Good Books

The pergola at the Gawler Centre, Victoria Australia.
When I was first diagnosed with Cancer one of my parishioners, Richard Sutton, called in to see me. He too was living with a recent diagnosis of a serious illness. I had always liked Richard and got on well with him, but until he came to my place that morning, I don't think we could have been described as close friends, as he and I were so very different. He was a chess grandmaster and the Dean of Law at Otago University, a man about ten years older than me, whose huge intellect was orderly and focused. I always felt a bit haphazard and shambolic around him. The differences in intellectual firepower notwithstanding, we agreed to meet weekly and support one another in our common predicament. So, for the next couple of years, until Richard's death, once a week we went off to a cafe, drank coffee, ate friands and talked about illness, death, life, the universe and everything. We became close friends. Central to our discussions was the work of Emmanuel Levinas, but to be perfectly honest it wasn't really a discussion, it was more of a tutorial in which I was schooled by one of the sharpest, clearest minds I have ever encountered. It was a time when a particular book changed the very direction of  both of our lives.  That book wasn't Ecrits or The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, or in fact anything else by the great French thinker.  It was a popular Australian book with an almost lurid title,  You Can Conquer Cancer by Ian Gawler. Reading that book changed Richard's personal spiritual practice and dietary habits and kept him alive well beyond his doctors' predictions. It's one of the main reasons (of course there are others)  I have lived long enough to write this. It lead me to a 10 day stint at The Gawler Centre in Australia where every day started with 45 minutes of meditation, and I came home from there with my own spiritual practice dramatically and permanently revolutionised.

It's a book which raised the question for me: what makes a book "good"?

Yesterday I spent a long time shuffling books about on my shelf, re-ordering the ones that had missed the great cull. Every few minutes I handled a book which had once meant a lot to me, even reshaped the way I thought and lived. Not many of these would appear in any of those lists you see popping up on Facebook from time to time: the 100 Greatest Books of All Times; The 50 books to read before you die; What Your Favourite Famous Person is Reading at the Moment, but all of them happened across my path at exactly the right time and moved me a few steps closer to wholeness.  Some of them were important for a season, and some have for decades retained their power to instruct. There are some I owned for years but whose reading was deferred until I was ready for them.

I've read thousands of books, many of them superb, some of them important and full of gravitas, some of them as light and sickly sweet as pavlova. Some have commanded my attention through hundreds of pages, and some have seen me surrender the battle with boredom after a chapter or two. Of all that I've ever read, here's my more or less chronological list of the books which have helped make me who and what I am. I'm not sure how many of them are good books. Some of them are great by any definition of the word, and some are known to very few people, but I know I am grateful to have encountered each one of them

The Magus. John Fowles
The French Lieutenant's Woman. John Fowles
The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Iona and Peter Opie
Watchwords. Roger McGough
Middlemarch. George Eliot
War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy
The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien
Collected Poetry and Prose. Gerard Manly Hopkins
'Til We Have Faces. C.S. Lewis
Mere Christianity. C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce. C.S.Lewis
The Priest in Community. Urban T Holmes III
Memories, Dreams and Reflections. Carl Jung
The Passionate Life. Sam Keen
Christ and Culture H. Richard Niebuhr
Science and the Modern World Alfred North Whitehead
The Phenomenon of Man Tielhard de Chardin
Gifts Differing Isabel Briggs Myers
The Dark Interval. John Dominic Crossan
The Homiletical Plot. Eugene Lowry
Storytelling, Imagination and Faith. William J Bausch
The Other Side of Silence. Morton Kelsey
Sadhana. Anthony De Mello
God of Surprises. Gerard W. Hughes
Stages of Faith. James W. Fowler
Generation to Generation. Edwin H. Friedman
The Embodied Mind. Varela, Thompson and Rosch
You Can Conquer Cancer. Ian Gawler
Open Heart, Open Mind. Thomas Keating
The Way to Love. Anthony DeMello
The Cloud of Unknowing. Anonymous
The Ascent of Mt Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. John of the Cross
The Inner Voice of Love. Henri Nouwen
The Master and his Emissary. Iain McGilchrist


Alden Smith said…
I find this an interesting list. I have read 12 of the books on your list and own another 4 from your list - no doubt awaiting their designated time.

Lewis and Jung for me have been hugely influential (I own nearly everything each of them wrote); initially for their ideas and then much later for giving me a picture of how they each responded to the very act of living itself (Jung said, "The call to life is a call to battle" - yep, he was correct, life it a bit of a series of boot camp lessons).
Alden Smith said…
I also have to say I like very much what you wrote about your close friend Richard Sutton - what a timely friendship, what a rich supportive time that must have been for you both. Friendship is one of lifes great consolations.

Elaine Dent said…
Isn't it mysterious how different books speak powerfully to us at unique times in our lives? Sometimes we are ready for them, sometimes not, sometimes never. Different scriptures are a bit like that too. Thank you for the lovely description of a timely friendship. And thank you too for a thoughtful way of culling the shelves. It will make my process much more interesting as I think about how a particular book has or has not intersected with my life. (I've read 9, another is on the shelf "to-read.")
Kelvin Wright said…
Different books, different people. The right ones happen along at exactly the right time, bearing their gifts and shaping us by a plan which seems to come from outside of us and only becomes apparent in hindsight. I hope I was half as big a gift to Richard as he was to me.
Kelvin Wright said…
And as I re read this list, I've noticed a few glaring omissions, two of which I have rectified, but where do you draw the line?

And then what of the great pieces of music? What of the profound formative experiences?

And yes, Alden, the great friendships. Like books they come to us according to a schedule not our own and deliver graces we could never have dreamed of. I remember somehow going in Rob's old Morris van with you and him to a party somewhere and the course of my life being reshaped. Like books the influential people sometimes have an important influence for a short time and then go; sometimes they are there for decades. Some have been there since I was born. There are some whose histories shaped both of our paths - Rob, Jackie, Valerie Underhill, Clemency.... some from your life who have briefly entered mine and vice versa. Some who are important to you but who I have never met except through your description and vice versa. With people it is all more complex and fluid than with even the most profound of books.

Now the important people are, increasingly, those I'm related to: siblings, children and (especially) grandchildren.