Happy Friday! I’m back today with some interesting and (hopefully) beneficial links for your weekend review (including some links pulled from my Feedly app’s “Read Later” list that I’m reading *much* later).
Let’s get to it!
Maybe you’re someone who wants to read more but just can’t seem to find the time or the will to make it happen. Jordan Taylor can relate. He can also show you how to address that.
I had never before heard this story of the price that Pastor (and author) Randy Alcorn paid for his convictions about the life issue. What a profound example of humble, daily faithfulness.
As you may know, we welcomed our second daughter recently. This post by Matthew Tuck is a great encouragement about how important simply reading the Bible to your kids can be.
Along those same lines: If you have wanted to begin a practice of family worship in your home, this piece from Things Above Us is instructive and practical. Check it out.
From last year, here’s a Crossway blog post about 5 tips for Bible memorization. I don’t pursue this discipline as I ought. These reminders/encouragements are worth a look.
Update: Actually, one more link–this post from Tim Challies about being your own content curator. As I noted above, I use Feedly, at Tim’s recommendation, and I think it’s a great resource. If you use an RSS feed now, or if you are considering using one, could I perhaps encourage you to add this blog to it? That is one of the best ways to know when I’ve posted new content, as I’m obviously still trying to figure out a consistent posting schedule. (Another great way is to sign up for updates on the sidebar to the right (or below, depending on your device). Thank you!
I hope this was a help to you. If any of these topics interest you, be sure to click through, and maybe drop me a comment below to let me know which of these interested you. Thanks!
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!
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 FrankPeretti— 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.
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!
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!
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!
Happy Friday, folks! Here are five reading-themed links for your perusal as you prepare for your weekend!
How I Read & Remember What I Read — The Internet is full of articles and blog posts about how to read more, but Shay Howe gives us some handy tips about how to read so that we recall more. This is a punchy and practical 3-minute read.
How to Retain More of Every Book You Read — James Clear shares his ideas about how to benefit more from reading, and his suggestions dovetail with Shay’s pretty nicely as well. It may be worth it to try combining ideas from both pieces!
A Simple Plan to Read More — I’m going to steal Shane Parrish’s term “anti-library” (mainly because it makes my shelves of unread books sound so much cooler that “utterly unconquerable To-Be-Read shelf” or “Tsundoku to the extreme”). And when it comes to reading more, the simplest solutions really are the most elegant.
Party Where We Read Things — This is the GREATEST IDEA EVER, y’all. I love this. Someday I’m gonna do this. Now I’m trying to think of what my selected piece(s) would be.
Why Reading 100 Books A Year Won’t Make You Successful — Aytekin Tank provides a (balanced? contrarian?) perspective on why reading more isn’t necessarily better, why speed reading boosts your page count without necessarily boosting your knowledge, and why some books need to be savored slowly. This definitely makes me feel slightly better about my 25 or so books completed this year. Slightly.
There you go. Five articles about reading well, reading deeply, and reading with others. I hope you enjoyed these links and are feeling inspired to crack open a book or two this weekend!
In fact, if you did find this content useful and/or interesting, do me a quick favor and click *Like* on this post, so I know that these kinds of links are helpful to you!
YOUR TURN: Comment below and share what you’re reading lately! Here are a few of the titles on my shelf at the moment:
What is Reformed Theology, by Dr. R.C. Sproul
Wingfeather Tales, edited by Andrew Peterson
The Exemplary Husband, by Dr. Stuart Scott
What about you? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll be back next week!
So, I’m a bit of a podcast junkie and have a tendency to download way more than I could possibly listen to (especially since my daily commute dropped from 3+ hours to 50 minutes round-trip in recent years). But whenever I’m doing housework, or even some of the less-cerebral tasks at my day job (don’t tell the boss, okay?), I’m listening to podcasts.
So, today I’d like to tell you about 5 podcasts I really enjoy that you may not have heard of–in other words, no Radiolab or This American Life on this list.
And, to save myself from repeating it, you should be able to find all of these on iTunes, Stitcher, Castbox, etc. Go check ’em out.
The “Goliverse” Podcasts: Okay, this first one is a bit of a cheat, because it’s not just one podcast. One of my favorite podcasters is Steve Glosson, who has created a network of podcasts over the last decade. While some of the Goliverse shows have come and gone over the years, Geek Out Loud and Big Honkin Show (my favorites, honestly) have stuck around consistently. Despite losing his entire backlog of episodes due to server crashes (twice), Steve has persevered, and his programs provide a safe place to geek out, an audio cup o’ coffee, and a whole lot of joy and laughter. He’s in the process of re-uploading past BHS episodes, and it’s been a blast to re-experience that show. He also broadcasts live on Mixlr.
