A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 2

Flirting with Dewey and torturing titanium, Platonic lions and Scottish divines, Martian ransom and Florentine epic, Pickwickian perambulations and the road less travelled, a plurality of prayer and contemplative kitchens.  All that and more in Part Two of my 40th birthday exercise: an autobiography in 40 books.  If you missed Part One, you can read it here.

novels-and-novelists-bannerBook 11. Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction by Martin Seymour-Smith

novels-and-novelistsAt high school lunchtime, I’d hang out in the music block, swap floppy diskettes of computer games with science monitor friends, or loiter in the library.  I memorised half the Dewey system as I issued, sorted, and shelved books (and found ripped-out security strips under cushions), until I was distracted from my librarian’s duties by a fellow lover of books with long blond hair.

My heart sank at her disinterest, but the clouds of melancholia had a silver lining.  I was still mostly reading crime – Sherlock Holmes, the Toff, Poirot and Miss Marple.  Now the storm of sentiment blew me to the shelves of classic fiction.

Pre-Wikipedia, physical ink on paper guided me through this terra nova.  I swotted up 100 Great Books, How to Enjoy Novels, and Dad’s 1960 Good Reading guide.  My new hero was Sir Paul Harvey, who wrote the Oxford Companions to English Literature (1932, from Aaron’s Rod to Zuleika Dobson), Classical Literature (1937, from Academica to Zeus), and French Literature (1959, from Abelard to Émile Zola).

I soon bought the cheaper compact editions of all three Companions and skipped from entry to entry, drooling over titles, dreaming of characters, sampling plots, and then dashing to the library shelves.  I’d often first look in the envelope at the back: before social networking, issue cards connected you to past readers; a familiar signature could recommend a new title.

The most visual reference book, thus winning by the Alice illustration criterion, was Novels and Novelists: a Guide to the World of Fiction (1980).  It had timelines of literary novels, brief histories of crime and science fiction, famous authors’ writing habits, and then the main feature: 1 to 5 star scales rating 3284 novels on readability, characterisation, plot and literary merit.  Only 54 titles score 20/20, including War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights.  Here are rankings for my birthday authors, plus a few others.  I’m a sucker for numbers, though many scores seem cockeyed and are probably most useful to spark debate!

Author Title Read-ability Character-ization Plot Literary Merit
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, 1954 5 3 5 4
Dickens, Charles The Pickwick Papers, 1837 5 4 2 5
Lewis, C.S. Out of the Silent Planet, 1938 4 2 4 1
MacDonald, George Phantastes & Lilith, 1858 & 1895 5 4 4 5
Williams, Charles The Place of the Lion, 1930 5 1 4 4
Hugo, Victor Les Misérables, 1862 4 3 4 5
Hesse, Hermann Glass Bead Game, 1943 5 1 5 5
Potok, Chaim The Chosen, 1967 4 3 2 4
West, Morris The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1963 5 2 2 2
Bunyan, John Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678 5 2 4 5
Melville, Herman Moby Dick, 1851 1 5 5 5
Christie, Agatha The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926 5 2 5 1
Johns, Capt W. E. Biggles books, 1940s 3 1 1 1
Wodehouse, P G Jeeves books 5 1 5 5

Book 12. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Pickwick PapersFor several years I haunted Victorian England, with occasional excursions to neighbouring lands and eras.  I sailed in pursuit of Moby Dick, and survived shipwreck with Robinson Crusoe.  I roamed the moors of Wuthering Heights, and shared unrequited love with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Jane Austen’s parlour flirtations thrilled me less, though my English teacher said I’d appreciate her once I knew more about women!

In January of 1991, my final school year, I began to keep a reading database.  One of my first and funniest entries was originally published in monthly instalments – 400 copies were printed the first month and 40,000 by the 15th.  This was Charles Dickens’ leap into fame with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837).

Pickwick's pre-departure speech

Pickwick addresses his club before departure

The benevolent portly bachelor Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, sallies forth with three companions to observe the oddities of life.  It’s an 1820s road trip by coach in the last decade before rail, stopping at inns for new horses and hearty meals, liquor and lodging, with tall tales around warm fires.  They travel from towns to manor houses, London to Bath, encountering diverse (mis)adventures.  Mistaken identity and threatened duels, hunting disasters and military drills, moonlight assignations and midnight elopements.  The full first title sums it up: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Containing a Faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members.

