The4thDave Reads: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

We’ve seen the blog posts and editorials for years: “How I Gave Up Social Media for 30 Days and It CHANGED MY LIFE!” “Why I Quit Facebook and Got My Life Back” “Quitting Instagram Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds and Run The Boston Marathon!!!” (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Hand-wringing posts about the dangers of online culture, social media addiction, and how often we contemplate quitting (or quit and then come back) are almost becoming a cliche lately. (Guilty.) But no matter how many productivity gurus talk about the power of “digital detoxing” and the benefits of set fasts from social media, many of us are still struggling with this form of addiction. (Yes, us, I’m a junkie just like you.)

I read these types of posts constantly. The most clear-headed thinker I’ve found on this topic is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. I’ve shared the link to his TED talk about quitting social media in the past. I heard sometime last year that his next book would deal with the idea of “digital minimalism” and was immediately intrigued. Well, it was well worth the wait.

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in A Noisy World is a persuasive call to reconsider the choices we make about our digital lives.

Newport challenges the reader not to throw away all technology–he’s no Luddite seeking a purely analog life–but rather to ask very pointed and thoughtful questions about why and how we use technology. He challenges the notion that a mere potential benefit of a device or service is a good enough reason to adopt its use, or that having more features is automatically better. He draws the reader’s attention to the fact that we are the product being sold by social media corporations, and that our time and attention have been monetized for someone else’s benefit.

Beyond a Simple Detox

Newport suggests a 30-day challenge: an intentional digital fast (with common-sense provisions for certain necessary work/life demands), followed by a slow and deliberate re-integration of tech. During this post-fast period, he suggests that we ask 3 questions of our devices and apps: Does using this tool support a belief or priority that I deeply value? Is this the best way I can pursue that ideal or value? Can I optimize the way I use this device or program in pursuit of that value?

For example, if we use social media for keeping up with our family, Newport would argue that what we’re doing when we like or share or comment is mere connection, and it doesn’t take the place of real communication. Instead, while we might still use social media in a very limited way (both in time and scope) to catch up on news about our loose circle of acquaintances, we should also pursue actual communication with people who matter to us via in-person visits, phone calls, or even video chats (for far-flung loved ones). The complexity of face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication, Newport writes, is what provides the richness of human interaction–a complexity that text-based communication falls short of providing.

Don’t Click “Like”

Throughout the second half of the book, Newport gives recommendations of practices one can pursue as part of the “Attention Resistance” pushing back against screen consumption. Some of these ideas are pretty simple (make time for solitude, go for walks, pursue an analog leisure activity that requires physical exertion), while others are a bit more challenging, at least for me.

One such challenge Newport makes is to stop clicking “like.” He talks about how social media introduced the “like” button as a way of providing a minimal amount of feedback that still stimulates the user (the “digital slot-machine” idea of irregular positive feedback conditioning). I struggle with this, because I use the “like” button a LOT (as those of you on my socials can attest). However, I see what he means. A real-world example: I just posted on Facebook 42 minutes ago that we were having another baby. As of right now, 3 people have actually commented (2 of which said “congrats!”), and 20 people have hit the “Like/Love/Wow” emoji. [Update: I’ve gotten more comments since then, but the ratio of reactions to comments is running about 4-5 to 1.] Now, I do appreciate that these folks reacted to the news (that’s how Facebook describes it–reacting), but the vast majority so far have only reacted enough to click a mouse or tap a screen and then likely moved on with their scrolling. And I can’t fault them; that’s just what we do, isn’t it? But Newport suggests we stop, because this isn’t actually communicating anything. It’s one bit of information, a blip on the radar. And it’s a far cry from actual human community.

(And for the record, if you are one of the “likes” on my FB wall right now, this isn’t a slam against you. Thanks for taking a moment to read this. But hey, gimme a call sometime, so we can catch up, yeah?)

One Weakness

The only critique I have of Digital Minimalism is a worldview issue. Newport is writing from a secular perspective, so when he talks about the evolution of man as a social animal, he is missing a glaring clue as to why we are social creatures. Mankind was created by a personal, social, communicating God, a God who speaks and interacts with His creation, and because we bear the imprint of His image, we are social and communicative beings. That’s part of the reason why this reduction in human interaction is so unnatural; we were made by God for community, but our community is being undercut by a digital counterfeit that steals time away from incarnated interaction. The spiritual element of this whole idea is missing from Newport’s thinking on this subject, which is why other books by authors like Tony Reinke and Andy Crouch are necessary and helpful supplements to the ideas Newport presents.

Final Review

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism does more than simply point out the problem of digital addiction and social media enslavement. Newport helps the reader consider how to use these tools in a way that is healthier and more intentional than simple consumption and constant attention. While I think there are some blind spots in his argumentation due to differences in worldview, I would happily recommend this book to anyone who struggles with the idea of giving up digital tech or social media but still wants to reconsider the way he or she approaches these tools.