Gut Check Podcast: You know that old college buddy of yours who loved the same 3-4 movies that you do, still quotes them constantly, and grew up to be a pretty chill, cool guy with just the right amount of self-awareness, self-deprecation, and bravado? The guy who you see once in a really long while, but every time you hang out, you come away thinking, “Man, I really like that guy, we should hang out more”? That guy is this podcast. Every episode with authors / podcasters / coffee-moguls Ted Kluck and Zach Bartels sounds like one of those “once in a long while” hangouts. There’s a little bit of awkwardness from time to time, but mostly you feel like you’re being let into the cool-kids circle and get to share the inside jokes. I dig this one.
The Way I Heard It: Okay, fine, this one is pretty well-known, with perhaps a million subscribers, but I never hear anyone talking about it in my corner of the internet, so I wanted to show some love. Basically, TWIHI is a show by Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs fame) who uses that iconic voicebox of his to tell 5-10 minute stories from pop culture history that keep the famous figure behind the story a mystery until the reveal at the end of the episode. This show is often called a spiritual successor to Paul Harvey’s classic The Rest of the Story. I love it. You should love it too.
When We Understand the Text (WWUTT): Pastor Gabe Hughes gives listeners a 25-ish minute Bible study 5 days a week, and it’s always edifying. He works verse-by-verse through a New Testament book on Mon-Wed, gives a chapter-by-chapter overview of an Old Testament book on Thursdays, and then records a “mailbag” segment on Fridays (often with his wife). Hughes is a faithful Biblical expositor with a steadfast devotion to understanding the Scriptures rightly and an approachable teaching style. You should also check out WWUTT videos on Youtube, where you’ll find 90-second videos answering common Biblical questions.
Reading Writers: This podcast about reading and readers is one that I lost track of for a while and recently came back to. I appreciate the easy-going approach and the fact that their focus isn’t on just new books coming out or any of the “industry” updates, but on what reading means to us and how it affects people differently, particularly from a Christian perspective. Sometimes, the hosts interview people in the Christian publishing world (where they both work) and other times, it’s just the two of them talking through a topic. Aaron Armstrong also blogs at Blogging Theologically (a site that feels like a more bookish Challies.com–and that’s a complement).
There you go–five suggestions to add to your podcast list. Hope you’ve found one of your new favorites in the list above!
Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you here next week!
YOUR TURN: Any less-well-known podcast recommendations you want to share? Post them in the comments below!
I need to begin with an apology. Jeff Goins’ team graciously sent me a hardcover copy of Real Artists Don’t Starve to review…around a year ago. It was right around the time we were working on Season 1 of Presto! Fairy Tales (now available on Youtube!) and I started the book but quickly put it down. It wasn’t because it was boring; on the contrary, I was really enjoying it. Rather, I think I stopped reading it at that point because it was making me…uncomfortable.
The premise of the provocatively-titled Real Artists Don’t Starve (hereafter called RADS) is that the myth of the “Starving Artist” is just that–a romanticized myth that does not need to be the reality of anyone pursuing creative work. Goins’ passion is helping creative people to step out and discover how they can bring their passion to life, and throughout RADS, he does this by contrasting the Starving Artist with what he calls the “Thriving Artist.” In the twelve main chapters of RADS, Goins examines these two visions of the artistic life, as a series of contrasting statements. For example:
The Starving Artist strives to be original. The Thriving Artist steals from his influences.
The Starving Artist waits to be noticed. The Thriving Artist cultivates patrons.
The Starving Artist always works alone. The Thriving Artist collaborates with others.
Goins uses these contrasts to examine the assumptions that creatives make about how the creative life “should” function. In doing so, he presents a series of “rules” of the Thriving Artist, such as the Rule of Creative Theft (scandalous!) or the Rule of the Patron. By proposing these basic principles of what Goins calls “the New Renaissance,” he encourages the reader to rethink how he or she approaches creative work. RADS is organized into three sections, addressing the creative person’s mind-set, market, and money–the creation, connection, and commerce that are all part of producing and promoting your art.
So why was I uncomfortable when I started reading RADS? Because I’m in a season of life where some of my creative goals seem to be on hold. I say seem to be because Goins’ writing (and his podcast, The Portfolio Life) consistently challenge me to get going and stop making excuses.
If you’re a new reader, you may not be aware that I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. I’ve got several false-starts and unexplored story ideas that I’ve been kicking around for years. Every so often, I’ll pull one out, play with it a bit, and then decide to put it back because it’s “not the right time” to (re)start writing. Beyond that, the typical discussion of “platform” and “self-marketing” always grosses me out a little bit. But as Goins addresses these issues in RADS, he challenges some of the stigmas around the business of art that I have been holding onto and forces me to admit that the reason I don’t try harder to make it happen is that I’m scared to fail.
