Monday, November 30, 2009

The dynamism of compassion, part deux

Compassion is the key.

(All the major religions) have come to this conclusion

not because it sounds good, it sounds nice, but because it works.

We are at our most creative when we’re ready to give ourselves away.

We are at our most sterile and dangerous when we seek to have ourselves and more so,

and to use religion to enhance our sense of ego.

--Karen Armstrong, to Krista Tippett

I listened today to a podcast of an interview done for the program Speaking of Faith--it resulted in a show entitled “The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong,” but what I heard was the unedited version, and it was terrific.

Karen Armstrong is a former nun, a religious historian/scholar, and currently leading the Charter for Compassion. I first heard of her 15 years ago or so when she was part of Bill Moyers’ Genesis discussion, and she struck me as a truly fresh voice, and won me with the line “Religion is at its best when it asks questions.”

That comment sparked a new chapter in my own faith life, and I’ve kept her work on my personal radar ever since. I recently linked to her TED video (which is related to her winning a TED prize for the idea of the Charter).I commend this interview to you; it’s available here. In it, she tells the story of her own journey through Roman Catholic religious life, through amused/bewildered atheism, to her present orientation as a person of faith not tied to a particular faith tradition--or, rather, lightly tethered to many and adept at finding their points of commonality.

The quote about compassion with which I opened this post captured my imagination today. The charity necessary for true compassion could be a truly powerful (holy!) force, were it fully unleashed in the world. She spoke of charity not in the sense of pity, which locates the charitable above the other, in the center; rather, charity is the force that gets us to willingly vacate the “center” position and put someone else see the world through their eyes. Whether we like them or not. Whether we agree with them or not. Even if they drive us nuts. Even if they’ve done Bad Things.

This isn’t new thinking. What got me was her assessment that this kind of generosity of spirit is the most creative of forces. That sings somewhere deep in my soul.

She also discussed the Western/Christian tendency to be hung up on doctrine--to focus first on believing rightly--in contrast with the Eastern/Muslim/Jewish orientation toward living rightly as a path to the Divine.

(We do spend a lot of time and energy arguing, do we not, fellow Lutherans?)

What if, instead, we tried this (Karen’s quote, again):

If we do what Hillel says (do not do to others as you would not have done to you), if we lived by that, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute--and it’s no good going straight on to Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein when there are people in our own immediate entourage who we find difficult to get on with--the Buddha always said you have to radiate compassion to all four corners of the world, but you’ve got to deal first with the people who are right there around you: that difficult sibling, that annoying colleague, that rival, your ex-wife. (When) you can extend benevolence, wish them well, this starts to break down the hard shell of ego.

If, every time you attempted to say something horrible about one of these “enemies,” (you stopped to consider) how you would like it said about yourself or a loved one and refrained (from doing so) that moment, you would have achieved a transcendence of ego--and that would be a religious life, I think. Hillel was right to say that that’s the essence of religion; that’s the Torah, the rest is commentary. Confucius uttered a version of this golden rule 500 years before that; Buddha taught a version of it.

I think lots of things would change if we learned from our co-religionists instead of fearing them, judging them, and focusing on why they’re “wrong.” I think part of the reason we argue so much is that it’s substantially easier and more immediately gratifying than it would be to live in the simplicity of genuine compassion. We like to be right, and don’t want to spend more time with the Other than we absolutely have to.

I had a Zen class in seminary. The view of “what’s next” expressed in that class frightened me at the time--it was about attainment of enlightenment via complete emptying of the self (oooo...sounds like Jesus); about a "goal" of finally sort of being absorbed back into the web of life that hums all around and through us. This is a contrast with most of the funerals, most of the conversation about death I’ve been part of in the Christian world--you know, harps, clouds, lots of anthropomorphizing, a “reward” for a life well lived (yikes!).

What if this whole journey IS about breaking down ego, about emptying the self to find the Divine? What does that change in each of our lives?

What if we Christians took Jesus more seriously than Church/Tradition/Doctrine?

If we try to live our way into the answer via compassion as depicted above, it seems to me that we’d all be changed for the better, regardless of our dogmatic location.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Friday Five: Crush

Though it's a few days late, this is too much fun to resist. Songbird of the Revgals writes:

I have to admit it. I felt for her.

You see, in high school, I had a crush on my Chorus teacher. He was a young guy, and he had gone to college with some cousins of mine, and over the summer between 9th and 10th grade, we ran into each other at a series of pre-wedding parties, and I feel DEEPLY in like.