#FridayFive: Five Books I Finished in January (2/8/2019)

Happy Friday, y’all! I’m back with five books that I finished reading (or listening to) in January. Hope you find something you might want to check out soon!

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Somewhere A Band is Playing, by Ray Bradbury

I’ve already written about this a bit. Technically, this was one of 2 novellas by Bradbury, published under the title Now and Forever (along with “Leviathan ’99,” a futuristic take on Moby Dick). After finishing Band, I wasn’t eager to keep reading Bradbury’s later work, so I stopped with the first novella. That said, if you like light science fiction, Somewhere a Band is Playing is a pleasant-enough diversion (though you could do better, especially with Bradbury).

The Tech-Wise Family, by Andy Crouch

This short hardcover volume by Andy Crouch is a must-buy if you have any concerns about how you and your family engage with technology. Crouch details ten commitments that he and his family seek to follow, so that they can learn to be more in control of their relationship with technology and social media. I appreciate that the author is also honest about how successful he and his family are at keeping those commitments. Using a large amount of research from the Barna Group, Crouch describes the typical family’s use of technology and helps the reader think through the potential dangers of its “easy, everywhere” promises. This is a book that I’m still thinking about, weeks after finishing it, and I encouraged my wife to read it as well, so that we can discuss how it may influence our household.

Them, by Senator Ben Sasse

In some ways, Senator Sasse’s book Them reminded me of Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage–a warning that life is more than politics and that we need connection and community to help address cultural issues as individual citizens. While Sasse is a professing Christian, what he proposes is not a theological solution as much as an ideological one: make the decision to see people who disagree with you politically as neighbors and fellow citizens, and work for their good as well. (Could you make the argument that you can’t do that well or effectively or for long without Christianity? I think so, but that’s not what he’s getting at in this book.) Sasse makes some pretty pointed observations about how our national conversation has become fragmented and fractured, and make suggestions about what we can do to try to shift course. I listened to the audiobook (read by the senator) and enjoyed it immensely. He gave me lots to think about and discuss with others. His chapter on political media and the monetization of outrage is stellar. He also suggests pulling back from overuse of technology by not only referencing Tony Reinke’s excellent book 12 Ways Your Smartphone is Changing You but also talking through Andy Crouch’s commitments from Tech-Wise Family. In other words, my favorite senator and I have a similar reading list. I wonder if he likes short stories…

All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson

This short-but-deep volume by Puritan pastor Thomas Watson is a 125-page meditation on one of the most misapplied verses in the Bible, Romans 8:28. However, in All Things for Good, Watson slowly considers each phrase (almost each word) and encourages the reader to meditate at length on God’s sovereignty and kindness. This was a rich and rewarding read, that I consumed a few paragraphs at a time before bed over several weeks. Just a page or so gave me enough to think about in the few minutes before I drifted off to sleep. As someone who struggles with nighttime anxiety, I can’t think of a better cordial (other than the Scriptures themselves) for soothing my worried heart.

Family Shepherds, by Voddie Baucham

I am reminded that there is no greater earthly role for me to take on than husband and father. Voddie Baucham’s excellent book Family Shepherds is a direct and bracing charge to men to be the spiritual leaders of their homes. In the book, Baucham looks at the man himself as a disciple, what it means to be a shepherd, the primacy of a man’s marriage in how he leads his home, how he should raise his children (with both formative and corrective discipline), and how he engages the world as a family shepherd. If you don’t know Voddie, I can’t recommend his preaching and speaking highly enough. Add this book to the list, especially if you are a Christian man who is or aspires to be a godly husband and father. In a culture that is currently debating the value and place of masculinity, it is imperative that Christian men seek to portray and exemplify Christlike leadership and care for their families, and so let their light shine.

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What have you read so far this year? Share your recommendations below in the comments!

52 Stories: 3 Stories about the Tyranny of Smart Tech

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today, let’s take a look at 3 science fiction stories about “smart tech” and the danger of AI that becomes a bit too independent.

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#4: “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury

I remember reading this story back in high school (more than 20 years ago!), specifically the concept of an autonomously-running house, so I decided to revisit it for this project. You can find it online here.

The Set-up

A “smart house” springs to life, in the stillness after war.

The Pay-off

My memories of this story were solely of the idea of an empty, automated house, but I had forgotten the actual reason why the house was empty. The line that most clearly explains what happens is almost a throwaway, but its simplicity and starkness caught me off-guard. This was part of Bradbury’s themed short-story collection The Martian Chronicles, which is an undeniable classic and a must-read for anyone interested in 20th century science fiction.

The Takeaways

  • While there were some limits to Bradbury’s imagination (would a robotic house still use film reels and spools of audio tape?), you have to credit him for foreseeing the popular uses of personal tech. (“Hey Alexa…”)
  • The idea of personal automation continuing to run after the demise of its owners is both tragic and a bit chilling. Plus, you factor in the contrast between an “easy, everywhere” life of household convenience and the sudden horror of atomic war, and it’s hard to see the future with quite as rosy a lens.
  • “August 2026” isn’t a story as much as a scene or vignette, a stack of photos (do anyone besides hipsters use actual film anymore?) depicting a society after its downfall. There is no plot or movement of action–just a description of slow collapse at the end of an era. If there is a message, it’s a warning against the threat of atomic war and the idea that no civilization is so advanced that it cannot still destroy itself.

