The Reading List: Part 2

Last May, I posted a list of books I’ve read with a brief description of each one and a bit of a response to it. This annotated bibliography of sorts was useful for me, to organize my thoughts on the books and help me remember the main ideas or stories and my responses to them. I decided to share it to keep me accountable for actually writing it, and in the hope that somebody might find my thoughts on these books helpful if they’re interested in these or similar topics.

With 2018 squarely behind us, I wanted to round out the list with everything I read in the second half of last year. Here it is, in roughly the order in which I read each book:

The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson, by Stanley Hauerwas. In 2002, Stanley Hauerwas became the godfather of Laurence Wells, the son of Samuel and Jo Bailey Wells, friends and eventual colleagues at Duke Divinity School. As the boy’s godfather, Hauerwas agreed to write a letter each year on the anniversary of his baptism, describing a different virtue in each letter. This book contains the published collection of Hauerwas’ letters, written over the course of sixteen years, on a host of virtues ranging from patience to friendship. In addition to the challenging and thought-provoking reflections on these virtues from a brilliant Christian thinker, I appreciated the book’s personal tone and time-bound qualities. I pray almost daily for God to create and nurture in me the virtues of the Christian life, and trust that books like this one will help me recognize what those virtues look like.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, by Chris Hadfield. This was a fascinating read from an astronaut who traveled to space three times and served as the commander of the International Space Station in 2012. The book was very well-written and gave an insider’s view of what it’s like to be an astronaut, as well as highlighting important life lessons that Hadfield gained from his experience that can apply to just about anybody. I especially appreciated the combination of grit, humility, and perspective that characterized Hadfield’s journey from a kid who dreamed of being an astronaut to a man who saw that dream come true.

Infinite, by Jeremy Robinson. A friend recommended to me this fast-paced sci-fi book about a man who’s stuck alone on a space ship, traveling through the universe, unable to change course and unable to die. In addition to being just plain entertaining, the story raises some good questions about our relationship with artificial intelligence and virtual reality. I didn’t read a lot of fiction books this year, but I’m very glad this was one of them.

Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy, by Govert Schilling. In this book, Schilling chronicles the hundred-year search for gravitational waves, from Einstein’s prediction of their existence in the early 1900s to their eventual discovery by the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in 2016. What’s especially striking are the long-lasting perseverance and large-scale collaboration of the scientists involved in the search, many of whom waited decades to see their efforts pay off. It’s hard not to be impressed by the extreme precision of LIGO or by the multi-national effort to create it and analyze the results—to say nothing of the new avenues of astronomy that gravitational wave detection promises to open up.

Einstein’s Miraculous Year, by Albert Einstein with a foreword by Roger Penrose. I actually got this book when I was much younger, but for some reason I never read it until this year. The book contains English translations of 5 landmark papers that Einstein wrote in 1905, a remarkable year in which he published the special theory of relativity, which changed forever our conceptions of space and time, and his first explanation of the photo-electric effect using the idea of photons, a significant contribution to quantum physics for which he eventually won the Nobel Prize. These were technical physics papers and I won’t pretend that I understood all the math, but even so it was fascinating to read Einstein’s work and see his original presentation of ideas that would change our understanding of the world in such profound ways.

Modern Cider: Simple Recipes to Make Your Own Ciders, Perries, Cysers, Shrubs, Fruit Wines, Vinegars, and More, by Emma Christensen. Definitely the outlier on this list, but it speaks to another hobby of mine! My wife Amy bought me this book for my birthday, since she knows how much I love to make my own apple cider. It’s a hobby that started a few years ago, which has gotten a bit more intense each year. This year I built my own cider press (before I was boiling the apples to create the pulp I used to make the cider) and made 2 big batches, experimenting with different combinations of apples and canning about 6 gallons of cider all together. I really enjoyed the book, which contains a lot of good tips and recipes for making both hard cider and the non-alcoholic kind (which I make). Next year I’ll almost certainly increase my production and try my hand at fermenting a couple of batches using the recipes in this book.  

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, by Maryanne Wolf. In this book, a neuroscientist who specializes in what happens in our brains when we read describes the neurological changes that take place when we read on screens as opposed to paper. Wolf gives a highly accessible overview of the processes our brains go through when we read, and of the changes in our brains as we learn how to read. What becomes clear through her account is that reading is far from hard-wired into our minds. Rather, our brains are highly malleable (she uses the term “neuroplasticity”), which allows us to develop reading as an adaptation. But this very plasticity leaves our brains vulnerable to other changes when we read in other ways—which is exactly what’s happening in our culture as we move to reading shorter, simpler content on digital devices. She makes a convincing and compelling case that we are losing the ability to sustain our attention and follow longer, more complex sentences and paragraphs, and asks what will happen if these changes become irreversible. Most importantly, she advocates for protecting children from these changes by nurturing their ability to read and teaching them how to be intelligent users of digital as well as print media. I appreciated her book very much, and it’s caused me to think twice about other changes that our brains and bodies are undergoing as we race into a new, technological world—and how we might resist the negative effects of those changes.

