Write Right’s List of Exquisite Books for 2018

A book with a heart-shaped bookmark.

The New Year often brings all sorts of resolutions, including ones to read more books. I could offer numerous suggestions for such a decision, but the recommendations would take the better part of the day. Because of that, I narrow the focus. I won’t share my favorite books — an almost impossible task — but my most exquisite books.

These books spoke to me during a first reading. They speak to me still, affecting me in the same way poems do, a form I’ve once described as the language of my heart. Poetry and well-written language stir my heart and mind, not one or the other. In doing so, they become cherished words that I return to again and again.

None of the books listed here included collections of poetry. Like the question about favorite books, I could spend an inordinate amount of time discussing my favorite poets and poems. I do, however, include works about poetry, language, and art, the act of seeing, and the spiritual life. These areas are ones dear to me. Perhaps they will become dear to you, too, as you plan your to-read list for 2018.

Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace

I stumbled upon Margaret Atwood through what might be termed a lesser-known book. I read a few lines from Alias Grace and knew I needed to read the book.

Sometime I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.

Of course, it didn’t help that the book appeared as a special edition hardback. A beautiful cover, combined with beautiful lines? I couldn’t leave Half Price Books without the book.

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Paul Celan: Collected Prose

For the poets in the audience, I recommend Paul Celan, one of my favorite poets. I also suggest another item: Celan’s essays. His “The Meridian” shifted how I think about poetry and the writing of it.

Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way — the way of art — for the sake of just such a turn?

The two lines stand alone but reach their full understanding within the context of the entire essay. Even then, they require thought. I know I still think about Celan’s ideas concerning poetry anyway.

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G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy

G.K. Chesterton found me in an introduction to modern fantasy. I thoroughly enjoyed his The Man Who Was Thursday, although it isn’t a book I consider “exquisite.” For that, I turn to his Orthodoxy, a collection of essays regarding Christian apologetics.

It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

The above lines come from a lengthier passage that’s well worth a read; the previous paragraphs build toward the concluding sentiment.

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Annie Dillard: Holy the Firm

Annie Dillard writes lovely books, including her celebrated The Writing Life. I love that book and how she talks about writing being like a lion that requires daily taming. However, I love her Holy the Firm more.

I came here to study hard things — rock mountain and salt sea — and to temper my spirit on their edges. “Teach me thy ways, O Lord” is, like all prayers, a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend.

I appreciate her sentiment and can’t help but echo it. Prayer is a risky business, demanding the submission of self and an openness to the new and unexpected.

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Makoto Fujimura: Refractions

I’ve mentioned Makoto Fujimura in other blog posts. I share him again because his Refractions give a framework for thinking about art, beauty, culture, and faith.

Art is a building block of civilization. A civilization that does not value its artistic expressions is a civilization that does not value itself. These tangible artistic expressions help us to understand ourselves. The arts teach us to respect both the diversity of our communities and the strength of our traditions.

An equally excellent book is Fujimura’s Silence, which deepens and expands upon the treatises found in Refractions.

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Neil Gaiman: The View from the Cheap Seats

Many of Gaiman’s books occur in “in-between” places, a fact I adore. Cracks in the firmament — or a wall — allow all sorts of events to happen and creatures to arise. I also esteem Gaiman’s nonfiction work, specifically, The View from the Cheap Seats.

Sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it. […] It’s not irrelevant, those moments of connection, those places where fiction saves your life.

Somehow, his words make me think of art and poetry. Miklos Radnoti, for example, wrote poems until his death on a forced march in World War II. When his body was discovered, it came with a single possession: a collection of his poems, published posthumously. Art can save lives, either in its creation or reception.

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Madeleine L’Engle: Walking on Water

Some people know L’Engle for her A Wrinkle in Time. I know her because of Luci Shaw, which basically gives L’Engle the highest recommendation possible.

So we must daily keep things wound: that is, we must pray when prayer seems dry as dust; we must write when we are physically tired, when our hearts are heavy, when our bodies are in pain.

We may not always be able to make our “clock” run correctly, but at least we can keep it wound, so that it will not forget.

L’Engle’s words meet that recommendation, securing her spot in my ever-growing list of exquisite books.

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C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis makes me think, which is always a guaranteed way to pique my interest. His Mere Christianity perhaps does the best job of it, although his other works cause thoughtful reflection, too.

We may be content to remain what we call ‘ordinary people’: but He is determined to carry out a quite different plan. To shrink back from that plan is not humility: it is laziness or cowardice. To submit to it is not conceit or megalomania; it is obedience.

