By John Wilson
How to Survive a Bookalanche
It's that retrospective time of year again. As noted last week, my full-dress report on the books of 2005 appears in the December issue of First Things, which I can heartily recommend on other grounds. But there are far too many books to cover—among those worth covering—for any single summary. They come thick and fast all year round, but especially in certain seasons, and they pile up so quickly, it's easy to be buried alive.
To survive, you need to keep your wits about you. You mustn't allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words surrounding you. Pick out a nearby book that catches your eye, that genuinely captures your interest, and begin reading. If you enter the book properly (a la Tuesday Next), everything else will fade away.
Here, for instance, is a compact paperback from Yale University Press, The Crusades: A History, by Jonathan Riley-Smith, first published in 1987 and now issued in a second edition. If you have been looking for a one-volume survey, you won't find a better one than this.
And here, fresh from the printer, is Laurel Gasque's Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H. R. Rookmaaker (Crossway). If you are intrigued by William Edgar's profile of the art historian Rookmaaker (who worked closely with Francis Schaeffer) in the soon-to-be-mailed January/February issue of Books & Culture, and if you want a companion as you plunge into the six volumes of Rookmaaker's Complete Works (Piquant), Gasque will be an excellent guide. And maybe you will read Riley-Smith and Rookmaaker and Gasque side-by-side, and think about contrasting understandings of visual art in the Christian and Islamic traditions (contrasting not only between traditions but also within traditions).
Right now my wife Wendy is reading a memoir by Phyllis Tickle, The Shaping of a Life, published a few years ago. For me, it has been an occasion to rediscover the book as Wendy—by her own admission a slow reader, and also one who has far less time for reading than I do—reads aloud or urges me to read this or that passage which needs to be savored. When I read and reviewed the book on publication, I enjoyed it greatly, but I didn't taste it in this luxurious, slow-food manner. Now there is a new Phyllis Tickle book, Prayer Is a Place: America's Religious Landscape Observed, which—as the subtitle suggests—isn't a memoir plain and simple, but which includes enough narrative to be must reading for anyone who enjoyed the earlier book, while many other readers will be along for the ride mainly because they want Tickle's observations on that ever-shifting "religious landscape." You might want to make a mini-stack with Tickle's book and Prayer: A History, by Philip and Carol Zaleski (Houghton Mifflin). Philip Z. edits Best American Spiritual Writing (also from Houghton Mifflin), and Carol Z. is a regular in The Christian Century.
A perennially vexed question concerns where the American Founders variously stood with respect to orthodox Christian conviction. For fair-minded people that debate—in which participants often are simply talking past each other—should be clarified by James Hutson's The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton Univ. Press), a concise volume intelligently conceived. Bravo! (But do the debaters really want clarity in this fight?) Look for a review down the road in Books & Culture.
And look for more booktalk in this space next week.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
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