Last year we published the first entry of What I Read for My Summer Vacation. The staff at the National Association of Scholars often pick up a book during our off time. This sensibility, for most of us, came from our college education, where we either read and enjoyed reading because it was required or in spite of the fact that it rarely was. We hope this list of books and descriptions gives you new ideas on what to read next!
Gerald Schroeder, an MIT-trained physicist and biblical scholar working in Israel, has written several books on the confluence of physics and religion. In God According to God: A Scientist Discovers We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along (2010) he examines the most recent scientific discoveries in physics and explains their meaning in ways that few scientists dare. The God of the Bible, Schroeder argues, is compatible with the world as we know it today. It may not seem so because of our misconception that God actively controls all matter in the universe. Instead, Schroeder argues, the study of atoms and subatomic particles indicates there is a great deal of agency and chance in the universe. “Atoms are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities . . . . It appears that mind . . . is to some extent inherent in every atom.”
This is the single best answer I’ve heard to religion’s most vexing question: why do bad things happen to good people? Perhaps God doesn’t want men to die in avalanches, but his commitment to a universe with agency means that they can.
There are other fascinating scientific insights in this book, e.g. we don’t know where music or memories are “stored” in the brain. But this seems the most important: “Within the subatomic world, there is a probabilistic pattern established by the laws of nature. Individual quanta, however, may ‘choose’ not to follow the given path.” God, it seems, does not “micromanage” the material world.
Best known for his Anatomy of Criticism of 1957, Northrop Frye taught English at the University of Toronto from 1939 to 1991, blessedly passing away just as English departments across North America were collapsing into torrid ideological activism. Frye treated literature as literature, and only literature. He rejected the idea that it reflected the power and interests of the writer, that it was a form of journalistic commentary on contemporary social issues, that it reflected deep psychological wounds of the writer, or that it was merely a form of posturing and irony not meant to be taken seriously. He took this approach to his 1981 study of the Bible, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, which he argues provides the closest thing that we have in Western culture to a “code” for thinking. Man had moved from the speculative poetry of the pre-Christian world inhabited by “the gods” to a deductive rhetoric of the Christian Bible (as well as writers like Burke), now centered on “God”. The literary fiction of the modern world was an attempt at inductive description, moving beyond “God” to “the idea of God”. But in its attempt at realism, it could never escape from the “great code” of imagination that came from the Bible, which was God’s gift to human freedom. Man “does not and cannot ‘naturally’ want freedom; he gets it only because God wants him to have it.”
I'm currently reading Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver. It's a fictitious-yet-plausible account of growing up in foster care in Appalachia.
Agatha Christie - the Queen of Crime - wrote over 70 books in her lifetime, and at least as many short stories. Her books had a variety of protagonists, but perhaps none as well known as the mustachioed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The Complete Hercule Poirot Short Story Collection pulls together dozens of stories featuring the detective and his little grey cells. From London streets to sprawling English country estates, Hercule Poirot solves case after case, demonstrating a unique look at the psychology of each crime - and each criminal. Perhaps the most intriguing set of stories comes at the end of the collection, where Hercule Poirot decides he is near retirement and that he will take on only twelve more cases, the greatest of his career - twelve labors of Hercules. From the Nemean Lion (a particularly intelligent pekingese) to the Capture of Cerberus (the ferocious, drug-smuggling guard dog of a Russian countess), Poirot moves from case to case with mental strength to match that of his namesake. For fans of crime fiction, this is an excellent addition to your shelf.
I've been rummaging through Dan Simmons' Hyperion series. A wild tale of exploration on the frontiers of the galaxy and of humanity. The first book is a masterpiece told more along the lines of futuristic Canterbury Tales than a recognizable sci-fi staple such as Dune. These pilgrims, however, are off to see the Shrike, a menacing god-like demon who occupies the Time Tombs on the outer-reach planet of Hyperion. Visits to the Shrike for reconciliation rarely end with worshipers leaving alive.
The pilgrims themselves are a motley crew, sent for the last Shrike pilgrimage (some sent for a more secret mission). While dismayed at their "chosenness," Simmons provides the tales of each pilgrim as we (sometimes slowly) discover their various reasons for agreeing to such a dangerous meet and greet with a many-hundreds of pounds, red-eyed, knife-covered, demon known for impaling unsuspecting tourists on a tree.
I've been reading St. Basil the Great's On Christian Ethics. Basil, a fourth-century patristic author outlines the basis for a Christian approach to ethics (one of the first of its kind) with an internal logical consistency that links morality and behavior with the idea of objective truth. Beneath the theology is also the warning against nihilism and the idea that reason alone cannot determine objective Truth. Basil even approaches the idea of Scripture as an indicator of Truth that can easily mislead due to the influence of ego and the predisposition of a human being to place their own ego and trust in reason alone above all else. Today's readers will see that the problems posed by the Reformation, the idea of subjective truth, nihilism, and Wokeness, fascism, and every other ideology with a sell-by date are not new so much as a manifestation of a uniquely human condition. Not an easy read for the layperson.