I think I like Lewis because he’s forthright and, well, British. His words convict even as they exhort.

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Eugene Peterson: Leap Over a Wall

The subtitle for Peterson’s Leap Over a Wall says, “earthy spirituality for everyday Christians.” I like the book on the basis of that addendum, but I enjoy it, too, on the level of its writing.

Beauty is never only what our senses report to us but always also a sign of what’s just beyond our senses—an innerness and depth. There’s more to beauty that we can count for empirically. In that more and beyond we discern God. Artists who wake up our jaded senses and help us attend to these matters are gospel evangelists.

When I first read those lines, they brought home the idea that everyone is to speak God’s excellencies, from the most introverted artist to the most extroverted public speaker. God calls all of us children to proclaim his great name through the gifts and talents he has bestowed on them.

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Lia Purpura: On Looking

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Lia Purpura’s On Looking. I know her work filled a sort of gap as I thought about poetry, form, and frames.

It’s the noticing that cracks us open, lets something in.

Shows we’re in use.

Uses us.

Right now. Right this minute.

Then again, I may simply appreciate Purpura’s weighty fragments. They act as poems, asking me to turn the words and images over and over in my mind. I read her lines and find myself thinking, “I hope I write like her when I grow up.”

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Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet

Rilke is another poet. He’s also a regular correspondent with a young poet seeking advice. Rilke’s words withstand the test of time, advising poets present and future.

People have, with the help of so many conventions, resolved everything the easy way, on the easiest side of easy. But it is clear that we must embrace struggle. […] We can be sure of very little, but the need to court struggle is a surety that will not leave us. It is good to be lonely, for being alone is not easy. The fact that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it.

I appreciate Rilke’s words because he proposes a sort of active patience. In a different passage, he urges the young poet to be patient and see things through. A more contemporary version of the idea is found with Ira Glass and his “gap.”

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Luci Shaw: Breath for the Bones

No list of exquisite books passes muster without Luci Shaw’s Breath for the Bones. It remains one of the books I constantly press people to read.

Never despise the power of small things, like seeds, to transform the landscape of the heart.

I discovered Shaw through R.R. Barkat’s Rumors of Water, and I’m so glad that I did. Shaw reaches me on a unique level since she, too, is a poet and artist. She sees the world in a way that makes sense to my head and heart. When I read her for the first time, I felt that I’d found someone who understood me.

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Shawn Wen: A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause

I found Shawn Wen’s book at the Texas Book Festival. The book says it’s an essay, and it is, albeit it a poetic one. It plays with form even as it tells the story of Marcel Marceau.

The mime whirls his arms in the air. His gestures leave a trail: the awning, the veranda, the colonnade. A ghosted landscape rises up wherever his fingers point.

I’m still reading through the small book, but I already love every silent moment of it.

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Lauren F. Winner: Mudhouse Sabbath

I read Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath around the same period that I read Shaw’s Breath for the Bones the first time. The book attracted me because of how Winner uses her Jewish background to inform her Christian faith.

I remember why eating attentively is worth all the effort: The table is not only a place where we can become present to God. The tale is also a place where He becomes present to us.

Through her words, I discover a deeper way of living, a way of paying attention and settling into moments, be they ones of eating or grieving.

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Dean Young: The Art of Recklessness

Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness finds its home with the likes of Purpura and Wen. The book consists of essays—of a sort. The jacket blurb describes Young’s work as a “sprawling and subversive first book of prose on poetry.” It is one at that.

Poetry is an art of beginnings and ends. You want middles, read novels. You want happy endings, read cookbooks. Not closure, word filched from self-help fuzzing the argument. The ever-grudge of love and endsville. I believe in scars and making scars shine. Kaput. Form is the shape of the selecting intelligence because time is running out. Form enacts fatality. To pretend otherwise is obfuscation, philosophical hubbub.

The entire book reads like the above passage, making it a dense body to traverse. It’s worth it, though. The book contains absolute gems of ideas, ones that have helped me think about and continue writing poetry.

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I suppose I should apologize. I said I’d provide a list of exquisite books so that I wouldn’t invoke the black hole of literature. In that effort, I failed. Perhaps, though, you’ll see a book or two that needs to be added to your reading list. If you don’t, ask for recommendations in the comments. I may know of a book (or two or ten) that might be of interest to you in 2018.

Image: freestocks.org (Creative Commons)

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