Honors Reading List


2021 Conversations

Spring readings with...

Since all of you take such ownership in the reading list for capstone, I feel like I need your permission to make changes.  Alas, I went rogue and changed things up a bit.  I have added two new books to Christian Vocation and Worldview: 
James K.A. Smith’s On the Road with St. Augustine and Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life. 
I have packaged the two together into a theme I am calling “How to pack for the real world.” (Hint - bring your honors books.)  Both authors write a memoir of sorts in which they use the great books, Augustine and Dante respectively, to navigate the triumph and suffering, love and loss, work, leisure, and fellowship that punctuate a life well lived.   

“Traveling without moving your feet” is how Jhumpa Lahiri described what reading can be.
Since actual traveling is one of my favorite activities, I had to make major adjustments since March of last year. For the past 12 months, my ‘travels’ have been exclusively mental ones – through reading. I am happy to report, though, that this kind of travel can be rich and exciting, especially when shared with others. While nothing can replace the presence of real people sitting around a table, Zoom has made it possible for me to discuss books with people who I know to be just as obsessed with ‘cosmic’ questions as I am, or just as intrigued by weird and quirky works in the utopian tradition – even though some of these people are in different countries now.
We spent several weeks reading Timothy Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way – a truly magnificent tour through the history of science that, though scrupulously researched, is accessible to any curious reader.
In the fiction department, Eco’s Island of the Day Before and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go made for great discussion [with lots of connections made to works from the Honors curriculum].
I was also happy for the opportunity to re-read some favorites from my high school days; my generous Zoom-Book-Club friends had heard of – and read some works by – Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Mann; but The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge [Rilke’s only novel] and Mann’s The Magic Mountain [about the same length as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which means - not frequently read in its entirety] were books they had not read. It has been a joy to be able to travel through fictional worlds or the history of ideas, and to have company along the way.

For those of you who took one of my sections of Despair & Hope, you might be interested to know that I added a book to the racial-justice unit: Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk about RaceI also added a book to the gender-equality unit: Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser.
Both are challenging reads. If you read them, send me an email and let me know what you think.

All the Past’s a Stage

One of my most recent reads is Leopoldstadt, a new play by Tom Stoppard. It follows a Viennese Jewish family from around the 1890s until the 1940s, which is a really significant time in central European history, so we get references to Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud, and the famously anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger. I’ve been a fan of Stoppard’s work for years because I love how he combines dynamic time periods, philosophical and scientific problems, mathematics, and witty dialogue.
Other great examples are his Coast of Utopia trilogy, which looks at the ideas coming out of nineteenth-century Europe and the revolutions of 1848 and the plays are all written around real people, like Herzen, Marx, and Bakunin.
Rock’n’Roll takes a look at eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1970s and the application of Vaclav Havel’s ideas for resisting the Soviet system. I would say almost anything he’s written is really interesting.
Of course, with Honors courses I’m also always going back through many classic books which also leads to good reflection. I recently wrote a piece for Front Porch Republic about what it means to read Petrarch with our Honors sophomores. If you have any strong feelings or memories about Petrarch, let me know.

“Desert Island Bookshelf”

I have recently started following Christian ethicist Russell Moore’s blog. One of his continuing posts asks “If you could have one bookshelf with you to last you the rest of your life, what volumes would you choose?” He has asked friends to list those books they would want if they were ever marooned on a desert island.
It made me wonder what books I be able to read over and over again? Here is what I have on my list:
  • The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy - J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The Republic – Plato
  • The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer
  • The Odyssey – Homer
  • Confessions – Augustine
  • Beowulf - ? (Tolkien’s translation/edition)
  • The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Cloister Walk – Kathleen Norris
  • Ethics – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
  • The Education of a Christian Prince – Desiderius Erasmus
  • Theology for the Community of God – Stanley Grenz
I am hoping I get a big shelf! This is the list I have today. It is a fairly diverse collection. It includes several of my favorite fictional works. Of course, I have to include some essential primary historical texts I have come to appreciate. I have also included a few works on Christian spirituality/theology that I think are important and I continue to go back to from time to time. Or are they all about Christian spirituality/theology?

Two books that I began re-reading almost the moment I finished them:
  • Martin Mosebach, The Heresy of Formlessness
Like other great works of criticism such as Mary Douglass’s Natural Symbols and George Saintsbury’s Notes on a Cellar Book, Mosebach’s Heresy of Formlessness manages to transcend its immediate subject matter—the Tridentine rite of the Roman Catholic church. One need have little interest in post-Vatican II Catholic liturgical debates to see the significance and beauty of Mosebach’s arguments against the “heresy of formlessness”—that is, the idea that one can alter the form of a thing without altering its content. Mosebach, a German novelist well known in his own country if not on ours, writes beautifully, even in translation, capturing the sadness one feels at the loss of a cultural form.
  • Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End
Hemingway’s famous characterization of Ford Madox Ford in A Moveable Feast as a sour, bloated, apoplectic cad may be true to life, but not to his work, which is so tenderly complex, virtuosic, and ambiguous. Parade’s End is a tetralogy of novels on the First World War. It chronicles the death of manners (“parades”)—not as arbitrary gestural rules of conduct in social situations but as the ritual economy of gift and duty so central to the stability of pre-war Europe. Like many modernists, Ford attends closely to the warrenous psychology of individuals. Unlike many modernists, he manages to do this without indulgence or obscurity. The result is very beautiful.

For my talk at Book Club last month, I discussed Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—and it is a work which in spite of (or perhaps because of) its title I would encourage you to consider reading. A little over a decade after its initial publication it remains a controversial and fascinating book, and it carries particular relevance to a Great Books curriculum like that of the Supper Honors Program. On the surface, it may seem that Bayard’s book either discourages reading or encourages a kind of superficial understanding of literature bordering on charlatanism. In reality, however, it emphasizes reading as a creative and collective process, and challenges us to move beyond thinking about books with the dull “read/not read” binary we so often apply. Bayard is frank that even the most prodigious scholars are severely limited in what they can actually read, and he further complicates this by challenging the idea of what it is to have read a book in the first place. (For example, if you read a book as a child but now remember nothing about it, does that mean you did not read it?) Bayard suggests that rather than seeing a book as something to check off a list, it is worth freeing ourselves of traditional academic and cultural expectations for reading and instead experiencing literature in an open fashion that emphasizes creativity, enjoyment, and engagement. It is advice worth taking for students and alumni (and faculty) alike.