The five best books I read in 2015

In 2015 I set what I thought was a modest – but not insignificant – personal goal for reading: one book every two weeks – or 26 over the entire year (by comparison, Mark Zuckerberg set a similar goal for himself, and Bill Gates reads about a book a week; so I figured if those guys can carve out time then surely I can too). By the end of December I had finished 31 books, which I was pretty satisfied with. From those books, here are the five that made the biggest impression on me and were most worth my while.

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed there is something elemental about this masterful work. It aims for the moon and soars to the stars. Through the multi-generational story of several families who all cross paths in California’s Salinas Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century, it captures both a thousand stories of an era and that singular, timeless, origin story of human nature. At a time when many people still felt bound by fate, especially their own heritage, East of Eden proclaims the great freedom of human choice in a fallen world to break the moral trajectory of one’s lineage. The book finds its mythic roots for this in the Old Testament: Genesis 4. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, to which Cain responded with jealousy and anger. God asked Cain why he was angry and challenged him to overcome his temptation to sin. Per the King James Version: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The key word here, one character insists, is timshel – the Hebrew verb that means “thou mayest.” The “thou shalt” from the passage, he says, should be rendered “thou mayest.” The message for young Cal Trask, who poetically revives the part of Cain in the book’s retelling of the story, is that evil is crouching at his door, but he is not destined to repeat Cain’s sin (or the sins of his parents).

Steinbeck’s prose – his ability to portray characters, to delve into the great perversities and nobilities of human motives, and to craft scenes that deeply engage the reader – is some of the best I’ve ever read. East of Eden is a tome, weighing in at more than 600 pages, but it is well-worth the toil of reading it.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

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Before reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’m not sure I had much of a propensity to connect road trips and motorcycle mechanics with philosophy, but I do now. Robert Pirsig’s account of a former college professor’s motorcycle road trip to the American northwest with his son alternates between the physical, concrete, and calculable to the realm of values and meaning. It moves to and fro from the task of keeping a motorcycle in top shape to abstract musings that probe all the way back to The Phaedrus, the ancient dialogue penned by Plato between Socrates and Phaedrus. These musings, conducted over long hours spent traversing America’s backroads, revolve around a deceptively simple question: what is quality? It eludes simple definition, but put two papers of decidedly differing quality in front of an undergraduate English composition class and nine out of ten of them will pick the same one as being of better quality. So quality is real, it shapes how we live and perceive and engage with the world, but is there any way to put a finger of what, exactly, it is – to capture its essence in words?

The book grows more and more philosophical as the narrator delves deeper into the troubled intellectual toils of his past, but as it grows in abstraction it also grows in tension and suspense as it is revealed that the narrator’s inquiry into values ultimately drove him mad. Will he return to the madness of the pursuit? Is there any other conscionable thing to do – any other way to stay committed to the truth? The book was published in 1974, but its subject remains timeless and profound.

3. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

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In The Denial of Death, the late Berkeley anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker works his way through the inherent tension of man’s nature, delving farther into the Nietzschean abyss than most modern, secular people have gone. As the title indicates, this book is about man’s struggle to reach the eternal and find meaning as a mortal creature – the result of this impulse being that we obsessively deny the impending reality of our own death. Sure, we have the head knowledge and pay lip service to the idea that we will die eventually (YOLO!), but most people go about their days without a deep existential realization of the dagger hanging over their heads by a thread. We long for greatness and transcendence and try to find it by investing all of our purpose in the nation state or existential act or romance or faith. We are gods, so to speak, yet we all end up as worm food. As Becker memorably put it, men are “gods who s***.”

The Denial of Death’s diagnostic of the human condition is spot on and much more honest about the secular worldview, I think, than most intellectuals are willing to be. It is bleak and concludes without any hope beyond some abstract notion of throwing oneself into the life-force of the universe. Reading it shook me up pretty bad and deeply disturbed me at times, but in a good way. It’s not beach reading, but for those courageous (and perhaps foolhardy) souls who can’t get past the most basic questions of what it means to be alive and who value delving into the ideas of guys like Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, I commend this book to you.

4. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“I have sworn not to put pen to paper until my ideas either clarify or depart entirely; I have quite enough sins on my soul without putting dangerous, shallow epigrams into people’s heads…” This conclusion to the despairing rant of Amory Blaine, the young protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s freshman novel, captures the angst of the young, talented writer. It’s a conundrum I often run up against myself. How does one justify his own participation in a world constantly in flux, in which public opinion shifts with the winds of the media’s ideology, true love feels eternally elusive, and matters of life and death seem to be dictated by cold, impersonal happenstances of car accidents and stray bullets?

Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of 23, delivering a quintessential coming of age tale as America entered the Roaring Twenties. It is a fictionalized memoir of sorts, drawing heavily from his own crash-and-burn experiences with women, attending Princeton University, serving in World War One, and moving to New York City as a young man. I don’t have an answer for all of his frustrations, but it’s nice to encounter a youthful, zealous personality whose ambition and optimism crashes on the rocks of vanity. It’s also refreshing to encounter someone who is aware of his own self-absorption enough to refer to himself repeatedly as “the egotist.” Millennials may be the self-absorbed generation, with our Instagram and smartphones, but This Side of Paradise shows that adolescence hasn’t really changed much since it first came into being a century ago.

5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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I don’t read many autobiographies (or biographies, for that matter), but maybe I should. Back when I was in college a writing professor once referenced the Autobiography of Malcolm X, so when I saw it sitting in a box of free stuff on the sidewalk I picked it up. My professor had recommended the book because of its account of the turning point that steered Malcolm X’s life away from a vicious cycle of crime and prison to standing as a ideological and political leader among African Americans in the tumultuous lead up to the civil rights era. Everything changed in prison, as Malcolm himself recollects. When he first went to jail he estimated he had a vocabulary of just a few hundred words. He got religion through a Black Muslim, and then he decided to teach himself English – proper English. His method was simple. He opened a dictionary and started meticulously memorizing it one word at a time, starting with “aardvark.” By the time he was out of prison, he had read a vast swath of literature, history, and philosophy, and his education rivaled that of any college graduate. He became an eloquent speaker and powerful societal voice. As my professor would have said, he “mastered the civilization in which he lived.”

The literary and intellectual prowess of Malcolm X is evident in this book. It thoroughly transported me into his shoes. Given the great disparity between our life experiences – me, a college-educated middle-class white Christian from California, and Malcolm, a black hoodlum who cut his teeth on all manner of unlawful dealings in Boston and then Harlem – that’s really saying something. Even though much of his career was marked by decidedly extreme, violent rhetoric, reading his autobiography gave me a fresh empathy for the African American experience that has expanded how I think about racial issues today.

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My New Movie Blog: Wandering the Vault

As I mentioned in my earlier posts, I’ve starting writing weekly movie reviews for RedFenceProject.com. These reviews will come in three categories: Currently in Theaters, “Flicks You Might Have Missed,” and “Wandering the Vault.”

My blog, “Wandering the Vault” recently premiered. Here is the introduction so you get a good idea of where I’m coming from. I will be focusing on the classics–great and/or influential films that you should probably see sooner or later.

And what better classic to start with than a true all-time great: Casablanca! Check it out at RedFence here.

New Side Project Of Mine

I’m excited to announce that I’ve just started up a weekly Film Review Blog over at Redfence Magazine. This certainly won’t be replacing ACwords, but I’ll be sure to highlight my work there over on this blog too.

We start things off with a review of the new Bond movie, Skyfall. You can read it here at RedfenceProject.com, so check it out! I know they would appreciate the traffic (and so would I)!

Book Review: “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”

It was with great eagerness that I picked up James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.” As the title suggests, Hunter tries to tackle the contentious topic of culture changing as it’s understood and practiced by Christians. Given that Hunter is both a Christian and prominent sociologist at the University of Virginia, he seems to be a good man for the job.