1) Did you ever have a crush on a teacher?

I had a terrible crush on my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hager. She went to my church, and we bumped into one another out in The World once in a while (laying to rest my earlier understanding of teachers as context-sensitive beings who only existed in classrooms and faculty lounges, but evaporated if they tried to leave the school grounds...)

I was crushed out to the point at which I dressed like her...which sounds harmless enough, until you picture an 11-year-old in a calico shirt (the kind where every panel is a different fabric) over a TUBE TOP. (Shudder.)

2) Who was your first crush?

Hmmm...the first one. That was early. Kristin Setterstrom, our 4-houses-away
neighbor, was about 5 years older than I, and she looked a bit like Kristy McNichol. LOVED her. She babysat my sister and me a couple of times, and when all the rest of us (younger) kids on the block were playing Statue Tag in the front yard, I always kept one eye turned toward her house, in the hope that she might come out and join us. Alas, no.

3) Have you ever given a gift to a crush?
Oh, yeah. Poorly written, unmailed love-scratchings, mostly.

4) Do you have a celebrity crush? (Around my house we call them TV boyfriends and girlfriends...)

If Emma Thompson ever looked my way, Beloved might need to be a bit indulgent with me. ;-)

5) Have you ever been surprised to find yourself the crushee?

The first time was in first grade. George Christidis gave me a pin shaped like a chicken, that he'd got from a gumball machine. Looking back, he was a tiny George Clooney--gorgeous kid. Bet he's breaking some hearts now. Hope I wasn't too hard on him.

Oh, and Tom Harder called me several times in fourth grade to profess his undying devotion and to propose an ongoing relationship. Nice fella. Our dads drove the same kind of car. I liked the attention better than I liked him, though. Poor Tom.


Well, it's been a while.

It's been a challenging few months; Beloved has had struggles with her depression and her job; I've had a new job (which I love, but being new somewhere sort of demands that you raise the level of your game), and there have been a couple of other "extra effort" sorts of circumstances. I've had NO time to write, or even to think too deeply or for too long.

Which is, perhaps, a blessing in disguise. ;-)

And we're heading into December, which is generally my most stressful month of the year. But today I'm in a good place with it. The last few days have taught me some stuff; Beloved and I stayed home and had a quiet Thanksgiving together, and it's been a terrific weekend framed by wonderful worship services at my home church.

For the six of you who are still reading after this long hiatus, I shall spill out the wisdom that's presently in my tenuous grasp:
  • In times of stress, sometimes you have to pare down to the essentials as a family. Being able to say "No, thank you" is a critical survival skill.
  • Remembering to do something sweet and surprising during such a time can have extra impact. Beloved got me a "real" version of this piece of art, had it beautifully framed and gave it to me on Thanksgiving. I get a bit weepy just thinking about it. The Ruth passage it references was read at our wedding.
  • Ask for help when you need it. (I know...duh, but I'm still working on this lesson, after years of Life's gracious re-presentation of opportunities to learn it.)
  • Speak your truth, even when it's difficult. Sometimes the only way forward is through.
  • Love is all around. Look for its impish grin peeking at you around corners and beckoning you.
  • Finally, from Meister Eckhart: if the only prayer you say in your life is "thank you," that would suffice.
About that last one--though I find much of contemporary culture (at least that part that relates to getting/having/sharing our stuff) seriously out of whack, I have to say that a day set aside for pondering the gifts of our lives, and being thankful for them, is a not-so-distant relative of the Biblical concept of jubilee. In the same way that jubilee released people from debt and punishment, intentional thankfulness releases us from the bindings of fear and despair by reframing our vision.
  • Instead of worrying about what might be, we see what is.
  • Instead of focusing on the material (and its potential for loss), thankfulness rightly locates us in the abundance of God's mercy and love.
  • Instead of ruminating about "I," we find ourselves in relationship with "Thou" (and "thou," and "thou," and "thou...").
This is all to the good, and I'm facing December with a lens of quiet confidence and with a singing least, for today.

Deo gratias.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The dynamism of compassion...

which demands intelligence, not just a gooey feeling" is Karen Armstrong's topic here. Excellent!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Outrageous peace and costly grace

Let us sing songs of

--Susan Palo Cherwien

I got this extraordinary book of poetry about a month ago, after hearing some selections used as part of a gorgeous hymn festival sung by the choir in which Beloved and I met. I've since been savoring Susan's precise, vibrant extraordinary circumstance, as I tend to devour beautiful books.

