MINI : The Reading List (2015)

MINI posts are bite-sized articles that fit in-between our meatier Main Issues. They are usually shorter and more personal than our regular articles.

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‘Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.’ ― Henry David ThoreauWalden

I flipping love reading. I’m convinced it’s one of the most healthy, life-changing, mind-expanding habits we can develop. Reading has changed the way I think, led me in new directions, opened up interests, helped me know myself and others more, and caused me to question some of my deepest held beliefs. 

So for our first MINI article I’ve created a list of my Top 10 Books of 2015. They are not necessarily newly published, but they are all books that I’ve read for the first time in the last year. These all stood out to me and are well worth your time.

In no particular order: 

1. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

1. White Teeth

‘These days, it feels to me like you make a devil’s pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started… but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers – who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained.’

What It Is: 

‘White Teeth’ is a novel about three families from three different cultures, set over three generations. It’s about the way families change over time, the difficulty of living as a minority within a larger culture, friendship and love and growing up.

Why I Loved It :

It’s funny, serious, and refreshing all at the same time. It’s a book that reminds us of how connected we all are, and how differences in culture and personality and sexuality and belief should be celebrated and embraced instead of feared. 

2. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

2. Walden

‘We need the tonic of wildness… At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.’

What It’s About : 

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American author, poet and philosopher. In the 1850’s, he spent two years living alone in the woods, in a cabin that he built himself near Walden Pond. This book is his journal and reflection on that time, from the details of how he built his house, to the birds and animals that he interacted with, to the people that he met. 

Why I Loved It :

It’s a beautiful reminder of the power of nature, and of living with simplicity and presence. It has a great mix of practical observations and philosophical thoughts, and it’s a breath of fresh air, especially needed in our modern culture of constant busyness, noise, and a drive to always do things bigger and better. 

3. Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

3. pale blue dot

‘How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.’

What It’s About : 

Carl Sagan, the late scientist and astronomer, wrote this book back in 1994 about humanity’s place, and future, in the Universe. He talks about religion, philosophy, and our tightly-held belief that we occupy a special central place in the Universe. He then goes on to talk in-depth about our Solar System, and the possibility of us leaving Earth to form other homes in space.

Why I Loved It :

If you’ve read our last main issue, Perspective, you’ll know that I love a bit of Carl Sagan. This is one of those books that reminds us of how grand and unfathomable our Universe is, and how small and fortunate we are to be alive in it. It gets very detailed but is never dry; Sagan is an expert at turning science into poetry. It will blow your mind.

4. The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman

4. MAUS

‘Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!’

What It’s About : 

MAUS is a non-fiction comic book written about the author’s father Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland. It details his journey along with his wife Anja, from wealthy factory owner, to prisoner at Auschwitz. Instead of humans, each nationality is represented by a different animal: Germans are cats, Polish are pigs, and the Jews are portrayed as mice. 

Why I Loved It :

I haven’t even quite finished this yet, but it’s still going on the list, because it’s amazing. Don’t let the graphic-novel format put you off: it’s the perfect way to tell this story, and is incredibly moving and sad. The animals-as-humans twist works incredibly well, and weirdly brings home the fact that this really happened. It became the first graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and you’ll understand why when you give it a read. Incredible.

5. The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns

5. evolution of adam

‘The Genesis creation narrative we have in our Bibles today, although surely rooted in much older material, was shaped as a theological response to Israel’s national crisis of exile. These stories were not written to speak of “origins” as we might think of them today (in a natural-science sense). They were written to say something of God and Israel’s place in the world as God’s chosen people.’

What It’s About : 

This is a book about the biblical story of Genesis, and how to read it alongside our modern understanding of evolution and human origins. It’s a fascinating read if you’re interested in the way that the Bible was put together, and argues that we need to understand the context that the story was written in. It was never meant to be a science book, but is a poetic piece of literature crafted for a specific audience and compiled from a variety of sources, directly responding to the other creation stories of the time (such as the Babylonian ‘Enuma Elish’). 

Why I Loved It :

I was taught in my Christian background that the creation story was literal truth: God made the world in seven days, started the human race from Adam and Eve, and then punished the whole of humanity when the first couple ate a piece of forbidden fruit. I can’t hold onto those things as literally true anymore, but this book shows how Genesis is still a useful and meaningful piece of art that is way more fascinating when we don’t expect it to provide scientific answers. It also reminded me of how much I didn’t know about my own Bible when I was at my most religious, and why learning and expanding our understanding is so important.

6. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

6. pale king

‘The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it. This is the way of people. Suddenly ask what’s wrong and whether they open up and spill their guts or deny it and pretend you’re off, they’ll think you’re perceptive and understanding. They’ll either be grateful, or they’ll be frightened and avoid you from then on. Both reactions have their uses, as we’ll get to. You can play it either way. This works over 90 percent of the time.’

What It’s About : 

One of my favourite writers, David Foster Wallace, sadly died in 2008. He was in the middle of writing a new novel set in an office of the IRS (the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S tax-collection agency), and ‘The Pale King’ is what we have left of that unfinished novel. It’s a book about boredom, about the soul-crushing weight of a repetitive and arduous job, about depression and pointlessness and our attempts to find meaning in ordinary life.

Why I Loved It :

Wallace’s writing itself is enough reason for me to love this novel; it’s addictive and incredibly well crafted. This novel is full of his distinct style, like sentences that go on for pages, disorienting perspective changes, incredibly detailed descriptions of the most ordinary objects, and a mixture of humour and deep sadness. There’s plenty to think about here, and I just felt gutted at the end that he didn’t live to see it completed.

If you’ve never read DFW before, I’d maybe recommend starting with one of his writing collections: ‘Consider The Lobster’ is a set of non-fiction essays on subjects from the Adult Film industry to the U.S presidential race; and ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’ is a collection of his short stories. Both are great introductions to his writing.

7. The Idolatry Of God by Peter Rollins

7. idolatry of god

‘[This] is a work explicitly about the theme of salvation – not the type of salvation that is preached today from the pulpit, the false salvation that promises us freedom from our unknowing and dissatisfaction, but a salvation that takes place within our unknowing and dissatisfaction. One that directly confronts them, embraces them and says ‘amen’ to them.’

What It’s About : 

A short and challenging book by the Irish philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins, ‘The Idolatry Of God’ argues that we have turned God into simply another type of product to give us certainty and stability in an uncertain world. Instead, he argues that we cannot achieve certainty, and that peace comes from accepting that we can’t be satisfied, life is difficult, and you don’t know everything.

Why I Loved It :

I read this book in one go. It resonated with me, as it highlighted our deep human fear of doubt and uncertainty, and our natural desire to cover them over with easy answers. Facing up to my doubts has been a big part of my life in the last year or two, and I’ve come to the point where I’m actually more comfortable and at peace in the midst of uncertainty than I ever was when I pretended to have all the answers. You may not agree with all of his ideas, but it’s a thought-provoking and meaningful book.

8. The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman

8. accidental universe

‘Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.’

What It’s About : 

A collection of essays by physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, exploring the human condition through the lens of scientific discoveries about our Universe, touching on themes of spirituality, love, morality and the meaning of life. 

Why I Loved It :

The writing is powerful and beautifully put together, and for me it’s my ultimate blend of the scientific and the spiritual. These essays left me with a bigger view of the world, a more open mind, a deeper appreciation of mystery and even contains a powerful defence of the good side of religion (written by a self-described atheist). Get it!  

9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

9. the road

‘Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.’

What It’s About : 

A dark novel that follows a father and his young son over several months, as they make their way through a post-apocalyptic America. They search for food, shelter, and warmth in order to survive in a dead America, where ash covers everything and the Sun is never seen. 

Why I Loved It :

I saw the film adaptation years ago, and thought it was OK. The book is a much better piece of work, vividly bleak in its descriptions of a broken world, terrifying in parts and hard to put down. It’s also strangely warm and moving in parts, and left me feeling grateful for all the beauty and colour and good that we have today, and even more aware of the fragility and temporariness of our modern world.

10. How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg & Mark Robert Waldman

10. how god changes your brain

‘The thalamus [part of your brain] makes no distinction between inner and outer realities, and thus any idea, if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality. Your belief becomes neurologically real, and your brain will respond accordingly. But for someone else, who has meditated on a different set of beliefs or goals, a different reality will seem true.’

What It’s About : 

Two scientists write about the way that religious beliefs and spiritual experiences affect our brains, in both beneficial and harmful ways. They discuss meditation, our changing perspectives on what ‘God’ is, the dangers of believing in an angry deity, and the most effective ways to exercise and strengthen your brain.

Why I Loved It :

So many reasons. It’s a book that I’ll revisit many times, as it’s full of amazing insights all backed up by proper research. One of the authors believes in God, while the other does not, and this makes for a well-balanced and honest book that will challenge and encourage you whatever your personal beliefs may be. It mostly reminded me of how much of our tendency to believe in God depends on what’s happening within our own brains; some people are simply more naturally inclined to skepticism, some may even be incapable of believing in God, and none of us are capable of complete objectivity. We all see life through our personal brain-lenses. 

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Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make.

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