First Edition Title Page

First Edition Title Page

Mr Pickwick loses his hat and loses his balance.  He loses his room in a labyrinthine inn and stumbles into a lady’s chamber.  He loses his landlady’s court case for breach of promise of marriage and does time in the Fleet Street debtors’ prison.  Here is the first of Dickens’ social satires, exposing legal injustice that oppressed the poor.

Among the many comic and quirky characters, my favourite is Pickwick’s manservant.  Cockney Sam Weller emits a stream of wry sayings, like “There; now we look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy’s head off, to cure him o’ squintin’“.  Having myself reached 40 unscathed, here’s Weller Senior’s advice to his bachelor son:

“I’ve only this here one little bit of adwice to give you. If ever you gets to up’ards o’ fifty, and feels disposed to go a-marryin’ anybody – no matter who – jist you shut yourself up in your own room, if you’ve got one, and pison yourself off hand. Hangin’s wulgar, so don’t you have nothin’ to say to that. Pison yourself, Samivel, my boy, pison yourself, and you’ll be glad on it arterwards.”

See more charming “Wellerisms“, all Pickwick illustrations, or extensive Pickwick info at the Victorian Web.

Perils of a night-time coach chase

Perils of a night-time coach chase

Book 13. MSc Chemistry Thesis by David Titheridge

MSc chemistry thesisThe physicist’s son who programmed computers had seemed destined for science.  Now I also loved literature.  My English teacher recommended The Two Cultures by CP Snow.  He laments that physicists don’t read Shakespeare, and literati ignore the laws of thermodynamics.  I could understand, torn between arts and science myself.

Science won the first round and I began a BSc at Auckland University.  Shakespeare sank under a pile of chemistry texts.  The Vicar of Wakefield, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre retreated before Fundamentals of Physics, Principles of Instrumental Analysis and Molecular Biology of the Cell.

I spent my Masters year prodding a stainless steel chamber with spanners and screwdrivers, bolting on turbo pumps and ion guns and mass spectrometers, spot welding thermocouples and programming digital controllers. All this was for the sake of a square centimetre crystal of titanium dioxide in a vacuum resembling outer space.  It all culminated in the February 1999 bestseller, the book over which I’ve sweated the most, Temperature Programmed Desorption And Scanning Kinetic Spectroscopy Of Acetic Acid, Acrylic Acid, And Maleic Anhydride On The Tio2(001) Single Crystal.

To really bridge the two cultures, read Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975), memoirs of an Italian Jewish chemist with chapters named after elements: argon, hydrogen, zinc, etc.


Book 14. Out of the Silent Planet by C S Lewis

out-of-the-silent-planetThe world of the imagination didn’t disappear.  At a Christian students’ reading group, I was introduced to the adult books of C S Lewis (1898-1963) and I found my spiritual home.  I was Surprised by Joy in his autobiography, and eavesdropped on demons in The Screwtape Letters.  I bussed to purgatory in The Great Divorce and wandered the planets in his sci-fi trilogy.  Volume 1 is Out of the Silent Planet (1938).  It’s an exciting, thought-provoking and moving read.

Cambridge philologist Dr Elwin Ransom is taken hostage to Mars by a physicist dreaming of man colonising the universe, and an entrepreneur lusting for “sun’s blood” or Martian gold.  Over the month-long flight, Ransom finds that space isn’t a cold black void, but full of life-giving radiance and the music of the spheres.

c s lewis star ratingOn Mars, Ransom escapes and discovers the beauties of a low gravity planet.  When he glimpses distant mountains:

Here, he understood, was the full statement of that perpendicular theme which beast and plant and earth all played on Malacandra – here in this riot of rock, leaping and surging skyward like solid jets from some rock fountain, and hanging by their own lightness in the air, so shaped, so elongated, that all terrestrial mountains must ever after seem to him to be mountains lying on their sides.

out of the silent planet boatWhen Ransom first hears a strange creature talking, his linguist’s imagination leaps to “the dazzling project of making a Malacandrian grammar.  An Introduction to the Malacandrian Language – The Lunar Verb – A Concise Martian-English Dictionary… the titles flitted through his mind.”  As he deciphers their tongue, he learns they are a race of heroic poets.