I found the quote above at the end of one of the poems, and have been pondering it deep in my heart, marveling at the unlikeliness of that word pairing: outrageous peace. As is my wont, I looked at the prettiest definition most closely: "highly unusual, extravagant, remarkable."

And then I re-watched a movie tonight, and it brought me to a deeper, more difficult definition: "grossly offensive to the sense of right or decency."

The movie was Dead Man Walking. It came out in 1995, at the tail-end of my callow youth. I saw it through the eyes of a young woman, and took two things from it then: the conviction that the death penalty is wrong, and a deep admiration for Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ.

Tonight, it seems to me that Sr. Helen made outrageous peace. It deeply offended the parents whose children had died violently, violated, at the hands of the condemned man whom she was trying to counsel. It offended correctional workers, worried her mother, alienated others with whom she was working. It offended the condemned man, because she held a mirror in front of him.

And yet.

Her willingness to throw herself into the gaping maw of others' pain, to face head-on her own self-doubt, to claim unequivocally the love of Christ for all people, even society's "monsters..." This willingness of hers made outrageous peace: the condemned man faced his crime and asked for forgiveness. His family found a measure of dignity and comfort. A parent of one of his victims began to heal from his searing grief and got back on speaking terms with God. She made room for kindness within the coldest of human processes.

She made peace where there could not be peace; further, she made peace that offended people deeply. It seems to me I've heard about some of other guys who sang that song: Bonhoeffer. King. Mandela. Jesus. The song required everything of them.

It changed the world, with each of them...and the song of outrageous peace goes on.

I wonder I'll get to sing a verse...and if I'll be able to do so. I pray that I'll have the courage to lift my voice, if called upon.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Living as "we" in an "I" world

Art is the transfer of emotion from one person to another.

--Leo Tolstoy
Hmmm. Yes.

So, what's the appropriate application of this idea to church music?
  • Music can serve as "testimony"--I can tell you my own hard-won faith story through music, and I can hear yours in the same way. This is, I think, why we have so much "I" music that's done in the middle of an essentially "we" experience. It's immediate emotional connection.
  • Music is able to place us in another time/place in much the same way our sense of smell does; the scent of lefse on the griddle transports me directly to my maternal grandmother's house every time I make it. And there are a million songs that can take me directly back to high school, for better and worse. Because of this, there's an inherent sentimental attachment to any number of hymns and spiritual songs; they recall our beloved dead for a moment, and remind us where we've come from. Again, immediate emotional connection.
  • For many of us, it's difficult not to get caught up in a well-executed song of praise or lament...consider the power of the "Hallelujah Chorus," for example...or the way that we can BE "lost in wonder, love and praise" if the music leaders and congregation do "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" well. [Reader, insert your own example here.]
Here's the thing, though. Because of music's emotional power, it's easy for it to become a tool of manipulation. As soon as we worship planners forget that, the music rings false to the thinkers in the crowd. It's one of the true challenges of worship planning...not to put words into people's mouths that weren't there to begin with. Let's face it: we all come to the worship planning process with biases. It's easy and fun to plan worship that expresses my own belief and feelings. It's much harder to try to place myself in someone else's Cole Haans or Adidas or Manolo Blahniks or steel-toed boots. And so, when I'm not a little bit uncomfortable, it's time to be concerned that my own preference is holding too much sway over a community's shared worship experience.

But I suspect that many--even most pew-sitters are not approaching worship that way. They come wanting to be moved, even transported. For many people, that means that if we don't use something in their preferred style or lexicon, they don't connect with worship...which is a rather consumer-oriented approach to a community experience.

It's sort of a conundrum for me, really. It seems to me too little to hope for to just get off on worship; it should work on me a bit. On the one hand, worship should be a kairos moment, and I should be able to forget myself and my location in time/space; that's both a relief and a communion. On the other hand, how will my faith grow if I don't learn to figure out where to discover the gift in music that doesn't immediately speak to me personally? Because that also builds communion over the long term; it teaches me connection in the way that synapses connect axons to dendrites: they learn to connect by needing to connect.

If we don't experience the gap, how do we learn to cross it? And if worship includes all that we are in the presence of God and one another, isn't the willingness to weave those connections an essential part of that experience?