Revelation Through Science, by James G. Martin. My aunt gave me this book, signed by the author—an organic chemist who studied at Princeton and taught at Davidson University. Oh, and also the former governor of North Carolina. The book makes the case for the ability of science and religious faith to coexist, and highlights the ways in which science points us to the knowledge of God. The book gives a wonderful introduction to major scientific fields and identifies ways they are compatible with Christianity. As someone who’s long since reconciled the science-versus-religion debate, I didn’t need any convincing to be 100% on board with his argument. Still, I appreciated the in-depth look at all these various fields from someone with a stellar science background and strong Christian faith, who also happens to know a thing or two about how politics are involved.

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek. This was a quick read, but a good one. Sinek makes a strong case for identifying one’s purpose, whether that’s applied to an individual, a community, a company, or a product, and letting that drive every decision and course of action going forward. Much of what he has to say is obviously true once he expresses it, but it’s so easy to forget that it’s important to receive the reminder and see just how critical it is to maintain a sense of “why.” The book caused me to reflect on my own sense of “why” and conclude that I’m all about learning new things—I feel energized and passionate when I’m learning something new, whether that’s about the Bible or about publishing or about science. As long as I keep that curiosity and drive to learn front-and-center of my life, chances are I’ll feel pretty fulfilled most of the time.

An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor. Our home group read this over the course of several weeks, and I appreciated the insights Taylor outlined about how we can see each moment as an opportunity to connect with God. As someone who’s constantly striving to do more and make the most out of every available minute, I found myself especially challenged by her emphasis on keeping Sabbath. It’s something I hope to be much better about in 2019.

Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, by Henryk Sienkiewicz. A fellow grad student introduced me to this book eight or nine years ago, and I found it deeply moving. It did not disappoint on a second read this year. The book tells a beautiful story of love and the power of the Christian faith as a new movement in ancient Rome. As I’m exploring connections between science and faith—asking how the Christian faith can respond to new discoveries and developments in our world—it was important reminder sacrificial love, relentless hope, and the world-changing power of the Christian faith are timeless.

For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, by W.H. Auden. When I was in divinity school, I came across a few lines of a poem:

How can the Eternal do a temporal act?
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible.

When I got curious and looked them up, I discovered that they were part of this much larger work by W.H. Auden, which tells the Christmas story in poetic form, from Advent through the holy family’s flight to Egypt. For the past four or five years I’ve made it a practice to read through the poem each year during Advent, and it still moves me every time. The idea of infinite reality meeting our finite world, a theme which runs through the whole poem, resonated with me more deeply this year after several months of thinking, reading, and writing about how the physical laws of the universe point to the God who created them.

Transhumanism and the Image of God, by Jacob Shatzer. This book isn’t due to publish until April, but Jacob is a good friend of mine from Marquette University, and he was kind enough to let me read a preview copy. In this book, Jacob gives an introduction to transhumanism and, just as importantly, insight into some of its central values and the way our cultural practices and tools lead us to adopt those same values. While he recognizes the good things that technology promises, he also cautions against the uncritical optimism of the transhumanist outlook, and reminds us that the Christian way of life values different thing and lifts up alternate practices and attitudes to shape our lives in a way that’s authentic to who we’re created to be. In my next post I’ll write up a fuller review of Jacob’s book, so be on the lookout!

Genes, Determinism, and God, by Denis Alexander. Rounding out 2018 is this book about the interplay between genetics and human free will. I found myself wishing I’d taken a few more biology classes as I was reading it. It was well-written and highly informative, but dense and at times technical in a way that left me as a non-biologist a bit in the dark. Still, the author does a fantastic job of showing just how intimately our genetics and our environment are intertwined, each contributing decisively to making us who we are. He shows how environmental factors, including everything from life experiences to molecules that interact with and within our cells, even our decisions and habits, have a profound effect on who we are—how we look, behave, think, feel. He makes a powerful case for affirming human free will despite recognizing the role of genetics in shaping who we are. He articulates a view of the human person based on contemporary science that is both hopeful and challenging, consistent with Christianity’s view of what it means to be human and the way God calls us to live.

Collecting my thoughts about the books above reminds me once again how enjoyable and fulfilling it was to explore new (to me) ideas in 2018. I have a brand-new stack of books awaiting me in 2019. Stay tuned!

What about you? Read anything good last year?


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