#5: “Autofac” by Phillip K. Dick

My friend Leann K. on Facebook recommended this one to her feed, in light of our current cultural discussions on advancements in AI within social media. I had never read it, but I was a little familiar with the author, so I thought I’d check it out. I found it in a collection of Dick’s stories from the library, but you can find it online here. (And thanks to Leann for the link!)

The Set-up

A group of people seek to stop a factory on auto-pilot.

The Pay-off

Most PKD stories I’ve read are great ideas that never quite landed. It always seemed to me that he concocted great scenarios or set-ups, but they were better fleshed out by others. (Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle stand as evidence.) However, I have to give him credit on this one (and another story I’ll review soon): “Autofac” was a pretty effective yarn — lean, kinetic, and comes complete with that Rod-Serling-style gut-punch at the end.

The Takeaways

  • In the war of Man vs. Machine, PKD seems to argue that machines will win because they are single-minded, relentless, and unaffected by hope/disappointment. In “Autofac,” humans try to throw off the rose-petal shackles of a machine-run economy by force, by reasoning, and by subterfuge, but in the end, the machines’ innate drive toward self-perpetuation wins out.
  • I don’t know anything about PKD’s politics (and might just be scandalizing his devotees in saying this), but “Autofac” feels like a pretty effective allegory of statism’s eventual choke-hold on economic freedom. (For example, the machines say they will relent when the outside (human) forces provide the same level of  product output as theirs–yet they control all the materials for production.) Money quote: “We’re not children! We can run our own lives!” Throw in a “taxation is theft” meme and a Gadsden flag, and you’ve got a Libertarian protagonist.
  • Nanobots! How cute and absolutely terrifying! But seriously, though: PKD is writing about nanotech in 1955. Either he knows Dr. Emmett Brown, or he was WAY ahead of his time. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wasn’t talking about nanotechnology until 4 years later.

#6: “Digitocracy” by Andy Weir

I recently read a great piece by N.A. Turner on Medium about reading short fiction, and he mentioned how new short fiction is being written and shared on Medium, including new work from authors like Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, one of my favorite novels from the past few years. Here is the short story by Weir that Turner mentioned.

The Set-up

A man on a mission to destroy the electronic “brain” controlling his city.

The Pay-off

…Eh. “Digitocracy” has a plot, such as it is, but again is little more than a scenario: a lone man stands against an “all-knowing” artificial intelligence, seeks to destroy it, and fails. I was looking forward to this story, based on my appreciation for the author’s longer works, but either the format didn’t give him space enough to flesh this out fully, or he didn’t have enough of a story idea to run with yet.

The Takeaways

  • I thought the idea of the city-computer-hivemind-entities taking the names of their locations (Wichita, Madrid, etc.) was fun, as was the fact that the cities discussed the events of the story after the fact as if they were a funny little anecdote.
  • I wonder if “Wichita” manipulating the events of Damak’s life to increase his “happiness” is Weir’s critique of the idea of a sovereign god. I have to admit, reading the story through my own theological lens, I couldn’t help but see Wichita’s dialogue about incorporating new events into an unfolding plan to bring happiness or satisfaction to its citizens as mimicking an “open-theism” style of Arminianism. On the other hand, Wichita’s grooming of Damak as a happy rebel could be argued as a weak critique of compatibilism. (I’m not sure Weir had any such thoughts beyond the conflict between free will and determinism, but hey, you ask a theology student to read science fiction… wait, you didn’t ask? Huh.)
  • Oh good, extended discussion about an unseen character’s same-sex relationship. Mark your social awareness bingo cards, kids!
  • The story left me a little cold. Damak was a cipher, and “Wichita” didn’t have the time or material to develop into a true menace like “HAL9000” did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather, it was a little too “aren’t-I-clever,” even as it started monologuing like a Bond villain. You could strain and draw an idea that Weir might think the war over control of technology has been lost, but that would be reading way more into the story that what was likely intended to be a fun little bit of scary-AI fluff. Judged on that standard, then sure.

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Agree? Disagree? Do you welcome the smart-tech overlords? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #3: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My third story in this series is “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman. (Thanks to Pedro Jorba on Facebook for the recommendation!) It’s part of Gaiman’s 2007 short story collection Fragile Things (and was apparently made into a motion picture).

The Set-up:

Two teenage boys crash a house-party hoping to meet some new girls and have a fun evening, but end up getting much more than they bargained for.

The Pay-off:

Wow, there’s a lot going on in this story. It begins as an everyday “boys being foolish on a weekend” tale and then slowly morphs into something else entirely. The protagonist’s matter-of-fact naivete is both funny and sad, as the reader picks up on what’s going on long before he does. In the end, this story is haunting, strange, and incredibly effective.