I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.

Ransom joins their canoe hunt for the crocodile-shark-like hnakra, before meeting the planet’s enigmatic spiritual leader to learn why they call earth Thulcandra, the Silent Planet.

My birthday Lewis quotes.

To learn more, read Between Mars and Malacandra, Fantasy and Real Life at C S Lewis blog A Pilgrim in Narnia, or see the opening chapters of Out Of the Silent Planet in comic book form.

c s lewis-space-trilogy

Book 15. An Anthology: 365 Readings from George MacDonald

George Macdonald AnthologyWhile prospecting in the library, one day I unearthed gold: a slim anthology of George MacDonald (1824-1905).  The Scottish preacher wrote many novels (including the fantasy works Phantastes and Lilith) and fairy tales (like “The Princess and the Goblin”) and convinced Lewis Carroll to publish Alice in Wonderland.  This book of quotations is by C. S. Lewis, who said MacDonald “baptised his imagination” with Holiness:

Nothing gives me such a feeling of spiritual healing, of being washed, as to read G. MacDonald….  I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer to the Spirit of Christ himself… I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.

Few discoveries have excited me so much.  Excerpt after excerpt resonated in my Narnia-inspired soul, in words of shattering holiness and deepest hope.  As Lewis said, “Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined.”

Nothing is inexorable but love… Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed.  And our God is a consuming fire… Escape is hopeless… Endless must be our terror, until we come heart to heart with the fire-core of the universe.

Hardly anyone knows his own name… the true name which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it… The secret of your own heart you can never know; but you can know Him who knows its secret.

george macdonald star ratingAs a scientist, my only gripe is MacDonald’s poetic blindness to the joys of research.  Here he rejects one of the two cultures in lyrical prose:

Analysis is well, as death is well… Is oxygen-and-hydrogen the divine idea of water?…  There is no water in oxygen, no water in hydrogen; it comes bubbling fresh from the imagination of the living God, rushing from under the great white throne of the glacier.  The very thought of it makes one gasp with an elemental joy no metaphysician can analyse… Let him who would know the truth of the Maker become sorely athirst, and drink of the brook by the way – then lift up his heart – not at that moment, to the Maker of oxygen and hydrogen, but to the Inventor and Mediator of thirst and water.

My birthday MacDonald quotes.

To learn more, see The George MacDonald Informational Web, or G K Chesterton on George MacDonald, or an essay on “The Childlike in George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis“, or read MacDonald’s books online.


Book 16. The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams

the-place-of-the-lion-williamsC S Lewis and J R R Tolkien (1892-1973) were two of the Inklings, a group of Christian writers who read and discussed each other’s work in the Oxford Eagle and Child pub.  Much as Lewis called MacDonald his spiritual mentor, so the Inklings have been mine.  I now met a third, a scholar of literature and theology and occult mysticism, Charles Williams (1886-1945).  T. S. Eliot valued his friendship and wrote:

I can think of no writer who was more wholly the same man in his life and in his writings… For him there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world…  He knew, and could put into words… the sort of elusive experience which many people have once or twice in a lifetime.

In Williams’ supernatural thrillers, unseen realities intersect everyday life, and humdrum decisions have eternal consequences.  One of his characters says that most churchgoers “like their religion taken mild – a pious hope, a devout ejaculation, a general sympathetic sense of a kindly universe – but nothing upsetting or bewildering, no agony, no darkness, no uncreated light.”

But Williams writes of “terrible good”.  His novels make me gasp, “What if God and heaven and hell aren’t just a Sunday school game?  What if it were really true?”  My favourites both feature the temptations of academics: Descent into Hell, and The Place of the Lion (1931).

charles williams star ratingLong before the term “mind map” was coined in 1974, the latter book begins:

Mightn’t it be a good thing if everyone had to draw a map of his own mind – say, once every five years? With the chief towns marked, and the arterial roads he was constructing from one idea to another, and all the lovely and abandoned by-lanes that he never went down, because the farms they led to were all empty?

