John Holbert: What I’m Reading this Summer

Reading Across the Ages: My Summer Reading

By John Holbert, Professor of Homiletics and Patheos Columnist 

I have long been a wildly eclectic reader ever since I read through the entire corpus of Charles Dickens in my grade school days, not really understanding all of it, but mostly enthralled by the rich language carried in those long and engaging sentences. That led me to read Moby Dick, a book I still consider the greatest American novel, despite its own wild and weird eclecticism. I read the Melville classic about once each five years and remain in awe of its timelessness and continued relevance for those of us who still find religion a central category for our lives.

But what about this summer? The book club I enjoy has just finished an unusual five-person biography of Henry Adams and his inner circle of fabulous friends, The Five of Hearts. I would never have read this book, save for the club’s suggestion, but am glad I did; it illumines well the “Gilded Age” of late 19th and early 20th century America and brings to life some very intriguing though nearly forgotten characters.

Eclectic as always and wholly unplanned. I am now getting through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s huge one-volume history of Christianity, subtitled “The First Three Thousand Years.” As a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, that subtitle drew me in; the first 75 pages of the 1000 page tome were given over to Israel, clearly the first thousand years of our Christian history. I am about a third of the way through, and its sparkling prose and witty wisdom is keeping the pages turning. It is on the surface hardly beach reading, but I intend to cart it with me (it is a heavy load even in paperback) on my various jaunts to places cooler than the place I normally reside.

I have just finished the fifth of C. J. Sansom’s wonderful Matthew Shardlake mystery series, set in Tudor England. Shardlake is a lawyer with a hunch back who forever finds himself hip-dip in political danger as he finds too many dead bodies strewn around the bucolic English countryside. These rather lighter fare, albeit worth every page, led me to the brilliant books of Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both winners of significant literary prizes, historical fictions set in the time of Thomas Cromwell, whose grisly death is sure to show up in a promised third volume that I am eager to read.

What next? Jerusalem, Jerusalem, by James Carroll, a history of the origins and ongoing significance of the Israelite city. I have read nearly all of Carroll’s non-fiction, especially his very touching and powerful memoir about his relationship to his father, a military general, during the Vietnam War, a war Carroll bitterly and publically opposed to the chagrin and fury of that father: An American Requiem. Also his magnificent Constantine’s Sword, a history of Christian anti-Semitism, searing in its power, and House of War, a history of the Pentagon, again with a significant role for his father.

I seem to be in a season of non-fiction, but I will soon read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a climate change fiction and Louise Erdrich’s Round House. Erdrich’s story telling skills rarely fail to disappoint.

Where I might go next is anyone’s guess, but most of all my own. I regularly read The New York Times Book Review to keep my eyes peeled for things that strike my fancy. Since I taught preaching for over 30 years, you might think I am always on the lookout for homiletical nuggets with which I might spruce up my sermons. Not really. I read as someone said once, “to practice living.” I rarely quote from what I read in sermons, but I hope what I read makes my observations of life deeper and richer and wider than I could possibly do on my own. Books have long been my friends, my boon companions, acquaintances on long sleepless nights, during sultry and desultory days, whenever I need to escape and when I must not escape, when I need to see more clearly and understand more helpfully the world that God has given to us. “Of the making of many books there is no end,” whined the author of Koheleth. But over against the old cynic, I say, “And may God be praised that no end of them is in sight!”

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