Book bag: Suggested reading

October 18, 2005

There are Beach People and Non-Beach People. Most summers I spend a week—or two or three—at the beach. Friends sometimes ask, “What do you do there?” Anyone who asks that question is not a Beach Person.

You don’t do anything at the beach, or at least not much. You look at the ocean, walk beside it, swim in it, maybe build a sand castle, take a bike ride.

What I do at the beach most of all is read. During the year I accumulate a pile of books. There are enough of them to fill a suitcase, and sometimes I ship them ahead. After I’ve looked at the ocean in the early morning for a quiet half hour or so, I retreat to a table and dive into the stack. Serious reading and study come first. As the morning proceeds, the reading lightens a bit. By late morning I’m reading biographies or novels.

Here is a portion of this year’s list: Joan Chittister’s memoir Called to Question is a great way to begin every day, reading a chapter at a time. Yale’s David Kelsey has written a provocative but demanding little book, Imagining Redemption, which discusses critical theological questions in the context of a heartbreaking situation. Chris Hedges, a journalist and foreign correspondent with a degree from Harvard Divinity School, reflects on the Ten Commandments and modern American culture in Losing Moses on the Freeway. Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency is a fine biography of George Washington, whose role in the formation of the Republic is often overshadowed by that of Franklin and Jefferson (the book is a perfect follow-up to David McCullough’s 1776).

Wendell Berry’s new book of poems, Given, is one of his best and includes some new Sabbath poems. It led me back to Remembering, his 1988 novel. Earlier this year I read Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday and loved it, so I tried to catch up on McEwan, who writes beautifully and engagingly. I found Atonement and Amsterdam to be satisfying, interesting, fascinating.

A grandson had to read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods for school, so I read it with him, laughed and learned a lot about hiking the Appalachian Trail and about the National Park Service, trees and bears. William Sloane Coffin’s Letters to a Young Doubter is an accessible and short compendium of passionate wisdom. Having recently read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, I read her first novel, Housekeeping, written over 20 years ago, which is intriguing and beautiful. Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat is a book about globalization that everybody should read. One of the selections for Chicago’s annual citywide reading initiative is The Ox-Bow Incident, written in 1940 by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. It’s a great American novel with an almost biblical analysis of the human condition.

Lingering in my mind from this summer’s reading is a passage from one of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems. It’s about lambing time, but it could apply to any special time: “There is no happiness like this. / The window again welcomes in the light. / The river in its old groove. . . . / The flowers again brighten. / This then may be the prayer without ceasing, / This beauty, this gratitude, this moment.”