Stacked up: Reading good writers

May 18, 2004

Martin Marty once noted that there comes a time when you confront the depressing reality that you’re probably not going to read all the books you hoped and planned to read. Your stack of books-to-be-read will outlast you.

My stack grows out of a longtime practice of clipping reviews. I look at the New York Times Book Review section every week and place interesting articles in the hands of family members who might be wondering what to give me for Christmas, my birthday or Father’s Day. I also read the reviews in Theology Today and skim the publishing houses’ catalogs. And, since long before I was associated with this magazine, I read all the reviews in the Christian Century.

I read because it is closely related to my work of preparing sermons. I am convinced that one can become a better communicator by reading good writers, especially short story writers. The short story is a demanding literary form that in some ways resembles the sermon.

I’m working my way now through John Updike’s Early Stories not only for the fun of it but also to observe Updike’s uncanny ability to convey complex ideas with simple elegance and power. I keep returning to Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, and am still learning from him about the value of concise sentences, carefully chosen words, more verbs, fewer adjectives—helpful guidelines for any communicator.

I have a well-worn volume of Hemingway stories dating from college days which I purchased for less that $5.00. These days, books seem like a more serious investment. The collection of Updike’s stories set me back $35.00. I know about inflation and the declining value of the dollar. Nevertheless, if one is going to pay $35.00 for a book, it can’t be a whimsical decision. With that concern in mind, we offer in this issue a survey of some of the best recent books in three important areas— theology, ethics and Old Testament.

A recent book companion, which I used throughout Lent, was William Sloane Coffin’s Credo, which is full of treasures. I offer you two of his memorable Easter affirmations: “The abyss of God’s love is deeper than the abyss of death.” And: “If death, then, is no threat to our relationship to God it should be no threat to anything. If we don’t know what is beyond the grave, we do know who is beyond the grave.”