Often I’ve found since I started this blog that I could tie together recent books I had read with a common theme or idea, but recently my reading has been so eclectic as to defy any generalities or connections. This does seem to parallel the disjointed nature of my month, where my usual yoga/reading/errands/projects routine has been upended by first a family visit and then a week with friends in the Hudson River Valley. Therefore, I present to you some random thoughts on…
A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson (Crown Publishing Group, 1998). This was not something I picked up expecting to uncover any deep truths about myself. I just thought that since the movie had recently come out and it was a book on my radar I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet, it would be worthwhile. I knew from previous experience that I was in for an enjoyable time, and A Walk in the Woods more than lived up to what I’ve come to expect from one of my favorite authors. Bryson has a style that makes me laugh while also challenging me to think carefully. Some writers try too hard to be funny, and the result can be forced or mean-spirited. Bryson deftly points out his own and others’ foibles with wit, intelligence, and a deep underlying compassion.
Subtitled Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods narrates the efforts of Bryson and his pal, “Katz” to hike from Georgia to Maine. Many of his experiences paralleled some of my own, as did many of his observations about the particular idiosyncracies of our fellow Americans. And after developments on my last road trip, I was especially relieved to learn that I wasn’t the only one to have had an altercation with those in authority whose sanctimonious enforcement of “the rules” belied common sense. As I’ve said, I wasn’t necessarily looking for any deep insights into my own life. But an interesting thing happened as I followed Bryson through the dense forests of the East: I found a clarity in myself in terms of what I did and did not want to accomplish in my relatively recent foray into retirement. I put the book down with a new respect for just savoring whatever the day may bring, as well as a new appreciation for my comfortable bed and well-stocked kitchen.
FTC disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
My next book could not have been more different, and I was initially unsure if I should include it here because the very last thing I want to do is turn this blog into a discussion of religion (or politics). But in the interests of pointing out excellent writing, I decided to go ahead with Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013). This volume caught my attention when it was first published because in author appearances on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” I was impressed by the clearly thoughtful and erudite scholar from a Muslim background who had converted to Christianity, and because I am quite interested in the disconnect between early church history and modern Christianity. Though I grew up a Methodist, I am not a churchgoer for a wide variety of reasons, one of them being an inability to reconcile what I perceive to be the core message of the religion with the behavior I observe among the vast majority of those professing to be Christians, especially in the political arena.
In graduate school, I took a course on the history of early Christianity, where the professor went to great pains to point out in the first class meeting that studying the history of Christianity was NOT the same as studying theology. This book is solidly researched and grounded in primary sources and the historical record, with the result being that many of the bible stories I grew up learning are shown to be fabrications or embellishments. I found especially interesting the chapters examining the animosity between Paul and the apostle James during the very early years of the religion. I did not finish this book feeling a need to run out and find a church to attend. The Jesus who emerges from these pages is not the one I grew up with, and is certainly not the one many modern Christians would recognize. But as Aslan says in his conclusion:
… the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.
Finally, I just finished discussing with my book group Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream, by H.G. Bissinger (DaCapo Press, 1990). I have never watched the television series inspired by this bestselling book, and wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to spend my time reading about probably one of my least favorite sports. But the appeal of this particular volume lies in the way in which it examines what an obsession with high school football does to a small west Texas town with little else going for it. I certainly found much to identify with. As a high school teacher for over thirty years, I saw firsthand how sports can come to consume a school culture, chew up and spit out young athletes with little regard for their futures, and overshadow the ostensible purpose of an academic education.
I was unsure how relevant a book based on a 1988 football season would still be, but as it turns out many of the issues raised in it, such as education spending and priorities, school segregation, income inequality, and race relations, are still very much a part of our national dialog. While some in my book group found the writing a bit sensationalistic, I enjoyed it immensely. I especially detected a deep note of fondness for the high school students that resonated with my own experience. I do have to say that I reached the conclusion that in many fundamental ways west Texas might as well be another country. The culture is so different from anything I can identify with as to make it almost foreign…and not a place I have any particular interest in visiting.
So there you have my recent reading. It’s now been over a year since I retired, and I’m finding that the joy in having time to do – and read – whatever I wish has only deepened!