The Lessons:

  • This is a story that pays to read at least twice. Gaiman seeds the story with clues about the twist from the very start. When you begin to pick up on the references throughout, you have to shake your head at the author’s cheekiness.
  • What makes this story so effective is that Gaiman uses the science-fiction genre to explore the inscrutability of females to young men of a certain age and maturity level. The cliches about “Mars and Venus” are true in some sense when it comes to teenage boys who are both confused and intrigued by the fairer sex. Strip away the fantastic elements, and this is still a story about feminine mystique and masculine mistakes.
  • The title points to the recurring theme of talking without listening. The narrator’s inattention adds to the slow-burn reveal of the plot twist. Even when it seems almost incredible that he isn’t picking these clues up, I’m reminded again of how foolish boys are in high school. (And while I *hope* I wasn’t that clueless, I can’t be too sure.)
  • Although this collection of stories was published in 2007, you could probably draw some takeaways regarding the current #MeToo conversation, as well as discussions of masculinity and respect. But I’ll leave that to more skilled analysts.
  • I was just thumped by the sentence, “I bet an angry universe would look at you with eyes like that.” Well done, Mr. Gaiman. Wow.
  • The ending, and the implications of the ending, are well-served by what is left unsaid. I’ll admit, while I have an idea of what is implied by Vic’s comments, I’m not 100% sure. Truth be told, I’m happy to keep it that way, because what I’m imagining is bad enough.
  • Here’s the thing, though: not every story should be made into a movie. After reading this one a few times, I’m convinced that any movie treatment of this short story would likely destroy what makes it effective by adding anything to it. And though I have not seen the 2017 film adaptation, seeing descriptions of it that include the words “romantic comedy” and watching just the first 30 seconds of the trailer is enough to prove me 100% right. What a bizarre and lousy transformation it seems to have had.

In the end, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a surprising and slightly-unnerving story about the dangers of not listening. If you’re looking for a quick read that’s creepy and strange, it’s worth a look.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

My 2018 Reading List and Top Five Favorite Reads of the Year!

Happy New Year’s Eve, friends!

The end of the calendar year means a look back at my 2018 reading, so I present for your consideration my 2018 reading list!
January

  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Pentateuch

March

  • A Little Book About the Christian Life – John Calvin
  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Historical Books
  • The World-Tilting Gospel – Dan Phillips
  • The Gospel According to Jesus – John MacArthur
  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness – Andrew Peterson (audio)

April

  • North! Or Be Eaten – Andrew Peterson
  • The Monster in the Hollows – Andrew Peterson

May

  • The Imperfect Disciple – Jared Wilson
  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Poetry
  • S. – JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
  • Sing! – Keith and Krysten Getty
  • The Warden and the Wolf King – Andrew Peterson

June

  • Real Artists Don’t Starve – Jeff Goins

July

  • Finish! — Jon Acuff
  • Smallville Season 11 Vols. 1 and 2 (Guardian and Detective) –Various
  • God at Work – Gene Veith
  • American Assassin – Vince Flynn
  • The Keto Reset Diet – Mark Sisson
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress — John Bunyan
  • Pops – Michael Chabon

August

  • Side Hustle – Chris Gillebeau
  • ESV Reader’s Bible: Prophets

September

  • Fantasy Life — Matthew Berry

October

  • From Death to Life — Allen Nelson
  • Day of War — Cliff Graham
  • After the Fire — Will Hill
  • ESV Reader’s Bible: Gospels and Acts
  • The Exemplary Husband — Dr. Stuart Scott
  • What is Reformed Theology? — RC Sproul

November

  • Wingfeather Tales – AP, ed.
  • Elevation – Stephen King
  • ESV Readers Bible: Epistles and Revelation

December

  • Illusion – Frank Peretti
  • Katharina and Martin Luther – Michelle Derusha
  • Why the Nations Rage – Jonathan Leeman

Totals: 37 volumes (6 volumes of Scripture, 14 fiction titles, 17 non-fiction titles)

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My Top Five Favorite Reads of 2018

(For the record, I’m not counting the Bible in this list, for obvious reasons. Just assume I enjoyed that greatly.)

The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson — I don’t know if there’s anything else I can say that I haven’t said already. This fantasy series is an absolute delight to read and I commend it to you most heartily. (And to be fair to the other books, I’m counting all 5 in this first slot.)

Day of War, by Cliff Graham — I grew up reading historical/Biblical fiction, and Graham’s books should rank among the best of the genre. This first volume of Graham’s “Lion of War” series is a first-rate adventure, and his battle sequences are as thrilling as any in fiction.

What is Reformed Theology? by RC Sproul — This classic volume from the late and much-missed Dr. Sproul is a must-read for anyone who is studying Reformed theology or wants to understand the “Doctrines of Grace” better.

