7 Quick Takes on Influential Books

For this Friday's 7 quick takes, I want to reflect on some books that have influenced, challenged, changed, and shaped my thinking at various points in my adolescent/adult life. Now, I went to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, which is a Great Books College, so choosing only 7 books is really not going to do justice to my undergraduate career, let alone my life since then or prior to then. So, I'm going to have to be choosy. Just for the sake of variety, I'm not going to include the Bible on this list…not because it hasn't been influential (it obviously has) but because it kind of goes without saying. Everyone who has decided to put their faith in Jesus is going to have been influenced by the Bible. I'm leaving it off the list, but no fair making comments that I obviously have my priorities backwards! Another point: when I say that these books have influenced me, that is not the same as calling them books that I liked or are my "favorites." Some of the books that influenced me have not been ones that I enjoyed at first (or perhaps ever); yet they shaped my thinking and for that they get a mention on my list. Here they are, in no particular order:
. My dad is a Latin and Greek teacher, so I grew up pretty biased towards thinking that "the only good language is a dead language." I have a vivid memory of literally sitting at the feet of our family friend Dr. Avery Springer in front of a crackling fire in the fireplace as she told us stories about the fall of Troy. Awesome! Of course I took Latin all through middle/high school, and during my sophomore and senior year I got my first taste of translating sections of Vergil's epic poem, The Aeneid. I know some people out there are Aeneid-haters: they say that Vergil just ripped off the ideas of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad and combined them into one poem, or that the whole thing is merely a propaganda piece to get in good with Caesar Augustus. Phooey on them, says I. There are kernels of truth in both of those criticisms, but they both grossly overlook the awesome characterization of the tragic hero Aeneas, remnant of Troy and founder of the Roman race! I went on to write two lengthy papers on the Aeneid: one in my junior year preceptorial and then again for my big senior essay. For my essay I focused on Aeneas's epithet pius Aeneas or "pious Aeneas." I would say more about it here but I can sense that most of your eyes are glazing over. Anyway, I guess what I love most about the Aeneid (aside from the great adventure/tragic romance of it all) is that Aeneas is (in my opinion) the first hero of Western epic who really shares our human frailties. For all his raging and sorrow at Patroclus's death, I never found Achilles to be all that relatable. Aeneas, on the other hand, was often agonized by obeying the will of the gods even at great personal cost. Maybe it's just me, but I can relate to that. And it's really fascinating to translate, too. Okay, I'll move along so that you're not all like
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller was really pivotal for me in piquing my curiosity about Portland and introducing me to Imago Dei, which would be my church home for several years. Miller's writing style takes some getting used to, in my opinion. It's hard to know when he's telling a true anecdote and to what extent gee's fictionalizing for dramatic effect. But I didn't care, because despite him being too old for me and having a boyfriend at the time, I was in love with that man. He was earnest, thoughtful, charmingly self-deprecating, and he wasn't afraid to wrestle with the big questions about God and living a Christian life. After reading the book, I hoped to meet him…and I did meet him sometime later. He was doing some sort of fundraiser event at the late great Sip & Kranz coffee shop in the Pearl (a trendy neighborhood in NW Portland) and I went to it and even shook his hand and made some sort of awkward fan remark, the exact memory of which which I have nearly successfully repressed. He was gracious but as I turned away I knew that I was never going to be Mrs. Donald Miller. Fun small world connection, though: there was a singer-songwriter guy playing guitar at that fundraiser who I met again years later, when he was the worship pastor at the church we're at now! Portland is the ultimate "small world" city like that.
Middlemarch is another book I was introduced to thanks to St. John's, and probably one I would never have picked up on my own. It's huge, doesn't have a particularly inspiring-sounding title, and is written by a dead white guy (just kidding, actually written by a dead white woman using the name of a dead white guy). [Actually, who am I kidding--being dead and white and a guy is actually a pretty good guarantee that I will have read your stuff, but I digress…] Anyway, Middlemarch, being such a large book, was assigned over Christmas break of my junior year. I think I may have dutifully started reading it on the plane ride home and was engrossed immediately. The characters and plot were complex and intriguing and everything was woven together so beautifully. What I liked most, however, was Eliot's narrative style. Somehow she manages to write affecting and true social commentary without it coming off as an aside or an interruption (in my opinion). I have tried to emulate that in my own fiction writing attempts, but have not succeeded. It's really not easy to do. I wrote my junior essay on the relationship between Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon and their doomed marriage. I also bought the audiobook of Middlemarch and relistened to it after I got married…and the book is even BETTER now that I have the perspective of a married woman and not a single woman, as I was when I read it in college. Eliot writes her way to the hearts of her characters and reveals their stunning human fault and frailty in a way that makes you all too aware of your own shortcomings even while you judge them for theirs. Masterful. I really, really recommend it.