So, yes--music transfers emotion from one person to another. But not always without our willingness to make it happen--to be full agents of the musical experience for ourselves and for one another, to the greater glory of God. That's what makes church music a bit different: the minute we act like an affinity group, we veer off course from our deepest purpose. In the end, it's not about the music itself. It's about learning to live as "we" in an "I" world.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Beloved and I are home together this evening, having played with the pups, done a Saturdayish potpourri of keep-the-household-running things, and shared a lovely dinner. Tapping away on our respective computers, she's working on school stuff and I'm writing program notes for the next InVocation concert program. Pups are snuggled up, and we're all enjoying this:

Dvorak + Yo Yo Ma = yummy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Thoughts for the first music rehearsal of a new program year...

...from Thomas Merton:

Music is pleasing not only because of the sound
but because of the silence that is in it:
without the alternation of sound and silence,
there would be no rhythm.
If we strive to be happy
by filling in the silences of life with sound,
by turning all life's leisure into work,
and real
by turning all our being into doing,
we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.
If we have not silence,
God is not heard in our music.
If we have not rest,
God does not bless our work.
If we twist our lives out of shape
in order to fill every corner of them
with action and experience,
God will seem silently to withdraw from our hearts
and leave us empty.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The telltale limp of the faithful

I read a reflection this afternoon, written by someone I've never met. I was really struck by his line "the telltale limp of the faithful." The new song lyric by that title (music isn't finished, but imagine sort of a driving, bluesy mood) is about three minutes old. This Bible story has a lot of resonance for me; I wrote a poem about it last year, and here it is again, in another form:

Just step right up, the carny man said,

I can show you all the face of God.

For a spectacle that dazzles you and fills you with elation

you just need a small donation and a pious inclination--

I can show you all the face of God.

Come right on down, the TV preacher said,

I can show you all the face of God.

For just fifty on your Visa and the contents of your head

you never need to wonder what the Bible really said--

I can show you all the face of God.

Be careful what you use to build an altar;

be sure to question everything you think you know.

The telltale limp of the faithful

is what it’s going to cost you for the face of God to show.

You’ll be changed; it isn’t cheap

but you might find a peace so deep

that you can sleep now on a pillow made of stone.

Get going through the desert, the Holy One said,

if you want to see the face of God.

You have to struggle and you'll fight, wrestle angels through the night,

but when you stumble in that darkness, I'll be glad to give you light--

only I can show the face of God.

Be careful what you use to build an altar;

be sure to question everything you think you know.

The telltale limp of the faithful

is what it’s going to cost you for the face of God to show.

You’ll be changed; it isn’t cheap

but you might find a peace so deep

that you can sleep now on a pillow made of stone.

It’s a hard old world, my mama said,

when you’re looking for the face of God.

Be careful what you pray for, ‘cause you’re never gonna know

if it’s truth that you are seeing or a circus or a show--

where will you go to find the face of God?

Where will you go to find the face of God?

Monday, August 24, 2009

The aftermath

I was expecting elation.

I've spent a decade working and praying in many and various ways for the votes that came on Friday. And I'm grateful and inspired by the (mostly) civilized dialogue that the ELCA managed to conduct around one of our National Hot Button Issues last week. I'm hugely relieved, on a personal level. And, as one member of my own congregation said yesterday, I'm glad for the sense that "Christ is leading us, and it's up to us to figure out how to follow."

But elation isn't the word for where I really am. I'm grateful that dear friend B (and SO many others--maybe even me, someday) can now be ordained. I'm grateful for the witness of the Lutheran church to those outside it. I'm grateful for the many kind, supportive words and hugs that have come my way this weekend...and over the long haul.

I'm sad, too. I'm sad that some people feel that they've lost their church. It seems unnecessary to me, after hanging in there all this time, that one decision could cause someone to feel like an outsider, when what I was really hoping for was the possibility of growth in relation to those who see the "issue" differently.

It's not elation. It is, as retired Bishop Chilstrom commented on Friday night, "bittersweet." And it's clear to me that we're going to need to work harder than ever for a while, to nurture conversation wherever we can and to turn that legislated welcome into reality.

Meanwhile, leadership is going to continue and to emerge this sermon, which I like very much. Deo gratias.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

That's my bishop

Who was a calm and compassionate voice, reminding us that we meet "not in our agreements or in our differences, but at the foot of the cross."

I'll be praying for him in the coming weeks, and invite you to do the same. Continuing the dialogue and keeping the family together isn't going to be easy!

Proud to be Lutheran today

It's after midnight. For the last three nights, Beloved and I have gone to Churchwide Assembly-peripheral worship services after our regular workdays. We're tired and a bit punchy.

Today, almost everything we hoped for, worked for, and wept for came to pass. The ELCA resolved to "bear one another's burdens and respect one another's bound consciences," to allow for blessing of same-sex unions, to make space for partnered GLBT folks on the leadership roster, and to agree to move forward together in good faith, though we do not all agree about any of this.