Side-Hustle, by Chris Gillebeau — I have to admit, part of the reason I am including this one is because the podcast that it inspired is a regular listen for me. Gillebeau provides practical direction for anyone wanting to start a side-business, and includes lots of interesting stories to inspire and challenge new entrepreneurs.

The Keto Reset Diet, by Mark Sisson — My final selection is this must-read volume for anyone looking into the ketogenic diet. I’m giving it a slot on this list particularly because I’m about to reread it, as I get back on track with my eating and exercise in the coming weeks. If it’s worth revisiting, it’s worth recommending.

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Okay, friends–your turn! What were some of your top reads of 2018?

Let us know in the comments below!

DNF: 4 Books I Gave Up on in 2018

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In my younger years, I would NEVER give up on a book halfway-through. I can only think of 2 books I tried to read before I was 18 that I chose not to finish because I was offended by the content or language.

When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the misguided notion that it was somehow wrong or bad to quit reading a book if it didn’t interest me or I didn’t have time. It took me a few years, but I finally came to realize that life is too short to slog through books you don’t care about reading.

So this year, while I have finished most of the books I began reading, there have been a handful of books that I started but decided not to finish for one reason or another:

  • The Loneliness of the Black Republican, by Leah Wright Rigueur — I may actually come back to this one at some point in the future. The premise intrigues me, since it challenges the unspoken assumption that all African-Americans do or should or must support the Democratic Party. However, the book is written at a pretty high academic level, and when I tried to read it back in February, I was not ready to keep up with Rigueur’s rigorous analysis. After struggling for about 30 pages to follow her initial arguments, I threw in the towel. She won’t catch me off-guard next time.
  • Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero — I figured this premise was a winner: A group of kids who became locally famous as a detective team (like the Scooby Doo gang) are haunted by something they discovered during their last case years ago. Now adults, the surviving members of the team (and the ghost of the non-surviving member) return to a haunted lake where a mysterious evil lurks–and it’s not just an old man wearing a monster-mask. And yet…it didn’t work for me. To be honest, it could have, but some of the narrative choices the author made bugged me, as well as the way he wrote some of the adult characters. I got about halfway through the book and realized I wasn’t having nearly as much fun as I had hoped, so I cashed in my chips and moved on.
  • The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing, by Zachary Petit — This is a helpful field guide from the good folks at Writer’s Digest about the ins and outs of freelance writing, particularly in the world of print and online short-form content creation. The style of the book is funny and light, and the information looked really helpful, but I realized after about 70 pages that it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked it up this fall. I had been gathering information about how to juggle side-work while keeping my day job, but since I wasn’t doing content creation, it wasn’t a good fit. I think it would be a great resource for anyone who’s entering the freelance writing market, so it’s worth checking out if that’s what you need.
  • Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts, by Jaron Lanier — You’re probably thinking that I didn’t finish this book because I am deep in the throes of social media addiction. Well, you’re… Look, you’re not wrong, necessarily, but that’s not the reason, okay? As it happens, right before I started this book, I was listening to an episode of the podcast “Table of (Mal)Contents.” The hosts were discussing books that “should have stayed a blog post or TED Talk”–popular (and sometimes best-selling) titles that are basically an inflated repackaging of earlier content, puffed up by repetition or illustration to reach “book” length. Well, I don’t know if Jaron Lanier gave a TED talk about deleting social media, but this 150-page book felt about 120 pages too long. It’s not that he had bad ideas, or that he was necessarily wrong. The book was just thin. After the first 2 or 3 chapters, I skimmed the rest of it. Other than some cheap shots at political parties and politicians he disagrees with, Lanier doesn’t provide anything groundbreaking here. (In fact, if you would actually like to watch a really good TED talk on the subject of quitting social media, this talk by Cal Newport is excellent.)

I think there have been a few more, but these are 4 books that I checked out on, this year. (Note: I didn’t include the handful of books that I’m still reading and just didn’t quite finish before entering 2019. I’ll add those to my 2019 reading list!)

What about you? Are there any books that you decided to quit reading this year? Or are you the type of reader who perseveres no matter what? Let me know in the comments!

Taking Suggestions…

 

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Hey gang! Just popping in to ask for your help with something. 

I mentioned on my Facebook and Twitter feeds yesterday that I have this crazy idea to read 100 short stories next year and write about them. I may do posts about some individually or write blog posts that respond to several in batches–I haven’t decided yet. But I want to expand my experience in the short fiction realm!

I’ve gotten a bunch of recommendations so far, but I wanted to widen my net and get recommendations from as many people as possible.

So here’s my question, faithful reader: What is your favorite short story ever, or one that you think every person should read–and why?

Put your recommendations in the comments below! Thanks!

