Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reading list

Reading the Right Stuff

I've just been searching the web for lists of books a well-read high school student should read before college. Some books show up on every list: 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Others were a surprise: Catch-22 (a good book, but not necessarily a must read), A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (a fun book, especially for sci-fi aficionados, but a must read?). All of this got me to thinking. What are the books a well-read Christian should read before college, or before life, for that matter? So here's my absolutely personal and very limited list.

The Bible. That is a no-brainer. The Bible should be a must-read for every high school student. An acquaintance with the Bible is a must if a college student is going to understand literature written in Europe and America, even post-modern literature. But to many students reading the Bible seems like an impossible task. If so here are two suggestions. Read some selected parts of the Bible. Genesis, Job, the Gospels of Luke and John, and Ecclesiastes. Yes, Ecclesiastes. My guess is that there are more allusions to Ecclesiastes in modern western literature than to any other biblical book.

Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. This is a Christian classic that seems ponderous to many teens because of the language, but it is such an excellent warning of the dangers of the world, just as true today as when it was written, and is so often alluded to in other literature that it is next to the Bible, in my mind, as a foundation piece for the well-read Christian.

Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford. This true first person account of our Pilgim ancestors' first years in America is a must-read for all Americans. No retelling of the story of our nation's Christian heritage can equal Bradford's own words. Read it.

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik. The last image in the book, General Robert E. Lee bowing in his church at the end of the war to take communion beside a freed slave, is worth the price of the book. No other history of the Civil War is more readable or sensitive to the issues that divided our country or to the people who played on that stage than this book.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. This is the best conflict-of-good-and-evil book written in America. But it is so difficult for teens to read that I recommend the film version with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. The film diverges from the book in places, but the core of the story is there, and it is the core of the story every college-bound student needs to know.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. This is the best conflict-of-good-and-evil book to come out of Europe. (The film with Liam Neeson is equally good, but doesn't quite do justice to the book.) If you have to decide between Moby-Dick and Les Miz, read Les Miz. It is huge, but read it.
The Trial by Franz Kafka. It is a chilling story that captures as well as any book the sense of confusion, angst, and alienation of our 20th/21st century culture. Plus, you'll never understand the meaning of the word kafkaesque without reading this book.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. I read this book many years ago, but to the end of my youthful fascination with science fiction. It still sticks in my mind as one of the best. It is a pessimistic view of the future of civilization and as such is a companion to On the Beach and Fahrenheit 451, but to my mind it is more powerful than either of these.

Now two for every Christian:
The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. This was a life changing book for me. If I could get every Christian, young or old, to read one book, this would be it. For the college bound young person, this must be read. Your faith will be challenged by innumerable things in college. The best defense is not intellectual but spiritual: Pursue God. A small but powerful book, read it.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. To prepare you intellectually for the challenges of college, this classic can't be beat. There are a number of more recent books that provide a defense of the Christian fath. Lee Strobel's books A Case for Faith and A Case for a Creator come to mind. But C. S. Lewis is still the best and more readable. You might even fall in love with Lewis and go on to read Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Surprised by Joy.
Well, I told you this was a very personal and limited list. Maybe in a future post I'll add to it, but in the meantime, give several of these a try.

Update. Here're more of the 50 books for high schoolers:
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Stand by Stephen King
The Notebook by Nicolas Sparks
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
Out of Africa by Isak Dineson
Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir by John Gunther
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herroitt
Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years by Carl Sandburg
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
Ox-Bow Incident by Walter V. Clark
The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemmingway
Call of the Wild by Jack London
Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Simply Christian by N.T. Wright

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Purpose in Life

Summer is over, and school begins tomorrow. I did not get as much reading done as I had intended, but I did read one novel and several books on apologetics and, of course, the book reviewed below on this blog. The book that impressed me (or should I say, pressed upon me) the most is the novel, a title no one will recognize, Wind from the Carolinas.

Wind from the Carolinas follows one family, the Camerons of Carolina, from the migration of Tories to the Bahamas following the Revolutionary War through the prohibition era in the United States. The cover blurb calls it an epic, and in a way it is. It tells of big people and big events. But it is more a tragedy than an epic.

In the classic sense a tragedy tells of the misfortune of a big man whose pride destorys him. Ronald Cameron, whose story is the first told, is a classic tragic hero. He is strong, commanding, decisive. But as every classic tragic hero, he has a fatal flaw. Ronald Cameron's flaw is his pride and confidence in himself.

It is a sad story. Ronald Cameron takes the offer of the British government to resettle in the Bahamas loyalistTories who were facing pursecution in the states in the years following the Revolutionary War. Cameron moves his family and slaves and goods, even the bricks of his mansion in Carolina, to Great Exuma in the Bahamas. But the planation fails. The soil is not suited to cotton. Eventually Cameron is reduced to near poverty, and in the end, as it will all of us, death brings him low. He dies, a stubborn failure, a determined man facing a hurricane he can not beat. He dies - and his hope with him.
His sons and daughters and their children follow in his steps, and though some of them achieve a measure of happiness and success in life, that is all they have. Each in his turn dies. And what then?
His legacy in material things is a failing plantation in the Bahamas. He passes on only his strength of will to his daughter Caroline. He leaves no spiritual legacy because he has no spiritual foundation himself. Cameron has no faith, no hope beyond what his strength and will can effect. And that is the tragedy.
The story of an extended family living only for this life is sobering. It is sobering because it is so real.
I am sure the author did not intend that effect. His intention was to tell a tale of adventure, and there is plenty of adventure in the book. But ironically that becomes the point. Life lived for success or for adventure will still be a life that is pointless.

What is the value of things? We all will turn our back on them as we follow him to the grave. If we succeed in implanting our characters in our children, what good are those character qualities, our fatal flaws, if they are reborn in our children and grandchildren dooming them as they doomed us? What is the value if we climb every mountain and fail to see beyond them? What value are the seventy or eighty years we might have if we do not make sense of life in the years we have? What value? None. That is the tragedy of this story. The great tragedy of this story is that so many people live - and die - as Ronald Cameron, lost.
The book was a good read. It is important to see the emptiness of life without hope, without the hope that Jesus gives us. It is good to see it graphically pictured. It pressed upon me and continues to do so two months after I finished the book.