I'm overwhelmed. This will have very real consequences for me, my congregation, and so, so many people I care about.

I'm proud of my church. It was an impassioned debate, but conducted with general grace, space for opposing opinions, and a great deal of prayer.

It will be deeply sad to me if the people who voted in the other direction, and who are feeling sad/angry/shocked by this vote choose to leave the ELCA. This issue will never really get better until we sit side-by-side in the pews together for a long time, in an open and honest atmosphere. I heard one vociferous local pastor today suggest that the church has strayed from "obvious Scriptural teaching" (?!) and "capitulated to the popular culture" by choosing to make this circle a bit bigger.

I think that he's wrong.
I think that the Church has taken a brave step deeper into Scriptural teaching this week.
I think that the real capitulation to popular culture would be to act as if there is only one "correct" point of view, and to claim that the "losers" need to sit on the bench until their "turn" comes up again, while the "winners" get the mandate. That's not how a real community acts.

I think, as one bishop so eloquently prayed at the end of the last plenary today, that God has called us servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.

I think that God will give us the strength to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that God's hand is leading us
and God's love supporting us.

And I think that this pastor with whom I disagree so vehemently must remain my brother in Christ. I hope with all the power of my heart that he and all who are upset by today will hang in with the ELCA. GLBT folks have done so for decades, and have borne a patient and loving witness to the church from outside its structures. I hope that we may do as well from inside the building, and remember to go the extra mile to welcome the stranger, whoever that may be.

As the incandescent Barbara Lundblad reminded us earlier this week, we are many parts, but one Body. Amen and amen.

Deo gratias.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ceiling Cat iz displeezed wif church's stance on sowshul justiss

href="">funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Friday, July 17, 2009

Choice vs. gift

Sometimes, in my more lucid moments, I recognize that the technology I enjoy is changing not just the culture around me, but also my perceptions about my place in the world.

The opening of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, so long anticipated, has got me thinking. This sense of group expectation and shared experience used to be a lot more frequent. Remember when we had to all wait together to find out who shot J.R.? And for a while, NBC had must-see-TV on Thursday nights...and people talked about it together on Friday mornings.

Like so many other people I know, I have a TiVo and an iPod...not to mention Pandora and Hulu and iTunes. I get to choose what media I watch/hear, and when, with much more control than ever before. Generally, I like this very much; I get to fast-forward through commercials, and I never have to waste my time with a song I don't like.


Remember what it was like to be driving along, listening to the radio, and the EXACT, PERFECT SONG came on, seemingly just for you? Remember having a moment like this?

That doesn't happen to me any more. Most of "my" music feels like a choice, not a gift.

Maybe sometimes, in order to be surprised by joy, you've got to be "free fallin'" and just see what comes your way. :-)

Monday, July 6, 2009

What kind of reader are you?

Newsweek has published their Top 100 Books: the Meta-List, derived via “number crunching” from various top-10 books lists. The purpose of this note is to gather a bit more information about your experience with the books on their list. I’ve started the process using the following key. If you’re interested in participating, please copy the list and replace my numbers with your own, and tag me. Please note that more than one number may be used per book. More information available on each book by clicking the link at the beginning of the post.

