In keeping with Part 1 of my the chronological book list, here are five more recent books that impacted by thinking. Although these may seem like unrelated themes, I hope you can find some connected strands between them, and to your own reading and thinking.
6. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: Annie Dillard
(21 years old) Dillard observes the natural world with such fresh, clear perspectives that when combined with her applications to theology and psychology, you want to see past the constant stream of distractions that attempt to guide our perceptions.
A similar thing comes up in a lot of university classes: letting go of a preconceived idea of something to see what’s actually there. For example, I’m a horrible artist, but in the one art class that I took, we had to draw without looking at the drawing, only at the object we were drawing. And although messy, I actually drew a very lifelike thumb once by this method. Similarly, in phonetics, we had to break down all the sounds that humans use as language into identifiable symbols. And basically the English alphabet disguises a lot of sounds or patterns that simply become second nature. Even the actual pronunciation of my last name Witten surprised me. There’s no T sound in the middle, only a little break in sound called the glottal stop.
“But there is another kind of seeing that involves letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera, I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut.”
7. Learning to Think Korean: Robert Kohn
(22 years old) At this point I was interested in teaching English but I thought that I would go to Japan, because I had already been to Korea one time. I guess this book showed me that it might be wiser to understand one culture at a deeper level, than to simply skip along to the next culture. One thing that I find very interesting, yet also contradictory is the Korean idea of “saving face”. On the one hand the emphasis on being observant and concerned about preserving the dignity of others seems good, but the evasive or dishonest side of it seems unpredictable to me, especially since at other times Koreans are very comfortable being blunt.
“Indirectness and a concern for saving face—one’s own and that of others—continues to be a paramount feature of all Asian cultures. It can still cause difficulty for Americans, who are known for their directness, even bluntness, and who too often respond carelessly and impatiently to the subtleties of indirect behavior…. Americans, of course value their directness and openness and are proud of their honesty and their insistence on “telling it like it is.” In Korea, however, face-saving practices must be pursued….”
8. C.S. Lewis: Til We Have Faces: A Myth Retold
(23 years old) After reading most of C.S. Lewis’s works, I didn’t really expect to find another one that I liked, but this one, which is his list book and his own favorite, made a big impression. This book allows the reader to follow the indignation of the protagonist at the silence of the gods and the unfairness of friends and family until things unravel. Anyways, I think it teaches the wisdom of The Four Loves through a setting as imaginative as Narnia or The Space Trilogy.
“‘Are the gods not just?’
‘Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?'”
9. The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck
(23 years old) I never studied Steinbeck at University, so it was actually in my fifth year I decided to start reading his books. I had bought Grapes of Wrath I bought for about $3 at a silent auction because I had heard of it so many times, and quickly proceeded to East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. This book portrays Great Depression era unemployment and dehumanization, which a few bright glimpses of a better life. Interestingly, this is a book that is frequently read as “safe” English literature in communist anti-American countries because it’s very critical of the American system.
“Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re dirty…scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.”
10. The Inner Voice of Love: Henry Nouwen
(24 years old) Nouwen writes about his deepest spiritual struggles and questions. How does one get rid of the impulse to derive our value from people rather than God? How can we allow our our fears or loneliness to lead towards Christ, rather than driving us into other attempts at patching ourselves up? Its worth reading slowly and carefully.
“There are two ways of telling your story. One is to tell it compulsively and urgently…because you see your present suffering as the result of your past experiences. But there is another way. You can tell your story from the place where it no longer dominates you. You can speak about it with a certain distance and see it as the way to your present freedom….”
(actually from a different Nouwen book) “I am constantly struck by the fact that those who are most detached from life, those who have learned through living that there is nothing and nobody in this life to cling to, are…free to move constantly away from the familiar, safe places and can keep moving forward to new, unexplored areas of life….I am thinking primarily of a spiritual process by which we can live our lives more…open to God’s guidance and more willing to respond when he speaks to our innermost selves.”
Thanks for reading. Let me know if you have liked these books or not. And please put down your own favorite book description or quote as well. I’m always on the hunt for the next read.