewis, I am not particularly interested in the "chronological snobbery" that prizes writing according to what is popular in a particular age. And like Lewis, I think children's books, mysteries, classics, and contemporary fiction can be excellent, but all of them should share a few basic qualities, ideas for you to consider in forming your own idea of what makes for literary quality:
- High quality of language. A good book wields language with skill and insight, using words that broaden your experience of the world; that help you to see in a fresh way; that bring a person, a landscape, or a history to life. Good writers also have a certain degree of particularity in the words they choose. As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — 'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."
- Showing, not telling. It's probably the first thing you'll be told to do in a beginning creative writing class, but it's vital, the thing great writers do without even thinking about it. An author who shows sets you as a reader in the scene, immersing you in the scents and sights, feelings and emotions of the setting. To tell is simply to relate facts; to show is to place a reader in a world.
- Concision. With all this praise for good words and evocative descriptions, you might think good novels have to be hundreds of pages. In fact, some of the best novels are brief. To Kill a Mockingbird is a fairly short story that manages to communicate the profound racial tension and moral dilemmas dividing a small Southern town, but all of it is told through the eyes and vocabulary of a child (though Scout is probably a wordier little girl than most!). Good writing is taut. It doesn't waste words; it puts them to swift, disciplined work.
- Humanity (the particular and the universal). By which I mean the capacity of a book to realistically describe the human experience on the level of the individual — whether Potok's depiction of a Hasidic Jewish boy or Eliot's depiction of a lonely English woman in the Victorian era who is caught in a difficult marriage — and through that depiction to say something universally true about what it means to be human, to suffer, to hope, to love, to work. A good book should ring true to human experience, regardless of character or setting.
Or, in C. S. Lewis's loving description: "Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. ... In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."
The first real doctrine essay I wrote at Oxford was on the Incarnation. I was asked to outline why Christ's human life was as important as his death. Intuitively, I understood that it was pretty radical that God took flesh at a certain point in space and time, but I struggled to get the abstract theological points straight in my head until I remembered a particular character from a Wendell Berry novel. It all came clear when I revisited Berry's tale of Nathan Coulter, a Kentucky farmer and war veteran. His experiences left him horrified at the way people and land became nameless, depersonalized, and lost in the face of violence, good only for destruction. Berry's novel recounts the way Nathan came home determined to live a life rooted in love, one opposite to war, in which he would care for the named and known people in his place on earth, tending his farm, committed to his marriage and community, faithful in the smallest, local particulars of everyday existence. As his wife, Hannah, puts it, "It is by the place we've got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven."
In Nathan's story I recognized an incarnational, Christ-shaped love. He helped me to understand that the Incarnation means that God himself came into a particular corner of the war-torn universe to embody a life that is the opposite of war and death; to name, know, and love each human being into redemption. The Word who spoke everything into being became flesh in the squirming, little baby Jesus, asleep in the musty hay of a Bethlehem manger. Before Jesus died, he lived, and in doing so, he started the story of humanity afresh as his perfect, faithful, loving life became the ground of renewal for the whole world.
I wrote the rest of that paper in a blaze of inspiration, delighted by the way a story I loved made theology clearer to me. But that was only the first of many such instances. The more I studied doctrine, the more I realized that the great books I'd been reading all my life had already been teaching me to think about the ultimate questions at the heart of theological study. In The Lord of the Rings, I had already learned to consider what it means to be an agent responsible for my actions. Middlemarch taught me about what real compassion might mean. A Wrinkle in Time challenged me to consider what love really is ... and isn't.
The great stories I have read have impacted my spiritual and moral development more than almost anything else. Next to Scripture and the influence of my parents, great books have formed my worldview, developed my moral imagination, and shaped my idea of virtue. But I think this is true of most human lives, whether we get our stories from great books, from other people, or from TV sitcoms. Stories shape our existence because we recognize in a deep part of ourselves that life itself is a story. The tale of the world opens with a sort of divine "once upon a time," or "in the beginning." Much of Scripture is narrative, and the Gospels are crammed full of the parables Jesus told to announce and explain the coming of his Kingdom. The gospel itself comes to us in narrative form, and one of its great tenets is that we have the chance to join the story of the Kingdom come in this world, to be agents in the ongoing story of redemption, what Rowan Williams calls the "freedom of a sort of authorship."