1 = read it

2 = saw the movie

3 = in my “to read” stack at home

4 = someday I’ll read it

5 = have made at least one attempt to read it, but didn’t finish

6 = no interest in reading it

(4/5) War and Peace—Tolstoy

(1) 1984—Orwell

(4) Ulysses—Joyce

(6) Lolita—Nabokov

(4) The Sound and the Fury—Faulkner

(3) Invisible Man—Ellison

(4) To the Lighthouse—Woolf

(3) The Iliad and The Odyssey—Homer

(2/4) Pride and Prejudice—Austen

(4) Divine Comedy—Alighieri

(5) Canterbury Tales—Chaucer

(5) Gulliver’s Travels—Swift

(6) Middlemarch—Eliot

(4) Things Fall Apart—Achebe

(1) The Catcher in the Rye—Salinger

(5/6) Gone with the Wind—Mitchell

(3/5) One Hundred Years of Solitude—Marquez

(5/6) The Great Gatsby—Fitzgerald

(3) Catch-22—Heller

(2/3) Beloved—Morrison

(1/2) The Grapes of Wrath—Steinbeck

(4) Midnight’s Children—Rushdie

(1) Brave New World—Huxley

(2/4/5) Mrs. Dalloway—Woolf

(1) Native Son—Wright

(4) Democracy in America—de Tocqueville

(4) On the Origin of Species—Darwin

(6) The Histories—Herodotus

(4) The Social Contract—Rousseau

(6) Das Kapital—Marx

(6) The Prince—Machiavelli

(4) Confessions—St. Augustine

(4) Leviathan—Hobbes

(6) The History of the Peloponnesian War—Thucydides

(2/5) The Lord of the Rings—Tolkien

(1/2) Winnie-the-Pooh—Milne

(1/2) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—Lewis

(2) A Passage to India—Forster

(4) On the Road—Kerouac

(1/2) To Kill a Mockingbird—Lee

(1/2) The Holy Bible (RSV)

(4) A Clockwork Orange—Burgess

(1) Light in August—Faulkner

(4) The Souls of Black Folk—Du Bois

(4) Wide Sargasso Sea—Rhys

(4) Madame Bovary—Flaubert

(6) Paradise Lost—Milton

(4) Anna Karenina—Tolstoy

(1/2) Hamlet—Shakespeare

(1) King Lear—Shakespeare

(1/2) Othello—Shakespeare

(4) Sonnets—Shakespeare

(1) Leaves of Grass—Whitman

(4) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Twain

(4) Kim—Kipling

(2/5) Frankenstein—Shelley

(3/5) Song of Solomon—Morrison

(2/4/5) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—Kesey

(4) For Whom the Bell Tolls—Hemingway

(4/5) Slaughterhouse-Five—Vonnegut

(6) Animal Farm—Orwell

(1/2) Lord of the Flies—Golding

(2) In Cold Blood—Capote

(4) The Golden Notebook—Lessing

(4) Remembrance of Things Past—Proust

(6) The Big Sleep—Chandler

(4) As I Lay Dying—Faulkner

(1) The Sun Also Rises—Hemingway

(2) I, Claudius—Graves

(2/3) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter—McCullers

(4) Sons and Lovers—Lawrence

(6) All the King’s Men—Warren

(4/5) Go Tell It on the Mountain—Baldwin

(1/2) Charlotte’s Web—White

(6) Heart of Darkness—Conrad

(1) Night—Wiesel

(3) Rabbit, Run—Updike

(2/6) The Age of Innocence—Wharton

(4) Portnoy’s Complaint—Roth

(4) An American Tragedy—Dreiser

(4) The Day of the Locust—West

(4) Tropic of Cancer—Miller

(6) The Maltese Falcon—Hammett

(1/2) His Dark Materials—Pullman

(1) Death Comes for the Archbishop—Cather

(1) The Interpretation of Dreams—Freud

(4) The Education of Henry Adams—Adams

(6) Quotations from Chairman Mao—Mao

(4) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature—James

(2/4) Brideshead Revisited—Waugh

(6) Silent Spring—Carson

(6) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money—Keynes

(4) Lord Jim—Conrad

(6) Goodbye to All That—Graves

(4) The Affluent Society—Galbraith

(1) The Wind in the Willows—Grahame

(1/2) The Autobiography of Malcolm X—Haley/Malcolm X

(6) Eminent Victorians—Strachey

(1/2) The Color Purple—Walker

(4) The Second World War (6-volume set)—Churchill

Total read: 24

Additional questions:

What would you cut from the list?

HATED “The Great Gatsby.”

What would you add?

  • Little Women—hello? :-)
  • Where’s the Dickens?
  • Though it was a terribly grim read, I’d also suggest Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” It was POWERFUL, and written with an economy of words exactly suited to its barren landscape.
  • East of Eden—Steinbeck. Gorgeous.

When you look back at the list as a whole, do you draw any conclusions about yourself as a reader?

  • My liberal arts education hasn’t demanded enough of me, from a literary perspective… though I’ve read a number of books that didn’t make the list, that were written by these same authors. (That's me...I chose "Chicago Hope" over "ER" when they came out; Betamax over VHS...)
  • I have still read some great, mind-changing books; my book club has stretched me in several directions.
  • I strongly prefer fiction to non-fiction; gimme a metaphor over a directive any day.
  • At this point in my life, I read mostly for pleasure, with a “this is a work I should know” book every few months—a different kind of pleasure, I guess.
  • I'm happiest if there's a sympathetic character or two, but that's not necessarily prohibitive; for example, I love Wally Lamb, and most of his characters are...unappealing to me.
  • The fact that I've written this post at all suggests that I should think about a Lit course sometime, just for fun!