John Maynard Keynes does a lovely job in Essays in Biography (1933) – an unfeline counterpart to Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918). Now, the most famous bit is his dissection of the personalities of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference; his analysis of Wilson as a Presbyterian divine at sea in the world of diplomacy is brilliant. It’s also fascinating to see him, in his biography of Thomas Malthus, describe the aspects of Malthusian economics that prefigure Keynesian economics–fascinating, because the biography predates the publication of Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). But he’s best at the eminent Victorian economists, Alfred Marshall and William Stanley Jevons above all. We have supply and demand curves in our economics textbooks because of Alfred Marshall, and Keynes gives a whole fascinating history of the professionalization and mathematization of economics, its emergence as the distinct modern discipline, which was the (now-forgotten?) triumph of that generation of Victorians. All this in lively character studies of the leading economists, the sort of eccentric gentlemen that make one fall in love with England. Read Keynes to know why bliss it was to meditate on marginal utility under good Queen Vicky.
Among those I've recently read, I've selected The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759), by Laurence Sterne. It's usually referenced as a novel, but if so it's unlike any other novel I've read. Although written in the mid-18th century, the book's narrative closely resembles what would later be called stream-of-consciousness in 20th-century writers such as James Joyce. It contains numerous random, erudite, witty and hilariously ribald digressions, and is a glittering specimen of what we know as British understatement. Tristram’s name, as the reader learns, was originally intended to be Trismegistus, but ended up as Tristram due to the housemaid's unintended mispronunciation of it. And because his nose was flattened due to the attending physician's mishandling of forceps at his birth - Dr. Slop was the name - we are presented with a lengthy Latin treatise on noses and their various lengths by the eminent German authority Hafen Slawkenbergius, one of Sterne's fictional characters. I have to specify fictional, because the author also refers frequently to Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Plato, Aristotle, Cervantes, a host of other eminent authors, and punctuates the text with numerous Greek and Latin quotations. Most readers are advised to use an annotated edition. Sterne was an Anglican clergyman and, based on this book, I can only imagine what his sermons must have consisted of.
J. Scott Turner
My summer was misspent indulging in one of my guilty pleasures: rereading two of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels: Flash for Freedom, where Flashy gets caught up in the transatlantic slave trade, encountering along the way a young Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and an unflattering facsimile of Frederick Douglass; and Flashman and the Redskins, which sees our Flashy caught up in the California Gold Rush, captured by Indians and marrying an Apache princess to save his skin, eventually to end up at Little Big Horn with George Armstrong Custer. Ribald history, full of rich historical detail, and pungently politically incorrect. Not for the faint-hearted.
This summer, I read The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World (2009) by Stephen Mansfield. Mansfield traces the history of the Guinness family, St. James's Gate Brewery, and the beloved brand that sells 1.5 billion pints annually. Mansfield notes that the Guinness family, while expanding their brewery generation after generation, were also pious Christians who believed the blessings of wealth carried with it a responsibility to the community and the less fortunate. The Guinnesses, throughout the generations, restored churches, funded Sunday schools, hospitals, and housing projects, and were at the forefront of caring for Dublin's poorest residents during Ireland's potato famines. The book was less about the beer and more about the sense of duty to family, faith, community, and profession that led the Guinness brand to become one of the most recognizable brands in the world and most respected family names in Ireland. Mansfield also wrote that the notorious low-alcohol, dry stout was brewed in response to the abuse of higher-proof alcohol (whiskey) that decimated families. This book was a powerful reminder that brewing is an art, wealth can be used for good, and that faith ought to be the foundation of our lives no matter our profession.
This summer, I’ve been working through Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007), a highly acclaimed, popular-level history of twentieth-century classical music. As an aspiring composer and music professor, this book has been on my “must-read” list for several years—and as a relatively young man who spent much of his childhood playing video games, my knowledge of music history has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. This book has helped me fill many of the modern and postmodern holes.
In my estimation, Ross excels at situating composers within their sociopolitical contexts and demonstrating that no one, even the most diehard proponent of “absolute” or “objective” music, wrote in a vacuum. No one was neutral. I have especially enjoyed his accounts of music-making under totalitarian regimes (Russia and Germany) and of unlikely meetings between radically different composers (Copland and Boulez, Stravinsky and Schoenberg).
Where Ross does not excel is in describing how music sounds. His descriptions are rather tedious—they often narrate an entire piece from start to finish over the course of several paragraphs—and are chock-full of ostentatious vocabulary. (Ross is a long-time music critic for The New Yorker, and he seems awfully intent on reminding us of this through his over-the-top prose.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that a music history book ought to find a way to describe how music sounds, but as my fellow Zoomers would say, this ain’t it. I have still found the book worthwhile, though, and with a dictionary at my side, I have enjoyed much of it.