To read a story is to be shaped in the very depths of one's soul. Because of this power, this grace given by great books, I've often had to ask the question "What makes a book acceptable for a Christian reader?" Because stories engage my imagination and heart on a deep level, I am aware of the fact that what I encounter on their pages will teach me how to see the world, and this is why I've had to learn to practice discernment. As you explore the vast realm of books available today, you might have to ask, as I have, where we draw the line on the inclusion of sex or violence or "bad language" in a story. How deeply should we delve into worldviews that run contrary to what we believe? What does it mean to read faithfully?
First, let's briefly consider the cultivation of discernment, the means by which we nourish our inner capacity to love what is good and hate what is evil, to know when evil is presented to us in whatever form. The temptation here would be to create a list of rules by which each piece of reading could be evaluated, but I think this is both unhelpful and, in the long term, destructive. Discernment has far less to do with creating an outward legalism than it does with cultivating our innermost hearts. Real discernment, I believe, springs from a heart so nourished by the true, the good, and the beautiful that what is evil simply cannot find room to root.
In my earlier book on children's literature, Caught Up in a Story, I explore the difficult question concerning the age at which children can safely be exposed to evil, suffering, or darkness in the world of literature. While I agree with Chesterton that "fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already," I think the question we really should be asking is not so much "When do I expose my children to darkness?" as "Have I exposed them to light?" My contention is that in order for children to cope with evil, they need a bone-deep knowledge of what is good. Like the heroes and heroines in fairy tales, they need stories that begin in a powerful picture of joy. They need minds stocked with the imagery of love, beauty, laughter, and song before they can have the necessary hope to shield them in their battle against sin and evil.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Book Girl"
Copyright © 2018 Sarah Clarkson.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction Becoming a Book Girl xi
1 On the Crafting of Book Lists How to Set a Course of Reading through the Ocean of Endless Books 1
2 Begin at the Beginning Creating Habits, Rhythms, and Space for the Reading Life 15
3 Books Can Broaden Your World Expanding Your Mind, One Title at a Time 33
The Beloved Dozen: The Novels That Taught Me How to Live 44
Books That Talk Back: My Favorite Books about Books 61
4 Books Can Shape Your Story What If You Were the Sum of the Characters You've Read? 65
Girlhood Classics: The Books That Began It All for Me 71
Biographies: The Real-Life Epics That Shaped My Dreams 77
The Nightstand List: Classics You Should Eventually Read 84
5 Books Can Stir You to Action Becoming a Heroine in Your Own Story 91
Girl Power: My Favorite Novels about Brave and Faithful Women 98
"Courage, Dear Heart": The Spiritual Classics That Made My Heart Strong 107
"What to Do with the Time We've Been Given": Books That Helped Me Navigate Contemporary Culture 121
6 Books Can Cultivate the Imagination Believing the Truth That Beauty Tells 129
Novels of Eucatastrophc: The Fantastical Stories That Taught Me Hope 137
Books about Imagination: Why You're Never Too Old for Narnia 144
7 Books Can Foster Community Forming Friendships through the Pages of Good Literature 151
The Books We Shared: My Family's Favorite Read-Alouds 161
"What! You Too?": The Firsthand Accounts That Remind Me I'm Not Alone 170
8 Books Can Open Your Eyes to Wonder Unlocking the Beauty All around Us 175
"A Little Poetry Every Day": The Poems That Opened My Eyes to Wonder 183
Startled Awake: Novels That Kindled My Delight in Existence 187
Beauty Speaks Truth: Books about the Arts 194
9 Books Can Deepen Your Soul The Gift of Pondering 199
The Holy Way: Books That Taught Me to Pray 207
The Gift of Sacred Time: Books for the Church Year 215
10 Books Can Impart Hope The Final Word Belongs to Love 221
Not Escapism: Novels That Helped Me Cope with a Broken World 229
God Is Big Enough: Spiritual Books That Helped Me through Seasons of Struggle 236
Epilogue Books Are Meant to Be Passed Along The Ongoing Legacy of the Reading Life 245
Discussion Questions 261
About the Author 263