Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Best/Worst Books of the Year, Intro

I plan to do my annual list of best new books I read in 2007, but I thought I'd introduce it with some anecdotes that have come out of this practice. First of all, last year someone asked me that along with so many 'good' books, if I had actually read other books that didn't make the list. To this I respond that in fact I come across a few truly poor books every year, but I don't tend to read all the way through them. Life is too short for bad books!

A roommate of mine in college, good leftist that he was, used to troll the boxes outside of Powell's and O'Gara and Wells in Hyde Park, where they discard used books that for one reason or another are unsellable. When he'd come across a book he didn't like, he'd bring it home, and we nailed it to the wall. The idea was that he didn't like it and no one else should, either. I contributed a few texts that I had for class. Most of the books I had to read in college were 'great books', and aside from a few books that I consider stinkers (Rousseau's Confessions takes first prize, though Emile is more absurd; I also was not a fan of Mill's Utilitarianism, nor anything by Keynes), I genuinely treasured reading classic texts and still do. On the other hand, classes sometimes required reading summaries and commentaries that were quite often less than sterling. So I contributed a few books to the Wall of Horrors. I don't remember their exact titles, except that one was a history of science that, in typical fashion, jumped from Aristotle to about Leonardo da Vinci.

While for some odd reason, I have never thought of myself as a reader per se, I managed to read 'for fun' even in college. This could be a hazardous thing to do. Once, my writing tutor caught me reading Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and warned me that I had 'better not' enjoy it! Another time, I managed to zoom through both War and Peace and Anna Karenina within about a four month period, because someone in whom I had taken an interest was aiming to be a Tolstoy scholar.

I mentioned last year that some have asked when I have time to read all these books. One should keep in mind how much reading one does passively in a monastery. At table, we have read eleven whole books this year and parts of two others. I read a bit at breakfast every morning. On our 'desert days', which we have each month, I occasionally take a short book to read, in St. Benedict's term, 'straight through'. Occasionally, I will read bits of a book during a lectio divina period as a way of broadening my mind to receive God's Word. It is also worth noting that we do not watch television and I watch few movies. This discipline and others free up a certain amount of time.

Finally, however, I would add that were I not reading all these books, I'm not sure I'd quite be doing my job as a priest and monastic superior. Not all superiors need to read avidly, but surely those whose task it is to teach in the Church do well to be informed about certain trends, about history and philosophy, science and morality. Surely reading good books helps one to be a sharper thinker, a better writer and a more persuasive speaker. Some people, of course, can accomplish these things without lots of reading, but I don't believe that I am one of them.

So we will finish up St. Benedict's Chapter Seven, then it's on to this year's bumper crop of good books.

P.S. Links are to the Seminary Co-op Bookstore--World's Greatest! Check out the Front Table...

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