What’s crazy is that despite my fear, these stories won’t let me go. These characters creep into my idle thoughts and want to be seen and heard. In some small measure, my attempts are regular blog posting are warm-up exercises for the transition to re-engage with the writing life. Or they may be a filler or replacement to give my itching fingers the illusion of motion.
(…Where was I? Oh, right, book review.)
Real Artists Don’t Starve is another excellent work by Jeff Goins that challenges the reader to get real about why they may not be pursing the creative life of their daydreams. His advice is practical and encouraging. The book itself is fast-moving and readable, but the reader should resist the temptation to speed through it. Instead, it may be beneficial to take each chapter at a time, and give the ideas some breathing room to germinate in your mind. Such contemplation will be well worth it. I would definitely recommend this book.
[And Jeff, I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner. But if you think about it, it’s really your fault for writing something that got under my skin, ya know?]
I started the year with a goal of reading through the Bible in less than a year for the first time ever. My wife had given me a gorgeous “reader’s Bible” set as a Christmas present, and I was excited to dig in and start reading straight through.
In the first 2 1/2 months of the year, I made quick work of the Pentateuch and the Historical Books by committing to reading 30 minutes a day, usually at the end of the day. I loved it! I was able to move through large sections of Scripture and just focus on the story and the overarching themes. During the few times I really struggled to make progress (I’m lookin’ at you, I-II Chronicles), having all of the names and places and histories fresh in my mind really helped to make the early part of the Old Testament come alive.
I started the Poetry volume with that same excitement, and zipped through the book of Job. However, when I started Psalms, I hit a slump. I wish I could blame my lost momentum on our family vacation and days of driving and visiting family. But the real problem was that my daily reading became very inconsistent, and I struggled with my approach to the text.
Reading 30 minutes non-stop is great for narrative, or even Old Testament case-law. But when it came to Psalms and Proverbs, I soon realized that plowing through it wasn’t helping me retain much. So I made the decision to read only 5 Psalms a day, and a page or two of Proverbs, with the hope of more meditation instead of mere completion. If I had stuck to it consistently, it would have taken me only 4-5 weeks. It took longer.
I should take a moment here to talk about the reading experience with these volumes, and the effect of the type-setting and formatting. Each of the six volumes is bound in a stiff, cloth-covered hardback cover with a pleasant grain to it. The pages are printed on a creamy, white paper with none of the bleed-through or onion-skin feel that typical Bible pages have. It’s really a wonderful tactile experience, using this Bible. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I do. I’m not sure it would motivate me to pay full price for it (we got it at a steep discount), but it’s a nice luxury to enjoy and I’m thankful for it.
As for the layout and typesetting, there are minimal notations, limited primarily to the book title and major section headings (think 3-4 per book). This presents a challenge with books like Proverbs, in which you have a total of 2-3 headings inserted into the entire book, and the rest of the book mostly laid out as a never-ending series of couplets. This type of layout makes it easy to speed through without really stopping to ponder the proverbs themselves, and is one of the few instances in which having the modern addition of chapter divisions prevents a fly-over approach, because you are more likely to stop and reflect more often.
On the other hand, the editors decided to keep the Psalm divisions, which seems appropriate. So the book of Psalms is divided into the five “books” and then according to each individual Psalm. The lack of verse notations is particularly helpful here, because it then becomes a visual reminder that each Psalm is meant to be taken as a whole.
All this to say, throughout the end of March and then into April and May, my Bible-in-a-year progress slowed to a crawl. I was reading inconsistently and in smaller segments. Once I finished Psalms and Proverbs (finally!), I was able to knock out Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon over the next 3-4 reading days.
I’m not sure how I would approach the reading of Psalms and Proverbs differently in the future, if I’m using the “reader’s Bible” format. I think those books may be best read with the divisions in place, in a “Psalms/Proverb of the Day” approach (in which you could read 5 Psalms and 1 chapter of Proverbs a day for 31 days). But how I read them is irrelevant if I’m not committed to do so consistently, rather than using my schedule changes and life events as an excuse to get lazy.
I’m slowly getting things back on track (and I’m halfway through Isaiah–woohoo!). Daily, consistent time in the Word is a habit I should have built years ago, and I’m glad, if nothing else, that I have the chance to amend that now.
I’m a sucker for footnotes, especially footnotes in novels. For example, I was tickled by the implied history and imaginary academic research cited in Susanna Clarke’s splendid Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a work of Victorian urban-fantasy featuring dueling wizards and fanciful creatures during the Napoleonic Wars.
Until this year, the most unique novel-reading experience I’ve ever had was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a sprawling, labyrinthine psychological-haunted-house story with layers of meta-commentary in its footnotes and editorial asides, bewilderingly cryptic typesetting choices, and a rabid fan base that was active online when I finished that novel several years after its publication.