Currently Reading: 12/19/2018

 

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I don’t have any new book reviews to post this week–my reading progress has both  slowed down and scattered this month! So instead, I decided to update you on my “in-progress” reading list, with minimally-spoilery reviews of each book on my nightstand:

Illusion, by Frank Peretti — It has been years since I’ve read a novel by Frank Peretti, so when I looked up his recent work, I was intrigued by the premise of this 2012 release. In Illusion, Dane and Mandy are a married professional magician duo enjoying the twilight of a successful career together, when they get in a deadly car crash, killing Mandy and leaving Dane broken and struggling to move on. Meanwhile, a young woman who appears to be Mandy from 1970 (having all her same memories and thoughts) suddenly finds herself in present day, with no memory of how she got there. I’m around 100 pages into the story, and I’m quite enjoying it. Peretti is a great writer, and his pacing and characterization are keeping me engaged. There are some hints of a science fiction explanation for this mysterious scenario, but I have no idea where the story is going or how it will resolve. At any rate, I’m enjoying the ride.

Katharina and Martin Luther, by Michelle DeRusha — In the last few years (since getting married, I suppose), I’ve become curious about the married life of different figures in church history. There isn’t a marriage more famous (or infamous) in the Protestant church than that of this former monk and runaway nun. I was excited to dive into this story and find out more about the home life of the bombastic reformer and the hospitable homemaker. I’m about halfway through this book, and I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed. There’s not a lot of substance here about the Luthers themselves. It’s not the author’s fault, either. There is almost no documentary evidence directly from Katie Luther or specifically about her. DeRusha spends several pages on general information about the conditions for women in the Reformation era, fills in some gaps about the Luthers from secondary sources, and generally assumes what Mrs. Luther might have been thinking or feeling. The general history aspect is interesting, but this book feels like a bait-and-switch. The information DeRusha provides may have been better served as part of a broader book on the home life of the Reformers, rather than an entire book that is too narrowly focused and awkwardly padded.

How the Nations Rage, by Jonathan Leeman — I’m not quite halfway through this book, which examines the intersection of Christian faith and public politics. While I have mixed feelings with some of Leeman’s points, I’m finding several points that are helpful in framing the discussion of if and how my Christian faith directs my function as a citizen of this republic. I thought his point about the falsely-presumed “neutrality” of a pluralistic society was particularly observant; specifically, Leeman suggests that a “secular” culture is inherently religious, but that the amorphous nature of secular “religion” prevents it from having to abide by the same restrictions that formalized religion faces in the public square. I look forward to engaging further with his ideas.

Gospel Eldership, by Robert Thune — I’m being considered for a lay-elder position at my church, so I’ve started working through this material with another one of the elders. I’m not very deep into it, but I appreciate the seriousness with which Thune addresses this topic, as well as the fact that this book is designed to be interactive. There are not only discussion questions but also practicum sections with blanks so you can write in your answers to the questions the author raises. I’m looking forward to benefiting more and more from this in the next few weeks!

Them, by Ben Sasse — You may love him or hate him, but right now, Senator Ben Sasse is the congressperson I most respect. I appreciate his remarks on the state of conservatism and partisanship, in a time when American politics are becoming more starkly tribal and fragmented. In this vein, Sasse wrote Them, a book about addressing the tribalism of American culture through a focus on community involvement, understanding, and mutual respect. I’m only a chapter or so into this one, but I’m interested to hear what Sasse has to say. However, I have noticed already that Sasse’s focus and approach is (predictably) horizontal and thus may fall short of fixing the root issue–a malady that needs a Great Physician. Perhaps reading this along with Leeman’s book can help me think through this subject in a more well-rounded way.

All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson — Every Christian should try to read the Puritans on a regular basis. This short but very dense tome is a meditation on Romans 8:28, and the truth that, for the follower of Jesus, all things (good, bad, or otherwise) work for their good because God is in control of all things and directs them for the ultimate good of His children. I have been reading this book a page at a time, right before I go to sleep. I do this for 2 reasons: first, it’s often difficult to digest more than a few paragraphs at a time, since there’s so much to unpack; and secondly, this gives me something true and good to meditate upon as I fall asleep. (If you don’t do this, I would recommend it highly, especially if, like me, you struggle with anxiety at bedtime.)

The Spurgeon Study Bible (CSB) — Last month, I finished reading through the hardcover ESV Reader’s Bible, so I decided to begin my next read-through of the Scriptures by using a study Bible. My sister and brother-in-law gave me this beautiful “Truth for Life” edition of the Spurgeon Study Bible for my birthday. I’ve never read the updated CSB translation, so this seemed like the perfect way to do so. I love the insight gleaned from Spurgeon’s notations on the text. I would recommend this resource for people who are considering a new Bible for personal reading and study. I’m still firmly in the camp of using the ESV for teaching/preaching since it’s a more literal translation, but I am enjoying the CSB’s smoothed-out wording and helpful notes in my personal study and meditation.

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I *think* that’s all the books I’m currently reading. It’s no wonder I haven’t finished any books recently–I keep starting new ones! Hopefully, I can carve out a bit of time to read over the next week or so, in order to add a few more titles to my “2018 Reading List” (which I will share on January 2nd!).

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you’re reading these days! Feel free to post your “Current Reads” in the com-box below! See you on Friday!

The4thDave Reads: My Fall Book List!