Self-absorbed Damaris Tighe is writing a Ph.D. “Pythagorean Influences on Abelard”, but for her, philosophy is just an academic subject, and Plato’s ideas “nothing more than entries in a card-index”.  Then she discovers that “ideas are more dangerous than material things.”  Plato’s archetypes burst into the English countryside as animals: strength as a lion, subtlety as a serpent, beauty as a butterfly, innocence as a lamb, swiftness as a horse.

Characters are drawn to the animals they most resemble, revealing people’s inner nature.  To Damaris, Wisdom appears as a grotesque pterodactyl stinking of death.  To her boyfriend Anthony, who passionately desires truth and honesty and regards philosophy as greater than himself, Wisdom is a noble eagle or phoenix.

After reading it, C S Lewis wrote his first letter to Williams, inviting him to join the Inklings:

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life – comparable to my first discovery of George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris. There are layers and layers – first the pleasure that any good fantasy gives me: then… the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus: thirdly, characters: fourthly, what I neither expected nor desired, substantial edification….  I know Damaris very well: in fact I was in course of becoming Damaris.

See recent writers’ responses to The Place of the Lion at Charles Williams blog The Oddest Inkling, or The Charles Williams Society, or read Williams’ books online.


Book 17. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Divine Comedy HellSoon after my chemistry masters, I began to study theology.  One of my favourite papers was History of Christian Spirituality, where I met the Divine Comedy, a three-volume epic by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) – one of the giants behind the scenes of Narnia.  My guides to Dante were C S Lewis and Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers.

In the poem, Dante’s guides were the Roman poet Virgil, his beloved Beatrice, and the Virgin Mary (“daughter of your son”).  With them, he journeyed through the afterlife, descending through 9 circles of Hell, climbing 7 levels of Purgatory, and ascending through 10 spheres of Paradise to gaze on the Eternal Light.

The Divina Commedia is a true epic and it has everything: mathematical symmetry and philosophical debate, Italian history and Florentine politics, gruesome torments and lyrical verse, courtly romance and visionary worship.  And everyone who’s anyone is there: Abraham, Achilles and Aristotle; Moses, Mohammed and the Minotaur; Julius Caesar and Judas Iscariot; Cleopatra and Helen of Troy.

Dante and the Divine Comedy by Domenico di Michelino, 1465

Dante and the Divine Comedy by Domenico di Michelino, 1465

As I hit 40, and brace myself for that midlife crisis, the opening words seem appropriate:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

I hope one day I’ll reach the end, and see “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars”.

See Divine Comedy illustrations by Salvador Dali and William Blake, interactive multimedia sites Danteworlds and World of Dante, or read multiple versions online.

Book 18. The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth by M. Scott Peck

Road Less TravelledIn my 20s I read several self-help authors like Stephen Covey and Dale Carnegie.  I was most impressed by American psychologist M. Scott Peck, whom I met at just the right time to crystallise many insights into life.

Peck moved from atheism to Zen Buddhism to Sufi mysticism, then became a Christian in his 40s.  He combined secular scientific psychology with spirituality, and believed in a serendipity or grace that nurtures human life.  “Everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth.”

Unlike some self-help gurus, Peck gives no secret key to success.  The Road Less Travelled (1978) begins “Life is difficult”.  Solving our problems demands long practice of disciplines like delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, dedication to reality, and balancing conflicting demands.  Peck defines love not as a feeling but as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”.  He believes the biggest hindrance to such growth, and the opposite of love, is spiritual laziness, a besetting sin of most Westerners.  Rather than settling for one-sided simplistic solutions, we need to realise that all truth is paradoxical, and seek the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Peck scorned the title of a contemporary bestseller, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay”.  The truth is, rather, “I’m not okay and you’re not okay, but that’s okay”.  In fact, he says, evil is militant ignorance of one’s own imperfection.  In order to grow we need to face our brokenness, and our mortality.  “This is the central message of all the great religions: learn how to die.”

Peck is often quotable.  As a fearful person, I love “The absence of fear is not courage; the absence of fear is some sort of brain disease.”  Reflecting the need for quiet contemplation, “Without silence, there is no music; there is only noise.”  And “The truth will set you free; but first it will make you damn mad.”