Any talk of transforming culture inevitably involves politics, and that’s the thing about “To Change the World” that piqued my interest. My understanding of the intersection of Christianity and politics has evolved quite a bit over the past several years (along with my convictions about what that intersection ought to look like). Given that I just graduated from a Christian college and started a fledgling career in politics, I could hardly have chosen something more relevant to my life.

That’s because Hunter sets out to answer the big question: how do Christians go about changing the culture in which they live? Or more generally: how ought we to go about living out our faith and engaging with the world? It’s a timeless subject that Christianity has wrestled through since it’s inception, starting at least with St. Augustine and continuing until today with organizations like Focus on the Family.

Hunter responds to this question in three parts. He first explores the substance of the question: What is culture? How and why does it change? What is it like today and what kind of influence do Christians currently wield? This part of the book is mainly analysis that lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, clears up some misconceptions about world-changing, and defines key terms—what exactly is “culture,” for instance. How do ideas have consequences? Why doesn’t society always reflect the beliefs of the majority?

Whether or not you’ve thought through these questions, it’s well worth the read. Some of Hunter’s answers may surprise you. For instance, changing culture isn’t as simple as “changing the hearts and minds, one person at a time.” Rather, those at the top of elite power structures have far more sway in the movement of our ideas and beliefs than whatever the masses say. Only 15% of America at the most is secular, yet our society–the public square, our classrooms, and so on–is intensely secular.

The second part of the book explains and critiques, in a self-admittedly very broad fashion, the three main movements or “models” that American Christians have adopted over the past several decades in their mission to change the world—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. He sums them up in the terms “defensive against”, “relevance to”, and “purity from”, respectively.

In the third part, Hunter goes on the offensive, offering a new model for cultural engagement that he terms “faithful presence.” Continue reading →

Book Review: Animal Farm

In terms of making me feel like I’m actually doing something with my life, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was a pretty good deal.

Here’s what I mean by that. It was short—at 128 small pages, I read most of it in a single weekend. It is easy to read—written in a clear, simple style. And it’s a classic—ranking just under “1984” on the list of famous Orwell books. In other words, I read a classic over the weekend and understood it.

Wish I could do that every weekend.

But seriously, “Animal Farm” is a pretty good read. Orwell writes with a down-to-earth simplicity that fits the book’s parable-like fairy tale genre. First published in 1946, in the aftermath of Nazi Germany and on the brink of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, Orwell launches a scathing attack on totalitarianism in no uncertain terms in one of the most simple contexts imaginable—a farm.

The plot is simple but effective. It begins on Mr. Jones farm. One night, one of the old hogs gathers all of the animals and tells of a coming revolution. He predicts that one day the time will come for all animals to rise up, overthrow their oppressive human rulers, and establish their own utopia where all animals live in harmony with each other, reap the full fruits of their labor, and enjoy an abundance of food and rest. Soon after the old hog’s death, on a night when Jones was especially drunk and careless with his animals, two younger pigs lead a revolution that ousts the farmer and gives the animals control of the farm.

Everything goes wonderfully, at first. Led by the pigs, the animals collectively work hard for the benefit of each other and quickly establish their own laws of “Animal Farm” to ensure equality and further their cause around the world.  They rename the farm “Animal Farm,” fly their own flag, and sing their own national anthem, “The Beasts of England.” Yet the dreams of a world of animal equality and abundance for all turn out to be nothing more than that—just dreams. Continue reading →

Book Review: The Shallows

NOTE: This post marks the end of my longest blogging drought since starting this blog a little more than a year ago. For more than a month, I posted nothing. That’s unacceptable, but there’s no point in self-flagellation. What matters is that I’m back with another book review.