It’s been a while since I’ve done capsule reviews of the books I’ve read in recent months, so here’s a recap of the other books I read this past fall! Hope you enjoy it!

Fantasy Life, by Matthew Berry:  As I wrote in my thank-you note, Matthew Berry is one of my favorite sports writers, particularly when it comes to fantasy sports. Fantasy Life is a collected and expanded compilation of his reflections on his life as a fantasy sports analyst, the twists and turns that his career and personal life have taken and what he’s learned from that, and a whole slew of stories from his readers about the crazy up’s and down’s of the #FantasyLife. I enjoyed the book, for the most part; no surprise, given how much I enjoy Berry’s style. However, I was a little frustrated by how often he decided to go a bit off-color with the stories he shared. It doesn’t surprise me that fantasy sports fans do really foolish and even crass things when friends, money, and booze is involved, but I really don’t need to hear about it–frequently. So, with that said, if you are interested in reading more about fantasy sports, I say stick to Berry’s columns at ESPN.com (where the company standards rein in some of the inappropriate humor).

Day of War, by Cliff Graham: I grew up reading a lot of historical fiction, and particularly historical Christian fiction, but I don’t think I ever read a book like this one. This is the first book in Graham’s Day of War series that follows the exploits of King David and his “Mighty Men.” In this novel, Graham focuses on the events recounted in the last few chapters of I Samuel. The author acknowledges in an introductory note in the volume that writing Biblical fiction is a challenge, because the author must “flesh out” sections of the stories, including conversations and events that aren’t explicitly described in the Scriptural text. However, Graham assures the reader that he sought to stay faithful to what had been revealed, and I thought he did a good job of that. The battle scenes are detailed and exciting, and Graham doesn’t shy away from describing combat graphically and effectively (meaning, if you’re squeamish, you may want to skip a few pages here or there). This was a gripping story that I had a hard time putting down, and I look forward to continuing the series in the future.

The Exemplary Husband, by Dr. Stuart Scott: I’ve read a lot of marriage books and a good number of books regarding Biblical manhood. What struck me about Dr. Scott’s book is how deeply and unashamedly Scriptural it was. It seemed like almost every paragraph was followed up by a Bible text to support it. In this volume, Dr. Scott begins by focusing on the husband’s relationship with God, rightly arguing that a man who does not have a healthy relationship with God will have trouble loving and serving his wife as Christ loves the Church, giving Himself up for her. After spending a good deal of time focusing on the husband’s relationship with God, Dr. Scott turns his attention to the qualities of an exemplary husband, and builds this vision of a godly husband on the qualities of Jesus Himself. Finally, Dr. Scott examines the duties and responsibilities that a husband has to his wife and children. This book is probably the best book on marriage and “husbanding” that I’ve read in years, if not ever, and it’s definitely one I plan on revisiting. I read it very slowly the first time and still think I need to spend more time digesting the rich truths that were presented.

Elevation, by Stephen King: Confession time–Stephen King is one of my guilty-pleasure authors. For some reason, his style and rhythms just work for me, and I enjoy his bizarre storytelling, even if he consistently caricatures Christians as hucksters and hypocrites. It has been a few years since I’ve read any of his new stuff, so I grabbed this slim volume (practically a novella) based on the cover copy. Elevation is the story of a man who discovers that he’s becoming lighter–not that he’s losing weight, but that gravity is slowly losing its grip on him, along with anything he happens to be holding. While it’s a fun, light premise (no pun intended), what I didn’t realize until I started reading the book was that this lightness is quickly ruined by a heavy-handed message of tolerance and acceptance. Once again, those benighted Christians (and Republicans! gasp!) are at fault and have to be taught a lesson. And as much as I have enjoyed King’s books in the past, this one just became deadly dull. It’s like the last 15 years of American politics have sucked all the creativity out of him. I stuck it out to the end of the book because it was short and the plot featured a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot (I was reading it the day after I finished my own race). But if it had been 400 pages instead of 150, there’s no way I would have kept going. Life’s too short for preachy, holier-than-thou fiction, gang–no matter who’s writing it.

ESV Reader’s Bible: Gospels and Acts / Epistles and Revelation: I’m happy to announce that, for the first time in my life, I have read the entire Bible within a calendar year. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to do this! What a blessing it is! As I’ve said before, I loved the format of the ESV Reader’s Bible, as well as the tactile pleasure of using it–the volumes felt wonderful to handle and read. The hardest part of reading the New Testament in a “reader’s Bible” format, sans chapter-and-verse designations, was that my mind kept trying to find its place and recognize where I was in each book. (“Okay, that’s the beginning of Chapter 5… There’s Chapter 6…”) I don’t think you can be too familiar with the New Testament, but that familiarity became a bit of a distraction from the reading itself. I’ll also admit that my excitement to finish sometimes caused me to read too quickly; more than once, I had to go back and pick up the thread because I realized I was just running my eyes over the lines and not really taking it in. Now that I have finished the Reader’s Bible read-through, I’ve started back at Genesis, using a Spurgeon Study Bible with the CSB translation. Suffice it to say, the experience is still great but VERY different, and I’m trying to go much more slowly and soak up all I can!