My birthday Peck quotes.

See the Wikipedia article on Peck or a summary of The Road Less Travelled from the book 50 Self-Help Classics.

Book 19. Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard Foster

Prayer Finding the Hearts True HomeMy top spirituality books include Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life – from loneliness to solitude, hostility to hospitality, and illusion to prayer, and James Fowler’s Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, which helped me understand my own journey.

But I’ve chosen Richard Foster, who combines a wide knowledge of Christian history with deep personal experience.  Friends who heard him speak said he “reeked of spirituality”, yet was wickedly funny.  His best-known book is Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth, one of Christianity Today’s top ten books of the twentieth century, but my favourite, that I’ve taken overseas, is Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (1992)

Foster is convinced that God still speaks – “Jesus is not idle, nor has he developed laryngitis”.  He defines prayer as “the human response to the perpetual outpouring of love by which God lays siege to every soul.”  The book explores 21 forms this response could take, grouped in three spiritual movements: inward transformation through prayers of lament and self-examination and commitment; upward intimacy through adoration and resting in God and contemplation; outward ministry through petition and intercession and healing.

There are examples from two millennia of meditating mystics and social activists, Catholics and Quakers, Pentecostals and poets.  From St Paul to St Augustine to St Francis, Martin Luther to Kierkegaard to C S Lewis, Foster provides a wide-ranging feast of inspiration.

For Foster, “Real prayer comes not from gritting our teeth but from falling in love…  Joy, not grit, is the hallmark of holy obedience”.  Hardly any other writers give me a greater hunger for God, like these words do, from his introduction:

Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.

And he is inviting you — and me — to come home…

He invites us into the living-room of his heart where we can put on old slippers and share freely. He invites us into the kitchen of his friendship where chatter and batter mix in good fun. He invites us into the dining-room of his strength, where we can feast to our heart’s delight. He invites us into the study of his wisdom… He invites us into the workshop of his creativity… He invites us into the bedroom of his rest where new peace is found, and where we can be naked and vulnerable and free.

See interviews with Richard Foster “Spiritual Life in the Age of Machines“ and “The Accidental Radical“.

Foster speaks about his latest book Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey Into Meditative Prayer:

Book 20. The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon

Supper of the LambI know few authors with a more playful delight in language than Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013).  The Parables of Grace dances for astonished joy over the freedom we have in Christ – see my blog post Flights of Fancy over a Pedal Note of Grace.  Capon also rejoices in life’s hairy details: to the question “Why do you have a beard?” he gave seventeen possible answers – find them in my 2nd Capon post, Romancing the Word and Hunting the Fox.

His genre-bending The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (1989) is the only cook book I’ve read cover to cover.  It ends with 80 pages of recipes, but the body is an amble through a single dish, “Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times”, with frequent scenic stops.  Meditations on cutting up an onion.  Advice on gas ovens and knife blades, corkscrews and woks.  Glorious celebrations of creation and chemistry:

Each thing, at every moment, becomes the delight of His hand, the apple of His eye. The bloom of yeast lies upon the grape skins year after year because He likes it; C6H12O6 = 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2 is a dependable process because, every September, He says, ‘That was nice; do it again.’

Capon relishes good company and hearty tucker, so here at book number 20, we’ll break to meet each other and load our plates, blessed with Capon’s grace:

O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.

My birthday Capon quotes.

See a sermon of Capon (and Brennan Manning) quotations on grace or an interview with Capon: The Outrageousness of God’s Indiscriminating Grace

Birthday Bibliography: Books 11-20

11. Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction Seymour-Smith, Martin 1980
12. The Pickwick Papers Dickens, Charles 1837
13. My Thesis Titheridge, David 1999
14. Out of the Silent Planet Lewis, C.S. 1938
15. An Anthology: 365 Readings, ed C.S. Lewis MacDonald, George 1946
16. Descent into Hell Williams, Charles 1937
17. The Divine Comedy Alighieri, Dante 1320
18. The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth Peck, M. Scott 1978
19. Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home Foster, Richard 1992
20. The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection Capon, Robert Farrar 1989

All 40 Birthday Books Posts