Please note: I have intentionally decided not to include Amazon links (unless something is available exclusively on Amazon). Instead, if you are interested in reading any of the books I mention, I encourage you to check out your local library or independent bookstore. These places (and the communities around them) need your support, and they are generally quite willing to order any book if they don’t currently have it in stock. However, if Amazon is still the more practical choice for you, it is easy enough to search and find any of the titles that I mention.
A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor
This was my first real attempt to dive into the work of Flannery O’Connor. As such a well-known Catholic writer, I feel it is important that I’m familiar with her work, but it’s also interesting because her style is not one that I would generally read for pleasure. However, I can quickly recognize the skill and artistry in her work, so it’s also not a hardship to read. On first reading, since I was unfamiliar with her style and didn’t really know what to expect, this short story just seemed unnecessarily brutal and harsh. But thanks to an online book club facilitated by Kevin O’Brien, I was able to start thinking a bit deeper and explore the themes that O’Connor presents. O’Connor’s story definitely looks at some of the harsher realities of the world, such as the real dangers of a nihilistic outlook, but they are realities and O’Connor is to be given credit for not shying away from them.
Running Down a Dream, by Tim Grahl
I have been following Grahl online for a few years now, and his advice and tips are the reason I had the confidence to start self-publishing and promoting my work. This advice book/memoir was really wonderful and helpful and I feel like it has already made a real difference in how I approach my writing habits and my work in general. One of the key pieces that has already had an impact on me is the advice to change the phrasing “I’m too busy to…” to “I’m choosing not to prioritize…” We have full control over how we spend our time, even when it doesn’t feel that way, and so it is completely up to us as to what we prioritize. I have been cutting back on my social media more and more over the last several months, and while reading Grahl’s book I deleted my biggest time-wasting vice: the Pinterest app. I’ve already noticed a giant spike in my productivity and mind-set, and I’ve been able to take back the hours every day that I would spend scrolling with no real purpose. Grahl is also brutally honest about the realities of struggling with mental health and feelings of self-worth while also struggling to realize your dreams and still be able to feed your family. If you are an entrepreneur of any sort, I highly recommend this book.
The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis
I felt like most of the ideas in this book were already somewhat familiar with me, either from Lewis’ other writings or from discussions with people who were familiar with his thoughts. But it’s definitely a book worth reading in its own right. For me, the important takeaways are, of course, that the pain and suffering in our world are not the will of God but the result and natural outcome of Original Sin and the necessary free will of humanity. God doesn’t desire for us to suffer, but nor can He just “fix everything” for us all of the time because that would negate free will and the consequences of our actions. What God can do is create good out of bad. Think of people who have experienced horrible trauma in their lives but go on to do research or become social workers or other types of advocates and end up helping so many others. God can’t protect us from the cruelties of the world without removing free will from the equation, but He can always bring good things out of the bad.
The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
I really enjoyed this book, and it reminded me a great deal of J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” Both are fictional and have the same theme of fantastic musings on life after death. I love all of Lewis’ work, but his fictional work is definitely much easier for me to absorb and retain. His imagery is so phenomenal and imaginative and gives you such a clear idea of what he is trying to convey. There are so many ideas presented in this little book that it’s impossible to explore them all at this time, but one of my favorites is the concept of Heaven being more real, more substantial, than our current world. (I think he also explores this idea in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle.) It would make sense that our current selves and this current world are mere shades and ghosts of the glory that awaits us in Heaven.
The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
I greatly enjoyed this book as well, but I’m not sure that I was able to fully grasp and appreciate all of it. Some of Lewis’ philosophical writing (and philosophical writing in general) still goes over my head. This is probably why I prefer his fiction, even for philosophical and theological ideas. But this book was essentially about the importance of education in forming the morals and values of young people, and how it should be used to teach them how to think and not just what to think. And, of course, his primary reason for this thesis is because this is the exact opposite of how most of our education systems are set up today. The system that Lewis is arguing against would deprive its victims of any sense of emotion or sentiment, seeking to turn them into cold, purely logical automatons. And then we rail against the lack of empathy in the world. But you can’t have it both ways: you can’t deny that there is objective moral Truth but then still expect society to function on it. “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
Miracles, by C.S. Lewis
Even with my struggles to grasp philosophical ideas, this book was wonderfully eye-opening in how we view the natural world and how God works within this world. Lewis does such a great job of presenting the opposing arguments and then refuting them very logically and matter-of-factly. Much like reading G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, there are concepts in this book that I had never thought or heard of before. It ties in very well with Lewis’ fiction, especially The Great Divorce and The Space Trilogy. He presents the concept of Christ walking on the water as being a glimpse of that more solid reality that awaits us in the next life, as he also described in The Great Divorce. And the hypothesis that there could be other planets and other species that didn’t Fall to Original Sin, that’s the basic premise of The Space Trilogy. This book is definitely now on my must-read list for everyone.
The Gulag Archipelago (Abridged), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
How do I even begin to talk about this book? I guess by expressing my bewilderment that no one of my generation seems to have heard about it. This book was published in 1973 and chronicles the realities of the prison labor camps in communist Russia from 1918-1956, with Solzhenitsyn using his own first-hand knowledge of being a prisoner in these camps as well as countless interviews and letters that he collected. This book was one of the first to truly expose the realities of communism to the rest of the world. What prompted my own reading of it was that it was frequently referenced by Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life, as a commentary on what the human spirit can endure in the worst of conditions. One of the sections that sticks out very clearly in my mind is when Solzhenitsyn talks about how extremely rare suicide was within the Gulag, with substantially lower rates than in the population outside. There was such a strong determination to survive among those who were imprisoned. He even observed that there were many who would actually wither and perish after they were released, because they no longer had that driving force of pure survival, they had nothing to strive against. My favorite section was where he described the “Escapers”, the men who were focused solely on escaping and bent all of their will to it. This book is definitely a must-read to get a look at what humanity is truly capable of.
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