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by John Wilson


The Books in My Office

There is a narrow path from the door of my office to my desk. If it gets any narrower, I'll be in trouble with the fire marshal. Stacks rise on all sides, leading to the shelves on the wall—most of them lined two rows deep. More stacks and crammed shelves surround me at my desk.

I was still in college when a friend first suggested that I was likely to meet my death in an avalanche of books. I prefer a more benign image, which will be readily available to those who (like me) encountered Donald Duck comics at some point in their education. Think of Uncle Scrooge McDuck swimming in his money bin; then imagine books instead of wads of cash.

Not that the books come without any obligations attached. Even after doing this for years, I feel responsible for all the worthy books we don't manage to cover. (Another shipment from the mailroom arrived even as I was typing these words.) What books should we review? How best to treat them?

Those three massive books on Jesus—should they be assigned to a single, superhuman reviewer? Where should I look for writers who might contribute to a section on all things Armenian? (Would it make sense to include a piece on the artist Arshile Gorky in that section, or would that be merely a reflex of identity politics?) Angus Trumble's A Brief History of the Smile (Basic Books) is a tiresomely chatty book which—like so many books today—betrays anxiety, desperation even, at the prospect of losing the reader's attention, but can we ignore a book with such a winsome subject? (How did the vogue for this genre get started, anyway—histories of the mirror, of salt, of the color blue? Is there someone who could reliably tell that story and what it suggests?) And when am I finally going to find the perfect reviewer for Maxime Schwartz's How the Cows Turned Mad (Univ. of California Press)?

Many of the books are sorted by subject (three books, for instance, on the history and process of naming a new pope, ready to be assigned at a moment's notice), but a stack ...

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