I hated this book at first. I had to read it as preparation for beginning my two-year teaching apprenticeship at the Arbor School and keep a journal of reflections on it. When I read the book, I had never taught at all. It was the summer after I graduated from college and I was heading off to Portland, Oregon to do this teaching apprenticeship (and not at all sure that I even wanted to be a teacher, but I needed to do something!). Everything Nel Noddings said seemed to run contrary to my own experiences, beliefs, and ideals of education. She seemed to have precious little appreciation for the humanities (particularly Classics and my beloved dead languages) and advocated that students should have a relevant and useful education, and if certain subjects are not going to be relevant and useful to them, then those subjects should not be forced upon them. She was anti-elitist, and I had just spent years living the life of the mind in a rather ivory tower (and ivory skinned) campus and had gone to a wealthy private school before that. I was personally affronted by everything she stood for. And yet, the more I wrestled with the book and wrote page after page sorting out what she thought versus what I thought, the more I realized that I could not just throw her ideas aside as so much constructivist mishmash. For one thing, Nel Noddings apparently had been very influential to Kit Hawkins, the founder and director of Arbor, so if I was going to be there for two years I'd better at least try to see things from Noddings' perspective. When I left high school, I did not have a very broad view of the world. St. John's took a crowbar and pried it open wider, and I had to read things that I did not agree with and discuss them thoughtfully with others (and sometimes change my mind about things). This book was the next step in the same process. While I still strongly disagree with some of Noddings' philosophical underpinnings (she is a "rational non-believer" and believes that caring for others is an evolutionary adaptation), I do agree with her fierce belief in taking each student as the "unit of consideration" and not trying to just teach to the middle and hope the higher and lower students will get something out of it. She is very relational in her approach to teaching, and I admire that and have always sought to emulate it. So, while I do not agree in all particulars (whether educational or philosophical) with Ms. Noddings, I certainly respect her work and appreciate all of the thinking it made me do.
I read St. Augustine's Confessions my sophomore year in college and loved it. My dad had a fondness for St. Augustine, having written his dissertation on how Platonic ideas informed Augustine's theology. I really need to read that paper (just as soon as I get around to reading Augustine's "City of God" and rereading Plato's "Republic" as background knowledge…). St. Augustine wrote so eloquently about his own struggles and sorrows that it felt, well, like reading someone's very confessional memoir. I also developed a great admiration of Augustine's mother, St. Monica, who prayed and prayed steadfastly for her son for years seemingly to no effect [spoiler alert: Augustine eventually becomes a Christian, as if the whole "St." title didn't give that away.] When I visited Italy with my parents in 2006, I went to the church of St. Augustine to pray. It was a beautiful place. I would like to go there again someday…although I'd like to know Italian next time.
Allen and I were assigned this book by the pastor who married us as part of our premarital counseling. It was revolutionary because it suggested to me for the first time the idea that maybe the goal of marriage isn't to make you happy but to make you holy; that is, that your spouse may be more of a crucible that refines you than a buddy who just lets you be you. Yes, you should try to marry your best friend or at least become the best friend of your spouse…but they are going to bring things out in you that you didn't know were there, and you wish you didn't know about. Boy has that been true. Shortly before I met Allen I was feeling rather restless spiritually. The 6 years of college and grad school had been a time of intense maturing and in particular having a lot of the self-righteous snotty selfishness shaken out of me. I felt like I was in a holding pattern growth-wise; that I had done all the growing I could do as a single person. And then God was all like "LOL!" and sent me a husband (and then children) so that I could discover entirely new levels of self-righteous snotty selfishness. This book was merely the quiet warning that things could get bumpy when you pair up two imperfect people. I believe it is Billy Graham's wife who said that the best marriage is made up of two good forgivers. I'm discovering that I kind of suck at that. I really, really thought I had gotten better, but I'm still not good at it. Allen is more likely to get really mad and then get really over it, apologize, and move on. I tend to sublimate the mad and pretend to move on, but not really move on. So that's fun. It's a good book, although not particularly "fun" reading.
Okay, so technically I'm 75% of the way through reading this book, but it is definitely rocking my socks off, intellectually speaking. Shea used to be an Evangelical (as the title suggests) and through a series of questions and events [spoiler alert!] apparently comes around to believing that maybe these Catholics are onto something when they speak about having sacred scripture and sacred tradition. It's definitely messing with my very Protestant ideas of the Bible being the final authority on everything by asking questions like, "How can we convincingly argue with someone who wants to add the gospel of Thomas to the Bible the Bible is actually complete as is…and why does the Catholic Bible have more books? And who decides what makes the Bible complete, anyway?" Fascinating questions with answers that are a bit unsettling to the Reformed "sola Scriptura" business that I've just always accepted without thinking about it. Any other Protestants out there who want to read this and discuss it with me should let me know…I'd be glad to have someone else (well, besides Allen of course) to hash it out with; because if there is a logical flaw in his reasoning I have not yet found it. Thanks for taking this journey through my bookshelves with me! There are lots more books so maybe I'll have to do a part two some other time. But for now, my house is CHAOS and my poor husband will be walking back into it any minute, so I have to go.
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!


  1. I'm sure you know this already, but Kit Hawkins' son was in the GI at the same time we were at St. John's. :-). (Commence singing, "It's a Small World After All...")

    #6 - LOL. Yep.

    1. I did know that…mostly because that is how I even found out about Arbor! Will put an ad for the Arbor apprenticeship program in the Career Services newsletter, then my boyfriend at the time Thom Green saw it and said he might try for it, until he realized that the application deadline was swiftly approaching and he didn't have any materials ready. I did, since I'd already been applying to teaching internships, so I talked to Will about it and applied. God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform…were Will and Jared in the same GI cohort?


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