Yeah, it feels good to write again. On with the review:

About a year ago, I noticed an odd irony about my college experience. When I looked back to high school and compared my study habits, classes, and the things I remembered then to my college classes right now, I found that I was much sharper in high school. I remember being much more focused and engaged when I memorized biology terms as a high school freshman than when I studied Hegel in Intro to Philosophy last semester. I have no doubt that I’m smarter and more informed than at any other point in my life, so how could this be? (aside from sleep deprivation)

I found the answer in Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Few books have shaken up my thinking like this one. It will probably end up changing the long-term course of my intellectual life. Here’s why:

As the subtitle implies, Carr’s argues in “The Shallows” that the internet is changing our brains. It is shaping the way we think largely without anyone realizing it. This happens at the neurological level. The more we do certain activities, the better we become at them because our brains forge new circuits to make us more adept and sensitive. This applies to motor skills like playing the piano as well as more abstract thinking like reading a book. The more we practice a certain pattern of thinking, the more our brain map makes space for it.

This process also works in reverse. When we don’t practice certain things, those neural pathways start to go away. In people who become blind, for example, the neural paths that the brain once used for sight are rewired to enhance other senses like hearing and touch.

The implication of this is, as Carr quickly points out, is that technology ends up shaping and even controlling us much more than we might like to think. In the case of the internet, it trains our minds to be distracted. We jump from one thing to another within seconds—always shifting and moving and consuming. . . without really retaining. And with the sheer volume of information out there, we hardly have a choice. Between RSS feeds, Facebook status updates, Tweets, email, and instant Google searches, no one can afford to read anything anymore.

At least, we don’t read in the same sense that we traditionally mean when we “read” a book.

At this point, Carr treads with care. As a technology writer who has written for publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Wired, he has a pretty good understanding of the power of the internet to process information, mine data, and help us live better, more productive lives. He shows us how the internet has wrought an irreversible change on humanity, but demonizing the web is the last thing he wants to do. It is not inherently good or bad. And Google in particular is neither God nor Satan–although many people see it as one or the other. Even though the impact of the internet is unique, technology has always changed the way we think. Continue reading →

Book Review: Meaning at the Movies

I’m sure many of my readers will agree that Christian books about movies–and culture in general–are a dime a dozen. Especially now, with all of the blog posts and sermons that evangelical Christians have delivered on the subject over the years, few bring much to the table. Professor Grant Horner of The Master’s College, with his humble contribution, “Meaning at the Movies,” realizes this. He takes a different tack toward movies by trying mainly to help readers understand and appreciate films in light of what the Bible says about being human.

And he succeeds.

“Meaning at the Movies” stands out because of a simple, yet powerful, thesis. Horner builds his book on the notion that culture, and especially the arts, are fundamentally a result of mankind suppressing the truth of God. As he says, “We all know, deep down, certain things, and we all, deep down, have certain expectations about the world and the ways we think things ought to be.” Some things, Horner would say, we know and refuse to disbelieve, other things we know and refuse to believe, but in either case, certain truths about ourselves, as image bearers of God, tends to come up in the movies we make.

This happens because mankind was made to be in relationship with God and worship Him, Horner says, yet we have sinned and fallen away from God. The result is that we are left seeking to fill a void in our souls. His key support for this comes from the first chapter of the book of Romans. Verses 16 through 23 in particular are worth quoting here, where St. Paul writes:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

This is a direct, open, evangelical approach rooted in the Bible. Horner believes that the Bible is God’s word and therefore the only pure truth we have. As divine revelation, we can trust what it says about God and about humanity. Therefore, it ought to shape the very fabric of how we think about and analyze film.

As “common” as this approach may be–pretty much every Christian book on movies would purport to go by “biblical principles”–the idea of suppressed truth that Horner appeals to over and over again throughout his book strikes me as pretty unique. Horner isn’t out to say which movies are good and which ones are bad. He’s not out to give us a guide to what we should and shouldn’t watch, even though he does have a sizable section on discernment. Rather, he’s out to teach us a radical theory about human nature and cultural production.

Continue reading →