That book is the closest analog I can think of for Abrams and Dorst’s novel S., which was published in late 2013. At that time, it seemed to be warmly received by the critical press but quickly forgotten. It was the first book I ever bought as a result of a “book trailer” (which I assume was a pretty novel [no pun intended] concept in 2013). I started to read it and stopped 2 different times in the last 4+ years, before finally buckling down to read it to completion last month.
Why the false starts? Because, like House of Leaves, this is a book within a book, but ratcheted up to the next level. When you remove S. from its slipcase, you find that the book you’re holding is a old high school library book (complete with library accouterments and stamped labels) called Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka. The story of SoT is a surreal work of mid-twentieth-century European literature, following an amnesiac protagonist on an exploration of identity, political extremism, and metaphysical confusion. It’s…weird, but weird in a compelling way. However, the base book would be incomplete, if not a bit nonsensical, without the meta-novel.
The meta-novel consists of 3-4 layers of “handwritten” margin notes between two readers, Jen and Eric (written at different times in their “story”), along with about 2 dozen pieces of inserted materials–things like postcards, newspaper clippings, letters, a wheel for decoding ciphers, and a hand-written campus map on a napkin from a university coffee-shop. In the meta-novel, the reader meets these two characters: Jen, a senior at Pollard State University, and Eric, a former graduate student and TA at Pollard who was expunged from the school’s records due to an academic controversy. The conversation between these two correspondents drifts back and forth between their personal lives and their shared interests: a scholarly debate about the true identity of SoT‘s author and a worldwide conspiracy that may be working to keep that fact a secret. (I’m pretty sure this is meant to bring to mind the debate about Shakespeare’s true identity, which is referenced in the book as well.)
Over the course of the novels, these layers of commentary (which sometimes address the text itself and other times are merely inspired by a word or phrase on that page) reveal the second story, a story of two people trying to make sense of difficult life experiences and struggling to connect with each other (a story that is echoed in the novel’s subtext and footnotes, as explained by the readers). The element of time is part of the trick here–we as readers are teased early on by “future” Jen and Eric making veiled allusions to events in their story that we don’t hear about for several pages or even chapters. (Confession: The whole “layers of marginalia” mechanic breaks down a little bit if you really think about the logistics, because usually [though not always] it reads like a conversation instead of a series of passed notes. I recommend treating it as one of those charming elements that one just happily accepts. Makes the whole enterprise function more smoothly.)
So the vital question, then: Does it work? And my answer is: Mostly, yes. Both storylines are at times quite gripping, though not at the same time, which works to its advantage. There are a few slow spots and the endings felt a bit abrupt, but the whole concept is so bonkers that I hung on for the ride and was not disappointed. I took the approach of reading through each new chapter of SoT, before tackling the layers of notes for that chapter. It doesn’t take long to figure out the chronological order of the notations, thanks to the different color inks for each set of interactions. I’ve heard of other approaches to the reading of the book(s), but I think this one keeps things flowing pretty well. The footnote story includes lots of foreshadowing in its references to the primary text as well, so not having read Straka’s book all the way through yet made these references all the more tantalizing.
[Content note: Other than some occasional strong language in the footnote-story and an unnecessary “boo, intolerant Christian parents” subplot, I can’t recall any offensive or off-putting content. Nothing comes to mind, at any rate.]
In the end, I’m very glad I read this novel. It’s not a perfect story, and I don’t think I need to reread it anytime soon, but it was a unique reading experience that I will enjoy referencing to others in the future. Whatever shortcomings the plot(s) may have had, the gonzo approach to challenging storytelling conventions made it a winner for me.
It’s Friday, which means it’s time for five more interesting Medium articles I’ve read in recent months. Here we go!
The Film the NFL Doesn’t Want You To See — I find myself really conflicted about this. As much as I have enjoyed NFL football (and cheering on my Texans), it’s hard to watch this and not consider how the game I love to watch seems to be devouring the men who choose to play it. I think that reality has implications on me as a fan, but I’m not sure (or not comfortable with) what that might mean.
Steve Jobs’ Secret for Eliciting Questions… — One of the hardest things for me when it comes to teaching Sunday School (or leading any kind of discussion) is creating a space where questions can be asked freely. My tendency is just to deliver content (or preach!) for 45 minutes and then ask for questions with about 30 seconds left in class. I’m looking forward to trying the approach described in this article.
How Jack Reacher and I Grew Apart — Proof that being a best-selling novelist doesn’t mean you’re that skillful of a writer. Even the most widely-acclaimed writers fall into bad habits and tropes. (Actually, I don’t know if that’s comforting or disheartening.)