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That should get us caught up to speed. Hope you found one or two books above that you want to check out yourself! I’ll keep you posted on any books I finish by the end of the year, as well as my complete 2018 reading list, in a future post!

Your Turn: Have you read any good books this fall? Share your recommendations/reviews in the comments!

I’m already starting to build my reading list for 2019, and would love to hear your suggestions!

The4thDave Reads: The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, by Andrew Peterson
North! Or Be Eaten, by Andrew Peterson
The Monster in the Hollows, by Andrew Peterson
The Warden and the Wolf King, by Andrew Peterson
Wingfeather Tales, by various authors (edited by Andrew Peterson)

(You can find all these books here! And that’s not an affiliate link, either; I get nothing from it. I would just love for you to support these writers!)

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Friends, I’ve been waiting for months to tell you about this series of stories!

Here’s the Backstory: It’s become a family roadtrip tradition for my wife and I to check out a few audiobooks from the library before we travel. So, back in March, as we prepared to head east to visit my in-laws, I happened to see that the first book in the Wingfeather series (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness) was available on audio. I had heard that Peterson was a good writer, so I decided to take a chance on it.

Y’all, I was not disappointed. 

We finished the first book just before we arrived at our destination, and were eager to keep going, but the audio of North! Or Be Eaten wasn’t available for download. Thank the providence and generosity of God, we stumbled upon a used (and signed!) copy of Book 2 at a second-hand book shop there in town, for less than $2! By the time we had arrived home, we had begun asking friends from church if we could borrow the others, and eventually were each able to finish reading the series proper. A few months after that, I read Wingfeather Tales, a collection of short stories and novellas by multiple authors that take place “in-universe,” and was again surprised by how vivid and powerful these stories are. What a delight it is to visit the world of these books!

Enough Build-up! What’s The Series About, Dave?

I’ll try to give you just enough, because I’d hate to spoil any of it. So, here’s a bare-bones description:

The Land of Aerwear (sounds like “There we are!”) lies under the scourge of invasion and occupation, as the vile forces of Gnag the Nameless have crossed the Dark Sea of Darkness and now hold the people of Skree and surrounding lands under their scaly thumbs. It’s said that Gnag won’t rest until he finds the legendary Jewels of Anniera. Bands of sinister Fangs holds sway in the villages and lanes as an occupying force, and only the grown folks can remember a time before, when the true kings and queens reigned from the Shining Isle of Anniera. Meanwhile, a trio of siblings (Janner, Tink, and Leeli Igiby) are doing their best to stay out of trouble and avoid any tussles with the Fangs, so as not to worry their dear mama or Grandpa Podo.

But this is a fantasy-adventure story, so you can expect that trouble is about to find them, and turn their world upside down. Though they don’t realize it, theirs is a story of monsters and dragons, battles and intrigue, magic and mystery, prophecies and bloodlines, heartache and courage.

And that’s about all I can tell you safely.

So, You Liked It, Then?

I’ve said this a few times, and I think I still stand by it: in terms of world-building, storytelling, plot, and heart, I think The Wingfeather Saga surpasses even the sainted Narnia books. 

That’s right, I said it. Yell at me in the comments, if you want.

Peterson masterfully combines the rich world-building of Tolkien with the child-like accessibility of Lewis. While he may not have gone as far as to create entire languages for his story, he does develop a bizarre and playful assortment of flora and fauna to inhabit this world he has created. In some ways, it’s a bit similar to J.K. Rowling’s use of details and description to flesh out the world that her characters inhabit. The result is an immersive reading experience.

These are perfect books for families to read together. They are written in short, punchy chapters (perfect for bedtime stories, I would think). The dialogue is crisp, the characters are well-developed, and while there are some plot elements that can be predicted, others will absolutely surprise you. It may be a touch too scary for small kids, but perfect for grade school and up.

Another excellent quality of these books are the Christian allusions and subtext that is present but not preachy, artful rather than artificial. These are unquestionably Christian stories, but they are not evangelistic in nature–and that is in no way a back-handed compliment. The Wingfeather books aren’t allegories with 1:1 theological correlations; they’re fantasy books that are grounded on Deep Truths, which shine brightly if you have the eyes to see them.

My Recommendation

If you’ve never read these books, here’s my recommendation: Take the leap and buy the full set. Just trust me on this. Make it a Christmas present to yourself or someone you love.

If you have fond memories of Middle-Earth, Narnia, or Hogwarts, I think you will love sailing the Dark Sea of Darkness (watch out for dragons!), skulking around Digtown, or tromping through the Green Hollows. In fact, I suspect you’ll want to revisit this world again and again. (And once you have enjoyed the series, go back and read Wingfeather Tales, which acts as a sort of Silmarillion to the main story.)

I can’t say enough good things about these books. Go check ’em out.